A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge 1/18: Street Song by Ann Charlton

The theme: We like short shorts.

Why this one: Harlequin Presents are my go-to short reads, but I’m finding many of them too rough these days. This one looked likely to have less female intimidation and sex trafficking (!) than others I attempted. And in fact, it confirms my belief that the 1980s produced some of the most thoughtful and satisfying HPs.

Just for fun, here’s a song the Australian music teacher heroine and her busking partner play:

 

We know Cara isn’t the typical HP heroine right away: “She wore flat sandals and a full, calf-length skirt of Indian cotton, and a long, long sleeveless top with a fringed sash wound around her hips.” She’s also traveled around the world, and shares a flat with two men. Although she’s attracted to the suited-up man she sees going in the opposite direction on an escalator, she’s pretty philosophical when he doesn’t smile back at her. “Could there be two more complete opposites?”

Mitchell seems a more familiar type at first, sneering at Cara’s lifestyle and jumping to conclusions, but he does have “rather frivolous” green eyes, and she yearns to make him break into a smile. And to muss up his impossibly immaculate grooming. She gets her chance when it turns out he’s the father of a girl she’s teaching, and their heads start to butt.

Charlton writes some lovely scenes for the two that would be perfect in a RomCom, as aggression and attraction mingle:

“Look–why don’t we move out of the rain?” He pulled her, and she dug in her heels and resisted.

“I don’t want to move out of the rain. I like the rain–but then I’m not sensible! … Look at you!” She curled her lip at his damp but ultra-neat clothes. “Practically a store dummy.” She flicked his tie. “Don’t you ever loosen up a bit?” Before she could stop herself she was at the knot of the tie, tugging it loose from her collar. Mitchell Kirby looked down in astonishment at her hands on his clothes. The tie hung askew and she fumbled with the top button of his shirt.

“I must be crazy!”  he said. “Asking you to go anywhere with me. Look at you — sandals from Ancient Rome and — peepholes in your clothes —-” He plucked at her sleeves and some ties came undone on the split shoulders; his fingers slid through the openings just as Cara pushed open his shirt collar.

“There!” she said, looking up into his face. She was suddenly still. So was he. Everything stopped, or so it seemed… Rain  slanted down, gurgled into drains, dripped from shining leaves and shadowed eaves. The incomparable smell of warm, wet streets and earth was in the air, and the warm, masculine scent of the man holding her. Cara felt the rain cold and spiky on her cheek. Mitch’s skin warm beneath her hands — his hands warm on her shoulders.

Charlton brings atmosphere, emotion and humor to the story, as well as sexual tension, as Cara and Mitch get to know and love each other. Even a scene fairly typical in category romance — he wants to buy her a fancy diamond ring and she prefers a simple sapphire — ends on a sweet and funny note:

“We’ll take the sapphire,” Mitch told [the jeweler]. “It’s sincere. That one is just an exhibitionist.”

Her innate sincerity is probably what Mitch loves most in Cara, as well as her optimism and ability to take life and people as they come. And a relaxed Mitch is funny and warm and irresistibly devoted. But they’re spent their lives going to in different directions. Can they ever find a way to meet in the middle?

I enjoyed almost everything about this (there are a few standard old romance annoyances) including the author’s evident love for the Australian wilderness. And although the book often feels like it would make a great movie, it doesn’t feel any lacking as a book. The prose isn’t flowery or ornate, but willing to take its time to describe settings, and feelings, and moments.

~~~

For the curious, my first attempts:

Dance for a Stranger by Susanne McCarthy. I was attracted by the title and vaguely Latin dance look of the cover, but this was the sex trafficking book. Even when my stomach was stronger, that would have been a bridge too far. I did skim some, and was amused by the ending, which is almost point-for-point the same ending as Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter — to the point that both characters completely forgot that the heroine is pregnant.

Night Train by Anne Weale. Gave me flashback whiplash.

The Price of Freedom by Anne Fraser. I may wind up finishing this one, but I couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for writing about it. The hero manhandles the heroine a lot and it’s also quite a bickerfest.

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C is for the Coda Series, D is for Damn it, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me It’s a Series

Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton.

This was recently warmly recommended by someone, and I started it without noticing that it’s book 4 of a series. That proved to be a slightly irritating mistake, because previous characters are frequently mentioned, and I found the past relationships confusing. It wasn’t irritating enough to stop me from reading such an interesting book, though.

The story is narrated by Jonathan, an accountant with a high-pressure job that requires a lot of travel. There’s some matchmaking by his ex or a friend — this is the part I found confusing — but in any event, he’s set up with Cole, who’s independently wealthy and also travels a lot. Although Cole is too flamboyant and affected to be Jonathan’s type, and Jonathan too much of a stuffy workaholic for Cole, they’re both lonely and horny enough to give it a try — no strings, sex only. Cole rarely talks about himself and doesn’t even like to kiss.

But Jonathan discovers that the private Cole is quite different from the persona he puts on, and he is more and more drawn to him. And his affection, and willingness to work past Cole’s boundaries, start to erode Cole’s resistance to any form of intimacy.

Cole is a wonderfully challenging character. I didn’t always like him, and was sometimes annoyed that Jonathan doesn’t notice when he’s being hypocritical — he’s adamant about not changing himself, but wants Jon to loosen up — or manipulative. (Actually, Jon does notice the manipulation some of the times, but it more amused by it than bothered.) I would think I have a special in for understanding Cole, because I was once close to someone very like him, but since the book is extremely popular, I guess he works for most people.

I loved the way sex is treated in this story. The first few encounters are barely described — a bit unusual for m/m, but I liked it. To my surprise, the steam level rises seriously later. This is perfect — not only is the sex integral to their relationship development at this point, but it doesn’t happen until I’m already invested in the relationship. What does it say about the state of the romance genre, that I’m surprised to see an author use such a sensitive, appropriate technique?

I also liked that we’re never given a specific reason for Cole’s closed-off personality. He’s obviously vulnerable and defensive, and has never really felt loved for himself, but it isn’t tidily chalked up to anything in particular. We learn a little about his past through his emails to the friend who set them up, but he remains complex and somewhat mysterious, but very lovable in his way.

The feeling between them builds powerfully, leading to some serious heartbreak. The way the conflict is resolved seemed a little labored, but I was still left with that great romance happy glow.

Final thoughts: I liked dessert so much, I’m definitely going to go back and have the full meal.

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