A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Demon Count’s Daughter by Anne Stuart

The theme: Getaway

Why this one: I’m trying to catch up with my favorite authors. Also, it’s nice and thin.

I expected this to be more of a traditional gothic — and perhaps it is; I don’t really know all that much about them. Certainly the heroine is young and innocent, and going to a decaying, mysterious sorta-castle, but she’s by no means destitute or friendless. She is, as the title suggests, the daughter of the hero of a previous book, and has grown up with plenty of love, wealth and freedom. Her visit to her father’s estate in Austrian-controlled Italy (1864) is supposed to be simple tourism, but actually she’s on a lookout for hidden papers that must be destroyed.

The other way in which this differs from the gothic of my imagination — there’s sex! Not a tremendous amount but you can see the Stuart that would later appear.

It’s very much a sequel and I haven’t read the first book, so that was a bit of a drawback. But the plot is extremely thin anyway, so it doesn’t matter all that much. Luciana goes to Italy in search of a mcguffin important papers, instantly falls in love with a much older and quite bitter divorced man, and spends the rest of the book being rescued from danger by him or trying to get him to love her. She narrates, which is kind of a drawback, because we don’t really get input into Evan’s feelings, or why he acts the way he does. At one point he says, “Lucy, I am too old for these romantic misunderstandings.” Well, why can’t you be forthright then? Why make it so very easy to be misunderstood?

There’s good dialogue, and some fun interactions with Lucy’s maid/companion, an unabashedly lusty wench with an eye for anything in trousers, and her male counterpart, “Venice’s very finest gigolo.” The main drawback, other than the almost pointless plot, is some bare bones, almost unfinished-feeling prose. Action scenes are awkward, and there often seems to be a connecting sentence or two missing. I didn’t always have a good sense of where Lucy was or how she got there.

But honestly, I’m not all that fussy these days. it was an entertaining enough, quick read, and if you like this sort of thing or like Stuart, it’s worth a try.

 

CW for book: violence and attempted assault (not by the hero), and some ick factor involving the hero’s child.

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TBR Challenge: The Legacy by T.J. Bennett

The theme: I’m off-theme again. Somebody stop me!

Why this one: It also fits a Geographical challenge I’m doing.

CN for the book: abuse, sexual violence, and implied rape

 

It’s nice to read a historical that’s been on my TBR for far too long and not feel regret about how much more I might once have enjoyed it. Although not as timeless as an old Carla Kelly, The Legacy is still quite my cup of tea. 

Set in Medieval Germany during the Protestant reformation, it’s a romance between Sabina, who recently escaped from a nunnery with the help of Martin Luther, and Wolf, the prosperous owner of a print shop. Both have been blackmailed into marriage by her adoptive father, Baron von Ziegler. (There’s a cross-class element here, but it’s not particularly important to the story.)

Although wanting to be cold to the wife forced on him, Wolf is aghast to realize how badly the Baron has mistreated her, and attracted in spite of himself. But two things stop him from commiting to the marriage: his guilt over having feelings for another, after the death of his beloved first wife, and his guilt over having to take Sabina’s legacy from her mother, which she dreams of using to help vulnerable children and women like herself. Sabina doesn’t know whether to be angrier about losing her dream, or about Wolf’s refusal to let her in.

The theme of legacy resounds throughout the book. At one point, Sabina tells Wolf the most traumatic secret of her past, that her older brother was murdered trying to save her from sexual assault. Their father blamed her for the death and hated her thereafter, and she’s hated herself as well.

“Your brother was a hero, Sabina, not a sacrifice. Don’t let that devil take that away from you… It was his choice, Sabina. No one forced it upon him. He did it because he thought you were worthy of being saved. That is his legacy to you. Don’t ignore it. Don’t throw it away, because  if you do, he really will have died in vain.”

The Baron’s legacy of cruelty rebounds on him, when Sabina chooses not to be forgiving. And in the end, Sabina helps Wolf with his own ugly secrets: “Neither of us is responsible for the sins of our fathers. Let the legacy of guilt and shame die with them today.”

Well researched history is nicely woven into the plot, and Wolf manages to seem true to the time while being essentially a decent man. Sabina is admirably strong, with her basically feminist views given appropriate historical roots. And… there’s just the sort of angst I like.

Sadly, Bennett seems to have either stopped writing, or perhaps is writing under a different name. Does anyone know?

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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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TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

Why this one: I’ve been reading a lot of European-set historicals and felt like some Americana.

This author is not only new to me, but I don’t think I’ve heard her mentioned before, so I expected this to be pretty forgettable. While not great, it was lively story that kept me interested until the last fourth. Since it’s almost 400 pages, that’s a reasonable amount of interest, though it really did drag at the end.

After the last of her family dies, twenty-nine year old Isabel Forester impulsively decides to take a teaching position out west. She doesn’t expect much more than a change of scene. But when she arrives in Bittercreek, Texas, she’s amazed to find that she’s no longer considered a plain, superfluous old maid but a desirable woman every bachelor in town wants. Unfortunately, the only one to catch her eye is Eben, a taciturn blacksmith who reportedly adored his late wife so much he’ll never marry again.

This is a fun plot reminiscent of several favorite old movies — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Harvey Girls”… and another I won’t mention, since it would be a spoiler. The setting is well realized, with a strong cast of supporting characters; I enjoyed the wooing hijinks, and the antics of Isabel’s students– likeable in the style of the Avonlea stories. Then the book went into romantic gear, with Eben trying to woo Isabel and doing everything wrong, romance-hero style. There’s some effective tension, and nice sensuality — Eben the blacksmith is quite good with his hands! But the push and pull between them went on way too long, and a whole bunch of extra plot at the end didn’t help my exhausted feeling.

Though I wish it had been shorter, it was a nicely immersive historical and felt like it offered more than just the romance.

7 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Sound of Snow by Katherine Kingsley

The theme: Kickin’ It Old Skool. Wendy defines this as “published more than 10 years ago” but to me, Old Skool means a nice fat historical with an ugly cover. This was published in 1999, so isn’t in prime old school territory, but the plot is kind of a mix of Violet Fire by Jo Goodman and Light And Shadow by Lisa Gregory (both read last April) so it has some roots.

Why This One: I own literally hundreds of possibilities for this theme, but really was not in the mood for sweeping stories of lover’s betrayal during wars. This Regency romance seemed pretty cozy. As it turned out, I might have been happier with a rapey hero and a long sea voyage.

The first part of the book is pleasant enough, albeit bland. The loss of her parents sent Joanna to live with her aunt and uncle, who were none too happy about the arrangement. Fortunately, Joanna had her younger cousin Lydia to dote on. When faced with a forced marriage to a man she loathed, Joanna escaped to Italy, but she and Lydia kept up a correspondence.

Six years later, a now-widowed Joanna returns to England after hearing of Lydia’s death. She’s heard all about how terrible Lydia’s husband is, and what a dreadful father to their son — and indeed, young Miles is in a state of great emotional disturbance. But Guy is by no means the villain Joanna expected, and he’s a very attractive man.

I doubt any reader is really surprised to learn that Lydia was not the basically good-hearted person Joanna thought she was. There are other non-surprising surprises to come.

Joanna using affection and art therapy to help Miles get over his trauma, and Guy and Joanna falling in love was, again, pleasant if bland. The second half of the story was where I started to wish this book had gotten lost behind a cabinet. Joanna is adored by absolutely everyone, and she gets away with some terrible behavior — forcing Guy to tell her his horror story from the war, for one thing, and then later lying to him about something he specifically tells her is very important to him, for his own good.

And then there’s the resolution of the plot. The Sound of Snow reads somewhat like an inspirational romance (though one with steamy pre-marital sex.) God and religion are very important to Joanna and become important to Guy. And religious themes are used here is a way that made me wish I’d read it while fasting. The characters act in a really callous manner, but it’s all part of God’s plan and there’s even a freakin’ heavenly visitation to show just how okay God is with everything that happens.

Perhaps if I’d been more in charity with the book as a whole, I wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to the end, but it felt ten kinds of wrong to me. On the bright side, I own at least three more Kingsley books, so the TBR will now be much reduced.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read: #4

Harlequin Present #4: The Pleasure and the Pain by Anne Matherpleasure

 

Best line: “I do not think there is any need for this — this Spanish Inquisition!”

Notes of interest: Still no sex, but non-virgin alert! The main characters had been lovers five years previously, then he married someone else.

This was weirdly similar to book #3 — governess in Spain instead of governess in Portugal, naughty ex-wife, naughty other man, naughty other woman. This time it’s a reunion story, which may be why I liked it a bit more, although heroine Laura could be quite a stubborn twit. I also liked that we see some emotion coming from Raphael before the very end. I wound up feeling rather sorry for him — Laura inserts herself into his life without his knowledge or permission, and then proceeds to ignore his obvious discomfort/anguish. Of course, he doesn’t explain anything to her — and when the truth comes out, it is quite a bit of nonsense, involving family curses — but she still came off as pretty heartless.

I recognize this cover, but don’t remember if I read it.

 

 

 

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