A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Demon Count’s Daughter by Anne Stuart

The theme: Getaway

Why this one: I’m trying to catch up with my favorite authors. Also, it’s nice and thin.

I expected this to be more of a traditional gothic — and perhaps it is; I don’t really know all that much about them. Certainly the heroine is young and innocent, and going to a decaying, mysterious sorta-castle, but she’s by no means destitute or friendless. She is, as the title suggests, the daughter of the hero of a previous book, and has grown up with plenty of love, wealth and freedom. Her visit to her father’s estate in Austrian-controlled Italy (1864) is supposed to be simple tourism, but actually she’s on a lookout for hidden papers that must be destroyed.

The other way in which this differs from the gothic of my imagination — there’s sex! Not a tremendous amount but you can see the Stuart that would later appear.

It’s very much a sequel and I haven’t read the first book, so that was a bit of a drawback. But the plot is extremely thin anyway, so it doesn’t matter all that much. Luciana goes to Italy in search of a mcguffin important papers, instantly falls in love with a much older and quite bitter divorced man, and spends the rest of the book being rescued from danger by him or trying to get him to love her. She narrates, which is kind of a drawback, because we don’t really get input into Evan’s feelings, or why he acts the way he does. At one point he says, “Lucy, I am too old for these romantic misunderstandings.” Well, why can’t you be forthright then? Why make it so very easy to be misunderstood?

There’s good dialogue, and some fun interactions with Lucy’s maid/companion, an unabashedly lusty wench with an eye for anything in trousers, and her male counterpart, “Venice’s very finest gigolo.” The main drawback, other than the almost pointless plot, is some bare bones, almost unfinished-feeling prose. Action scenes are awkward, and there often seems to be a connecting sentence or two missing. I didn’t always have a good sense of where Lucy was or how she got there.

But honestly, I’m not all that fussy these days. it was an entertaining enough, quick read, and if you like this sort of thing or like Stuart, it’s worth a try.

 

CW for book: violence and attempted assault (not by the hero), and some ick factor involving the hero’s child.

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TBR Challenge: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

The theme: Old School (book ten+ years old. That no longer feels very old…)

Why this one: I usually prefer going really Old Skool for Old School month, but this book was being discussed on Twitter and I felt like reading it. It actually has quite an old skool blurb and starts off with a divorced hero who’s very cynical about women, but that doesn’t last past his first laying eyes on the heroine.

(Incidentally, there’s a nasty flu epidemic in this story, so it was not great timing.)

 

Six months after burying the husband she nursed for years, Roxanna Drew is starting to feel ready to live again. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law’s idea of taking care of her and her two young daughters is to insist that they live with him, where he can offer her “the comfort of a husband” she’s been missing. Desperate to escape a pressure she might be tempted to give in to, Roxanna impulsively rents the dilapidated dower house of a titled neighbor she’s never met.

Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, wouldn’t seem to be a great knight errant for this damsel in distress. Not only did he shoot a friend he found in bed with his wife — apparently getting him in a very sensitive spot — and feel no remorse about it, but he also divorced his wife in extremely ungentlemanly fashion, calling on all her lovers to testify. I’m not sure how to feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s cruel; on the other hand, she was pretty terrible. By the lights of the book, we’re not supposed to think particularly badly of him.

In any event, this hardened cynical lord is soon turned into a bowl of mush by Roxanna’s adorable children and her adorable self. As usual with Kelly, the development of the relationship (relationships in this case) is sweet and disarming in its swift intimacy; her characters are always old friends who just met. In Roxanna’s case, missing “the comfort of a husband” is definitely a factor. Here she cleans up after the stranded Lord Winn has spent the night (alone) in her bed:

She made her bed, noting the indentation of Lord Winn’s head on the empty pillow next to hers. I wonder if men have an instinct about these things? she thought as she fluffed her pillow and straightened the blankets. After Helen was born, she had claimed the side of the bed closest to the door, so she could be up quickly in the night. She started to fluff his pillow but changed her mind. She traced her finger over the indentation, then pulled the bedspread over both pillows. I really should change the sheets, she thought, but knew she would not.

Kelly’s books are known for being “clean,” but there’s some powerful sexual tension in this story. It wasn’t that usual when this was published for a romance about a widow to be so honest about her needs; it’s one of the charms of the book, along with Fletcher’s unexpected vulnerability, and the beautifully drawn children — the younger lively and mischievous, the older sadly quiet and matured by her father’s death.

I didn’t love everything: Fletcher’s past is unpleasant, and the plot meanders its way to a truly ridiculous Big Misunderstanding. There’s certainly adventure and drama enough without throwing that in. And then there’s Fletcher pushing Roxanna to forgive her brother-in-law, whose redemption could have used more work. But I was very drawn into this story about a woman trying to “play her hand,” no matter what terrible cards life dealt her, and glad that she finally got to put down… let’s call it a full house.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #22

CW: Rape. In an Anne Hampson book, shocking I know.

 

Harlequin Presents #22: The Hawk and the Dove by Anne Hampson

Image description: The book cover shows the head and shoulders of a young woman with long, straight blonde hair, wearing a childish wide-brimmed hat, against elaborately decorated glass doors.

Deliberate Anne of Green Gables vibe in this cover?

Most memorable line: 

“You’ve shown me by every conceivable means that you consider me far beneath you.” Janis felt she’d grown up since yesterday and a note of experience and maturity entered into her voice. “But however ill-bred I may be,” she went on, “If I despised anyone half as much as you despise me, I would at least have the good manners not to show it.”

Finally, the worm turns! Annoyingly, it turns right back again!

I was finally able to download The Hawk and the Dove from Open Library, and though the scan is utterly dreadful, I got sufficiently emotionally involved in the story to put up with it. Like many old HPs, it shows a strong Rebecca influence, though hero Perry was never married. The resemblance is mainly in their relationship: Janis is adoring, and as soppy as Con Firth’s shirt; Perry veers between scorn and indulgence. He’s deeply nasty at times; that and the huge power differential between them keep TSTL Janis from being utterly unbearable.

Janis, wrongly fired from her job, is downtroddingly trying to find shelter when Perry’s car crashes into her. He sees an opportunity to fulfil the terms of his uncle’s will, which require him to marry within a week. (His fiance had turned out to have been in cahoots with the alternate heir…  so of course he hates all women now. Except his dead mother and his former nurse and his female best friend.)

Perry intends to annul the marriage after Janis is fully healed from her injuries, but manages to make this as clear as mud to Janis, who thinks he’s waiting to consummate the marriage. By the time she realizes the truth, of course she’s fallen in love with him, and she decides not to immediately reveal that the doctor has cleared her for take off. This will later bite her on the ass, rapey hero style. (Not explicit.)

I was surprised by a subplot of the story: Perry’s friend Avril is in love with John, a married man, and they’re constantly together. This isn’t treated with any hint of scandalousness or shock — perhaps because they’re both upper class?

Although I found a lot to critique, I was absorbed. The estate setting, which Janis completely falls in love with, is well done, and the secondary characters are mostly likeable. And classic HP angst. Basically, if you enjoy this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll enjoy.

 

 

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The Probably-No-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #38

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Harlequin Presents #38: Moon Witch by Anne Mather

Best line:

“‘What’s wrong? This is your birthday,  isn’t it? I just thought I’d make it a memorable one.’

Sara frowned in amazement. ‘How? By kissing me? You’ve got some conceit!’

‘Oh, Sara, stop getting so uppity!'”

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. That’s not the hero talking, btw, just some random jerk.

There isn’t much to say about this; it’s a pretty standard guardian/ward story. Jarrod is accidentally made orphaned Sara’s guardian and immediately gets defensive because she’s so youngly hot/hotly young and he’s twice her age. So he pushes her away with comments about what a gold digger she is. He’s not a great hero — quite controlling, and there’s some wrist twisting — but not that terrible by HP standards, either, especially when he tries to convince her she really should be out living a life instead of marrying him. Alas, poor Sara is not having it.

Part of the story is set in Jamaica, which apparently is peopled entirely by smiling black people who love nothing more than waiting on rich white people, but it’s not excruciatingly racist either. I didn’t hate it but didn’t get very excited about it, either.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #14

 

storm

Harlequin Presents #14: Storm in a Rain Barrel by Anne Mather

The heroine looks just about as pouty in that picture as she acts.

Best line: “He was probably terribly sophisticated and ‘with-it” and would use all those awful exaggerated adjectives she had heard artists use at the local coffee bar…”

Notes of interest: Heavy petting! Unmarried heavy petting! How creepy is it that the most explicit scene in my old HP reading so far is between a 17 year old girl and her 36 year old guardian? Also, there’s an actual spanking scene. No fall and unconsciousness for the heroine this time, although she does get bronchitis.

This is a slightly lugubrious coming-of-age romance. Orphaned Domine has been living in a convent school thanks to the generosity of her Great-Uncle Henry. When he dies, his illegitimate son James takes over her guardianship. (There’s a weird continuity error here — Domine early on ponders about Uncle Henry refusing to acknowledge James, then is shocked to learn James is his son.) James takes her to her uncle’s lonely old house on the moors, Misslethwaite Manor Grey Witches, where she starts to dress and act (and feel) more adult. The antagonistic interactions between her and James are pretty immature and unsatisfying though, even with the unexpected boob action.

I was amused by this scene between Domine and the inevitable Nice Boy who wants to marry her:

“Love is being with someone, sharing life with them. Sharing troubles as well as happiness!”

Domine half-smiled. So that was Vincent’s definition of love. Well, it was vastly different from her own.

“I think what you’re talking about is liking one another,” she murmured unhappily. “Loving’s altogether different. Loving is needing someone so desperately that you wonder how you can live without them. Love is like a fire in the blood that burns you up with its intensity!”

“That’s infatuation!” exclaimed Vincent chillingly.

Vincent is depicted of something of a ridiculous mama’s boy, but I’d say he’s right on the money here, and quite a lot of evidence agrees with him.

 

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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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TBR Challenge: When Bruce Met Cyn by Lori Foster

The Theme: Contemporary romance.

What tickled me: A sexy, celibate, preacher hero is hard to resist.

What ticked me off: Skanky villains. Torso-less heroine. And the heroine’s name: sub-tle.

Who might like it: Fans of gentler, protective Alpha heroes.

Foster has been on my “not my cuppa” list for awhile, but this book hung around the tbr pile because the plot intrigued me. It was a hit and miss book for me, with ultimately more misses than hits.

It’s been five years since she ran away from an abusive home, and Cyn has saved up enough money to give up prostitution and begin a new life. A recurring dream draws her to a town called Visitation; on the way she encounters Bruce, who’ll be the preacher of the town’s new church. Bruce has experience counseling prostitutes in trouble, and slowly wins Cyn’s trust and affection, while grappling with his conscience over his attraction to her. She’s much younger than him, has never had a good relationship with a man, and there’s that whole premarital sex thing. Mostly, he wants her to feel respected and cherished, rather than used. Of course this has Cyn wondering why the hell he won’t just sleep with her already, and questioning his feelings.

The sections of the book focusing on their relationship and Cyn’s new life were enjoyable. Bruce does get somewhat overbearing at times, and Cyn is hard-edged and crude, but they’re sweet together. What brought the story down was a suspense element with really unpleasant villains; perhaps some readers are all for descriptions of perverts masturbating while they contemplate raping and killing, but for some reason I’ve never been a fan. And there’s also a woo woo element which felt forced and out of place, very peculiar sequel bait.

I thought it was interesting that Cyn had tried to understand her childhood by doing serious reading about abuse, but it realistically hasn’t solved all her issues. She tells Bruce, “It’s like… like you were born in a church with a star shining down on you, and I was born…I dunno. Under a rock or something.” She also has some trouble relating to the helpful heroines from previous books of the series:

Shay was nice, nice enough that at times she seemed unreal. Nice enough that she constantly tried to give Cyn a handout. Be it work or contacts or whatever, Shay wanted to help, and it nettled Cyn that she was a person in need of assistance. She understood Shay’s motives, and appreciated them, but she would rather have just been a friend, not a person who stood out as less than equal.

Luna was lovely, too, very warm and friendly. But she went out of her way to show understanding, to include Cyn. And once again, Cyn felt the difference, how she didn’t quite measure up.

There’s some real sensitivity there, and I think this could have been quite a lovely book if it had just stayed with the characters and their developing relationships, instead of throwing in all the other stuff.  Cyn’s genuine feelings simply disappear, and the other women are suddenly her very best friends. And the gentle Bruce just becomes more and more alpha as the story goes on, forcing Cyn to fight for her independence.

I wouldn’t say I’m sorry I read it, but I don’t think Foster is moving off the list.

 

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