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!

Yum.

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.)

To finish or not to finish…

I decided to take a page out of Miss B’s book and write a bit about the books that I’ve tried to read but just couldn’t finish. (And also the ones that I should have stopped reading.) I try not to pick up books that I’m not going to like, but no system of vetting books is perfect.  There’s often no way to know if a book will set me off or veer down a road that I really wish were less traveled. My habit is usually to keep reading, even when it becomes a chore to continue. But is that really the best use of my time and (somewhat) limited patience? I’m probably a much happier person overall because I stopped reading these books.

For perspective: In the last 15 months, there were 5 books that I tried to read and did not finish. (That’s about 2% of my total reading.) There was one book that made me so angry that I deleted it from my e-reader after shouting at the book for a while. (For reals.) Then I posted an angry review about it on Goodreads. I should note that my discussion below requires a trigger warning.

ALL HE NEEDS

Brilliant. Wealthy. Powerful. Dominic Knight is one of the hottest tech developers in the world–and the most demanding lover Kate Hart has ever known. Whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, he is always in charge. But there is one thing he cannot control: Kate’s fiery heart…

As a master in her field, talented Kate surpassed Dominic’s wildest expectations. As a woman of uncommon intelligence and beauty, she unlocked something deep within him. Yet since their professional relationship–and erotically charged affair–came to an end, the fire in him has only grown stronger.

Now, the man who has everything will do whatever it takes to reclaim the woman he lost. From Boston and Paris to Singapore and San Francisco, he will lure Kate back into his elite world of privilege and passion. Together, they will test the limits of desire and the boundaries of discipline. For both, this is uncharted territory–naked, reckless, and uninhibited. But when Dominic’s deadliest enemies target Kate, he must face his darkest fears…and admit to himself that she is all he needs.

I read book 1 of the All or Nothing trilogy. All told, I felt pretty meh about the book, but I liked the ending, and I was curious about where the story would go in the second book. It’s pathetic that this is so remarkable, but the first book won me over because the heroine really is an expert in her field, and readers actually get to see her being awesome at her job. That’s so damn unusual that I was willing to overlook the madness (instalust like you cannot believe; the hero purchasing a new wardrobe for the heroine — his employee; the absolutely insane sex scenes (clip-on earrings doing double duty as nipple clamps, mammogram-level breast play, and an orgasm so powerful the heroine actually blacks out, etc.).  I’m not saying I expected great things from book 2… If you read that blurb, you know what kind of book it is. Rich, powerful man who craves control in all things becomes obsessed with the one woman he needs, reckless passion and danger ensues.

So, you know, I calibrated my expectations. But book 2 was soooo much crazier than book 1. One of the sex scenes involved ben wa balls, a japanese eggplant and a cucumber, all used simultaneously. I don’t even know what to do with that level of OTT. But the worst excess of book 2 was the hero’s instability. The hero (who’s apparently been keeping tabs on his former girlfriend like Stalky McStalkerton) randomly inserts himself back in her life in a “we’re not finished” kind of way (which is a little surprising, considering he Dear Johned her at the end of book 1, but whatever.). Eventually, he flies her to the Bay Area and takes her to his childhood home. He shows her his childhood bedroom, and then he flips the fuck out that she’s seeing his private space (that private space that he decided to show her). He yells at her a bit and then — even though she is totally not into it — he initiates intercourse. Because reasons, probably. Eventually, he realizes that she’s crying beneath him. Horrified, he stops, at which point the heroine, whose tearful reluctance was evidently overcome begs him to continue because magic penis. And I stopped right there at 38%, yelled, deleted, and rage-reviewed.

Because it’s bad enough to have the hero rape the heroine. And, yes, that’s what he did. But for the heroine to acknowledge that the sex act was not consensual yet argue for it to continue because it felt so good…

And that’s all I have to say about that. Compared to that train wreck of a book, this next one was positively delightful, yet I could not finish it.

Every passion has its price . . .

Journalist Sophie Ryder has been following Emery Lockwood’s story since she was a little girl. There has always been something in his haunted eyes that she couldn’t resist and now, when she’s certain he holds the key to solving a string of kidnappings, she’ll do anything to speak to him. Even if it means venturing deep into the seductive world of the Gilded Cuff, a luxurious BDSM club on Long Island’s Gold Coast and Emery’s personal playground.

From the moment Sophie enters his shadowy, sensual domain, Emery Lockwood knows this tantalizing new little sub was meant to belong to him. However, Sophie wants more from Emery than just pleasure . . . she wants his past. And that is something he isn’t willing to give—no matter who is asking. But every moment he spends with Sophie, Emery feels his control slipping and he knows it’s only a matter of time before he surrenders to her heart, body, and soul.

I know, I know. Another multi-book BDSM series… And, you’re right: I probably should stop reading books that fit that description, because it’s such a rare thing when I actually like one. (It’s happened twice, actually. I loved the original Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz, and I really liked the first and third books of Cecilia Tan’s Struck by Lightning series–but book two can go fuck itself, as far as I’m concerned. Just saying.) This book has an interesting premise — investigative journalist heroine seeks out reclusive survivor of a childhood kidnapping and barters her sexual submission for an exclusive scoop on his story. That’s… bold. Turns out, though, that the heroine is motivated by the desire to save the hero from impending doom (which she can predict because… research?) because she has deep-seated emotional issues (of course). When the heroine was 7 or 8, her best friend was kidnapped, and she was unable to provide any useful information to the police.  Her friend was killed by her kidnapper, and adult Sophie still feels responsible. (I repeat: she was 7 or 8.) I stopped reading at 37% because everything was just so overwrought.

A few years ago, I performed with a singing group that did renaissance faires (true story). I met a lot of interesting people at faire. Never before (or since) had I encountered such a number of people who as a rule felt things deeply and vented their emotions openly. It was a giant vat of over-share. One guy developed such a habit of cataloging to me all of his “deep-seated emotional issues” that he contributed to one of my deep-seated emotional issues: I’m not well equipped to handle overwrought anything.

So maybe other readers would like this book. They might not be bothered by the heightened emotions the characters feel in response to every stimulus. They might not be bothered by the excessively flowery writing. (But they should be. Everyone should be bothered by wackadoodle figurative language.) They might not be bothered by the level of attachment these characters feel for each other at the meet cute. 

But I was… Anyway, I was debating whether or not to continue reading the book when I checked out Miss B’s awesome DNF post. I’m pretty sure I made the right choice (with apologies to anyone who read and loved the book).

And here’s a book I should have abandoned:

To her family, Olivia Middleton is a problem of the most vexing sort. With her older two sisters married off, Olivia is now the target of her mother’s matrimonial scheming. Shy and somewhat plain, Olivia prefers the thrill of a gothic novel to the hunt for a husband. And as far as her family is concerned, something must be done. But Olivia has no interest in the men paraded before her-except, perhaps, the sought-after bachelor William Cross. But she’s not about to inflate his already oversized ego by telling him so.

William has sworn never to wed, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy women. What he excels at most is flirtation… unless the woman is question is Olivia Middleton. She barely bats an eyelash at his most creative compliments. She laughs at his attempts to flatter her when other ladies would swoon. William is reluctantly intrigued by Olivia, particularly when he discovers the passion simmering beneath her wallflower facade. A passion that should be to his benefit…

Because he’s determined to impress her, by fair means or foul…

I didn’t think I was susceptible to beautiful book covers (especially because I read ebooks), but… I bought this book because the cover is beautiful and I want that dress. And, because I try to read every book that I buy, I read it.

Olivia’s character is interesting and rather charming, and — aside from the obligatory opposition to love for Important Reasons Hinting at a Tragic Past — so is William’s. The pacing of their story is a little too quick, however, and its speed doesn’t give a reader enough time to care how it’ll all shake out. (Plus, it stretches plausibility.)

My biggest issues with the book are (1) the ratio of negative female archetypes to positive ones and (2) how isolated the heroine is. I’ll start with the latter. The heroine has sisters, sure, but they’re married and, as older siblings, aren’t exactly Olivia’s peers. Also, they don’t show up in the story until everything’s all FUBAR, so it hardly counts. William is given a close friend, but Olivia has no one. Back to my first issue, Olivia’s mother is like Mrs. Bennett, except she doesn’t seem to love Olivia at all; William’s mother abandoned him (and his father) to run off with her lover; Lady Sarah (another house party attendee) is vain, self-centered, unkind and rather like Caroline Bingley. Olivia is the only female character (except her sisters, who were probably the only ‘good’ women in their stories) who isn’t a caricature of bad “female” traits (or a complete nonentity like the house party hostess).

That’s probably what I get for buying a book because I like the dress shown on the cover. I should have stopped reading it when it became clear that vain and awful Lady Sarah was being offered as a foil for Olivia’s kind perfection.

You know what? It really is cathartic to write about these books. (And I think it’s a smidge unhealthy that my DNF ratio is so low.) Thanks for letting me over-share. 😉

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of All He Needs and The Gilded Cuff from their respective publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. Somewhat obviously, my opinion is my own.*