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.)

What I’ve been reading lately – books with wounded military heroes

I’ve been doing these “what I’ve been reading lately” posts lately because (1) I’m lazy and can’t seem to write more than one post in a given 10-day period; (2) I read waaaaayyyyyy too much, and if I tried to write about every book, you’d be like — Whoa. Stop it with all the posts about these books I’m never going to read. Just stop it, Kelly; and (3) I tend to get into reading moods, and sometimes it’s more interesting to discuss the themes that occur across multiple books. So, in June and July, I read a bunch of books that had military heroes, and I just realized (because I’m slow on the uptake sometimes), that all those heroes were wounded in combat. In some cases, the hero’s military status is a huge part of the book (i.e. it really does fall in the military romance subgenre), and in other cases the hero retired or was medically discharged, and his service is just part of his back story (and identity).

One theme that unites the books that I’ll be discussing in this post is that a large portion of each story focuses on the wounded hero’s search for identity and vocation in light of his injury. All three books are new releases, and (it seems to me) it’s yet another indication of how the romance genre responds to modern culture and current events and remains relevant. In the U.S., at least, war is everywhere. Do you know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it in some way? Do you know anyone who doesn’t mourn a classmate or friend, who hasn’t seen a loved one change and struggle after too many too-long deployments? Do you know anyone who isn’t heartsick to think of the welcome we offer the veterans who are lucky enough to return: poor health care, few career options, and the continuing stigma of mental health issues? I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that (more than) 3 new romance novels deal with this subject. (To be clear: I picked these three books to write about, but I could have expanded this post to talk about six books that I read in June/July that feature a wounded military hero, and I’m not really a reader of military romance novels. I’m guessing there are a lot more books out now that deal with the wounded hero trope.)

He’s in for the fight of his life . . .

Army captain Trent Davila loved his wife, Laura, and their two beautiful children. But when he almost lost his life in combat, something inside him died. He couldn’t explain the emptiness he felt or bridge the growing distance between him and his family—so he deployed again. And again. And again . . . until his marriage reached its breaking point. Now, with everything on the line, Trent has one last chance to prove to his wife that he can be the man she needs . . . if she’ll have him

. . . to win back his only love.

Laura is blindsided when Trent returns home. Time and again, he chose his men over his family, and she’s just beginning to put the pieces of her shattered heart back together. But when Trent faces a court martial on false charges, only Laura can save him. What begins as an act of kindness to protect his career inflames a desire she thought long buried—and a love that won’t be denied. But can she trust that this time he’s back to stay?

Back to You is definitely a military romance novel — and I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t read very many of those — but its story stays fairly focused on Trent, Laura, and their chance for reconciliation. I love reconciliation stories (mostly because I hate instalust), and this one was right up my alley. I loved quite a few things about this book.

  1. This book has fantastic primary characters who are very nicely fleshed out.
  2. The emotional narrative of Trent and Laura’s story is so well wrought. There is a weight to their encounters early in the book, and that weight lightens with each new bit of trust forged (and earned). I particularly enjoyed how Laura’s anger is supported and validated by the narrative, yet her forgiveness is allowed to grow naturally.
  3. The interactions between Trent and the kids — who are pretty much strangers to him — are beautifully done. My favorite of these interactions involved Trent getting super-duper overwhelmed by his kids’ madness and then feeling like a failure for not being emotionally prepared for it. I just might love Jessica Scott forever for having Laura reassure Trent by telling him about the time that she absolutely lost her shit with the children. Parenting isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying. I loved that this book showed how messy parenting can be and gave Laura the chance to act with compassion, to share the story of her own failures, and to validate — for every parent — that those failures are not the whole story, that it’s the successes, added up, that tell the real story of a childhood and a family. That was neat.
  4. The women soldiers in this book are soldiers.

And, of course, there were a few things that I didn’t like so much. The secondary characters (two couples who are friends of Laura and Trent) were distracting, possibly because I read Back to You as a stand-alone and was not invested in the secondary characters from having read their books. Another character seemed to be introduced in the narrative only so readers could feel sympathy for Trent later on (and so Trent could learn to confide in Laura), and that was unfortunate. There’s a lot of military jargon that I just didn’t get. “Down stream” seems to mean a lot of things, but I could not identify them from the context. Finally, I wanted a little more closure from the ending. I’m not much for epilogues, but — since so much of the story dealt with Trent’s adjustment to a new normal and his search for identity in the wake of his injuries and experiences — I wanted a clearer idea of where he and Laura ended up.

But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book and am very glad that I read it.

Fighting for his country gave Jake Taylor’s life shape and meaning. Now as an injured war hero he struggles to find purpose, until he runs into the gorgeous woman he dated briefly—and disastrously—before being deployed eight years ago. Turns out Jake doesn’t just need to figure out how to be a civilian . . . he also needs to learn how to be a dad.

Eighteen, pregnant, and totally lost, Mira Shipley couldn’t track down the soldier who fathered her child, so she put college on hold and focused on making a good life for her son. Now she’s determined to be something more than Sam’s mom, her parents’ daughter, or Jake’s girl—as hot as she finds her old flame’s take-charge attitude in and out of bed. Soon Mira and Jake realize that their passion didn’t disappear when Sam was conceived—and that instead of running away, sometimes it’s better to hold on tight.

Yep, it’s a secret baby book. It’s one of my favorite tropes because it is so rarely done well (and yet so often done… I mean, I’m just going to make up some titles, here, but I bet some of them exist as actual books: The Rancher’s Secret Baby; His Baby, Her Secret; Triplets for the SEAL; The Firefighter’s Surprise Family. Yeah… I just looked those titles up… they totally exist.). Anyway. I’ve read a few of Serena Bell’s stories before, so I was really stoked to hear that she’d written a secret baby story. And do you know what? I loved it. Some of my favorite things:

  1. Mira. She’s gutsy, principled, intelligent, and she recognizes the value of finding and maintaining an identity separate from “mom” and “daughter” and “girlfriend.” An equal amount of narrative time was spent on Mira’s journey of self-discovery as on Jake’s, and I loved how interesting her journey was. Mira gets the best dialogue in the book, lines of acerbic wit and frank humor. Finally, Mira’s sexuality and self-confidence are so refreshing.
  2. Computer science gets a shout-out, and it’s not the typical nerd locked in a room writing code about how to get chicks variety. Instead, Mira discovers in computer science a language she can relate to, a framework through which she can develop and express her other interests (in this book, shoes.). Since that’s what computer science actually is but is so rarely shown to be, I was thrilled. (And I’m not a computer scientist…. just a CS enthusiast, I guess.)
  3. I found all the interactions between Sam and Mira and Sam and Jake to be heartwarming, at times poignant, and often very amusing.
  4. Jake’s angst. I am actually a sucker for a wounded hero story (so, you know, grain of salt and all that), but Bell’s handling of Jake’s internalization of his injury and his resulting identity crisis was powerful and felt authentic. So, too, was his journey towards healing, self-acceptance, and love. Jake’s angst about sex was really interesting (because usually romance novel heroes exhibit unassailable sexual confidence) and endearing.

And, of course, there were some things I didn’t like so much. While Jake and Mira have a past relationship that helps to explain some of the strength of their physical attraction for one another, it *almost* bordered on the insane chemistry of instalust. Maybe it’s just me, but it pissed me off that Jake, after he had his Aha! (Aha! I’ve been an asshole. OOPS.) moment, waited three weeks to make things up to Mira, because it was so important that he get himself sorted. It further annoyed me that he orchestrated this big production to surprise her. Nope. Love doesn’t need everything to be just so, and love doesn’t leave someone in suspense just for the sake of one’s pride. (As for the big production… those just annoy me in general.)

But the bottom line is that Hold on Tight is still one of the best secret baby stories I’ve ever read.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
 
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Some of my favorite wounded hero romance novels are historical romances. (My favorite, in case you’re wondering, is England’s Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch.) I was poised to love this book — it’s about a widow who intends to go her own way, eschewing propriety, even, and a wounded hero — but, sadly, The Escape isn’t on my list of favorites.  It was still an enjoyable read…eventually.

It’s just that the beginning is so awkward. Part of that awkwardness may be attributed to the book’s position as the third in a series of six Survivor’s Club novels about the romantic antics of five wounded veterans and one lady quasi-spy. (I haven’t read the first two books in the series.) The Escape opens with all six Survivors gathered at the estate where they all convalesced some years before. That opening chapter reads like a strange prologue that sets up the stories of all the Survivors but otherwise does not pertain to this story. And the introduction of all those characters who don’t feature in this story is kind of awkward… so much name dropping, so little happening.

The story actually begins in chapter 2 (so it’s not a long, strange prologue), but the awkwardness continues in some truly odd lines of dialogue. Consider this line, delivered by Ben’s sister:

“…But — you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered — I do not possess any, not being the vaporish short, though you could easily make a convert of me.”

Who talks like that? The infodumping dialogue got to be distracting, and it was really a shame, because I liked Ben, Samantha, and their respective stories. Honestly, the only reason I continued reading the book after the fourth or fifth chapter was that it has amusing animal antics (a dog named Tramp). At about the halfway point, though, I started to enjoy myself, because the book shifted locales and became much more focused on the heroine’s story. (And either the writing got less awkward or I simply got used to it.) By the end, I was happy I’d read the book. I guess that’s the bottom line.

As in Back to You and Hold on Tight, the injured hero in The Escape must find a new identity (or, more accurately, uncover the identity that is enmeshed with his military vocation and apply it to a new vocation). The first half of the book (the half I didn’t like so much) spends a lot of time discussing Ben’s listlessness, and while some time is spent on introducing and developing Samantha, it’s accurate to say that Ben is the star of the narrative. But once Ben and Samantha arrive in Wales, Samantha becomes an active participant in the story — the second half of the story is about her just as much as it is about Ben. Overall, I would have liked the book much better if there were not an abrupt turning point where Samantha ceased to be a figure in Ben’s landscape and became her own individual, worthy of having her own story. (To be clear: Ben’s story was not diminished in the second half of the book: he still struggles to find himself, to work towards a healthy identity.)

By the way… this is the first Mary Balogh book I’ve ever read. I hear that her back list contains some amazing books… What should I read?

What do you think about the wounded hero trope? (Or about bananas… I just want to have a conversation, and I don’t care what it’s about.)

If you’re interested in any of these books, click on the cover images to visit their pages on Goodreads. Back to You was released on January 7 (e-book) and July 29 (paperback) by Forever. Hold on Tight was released on June 17 as an e-book by Loveswept. The Escape was released on July 1 as an e-book and paperback by Dell. For more information about the authors, check out their websites: Jessica Scott, Serena Bell, and Mary Balogh.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys via NetGalley from Forever (Back to You) and Dell (The Escape) for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Hold on Tight.*