A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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: Roarke’s Kingdom by Sandra Marton

(CW: a past rape)

The theme: “We Love Short Shorts.” Except for maybe Courtney Milan novellas, my most loved shorts will always be category romance.

Why this one: I went through a few books from my HP stack pretty much randomly and this is the one that stuck.

Roarke — no relation to another fine billionaire Roarke, though he does have a similar fondness for choosing his lover’s clothes — lives on a lonesome but luxurious island off of San Juan, with lots of servants and his young daughter Susanna. After a bitter divorce he’s very Cynical About Women, HP-style. Which means he falls fairly quickly under the spell of sweet, non-materialistic, child-lovin’ Victoria despite his initial suspicions. But of course, she is hiding a Big Secret.

This could easily have been a wallbanger. Not because of the feisty heroine and totally controlling hero — the first doesn’t go on painfully long, and you know I eat HP alphas with a round-bowl spoon. But it came close to serious pet peeve territory because there’s an Evil Other Woman — you can tell how evil she is before she even appears, because she doesn’t like babies or living on isolated islands — and she’s an adoptive mother, and Victoria is the child’s biological mother. That sort of story can so easily go wrong.

What saved it is:

  • I don’t know if it was intentional on the author’s part, but she draws a good picture of the importance of closure for a birth mother. Victoria, at a very vulnerable time in her life, is cheated out of the chance to say goodbye to her baby, or even see her. She has no trustworthy assurance of the baby’s welfare. The uncertainty eats at her, as well it might.
  • Although there’s undoubtedly misogyny in the story, the biological bond is not given ultimate importance. There’s no sense that the adoptive mother didn’t bond with her child because of biology — she’s just evil, you know.

So within the framework of an old HP, the book didn’t strike me as horribly offensive. (There is a scene where they observe a voodoo ceremony, but it seemed fairly neutral. Then again, what do I know.) And there’s some delicious pain and heartbreak, even though Victoria spends most of the beginning of the book ill, and the end of it lachrymose. 4 stars on the angsty-goodness scale.

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TBR Challenge: Winterbourne by Susan Carroll

The theme: A recommended read.

Why this one: One of my oldest TBR books; it was mentioned in the paperbackswap forums as an underrated classic. I’ve been intimidated by it — longish scary Medieval! —  but I’ve felt like I have my historical mojo back, so it seemed like the time.

Favorite line: “God’s blood, if this isn’t the last thing I needed to find out today, that I am sire to some half-lunatic Sir Galahad.”

Like many good Medievals, Winterbourne is a story around power. I have a theory that Medievals fell out of favor because many readers want their romance heroes to be at the absolute top of the power chain, and that doesn’t lend itself to stories like this one. Our hero is indeed a rich and mighty warrior… but king John is royally pissed at him, and it really didn’t pay to upset the king. Although he accidentally brings Jaufre and Melyssan together at the start — she pretends to be Jaufre’s wife to escape John’s lascivious attentions — his spite and malice also frequently separates them and causes them great suffering.

There’s also internal conflict to the story, because although Jaufre can take a severe whipping without a sound, he becomes a petulant child when faced with his own emotions. After being betrayed by his first wife, he finds it hard to trust Melyssan, and fears losing his heart again; Diana Palmer-style, his guilt over treating her badly just makes him treat her worse. As old skool epic romance heroes go though, he’s practically a saint — i.e. no rapes, brutality, or infidelity.

I found this easier to read than I expected, though it definitely has some meat on its bones. Jaufre is a bit irritating, but does have a satisfying redemption arc.

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TBR Challenge: Beyond the Sunrise by Mary Balogh

Note for sensitive readers: This isn’t a particularly graphic book, but there are some upsetting scenes involving rape and violence.

The theme: A book at least ten years old.

Why this one: I’ve owned this (previously) hard to find historical romance for some years, but was put off by it being about spies and war.  Finding it in ebook at the library was incentive to finally try it, especially since I’m trying to take advantage of having fewer reviewing responsibilities by reading longer books and venturing outside my comfort zone.

Jeanne, daughter of a titled Frenchman, and Robert, illegitimate son of a titled Englishman, fall in blissful young love when she’s fifteen and he’s seventeen. But their idyll is soon ruined by her father, who tells Jeanne that Robert had boasted to the servants that he would seduce her. In retaliation, she pretends she was just toying with him, since he’s completely ineligible. This incident embitters them both, and sets the pattern for their future relationship.

Ten years later, they meet in Lisbon during wartime. Robert is a rare English officer who’s got there by promotion rather than money and influence. And Jeanne, now going by the name Joana, is a society belle and consummate flirt… and a spy for Wellington.

This was far more engrossing than I thought it might be, though I did skim some of sections that were entirely about war strategy. Once well in, I appreciated the historical aspects more, and the setting and scenario certainly makes the stakes higher.

But I wasn’t entirely enthralled by the romance. Robert, a somewhat introverted man who feels more comfortable with his fellow soldiers than with the high society provided for officers, is a good character, and kind of unexpected. He doesn’t really hold a grudge against Joana, and his behavior towards her is far less old skool than I feared it might be. But Joanna is highly aggravating; I kept thinking of the show “Community,” and Britta’s D&D nickname, “Britta, the Needlessly Defiant.” Her pride makes her insist on being trusted and believed despite the fact that she’s always lying. Even after she realizes she’s cut off her nose to spite her face, she just carries on in the same way. And the misunderstandings go on for a ridiculous amount of time, deliberately furthered by other people for no plausible reason than to keep Joana’s games going.

I have issues with this kind of character in romance, not just because I find them irritating — which goodness knows I do — but because I find them unloveable. That is to say, the reason we’re given for men fall in love with these Scarlet O’Hara type heroines is because they’re captivating and challenging and yadda yadda yadda. And Joana is also brave, and a worthy companion on a dangerous trip, so it’s not that she has not good points. But I’m immune to her charms, and so I find it hard to understand why Robert (and every other man in the book) isn’t.

It was certainly worth reading, and I’m holding on to my copy just in case, but I don’t think this will be a treasured keeper for me.

 

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TBR Challenge: Swept Away by Candace Camp

The theme: An historical. Nothing could be easier, I still have a massive backlog.

Why this one: I was browsing in my TBR for a new C for the alphabet challenge and this caught my eye.

 

Camp has written some lovely books, but she’s derivative at times and this was one of the times. There are many Heyer echoes here, primarily from Faro’s Daughter.

Julia wants revenge on the man who drove her brother Selby to suicide, and when her attempts to abduct him fail, she decides to impersonate a woman of the night and seduce him into confessing. This is not quite as dumb a plan as it sounds, since it turns out that Deverel, Lord Stonehaven is composed mainly of honor and libido. But Julia finds him as hard to resist as he finds her, so she changes her game back to abduction, with complicated consequences.

Julia is more likable than you’d think, mitigating the usual stubborn, impetuous redheaded heroine cliches with her intelligence and self-insight. Unfortunately, she got all the personality the book had to spare, and every other character is pretty thin, including Deverel. He’s obviously a decent chap, but virtually all we see from his point of view is his lusting after Julia; all other interesting qualities are imposed upon him, as if they automatically go with the trendy/sexy hero name. I didn’t find the attempts to insert Heyer-style farce very successful, either.

It’s not terrible though, for historical reading of the easy, comfortable sort.

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Love by the Morning Star by Laura L. Sullivan

This comedy of manners read like the author was channeling Eva Ibbotson, and Shakespeare frequently popped by to give plotting advice.  The style is slightly more modern in tone than Ibbotson — not because this is set before World War II, rather than World War I, but because the mild-mannered hero doesn’t indulge in old skool jealous rages, as virtually all Ibbotson heroes do. Other than that, the characters bear a striking similarity to those of A Countess Below Stairs (reprinted as The Secret Countess) and Magic Flutes.

It’s often funny and charming, in a deliberately mannered and utterly ridiculous way, but the mistaken identities and tangled plots lead me to an expectation of romantic angst that wasn’t fulfilled. Consequently the ending fell flat and the romance seemed ultimately disappointing. I also thought the author came across as a little self-conscious about the many silly misunderstandings, by explaining them too much. But it’s definitely worth a read if you enjoy this sort of thing.

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The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

I loved Revealed so much, and every other Noble book I’ve tried has been a sad disappointment to me. Until now.

It’s not that I think this is a great book. I’d have to read it in print to feel like I could properly evaluate it, but it definitely had its fair share of historical cliches and commonplace writing. Still, what an interesting concept and characters!  The hero Ned is challenging in an unusual way, yet one extremely suited to a Regency-set historical: he’s privileged, and selfish, and has no idea of how much of his much vaunted “luck” is due to his circumstances. That’s the premise: his former friend, now turned highly resentful secretary, bets him that Ned won’t be able to attract a woman without his rank and wealth. To test it, they switch places on a visit to relative strangers. Ned, of course, gets a thorough comeuppance as he learns how invisible (and even offensive) he is without his trappings of wealth and rank.

The audiobook was also “challenging.” Accents are very well done, always a plus, but Ned’s voice is so high-pitched and foolish sounding that I was considerably bemused as it started to become clear he was the book’s hero! After a while though, I started to approve of it — it seemed like just the sort of voice a hearty, amiable, unenlightened lord would have, and the fact that it wasn’t  at all attractive made it kind of cooler when Phoebe (a governess who’s not supposed to be outwardly attractive herself) fell in love with him. So the audiobook narrative stopped me from finding the book sexy, but in some ways made it more interesting.

And the romance did work. In Revealed, there’s a phrase — “it’s just me” — that became integral to the blossoming relationship. Here the special phrase was “your Mr. Turner.” Phoebe is flabbergasted when the servants start referring to Ned as “your Mr. Turner” as if there’s something between them, yet it starts to seem more and more appropriate. Eventually she starts to hug the phrase to herself; “my Mr. Turner.” It’s very sweet and resonant.

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TBR Challenge Review: Another Chance at Heaven by Elda Minger

The Challenge: A new to you author. The names tend to blur, but I figured I’d remember this author if I’d tried her before.

Why I had this one: I bought it because it was only a quarter and it’s from the same line as one of my favorite Anne Stuart categories, Housebound. (Though as it turned out, both were reprints from other Harlequin lines.)

What tickled me: Good sister/bad sister story! And almost astonishingly open minded.

What ticked me off: Piles on the drama unnecessarily at the end.

Who might like it: Fans of quieter categories that still pack some emotional punch.

I’ve long felt that the 80’s were the Golden Age of Harlequin Presents: there’s so much variety in the types of characters and stories, but they don’t have the strong emphasis on virginity, fear of sexual feelings, and coercion of the 70’s books, and weirdly, are much less conservative in general than the later books. Since I mostly read Presents, I don’t know if the other lines are generally less conservative, but I get the feeling the 80’s were good all around. This certainly is.

Genie’s a struggling actress, and she can’t resist the money her successful writer sister Valerie offers if she’ll impersonate her for a week long television interview. Genie has no idea that Valerie’s real motive is to avoid being interviewed by Pierce Stanton, brother to a woman whose husband she once had an affair with. She also has no idea she’ll find Pierce extremely attractive.

Pierce gives a grueling interview designed to humiliate “Valerie” but Genie holds her own (giving a heartfelt defense of the romance genre in the bargain.) But it’s hard for him to keep going with his plan, because he’s also very attracted to Genie, and can’t help feeling that she’s not as black as she’s painted. One thing she definitely is though, is married.

This had a nice dollop of angst, but it’s not over the top. Pierce isn’t a jerk for very long; he’s mostly an honorable guy trying to do the right thing. (With some intimacy issues kind of thrown in.) Genie feels bad about lying to him, but she’s in a tight spot too. She can’t pay her sister back, and there’s a desperation to their relationship — they keep losing and then finding each other — that makes it hard for her to spill the beans.

I liked the recognition that there are other kinds of relationships besides strictly monogamous ones. Pierce wonders whether Valerie has an open marriage, without judgement. His thoughts on the whole issue are never that fully formed — having realized he can’t live without her, he goes for it without making plans about what will or should happen. (Only when he — he thinks — sees her with her husband does he get jealous and demanding.)

The ending goes slightly weird and gives Pierce some issues which I thought pretty much unnecessary, and there are a few plot holes. Genie’s age isn’t mentioned, but from context she must be fairly young. Valerie is 37 — surely prepared interviewer Pierce would know this. She’s also extremely pregnant, though supposedly this has been kept quiet. And Genie never seems to consider how this impersonation might affect her career, even after she gets a big part on a soap and is interviewed as herself on television.

But the emotional appeal of the romance is top notch, and I’ll definitely try this NTM author again.

P.S. Oh… my. The only Minger story my library has is this.

P.P.S. I downloaded the library book and it is so whackadoodle, stupid, narrow-minded, and offensive, I’m starting to doubt this review. 😦 On the other hand, it was published in 1995…

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