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.


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.

TBR Challenge: A Pair of Historical Romances

 Each book cover shows a  couple in early 19th century English clothing , with the man holding the woman in his arms in a room showing  period detail  in the decor. 
This month’s TBR Challenge was historical – I regularly read a LOT of historical fiction and historical romance, and I do have a few unread on the shelf. I chose to read two traditional Regency romances that were gifts from my friend Janet Webb. Janet knows that I’ve made a study of cross-gender performance, so she kindly gave me some books featuring “girls in pants.”

Madalena, by Sheila Walsh, is a Signet Regency Romance from 1977; Minuet, by Jennie Gallant, is a Coventry Romance from 1980. Both of the heroines are French. They dress as boys to allow them freedom to go where they could not as young ladies and, in the case of Minou in Gallant’s book, to escape from France. This is a familiar pattern in Regency romance, going back to Léonie in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades.

As trouser stories go, Madelena is a little more typical. The hero is not fooled by her disguise, and he is the one to step in and rescue her when she is taken captive in her boy’s disguise and her captors realize that she’s a woman. Devereaux, the dark and mysterious Duke (of course!) of Lytten, has a reputation for keeping beautiful mistresses but never taking romance seriously. He keeps many secrets (particularly about his involvement with smuggling and espionage) and early in the book she is prone to jumping to conclusions and frequently thinks the worst of him. But that changes when she stows away on his boat to France. Upon landing, they are attacked, and Madalena kills the man who is about to kill Devereaux, staunches his bleeding from a gunshot wound, and ends up being the one to remove the musket ball from his shoulder. Together they bring her father to safety in England, by which time he has learned to admire her strength and other less “feminine” qualities.

Minuet follows a different tradition (also familiar to readers of Heyer). Lord Degan begins the book horrified by Minou and her scandalous French ways; he’s stuffy and boring, but gradually he comes to admire her and to appreciate the very qualities he originally disparaged. (He’s not as wise and omniscient as many of Heyer’s heroes, though.) About two-thirds of the story takes place in France, where Minou, her secret half-brother Henri, and Degan have gone to rescue her mother and brother from Paris under Robespierre. Degan’s French is awful (he’s arrested as a spy almost immediately), and for much of their travel in France he is dependent on Minou and Henri’s wits to keep him safe and keep them all out of trouble. Once Henri falls into the hands of the Revolution, however, Degan comes into his own, and he and Minou work as equals to rescue all of her family members.

Both heroines take charge in their love lives as well; after their respective rescues are accomplished and they are about to return to England, each initiates sex before going back to their role as daughter/proper young lady. France serves as a place where they are more free to be themselves, throwing off social conventions along with their skirts.

I felt that both heroines had agency and were equal partners in their relationships, due in large part to their cross-gender role-playing. They were willing to disguise as men when playing a woman’s part would have kept them in the background and out of the action, and that gave them opportunities to act more directly on their own behalf as well as to take active part in rescuing their relatives and the men they loved.

On the Same Page: Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

A couple of years ago, April of 2013, I came up with the idea of “On the Same Page” during a discussion with friends. I conceived of it as a way to make book discussions happen, by announcing what I would be reading ahead of time and inviting others who were interested to read the same book in the same time frame, so we could talk about it. Not quite a read-along, just a sort of “heads up” for people whose TBR looks a lot like mine.

I did four On the Same Page posts in the fall of 2013; there were some good short conversations, and I liked the results. Easier to follow than Twitter conversations, without the pressure of a review deadline. At least one other blogger tried the same thing for a little while. But then stuff happened, my blogging mojo waned, the usual. Now I’m resurrecting the idea.

Book Cover is J. W. Waterhouse, The Soul of the RoseWhen I did my little Twitter poll to choose a book for this month’s TBR Challenge “impulse book” read, a couple of people commented that they had, or were interested in, Mistress Shakespeare, by Karen Harper. Harper is a best-selling author, primarily of mystery/suspense novels. When this book was published in 2009, she was best known for her Queen Elizabeth I mystery series. I have never read a book of hers, and I know that the only reason I own this book is that it was on sale and that it has one of my favorite Waterhouse paintings, “The Soul of the Rose,” on the cover.

I’m probably going to read this book in September. From September 10th to the 20th I am doing a lot of traveling, so any reading will be Kindle and blog posting will be even less likely than usual. There’s a TBR challenge review during that time, with the “historical” theme, but I have something else planned for that slot. So my thoughts on Mistress Shakespeare will probably be posted sometime towards the end of the month. Plenty of time to jump on board, if you have this book or think it looks interesting. (It’s a little pricey in e-book, but used print copies are cheap.)

Summary (from Amazon.com):

In Mistress Shakespeare, Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley reveals intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway of Shottery. The clandestine Whateley/Shakespeare match is a meeting of hearts and heads that no one—not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters—can destroy. From rural Stratford-upon- Avon to teeming London, the passionate pair struggles to stay solvent and remain safe from Elizabeth I’s campaign to hunt down secret Catholics, of whom Shakespeare is rumored to be a part. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will’s first plays and, as he climbs to theatrical power in Elizabeth’s England, they fend off fierce competition from rival London dramatists, ones as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne’s heartrending story to life. Spanning half a century of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and sweeping from the lowest reaches of society to the royal court, this richly textured novel tells the real story of Shakespeare in love.

TBR Challenge: Why Didn’t I Read This Sooner?

The theme for August is “Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!).” I decided to choose among six books that I bought nearly six years ago at an independent bookstore; they were on a sale table. All six were some version of historical fiction, all by women authors whose work I had not read, and all had really interesting covers. (And they have all been on my bookshelf since then, unread.)

A selection of historical fiction

A selection of historical fiction

I posted this photo on Twitter and asked for input, agreeing to read the one that the largest number of people thought looked the most interesting. From a pretty small sample of responses, the choice was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe, published in 2009 by Hyperion.


I have to talk first about what a beautiful book this is. I read mostly e-books these days, and usually when I read a printed book, I’m frustrated by its flimsiness (if it’s paperback) or unwieldiness (big hardbacks). This book is neither, and it is such a well-made and attractive book that I really enjoyed holding it and reading it. I’m sure the story is just as good in electronic format, but especially because this is a book about a book, the lovely print edition really enhanced my reading experience.

Beautiful endpapers

Beautiful endpapers

Evocative use of font

Evocative use of font

The main character in the novel is Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American Colonial History at Harvard in 1991. In the first chapter she sits for her oral qualifying exam, so for most of the novel she is a PhD candidate at the very beginning of the dissertation process — looking for a project. Connie’s mother, Grace, is a hippy single mother who moved to New Mexico when Connie started college. Early in the book she asks Connie to go to her grandmother’s (Grace’s mother) empty house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to clean it out and ready it for sale. The house has been vacant since Sophia (the grandmother) died, about 20 years before, and now it needs to be sold to pay accrued taxes.

Connie and Grace have a complex relationship. Grace is a free spirit, concerned with healing energies and auras, and Connie’s early years were spend in a commune near Walden Pond.  Connie is actively unlike her mother, working since childhood to be prepared, logical and orderly where Grace is free-spirited and impulsive. They are fond of, but bewildered by, each other. I thought their relationship was depicted really well; I enjoyed their loving conflict. Connie resents Grace putting her in the position of having to take care of the house business, but she agrees to do it.

The house is overgrown and spooky, with neither a telephone nor electricity. It is also still fully furnished and full of Sophia’s possessions. Connie plans to spend the summer living there, sorting through the contents and cleaning the place up, while still commuting into Cambridge for meetings with her advisory about her dissertation project.  Her plan takes a turn when, her first night in the house, she finds a key in an old Bible. Inside the hollow shaft of the key is a piece of paper bearing the words “Deliverance Dane.” Connie decides fairly quickly that this might be someone’s name, and so she begins researching to find out whom it could have been. She learns that Deliverance was accused of witchcraft and excommunicated during the Salem witch trials in 1692.

Running parallel to Connie’s story is the story of Deliverance, her daughter Mercy, and her granddaughter Prudence, between 1681 and 1749. Prudence was a midwife, and Constance finds her diary while researching, but it really provides little insight into the questions about Deliverance. The book contains “interlude” chapters giving the reader glimpses of these other women’s lives; while Connie’s story proceeds in chronological order, the interludes do not, but instead sort of circle around Connie’s research and eventually come together in Deliverance’s execution for witchcraft near the end of the book.

The Physick Book mentioned in the title is Deliverance’s book, handed down to Mercy and then to Prudence. Connie and her academic advisor, Professor Chilton, come to believe that the book is in fact a spell book, and that Deliverance actually practiced a form of witchcraft. Chilton urges Connie to find the book and make it the center of her dissertation research.

Early in her search for Deliverance, Connie meets Sam, a restoration specialist working on the steeple of a local church. He helps with her research and they develop a romantic relationship. Then Sam meets with a horrible accident and is hospitalized, and Connie realizes that she needs to find Deliverance’s book in order to save Sam’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. The history is well-researched and fascinating, the academic research/detective work is involving, and the paranormal elements are handled with a matter-of-fact touch and an integration with the rest of the story that I appreciated. The romance doesn’t dominate the book, but it is important and satisfying. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was a best-seller, and I’m looking forward to reading the three books Howe has written since this debut.

The historical fiction aspect of this novel was a nice palate cleanser, showing that a good writer can add fictional elements to a historical setting without making bad history or erasing the authenticity of the historical experience. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the Salem witch trials that starts with the premise, “what if they were witches?,” and I’m really glad I read this one.

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