Books and love: The Professor by Charlotte Stein

So, I think by now it’s clear that I love me some Charlotte Stein. I love her books. I love her Twitter feed. I have aspirational thoughts sometimes — usually when I’m in the middle of one of her books — that I’ll overcome my intense dislike of travel and just, like, show up at her house (somehow) and… ? I usually stop there. Even I can’t think, despite my being rather charming in a painfully awkward kind of way, that my turning up at someone’s house unannounced could be anything but creepy and terrible.

(By the way, I’ve just revealed a grim truth: my aspirational thoughts deflate rather quickly under the pressure of my practical mental habits. Ask me about my hopes and dreams sometime, and you’ll see just how drab my mental landscape can be.)

Anyway… I read a book:

Esther wrote down her fantasies about her tutor, but she never intended for him to read them.
Once they cross the line there’s no going back.
Esther has always been an average student. She coasts through life on a sea of Bs, until a fatal mistake jolts her out of mediocrity and into something else entirely. She accidentally leaves a story in an essay for her teacher — one that no teacher should ever see. And especially not Professor Harding.
His lectures are legendary, and he is formidable. But most of all: he is devastatingly handsome, and now he has Esther’s most private and erotic fantasies. The stage is set for humiliation. Until the Professor presents her with a choice. He offers private tuition at his home.
And at first that’s exactly what she does, sure there remains a line between teacher and student that she would never cross it and that someone like Harding never would. He is far too cold and sharp, and so invested in all of his rules that breaking them seems unthinkable.
A single touch would be too much.
A wrong word could ignite an inferno.
So what happens when both of them want to burn?

I love how books figure in Stein’s writing, how often a love of books is what draws the characters together, as though their physical attraction is largely based on their discovery (their sense, sometimes like radar) of a shared love of books. Stein’s characters love books, tend to feel detached from others, and often take refuge in each other as fellow sojourners from alien planets (perhaps planets populated by readers, that bizarre species). The Professor takes this theme of Stein’s work (present in several of my favorites, including — most recently — Taken and Sweet Agony) and gives it pride of place. Amid book-strewn habitats and a wealth of literary references, these two readers (and writers) negotiate emotional and physical intimacy.

So maybe The Professor isn’t going to end up being one of my favorites of Stein’s work (there’s not quite enough connection to the hero and his conflicts (perhaps because he keeps fleeing the scene), and it’s also not quite as neurotically funny as my favorites tend to be), but… and maybe this doesn’t make any sense, but if the entire body of Stein’s work is a symphony in three or four parts (with her various themes being the three or four movements), then this book is the bass line to one of those movements: essential to any attempt to analyze what’s going on. I certainly feel as though, having read it, I have a better understanding of all the books that came before.

As usual, I’ve been dithering on this post. (I dithered so much that I read Taken again — for the fourth time — because I was trying to figure out what it was about it that I liked so much. I mean, these two books have an awful lot in common: older, somewhat restrained, massive (possibly secret werewolf) hero matched with younger, utterly neurotic, sexually unrestrained heroine. Both books have a slight Beauty and the Beast vibe (you get a hint of it in the cover of The Professor) with the heroine somehow compelled into their company at the beginning, the attraction developing out of a shared love of books, and all the hairy (literal and figurative) issues and fears. Here’s the thing: Taken is also damn charming and funny as hell. I can’t say that it would work for every reader — some folk might not share my love of neurotica, and Taken has a double dose. I mean, really:

“Now I know you’re screwing with me. Either that or trying to flatter me to get out of this — which by the way is even worse than begging for your life. You should not have to say nice things to get out of this. It is way worse if you have to say nice things to get out of this. I will probably get beat up in prison, if I’m not somehow mysteriously killed in the squad car on the way to the station first.”
“Well, before you are, could you maybe just speak a little of it for me?”
“Speak a little of what exactly? What are we talking about here?”
“We were talking about the German that you might possibly speak”
“I thought we were talking about me holding you against your will then being arrested and murdered in a police car, after which there will be a Lifetime movie based on my life called Ugly Hairy Guy Held Me Hostage: The Whatever Your Name Is Story,” he says.

So, yeah. There’s neurotic narration and a lot of neurotic dialogue, but it worked for me. Through the rambling, ever-so-slightly crazy dialogue, you really get to know Johann, and you’re rooting for him and Rosie both, even when they’re being ridiculous.

By contrast, The Professor is a bit more serious in its tone. To an extent, that’s a good thing. I mean, Stein is dealing with some hinky territory here with the professor/student dynamic. But the book is not quite as much fun, and… I missed the fun. Also, Harding is much more remote (sometimes actually remote, like when he just picks up and leaves several times over) and thus (for me) harder to root for as a hero.

But to get back to that bass line, I would probably not have noticed that Johann and Rosie’s courtship in Taken is so deeply dependent upon books were it not for The Professor. (And in Sweet Agony when Cyrian gives Molly full access to the library and reads to her — basically one of the most romantic gestures there ever could be — isn’t it the first indication that they’re kindred souls, despite her background and his otherworldliness?) So maybe The Professor isn’t quite better than the sum of its parts (to me), but those parts — the critiques Harding offers on Esther’s writing; the gut-punch of Harding’s writing; the epistolary scenes; the literary references; and Esther’s strength at the end — are better than most other wholes.

In case you’re curious (not sure why would be, but whatever), I purchased copies of all three books, but I also received an e-ARC of Sweet Agony for review consideration.

The battle of the stereotypes: douche-canoe vs. cat lady

Hi again! So a couple of months ago (or something? Whatever. Some time ago. Any mention of time gets really complicated when it takes me months to write a damn post.), I saw a series of tweets from Charlotte Stein about how much she loved Magic Mike XXL. I was particularly struck by these:

(I mean, sort of as an aside, I think your life is missing something if you’re not following Charlotte Stein on Twitter. She’s magical.) Anyway, these tweets struck me because I’d read and was sort of mentally circling Jessica Clare’s latest billionaire release, and they helped me identify an element about the book that I found both fascinating and a little problematic.

Edie’s an overbearing cat behaviorist who’s not big on people. Magnus is a newly-rich game developer who likes to be in control. When the two of them meet at Gretchen and Hunter’s masquerade engagement party, the loathing is mutual. Unfortunately for them—and everyone else—they’re in the wedding party together and must deal with each other for the next few months.

But when Magnus’s younger brother falls for Edie’s sister, he begs for his brother’s help in concocting a plan to win her over. If Magnus can keep the prickly Edie occupied, his brother will have time to woo Edie’s sister. Of course, Magnus isn’t interested in the slightest, but Edie is…intriguing. And stubborn. And smart. And sexy. And they might have more in common than they thought.

Before long, it becomes a challenge between the two of them to see who will be tamed first. But how’s Edie going to react when she finds out that Magnus is using her? And how’s Magnus going to handle the fact that he’s fallen for a cat lady?

I had to read this book, you guys. It had me at Shakespeare, of course, but there was the also the promise of Gretchen (one of my favorite romance heroines of all time) and the cat lady thing. And it totally delivered on all three fronts — as a Taming of the Shrew adaptation it worked almost as well as Ten Things I Hate About You (my favorite adaptation…); there was definitely a lot of Gretchen in the book, and she was as sassy and balls-to-the-wall as I’ve come to expect; and cats ended up figuring prominently in the plot of the book — but the meet cute very nearly derailed the whole thing.

Before Edie is introduced to Magnus, she overhears him and a few of the other groomsmen talking shit about the bridesmaids (dishing on their relative fuckability, basically), and she takes an instant dislike to him both because it’s just a shitty thing to do and because he makes a snide comment about cat ladies. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Pride and Prejudice fan, and I like the heroine overhears the hero saying something objectionable and takes an instant dislike to him trope as much as anybody. My beef with this particular meet-cute is that Magnus acts in a decidedly unheroic manner (although not nearly as unheroic as the other douchebags in the scene), and that makes it really hard to root for him later on. (Actually, let me interrupt myself again… it’s entirely possible that Clare will make some of those other douchebags the heroes of their own books at some point, so it’s not just a question of Magnus’ being unheroic… I’m wondering if we’ve got an entire series built around — or at least involving — douchey heroes. Anyway, I guess that’s a worry for the future.) There’s a world of difference between “She’s tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me” and “Shut the fuck up…Or I’m gonna insist you hook up with the cat ladies. Just don’t get them too excited or you might end up with a hairball on your–”

I’m hesitating on letting that paragraph stand, by the way, because I’m not 100% certain that I wouldn’t love, just for the sake of its being subversive, a story that centered around a heroine who behaved pretty much the way Magnus does at the beginning of The Taming of the Billionaire. It feels different to me because Magnus isn’t being subversive here… he’s behaving exactly the way I’ve been culturally conditioned to believe all men behave in groups when isolated from women (or when interacting through the buffer of the internet, perhaps). But, honestly? This seems like lazy characterization, and that’s why it bothers me (beyond the obvious that it confirms and perpetuates a ridiculous gender myth; sure, the book seems to say, all men are douchebags, but only until they meet the right cat lady.). This is a Taming of the Shrew adaptation, so there has to be some antipathy between the main characters, and I would have liked it so much more if that antipathy were more complicated than the inherent conflict between a douche-canoe and a cat lady.

(It’s possible that someone out there is still wondering why 10 Things I Hate About You is my favorite adaptation of this story. It’s probably got more to do with my age than anything, but (and I just re-watched it) it still strikes me as funny and interesting and manages to balance its more questionable elements with some unexpected social analysis. I do wish that there were more groveling at the end, but I pretty much always want more groveling.)

Anyway, back to The Taming of the Billionaire… While I was tempted to give up on the book after the inauspicious meet cute, I’m glad I stuck with it. It features perhaps the grandest (certainly the most cat-filled) romantic gesture I’ve ever come
across in a romance novel, and it has all the groveling I could ever want. I’m going to keep reading Jessica Clare’s billionaire stories. Among the veritable horde of such stories, hers stand out for humor and a batch of truly badass heroines who are (for me) the antidote to all those stories about PAs who are swept away by money rain and terrible behavior. Bonus, as of this posting date, The Taming of the Billionaire is $0.99. I’d jump on that if I were you.

*FTC disclosure – I received an e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. My opinion is my own.*

Adventures in reading – accidental corollaries

Hi again. I hope your summer is shaping up to be super awesome. I’ve been busy reading and learning how to play the ukulele and sort of kind of developing a business as a freelance copyeditor. (Very sort of kind of. I pretty much have the business acumen of a whale shark.) You know… the usual.

Anyway, this post is about reading, so let’s see if I can push through my ridiculous writer’s block and get to it. (By the way, I feel compelled to point out that I started writing this draft in the middle of June… so… it’s taking me an awfully long time to push through the ridiculous writer’s block.)

Do you guys have a process that you use to help decide what book to read next? I suspect that you do — it seems that all the people have a more methodical approach to everything in their lives than I have. I don’t plan things out. At all. So when I finish a book, I feel a kind of panic: Shit, what’s next?! If I were a better reader, I’d take some time to ruminate on what I’d just read… that’s the reason I started this blog three years ago, after all… but thinking about what I’ve read always seems like the kind of thing that will be better accomplished tomorrow. (So, it’s never actually accomplished.)

I have three basic rules that guide my reading choices:

  1. I read everything I buy (eventually), so I try always to scan through the unread titles in my library before making a choice.
  2. When reading ARCs, I try not to read them more than a month prior to the release date, because I know there’s probably no chance in hell that I’ll still remember the book sufficiently to write a review of it, assuming I decide to write a review, closer to the book’s release. I know — it’s sad both that my memory is so bad and that I have such low expectations of any given book’s memorability.
  3. If I start a book and it’s not holding my attention, I put it down in favor of something that works for whatever mood I’m in. I don’t see much point in forcing myself to read a historical romp when I’m in the mood for a more contemporary story. When I’m in the mood for that romp, I’ll come back to it.

Anyway, I shared all of that because I’m interested in hearing from other readers about what guides their reading choices. But what I really wanted to talk about today is accidental reading corollaries, the phenomenon that happens sometimes when you read two books in a row (chosen at random, in my case) that unexpectedly share certain characteristics and allow you to read the second book (and to remember the first book) more critically. For example, I might read a historical romance and follow it up with some erotica; I wouldn’t expect the two stories to have much in common, but maybe both stories deal with themes of self-acceptance. And, because reading is subjective and builds upon context and experience, my reading of the erotica will be influenced by my prior reading of the historical romance (and my memories of the historical romance will be colored by my experience of the erotica). When thinking about each book, I won’t be able to resist comparing them, considering them together.

Last month, I read an ARC of Lauren Dane’s Opening Up, and I followed it with Alexis Hall’s For Real. It happens that these books have an awful lot in common, though ostensibly quite different types of stories. Dane’s is a m/f tale set in a world of custom car shops. Its hero, Asa, a pierced, tattooed vet, co-owns a custom shop, dabbles in a bit of light BDSM, and prefers to keep things casual. Its heroine, PJ, a pierced, tattooed heiress from a prominent tire company, starts a high-end custom paint company, has issues with her family, and chases after the hero for all she’s worth (I loved that part.).

Hall’s tale, meanwhile, is a m/m tale that explores BDSM through the context of the relationship between two heroes: Laurie, an experienced and settled but emotionally unavailable submissive, and Toby, an inexperienced, somewhat lost, and endlessly courageous dominant.

As I said, I read Dane’s book first. I liked a lot of things about Opening Up, especially the heroine. PJ is young (mid-twenties) — which could easily have been her sole character trait, because it’s the thing that sets her apart from Asa, but Dane’s eye for character is much more nuanced — but she knows her own mind and heart and somewhat relentlessly pursues Asa, despite their 12-year age gap, because she recognizes that their attraction is not a thing to be missed. PJ’s confidence and tenacity continue even after the book takes a bit of turn into BDSM-lite territory. I’ll admit to mixed feelings about the book’s sex scenes — on the one hand, I liked the dynamic between Asa and PJ (and I particularly liked that Asa was shown trying things out with PJ, sometimes things that didn’t work), but I would have preferred if Asa’s sexual proclivities had made more sense for his character. Instead, it seemed that Asa was into certain things because contemporary romance heroes almost have to be into those things nowadays. My main complaint about the book is its pacing. After a great beginning, the book lost a little steam (I thought), mired in a bit too much day-to-day relationship drama, and it lost focus towards the end, becoming less about the love story and more about PJ’s troubled relationship with her family.

So that’s what I thought when I finished reading Opening Up. I mean, of course I noticed a few other things (real quick: I loved the frequent shout outs to feminism, and I loved PJ standing up to Asa on the age thing), but I started For Real almost immediately, so I didn’t take a lot of time to ruminate on anything but the broad strokes.

The first accidental corollary to hit me while reading For Real was the age gap between Laurie and Toby and how each responded to it. Laurie, being older, has this implicit bias that Toby can’t quite know what he wants, and Toby has to set him straight. Repeatedly. Toby’s indignation at having to defend his ability (his right?) to discern his own identity pretty closely mirrors PJ’s indignation toward Asa. I know what I want, both characters assert, and it’s damn annoying to be told that one can’t know something, particularly when one does. It’s entirely possible that I would have paid attention regardless, but with the age issue in Opening Up fresh on my mind, it jumped from the page. I found that I particularly appreciated For Real for making the age difference so much more notable — Toby’s 19 to Laurie’s 37 really is more remarkable than PJ’s 25 to Asa’s 37 — and for adding the nuanced discussion of identity as well as age.

For Real isn’t shy about what it is. I mean, look at the cover. (By contrast, Opening Up is rather coy with its — admittedly beautiful — cover and its mention of “the darker edge of desire…”) It is at its core a novel that explores a particular dynamic of BDSM between these two characters. I’d been anticipating the novel’s release for months, and I was thrilled to find it as thought-provoking, and as beautifully executed, as I’d hoped. And, of course, I couldn’t help the accidental corollary. I’d complained (to myself) that the BDSM elements of PJ and Asa’s relationship seemed a bit tacked on, but here was a book where these elements seemed inseparable from the story and characters. Laurie and Toby’s relationship provides the context wherein Hall examines BDSM, but the reverse is also true. It was fascinating to read the book twice, the first time paying more attention to the difference between Hall’s presentation of BDSM and that available in recent, more mainstream, works (of which Dane’s Opening Up could be called an exemplar), and the second thinking more about the sex scenes as an expression and development of character. Tending toward mental laziness (I’m sad to admit), I am certain that without the immediate influence of the first story, I would not have bothered thinking all that deeply about the second.

Speaking of mental laziness… I could go on detailing more points of comparison between these two books, but… I’m starting to run into that wall of writer’s block again. Besides, it’s probably more interesting for readers of this post who are so inclined (you know who you are) to read these two books (they’re both worth it) and talk about them. My memory is sufficiently bad that I plan to reread both books in a year’s time in reverse order. It will be very interesting to see how my thoughts of each may change based on something so happenstance as the order in which I read them.

*Disclosure – I received an ARC of Opening Up for review consideration. I purchased my copy of For Real.* 

Armchair BEA 2015 – Introductions

Oh, right! It’s time for Armchair BEA. If you have no idea what that is, don’t worry about it. (Thanks for the reminder, Tasha!) Anyway, today’s the first day of Armchair BEA, and the topic is “Introductions.” I picked the following five questions from a list. I’m fairly certain the purpose of this whole venture is conversation, so feel free to chat with me in the comments below or on Twitter. :)

1. Why do you love reading and blogging?

I have to separate these, because lately, I love reading a whole hell of a lot more than I love blogging. I suspect that most of us strange beings who practice consistent reading habits would agree that we just are readers. I am a tall; I have light brown hair; and I read books. My identity as a reader is both visible (because I carry books everywhere) and invisible; I could never pass as a non-reader. I don’t know how to interact with the world except through books. I am a reader.

Blogging, though, is hairy. I mean, when I can forget that people are eventually going to read these words (and interpret them however they wish, and I suspect that’s the sticky part), I enjoy the act of writing about the books I read, and I like re-reading my posts from years past. I love the relationships I’ve been able to form through this blog with other bloggers and with authors (mostly on Twitter). But I’ve been finding it very difficult to force myself to write past the fear of proving myself unworthy of my little niche in this community. So, you know, writer’s block.

2. What is your theme song?

The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Given my answer to the last question, I suspect you’re not surprised by this answer.

3. What does diversity mean to you?

The world just is a diverse place; it has to be in order to survive. In nature, the more diverse the ecosystem, the more it thrives, and any ecosystem that is thrown off-balance by too much homogeneity, too much sameness, eventually fails. I agree with certain aspects of the push for more diversity in books and in romance, but I worry that the constant repetition of the phrase does nothing to point attention to and celebrate the diversity that already exists in these communities. Writers are there, writing stories about non-dominant cultures, characters who don’t fit the dominant mold of rich, white, cis-gender. Those writers have been there, writing their stories this whole time. Perhaps it’s time we all paid attention to them and started reading their stories. Perhaps it’s time we celebrated their tenacity in providing some much-needed diversity within a system that has pushed for homogeneity to its own detriment for years and years.

Is that a controversial answer?

4. What is one book everyone should read?

Oh, come on. I can’t pick just one. Here’s a list of five, presented without comment:

In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
Middlemarch – George Elliot
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
A Lady Awakened – Cecilia Grant
About Last Night – Ruthie Knox

5. What is your favorite genre and why?

Romance, in most of its forms. Love is at the root of most human interactions (of the good ones, at any rate). And rather than giving a backseat to love stories or using them only to further a plot point or to bring some human relevance to a story about a disaster or whatever, I prefer a genre that places them front and center, that elevates the themes of redemption, forgiveness, and grace that are at the heart of the best sort of love. And I’m not opposed to a well-written sex scene, so there’s that.

Series reading – to continue or not to continue?

When you read as much as I do, it’s probably inevitable that you find your auto-buys. (Unless you’re one of those strange creatures that actually deliberates every purchase.) Most of the book-happy people I know have a running (and evolving) list of auto-buy authors, and some of us also have auto-buy tropes or story types. (The really smart folk out there use their local library. Just saying. Note: I’m not one of those smart people…)

I have an auto-buy authors list and an auto-buy trope list, and I tend to get suckered into reading series books. I mean, you probably knew that, right? It’s not as though I’ve made much of a secret of my lamentable decision-making skills. The thing is, pain fades, and memory imperfectly recalls. (But I just have to interject for a second here… I was told that I’d forget about the pain of childbirth once I looked into my baby’s eyes. I didn’t. 4 and 5 years on, I still remember with stunning clarity the pains, twinges, humiliations, degradations, irritations and fear of childbirth. Maybe some women forget but not all.) Once I am no longer reading a book that I did not enjoy, I can tend to forget what I didn’t like about it, especially if it’s a book in a series. I can lose myself in the hope that the next book will be better. I rationalize: I’ve already taken the trouble of getting to know the secondary characters; wouldn’t it be nice to know where/how they end up? Don’t I want to see the overarching plot resolved? Enter The Disgraced Lords series by Bronwen Evans.

Independent and high-spirited, Lady Portia Flagstaff has never been afraid to take a risk, especially if it involves excitement and danger. But this time, being kidnapped and sold into an Arab harem is the outcome of one risk too many. Now, in order to regain her freedom, she has to rely on the deliciously packaged Grayson Devlin, Viscount Blackwood, a man who despises her reckless ways—and stirs in her a thirst for passion.
After losing his mother and two siblings in a carriage accident years ago, Grayson Devlin promised Portia’s dying brother that he’d always watch over his wayward sister. But having to travel to Egypt to rescue the foolhardy girl has made his blood boil. Grayson already has his hands full trying to clear his best friend and fellow Libertine Scholar of a crime he didn’t commit. Worse still, his dashing rescue has unleashed an unforeseen and undesired consequence: marriage. Now it’s more than Portia he has to protect . . . it’s his battered heart.

A Touch of Passion is book 3 in the series, and I ended up enjoying it (the first half was rough), although not unequivocally. But I probably should not ever have read it, because I didn’t much care for the first two books in the series. (I was particularly unimpressed by the second book.)

And now, of course, enough weeks have passed that I’m starting to forget the things I didn’t like about the book. So I thought I’d write it all down now, so I might stand a better chance at making a more informed decision when book 4 comes out. (Otherwise, I’ll almost certainly read it without any consideration at all. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still probably read it, but wouldn’t it be better if I did so after putting some actual thought into it? Maybe?)

A Touch of Passion reminded me (favorably, but still) of the second Black Cobra book by Stephanie Laurens. (It also reminded me a bit of The Pleasure of Your Kiss by Teresa Medeiros. It’s closer in plot, perhaps, to this book, but the chapters of boat travel brought back memories of the Laurens book). The hero is an asshole for most of the book. It’s episodic and jumpy, and I continue to have a difficult time with the notion of the heroine being sold to a convenient Arabian harem yet still maintaining her virginity for the hero through a way too well-timed rescue. (Conversely, I’m disturbed by the idea that I might prefer for the heroine to have been sexually exploited for the sake of reality. It’s more accurate to say that I feel manipulated by the story line no matter how it goes. The threat of violence against women is often just as bad as actual violence against women, especially when it’s unclear exactly what narrative is served by that threat.) Finally, the book doesn’t really move forward the overall plot of the series all that much.

These are heavy misfortunes for a book to bear, and the book’s nearly excellent second half does not quite tip the scales back into a positive balance. To be fair, though, I should mention that the denouement was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in an ending. I’m half convinced that Evans should undertake a public service project and take all the books that have shitty endings (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example, or Women in Love) and fit this ending in somehow. The world would be a better place.

So what do you think, friends? I have some good reasons to hope that book 4 will be spectacular (in either a good or a bad way; who knows). Where’s the line? When does hope cease to be rational? Have you ever continued a series even when all hope of its getting better was lost?

*Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from Loveswept via NetGalley.*


Discussion – The Tempting of Thomas Carrick by Stephanie Laurens

I want to make it clear right from the start that I’m about to spend an ungodly amount of words discussing this book (not, precisely, reviewing it). There will be spoilers about the romance portion of the story. You’ve been warned.

This is a story of a woman who had a weakness — against all reason — for a particular author’s books. You could call it an illness. Even as each successive book repeated the tired pattern of the first few genuinely interesting and enjoyable, if not downright good, books, she could not stop buying them. She cringed at the overwrought everything, the incredibly odd sex scenes, the problematic plotting, the sheer amount of danger threatening this relatively small community. Seriously. This is the 22nd Cynster book, and if you add in the 14 other books set in a related world, that’s a fuck-ton of murderers, kidnappers, and traitors per capita. The people in that world should pretty much be walking around like this at all times:

Oh, yeah. I guess I should mention that I’m going to use an excessive amount of Psych gifs in this review. (Why, you ask? Because Psych is awesome, and because I had the most fun I’ve had in weeks troving for these gifs. Also, I want to watch Pysch again. You should, too. Besides, I’m going to write a lot of words about this book, and goofy animated clips will make it all more interesting, right?)

Anyway, where was I in my story? Right, so the woman read a whole pile of these books and then — significantly later than she should have (read: after she finished the 30th book) — she had an epiphany: they’re all the same. Her deep disappointment prompted her to write a post, which connected her with other recovering Stephanie Laurens addicts. She’d like to tell you that she held strong after that, stayed on the wagon, but she didn’t.

Read on to hear about The Tempting of Thomas Carrick, my 33rd Stephanie Laurens book.

Thomas Carrick is determined to make his own life in the bustling port city of Glasgow, far from the demands of the Carrick clan, eventually with an appropriate wife on his arm. But disturbing events on his family’s estate force Thomas to return to the Scottish countryside—where he is forced to ask for help from the last woman he wants to face. Thomas has never forgotten Lucilla Cynster and the connection that seethes between them, but to marry Lucilla would mean embracing a life he’s adamant is not for him.

Strong-willed and passionate, Lucilla knows Thomas is hers—her fated lover, husband, protector, mate. He is the only man for her, just as she is his one true love. How can he ignore a bond stronger than reason and choose a different path? She’s determined to fight for their future, and while she cannot command him, she has enticements of her own to wield when it comes to tempting Thomas Carrick.

Let me start out by saying — if you’re going to read this book — you should consider reading the novella that sets it up, By Winter’s Light(If you’re a fan of strange book blurbs, I recommend you follow that link and check it out. The blurb is a blow-by-blow.) I didn’t read the novella, and I was very confused by these characters’ strange antics and the lack of a solid meet-cute. I mean, for reals, you spend the first 50 pages following Thomas around his day-to-day life. The book kind of assumes that you know that these two characters are destined to be together. It kind of assumes that you know why Thomas is reluctant to agree to his destiny. It assumes that you know what it means for Lucilla to be the “Lady in Waiting of the Vale.” (I’ll tell you, because it’ll make the rest of this discussion a trifle less strange: she’s a priestess to an ancient deity. So destiny means something more to her than to your average gal.) I didn’t know many of those things. I just thought everybody was cray cray.

I guess that’s my bottom line. This book is incredibly odd. When Thomas finally meets up with Lucilla (after, apparently, avoiding her for 2 years), Thomas internalizes for a few pages, and finally is like, “Oh, hi, I need your help, let’s go.” And Lucilla’s like, “Great. Let’s. ……… wait a minute. What’d you do to my brother?” “Oh, it’s no biggie,” says Thomas. “I just knocked him unconscious because I don’t have time to explain the situation to him.” And Lucilla replies, “LOL, k. Lemme write him a note and tuck it into his pocket. You’re right. It’s NBD.” And she leaves Marcus on the ground.

For the first half of the book, Thomas and Lucilla attempt to solve the mystery of who poisoned the Carrick clan healer and the entire Bradshaw family, who pushed the healer’s sister Faith down the stairs of the “disused wing” of Carrick Manor, who let an adder into the still room, who broke into Lucilla’s room and threatened to smother her with a pillow, and — finally — who possessed the prescience and amazing ability to aim a giant stone gargoyle down a several-stories’ fall to nearly kill Thomas and Lucilla, strolling below. Along the way, Thomas and Lucilla kiss on occasion (because this is a romance novel).

The thing is, though, that Thomas and Lucilla’s story isn’t very romantic. That’s partly because so much of the story line for the first half of the book remains fixed on the whodunnit plot, and it’s partly because nearly all of the characterization establishing Thomas and Lucilla, their attraction to one another, their mutual “destiny,” and (I assume) the conflict that’s been keeping them apart (Thomas’s wanting to live his own life and make his own choices) is missing from this book, presumably detailed in the prequel novella. Soooo that’s a problem. But, honestly, I think the bigger problem is that Lucilla and Thomas bring little to the romance party other than instalust, and y’all know how I feel about that. (If you don’t, you’re either new here or you’ve got terrible reading comprehension skills. Fingers crossed for the former.) As much as I’m inclined to enjoy a story wherein the heroine is the instigator of all things physical, Lucilla’s aggressive pursuit of Thomas actually creeped me out a little. He mentions a few times that he’s just not that into her, that — yeah — he’d like to bone her, but she’s just not his type for a long-term deal, and her response is “lol. I’ll wear him down eventually. He can’t fight destiny.”

So, yeah. Right after the dude with a pillow sort of kind of threatens to kill Lucilla, she’s like, “hey man, I know we just talked like one page ago about how you’re looking to marry some nice woman down in Glasgow, so you can continue to run your business, but… let’s fuck.” And he’s like, “yeah, cool, we can have a fling. Sure. Why not? But no commitment, k?” On the one hand, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that Stephanie Laurens has done something completely new here, but it’s not exactly a good new thing.

I suspect the best way to explain what I mean is to tell you a little bit about Lucilla’s parents’ story (my favorite of all the Cynster books), Scandal’s Bride. Some 30 years before the events of this book, Catriona, the Lady of the Vale, meets Richard Cynster and knows (because she’s a freaky priestess lady) that he’s destined to be the father of her children. So she drugs him (I’m not kidding) with a mix of downers and uppers, if ya know what I mean, and has her way with him. (Right about now you should be shaking your head and wondering how in the fuck I could call a book that glorifies rape “my favorite.” I know. There are some deeply problematic elements to this book (to every Cynster book, truth be told), but there’s not a power imbalance between these characters, and the narrative takes pains to point out just how wrong Catriona’s actions are. The story ends up working (for me) because Richard, despite having his choice taken away from him initially, pushes through and demands his own agency. Yes, the book is pretty ridiculous and melodramatic (lots and lots of external conflict driving the characters’ internal journeys: Richard is poisoned, a barn catches fire close to the house, etc.), but it’s interesting.)

ANYWAY. Cynster fans (even we reluctant ones) will naturally contrast The Tempting of Thomas Carrick with its forebear. We’ll look at Thomas’s relative lack of agency and be concerned. We’ll look at his being seemingly content with a booty call and be concerned. We’ll look at Lucilla’s inability or unwillingness to use her words and be concerned. And we’ll spend so much time being concerned that we end up missing out on any sweeping romance (assuming any is there). That’s unfortunate.

Anyway, soon after the falling gargoyle incident, Thomas and Lucilla up and leave Carrick Manor (because someone is clearly trying to kill them, among other, slightly less interesting, reasons) and decamp to the Vale (Lucilla’s digs), and readers are left with a lot of frankly boring sex scenes (although I did cheer when “ecstasy painted a sunburst on the inside of his lids,” because that is awesome.) and multiple scenes detailing Thomas’s bucolic bliss. I mean, it is kind of nice seeing that Thomas genuinely enjoys his time in the Vale — makes it less creepy that he’s destined to live there as Lucilla’s consort whether he likes it or not — but I couldn’t figure out how the story could possibly be headed anywhere half as interesting as figuring out whodunnit. Meanwhile, the whodunnit plot completely fizzles out and is not brought up again until the very end of the book. In fact, the whodunnit plot may (or may not, I mean… who knows?) get solved in the next book.

Yeah. Right?!

I was super disappointed when the whodunnit plot was abandoned, because it was interesting, you guys (even though it was kind of obvious whodunnit and even though it took the characters on several jaunts through the “disused wing” and involved a lot of conversation about the “disused wing.”).

Then Thomas realizes — with 100 pages still left in the book, I might add — that Lucilla has been like, “Ima show him what life by my side will be like. It will be awesome. *SUNBURST*” And Thomas gets super pissed (because he rightfully feels manipulated and betrayed) and leaves, after some shouting. Let me repeat that crucial phrase: there are still 100 pages left in the book at that point. I wondered if I’d get to read another 50 pages of Thomas wandering around Glasgow, doing his business, going to parties, before he suddenly realizes that he’s the hero of a romance novel and had better suck it up and get back to his lady-love. Actually, it was about 10 pages of heartbroken Lucilla internal monologue, 15 pages of Thomas wandering around Glasgow in mostly-internal monologue, 20 pages of Thomas making amends first to Lucilla’s family members (WTF) then to her, and finally 50ish pages of setting up the next book.

Yeah. I haven’t even gotten to the way the book is structured (The POV shifts frequently, like every few paragraphs, for no reason — other than lazy writing, of course — and Lucilla is given significantly less page time than Thomas and is significantly less well-developed; both things bothered me to no end.) and the inconsistencies in Lucilla’s character (briefly: she’s the acting-Lady, but she doesn’t seem to do any of the things Catriona did. Her priestess duties seem tacked on and not really part of her actual character.). (Also, I was promised enticements (in the blurb). Where the hell were the enticements? As far as I could tell, the only enticements Lucilla wielded to tempt Thomas were poontang and destiny.) But, anyway, this post is plenty long enough. Besides, you get the idea. The Tempting of Thomas Carrick is not only odd but also just straight-up bad. It’s worse than the Black Cobra intrigue-infested travelogues. And maybe the reason I feel such keen disappointment is that my hopes were so high: after all, I still love Scandal’s Bride, even after everything. I wanted so much to love this book, too, but I can’t.

Marcus’s book is projected to be released in May, and I know I shouldn’t read it…

Hey, don’t judge me. That whodunnit plot really was interesting. And I have an illness!

Feel free to discuss this book with me in the comments or on Twitter, even if you liked it, and you’re thinking to yourself, “why is this horrible person making fun of something I love? And why did I just read 2,000 words about it?!” And if, like me, you’re recovering (or attempting recover, or saying “eh, fuck it” like I clearly am) from an addiction to these books, let’s talk about ’em! What’s your favorite? Do you agree with me that Scandal’s Bride is crazysauce yet wonderful?

The Tempting of Thomas Carrick was released on February 24, 2015 by MIRA (a Harlequin imprint). For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC of this book from Rock Star PR for review consideration. Somewhat obviously my opinion is my own.*

Wounded military code-breakers, artists, agony aunts and engineers

Oh my. The title of this post reminds me of…

Yeah… Anyway. Y’all know that I’m a fan of Marguerite Kaye’s books, right? I mean, I think it’s pretty obvious. I’ve written about her books here, here, here, here, and here. (And probably a few other places besides.) I choose to delude myself with the pretty lie that she’s actually writing these books for me. I’m totally her target audience, after all. I go nuts for heroine-centric historical romance that’s on the serious side, and Kaye’s releases over the last few years (from, say, 2012 on) have consistently delivered my reading catnip.

Kaye has a new release out this week, and it’s a little different from her recent books. [Update: turns out, I’m a trifle precipitous here… the book will be released on March 1. Three cheers for preorder?]

The truth behind the hero Officer Jack Trestain may have been one of Wellington’s most valued code-breakers, but since Waterloo, he’s hung up his uniform. If only he could just as easily put aside the tortured memories he carries deep within; Perhaps enchanting French artist Celeste Marmion might be the distraction he so desperately craves?

Except Celeste harbors secrets of her own, and questions that she needs Jack’s help to solve! With Celeste’s every touch an exquisite temptation, how close can Jack get without revealing his darkest secret of all?

Look, it’s not every day that I sympathize with Lydia Bennett, but can we talk for a second about that guy’s regimentals? And maybe his jaw, too. Damn!


You can tell from the cover and title of The Soldier’s Dark Secret that it isn’t exactly my heroine-centric catnip. This book is very much the story of its hero. Don’t get me wrong: I still loved it, but that’s mostly because Celeste is a well-wrought character whose story gets you in all the feels even though it gets less page time overall and is much more subtle. But you should probably take me with a grain of salt, here. I suspect I’m an atypical reader in that it’s usually the way the heroine is handled that makes me love (or hate) a book. I’m all for great heroes, of course, but they’re not usually the focus of my attention. I’ve noticed, in conversation with other readers, that my perspective might be considered unusual.

Jack has returned from Waterloo with what modern readers will easily recognize is a nasty case of PTSD. Kaye does a remarkable job of blending this fraught issue (terribly fraught for its time — after all, it’s not as though Regency era England is known for its compassionate response to mental illness of any sort — and fraught for our current time, as well… let’s be honest: we just barely do better (if at all) at responding to these types of war injuries.) in the story without it becoming an issue book. It’s just part of Jack’s character, and he has to learn to live with it.

Celeste is a French landscape artist with a mysterious past, and most of the plot is devoted to uncovering that mystery, but it’s Celeste’s internal journey from complete emotional disconnect — her entire childhood lives in a memory box labeled “DO NOT OPEN” — to integrated emotional health that is (to me, of course) the most interesting thing about the book, especially because it so neatly balances Jack’s more outwardly dramatic journey. Let me see if I can explain what I mean… Jack’s journey is more obvious. He’s kind of a wreck at the beginning, falling apart all over the place, suffering nightmares and consequently not sleeping, losing time, utterly lost. His family is all up in desperate denial, and things don’t look good for the future. Then Celeste arrives and gives him a purpose — solve this mystery! — and he starts putting the pieces back together again. (As an aside, I think this book will resonate with a lot of readers, because the wounded hero who gets his shit together trope seems to be pretty dang popular.) By contrast, Celeste starts out contained and competent, happy in her little life and independence; as her mystery unravels and she explores her grief, readers and Celeste alike discover that she never was all that happy and, after a bit of emotional upheaval, she realizes that happiness does not lie in a life of emotional sterility but that, to live truly, she needs to love.

So, those of you who know me personally should be smirking right about now. (I’m not exactly known for my emotional connectivity.) And maybe that’s why Celeste’s story resonated so strongly with me… Who knows? Either way, I fell in love with The Soldier’s Dark Secret because it asks such interesting questions about emotional health, grief, guilt, shame, and — especially — love. But I think a slew of other readers will enjoy it because Jack is seriously swoony (also strong and hot).

So, yeah. OK, I know I already talked about this one a little bit (if rather obliquely) in my 2014 historical romance favorites post, but… I have more to say, and now that it’s been out a few months, I’m less concerned about dropping spoilers left and right. Sooo… you with me? Goody.

The secrets behind the wedding veil

For penniless widow Ainsley McBrayne, marriage is the only solution. She’s vulnerable yet fiercely independent, so shackling herself to another man seems horrifying! Until handsome stranger Innes Drummond tempts Ainsley to become his temporary wife.

Once married, Ainsley hardly recognizes the rugged Highlander Innes transforms into! He sets her long-dormant pulse racing, and she’s soon craving the enticing delights of their marriage bed. She has until Hogmanay to show Innes that their fake marriage could be for real.

I hate to say it, but I kinda hate that blurb. I think it’s the exclamation points (and the fragment… and the idea that her pulse has actually been long-dormant. That’s just unhealthy.) Also, what the hell is Hogmanay? I read the book, and I have no idea…. I feel better having gotten that out.

I tend to get excited about marriage of convenience (MOC) books, because.. well… OK, to be honest, it’s because they tend not to rely so much on instalust. They don’t need it to explain why these characters are suddenly spending so damn much time together. (I like friends-to-lovers and second-chance stories for the same reason.) But! Good MOC stories also show characters having to learn how to make it work, how to wiggle around in a relationship with the highest stakes possible (especially in a historical romance). And that can be a fertile ground for a lot of really interesting stuff.

Anyway, in Strangers at the Altar, Kaye brings together an agony aunt (that’s an advice columnist on this side of the pond) and an engineer, each opposed to marriage for compelling reasons yet compelled to marry nonetheless. And — you guys — the meet cute at the lawyer’s office is so fantastic. Innes and Ainsley start out strangers, to be sure, but friendship (and, through it, romance) develops between them. Innes helps Ainsley in writing her advice column. (Those scenes are some of my favorites in the book, along with the scenes between Ainsley and her friend (and publisher) Felicity.) And Ainsley helps Innes make progress with his estate and its people. (He’s reluctant to accept that help, of course, but her outsider’s eye and creative problem solving pretty much save the day. Go Ainsley!)

Together, Ainsley and Innes muddle through their issues and complicate their friendship and marriage with intimacy. As in all the best MOC stories, the scenes wherein the characters adjust to changes in their relationship and/or new things learned about each other carry such tension, such gravity from their married state. (Even among these characters, who plan to part ways after a year.) There is more than just attraction keeping the characters together, and the stakes are high. There’s some delicious drama in their relationship and conflict, and the denouement is just stellar (so, so much groveling. I loved it. LOVED. IT.).

Strangers at the Altar feels heroine-centric to me, mostly because Ainsely is awesomesauce. Innes is a great character — don’t get me wrong — but he can’t compete with Ainsley in my book. And that’s probably because I’m just much more sympathetic to heroines than heroes. Ainsley’s troubles seem more grounded in reality, and what ails her — her financial insecurity — is ubiquitous to almost all women at the time. She has had to deal with first her father then her husband making terrible financial decisions for her, and she has been left to pick up the tab and shift as well as she can. That’s an age-old story, and it feels powerful to me because there’s just so much truth there.

In comparison, Innes’s story seems almost contrived (I mean, it’s actually no more contrived than Ainsley’s story… it’s all fiction, after all, but it’s a much less universal story.). He’s reeling, 14 years later, from guilt and grief after the death of his twin and anger at his father for being such an asshat. Innes leaves (is exiled) the family home and goes out into the world to become an engineer with a penchant for bridge design. I’m pretty sure there’s a metaphor there.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is the book’s lack of a magic baby epilogue. For you genre romance readers out there, how many times have you read a book that features infertility as a plot point or conflict and is resolved by a magic baby epilogue? Countless times, amiright? Our cultural norms of relationship happiness, that 1 + 1 = 3 and that dating leads to marriage and marriage leads to babies, have a strong foothold in genre romance, and it’s a rare book that leaves the fertility question unresolved (or resolved in decided infertility). Strangers at the Altar is one of those rare books that implicitly argues that it’s still “happily ever after” even when not everything is lined up all perfectly right and tight. (That, perhaps, “happily ever after” doesn’t have to include lack of sleep, fighting over conflicting parenting styles, worrying constantly that your little human will turn out to be an asshole, and never having a moment to yourself. Come to think of it, much as I love my children — and I really do — a baby-free “happily ever after” seems much more romantic to me.)

*FTC disclosure – I received e-galleys of both books from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. My opinion is my own.* (Further disclosure — I think Marguerite Kaye is boss.)