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.

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.*

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.*

 

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.*

2014 – a summary of my reading, contemporary and quirky romance edition

Ok, I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week, but then my kids got the flu. You know how it goes. Read on for my favorite reads in contemporary romance and the nonexistent subgenre “romance novels that are quirky, perhaps a little nerdy, and also don’t have a lot of sex.” Stay tuned in a couple of days for my final roundup post on erotic romance, erotica, and the two non-romance, non-erotica books I read (and liked) in 2014.

Contemporary romance:

Between the Sheets by Molly O’Keefe
The Chocolate Touch / The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand
Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Still Life with Strings by L.H. Cosway
Private Politics by Emma Barry
Truly by Ruthie Knox

Look at the list above. These ladies are my auto-buy list for contemporary romance (and, in Molly O’Keefe’s case, for historical as well). Between the Sheets is my favorite of all of O’Keefe’s contemporary romances (that I’ve read: I’ve been saving some of the backlist to savor later on) because its characters just sang to me, especially Shelby. She’s one of those difficult heroines I treasure — her choices may not be the ones “nice” women make, but they’re the ones that make sense for her, even when they’re unhealthy. Ty and Shelby’s story is not lighthearted, but O’Keefe gave me (because, yes, this book is all for me. Back it up, bitches.) a story that was believably gritty and intense without being depressing (despite its forays into elder care, school bullies, incarcerated parents, and the ramifications of abuse).

On a somewhat more lighthearted note, Florand’s The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Temptation (along with the other six Florand books I read last year) provided 100% of my hot, French, chocolatier hero needs. Kim and I went gaga for Touch and probably each read it three or four times in a few months (and we’ll probably read it at least once more, soon, because we still need to write our dueling discussion on it.), and Tasha and I discussed Temptation together. If you read the last roundup post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for heroines, but it’s Florand’s heroes who always shine. Don’t get me wrong, her heroines are great, but Florand seems keenly aware that there is great power in a hot guy who smells strongly of chocolate, and she capitalizes on that power.

Kim and I reviewed Laugh, so I won’t add too much to my obscene word count here. I loved it for all of its details — the farming and Nina’s shorts, for instance — and for its portrayal of relationships in all their messy glory. Rivers’ characters, Sam grappling with his ADHD and Nina with her grief and fear for her friend, don’t have an easy time of it on their road to love, but sometimes the best things are hard-fought. Tasha said Still Life with Strings was good, so I read it and sent shouty texts to Kim that went like this: “KIM. KIM. KIM. KIM. Did you see Tasha’s post about Still Life with Strings? Have you read it yet? DOOOO IITTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” And she did. Lucky me, she loved it, too. (Would have been awkward, otherwise.) Ahem. This book is a tad unconventional (in all the best ways) matching a Stradivarius-wielding, slightly depressive, violinist hero and a bartending, street performing, avant-garde art enthusiast heroine. Mostly, I loved how fun it is and how it doesn’t shy away from class differences & the assumptions of the economically secure.

Private Politics is the second in Barry’s The Easy Part series (which is part The West Wing and part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — especially the first book in the series — and all romance gold). Private Politics concerns the masks we wear and the stereotypes that can define our lives and limit our chances, if we let them. So blond, perfect, socialite Alyse, used to using her looks and image to get things done (and to being undervalued), learns how to take herself seriously and to demand the same of others. Liam, a somewhat soft, nice Jewish boy, infatuated with Alyse, transitions from lovesick doormat to equal partner (demanding respect along the way). My favorite part was Liam’s mom, but that’s neither here nor there.

Finally, there’s Truly. Now, I’ll be honest. Technically, I read this book for the first time in 2013. (It was serialized on Wattpad), but I read it as a complete book when it was released in 2014, so… I’m counting it anyway. While I’m being honest, I’ve got to tell you that Truly has two of the most potent pieces of Kelly’s reading catnip imaginable: a tall heroine matched with a grumpy hero. For reals, I love those two things so much that my bias is out of this world. But wait, there’s more: Meg starts as an extreme case of mid-western politeness and learns how to be more difficult (and more true to herself) in the wilderness of New York City (and on the road back to Wisconsin); Ben, a grumpy, beekeeping, former chef, alone and adrift, makes what peace he can with his past and does some extraordinary groveling to make up for all the times he was a douchepony. Of course I loved it.

Books I keep trying to get people who don’t like romance to read (a.k.a. quirky romance):

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo / The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

So, here’s the thing. I’m a romance novel enthusiast: I read romance almost exclusively, and I think that most people, if they could get past the mental image of Fabio (oh that we could all get past that image) and the idea that romance fiction — in its entirety — is guilty pleasure reading (Don’t get me wrong… there are things I read that I feel deeply conflicted about enjoying. That just proves to me that I’m doing it right.), could find themselves actually liking a romance novel or two. Romance is frequently not the problem. After all, it’s what makes pretty much any story ever interesting and relevant to humans. Buuuuuuuut…. highly descriptive sex scenes? Now, those are definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

For those of you bravely reading this blog, certain that you’ll never, ever want to read any of the books I’m talking about because velvet-covered steel and dewy petals (and every synonym for “thrust”), this section is for you.

Attachments is a largely epistolary novel that weaves a story around emails exchanged between Jennifer and Beth, two employees at a newspaper, and narrative about Lincoln, the guy who’s been hired to monitor workplace email and ensure compliance with the company’s email policy. It’s funny and strange and ever so slightly creepy (but the creepiness didn’t bother me so much because Lincoln felt so conflicted about it). I loved it because (1) it was set around Y2K, (2) Beth and Jennifer’s emails are such an accurate depiction of friendship, and (3) it managed to have a totally believable romance even though the characters don’t actually meet until the very end.

The Girl with the Cat Tattoo is a romance and (kind of) murder mystery mostly narrated by the coolest cat ever. I’m a thwarted cat lady (my husband is allergic, so no kitties for me; otherwise, I’d happily end up with a houseful of cats and litter boxes), so the cat narrator appealed to me. The instant I finished it, I purchased The Geek with the Cat Tattoo, which I liked even better (no murder mystery to distract the story from the characters; Geek has a painfully shy human matched with a cat who controls minds and helps bring the reluctant hero and heroine together.).

Neanderthal Seeks Human self-describes as a “smart romance.” It begins in a toilet stall and follows the exploits of its narrator, Janie, an awkward architect/accountant/mathemagician who is two steps shy of autism spectrum. Janie’s POV is incredibly fun to experience, even when she misses all the obvious clues. Three reasons I love Janie: Panty Dance Parties, the way she uses the knitting group as a focus group to determine appropriate emotional responses, and her use of the moniker Sir Handsome McHotpants to refer to Quinn, the hero.  Honestly, I loved all the Knitting Series books, especially Love Hacked, but Neanderthal Seeks Human has a closed bedroom door, so I’m recommending it here. The later books in the series have significantly more sexy times (because their narrators aren’t Janie).

I hope you enjoyed this installment of my 2014 roundup. If you didn’t…