We know, we know. All our lives we’ve been admonished to, “Never judge a book by its cover.” However, this month is the exception at TBR Challenge, where we have been challenged to read a book with either a very pretty or very ugly cover. We both went with covers that appealed to us – though the books inside those covers were a bit of a mixed bag. What kinds of covers do you like?

Wings of a Dream by Anne Mateer

I read inspy romances from time to time, and I have to admit that the often gorgeous cover art tends to draw me in. A disproportionate number of books in that genre are blessed with above-average cover art. While not a seamlessly perfect read, Wings of a Dream is an appealing romance/coming-of-age story, and I enjoyed the good parts far more than I cringed at the weaker ones.

Set during the waning days of World War I and  the Spanish Flu epidemic, this novel explores how these events alter the course of a young woman’s life. The book opens in the fall of 1918, and Rebekah Hendricks has lived her entire life on a small family farm in rural Oklahoma. Her overbearing mother pretty much dictates her life for her, and Rebekah unsurprisingly dreams of more than staying in town and marrying the less-than-thrilling young shopkeeper her mother keeps throwing at her.

Then two big things happen. First of all, she meets a dashing aviator who is quite flirtatious and full of promises of life in the city. Rebekah is convinced that they are meant to be together, and dreams of marriage as soon as Arthur finishes flight training and perhaps the war is over.

A letter from Rebekah’s aunt starts her down another path all together. Though Rebekah’s mother and aunt were estranged from one another, Rebekah cherishes memories of the kind and smiling woman who came to visit during her childhood. When that aunt reaches out for help in the face of illness, Rebekah does not hesitate to go to her. Rebekah’s first solo journey takes her to a small town in Texas, where she discovers her gravely ill aunt – and the four children her aunt has been tending while their widowed father is away at war.

This is where the story really starts moving. Readers see Rebekah truly coming into her own. At first, she somewhat helplessly fumbles through tending to the farm and caring for the four children. However, as it becomes obvious that her efforts are very much needed, she shows herself to be clever and resourceful. Keeping everyone fed and clothed when paychecks from the front come unreliably or not at all is no mean feat, but Rebekah proves equal to the challenge.

This story worked in large part because things don’t come easily or naturally to Rebekah. Her relationships with the children are built in fits and starts  – and Rebekah is not a perfect, selfless heroine. She has dreams for herself and she makes mistakes she has to learn from while in the process of figuring out what she wants and going for it. Rebekah does things that will make plenty of readers cringe but she changes as the book progresses, so I would never call her TSTL.

On the romantic side of things, I did get a little bored with every single man in the novel seeming to develop at least a bit of a crush on Rebekah. I liked her as a heroine, but it did feel a bit like overkill. Rebekah’s budding friendships with the neighbors and people in town who help her out were a lot more interesting, and the give and take of those relationships tell the reader a lot more about her as a person than the various men pining after her do.

When Frank Gresham returns home to his farm, he is surprised to see Rebekah there. And the arrival of Frank adds a whole new level to the romantic plotting. Not only do we have Arthur the pilot down the road in Dallas, but we have Frank, who turns out to be a young father, and another gentleman or two in the running as well. Rebekah goes from being trapped to having a bewildering world of options – not all of which involve choosing a man.

At times parts of this novel seemed a little overly simplistic. However, the fact that Rebekah has to really figure out who she is and what a “happily ever after” even looks like for her before she can make any big decisions with her life made this book appeal to me. What makes her happy isn’t always what would make me happy, but the author does write it all convincingly.  Much of this book focuses on how the Spanish Flu and, to a lesser extent, the First World War, changed the lives of communities. However, while these events have a huge impact on Rebekah’s life, many of her struggles will feel universal and familiar to young adults and that’s what made this book read like more than a period piece.

Grade:   B                      Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalist covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

Grade: C+               Sensuality: Warm (just!)

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.