Reading as healing – a musey thoughtsey about The Billionaire Takes a Bride by Jessica Clare

I stalled out writing this post over a year ago, and I just… stopped. I’d hit a wall, and I couldn’t write anything. Read on, and perhaps you’ll see why.

For most of my life, I’ve answered the question, “How are you doing,” with, “I’m OK — I’ve been reading this book…” and then I go off on a tangent about that book. I have no idea if it’s deflection or if I actually contextualize my life through the books I read. (In other words: I have no idea if it’s healthy, this thing that I do, but I do it, so it’s normal to me.)

And it’s actually why I started this blog, so that I could get a better read (ha) on what I think about these books (and who I am). As a relatively reserved person, my choice to share all this on the Internet might seem odd. When I started this blog a few years ago, I really thought that no one would ever read it, and that was a comforting thought. Then I made friends, and I discovered that my life is so much better, richer, and more intellectually complex when I push past my shyness and reserve and engage in dialogue with people about all these thoughts I have. It’s complicated, of course. Sometimes I want to hide. Sometimes the books I’m reading hit too close to home, and it’s terrifying to share my thoughts about them. Sometimes I gag on my random neuroses, so afraid of being misunderstood that I say nothing, so convinced that I have to be the most eloquent writer to be worthy of saying anything.

I was talking to my best friend last night fifteen months ago about this book I read and mentioned that I wanted to write about it on the blog but that I was afraid. What if I’m wrong, I said. What if the truth shines through too clearly, I said. What if I’m not perfect, I said. (I said a lot of other stuff, too, most of it ridiculous.) And my best friend told me that I need to give myself permission to think out loud, to process stuff the way I process it, to be wrong and to learn, and to write occasionally inelegant sentences. I need to give myself permission to be me. (And if a random mob of judgey judgers happens to descend — which would be really strange, tbh, because in 200+ posts I have received exactly zero negative comments — I should give myself permission to tell them to fuck off.)

My best friend is… well, she’s awesome. Anyone who could listen to me agonizing over these debilitating yet completely unfounded (and ridiculous) fears and respond with patience, understanding, and acceptance is just… she’s like awesome covered in amazing and dipped in the very essence of friendship. Anyway.

I read a book.

Billionaire Sebastian Cabral loves his family, he just doesn’t love their reality TV show, The Cabral Empire. So when his ex-girlfriend tries to rekindle their relationship on camera, Sebastian decides that drastic measures are in order.
By day, Chelsea Hall is a happy-go-lucky, rough and tumble roller derby skater. By night, she’s still living in fear of her past. Most of all, she just doesn’t want to be alone. And she really, really doesn’t want to date.
So when their mutual friends’ upcoming wedding turns Chelsea and Sebastian into fast friends, they realize they can solve both of their problems with one life-changing lie: a quick trip down the aisle.
But with one kiss, Chelsea and Sebastian suddenly realize that their pretend relationship is more real than either of them expected…

I’m going to lead with a trigger warning. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book based on its rather vague blurb (“…living in fear of her past” could mean almost anything), and I honestly would have preferred to be warned. I still would have read the book, but I would have known going into it that I’d have to reckon with some of the content. Anyway, for any of you who need it, this book and my thoughts about it come with a trigger warning for rape/sexual violence and PTSD.

Most of the story revolves around a marriage of convenience (and friends-to-lovers) story between Sebastian, an artist who values his privacy yet is saddled with a reality show family, and Chelsea, a soap-making roller derby player who is recovering from rape and a nasty case of PTSD.

I don’t particularly feel like giving a blow-by-blow, but the book starts off on a funny, if a bit wry, note, and it actually keeps the humor going throughout, even when things take a darker turn. The humor and the sweetness of the friends-to-lovers romance between Chelsea and Sebastian help to balance out the heavy issues, and I’m grateful to Clare for providing them. I don’t watch any reality TV at all, but my best friend said the reality show elements of the book sound like a hot-mess mashup of Keeping up With the Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

There are a lot of great things about this book (all the roller derby, loads of Gretchen antics, etc., but I just want to talk about the romance as a path to recovery aspect of the book. For reasons.

Rape and sexual violence make frequent appearances in romance novels. I can think of a lot of reasons why: sexual violence disproportionately affects women and is, therefore, always going to be interesting and relevant as an issue to the women writing and reading in the genre; there’s nothing more dramatic than a traumatic backstory; something like 1 in 3 women experiences some form of sexual violence in her lifetime (and I would posit that 100% of women are impacted by sexual violence, whether from personal experience or the experience of a close friend or relative. Additionally, I’d say all women are impacted by it because of the fear and sense of inevitability that surrounds it, at least in the U.S.); the rapey-hero trope permeates old-skool romance novels and is sometimes reprised in modern ones; and the threat of violence (sexual or otherwise) adds tension and movement to a story. There are many more reasons, and some of them are actually good (many aren’t). I don’t shy away from stories that depict sexual violence, because I’m hungry for stories that give me hope, that show characters grappling with these issues and winning. Of the romance novels (that I’ve read) that depict sexual violence and its aftereffects, there are just a very few that do so in a thoughtful, compassionate, thoroughly good way. The Billionaire Takes a Bride is one of these.

Some context might be good… In the past, I’ve been perhaps a trifle coy about this subject. I’ve had my reasons for that reserve, but I’m kind of done with it.

About fifteen years ago, I was raped by a close friend of my then-boyfriend. It took me at least a decade to start calling it sexual assault (rather than an incident, an assault, or “that thing that happened to me”), and this is the first time, I think, that I’ve used the real word for it in anything as lasting as text. And I am even now choked with all the things that I suddenly want to explain in order to justify my use of the word. I hate that I feel the need to justify it in my own account, but…

So that’s my context. What was to that guy a throwaway thing, a thing he’s never had to justify or explain, dominated my early twenties until I learned to live with it. The PTSD was the worst part, because it was a weed that grew around so many other things and stayed. I got a back injury out of the experience, and I have (admittedly mild) flashbacks every time it flares up. It sucks, and this is me fifteen years out.

I felt the need to share these facts because I really wanted to write about this book, and I couldn’t think of a way to talk about what’s so awesome about it without talking about why it matters so much to me. (I know I haven’t told the story… I’m not quite ready for that yet, even though it’s nothing outside the ordinary. To be honest, though, I don’t think it much matters what the details are. The facts tell one story, but I still have a hard time ignoring all the other messages that for years prevented me from telling myself the truth.)

Chelsea, the heroine of The Billionaire Takes a Bride, was similarly choked (and yoked) by the conflicting messages that made it difficult for her to talk about her trauma and heal. She’d been roofied in a neighborhood bar and woke up in a dumpster. You might think, reading that bald sentence, that there’s no way her story could be anything but the one thing, but you really shouldn’t underestimate the insidious messages we tell our young women every day:

Be vigilant. Don’t go out alone. Never leave your drink unattended.

And while those are all good pieces of advice, on the other side lies the idea that if a woman isn’t vigilant or goes out alone or leaves her drink unattended and the “unthinkable” happens, it’s as much her responsibility as the rapist’s. After all, she knew better. We hear this victim-blaming every time there is a news story about sexual assault and the reporter or pundit or well-meaning family member sitting next to you comments on how alcohol is so dangerous or how young women should be careful about what they’re wearing in public or how women shouldn’t go out at night alone. Sadly, I don’t often hear a lot of pundits spending time talking about how men should stop raping women… funny, that.

Back to the book. So Chelsea withdraws from her life, pulling away from the friends and experiences that defined her before life. By chance, she attends a Roller Derby bout and decides to join a league, and she finds a workable new normal. She opens a small business selling handmade soaps online and devotes the rest of her energies to roller derby, an exercise that allows her to escape her reality for a bit and to recapture some of her lost joie de vivre. As Chesty La Rude, Chelsea can safely exhibit her now-dormant sexuality for a time, and then put it away again.

One of the things I like about romance as a genre is that the stories so often model the redemptive and/or healing power of love to set wayward or hurting humans back on a right or more healthy path. In The Billionaire Takes a Bride, Clare cleverly uses the marriage of convenience and friends-to-lovers tropes to enable these two characters to pursue a relationship in a way that isn’t traumatizing for Chelsea (and off-putting for readers). Their mutually-beneficial relationship and friendship that turns slowly into something more gives the characters a lot of time to get to know each other and explore physical intimacies with a strong foundation of trust.

And, lest you worry, there’s not a magic peen moment, and there’s this great line:

Then again, it was like she said: There’s no rape-victim guidebook on how to feel. She’d been through hell and emerged out the other side. If she took a bit longer to get turned on, then, well, he’d just have to wait for her.

As a character, Chelsea is pretty damn resilient. The woman who deals with crippling PTSD by restarting and creating a new, safe normal for herself isn’t going to passively endure a problem once she’s decided it’s untenable. She figures out a workaround that enables her to pursue a relationship with Sebastian. It helps that Sebastian, being first Chelsea’s friend, feels pretty damn strongly that she should have the right to reclaim her agency. Personally, I found it rather beneficial to read about the path these characters take toward healing. By the crisis point in the book, Chelsea is doing much better — starting to reach out to her before life, her old friends — and so is Sebastian, starting to share his art and find ways to solve the purposeless ennui of his privileged life.

Of course, I have a couple of criticisms of the book. Sebastian is almost too good a character. He’s a little aimless in his life, sure, but he doesn’t have many other rough edges to make you really want to engage in his story. (I mean, I understand… he’s kind of like the ideal soft landing space for Chelsea, but… it makes him a little one-dimensional.) And I would have preferred if the conflict in the book had focused on the two characters rather than on another character swooping in and perpetrating the worst sort of villainy upon Chelsea. Home girl had already been raped… she didn’t need any more trauma. Neither did I. The denouement is appropriately sweet, and Sebastian gets to be all heroic, but…

Anyway… disturbing conflict aside, I enjoyed reading The Billionaire Takes a Bride and I found it, on the whole, much more therapeutic than damaging, which cannot always be said about books involving characters recovering from sexual assault. After reading it, I felt much more inclined to look back on my old trauma and deal with some of the things I’ve been hiding from for years. And publishing this post is part of my process.

There is no guidebook for these things. There’s no right way to recover from the traumas we survive. For me, I find that there is a lot of power to be found in reading a good book. I get to practice empathy with characters, and sometimes I am even able to transfer that empathy to myself.

So how am I doing? Well… I read a book.

What’s conflict got to do with it? – Trust Me by Laura Florand

Hi.

I know. It’s been a hot minute. What can I say?… I have a bunch of posts in draft, but I got stuck on one of them and… yeah. Stuck. I might finish writing it at some point, but in the meantime… I read a book. (I mean, really… since my last post, I’ve read a few hundred books, but… whatever.) I important bit is that I read a book that I felt like writing about, and I actually managed to make it happen. If you’ve ever had 18 months of writer’s block, like me, you know how momentous this feels.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

She’s nobody’s damsel in distress…
Top Parisian pastry chef Lina Farah is used to fighting for her success. But when a violent attack shatters her security, she needs a new tactic to battle her dragons. What better way to banish the monsters under her bed than by inviting a sexy SEAL to tangle the sheets?

He’s a professional dragon slayer…
Elite operative Jake Adams has never stayed in one place long enough to form a lasting relationship. Lina’s fire and beauty tempt him to give her the hot affair she craves. But her spirit and courage make him long for more. Can he convince a woman seeking forgetfulness to dream of ever after…with him?

Laura Florand is one of my favorite writers in Romance and the author of a few of my favorite books. (The Chocolate Touch and All for You are my favorites of hers.) So I was really happy to hear that she had a book out this week, and I read it right away. And then I read it again (because that’s how I roll).

Trust Me occurs kind of in the middle of the action of the second book in the Paris Nights series, Chase Me. It brings together coworker/best friends of the main characters from that book, and I really think it would help to have read Chase Me if you’re planning on reading Trust Me. When I say it occurs in the middle of the action, I’m not overstating things. The violent attack referenced in the book’s blurb occurs in that book. (Bonus: Chase Me is really fun, violent attacks notwithstanding.)

Anyway, I was happy to have Lina get a book, because she’s super awesome. And, while his character is a lot slower to build than Lina’s, Jake ends up being a pretty decent match for all that awesome. I loved the freckles. And he’s got a pretty great smolder thing going on.

It used to be that the Kindle app on my phone would display a ticker at the bottom of the page, letting me know my reading progress. And then one day it disappeared, and I haven’t taken the time to figure out how to bring it back. But usually I don’t need it. I don’t mean to brag, but I read enough romance novels that I can usually guess where I am in a given book. Are things going great? It’s probably about 50%. Are things edging towards conflict? Probably about 75-80%. But a strange thing happened while I was reading the book.

I was happily reading Trust Me and guessing that I was about 50% through, and it felt right. Things were going well after a slightly bumpy beginning, and I was just starting to wonder what the conflict was going to end up being (there were hints here and there of possible conflicts, whether about their conflicting professions or their mutual relative inexperience with relationships) when the book ended. Like, Fin. The End.

And now I actually feel bereft.

The thing is, I think conflict is really necessary to support a believable happily ever after. (Also, it keeps things interesting. Just saying.) Any halfway decent love story (whether it’s in a book or from one’s own life) is, in some way, about how that love has overcome some obstacle. In our lives, it’s probably more common for the obstacles to be internal — can so-and-so ever learn to trust, maybe, or can these crazy kids learn how to use their words to communicate — but sometimes they’ll be external, too — anybody got a story about their love overcoming obnoxious family resistance? In a romance novel, the obstacles can be anything from the mundane to the outlandish, but there’s always something. There has to be a conflict!

Trust Me ends with an epilogue-like final chapter, so it’s not like the book doesn’t have an HEA (and it’s definitely happily ever after rather than happily for now. These two are committed by the end.). It’s just not a satisfying ending, because it doesn’t triumph over any odds. Far as I could tell, these characters didn’t slay any dragons (or, more accurately, they didn’t slay them together. More like they both individually realized that their dragons weren’t that big a deal, and then they shrugged and moved on.).

It’s like this story: two people met each other, flirted a bit, started a relationship that had a misunderstanding at its core, pretty quickly resolved the fairly mild misunderstanding, and then decided to make forever out of things. The end.

Is that a satisfying story? (Not to me.) ………………… Am I being too dramatic?

(I feel like the answer to that question is always going to be yes… but whatever.) Anyway… I leave you with a French cat.

Expectations and endings – a musey thoughtsy about The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye

In one of my recent(ish) email exchanges with Marguerite Kaye (who, in addition to writing some
of my favorite historical romance novels, is a fabulous correspondent), I mentioned that I wanted to start a new series of posts on my blog called musey thoughtsies, places where I or any guest posters could ramble on about whatever. It was just starting to get hot where I live, and there had just been a fire, and I 20150814_145838rambled on in my email about the impact of my home climate — drought-riddled chaparral — on my ability to sojourn in green lands. I spent a week in Ohio over the summer and found it claustrophobic: so much green growth reaching up to the sky and clouds reaching down, enclosing all around.

Anyway, Marguerite encouraged my musey thoughtsy idea, because she’s made of awesome. On Friday I’ll have her on with a guest musey thoughtsy about never-ending rain (something I can’t comprehend at all). But for now, I want to talk about her most recent book.

When Major Finlay Urquhart was last on the battlefield, he shared a sizzling moment with daring Isabella Romero. Two years later, Finlay has one final duty to perform for his country, one that reunites him with this rebellious senorita! Except Isabella has her own mission, which means that no matter how much she craves Finlay’s touch, she can never tell him the truth. But she’s underestimated Finlay’s determination to protect her, and soon she finds herself letting her guard down, one scorching kiss at a time!

God, that cover. It’s grown on me a little bit, but I can’t help but wonder exactly how uncomfortable that model was. Corsets aren’t comfortable when you’re vertical, but they’re about forty times worse when you’re lying down. And then having to be nose to nose with another model, trying not to breathe in his face when you can barely get a good breath anyway… It must have been awful. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not part of the decision-making process for any covers, because I’m pretty sure I’d find something to complain about every time. Anyway… the book.

I opened The Soldier’s Rebel Lover with high expectations. There’s a good reason that I write about Kaye’s books so frequently on this blog (pretty much every time a new one comes out). They sing to my soul. It’s like she starts with an idea of a heroine, usually someone interesting and a little bit different and beset by a problem that I recognize, and then she builds the story around her.

Be honest: how many times when reading historical romance do you get the sense that the story was built around the heroine? Not often. It’s the heroes who are usually at the focus of both the narrative and our attention. As readers, we want to fall in love with the hero, and all we require from the heroine is that she be worthy of her hero, whatever that means, and not too “difficult.”

Kaye’s interest in her heroines — and through them her readers — and in the issues that impact those heroines — and continue to impact her readers (and herself) today — shines through her writing, even when she’s trying to write a series that is hero-centric. I still feel like what she’s really trying to do is to tell my story, to make sense of my world. And, selfish being that I am, I find that I love the experience. Continue reading

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.

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.* 

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.*

 

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.*