fiction · romance

The Governess Game- Tessa Dare

One down off the TBR, finally! Confession, though: I added this to my TBR because I wanted to read Tessa Dare, and The Governess Game (Avon, 2018) was one my library had (so I wasn’t necessarily longing to read this book specifically). I’ve followed Tessa Dare for ages on Twitter and have adored her on there and thus felt the need to engage with her work. As luck would have it, the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge includes a prompt for a book by an author who has written more than 20 books, and Ms. Dare fits right in with that category! I was happy to kill two birds with one store and checked this out from the library the day before it closed.

Alexandra Mountbatten is not having the best of days. The man she’s been fantasizing about for months after interacting with him (barely) at a bookstore has resurfaced in her life, and it…didn’t go well. And after losing the bag of tools she uses to set clocks in the homes of her customers, she’s forced to return to Chase Reynaud’s fancy home and accept his earlier bizarre offer to act as governess to the two ill-behaved orphan sisters left in his care. His playboy reputation, Alexandra’s schoolgirl crush, and the terrible behavior of the girls, none of it matters- Alexandra’s desperate.

But Alexandra’s sharp mind helps her to see the weak spots in both the sisters’ and Chase’s defenses, and it’s not long before everyone has come to love this unexpected addition to the household. In a one-step-forward, two-steps-back fashion, Chase and Alexandra will find their way to each other, but not without a few heart-stopping- and heart-pounding!- moments along the way.

I’m nearly aghast that Avon publishes both this absolutely wonderful, feminist, sex-positive and healthy historical romance, alongside the dumpster fire novel It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The two books are light years apart in terms of quality, with Ms. Dare’s work the clear winner by a million miles. Alexandra is not only confident but full of self-respect as well; she takes pride in her hard work, her education, and who she is, despite a lifetime of difficult circumstances. Her friends are supportive and respectful; they cheer her on and push her to achieve her goals and grow as a person. She’s a strong heroine who can be emulated and imitated, and I knew within several pages that I’d absolutely read more of Ms. Dare’s work. The same could not be said after several pages of It Had to Be You.

Chase is a pretty decent hero. He’s a rake, for sure; he’s been around the bush more than a few times (while managing to keep himself clean and free from illegitimate children, a feat covered in the book), but for reasons that make him a bad boy with a heart of gold, one in need of healing. He’s a man with a sense of humor and not afraid to follow or let himself be bested by a strong woman, and that was exactly the hero antidote I needed at this point in time.

I’m always so impressed by well-written (and FUN!) historical romance. The research has to be daunting- I’m not sure I’d even know where to start. But included in each one of these books is a free history lesson- it’s never names or dates or battles (unless you’re reading something with a more intense historical background, like Outlander), but more of a sense of the daily life of the members of a certain class during the time period the book is set in. Dress styles, decorating trends, speech, class hierarchy, how certain professions went about their work, food choices, it’s all in there, and to be honest, I love these lighter historical romances. (When I say lighter, I’m comparing this to books like Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews– that felt heavier to me and not as enjoyable as The Governess Game or Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.)

Have you read Tessa Dare? I’d love to hear any recommendations for what else I should read from her (besides everything!). Tell me about your favorites!

Visit Tessa Dare’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical romance

Flames of Glory- Patricia Matthews

Okay, so a while back, I posted about reading an article asking romance readers, “What was the book that got you into reading romance in the first place?” And of course, my answer to that was a big fat, “Uh…I can’t remember the title. Or the author. Or much of what happened in it.” Which is all super helpful information when you try to find a book, right? The universe smiled upon me, however; about two weeks or so after I read that article, I just so happened to find The Book, which turned out to be Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews (Thomdike Press, 1982). I’m still not over the fact that I actually found that book- I didn’t even really look at it at the used book sale, just kind of shrugged after I thought it might be it (because I had to leave; other errands to run!), then stuffed it in my bag. And it was so, so it!

Despite the florid description on Goodreads (complete with OCR scan typo), the book’s style wasn’t actually as overwritten as I expected and turned out to be a mostly pleasant read, generally speaking. Let’s start by picking apart the back cover copy (I’ll tidy up that scan error):

SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…

Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica clung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.

EGADS. Is that not the fussiest back cover copy you’ve ever read? Were all 80’s romance novels described like this??? The actual writing of the book is nothing like this and reads pretty close to what I would expect out of any decently-written book on the shelf today, so I’m not sure what the goal was with that mess.

There’s a brief scene at the beginning when Jessica is just fourteen years old, out with her parents and in awe over the grand opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Flash forward another seven years, and Jessica, whose greatest and sole personality trait is being beautiful (unless having sunshiny blond hair is also a personality trait, then that too, I suppose), is so utterly bored with life (ONLY BORING PEOPLE ARE BORED, JESSICA) that she’s practically cheering the start of the Spanish-American war, because it means that Tampa is filling up with soldiers, particularly Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Despite a prickly start, she and Lieutenant Neil Dancer (who has lightning-quick outdoor sex with Jessica’s skeezy friend Dulcy that lasts all of a brief paragraph forty-four pages into the book) spend a maximum of four or five hours together before sailing off on a day trip, getting marooned on a deserted island, declaring instalove, and engaging in what I imagine as being gritty, uncomfortable, sand-filled beach sex.

But back up a little bit from that image. The new man in town is Brill Kroger, which is quite possibly the worst romance villain name I’ve ever heard (you can practically hear the mustache twirling, can’t you?). Ostensibly, he’s there to help plan a ball to raise money for the soldiers, but thanks to a multiple narrative that allows us into his head, we know he’s really a con man who’s planning to run off with the money, but not before using (and abusing, because this was published in the early 80’s) a few Tampa women. While he hooks up with Dulcy several times, his vicious sites are mostly set on Maria Mendes, a Cuban-American woman who works at the hotel (and whose POV we also get to enjoy), and then, after she scorns and embarrasses him, Jessica. He’s a creep of the highest order, and oddly enough, he’s probably the most well-developed character.

As soon as Neil leaves with the Rough Riders, a head injury sends Jessica into the throes of- you guessed it- AMNESIA (because of course! This book checks so many romance novel boxes), wiping all her memories of Neil: their instalove, the sex on the beach, their secret engagement. When she doesn’t show up to visit Neil on the docks (that good old military hurry-up-and-wait in action!), he gets alternately pissy and worried, while back at home, amnesiac Jessica begins to swoon over Ramon, Maria’s brother (a plot point that served mainly to help the time pass, as far as I could tell). Neil is injured not long after the actual fighting starts in Cuba, and despite his love and worry about Jessica, he still gets naked with Margarita, a woman from the rebel camp who tended to his wounds. Bet he’ll never tell Jessica about that!

Back home (and there’s a content warning here), in the land of the 1890’s written in the 1980’s, Brill rapes and murders Dulcy out of a combination of fury from rejection by Maria and annoyance at Dulcy as a person. Tampa is mostly yawning over the war and so Brill’s idea of a benefit ball won’t work, but being the skilled con man he is, he changes it to a ball benefiting the local victims of a fire (Jessica’s amnesia-inducing head injury came from helping out here with the Red Cross). On the night of the ball, things go south fast, and in order to escape with the money, Brill abducts Jessica, flees to Mexico with her, and then loses his mind and thinks she’s his beloved mother, a tactic that really only makes sense because it was the only way for Jessica to remain alive and solely touched by Neil’s still-in-use-during-this-break-and-somehow-magically-not-full-of-syphillis johnson.

Long story short, Jessica doesn’t develop much personality while in captivity. Upon his return to Tampa, Neil learns of Jessica’s abduction and teams up with Maria and her soon-to-be fiancé-then-husband Tom to travel to Mexico to bring Jessica back. Which they do, and of course Brill meets an untimely end, while Neil and Jessica and Maria and Tom live happily ever after, until, I assume, someone dies in childbirth and someone else dies due to lack of antibiotics, because this is the 1890’s and those things happen (this is where my brain goes when I read historical fiction).

So.

This actually wasn’t terrible! Despite Neil and Jessica lacking in the personality department and Brill being a little overwritten, the setting- 1890’s Tampa at the start of the Spanish-American war- really made this novel come alive. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else set during this time period, at least not in Tampa (which is probably why that stuck in my memory as one of the very few things I recalled about the book before finding it again), and I very much enjoyed reading all the historical facts and bits of trivia that Ms. Matthews wove into the story. I kept running back to Google while reading this, checking to see if certain bits were real, and from what I can tell, Flames of Glory is well-researched. In my opinion, it’s worth the read for the setting and period interest alone.

The characters…ehhhhhh. Jessica had about as much personality as a limp dishrag, and Neil wasn’t much better. There’s no description of what they love or even like about each other, most likely because neither of them actually have personalities or actual character traits, and they spend about ten seconds together with minimal conversation before getting down in the sand on that deserted island. Maybe that’s why Dulcy was so annoyed by Jessica and pissed off by Neil choosing her. Dulcy was every stereotype of the bad girl possible- she’s nasty and two-faced to Jessica, she sleeps around, she gets raped and murdered as punishment for her behavior- but at least she was interesting to read. Jessica, not so much. *yawn* Neil at least manages to come to the conclusion that maybe war isn’t all that great, after getting shot and watching his buddies get killed and maimed, so good for him on that, I guess (but facepalm for it taking his friends dying in front of his eyes for him to figure that out. Seriously, dude?). Dulcy doesn’t last long enough to grow as a character, Brill just gets worse in every way, and Jessica is as bland at the end as she is at the beginning…but Maria! Maria is strong and intelligent; she’s thoughtful and caring, cunning in all the right ways- a good thing, since it helps her evade Brill several times- and she goes from a young woman expecting to live a safe life in Tampa, to a grown woman who falls in love and is willing to put her life on the line to save a friend. She’s by far the most enjoyable character in the entire story.

Along with content warnings for a rape and murder scene, there’s one cringeworthy scene where Jessica is noticing the local Mayan people in Mexico; her descriptions of them are less than flattering and seemed unnecessary and unfair. The rest of the book seemed to me to be okay, but that one paragraph had my eyebrows way, way up there.

It’s funny; I first read this book when I was about twelve years old, but as I read it this time, I found myself remembering lines from upcoming paragraphs, and when I turned the page, sure enough, there would be the line I remembered. The human brain is a crazy thing. I can’t remember why I went into the kitchen half the time, but lines from a romance novel I read in 1992? WHY NOT!!!

One thing I didn’t remember about the book: when Brill drags Jessica to Mexico, he’s on the hunt for gold, and thanks to his interpreter, he learns that a great place to find gold is in a well in Chichen-Itza, used for sacrifices by the Aztecs to their rain god. The well is connected to a cenote, a deep, water-filled sinkhole connected to underground rivers. My husband and I honeymooned in Cancún and had the privilege of swimming in a few cenotes, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. I had a huge smile on my face when the word appeared in the book!

A few cenote pics:

Most likely not the same cenote in which Brill Kroger met his untimely (or, let’s face it, timely, because he was a serious creep) end- I’m assuming he was hunting in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza because it fits the description in the book- but still pretty amazing. And yes, we both jumped from the ledge (at the top of those stairs) into the water, which was about a ten-foot drop, maybe more. I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I left without doing that, no matter how scary the first jump was! If you ever get a chance to swim in a cenote, DO IT. Seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

All in all, while this wasn’t the greatest read of my life, I’m glad I got the chance to read it again, and that I was in the right place at the right time to find this book. I’m not sure what about it appealed to me as a kid, other than it was the first book I ever came across that included sex scenes- I mean, I was twelve, that may very well have been it! But because of this book, I’ve picked up plenty of other romances that I adored, so for that, I’ll always be grateful to Patricia Matthews and Flames of Glory.

Patricia Matthews passed away in 2006 at the age of 79. You can learn more about her at her Wikipedia page here.

magic · used book sale

The absolute magic of used book sales.

I never say no to a used book sale.

Who would? Stacks upon stacks of previously loved literature for a low, low price. There’s nothing better than perusing dusty stacks of books, looking for a treasure or twenty, and know that you’ll be able to haul a ton of them home without breaking the bank. Used book sale? I’m in. I’ll be there. Putting it in my calendar now.

This past weekend was one such sale. A women’s education nonprofit holds used book sales every few months around here. “Do you want to sign up for our emails, to know when our next sale will be?” the charming lady who took my money asked me at the previous sale. YOU BET I DID. I signed up immediately, and when the email hit my inbox, letting me know that there would be a sale on May 4th, I slapped that baby in my calendar and then showed up as soon as the sale opened on the second day. The second day, you see, is bag sale day. Everything you can cram into a bag for ten dollars…but if you’re on their email list and show them the email, you get a discount: everything you can cram into a bag for seven dollars.

Even better.

So what followed me home this weekend? First, a picture; then, a story.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone and Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, I’ll share with my son; Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is his outright (I’ve already read it, and if you haven’t read it yet, you NEED to. It’s incredible). The rest are mine, and I also grabbed a few things for my daughter. Not bad for seven bucks and about an hour of my time. 🙂

But.

BUT.

There’s a bigger story here, one that’s so wacky, I can barely believe it.

You might not be able to tell from what I’ve read so far this year, but I love a good romance novel (I recently finished reading Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation; she’s been one of my favorite authors for ages). I love watching a couple get together, I love one person pursuing another, I love romance tropes, I love happily-ever-afters. All of this started with the stack of books my mother kept stashed in the coat closet, and which I began raiding when I was about twelve years old. Recently, Book Riot had an article titled ‘The Books That Turned Us On to Romance,’ and that, along with my love of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and their amazing podcast, brought to mind yet again the nameless book from that closet stash that introduced me to my love of the genre.

I’d thought of this book many times over the years, but I could never remember the title. I’ve known about Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’s Help a Bitch Out feature, which helps romance readers remember those forgotten titles via crowdsourcing, but I feared I didn’t have enough information for them (I mean, I was twelve when I read this, so my memory is pretty fuzzy), and I didn’t want to be disappointed if no one knew what I was talking about. Here’s what I had: there was a character named Dulcy who was a pretty heinous bitch, but she wasn’t the main character; it took place during the Spanish-American war; one of the male characters, at least at one point, had some sort of involvement with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders; a vague detail about a sex scene that could have happened in basically any historical romance.

And that was it. Not much to go on there, huh?

So this unnamed book had been rolling around my brain lately, moreso than it usually had over the years. It wasn’t anything I was actively considering when I was at the book sale: I started at the YA and kids sections, stopped by the cookbooks, browsed the romance novels, hit up the classic fiction section, perused the mysteries and general fiction, then made the loop again.

And there, sitting on top of the paperback romance novels, that I had somehow missed in my first go-around, was a book that looked…familiar.

I paused.

Was that it?

Was THAT my book?

I flipped through it briefly, very briefly, because I was running out of time (I had two more errands to run and only an hour left). I thought it *might* be it, but I wasn’t entirely certain, but for seven bucks a bag, I could afford to take a chance. Into the bag it went, and I’d figure it out when I got home.

And later on that afternoon, once I got a chance, I opened the book and flipped through it. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.

YOU GUYS. I found it! I found the book that got me into romance, all on my own! THE BOOK GODS AND GODDESSES HAVE SMILED UPON ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now, I am FULLY prepared for this book to be absolutely terrible and problematic as hell. Obviously, my tastes have changed and matured after twenty-six years of heavy reading; this book was published in 1982 and romance (and what romance readers are willing to tolerate in their books) has changed substantially. And just read that blurb from Goodreads:

SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…

Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica dung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.

OH MY GOD, is that not awful???????? (Including the typo of ‘dung’ for ‘clung,’ which comes straight from the Goodreads blurb. My back cover reads ‘clung,’ fortunately.) I’m in love. I’ve got, of course, a stack of books to read before I get to this, but I’m absolutely going to read it and review the crap out of it for all of you. I feel more giddy than one of those puppies that wags its tail so hard, it pees a little. This is BEYOND exciting!

Have you ever spent years wondering about a book you lost track of, only to have it just pop up seemingly out of nowhere? I don’t know that I’ll ever get over how seamlessly this reappeared back in my life. Serendipity at its finest. 🙂

fiction · historical romance

Destiny’s Embrace- Beverly Jenkins

‘Okay,’ I said to myself as I walked through the library. ‘I have enough books at home, I’m going to read a few from my own shelf, I’m not going to check any books out this time.’ And then I walked by the display of books by black authors for Black History Month. And all my resolve went up in a puff of smoke and a blur of motion as I snatched up Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.

In my defense, I’ve wanted to read one of Ms. Jenkins’s books ever since I saw her in Love Between the Covers, a documentary on romance novels and authors and the industry surrounding them (if you haven’t seen this, it’s wonderful). I enjoyed everything she had to say and looked her up on my next library trip. At the time, my library only had her work in ebooks and I wasn’t reading those at the time (long story why, but it involved being frightened of losing my momentum for reading down my Goodreads TBR list), but she’s never fallen off my radar. And now, she’s on it in a big, big way.

The year is 1885. Thirty-year-old Mariah Cooper, the daughter of a mean-spirited, abusive hag, lives in Philadelphia, where she works as a seamstress in her mother’s shop and is occasionally courted by the weak-willed Tillman Porter. When her mother goes too far, Mariah flees to her aunt’s house across town, and within weeks she’s on a train bound for a new life as a housekeeper in California. She’s determined to become her own woman, leaving the browbeaten, unloved version of herself behind for good.

Logan Yates lives and works on the profitable ranch he owns with his loving stepmother and brothers. Sure, his house smells- and okay, looks- like a barnyard, but that’s just the bachelor way, isn’t it? Alanza, his stepmother, takes the liberty of hiring a housekeeper. Enter the lovely Mariah, and she and Logan cannot butt heads fast enough. Each decision to be made is one they can spar over, and Logan can’t stop thinking about his alluring new employee. He’s made it clear that he has no interest in marriage, now or ever…but Mariah may have changed all of that for good.

It’s been a long time since I read a historical romance novel, but this was just plain fun to read. There’s enough steam to make it spicy, but the sex scenes aren’t terribly graphic. Ms. Jenkins’s style never veers into the purple prose I remember reading in the romance novels of my youth; there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of clothing or scenery, just enough to create a crystal-clear image in the reader’s mind of the beautiful California ranch land Logan owns and the finely-sewn blouses and skirts Mariah has created. Her female characters are strong but not so over-the-top that they’re not believable for the times they live in. While this is a typical romance in that it ends happily (and don’t we all need that so badly these days? Heavens knows I do), there are several things that make this stand out, including a scene in which a small parade of local men come by the ranch to propose to Mariah, and another outside a jewelry store, after another woman notices Mariah’s (happy) tears and inquires after her. That one brought tears to my eyes as well. But what stood out most…Let me backtrack a little.

The stigma around romance may have faded a bit over the years, but be assured, it hasn’t left entirely, and that’s something I learned in my own home last night. Upon noticing my copy of Destiny’s Embrace on the kitchen island, my husband squinted at it, then said, “Whose book is that?”

“Mine,” I responded.

He laughed. “That’s what you’re reading these days? I would’ve thought you’d be reading something more intellectual.”

Before I could bean him in the head with a rock like Mariah did to Logan, he left to attend to our daughter, leaving me to mentally scoff, Okay, man who reads comic books.

Which is entirely my point. There’s nothing wrong with comic books, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with romance novels. Not everyone needs to read, say, a calculus textbook at all times; it’s totally okay to read for straight-up entertainment if that’s what you’re looking for and what you need at the time. Reading is reading, and anything that gets anyone reading is a wonderful thing. The joke is really on my husband here, because I learned a lot from this book, including about

  • Calafia, the fictional warrior queen often depicted as the Spirit of California
  • James Beckwourth, the fur trapper and African-American pioneer who discovered the mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas between Reno, Nevada and Portola, California
  • William Leidesdorff, who helped found what became San Francisco
  • Estabanico/Estevanico, one of the first African-born men to reach the continental US
  • Biddy Mason, a nurse and midwife who also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

I never learned about any of those people in school, so if this is what a non-intellectual book looks like, I’ll be over here, buried under a pile of non-intellectual books, plenty of them with Beverly Jenkins embossed on the front.

The other really great thing about this book is that it’s changed the way I think towards historicals, or at least some historicals- or maybe even historicals back when I last read them. I think I’m more willing to give them a chance, and I definitely want to read more historicals by authors of color, because that’s a perspective that I need more of in my reading life. I’m halfway tempted to head back to the library and dig through that Black History Month display again…but I’m going to have to hold off, because today’s library trip yielded another stack of books.

So much for reading from my own shelves, again.

Are you a fan of historical romance? Have you read Beverly Jenkins? If you can recommend other historical romances by authors of color, I’m listening (and scrawling down the names, and checking my library’s website)!

Visit Beverly Jenkins’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.