A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #65: White Rose of Winter by Anne Mather

Harlequin Presents #65

(Image: Book cover is a portrait of a white woman with wavy blonde hair. Inset of a man in a white leisure suit — suede, no doubt — and a little girl, walking together in the sunset, on her neck.)

Best line: 

“In the lounge, Robert put several long-playing records on the hi-fi equipment, and presently the room was filled with the fourth dimensional quality of Burt Bacharach’s music.”

(Would that indicate the lack of timelessness?)

This is not the only sign that we’re in the seventies: the sideburned hero wears suede constantly. I’ll bet he has suede boxers. And it’s not the only oddity of word choice.

Another indication… I guess: the plot hinges on heroine Julie’s dead husband having left guardianship of their daughter Emma to his brother Robert. It’s bizarre to me that that could have been possible in a time I was alive, but I know nothing about British law in the 1970s.

If you enjoy classic Harlequin Present, this is a real page-turner. Lots of misery, punishing kisses, and feelings of betrayal on both sides. The downside is that almost all the female characters are intensely unpleasant, including the heroine. I can cut her some slack for her immaturity in the past, when she was quite young and had all her insecurities played on by her future mother-in-law, but when she doesn’t even think to have an adult conversation with Robert about her daughter’s horrible new governess, I wanted to smack her one.  For that matter, she never tries to have an adult conversation with him about anything — it’s all reaction. I guess he’s not much better.

Also, I really hated how the daughter was badly injured as a plot point, and especially when Robert thanked God it happened, because of the happy results. No! No no no!

So not a great read for the parents out there, but pretty fun otherwise.

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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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TBR Challenge: Angel in a Red Dress by Judith Ivory

CW: Mention of rape.

The theme: a favorite trope.

Why this one: It was the only TBR book I picked up that I felt like reading, though the main tropes — rake in pursuit and spying — are far from favorites of mine.

I think this book, originally titled Starlit Surrender, was Ivory’s first, and it shows. It’s occasionally far from subtle in the storytelling, as you can see in this offhand phrase:

“All three — Thomas, Sam, and Charles — were in league with Adrien to rescue French aristocrats destined for the guillotine.”

This blunt “telling” of a deep secret had already been “shown” perfectly clearly, and I can only assume Ivory had a really crap editor (who perhaps made her insert it.) The same editor obviously didn’t give a hang about historical accuracy, since the hero, Adrien, is breeding roses in the footsteps of Mendel around thirty years before Mendel was born.

The worst part of the story though, is that Adrien rapes Christina in a particularly chilling way — not violently or to punish her as is common in old skool romance, but over a long period of time, while she is essentially his prisoner. It’s too reminiscent of a realistic situation to be glossed over as “forced seduction” though Christina is depicted as ambivalent. (There’s an attempted rape later, not by the hero, which she fights off quite effectively.) The fact that this is all seen through Adrien’s entitled eyes and he barely realizes what he’s doing to her makes it particularly upsetting.

Nonetheless, this is Judith Ivory, which means much of the writing is elegant and gorgeous, especially in the sex scenes that aren’t horrible. She writes so evocatively about attraction and intimacy; early scenes which play with consent are wonderfully done, which makes it even sadder that it got so ugly later on.

There’s also what seems to be deliberate trope subversion. Adrien is highly intelligent, a brilliant strategist and playing a very dangerous game of intrigue, but he’s not the omnipotent historical hero we often see. He’s often taken by surprise, vulnerable, even prone to highly unromantic physical ailments. I adore the classic cool hero, but I enjoyed seeing a more human version. Attempts to give Christina greater depth than the usual feisty redhaired heroine aren’t completely successful, but I appreciated the effort. You can see the seeds here of the amazing writer Ivory would become.

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WTF Did I Just Read

crazy

I’m having the worst luck with Charlotte Lamb lately. First there was Savage Stockholm Syndrome Surrender and now Betrayal. AKA Rapey, Cruel, Entitled Men and the Insane Women Who Love Them.

What gets me the most about Betrayal though, is it knows how crazy it is. Here’s the basic plot, with plenty o’ spoilers:

Cathy accidentally falls in love with Muir while a conference, then has to tell him that she’s engaged. She won’t break her engagement because her fiance was badly injured. (I expected this to be the worst part of the book, the fact that Cathy is staying with her fiance only because he’s disabled. It was actually the least offensive part, since he’s pretty strong and sensible, and not in the market for pity love.) Muir is driven mad by love — yeah right — and rapes her, then somewhat accidentally knocks her down the stairs. He’s then arrested for rape and Cathy has temporary amnesia and can’t speak up for him; after he’s cleared, he refuses to believe she had amnesia, so he then kidnaps her and abuses her both physically and psychologically. Then somehow it all kind of dies down, he decides to believe her about her memory loss — for now? I bet he’ll be bringing it up constantly all the rest of their lives — and Bob’s your uncle. There’s no remorse. (I’m pretty sure everything resembling an apology is accompanied by a “but you made me…”) There’s no catharsis. There’s nothing satisfying to have made all that horror remotely worth reading.

And Cathy feels terribly guilty about forgetting him and him getting charged with rape, even knowing perfectly well that he did actually rape her. Because it wasn’t rape-rape. (How she actually puts it is, “there are rapes and rapes.”) And she knows he’s violent and cruel, and she’s freaking terrified of him, yet she loves him so it’s supposedly a happy ending.

None of this is sugar coated at all. Cathy’s fear is real. The rape is real. The violence is real. The fact that he will probably abuse her every day of her life until he snaps and kills her one day is unexpressed, but frighteningly real.

But what got me most was this throwaway line from Cathy’s friend, speaking about a co-worker:

“She rejoices in a mind which believes that what it wants it’s clearly entitled to.”

And neither of them seem to notice that this describes Muir to a T. But I bet Lamb did.

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Review: Tropical Storm by Stefanie Graham

reviewed from an e-arc

What tickled my fancy: Good angsty beginning

What ticked me off: Pretty much everything else.

Who might like it: I can’t answer this in a sincere way.

I would like to be kind to this book, because I’ve been in a dreadful reading slump and it not only sparked my interest but even held it for awhile, despite some flawed prose. But eventually the sheer ridiculosity of the characters’ behavior overwhelmed everything else.

Jessica, known as Storm, and her new husband Cairo Kane have only one interrupted night together, when she’s dragged back home by her wealthy, snobbish parents. When Cairo follows to fetch her, Storm has already been convinced to reject him for his own good. Although she regrets it immediately — even more so when she realizes she’s pregnant — it takes her  seven years to track him down.

So… having gotten the information that her husband is now a hotelier in Jamaica, does Storm contact him, explain the situation, and ask if they can try again?  Oh, good one! No, of course she takes her son there — having gotten up his adorable expectations that Cairo will be his new daddy! — and tries to seduce Cairo with her maternally-unhampered hotness, while letting him believe that she actually married someone else and had a son with him, for some neurotic reason of her own. That’s only the start of Storm’s tsunami of lying, which just gets more ludicrous by the chapter. One stupid fear-induced lie per romance novel I can live with, but when you’re caught by the person you’re trying to have a meaningful relationship with, and you then just keep on lying to him til you’re blue in the mouth, I call foul on a happy ending.

The Jamaican paradise setting made me uncomfortable too, especially given that Cairo is white and all the narrative support staff in his life is black. I’m sure this was well intentioned, but it inadvertently plays a lot into racist culture. The narrative flaws were along these lines:

Seemingly unaffected by Shane’s weight, Storm watched as strong purposeful strides brought Cairo closer.

Can you tell who is doing what in that sentence? I bet your guess is wrong. *

Cairo is a pretty typical “disappointed in love so cynical” hero/”you must marry me” secret-baby daddy. Then we got to him meeting with his erstwhile mother-in-law and demonstrating how little power she has over him now by pressing his thigh next to hers and playing with her hair. Gag!

The fake conflicts just get worse and worse; I literally only finished this because I felt I had to for grading purposes, and my reward was that it ended with an angry rape. (Okay, that answers the grading question.) That’s followed by this conversation:

“Ever since you got here all that you have done is tell a series of lies.”

“I never lied to you, Cairo.” Storm argued.

Even Captain Picard doesn’t have a facepalm big enough for that.

 

* Answer: Cairo is carrying Shane.

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Review: After the Frost by Megan Chance

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

I don’t think Chance had hit her stride as a writer when she wrote this historical romance, but she was already creating challenging characters. After the Frost stands out for not only having a mother who abandoned her child — breaking the number one romance commandment, Thou Shalt Not Be an Imperfect Mother — but didn’t do it in a particularly melodramatic way. Unwed mother Belle left her newborn daughter Sarah in the care of people she trusted, hoping to make enough money so they could be together soon, but life was hard and the years slipped away before she realized it.

The story opens as Belle returns to her old home on a farm, having discovered that her mother Lillian and Sarah’s father Rand (Belle’s stepbrother) had tracked down and reclaimed the child two years previously.  She’s determined that Sarah, now five, won’t grow up in the same soul-crushing atmosphere she did, but she’s flummoxed to realize that Rand and Sarah love each other.  Although Lillian and Rand both think of Belle as wild, reckless, and untrustworthy, she’s actually a very decent person; she resolves to stay at the farm instead of trying to take Sarah away.

Rand on the other hand… not so decent. I’d like to think writers just didn’t create this kind of character anymore, but in fact I read a new one just the other day.

*spoilers*
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