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Heidi Hart

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

Simple Jess
Pamela Morsi
Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)
Patrick O'Brian, Patrick Tull
Progress: 305/801 minutes
The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent And Teacher Needs to Know (Early Childhood Education Series (Teachers College Pr)) (Early Childhood Education (Teacher's College Pr))
Diane E. Levin, Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Progress: 3/115 pages

My Son is Quacking Himself To Sleep Tonight

Make Way for Ducklings - Robert McCloskey

My wife's childhood copy of this classic arrived in our house a few months ago when my father-in-law moved house. Tonight, my four-year-old pulled it out of the bookshelf for the first time. He looked at it and started to put it back when I stopped him. 

 

"Why not that one?" I asked. 

 

"It looks boring. There's no colors [in the pictures]," he complained. 

 

I assured him that Make Way for Ducklings is a pretty great book even without colored pictures. I told him that I remembered that story from when I was little, and that Papa and Grammy probably remembered it from when they were little, too, because it's an old story, but so good that people keep telling it. 

 

He brought it up to bed and agreed we should give it a try. He liked that all the quacking and the way the policemen helped the ducks cross the street, and he was excited when I told him that we can go to Boston and see the duck sculpture in the Public Gardens.

 

When I tucked him in and left him for the night, he was quacking himself to sleep...

Pretty Good, Until the Hero Got All Butthurt

Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed (Sons of Sin) - Anna Campbell

I read the novella Her Christmas Earl over the holidays, and liked it well enough to check out some of Anna Campbell's full length books. I started with Seven Night's in a Rogue's Bed because it was already in my TBR, no doubt due to some sale or recommendation a long time hence. I found this story very readable and entertaining, though parts of it annoyed me considerably. 

 

The Set Up:  Jonas Merrick is a brooding bastard who has made it his life's ambition to take revenge on the cousin who scarred his face and stole his title. He lures his cousin's wife, Roberta, into an Indecent Proposal at the gaming table: having played too deep, she must now spend seven nights with Jonas. Upon learning of the terrible bet, Roberta's sister, Sidonie, offers herself to Jonas instead. Determined never to marry, Sidonie is willing to sacrifice her innocence to save Roberta's life, because Roberta's husband is an evil, violent man who would kill his wife if he learned she fulfilled her bargain. 

 

The good: I enjoy Campbell's writing style. She sets the scene very well and the pacing moves right along, unlike some authors who tend to drag out background detail so much that the story drags and then gloss over the good parts. I also enjoyed this plot, which took a lot of familiar tropes -- the gothic castle, the scarred hero with the tortured past, the hero in pursuit, the wrongful arrest, even

the secret baby

(show spoiler)

! -- and took them in new and sometimes unexpected directions. Finally, I liked the gender flip of the afraid-of-commitment trope: here, the heroine, not the hero, was determined to avoid marriage. 

 

The bad: On several occasions, the hero and heroine behaved in ways I felt were melodramatic and not in keeping with their characters, and that diminished my overall enjoyment of the story. The heroine had one such moment where her behavior crossed the line into too-stupid-to-live territory and was completely irrational, though she was otherwise a reasonable, intelligent, and sympathetic character. (For details, click:

Overset by her physical response to some heavy-petting, and afraid her arousal would overcome her determination not to be seduced, Sidonie runs out into a November rain storm in her nightrail in the middle of a dark and stormy night, and nearly falls off a cliff into the ocean. The hero comes after her, realizes he loves her and needs to slow down the seduction routine because he's freaking her out, so after he brings her back to the house and warms her up, he withdraws. Sidonie then gets upset that he's keeping his distance, where not an hour before she literally fled from him in terror.

(show spoiler)

 

The hero has a similar bout of out-of-character irrationality, one which really soured the last quarter of the book for me and brought my rating down at least one star. Sidonie has kept a secret from him --

she has proof that he is legitimate, not a bastard

(show spoiler)

-- which she keeps for an extremely sympathetic reason, and which she reveals under circumstances which literally save Jonas's life. It's a pretty big secret, so I'd have been okay with him being pretty mad ... for a few days or until they have the kind of conversation that grown ups in relationships have after fights. Instead, he gets all butthurt and behaves like a total douchecanoe, cutting off all contact with Sidonie

until he finds out she's pregnant, forces her to marry him, and then insists he wants a marriage in name only

(show spoiler)

. I might have been more sympathetic to his cause, but it seems to me that a guy who trapped a married woman into infidelity in a card game doesn't have a whole lot of moral high ground to stand on. 

 

I also found the sex scenes to tend toward purple prose. That's a minor quibble for me since I tend to skim the smexy parts anyway, especially in historical romance, but I know that makes some people crazy... so fair warning. 

Not Just for Girls

Players In Pigtails - Shana Corey, Rebecca Gibbon

Full disclosure -- my college friend and housemate wrote this, so I might be a teensy bit biased. 

 

If you've seen A League of Their Own, you probably know that when American men went off in droves to fight WWII, American women stepped up to the plate (literally) to save America's Pastime, baseball. Players in Pigtails tells the story of baseball-crazy Katie Casey, who is one of hundreds of girls who tried out for (and made) the All American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. The story follows Katie's journey from her frustrations at home, failing at home ec and other "womanly" pursuits, to Chicago to try out for the new league, to the league's efforts to make "players in pigtails" more palatable to the public by making sure the girls of the GPBL were very ladylike.

 

My sons, ages 2 and 4, both really like this book, so don't make the mistake of thinking it's only for girls! The illustrations are whimsical and endearing, though I do have one pet peeve: in the last scene, Katie hits a grand slam home run -- but in the picture that accompanies the text, there are no base runners on the pitch, only fielders!

 

A Disappointing Sequel (As Sequels So Often Are...)

First Frost - Sarah Addison Allen

I loved Garden Spells, so I was thrilled to learn that Sarah Addison Allen's latest novel would return to finish the story of the Waverley family. While it was pleasant to check in with the characters from the first book, First Frost fell flat, as sequels so often do. First Frost is set about ten years after the events of Garden Spells, and revisits all of the main characters from that book: caterer Claire Waverley, now ten years' married and with a daughter who seems to share none of the Waverley's magic; Claire's sister Sydney, happily married to Henry but frustrated by her inability to give him a son; Sydney's daughter Bay, now a teenager in love with the last person her mother would choose for her; and cousin Evanelle, who even in her dotage still knows exactly what everyone needs. However, while First Frost is perfectly entertaining and consistent with the prior story, it's just too... easy. All of the characters have their own conflicts, all loosely woven together to advance the central plot, and all of their conflicts are neatly wrapped up in a final culmination set in the Waverley's back garden, in the shadow of the family's mysterious apple tree (which blossoms at first frost, rather than in the spring).

 

This was true of Garden Spells, too -- the same narrative structure, the same neat resolution of the various plot conflicts, the final scene set in the same garden -- but the first time, it was new. The second time, it feels like a pale reflection of the first book, not as engaging, not as compelling, a pretty picture devoid of substance.

 

Fans of Garden Spells will be entertained, but First Frost doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Cheesy, Campy Catnip!!!

The Pirate's Secret Baby - Darlene Marshall

This is the second time one of Darlene Marshall's pirate-themed historicals have languished in my TBR, untouched, for such a long time, and when I finally get around to reading it, I've thought, "This is awesome! Why did I wait so long?!" Don't be fooled by the campy titles and cheezy covers: these books are really good. Yes, they're campy -- by design. Darlene Marshall knows and exploits all of the tropes of her genre -- this story has a secret baby (now a winsome eight-year-old plot moppet), a straight-laced plain jane governess, a cocksure pirate captain who is secretly an English lord -- but while you've probably read all this before, you've never read it the way Marshall does it: frothy and fun, yes, but also smart and surprising and very, very well-written.

 

If, like me, you have one or two of these books buried in your TBR, languishing because you can't remember what you were thinking when you added something so cheesy to your cart, do yourself a favor and give it a try. You won't be sorry.

Office Romance Phones it In...

Her Favorite Rival - Sarah Mayberry

I really liked the companion novella to this book, Her Favorite Temptation, but Her Favorite Rival was just "meh." Audrey and Zach are colleagues in a big corporation that has something to do with selling hardware. When the company brings in a scary new CEO known for cutting jobs, Audrey and Zach know their jobs are on the line. It's the worst possible time to dip one's pen in the company ink, and yet their growing mutual attraction becomes ever more impossible to ignore.

 

I found this plot very slow moving. I understood why Audrey and Zach would be reluctant to get together; I just found it very hard to care. Personally, I could never thrive in a corporate environment, and I have no interest in climbing corporate ladders, so I really struggled to get into a story set in that world with people whose motivations are so different from my own.

 

(Not sure what's up with the blank cover. There's a sort of soft-focusy brunette couple smiling at each other in bed on the cover of mine.)

Most Overrated Children's Author: Eric Carle

The Very Quiet Cricket - Eric Carle Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? - Bill Martin Jr., Eric Carle The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me (The World of Eric Carle) - Eric Carle The Tiny Seed - Eric Carle By Eric Carle Little Cloud - Eric Carle

I have a theory: all the socks that disappear in the dryer magically reappear, through some mystical household alchemy, as Eric Carle board books. It's the only explanation for why my kids have so many of them, because Lord knows would never buy a single one of these books, much less the dozen or so that populate my sons' bookcase. 

 

Until I became a mom, I didn't have any opinion of Eric Carle. I'd read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and had seen the Caterpillar-related marketing (stuffed animals and the like) at book stores and toy stores, and maybe thought "oh how sweet" if I thought much of anything at all. 

 

Now, though? Now that I have read The Very Boring Quiet Cricket to my baby again and again (not nearly as entertained as baby is by the "surprise" ending), and suffered through the insufferably bratty and entitled protagonist of Papa please get the moon for me, and gritted my teeth through countless rehashing of The Tiny Seed's and Little Cloud's metamorphoses, I have a very strong, very visceral opinion about Eric Carle. Even the formerly-innocuous Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear set my teeth on edge. The pictures are okay, but the text is so interminably boring. 

 

Other parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, big siblings, baby sitters: am I alone in this? Or, if you don't share my hatred of Eric Carle, who would you nominate for "Most Overrated Children's Author"? 

 

 

DNF at 28%

Whatever You Like - Maureen Smith

I picked this up because I was intrigued by the recent review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, because I have a weakness for the escort/courtesan/prostitute as protagonist trope, and because it was on sale. After starting it, I was briefly even more intrigued to learn the protagonists are African American (which you'd never know from the pasty pale headless couple on the book cover).

 

Alas, even with all that intrigue, this was not for me. On their first date, Lena lays the ground rules: she is paid for companionship, not sex. Roderick ignores this, corners her in an alcove, fondles her, and then has dubiously-consensual sex with her in the limo while bringing her home.

 

She says that was a mistake and she doesn't want to see him again. Two weeks later, he shows up at her day job (not the escort job that the day job supervisors obviously don't know about, and by this point the reader knows she works two jobs because she's supporting an elderly grandparent and her layabout little sister, as well as herself) having already ingratiated himself with her boss. He takes her to lunch, and basically tells her he'll give her employer (not even her personally!) a half million dollars if she agrees to be his sex slave for for three weeks. If she says no, no deal, and what is she supposed to tell her boss?

 

I don't know what Lena did when faced with this dilemma (though I can guess), because that was where I call foul.

 

Whatever You Like buys into the fallacy famously presented by Fifty Shades and its ilk that stalking and sexual coercion is okay, sexy even, if the man doing it is a handsome billionaire. There's a meme making the social media rounds:

I work with domestic and sexual violence victims, and this kind of behavior is not sexy no matter who does it, and life is too short to read this crap for "entertainment."

 

 

Fans of Blue Collar Romance, Take Note!

Animal Magnetism - Jill Shalvis

I really enjoyed this first book in Jill Shalvis' Animal Magnetism series. Like her better known Lucky Harbor series, these are small town contemporary romances full of appealing characters, snappy dialogue, fast-paced plots. Animal Magnetism is set in Sunshine, Idaho, which is a less touristy, white-picket-fency kind of place than Lucky Harbor, Washington (a good change, in my opinion).

 

Lilah runs an animal kennel and shelter. She's alone in the world after the death of the grandmother that raised her, but she has very good friends, including her ex-boyfriend and business partner, Cruz, and Adam and Dell, the veterinarians who run the animal center next door. Adam and Dell are brothers who invite Brady, who was their foster brother when they were teens, back to town to help them fix up an old helicopter which they intend to use for search and rescue calls and veterinary visits to Idaho's remote mountain ranches.

 

Brady and Lilah have instant, and believable, chemistry, but for the first part of the book they're at cross purposes because Brady doesn't plan to stick around once the helicopter is ready, and even though Lilah says she knows that and is only looking for a fling, he sees her life in the house where she grew up, working in the town where she grew up, still good friends with her few exes, and thinks that whatever she may say, nothing about Lilah is temporary. Plus, there's the fact that Adam and Dell consider Lilah an honorary little sister, and much as they love Brady, they don't take kindly to the idea that he'd mess around with her.

 

As time goes on, however, Brady comes to find that maybe putting down roots and making a home somewhere is not such a bad idea. It's not only his growing feelings for Lilah that change his mind, but also his brotherly affection for Dell and Adam, his respect for their business and the fact that there's a place for him in it. Also, he takes in a stray dog, an arrangement that was also supposed to be temporary, but soon comes to realize he doesn't want to give the puppy up. From there, it's only a short leap to realize he doesn't want to give Lilah and his foster brothers up, either, which paves the way for Happily Ever After.

 

I love blue collar heroes and heroines, and books that handle class issues in a way that is believable and empathetic without exploiting a character's poverty for tragic effect, and I really enjoyed that aspect of this book. Lilah, Dell, Brady, and Adam all grew up poor, and Lilah still struggles every month to juggle her bills and keep her house in reasonably good repair, but that's just a fact of life. It's not a source of sympathy or plot conflict, and there's no billionaire here to bail her out. Instead, she's using her smarts and her own hard work to build a successful business, with the help of friends, and maybe she'll succeed and maybe she won't -- and that, too, is just a fact of life.

Cinderella Story Triggered My Infidelity Squick

A Kiss at Midnight - Eloisa James

This is a retelling of the Cinderella story, and is on sale for $2.99 (kindle), so I picked it up. I'm always entertained by fairy-tale trope romances, so I'm glad I read this, but it wasn't enough to get me out of my historical romance slump.

 

Kate is the granddaughter of an Earl, but when her mother died, her father waited a whole fortnight before marrying again, and then he promptly died himself. His widow, the wicked stepmother, had relegated Kate to a glorified servant while heaping all of the wealth on herself and her daughter, the (not-so) evil stepsister, and allowing the estate to be badly mismanaged. When the stepsister suffers an accident, the stepmother forces Kate to impersonate her (the sister) by going to meet a prince whose approval is necessary for the stepsister's marriage to her beloved.

 

Kate meets the Prince, who is awaiting the arrival of his betrothed, a Russian princess whose dowry will fund his lavish lifestyle and, more importantly, his scholarly pursuits. He and Kate clash initially, but this is one of those books that employs what Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books likes to call the "I don't wanna like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair DAMMIT" trope. Tempers clash, sparks fly.

 

My problem with the book is that much as I love angsty romance where there's some good, nearly insurmountable reason why the lovers can't be together, I'm majorly squicked out in historical romance when heroes seduce a lady to whom they're not able to commit. Contemporary girls can sleep around all they like, and that's fine with me, but in a historical setting, it's just dishonorable to risk a woman's reputation that way. So, much as I enjoyed the chemistry and the bantering between Kate and Gabriel, I couldn't root for them to get together because Gabriel was promised to a perfectly nice girl who'd come all the way to England to marry him and give him all her money, and it's just wrong of Gabriel to be sniffing around Kate's skirts in those circumstances.

 

I couldn't get over that squick enough to enjoy the story, but a lot of readers will find much to love about this book.

 

Not My Kink, Not My Cuppa

Looking for Trouble - Victoria Dahl

Victoria Dahl has written several contemporaries that I've really enjoyed, but generally I think her books try too hard to be sexy and edgy when it doesn't really fit with the plot. I'd probably have rated this at least another star if the sex scenes hadn't turned me off.

 

Sophie and Alex are complete opposites. She's a good girl librarian, he's a bad boy biker. She takes care of people -- her dad, her brother, her friends -- and he runs from responsibility. She's never left Wyoming; he left and never came home again. They have only two things in common: insane sexual chemistry, and a shared childhood tragedy that happened with Alex's dad disappeared with Sophie's mother.

 

Sophie has grown up in the shadow of this mystery, dealing not only with her mother's abandonment, but the silent (and not so silent) judgment of the townspeople, who she feels are just waiting for her to show her true colors and turn out to be just as much a fallen woman as her mother. Consequently, she keeps her sex life very much on the down low.

 

Alex returns to town for the first time in ages at the urging of his brother, who needs help taking care of their mentally ill mother. He's home only reluctantly, and his presence becomes only slightly less grudging when he and Sophie discover the aforementioned sexual chemistry. 

 

I really like small town contemporaries (since I live in a small town myself), and I liked how this book understood how gossip really never dies in a small town and how judgey people can be. I liked the idea of Sophie and Alex sharing almost nothing except this twenty-year-old mystery. I liked Sophie's appetite for and liberated approach to sex, even as I understood why she felt the need to keep it quiet.

 

I didn't like Alex, and I didn't like the sex scenes. Alex has several opportunities to do the right thing -- help his mom, help his brother, stick up for Sophie -- and over and over again, he doesn't. He doesn't get a clue until the very end of the story, by which point I'd given up on him.

 

I didn't like the sex because I don't have a humiliation kink. I get that some people maybe like being called a slut and a whore during sex. I'm not one of them. I love a heroine who can enjoy sex, but those labels just turn me right the hell off.

 

Hmm, How Many Tropes Can We Fit in One Crazy-Sauce Romp?

I Married the Duke - Katharine Ashe

I really need to get better about writing reviews as soon as I finish a book, but I've been crazy busy lately. If I wait, I'm left with only vague impressions, no matter how many quotes I highlight or notes I make as I read.

 

I Married the Duke was my first book by Katherine Ashe, and I will read on in the series because I liked this fairly well even though I've been kind of "meh" on the whole historical romance subgenre lately. I also liked it despite the fact that the hero was actively misrepresenting his identity to the heroine for the first half of the book, and since dishonesty is a major turn off for me, the fact that I like this as well as I did speaks well of Ms. Ashe's skill as a writer.

 

The funniest thing about this book is that it hits so many of the tropes of historical romance, it's almost as if someone dared Katharine Ashe to write a book with as many stereotypical tropes as she could manage. Gypsy fortuneteller? Check. Penniless orphans? Check. Scarred hero? Check. Love affair between a lord and a governess? Yup. Mistaken identity? Marriage of Convenience? Big Misunderstanding? Sudden Blindness? Check, check, check, and check.

 

The plot was very, very complicated. I was able to follow it, but I think a lot of the layers and plot twists were only necessary to continue the hero's deception about his identity, which (as I've said) I could have done without.

 

Anabella is the middle child in a trio of sisters orphaned as children. They know very little of their past, except that it involved a shipwreck, and they have a very expensive ruby ring which a gypsy told them holds the key to learning their roots. That same gypsy foretold that one of the sisters would marry a prince, so Anabella has made that her life's ambition.

 

Fast forward a few decades; the girls have grown up and are in service. Anabella is on her way to France to be a finishing governess for a princess; she hopes to meet and marry the princess's brother, the prince, to fulfill the prophecy. Unfortunately, through a series of unfortunate events, she misses the ship that is supposed to take her to France and ends up hitching a ride with the hero, Luc, instead. Luc is a former naval captain with a Tortured Past who retired because he's in line to become a Duke when his uncle passes on, and he can't risk being killed in action (though he's still sailing, obviously).

 

During the story, Luc's uncle dies, but Luc's ascendency to the title is uncertain because the uncle's wife is preggers, and if she has a boy, the child will inherit. The wife is the sister of the story's bad guy, a priest who molested Luc and his brother when they were kids.

 

When Luc takes Anabella to France, he doesn't tell her who he is, even though her destination is (through one of the crazy coincidences that would never work outside of Romancelandia) a castle he owns, and the home of his brother.

 

During their journey, Luc finds himself in Mortal Peril and marries Anabella because he might be a Duke and she might be carrying his heir... and, oh, yeah, also because he might possibly be in love with her just a little bit. Then he dies, but not really, and Anabella is heartbroken, but maybe she'll get to marry the prince after all, so there's always a bright side. 

 

Yeah, this is the sort of crazy sauce plot you can't really explain... but I liked it anyway. I Married a Duke hits enough familiar tropes that most readers of historical romance will find something about it appealing -- catnippy, if you will -- but it can come across as chaotic and crazy, which isn't to everyone's taste.

Funny, Frothy, Soapy, Satisfying

Say Yes to the Marquess - Tessa Dare

I've been in a slump when it comes to historical romance lately, so I was pleased enough to like this, even if it didn't knock my socks off. Say Yes to the Marquess is a solid effort by Tessa Dare, significantly better than Romancing the Duke (the first book in the Castles Ever After series). Clio Whitmore has spent eight years waiting for her betrothed, Piers Brandon, the Marquess of Something, to return from helling around on the continent and make an honest woman of her. Their marriage has been delayed so long that Clio has become a laughing stock within the ton, earning the nickname "Miss Wait-More." Speculation runs rampant that Piers no longer desires the union, and the truth is that Clio herself has had second thoughts.

 

Eight years of training to be the perfect wife to a lord has given Clio the skills to be independent, and when she inherits a castle, she has the means as well. She visits Piers' brother Rafe, the Marquess' agent in England during his absence, in hopes that Rafe will sign paperwork to dissolve the betrothal. Although Rafe has desired Clio since childhood and would personally love for her to be a free woman, his loyalty to his brother prevents him from signing the papers and stealing his brother's bride. He is already wracked with guilt over the death of their father, who never approved of Rafe and his rebellious ways (most notably boxing, which at that time was not only disreputable but actually illegal). Rafe doesn't intend to be responsible for the loss of Piers' bride as well, so he sets off to Clio's castle to try to plan the perfect wedding, thinking that if he tempts her with all the luxuries of a society wedding, she'll be so caught up in the fantasy that she'll forget her desire to cancel the betrothal.

 

The best part of this story is how funny it is: Clio and Rafe have terrific chemistry, witty banter, and Rafe's trainer, Bruiser, is posing as a posh wedding planner to great comic effect. There is a scene involving tasting wedding cakes which is laugh out loud funny. Balanced with the humor is just the right amount of angst: Clio and Rafe have in common the fact that they've been rejected by those who should have loved them best -- Clio by her mother (and her would-be husband), Rafe by his father. Additionally, the tension between Rafe's sincere loyalty to his absent brother and his increasingly-inescapable attraction to Clio provides a satisfying and believable emotional conflict.

 

The parts of this book that annoyed me were actually supposed to: Clio's sister, in the guise of helping her have the perfect wedding day, fat-shames Clio relentlessly. Clio stood up for herself (and Rafe as well), and the sister got an appropriately satisfying set-down, but still these scenes set my teeth on edge. I found the conclusion a little too convenient, but not so much so that I couldn't willingly suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.

Ignore the cover and the blurb; this book is better than that.

The Party Girl - Tamara Morgan

This is a pretty good book with a truly dreadful cover and an even worse blurb. I took a chance on it anyway because I really loved the second book in this series, The Derby Girl, though I hated the first, The Rebound Girl. I bought The Party Girl figuring it was a crapshoot, and I ended up getting lucky. I didn't love this book, but I liked it quite a bit. (Each book stands alone: if you want to learn from my mistakes, you can totally skip the toxic heroine in The Rebound Girl and not miss anything important.) 

 

Kendra is not the sort of heroine I usually connect with. She's an aesthetician at an upscale spa, and her obsession with beauty is anathema to me. (I'm a low maintenance girl. I've never had a manicure. Twice, people have given me gift certificates for a massage, and I let both coupons expire unused. I rarely wear makeup and I get my hair cut two or three times a year.) The only part of her character that I could relate to is Kendra's tendency to organize everything around her. She's the person who dots the i's and crosses the t's at the spa. She's the one her youngest sister comes to when a relationship goes sour. She's the girl her ex comes to when he's been stabbed in a bar fight. Kendra is calm, cool, and totally collected, in any situation. 

 

Noah is a backwoodsman who dropped out of society after his ex-girlfriend cheated him--and a lot of other people--out of a lot of money. He quit his job and moved off the grid, in to a no-frills cabin where he milks his own goat, raises his own chickens, grows his own vegetables, hunts or fishes for his own meat, showers with solar-heated rainwater, and builds his own furniture. The only thing he and Kendra have in common is Lincoln, Kendra's ex who got stabbed in the bar fight. Well, Lincoln and a raging case of Hornypants for one another, that is.  

 

I liked that Kendra and Noah were both strong willed characters who know their own minds and aren't willing to change to please a lover. I liked the honesty and humor of their conversations. I liked that the conflict between them was not one I'd encountered in romance novels before, especially in a contemporary setting, where authentic conflict can be hard to come by. I liked that even though Kendra makes no sense to me as a person--her values and priorities are so different from mine--I was able to like and root for her anyway. 

 

This is a slow burn book by design, but even so, I thought the pacing could have been tighter. I didn't mind that it took Noah and Kendra a long time to get together, and I thought the buildup was fairly well done, but then there was a significant stretch in the middle where they were together but there was all this other stuff going on, and the plot seemed to drag a bit. 

 

Mostly, I liked how different this book was from anything else I'd read. And in light of that, maybe it makes sense that the cover and blurb are so bad -- perhaps Carina Press is just trying too hard to find a marketing niche for a book that doesn't fall easily into any established category. 

 

Refreshingly Authentic Twist to the Billionaire Trope

Trade Me -  Courtney Milan

Like so many other people, I love love love Courtney Milan and her historical romance (even as my patience with historicals has waned in the past year), and so when I heard she was writing a contemporary New Adult with, of all things, a billionaire hero, I gave Trade Me the Skeptical Side Eye even as I added it to my preorder auto buy queue. Billionaire? Really? Why would a woman as awesome as Milan -- she clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before giving up the law to write romance, which makes her pretty much my idol -- want to jump on that tired bandwagon? 

 

But Trade Me isn't your typical billionaire trope story, in which the billionaire lives a fantasy life and the heroine is a tragic Cinderella figure. Courtney Milan doesn't use class as a plot device: she really gets it. Tina Chen, the heroine, knows a million ways to cook rice (because she can't afford much else), and she knows that if she goes out with pizza and beer with friends instead of sending that $30 home this week, her little sister won't get her ADHD medicine. Tina works harder than everyone else, juggling a challenging double major (chemistry and computer science), an almost full-time job, and a long commute (because she can't afford to live near school), but she's no Cinderella. She loves her family and they love her, and she toils to serve her own ambitions rather than anyone else's. 

 

Blake Reynolds, the hero, is the son and heir apparent of the founder and CEO of a company that looks a lot like Apple. He's a billionaire (1.4 billion, to be precise, though true precision is impossible due to moment-by-moment stock fluctuations), but not in the impress-girls-by-taking-them-to-Napa-in-my-private-jet sense. Blake has a problems. One particular "problem" -- mild spoiler

(he has an eating/exercise disorder)

(show spoiler)

-- I had not encountered in a romance hero before, and I thought that aspect of the story was both original and skillfully told (though the resolution was a little too tidy). 

 

When you learn in the early chapters that the story, and the title, stems from Blake's scheme to trade places with Tina to avoid some of the stress in his life, you expect that Milan will play the poor-billionaire,-you-don't-know-the-meaning-of-'stress' card for laughs, but Trade Me subverts expectations at every turn. Very little of the book is actually devoted to Blake figuring out how to adjust to Tina's financial straits, nor to Tina reveling in the luxuries of Blake's lavish lifestyle. Though each learns valuable lessons about "how the other half lives", throughout their experiment both Tina and Blake remain true to themselves, both smart, sensitive, caring people paralyzed by their own fears. 

 

There was much of this story that I loved, starting with Milan's unflinchingly honest handling of class issues that we so often ignore in society. I loved Blake, who is all that I love about beta heroes without being stereotypical at all. I loved Tina's and Blake's parents, who are not just stock characters here but fully drawn, complicated, messy, interesting, funny, maddening people who love their children (the feeling's mutual) even as they are partly to blame for the fears that hold Tina and Blake back. I loved Maria, Tina's best friend and roommate, who is frank, honest, funny, and strong. I loved that transgendered is only one of many facets of Maria's identity (just as the fact that Tina is Chinese is only one of many facets of her identity), and I really, really love the news that Maria will get her own book by the end of the year (where do I sign up?). 

 

I didn't love everything, though. Throughout the book, I was bothered that Tina and Blake didn't ring true as college students. I know their above-average intelligence and life experiences would give both maturity beyond their years, but even so, they come across as thirty-somethings who just happen to be in college. I also didn't love the ending of the book, which was chaotic and fast and full of melodrama. Everything that happened fit with the plot, so it wasn't like the end came out of nowhere, but it was a shift in tone and pacing that I found disconcerting. 

 

This is not the best Courtney Milan I've ever read, but it's still very, very good. And if you're worried about the Billionaire Trope, like I was, don't be: one of the very best things about Trade Me is that Milan takes that ridiculous, overdone plot device and recasts it into something that is simultaneously entirely unique and refreshingly authentic. 

Reading progress update: I've listened 55 out of 801 minutes.

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1) - Patrick O'Brian, Patrick Tull

I picked this up as part of Audible's 2-for-1-credit sale a few weeks ago. I'm such a sucker for Tall Ships!