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Willaful Review: Destiny's Surrender by Beverly Jenkins

17331377Sensuality rating: sinfully steamy, then lawfully steamy. 😉

I didn’t make it through the first book in this series — feisty heroine and love/hate relationship, I could not deal — but Destiny’s Surrender sounded so interesting, I had to give it a try. It was a very different kind of read, and pretty compelling.

Set in San Francisco in 1885, the story opens with an encounter between prostitute Billie and her favorite john, Drew. She’s a little perturbed afterwards to discover her birth control was faulty, and sure enough, she becomes pregnant. This isn’t a book that follows the unwritten rules of romance, however: Billie has no certainty at all that Drew is the father.

The realistic tone continues as we discover that Billie has been pregnant before and had a chemical abortion. It made her so ill she can’t face another, and decides to have the baby and give it up to a good family — or more accurately, let her madam sell it for the money to live on when she has to stop working. However she didn’t realize how much she would love her baby, and when the time comes, can’t bear to let him go. A convenient birthmark proving parentage, she turns to Drew for help.

Drew’s reaction is also far from typically “heroic.” He’s very angry — the fact that Billie arrives just in time to ruin his engagement to a “suitable” woman doesn’t help — and just wants her and the baby to go away. But his strong-willed stepmother has other ideas.

I was sorry the splot hinged on an implausible heriditary birthmark; I think it could have worked without it. I also disliked the suspense plot, which features a very nasty villain. (This was also why I DNF’d the first Beverly book I tried.) But I really enjoyed Billie, who’s about as far from emo as a person can be; she always faces facts and does what she has to do. This line kind of sums her up: “for Billie birthdays had never been anything to put on the dog for. She acknowledged it when she got up in the morning, then got on with her day.” It’s sadder, in its way, than many a more obviously tragic heroine. Billie is also brave and resourceful, and eventually makes a place for herself in “respectable” society through those traits.

Drew was less defined as a character, and I would have liked to see less of the nasty villain and more of Drew’s growth as a person. One of the interesting things about this story is that it’s set during a time when black Americans were starting to lose freedoms they previously had. Drew, who is of African-American and Spanish heritage, is a successful lawyer who finds that judges are suddenly refusing to allow him into courtrooms; although he’s from a well-off family and isn’t financially dependent on his career, this is a blow. But not a lot of time is spent on it.

I appreciated how essentially ordinary Billie is – she’s neither exalted as special, nor demonized for her pragmatic reactions to  being poor and pregnant. Contrarily, that made the book something out of the ordinary. I give it 3 1/2 stars; you can buy it here.

Published by Avon. Review copy from the public library.

Review: Hot Under the Collar by Jackie Barbosa

Readers: This review was written some time ago, but I’m participating in an effort to promote Jackie Barbosa’s books while she is unable to do so herself.  If you would like to help Jackie in a difficult time, please consider contributing to her son’s memorial fund.


collarSensuality rating: Steamy

What a fresh, memorable novella! I was a little disappointed at first to realize that the hero is not a starchy vicar with a calling but one by default — as a viscount’s son with an unfortunate army experience, there’s no other respectable profession open to him. Then I decided it could be interesting to read about such a situation, which presumably happened fairly often. It was indeed.

When Walter sees Artemisia Finch waiting to collect a member of his congregation, he feels both desire and a strange sense of recognition. In fact, he has seen her before — when she was known just by her first name, as one of society’s most sought after courtesans. Now she’s home looking after her ailing father, and staying correctly away from condemning society. Being an unapologetically flawed human instead of a properly pious vicar, Walter feels no compunction about pursuing Artemisia — and since she’s passionate, lonely and has nothing to lose, she feels no compunction about pursuing him right back.

This story doesn’t go the way you’d expect, because it’s not Artemisia’s journey; the focus is on Walter’s growth as his conscientious efforts to be a good vicar become more. Faced with such interesting issues as pre-marital sex, post-partum depression, and death with dignity (in appropriate Regency terminology, of course,) it turns out that his worldly attitude and experience may be more valuable than “the qualities he’d thought a good vicar should possess — piety, religious conviction, and a strong sense of  ‘vocation’.” Indeed, it seems that “people didn’t need help negotiating the spiritual world; they needed help negotiating this one.”

As Walter’s sympathy and live-and-let-live attitude help his parishioners, he begins to have a revolutionary thought: perhaps he can convince them to forgive and accept their resident outcast sinner, Artemisia.

This is a really charming story of a leader finding his calling on the job. I found the romance a little bit less satisfying, because the two don’t spend that much non-sexual time together, but it’s nicely mature, straightforward, and guilt-free. The happy ending may not seem plausible to all readers, but I thought Barbosa set it up so well, I could believe it could happen. I give the book 4 stars; you can buy it here.

Review: Live by Mary Ann Rivers

liveSensuality Rating: Tenderly Torrid

There are some romance novels in which the conflict feels forced, like the characters are just making trouble for themselves. Live isn’t one of those: from almost the first meeting of Destiny and Hefin, they — and we — know that there’s a serious obstacle in the way of them having more than an ephemeral relationship. It gave the story quite a different feel from usual, because there’s no anticipation of an upcoming dark moment — their conflict is how to appreciate the moment they have.

And of course, as a reader, I’m dying to figure out how this issue can possibly be satisfactorily resolved, because it seems so impossible. (I kept thinking of Bob Newhart as Superman, with his suit lost at the dry cleaners: “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get you out of this one, Lois.”) But gradually, beautifully, it comes to the perfect ending.

Des is firmly rooted in her Lakefield, Ohio community. (This is a small town novel without the small town, believably set in a city neighborhood.) Having recently lost her job, her family home, and her one remaining parent, she clings to pieces of the past. Helping her siblings and neighbors is one way she tries to fill what seems like an emptiness inside her:

After she got laid off six months ago, when Des looked down inside herself, she mostly saw time. Empty time.

But not how to live.

Not a life.

The people most closely related to her saw their entire lives inside themselves.

Hefin, the quietly sexy woodcarver she’s been noticing restoring the atrium of the library, is on the verge of beginning a new future. A vacation romance that turned into marriage brought him to the United States; now divorced, he plans to reconnect with his family in Wales and then move on to the work he was meant to be doing. He doesn’t particularly want to start something with no future — as Des correctly points out, he is a “goose” person, the kind who prefers to mate for life — but the attraction between them is very strong. As the attraction becomes love and they begin to truly know each other, the conflict between their needs becomes less rigidly obvious… if they can see it.

The story is written very carefully and deliberately, especially during the sex scenes. Lots of noticing, lots of descriptions of small details — a lavish depiction of sexual attraction that fits well with their personalities, since they’re both people who love to lavish care on others. As is often the case when authors are trying hard to write about sex in fresh language, it occasionally hit a wrong note for me, but I think it pays off in the end.

As any city-set story should be, Live is filled with casual diversity. Hefin, who was adopted from England as a baby, is an undefined racial mix. Destiny’s landlady made an interracial marriage in a far more difficult time. Destiny’s mother was Jewish, her father Irish Catholic. None of this is particularly important to the story, though the last two have some personal meaning to offer Destiny — it’s just part of the random weave of life.

This is a rich, tender story, not at all the usual contemporary family series fare. I’m looking forward to seeing where life takes the Burnside siblings next; you can buy this first book here. 4 stars.

Reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley

Review: Glitterland by Alexis Hall


glitterlandNote: I wrote this review several months ago, when the book originally came out. I would now call the author an online friend.

Sensuality Rating: Uh… I’ve kind of forgotten. I guess Torrid.

It’s a little discombobulating reading a book written in the first person by someone you’ve interacted with online.  I had trouble at first separating Ash, the bipolar and severely anxious narrator of the story, from Alexis Hall, the friendly Internet voice. Then the character of Darian is introduced and Ash immediately begins mocking his clothes, his hair and (relentlessly) his Essex accent. I was intensely uncomfortable until I realized — oh! Ash is an asshole.

For Ash, feeling attracted to “a man who was practically orange and wearing beneath his jacket a shirt that read ‘Sexy and I know it,’ could only have been the sick joke of a universe that despised me.” Ash is an intellectual, a successful writer, wealthy and “posh.” He’s also just barely on the other side of a psychotic break, and even navigating a conversation with a stranger is often beyond him.  But Darian notices his interest, and climbs up to him, “like the world’s most ill-suited Romeo in pursuit of the world’s least convincing Juliet.” And Ash finds himself falling into a one-night stand.

“What did any of it matter? I’d never see him again. Nobody would ever know. All sense, all judgment, overthrown by an h-dropping, glottal-stopping glitter pirate, and I didn’t have to care.”

Then Darian shows up at Ash’s book signing, inconveniently revealing himself to be an actual person with feelings that were hurt when Ash disappeared in the night.  And still intensely attracted, Ash winds up in the difficult position of trying to relate to someone who really wants to get to know him. “…what was I supposed to say? That I enjoyed long walks on the beach and occasionally trying to kill myself?”

Darian is a sweetheart. He’s so comfortable in his own skin that he can appreciate the differences between them that confound Ash.  “I like it when you say fings, cos it sounds posh and filthy at the same time.” But he’s sensitive enough to call Ash on his snobbery, and even pokes a little fun himself:

He cleared his throat. “I say,” he said, in an outrageous RP [received pronunciation ] accent, “suck me off at once. Rar.”

I glared at him in outrage. “I do not sound like that! I’ve never said ‘I say.’ Or ‘rar.’”

“Get on wif it, peasant.”

I fell in love with Darian and Ash as a couple during their game of “Nabble,” in which you put down words that aren’t in the dictionary. (Darian easily admits that he doesn’t feel up to Scrabble against the erudite Ash.)

He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (‘that like look what happens when two people are fancying each other from across the dance floor’), then gloffle (‘like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”)… And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded. I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers on the wreckage of the Scrabble board.

Since this is a romance, naturally there’s a dark moment, and it’s kind of a classic. Ash does something so excruciatingly dreadful, I literally couldn’t bear to turn the page for several minutes to see the inevitable aftermath.

But Glitterland isn’t only a romance, it’s also a deeply resonant depiction of depression and anxiety. Ash is seriously mentally ill — and no, true love doesn’t mean he’s cured — and his descriptions are painfully authentic:

Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.

The things I cared about were the hooks I’d driven into the rock face. Depression snapped them, one by one, one by one. My only certainty was the fall.

Ash is terrified by how happy he is with Darian.  “…happiness was merely something else to lose.”  But later, when he’s gut-wrenchingly screwed things up between them, he has a stunning realization: “…I wasn’t depressed. I was sad. This little piece of hurt was all my own.”

I loved almost everything about this book. The writing just… melted in my mouth, it’s so smooth and rich and sweetly tart. But I did have some discomfort with the portrayal of Darian. I doubt if, as an American, I could fully grasp all the nuances of class and culture clash that were going on here, but I felt that Darian was almost too wise and perfect in his easygoing simplicity. Part of the point of the book, of course, is that the way Darian sounds and dresses has nothing to do with his value as a person, and obviously he needs to have an attractive personality, so they can fall in love. But there was a touch of “noble savage” about him that nagged at me. It might have helped if we’d gotten to see more of his inner life.

It’s still a marvelous story. I have to quote just one more passage, because it’s such a charming comment on an opposite attracts relationship:

The cottage pie was about as wholesome and straightforward as you could get. It was food for winter evenings and happy days. And the salad was rich, complicated, a little bit sweet, a little bit sharp, and seemed to be trying way too hard to be impressive. We’d both served each other a metaphor.

I give this 4 1/2 stars. You can buy it here.

Published by Riptide. Reviewed from e-arc provided by NetGalley.

TBR Challenge: Outcast Woman by Lucy Gordon

outcastThe theme: A Western. I screwed the pooch on this one — I thought it was a western historical and then discovered it was actually a contemporary set in Dartmoor! But as things turned out, the plot shared so many commonalities with classic Americana stories, I decided to let it stand.

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

Kirsty Trennon’s husband died in prison, proclaiming himself innocent with his last breath. Considered to be a sinful adulterer who drove him to murder, she’s been a local pariah ever since, living as a hermit on her isolated farm.

When Kirsty finds an escaped and ailing prisoner hiding in her barn, deliriously proclaiming his innocence, the parallel touches her heart and she helps him. As Mike gets well, Kirsty finds herself feeling desire for the first time, but her painful history, Mike’s issues, and their vastly divergent lifestyles make their relationship a tumultuous one.

You can see why I originally mistook this was an historical; it’s quite an old-fashioned plot, and the first mention of a phone was startling. (One of the villagers even calls Kirsty a witch!) The emphasis on Kirsty’s love of the land and of all living things, as well as subplots about evil developers trying to buy her out and so on, increased the resemblance.

Gordon is one of my favorite category authors, but this really wasn’t my style. It’s another very episodic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink book — I kept wishing Gordon had chosen one plotline and developed it (and the characters) instead of branching out into a dozen different directions. It also has one of my most despised pet peeves — infertility healed by the power of twu wuv — and I was bothered by the emphasis on Kirsty’s innocence, as if the way people had treated her would have been just fine otherwise. It’s certainly readable, and the lonely beauty of the unusual setting may extend its appeal for some readers, but for me it was just 2 stars. It’s not in print or in digital format, but cheap copies are available here.

(Published by Silhouette. Review copy owned by me.)

TBR Challenge: Passion's Sweet Revenge by Jo Goodman

revengeSensuality Rating: Steamy, of course!

The theme: A steamy read

Why this one: It has not one but two passionate couples wearing bad eyeshadow on the cover! What says steamy better than that?

I didn’t exactly read this… I started it, began to skim, read big blocks, doubled back and read parts that I’d skipped before…  This is possibly the old skooliest old skool book Goodman ever wrote, and though her prose and storytelling are definitely better than they were in her first book, she hadn’t really found her voice yet. It’s also quite a squidgy read.  She threw everything but the kitchen sink into this one — I think the only bodice ripper trope it doesn’t have is a harem.

The time is during and after the Civil War, in which Logan and Mary Catherine were on opposite sides. (Strike one.)  Their love-hate relationship begins when she’s just an adolescent — first she worships him, then she hates him, then at age 15 she tries to seduce him. After Yankee Logan is caught by the enemy and set to a hellish prison, he believes she set him up and the hate continues. There’s a vengeance rape and a marriage to someone else and a secret baby and naughty photographs and assorted villains and I don’t know what all. About 95 percent of it made me uncomfortable in one way or another, though I liked it better on the second go through, in which I saw more of the feeling between the characters. I’m tempted to start over from the beginning and give it a real shot, but I just can’t face reading all the yeechy parts again.

I won’t give this a grade since I didn’t read it as it was meant to be read. It seems to be reasonably popular on GoodReads; I might have loved it a few years ago, when intensity was everything to me.  It’s not in print and hasn’t been digitized yet, but you can buy it cheap here.

Published by Zebra. (And how.) Reviewed from personal copy, probably acquired at paperbackswap.

Review: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

heiress What a fascinating, brilliant, challenging historical romance; it features the nicest hero I ever wanted to punch in the snoot.

In order to keep an eye on the safety of her younger sister, Jane Fairfield has to get through more than a year without getting married — harder than that might seem, when you’re the heiress to 100,000 pounds. She’s promised her uncle she’ll marry anyone eligible who asks, so she has to make good and sure no one asks; her method is to take her natural difficulties in conforming and exaggerate them as far as humanly possible. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it works — she’s offensive and ridiculous and everyone mocks her.

Everyone but Oliver Marshall. “It didn’t matter how irritating Miss Fairfield was. Oliver had been on the receiving end of those snide comments one too many times to rejoice in making them.” Oliver and Jane have something in common: neither is the biological child of their official father, and both are accepted into society with reluctance, Oliver only because he’s a duke’s son and Jane because she’s so wealthy. Belligerent and blunt as a child, Oliver has smoothed over his natural inclinations in order to fit in with those who are determined to maintain the status quo, hoping to change the system from within. But he draws the line at laughing at others.

Or does he? Oliver is given a “test” by someone whose political clout he desperately needs, to make sure that “he’ll know his place, and expect everyone to be in theirs.” And to prove that, he’ll have to put Jane Fairfield in her place: “Humiliate her. Hurt her. Teach her her lesson. You know how it’s done; it took you long enough to learn yours.” (Ouch!) Even after guessing Jane’s secret and beginning to admire her intelligence and courage (and genuine attractiveness underneath the hideous gowns she wears), it’s a serious temptation for Oliver. Perhaps not even entirely for the reward — Jane brings back so many bad memories of when he was a victim of bullies:

“She had already been burned. She was afire now. She smiled and laughed and she didn’t care what they thought of her. Oliver wanted to tell himself that he wouldn’t hurt her, that he wasn’t that kind of man. But right now, all he wanted to do was push her so far from him that he never had to see this, never had to hear that low, mocking laughter again.”

This is a hard hero’s journey to read about. Oliver and Jane are actually on the same journey, to their authentic selves, but hers comes more naturally, and without hurting anyone along the way. Oliver’s resistance to letting Jane in his life, even with the most sympathetic reasons, is kind of a romance squelcher. I believed that Oliver appreciated Jane and cared for her, and I loved it when he did some crazy things for her sake, but the book never reached a level of passion for me that would bring it up to 5 stars, despite how much I admired it.

Which was considerably. Although the themes about bullying and nonconformity are similar to Milan’s wonderful Unlocked, it’s not a retread. It would take forever to talk about all the ways I think it’s clever and interesting — I bookmarked about every other page — so I’ll just touch on some:

— Although this story would stand alone just fine, elements from the previous stories are incorporated very well. We can really see how the Oliver of The Governess Affair became this Oliver.

— Jane’s horrible uncle is not a hands-rubbing villain, just a sloppy thinker who means well. (Is there anything more dangerous?)

— Milan uses the time period to great effect. There are fantastic advances in thinking, science, and politics while simultaneously there’s a ferocious old guard clinging to the status quo. (Hmmm… wonder if Milan will ever write a contemporary?)

— Oliver’s situation, though not always perfectly heroic, is very real and relatable. Who hasn’t felt sorry for someone being picked on while simultaneously wanting to get as far away from them as possible? Who hasn’t swallowed something for the sake of a greater goal? Oliver is generally a kind, honorable, decent person, and he has the face the fact that he isn’t being the man he wants to be.

So the book is excellent and the characterizations are wonderful. But I still wanted to punch Oliver in the snoot. 🙂

4 1/2 stars.  Incidentally, I was surprised to find several minor editing errors in this; usually Milan’s self-published books are pristine. You can buy it in ebook or paperback here.  (And btw, The Governess Affair is still free for Kindle, and probably at other sites as well.)


TBR Challenge: River's End by Nora Roberts

endThe Challenge: Some form of “classic” book. I thought a big fat ole Nora Roberts fit the bill nicely.

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

As I read River’s End, I kept being reminded of Roberts’ later book The Witness. It’s not that I think Roberts plagiarised herself — more like she decided to rework her basic heroine and make her stronger and more interesting.  That seemed especially pertinent towards the end of this story, when Olivia starts behaving like a total ninny.

Livvy was only four when she saw her blood-covered father standing over the body of her brutalized mother. Her father was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 20 years, and her grandparents decided it would be better to wipe out the memory of her parents and the murder. So Olivia, trying to respect the loving people who raised her, has never really had a chance to process what happened.

The murder also made a deep impression on Noah, son of the police officer who first found and comforted the terrified Livvy. Now a true crime writer, Noah wants to reveal the emotional truth behind the murder — but he may be getting too close to some other truths. And he’s definitely getting too close to Livvy, who equates romantic love with pain and loss.

Although for much of the book, River’s End was well paced, tense, emotional and generally very enjoyable romantic suspense, I had a serious problem with it. I guessed almost immediately how the story was going to turn out, and as I read on, it became clear that the ending was going to make me very, very unhappy.  I wasn’t wrong.  That, plus Olivia’s descent into TSTL, cost the book the 4 star rating it might have earned from me; if you love romantic suspense, you may well feel differently.  3 stars. It’s available in multiple formats and you can buy it here.

Willaful Review: A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

womanSensuality Rating: Surreptitiously Steamy

Grant is known for her challenging heroines and here she stacks the deck against Kate by making her — gasp! — the anti-Elizabeth. Like her favorite literary heroine, Kate is often mortified by “a family that did not know the meaning of discretion.” However, she has no intention of following in Elizabeth’s footsteps:

“If Mr. Darcy, for example, had come to her with that first grudging proposal openly acknowledging his abhorrence at so lowering herself, she would have swallowed her pride long enough to choice out a yes. Affection and understanding could come afterward — or if they never came at all, she would have a good name and the grounds at Pemberley on which to build all the facility she required.”

Cut off from her father’s high ranking family because he married an actress, Kate’s goal is to help her sisters (and herself) by marrying her way back up the social ladder. Her exceptional beauty, charm, and perfect manners make her ambition fairly reasonable. If only she could find a way to attract the notice of eligible gentlemen. And if only she could stop noticing barrister Nicholas Blackshear.

The fortune hunting heroine is not all that new, but Grant gives it an interesting twist here by pairing her with someone just as snobbish and difficult in his way. Nick also has an “irregularity” in his family that he’s trying to live down — his brother married a former Cyprian. (See A Gentleman Undone – review here.) And though Nick quite properly cut his brother off, the scandal has still cost him success in his career. His only comfort is the sour grapes of convincing himself that the beautiful Kate Westbrook would be a terrible wife for him.

A plot summary makes both Nick and Kate sound appalling, but actually both are warmhearted, thoughtful people trying to do the right things in a society that has very warped ideas about what the right things are. I liked the genuineness of the situation here: Nick’s brother’s marriage really does cause him problems, and those aren’t easily wiped away, as they so often are in Regency romances. Part of what he has to learn is that giving up your family to please others isn’t worth it. And part of what Kate has to learn is that she can direct her talents and ambitions in a different direction.

This is the most smoothly written and gracefully plotted of Grant’s books so far. Referencing both Pride and Prejudice and Emma (there are parallels in Nick and Kate’s long-term friendship), it is somewhat Austen-ish in feel — insightful, intimate, and centered around a world in which behaving appropriately is all important. The downside of that is somewhat less emotional intensity — which perhaps is the right choice for these particular characters. Though not as astonishingly delightful as A Lady Awakened or as wrenching as A Gentleman Undone, it was very enjoyable, and I give it four stars. It’s available in several formats here.

Published by Bantam. Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Willaful Review: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

storySensuality Rating: Steamy

Rivers is a debut author, one I first encountered through her incredible blog posts at Wonkomance. I find that choosing authors based on their online writing rarely steers me wrong, and it sure didn’t this time.

At an emotional low ebb in her usually pleasant life, librarian Carrie comes across an intriguing personal ad: one Wednesday lunchtime meeting a week for kissing only, no dating, no hookups. Carrie is as struck with the man’s photo as his ad — handsome, dimpled, yet curiously self-protective — and starts to weave a fantasy around him:

“Of course, maybe it isn’t just Wednesdays. I have the sudden fanciful notion that maybe on Mondays he meets a stranger to just chat. Tuesdays, he meets another for hand-holding, then Wednesday he meets one for kissing, and so on, until Saturday. Saturdays he meets a woman for fucking only, completing the entire mating dance with six different women, with an excruciatingly prolonged bout of foreplay. Sundays, of course, are his day of rest.”

(This is completely wrong, of course, yet there’s a small element of truth to it. The writer of the ad, Carrie will discover, has had to compartmentalize his life very strictly.)

Carrie answers the ad, and her first kissing date with Brian confirms her strong attraction to him. (And I have to say, he worked just fine for me, as well):

“‘You have a librarian fetish?’ I don’t mind. Not at all.

‘Who doesn’t?’ He laughs again, and for the first time, there’s a little blush, right under where his eyeglasses kiss his cheekbones.”


But Carrie is startled to discover just how firm Brian is about holding onto his rules, despite how well they hit it off. Her friend Justin suggests that he sounds like “a story guy” — “a good guy with a bad story doing something stupid.” He doesn’t see that as a negative thing though: “Story guys are like life highlighters. Your life is all these big blocks of gray text, and then a story guy comes in with a big ol’ paragraph of neon pink so that when you flip back through your life, you can stop and remember all the important and interesting places.”

Brian is a good guy and he does have a bad story. But what he’s doing is wrenching and painful and beautiful. Or as Justin puts it, “When I said you should go for Story Boy I didn’t realize he was a Russian novel.”

I was happy that Carrie puts a lot of thought into this complex, messed up relationship. She decides at the beginning that because her life is so good, it’s a risk she can afford to take: “If I’m broken, the break will be clean and easily mended. If he breaks, I’m not sure if there will be enough pieces to approximate. I can afford to go along with what he thinks will protect him.” But it’s harder than she expected. After a kissing date, her small apartment seems lonely instead of cozy. “No real food, no wine. No cats. No plants. No good music, no housekeeping. It’s like the saddest version of Goodnight Moon ever.” And no matter how hard she tries to stick to the rules, she keeps asking for more.

And when Carries realize how truly difficult maintaining a relationship with Brian will be, she ponders again, and once more gets advice from Justin: “Carrie, would you like to know this part of yourself? … The part that opens herself up to a man based on nothing but a little intuition… Because you don’t have to. Your life is a nice one — there are no guarantees, but it’s on the right path to stay a nice one. Brian is not on this path.” A nice path indeed, Carrie realizes, a path that “will never lead to a man whose hands shake when he holds my face for a kiss that feels like falling.”

The plot of The Story Guy allows — demands — a slow physical build-up with delicious anticipation, making it an incredibly sexy read. The love scenes are fresh and exciting and intensely emotional.

This was an intensely emotional read all around, for me. It probably won’t make every reader burst into tears, but it has a lot to offer anyone. 5 stars. It is only available digitally; you can pre-order it here.

Published by Loveswept. Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Willaful Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan

untamedSensuality Rating: Gorgeously Steamy

The intricate plotting and exquisite writing of this debut evokes comparisons to Julia Ross, one of my favorite authors of historical romance. Cowan doesn’t fit everything together as seamlessly as Ross’s best work, but she certainly creates a rich, vivid story.

Kit Sutherland is desperate to end The Duke of Darlington’s affair with her married sister Lydia, but the price he asks is a strange one: he’ll accompany her to her country home… and he’ll do so in the guise of a woman. “Lady Rose” is as beguiling as the Duke himself, and soon has the entire family eating out of her hand; Kit is the only one who knows him as a man — and also the only one who sees the fears and traumas that haunt him. Raised to be so far above anyone else he is literally untouchable, the irresistibly charming Jude is deeply troubled and lonely.

“He couldn’t think of a single person he could call to his side. A single person he didn’t lie to, or use, or mislead. A single person who would look at him and really see him.”

I had trouble getting into this at first, because it’s the sort of book I find intimidating – one in which there are many complicated plots and undercurrents, and everyone seems to understands them except me. But I kept at it, and as I got increasingly interested in the characters, the threads started to come together.  Jude is one of those fascinating, charismatic game players that are so intriguing to read about — “the man who is always five steps ahead” Kit calls him — and he more than meets his match in the fiercely intelligent, fiercely determined, just plain fierce Kit, who is as strong as he is vulnerable. Jude’s cross-dressing is more than a disguise; the story deliberately plays with traditional romance gender roles in scenes like this: “She had never imagined it would feel like this with a man — this meeting of two bodies, each holding and being held. They were the same height, equally strong. Her eyes drank in the sight of her rough skin against his flawless white.” Without spoilers, I love where Cowan eventually takes this play, which becomes as much about Kit as it is about Jude.

This might be a five star read, but the ethics of Jude and Kit’s behavior troubled me somewhat, and I found the plotting still a little uneven. Four stars for the memorable characters, passion, and originality. It is currently only available as an ebook; you can buy it here.

(Published by Penguin. Review copy provided by NetGalley)

Willaful Review: The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand

chocSensuality rating: Steamed and Chocolate Dipped

I was a little nervous starting this. Florand had two five star books in a row, for me — could she possibly pull off a hat trick? Yes. Yes she could.

Magalie, the daughter of a trans-continental marriage, spent her youth being shuttled between France and America.  As an adult, she made the most secure, permanent home possible for herself in the whimsical, witch themed chocolate shop of her aunts, cooking chocolat chaud that she infuses with appropriate wishes for its drinkers. (One of these fortunate drinkers was Cade Corey, heroine of The Chocolate Thief, and it worked out very well for her.) When world famous patissier Phillipe Lyonnais decides to open a new shop on her street, Magalie feels threatened enough to move out of her comfort zone and beard the lion in his den. Phillipe tries to soothe her with one of his exquisite handmade creations, she defiantly refuses… and the battle is on.

The Chocolate Kiss is very like Florand’s previous amour et chocolat books in many ways, but has a few key differences. In this story, both characters put their heart and soul into their delicious sweets, and their increasingly desperate efforts to make the other have a taste makes for one of the most delicious wars in the history of romance. Phillipe continually outdoes himself in dreaming up symbolically meaningful pastry to woo Magalie.  The defiant Magalie tries to infuse humility for him into her chocolate, yet keep unconsciously stirring her own unadmitted longing for Phillipe into it, causing him to be constantly pursued by random chocolate drinkers.

The story also differs from the previous books in being unexpectedly sad, at least for me.  Magalie is so wounded underneath the desperate armor of her Parisian chic, I couldn’t help crying for her.  For awhile I was even aghast about Phillipe’s seeming indifference to how much his shop threatened Magalie, because I identified so strongly with her that despite her aunts’ unconcern, I didn’t realize it was never a genuine threat.

Florand makes art and magic with words as she describes how Phillipe and Magalie make art and magic with food. Every word had meaning; I had to keep slowing down and going back, to savor phrases that had rushed by too fast to be appreciated.  She fills her books with rich metaphor — like all of her food magicians, Phillipe is his creations, but he is also a lion, and a prince, and he’s wary that a witch might turn him into a beast (or a frog.)  Magalie is a witch trying to stifle her longing to be a princess, but she’s also Rapunzel trapped in her tower, and a dessert that melts into goo from Phillipe’s attention. It sounds overly complicated and mishmash, but it all swirls together into a perfect mix of flavors.

This phrase struck me as being representative of Florand’s unique style:

“His laughter expanded into the whole room, his energy embracing everyone and everything in it. And that bell in her shop rang again, pure and clear, piercing her through the heart — which hurt like hell — and holding her there, impaled for somebody else’s pleasure.”

I love how her characters embrace metaphor so thoroughly, they make it almost literal. They also invariably think along the same lines — while Magalie tries to make sure no chocolate skulls are left off the fence that guards her Baba Yaga display, Phillipe immediately notices the one that’s fallen, which means the fence can no longer keep a prince out. This completely works with the gentle magic realism that’s especially strong in this story.

I read this with gusto, making gleeful noises and awwws and sobs as I went. I adored Phillipe, so large and competent and sure of himself, yet so vulnerable as he falls hopelessly in love with a walled-off princess who thinks she can’t have a prince.  (I was amused when I looked up “Magalie” and discovered it means “pearl” — she could not be more aptly named.) He truly needs the patience of someone who takes the utmost, delicate care with his work. And I cheered as Magalie starts letting her armor drop enough to enjoy a run — impossible in the high heels she unusually insists on — and even begins to believe in the power of her own magic.  It’s yet another 5 stars — or maybe that should be 3 Michelin stars. You can buy it here.

Published by Kensington. Review copy from the public library.

Willaful Review: Rafe Sinclair's Revenge by Gayle Wilson. (TBR Challenge)

rafeSensuality Rating: lightly steamy

The Challenge: Read a book by an author with more than one book in your TBR

Gayle Wilson is one of my favorite Harlequin writers. Her historicals have a emotional quality that reminds me of Mary Balogh.  I’ve also enjoyed several of her contemporaries, but sadly, this romantic suspense story left me cold.

Suffering from severe PTSD, Rafe Sinclair left both the CIA and his lover Elizabeth; he’s spent the past six years doing carpentry in an isolated cabin. But the past refuses to let Rafe alone, and a threat to Elizabeth is all that’s needed to flush him out. Now he needs to discover if the despicable terrorist he killed six years ago could somehow have survived to haunt them.

Nothing about this story ever caught fire for me. Instead of sympathetic, I felt impatient with Rafe for deserting Elizabeth instead of seeking treatment for his PTSD. (And unless I missed it, he never does — they just decide to live with it!) The suspense isn’t suspenseful. And there was way too much backstory for a book that’s supposed to be beginning a series — it’s a spin-off, and tons of previous storylines and characters clutter up the place.

This isn’t much of a review, but if I keep going I’ll just put myself to sleep. I’m giving this book 2 stars, for some tender moments between lovers who could never forget each other. It’s out of print, but you can buy it used or for Kindle here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy obtained from paperbackswap.com

Willaful Review: A Prior Engagement by Karina Bliss

Manually ReleasedSensuality rating: Steamy.

I wish I were good with photoshop, because it would be so fun to depict this story ala Twitter:

Lee Davis @leemealone Hey, it’s great to be back with the people who truly love me. #subtweeting #womenbebitches

Juliet Browne @needsnoromeo That awkward moment when your lover returns from the dead right after you finally slept with another man.

I have to joke a little, because this was such an intense read. Reading the first half felt like someone had grabbed my heart and was gently squeezing. The second half changed direction, but was equally powerful.

When Jules gets the news that her lover Lee hadn’t died in Afghanistan after all, her joy is mixed with apprehension.  For the past two years, she’s been playing the grieving fiance for Lee’s family and friends — the grief was completely genuine, but she couldn’t bear to tell them that she’d rejected Lee’s proposal before he went on tour. Lee, severely traumatized from his time as a POW, is suspicious of Juliet’s motives when he learns of her involvement in his family’s life and acceptance of his estate. When she doesn’t immediately confess her deception, he embarks on one of his own to punish her, pretending he doesn’t remember anything past his intention of proposing.

The vindictive hero/misjudged heroine dynamic is one that I absolutely love, and which we don’t find much in realistic contemporary romance any more, because it’s hard to write a hero who isn’t a despicable jerk. Here there’s such strong backstory that it works — both Lee and Juliet have been through a wringer, and it’s easy to cut them some slack. Lee’s frequent pangs of conscience and inconvenient feelings for Juliet also help redeem him.  As is common with this sort of story, Juliet comes very close to seeming like a martyr, but again, her history and character makes it plausible. And I vastly admired her clear-sighted and honest reaction when the truth finally comes out.

The story loses some steam after the big reveal, going on to concentrate on Lee’s difficulties with PTSD and integrating back into normal life; the two halves aren’t a seamless fit, but both evoked strong emotion.  The depiction of how it feels to be Lee is evocative and touching, with both deeply upsetting and positive aspects. Here he is after soaking up his first rain in years:

When at last he climbed into the car, water had plastered his hair to his skull and the sodden t-shirt clung to his body, revealing every rib, every sinew of lean, wasted muscle. But his green eyes were luminous, as though the rain had filled him to the brim and spilled over.

This is the final book in a series I hadn’t previously read, and the previous couples are big parts of the story; although it stood alone fine, I suspect reading them all in order adds even more to the experience. (There are also some possible spoilers.)

Four stars for good writing, great characterizations, and my favorite gut-punch. You can buy it from Amazon here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy provided by NetGalley.

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.

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.