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Willaful Review: Painted by the Sun by Elizabeth Grayson (TBR Challenge)


Sensuality rating: Steamy

The Challenge: Read a book by a “New To Me” author.

To find a book for this challenge, I  checked out my print TBR, sorted by oldest received. It was an eye-opening experience. Book after book — more than 50 — by authors whom I’ve glommed, many I’d consider favorites. And I’ve owned these books for years.

It helped me get tough when I finally got to the NTM authors. Was this someone I wanted to spend time on, time I could be spending on unread Jo Goodman or Laura Kinsale books? I almost always go through a few culls before settling on my final TBR challenge book, but this time, I got rid of 7 books first. My most effective TBR challenge month so far!

Painted by the Sun managed to catch my restless attention with an unusual premise: the heroine is searching for her missing child, who was sent away on an “orphan train”  ten years previously. I’ve read many children’s books about the orphan trains, but I think this is the first time I’ve encountered them in a romance.  The premise is also interesting because Shea is working as a traveling photographer, a complex profession in 1875. The title comes from a quote by Ambrose Bierce: “Photography is a picture painted by the sun.”

While trying to take a picture of a hanging, Shea fall afoul of Judge Cameron Gallimore, a man who’s pretty sick of having to sentence people to death. He puts her camera — and her — into temporary custody. At first Shea is heartsick over the missed financial opportunity, but then comes around to the judge’s point of view: “she didn’t want to be able to make hundreds of copies of what she had seen, or relive what happened every time she did. She didn’t want to implant that image in anyone else’s mind…. She was a photographer, a business woman, not a mercenary. She was proud of what she did, and she would never have been able to be proud of this.”

Shea and Cameron next meet under even more fraught circumstances, when she saves him from men trying to take revenge for their friend’s death, and is badly wounded in the process. After Cam takes her home to be nursed by his housebound sister Lily,  Shea comes to care for the whole family and deeply envies their close bonds — especially with Cam’s ten year old son, Rand.

I can’t talk much more about the plot without spoilers, but I will say it’s very heavy in coincidences; by the middle of the book, the implausibility of it all was getting exasperating. By the end however, the threads had all been woven together with surprising delicacy, and I was once again charmed as I was at the beginning.

There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in this story; every character has at least one source of major angst in their life, much of it centered around the Civil War. It’s a surprisingly easy, flowing read, but I think that’s partially because many of the angsty plot points get shortchanged.  The slow-growing romance is very tender and supportive, and the various child characters tugged effectively at my heartstrings,  but overall I don’t think it quite reached its potential. I’m giving it 3 1/2 stars; it’s out of print but available through paperbackswap.com or you can buy it used here.

Published by Bantam Books. Review copy owned by me for so long, I don’t remember how I got it.

Got My Mojo Shrinking

Got My Mojo Shrinking

Sunday, April 7, 2013
Posted in: willaful



About two weeks ago, GoodReads announced they had been swallowed bought by Amazon, and I’ve haven’t written anything worth calling a review since. Even an exceptionally good book (Big Boy by Ruthie Knox) just got a short paragraph out of me. I’ve dried up.

My feelings are confused, not particularly logical, and definitely hypocritical. I buy stuff from Amazon, more than I want to, because it’s so freakin’ convenient and their customer service is so good. I don’t usually buy ebooks from them, because I prefer to support the standard epub format, but I’ll give in to a good sale. I’ve even left the occasional review.

But — and it’s a big but — I use a different name there, and I don’t usually review books. And I couldn’t even tell you why, exactly, except that I don’t like their reviewing culture, and I don’t like their untrustworthy reviews, and I just don’t want to be a part of it.

And now I’m a part of it whether I like it or not. Unless I give up all the benefits GoodReads has brought into my life.

I’m just depressed as hell, and who can write reviews when they’re depressed? I can’t even get up the energy to make corrections on GoodReads anymore. So there are typos and spelling errors, who cares… it’s not my home anymore, I don’t need to keep it tidy. (I suspect I’m not the only person feeling this way, since I seem to see more errors than I used to. And though only one of my friends has officially left the site, my updates feed has slowed down, too.)

GoodReads had a unique spirit. People could say what they wanted to say, rate how they wanted to rate. It was all about the users and how they wanted to use the site. That’s spirit has been eroding for quite a while now, and there’s little doubt it will erode further.

But I can’t say this is about just one thing. It’s partially rage that unpaid librarians did so much work for nothing. It’s partially fear of change. It’s partially not wanting words that I’ve poured my heart and soul into to be out there for Amazon to use as they will in their quest for world domination.  I recognize that I get something from GoodReads in return for the content I provide, and that it should be a fair exchange. But it doesn’t feel like a fair exchange any more.

Really, there’s no point in even trying to find the right words, the right reason. I just don’t have it in me to review books right now. And maybe it’ll come back, and maybe it won’t.

Willaful Review: Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl

handleSensuality rating: On the tamer end of Torrid

Merry is happy to have found a job in Wyoming, near her closest friend, Grace. And after years of fruitlessly trying to find her niche, it’s also work she loves — turning a ghost town into a destination of historic interest. She’s crushed to discover that there’s a legal dispute over the project’s funding, and that she was hired mainly as a cheap interim measure, with no real power to do anything.

Desperate to make the restoration of Providence succeed, Merry covertly asks her neighbor Shane to repair the town’s buildings. Shane agrees, without telling Merry that he is the one disputing the funding; it’ll let him keep an eye on what’s going on, and perhaps help him stop the project he despises.  But as they get to know each other, Shane finds himself drawn to Merry’s enthusiasm, appreciation for domestic history… and wide, smiling mouth.  Against their better judgement they wind up in bed together, leaving Shane with a big problem: “Why the hell did her greatest passion have to be the one thing he couldn’t support?”

I had trouble getting into this at first — Merry seemed like such a sad sack, and Shane started out so cold. But Shane heats up very nicely, gradually noticing Merry’s attractive qualities — first her sweet round face and wide mouth, leading into her cleavage. This makes Merry come across as attractive in a believably ordinary sort of way. She thinks of herself as big and awkward, wears mostly funny t-shirts, and has no idea how to fix herself up, telling Grace, “When I put eyeliner on, I look like a five-year-old playing dress up. Or an eighty-year-old alcoholic trying to recapture her glory days.”  Even with Grace’s expert help, she knows that “[her] liner would be smudged and smeared within an hour. Her body rejected any transplants of prettiness.” That rang so true for me, and I enjoyed seeing her more subtle prettiness come through for Shane.

And Merry’s character turns around completely, the desperate, needy, unfocused woman who thinks, “I’m not even geeky enough to be good at being a sci-fi geek” (oh, I relate!) revealing herself to be strong in an unusual and striking way.  Merry’s life has been hard and it’s tempered her, because she’s refused to let it break her. By the end of the book, I admired her tremendously.

The depiction of Merry’s mother also stood out for me. The “hippie mom” is such an annoying stereotype, usually floating around wearing patchouli and sensing auras. Merry’s hippie mom wasn’t all that different from any other young single mom who struggled financially, did her best, and is now pretty much like any other middle aged mom. (With one minor exception which I won’t spoil.) Believably, she has a lot of sadness over Merry’s less than ideal childhood: “I wish I could’ve given you that when you were a little girl. A nuclear family. The American dream.”

As you can probably tell, the book hit me in a very personal way, which might not translate to other readers.  And Shane’s backstory and journey don’t have the authenticity and surprise of Merry’s, going in a predictable direction.  I liked the rest of the book so much I’m not really grading down for that, and give it 4 stars.

This is the second in a series, not counting several novellas; Grace and Cole from Close Enough to Touch are featured characters, but I think it would stand alone just fine.  You can buy it here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy provided by netgalley.

Willaful Review: A Most Unconventional Match by Julia Justiss

matchSensuality rating: Steamy

A huge, inarticulate guy who’s shy with women — how could I not want to read more about Hal Waterman, after he was introduced in The Wedding Gamble?

Hal is instantly smitten with his best friend Nicky’s new sister-in-law, Elizabeth — which is why he instantly runs. The son of a noted ton beauty, he has no interest in having yet another selfish, demanding woman in his life. Besides, such an exquisite woman could never be interested in a big lout like him.

But when Elizabeth is widowed seven years later, at a time when Nicky’s entire family is abroad, Hall feels obligated to offer his assistance.  He finds her sorely in need of help, since she’s been cherished and protected her entire married life — including being protected from the fact that her husband was terrible at managing money. Hal takes on the role of helpful family friend while sternly admonishing himself not to consider being anything more. He has no idea that Elizabeth’s artist’s eye is fascinated by his unfashionably muscular body and handsome profile.

This book is all about the characters — in fact, every time the plot seems to be going to a possibly exciting or scary place, the issue is resolved fairly quickly.  Being an angst-whore, I thought that a bit of a shame, but it’s a charming story regardless, because Hal and Elizabeth are worthy characters going through interesting changes.

Everything we see about Hal shows how intelligent, competent and admirable he is — including a touching scene in which his warmhearted mistress urges him to leave her and follow his heart, despite the fact that she obviously adores him. Trust Hal to have a sweet, genuine mistress! (And I wish the poor woman had her own happy ending.) Hal might seem almost too perfect if it weren’t for his genuine trouble with speaking. Because of a childhood stutter, he’s learned to concentrate on the most important idea he’s trying to convey; his elliptical speech drops most articles and pronouns in a way that can make him appear cloddish. He’s also generally at a loss in an argument, because his brain outruns his ability to speak.

Elizabeth’s character is also sympathetic — she’s not a fool, but she’s been sheltered for so long, she has trouble finding her feet and knowing who to trust.  One of the lovely things about the story is that though Hal is only to happy to advise and protect Elizabeth, he also respects her talent and encourages her to live a life beyond being a proper, helpless lady. Elizabeth blossoms to the point that, in the end, she seduces him — pretending to want to paint him, she persuades him to strip. I was charmed by how the ladylike Elizabeth is so entranced by Hal’s body, she can’t stop herself from staring and touching. It also shows how she’s gained confidence in her ability to make decisions, and learned to trust her own feelings.

My gut is sort of leaning towards a 3 1/2 rating for this because of the overall lack of tension, but I’m going with a 4 because it’s unusual and thematically interesting.  It’s no longer in print but easy to find used, or you can buy it for Kindle here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy purchased by me.

Willaful Review: Silent Scream by Karen Rose (TBR challenge)

screamSensuality Rating: Steamy

The TBR challenge theme this month is a book in an unfinished series. I DNF’d this a few years ago, and honestly was just going to move on, but it turned out that the next Rose book I have to read follow-ups the events in this one. (Or so I thought. Paige actually doesn’t play that large a role here. Oh well, it’s read now.)

Silent Scream is romantic suspense, and the romance aspect has an interesting premise. In previous books, firefighter David Hunter has always seemed like the world’s most perfect man: giving, compassionate, heroic, as well as pretty as all get out. Here we discover why he’s so conspicuously awesome: he’s been doing penance for half his life, trying to make up for one night’s tragic, careless selfishness. The guilt he feels, along with that from another painful (though less tragic) mistake, has kept him from following up on a night spent with homicide detective Olivia Sutherland two years previously.  Olivia believes she means nothing to him, and because of painful events in her past, she’s disinclined to give him another shot.  But a complicated case involving arson and multiple murder gives them a new opportunity to find each other.

I’m sorry to say that just like I did on my first attempt, I felt very impatient with this story.  There are too many darn demons from the past hanging around – each main character has several and the information about them is dealt out bit by bit. A little of this goes a long way for me, and it seemed like they spend most of the first half of the book bewailing different top secret parts of the past. There are also way too many characters from their history mentioned. Even having read all the previous books and knowing who most of them were, I got overloaded.

Once the secrets are out, the romance is good. David and Olivia are well matched, both protective and competent people.  I’m one of those readers who wasn’t very big on Dana, the former unrequited love of David’s life, so I was rather pleased when David’s thinks, “That’s how Olivia’s different. She had the same need to protect without the drama Dana had always had swirling around her. Olivia got the job done. Efficiently and quietly. She’d do what needed to be done, the right way.” Including helping David heal his wounded heart.

The suspense parts of this romantic suspense were decently plotted, with some good twists. Violence-wise, this is one of Rose’s tamer books; there’s still a high body count, but no graphic scenes involving fixated serial killers who adore torturing people.  I was less relieved than it seemed like I should be, because the plot was incredibly creepy and seemed more like something that could actually happen. And there were so many unpleasant characters!

I think this may be one of those cases where since I started out annoyed, I just kept being annoyed. Even a highly emotional plot point didn’t work for me;  it was telegraphed a mile away and I found it manipulative rather than sad. I’m also getting tired of Rose’s tricks in regards to villains.

I’m giving this 2 1/2 stars, a rating I almost never give. I just can’t bring myself to give it 3, but 2 seems too low for a generally good book. You can buy it here.

Published by Grand Central. Review copy purchased by me.


Willaful Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

rowellSensuality rating: candyfloss

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 either of her first two books is a romance 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 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 latest book 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.

I gave Attachments 5 stars on the first reading; I think I liked it slightly less on the second, because I read it too soon after Eleanor and Park, but I’m not changing the grade — it’s an amazing book. You can buy it from Amazon here.

Published by Dutton. Review copy borrowed from the library.

P.S. I can’t write anything about geeks without including this video. It’s the law.


Willaful review: Something Less Than Love by Daphne Clair

lessNonconsensuality rating: Steamy

Notice: contains spoilers. A version with most spoilers hidden can be found at GoodReads.

This romance from 1980 has a serious intrinsic problem: the hero is not appreciably better than the villain.  What’s most interesting to me about that is that the author obviously knew it.

“Already today, Ross had manhandled her — her inner lip still throbbed with a small swelling from his brutal kiss, and her arm tingled where he had held her to stop her struggling — and now Thad seemed determined to treat her equally roughly.”

“… he had left her, alone with her terrible humiliation. His brutal cruelty far surpassed anything Ross had done to her.”

Vanessa to Thad, about Ross: “I might have managed it by flattering his vanity. Like you, he has more than his fair share of that.”

Can you even tell which one is supposed to be in which role?  These are just quotes from the last quarter of the book, which is when I started taking notes. There’s also quite a bit earlier about how Thad and Ross are similar in their style and approach to women (even aside from their manhandling ways.)

I started to wonder whether Clair was being deliberately subversive, but by the end of the book thought it more likely that she was trying to achieve something that just doesn’t play very well today, if it ever did. Thad’s bad behavior (yes, he’s the hero) might be easier to overlook in another context but when it’s highlighted by its similarity to the bad guy… well.  Notice to romance writers: when you have your hero rape your heroine right after she just escaped being raped by another guy,  you had better provide a damn good grovel/redemption/world’s largest box of chocolates from the hero. Or in this case, have him hit by a truck again.

Vanessa is thrilled to have her husband home from the hospital, after the accident that happened right after their honeymoon. But the scar on his face isn’t the only thing different about Thad  — he’s hostile, withdrawn, and humiliates her when she initiates physical contact. (At first — later he just starts raping her.)  Something has poisoned their marriage. Meanwhile, Vanessa is having to fend off the increasingly nasty advances of her ex-lover and current boss, Ross.

I’m giving this 3 stars mainly because I did find it interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a satisfying romance. It’s understandable that Vanessa would make some allowances for Thad after a serious accident, but things get so ugly between them and she just does nothing, not even really attempt to talk to him about it.  The resolution lacks closure for me, especially after Thad does something else I think it would be incredibly hard  for a marriage to easily bounce back from: he creates a clay figure of Vanessa that makes it obvious he finds her sexuality repellent and disgusting. The ending is supposed to say something about love and forgiveness, and show that Thad truly is a different man. Who knows… maybe I would have bought it in 1980.

The book is out of print, but inexpensive copies are available here. It’s also available at paperbackswap.

Willaful Review: Fair Game by Diane Farr (TBR Challenge)

gameThe Challenge: pick a recommended read

Why this one?: I’d heard it was one of Farr’s best books

sensuality rating: sweet but spicy candyfloss

It’s interesting to compare this book to An Offer from A Gentleman by Julia Quinn, which was published just two years later. Both have the same basic plot: a successful/high ranking man tries to convince an illegitimate woman to become his mistress. Despite being in desperate straits and very attracted to him, she refuses.  (I love historical reluctant mistress romances  — there’s a whole GoodReads listopia of them and I’ve read almost every one.) But as you could tell just from the difference in titles — one a modern cultural reference, the other a witty pun — Fair Game is a traditional Regency, which means that when she refuses she really refuses — that is, they don’t wind up in bed anyway. And the hero’s reasons for pursuing the heroine aren’t prettied up as they are in Quinn’s book — here, he thinks she has no chance at a respectable life and will inevitably wind up a prostitute anyway, so why shouldn’t he be the one to get her started?

Wealthy businessman Trevor Whitlach is very susceptible to a pretty face, and when a notorious courtesan offers him her exquisite daughter to pay off a debt, he impulsively agrees — only to discover he was had. The beautiful Clarissa was raised by her father to be a lady, and she has no intention of discarding her values, useless though they may seem to be. Trevor wouldn’t dream of trying to seduce a virtuous lady, but with no name, family, or fortune, Clarissa is truly fair game. But she’s also the most delightful woman he’s ever met, and if he can’t convince her, he’s not sure how he’ll be able to live without her.

I’m giving this four stars because it’s such an excellent traditional Regency, with an appropriate period tone and sizzling sexual tension — not to mention having one of the very best last lines I’ve ever read.  (It’s also a rare trad. that doesn’t take place amongst the ton — no nobles, no Almacks.) But I didn’t connect emotionally with the characters as much as I have in other similar books — Foley’s The Duke or Layton’s The Duke’s Wager, for example. Trevor never seemed that attractive to me, and Clarissa is more a pattern card of perfection than a real person; Farr’s characterizations are much more interesting in The Fortune Hunter. Still, the emotion of this situation never fails to get to me. This was my favorite scene, in which Trevor makes a last ditch effort to buy Clarissa, still unable to see what that would mean to her:

“Five hundred a year,” she said, in that same colorless tone. Then she seemed to recover. A muscle jumped in her jaw. “But my fortunes would be forever linked to yours,” she uttered cooly. “What if you suffer loses in the future? What if your businesses fail?”

Anger licked through him. Damn her bluntness. He had never had to spell matters out like this before, but leave it to Clarissa to dispense with delicacy.

“I will set aside money now, Clarissa, while I am still relatively plump of pocket!” he said sarcastically. “Sufficient funds will be safely invested in the three-per-cents. They will be held in trust for you during your lifetime, and the income will be paid to you quarterly.”

“During my lifetime,” she repeated, her head tilted consideringly. “But nothing to leave to my children.”

“Perhaps you could bring yourself to set a little of your income aside from time to time!” he suggested through his teeth. “No, Clarissa, I am afraid I must reserve the principal to revert to my own estate.”

Her eyes lifted again to his, fathomless, fathomless depths of blue. “What if,” she inquired softly, “the children are yours?”

For a moment, Trevor forgot to breathe. “

This is why I read historicals, for those breathtaking moments when the stakes are high.

Fair Game is once again in print and available digitally under the title Playing to Win; you can buy it from Amazon here.

Willaful Review: This Time Forever by Kathleen Eagle

foreversensuality rating: steamy

This RITA winning romance from 1992 has some serious meat on its bones, and as always, Eagle manages to make hard, complicated themes utterly enthralling to read.

Rodeo star Cleve Black Horse is on trial for first degree murder, with a lawyer who believes he’s guilty and a jury nothing like his peers. His faith is pinned on one juror, a white woman he can tell believes his story — but he winds up convicted anyway.

Fate seems determine to intertwine Cleve’s life with that of the juror, Susan. She’s the nurse in the emergency room one night when Cleve is stabbed by another prisoner. And that same night, Susan falls in love with an infant boy prematurely taken from his dead mother — a baby that may be Cleve’s. Susan can’t get permission to adopt an Indian child, so she desperately approaches Cleve in prison, despite knowing he has good reason to hate her.

This was such a vivid, compelling story, especially the first half. Even pretty much knowing how it would end, I was fascinated by Cleve’s trial. Eagle skillfully shows how culture clashes and racism are working against Cleve; at one point, the prosecutor make a big deal about Cleve taking his saddle with him when leaving the murder scene, while to Cleve, the saddle is so much a part of his identity, he can’t even find the words to explain it. His incompetent lawyer never picks up on this to help him, but we learn more later when Cleve tells Susan, “You know what being a cowboy mean to me? It meant not being an Indian. I mean, when I was winning, you know? When I was the man to beat. I didn’t have to be an Indian every time anybody looked at me.”

The writing is honest and unsparing. Ugly things happen, and they often have ugly consequences. But both Cleve and Susan are good people who’ve made mistakes, and their essential warmth and humanity and growing feelings for each other keep the story from getting bleak. Not everything gets wrapped up neatly at the end but Susan and Cleve wind up right where they belong, together.

Although I didn’t find the second half as riveting as the first, this was such an extraordinary novel I have to give it 5 stars. You can buy it from Amazon here (and as of this writing it’s only $1.99 for Kindle, but I’m not sure how long that will last.)

Originally published by Avon. Reprint published by Bell Bridge Books. Review copy from NetGalley.

Tab A Part 2

Tab A Part 2

Friday, February 15, 2013
Posted in: willaful

Just a quick follow-up to my post on sex in Claire Kent’s Escorted: she’s interviewed at “Wonkomance” and talks directly about it.

“I actually had a great time with the early clinical sex. It was so different from any sexual scenario I’ve written before that I really enjoyed the challenge.”

Check out the post to read more; they’re also having a giveaway.  Giveaway is over.

Slot A Meet Tab B

Slot A Meet Tab B

Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Posted in: willaful


Warning: explicit sex scenes ahoy!

There have been several interesting posts in Romancelandia lately about favorite “bad sex” scenes, and how much they can add to the development of a romance.  Which would make them good bad sex scenes.  I recently came across the opposite situation — the bad good sex scene, which also turned out to be important to the romance. (To clarify — by bad, I mean unsatisfying, not badly written.)

The book was Escorted by Claire Kent, a story about a self-consciously virgin romance novelist who hires a male prostitute to introduce her to sex. Over time — and lots and lots of paid-for nookie — a relationship develops between them.

From the start, Ander does a terrific job for Lori, giving her great sex that’s exactly to her specifications. (She doesn’t want anything “fake” — no kissing, no cuddling, no pretense of romance.) He explains everything to her, gives her helpful advice, and is always in control of himself, even getting her permission before he has an orgasm himself.  The result reads as pretty clinical. (more…)

Willaful Review: The Lady Who Broke the Rules by Marguerite Kaye


Sensuality Rating: Surprisingly Steamy

I’m not sure which surprises me more: a Harlequin Historical featuring an interracial romance, or a Harlequin Historical featuring juicy sex.  The language isn’t graphic — we’re still in the land of potent manhoods here — but it’s definitely steamier than I’m used to.

Virgil, a fiercely determined and intelligent plantation slave, was sold after a failed rebellion. His buyer chose him for those same qualities, freed him, and gave him opportunities which have led to Virgil becoming an extraordinarily successful businessman in Boston. His goals in life are to help others who are shackled or downtrodden, fueled less by his own experiences than by a need to make reparation to his former lover Millie, who was punished for his crimes.

On a business visit to England he meets Kate, a “ruined” duke’s daughter who is also a progressive free thinker.  (And astonishingly, not obnoxious about it.) They’re both attracted to each other, though at first Virgil questions her motives: “I hope, Lady Kate, that you are not thinking of using me as a weapon in some private war. Are you perhaps eager to prove your reputation for being a revolutionary to your father and your aunt?” Kate can’t deny the charge entirely, but her interest is mostly sincere — and she’s sincerely hot for him.  Which is a tremendous relief to her, since her “ruination” by her louse of former fiance left her fearing that she’s frigid.

I don’t know enough to comment on the historical plausibility or authenticity of this novel, though I suspect they’re iffy.  Race issues aside, it seemed surprisingly easy for the characters to find private places to have trysts — although according to the author’s note, the house and grounds for the series were designed with that in mind!  (The book is part of a multi-author continuity series, but stands fine on its own.) In any event, the overall tone felt appropriate, and that’s generally good enough for me.

I did find it odd how little race is addressed in the story.  Virgil encounters very little hostility and when he does, it’s not shown as a race issue. For example, here are Kate’s father’s thoughts on their proposed match: “That the man was an America, albeit one of that country’s richest inhabitants, was bad enough. That he was a commoner, and ex-slave with a lineage that could be traced back precisely one generation and only on one side, made the marriage, as far as the duke was concerned, simply impossible.” This comes off as somewhat disingenuous. And except for one mention of his discomfort at being the only black person in a room, Virgil himself seems as color-blind as everyone else, and surprisingly detached from his former slave status.

Aside from its unusual premise, this wasn’t particularly groundbreaking or original, but it was an absorbing story with appealing characters. I give it 3 stars. You can buy it from Amazon here or from All Romance here.

Published by Harlequin Historicals. Review copy borrowed from the public library.

Just Wondering'

Just Wondering’

Sunday, February 3, 2013
Posted in: willaful

I’m reading a book by Elle Kennedy, which brought up this question: Which is more statistically improbable, the number of Dukes in Regency romance, or the number of straight dudes who love having threesomes with their straight best buds?

And to make the question more fun, which group would win in a fight?

Willaful Review: Unforgivable by Joanna Chambers

It can be difficult for me to read a book or write a review objectively when I have a bias towards the author. Oddly enough, in this case, the bias might be working the other way. I like the author very much online, and I loved her first book, The Lady’s Secret. I have to ask myself, if this had been a book written ten years ago, from an author I had fewer expectations of, would I have found it so disappointing?

First, the good. The story was riveting, and I hated to put it down to go to bed. As far as my favorite romance gut-punch goes, it delivered in spades. Tears even prickled in my eyes a few times. Basically, this was a classic old skool romance, but with a kindler, gentler asshole — i.e. he punches the wall instead of her. (To be fair, only once — he is not violent overall.) Gil has a grievance — he felt forced to marry the very young, plain Rose, instead of the woman he wanted — and he not only holds onto that grievance with both hands, he adds to it whenever possible. He’s one of those frustrating Diana Palmer-ish heroes who turns any understanding of his own faults into anger at the person he wronged. And he does this and does it and does it… it’s psychologically interesting and understandable, I suppose, but it sure made it hard to like him, or to believe he could ever truly change.

I felt that Rose was always the one who had to reach out, always the one who had to give. Although she did make some mistakes, she was largely, as another reviewer pointed out, an innocent bystander in her marriage. I enjoy vicarious suffering in romance, but I need more of a balance and a payoff than I got here. I was also disappointed that the story’s dark moment comes from a very obvious, conventional place that punishes Rose even more than it punishes Gil. Perhaps most disappointing of all, although Gil also learns to appreciate Rose’s fine character, he initially falls for her as the beautiful woman she grew into. Not enough balance, not enough payoff.

I want to reiterate that I was totally caught up and emotionally involved in the story, and that’s why I’m giving it the relatively high rating of 3 1/2 stars, rounded up to 4 when I must. It might well work better for fans of angsty romance who didn’t come in with high expectations, or with strong desires for originality. You can buy it for Kindle here or from Samhain in all popular ebook formats here. (30% off for new releases til 1/22/13.) I’m guessing they’ll have a print version at Samhain eventually.

Published by Samhain. Review copy purchased by me.

TBR Challenge: The Guy Most Likely To...

Sensuality Rating: Tending Towards Torrid

The Theme: We Love Short Shorts! (Short stories, novellas, or category romance.)

Why This One?: My personal rule is that all books have to come from my print TBR. I was pleased to find a book there that fit the theme so well — short stories and category romance — plus, I won it at Wendy’s blog.

The Word: I’m not a big fan of either romance short stories or the Blaze line, and putting them together did not improve them.

This anthology includes three unrelated stories, two of which link to other books by their authors. All three are about couples whose past relationships were thwarted by the guy, for various reasons. Now the couples are meeting again at their 10 year high school reunions.

“Underneath it All” by Leslie Kelly. Lauren was devastated and humiliated when her boyfriend Seth skipped town right before prom, leaving her a Prom Queen without a King. She only agreed to go to the reunion because Seth wasn’t supposed to be there. But Seth turns up anyway, hoping to finally make things right with the girl he could never forget.

I had trouble with both characters in this story. Lauren’s devastation is understandable, but it’s quite obvious that something major happened to Seth and his family, which makes her long-time hatred towards him seem self-absorbed and immature.  And if Seth had pined for Lauren all these years, why didn’t he make more of an effort to get in touch with her? The ending was cute, but then it got spoiled by going way, way over the top.

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Janelle Denison. I loved the premise of this story. Geeky Will’s dreams had come true when gorgeous cheerleader Ali agreed to go on a date with him, but a beating and threats from a guy on the football team forced him to cancel. Now he’s hoping for a second chance.

I was disappointed that Will shows up for the reunion devastatingly handsome and super successful. Ali had liked him the way he was — why did he have to become like every other romance hero? The rest of the story plays out as you’d expect, and in a very bland manner.  Props for being the only story in the collection featuring safe sex. (Dudes, “I’m clean” does not constitute safe sex!)

“A Moment Like This” by Julie Leto. Bad boy Rip refused to get involved with good girl Erica when they were in Catholic school together — but they’re adults now, and things are very different, especially Erica. I think this story could have been good if it weren’t squeezed into too small a space — with some of that limited space given over to sequel baiting. It needed more backstory.

Overall, a meh collection. If you enjoy Blazes, you’ll probably like it more than I did. You can buy it from Amazon in print or for Kindle here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy won from a blog contest.

New Years Resolutions -- I'm Not Late, I'm Taking My Time

Lately I’ve been realizing that when it comes to books, I have a terrible case of Attention Deficit — ooo, shiny! It seems to be a fairly common condition amongst book lovers who spend a lot of time on social media.  We buy — and borrow, if we’re moderately sane — massive numbers of books, all of which we genuinely want to read. And then someone dangles a tempting new book in front of us, and we’re off on the hunt again. The books we already have fade away, sometimes so much that we accidentally buy them again.

Weirdly, the problem is self-perpetuating. The more pressure I feel from too many unread books, the more likely I am to be restless and unable to concentrate, which sends me off looking for more books to acquire instead of actually reading. Perhaps it makes me feel like I’m actually accomplishing something.

Forget trying to read more books  — my only reading goal for this year is to break the cycle. I want to slow down, stop trying to stay on top of an exploding genre, and focus on books which I know I genuinely want to read, not books that everyone else is reading. To finish series I enjoy instead of starting new ones other people enjoy. To read books outside the romance genre, or to reread, without feeling like I’m wasting time. And perhaps most importantly, to stop acquiring new ones on a whim.

I’m off to a great start — the fourteen books I’ve read this year include nonfiction, science fiction, a book from my long neglected “reread before tossing” pile, some series catch up, and an old favorite. (I always seem to start the new year with a reread, for some reason.) And, because social media is still fun, one book that everyone else was reading, so we could talk about it.

Here’s to a more peaceful reading year.


Willaful Review: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

Peer pressure! SuperRomance isn’t my line, but all the cool kids are reading this one. I wasn’t sorry I jumped off the cliff with them.

This is a romance featuring a Chinese-American heroine and written by a Chinese-Canadian writer, both rare enough scenarios to catch the attention of the romance community. Thirty-two year old Tiffany has returned home in disgrace: unemployed, in debt, and feeling like she wasted the English degree she fought so hard for. Now she’s once again stuck in a small town, with a family that’s disappointed in her (as always) and no place to work except her family’s restaurant. Things look up a bit when the football player she once tutored (and madly crushed on) hires her to tutor his teenage son.

One of the things I liked about this story was that both Tiffany and her love interest Chris, who is white, turn out to have essentially the same issues: both are dealing with pressure and expectations from family, and both are struggling with their places in the world. That made Tiffany’s situation seem less based on cultural types. And realistically, their problems aren’t entirely the same: Tiffany also has to deal with the overt racism of Chris’s father, and to begin to understand how the discomfort of growing up in an otherwise entirely white community affected the way she relates to people.

The part of the story that most interested me was actually a subplot involving Tiffany’s brother, Daniel; although he has an MBA, he’s been working at the family restaurant and living with his parents while Tiffany was an assistant editor in New York. (He’s also the town driving instructor, an amusing thumb of the nose to the “bad drivers” stereotype.) Daniel’s in love with a white doctor he met online, but has been too worried about his family’s reaction to her to fully commit. When Tiffany points out how disparate their circumstances are — wealthy city doctor, small-town fry-cook — it creates a crisis of confidence for him.

I would have loved it if Daniel had been the central character of the book, and it would have made a more challenging story. A hunky blonde white guy and a petite, beautiful Asian woman fit so much more neatly into Western standards of appropriate attractiveness, to say nothing of the gender standards of appropriate success. But since romances with non-white characters seem to still be such a hard sell, I can’t really blame anyone for taking the easier route.

I also enjoyed Chris and Tiffany’s gentle romance, which has some plausible bumps in the road, many involving Chris’s difficult father and his different but equally difficult son. But their main conflict is Tiffany’s need to get back to the city and her editing work. I wasn’t entirely happy with how this resolved. The general message that the societal idea of success isn’t as important as doing what make you happy is a good one (again, this is a place where I preferred Daniel’s story to Tiffany’s.) But there was too much of a Small Town Good, Big City Bad message, especially in a genre that is overflowing with that already.

That aspect makes me a bit torn on my rating but I’m going with 4 stars, because of the good writing and the many things the book does right. You can buy it in paperback or for Kindle here. (Incidentally, while looking up the info, I saw that the paperback is almost out of stock, which I hope is a good sign of success!) Though January 21st, the secure epub format is also available with a 50% rebate at All Romance, with the code SBTBARE. (Keep in mind that the rebate process at All Romance is kind of complicated, though a good deal if you buy from them frequently.)

There are currently two online discussion of this book planned: if you’d like to join in, check out Something More on January 11th, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on January 31st.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy provided by netGalley

Willaful Review: Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger

Sensuality Rating: technically candyfloss, but with some explicit language


“I don’t know what you’ve got up your sleeve for Travis and Craig, but I want the boys to wind up together. If you put me through all this without a happy ending, I’ll see to it that you never work in this town again.”

After John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, this is the sweetest, funniest book that ever broke my heart. (Which is not a spoiler for the ending, by the way; it broke my heart on page 30.) In the world’s most adorable book opening, theatre geek/activist Travis and jock/baseball lover Craig become the best buddies ever who don’t know they’re in love. And then just when they figure it out… BAM. We’re suddenly twenty years later and they are not together! Though you can still see their influence on each other’s lives: Craig has become a civil rights lawyer, and Travis teaches history to jocks by comparing major historical events to major moments in baseball. (His students’ test answers, which include advice on how to conduct his love life, are one of the highlights of the story.)

Craig is also in a long term relationship, but Travis’ attempts to find love have all been dismal failures. And he suddenly realizes that it’s because he already had it… and lost it. And so begins an epic journey to rediscover the love of his life.

Told in a stream of journal entries, school essays, phone conversations, court documents and so on, and featuring a large cast of lovably eccentric characters, this was as amusing to read as it is affectionate. I especially loved that Kluger gave each main character a sassy, wise straight friend. By genre standards, this would qualify as a novel with strong romantic elements rather than a romance, but the spirit of romance pervades the book and much true love is found all around.

Two things kept this from being a 5 star read for me: I didn’t think there was enough individuation between the different character’s voices, and I felt a little too manipulated by Kluger keeping Craig and Travis apart for so long. (And you can tell from the quote above that he knew he was doing it.) Though I’m tempted to give that extra star, because after creating a seemingly impossible situation, the story pulls off an ending that feels right.  I love the book, even though it hurt. You can buy it from Amazon here.

Published by William Morrow. Review from borrowed copy. I want my own.

me me meme!

me me meme!

Friday, December 28, 2012
Posted in: willaful


I saw this meme at The Book Binge; it originated at The Happily Ever After. I’m way too lazy to do a yearly round-up or top ten list, but this is perfect.

My Life According to the Books I Read in 2012:

Describe yourself:
The Marrying Kind by Ken O’Neill

How do you feel:
Restraint by Charlotte Stein

Describe where you currently live:
A Place Called Home by Jo Goodman

If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
On the Island by Tracy Garvis-Graves

Your favorite form of transportation:
Last Bridge Home by Iris Johansen

Your best friend is:
Wish List by K.A. Mitchell

You and your friends are:
Crazy on You by Rachel Gibson

What’s the weather like:
A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan

What is life to you:
Next of Kin by Ann Somerville

Favorite time of day:
The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel

Your fear:
I want Candy by Susan Donovan

What is the best advice you have to give:
Wanting What You Get by Kathy Love

Thought for the day:
Serious Play by Bonnie Dee

How I would like to die:
Woman of Honour by Emma Darcy

My soul’s present condition:
Standing on the Outside by Lindsey Armstrong

I fudged a few of them, but most of these actually represent how I feel surprisingly accurately.

TBR Challenge: The Bridal Veil by Alexis Harrington

Sensuality rating: Lightly Steamy

(This was a difficult challenge for me because I don’t much like holiday stories. That fact became extremely obvious when I searched my paperbackswap TBR listing for Christmas books — most of what showed up turned out to have been already purged, and the remaining books became almost instant DNFs. I then looked through GoodReads listopias of best holiday books and saw mostly 1 and 2 star grades from myself. 

Recents events made the thought of attempting another obnoxiously cheery Christmas read intolerable, so I went searching in my historical TBR cabinet — the genre which needs the most help — hoping to find something with any connection to a holiday. And a random glance at a page in this book showed a reference to…. Jacob Marley! Good enough.)

Out of work, money and family, Emily Cannon takes the place of her recently deceased sister, who had been going to Oregon as a mail-order bride. Farmer Luke Becker had been looking forward to marrying the petite, dark-haired Alyssa – in his mind, expecting her to look just like his beloved dead wife — and is aghast when the tall, plain, straw-haired Emily suggests he marry her instead. But Emily has a card up her sleeve: she’s a teacher of deportment, and Luke’s young daughter Rose desperately needs to learn some civilized manners.  And so they marry, though Luke warns Emily that it can never be a marriage involving love.

As Emily begins to make a place with Luke and Rose, despite the fierce hostility of his former mother-in-law Cora, she begins to bloom. In her family she was always the plain, sensible sister, but Luke starts to notice her quiet grace and elegance. And while her civilized touches make their home a more attractive, comfortable place, she learns to let go of her too-rigid insistence on proper etiquette.

There’s a tender wistfulness to this story that I loved, embodied in the symbolism of the bridal veil.  Emily’s wedding is too hurried for her to even wear the veil, an heirloom which she had fantasized would make her look beautiful. She’s both admirable and pathetic, as she tries to sublimate her desires for emotional and physical love in duty and propriety.  In some ways, Luke is in a similar situation; although he’s always been attractive to women, his life hasn’t led him to expect much for himself. He’s just trying to support his family and be a good father, without hoping much for his own happiness. It’s very satisfying when these two both discover what they have to offer and what they can find together.

After the fact, I don’t think it was a coincidence that I picked up this book to examine.  I find Americana romance soothing; it values home… family… hard work… community… cooperation… endurance. The quiet, homey virtues, the ones that a major tragedy always highlights.  I give The Bridal Veil 4 stars, though I’m tempted to give it 5 because it held my wandering interest on a terribly sad and upsetting day. It’s out of print, but inexpensive copies are readily available, or it can be bought for Kindle here or for Nook here.

Originally published by St. Martin’s Press. Reviewed from owned copy, probably acquired at paperbackswap