A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Fall From Grace by Megan Chance

CW for book: off-page seduction of an adolescent girl, who grows up to marry the rapist’s son. Violence, injury and murder. Captivity.

The theme: After the war

Why this one: I started it last month and finally finished it.

So, I DNF’d Prairie Moon for being set in the post-Civil War South, but I finished this one, also set in the post-Civil War South. Why? I’m not exactly sure, because I was definitely slogging at first and I found it a very rough read overall. Megan Chance is particularly good at complex characters and situations, though, so I guess I hoped I’d be rewarded. I guess I was?

An important point for the book is that it doesn’t glorify the Southern side. (To be fair, I don’t know that Prairie Moon did. What I saw when I skimmed was basically talk about “very fine people on both sides.” Nope.) The one character who does glorify it is Josie, a naive young woman who’s been brought up to idealize her outlaw family for stickin’ it to the Yankee Man. The truth, that her father, brother, and sister-in-law are all ruthless thieves and murderers gradually becomes clear to her.

No, Josie isn’t our main character. Two of the aforementioned thieves and murderers are.

The story begins with Texas Sharpe in pursuit of his errant wife. A job went bad, he got shot, his father and another member of the Sharpe gang are in jail, and it’s all because someone squealed–most probably Lily. When he finds her, she’s overjoyed to learn he’s still alive. Or is she?

No wait, that’s not really where the story begins. It’s with the murder of Lily’s Yankee parents during a stagecoach robbery. Feeling delicate about killing young Lily, the gang takes her home to their leader Hank, a fascinating portrayal of monstrous egoism and ruthlessness clothed in piety. Lily literally sings for her life and Hank decides to keep her. And use her.

There couldn’t be more contrast between Lily and Hank’s daughter Josie, who was protected from knowing the truth about her family and destined for a respectable marriage. And it naturally galls her:

“Just tell me something, Texas,” she said, and the pain from yesterday came back, the bitterness she’d felt whenever she looked at Josie and Hank together, only know she understood it. Now she could put words to it. “Tell me why. Why did Hank decided to make me an outlaw? What did he see in me? He could have made me into Josie. Why–why did he make me this instead?”

Instead of a cherished daughter, Hank made Lily part of the gang, asserted his power by having sex with her when she was twelve and then breaking her heart (all very deliberately, when his son Texas expressed a liking for her,) and molded her into a ruthless outlaw. Lily yearns to escape what she’s become, and when she first runs away, it’s towards a dream of a normal life. But she comes to believe that for someone with her terrible past, it could never be more than a dream.

I tend to love books in which two scoundrels wind up together, having to fight against their bad instincts and trust issues — Crooked Hearts by Patricia Gaffney is a great example — but this is much bleaker than usual. The stakes are particularly high: everyone’s lives are genuinely in danger, and no one can really be trusted. Except… no matter what, Travis truly loves Lily, and can’t seem to stop.

Though Lily had the benefit of a loving family as a child, that foundation didn’t stay with her. She has no idea how to love, or even how to recognize love, until it’s almost too late. Texas feels equally warped, equally loathsome for his crimes, but he does know how to love. (Maybe having a mother and sister living outside the gang helped.) It’s a very hard road for these two, and they just barely get there — so just barely, some find it hard to consider this a romance. Perhaps there’s no way they could have a standard romance, but they do find something. And that makes the book ultimately rather beautiful, in its way.

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TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth

CW: slut-shaming, violence against women

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: What, you’re not comforted by bananapants drama about nasty men and the women who love them anyway? How about very short books?

Ghost of the Past may be the winner of the Wackiest Sentence Ever Uttered in a Romance award. We’re only a few pages in and our hero Alex has just slapped our heroine Ginny:

Then he stood back, his body shaking, his hands clenched tightly, fighting for control. ‘Dear God! The first time I’ve ever hit a woman and it has to be a little slut like you.’

All I can think is, “what nice, pure woman were you saving it for, then?”

Alex is a typical sexist, unreasonably jealous HP hero but interestingly enough, if this story was an “Am I the Asshole Post” it would probably be voted ESH — everybody sucks here. The ways in which the two primary women in his life messed with him and each other is laughably awful. Yet oddly enough, the actual story is fairly down-to-earth — the wackery is largely in the past.

Summing up, both Ginny and her identical twin sister Venetia fell in love with Alex, and literally tossed a coin to see who could have him. Ginny lost, and left to become a well known model. When the story begins, Venetia has died and left her home to Ginny, which brings her back into Alex’s sphere. She still loves him, and he has feelings for her as well… but how can you manage a relationship with someone who was in love with someone exactly like you?

This is not a good twin//bad twin story, which was a little disappointing at first. Ginny and Venetia were very close and had that mystical “twin bond” writers adore. A man came between them, but never destroyed that bond. I wound up liking that choice, despite my love of a juicy good sister/bad sister story. Ginny isn’t going to win Alex’s love just because Venetia was really a bad person.

But Wentworth set herself quite a challenge here, and I’m not sure she met it. The fact that Ginny and Venetia were constantly Patty Duke-ing Alex in the past makes his claim that he always loved Ginny too seem pretty weak. How do Alex and Ginny get past their issues? By literally duking it out. They have a drag out fight, which of course turns into sex, and… that’s it. Problems solved.

And there’s very little compensation for all Alex put Ginny through, and how much she had to be the one in pursuit, dealing with his ever-mixing emotions. Overall, a letdown in the catharsis department.

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