The Wedding Party (CBR11 #40)

Sometimes I just don’t want to write a review, but I feel the need to do it anyway, just to purge the book from my system and make room for the next. It usually happens with the mediocre books, the ones where you think “well, that was fine I suppose”. That is exactly how I feel about Jasmine Guillory’s third book The Wedding Party. It was decidedly fine.

When I read The Wedding Date last year I noted that her debut showed the possibilities of her handle on craft – that the writing was there, but that there were some hiccups, specifically an over-reliance on certain phrases. I had hoped it was something that she would grow out of as she continued but The Wedding Party was unfortunately weighed down both with repeated phrasing, but repeated situations and character reactions. Like in The Proposal (and The Wedding Date before it) Guillory built herself some very believable and nuanced characters here as she has before, each has their strengths, each has their weaknesses, and they don’t magically solve the other persons weaknesses, which makes for good reading. What made for just fine reading was that these characters have very shallow growth arcs.

Maddie and Theo start the book despising each other, barely keeping it civil as they share a best friend in Alexa. Because this is Romancelandia the characters fall into bed together after Theo’s birthday party and decide to keep up this physical relationship until Alexa’s wedding, which they are both in. Over the course of the engagement the characters fall in love as you might expect, but each – and particularly Maddie – have the same bout of mental anguish over and over and over again. By two-thirds of the way through I was getting a bit desperate for the big dramatic moment to arrive so the plot could start heading downhill.

There were some reveals I thought were handled poorly and I really don’t like that this title is so like the first in the series, but on the whole, it was a fine addition to the world of more diverse romances. I just wish these interesting characters had a more interesting story, or more dynamic inner lives.

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Northern Lights (CBR11 #36)

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I’m glad the CBR11 Bingo Square is Summer Read, not Beach Read because I have a very peculiar definition of what I read at the beach and it is not vacation “light reading”! Northern Lights might not count for some (there are a few murders and a male protagonist fighting through depression) but a Nora Roberts romance will always be a Summer Read for me.

I’ve read Northern Lights before, but its been a long time. In Northern Lights we follow Nate Burke as he moves from Baltimore, Maryland to Lunacy, Alaska to take the newly founded job as the Chief of Police. Nate is also running from the death of his partner less than a year ago. As you would expect in a town called Lunacy, it is teeming with an cast of characters rightfully called Lunatics. Amongst the Lunatics are Burke’s officers, townspeople convinced that someone from Outside should not have been brought in as the Chief, and those who doubt the need for a Police force at all.

An unexpected meet cute with the always dressed in red Meg Galloway leads to what you would expect in a romance novel, but what I love about Meg is that she is entirely self-sufficient in the world which is saying quite a lot for a character who lives in remote Alaska. She is the kind of character I’ve come to expect in 2019, but Roberts had her on the page 15 years ago. It can be easy to take hits at Roberts, her books are often formulaic, and I probably don’t need to revisit many of her trilogies. Nevertheless her standalones, and particularly those focused around some sort of mystery, are reliably good reads.

This is one of those reliable reads, in Lunacy things heat up as a former resident is discovered to have been murdered 16 years earlier. Nate suspects the killer in an unsolved murder is still in town and his investigation unearths some of the secrets that lurk beneath the frozen surface of the town, further complicating his burgeoning relationships in his new hometown, including Meg. I remembered *most* of the plot but had thankfully forgotten the identity of the killer and enjoyed this book as much on reread as I had remembered doing when I decided to request it from the library. Afterall, Roberts is the queen of romance for a reason.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

The Bride Test (CBR11 #28)

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Earlier this year I read and fell hard for Helen Hoang’ debut The Kiss Quotient. I was taken with her non-traditional protagonists and immediately added her next book The Bride Test to my library request list for when it was released (May 2019). I’m glad that I did, I enjoyed this sophomore outing more than its predecessor.

The Bride Test expands the world Hoang created in The Kiss Quotient. Khai Diep is one of Michael’s cousins we met in The Kiss Quotient (his brother Quan also features and will be the focus of the third book in the series out next year) and the book open with his mother traveling to Vietnam and interviewing possible brides for him. Khai’s autism means that he processes emotions differently and following another cousin’s death in his teens he’s convinced that he is defective, doesn’t have the capacity to love and for that reason he steadfastly avoids relationships.

Khai’s mother finds Esme (the name she takes when she comes to the United States) working as a cleaner in the bathrooms of a swanky hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. A mixed-race woman from an incredibly poor background Esme thinks this is an opportunity she can’t pass up – it would be life changing for her grandmother, mother, and daughter (and herself although she doesn’t put much value in her own needs in the beginning). She decides to try to get Khai to fall for her, without fulling knowing what she is getting herself into. Khai is as honest with her as he can be, and she quickly falls for him, although each of their particular issues keep it from being easy. In fact, it all goes off the rails before it rights itself.

I’m not doing a great job of capturing the spirit of the book. Hoang does a much better job in her author’s note when she explains how these two characters ended up on the page in the first place. Initially, Esme was not the romantic heroine Hoang meant to write, she was supposed to be the also ran. Then, Esme took center stage in Hoang’s writing and she realized she had exactly the right person to talk to about both the character of Esme, but also what it is like to fall in love with and marry a man with autism. This and Hoang’s unpacking of how a neuroatypical brain in Khai (his reaction to solving his misunderstanding with Esme after their first night together was particularly well handled) made this book very, very good. Both characters are just the type off people you root for, a very loveable pair on the whole.

Dating You/Hating You (CBR11 #21)

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This is a case of its me, not the book. I see all the positive things in this book that have made it so well reviewed at Cannonball Read but I still just can’t get myself to settle in and enjoy it. After nearly a month off and on I’ve given myself permission to walk away for now. I might come back to it at some point – I really do like the characters and plot framework the authors are working with – but now is not that time and there are too many other books perched on my to read pile waiting for me.

So what is the book about? We meet Carter and Evie in Los Angeles, Carter has recently relocated and Evie has lived there all her life. They meet at a Halloween party hosted by a mutual friend. There is instant attraction and chemistry. When they realize they work as talent agents for competing firms they agree to remain friendly but not pursue anything further… until they do. Following a truly fantastic hey first date, their two talent agencies are merged. Suddenly Evie and Carter are working together under the same, horrible boss and competing against each other for their livelihoods before their relationship has a chance to solidify and begins to falter.

Dating You/Hating You gives great commentary on the subtle, sexist behavior that women must deal with in the workplace. Evie is an established professional in her early thirties with a reputable career. Her boss, Brad, is the type of grade A sexist jerk too many of us are familiar with and Evie just wants to survive him. Brad undermines her and keeps Evie perpetually set up for a fall, waiting for the sword of Damocles. Everyone knows Brad has problems working with women, and no one is surprised that he is the boss or that he is pitting Evie against the younger and less experienced Carter, but women are simply supposed to deal with it. Almost every woman who has ever held a job has been in a situation like this, and by capturing it as part of an otherwise classically good hate to love romance the authors are doing important work.

Like I said, this book is good, it just wasn’t for me right now.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance

The Escape (CBR10 #60)

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I have a library hold backlog gathering on my kitchen table, so I decided best plan was to knock out a few quick reads and hopefully catch up. Part of the backlog is a few of The Survivors’ Club books by Mary Balogh. I enjoyed The Proposal and The Arrangement earlier this year and had immediately put holds on the rest of the series. In typical me fashion I was nervous about the next book, The Escape, when I wrote my review for The Arrangement (as I was nervous about the focus of The Arrangement when I finished The Proposal) but I should learn to just stop being nervous – Balogh seems to have everything well in hand.

The Escape is the story of Benedict Harper (referred to as Ben throughout) and Samantha McKay. They each have their own share of suffering – he lost full use of his legs as well as many other injuries in battle and she has spent the past five years nursing her dying husband. After said husband’s death, Samantha is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws with her sister in law Matilda running her life and enforcing the strictest type of mourning. Samantha wants to live, and the burgeoning friendship with Ben and his sister provides an outlet, until Matilda returns home to her parents and they demand Samantha remove to their home where they can enforce a “proper” mourning. Desperate, Samantha plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Ben insists that he escort her on the journey, both based on his gentlemanly responsibilities and the niggling flirtation he can’t quite leave be (equal parts glad to have a return of sexual desire after six celibate years but aware that it is entirely inappropriate to have said feelings for a widow a mere four months into mourning).

Over the next several weeks of travel and relocation to Wales, Ben admits to himself how much he wants Samantha, and she invites him to share a weeklong affair before they separate forever.  Romance novels being what they are, they continue to fall quietly and deeply in love. Mary Balogh’s common theme of broken people fitting their pieces together means that Ben and Samantha find much more in their relationship than they had ever expected, but that doesn’t mean that the timing is right or that it is going to work. Since Balogh characters are always sensible and wonderfully grown up Ben does leave at the end of the week, but a way back is set up.

I was surprised how much I felt for Ben and Samantha, for their pain and their struggles, their commitment to doing what was right, to being together, but making sure Samantha wouldn’t be stained by rumor. Ben and Samantha each had full character arcs separate from the romance storyline and I grew incredibly fond of both of them. Balogh lays in references to the previous two books, giving us a sense of time and pulling the various characters together to set us off on the back half of the series. I have the next two books here at the house; we’ll see when I get to them.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.