A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Married to the Viscount by Sabrina Jeffries

The theme: Series catch-up.

Why this one: I’ve owned it forever and got tired of looking at it. And it’s the last of the series, so it feels more like accomplishing something.

(Edited to add: I’ve discovered that I actually still have the previous book of the series in the TBR. How annoying is that!)

If I had to choose one phrase to sum up this book, I’d be torn between “kind of a downer” and “five pounds of plot in a ten pound sack.” The basic premise is that Abby, an American whose father recently died, arrives in London to join the charming Englishman she married by proxy. She’s horrified to realize that not only is he a pompous, controlling jerk at home, but he didn’t agree to their marriage and doesn’t want her at all. (Except for how much he wants her, of course.) But even though he’s obnoxious, he’s got that hot broody thing going on, so Abby sets out to make Spencer realize she should be his wife in truth.

There’s actually a fair bit going on in the book — de rigeur dumb mystery, Abby’s plans for her father’s medicinal business, Spencer’s tragic backstory — and yet it finds time to be dully repetitious. The interactions between Abby and Spencer never seem to get anywhere, except occasionally to making out. Which is fun to read — until Spencer uses it as a weapon. (Admittedly, Abby behaves badly too, in trying to manipulate him.) And the rest of the book is Abby being comforted and advised about Spencer by her women friends. No Bechdel test passing here.

It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it sound, for readers who enjoy wallpaper historicals. (I guess this is Georgian, but only because King George makes an appearance.) But… kind of a downer. Abby tries so hard, and continually feels so bad about herself, because Spencer refuses to tell her the real reason he won’t keep her as his wife. (He thinks he can’t have children, and his father’s refusal to have more drove his stepmother away.) The conflict is resolved rather sweetly, and though of course there’s a baby epilogue, it’s a reasonable one.

I should probably mention that Abby is half Native American. The story doesn’t do much with this, but I don’t think it’s overtly offensive either, except when Spencer makes a comment about the supposed extra sensuality of dark-skinned women.

 

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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.

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I is for In Hope’s Shadow aka S is for Shafted

In Hope’s Shadow by Janice Kay Johnson

(Minor spoilers)

This is a sequel to Yesterday’s Gone, an excellent book about an abducted, abused child who is finally found as an adult. Johnson is very good at taking “shocker” plotlines and making them into thoughtful stories that plausibly delve into the emotions of the situation. (Whose Baby, about a mother discovering her daughter was switched at birth, is also very good.)

The follow-up concerns Eve, a foster child who was adopted after Hope’s abduction, and who has always felt like a poor replacement, never truly secure in her parents love. (They aren’t entirely without blame for this, but they do love her.) Her “sister’s” return brought up a lot of jealousy, and it didn’t help that she was found by, and immediately adored by, the cop Eve had been dating. (There are hints of “Laura” — Seth fell for Hope’s age-progressed photo.) As this book opens, Eve has established a friendship with her new sibling, and her remnants of jealousy over Seth don’t survive her blossoming relationship with his gorgeous coworker, Ben.

This was a very engrossing read, and as thoughtful, in its way, as the first book. But I found it a real letdown because I felt that Eve continued to be shortchanged in her own story. Her mother never really acknowledges some of ways her grief impacted on Eve — it’s up to Eve to realize she’s been foolish and unfair.

But it’s her relationship with Ben that is really the carcinogenic cherry on top of the diet sundae. Their first dates make me think of the horrible ones a heroine might go on before meeting Mr. Right. He is constantly hurting her, in a “nice guy” way. And he is ambivalent towards her, and yearning for his e-wife, almost to the very end of the story. 

“And yeah, he felt nothing but relaxed acceptance and even anticipation about where they were heading. He’d succumbed without much of a fight, he realized, in part because he hadn’t liked the bachelor lifestyle. He had no hankering to sample a different woman a week.

Gaze resting on Eve, he smiled. He couldn’t get enough of her, in bed or out.

Only the memory of the expression on Nicole’s face shadowed his mood.”

So… he finally, more than 90% into the book, is willing to consider a future with Eve. Because being a bachelor isn’t that great. And even then, he’s still thinking about his ex.

(SPOILERS) When his wife asks if they can try again, he does reject her, but without saying a word about Eve. Instead, Eve has to say it for him:

“‘Then what did I tell Nic?’

Old fears and new collided with the sense of self-worth she had been accepting — a confidence Ben had something to do with. [How, I can’t imagine.] And… was that a smile in his voice?

‘I think — ‘ her voice cracked, but she managed to steady it ‘– you told her you were sorry, that you’re actually madly in love with this spitfire of a woman who keeps you looking beyond the obvious.’

Ben laughed, the skin crinkling beside his very blue eyes, the creases in his cheeks deepening. ‘You’re right.'”

No, actually, you’re completely wrong, because he didn’t say one word about you.  And after mooning over his ex for the whole book, he really, really needed to.

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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: 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?

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TBR Challenge: Swept Away by Candace Camp

The theme: An historical. Nothing could be easier, I still have a massive backlog.

Why this one: I was browsing in my TBR for a new C for the alphabet challenge and this caught my eye.

 

Camp has written some lovely books, but she’s derivative at times and this was one of the times. There are many Heyer echoes here, primarily from Faro’s Daughter.

Julia wants revenge on the man who drove her brother Selby to suicide, and when her attempts to abduct him fail, she decides to impersonate a woman of the night and seduce him into confessing. This is not quite as dumb a plan as it sounds, since it turns out that Deverel, Lord Stonehaven is composed mainly of honor and libido. But Julia finds him as hard to resist as he finds her, so she changes her game back to abduction, with complicated consequences.

Julia is more likable than you’d think, mitigating the usual stubborn, impetuous redheaded heroine cliches with her intelligence and self-insight. Unfortunately, she got all the personality the book had to spare, and every other character is pretty thin, including Deverel. He’s obviously a decent chap, but virtually all we see from his point of view is his lusting after Julia; all other interesting qualities are imposed upon him, as if they automatically go with the trendy/sexy hero name. I didn’t find the attempts to insert Heyer-style farce very successful, either.

It’s not terrible though, for historical reading of the easy, comfortable sort.

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Moonlight Mist by Laura London

What tickled my fancy: Evocative, funny, sensual writing.

What ticked me off: Too much Heyer influence, and pain in the butt heroine.

Who might like it: Fans of young, stubborn heroines who are always getting into scrapes. Surely there must be a few.

Most early London books have a dash of Heyer in them — probably very few traditional Regencies don’t — but this was a little more obvious than I care for, with many echoes of The Convenient Marriage. (I don’t know why that particular book has inspired so many imitations; I know of at least two others.) There’s plenty of lively, original plot and characters as well — I can’t imagine Heyer ever making her hero a reknowned poet — so it’s certainly not a total rip-off.

But its flaws are also similar: the stubborn, childish heroine is even more annoying than Heyer’s Horry and the romance is similarly on the light/off-page side. Though I’d say it’s more successful, even as I wonder how anyone could have fallen in love with the obnoxious 17-year-old Lynden, because it oozes that wonderful tension you only find in really well-written traditional Regencies from the no-sex days. Not a great story, certainly not up there with The Bad Baron’s Daughter, but entertaining enough.

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A is for Archangel’s Blade aka W is for Wangsty

NOTICE: I currently have a concussion, which might have affected my reading and/or writing about this book. Please apply copious grains of salt.

Feeling the need for a little more structure when choosing my reading, I’m stealing from joining Miss Bates in her alphabet project, and if I ever catch up to her (she’s on E) we will coordinate thereafter.

Miss Bates started with A is for Archer. I considered beginning Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews, but decided it would be better to work on a continuing series than to begin a new one.  Right now, I’m not sure I’ll be continuing with this series by Nalini Singh. After liking the first two very much, on audio, I didn’t care much for the third. I thought it was my fatigue with the continuing couple, but in this fourth book, I was really noticing weirdnesses with the writing. Some examples:

Happy? She didn’t know what happiness was anymore. Maybe she’d never know, though she thought she’d learned something of it by watching the biological children in the foster homes she’d been shuttled around after she left the orphanage at five.

Dimitri’s gaze had made it clear he appreciated her curves, that he had no problem with that fact that her natural body shape was too much of an hourglass than was currently fashionable.

It’s not the concussion, right? — these are legit hard to follow. I have no clue what “biological children” means in that sentence.

Grammar and word choice aside, I just didn’t like this book. The vaguely mysterious plotline is a complete mcguffin, just there to keep the characters mildly occupied when they’re not flashing back to the terrible, terrible events of their past. I did like that vampire hero Dimitri is the same fairly nasty character he was in the previous books, with no whitewashing, but oh did I get sick of him going over and over his angst. This is pretty much his life:

“Good morning, sir.” How can any morning be good after the horrible things I’ve done?

“Dimitri, we’re going to get some coffee, wanna come?” Oh, my beautiful wife will never drink coffee again because of those monsters.

ad nauseum.

But everyone else in the world loved this book, so don’t mind me.

 

 

 

 

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TBR Challenge: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

The theme: Series catch-up. Well, I read this one because I need to read the sequel… close enough.

What tickled me: Scarlet Pimpernel hero!

What ticked me off: There were a few missing scenes I really wanted to see.

Who might like it: Anyone who loves romance novels. The trappings may be different, but it’s all there.

I requested The Jade Temptress from NetGalley and then realized it was a sequel, so I borrowed this one from the library. How lovely to read a book primarily because it leads to another book, and then be dying to get to that next one when you finish! (I immediately bought my own copy of The Lotus Palace. Didn’t hurt that the ebook is on sale — ending today, btw.)

Yue-ying’s soul-destroying life in a brothel ended when her freedom was purchased by the famously lovely and witty courtesan Mingyu. Few notice that she is just as beautiful as her mistress, because they don’t see past the large red birthmark on her face. But the supoosedly foppish fool Lord Bai Huang notices. Yue-ying hasn’t been trained to be witty and captivating like Mingyu — she’s honest and straightforward. To Huang, she’s “clever, engaging, imperfect and intriguing,” the most real person in a life that is “no more than a layer of lacquer and paint.”

When another noted courtesan is murdered, Huang has his own reasons for becoming involved, but he also uses the situation as an excuse to get close to Yue-ying. The story is partially about the murder, a mystery very entrenched in the setting and time period, and partially about the difficulties of love between a lord and a former prostitute in that time and place.

Their first hurdle — one of many — is the fact that Yue-ying has never had sex of her own choosing, never even had a kiss she wanted. This leads to one of the most achingly painful and realistic sex scenes I’ve ever read. Yue-ying doesn’t react with overt terror, as some abused heroines do, but despite all Huang’s gentleness and care, she can’t be present.

“Her flesh pulled tight beneath his touch, her nipple peaking. Though her blood warmed, her mind remained cold. The two halves of her couldn’t find one another.”

I love that we see Huang’s point-of-view when things start going right for them — because he could tell that something was wrong — but I missed seeing Yue-ying’s as well.

Something about The Lotus Palace reminded me of favorite books I read as a teen, like those by Elizabeth Peters and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure if that’s the setting, the mystery element, or if it’s just that reading it took me back to when I was a different kind of reader, more apt to read widely and immersively. I enjoyed that nostalgia, and the skillfully crafted setting, but it was the beauty and depth of the characters and their feeling for each other that really got me. I had some trouble following the mystery — likely my own fault, because I wasn’t that interested — and the ending is perhaps happier than is really believable, but who cares when you’re swooning?

Possibly I enjoyed this all the more because I had started it like someone taking a medication — well, this probably won’t be what I like, but it’s good for me! — and found that in fact, it’s exactly what I like. A –

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Review: In the Arms of a Marquess by Katherine Ashe

What tickled me: Honest, forthright heroine. Though I’d have liked it more if everyone wasn’t always telling her how honest and forthright she is.

What ticked me off: Pretty stereotypical depiction of India and Indians. On the other hand, racism comes into the plot in an interesting way.

Who might like it: Readers looking for an undemanding Regency that isn’t frothy.

I’m not quite sure why this was on my TBR — probably because my friend Janet W gave it 4 stars. It does have one of my favorite tropes, Separated Lovers, Big Misunderstanding, but then it has a mystery element. A mystery in a Regency romance is like a roach in my pudding, but this wasn’t too bad as they go.

Ben and Tavy fell in love in India, but their relatives came between them, convincing Tavy that Ben was just playing with her and Ben that Tavy was fetishizing him because he’s half Indian. (Something that apparently happens to him quite a lot.) Seven years pass, and Tavy comes back to England with her family, expecting to make a respectable marriage. But she can’t avoid Ben, now a Marquess since the mysterious death of his family.

Tavy is very likeable. She’s kind of a lonely soul, missing her life in India terribly, and with much of her adventurous spirit tamped down by heartbreak. She’s trying to make a life for herself as best she can, and she’s not an idiot about it, for the most part. Unfortunately, this kind of emphasizes how douchey Ben is. He doesn’t do anything all that terrible by romance hero standards, but considering she was only 18 to his 23 when they fell in love, I think he could have given her some benefit of the doubt.

But there’s a lovely yearning between them. The writing is standard for this kind of story, albeit slightly odd at times, but the romance works. I’m not sure I’d ever be driven to read Ashe again, but there’s an interesting secondary character, the former fiance of Ben’s dead brother, and I might check her book out.

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What We've Been Reading

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

Something More

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Book Thingo

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Olivia Dade

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Your hypocrisy is showing

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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