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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.

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.)

 

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

painted

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: 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: 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.

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

Willaful Review: Seven Nights to Forever by Evangeline Collins

Sensuality Rating: Torrid

The premise of this grabbed me instantly: James, a wealthy merchant married to an aristocrat who despises him, miserably seeks out an evening with a kind woman in the only place he can think of to find one — a brothel.  He’s matched with Rose, a woman also trapped by ugly circumstances —  her public persona is a quiet life running her family’s country estate, but for one week each month, she works as a high paid prostitute to support her feckless younger brother. That one night with Rose happens to be on her first night, and stretches into another, and another… but what will happen on the seventh night?

The book is marketed as sexy, and it is, but it doesn’t rush straight into bedroom antics. The sensitive and highly principled James finds it difficult to pay for sex or to commit adultery, despite the fact that his wife sleeps with everyone but him. Rose is caught off guard by his considerate behavior and trustworthy demeanor, and can’t stay detached from their encounter.  Their first night is spent in nothing but conversation, but leaves both of them craving more.

The rest of the story is about each of them carefully feeling out the boundaries of this difficult relationship. James wants nothing from Rose that isn’t freely given, but it’s hard for her to forget that he’s paid for her time or to believe she has real choices with him: “The word yes flowed so smoothly off her tongue that it had been difficult to get that no out.”  And sometimes it’s hard for James to forget that Rose is a professional. There’s some pain and hurt feelings along the way, but also a joy in each other that finally gives them both the strength to fight their way out of their impossible situations, and find a happy ending.

You wouldn’t think a hot affair between a married man and a prostitute would make a sweet story, but strong, sensible, desolate James and beautiful, charming, lost Rose are very lovable and essentially good people.  I felt both were too prone to make martyrs of themselves, but at least they do come to realize this. Filled with powerful yearning, this was a very touching story; I give it four stars.  It can be bought in trade paperback or for Kindle here or for Nook here.

Published by Berkeley Sensation. Review copy won from a blog contest.

Willaful Review: An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

 

Sensuality rating: somewhere between steamy and torrid

Fraser’s third novel confirms my opinion of her as a go-to writer for Regency romance that is actually set in the Regency rather than in that Never-Neverland mash-up that’s been dubbed “The Recency” or “Almackistan.” It’s a gracefully written, authentic feeling story

Soldier Jack Armstrong is too honorable to ignore a deathbed promise, and so he dutifully marries his best friend’s widow just before heading back to the war. But his resentment about being forced to marry a “dull, cold mouse” leads him to live as if he was still a bachelor — not realizing that word of his exploits in Canada could ever get back to his faithfully waiting wife. When he returns home after five years, he’s astonished to realize that the dull, cold mouse is a strong, confident, attractive woman — who wants no part of him. (more…)

Review: His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty

sensuality rating: steamy

 

I love the cover and title of this book; it not only establishes the period, but implicitly promises a story that strives for authenticity and sincerity. A promise that was definitely fulfilled.

The time, of course, is during World War II, some months before the Invasion of Normandy.  Lulu is a British pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary — hating the war, but relishing the opportunities it’s given her to move out of the traditional women’s sphere.  Doing her part as a morale booster, she also dances with, flirts with, and occasionally shares kisses with soldiers — but only for one night apiece.  After a painful loss, she doesn’t dare risk more with men who could die at any time.

But Joe, a medic who was the first person on the scene when Lulu had a crash landing, tempts her to break her rule:

Never had she imagined seeing him again. His face was unforgettable, like the lyrics to a favorite song. He’d been a beckoning pinpoint of light when her body had liquified and her senses turned traitor.

But more than his surprising calm, then and now, he was undeniably handsome. Hard, tall, simple, guileless — how did one describe an American man? Light brown hair cut close to his skull accentuated the cords of muscle along his neck and the blunt squareness of his jaw. He had substance, solid and strong. Lulu imagined digging her fingers into his wide shoulders and thick biceps until he flinched… if he even would.

Forget Dawson. She wasn’t thirsty anyway.

She was hungry. (more…)

Michelle Review: Buttercup by Sienna Mynx

Buttercup by Sienna Mynx. Self-published, 2010. Erotic Romance very steamy.

Let me start by saying that I was immediately drawn to this book because the cover is absolutely gorgeous. The 1930s setting makes it unusual for a romance, and it’s a time period I really like. Gangsters, bank robbers, and carnival hooch dancers definitely are the ingredients for my kind of book. Back in the day carnivals were definitely not entertainment for the kids. Men paid money to come in, drink liquor, or “hooch” and watch women get naked. For a little extra money sometimes the dancer would grant sexual favors. This is the line of work in which Buttercup is employed when she meets Silvio the leader of a band of bank robbers. Their first encounter results in him being wrongfully incarcerated for rape. So when he returns everyone, including Buttercup, believe he wants revenge, what he’s actually come for leaves the entire carnival in an uproar.

The author does an excellent job of capturing the time period and her descriptions of the carnival lifestyle are vivid and engaging. I could all but smell the aromas and see the cheap, tawdry costumes. The sense of urgency and hard lives lived fast and furiously leap from the page.

 The warm fragrance of sweet kettle corn and roasted apples blew in from the midway through the loosened flap at the front of the tent. Carnies taunted townies to test their luck, get their fortunes read, or become one of the chosen few to bear witness to the never seen before oddities of man. However, here under the cover of a patchwork carnival tent, it was just Buttercup and him–alone. Silvio swallowed. His nerves, a ball of conflicting emotions had lodged in his throat as he stared on, riveted. He had found her. Beyond a stage curtain made from tattered wash-worn sheets strung up by fishing wire, she called for him, seduced him, damned him.

These characters are true-to-life, rough edges and all. Buttercup has had sex for money. Silvio is a bank robber and gangster. People have died as a result of his actions. The author doesn’t make the mistake of trying to soften the rough edges for us. These were tough times and she shows them for what they were. This is 1930s America, so racism is definitely an issue, but it’s not the central focus of the book. It’s simply shown as a fact of life that doesn’t slow them down one bit. The gritty realism of the characters make their love story all the more believable.

For me there were only two flaws to this story; it was two short, and the villain’s motivations were a bit confusing.  By my account, Buttercup and Silvio only had two days together. They were two action-packed days, and the author does such a good job of drawing the reader in that I didn’t realize that they were together so briefly until after I sat down to write the review. But I think the story would have been well-served by more scenes of the two of them together. At one point I thought the villain wanted Buttercup for himself, but by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure what his deal was. That could’ve been fleshed out more. All in all, I absolutely loved this book.

You can download Buttercup for Kindle at Amazon.com here.

I recently read her newest  Harmony, which is another interracial story set in the same time period, but with the Cotton Club and Italian mafioso. I’ll review it later.

Willaful Review: The Sleeping Night

Sensuality rating: lightly steamy

The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel. Published by Bell Bridge Books, 2012.

World War II is over, and lives will never be the same. For Isaiah High, the end of the war means knowing he’ll never be able to belong in Gideon, Texas again.

He’d understood that his service had changed him. Until he’d been forced to board the colored car at the Mason Dixon line, he had not realized that it might be impossible to return to the Jim Crow South, to fit himself back into rigors of a system that now seemed antiquated and peculiar.

However much he and his fellow soldiers had changed, it was clear the South had not. Companions warned him with stories of the beatings that soldiers received when, after long years away, they forgot themselves and tipped counter girls or filled paper cups with water from white water fountains.

As he passed though Gideon proper, he kept his gaze fixed firmly on his path so that he wouldn’t be required to speak to anyone, wouldn’t accidentally meet the eyes of anyone who’d take offense. It shamed him to do it, after so long walking like a man in the world. (more…)

Willaful Review: A Gentleman Undone

Sensuality rating: Torrid and Most Ungentlemanly

 

I’m envisioning Grant sitting down to work on this and musing to herself, “Hmmm, what romance convention shall I skewer today?” Our heroine Lydia is a courtesan, formerly a prostitute. She’s a courtesan who enjoys her work — or at least, some aspects of it.

With all the insolence she swallowed, it was a wonder her corsets still laced. Retort after rejoinder after sharp-edged remark: Why do you address me? What can I possibly have to say to a man who would split a pair of fives? Be quiet. Go to sleep. Go away. Come back when you have another erection.

And she’s a courtesan who is currently employed. Yes, for a good portion of this story, the heroine is having sex with a man other than the hero. If the uncomfortable sex in Grant’s A Lady Awakened was too much for you, this one is going to tie you in knots. We even have a reversal of the classic bodice ripper scene in which the innocent heroine spies on the hero having sex with another woman — except in this case, it’s Will spying on Lydia with her “protector.” (more…)

Azteclady reviews Cheryl St. John's, Heaven Can Wait

The pressure of commitment!

Being almost too late for this month’s TBR Challenge, I quickly checked the mountains and piles and shelves of unread books for something appropriate—a book published before 2000. After a few frantic moments—have I really read all my old skool books already???—I found the perfect tome. I give you:

Heaven Can Wait, by Cheryl St. John

Sensuality rating: Steamy

This is Ms St John’s second published novel, prequel to Rain Shadow¹. Both novels were published by Harlequin Historical back in the dark ages (1994).

 Please be warned that there’s a lot of religion as part of the story, though not in the way that usually annoys the bejesus out of me.

The novel is set in 1888 Pennsylvania. The heroine, Lydia Beker, is a member of the historical religious commune known as the Harmony Society. The hero, Jakob Neubauer, is also of German descent, but a farmer, one of the Outsiders whose heathenish ways the Colonists abhor.

This premise would be conflict enough for me, to be honest—how do you reconcile such different views of the world? It’s all good and well to long for freedom from drudgery, but the cultural shock would still be there, even if Jakob is not rich and life on a farm is no ride on the park with grooms and maids in attendance.

Ms St. John, however, added extraneous conflict in the form of a mentally unstable sister-in-law who is obsessed with Jakob.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is the back cover blurb: (more…)

Willaful review: Scandalous Love by Brenda Joyce

Sensuality rating: steamy

The theme for this month’s TBR challenge is “Old School.” The definition is a book published before 2000, but I say if you’re going to kick it old school, you might as well go for the real thing. But I can’t deal with hardcore bodice-rippers like Kathleen Woodiwiss or Bertrice Small, so my go to gal is Brenda Joyce. I picked Scandalous Love, which I believe finishes up the Bragg Saga for me, except for the hard to find/expensive Dark Fires.

As it turned out, Scandalous Love is fairly mild, as befitting a book with the single most boring cover in romance history. (I suppose it could have been worse.)  It does start with a classic misunderstanding: Big, sexy Hadrian, the Duke of Clayborough, meets big, sexy Lady Nicole Bragg Shelton at a masquerade ball, and assumes she’s someone’s promiscuous and available wife. (Which could not actually have happened, because her correct title would have clued him in immediately that she was single.  This is not even the most ludicrous example of disregarding accuracy for the sake of plot in the book.) (more…)

Willaful Review: The Malorie Phoenix by Janet Mullany

Reviewing this brought to mind a moment from the t.v. show “Gilmore Girls” (a discussion of “The Donna Reed Show”):

Rory: My favorite episode –
Lorelai: Mm…tell me, tell me.
Rory: – is when their son, Jeff, comes home from school… and nothing happens.
Lorelai: Oh that’s a good one. One of my favorites is when Mary, the daughter, gets a part-time job… and nothing happens.
Rory: Another classic.

The Malorie Phoenix started off with a bang — literally. Pickpocket Jenny is seduced by the charming Benedict de Malorie at Vauxhall. She leaves with his stickpin, an heirloom jewel, and a bun in the oven. About ten months later, an ailing Jenny finds Benedict, hands him a baby girl (with the jewel sewn into her clothes) and vanishes.

Seven years later, Jenny’s new life as a courtesan ends with her kindly protector’s death. When some strangers hatch a bizarre scheme for her to impersonate a young woman Benedict once almost married, she embraces a chance to reclaim her child:

And now, possibly, she had the means to support her daughter. With independence and an income she could achieve a modest respectability. Roly had taught her many things, including how to manage investments and run a frugal but comfortable household… She could not and would not raise Sarah as the daughter of a courtesan.

The beginning of this historical had me settling in happily for a good read. It felt fresh and different, willing to go in unpopular directions — such as Jenny having had a good sex life with her old, fat protector — and take chances. The writing style seemed somewhat elliptical, with surprising gaps in the action, but that felt acceptable as a stylistic choice.  Even when the plot veered into utter absurdity with the impersonation plan, I tried to just let it flow over me and willingly suspend disbelief. I liked the beginning and I really wanted to keep liking the rest of it. (more…)

Azteclady reviews, The Heart of Christmas Anthology

The Heart of Christmas Anthology

After reading and enjoying Courtney Milan’s work, I have been keeping my eye out for a copy of this anthology, which contains her print debut, the novella “This Wicked Gift.” I am very, very happy to report that it didn’t disappoint—to the contrary, I enjoyed it soooo much!

But hold on, let me get this review back on track.

The anthology consists of three Christmas themed stories by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Ms Milan. Here is the back cover blurb:

‘Tis the Season for Falling in Love…

“A Handful of Gold”

Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he’s the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.

“The Season for Suitors”

After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heires Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn’t go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

“This Wicked Gift”

Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family’s future?

Starting in reverse order: (more…)

Unbelievably, I’ve never read a Courtney Milan book, even though I’ve seen plenty of positive feedback with regards to her work.

I came across Unlocked when I was looking at some recommends on Amazon, and as it was only £0.86p, I thought I might as well give it a go.

Well, what can I say, Unlocked grabbed hold of me from the first paragraph, and wouldn’t let go until I’d read the very last word.

Here’s the blurb:

A perpetual wallflower destined for spinsterhood, Lady Elaine Warren is resigned to her position in society. So when Evan Carlton, the powerful, popular Earl of Westfeld, singles her out upon his return to England, she knows what it means. Her former tormenter is up to his old tricks, and she’s his intended victim. This time, though, the earl is going to discover that wallflowers can fight back.
Evan has come to regret his cruel, callow past. At first, he only wants to make up for past wrongs. But when Elaine throws his initial apology in his face, he finds himself wanting more. And this time, what torments him might be love…

Have you ever read a book where your heart literally felt like it was breaking from the start? A book that virtually had you on the verge of tears all the way through? A book that transcended the stereotypes of its genre? Well I have to tell you, Unlocked was that book. (more…)