A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Element of Risk by Robyn Donald

When it comes to Robyn Donald, my motto is always “go old skool or go home.” She overdoes the alphole sometimes, sure, but her books with kinder, gentler heroes are so boring. This one hit the sweet spot nicely, as well as being an amazing trainwreck of a story.

Perdita, a stunning model on the verge of retirement, gets a call she’s been waiting for for a very long time — the twin girls she gave up at birth eleven years ago have finally been located. But that’s not all… to her shock, Perdita discovers they were adopted by her beloved cousin Natalie and Natalie’s husband Luke… who is, in fact, their biological father.

I’m not sure I want to say much more about the plot, which only gets wilder from there. Perdita has to square off with Luke to get a chance to see the children (Natalie has conveniently died) and she’s just about perfect at it — intelligent, committed, truly wanting what’s best for them. Meanwhile, Luke is bitter and accusatory and just a step away from serious violence. He might be unbearable if she wasn’t so capable of holding her own.

(One not-so old skool element about this book I really liked, is that Natalie is treated respectfully as the girls’s mother. There’s none of the “now they have their REAL family” crap I’ve seen in other books. It might even be a little too good to be true, but I don’t care.)

The classic bleak moment, when it comes, is rather unusual — though precipitated by an event so over-the-top that I imagined Charlotte Lamb calling to tell Donald to tone it down a bit.  There’s a lot about the past that Perdita has to sort through and understand, before she can have a happy ending.

I don’t always enjoy Harlequin Presents like I used to, these hard days, but this was a fun trip back to when I loved them, the wackier the better.

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TBR Challenge April 2020: The Last Grand Passion by Emma Darcy

The theme: whatevs.

Why this one: whatevs.

 

There was a time when the most emo hero ever written since this MST3K sketch might have made me laugh, but we’re all a little testy these days. From the start, this seemed an astonishingly pretentious Harlequin — perhaps that’s the Plus in Harlequin Plus? The hero appears out of nowhere, surrounded by billowing clouds of angst, quotes lines from “Pagliacci” and then sods off.

After that the ride gets a bit more interesting, because this heroine is not going to take no for an answer. (She’s already quite a bit different for HQ, because she slept with another man while the hero was gone!) She then proceeds to disregard pretty much everything the hero says he wants, all with the best of intentions of course. I don’t actually hate her — she’s in love, and she’s being screwed over, and she usually recognizes her mistakes, though that doesn’t stop her from making new ones.

If you like your Harlequins over the top, this one is reasonably fun and inoffensive — though I don’t know that I wouldn’t prefer a raging old school alphole to this sad, soggy clown.

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TBR Challenge: Sandstorm by Anne Mather

The theme: Contemporary.

Why this one: It was available in ebook, of course! I’m too precious to read print books!

CW: Politics, racism, Islamaphobia

 

It’s to be expected that an old Harlequin Presents would be pretty iffy, especially an old Harlequin Presents (or, for that matter, a recent one) with an Arab hero. But there’s iffy and then there’s… this. I’m think this might be the one book Cheeto Mussolini ever read, because it’s practically a Birther playbook. Twice, heroine Abby insists that her estranged husband is a Muslim, specifically to demonstrate he’s beyond the pale.

“Don’t you know?” she taunted bitterly. “Muslims don’t have to do anything so boringly official. All Rachid has to do is say the words of repudiation and he’s a free man.”

“Abby!” Liz came towards her, putting a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Rachid’s a Christian. You told me so yourself–”

“Is he?”

Later she has the same conversation, only worse, with her father.

“I did love him, you’re right. I–I loved him very much. And I thought he loved me. But the Muslim way of loving is obviously different.”

“Abby, Rachid’s a Christian, you know that.”

Notably, neither objects to her characterizations of Muslims.

Throughout the book, Abby panics whenever she sees Rachid refuse alcohol:

“How about you, Rachid? Will you taste the vine?”

Rachid shook his head, and Abby subsided on to the low couch her father used when he wanted to relax. Has he been absorbed into the dictates of his father’s religion at last? she wondered, feeling a slight chill of apprehension along her spine. It was all very well telling Liz that Rachid was a Muslim, when she really believed he was not, and quite another to turn up against the implacable force of will that abhorred the use of alcohol and upheld the rights of man.

Whaaa? I guess she’s talking about sexism in that last line, because Abby does have some genuine complaints about her husband’s controlling nature. Though oddly enough those drift away as soon as she realizes Rachid wasn’t unfaithful to her after all, and she becomes completely fulfilled by motherhood. Rachid’s fake Arab kingdom is a dream of luxury and everything is perfect in the garden. Except for that one pesky little foreign thing…

They had called the baby Khalid Robert, in deference to both his father and hers, but the English name was much easier to use.

‘Nuff said.

 

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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 #8

Harlequin Presents  #8:  The Sanchez Tradition by Anne Mather

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I’m having trouble making this cover illustration out — are those scenes of local color in the heroine’s hair? Quite beautiful otherwise, though. I don’t know if it always looked so delicate and romantically faded, but like the book itself, it’s worn pretty well.

Most Memorable Line:

“There was a refrigerated cabinet for drinks, hi-fi equipment, and a portable Japanese television set.”

The world depicted in Harlequin Presents usually bears no resemblance to any I ever knew, but this actually brought up a sense of zeitgeist. 🙂

I was a little surprised that the recent digitizing of Anne Mather’s backlist went this far back… but aside from a touch of casual racism, and Andre yanking Rachel by her hair, (!) this hasn’t aged badly at all. Its primary difference from more recent HPs is the closed bedroom door, the large cast of characters, and the heroine’s constant smoking. (Don’t worry, she cuts back when pregnant!)

The romance is one of those tumultuous relationships in which the hero is controlling and the heroine is childish, and they never really work out their problems, but there’s a sense of underlying passion that keeps it interesting.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #148

I’m hopelessly out of order at this point, but oh well. I keep getting stuck on The Hawk and the Dove, which will never download from Open Library for me. (I’ve checked it out at least 3 times.) But a lot of ancient Anne Mather books have now been digitized, so I may backtrack.

Harlequin Presents #148 – For the Love of Sara by Anne Mather

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I kind of love this cover. The heroine looks like she has a terrible headache, and by God, she deserves one.

Best Line:

“Where’s Greece?”

“Sara, I told you. It’s a long, long way away, where the sun shines all the time.”

“I don’t want the sun to shine all the time.”

For the Love of Sara was published about 3 years after the first Harlequin Presents but it’s like another world. Virginity is still a hot button — heh — and sex is only in the past, but the whole tone of the story is different. It actually starts off with the hero’s point of view, though it does drop it later to keep things suspenseful (a trick that still happens in some HPs.)

Mather tended to be an envelope pusher, which is great in theory but in practice often ends up being fairly icky. This definitely scores high on the ick scale, with the heroine engaged to the father of her former lover and the grandfather of her child. Talk about bad parents — apparently that’s how much dear old dad wanted to score off his son. Another way in which this book is different is that the hero’s father is considerably worse than the Evil Other Woman, who actually isn’t all that bad. And there’s a well drawn, far from angelic child character.

The book on the whole is thoughtful and intriguing, which perhaps makes it worse that the heroine stunk up the whole thing.  I was seriously tempted to change my “heroine needs a kick in the pants” tag to “heroine needs to be thrown through a plate-glass window.” However, this is a very tense time in our lives, so I’ll try to keep it sane.

But seriously, what an awful, dislikable person Rachel is. I’m not generally upset by secret baby stories, but Rachel is so obviously at fault here, and so damn stubborn for so long.

*Spoilers*

— She kept her pregnancy secret from Joel, and continues to distrust him and try to push him away, despite his interest in getting to know his child.

— Rachel is marrying James because he’s promised to donate a kidney to Sara. She assumes that if the operation is not successful, she won’t have to go through with the marriage. (Hey, dude still gave up his kidney!) Later when he asks if she was thinking about changing her mind about marriage after the operation, she’s indignant to be asked.

— After Rachel has an old skool fall — from running away from Joel while refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying — and requires surgery, her main freak out is about her head being shaved.

Joel is no saint, mind you, especially when he mocks Rachel for insisting that just because she was a virgin when they had sex, he should marry her. Though it is fairly mockworthy, for 1975. But he takes responsibility for his behavior, which is more than Rachel ever does.

So — not a bad book, but I kind of wish Joel had just sued for custody and never had to deal with Rachel again.

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TBR Challenge: Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour by Carla Kelly

The theme: A holiday romance. I… don’t have any, at least not in the print TBR. Just not much of a fan. (That thud you heard was Wendy fainting.) A Signet Regency is sort of Christmassy just by juxtaposition, right? Coincidentally, Miss Bates reviewed this one last year.

Why this one: I was feeling depressed over the news and thought a Kelly book would be heartwarming and comforting. I did not pick the right one.

I believe this is the third Kelly I’ve chosen for the TBR challenge, and it’s the first of them I’ve found disappointing. The plot is certainly compelling: Eight years previously, Omega Chartley was left at the altar by the man she loved. (You know this is old because there’s no separate book for her brother, Alpha.) She never knew why; we know only that it had something to do with him covered with blood and horror. When Omega finds her vacation from teaching taking a very odd, adventurous turn, their paths cross again.

There were a number of problems with this one. Although there are certainly instances of Kelly’s way with a carelessly wonderful phrase — “it’s amazing how rapidly one well-brought-up person can go to the dogs,” thinks Omega about herself — much of the prose is kind of spare and awkward, especially in the action scenes. It was also a weird blend of farcical and deadly serious, and it’s hard to say whether there are more implausibilities or plot holes.

And the hero is…  very challenging. Matthew did any number of awful things — as he tells Omega he has two things to confess, “One is terrible and the other no better,” and frankly, I think he was underestimating. It was through weakness and drink rather than overt cruelty, and he is genuinely remorseful, though not so much he doesn’t keep making nasty, unwarranted snipes against Omega when they’re reunited. And I do think he gets a decent, if somewhat understated redemption.

But he only appears halfway through the story, and the second half of the book focuses more on a suspense plot than on cementing the relationship between him and Omega, so it was hard for me to feel the happy ending was truly established. There are some very sweet scenes showing how much he missed her while they were apart, but I would have liked to see more of them learning each other’s new selves.

Although the story has very upsetting elements, it includes many goodhearted characters, including a brave and delightful little girl named Angela. If you’re a fan of precocious children in stories, you’ll adore this.

Addendum: A while after this, I read Kelly’s Season’s Regency Greetings, and that was just the sort of wholesome, cozy read the doctor ordered. (Dr. Cook, of course!) It’s two short Christmas stories about two misfit Regency heroines: one is a proper British governess who is also half Egyptian; the other is a titled heiress who’s just learned she’s actually the adopted illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. Her story is quite heartbreaking, since she’s not only lost her place in life but also the people she considered her parents. Both find amiable misfit men and fall swiftly and charmingly in love. There are sad and even awful elements of the stories, but the overall mood is uplifting.

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TBR Challenge: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

The theme: an author with multiple books in the TBR.

Why this one: Kinsale is one of the great authors I would most regret leaving behind in the TBR when I die. I awaited this one so eagerly, and bought it as soon as it came out. FIVE AND A HALF YEARS AGO. WTF is wrong with me?

As it happens, though, I might have been happier choosing one of the other multiple books. It’s not that this was bad. It’s meant to be a fairly lighthearted story, and it certain succeeds with some witty banter between the leads, who grew up together and fall easily back into teasing each other when they’re reunited. But I’m guessing it’s meant to be filed under “romp” and for me it wound up under “tiresome.” I skimmed the most plot-heavy points and seriously considered DNFing. The emotion between Callie and Trev kept me reading, but I fear this is one Kinsale that isn’t winding up on my keeper shelf.

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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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A Past Revenge by Carole Mortimer

Yesterday I DNF’d one of the creepiest books I’ve ever encountered: Wanting by Penny Jordan. The “hero” is a model of the entitled rapey guy who thinks that his attraction to a woman means she belongs to him, and any rejection on her part is “teasing.” (Which, of course, makes him even MORE entitled to her.) And the heroine’s best friend aides and abets him in stalking and trapping her! Seriously ugh!

This book was similar in some ways, yet also an excellent antidote. The hero is the same kind of instantly possessive guy, aggressive enough to make advances to the heroine right in front of his current lover. But Danielle has been rather handily inoculated — they have past history, although he doesn’t recognize her — and she utterly loathes him, with good reason. When Nick forces a savage kiss on her, she’s had it and decides it’s time for revenge:

She has tried to treat him like any other client, had intended being polite to him if nothing else, but he had made that impossible from the first, was intent now on punishing her for the fact that she didn’t want him as he wanted her. But she had been punished enough in the past by this man, wasn’t prepare to accept his cold-blooded arrogance for a second time.

As you can see from the excerpt, the prose gets pretty sloppy with the comma splices; these aren’t even the worst examples. But it’s a hell of a story. I love the way Danielle continually challenges Nick’s offensive behavior, even getting pissed enough at him not to melt in his arms, as all good Harlequin heroines are required to do. She genuinely has the power in the relationship, which is pretty rare, and she knows it and uses it. I think she’s a little too forgiving in the end — Nick isn’t quite as bad as she thought, but was still very cruel to her — but I’d say he suffers enough for satisfaction. Great read.

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