I Can’t Stand the Rain! A Musey Thoughtsy from Marguerite Kaye

I’m happy to welcome Marguerite Kaye back to the blog today. (You know… I had planned to write this magnificent introductory paragraph, but… I got nothin’. Just imagine that I’m super smooth and professional over here, despite the sad reality.) Take it away, Marguerite!

The view at sunrise from Marguerite's window

The view at sunrise from Marguerite’s window

I’m lucky enough to live in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland. The view from my window is of the Firth of Clyde. Directly across the water, the sun rises over the gently rolling hills of Inverclyde. To the south I can see the Ayrshire coast, the Isles of Cumbrae, Arran and Bute. And to the north the Holy Loch, Loch Long, and the Trossachs, the mountains which form the gateway to the Highlands. All without leaving the house.

My view is stunningly beautiful and it’s endlessly inspiring, but for much of he year it’s also rain-drenched. My particular nook of the Cowal Peninsula boasts the second highest annual rainfall in the whole UK – trust me, that’s a LOT of rain. And though I love my home and adore my view, I can’t stand the rain.

It literally seeps into my stories. Today, right in the middle of writing a Regency sheikh set in the searing desert, I still managed to conjure up a storm. Flick through my various books set in Scotland, or featuring Scottish heroes, and you’ll find our damp, driech climate (we’ve got more words for rain than the eskimos have for snow). Between them, the skies and the sea can be up to fifty shades of grey in the space of a morning.

No conversation is complete without a comment on the weather. Here is Fergus, a Highland veteran of Waterloo, describing his home in Argyll to Katerina, a Russian tightrope walker, from The Officer’s Temptation, my contribution to Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, a duet I’ve written with Bronwyn Scott:

‘I’ve never been to Scotland,’ Katerina said. ‘You make it sound so beautiful.’
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is lovely, though it is also very wet. We have a hundred different ways of describing rain.’
Fergus rolled onto his side, leaning his head on his hand. Automatically, Katerina did the same. ‘Tell me some of them,’ she said.
‘Well, when the sky’s gunmetal grey, and a constant drizzle of soft rain drifts down in a fine mist like this,’ he said, brushing his fingers lightly along her forearm, ‘we say it’s gie driech.’
‘Guy dreeck.’
He laughed. ‘Not bad. And when it’s that heavy rain, the kind that cascades straight down like stair rods and soaks right into your bones,’ he said, drumming his fingers on her arm, ‘we say it’s pelting.’

The incessant rain can affect our mood and make us Scots seem dour, but our rugged landscape also reflects our rugged personalities. We’re stoic, and we’re stubborn. We’re proud, and we’re hardy. Our oppressive weather is also extremely volatile. Four seasons in one day is commonplace, and as a result, we’re eternally optimistic. But because we know perfectly well that most of the time our optimism is unfounded, we’re good at laughing at ourselves – witness our attitude to our soccer team. Our humour is heavily laced with irony.

Kyles of Bute - Ainsley's view

Kyles of Bute – Ainsley’s view

My Scots heroes are borne of the landscape that surrounds me. Like the rain, Argyll and its isles are scattered through my books, and one of my favourites, Strangers at the Altar, is set near Tighnabruaich (Tie Na Broo Aich), about thirty miles from my home, though only ten as the crow flies. I over-dosed on landscape in this book, invoking all my favourite childhood haunts, unashamedly infusing it with nostalgia. Here is hero Innes describing one of my favourite views to heroine Ainsley:

‘That’s the Kyles of Bute over there, the stretch of water with all the small islands that you sailed yesterday,’ Innes said. ‘And over there, the crescent of sand you can see, that’s Ettrick Bay on Bute, the other side of the island from which we set sail. And that bigger island you can just see in the distance, that’s Arran.’

There are pictures of me as a bairn (child) learning to swim in the shallow waters of Ettrick Bay, and photos of me swimming with my nieces and nephews in the same waters just last year, decades on. My siblings and I swam in Ostell Bay too, as Innes does, though I took the liberty of omitting the flying ants which infested our childhood picnics from my adult romance:

The breeze began to die down as they headed into St Ostell Bay. Directly across, the Isle of Arran lay like a sleeping lion, a bank of low, pinkish cloud that looked more like mist sitting behind it and giving it a mysterious air. In front of them stretched a crescent of beach, the sand turning from golden at the water’s edge, to silver where high dunes covered in rough grass formed the border. Behind, a dark forest made the bay feel completely secluded.

Marguerite's home town, Dunoon, Argyll

Marguerite’s home town, Dunoon, Argyll

I tried to instill not only my love but my affection for these childhood (and adult) haunts in Strangers at the Altar, which comes closer than any of my books to a homage to Argyll. The landscape, like my hero, is stark and stunning. Its beauty hides a dark nature. And the climate, our fickle climate, is reflected in the sweeping changes of poor, tortured Innes’s moods.

Innes is an engineer. Iain Hunter, the hero of Unwed an Unrepentant is a ship builder. Boats are another part of my landscape and my heritage that has been creeping ever more into my books. Ferries connect me across the peninsula to the mainland. Liners and tankers and yachts sail past my window every day. My maternal grandfather was a ship’s captain. My paternal grandfather built the things. (His claim to fame was that he made the boilers for the QEII. One of my lasting memories is of him taking a hammer to beat his artificial leg into shape!)

Argyll doesn’t feature in my current book, The Widow and the Sheikh, though my botanist heroine is from Cornwall and has a strong connection to the sea, and my sheikh’s dark broodiness is worthy of the lowering clouds which are scudding over the sky as I write. We’ve officially passed on a summer this year in Scotland, with the wettest, coldest July on record, so it’s probably not surprising that my fantasy desert landscape is all sweltering sands and celestial blue skies. I can take the cold. I can suffer the winds and the snow. But I really, really can’t stand the rain.

The Soldier’s Rebel Lover, the second of my Comrades in Arms duet, is out 1st October in print and digital, UK, US and Canada. The first two books in my Hot Desert Nights quartet, The Widow and the Sheikh, and The (deliberately anachronistic) Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride will be released in March and April 2016. Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, my duet with Bronwyn Scott, will be released in July 2016.
You can read excerpts all my books over on my website: http://www.margueritekaye.com. Or why not just come and chat to me about books and life in general on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/margueritekayepage or on Twitter: @margueritekaye

Thank you, Marguerite, for stopping by today (and for sharing the beautiful photos). I’m quite jealous of the view from your window. So for anyone stopping by, let’s chat about climate and its impact on our lives. Marguerite and I represent nearly opposite climates — she’s got all that lovely rain, cold, and changeability, and I’ve got nearly endless cloudless skies, long-ass summers, and 80 degree (F) days throughout winter. Our cultural narratives match our climates. How about yours?

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…

What I’ve been reading lately – books by people named Penny

You know how humans are apt to generalize out of the particular? Well, I recently read books by two people named Penny (Penny Reid and Penny Watson, to be specific), and now my brain thinks that all books by people named Penny are likely to be awesome. I try to remind my brain that an author’s name does not have direct bearing on a given book’s chances of being awesome, but my brain does not listen.

First up is Penny Watson’s Apples Should be Red. 

Recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Start with sixty-two year old politically incorrect, chain-smoking, hard-cussing curmudgeon.
Add fifty-nine year old sexually-repressed know-it-all in pearls.
Throw in a beer can-turkey, a battle for horticultural supremacy, and nudist next-door neighbor.
Serve on paper plates, garnished with garden gnome.
Tastes like happily ever after.

The romance genre has a diversity problem, and it isn’t just one of race and class. While there has definitely been a shift over the past fifteen years or so to allow a wider age range of heroines (used to be they were all 17-21, give or take, and now they’re closer to 24-34, give or take), it would be easy, looking exclusively at romance fiction, to assume that heroes need to be in their 30s and that there’s no such thing as romance after 40. That really is a pile of malarkey, and I’m thrilled that Penny Watson decided to tell the story of these two characters in their golden years.

Apples Should Be Red is the story of a Martha Stewartesque woman thrown together with a grumpy, garden-savvy Jeff Bridgesish guy, except that the story is way more wonderful than that sounds. For starters, Tom and Bev are more well-rounded than their summaries might imply. Bev is not just a post-menopausal widow who can decorate the hell out of anything; she’s also a woman healing from several decades of bad marriage, a woman whose motherhood and wifehood has eclipsed her sense of self for so long that she’s a little lost. Tom is not just an antisocial old coot with a flourishing vegetable garden and a disdain for the trappings of femininity; he’s also an incredibly smart dude who prefers making things with his hands to theorizing, an independent man who is able to learn the value of flowers and neighbors. These two characters come alive through strong writing, snappy dialogue, and masterful plotting. The result is both laugh out loud funny and poignant; and it’s sexy as hell. I highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read more books by Penny Watson (especially Lumberjack in Love, which sounds right up my alley.)

I participated in DABWAHA this year, and was intrigued by a number of the books included in the original 64, including Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human (Knitting in the City #1). 

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without
volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn’t know how to knit.


After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can’t help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can’t afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn — the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies — to make her an offer she can’t refuse.

I fucking loved this book, you guys. There’s a pretty good chance that Penny Reid actually wrote it for me. I mean, she hasn’t met me (yet), but… whatever, it’s possible. Neanderthal Seeks Human had me from page one (which takes place in a bathroom stall without toilet paper, by the way). It is a delightfully quirky romance novel that takes full advantage of its slightly unreliable narrator and manages to be a little bit mysterious and a lot funny without downplaying any of the romantic elements. Oh, and it’s a nerd romance.

I may have mentioned from time to time that I am in favor of accurate depictions of friendship in books, so it’s kind of a given that my favorite thing about the book is the knitting group, this group of women who get together weekly to knit, drink, and tell stories about their lives. In Neanderthal Seeks Human, the group sort of plays the role of Janie’s inner monologue, interpreting the events in Janie’s life and suggesting appropriate actions. And the knitting group brings a lot of the comedy to the book’s party (including one very nearly ridiculous scene wherein the knitters take down a couple of gunmen with knitting needles, skeins of outrageously expensive yarn, and sheer moxie).

I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are some random editing issues in the edition I purchased, and I could have handled a little bit less external drama (the gangsters were a trifle OTT), and, while those elements were incredibly entertaining, they distracted just a little bit from the Janie/Sir Handsome McHotpants story. But a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfectly enjoyable. I have been recommending Neanderthal Seeks Human left and right, to strangers, to friends, to readers of romance, to people who would rather not ever read a romance novel. Honestly, I think anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy this book.

I wanted to move right on and read the second book in the series, but — so far — it’s available only on Kindle, and I’m pretty much a Nook girl. So I skipped to the third book, Love Hacked. Unsurprisingly, I loved it, too.

There are three things you need to know about Sandra Fielding: 1) She makes all her first dates cry, 2) She hasn’t been kissed in over two years, and 3) She knows how to knit. 

Sandra has difficulty removing her psychotherapist hat. Of her last 30 dates, 29 have ended the same way: the man sobbing uncontrollably. After one such disaster, Sandra–near desperation and maybe a little tipsy–gives in to a seemingly harmless encounter with her hot waiter, Alex. Argumentative, secretive, and hostile Alex may be the opposite of everything Sandra knows is right for her. But now, the girl who has spent all her life helping others change for the better, must find a way to cope with falling for someone who refuses to change at all. 

So I was a little worried when I picked up Love Hacked that it wouldn’t live up to the hype my brain built. I needn’t have worried. This book is, like Janie’s book before it, told in the first person past narrative from Sandra’s perspective, and it is awesome. And Alex? OM NOM NOM NOM. (Wait, is that creepy?) Further, it’s just as funny as Neanderthal, but it’s utterly distinct. And it makes me want to have occasion t-shirts (except I don’t like wearing t-shirts).

Love Hacked is slightly less recommendable to non-romance readers because it’s got significantly more sexy sexy times, but I still want to recommend it to all the people (all of them). It’s funny and touching and enjoyable and interesting. (And, again — I’m not saying that it’s perfect… editing errors and external sources of drama annoy me.)  But let’s just put this into perspective for those of you who know me well: this book has editing errors and I loved it anyway, and I want you to read it. I don’t know that there’s a better way to communicate how very much I liked it.

So there you have it: books by people named Penny are fucking awesome.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of Apples Should Be Red from the author in exchange for an honest review. I purchased the other two books.*

What I’ve been reading lately – a little more historical romance fiction

It’s kind of fun to go back through a giant list of books read over a period of three months and identify some trends. I read a heck of a lot of historical romance fiction in January and February (and, as you know, a heck of a lot of erotica in March). So, here I am continuing the mini-review trend. I’ll catch up eventually…

Sinfully Yours (Hellions of High Street #2) by Cara Elliott

After an eventful Season, Anna Sloane longs for some peace and quiet to pursue her writing. Though her plots might be full of harrowing adventure and heated passion, she’d much prefer to leave such exploits on the page rather than experience them in real life. Or so she thinks until she encounters the darkly dissolute-and gorgeously charming-Marquess of Davenport.

Davenport has a reputation as a notorious rake whose only forte is wanton seduction. However the real reason he’s a guest at the same remote Scottish castle has nothing to do with Anna . . . until a series of mysterious threats leave him no choice but to turn to her for help in stopping a dangerous conspiracy. As desire erupts between them, Davenport soon learns he’s not the only one using a carefully crafted image to hide his true talents. And he’s more than ready to show Anna that sometimes reality can be even better than her wildest imaginings . . .

I got an email about these two books by Cara Elliott, and the name sounded familiar to me, so I did a search of my blog and turned up this post on Too Dangerous to Desire (Lords of Midnight #3). I decided to read the books — despite real fears of encountering more dog metaphors and strange laughter — because I am such a sucker for books whose characters are writers. (Tangent: it should not surprise you at all to learn that the only Julia Quinn books I still enjoy are the ones that reference the mad fiction of Sarah Gorley. /tangent)

Sinfully Yours is fun. It combines some of the best elements of lighthearted historical romance into a fast-paced romp that delivers laughs and feels in equal proportions.  For example, it has: a delightfully inept mother character who wants the best for her daughters (and interprets “best” as “a German prince who may or may not be pitching for another team”); a roguish hero who secretly designs and sells automata (OMG, he’s in trade!); a “perfect” heroine who secretly pens slightly risqué gothic adventure novels and doesn’t really know what happens after her hero and heroine kiss; an assassination plot that somehow requires the heroine’s help to foil; dastardly villains; good triumphing over evil; happily ever after ending.

It also has a few instances of “Ha ha ha” laughter (and, yes, I did think of Count von Count every time), and it seemed to me as though the characters moved from flirtatious to naked in a remarkably quick period of time.  I mean — it would have been a jarring sprint down the primrose path in a contemporary romance, but this is a historical romance. I expected the standard progression: longing glances, first kiss, kissing with passion, kissing with passion and groping, full on second base, etc. There are usually a lot of steps before the heroine has her hands shoved down the hero’s trousers (or under the placket of his breeches, as the case may be). I feel like such a pearl-clutcher writing all this, but there it is.

All told, though, I enjoyed Sinfully Yours because it’s fun and funny and because its heroine is a writer. If you like lighthearted historical romps and/or stories about fictional writers or tinker-type heroes, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Passionately Yours (Hellions of High Street #3) by Cara Elliott

The youngest of the Hellions of High Street, Caro Sloane has watched her two sisters have exhilarating encounters with dashing heroes, and now she is longing for some excitement of her own. After all, how can she write truly passionate poetry until she has experienced a Grand Adventure? But that seems unlikely to happen as she’ll be spending the next few weeks in the quiet spa town of Bath, where nothing grand or adventurous ever happens . . . until she and her new friend Isobel are nearly abducted while walking on a quiet country road—only to be rescued by Alec McClellan, the moody and mysterious Scottish lord she met at Dunbar Castle.

Alec has come to England to deal with a treacherous betrayal and fears that his half-sister Isobel is in peril from an old enemy. Does he dare share his secrets with Caro? The bold and brave beauty leaves him no choice, and together they are quickly caught up in a swirl of dangerous intrigue . . . where fiery desire between them may ignite into the greatest danger of all.

When I read these books last month, I liked Passionately Yours slightly better than Sinfully Yours, but now, four weeks later, I am finding that the latter was more memorable; however, I don’t find that its being memorable necessarily means that it is better. After all, the things that continue to resonate in my memory are (1) the things that I was always going to love about it (writer heroine, tinker hero, uptempo plot) and (2) the thing that I found incredibly strange (surprise peen).

The heroine in Passionately Yours is also a writer, albeit of the poetic variety, and so is the hero, though he’s much more secretive about it. Its story pretty well mirrors Pride and Prejudice, except with more intrigue, danger, and sedition. Caro and Alec meet and take immediate dislike to each other in the previous book, and that dislike continues in this one. But, of course, like Lizzy and Darcy (and Beatrice and Benedick) before them, their mutual dislike is actually just a disguise for mutual attraction — a reflex of these prickly and passionate characters. I thought both characters were interesting individually and together, and I enjoyed the romance of this story (which I thought was much more believable than the previous book).

The only problem with Passionately Yours, actually, is that it is so smooth a read — enjoyable but not particularly challenging — that it doesn’t stick around much once the last page is turned. Only you can know whether or not you would find that to be a point in its favor.

Improper Arrangements by Juliana Ross 

A reckless infatuation nearly ruined Lady Alice Cathcart-Ross in her youth, but from the moment she spies Elijah Philemon Keating scaling a rock face without a rope in sight, the man awakens her long-buried desire. Alice has come to the high Alps in search of a mountaineer, and in Elijah she finds the guide of her dreams.

Though Elijah is known as one of the greatest explorers of the age, a tragic accident has destroyed his taste for adventure and society. Elijah can’t deny his attraction to Alice, but he resolves to avoid the entanglement that could accompany it. He promises Alice one week in the Alps, and no more.

Alice agrees, valuing her independence above all else. But as the heights they climb by day are overshadowed by the summits of passion they reach at night, these vows become harder and harder to keep…

You read that blurb, right? OK, officially, I take exception to stories about women who have experienced some form of physical relationship in their past but — for whatever reason — have managed to live a celibate life until they meet the hero, when KAPOW, their lady areas light up in a conflagration of desire (I seriously read that line somewhere in about fifty different books. Wish I was kidding.) I know, I know — it’s vacation sex, and, anyway, it’s in a book and I should lighten up — but it’s just hard for me to imagine that Eli’s the first attractive man Alice has met in the years since she established an independent household for herself.

That said, I actually liked this story in spite of a few pet peeves.  It’s written in a first person narrative, and y’all know how I feel about that. There’s that instant attraction thing and the idea that the heroine has an independent life but feels the need to live it entirely alone until she meets a fine pair of forearms. But even with my starting bias against the book, I enjoyed it. It reads like a romance novel crossed with a travel diary, which worked strangely well. Both characters are distinct, interesting, and engaging. I loved the writing, which reminded me a little bit of E.M. Forster with a feminine twist. (It’s possible that my brain is just making that bit up because this story has English people wandering around the Alps.)

I liked Improper Arrangements, and I can’t wait to read the next book by Juliana Ross. Incidentally, I read (and loved) the first Improper book way back in the early days of this blog.

A Night with the Bride by Kate McKinley 

While at a lavish house party, Gabriella Weatherfield confidently bets her friends that she can convince the “unseducible” Duke of Somerset to kiss her. But Gabriella’s innocent wager turns wicked when faced with the duke’s intense blue eyes and talented hands.

Nicholas Montgomery usually strives to stay away from society, yet there’s no denying Gabriella’s wild beauty or the way she makes him want to lose control for once. Will the fire between them burn out when Gabriella uncovers the inner demons haunting Nicholas?

I really wanted to like this book. Here’s the thing… This story has a pretty good premise — Duke with issues overhears brassy, trade-wealthy heroine accept a dare to kiss him, hijinks ensue. That could have been really interesting, and for the first half of the book, I was impressed with the story. But then things got a little crazy.

I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but it is simply too staggering to suggest that a woman who has thus far been unimpressed with all the dudes she’s met would not just fall in love within the span of two days but fall so hard in love that she’s impervious to fears of madness though she lives in a society in which madness is feared, the mad locked away, the families shunned. I accepted the sudden attraction between the characters — even though it hinged on insta-lust and magic sex organs — but I could not believe the instant growth of love and loyalty, and without that belief, the second half of the book was strange, choppy, and unpleasant.

Sinfully Yours was released on February 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Passionately Yours was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Improper Arrangements was released on November 11, 2013 as an e-book by Carina Press. One Night with the Bride was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book by Forever Yours. For more information about the books, click on the cover images above to visit each book’s page on Goodreads. Check out the authors here: Cara Elliott, Juliana Ross, Kate McKinley.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all four books from their respective publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

What I read in March – a wry confession

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I had set this wild goal for 2014 to read fewer books and to think about them more.  I want you to know how well I’m doing on that goal.  Are you ready? I read the following books from March 1-31. (Click on any of the covers to learn more about these books.)  Oh, and I’m listing them in the order in which they were read, from March 1 through to March 31.

That’s 22 books (9 novellas, 13 full-length novels). Maybe I jinxed myself when I so publicly stated my goal. Maybe it was just a coincidence that I ended up binge-reading several authors (Sarah Mayberry, whom I started reading in February, Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, Laura Florand, and Maisey Yates). Maybe I just really wanted to read during the month of March, and I should get off my own back.  Either way, I think we can conclude that I spectacularly failed at my goal last month.

But, OH, you guys…. I don’t even care, because some of these books were just so damn good.  If you’ve not read Charlotte Stein (and you’re in the market for erotica), you should do yourself a favor and pick up Control. That book is simply beautiful. And Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human will probably make my list of favorites for the year. And Unexpected was, well, unexpected — a contemporary, Oregon-set, cowboy-secret-baby-almost-engagement-of-convenience story that not only worked but also managed to fill me with hand-clapping, bouncing glee?! — and incredibly good (MissB: if you’re reading this, I think you’d love it.). And I really can’t wait until my bestest reading buddy Kim picks up Once Upon a Billionaire, so I can find out if she likes it as much as I did.

And don’t even get me started about those two Laura Florand books (or the one I just finished a few hours ago)… I didn’t think I could like a book better than I liked The Chocolate Touch but then I read The Chocolate Rose and realized maybe there could be a tie in my affections. But then I read The Chocolate Temptation (which I really want Tasha to read) and realized that, really, there’s no way to pick a favorite, and the best thing to do about it is just read all the books over and over and over again, the way my bestest friend in the whole wide world cycles through The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, there you have it. I may have failed at my goal, but I WON AT ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Stay tuned for future posts discussing these very books in greater detail. And happy Friday, everybody!

 

What I’ve been reading lately — a little historical romance fiction

I’m not really a goal-oriented person.  Goals — and I’m using a fairly broad definition that comprises resolutions of the New Year’s and less formal variety, vague life goals, reading goals, dreams I used to have when I was a kid, etc. — often seem like a waste of time and emotional energy.  The thing is, I’m terrible at goal setting.  Either I pick a goal so easy to achieve that attaining it means nothing or I pick a difficult goal and it becomes just another way for me to fail. That is such an Eeyore sentence, right?

This year when setting my arbitrary reading challenge ‘goal’ on Goodreads, I decided to try to be intentional about it rather than just guessing how many books I might read in 2014. I set a low goal — 100 books — because I want to slow down and think about all the books I read — even the ones that don’t seem to deserve it — and live out the purpose of this blog.  I want to analyze, and I can’t do that when I start a new book the instant I finish one. So far, I don’t think this is a goal I will achieve this year, but I have plenty of time left to surprise myself.

I shared all of this as an introduction to a series of mini-review posts and as a public declaration both of my goal to think more (and perhaps think better, but that’s less certain) and of my less-than-stellar track record with goals.  Because I know you care. Obviously.

First up on the mini-review train is A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen Evans.

Desperate to escape her abusive past, Sarah Cooper disguises herself as a governess in the employ of Christian Trent, Earl of Markham, the man who, long ago, she fantasized about marrying. Despite the battle scars that mar his face, Sarah finds being near Christian rekindles her infatuation. A governess, however, has no business in the arms of an earl, and as she accompanies Christian on his voyage home, Sarah must resist her intense desires—or risk revealing her dangerous secrets.

One of the renowned Libertine Scholars, Christian Trent once enjoyed the company of any woman he chose. But that was before the horrors of Waterloo, his wrongful conviction of a hideous crime, and his forcible removal from England. Far from home and the resources he once had, Christian believes the life he knew—and any chance of happiness—is over . . . until his ward’s governess sparks his heart back to life, and makes him remember the man he used to be. Now Christian is determined to return to England, regain his honor, and win the heart of the woman he has come to love.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and you’re enjoying it, but these niggling little thoughts keep intruding on your enjoyment, poking you and causing you to doubt whether you really should be enjoying yourself, all things considered?  Well, I felt that way when I read A Kiss of Lies. The story is sweeping, covers a lot of geography (York, Canada to Kingston, Jamaica, to London), uses some of my favorite tropes (injured/damaged hero, governess heroine, characters with issues, and secret childhood infatuation), and is well-paced and emotionally satisfying.  So what was the problem?

A Kiss of Lies is pretty damn bold (not a bad thing), and part of its story involves a plantation, an abusive slave owner, and the white woman who’s caught in the crossfire. And part of me wants to praise the book for not shying away from such a loaded topic. But another part of me wonders what is the point of bringing up slavery if the story is going to be told from the perspective of the white woman who’s harmed by it.  Maybe my reading approach was too nervous (or too American, maybe), but it felt like this giant, festering, definitely not resolved issue was used — was appropriated, perhaps — as a narrative crutch to demonstrate just how much the heroine suffered in her marriage. There are other ways to achieve that end without marginalizing people whose experiences were fifty thousand times worse than the heroine’s because she was, eventually, able to escape and hide because she’s white.  I dunno… I liked so many things about the book, but all the parts that related to Sarah’s back story made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

Then there is Portrait of a Scandal by Annie Burrows.

HE HAS TAKEN HER TO HEAVEN, HELL AND BACK AGAIN… 

Her heart and hope long since shattered, Amethyst Dalby is content with her life as an independent woman. With wealth of her own, and no one to answer to, she is free to live as she pleases.

Until a trip to Paris throws her into contact with the one man who still has a hold over her—the bitter but still devastatingly sensual Nathan Harcourt! Living as an artist, this highborn gentleman has been brought low by scandal—and he is determined to show Amethyst that life is much more fun if you walk on the dark side….

I read this book in January, and I just didn’t know what to say about it. There were quite a few things that I liked about it, particularly that the heroine (sort of) recovers from a difficult family situation and achieves a (sort of) independence and that the hero escapes from the stifling expectations of his family to live out his passions (art) on his own terms.  But there were also a lot of things I didn’t like, particularly that the heroine’s recovery from her difficult family situation involves an extreme pendulum swing from naively trusting young lady to hardened and crotchety pensioner in the body of a young woman.  Further, I wanted a lot more sucking up from the hero, who was the cause of all the heroine’s difficulties.  Portrait of a Scandal is pretty typical for its genre, which will be comforting to some readers and frustrating to others.  You know who you are.

Finally, I want to talk about Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill.  Nearly a year ago, I reviewed The Greatest of Sinsand anticipated the continuation of The Sinner and the Saint story line.

Honorable—and handsome to boot! — Michael Poole, Duke of St. Aldric, has earned his nickname “The Saint.” But the ton would shudder if they knew the truth. Because, thrust into a world of debauchery, this saint has turned sinner!

With the appearance of fallen governess Madeline Cranston—carrying his heir—St. Aldric looks for redemption through a marriage of convenience. But the intriguing Madeline is far from a dutiful duchess, and soon this saint is indulging in the most sinful of thoughts…while his new wife vows to make him pay for his past.

I cannot believe I liked this book, you guys. In fact, I think there might be something wrong with me. You see, it goes against one of my hardest of hard limits: it gives an HEA to a hero who raped the heroine. I know. I KNOW! But here’s the thing… it was interesting because it stayed resolutely mired in the gray area that is real life; it was believable because it allowed the hero and heroine each to feel a whole range of emotions, regrets, hopes, and fears; and it was subversive as hell because it took a number of tropes — the rapey hero, the victimized heroine, the marriage of convenience, the secret baby… — twisted them around, and hinted at a dialogue I just never expected to find in a Harlequin Historical.

There are some things about rape that you just know, right? (And if you don’t… well, I don’t want to hear about it.)  For example, in a scenario wherein an intoxicated man stumbles upon a sleeping woman and proceeds to have sex with her, is it rape? You probably answered, YES.  And you’re right, because the sleeping woman did not give consent.  Here’s a harder question, though: take that same intoxicated man and tell me if he’s an evil person, a person who deserves to be punished forever for what he did.  Tell me what that punishment looks like. These questions do not have simple answers. To get near the neighborhood of those answers, you have to answer a whole slew of other questions: what is good, and what is evil? what is right, and what is wrong? what is justice? what do we mean when we say “deserve,” and who could decide such a thing?

I am certain — indeed, there is proof in the Goodreads reviews — that not everyone will agree with me that the HEA in The Fall of a Saint is just. I liked it because it pushed the envelope and made me think beyond the failed logic of my oversimplified views vis-à-vis rape and rapists.  I know you want to see my diagram.

Diagram 032614

The truth is, it’s just not that simple, and I liked The Fall of a Saint because it didn’t try to keep things simple. Merrill allowed her hero to feel devastation and condemnation and hopelessness and self-hatred; she allowed him to act with contrition; but she also allowed him to develop hope and to find happiness.  If it were just about him, maybe that would be problematic, but she also allowed her heroine to feel anger and grief and shame and righteousness; she allowed her to act out her anger; but she also allowed her to develop strength and forgiveness. And together they found love, and I thought that was pretty cool, all things considered.

Kiss of Lies was released on January 14, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. Portrait of a Scandal was released on January 21, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical. The Fall of a Saint was released on February 18, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical.  For more information about any of these books, click on the cover images above to visit their page on Goodreads.  Check out the authors’ websites: Bronwen Evans, Annie Burrows, Christine Merrill.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all three books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Some thoughts on romance novels and female friendship

I read Tawny Weber’s A SEAL’s Salvation last week.  I liked a lot of things about the book, but I found its depiction of female friendship rather problematic.  I’m hoping it’s just me.

 Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Where navy SEAL “Bad Ass” Brody Lane goes, trouble follows. Being run out of his hometown years ago for misbehaving with Genna Reilly—the sheriff’s daughter—was one thing. Now Brody is about to step into real danger. Not the suggestive letters he’s been exchanging with Genna, but the kind of trouble that can send a soldier home injured and broken inside…

Genna’s entire life has been orchestrated by her family. The right job. The right friends. Enough! Brody’s return offers the promise of lust-filled pleasures. Of flesh teased and tasted. She’s not expecting to find a soldier with distant eyes who has secluded himself from the world. But this good girl knows exactly how to bring a bad boy back to life….

Some of you probably know already why I wanted to read this book.  It’s that injured hero trope, calling out to my soul and promising compelling and emotionally satisfying entertainment.  And the blurb also hinted at one of my favorite heroine tropes: the heroine who gets her shit together and embraces her true self.  It was a foregone conclusion that I’d enjoy the story, considering the elements it’s composed of, and I did.

I loved Genna’s penchant for baking, for example, and her moxie and entrepreneurship.  I loved Brody’s Grandma.  I loved Brody.  And those letters Genna and Brody exchanged before his injury were absolutely my favorite part of the book.

In fact, I liked pretty much every element of the story except one: Genna’s friends.  Maybe I’m just the luckiest damn person on the planet for having truly awesome women as friends (I totally am), and maybe that extreme good luck skews my perception of reality, but I really find it jarring when female friends in romance novels are depicted as crazy bitches or just as bad friends.

At the beginning of A SEAL’s Salvation, Genna’s best friend Macy is living with her while planning all the last-minute details before her epic, but ultimately rather sad, wedding.  Macy spends a lot of time trying to convince Genna to date this guy whom Genna doesn’t like, doesn’t find attractive, and who kind of creeped her out on their first and only date (he collects troll dolls.).  When Genna points out all the reasons that she doesn’t want to date troll-collecting Stewart, Macy suggests that maybe Genna should go out with Stewart anyway, because it would make Genna’s parents so happy.

Later on, Macy — who thinks Brody is a Very Bad Guy — threatens to tell Genna’s outrageously overprotective parents about their relationship because… ?? Genna is 27 years old.  And this is Genna’s best friend.  In every appearance in the book, Macy is critical of Genna and dismissive of Brody (and not even because she’s genuinely concerned for Genna).  In Genna’s darkest hour towards the end of the book (between conflict and resolution), her last wish is to call her friends.  She’d rather be alone, and that makes perfect sense. Her friends suck.

Now… I’m sorry, but that’s just not friendship, and it makes me feel ragey.  And, again, maybe I’m just the luckiest woman alive to have such super awesome lady friends (and a few dudes, as well) — none of my friends would ever try to push me into dating any dude who didn’t light my fire (it’s moot, but whatever) and none of them would ever EVAR so disrespect my judgment as to tattle on me, a grown woman!, to my parents.  Come the fuck on — but I doubt I’m the only woman with fantastic friends, and it drives me wonky when this real friendship, often the most important thing in a woman’s life, doesn’t show up in the romance novels I read.

So, last week I wrote on Book Bloggers International about romance novels as entertainment, catharsis, and activism, and I paid particular attention to Courtney Milan’s entire body of work (but I highlighted her most recent release, The Countess Conspiracy), Tessa Dare’s latest, Romancing the Duke, and Robin York’s New Adult release, Deeper.  Do you know what else those three books have in common?  Awesome depictions of friendship.

The Countess Conspiracy is the latest in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and it tackles some pretty hefty subjects, most of which are best discovered while reading the book.  (As an aside, one of my favorite things about Milan’s writing is that she respects her characters’ privacy and allows them to reveal themselves to readers over the course of the book.)  This book so beautifully depicts female friendship.  Between Jane, Minnie, and Violet, there develops a true friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect (Jane and Minnie are the heroines of the first two full novels in this series.).  Between Violet and Alice there develops a friendship between equals and colleagues that is a wonder to behold because of its resemblance to friendship among male colleagues, and yet it is uniquely feminine and the more powerful because of that femininity.  I wish we got to see more of it (but I understand that it’s sort of beside the point, as far as the narrative is concerned.)

Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) and I wrote another of our dueling reviews (this one with an actual disagreement in it!) about Romancing the Duke, Tessa Dare’s latest, that discusses the important role friendship plays in the book.  I’m not going to bother reiterating our arguments here… so go check it out!  It’s pretty great, I think.

Finally, there’s Robin York’s Deeper, wherein heroine Caroline (I just had to put those three words together. Sorry.) finds herself the victim of revenge porn attacks started by her slimeball of an ex-boyfriend and picked up by a cadre of trolls who use images of her naked body to shame and dehumanize her.  In the wake of all these revenge porn attacks — that occur not just once and done but again and again and again — Caroline and West forge a cautious not-quite-friendship that is the focus of this book told in shifting-perspective, first-person-present narration.  But it is through Caroline’s friendships with her roommate, the members of the rugby team she joins, and, to an extent, with West’s roommate (Sorry — I’m awful with remembering character names, and I don’t have my copy of the book with me) that Caroline discovers her strength and begins to heal.

So, there you go.  If you find yourself interested in any of these books, just click on their cover images to be transported to their page on Goodreads.  A SEAL’s Salvation was released on January 21, 2014 by Harlequin.  For more information about Tawny Weber, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of A SEAL’s Salvation from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I purchased the other books.*