A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: When the Laird Returns by Karen Ranney

CN for book: Domestic violence.

The theme: a favorite trope. (Forced marriage.)

Why this one: I’m double-dipping with the Buzzwords Readathon.

(It’s perturbing, by the way, how many books are in my TBR that don’t have favorite tropes. Time for another sorting.)

I just spent a baffled couple of minutes trying to find my TBR Challenge review for One Man’s Love, finally remembering that I had been too rushed (and honestly, not interested enough) to actually review it. That, the first in the “Highland Lords” series, had a most favorite troupe, the lover in disguise, but it was just an average read. This one had its flaws, but interest in the characters keep me reading.

Ship designer and captain Alisdair MacRae is on his way to England to reject a title. (Hmm.) He stops in Scotland to visit the ruins of his family’s keep, only to discover that the McRae’s former enemy, Magnus Drummond, is ruining his land with sheep. Intent on regaining it, Alisdair finds himself forced to marry to Drummond’s daughter Iseabal. Since it’s not a marriage in English law, however, he expect it will be easy enough to annul it once they get to England.

Having grown up with a tyrannical and abusive father, Iseabal prays for the strength to endure marriage. But her new husband is so kind and considerate with her, she starts to think marriage is to her taste after all. And then she learns Alisdair’s plan

The plot hops around hither and yon after this, almost stopping dead at one point for multiple sex scenes. (They are tender and engaging, but space them out a bit!) It was all too episodic for my taste, and I think parts of the plot are over simplified, to say the least. (See this post on inheritance law by K.J. Charles.) But Iseabal’s arc remained intriguing. Her personality has been so stifled from living in constant fear and stoic endurance, she retreats to silent passivity whenever she feels threatened. Alisdair doesn’t have much of an journey, but is a generally charming and likeable hero who does his honorable best, and gives Iseabal a reason to find her inner bravery.

 

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Roomies by Christina Lauren

I have such mixed feelings about this, I feel like I should write a pro/con list instead of a review. Many of the aspects I disliked eventually grew into something better, and overall I read the book with interest and enjoyment — yet it’s hard to feel completely positive about a book when I spent so much of it wincing.

The book is narrated — first person present tense, sorry! It was mostly unobtrusive though — by Holland Bakker, a young woman who’s very halfheartedly trying to make in in New York. Her efforts are supported by her loving uncle Jeff and his husband Robert, who emotionally adopted her when she was born the last child in a large family. Working in a grunt job at Robert’s Broadway theater, with them paying most of her rent, Holland feels aimless and useless.

Holland was my first hurdle. She’s often such a typical contemporary romance/women’s fiction stereotype:

“While I’m not completely unfortunate-looking, I know everyone is half wondering how I ended up with someone like him. I’m that girl with the freckles, the one with snagged tights who spills her coffee awkwardly on her boobs, the one who knocks into everyone with my camera.”

I’m so not the reader for that girl’s adventures. But — first but — Holland has an interesting arc. Part of the story is about her finding herself and her passions… her passions other than Calvin. And her very stereotypical friendship with Lulu, the brash and bold girl who’s always pushing her to take risks, also goes in an unexpected, emotionally resonant direction

Calvin is an Irish musician that Holland semi-stalks when he busks in the subway. Although there is much panting by Holland over how gorgeously Irish he is, she is largely attracted by how intensely and lovingly he plays his guitar. And when an important musician storms out of her uncle Robert’s production, she has the brilliant idea of bringing Calvin into the show. There’s just one enormous problem: Calvin’s student visa expired and he’s in the country illegally. But Holland might be able to help with that too…

Okay, this was another big grimace, though perhaps an unfair one to criticize the book upon. It just made me so uncomfortable that the book focused on the needs of a white immigrant who’s in the country for music, in a time when there are so many immigrants in the US facing racism and deportation back to horrific circumstances. It felt intensely tone deaf.

That aside, Calvin is an extremely appealing hero — funny, and affectionate, and passionate about his art, always a huge draw for me. There are some niggles with him too, though I suppose they keep him from being ridiculously perfect. I did really enjoy the growth of their relationship… buuuut…. they have sex for the first time, a huge deal, when they’re too drunk to even remember it. What the what? This is not what I read romance for!

(Incidentally, in keeping with Lauren’s last several books, this one is quite steamy, but with less volume of sex scenes. I have no complaints whatsoever about this.)

The romance continues on in a very episodic way, which is really not my cuppa. Holland’s insecurity stretches out long past the point where it’s even narratively useful or sensible. A lot of the conflict felt manufactured.

Overall, I felt like the book wanted to be a rom com with both awkward hilarious moments and emotionally deep moments, and the combo didn’t perfectly gell for me. A lot of my complaints are specifically personal and might not bother any other reader at all. So I would recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary romance; I think most everyone will adore Calvin.

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TBR Challenge: The Wild Road by Marjorie Liu.

The theme: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense. As usual, I combined the two. Or maybe there are very few paranormals that aren’t also suspenseful? This is a genuine on the run from baddies suspense story, however.

Why this one: I bought it after AnimeJune wrote a rave review; I generally found her a reliable recommender. Since I’m a completionist, I decided to start the series from the beginning, quite a while ago, but I didn’t really feel it was for me. Seeing this in the TBR reminded me that I still wanted to read it, and luckily it is quite a good series entry. (Though I took a little time to read the related novella, A Dream of Stone and Shadow, and did not regret it.)

My main complaint about Tiger’s Eye was its “sameyness”; with Shadow Touch, it was its gruesomeness. Neither is an issue here. There is horror, but on a smaller scale, and the most of the villains are pathetic as well as hateful. There are also some familiar tropes, but the imaginativeness of the plot and depth of the characters kept them from seeming tired.

Lannes is a particularly darling hero, a lonely, isolated gargoyle suffering from PTSD. (From the events in the novella.) He’s probably a virgin; at the very least he’s never known a true relationship with either another gargoyle or a human woman. When not with his one lifelong friend (whom he’s almost outlived) or mending ancient books, he’s trapped inside an illusion of humanity that can only work if he isn’t touched, because he’s enormous and winged. But like all good literary gargoyles, he’s protective… and when he sees a bloodied, barefoot woman trying to break into his car, his urge is to help her.

This is a favorite Lanness moments, just one in which he breaks away from the paranormal hero mold:

“If we do this,” he whispered. “You’re mine. And I mean that, Lethe.”

“Promise?” she breathed, beginning to tremble.

Lannes inhaled sharply. “Just like I’ll be yours.”

Lethe leaned in, pressing her lips to his ear. “Is this a gargoyle thing.”

“No,” he murmured. “I just love you, that’s all.”

Lannes is undoubtedly the best part of the book, but the woman he finds, and later names Lethe, is compelling in her own way. She knows nothing about who she is, or why she woke up next to several dead men in a hotel on fire… and the more she finds out about her past and present, the more frightened she is. But she faces a number of unpleasant truths and refuses to let them destroy her, or Lannes. And she loves him just as he is.

I’m so glad I got to this one… and perhaps will go back and try some of the earlier books now. (Lethe apparently also appears in Soul Song, under her original name.) Paranormal romance so often aims for toughness and cynicism — I loved finding one that is poignant and life-affirming.

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Falling for Max by Shannon Stacey

What tickled my fancy: Sweet beta hero.

What ticked me off: STAY IN YOUR OWN DAMN BOOK!

Who might like it: fans of beta heroes and/or matchmaker stories.

 

“I’m not hooking up with Max. I like him too much for that.”

“That makes no sense to me.”

“When it comes to fairy-tale romances, he’s Disney and I’m Grimm.”

This is the 267th 9th book in the Kowalski series, and there’s a heavy weight of history to it. I got a little bored five books back, to be honest, and having frequent reminiscences about every single previous character’s love life got so dull I was tempted to quit the book. I kept reading for Max.

I started out by armchair diagnosing Max with a mild case of RHA — Romance Hero’s Aspergers. (Not to be confused with Romance Hero’s Alcoholism.) It’s a spot on the autism spectrum where there are many common symptoms of Aspergers syndrome, yet oddly enough, none of the associated issues that might make a person seem less sexy.

As I read on though, I decided that Max is definitely within the realm of believable for someone on the spectrum. He’s blessed with a lot of self-awareness and has worked out many coping mechanisms, so problems like anxiety don’t get beyond his ability to deal with. It’s a thoughtful and appealing characterization. Max is generally accepting of himself, and a reasonably content guy: he’s got a job that makes use of his particular talents, and he’s found a social in by making his home the local gathering place to watch sports events. But he wants a wife and a family.

“I don’t have a preference as far as hair and eye color. Or height or weight.” He paused, and gave a little shrug. “I’m just looking for a woman who’ll love me enough to marry me and risk having little odd duck kids. That’s pretty much my list.”

I hate portrayals of unfeeling, robotic aspies with the fire of a thousand suns, so I appreciated Max’s warmth and kindness. He may not be very socially adept, but it’s not for lacking of trying, or lack of caring. And he’s got a good sense of humor!

Unlike many reviewers, I also like Tori. Her aversion to relationships because of her toxic parents is plausible to me, and I appreciated that she gets proactive about dealing with them, with a little nudging from a friend.  And it’s refreshing that some of the drawbacks of small town life are realistically depicted.

He really wished Whitford had a movie theater, though. Or a bowling alley or even a mini-golf course. Sitting across from a woman with nothing to do but hold a conversation was a lot of pressure.

A small town romance in which small town life isn’t perfect — now there’s a romance unicorn.

Final thoughts: There are way too many people in this book for someone like Max. But I fell for his romance anyway.

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Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath

I’m trying desperately to get caught up with ARC Mountain, so just a few thoughts on finally reading this classic.

So I realized that my love for the cruelly misjudged heroine isn’t gendered at all… a misjudged hero is just as good. Authors just don’t write them very often. (Suggestions?)

Another reviewer criticized hero Clay for being a saint. This is definitely a valid criticism, but I appreciated that he didn’t always turn the other cheek. He said a few pretty sharp (and entirely deserved) things to the heroine. And it’s an absolutely essential part of his character that he is totally committed to his beliefs.

The prose isn’t totally solid. In particular, the action scenes are very flat. And everything comes to an abrupt, neat ending. But there’s a beautiful use of incorporation around the themes of courage and what it really means. I had to grade down a bit for flaws, but I couldn’t give such an original and powerful book less than an A-.

Tangentially, it’s interesting how often a book I’ve heard about many times over the years turns out to be truly great, while a book I’ve heard about many times over the course of a week or month… not so much.

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The Last Goodbye by Sarah Mayberry

I was struck by how somber this title seemed for a romance novel, even one with some very serious stuff going down. However, as I read on, I realized that the title could also have a very positive meaning.

The story is about Tyler, who returns to his childhood home in a state of severe ambivalence when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His father Bob was, simply put, a monster; he physically and emotionally abused both Tyler and his older brother, and both escaped as soon as they possibly could. Now he’s an old, sick man, and Tyler can’t help hoping for some sort of closure for their relationship.

Bob was found ill by his temporary neighbor Ally, who’s been looking out for him and was the one who contacted Tyler.  Advice columnist Ally is the sort of caring, generous person you’d expect to live in a cozy home with cats and babies round her feet. But she’s felt trapped every time she’s tried to settle down, and so she’s given up on both relationships and homes, not wanting to leave any more heartbroken men behind. Still, her warm heart can’t resist Tyler, who’s so emotionally wrecked by having to deal with his dad again.

This is the sort of mature romance within a realistic framework that Mayberry writes so well. The situation with Tyler’s father is deeply sad and troubling, and there’s no easy ending for it. The ending for the romance is more pat, and doesn’t hold up that well. (And the story gets into pet peeve territory when they have That Conversation — Ally tells Tyler they don’t need a condom, because she’s on the Pill and she trusts him. How I would have loved for him to retort, “well, I don’t trust you!”) Still it’s a very involving story, with a sweet, strongly felt romance.

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Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

A review in honor of Rainbow Rowell’s face-off with herself in DABWAHA. How was I supposed to pick? Well, it wasn’t that hard, because my love for Eleanor and Park shines with the heat of a thousand suns and I’m so happy it won. But Fangirl is awfully good, too.

What I most love about Rainbow Rowell’s books (among with their wit, emotional resonance, perfect zeitgeist and so on) is that they make me feel like there’s a place for people like me, my husband, and my friends in romance. Not that any of her books are romances in the genre sense, but I certainly don’t care.

This story alternates between two narrative styles. Half is told in the form of chatty emails between two coworkers at a newspaper, Beth and Jennifer. The other is from the point of view of Lincoln, the guy in charge of reading any company emails that send red flags, and then reprimanding the senders. But Lincoln loves the funny, interesting emails so much, he can’t bear to make them stop, or to stop reading them.

Jennifer is married, Beth is… kind of wishing she was too, but her ultra-cool musician boyfriend isn’t into it. And Beth is the one who becomes increasingly important to Lincoln.

She and Jennifer were both funny, both caring, both smart as whips. But Beth’s whip always caught him by the ankle.

He loved the way she put on kid gloves when Jennifer talked about her marriage and Mitch. He loved the way she riffed on her siblings and her bosses and herself. He tried not to love that she could recite scenes from Ghostbusters and could name all of the original X-Men — because those seemed like reasons a guy would fall for a girl in a Kevin Smith movie.

It’s lovely to see geeky characters who are neither made fun or nor idealized.  Lincoln, who’s never quite recovered from being dumped by his first love,  would look like a total loser on paper — underemployed, lives with his mother, still plays Dungeons and Dragons with his college friends. But he has enduring qualities like loyalty, sincerity, intelligence, and respect for love and relationships. So do his college friends, who would be a bunch of stereotypical dweebs played for laughs elsewhere. Most of them are married, some to each other; they have homes and kids. They still play games because they still really like playing games. I was never much of a gamer, but most of my friends were/are, and I appreciate seeing that reality portrayed.

The book is mainly about Lincoln’s journey to full adulthood,  as he finally starts to let go of the past and blossom as a single guy, and it shows us why he’s an awesome person. He’s so tender and has so much to give; he cares in all the right ways.  We don’t see Beth other than in her emails until the end, but they show her humor and kindness, and the need she has for someone like Lincoln in her life.

This was my second read of Attachments — reading Rowell’s Eleanor and Park made me want to reread it — and on this reading I was struck by a minor subplot about a bar-hopping player type and a woman he picks up. Romantic Lincoln thinks it would be impossible to find true love in a bar, but in fact that presumed one-night stand turns into a genuine relationship. I really liked how Rowell included a very different type of person, pursuing companionship in a very different type of way, but gave him just as happy an ending.  Yes — I won’t say how it works out, but the book does have a happy ending.

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A Few Thoughts on Graceling and Fire

I feel like I’m going to turn off every single reader friend I have with this statement, but Graceling was the most disappointing book I’ve read since The Duke of Shadows.  Again, a fantastic first half, and a lousy second half.

Katsa and Po were wonderful characters; it’s still very rare to see a fictional woman who’s so incredibly powerful, and a fictional man who has no problems with that. Things are carefully set up to provide some balance, but even so, Katsa will always be the more powerful. But the second half of the book is all survival adventure, which I found so tedious.  Something about the character Bitterblue really rubbed me the wrong way (I hope this issue won’t survive into her book.) And I thought it utterly sucked that the plot put Katsa in the mothering position she had always vehemently rejected — complete with major sacrifice — even if only temporarily.

The prose was always a bit on the flat side — this made itself really obvious when I was initially listening to the audiobook, all the sentences in a row that start “she did this, she did that.” I didn’t mind when I was reading about Katsa and Po, but it failed in making the Katsa and Bitterblue sections interesting to me.

Fire on the other hand… although I didn’t find Fire and Brigan quite as brilliantly fascinating as Katsa and Po, this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever – well, listened to. I love the way Cashore sets up a fantastical situation and then really explores how it might affect a person. The moral dilemmas facing Fire are intense and not easily resolved.

The way sexuality is treated is fantastic — Fire completely owns hers, and it doesn’t control her. She has no trouble separating sex and love — or for that matter, affectionate love and romantic love. As an unwitting object of intense desire, she has clear ideas of who the right person for her would be, and she finds it in someone whose love is unselfish and not possessive. I often give YA books I’ve read to my teenaged niece, and I have no particular qualms about giving her romances, but I don’t think I’ve read a book that made me think, yes, yes, my niece must read this. All teenaged girls should read this. Make that all teenagers.

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Review: Cross My Heart by Celeste O. Norfleet

What tickled me: The Big Misunderstanding was solved in about 5 minutes

What ticked me off: IVF, WTF?

Who might like it: Readers who enjoy a down to earth fantasy.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for books by black authors that might be my style, and this has a blurb about sperm donors and possible blackmail that looked promising. As it turned out, the characters are intelligent adults, so it actually went in a much less drama-filled direction, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Movie-star David Montgomery is very upset to learn that the sperm he sold when he was broke ten years ago has been used — twice. (I found this part of the plot a little confused… surely they didn’t pay him for sperm they didn’t intend to use? I’m guessing that as soon as he got wealthy enough, he asked them not to use it — but why not just have it destroyed And what are the odds it was never used in the intervening years?) Natalia Coles has had two young sons from the same donor, using IVF. (NO! NO! NO! IVF is a very expensive and invasive treatment for infertility, damn it! You do not just walk into a clinic and have IVF! Or if you do, this world is seriously fucked up.)

Concerned that he’ll be hit up for money or blackmailed at a delicate stage in his career, David goes to see Natalia, who of course has no idea what he’s on about.  But attraction grows between them, leaving David with the sticky issue of how to tell Natalia about her sons.

This had some fantasy elements — yacht trip to the Bahamas, meet mom of two with a perfectly flat stomach –but it’s at heart a pretty sweet, cozy story. The sex scenes are over the top — I believe lava comes up at least once — but the romance made me smile. Although second in a family series, it stands alone fine.

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Semi-Reviews: Pretty Good Reads Edition

One Night With Her Best Friend by Noelle Adams

I tend to find “Friends to Lovers” stories frustrating, because of all the wangsting and passivity. Since this is quite short and only from the heroine’s point of view, it was blessedly free of most of that. It’s one of the unrequited love plots that Adams writes so well — light and quick, but nonetheless intensely passionate.

When the Marquess Met His Match by Laura Lee Gurhke

What tickled me: Goes in some unexpected directions.

What ticked me off: An uncomfortable read at times.

Who might like it: Fans of charming beta heroes.

It took me some time to warm up to this. It begins with a battle of wits, one in which significant damage is done to the hero by the heroine. Lady Belinda, a highly respectable society matchmaker, is appalled at the idea of finding a rich wife for Nicholas, the Marquess of Trubridge — she believes him to be a callous wastrel like her late husband, and she has no compunction about spiking his guns. The things that happen to poor Nicholas in this book — not all Belinda’s fault — make him seem a model of patience and sanity, which comparatively makes Belinda extremely unlikable. But the sense of growing intimacy between them was beguiling, and she does redeem herself.

Although in some ways a conventional historical romance, by the end it didn’t feel at all cookie-cutter. Nicholas is unusual for romance heroes in that although burned by love once, he puts the blame where it really belongs, rather than despising all women forevermore. And the ending was surprising and unexpectedly satisfying, nicely balancing out what had come before.

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What We've Been Reading

Reading inspiration from the HabitRPG Legendary Book Club's URC/MRC challenges.

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Olivia Dade

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