TBR Challenge: Contemporary, a Bit Old School

Silhouette Intimate Moments book cover

A Soldier’s Heart, by Kathleen Korbel

I dug deep in what remains of my print TBR pile for this month’s book, because Miss Bates and others were discussing it on Twitter. I remembered buying it used, on someone’s recommendation (probably Sunita’s), back when I still permitted myself to visit used book stores and library sales. It fits this month’s challenge, because it was contemporary when written, but it was published more than 20 years ago, so I anticipated an “old school” feel.

Content warning: this book is about two people with PTSD, veterans of the Viet Nam conflict. There are some graphic descriptions and flashback incidents, which I will not discuss in detail here.

The subtitle of this book is “War and remembrance” — or perhaps that’s a connected set of books in the Silhouette line? Anyway, I knew from the back cover copy that this was a romance about a Marine veteran and a former army nurse who met in Viet Nam and are connecting 20 years later. And although she was the nurse and he was the patient, now the roles are somewhat reversed: “they’d shared the same overwhelming emotions and uncontrollable rage. But he had learned to handle the horror, while her soldier’s heart was breaking beneath her woman’s soul.”

Claire is a nurse, widowed with two teenagers, who also runs a tearoom in Virginia that she wants to open as a B&B when the building is fully restored and renovated. She has managed to keep her memories of Viet Nam suppressed, for the most part, devoting herself to her job, her B&B project, and most of all, her children. “As long as my children are all right, I’ll be all right” has been her mantra since the oldest was born. But a crisis has shattered her self-control and repression, brought on by her son’s desire to enlist as a fighter pilot and Tony’s visit to thank her for saving his life in Viet Nam.

Tony’s visit to Claire is the last in a series of encounters he has undertaken to deal with his own memories and trauma. After years of counseling, he has faced the losses of Viet Nam, saying good-bye to many of his comrades, and has visited with other survivors. Finding the nurse who wouldn’t let him die alongside his friend, when both men were badly wounded and infected, is closure that he wants, so he tracks her down and travels to Virginia to meet and thank her. But when his visit sets off a flashback episode, he realizes that she hasn’t had the help he has had, and that she is suffering PTSD as well. So he brings his own teenage daughter to Virginia and moves in to help with the B&B construction and to try to help Claire come to terms with her memories and trauma.

This is a harrowing book. I’m not sure I could have read it if it wasn’t a category romance; I knew it would work out okay in the end, and that was all that kept me going. Claire’s suffering is depicted vividly and believably, and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. The author seems to have done thorough research; it’s not info-dumped, but there’s a lot of history as well as contemporary detail in the Viet Nam memories and in the depiction of treatment of PTSD, especially for women. I did not know before that what we now call PTSD (shell shock in the first world war, battle fatigue in the second) was called “soldier’s heart” in Civil War veterans. Korbel makes good use of this in the book.

Any romance novel that depicts one character involved in major recovery faces a challenge: how does the romance intertwine with the recovery? How can the reader be sure both that recovery has taken place (without short-cuts or miracles, please), and that the relationship is based on more than neediness or gratitude? This book manages that pretty well. Tom is instrumental in Claire’s decision to seek help and healing, but it is clearly her journey (without him, for a time). They only commit to a life together once she is sure she’ll be okay. The final scene, which takes place at the Viet Nam Memorial wall, had me sobbing.

I’m not always a high-angst reader, but this one really worked for me. It was emotionally wrenching, ultimately satisfying, and avoided the many pitfalls that come with this territory. I wish the book was available digitally, but for now used copies seem the only option.

TBR Challenge Review: Series Return

This month’s challenge was to read a book in a series that I’ve gotten away from. I had to look for a while to find one of those, but when I did, it was a good one. I really liked the first few books in Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series, but I stopped reading them because the level of violence was a bit much for me at the time. I jumped back in with book four, Shadowdance. Shadowdance book cover

I found that I easily picked up the story; Callihan excels in introducing the main characters in each book during the previous book in the series. Mary Chase and Jack Talent were important characters with a clear attraction to one another in Winterblaze, and there was skillful exposition in this book to remind me of what went before.

Mary is a GIM (Ghost in the Machine), a person whose recently dead body was reanimated with a clockwork heart before her spirit left the earthly plane. GIMs are created by one person, the mysterious Adam, and they have some supernatural abilities. Jack is a shifter, a rare supernatural being who can change his physical shape into anything or anyone. Both work for the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, a group dedicated to keeping supernatural beings secret from larger human society. In the previous book, it was clear that the two had a serious lust-hate relationship. Jack seems to despise Mary, but he is also attracted to her, and she rescued him from demons who were torturing him (an event that still dominates his thinking and motivates his actions). They are assigned to work together to solve a series of murders of supernatural beings, and that turns out to be just one facet of a plot that revolves around Jack and his blood, which heals anyone who drinks it.

Jack is about as tormented as a hero can be; he endured horrible things at the hands of his demon captors, and even before that, his life was difficult. He has anger management problems, he is incredibly secretive, and he often seems selfish. He is driven by both a need for revenge and a desire for justice; as long as the two can be pursued together, he manages to keep things together.

Mary also has a pretty awful past, but she likes life as a GIM and is devoted to her work. She is smart, and she stands up for herself against Jack. She insists on being his partner and his equal, and he accepts that without too much resistance.

The relationship between these two goes beyond the usual push away-pull close dynamic of a hate-lust coupling; they are tied together through work, through friends and family, and by the fact that she rescued him from death. Neither of them has even been in love before, or had a sexual relationship, so that adds a level of fumbling and uncertainty to their courtship that I found pretty believable. Love-hate stories often make me want to scream, “Oh just admit it and move on!” But in this case, I felt that I understood their obstacles, as one and then the other pulled back from their developing intimacy. There were some surprising twists and revelations, and I thought those were handled skillfully. If memory serves, all of these books climax with a confrontation with evil where both main characters’ lives are at risk, and they have to love and trust each other enough to survive. It’s a wonderful way to convince the reader, as well as the characters, of the power of the bond between them.

The world building in Darkest London is excellent, and I was as involved in the overall plot as I was in Mary and Jack’s relationship; indeed, the two are intertwined well. “Dark” is rather a mild adjective at times; rape, dismembering, murder and slavery are all features of the supernatural world of these books. But as with many fantasy settings, the reward comes from watching good people do good things in the face of all that darkness, and ultimately triumphing over at least some of it by the end of the novel. I probably won’t be reading the next book very soon, because a little goes a long way for me. But I am confident that when I do read Evernight, I’ll be able to slip back into Darkest London with ease.

TBR Challenge: Short and Sweet

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “We Love Short Shorts!” So I dug this UK charity store purchase off the shelf.
FieldingTandT

The Temp and the Tycoon clocks in at 95 pages. It was published in 2004 in a series of shorts celebrating 100 years of Mills and Boon. Liz Fielding is an author I’ve had recommended to me, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read. It won’t be the last.

The book starts off checking a bunch of romance genre boxes. The main characters and the set-up have quite a few familiar elements.

Our heroine, Talie, is short, with uncontrollable curls; she is outgoing, talkative, impulsive and kind to strangers. She often has to rush places, or is late, because she was doing a good deed. But although she seems scatterbrained, she is actually very smart and takes excellent shorthand. And she only works as a temp.

Our hero, Jude, is a self-made billionaire who is completely focused on his business. He has no interest in romance (he got burned once by a woman who used him to get business secrets that she used for insider trading). He is a perfectionist, demanding to work for, and very handsome (“totally scrummy”).

They meet cute in the elevator of his building; she’s running late to start as a temp for one of his underlings, and there’s an instant spark. (Can you hear my “of course” after each of these?) She tells him her good Samaritan reason for being late, and he passes along word that she’s not to be given a hard time about it. She temps for a couple of weeks, but they don’t see each other — he’s never in her part of the building, and although she hangs out by the elevators, she doesn’t see him (and of course she doesn’t know he’s the demanding perfectionist who owns the company). Neither can get the other out of their mind after that first encounter.

Then his PA, Heather, takes a hand. She is supposed to accompany Jude to New York on a business trip, but her daughter goes into early labor. So she calls Talie and hires her to go in her place, without telling Jude whom the replacement will be. Big surprises all around at the airport, but off they go. Talie has always wanted to go to New York, and she has lots of things she wants to see and do, mostly from watching movies with her mother. Jude tells her that they are only there to work, so she’d best come back someday as a tourist. All of this is in the first two chapters (27 pages).

Honestly, the set-up would probably have put me off, but Fielding writes well, and Talie was an engaging character. I took longer to warm up to Jude, but eventually he stops dismissing (and resisting his attraction to) Talie and starts trying to figure her out. They both become dimensional characters, busting out of the stereotypes proclaimed in the title, and I found myself quite invested in them working it out. For Talie, that mostly involved learning to trust Jude, which understandably takes a while (not a LONG while; it’s a short book).

Although Jude is the one who resists getting close to people, in the classic “all work, no play billionaire” role, it turns out to be Talie who has the harder time opening up and letting love in. Jude is the one who has to do the work — he has to prove himself trustworthy, and prove that he loves her enough to take on her personal burden. More than that, he has to show her that he is happy to do it, and that their lives and others’ are better when they are together. I thought this passage was wonderful: “Jude didn’t hang about in the hope that she’d change her mind. He didn’t want her to change her mind. He wanted her so sure, so certain, that nothing would stop her.”

Winning Talie over involves sharing his feelings, convincing her that he really loves her, and also helping her mother, whose care is the reason Talie only takes temporary jobs. All of that resolves in the last four pages, but it works. Win.

TBR Challenge: Holiday Romance

I’ve been on quite a spree of holiday novellas lately. Short and sweet has suited my mood; real life is challenging enough, and with enough sadness, that I haven’t wanted to feel strong negative emotions in my reading. Many favorite authors produced holiday romances this year — I highly recommend Christmas In Duke Street by Carolyn Jewel, Miranda Neville, Grace Burrowes and Shana Galen. And the TBR held a collection of Carla Kelly Christmas stories, published a few years ago, entitled simply Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection.

Kelly’s traditional Regency romances are comfort reads for me. Her central characters are reliably good people, but they aren’t always nobles (and are rarely of the highest echelons). Her stories often feature children, and finding companionship and making a family are featured highly in her happy endings. There isn’t explicit sex, but sexual attraction is acknowledged and valued within the context of the other characteristics of committed love. And there is humor, blessed humor.

“The Christmas Ornament” tells the story of an Oxford don who is encouraged by an old family friend to court his “bookish” youngest daughter. James knew Olivia as a child, and he thinks he is ready to be married, so he is amenable. But Olivia is much more than he expects, and he finds that involvement with an intelligent woman is both more challenging and more rewarding than he expected. To win her, he has to learn to see her as his equal. I liked that a lot.

“Make a Joyful Noise” is the story of a widower who is raising two children with the help of his mother and farming the family estate after military service in India. In his efforts to recruit good voices for the local church choir, he befriends a young Welsh woman, a pregnant widow who is living unhappily with her resentful in-laws. I liked the humor in this story surrounding the choir competition, and I liked how the main characters dealt with the issues of each other’s children, focusing on creating happy family.

“An Object of Charity” was not as good as the first two, in my opinion. All three stories are dominated by the hero’s point of view, but Kelly balances that better in the others. In this one, the young woman is much less distinctive and serves largely as a placeholder. Captain Lynch has a three-month break in his Navy service while his ship is being refitted, and Sally is the orphaned niece of a man who died in service on his ship. Lynch is estranged from his family, due to circumstances that felt rather far-fetched to me. He impulsively decides to take Sally and her brother to spend Christmas with the mother he’s had no contact with for many years, and to see his brother, the cause of his estrangement. It’s a bit too much story to fit in this length, so some things feel implausible while others feel rushed. I never really got to know Sally, or to understand why she was in love — except that Lynch has money and social position, while she is essentially destitute. I’m not comfortable with large power imbalances in romance, and I didn’t get the character development to convince me that Sally had real agency here. (Also, there are some similarities between this story and Kelly’s new full-length novel, Do No Harm, which I loved. This story suffered from the comparison.)

“The Three Kings,” in contrast, is told from the woman’s point of view. Sarah is in Spain with the British army, where she was working with her brother to find some lost records of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World. Her brother has been killed, so she has to take the papers back to England through Portugal; this is no easy feat, given the unrest of the countryside and the danger posed by the French army. Sarah’s hero is a Spanish colonel, who agrees to escort her part way and ends up rescuing her from the French. He is trying to get home to spend Christmas with his motherless daughters. They face dangerous circumstances and close calls together, but I found the story hard to follow and the character/relationship development choppy.

I’m glad I read this collection, even though the quality was uneven. Weak Carla Kelly is still better than some things I’ve seen praised in historical romance lately.

Five Books Everyone Should Read

I wrote a guest post for Holly and Rowena over at Book Binge today. It was a fun challenge to pick only five books. You can see what I picked and why here.

TBR Challenge: All about the Hype

Wendy describes this month’s TBR Challenge theme as “a book or author that got everybody talking.” I looked through my TBR for something that I bought because lots of people were talking about it, but that I hadn’t read yet. I ended up selecting Temptation, by Charlotte Lamb.
Harlequin Presents book cover
Many romance readers/reviewers who have been reading romance longer than I have talk about Charlotte Lamb. Jane and Sunita from Dear Author have written about her, and so has Miss Bates. I’m pretty sure I bought this book because of a conversation on Twitter where I felt like everyone had read this author but me.

I can’t say that this book worked for me as a romance. It felt more like an endurance test; it’s only 188 pages, and it took me only one evening to read, but getting through it was rough. Let’s talk about why.

First, this is a 1979 Harlequin Presents, which means we will have big power imbalance (represented by money, age and/or social class). Yep, Joss White (actually Sir Joshua Wyatt) is a 39 year-old shipping magnate, with a fancy London townhouse, a lavish country estate, and lots of money to spend on cars, jewelry and travel. Linden Howard is not yet 18, the daughter of a painter, who lives in rural Yorkshire in a rented farmhouse. Joss crashes a vintage car near the farmhouse, and Linden and her father take him in while it’s being repaired. Linden has long blonde hair and looks like a “Pre-Raphaelite angel”; Joss is “dark” and “brooding” and “flinty.” (Yes, definitely a Presents!) Joss is amazed and intrigued by Linden’s innocence and quirkiness; he kisses her, dances with her, and eventually seduces her. Then he leaves.

Linden’s mother died when she was born, and her father is still heart-broken. He isn’t affectionate with Linden at all, since she looks like her mother. She spends most of the year away at school in a convent, and she expects that once she’s no longer a child, he will want her to leave. He’s a gifted painter whose work is very grim, and Linden isn’t sure that he actually loves her the way most fathers love their daughters. Having been without much affection, she responds strongly to Joss’s attention; she falls head over heels in love with him, even knowing that he is twice her age.

Linden asks Joss if he’s married or has children; he lies to her and says no. In fact, he is married, but his wife (who he didn’t love in the first place) is a “vegetable” due to a car accident. He also has a son, Daniel, who is just two years older than Linden. He falls in love with Linden, but after they have sex, he admits to her father that he actually is married and leaves. Linden is so upset that she contemplates suicide (high drama in Presents); her father comes after her, falls, and is seriously injured. She nurses him back to health and then they travel together for several months. Having almost lost her, he realizes that he loves his daughter. They develop a much stronger relationship. All of this takes less than 80 pages.

Linden decides to attend college and study art, even though she lacks her father’s genius. She makes friends but doesn’t date; she’s still in love with Joss, although she also hates him and fantasizes about killing him. One day she meets a young man driving the same kind of classic car that Joss wrecked when they met, and they get along so well that she agrees to date him. His name is Daniel Wyatt, and his father is Sir Joshua. His mother was an invalid who recently passed away. The reader figures it out pretty quickly, but Linden has no idea that she’s dating Joss’s son until she goes home with Daniel for Christmas. (Another 16 pages gone.)

This is a really ugly situation. Joss/Josh, tells Linden that he loves her, that he’s always loved, her, that he still wants her, that he knows he doesn’t deserve her, and that he’s sorry. Very sorry. She tells him that she loves him too, but also hates him, because he is selfish and put his needs before hers. She wants him to suffer and wishes she could kill him. Linden’s dramatic exit from Josh’s room is interrupted by Daniel. He figures out some things and gets them to tell him the rest. He then denounces them both and leaves.

We’re now about two-thirds through the book, and while it has been dramatic and angsty, I’m not really feeling it. I feel sorry for Linden, and really sorry for Daniel, and I think Joss is an asshole. I think that’s how I’m supposed to feel, because now Lamb sets out to make me feel sorry for Joss. I think.

In a move that I cannot understand, Linden agrees to marry Joss. Because she loves him, but also because she hates him and wants to make him suffer. She makes him promise not to touch her and warns him that she might fall in love with someone else someday; he says he deserves whatever happens and that he just wants to take care of her and make her happy. So he spends a lot of money on jewelry and clothes for her, and they get married. Her father tries to talk her out of it, warning her that this is not a good way to get revenge. Duh!

Here’s a passage of Linden’s thoughts, after she has agreed to the marriage:

Somehow she had defeated him. He loved her. For once in his triumphant life, Joss had been humbled, that proud dark head forced to the ground, and she ought to feel a thrill of victory as she looked at him, having won where so many others had lost.

But she didn’t. She felt only weary resignation. She was going to marry him, but she did not want to do it. She loved him and she accepted that he loved her, but his love was never going to be what she wanted or needed. She could not love a man she despised and pitied. He should have been strong, he should have been a fortress for her to shelter in — instead of which she knew herself to be stronger, herself to be the one with a core of steel. That steel had been forged in the fires of anguish he had lit around her. (p. 128)

At this point, I still didn’t like Joss/Josh, but I also really didn’t like Linden. I lost respect for her completely when she decided that rather that trying to make the best life she could for herself, she was going to be all about revenge and making him suffer. Seriously, who wants to live like that? Who values another person’s suffering more than their own happiness?

The last third of the book is mostly Linden making her husband suffer. She won’t have sex with him, but they share a bed. Sometimes she lets him kiss her, even partially undress her, before stopping him and reminding him that he promised not to touch her without her permission. She flirts with his colleagues and spends his money, but she also is a good hostess and plays the role of his wife well enough to fool everyone around them, including Dolly (his dead wife’s mother, to whom he’s still very close.) She gets no real joy out of his suffering, either. Gradually she realizes that she needs him, and she’s starting to have trouble turning him away. When he leaves on a business trip, she spends time with Dolly looking at family pictures and hearing about how Joss suffered in his marriage.

She had made her plans so coolly. Now she doubted her own ability to carry them out. Her revenge was sour. She was killing herself. Lin and Dolly had been right — she could not hurt Joss without hurting herself more. She had shut him up in living hell, but she was there with him, and she did not think she could take any more.

She wanted to belong to him. She wanted to know his lovemaking again. She wanted to bear him children, sons with his dark hair and grey eyes.

At this point, I was beyond caring. I guess these two deserved each other now, but I could not find it in me to celebrate that. Daniel also forgives everybody, so they’re going to be one happy family.(I was happy that Daniel’s life wasn’t ruined by falling for a woman who ended up as his stepmother.) Joss and Linden have a big wrenching scene of sex, confession and forgiveness, and I still didn’t care. It was honestly one of the most disappointed feelings I’ve ever had at the end of a romance novel.

Maybe it’s just this book, or maybe Lamb isn’t for me.

TBR Challenge: Romantic Suspense, with emphasis on the former

Caveat: this is not normally my genre, as I am a bit squeamish and have a low tolerance for suspense. I DNF’ed my original choice for this post after the prologue, because I just couldn’t face it.

FadetoBlack

Fade to Black was originally published in 2009, by Signet, under the pen name Leslie Parrish. The Kindle edition was released in 2013 under the author’s “real name,” according to the author’s Amazon author page. It’s the story of a new FBI cyber crime unit trying to catch a serial killer, and the trail leads them to rural Virginia.

I think the reason this book mostly worked for me (I was able to finish it) was the strength of the romance. That is to say, the romance really dominated the plot. Oh sure, there’s a creepy serial killer, and more of his POV than I care for, but the focus is on the developing relationship between FBI agent Dean and small-town sheriff Stacey.

I actually shouted out, “Hooray! The sheriff is a girl” when I got to that point in the book. I liked how Stacey was characterized — strong, competent, dependable, but still very human.¬†And she’s not the only woman in law enforcement in the book — several of the FBI agents are also women. Stacey has taken her father’s old job as sheriff of Hope Valley, Virginia, because she’s recovering from a traumatic experience in her previous law enforcement job. How many times have I read that with a male character? So when the FBI case descends on her, she quickly proves that she has the skills to handle it, working with Dean as a partner in catching the killer.

Dean has doubts and issues of his own. He’s recently divorced, and only just coming to terms with how badly his marriage had deteriorated without him realizing it. He has a young son whom he doesn’t see enough, because of the nature of his work and his ex-wife’s determination. (One thing that really bothered me about this was the flat, stereotyped characterization of his ex-wife and of their relationship. All Dean’s thoughts of her are critical, which made me wonder why he married her. The evil ex is a lazy stereotype that I could have done without.) Dean thinks he should be having a fling, not falling in love, and of course Stacey sees that a fling is all that’s possible with a man who’s only around long enough to solve one case. Dean is an attractive mix of strength and tenderness, and I liked the way their initial chemistry turned into conversation that showed how well they fit together before anything sexual happened.

I’m a sucker for romance that shows the main characters working together; it helps me believe in their love, even when the whole story arc takes only a few weeks. Dean and Stacey’s growing compatibility and their developing relationship were depicted well, so that I actually got into their search for the killer rather than just grinning and bearing those parts.

A lot of the elements of this book were familiar from other things I’ve read in the genre; the author’s not breaking a lot of new ground here. But they were combined and executed pretty well, so that I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. There are also familiar hallmarks of small-town romance. And there is definitely a higher level of violence than I’m normally comfortable with — this pushed my boundaries, and I’m not in a hurry to read anything like it in the near future.

I have a friend who writes for Criminal Minds, so I have watched a few episodes; that’s what the crime-solving side of this novel reminded me of. The team of FBI agents was a collection of really interesting characters, and the next few books will involve some of those characters. I don’t know if I’ll read them or not, but I am glad I read this one.

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