A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Fortune’s Lady by Patricia Gaffney

The theme: Kicking it Old School

Why this one: Gaffney was one of the very best historical writers, but I still have a few of hers unread.

Fortune’s Lady seems likely to have been inspired by the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant film “Notorious,” and the first half is somewhat uncomfortable to read in the same way the movie is somewhat uncomfortable to watch. The  basic plot is very similar: a beautiful young woman with a party girl reputation, left alone in the world because of a treasonous father, is convinced to spy on her father’s former comrades by getting “close” to one of them. She and her handler fall for each other, but he’s so jealous that he constantly berates her for doing exactly what he’s telling her to do.

The she here is frivilous 19 year old Cassie Merlin, the he is Phillip Riordan, a British MP and reluctant Scarlet Pimpernel, and the time and place are London, 1792, where a revolution threatens the monarchy. (This is less inherently sympathetic for an American reader than Bergman overthrowing Nazis, but old historicals are like that.) Cassie has a bad reputation (mostly unfounded — because old historicals are like that) so seems like the perfect person to seduce her father’s probable accomplice.

The book doesn’t achieve the excellent characterizations of Gaffney’s later romances, but if it had just told this one story, it could have been a decent read. Cass, it turns out, is farsighted and needs glasses: when she’s able to read without pain, she discovers a real interest in political thought. Phillip expects to marry a cool, elegant lady who seems perfect for the life he wants, but his relationship with Cass grows from lust to genuine partnership, as she helps him keep up his drunken oaf deception and studies with him.

Unfortunately, this was the time of the doorstopper historical, and so the story has to be spun out. And it spins with ridiculous Big Mis after Big Mis. Phillip stops being a complete assclown, and Cass takes over the role for him, with extra TSTL. And then we get the …. wait for it… sadistic, kinky, gay villain!

I love Gaffney’s sprawling, OTT old skool Lily, but this just alternated sex scenes and stupidity in a way that never built up the good angst rush that makes old school so fun.

 

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #9

Harlequin Present #9 – Wife Without Kisses by Violet Winspear

wife

 

Best line: “I could forgive you anything–everything,” she said simply. “If you killed me in anger it wouldn’t matter, if you did it.”

Notes of interest: The first of my rereads with a hero who isn’t from a romantic clime. I hadn’t realized that trend started at the very beginning.

It’s funny that this one has such a direct title, compared to the more subtle and evocative titles of the other early Harlequins, because in tone it’s far less like a category romance and more like a novel. We get numerous points of view, including that of the hero, and more time is spent on other relationships than on the romance.

I had some issues with the book. One is that the story, scenes, and characters are clearly heavily inspired by Rebecca. (Curiously, this is the second time I’ve encountered such a book this week.) Another is that the infantilization of the heroine is taken to absurd extremes; virtually every time she is mentioned or spoken to, a word such a “young” or “child” or “little” is used to describe her. Her husband actually compares her to their adopted baby several times. And she’s just dreadfully wet — the characterization of a very shy, insecure young woman is not a patch on Du Maurier’s. (Weirdly, Winspear apparently used exactly the same plot of this book again two years later.)

Even so, it was kind of a compelling story , and though it feels far more dated than the other books, I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve tried so far. I think it actually helps that so little time was spent on the primary relationship, and that very little happens physically between them. Mainly I think it was interesting because it actually aimed to be about complicated people, rather than all plot. It wasn’t especially deep or subtle, but it was something.

I’m quite sure I read this one in the past; the cover is familiar, and several scenes rang bells in my mind.

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Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

What tickled me: Only thing better than a Scarlet Pimpernel hero? A Scarlet Pimpernel heroine!

What ticked me off: This future world includes mentions of some classic books — even though The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t one of them, that just got a little too meta for me, somehow.

Who might like it: Readers who enjoy “reimaginings” of classics.

Across a Star-Swept Sea is a sequel set shortly after For Darkness Shows the Stars, yet opens in a very different post-apocalyptic world,  which was confusing at first. In this area — encompassing two kingdoms, Albion and Galatea — technology has been embraced. But flying machines have been outlawed because of the tragic past, which explains why this otherwise technologically advanced civilization believes they are the only people left on Earth.

In this version of the Scarlet Pimpernel story, Albion is essentially England, although the roots of the people appear to be Polynesian. Galatea is post-revolutionary France. Galatean Justen Helo has become disenchanted with the revolution, which is deliberately punishing “aristos” with a form of chemically-induced brain damage. He escapes to Galatea in the hopes of continuing his research on the Helo cure invented by his grandmother, which cured Earth’s survivors of the “Reduction” that left some of them genetically altered, but which had a tragic side effect for a small percentage. There he is forced to pretend to be dating the Regent’s lady-in-waiting, the brainless, fashion obsessed, society darling Persis Blake. Of course he has no idea that Persis is actually the brilliant and brave “Wild Poppy,” the Albion hero who is sneaking aristos away under the noses of the revolution.

This version sticks fairly closely to the original, though it’s more even-handed about the revolution. The setting brings a new level of chill to the already exciting story, because of the threat of Reduction. (I was initially troubled by the depiction of the “Reduced” and the attitude towards them, which I had not found offensive in For Darkness Shows the Stars — thankfully, this was actually addressed.) The weakest point is probably the romance, and admittedly, it has a huge bar set: there is just nothing to compare to Percy’s kissing the steps where Marguerite had walked, or Marguerite’s desperate journey to save him.  Although the gender-bending is very cool, in having the ultimate symbol of bold cunning be a woman, something is lost in Marguerite’s role. (For more on her character, see this interesting article in The Toast.) So I wasn’t quite as swept away as I was by the first book, though I will eagerly await the next one.

 

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Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

What tickled me: Nifty plot, lots of juicy pain
What ticked me off: Overlap with Julia Quinn’s books was kind of twee. And veered close to pet-peeve territory a few times.
Who might like it: Readers like me who loved older angsty romances but are uncomfortably growing past them.

Oh yay — an English narrator that I liked! I have grown as a listener. It didn’t hurt that many of the accents, including the hero’s, are Scottish. Yum.

As you might guess, this is one in James’ non-linked series of Regency romances loosely based on fairy tales. Gowan, the starchy Scottish duke of something-or-other falls instantly in love with Edie, the daughter of somebody or other important. (I hate reviewing audiobooks…) They quickly marry, only to discover that their lifestyles aren’t very compatible — Gowan constantly supervises his estates and has very time alone, while Edie practices her cello 5 hours a day. To make things infinitely worse, their sex life isn’t working — Edie’s in a lot of pain but is too shy to talk about it, and her stepmother’s advice to fake orgasms backfires with a vengeance.

Marriages in trouble because of bad sex are one of James’ recurrent themes, and I always enjoy how she extrapolates what problems people might have had in a historical context. (In the Georgian An Affair Before Christmas, Poppy is too distracted by her horribly itchy unwashed hair to enjoy herself.) In this case, both characters are virgins and they barely know each other; Edie is especially inhibited by the lack of privacy in the castle. The Rapunzel theme is worked nicely into the story, through Gowan’s jealousy and wish to possess Edie, but as usual there’s an interesting twist.

I thought this was a wonderful melding of classic romance themes with more realistic problems and sympathetic characters (yes, the hero can utterly break the heroine’s heart without being a total asshole!) And I enjoyed Edie’s seemingly wicked but actually quite lovable stepmother. The pet peeves were around her: she winds up giving up all her flirtatious ways and naughty gowns for motherhood, which is all she’d really wanted all along. It is possible to be a mother and still show some cleavage, trust me. And there’s a magic baby epilogue, though that didn’t bother me too much because it isn’t completely improbable in the circumstances.

The narration is very well done, with distinct voices for each character and a lovely low Scottish burr for Gowan.

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