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March 2020 TBR Challenge – Seasons

“Seasons” is one of those TBR challenge prompts that can take a reader almost anywhere. Caz and I went in similar directions, combing our respective TBR stacks for books with seasons in their titles. I ended up with a hot summer romance, while Caz opted for an autumn-themed Regency trad.  Both books were a tad difficult to grade, but definitely had some good (if sometimes unconventional) points to them.

Long Summer Nights by Kathleen O’Reilly

cw: Nothing on-page, but some discussions of emotional abuse

Finding a book for the “Seasons” prompt was easy enough. I just scanned my shelves and pulled out Long Summer Nights because it had a season right there in the title. Trying to decide what I thought of this one was another story. This book, a Blaze title from 2010, was something of an unusual read. Unlike many category romance books I’ve read, it’s actually rather unsentimental and filled with awkward moments and sharp edges by design. Many readers will likely find it unlikable and yet there’s just something about it. Its tone just fits the characters and story perfectly, even as it might fall outside what some readers would consider a comfortable read.

The basic setup involves a heroine and hero kept in isolation. Jennifer Dale has landed a job at her dream paper, but she’s been sent from the city to upstate New York to stay in a rundown cabin at an isolated lake. There’s not much going on except for her reclusive, people-hating neighbor and his grouchy one-eyed cat.

Though the reader knows his real name right away, Aaron Barksdale initially hides his real identity from Jennifer. When they meet, she thinks he’s just a difficult recluse who writes. She doesn’t know that he’s actually a well-known writer living in exile. The two end up falling into a grouchy yet passionate affair that’s far from the usual emotional arc I’m accustomed to seeing in romance. On the one hand, I felt like I shouldn’t be liking this book because Aaron really is a cold-hearted jackass much of the time and yet I couldn’t stop reading.

If you need for your leads in a romance to be sunny and likable, this probably won’t be your book. Aaron can be off-puttingly cold and Jennifer is sometimes painfully unsure of herself and lacking in direction. Neither of them may be what traditional readers would consider an ideal person, but there is something deeply compelling about them, particularly when they are together.

One thing I did like about this book was that both of the leads changed over time. Through her interactions with Aaron as well as her professional career arc, Jennifer learns more about herself and what she wants. More importantly, she starts to become more confident about standing up for what is important for her. At the beginning of the book, she may have been someone who would let Aaron roll over her, but that changes.

As for Aaron, he is truly a character who doesn’t entirely know how to love. In romance we often encounter the hero whose parents were either absent or cold/unfeeling, but who somehow magically springs to life to become the perfect lover when confronted with his perfect, radiant heroine. This is not Aaron. He really did come from a cold, unfeeling home and he does not know how to connect with others very well at all. What made this book stand out for me was that Jennifer did not magically cure him. She does, however, awaken some impulse in him that makes him want to try to figure out another person and to try to connect. His efforts don’t always work, but he tries. And his declaration of love near the end of the book is just plain beautiful.

Neither of these characters is made perfect by the end of the story, but they are brought together. More importantly, they’re together purposefully in way that made me believe their relationship could work. I suspect this book may not be for everyone, but this unconventional summer fling turned long-term romance story did make me think and I can’t get it out of my mind even several days after reading it. Long Summer Nights isn’t sweetness and light but it’s clearly not meant to be. Even though I would have liked to see some of the plot points explored a bit more deeply, I ended up enjoying this one.

Grade:     B                          Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon/Indiebound

Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the appealing, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

Grade:  C+                   Sensuality: Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon/Indiebound

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