By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
I was (am) home sick and wanted something to read that wouldn't take a whole lot of focus or mental energy, so when I found this on my Kindle, I thought it would fit the bill perfectly. I thought I had read all of Jennifer Crusie's back catalogue, but if I'd ever read this before, I didn't remember it at all. It's nowhere near her best work, but it was a quick read and entertaining enough. It's a mistaken-identity story: Alec is at a conference to catch a con man, and Dennie, a journalist, is there to interview one of the conference presenters. Alec sees Dennie talking to the con man in the hotel lobby (the con man is hitting on her, Dennie turns him down, but Alec doesn't hear their conversation), and assumes that Dennie is the con's accomplice. It's a pretty thin premise, and it probably would have been insufferably stupid in the hands of anyone but Crusie.
I steered clear of Christina Lauren's Beautiful series, because just the blurb of Beautiful Bastard (smart intern, asshole boss, lots of name-calling and hate sex) was a big HELLS NO for me... and that was before I started seeing reviews like this one. But then I read Kati's review of Sweet Filthy Boy at Dear Author, and it sounded like this book might work for me, too, and it did (mostly).
It took me awhile to get into it. It starts with Mia, the heroine, graduating from college and going off for a weekend celebration in Las Vegas with her two best girlfriends. (I'm a decade (plus) past my own "New Adult" years and, even back then, I was never the type to think a drunken weekend in Vegas sounds like a good time, so I didn't connect with Mia at first.) While in Vegas, Mia catches the eye of a beautiful boy across a crowded bar, and a few pages later, she wakes up with the worst hangover of her life, vague memories of lots and lots of sex, and a gold band on her finger. My first thought was, oh, please, not another drunken Vegas wedding... *snore*.
Somehow, in the chapters that followed, I got over that. There was something really honest and appealing in the way Mia and Ansel try to balance their sense of holy-shit-how-could-I-be-so-fucking-stupid?! with their dawning understanding that, stupid as the wedding may have been, the feelings they have for one another may be more than drunken insta-love.
Ansel invites Mia to go home to France with him for the summer, to give their marriage a chance. Initially, rationally, she turns him down, but then she changes her mind and dashes for the airport, barely making the flight. In the weeks that follow, she explores Paris while Ansel works way too much, taking the summer to come up with a plan for what she wants to do with her life (since her initial plan, business school on her daddy's dime, holds no appeal).
There was a lot of sex in this book. Too much, in my opinion, but maybe that's just me. It wasn't bad or boring--in fact, I liked the way that sexual role play helped Mia be more honest and confident in the marriage--but I would have preferred more story. (It's funny: I read romance for the story and am tempted to skim the sex scenes; I read erotica for sex and often skim the "story".)
I found Ansel a very appealing hero, smart and sweet and sexy, despite a huge lie of omission that almost derails their Happy Ever After. Mia grew on me, too, even though many of her choices make no sense to me (example: if I had planned to become a professional ballerina, only to have my career derailed by a tragic car accident, teaching little kids to dance is probably the very last thing in the world I would ever choose to do with my life). I like that she spent so much time on her own, exploring the city of Paris and simultaneously getting her head on straight. I like that she discovers and develops her own talents and confidence, rather than magically becoming a super talented sex goddess just because of the love of the right man. Overall, I'm glad I gave this book a chance.
I didn't read any good books this weekend. On the bright side, though, we adopted a new puppy! This is Lolly (we were going to change her name but my 3-year-old won't let us), a 10-month-old chihuahua mix rescued from a high-kill shelter in Puerto Rico. I'd've picked a bigger dog, if I had my druthers (I've always had labs or goldens before), but Lolly was far and away the kids' favorite, and she seems pretty sweet and laid back so far. She's the same size as our cat, though. I'm not sure she even counts as a real dog.
This third book in Monica McCarty's Highland Guard series (think 'Special Ops in Kilts') should have been right up my alley. There are few things I like better than a good, angsty, Forbidden Love story, where there's some almost insurmountable reason the lovers can't be together, and yet they can't seem to stay apart, and this should have been that kind of story. Arthur "Ranger" Campbell is a spy for King Robert the Bruce, posing as a knight in the service of Robert's enemy, John of Lorn, chieftain of the MacDougall clan. Arthur has his own score to settle with Lorn, who killed Arthur's father in a most dishonorable fashion and stole the Campbell's lands years before. Anna is Lorn's daughter, and loyal to her father and his causes, which means she wants nothing more than to see King Robert defeated. Since Anna and Arthur are on opposite sides of the cause and neither can bend without betraying their families and everything else they hold dear, their attraction should have been angsty and fraught with emotion and pathos and ALL THE FEELZ... except it wasn't. Somehow, McCarty forgot to bring the feels. This book was such a snoozefest.
I've had Monica McCarty's "Special Ops in kilts" Highland Guard series in my TBR for a long time, and moved it to the top of the list in the days leading up to Scotland's September 18, 2014 vote on whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom, because what's more appropriate on the verge of a vote for Scottish Independence than to read about Robert the Bruce's 1306-07 struggle for Scottish Independence?
The Hawk is the second book in the series, and holy moly, it is Chock Full of Crazy. If you are a stickler for historical accuracy or have a low tolerance for plot ridiculousness, this is not the book for you. There is a scene in which the hero and heroine sail across the Irish Sea in a fierce storm in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in a ten foot skiff cobbled together with scrap wood and seal grease and sailed with a freaking bedsheet, and when the mast breaks, they're all, "Oooh, this is sexy!" and they lay down in the bottom of the boat and get it on. Some people would be annoyed by this kind of thing: I just laughed and rolled my eyes so hard I nearly strained a muscle.
If you have a high tolerance for ridiculousness, though, this book can give you a heck of a ride: there are kidnappings, chase scenes, narrow escapes, hand-to-hand combat, dangerous missions, spies, and lots and lots of boats (I'm a sucker for boats). Erik "Hawk" MacSorley can sail anything and swim like a fish. He's also gorgeous and charming and basically sex-on-a-stick. He gets around, and makes no bones about it. He is trying to gather Irish soldiers to assist in Robert the Bruce's uprising against England's Edward I, and is having a secret rendezvous with Irish militants when Ellie accidentally swims into the cave where they're hatching their plans. (Yes, she's swimming. At night. In January. Chock Full of Crazy, I tell you.) Hawk can't let her go because he doesn't know what she's heard, and he can't leave her to be raped and killed by the Irish (who are great when you need a hand in a fight, but you can't trust 'em around the ladies), so he takes her with him as a captive.
Ellie mistakenly believes Hawk is a pirate, and that he'd take advantage if he knew she was the wealthy daughter of an earl aligned with the English, so she tells him she's a lowly nursemaid. This mutual mistake of identity persists throughout much of the novel.
Ellie is also (as the story keeps telling us over and over and over again) painfully plain and not at all Hawk's usual type. I know that it's supposed to be romantic when Adonis falls for Plain Jane despite her lack of looks, but whatever: all of that handwringing about how-can-anyone-so-perfect-possibly-look-twice-at-me? (on Ellie's part) and I-can't-believe-my-staff-is-rising-for-this-chick-who-barely-has-any-boobs (on Hawk's part) really doesn't reflect well on either of them.
That said, Ellie is really smart and has plenty of starch in her collar, and Hawk is funny and charming and noble, so their romance mostly worked for me even despite the annoying Plain Jane trope and their inexplicable tendency to get hot and bothered in circumstances which seem cold, wet, and uncomfortable to me. (See the infamous Boat Scene, referenced above.)
I liked the first three quarters of the book much better than the end, where the lovers were separated and the plot bogged down in the skirmishes between Robert's and Edward's battalions, but on the whole, this was a fun (albeit completely absurd) read.
Monica McCarty advertises her Highland Guard series (of which this is the first) as "Special Ops in kilts." These are medieval Scottish romances about an elite group of specially-trained, specially-skilled warriors who serve Robert the Bruce in the fourteenth-century struggle for Scottish independence. The first five of these books have been sitting in my TBR pile for ages, and I decided, in the week leading up to the September 18 vote on Scotland's independence referendum, that this was the perfect time to move them to the top of the pile. I read The Chief on Saturday-Sunday, The Hawk Monday-Tuesday, and started The Ranger this morning. Obviously, though, I'm not going to finish the whole ten book (so far) series by tomorrow's vote.
While it's clear McCarty did a lot of research (and her Author's Notes at the end of each book, about the true events versus where she took artistic liberties, are fascinating and not to be skipped), these read like wallpaper historicals because the dialogue and the character's sensibilities and values are anachronistically modern. That's okay with me: I'm not a stickler for historical accuracy so long as I get a good story.
The Chief tells the story of Tor McLeod, the reluctant leader of the Highland Guard, and Christina Fraser, the youngest daughter of a fervent and somewhat crazy Scottish rebel. Tor doesn't want to get involved with the Highland Guard or with Fraser and his cohorts, because it is better for his clan if he can keep them neutral in the bloody conflict between Robert Bruce and the English. However, when Fraser forces Christina to go along with one of those arrange-for-virgin-daughter-to-be-caught-alone-with-heir-so-he'll-be-honor-bound-to-marry-her schemes that one often sees in Regency romance plots, Tor no longer has much choice in the matter.
Despite her participation in this nefarious marriage trap (Christina only did it because she knew her weaker and meeker sister would be forced to if she didn't), Tor and Christina's marriage has a fairly promising beginning. He forgives her, they've got chemistry, and Christina works her curvy little butt off trying to be a good chatelaine for his dreary old heap of a castle. Unfortunately, Tor is determined to hold himself emotionally aloof because as master of his clan, he can't afford to have his judgment clouded by sentiment. Consequently, he tells her nothing about anything, and as a result of her naivete and her well-intentioned but misdirected attempts to muddle along in her new role without any guidance from her husband, Christina makes some very costly mistakes that threaten to drive a further wedge between the lovers.
I gave this book only three stars because I'm not a fan of the I-don't-wanna-love-you-because-REASONS trope (and the attendant poor communication between the main characters that always results), so the romance between Tor and Christina didn't do much for me, but the story about gathering and training the Highland Guard and the coming conflict between the Bruce and the English was enough to hold my attention anyway.
Jill Shalvis's Lucky Harbor series is like the literary equivalent of comfort food. Sure, it's not that good for you; you probably won't learn anything. No, it's not original: the familiarity is the point. Yes, it's formulaic: it happens to be a formula I generally like. This is the tenth book in the series, but they all stand alone. The series is roughly organized into sub-trilogies: the first three books were about three sisters opening a bed and breakfast, books four through six were about three female friends who get together for gossip and sinful desserts at the cafe where one of them works, books seven through nine were about three women who own businesses in the same building, and this tenth book kicks off a new trilogy that will presumably feature three guys who are partners in a fishing charter company.
One of the things I don't love about the Shalvis formula is that her heroes tend to be emotionally-constipated alpha males who for one reason or another can't bring themselves to face or admit their feelings when they fall for a woman. It's in His Kiss falls into that same vein: Sam's unreliable father has let him down again and again, and he tosses around, "Love you, Sam" so casually that for Sam, the words have lost meaning. He doesn't plan to fall in love, because in his experience, love only leads to disappointment. It's not that I don't feel for the guy, but I'd rather a man be brave and honest about his feelings, and communicate like a grown-up, than that he be burly and tough physically but have (in the immortal words of J.K. Rowling d/b/a Hermione Granger) "the emotional range of a teaspoon."
The heroine, Becca, is likeable but very private. She keeps her personal history a secret for reasons I have frankly totally forgotten in the five days since I finished this book. I suspect those reasons, whatever they were, didn't make all that much sense to start with because I remember being annoyed as I read that much of the petty conflict in the story stemmed from bad communication between the characters -- Becca's unnecessary secrecy and Sam's emotional constipation. Becca has spent her whole life being a good girl, supporting her uber-talented little brother's musical career even as his prescription addiction turned him into a jackass. She suffers extreme personal trauma for her brother's benefit, and her family doesn't even really notice. Finally having reached her limit, she flees to Lucky Harbor and starts building a new life for herself, working for Sam's boat charter company. I liked Becca, but I was irritated by her tragic backstory: I think writers sometimes give female protagonists rape trauma just to fill them out as characters and play on readers' sympathy, a trend I find both unoriginal and opportunistic. There are enough people in this world actually suffering from these issues, and I wish writers would be more sensitive before using this very common and very real trauma as a plot device: "Ah, this gal's kind of boring... Hey, I know! Let's have her be recovering from rape, and afraid of small spaces, because I could write some great Claustrophobia Scenes!"
These quibbles aside, though, Sam and Becca have good chemistry and Shalvis's writing and dialogue are reliably snappy and fun, and while It's in His Kiss is far from my favorite of the series, it's still a solid entry.
I have a soft spot for Shannon Stacey's contemporaries because they're set in northern New England, where I live, and because they're usually refreshingly free of contrivance and WTFery: they're just about regular people with regular problems living regular lives and falling in love in regular ways. You might think that would be boring, but no, at least not to me: it gives me faith, as I live my own regular life and work through my regular problems with my regular family that we've got just as good a chance at a happily ever after outcome as anyone else, and that's reassuring.
That said, Falling for Max is not nearly as strong as most of the other books in the Kowalski's series. Maybe it's time for Shannon Stacey to move on to a new town and new people, because she's scraping the bottom of the creativity barrel in tiny Whitford, Maine, or maybe this book just didn't work for me because I'm not at all a fan of the I'm-not-right-for-you-but-let-me-help-hook-you-up-with-someone-else trope (think Some Kind of Wonderful, for example). Introverted, endearingly geeky Max doesn't get out much: he spends so much of his time in the basement painting model trains that there's a rumor about town that he's really a serial killer. However, he's tired of being alone and decides to go looking for a wife. Tori, a waitress at the local diner, watches him get shot down on his first attempt to talk to a woman, and she takes pity on him. Tori has no interest in marriage herself, but she's happy to help polish Max's rough edges and prepare him to meet his future wife.
From the moment they meet, it's clear how this story will go, and it does: they develop feelings for each other, such that when Max goes out with someone else he feels guilty and Tori feels jealous, but Tori can't get over her own hangups about commitment. It might have worked if Tori's commitment phobia stemmed from something more substantial than her parents' acrimonious divorce. Not to minimize her angst, but please: with a national divorce rate somewhere between 25 and 45% (depending upon the source of one's statistics), Tori's extreme reaction to her parents' all-too-common marital implosion makes her seem like a speshul snowflake.
Anyway, this whole story felt contrived and predictable to me, and nothing about it challenged my expectations in any way. Oh well.
Thursday morning, my 17-month-old son had a massive seizure. We got an ambulance ride, an MRI, an EEG, a spinal tap, tons and tons and tons of lab work, and two days and one very, very long night in the pediatric ICU. This book kept me company in the wee small hours of that long, sleepless night, and in the interminably tedious moments spent waiting for test results and doctor's consults, stuck in a small, sterile room amid the unfamiliar beeps and buzzes of all that medical equipment, holding my small, sleepy baby in my arms. It didn't demand too much of my concentration, and it was sort of nice to trade my own all too real fear and grief for someone else's fictional troubles.
Ashley Winston leaves her friends and life in Chicago to go home to rural Tennessee for the first time in eight years when her mother misses their nightly phone call twice in a row. She turns out to be terminally ill, and Ashley goes home to help her Momma through the last few weeks of her life. In doing so, Ash reconnects with her six bearded brothers, who are no longer the selfish boys who used to torment the only girl in the family, but instead smart, reasonable men who would love to welcome her back home, if she can only trust them. She also meets her oldest brother's best friend and boss, game warden/park ranger/poet/songwriter Drew Runous. Drew is like a son to Ash's mom and like a brother to her brothers, but his feelings toward Ashley are not at all brotherly.
This story sort of defies the usual romance tropes, although Ash compares herself to the unlikeable heroines in so many romance novels: "It's like they've been hit with a vanilla ninny stick, devoid of personality and blind to the gift before them. They're doomed to wander in ignorance until the last thirty pages of the book." (Loc. 2684 of 7852) Ash isn't unlikeable or devoid of personality, and her failure to wake up to the "gift" of Drew's love and devotion until the last thirty pages of this book has more to do with her grief over the loss of her mother (and Drew's determination to keep a respectful distance as she works through that grief) than it does with any vanilla ninny stick.
This story wasn't perfect--Ashley's six hillbilly brothers (Jethro, Billy, Cletus, Beau, Duane, and Roscoe) are totally over the top, and personally I'd have liked it better if she had maybe two or three brothers and we (the readers) got a chance to know them as fully drawn characters, rather than six brothers who all blend together into a single caricature; and also leaving Chicago means leaving the friends and the knitting group which ties this series together, though Ashley managed to keep in touch with them even from a distance. Also, Drew was a little on the Gary Stu/too-good-to-be-true side.
However, I thought Penny Reid did a really good job portraying Ashley's emotional journey through the shock of her mother's diagnosis through her death, and beyond, but perhaps because of my own emotional journey with my baby's seizure, I was particularly drawn to that part of the story.
Anyway, this one struck a chord with me.
(P.S.: my son is home now and recovering well. All of the diagnostic tests were normal. We may never know what causes his seizures, but at least we have a plan (anti seizure meds) and will know what to do should this happen again.)
Maybe this makes me shallow, but whether or not I find a main character "likeable" makes a huge difference in my enjoyment level. Love Hacked is a prime example. I have read the two previous books in Penny Reid's Knitting in the City series, and enjoyed Reid's humor and writing style, and liked the stories reasonably well, but rated both books only three stars because I found the main characters so unpleasant. Elizabeth (Friends Without Benefits) I found to be so toxic I couldn't see what the hero saw in her. Janie (Neanderthal Meets Human) was better, but still hard to connect with in that she's very rigid in her world view in a way that I am not. I warmed up to Janie's love, Quinn, but it took awhile, because at first blush he's a typical icy, reserved alpha male.
By contrast, I really, really liked both Sandra and Alex in Love Hacked. Sandra is funny, smart, and relatable, and Alex is one of the best contemporary heroes I've come across in months: he has a heartbreaking backstory, but it hasn't broken him, and he is honest and emotionally forthright (in contrast to alpha men like Quinn, who don't like to talk about their feelings or even acknowledge that they have any). -And the fact that I liked both characters so much made Love Hacked an almost five star read: everything I liked about Penny Reid's writing combined with a couple whose happiness I could invest in (because if I don't like a character, how am I supposed to give a damn about their HEA?).
I found the premise of this story really fascinating, too: more so than plain-jane-meets-billionaire (Neanderthal) or celebrity-pining-for-the-one-that-got-away (Friends). Sandra is a therapist who has spent two years trying to find Mr. Right, but no matter how normal they seem, they can't help but open up to her Magical-Therapist-Vibe and they always wind up crying before the first course. Alex is the waiter who has watched her reduce men to tears every Friday night for two years… but he's so much more than a waiter. Alex has a Tortured Past, but unlike all the other guys Sandra meets, he's not interested in letting her put on her Therapist Hat and poke around in his psyche. This means that Alex is the one guy that Sandra can't figure out, which makes him endlessly fascinating--but also scary.
This is another of our library haul, this week. It was one of the best-selling picture books of 2013, but it didn't do much for me or for my almost-four-year-old son. We much prefer Oliver Jeffer's Stuck.
We got this from the library this week because James Marshall (of George and Martha fame) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, duh) are both old favorites, and we were not at all disappointed. Swine Lake is about a down-on-his luck wolf who stumbles into an unfamiliar part of town, lucks into tickets to the Boarshoi Ballet performance of Swine Lake, and--even as he plans to massacre the dancers to satisfy his own nefarious appetites--winds up falling in love with the ballet instead.
Readers familiar with Marshall's and Sendak's other works will find among the fabulous illustrations several clever references to other favorites: a child in the theatre audience clutches a George-the-hippo stuffed lovey, and another pig is reading a newspaper story about The Stupids.
I picked this up on sale a few months ago when I saw it recommended by Smart Bitches Trashy Books. I'd only ever read one other Garwood romance (Saving Grace, a Scottish medieval). When I opened this on my kindle this weekend and read the prologue (all about a Native American shaman's cryptic dream about a white mountain lion), my first thought was, "Oh, what have I gotten myself into?" I avoid that subcategory of historical romance that prominently feature Native Americans, because I find them... well, racist, honestly. There's no sense in beating around the bush.
However, A Lion's Lady was a pleasant surprise. Although this, like Saving Grace, is very much a wallpaper historical, Garwood at least did enough basic research into the culture and rituals of the Dakota Sioux to avoid being patently offensive. The heroine, Christina, was raised by the Dakota and very much loves her adoptive family, and so her attitude toward them and their customs is positive and respectful rather than sneeringly superior.
The premise of this story is really quite ridiculous, but that's actually a good thing if one is willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. Christina's mother, Jessica, married the ruler of an obscure European nation (so obscure Garwood doesn't even bother to name it). Upon discovering that her prince was actually a cruel dictator and a cheating philanderer, she stole the crown jewels (intending to return the riches to the mistreated people of this unnamed country). Presumably unable to find a bank that could handle the jewels-for-cash transaction, Jessica buried the gems in her father's garden instead, then fled to America to get as far away from her husband before giving birth to their child. She eventually joined a wagon train heading west, but fled into the woods with baby Christina when the Dastardly Hubby murdered her traveling companions. There, she came upon a Sioux woman being raped by a Crow warrior, and she kills the Crow and she and Merry (the Sioux) (and their children, as Merry is also accompanied by her six-year-old son) winter together in an abandoned cabin in the woods until Jessica is either mauled to death by a bear or by her crazed ex (the story leaves some ambiguity on that point). Merry brings both children back to her people and raises Christina as her own child.
Fast-forward sixteen years: Christina has learned English (and French!) and gone to England with her evil aunt to fulfill some vague promise to her long-dead mother. She's armed with her mother's journal, so she knows Daddy is a Bad Guy, and we quickly learn that Christina has been left a fortune by her grandfather which will go to Daddy-Baddy unless Christina marries by her 19th birthday. Enter Lyon, who is a retired hitman for the Crown. He's the perfect protector for Christina, since he kills people for a living (but only if they deserve it!). They exchange humorous banter (made all the more entertaining by the fact that Christina has learned English but has no sense of idioms, so she takes everything literally in an Amelia Bedelia-esque way), noisy arguments that culminate with Christina cutting her hair in a mourning ritual, have lots of fairly vanilla sex, and then there's a big confrontation with Daddy-Baddy involving, of course, the stolen jewels.
Don't overthink it. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
I love Courtney Milan, but this novella that finishes off her Brothers Sinister series just felt kind of "meh." The premise was interesting--an Irish Catholic writer in Victorian London falls in love with his black, middle class, mathematician neighbor--but a premise like that requires much more STORY than can be explored in a 100-page novella. I think my biggest disappointment was that Stephen and Rose were already in love when the story began, and so the plot wasn't so much a romance but about overcoming Rose's (eminently reasonable) objections to their relationship. As a result, I couldn't really buy into their happily ever after because I didn't have a good sense of what their relationship was based upon, other than mutual attraction.
If you like Math and Astronomy, though, this novella is totally your catnip. I do not like math, and there is a lot of math humor. I understood it (yay, me!), but it didn't do much for me.
This is awesome. See how far you get before you recognize the story...
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).