A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Love Charm by Pamela Morsi

The theme: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)

Why this one: I was actually reading it for #RippedBodiceBingo (theme: hero shorter than the heroine) and decided it was worth writing about.

When picking a book for this theme, I expect to go for an obviously “old skool” element. But there are other aspects to older romances besides abductions and betrayals and rapey heroes. Perhaps it’s just the cream, or the memorable, rising to the top, but it often seems like there was more variety in the past, especially in historicals. Morsi in particular wrote unusual characters and settings, as she did in this story about a bayou community of Acadians in the 1800s.

There are three romances here, and none are standard types. Armand Sonnier loves Aida Gaudet, but because he’s short and slight from a childhood illness, he doesn’t expect her to ever look at him. Aida is a “featherbrained” beauty (easily recognized now as having ADHD) and she knows she’s not smart enough for scholarly Armand. Hoping for love eventually, she’s gotten engaged to Laron, Armand’s best friend — who’s in no hurry to marry her, because he’s in love with Helga, an older German woman with three young children and unfortunately, a still living husband.

When Armand suggests that Laron shouldn’t marry someone he doesn’t love, everything begins to unravel, leaving Armand afraid that Aida will set her sights instead on his brother, Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste certainly seems to admire Aida more than his wife Felicite, who’s basically been pregnant nonstop ever since they got married. Could a love charm hidden in blueberry pie possibly sort out this mess?

It sounds like a farce and certainly some of it is; there’s humor even in lovemaking here, even in a childbirth scene. But it’s also an immersive trip into a distinct community, with a very strong set of values and traditions. There’s no way these characters can get a true happy ending, unless they can find ways to reconcile their desires with their needs as members of the community.

It took me a bit to get into the prose of the story, which is very tell-y. But soon I was sucked in by the strength of the worldbuilding, and the appealing characters. It’s not a typical “id” romance — if you had to pick one that was the exact opposite of a Harlequin Present, this could be it. But it’s not purely a cerebral enjoyment either. Just warm and sweet and funny and real.

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The Loving Spirit by Penelope Stratton (Lucy Gordon)

Book content warning: depiction of rape

 

The Loving Spirit by Lucy Gordon.

This opens with what would be the epilogue of a typical historical romance: an ordinary woman named Amelia captured the heart of a harsh, withdrawn Earl named Justin, and they are now happily married with several children, and another on the way. But such happy endings were more precarious than most historicals like to acknowledge, and the birth of little Amelia leads to the death of her mother. On her deathbed, Amelia makes her husband and her children’s governess (her beloved school friend Kate, who fell on extremely bad times) promise to marry each other immediately, seeking to protect both of them.

Over time, the grief-stricken, bitter Justin and lonely Kate grow from having “no sympathy between their minds” to respect, liking, attraction, and then passionate love. But of course Kate’s horrible past comes back to attempt to destroy them.

I’m glad my attention was piqued by the plotline, because this is much meatier and more satisfying than Gordon’s frothy traditional Regencies. It’s a bit like a literary ancestor of The Passions of Emma by Penelope Williamson, but in more traditional genre romance form; readers who hate when a previous wife is downgraded and badmouthed to make the heroine look good will appreciate this one. Kate is a bit TSTL at times, but only when under tremendous pressure, and she’s a strong fighter. And there’s an excellent redemption for the narrowminded Justin.

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TBR Challenge: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly

The theme: A comfort read.

Why this one: This theme is a bit of a conundrum, because for me a true comfort read is always a reread. But Kelly’s wholesomeness is usually comforting — though I have been burned before — and many of my most loved books are set in schools and colleges.

I’m not sure this traditional Regency will join that list, but it was great fun to read, though with a serious underpinning. Unlike some of Kelly’s darker books, the stakes are small and personal… yet at the same time, universal. Ellen, the daughter of a wealthy squire, would seem to have very little to distress or vex her other than her ridiculous family. But Ellen was unfortunately born with a thirst for scholarship, and all she has to look forward to is the complete waste of her brains and talents. Enter, pursued by creditors, her rascal brother Gordon, who no longer has the money to pay someone to write his Oxford literature essays…

As Ellen begins disguised scholarly research into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure, she has the pleasure of learning from talented educators and reading in the sacred Bodleian library. Her masquerade is assisted by two people: the charming young scholar Jim Gatewood (sadly far too poor to be eligible) and the mysterious Lord Chesney, who for some completely unknown reason is greasing wheels for her socially.

It seems perfect that a book so concerned with Shakespeare should have its share of women passing as men (despite a lingering lavender scent,) men with secrets, ridiculous parents, and unwise pranks. But when all the mysteries have been cleared away, Ellen is still left to wrestle with unanswered questions, and yearnings she can’t satisfy.

As you can expect from Kelly, the main characters of this story are goodhearted, witty, and very pleasant to spend time with — and you have to love how much physicality she can get into a completely “clean” book. (It’s not so much sexual tension as just feeling like these characters crave closeness and don’t much care who knows it.) The plot falters towards the end and the resolution is perhaps a little too realistic to be completely satisfying. But all in all, it’s a delightful romp.

 

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TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

Why this one: I’ve been reading a lot of European-set historicals and felt like some Americana.

This author is not only new to me, but I don’t think I’ve heard her mentioned before, so I expected this to be pretty forgettable. While not great, it was lively story that kept me interested until the last fourth. Since it’s almost 400 pages, that’s a reasonable amount of interest, though it really did drag at the end.

After the last of her family dies, twenty-nine year old Isabel Forester impulsively decides to take a teaching position out west. She doesn’t expect much more than a change of scene. But when she arrives in Bittercreek, Texas, she’s amazed to find that she’s no longer considered a plain, superfluous old maid but a desirable woman every bachelor in town wants. Unfortunately, the only one to catch her eye is Eben, a taciturn blacksmith who reportedly adored his late wife so much he’ll never marry again.

This is a fun plot reminiscent of several favorite old movies — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Harvey Girls”… and another I won’t mention, since it would be a spoiler. The setting is well realized, with a strong cast of supporting characters; I enjoyed the wooing hijinks, and the antics of Isabel’s students– likeable in the style of the Avonlea stories. Then the book went into romantic gear, with Eben trying to woo Isabel and doing everything wrong, romance-hero style. There’s some effective tension, and nice sensuality — Eben the blacksmith is quite good with his hands! But the push and pull between them went on way too long, and a whole bunch of extra plot at the end didn’t help my exhausted feeling.

Though I wish it had been shorter, it was a nicely immersive historical and felt like it offered more than just the romance.

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TBR Challenge: A Dangerous Man by Candace Camp

The theme: A historical romance.

Why this one?: I’d like to say it was for biting social commentary, but I literally picked the first book off one of my many piles.

I almost gave up Candace Camp forever after reading Suddenly, a mediocre rip-off of Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage. It’s perhaps inevitable that she would also have had a stab at Faro’s Daughter — those two seem to be Heyer’s most imitated books — but in this case, that was more of a jumping off point; there’s quite a different plot and characters. Although not up to Camp’s most powerful work, it turned out to be a undemanding, entertaining read… just the sort of easily digested story I needed right now.

Anthony, Lord Neale, is really not looking forward to having to meet with his nephew’s widow, Eleanor. The first time he saw her — a failed attempt to buy her off — his attraction was immediate and unsettling. But his sister Honoria insists there was something sinister about her son’s death, so Anthony is forced to investigate. Oddly enough, his silly, selfish sister is not wrong.

My favorite part of the book was Eleanor. Although in some ways a historical heroine cliche — philanthropic, open-minded, fiercely protected by her devoted servants, and… something else I won’t mention, but which you’ll likely quickly guess — she’s also a smart, independent person. And it’s not just that everyone says she is — she actually is. Anthony is less distinctive, but a perfectly adequate hero, and there’s good chemistry between them.

There’s a mystery involved that’s pretty well done, and a satisfactory secondary cast, including several POC (albeit in small roles.) My biggest complaint is how many things are left hanging. The hero is cynical about beautiful women because of something dark in his family’s past that is only alluded to, never explained. A secondary romance is started and then the characters are sent off to safety, never to be heard from again. No one even mentions the potential scandal/weirdness of a man marrying his nephew’s widow. And the relationship is shafted by the mystery.

It certainly could have been a better book. But as a way to pass time that is extremely hard to pass right now, it made me happy.

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TBR Challenge: The Awakening by Jude Deveraux

The theme: A random book.

Why this one: I was cleaning out my unread Deverauxs, feeling like the right time in my life to read them was past, but I could not resist the description of “a hot-blooded union organizer” hero. My grandpa would have been proud.

(Damn, I suppose I should’ve reached in the cabinet and pulled a book out at random? Too late now.)

The Awakening reminded me that the Deveraux books I’ve enjoyed the most have all been North American-set historicals… and that she thinks up some great stories. The setting of 1913 California is unusual enough, but when you add in the plight of migrant workers, it puts in some compelling history.

The romance plotline is compelling too, at least for much of the book. Hank Montgomery, an economics professor who works with unions, is invited to the Caulden family ranch in hopes he will soften towards their side in a brewing union battle. There he finds a truly weird set-up: Caulden’s wife is hidden away, and his daughter Amanda is subject to the strict rules and schedules of her tutor/fiance, who controls every aspect of her life, down to when and for how long she uses the bathroom. Obedient and adoring Amanda is instructed to entertain Hank and keep him on schedule, too.

It’s love at first sight for Hank — or maybe it would be, if Amanda wasn’t such a know-it-all prissy bore. For her part, Amanda is frustrated and upset with this man who uses the bathroom whenever he wants, insists on huge delicious meals, and makes her feel things that upset the way everything should be. Their interactions are romantically offbeat because a lot of the time they genuinely don’t like each other, yet they’re continually forced into intriguing intimacy. (Such as Hank having to brush Amada’s hair.)

Hank isn’t always a great guy here (though he usually recognizes when he’s messed up.) To be honest, none of the main characters behaves truly honorably — everybody cheats on everybody else — which I guess makes it sort of even out in the end.  Also, though basically a beta hero, Hank lives up to Willa’s law — so if you’re very sensitive about dubious consent and sexual coercion, avoid this one. Hank’s carefree bachelor sexual history is kind of irksome too; he seems to belong to the “nobody gets pregnant unless they have sex 24/7” school of thought. No wonder there were so many Montgomerys.

Even so, about two-thirds of the book felt fresh and captivating — but then the last third pissed away a lot of the tension. The plot meanders to keep things going, and the most action-filled moments in the book are written at a remove. Perhaps this is because, as the author’s note explains, Hank and his union organizing were based on a real person and actual events. The descriptions of the workers’ living conditions are vivid and sickening; it’s a shame the union plot aspects aren’t better integrated into the story.

Still, just having an older historical romance touch on how badly migrant workers were treated feels important to me. The genre has so many romantic Southern plantations and wealthy ranches — I just finished a Diana Palmer book in which the union organizers were the baddies —  that it’s good to see acknowledgement of the exploitation that often accompanies wealth. (Racism isn’t addressed, btw.) If you want a historical read that really isn’t the same old thing, this fits the bill in a number of ways.

 

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Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt

I love reformed villain romances in theory, but in practice find that too often the villains get watered down in their own books. Duke of Sin did not disappoint. Val, Duke of Montgomery, might not be a textbook sociopath (he seems to embody aspects of both sociopathy and psychopathy) but he’s pretty damn close. He’s made more palatable with a ghastly backstory, love of his illegitimate sister, and a fastidious dislike of rape, but his lack of a moral compass is genuine.

What makes him stand out amongst historical romance’s other so-called blackhearted rogues, rakes, and scoundrels is not just how genuinely wicked he is — blackmail, abductions, premeditated murder — but his enjoyment of his own wickedness. Although he does have have some moments of tortured brooding, most of the time he’s either amused or bemused by himself, having been so thoroughly twisted that he embraces his own amorality. His gleeful self-satisfaction and mercurial temperament make him a lot of fun to read, even if you’d never want to actually meet him. (Oh good grief, is he a handsome, historical Donald Trump? Sorry! Forget I said that!)

So how does he get reformed? He’s matched with a woman with the courage and ability to tell him what’s what. A housekeeper in the old-fashioned sense — one who supervises a household — Bridget, nicknamed Seraphine by Val, is exceptionally competent and mature (although implausibly young.) She’s also self-contained and courageous, and though unable to resist Valentine’s golden charms, always sees him with a clear eye. And she’s the perfect person to provide him with moral guidance, though perhaps it might be confusing at times:

“‘But I don’t understand. You’re saying that at times it’s perfectly all right for me to kill a man.’

‘Well…’ She bit her lip and he could tell she was trying not to say it, but in the end she had to. ‘Yes.’

He smiled very slowly at her. ‘Seraphine, are you making these rules up?'”

I just had to quote that, it made me laugh so much.

There are some parts of the story I thought could have been fleshed out more, generally reactions or decisions by Val that we didn’t get to see. But overall, I’d put this in the top ten list of historical romances titled Duke of Sin.

 

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J is for Through the Storm by Beverly Jenkins or H is for History

I actually started this because I hear Jenkin’s latest, Forbidden, is really good, and its hero Rhine is introduced here. Word is it’s fine to read Forbidden as a stand alone, but there is some interesting background on Rhine, a former slave who is passing for white. He falls out of the story early on, but lingers poignantly in his sister’s memory:

“Rhine crossed her thoughts often. Had he found peace? If she passed him on the street, would he acknowledge her or walk past her with the nonseeing eyes of a White stranger?”

This is also a sequel to one of Jenkin’s most beloved books, Indigo, and the start of a series about the hero’s brothers.

Through the Storm is a Civil War/Reconstruction era romance about a biracial woman named Sable, who escapes slavery and joins a camp of “contraband” slaves which is run by the Union army. The commander of the camp is one of a very few black officers, the charming, wealthy, rakish Raimond LeVeq. Despite some obstacles, they find happiness together while both fighting tirelessly for the rights of “the race.”

I’m not usually a big fan of historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance) which seems to generally focus on long ago and far away politics, war, and royalty. Although this is definitely a romance, it also includes a great deal of history — history which is much closer to our time, and also about ordinary people. I was fascinated by some of the small details that so tellingly show the realities of slavery: for example, the mansion Sable originally lives in was built by slaves to have numerous hidden passageways for eavesdropping, a vital source of information for people who had no voice in their own lives. Sable’s connection to her roots is also a small but intriguing part of the story, as she is not only the granddaughter of one of the Firsts (the people originally captured and sold, rather than born in slavery) but has royal blood. There’s a touch of mysticism to the story that springs from the spiritual beliefs of the Firsts.

As a romance, this is a touch old skool at times — Raimond “charmingly” manhandles Sable at one point — but their relationship is almost entirely consensual and tender. There is a betrayal/Big Misunderstanding but even at his most angry, Raimond never goes beyond sharp words and trying desperately to ignore Sable. The hardest parts to read, aside from descriptions of gruesome wartime medical practices, are the ugly racist attitudes of the book’s villains.

I didn’t love the prose, which is in a very plain, declarative style without much in the way of description. I found it flat and thin at times, and some of my romantic expectations were thwarted. (When Raimond discovers he had misjudged Sable, he doesn’t say a word about it!) The beginning and end are nail-bitingly suspenseful, however, and I enjoyed the cozy in-jokes that develop between the couple, around their sensual “discussions.”

“Looking down, he kissed her sweetly and said, ‘Being parents has cut deeply into our discussion times.’

‘I know. We haven’t lectured each other in over a week.'”

This isn’t my first Beverly book, and even though I preferred Destiny’s Surrender, I have a new appreciation for the way she brings lesser-known history — and happy endings — to light. On to Forbidden!

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TBR Challenge: Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour by Carla Kelly

The theme: A holiday romance. I… don’t have any, at least not in the print TBR. Just not much of a fan. (That thud you heard was Wendy fainting.) A Signet Regency is sort of Christmassy just by juxtaposition, right? Coincidentally, Miss Bates reviewed this one last year.

Why this one: I was feeling depressed over the news and thought a Kelly book would be heartwarming and comforting. I did not pick the right one.

I believe this is the third Kelly I’ve chosen for the TBR challenge, and it’s the first of them I’ve found disappointing. The plot is certainly compelling: Eight years previously, Omega Chartley was left at the altar by the man she loved. (You know this is old because there’s no separate book for her brother, Alpha.) She never knew why; we know only that it had something to do with him covered with blood and horror. When Omega finds her vacation from teaching taking a very odd, adventurous turn, their paths cross again.

There were a number of problems with this one. Although there are certainly instances of Kelly’s way with a carelessly wonderful phrase — “it’s amazing how rapidly one well-brought-up person can go to the dogs,” thinks Omega about herself — much of the prose is kind of spare and awkward, especially in the action scenes. It was also a weird blend of farcical and deadly serious, and it’s hard to say whether there are more implausibilities or plot holes.

And the hero is…  very challenging. Matthew did any number of awful things — as he tells Omega he has two things to confess, “One is terrible and the other no better,” and frankly, I think he was underestimating. It was through weakness and drink rather than overt cruelty, and he is genuinely remorseful, though not so much he doesn’t keep making nasty, unwarranted snipes against Omega when they’re reunited. And I do think he gets a decent, if somewhat understated redemption.

But he only appears halfway through the story, and the second half of the book focuses more on a suspense plot than on cementing the relationship between him and Omega, so it was hard for me to feel the happy ending was truly established. There are some very sweet scenes showing how much he missed her while they were apart, but I would have liked to see more of them learning each other’s new selves.

Although the story has very upsetting elements, it includes many goodhearted characters, including a brave and delightful little girl named Angela. If you’re a fan of precocious children in stories, you’ll adore this.

Addendum: A while after this, I read Kelly’s Season’s Regency Greetings, and that was just the sort of wholesome, cozy read the doctor ordered. (Dr. Cook, of course!) It’s two short Christmas stories about two misfit Regency heroines: one is a proper British governess who is also half Egyptian; the other is a titled heiress who’s just learned she’s actually the adopted illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. Her story is quite heartbreaking, since she’s not only lost her place in life but also the people she considered her parents. Both find amiable misfit men and fall swiftly and charmingly in love. There are sad and even awful elements of the stories, but the overall mood is uplifting.

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TBR Challenge: The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie by Jennifer Ashley

The theme: a hyped book. And how.

Why this one: I looked up the narrator of the “Psy-Changeling” books, Angela Dawe, and was happy to see she also narrated this one, another sad half-read book still lurking in my TBR. I was much less happy that she uses an upper crust British accent, my bete noir, but she gives Ian a hot Scottish burr, so I was able to stick with it. Also, Mean Fat Old Bat really liked the book, so I figured it must have hidden depths.

I’m trying to remember why I bogged down in this one before. I think my excitement over the first autistic hero in romance was dashed by him being still so romance-hero-y in so many ways. So rich, so hot, so good in bed, so immune to any sensory issues around sex. (And Ian tells Beth he can never love her — it annoys me that’s supposed to be about autism, when it’s such a romance cliche.) I also DNF’d the sequel, and concluded that Ashley is a commonplace kind of writer.

Having finished the book I can now see some of its strengths. The family bonds between Ian and his brothers are powerful but complex. The plot and backstory are interesting. Beth is intelligent, capable and witty, and I appreciated that she had previously had a loving marriage with good sexy-times. (These are particularly rare in historical romance; having now listened to several more of this series, I suspect that the vividly drawn heroines and conspicuous lack of classic wide-eyed virgins is a strong draw for many readers.)

I also feel more able to rationalize away the aspects I don’t like. If you want to write a popular romance, there are certain heroic aspects it’s hard not to include, like abs and sexual prowess. Ian is remarkably articulate about his issues, far more than I’d expect from someone who not only never received any kind of help or understanding, but was actually locked away in a madhouse and given shock treatments — but better that he talks about them himself than someone else doing it, or the author info dumping.

I still find it annoying that Ian is a mathematical savant with an eidetic memory. I remember another mom of an autistic boy telling me how stressful it was that everyone assumed her kid must be super smart, when he was average. Savants are pretty damn rare — if eidetic memory even exists — and it’s such a cliche. It makes Ian useful to his brothers… but couldn’t they just love him for himself? And speaking of that, I’m not really sure just why Beth loves him. I’m guessing it’s his protectiveness combined with his sexy air of mystery, but I’m kind of extrapolating from my own experience there.

Ultimately, I’m still disappointed that Ian feels more like a product of research than a recognizable person. I’ve read a number of romances featuring autistic characters — the lovely Water Bound by Christine Feehan, An Heir of Uncertainty by Alyssa Everett, Phoenix Inheritance by Corinna Lawson — and I could feel in those portrayals that the author really knew and loved an autistic person. I may be completely wrong, but I just didn’t feel that here. Still, the author has a way with characters and some interesting themes… and who could help but adore Ian’s eventual discussion about love with Beth?

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