The Wallflower Wager (CBR12 #3)

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke, #3)

This was not the book I was going to read next, but after the bummer of Royal Holiday I knew I needed a sure thing and a Tessa Dare book will always be a book that I quite enjoy. I pulled up the one I’d been saving, book three in the Girl Meets Duke series, and spent the afternoon and evening absorbed in Dare’s kooky version of Regency England. I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly.

The Wallflower Wager is good. Its easily four stars possibly sneaking into four and a half star good (although I still think the first in the series The Duchess Deal is my favorite of these books, but only a reread would tell me for sure). The Wallflower Wager focuses on Lady Penelope Campion and Gabriel Duke, known around the ton as the Duke of Ruin for the way he has amassed his fortune. Penelope has spent the best part of ten years as a reclusive wallflower, but the impending arrival of her brother to return her to the family estate – a place she firmly does not want to return to – causes her to strike a deal (or a wager as Aunt Caroline puts it) that she will make a concerted effort to get out there into society in an attempt to get Aunt Caroline to side with her so she may remain living on her own in the city. Gabriel is renovating the house next door in order to resell it at a large profit but part of his profit margin requires the presence of a Lady as a neighbor. He decides to help Penny live up to her portion of the wager, for his own reasons, but their physical attraction to each other keeps rearing its ugly head into their plans.

Dare’s cleverness in wordplay and character development, and a bit of poking at modern social commentary are on full display. The interactions between Penny and Gabriel as they begin and continue their sexual relationship are focused on consent and equity. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. What I appreciated most about this pairing is that Gabriel was concerned with not letting Penny be ruined, not because he thought it mattered, but that he knew it mattered to the society she was a part of, he had made a rule for himself years before to never ruin a woman and this was a believable component of the way they negotiate their growing relationship, particularly as it grows from lust to love.

Blessedly there is no instalove, instead we follow along with two people in lust with one another who act on it. As they continue to spend time together both in and out of bed their deeper emotions build, and they grow to know each other for who they are at their core. Gabriel always sees Penny’s courage and strength, even when her friends who love her dearly infantilize and underestimate her. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life and puts his actions where his words are. Until he has an alpha meltdown in the final part of the book, but even as the reader you are with him as he takes on Penny’s abuser (this book does come with a content advisory for heroine with a history of child sexual abuse, confronting her abuser, and a hero with a history of abandonment and extreme poverty in childhood).

Even with the heaviness that the content advisory is covering, there’s still Dare’s patented humor and ridiculous pets here. One of which is goat whom Penny swears is not pregnant (she’s not that kind of girl) and Gabriel is proven right in a particularly amusing scene involving all three very manly heroes from the series trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labor.

This book also expertly weaves in the fourth and final installment’s introduction as Nicola spots her fiancé that none of her friends knew about at the ball at the end, and the epilogue refers to her married with children. Book four The Bride Bet is set to publish this summer and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Completed 2019 Reading Women Challenge

This year I actually managed to complete this challenge. I’ve peaked at the 2020 list and it looks a bit intimidating but once more into the breach!

Here we go:

All books read for this challenge must be by or about women.

  1. A mystery or thriller written by a woman of color
  2. A book about a woman with a mental illness
  3. A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand
  4. A book about or set in Appalachia
  5. A children’s book
  6. A multigenerational family saga
  7. A book featuring a woman in science
  8. A play
  9. A novella (A novella is a text of fictional, narrative prose between 17,500 and 40,000 words)
  10. . A book about a woman athlete
  11. A book featuring a religion other than your own
  12. A Lambda Literary Award winner
  13. A myth retelling
  14. A translated book published before 1945
  15. A book written by a South Asian author
  16. A book by an Indigenous woman
  17. A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award shortlist
  18. A romance or love story
  19. A book about nature
  20. A historical fiction book
  21. A book you bought or borrowed in 2019
  22. A book you picked up because of the cover
  23. Any book from a series
  24. A young adult book by a woman of color

BONUS:

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

Saga, Volume 9 (CBR11 #30)

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I’ve been putting off reading the latest volume of Saga since I had heard it was devastating and that there would be at least a year hiatus until Vaughan and Staples picked back up working on this. Why sit with whatever terrible, soul crushing experience was waiting for me for over a year when I could just live with not knowing for the same amount of time?

Well, I abandoned that perfectly solid plan and gave in to temptation. It was just sitting there in my living room waiting for me and I’m not entirely made of stone.  I read it, it broke my heart, but it also felt strangely thin to what I’ve come to expect from Saga. It also made me think deeply about how invested I am in characters that are de facto villains in this world (as their goals are directly in conflict with the goals of our heroes) and how that is going to play out moving forward. Vaughan and Staples are making us to consider all the variables, all the competing motives, all the possible endgames. We know some things for sure, but not how we get to them. The sense remains that each storyline is part of this grand whole that is only slowly being revealed to the reader, that we’ve still only barely scratched the surface.

I’m still in love with this series. It remains the rare book to have humor, sorrow, wit, action, adventure, and beautiful drawings married in one text. It is sophisticated and unafraid to be crass when the story calls for it. The larger themes of family, love, and violence begetting nothing but more violence are firmly settled. But, I find myself wishing that this volume was more while simultaneously less at the same time. There connective tissue didn’t hold up to the major events contained within.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Educated (CBR11 #23)

A couple of months ago I read American Like Me and focused my review on how the various contributors wrote and reflected on the way their lives hopped boundaries or existed on the edge of multiple cultures. In Educated Tara Westover is doing a deep dive of her own, very personal, journey of leaving one culture (that of her father) and exploring the cultures of more mainstream Mormonism and mainstream America. It is not a perfect book, and to my mind Westover chose an interesting time in her life to reckon with her lived experience to this degree and this publicly, our early thirties are an interesting time to take stock of life so far but Westover’s is far from typical. It was a beautifully crafted, captivating read that is having a very needed conversation about self-invention and the importance of actual truth and how we see it, even if the author sometimes backs away from her own arguments.

Westover’s experiences growing up were very tightly controlled, and it left her with enormous gaps and misunderstandings of how the rest of the world works which she explores in her memoir. Sometimes these differences in our lived experiences made it difficult for me to relate, but battling with guilt, expectation, and hope did ring very true to me. Her parents are strict survivalists in Idaho and Westover’s father believed (and likely continues to believe) that the coming of the end times was imminent which was very likely fed by an undiagnosed mental illness (I’m not a professional, I can’t weigh in definitively) as well as being  conspiracy theorist. These things directly impacted the kind of childhood Tara had: the children were kept out of school, members of the family rarely sought professional medical care, and virtually no measures were taken to protect anyone from the physical dangers surrounding the way they live their lives and earn their livings.

Educated is Westover’s account of how she went from growing up in that environment with little education and none of it formal, to being a PhD student at Cambridge and how it all comes together to form her life as it is now. But it is also more than a travelogue of joining academia – if it had stayed on that level I probably would only be rating it 3 or 4 stars because it wouldn’t be uncovering universal insights. Instead, Westover weaves her various narratives together to tell the larger story of how she discovered herself and began to trust her own interior voice. At the heart of her story is just what we mean when we say “an education”.

As she moved ever more away from her life in Idaho and her family’s compound on Buck’s Peak and into the world of mainstream Mormonism and the larger American mainstream Westover accumulates several “educations”, that of traditional schooling but also the informal educations we pick up along the way that helps us see ourselves and others. That is what her educations got Westover –  the ability to see her own life through new eyes and the will to change it in ways that honor her newly trusted inner-voice.

Normal People (CBR11 #20)

It has been a long time since I absolutely demolished a novel in less than 24 hours. I had waited months for my turn to come up on the library hold list for Normal People so a soon as I officially finished Good Omens I ignored the other books sitting on my kitchen table and settled in to see what jeverett15 and dAvid experienced that led them both to rating it so highly. I very quickly understood and am myself rating it five stars, rounding up.

This book has a seemingly simple premise: rich disaffected girl and popular working-class boy date, break up, and orbit each other through their college years. It sounds simplistic broken down to that level, because if it only existed on that level it would be a very simple novel that I would have maybe read but likely would have walked away from. Rooney instead imbues real, honest, and accurate depth into her characters and uses their on again, off again relationship to poke at larger truths.

Normal People looks at the ways we hurt ourselves and other people, and both at the same time. The plot often hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings, but Rooney stays away from my least favorite trope – she has her characters talk to each other, and want to communicate, and often try and fail. We experience with the characters the gulf between what is meant and what is understood and how that small difference can color years of our lives. There is betrayal, love, and how sometimes love isn’t enough to overcome our hurts and the walls we build between ourselves and the world around us, and even around the person we love most in the world.

When Marianne and Connell are close, they’re seemingly entirely in sync, but when things go wrong and they go their separate ways they are often destroying parts of themselves and their lives, and they seem incapable of seeing it. They can’t seem to stay away from each other either, needing some relationship with the other to serve as a touchstone to who they each are at the core of their beings, only feeling truly themselves when in relation to the other.

Rooney zeroes in on outwardly insignificant moments that are truly some of the most significant times in our lives and examines them, both from an incredibly close angle but also from a sometimes sterile distance. Mechanically she is choosing her phrasing, her language, her pacing, and her settings to do the heavy lifting but also leaves room for her narrative to breath, for the reader to bring themselves to the novel. As jeverett15 said in their review, she can break your heart in record time, and she does it with crisp, sparse language and emotional honesty. She writes with such precision and clarity that the shared territory becomes what matters and you are able to extrapolate the rest and find the empathy within for characters you don’t always think of in a very positive light.

The novel leaves the reader with a vague sense of what happens next, or what could happen next and I can see in that detail and so many other ones where dAvid felt that this is a harsher, more adult version of Eleanor & Park. Both books explore abuse, complex familial dynamics, fear of success, of feeling othered and both Rowell and Rooney write dynamic characters with finesse. It’s a very different feeling book to me, much more sorrowful and darker, but Normal People does feel like the continuation of a conversation Eleanor & Park was having with its audience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines) and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance