138 Following

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. 

Typical NA Taming-of-the-Manwhore Sports Romance

Roommates - Erin Leigh, Tara Brown

Brady and Natalie get set up by mutual friends to be roommates; each misled about the other's gender. Brady is a hockey player; Natalie is a graphic designer. Both are Gary Stu/Mary Sues: the best at everything they attempt, despite their total lack of experience at adulting. Brady starts off the story as a manwhore douchecanoe, spared from being a totally misogynistic cardboard character only because he loves his mama, knows how to cook, and is a graceful loser when Natalie kicks his ass at video games. Then he gets into Natalie's magical hoo-hoo, and suddenly he's a One Woman Man.


What saves this book, and actually makes it a fairly entertaining read (for what it is), is that the author knows she's relying on some timeworn, tired tropes, and lets herself have a little fun with them. This book doesn't take itself seriously, and the writing and dialogue is fast-moving, snappy, and funny.

Too Much Melodrama

Knowing the Score - Kat Latham

I like what I've read so far of this series, and Latham's writing style is snappy and entertaining, but I struggled with this book because the main characters' tragic backstories, especially the heroine's, were just too tragic. I struggled to willingly suspend my disbelief with respect to both characters -- not that these bad things could happen to happen to them, but that they would shape the characters the way they did.


Caitlyn, the heroine, is a 27-year-old virgin. The first two-thirds of the book, the conflict is about why she's untouched, and whether she's going to lose her cherry with the hero. When they finally do the deed, it's sudden and anti-climactic. (Which, to be fair, is actually pretty true to real life, now that I think about it...) From there, the plot devolves into accidental pregnancies and miscommunications, only to be all tied up with a cliche epilogue.

Infodumps All Over

Carry On - Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell's stellar writing makes her books auto-buys for me, though her stories often leave me unsatisfied or disappointed in some way. This is the worst of the lot so far, and honestly, I probably should have known better. I read Fangirl (and enjoyed it, except I was disappointed by the too-hasty ending), but I remember being a little bored by the excerpts from the Simon Snow fan fiction (Simon Snow is a British orphan who gets admitted to a boarding school for magic kids when he's 11. Sound familiar?) that the protagonist in Fangirl, Cath, wrote so feverishly. 


Carry On is Rainbow Rowell's attempt to give Simon and his roommate, Baz, the story they didn't get in Fangirl, having been only a subplot in that book. One needn't read Fangirl first; frankly, having read Fangirl didn't keep me from feeling lost here. The main problem with Carry On is that it's like very like the Harry Potter series, but only the final book. Like Harry Potter, the premise is that Simon and friends have been at school for years, having adventures and quests each year, but rather than writing all of these stories, Rowell only writes the last year, and all of the backstory, all of the character development, all of the buildup to the final confrontation, is summarized in clunky infodumps throughout the narrative. It doesn't work. I didn't know the characters well enough to root for them or care about them, and the main characters, especially Baz and Angela, I flat-out didn't like. 


As for the romance

between Baz and Simon

(show spoiler)

, I wasn't feeling it. It's not the gay aspect (I'm bisexual, married to a woman, so generally I'm thrilled that teen literature deals more openly with GLBT themes and issues than when I was a kid); it's that I didn't feel invested in the characters, and their romance came on so suddenly and with so little introspection or development, it just didn't resonate with me. 

Refreshingly Authentic Portrayal of Bisexuality

Him - Elle Kennedy, Sarina Bowen

Generally, m/m, sports romances, and new adult are not not my cuppa. However, I picked this up because 1) I really enjoy (Windsor County, VT's own) Sarina Bowen, and 2) it's free on Kindle Unlimited right now. I am so glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book, and particularly, I loved how Jamie's revelations about his bisexuality were handled.


PLOT SUMMARY: As teenagers, Wes and Jamie were best friends and roommates at a summer camp for elite hockey players. Their last summer as campers, though, Wes challenged Jamie to a shootout. The stakes? A blowjob. Wes, just coming to terms with his own sexuality, lost on purpose, but settling the bet made him writhe with guilt at manipulating -- and molesting (as Wes sees it)-- his best friend, so he never spoke to Jamie again. Fast forward four years, and Jamie and Wes have both graduated from college and are on the cusp of joining NHL teams, when they meet up again for one summer as coaches at the camp where they met.


One of the reasons I don't read much m/m is that so many authors would have written Jamie's role as gay-for-you instead of acknowledging the concept of bisexuality. As a bisexual woman, it's all too easy to feel invisible: we just aren't represented very often in books or movies or TV, and often what rare representations of bisexuality exist don't ring true to my own experience. Jamie's attraction to Wes, their initial sexual encounters, and his eventual evolution into mature, committed love, was very authentic and actually mirrored my own coming out process. At one point Jamie narrates:

Wes heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and I watch him go. I even catch myself admiring his ass. Lately I find myself sneaking looks at him, trying to raise some kind of holy shit reaction to the idea that I'm involved with a guy.

I highlighted this passage because it was so reminiscent of my own experience, when I fell in love with my childhood best female friend my senior year in college. I kept thinking to myself: This is weird. This should be weird. Shouldn't this feel more weird? But it didn't. It wasn't. It felt right , and my internal anxiety was more about how it should have felt more strange and alarming than it actually did. (That friend and I have now been married for fourteen years, and we're raising two sons together.)


There were a couple of scenes where Jamie and Wes could have moved past conflict more quickly with more honest communication, but those difficult, adult conversations always happened; they were sometimes just delayed more than I'd have liked. On the whole, I found both characters very relatable and insightful, and the evolution of their romance was extremely emotionally satisfying.

Late to the Party, as Usual...

I've been monstrously busy for the past month, so I'm super late with this, but here goes:


Are you named after anyone?


No. I was supposed to be named for my grandmother, Carolyn. She knew that if my mother had a girl, it would be named for her, so when I was born, Grammy got on the horn and started bragging to all her friends and relations about her new firstborn grandbaby and namesake. Then the next day, just before being discharged from the hospital, they brought my mother the birth certificate to proofread, and she said, "You know, she doesn't look like a Carolyn," and she changed my name to Heidi. My Grammy was not thrilled.


"Hart" is my great-grandmother's maiden name, and my middle name, but that great-grand was from a different branch of the family tree so that didn't help unruffle Grammy's feathers.


When was the last time you cried?


I don't specifically remember, but that's because it happens often enough not to be noteworthy, and not because it was all that long ago. It was especially bad when I was pregnant. I had to stop listened to country radio, because every other song would make me bawl.


Do you have kids? 


Two boys, 4 and 2. They are endlessly entertaining, challenging, and surprising. They have their moments of beastliness, as all kids do, but mostly I'm amazed that a curmudgeon like me wound up with two such goodnatured little men. Being their mom has taught me a lot about how to be myself.


If you were another person, would you be a friend of yourself?


Yes, though Friend-me would be frustrated that I am so busy I never have time to get together.


Do you use sarcasm a lot?


I use sarcasm in moderation. Too much, and it just makes you seem bitter.


Will you ever bungee-jump?


Aw, hell no! I have a healthy sense of self-preservation, especially now that I have a family of my own. A momentary thrill just isn't worth all that I would lose if something went wrong.


What’s your favorite cereal?


I am not a cereal person, but in the winter I enjoy Bob's Red Mill Mighty Tasty Gluten Free Hot Cereal, with butter and milk and maple syrup. And I do enjoy the occasional rice crispy treat, but traditional cold cereal with milk? Ugh, no.


What’s the first thing you notice about people?


I don't know how to describe it, but I think my initial focus upon meeting someone new is to get a sense of whether they are genuine and trustworthy. I don't trust people who talk without listening, or who seem to need to be the center of attention.


What is your eye colour?


Depends on the day, my mood, and what I'm wearing. My license says brown, but they're mostly only brown at first glance. If you look closely, they're brown around the edges and gold/amber closer to the pupils. Sometimes they look amber. Makes me sound like a teenage vampire, doesn't it? I promise, I don't sparkle.


Scary movie or happy endings?


Happy endings, definitely. I don't like scary movies, never have. I don't like the feeling of suspense. When I read mysteries, I usually read the first chapter, then the last chapter, then go back and read the middle, so that I can enjoy the story without that sick feeling of wondering whodoneit and will it turn out okay?


Favorite smells?


Many. Gardenia. Fresh cut grass. Thieves oil. Vanilla. Clean babies. My wife's shampoo.


Summer or winter?


Summer, though I live in Vermont where the winters are six or seven months long. My absolute favorite season is spring, because it's such a relief after such a long, cold winter.


Computer or television?


Computer. I haven't owned a TV in ten years, and I don't miss it -- except during the Olympics.


What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?


California. I've been to most of the continental US, and to Canada, but otherwise I am not widely traveled. Maybe someday, but right now I can't imagine having the time and money to go abroad.


Do you have any special talents?


You know that trick Molly Ringwald does with her lipstick in The Breakfast Club? Yeah, I can totally do that.


But, I'd say my most valuable talents (though they aren't very sexy) are my gifts for organization and problem solving.


Where were you born?


Hanover, New Hampshire. I was baptized in the church directly next door to the house in which I currently live, but I've lived in 4 states and moved 15 times in the years between. I've sort of come full circle.


What are your hobbies?


Writing. Reading. Gardening. Hiking/walking. Playing with my kids.Cooking if I'm inspired, but if not, cooking is just drudgery.


Do you have any pets?


A 12-year-old cat, Willow, and a 1-year-old chihuahua mix, Lolly. They don't get along. When our boys are older, we plan to get chickens and maybe a goat or two, but for now we have enough small critters to take care of (boys included).


Favorite movie?


I hate questions like this, because I have a lot of favorite movies but can never settle on the best. Today's answer is Shawshank Redemption. Ask me tomorrow and I'd tell you something different.


Do you have any siblings?


I am the oldest of three. I have a sister who is 4 years younger, and a brother who is 4 years younger than that.


What do you want to be when you grow up?


I am a grown up, or so they tell me. When I get to the end of my life, if I can look back and know that I've been a positive force in my community, and that I've given my kids the skills and tools (and hopefully some measure of financial security) that they can also be positive, independent, contributing members of society, I think I will count my life a success. 


Reading progress update: I've read 134 out of 439 pages.

The Duke's Disaster - Grace Burrowes

I'm really enjoying this so far, which is such a relief because my last several reads have been stinkers! I like that this is not so much about romance leading up to marriage (as most Regency-era-To-Catch-a-Duke stories seem to be), but rather about developing emotional and physical intimacy after marriage, in order to make a success of a marriage that didn't get off to the best start. The scenes between the hero and heroine are refreshingly cozy, without the hustle and bustle of balls and teas and see-and-be-seen rides in the park. 


The conflict stems from a couple of miscommunications, which is usually a trope that doesn't work for me. (Why have an honest conversation when we can wring 100 pages of melodramatic plot out of wrong assumptions and blatant mistakes?) Here, while I still think it's boneheaded of the hero a) to leap to mistaken conclusions about his wife's premarital sexual experience and b) not correct her mistaken assumption about the paternity of two plot moppets in his care, I'm enjoying the sweetly intimate (not necessarily sexual) and sharply entertaining process of their learning how to rub along together in marital harmony enough to overlook the Big Miscommunications.


I hope the sweetness keeps up. I hate when I'm loving a book and then the ending goes south on me.

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me.

Overruled (The Legal Briefs Series) - Emma Chase

I have no one to blame for this but myself. I hated Emma Chase's Tangled (see my rage-review here), and so I just should have known that whatever Chase is selling, I don't want to buy. However, being a criminal lawyer myself, I'm kind of a sucker for romances involving prosecutors/defense attorneys (although, note to self, I rarely actually like these books as I find the legal plots rarely ring true), so I stupidly decided to check out this new series. Reading the blurb should have been all it took to warn me that this book would not be for me: Defense attorney Stanton Shaw takes his big city, Latina f*ckbuddy back home to Hicksville, Mississippi, to try to break up the wedding of his high school sweetheart.


As I should have expected, stereotypes abound.


Also as I should have anticipated (because Drew of Tangled was such a douchenozzle, and because the blurb basically tells us that Stanton brings his hoochie mama with him on a mission to win back his baby mama), the "hero" of Overruled was a total jackhole. What isn't clear from the blurb is that Jenny, the high school sweetheart, is not Stanton's ex -- he got her knocked up in high school, and they agreed that he would go to college and support his family, and that while they're apart they can have an "open" relationship. This has gone on for ten years, with Stanton catting around like a manwhore with anyone he likes, and paying only occasional booty calls on Jenny. This works fine for him, until Jenny falls in love with someone else, which Stanton gets all butthurt and betrayed about.


I didn't mind Jenny, but Sofia (the hoochie mama) was kind of a doormat. Like Stanton, she's supposed to be this brilliant lawyer, except that we never see her doing any actual lawyering. She spends the whole book talking about how she knows men because she's got three brothers, and she knows men don't like commitment or clingy women, so she's not going to make any demands on Stanton. That's all well and good, but have a little self-respect, please! No woman with any self-esteem or sanity would willingly accompany the guy they're sleeping with to help him win back someone else. Sofia keeps setting limits--I'll go with you, but no sex. Okay, once we get to Mississippi, no sex. Okay, absolutely no sex while we're staying with your parents--and then ignoring those limits, so she just came across as weak and ineffectual.


Stanton eventually sees the error of his ways and tries to make things right with both Jenny and Sofia, and readers who enjoy a good redemption story may be satisfied here. As for me, I solemnly vow: NO MORE EMMA CHASE FOR ME!

No. Just No.

Getting Out of Hand: Sapphire Falls book one - Erin Nicholas

This book has TONS of glowing reviews on Goodreads, and was recommended by readers of smartbitchestrashybooks.com, but wow, I just don't get it. I struggled to finish.


The first thing that irked me was the weird, casual sexism in almost every layer of the story. In the very first chapter, we learn that the hero, Mason, has been invited back to his home town -- along with 4 other men -- as a potential investor in a shopping plaza the mayor hopes to build. And, we soon learn, these five men have yet more in common: in addition to being successful and rich, they've all dated the mayor (or, in Mason's case, had a well-known crush on her in high school). Yes, the mayor is a woman, but she's the worst stereotype of a flaky, dizzy, shallow ex-cheerleader who does none of the actual work associated with leading the town. (The actual work falls to the heroine of the story, Adrianne, a nice girl who prefers to stay out of the limelight.)


Then, when Mason gets back to town and walks into the bar (the only place to get a meal after 8 pm), he finds an auction in progress, in which the men bid on dances with women (the money is supposed to go to raise money for this shopping plaza). Then the next night, Mason gets invited to a poker game with the guys, at which the women have cooked, cleaned, organized, and actually serve drinks and snacks at the game, but are not welcome to play.


And throughout the entire book, there are several examples where male friends and associates of Adrianne's (other than Mason, who as her lover might have some excuse) make casual comments about her physical assets, her breasts and legs and curves, and the narrative gives no suggestion that this is unusual or inappropriate or squicky, which IMO, it totally was.


Uh, no.


The second thing that bothered me is that the reader is constantly told that Mason is a genius who doesn't fit in with normal people and has always been a geek. In one of the early chapters, we're told that his IQ is 135. Um, what? I don't put a whole lot of stock in IQ anyway, but I happen to know my own IQ is slightly higher than 135, and I'd like to think I'm a fairly smart cookie, but I'm no genius. A quick internet search tells me that 140 is considered "high" IQ and 160 is "genius." Yes, I know this is a minor plot point, but it bugged me.


My third complaint is insta-love. Within forty-eight hours of knowing each other, after I think only three brief meetings, Adrianne and Mason were ready to declare their undying devotion to one another. Now, I'm enough of a romantic to accept the possibility of love at first sight, but if you're going to write a story about that, you have to make me believe it. The connection has to be intense, and based upon something more than physical attraction. It's not enough just to have the characters say that it's intense and goes beyond the physical. Also, and this is key, that rare and incredible bond has to be strong enough to resist the first conflict that comes up in the relationship.


Which brings me to my final complaint: the conflict in this story was manufactured, melodramatic, and could have easily been resolved through adult conversation. Here, when Mason's business partner shows up and tells Adrianne that his relationship with her is standing in the way of his big, important work saving Haiti, instead of saying, "Huh, let's talk to Mason about the problem and see what he wants to do about it, since he's a grown up and wicked smart and capable of making his own choices," Adrianne says, "Oh, okay. I'll break up with him in a humiliating public scene so that he'll be so upset he'll leave town and never talk to me again, and it'll hurt, 'cuz he's my One True Love, but it's what's best for Haiti, sooo...."


No. No no no no no. Just No.

Douchenozzle Hero Needed to Grovel MUCH Harder to Win Me Over

Room at the Inn - Ruthie Knox

Room at the Inn is a variation on Frank Capra's Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Ruthie Knox is one of my favorite authors, but I found this novella deeply unsatisfying. The hero's unbelievable self absorption pissed me off from the first chapter.

Carson's mother has died, and when his grieving father's health begins to deteriorate as well, Carson resentfully returns to his small hometown to take care of him...telling himself, and anyone who will listen, that he's not going to stick around once his dad is on his feet again. The reader's first impression of Carson is that he's an arrogant git who thinks his big, important, jet-setting career as an architect is more important than taking care of a grieving, ailing parent.

Things don't improve. Soon we learn that he didn't bother coming home for his mother's funeral, or indeed for the last two years of her life, though he knew she was dying. Then we learn that his college girlfriend gave his mother a fucking kidney to buy her another fifteen years to live, and took care of his parents and pretty much everyone in town, and Carson thanks her by ignoring her for long stretches of time while coming home every few years for booty calls. (Julie is perfectly lovely, but the fact that she puts up with this for 16 years makes her a total doormat.)

With a premise like that, I knew I was going to need an epic grovel to end all grovels from Carson. I mean, he needed to choke down the biggest steaming hot serving of humble pie EVER in the history of Romanceland in order to earn my forgiveness, and he didn't. His epiphany, when it comes, is uninspired, and his grand gesture isn't nearly grand enough to make up for nearly two decades of being a totally selfish bastard. Julie could have done better. I wish she knew that.

So Much to Love About Last Night

About Last Night - Ruthie Knox

This book was my introduction to Ruthie Knox, and it was a wake-up call to me about how fresh and exciting contemporary romance can be. I re-read it this weekend because I've been in a bit of a reading slump and I wanted a reliable pick-me-up, which About Last Night definitely is. Upon this second reading, I discovered it was every bit as good as I remembered.


Mary Catherine "Cath" Talerico is a Chicago native living in London, working as an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum putting together an exhibit on historical knitwear. She's made a lot of mistakes in life, and in order not to forget, she has tattooed reminders of four of her worst mistakes on her skin: a songbird, a lit match, a closed book, and a tangled labyrinth. She has a fifth tat, as well--a phoenix rising from the ashes--symbolizing Cath's determination to reinvent herself. 



In order to stay on the straight and narrow, New Cath lives by a lot of rules. She doesn't drink. She doesn't date. She works, she exercises, she pays her bills (barely). However, when she has to go on a blind date to secure access to a prize piece for the knitting exhibit (because Plot), a combination of maudlin Patsy Cline cover songs and unexpectedly potent mixed drinks make short work of Cath's "rules", and she wakes up in banker Neville "City" Chamberlain's bed with only a sketchy memory of how she got there.


Cath has seen Nev on the train to work and exercising in the park, and she thinks she has him all figured out--immaculate suits, polished shoes and briefcase, straight-razor shave--he's a banker whose neat and orderly life cannot possibly have room for a girl as messy and disorderly as Cath. -Except that Nev is not as straight-laced as he initially appears, and the two of them have an intense and immediate physical attraction that just won't play by Cath's rules.


There is so much that I love about this book: I love the premise, the tattoos on Cath's skin and the way it takes the whole book to unravel the history of each. I love both Cath and Neville's characters, how fully realized they are, how their jobs (especially Cath's) and routines are fully drawn and relevant to the story (rather than the more typical fare where people go to the office and do vaguely office-y things all day, just because a character's gotta work). I love their sexual chemistry, which crackles off the page but advances the plot and is exciting without being gratuitous. I love the dialogue, which is sharp and funny and exactly the right amount. I love that both Cath and Nev take care of their own needs rather than counting on the other to rescue them. I love the feels this book brings. All the feels.


That's not at all to say this book is perfect. As much as I understand how important Cath's rules are to her--(she doesn't want a relationship, so she'll come over to Nev's but won't let him cook her dinner; he can bring her a treat for the train, but she won't tell him what time she'll be at the station; she won't tell him where she lives or works)--they do seem kind of gimmicky and childish sometimes, and you kind of wonder why Nev would be so tolerant of her arbitrary and selfish restrictions. (Then you remember, oh, right, because Sex.)


The plot also takes a turn toward predictable disaster when Nev brings Cath home to meet his family under a plot-advancing (but credulity-challenging) ruse in which they're feigning marriage. This section of the book goes just exactly the way you'd expect it to, which is to say not well at all. (During these chapters, Cath wins over Nev's parents entirely too easily, too, but since that's a minor plot point it didn't bother me much.)


Some people are really bothered by the ending, in which Nev (who is an artist as well as a banker) incorporates the stories of Cath's tattoos into paintings which he publicly displays. I didn't mind it because it fits so well into the narrative frame of the story -- Cath's tattoos, and what they mean to her, and what they come to mean to Nev, are such a central theme -- but I understand that outside of fantasy, it might be kind of squicky to turn someone's private body art into paintings which you display publicly and without the subject's consent.


On the whole, though, I love this book so much, I recommend it to romance-skeptics all the time.

Deliciously Detailed, Plot-Driven Adventure

The Rebel Pirate - Donna Thorland

This series was recommended to me by a friend, and I picked up this book because the description was pure catnip for me--a historical romance set in Salem and Boston during the American Revolution, involving pirates (I'm a sucker for tall ships) and conflicted political loyalties, written by a Yale-educated New Englander--even though it was significantly spendier ($9.99 at Amazon today) than I usually tolerate for e-books. I did very much enjoy the story, and I'll definitely check out the rest of the series, but I think the price needs to come down considerably before I can feel good about recommending it to friends and followers who need to watch their budget. 


Set in Colonial Massachusetts in 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, The Rebel Pirate is an well-written, plot-driven adventure with rich historical detail and riveting suspense, and I found it a refreshing change of pace from everything else I've been reading lately. Sarah Ward's family is on the brink of penury, their fortunes riding on a dangerous mission to smuggle contraband and Spanish gold to a band of rebel patriots led by Sarah's ex-fiance, who jilted her when he discovered the Wards' financial straits. When Sarah's father's ship is caught and boarded by Captain Sparhawk of the British Navy, and her little brother on the verge of being pressed into service on Sparhawk's ship, desperation drives Sarah to takes Sparhawk hostage, but not before the cargo and the gold are lost. Having lost command of his ship, Sparhawk now faces court-marshall and worse if he returns to his commanding officer, Admiral Graves, in Boston; having lost the smuggled cargo, Sarah faces familial ruin and personal humiliation if she returns to Salem without the gold. Layers and layers of political intrigue, betrayal, and mounting suspense kept the story rocketing along, and I'd have gladly devoured the whole book in one sitting if the demands of work and kids and spouse and sleep had not intervened. 


My only complaint is that the romance, being action rather than character driven, fell a little flat for me. Sarah and Sparhawk were brought together by lust and circumstance, not emotion, and the subplot involving Sparhawk's father--

Sarah becomes engaged to an English Baron who turns out to be Sparhawk's long lost daddy

(show spoiler)

--I found kind of squicky. This is more an adventure story than a romance, though, and there's much to enjoy.  




Reading progress update: I've read 154 out of 416 pages.

The Rebel Pirate - Donna Thorland

I am loving this so far. I want to hide from my job and my kids and my life and just read, read, read!

Too Tangled in Guilt to Talk Things Through

Shooting for the Stars - Sarina Bowen

This third entry in Sarina Bowen's Gravity series is more a companion to book two, Falling from the Sky, than a sequel to it. Falling from the Sky was about champion snowboarder Hank Lazarus's recovery from a spinal injury that cost him the use of his legs, and his romance with his doctor, Hallie Anders. Shooting for the Stars tells the story of Hank's sister, Stella, and his best friend, Bear, who are sharing a post-coital hot tub when the call comes about Hank's fall. The timing could not be worse, and Stella's and Bear's guilt and grief for Hank get all tangled up in their guilt over their illicit one-night stand, and for most of the book, the two of them are too emotionally twisted up to talk to each other. The conflict is heartfelt and well written, but I didn't love this book because, as understandable as their separation is, I was frustrated (as I usually am) by plot conflict stemming from the protagonists' failure to talk to each other. Bear and Stella kept missing each other, even when they did try to talk, mostly because Bear can just be an emotionally stunted blockhead.


Still, it was a quick, entertaining read, and I liked it even if it's not my favorite Sarina Bowen to date.

Sex Positive and Oh So Satisfying: The Best Sarina Bowen So Far

The Shameless Hour (The Ivy Years Book 4) - Sarina Bowen

I'm kinda in love with this book. I devoured Sarina Bowen's Ivy Years series last November, and then her Gravity series in January, and I liked them all quite a bit, but I loved "The Shameless Hour." I loved the way it explores sexual politics and double standards and shame and purity and commitment and class divisions without being preachy or judgey, subtly enough that the message (while obvious) doesn't detract from the story, which is wonderful.


Rafe and Bella are both students at Connecticut's Harkness College (a fictional Ivy League institution modeled after Bowen's alma mater, Yale). They come from radically different backgrounds. Rafe is a Dominican-American who grew up in Washington Heights in NYC, working in the family restaurant. He is the only child of a teenage single mom, and he's been raised to know the consequences of getting a girl in trouble. Consequently, he's made it to his sophomore year in college without losing his virginity.


Bella is a senior at Harkness, student manager of the hockey team, and like Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, Bella considers sleeping with hockey players to be one of the perks of her position. She enjoys sex and makes no apologies for it. Like Rafe, she's also from NYC, but she's never even been to his neighborhood. She's the daughter of a real estate developer, and her family thinks nothing of buying whole tables at $1,000/plate fundraisers and vacationing in the Hamptons, and they're paying Bella's school fees even though they barely speak to her.


Bowen's books are told in alternating narratives from the two main characters, and at the start of the story, Rafe is preparing for the big night with his girlfriend, Alison, where by prearrangement, and after more than a year of dating, they've agreed to turn in their V-cards. The date doesn't go as Rafe plans, though, and he finds himself drowning his sorrows in champagne with Bella instead of with Alison. He is disappointed enough, and just drunk enough (though by no means sloppily so), to accept Bella's invitation to bed, but in the morning second thoughts consume him.


It's important to note (and it's one of the best things about this book) that while Rafe feels guilt and shame about the hook-up, he never blames or judges Bella for it. Later in the book, Bella tells him:


"You're just not comfortable with my sex life. You're shaming me."


"No!" he protested immediately. The anger in his eyes startled me. "I think you're amazing, and I've said so every chance I get. Don't put words in my mouth. I never said your way was wrong. It's just wrong for me."


Rafe's shame stems from the fact that he has standards for himself about commitment and respect and sex, and he has fallen short of them in a moment of personal weakness -- but he has no problem with the fact that others don't share his same code. He doesn't judge Bella or begrudge her experience, but he knows that they can't have a relationship because they wouldn't be playing by the same rules.


Overcome by his regrets, Rafe sneaks out of Bella's room after their hookup in the wee small hours. (He is in all other respects an extremely sensitive and upstanding guy, so such a dick move is out of character for him and understandable only because of his own personal torment. Also, much as I think this move was out of character for Rafe, it saves him from being a Gary Stu. He's really a darling hero: sensitive, funny, vulnerable, romantic, feminist, the kind of guy who even does his own mending and cleaning. He'd have been too good if not for this monumental mistake to humanize him.) Then, because of his embarrassment and tongue-tied-ness, Rafe compounds this initial mistake of leaving by avoiding Bella for the next few weeks. She understandably but mistakenly interprets his distance as judgement of her, and she keeps her distance as well.


They might never have spoken again, except then something very, very bad happens to Bella. It's a major plot point, so I don't want to spoil it, but I do want to warn that, while it's not rape, it's bad enough that it might be triggering for some readers. In the aftermath, Bella is scared and depressed, humiliated and shamed, and though they are only casually acquainted, Rafe happens to be the one to help pull her out of this dark place. (As he puts it, "You're not okay. And I'm the one who noticed.")


I really enjoyed that, while Rafe takes care of Bella in the aftermath, he doesn't rescue her. He takes some of the weight off her shoulders by bringing her a few meals and keeping her company, but he knows he can't fix this for her. He makes her go running -- but she does the work. He has her back, but she speaks up with her own voice. Her vengeance, when it comes, is sweet, and it is hers: Her plan, her execution, and her reward. (Sorry if this sounds vague--I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) 


Anyway, not only is this an entertaining and satisfying book with a strong romance, it's an important read that deals with weighty issues in a compelling, nuanced, and wonderfully sex-positive way, and I hope lots and lots of LOTS of people read it, because it's awesome.

Sex Detracted from Story

The Troublemaker Next Door - Marie Harte

I picked this up as a book deal earlier in the month, because I've been on the hunt for new-to-me contemporary authors for awhile. The Troublemaker Next Door started strong: I appreciated the snappy dialogue and the humorous narrative, and the characters were engaging and likeable if not entirely original. At first I enjoyed how sex-positive the main couple, Flynn and Maddie, were -- exploring their sexual limits in a way that initially felt natural and exciting. But then there was so much, very explicit sex, and toward the end of the book they seemed to be pushing their sexual boundaries in the desperate way that people who have been in a stale marriage for YEARS start to experiment (as if a pinch of BDSM can save a sinking relationship), which felt off because Flynn's and Maddie's relationship is fresh and new and they just shouldn't have to try that hard. Frankly, the sex became distracting, and the plot stopped holding my interest. I finished the book, but I skimmed the last quarter of it, and I'm not sure I'll read on in the series.

A New Favorite Bedtime Story

Shh! We Have a Plan - Chris Haughton

This gorgeously illustrated little gem was an instant hit with my boys, who are 4 and 2. It's about four creatures who go out into the woods trying to catch a bird with hand nets, and their adventures and misadventures as their attempts go awry. The text is simple and repetitive enough that after one reading, my four year old can "read" it to himself, and moms and dads will appreciate the story's subtle humor.