True by Erin McCarthy

A young woman with long hair and wearing jeans and a fashionable sweater leans back towards a young man in well worn jeans and a sweatshirtI will start by saying that I only read this because I got it for free and I wanted to be able to offer a counterpoint to what I saw as a determination to sweep the book’s problematic elements under the rug and dismiss its critics as oversensitive. I didn’t start it with an open mind: based on the first chapter posted at Dear Author, I fully expected to not only dislike the book, but to hate it. In the end, the book proved so unenjoyable for me that I couldn’t finish it.

What made it so unenjoyable for me ended up not being all the problematic stereotypes – although there were plenty of those, believe you me – it was the awkward writing. McCarthy wrote some of the weirdest dialog and prose I’ve read in a while. She had questionable metaphors (“Fear flooded my mouth.”), not-quite-similes (“She made those fuzzy circle scarves that were like an acrylic barrier between your skin and the wind.”) and really mangled the whole first-person narration thing. For example, there’s this line shared in the middle of an account of her being sexually assaulted: “I had long, dark-red hair, which made it easy for him to entwine his fingers to control my head and my neck, holding me so I couldn’t move.” Unless red hair has extra grip than other colored hair – and my heart goes out to gingers everywhere if it does – the middle of a traumatic event is the wrong time to info dump about her hair color.

If you can hang with her writing, your reward is a steaming pile of stereotypes about race and poverty. The first chapter is lousy with it.

“It was too far to walk back to the dorms, and it was the kind of off-campus neighborhood that had my dad raising his eyebrows and suggesting I go to college in some cow town like Bowling Green, where there were no dirty couches on sagging front porches and no residents’ smoking crack in full view of the street.

So walking back was not happening, because I didn’t smoke crack and I was no risk-taker. At all.

Yet sitting there alone with Grant while my roommates were off having a good time almost seemed riskier than strolling through the ghetto. Because it was sort of like perching over a public toilet seat without actually touching anything. It was difficult. Awkward.”

I’m not totally sure what my favorite comparison was, to be honest. Using a racially charged word like “ghetto” along with the also fraught crack-smoking was some primo shit, but parallelling a poor neighborhood and a gross toilet seat was also pretty amazing. Just in case you missed the POOR NEIGHBORHOOD IS FULL OF BLACK PEOPLE vibe, the chapter closes out with a throwaway fried chicken reference (“… I followed Tyler down the metal stairs, the smell of fried foods strong in the hallway…”) I don’t think any of this was necessary to establish 1. that the heroine can’t leave the apartment on her own or 2. that she’s fairly sheltered and unaware of her privilege. Seeing as how all the protagonists are white, I don’t see how any of the racial imagery was relevant.

And I’m gonna go ahead and say this in all caps: SEXUAL ASSAULT ISN’T A MEET CUTE. Seriously. While she’s in this apartment she can’t leave on her own, a friend of the hero’s roommate tries to force fellatio on the heroine. He’s stopped by the hero swooping as her white knight. It serves no purpose but to introduce the hero and heroine and make the hero look like a champion. No one calls the cops, (although I get that, as cops are almost useless with SA) and the heroine doesn’t seem to react to it much. Directly after it, she accepts a ride home, alone, from the hero, who she doesn’t know. Makes perfect sense in Romance Logic, since we know he’s the hero, but I found her willingness to trust her own character judgement so quickly just bizarre. The would-be-rapist shows up again halfway through the book to sow some drama, and that’s about it. It’s a pretty superficial plot device.

I didn’t finish it, so I can’t say from personal experience, but I’m pretty sure there’s a generous helping of ableism as well in the form of the hero’s younger brother, who has Down Syndrome. I did notice everyone spoke to him like they would to a puppy, but all the dialog was so forced that I’m wary of attributing to malice what can be explained by incompetence. And don’t even get me going on the portrayal of poverty. The hero is trying to work his way out of poverty caused by his mother’s drug addiction. Because this is Romancelandia, OF COURSE they’re poor because their parents were lazy, bad people who had the weak character to fall prey to addiction. This one gets an F, for fuck you.

~60,000 words
Published May 7th, 2013 by Penguin

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Curve Ball by Charlotte Stein

A couple sits on a boat. She smiles at the viewer and is wearing a pretty sundress. He's shirtless and wearing sunglasses and smiling at her.This is a short little novella so there’s not a ton to discuss. It’s a girl-carries-a-flame-for-her-older-brother’s-friend story featuring a curvy heroine and a muscular hero, but the story is almost inconsequential. The beauty of this book is in the telling.

It’s told in first-person present tense from the heroine’s point of view, which I typically loathe. Stein, however puts on a clinic for How It Should Be Done. The heroine’s personality is front and center, pouring from the little asides and stream of consciousness. You feel all of her emotions along with her as she puzzles them out with the reader. Occasionally she breaks out in Pratchett-like lists, at one point making me break out in hysterical laughter in the middle of some seriously hot sexual tension:

c) There is something pressing into the small of my back, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t a tube of Rolos. And if it is, he really needs to tell me where he bought such an enormous packet.
I love Rolos.

If this were an HFN rather than an HEA, I’d give it five stars. The emotion and passion was just completely awesome and the narration was pitch-fucking-perfect. I just thought the ILYs at the end felt rushed and unnecessary. B+

—-

I will add a caveat or a content note to this, as it deals with fat in a way that some people might find problematic.

Early in the story, Steven, the hero, tells a story using a lot of fat-phobic and fat-shaming language:

‘So I picked up this cute little fat chick,’

‘And I mean, she was a big girl. I could hardly get my arms around her waist.’

‘And her arse … Man, her arse was the size of a small planet.’
‘But the best part was these thighs she had … These big, billowing thighs.’
‘It was like an avalanche of flesh, on top of me. At one point, I was genuinely afraid for my life – one false move and I could have been crushed.’

‘But then it turned out that she was a total maniac who liked to eat paint. Thank God she was heavy … I didn’t have to run all that fast to get away from her.’

The heroine, being fat (“Anything over a size two would likely make the grade, in his eyes, and I passed that stage around 12 levels ago. You could times his ideal size by seven and still not get where I’m at.”), naturally takes offense at his language and blows up, effectively telling him to go fuck himself. Now, he’s immediately sorry he’s hurt her feelings, and I think a later conversation gives his comments some context that make them more about the girl he’s disparaging than a dig at fatness, but YMMV.

I liked how body image was used in the story, for the most part. I thought Judy was insecure about her body without ever drifting into self-loathing. She frequently frets about Steven’s opinion of her body, but seems to also view his potential rejection as his own damn problem, and not a measure of her self-worth. The story also seems to avoid the common “a man loves your body, therefore you’re lovable” pitfall I often see in fat romance. It does a good job of showing that Steven’s attracted to Judy in particular, and that’s the source of his affinity for a curvy woman (‘I really like curvy girls.’ He pauses, right before the kicker. Then he delivers it, with all the punch he can muster. ‘Probably because of you.’)

I am, as many of you know, skinny as a toothpick, and really haven’t got any experience with “extra” weight, so if you read this differently, I’m all ears.

~18,000 words
Published January 21st 2013 by Xcite Books

Lightning Round: November 2012

A couple in formalwear dancing in a grand hall surrounded by antiques and opulent furnishings.The Petrov Proposal
by Maisey Yates

One day on Twitter, I was talking to Jane from DA about Harlequin’s new Kiss line, which debuts next year. I said that “if they’re like HP’s with non-asshole heroes and grown-up heroines, I’ll be in heaven.” That basically describes The Petrov Proposal to a T.

The hero is commitment-averse, but so is the heroine. He’s never arrogant or overbearing and she’s never overmatched or passive. She’s sexually inexperienced, sure, but she’s no naive ingenue. She’s a grown woman with an adult’s understanding of sexuality. There’s verbal sparring, hot makeouts, hotter sex, endearing vulnerable moments and a heartwrenching climax. If it didn’t have that worthless epilogue and that unnecessary Grand Gesture, it’d have been a grade A book.

Still, this one was really, really good. B+

+++

A woman in a long orange dress made of a bunched up satin material stands off to the right side, pressing her hands against the wall, showing her back to the camera and looking at the viewer over her right shoulder.Midnight Scandals
by Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas

This was the rare anthology where all the stories were great. The Milan story was the weakest, and I’d still call it an above average read. Carolyn Jewel’s story was my favorite, as the longing and regret was off the charts.

The anthology features three stories centered around the same country home – Doyle’s Grange – set in three different time periods. Jewel’s story is an angsty second chances story set during the regency. The hero returns to the area after reluctantly parting with her when they were teenagers a decade ago. Wanting a home of her own after her brother comes home with a new wife, the heroine has accepted a local gentleman’s marriage proposal. Of course the hero and heroine discover that time hasn’t exactly dulled their attraction or chemistry at all, which is fun. There’s lots of longing here. Though they may still want each other, they have some heavy stuff in their shared history. B+

Milan set her domestic abuse-themed story in the early Victorian period. After fleeing her father’s house in the wake of an embezzlement scandal, the heroine’s working as a companion to the current lady of the house at Doyle’s Grange. Determined to recover the money her father stole from him, the hero has finally tracked her down. Though he’s certain she’s covering up for her father, he also starts to suspect that she’s not exactly safe at Doyle’s Grange and may not be the villain of the situation. I liked this one, but the romance took a back seat to all the other plot machinations. B-

Thomas’ late-Victorian entry surprised me. Let’s be honest here: the set up is fucking ridiculous. There are meet cutes, and then there’s the heroine mistakenly making out with the hero because he’s a dead ringer for the married man she’s in love with. If that’s not enough, the hero and her obsession are both named Fitz. Don’t tell me. I know. Somehow, I ended up liking the story anyway. It probably helps that I have not read the books these characters are from. It also helps that everyone in the story, heroine included, thinks this set up is ridiculous. There was too much Past Protagonist in this one, but otherwise was a good story of moving beyond first impressions. B-

+++

Closeup of a couple kissing.Beautiful Mess
by Lucy V. Morgan

Clocking in somewhere between a short story and a novella, this vignette started strong then fizzled out. The narrator’s voice is wicked and funny and oozes youthfulness, but the story was incomplete and unsatisfying. The characters also use a lot of language in the “casual bigotry” category – referring to large pumps as being in “tranny sizes,” calling things “retarded,” and so on – which mirrors how most 24 year olds speak to each other, but some readers might want to give it a wide berth because of it.

I’d read another book by this author because I found her voice fresh and contemporary, but I wanted more from this story than I got. C

+++

Shirtless guy with a tanned, waxed torso, wearing jeans and a Santa hat. Has a candy cane in his pocket, though he may also be happy to see you.Room at the Inn
by Ruthie Knox

I only read the Knox novella. The O’Keefe story is a teaser prequel that lacks an HEA/ending, and the Sloane story is a fluffy historical. I’m not interested in either right now.

I loved Room at the Inn a lot… until the ending. I think Grand Gestures are cheap and lazy as a rule, but this one felt even weaker tacked onto the end of such a thoughtful and emotional story. How does staging a humiliating, public scene in a church during Christmas Eve services strike anyone as romantic? How does a narcissistic, emotionally manipulative stunt like a public proposal atone for 16 years of narcissism and emotional abuse? It spoiled what had been a top notch story. The hero’s redemption/change of heart was believable and accounted for, and I could see their HEA, but the church stunt was BS. I’ve mentally edited it to give the story a more satisfying ending with 100% less self-centered manipulation. C

+++

top half: a man embraces a woman from behind. bottom half: a lone rider on a horse is silhouetted by a cloudy sunset.Broken Vows
by Delynn Royer

A marriage of convenience where a heroine promises a retired bounty hunter $20,000 to marry her then divorce her after six months so she can inherit her family’s ranch? Sign me up! To sweeten the deal, the heroine’s a total bitch who has to work on her attitude to win the hero. It’s like it was written just for me.

I do have to warn that the author wrote about the Latino characters totally offensively – “half-breed” is so not an acceptable term – but it was thoughtlessly done, not malicious, and only comes up a few times early in the novel when she’s describing a few side characters. I chose to roll my eyes at the author and keep reading, but other people might want to set the book on fine.

Once I got past that stuff in the early chapters, I really enjoyed the story. Their bickering and bantering is hilarious, and the sexual tension was spicy. Not bad for a $2.99 impulse buy on Amazon. B-

+++

A closeup of a fireman's face. He's wearing a blue helmet with the number 14 on itAfter the Fire
by Kathryn Shay

This is marketed as romance, but it sure didn’t read like one. Rather than focus on a couple as they fall in love, this book follows three firefighter siblings – Mitch, Jenn and Zach – as they deal with the fallout after a particularly destructive fire. All three decide to make changes in their lives: Mitch swears to do something about his dysfunctional marriage, Jenn is determined to become a mother and Zach wants to stop his destructive behavior that’s left him divorced.

I’m really not sure what compelled me to finish this one. The writing was dry and plagued with info dumps about firefighting. I got totally lost spending equal amounts of time in five characters’ heads watching two pairs of them get HEAs and the odd one out get therapy. Mitch’s wife was a cartoonishly one-dimensional villain (a bad mother! a rich girl unsatisfied with middle-class life! takes pride in her appearance!) and I needed more time spent on Jenn’s romance to buy an HEA after she’d already been divorced twice before. And Zach was just shameless sequel bait. Seriously. Not at all interested in the rest of the series. D

+++

.Saga, Volume 1
by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Artist)

When a book opens with a childbirth scene and the first line is the mother yelling, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” how could I not read on?

This is mostly a prologue, like many volume 1 comic trades are, but I’m hooked. From the kickass Alana to her laid-back husband Marko to the ethically-complex bounty hunter The Will and his sidekick Lying Cat (a cat that says only “Lying” when someone isn’t speaking the truth) to the wide variety of side characters, I want to see more of this universe caught up in a war between Alana’s home planet and the moon Marko is from.

That a copy of a romance novel, complete with clinch-style cover, looks to play a role in the effort to hunt down Alana and Marko only sweetens the deal.B

+++

the bent legs of a woman lying on her back, wearing black garters and stockings.Owning Wednesday
by Annabel Joseph

This was a frustrating read for me. On the one hand, you’ve got moments like this:

But just before she came, the man fucking stopped.

She actually sobbed then. “Daniel, no! Please! Please don’t do this to me. You’ll kill me.”

“Kill you? ‘Here lies Wednesday, total drama queen.’ I’ll visit every week and leave butt plugs on your grave.”

Just about the only thing rarer than a negative pregnancy test in romance is humor and playfulness in BDSM scenes, and I loved that this book went there. It was a unique D/s relationship between two individuals. It even eschewed the collar. Instead, Wednesday wore garters and stockings when their D/s dynamic was “on.”

But, on the other hand, the book is 90% sex scene and 10% Wednesday and Daniel hurting each other with their actions. I like sex as much as the next girl, but if it’s not advancing the plot, I’m bored rather quickly. A lot of it felt gratuitous. And Wednesday and Daniel? While I appreciated that she had a backbone and stood up to Daniel’s obsessive, controlling behaviors, I never felt that the problems were ever resolved. By the end, they still appeared to me as two insecure people mindfucking each other.

So, this one was a mixed bag. I’m being generous by rating it as average, I think. It’s a case of great idea, poor execution. C

+++

A woman in a pink tank top smiles at the camera while leaning a hockey stick against her shoulder.Offside
by Juliana Stone

This was a strange little book. While I enjoyed reading about a heroine who’s a serious hockey player, and the sexual tension was expertly paced, the book was exceedingly over the top. Everything in it is turned up to 11. The sexist backlash over her joining the men’s beer league, her dementia-addled father pointing a shotgun at the hero while her grandfather’s drawers fall down, the triplet sisters being named Billie-Jo, Bobbi-Jo and Betty-Jo, the prodigal triplet returning just in time to toss a drama bomb – all of these moments felt scripted. It was like the author was poking me in the ribs and saying “ISN’T THAT JUST ZANY?”

I started off entertained, then I was being indulgent, but by the end I was rolling my eyes at the blatant manipulation. It’s a fun book if you don’t try to pin real world logic onto it, but the ending was just a stunt too far for me. C

Rio Grande Wedding by Ruth Wind

A shirtless man in dark jeans with shoulder-length, dark brown hair leans in towards a blonde woman wearing a pink bathrobe. They're in a sunny kitchen, standing next to a counter that has two coffee cups on it.This is another Harlequin I grabbed during the BooksOnBoard Black Friday sale. I saw the words “Green card groom,” and immediately downloaded the sample. Marriages of convenience are one of my very favorite romance tropes, so I was an easy sell.

Widowed nurse Molly Sheffield finds a wounded migrant worker on her property and takes it upon herself to nurse him back to health after he begs her not to call an ambulance. Undocumented immigrant Alejandro Sosa hates to burden the strange woman who’s rescued him, but he can’t risk deportation – not while his eight year old niece is stranded alone in the wilderness after an immigration raid. Struck by Alejandro’s devotion to his niece, or perhaps due to four lonely years alone on her secluded New Mexico farm, Molly decides to do everything she can to keep him together with his niece in America, even if her deputy sheriff brother suspects they’re marrying only to secure a green card.

I really enjoyed this modern take on a marriage of convenience. Wind – who also writes as Barbara Samuel – treats the heady subject with a lot of sensitivity and avoids any grandstanding. Molly’s brother is the story’s antagonist, but he remains sympathetic or at least relatable even with his zero tolerance approach to illegal immigration. Alejandro isn’t some Woobie forced into the role of victim, he’s got some misgivings and doubts over whether he’s making the right decision to work as a migrant laborer in the US. I liked all the characters more for having some flaws.

Where the book wasn’t perfect was in the timing. Everything in the book takes place over a very short period of time. I can buy a week-long whirlwind romance ok, but resolving immigration status, family drama, a gunshot wound *and* tuberculosis as well within a week is a bit much. I really enjoyed the hero and heroine, but I had to put my “this is fantasy” glasses on to digest the neat and tidy ending. B-

~65,000 words
Published October 1st 1999 by Silhouette Intimate Moments

In His Eyes by Emmie Dark

A couple standing next to a wooden wine barrel, sharing a bottle of wine, standing in a large wine cellar with brick walls. Fans of angst and second chances would like this book. The heroine returns to her hometown after leaving ten years ago as a troubled teenager. Intending only to stay long enough to bury her grandfather, bottle his wine and sell his estate off, her plans hit a snag of sorts in the shape of the estate’s neighbor. The hero wants to add her grandfather’s vineyard to his estate’s holdings, but with their messy shared history, secrets come out and what once seemed so straightforward turns out to be anything but.

Lots of emotion in this one. The secrets behind Zoe’s banishment as a teenager are a big ones, with shockwaves that leave cracks in both of their adult lives. Their revelation forces them to reexamine assumptions they’d labored under for ten years and unleashes all sorts of feelings they don’t really want to deal with right now. Upstanding, responsible Hugh just wants to buy her family’s vineyard and get back to his role as CEO of his family’s winemaking business. Restless, rebellious Zoe wants to wrap up their business then get back to California, and away from the bad memories. Walking down memory lane is hugely uncomfortable for them, but they just can’t seem to stop the momentum and go back to how they were before the secrets came out.

I thought Dark did a good job pacing the characters through their journey of rediscovery. She dispenses bits of intrigue and backstory gradually throughout the story, neither character ever launches into a monologue of angst nor are the salient details dangled just out of the reader’s grasp over and over. I felt that the characters discussed and processed their feelings in ways that were unique to their personalities – Zoe giving up information and emotion only under duress, and Hugh relentlessly pursuing further discussion to try to make things right. It’s a dynamic that not only suits the storytelling, it shows me a couple well-matched for an HEA. Their communication styles complement each other perfectly.

The dialog felt a little forced at times, especially when Mr. Plot Expediter Morris is on screen, and I didn’t love how the conflict was finally resolved. I wanted more initiative from Zoe after she flew back to California. That Hugh instead flew to her to make a declaration felt more like the author indulging her own love of the Grand Gesture than the natural outcome for the characters. It was heavy on the style and short on substance. It’s also SOP for the genre.

I picked this up on a whim during an ebook sale, and I’m glad I did. This new-to-me author is now on my list of Harlequin authors to keep an eye on. B-

~75,000 words
Published August 1st 2012 by Harlequin Superromance