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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: Unforgivable by Joanna Chambers

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

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

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

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

Published by Samhain. Review copy purchased by me.

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…)