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ClioReads

Clio Reads

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

Currently reading

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women
Jay Allison, Dan Gediman
Progress: 92/288 pages

The Only Way This Could Be Better is If Alan Rickman Read it Out Loud

This is awesome. See how far you get before you recognize the story...

My Wife Waited 20 Years to Share This Book With Our Kids

Who's in Rabbit's House?: A Masai Tale - Verna Aardema, Leo Dillon, Diane Dillon

My wife bought herself this book back in college, having fallen in love with the illustrations and the story, and then she waited twenty years until she had a kid who could appreciate the book as much as she did. Well, that's finally happened: our about-to-be-4-year-old son, Henry, has picked this as his bedtime story four nights running.

 

Who's in Rabbit's House is a story within a story, or rather, a play within a story. Masai actors wear whimsical, colorful animal masks and act out the story of what happens when Rabbit comes home to find a monster in her house. "I am the Long One! I eat trees and trample on elephants!" says the monster. Pretty fierce, right? Rabbit enlists Leopard, Elephant, and Rhino to help get rid of The Long One, but it is the little green Frog that saves the day, with the obvious moral that intelligence is often more important than size or brute strength (and also, when the  monster's identity is revealed, the folly of making assumptions based on too little information).

Frustratingly Scattershot Narrative

Drums of Autumn - Diana Gabaldon

Dare I hope that I have finally gotten the Outlander series out of my system? Don't get me wrong, I loved Outlander, but in hindsight I wish I'd quit the series after that first book. Dragonfly in Amber was too wretchedly grim to be an enjoyable read, what with Culloden and

Claire's stillborn daughter (miscarriage being a major trigger for me)

(show spoiler)

. Voyager was just chockful of over-the-top plot WTFery such that by about two thirds of the way through, I simply could not willingly suspend my disbelief any longer. Drums of Autumn was more promising, in that it was neither crushingly sad nor insanely ridiculous, but Gabaldon's plot organization did not work for me at all.

 

Drums of Autumn jumps around in time and space between Claire and Jamie Fraser (in colonial North Carolina in the late 1760s-early 1770s) and their daughter Brianna and her sweetheart, Roger, in the 20th century. Brianna discovers that her parents are in danger in the past, so she goes back in time to warn them. Roger, discovering what she's done, follows her and tries to find her. Many, many adventures and misadventures ensue before the two couples finally settle together on Fraser's Ridge.

 

This hopping around among various times, people, points of view, and plots drove me absolutely batty. It felt like I spent the whole book being pulled from one storyline I cared about to a new scene, having to take time to set aside my resentment at the interruption and force myself to take an interest in the new scene and storyline(s), and just when I began to care about that, getting pulled on to something else entirely. Consequently, my overall reading experience was one of frustration rather than enjoyment. Moreover, at several points Gabaldon brought us right to the edge of a critical plot twist, and then jumped ahead, and only went back and told of the crisis in hindsight. I can think of three examples:

1) a big chunk of the first third of the book is devoted to a confrontation between Jamie and his aunt Jocasta, who wants to leave her plantation to him -- Jamie and Claire take off into the woods with the decision about what to do with the plantation still unmade, but then they find and have nookie in a pretty patch of strawberries in the mountains, and the narrative jumps ahead several months and suddenly they're building a cabin. Jamie's aunt has been nothing but kind to them, and for Jamie and Claire to take off without even having a conversation is both cowardly and extremely poor repayment for Jocasta's hospitality. 2) Brianna gets raped by the main villain of the story, Stephen Bonnet, but the rape is told in retrospect, only after the narrative reveals that she is pregnant. 3) Jamie and Ian, mistakenly believing Roger is the rapist, beat the snot out of him, and then the narrative jumps and we learn only several chapters later that they sold him to Indians.

(show spoiler)

In my opinion, not only is this extremely frustrating as a reader, it takes away much of the emotional punch of these scenes, because telling something in hindsight when some (if not all) of the aftermath is already assured takes away the suspense of the event. The fact that Gabaldon repeatedly did this with the most critical plot twists of the story made the whole book feel anticlimactic.

 

There were other narrative choices that reduced the emotional impact, and thus my enjoyment, of the book as well. For most of the book, Roger and Brianna are separated, and both go through hell in the interim. Their reunion at the end should have been the joyful, emotionally cathartic capstone to which the whole plot was building, but because it is told neither from Roger's nor Brianna's point of view, but from Claire's, it totally falls flat. In fact, their reunion is entirely spoiled by a scene involving maggots and rotting flesh that came very close to making me toss my cookies... and people wonder why readers don't find Brianna and Roger as romantic as Claire and Jamie!

 

 

A Girl's Got To Have Her Vices...

Mint (my money-management app) says I have spent $3,200 on books in the last 4 years. But, since I'm saving approximately $1,500/year since I quit smoking 7 years ago, I'm still totally ahead, right?

Is Booklikes Acting Buggy for Anyone Else?

So several times in the last few weeks, people I follow have posted reviews about books I know I've read, and I've gone looking for my own reviews and not been able to find them. Looking on the book page turns up nothing, except sometimes (not always) I can find my review under a different edition. Looking on my own shelves turns up nothing, even when I use the search box. Yet I know I shelved the book and posted the reviews here, because I can find my reviews on Goodreads or Leafmarks, and I always write reviews here and only sometimes copy them to those other sites. I don't remember having this problem before Booklikes launched their new Book Pages. Don't get me wrong, I love the book pages and think it's totally great (and necessary) to have a single place to look at all reviews for all editions of a single book... but I'm finding the Booklikes system annoyingly buggy and glitchy. Anyone else?

Cute, but Little Ones Won't Care

Pride & Prejudice: A BabyLit Board Book (English and English Edition) - Jennifer Adams

I read this board book (and several others in the series, such as Sense and SensibilityThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and Dracula) while browsing the kids' section of the bookstore with my boys, the oldest of whom had earned a treat (i.e., a new book). I suspect these fall into that broad category of kids' books that appeal much more to parents than to the kids: I thought the concept of a counting book based on P & P was wonderful, but I'm sure my kids could not care less.  

I thought I posted this before, but I couldn't find it when I looked just now...

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell

Originally posted [I think] in mid-November 2013.

 

For the second time in as many months, Rainbow Rowell has kept me up way too late, totally sucked into and thoroughy transported by one of her books (the last one was Eleanor & Park). And for the second time, I have been totally in love with the story ... until I got to the end, at which point I thought, " Really? I stayed up until 3:00 AM for this?" With Eleanor & Park, I dismissed my disappointment as shallowness and decided I'd conditioned myself to expect a Happy Ever After in everything, even though some stories don't end happily. Eleanor & Park's ending wasn't happy, but it fit the story, and though I can't say I liked it, I respected what I think Ms. Rowell was trying to do. This time, I'm not as sanguine. This time, I feel a little cheated.

 

But more on the ending later. I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like Fangirl, because I did. Up until the last 40 pages, I really, really did. It started a little slowly for me. For the first 70 pages or so, I felt like an outsider looking in, not really hooked yet -- probably because I'm almost twenty years past my own college freshman experience, and because the fanfic phenomenon didn't really exist when I came of age, or at least not on the scale it exists now. (Fangirl's protagonist, Cather Avery, is a painfully shy young woman who writes a tremendously popular Harry Potter-esque fan fiction.) I know that that fan fiction is a big thing, but I've always been very skeptical of it, probably because my experience has been limited to Fifty Shades of Grey, which everyone knows started as fan fic of Twilight (and which, in my opinion, took something that was bad to begin with and made it about a zillion times more horrifying). At any rate, I approached Cath's hobby (and thus, this book) with trepidation, because my first instinct was (and is) that writing fan fic is kinda weird. -And you know what? It's totally okay that I think that. Cath knows it's kinda weird. Almost everyone in the story--from her snarky roommate, to her judgey creative writing professor, to her seeking-individuality-at-the-bottom-of-a-tequila-bottle identical twin sister--also thinks it's kinda weird.

 

The narrative is scattered with excerpts from Cath's fan fic, as well as excerpts from Simon Snow, the Harry Potter-like series upon which it is based, and to be honest, even as I got over my skepticism about Cath's writing I still found myself skimming these sections. They are critical to the structure of the story, so it's not as if Rowell could have left them out, but I found them distracting because we only know enough about Simon Snow to know it's like Harry Potter (boy wizard at magic school fighting epic evil), but different, and not enough to actually follow the Simon Snow mythology or care much about the characters (who the hell is Penelope?).

 

Once again, I have veered off into what I didn't like about this book, and I really don't mean to keep doing that. (I blame the 2.5 hours of sleep I got after staying up most of the night reading.) Here's what I love: all of the characters are so real and so perfectly... imperfect. I am so tired of the special snowflake female protagonists that populate New Adult fiction, these falsely-modest beautiful girls who effortlessly win over these equally one-dimensional, paragon-of-perfection type guys, and every single other character is just wallpaper as the couple fall in love and go about their business.

 

Cath isn't like that: she's skirting the fine line between social anxiety and mental illness. She is introverted and painfully shy, and she knows (because her father is bipolar) that it wouldn't take much to push her over the line into crazytown. I love that she is both terrified of becoming crazy and sometimes unwilling or unable to make choices to move herself off that path, at least not without help from others (her sister, her dad, her roommate, her writing professor, her boyfriend). I love that she gets help from others, and not just from her boyfriend.

 

Levi, the boyfriend, isn't a paragon of perfection either. He has a receding hairline and a soft chin. He doesn't wash his hair as often as he ought. He can't read. He very nearly dooms their relationship right out of the starting gate by making a boneheaded, but totally normal, boy mistake. He is such a nice guy, a really lovely human being, but he isn't a Gary Stu because his good manners and sunny disposition are balanced out by real, human, imperfections.

 

I love Cath and Levi together. As an introvert myself, I totally understood Cath's befuddlement at the way Levi goes around smiling and being nice to people "as if it doesn't cost him anything," and his corresponding bafflement that of course it doesn't cost him anything. At one point, Cath describes Levi as a golden retriever, and I laughed out loud, because one of my best friends is an extrovert and describes herself the same way. In addition to this good friend, my mother and my sister are both extroverts, and when I am in social situations with them, I totally feel as if we are from alternate universes, as if we have nothing in common, as if it makes no sense that we could be friends or share the same DNA. Cath's sense of otherness, of incompatibility, totally resonates with me.

 

I love that the supporting characters are not just background. Cath's relationships with her family -- her twin sister, her mentally-ill father, her mostly-absent mother -- are fully developed and full of dramatic conflict and resolution even as they are secondary to the developing romance between Cath and Levi. Cath's roommate is snarky and sharp tongued, and a lesser writer could easily have turned her into a stock character whose sole purpose is comic relief, but Reagan, too, is a fully drawn person with her own history and feelings and motivations. She's not solely there to draw Cath out of her introverted shell (though she does an admirable job of it).

 

Rowell has an amazing gift for dialogue. Her characters are funny and sharp and snarky and poignant and honest, and their conversations move the story along and make the reader feel All The Feelz, and yet the dialogue is always believable, sounding like things real people would actually say in similar situations.

 

But the ending! *Mournful sigh.* I'm not even sure I can articulate what I found so disappointing. It's not that it leaves loose ends hanging: it doesn't. It's not that it isn't "happy": it is, at least happy for now, which is totally appropriate in a YA/NA romance -- how many of us settle down with our first loves, after all? It just felt really abrupt, and out of sync with the pace of the rest of the book. Fangirl is 436 "pages" long on my Kindle (not including Acknowledgments, etc.). The dramatic conflict is still building up until page 422, which leaves approximately 14 pages to wrap everything up. Roughly half of those fourteen pages are excerpts which, as I mentioned above, I found distracting even as I recognize the point of including them in the story. So, yes, the ending felt sudden, underdeveloped, and too neat and orderly. I subtracted a whole star from my rating just because of that let down. Harsh? Maybe, but is there anything worse than an extremely disappointing ending to a book you love as much as I loved this one?

Finally, a Rainbow Rowell that Didn't Disappoint Me in the End

Attachments - Rainbow Rowell

This is the third Rainbow Rowell book I've read. I loved Eleanor and Park, but the ending was such a disappointment. I liked Fangirl quite a bit, but I found it kind of uneven, and again the ending let me down (though not as epically as E&P). Given that track record, I read Attachments with a certain degree of detachment, not wanting to fall in love with the story only to get burned again in the last chapters. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Attachments is delightful from the first chapter to the last. 

 

That this book is as enjoyable as it is kind of amazing, given the premise. The protagonist, Lincoln, is about as beta as they come, and he could easily have come across as a Creeper rather than a Keeper. He's a 28 year old computer geek who lives with his mother and doesn't get out much, except for his weekly Dungeons and Dragons game. He's still mooning over the only serious relationship he ever had, a youthful infatuation that ended nine years ago. He works the graveyard shift at a local newspaper, monitoring employees' email and internet use for violations of company policy, and preparing for Y2K. (Oh, yeah, this book is set in the fall of 1999, on the cusp of the predicted apocalypse of technology which, of course, turned out to be a lot of sound and fury.) 

 

As part of his job, Lincoln reads the email conversations of two reporters, Beth and Jennifer, whose emails get flagged a lot because of their profanity and their frequency. (Employees are not supposed to use email for personal conversations.) LIncoln is charmed (as is the reader) by the women: the way they tease and support each other, the way they lift each other up in tough times, the way they are sometimes brutally honest with each other. He begins to develop feelings for one of the women, Beth, before he ever sees her. -And almost as soon as he realizes he's in love, he understands how hopeless it is, because reading her email without her knowing it is so very wrong, even if it is his job. 

 

The fact that Lincoln understands and is troubled by the creepy stalkerish aspects of his job is what saves him from coming across as creepy and stalkerish. (Also, the reader is as charmed by Beth's and Jennifer's emails as Lincoln is, and you don't want him to cut off access by revealing himself.) 

 

Interspersed with chapters devoted to Beth's and Jennifer's emails are chapters devoted to Lincoln. Over the course of the novel, he makes a number of small changes, not really realizing the import of each, until he ultimately overcomes the inertia that has bogged down his life since college: he eats dinner in the break room instead of alone at his desk, he reconnects with old friends, he connects with new friends, he joins a gym, he finds an apartment, he gets a haircut. Individually, each of these changes is insignificant, but by the end of the book, Lincoln has made enormous personal growth. The beauty of it, though, is that his self-improvement doesn't come at the cost of anything or anyone else. He doesn't kick his Dungeons and Dragons friends to the curb in the pursuit of a cooler crowd. He leaves his mother's house, but does so in such a way that she still feels needed and loved. Lincoln becomes a better guy, but he remains true to himself and his roots. 

 

He and Beth don't actually connect until 95% of the way through the book. The wait is excruciating, but it's the anticipation of something wonderful, like Christmas morning or a long-planned vacation, and when it comes, it's almost indescribably satisfying. (And yet, Rainbow Rowell does a pretty good job describing it:)

 

There are moments when you can't believe something wonderful is happening. And there are moments when your entire consciousness is filled with knowing absolutely that something wonderful is happening. Lincoln felt like he'd dunked his head into a sink full of Pop Rocks and turned on the water. 

 

(p. 311 of 327)

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 34%.

Drums of Autumn - Diana Gabaldon

It's really bothering me to hear (I'm listening to the audiobook) Native Americans repeatedly referred to as "savages." Yes, that term might have been appropriate for the setting (Colonial North Carolina in the 1770s), but the book was written in 1997. Every time I hear it, it is jarring and offensive.

 

Very Satisfying Second Chance Romance (but beware of triggers!)

Beyond Addiction - Kit Rocha

I'm a little bit torn as to how to rate this fifth full-length novel in Kit Rocha's Beyond series, honestly. As I've said before, I love this series beyond all reason, especially since this sort of thing (a polyamorous, liquor-smuggling, cage-fighting, pole-dancing motorcycle gang living in a violent, post-apocalyptic dystopia) is not usually my cuppa. Beyond Addiction is a strong entry in an already strong series, and parts of it I loved, but I do have a few complaints.

 

But let's focus on the good stuff, first, hmmm?

 

Beyond Addiction is a second-chance romance between Finn and Trix. Both were originally from Sector 5 -- (This plot summary will assume some general familiarity with the Beyond universe. If you're not familiar, start with the first book, Beyond Shame, which just happens to be free at most e-book retailers right now.) -- whose main industry is making drugs for medical use in the city of Eden and more recreational (and addictive) use in the Sectors. As an enforcer for sector leader Mac Fleming, Finn spent a lot of years doing other people's dirty work. 

 

Years ago, Trix was a junkie dependent upon Finn for her next fix, and though they had a real emotional connection and plenty of sexual chemistry, neither could be sure what she needed from him most: his love or his ready access to dope. Desperate to get clean, Trix double-crossed Mac (and by extension, Finn) and escaped to Sector 4, where she got healthy and found a home and family with the O'Kanes.

 

At the start of Beyond Addiction, Mac Fleming's henchmen have kidnapped Trix, and Finn burns his bridges with Sector 5 in order to get her safely back to the people she loves, though he doesn't believe, with their history, that he'll ever be worthy to be counted as one of those people.

 

The Good Stuff:

The real "second chance" in this story is not Finn's relationship with Trix, but his relationship with the rest of the O'Kane clan. As a long-time enforcer for a rival sector leader, Finn has a lot to answer for with the O'Kanes, including his direct role in getting Trix and Jade (and probably others) hooked on drugs. Trix is more than willing to forgive his sins, but the other O'Kanes aren't as easily won over. Watching Finn own his past, make amends, and ultimately earn himself a place in the tight-knit O'Kane family was enormously satisfying. As I posted in a status update yesterday, previous Beyond books have talked about the sisterhood among the O'Kane women, but this book gave a new and very welcome insight into the brotherhood of O'Kane men.

 

This book is the fifth in a planned seven book series (not including the novellas that come out between novel releases), and we're far enough along now that the reader (me) has a better understanding of the complicated labyrinth of Sector politics and loyalties, and a better sense of the ultimate confrontation that the whole series is building toward. As a reader, it's as if I've been working for a long time on a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle, and I've made enough progress now that the big picture is starting to come together... and there's a huge sense of satisfaction in that. 

 

My Complaints:

I know a lot of Beyond readers will disagree with me for saying so, since the sex is such a defining part of this series, but I've gotta say that, for me, the smexy parts are losing their charm. I skimmed past most of the sex in this book. It's just too similar to all the sex in all of the previous books, and in my opinion, it detracts from the individual couples' stories. Each book focuses on a couple (and in the case of Beyond Jealousy, a triad), and each relationship has its own unique history and conflict and resolution -- and yet, as different as each couple/relationship is, we're supposed to believe that sexually, everyone in Sector 4 has the exact same kinks? Mmm, not so much. Don't get me wrong: reading about Lex and Dallas sexing up Noelle in Beyond Shame was hot, but now that we've read about them sexing up Rachel, Trix, and God knows who all else, it's starting to feel Beyond Same, and that's not cool.

 

The other thing that really, really bothered me about this book was that it had not one but two child-in-peril subplots. I hate when authors do horrible things to kids just to move a plot along or twist a reader's sympathies, and this book did it twice.

First, Flash and Amira's baby, Hana, gets sick and Finn has to make a dangerous run to Sector 5 (where he is a wanted man) to steal the drugs that will save her life. Second, the new leader of Sector 5 brutally murders the old leader's wife and children, including babies, for no good reason (except to get the lone survivor to Sector 4 as sequel-bait).

(show spoiler)

Neither incident was integral to the plot, which was good in the sense that, as a mother and thus a reader particularly bothered by child-in-peril stories, I didn't have to linger on the horror -- but then again, since neither incident was integral to the plot, why the hell include those horrors at all?!

 

In conclusion, Beyond Addiction has a lot to recommend it, and fans of the series won't be disappointed -- but it also has a lot of triggers (violence, rape, child-in-peril) to trip up unwary readers, so buyer beware.

Status Update: I've read 55%

Beyond Addiction - Kit Rocha

One of the things I love about the Beyond series, now that we're in the middle of it and have a better sense of the series-wide plots and the post-apocalyptic world-building and the politics of the Sectors, is not so much the romances between the couples (and threesomes) that are the focus of each individual book, but the friendships among the O'Kane clan. There's been a lot of emphasis in prior books about the sisterhood among the O'Kane women, but this book has some lovely scenes about brotherhood -- the bond between men, how they earn each other's trust and respect, how they 'nut up' and make things right when they err (with the women in their lives and with the men), just generally how to make friends and, more importantly, how to be a friend.

A Beta Hero in Kit Rocha's Beyond Series? Will Wonders Never Cease!

Beyond Solitude: Beyond #4.5 - Kit Rocha

As I've said before, Kit Rocha's Beyond series is my kind of catnip. By all rational accounts, I shouldn't like these books nearly as much as I do: I'm not a fan of dystopias, motorcycle gangs, liquor smuggling, cage fighting, or patriarchy -- all of which feature prominently in the Beyond series plot. However, while these books are set in a violent, patriarchal dystopia, they explore feminist themes like consent, gender politics, and power dynamics in relationships and in other settings. Oh, yeah, and they're also wicked sexy.

 

The novella Beyond Solitude focuses mainly on Mia and Derek, and it's a bit of a change of pace from the prior books in the series because Derek is more of a beta hero than most of the O'Kane men. Sure, he's got the O'Kane ink and he rides a motorcycle, but Derek mostly eschews the cage fighting and street fighting that O'Kane men seem to favor. He's not an enforcer or a military-trained assassin like Jas or Bren or Cruz (prior Beyond alpha-heroes); instead, Derek supports the clan by working behind the scenes, putting his skills as an economist/accountant to work maximizing profits from various O'Kane business ventures. He's a loner and a misanthrope, his disposition not improved by the fact that he lives with significant physical pain, a result of slow-healing injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash.

 

Mia, like the O'Kane matriarch Lex, is a refugee from Sector Two, where they train women as companions (read "prostitutes") for wealthy and influential men. Mia has been raised from childhood to see life as a balance sheet and herself as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded like property. She's escaped from her Patron and longs for freedom in Sector Four, but old habits die hard, and she can't stop thinking of every gift and every gesture from Derek as debts that she'll eventually be called to repay, whether willing or no.

 

I liked this story a lot, though the abbreviated novella form made the couple's speedy courtship feel a little insta-lovey, and the conclusion also felt hasty... again, probably because this is a novella and not a full-length novel. If you've already read the Beyond books, don't miss this one, because it's a nice change of pace from the alpha-hero/submissive female dynamic of most of the previous books, plus it gives some great insight into series-wide world-building (like how the O'Kane clan's finances work, and the politics of Sector Two), but if you're just dipping your toe into the series, don't start here: I'm not sure this novella would stand alone without the complex background already established in the previous four novels.

Weak World Building

Wilder's Mate - Moira Rogers

When I pick up a new series, especially in the fantasy/paranormal/steampunk realm (and Moira Roger's Bloodhound series is all of these), I'm willing to put up with a fair bit of disorientation initially, until the world-building fills in the gaps of my understanding. I'm not a fan of info-dumping, and I'd rather figure things out as I read along, so it was totally okay with me that for the first half of this book, I didn't know what was going on.

 

Less okay is the fact that by the second half, I still didn't know what was going on. Indeed, I reached the end, and I feel like I still have only a very sketchy sense of what the writers were trying to do. I understood the general plot: Satira teams up with Wilder to rescue her mentor, Nathaniel, from evil vampires. I had a sense of the setting: a steampunky American Wild West where there are a whole lot of brothels and shanty towns on the border between the Deadlands (aka Vampire Territory) and the not-so-civilized American Frontier. Beyond that, though, the details get very, very vague. In addition to vampires, there are creatures called Bloodhounds, who seem to be some kind of shifters whose natures are controlled by the phases of the moon: in the full moon, they get really strong and violent, and in the new moon, they get the Epic HornyPants and their sexual needs are so all-consuming the hounds go mad with frenzy and they need experienced women to sate them (hence all the brothels). Sound sexy? Yeah, not so much as you might think.

 

I picked this up free a few months ago because 1) hello, free?, and 2) Moira Rogers is actually the writing team of Bree and Donna, who also write together under the name Kit Rocha, and Rocha's Beyond series is totally my kind of catnip. Alas, the Bloodhounds are not. There's just not enough to this story except for sex: the world-building is scant and vague, the character development is half-assed, and without any flesh to fill out the bare bones of this story, the romance between Wilder and Satira just falls flat.

 

Great Stories for a Great Cause: Buy This Book

Summer Rain - Ruthie Knox, Molly O'Keefe, Cecilia Tan, Charlotte Stein, Mary Ann Rivers, Amy Jo Cousins, Audra North, Shari Slade, Alexandra Haughton, Sarah Frantz

I don't read a lot of short stories, so I always forget how much I like them. I respect the skill it takes to make a reader understand your characters and care about their lives when you have to tell a story in just a few dozen pages rather than a few hundred. I highly recommend this anthology of romance short stories, because not only are most of them excellently crafted and beautifully written, the writers donated these stories so that 100% of the profits from this anthology supports RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, a U.S. anti-sexual violence nonprofit. Fittingly, every story in the anthology features a scene in which rain is a key plot point.

 

Redemption - Ruthie Knox

 

I love Ruthie Knox. When she's at her best, her writing hits me viscerally somewhere right between my sacrum and my solar plexus, low in my belly, hot and raw and a little bit uncomfortable in its urgency. Redemption is a sad story -- Jessie's business is failing and her home is in foreclosure, and Mike has lost his wife, his business, and even his children to a familial betrayal -- but as the title suggests, together Mike and Jessie may be able to build a better life than what they have lost.

 

The Heart of It - Molly O'Keefe

 

I've never read anything by O'Keefe before, but I'm definitely going to check out some of her longer works, because I loved this story. Gabe hires an upscale call girl to help him work through the demons of his childhood sexual abuse. This story gave me a lot to think about. Elena is a prostitute, but she's not at all ashamed or desperate, which I found very refreshing. I also found it intriguing that, where sexual intercourse is commerce and there was no question of whether they'd sleep together, the story still explored issues of consent and boundaries but in the context of emotional rather than sexual intimacy.

 

Sacrifice - Cecilia Tan

 

This story felt a little out of place in a collection of mostly contemporary romances, set in tenth century Macedonia, about a young Asian woman sold into slavery by her family and given as a virgin sacrifice to a demigod who must sleep with her in order to end a drought. That sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea, but I was impressed with the way Tan explored issues of consent and honor and power dynamics between two people with no cultural common ground nor even a common language.

 

Real Feelings - Charlotte Stein

 

This futuristic romance between a human woman and an android is also a little out of place in a collection of contemporaries. I didn't really buy into the premise (android develops free will), so this story didn't really work for me, but Charlotte Stein's sex scenes are always smoking hot and it was a nice change to see the usual sexual politics/power dynamics gender-flipped so that the heroine, not the hero, was the one to wrestle with the morality of consent.

 

Rainy Season - Mary Ann Rivers

 

This story had a mild supernatural streak, in that the heroine, barista Lisa Shirek, can literally see the emotional weather of everyone around her (if a customer has a sick parent at home, Lisa sees the customer sitting by mom's hospital bed; if he has lost a lover, Lisa sees the funeral, etc.). The only person Lisa doesn't see clearly is herself, until she meets Mark, who is a sunbeam in a sea of stormy weather.

 

The Rain in Spain - Amy Jo Cousins

 

Ms. Cousins is another new-to-me author whom I'll be checking out after reading this heartrending story of a marriage on the rocks, set in Sevilla, Spain. Magda is a free spirit, chafing with frustration at her husband Javi's more structured life, and she wonders if they've made a mistake in thinking that two such different people can build a future together. I thought this story was beautifully written and bittersweet, and I loved how honestly the couple communicated.

 

Fitting In - Audra North

 

Audra North writes about Stas Petrovich, a young man determined to fit in at college after a youth spent as an outsider, cruelly taunted by schoolmates because of his gay, immigrant fathers. He wants nothing to do with Leila, aka The Weird Girl, because she's a socially stigmatized outcast shunned because everyone knows she had an abortion and, horrors!, has the audacity not to curl up and die of shame. I didn't love this story because Stas was kind of a douchenozzle, but I loved the subject matter.

 

Private Study - Shari Slade

 

Tess Bell goes off to college determined to shake off the yoke of her overprotective, sexually-repressed upbringing, and boy howdy does she ever: she starts a sex vlog to educate herself, and others, about sexuality. But when one of her classmates discovers the vlog and shatters her anonymity, Tess realizes she might not be ready to face the consequences. I really, really related to Tess, though it's been a long time since my own college days: I totally remembered that exact combination of feminist rage, heady freedom, and the cold wake-up call that comes with the shattering of one's sense of youthful invincibility.

 

Storm Warning - Alexandra Haughton

 

This is a second-chance romance: Amy returns home from a failed career as an event planner in the big city to meet up with Tom, the erstwhile first love who'd told her that she didn't have what it takes to make it outside of Texas. Can she forgive him, when circumstances have proven him right? This story didn't really work for me because I found it hard to follow the dialogue and Amy seemed really mercurial in her moods, almost to the point of being irrational... but this was the only story in the collection that I didn't like. 

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

I watched the Outlander Pilot on YouTube last night (it's available free this week, in advance of the August 9 series premiere on Starz). Very pretty (actors and sets), very true to the book, but I'm going to need subtitles for those Scots accents!

Truly Wonderful

Truly - Ruthie Knox

It's been a long time since I read a book and had no complaints. A lot of times I find myself entertained by the story, or transported by the writing, or I love the characters, but… there's always a "but." Not here. This book has no "buts." I loved it. I loved the story, I loved the characters, I loved the romance, I loved the writing. I got to the end, breathed a happy sigh, and then, instead of turning to the next book in my mountainous TBR pile, I zoomed back the progress bar on my kindle app and read the last third of Truly all over again, just to savor it. 

 

I love Ruthie Knox, and I'm pretty sure this is her best work yet. It starts with the heroine, May, in a Manhattan sports bar. She's a fish out of water: she's only been in New York a few weeks, having moved to finally be with her long-time boyfriend, a football quarterback who used to play for the Packers in May's native Wisconsin but who now plays for the Jets. -But that relationship is suddenly and abruptly over as a result of his very poorly executed, mortifyingly bad marriage proposal, to which May did not react well. She left him, but moments later she got mobbed by paparazzi (because he's a famous football star) and simultaneously mugged, and now she's alone in a strange city with no money, no phone, no ID, and a single pair of ugly shoes. 

 

Other writers would have taken this premise and wrung every once of humiliation and debasement, leaving May a broken, pathetic woman (I'm looking at you, Kristan Higgins), but not Ruthie Knox. May is desperate and embarrassed, yes, but even at her worst she's got starch in her spine and wits in her head. She is nobody's doormat. 

 

At the bar, May meets Ben, a cranky-faced grump who is the very definition of 'unapproachable.' He is a successful chef forced into temporary unemployment by the non-compete agreement he signed when he let his ex-wife buy him out of their restaurant and their marriage, and he's still wrestling with the anger management issues that led to the demise of that prior life. He snaps and barks and growls like a wounded animal poked with a stick, but for all of his prickliness, he is wonderfully self-aware, and he always apologizes and tries to make things right. 

 

Since May can't fly home without ID and she can't replace that until businesses open after the Labor Day weekend, Ben spends the long weekend showing her around the city, but for May, these days of aimless tourism are revelatory as she discovers how brave and strong she can be on her own, and decides what kind of person she wants to be moving forward. She falls in love with Ben, of course (and he with her), but she's not willing to let him use her or take her for granted, which has been the problem with ever other relationship she's ever had. 

 

At the end of the weekend, not ready to say goodbye yet, Ben offers to drive May home to Wisconsin. Here, the Ben and May's cozy new-infatuation bubble crashes hard against the reality of May's family: her sister, Allie, days away from marrying the perfect man (but having serious second thoughts), her mother, who still cherishes the hope that May will come to her senses and get back with the quarterback, her father, who hides in the basement watching football. Going home could have pushed May back into the box of old habits, but instead it only strengthens her new-found self-confidence. She doesn't want to be the sensible sister anymore, the good girl who does as her mother wants, who takes the 'smart' career path instead of taking the risks that speak to her soul, the trophy wife who marries the rich man who will always provide for her.

 

Her sister Allie's relationship is perfect on the surface (just as May's relationship with Dan-the-footballer appeared on to outsiders), but is fundamentally broken. By contrast, May and Ben's love seems all wrong -- too fast, too sudden, the future too uncertain, threatened by his anger and by her need to smooth over all tension -- but it's real and wonderful, and May and Ben just need to learn to trust it, and to trust each other. 

 

***I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***