A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

The theme: Old School (book ten+ years old. That no longer feels very old…)

Why this one: I usually prefer going really Old Skool for Old School month, but this book was being discussed on Twitter and I felt like reading it. It actually has quite an old skool blurb and starts off with a divorced hero who’s very cynical about women, but that doesn’t last past his first laying eyes on the heroine.

(Incidentally, there’s a nasty flu epidemic in this story, so it was not great timing.)

 

Six months after burying the husband she nursed for years, Roxanna Drew is starting to feel ready to live again. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law’s idea of taking care of her and her two young daughters is to insist that they live with him, where he can offer her “the comfort of a husband” she’s been missing. Desperate to escape a pressure she might be tempted to give in to, Roxanna impulsively rents the dilapidated dower house of a titled neighbor she’s never met.

Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, wouldn’t seem to be a great knight errant for this damsel in distress. Not only did he shoot a friend he found in bed with his wife — apparently getting him in a very sensitive spot — and feel no remorse about it, but he also divorced his wife in extremely ungentlemanly fashion, calling on all her lovers to testify. I’m not sure how to feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s cruel; on the other hand, she was pretty terrible. By the lights of the book, we’re not supposed to think particularly badly of him.

In any event, this hardened cynical lord is soon turned into a bowl of mush by Roxanna’s adorable children and her adorable self. As usual with Kelly, the development of the relationship (relationships in this case) is sweet and disarming in its swift intimacy; her characters are always old friends who just met. In Roxanna’s case, missing “the comfort of a husband” is definitely a factor. Here she cleans up after the stranded Lord Winn has spent the night (alone) in her bed:

She made her bed, noting the indentation of Lord Winn’s head on the empty pillow next to hers. I wonder if men have an instinct about these things? she thought as she fluffed her pillow and straightened the blankets. After Helen was born, she had claimed the side of the bed closest to the door, so she could be up quickly in the night. She started to fluff his pillow but changed her mind. She traced her finger over the indentation, then pulled the bedspread over both pillows. I really should change the sheets, she thought, but knew she would not.

Kelly’s books are known for being “clean,” but there’s some powerful sexual tension in this story. It wasn’t that usual when this was published for a romance about a widow to be so honest about her needs; it’s one of the charms of the book, along with Fletcher’s unexpected vulnerability, and the beautifully drawn children — the younger lively and mischievous, the older sadly quiet and matured by her father’s death.

I didn’t love everything: Fletcher’s past is unpleasant, and the plot meanders its way to a truly ridiculous Big Misunderstanding. There’s certainly adventure and drama enough without throwing that in. And then there’s Fletcher pushing Roxanna to forgive her brother-in-law, whose redemption could have used more work. But I was very drawn into this story about a woman trying to “play her hand,” no matter what terrible cards life dealt her, and glad that she finally got to put down… let’s call it a full house.

7 Comments »

TBR Challenge: After All These Years by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The theme: friends

Why this one: Picked for a “midwest” challenge.

CW for book: Technical adultery, angst-free all around.

 

I’m afraid I can’t do this book justice now, since I finished it over a month ago. (forgive a brief pity-party, but you would not believe how complicated things get when a disabled child turns eighteen.) But in short, I loved this down-to-earth story. It very much fits the theme because Curry, Tom and Huck were the closest of friends all their lives, with a blood pact to always be straight with one another.

Curry and Huck got married, then Huck died in Vietnam, leaving her with another Huck to raise. Tom also fought, was injured in body and mind, and has little relationship with his wife and daughter. But this isn’t the standard “his friend got there first and he’s been pining ever since” story. Part of the story’s realistic charm is that its very straightforward about teens and their hormone-driven behavior, especially when living in a very small town with little to divert them. Tom and Curry started dating first, Tom pushed way too hard, and Curry kicked him to the curb. They both moved on.

Curry is just the best. She’s very much an adult: capable, empathetic, and so honest and true to herself. Tom, though over his pushy teen self, is pretty messed up, but learns that he can be a good partner and father.

It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much in my all-romance-angst-all-the-time days, but hey, how nice is it that some old books are better now, for a change?

3 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Trysting Place by Mary Balogh

Note: The surprises in this story are so obvious and mild, I’m not bothering with spoilers. 

 

The Theme: An author with more than one book in your TBR.

Why This One: In today’s world, might as well eat dessert first. Though all my saved Baloghs seem to be lesser ones.

I found the heroine of The Trysting Place challenging. She’s not obviously dislikeable in the antagonistic and self-sabotaging way of some Balogh heroines, but she really got up my nose somehow.

As the story opens, Felicity is just out of mourning for the elderly husband she had married out of duty, despite having been passionately in love with her childhood friend Tom. And a marriage of convenience — her family’s convenience, largely — has not taught her to value love and passion more. Rather, she’s eager to now enjoy herself as a wealthy widow in the ton, and grateful that she didn’t have those six children she and Tom had once planned together.

I really shouldn’t hate Felicity for this and yet I kinda do. Perhaps especially because she’s completely oblivious to the fact that her good friend Tom is still deeply in love with her, and she uses him for her own selfish ends. Which are to make a rakish lord so jealous he’ll give up his arranged engagement and marry her instead.

I’m making Felicity sound worse than she is, which might be because there really doesn’t seem to be that much to her. She’s beautiful, cultured but naive, loves her family, and does her best for them. But girls just wanna have (respectable, married) fun. The stakes just aren’t very high, or very interesting, at least for much of the book.

Tom’s point of view makes the story more compelling, because although he’ll do just about anything for Felicity, he recognizes some of the childish flaws in her way of thinking. And Felicity’s growing awareness of her own foolishness, largely through seeing the far more mature romantic choices of her much younger twin sisters, makes a nice enough redemption — except she then goes on to behave so much more foolishly, I didn’t know whether she needed a smack or an “oh, honey.”

I happened across a quote from Balogh that said writing this book was like wading through molasses. It shows.

Leave a comment »

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.

Leave a comment »

TBR Challenge: A Dangerous Man by Candace Camp

The theme: A historical romance.

Why this one?: I’d like to say it was for biting social commentary, but I literally picked the first book off one of my many piles.

I almost gave up Candace Camp forever after reading Suddenly, a mediocre rip-off of Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage. It’s perhaps inevitable that she would also have had a stab at Faro’s Daughter — those two seem to be Heyer’s most imitated books — but in this case, that was more of a jumping off point; there’s quite a different plot and characters. Although not up to Camp’s most powerful work, it turned out to be a undemanding, entertaining read… just the sort of easily digested story I needed right now.

Anthony, Lord Neale, is really not looking forward to having to meet with his nephew’s widow, Eleanor. The first time he saw her — a failed attempt to buy her off — his attraction was immediate and unsettling. But his sister Honoria insists there was something sinister about her son’s death, so Anthony is forced to investigate. Oddly enough, his silly, selfish sister is not wrong.

My favorite part of the book was Eleanor. Although in some ways a historical heroine cliche — philanthropic, open-minded, fiercely protected by her devoted servants, and… something else I won’t mention, but which you’ll likely quickly guess — she’s also a smart, independent person. And it’s not just that everyone says she is — she actually is. Anthony is less distinctive, but a perfectly adequate hero, and there’s good chemistry between them.

There’s a mystery involved that’s pretty well done, and a satisfactory secondary cast, including several POC (albeit in small roles.) My biggest complaint is how many things are left hanging. The hero is cynical about beautiful women because of something dark in his family’s past that is only alluded to, never explained. A secondary romance is started and then the characters are sent off to safety, never to be heard from again. No one even mentions the potential scandal/weirdness of a man marrying his nephew’s widow. And the relationship is shafted by the mystery.

It certainly could have been a better book. But as a way to pass time that is extremely hard to pass right now, it made me happy.

9 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.

13 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie by Jennifer Ashley

The theme: a hyped book. And how.

Why this one: I looked up the narrator of the “Psy-Changeling” books, Angela Dawe, and was happy to see she also narrated this one, another sad half-read book still lurking in my TBR. I was much less happy that she uses an upper crust British accent, my bete noir, but she gives Ian a hot Scottish burr, so I was able to stick with it. Also, Mean Fat Old Bat really liked the book, so I figured it must have hidden depths.

I’m trying to remember why I bogged down in this one before. I think my excitement over the first autistic hero in romance was dashed by him being still so romance-hero-y in so many ways. So rich, so hot, so good in bed, so immune to any sensory issues around sex. (And Ian tells Beth he can never love her — it annoys me that’s supposed to be about autism, when it’s such a romance cliche.) I also DNF’d the sequel, and concluded that Ashley is a commonplace kind of writer.

Having finished the book I can now see some of its strengths. The family bonds between Ian and his brothers are powerful but complex. The plot and backstory are interesting. Beth is intelligent, capable and witty, and I appreciated that she had previously had a loving marriage with good sexy-times. (These are particularly rare in historical romance; having now listened to several more of this series, I suspect that the vividly drawn heroines and conspicuous lack of classic wide-eyed virgins is a strong draw for many readers.)

I also feel more able to rationalize away the aspects I don’t like. If you want to write a popular romance, there are certain heroic aspects it’s hard not to include, like abs and sexual prowess. Ian is remarkably articulate about his issues, far more than I’d expect from someone who not only never received any kind of help or understanding, but was actually locked away in a madhouse and given shock treatments — but better that he talks about them himself than someone else doing it, or the author info dumping.

I still find it annoying that Ian is a mathematical savant with an eidetic memory. I remember another mom of an autistic boy telling me how stressful it was that everyone assumed her kid must be super smart, when he was average. Savants are pretty damn rare — if eidetic memory even exists — and it’s such a cliche. It makes Ian useful to his brothers… but couldn’t they just love him for himself? And speaking of that, I’m not really sure just why Beth loves him. I’m guessing it’s his protectiveness combined with his sexy air of mystery, but I’m kind of extrapolating from my own experience there.

Ultimately, I’m still disappointed that Ian feels more like a product of research than a recognizable person. I’ve read a number of romances featuring autistic characters — the lovely Water Bound by Christine Feehan, An Heir of Uncertainty by Alyssa Everett, Phoenix Inheritance by Corinna Lawson — and I could feel in those portrayals that the author really knew and loved an autistic person. I may be completely wrong, but I just didn’t feel that here. Still, the author has a way with characters and some interesting themes… and who could help but adore Ian’s eventual discussion about love with Beth?

4 Comments »

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.

 

2 Comments »

The 12 Stress Free Days of Christmas? Day 2

Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh.

What tickled my fancy: unexpectedly interesting plot

What ticked me off: tic tic tic

Who might like it: Those fond of Balogh’s quieter stories.

I’ve written elsewhere about how tired I am of Balogh’s writing tics, and they’re still here in all their fine array. However, I find I can … not ignore them, but not let them bother me too much, if the book is otherwise interesting. This one didn’t seem worth the trouble at first, but I liked the hero’s vulnerability — head injuries have left him with memory blanks and some trouble speaking — and then the story went down some unexpected paths. I’m not sure how plausible it is that a hero with Flava Flav Flavian’s history would be of the cool, witty type, but eh.

The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare and various.

Finished up the stories I hadn’t already read.  The quality of the stories varies widely, but they’re interesting if you like the world/characters. (Which I do.)

Gone But Not Forgotten by Sabrina Jeffries

Not a romance, but a very short story in a small town series. I have no interest at all in the series and kind of skimmed this, but I enjoyed how the author made a fairly severely autistic boy into a hero. (In the traditional sense.)

A Case of Possession by KJ Charles

“There was a fractional moment of total stillness. Then the rats came.”

EEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

Possibly even creepier than the first in the series: Rodents Of Unusual Size! I’m not sure how much more my heart can take. On the bright side, also more romantic.

Interlude with Tattoos by KJ Charles

Cute short vignette from the “Charm of Magpie” series. I read it in the wrong order, but it doesn’t matter much.

Leave a comment »

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.

6 Comments »

What We've Been Reading

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

Something More

my extensive reading

Blue Castle Considerations

thoughtations, contemplations, fulminations & other random things from books...

...Burns Through Her Bookshelf

Voracious reader, book lover, intermittant blogger, audiologist. These things are some of me, but not the sum of me.

Cate Marsden.

Love and Zombies. And books. And infrequent updates.

Book Thingo

Reading (mostly) romance books down under

Shallowreader

...barely skimming the surface

Olivia Dade

Bawdy romcoms with a big ♥.

Flight into Fantasy

Reviews, book thoughts and opinions of one omnivorous reader.

Her Hands, My Hands

The vagaries of my mind, the products of my hands. Not always safe for work.

dabwaha

64 books. 1 Champion. Get your game on.

Stop the STGRB Bullies

Your hypocrisy is showing

Blue Moon

Audiobook reviews and book reviews. Occasional opining.

Miss Bates Reads Romance

“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman..." Emma, Jane Austen