Friday, January 1, 2016

My December Reading

The last reading month of the year, and it's been such a ride. I've stretched and grown so much as a reader this year as I tried books of so many different types and moved away from reading just genre fiction. Of the books I read in December, the most challenging was Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, not for the difficulty in the prose, but because of my reaction to the complexity of the central figure. I usually plump for or against a character in the beginning of the book and that stays with me to the end. Not so here. So that was interesting for me.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: Pakistani-British characters
Commentary: This was my TBR Challenge book and the review was my debut post for All About Romance.

Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross
Categories: regency, mystery
Commentary: I read this book with Liz McCausland, Sunita, and Jorrie Spencer. We started discussing the book on Twitter and then moved the discussion to the comments section of Liz's blog here.

His Wife For One Night by Molly O'Keefe
Categories: romance, contemporary
Commentary: I read this book om the recommendation by Miss Bates and Wendy Crutcher, my first Harlequin SuperRomance. I had heard so much about this type of book, part-way between a category romance and a single-title romance, and this book came highly recommended, so it was a no-brainer to try it out. And I'm glad I did. I'm looking forward to reading another Super by O'Keefe next month.

She'd be armed with something far trickier and more insidious. Something he couldn't negotiate with and had never known how to handle.
His past.
He opened the door and as expected, it was her.
Mia Alatore.
And his heart slipped the reins of his brain and he was so damn glad to see her. To have her here.

It's lovely to see a person so much in thrall to another person. And this book is about one or the other being dazzled by the other. Mia has always loved Jack. Jack has always been in love with Mia but he has allowed his disbelief in love, his belief in his unlovableness, and his focus on his engineering humanitarian project to cloud his clear-sightedness about his feelings.

So this story is about Mia allowing Jack back into her life after being hurt by him over and over again and Jack discovering that despite his horrific past, he can build a stable life, one of joy and love. So it's a question of each allowing the other to see what they are like at their most vulnerable.

Both leads are strong characters and each has to bend and change and compromise in order to make the HEA happen. I enjoy stories where it's a tale of equals, where one isn't near-perfect while the other has to change a lot. It lends veracity to their HEA and I can believe in its longevity.

O'Keefe has handled Jack's reconciliation with his father, Walter, with kid gloves and finesse. I enjoyed every scene the two were in as I saw them first turn away from each other and then slowly start to turn towards each other.

He wanted to forget the abuse and the neglect. He wanted to remember the good things. The good times.
The bitter knot of anger and resentment shifted sideways in his chest, opening up some new place, a hidden chamber with light and a view.
Maybe this was forgiveness?
"Well," Walter said. "I'm just letting you know. I expect you to keep in touch better than you have been. A card now and again—"
"You want to come with me?" Jack asked. "I'm moving heifers up the fire road."

Jack might be a university professor but he was also a field engineer. And O'Keefe built his character up to be the person who could turn to ranching from engineering with passages like this:

His shoulders were broader, the calluses thicker. Jack was a man who worked. Got his hands dirty and his back bent out of shape. He dug holes and built things and that kind of work made him comfortable in his own skin. Confident in himself.

The whole deal with Jack's work brought up some incongruencies for me. He's "head of research" at a university. What does that even mean? Is he assistant chair of the hydro-engineering department? Or the professor who brings in the biggest grants? He travels so much as a modern-day Indiana Jones, doesn't he have teaching duties? Guiding PhD student duties? The end is so beautifully done that it feels miserly to quibble about Jack's engineering side of life. Other than that one conference or three, is he going to throw away his passion for engineering and his education to ranch? Ranching was part of his childhood and ranching undoubtedly is in his blood, but could he be satisfied without his intellectual engineering career? I found the end very dissatisfying because of the deliberate ambiguity of what his career is going to mean to him and to their life together.

The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh
Categories: romance, regency
Commentary: Read this with Growly Cub and also discussed with author Miranda Neville and Dear Author blogger Janine Ballard.

The story begins with some filler and then the scene opener for the romance. It's that scene that I have the most trouble with. It features "thunderstorm sex on a picnic table," according to Miranda's succinct summation. It's also instantaneous sex between strangers who know each other by reputation, which makes each unattractive to the other, ostensibly to provide comfort to the heroine who's terrified of thunderstorms. If you're shuddering at this, do remember this is Balogh. She can write herself out of any scene. So it's best to set this scene aside and assume that the hero and heroine have had a meet cute and have known each other intimately.

Moving right along...the story becomes a story of his yearning for her unattainable self and the transformation it engenders in him. Despite the above scene, she rejects him as a lover and casts that night into an aberration on her part. She prides herself as a woman with an intelligent mind and with that mind she knows that she cannot possibly respect him and, in fact, despises him for who he is—dissolute gamester, drinker, and debaucher.

He in turn is in thrall with her being the only lady of his vast acquaintance who enjoys making love and who enjoyed making it with him...despite her now rejection of it.

He wondered yet again why he was pursuing her so relentlessly. She was so much older and plainer than most of the other dancers. At least he thought she must be. He could no longer remember if she was pretty or plain, old or young. She was Mary.

Her continued rejection of him, in harsh words most of the times hurts him so much once for him to admit: "Mary , you are vastly accomplished at giving setdowns. Do you ever consider the pain you give with them? You do not know how you wound me. I am human. I have feelings."

He sets about trying to convince her to fall into his bed despite all her resistance, till he realizes, Oh Em Gee, I'm in love with her and I'm going to wish her happy and move out of her life.

"Go, then," he said, sliding his hands hard down her arms and gripping both hands hard enough to hurt. "And be happy, Mary. That is all I want for you. Please, be happy."

Enter the machinating aunt who seeks to unite these two and also the hero with his estranged family and his dark past. (So now you know why he was dissolute. He was running away from the hurt of his dark past.) However, I really liked that despite knowing the reason for his current behavior, no one makes any excuses for it. He takes full credit for his disreputableness. The the only reason the heroine forgives him is because she's in love with him, not because she's whitewashed his misdeeds. She shows that if he's willing to change for the better, she can be a bigger person and forgive his wrongs.

One thing I realized in reading this book was the power of first names and the intimacy it implies. In a society where people were almost always referred to by their titles and last/first names (Miss So-n-So, Lord So-n-So), calling someone by their first name in public was a deliberate choice displaying impertinence and a declaration of fact or intent. And the name is used here also to invoke a wealth of emotion on part of the hero and how he thinks of her. Lovely!

Reading back some of my last few romance novel commentaries, I've realized that I seem to be reading books where there's significant growth, for the better, on the part of the hero as an individual and as husband material, but the growth in the heroine is only towards the hero—there's no scope or demand for individual growth. She somehow seems to be made well right from the beginning and the hero has to change to deserve her. So the question is: Is this the type of book I'm drawn too or is it just that these are the ones that have been falling into my hands?


Liz Mc2 said...

Gah, I didn't exactly read that Molly O'Keefe book WITH you, but I'm still planning to re-read it soon, when I get out of the long library book I'm mired in. Then I will come back and comment!

Victoria Janssen said...

I really loved THE NOTORIOUS RAKE back when I read it for the first time - I remember thinking it felt different than any other Regency I'd read. Should probably give it a re-read one of these days.

Keira Soleore said...

@Liz_Mc2: Ah, I didn't realize that. I took out the reference where I said I read it with you. Do read it when you get a chance. I look forward to reading what you have to say when you do. I enjoyed the story very much.

Keira Soleore said...

@Victoria: I really enjoyed The Notorious Rake. It's a Balogh but it's a book where Balogh's outdone herself. Hope you re-read it.

Wendy said...

I love that O'Keefe Super beyond all reason - but you bring up a good point about the end. I think at the time it didn't register with me so much because I was so flabbergasted by the role reversal. For once we didn't have the heroine chucking aside her job/career/Life In Big City to chase after true love.

And in case you're interested - there is a follow-up book An Unexpected Family. Sister Lucy and neighbor Jeremiah are the romantic couple. Plus you get some resolution to the Walter/Sandra "thing."

Keira Soleore said...

Wendy, you're right. There's a definite role reversal here, and I was so taken up by him chucking his career that I failed to catch the significance of his gesture.

Thank you for the O'Keefe rec. I've added it to my list for my #SuperYear of reading.

Keira Soleore said...

@Wendy: On thinking further about your comment, I feel that if he had turned his back completely on his engineering career and chosen to become a rancher alongside the heroine, I would've respected his choice. However, one cannot be a part-time hydro-engineering researcher on a ranch. He cannot possibly do both careers and the ambiguity in those last scenes about this caused a stumble for me.

Wendy said...

Keira: Oh, I agree - it's just at the time I was such a swoony-mess towards the end of the book that I didn't even stop to think on it. This was an odd-in-a-good-way reading experience for me. I loved it from the first sentence to the last - which rarely happens for me. Most of the time my "keepers" grow on me over several chapters. I've had books start out as B reads and then something shifts in the second half and I'm all A++++ SQUEEEEEE! by the end. I chalked it up to the right book finding me at the right time :)

Glad you enjoyed it too. I really dig the SuperRomance line and think it deserves more love among the contemporary romance reading crowd. They're some of my favorites in that sub genre.

Keira Soleore said...

Wendy, yes. The emotions in the books are superbly handled. The book has so much heart. Molly O'Keefe is very talented. And I'm so glad I've discovered her, thanks to you and Miss Bates and a few others.