TBR Challenge: Not Actually Contemporary

This month’s TBR Challenge category was contemporary romance, but I settled for a historical romance that has a rather contemporary feel about it. I’m sure that bothers some readers, but not me. I enjoy historical romances that tackle questions that some might think of as “contemporary,” but are really more timeless than that. Such is the case here, because Lord Ian Mackenzie has an autism disorder. Not that you’d call it that in 1881, when the book is set, but the author is careful to explain Ian’s different behavior and view of the world, both from his point of view and other characters’, that it’s pretty recognizable to a modern reader. The book endorses a modern view of his disorder as well. Characters who treat him as “mad” or as less competent are unsympathetic and are proven wrong. Characters who love and respect him are validated in that choice, and characters who appreciate his special skills and abilities are rewarded.

This book caused a lot of talk when it was first released, and I have no good excuse for waiting two years to read it. It was thought-provoking, in addition to having engaging characters and a relatively involving mystery plot. I like the secondary character Isabella, Ian’s sister-in-law, especially, and I’m glad I have her book already in my TBR.

The real strength of this book, to my mind, was the way the heroine, Beth, learned to deal with Ian and to love him and value him as he is, not to see him as deficient or pitiful. Ian latches onto her because she calms him, and he’s honest with her that he believes himself incapable of love. I’ve heard that from quite a few romance heroes, but in this case it could quite literally be true; Ian doesn’t understand a lot of “normal” human emotion, and the complexity of romantic love may well be beyond him. Watching these two characters work through to a romantic happy ending was very satisfying; there are plenty of external obstacles for them to overcome, but it’s their victory over internal obstacles that really made the book rise above the general run of historical romance mysteries.  I’m delighted that Berkeley has picked up this series and, in addition to releasing the sequels, is re-releasing this book with a new cover later this summer.

WIN

Wot I Read In April and May

This is going to be a long-ass post. It will take days to write. But May was a really busy month, folks! Finals, grades due, computer dying and new one being a bitch, trip to Oregon for Shakespeare with Mom — well, I got my nightly reading in, but nothing extra and no blogging of April’s reads. So now that I have a little down time before summer travel begins, I will try to remember enough about these books to recap my reading over the past two months.

In April, I read 17 books. Continuing my trends for the year, almost half of those were historical romance and more than half were digital books. I used my local library to get one book, and two others were loaned by fellow readers (one print, one digital). I read a couple of new authors, too.

In May, I read 11 books, several of which were shorter reads or it wouldn’t even be that many. Nine of them were historical romance — that’s the sign of a tough month, right there. Seven were e-books, and the four print books were all loans. That’s right; I bought NO PRINT BOOKS in May. Weird.

Historical Romance

It Happened One Season, by Stephanie Laurens, Jacquie D’alessandro, Candice Hern and Mary Balogh: This was a fun collection of stories, all based on the same basic premise, which was chosen in a contest among readers. The winning premise came from QuilterPhyl, and it worked really well for me in all four (quite different) stories. A reclusive hero, an unattractive heroine and arranged marriage are all elements I tend to like in historical romance, and it was a real treat to see four authors combine those into satisfying short stories. WIN

Jo Beverly’s “The Demon’s Bride” was another short read. It’s an older story, from 1991, and it has a lot of the JoBev hallmarks like detailed fashion descriptions and careful historical research. It also has a paranormal element, which is handled reasonably well. PASS.

The Spurned Viscountess, by Shelley Monro, also has a paranormal element. In fact, it has a little bit of everything — a heroine with psychic senses that she hides for fear of being thought a witch, a disgfigured bitter hero with a degree of amnesia, an arranged marriage, smugglers, ghosts, gaslighting, mysterious family connections, revenge plots, a rescued kitten, and multiple villains. I felt a touch of mental whiplash trying to follow the changes in direction. PASS.

The Portrait, by Megan Chance, was lent to me on Kindle by a Twitter friend with whom (we are learning) I have a lot in common when it comes to reading taste. It’s a digital re-release of a 1995 book, but it is so unusual that it has none of that “old school” feeling I would expect. The setting is New York City in 1855. It’s a scary dark love story in places, dealing with a temperamental artist hero with bi-polar disorder. At times I really didn’t trust that this was a romance; it is heart-breaking to watch someone throw or drive away the good things and people in his life. Which is exactly true for people with BPD, and what made the ending of this book so worthwhile. WIN

Duchess of Sin, by Laurel McKee, is the second book in the Daughters of Erin trilogy, set in Ireland at the time of the Union acts in Parliament, which officially joined the two countries to create the United Kingdom . The characters are very much involved in and affected by the politics of the time, but that is balanced nicely with the romance. WIN

The Spare, Stolen Love and Passion’s Song, by Carolyn Jewel: Carolyn is one of my favorite romance authors, as well as a personal friend [disclaimer, I guess]. Two of these books are older, out of print romances whose rights have reverted to her, and she has self-published them. I re-read them both in their spiffy new digital format. Passion’s Song was her first published romance, and she hopes to have the rights back to that soon, as well. While these aren’t as nuanced and complex as her more recent historical releases, I enjoyed them all. WIN WIN WIN

Midnight’s Wild Passion, by Anna Campbell, was an e-ARC from the publisher. Campbell is a dynamic author, and she’s not afraid to take chances when she writes. (She’s also hilarious in person, and meeting her was a highlight of RomCon for me last year.) She described this on Facebook as the closest thing she’s written to a traditional Regency romance, and that’s a pretty accurate description — the set-up is traditional, almost to the point of cliché. The hero is looking for revenge against the man who ruined his sister, and his chosen method is (what else?) to despoil the man’s daughter. Standing in his way is the heroine, Antonia, a beautiful aristocrat disguised as a plain governess, hiding the shame of a youthful indiscretion for which her family disowned her. But put that in Anna Campbell’s hands, and you don’t get the book you might expect! WIN

A Fool In Love, a novella by Eloisa James, has a set up that resembles Campbell’s — the heroine eloped at a young age, ruining her reputation, so she was pretty much forced to marry an old miser. (The story begins at his funeral.) It also takes some nice twists along the way. WIN

Ride the Fire, by Pamela Clare: Pam is another author I really enjoyed meeting in Denver last year. She’s also an award-winning journalist, which helps her write her fabulous I-Team romantic suspense novels. A friend gave me her copies of Pam’s historical romances, and this is the first one I’ve read. I love that it’s set on the frontier, and that it portrays the challenges of that lifestyle for men and women without overly romanticizing them. Frontier books have to walk a fine line when they feature American Indians as characters; I think this one mostly succeeds. There’s a lot of action in this book,too, almost as much as in the last I-Team book I read. And Pam recently announced that her out-0f-print historicals are going to be reissued with new covers and some new content. WIN

Temptation is the Night, by Marguerite Kaye, is a Harlequin Historical Undone novella, set in the 1920s. It’s a sexy reconciliation story that feels right in this historical period — one I’d love to see used more in romance. WIN

The Sergeant’s Lady, by Susanna Fraser, is an over due read for me — I’ve had the book for almost a year. I think it was my very first Carina Press purchase. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get around to this sooner, though, because I enjoyed it a lot more as a sequel to Fraser’s other novel, A Marriage of Inconvenience, which I read in March. It’s a war story, reminiscent to me of Carla Kelly’s Marrying the Royal Marine, which I read last December. Love forged in the danger and sorrow of a military campaign has a bittersweet quality and a kind of nobility that you don’t get in ballrooms. WIN

An Inconvenient Marriage, by Jeanne Carmichael, was my TBR Challenge book in May.

Just Like Heaven, by Julia Quinn, was a fun book to read. That seems odd to say about a book where the hero almost dies of infection. But although those medical scenes are grim, this is a romance and he’s the hero, so you know he’s going to pull through, and you can enjoy seeing how the danger and the fear operate to bring out the best in certain characters and form a proving ground for the romance. Plus this is a “big brother’s best friend falls for little sister” story, and I just love those. And I am pleased that JQ is exploring the infamous Smythe-Smith family, minor characters used to comic effect in her Bridgerton series. WIN

Unlocked, by Courtney Milan, is a historical short set between two of her longer novels, Unveiled and Unclaimed, which is coming in September. I like how Courtney deals with real world issues in her historical romance, including class differences, domestic violence, depression and dyslexia, just to hit the highlights. In this short story (which stands alone just fine, dealing as it does with side characters), she takes on the territory of social ridicule and popularity. It’s a brave story, one that will ring true to everyone who has been bullied or left out by the “popular” crowd. It packed a lot of emotion, remarkable for being such a short piece. I loved it and will read it multiple times. WIN

Contemporary Romance

Linda Lael Miller’s The McKettricks of Texas: Tate was my TBR Challenge book in April, reviewed here.

Heat It Up, by Elle Kennedy, was recommended on Twitter by Jane of Dear Author. It’s book four in the author’s Out Of Uniform series, featuring a Navy SEAL lieutenant and a newspaper reporter. He’s fresh off a divorce from a career-oriented model, so he’s not looking for a woman who is committed to her profession. But while she’s trying to get him to grant her an interview, they get stuck in an elevator, she has a panic attack and he holds her and strokes her to calm her down. This leads to UNPROTECTED SEX, in an elevator that probably has a CAMERA, finishing just MINUTES before the elevator repair is completed. I had a hard time getting past this initial incident of total irresponsibility on the part of two intelligent, mature professionals, and I found the rest of the story relatively predictable. PASS

Simply Irresistible and The Sweetest Thing, by Jill Shalvis: The first two Lucky Harbor romances are Shalvis at her best, writing relationships and humorous situations that just ring true to me. The series features three half-sisters who didn’t grow up together but are brought together over the need to settle their mother’s affairs when she dies. The only problem for me was that both plots centered around a BIG SECRET — it was more of a problem in the first book, because it led to a lack of openness between the main couple, and that bothers me. But the writing was good, the romance believable, and the characters engaging. These books remind me a bit of Nora Roberts and a bit of Jennifer Crusie, two authors who really do contemporary romance well. WIN

A Summer In Sonoma, by Robyn Carr, was loaned to me by a friend who was interested in my take on the setting. The main characters all live in various suburbs of Sacramento, California, but the central couple spend time together touring Sonoma County on a motorcycle. That aspect of the book worked fairly well for me, although I think you’d really have to work to get to all the scenic places she writes about without spending any time in cities such as Santa Rosa or Petaluma. There are actually four couples in the book, two with problems in their marriages, and the four women have been friends since childhood. Intertwining the stories caused some problems for me, because I had trouble empathizing with the relatively simple issues keeping some of the couples apart when they were juxtaposed against the serious problems faced by other characters. Once couple irritated the heck out of me with their whining and inability to communicate, and indeed, ineffective communication was at the heart of all four stories. PASS

A Little Harmless Sex, by Melissa Schroeder, was the only contemporary romance I read in the entire month of May. It was okay; like the Elle Kennedy book, it features a couple thinking they’ll just have a fun, sexual relationship and then falling in love and being unwilling to admit it. It’s a common premise in contemporary romance that doesn’t work for me when I don’t really buy the characters’ motivations. PASS

Paranormal & Science Fiction Romance and Urban Fantasy

Skin Tight, by Ava Gray: Few authors write damaged, morally ambiguous main characters better than Ava Gray/Ann Aguirre; her characters cross some lines and may behave selfishly, but they have morally unambiguous evil to fight. There’s a lot of action in this book, and some scary plot twists; if I didn’t trust the author, I might have had trouble sticking with the book in places. But I was very glad I did; it was worth it. WIN

On the Edge, by Ilona Andrews: I’ve been meaning to read a book by Ilona Andrews for some time. Her short story, “Days of Swine and Roses,” actually made me enjoy waiting in the jury pool last summer, and I’ve heard many good things about the Kate Daniels books. I hadn’t realized until this year’s DABWAHA tournament that Ilona Andrews is the pen name of a husband-wife writing team; that’s pretty cool. No surprise, I loved this book — it’s all the things I love about urban fantasy, including enough romance and optimism. I won’t be waiting so long to read the next book. WIN

My Dangerous Pleasure, by Carolyn Jewel, is the fourth book in the My Immortals series, about demons and mages trying to work together to control or defeat the mages who are willing to enslave and destroy demons in order to give themselves power. I like the world building and the plots, but for me these books really stand above others on the power of their romance. The male demons are sexy, powerful men, while the human (magekind) women have to learn to use their less obvious power to work as equal partners. Each book works that dynamic out differently, because the characters are unique and well crafted. Iskander and Paisley were a particularly sweet couple, which was really surprising and fun in the midst of the very serious threats they had to face together. I stayed up far too late at night finishing this book, because I just couldn’t put it down. WIN

Collision Course, by Zoë Archer, was a terrific book, reviewed here.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

I read one book in each of the last two months that was not romance. That’s a sign of stress, or overwork, or both. Both were books I was on the waiting list for at the library, and while the timing wasn’t great, I was glad to get and read both of them.

Among Others, by Jo Walton: I can’t even remember how this book came to my attention, but I read the description and immediately had to read it. The author is a World Fantasy Award winner, but she was new to me. This is a beautifully written book about a young girl with secret magic and serious family problems who finds solace in reading fantasy and science fiction, and companionship when she joins a reading group at her local library. It is a tribute to some really fine novels in the genre, and it’s also a compelling story in its own right. WIN

All Clear, by Connie Willis: As I noted in an earlier post, I have not been able to read long fantasy epics lately. That’s very strange for me, because for many years those were the heart and soul of my reading life. But this is the second half of the work Willis began in Blackout, and the two books together won the Nebula this year, so I figured that in the three weeks I had the book from the library, I could manage to finish it. Needless to say for anyone who has read Willis, the book sucked me in and I finished it in less than a week. Has this cured my epic fantasy reading block? We shall see. WIN