The Trouble with Hating You (CBR12 #50)

The Trouble with Hating You

The Trouble with Hating You is not your typical Romance read, even though Patel is working within and against established tropes, and I liked it better for it. This is definitely an enemies to lovers romance (the title pretty much announces it) and in it we have Liya Thakkar,  a happily single successful biochemical engineer, who has a very strained relationship with her parents and has been very clear that she is not interested in being set up with a potential spouse. The moment she realizes her parents’ most recent invitation to dinner is a setup with the man they want her to marry, she runs away and manages to run right into said man in the front yard. Said man is Jay Shah, the new lawyer hired to save her struggling company. Neither is too thrilled to see the other after that humiliating fiasco. But in order to succeed at work – her in her recent promotion, him in building his portfolio of successful cases – they are going to have interact with each other, and hopefully at least be friendly towards each other. As they spend more and more time together, and get glimpses of the other’s true selves, a deepening relationship forms. But falling for each other means exposing their painful pasts and trusting the other not to leave.

This book isn’t afraid of depth and drama, and of the dark and terrible things that many would prefer not to see on their Romance pages. There is a lot of patriarchal and misogynistic trauma in this book, experienced to different degrees by both leads. There is off-page past sexual assault of a minor, an on-page sexual encounter which becomes an assault, an off-page death of a parent, traumatic injuries, and misogyny based shunning. As the characters work through all of this there is also a lot of self-doubt and guilt, and verbal arguments that run the range from playful to hurtful. Their story does explore the idea that falling in love does not erase past traumas, but it can help you face and work through them. There is an overarching message that tragedy shouldn’t be a burden we undertake on our own, that it’s important to have a support network when you can’t fight alone, and that you don’t have to.

The Trouble with Hating You features two very lovable and complicated protagonists with satisfying characters arcs. The main characters hold off on getting into bed together until late in the narrative and then it also fades to black quickly, but there are important plot elements that make that the right choice. Liyah, in particular, is likely to rub some readers the wrong way – she is decidedly a difficult woman when we meet her. In some ways it’s a persona she has built over trauma, in other ways its honestly who she is. She’s strong and forceful and successful and it all took work and determination to make happen, but it doesn’t leave much softness. Although, we the reader see that softness in her friendships with other women. But I like difficult women, I like books that deal with realistic representations of what being a modern woman often looks like, and for those reasons (and others) this book works for me.

Tikka Chance on Me (CBR12 #46)

Tikka Chance on Me

The Pandemic has stolen my ability to focus on long form works, so I went trolling through my digital library to see what I had available in the novella length, thankfully for me at some point I had downloaded Suleikha Snyder’s Tikka Chance on Me. Perfect.

I *loved* the first part of this novella. Pinky Grover is a fantastic lead – she’s a feisty, sex-positive Desi heroine that could carry a much larger work on her character’s shoulders. Snyder introduces us via Pinky to Trucker Carrigan, a regular at her parent’s restaurant where she works and the attraction is instant and a lot. Are there problems? Sure. Pinky knows he’s part of the local MC and that should disqualify him from her attractions but there’s just something about him, something under the surface, that has her jumping headlong into bed with him.

Its just a fun time watching these two flirt about Marvel comics and good food and then having steamy sex in the back of Trucker’s truck. And because we also get Trucker’s POV we know right away that Pinky is right, he’s not really in the MC, he’s undercover ATF. And that’s actually what brings this novella’s fun to a screeching halt and dropped my star rating. Pinky puts it all together for herself during their second time together, and he doesn’t deny it (and those scenes are very hot and quite well written) but the final third of the novella deals with the fallout of Trucker’s job and the separation of the pair. There’s still a bit of book left when they separate and we do get a typically happy romance ending eventually but there’s more angst here than I was hoping for based on the beginning of the novella.

All that said – still something I recommend!

Spoiler Alert (CBR12 #44)

Spoiler Alert

I have been waiting for this book for months and am extremely happy to report that it does not disappoint.

This is only my second Dade book (Teach Me was also highly enjoyable), but I can already say my favorite thing about her writing is how relatable and human her characters are. The two leads in Spoiler Alert are at a point of change in their lives – and actively seeking it – and the layers of their lives that push them towards, and in some cases make them afraid of change (and to a small extent each other) are baked into the story from its inception.

Our leads are Marcus Caster-Rupp, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever.  Marcus uses his writing to vent his frustrations with his character, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But his online alter ego is dangerous to his real life, if anyone ever made the connection he’d be fired immediately for breach of contract. April Whittier is a hardcore Lavinia fan, but she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby for years. From the safety of a new job she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral – and of course attracts lovely positive support and also trolls out to judge her and her appearance. One such troll tags Marcus in the thread and he decides to ask April out, both to shut up the troll but also because he finds April very attractive. Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he is even more convinced of his initial reaction, and has a huge secret he needs to hide.

This story unpacks self-worth in a few ways, but one of those is not Marcus falling for April despite her size. Her body is immediately attractive to him and that point doesn’t change during the book. In fact, his steadfastness in that regard plays a crucial role in helping April to continue to unpack her dysfunctional relationship with her parents. Marcus has his own issues relating back to his dyslexia and lack of diagnosis as a kid (honestly this part made me hate his parents very, very much) and his own fraught relationship with his parents. They each also find validation and worth in their hobby of writing and during this Adjective year of 2020 I have become fanfic reader (and burgeoning writer) and in that way I was able to relate to both the characters of April and Marcus even more.

There’s so much in this story that I feel like I’m never going to be adequately able to touch on all of it. I should mention that this book is obviously inspired by the Braime ship from Game of Thrones (and there are plenty of plot points that nod if not outright stare at the HBO show) but Dade doesn’t leave it on the surface, she digs down into the details and finds meaning. The interstitials don’t all work, but the ones that are scripts from Marcus’s worst jobs often made me laugh out loud. There are portions of the back part of the book that aren’t my favorite on paper (things that could be cleared with a discussion, hidden identities, public gestures) but the way Dade approaches them, and the easy way they fall into narrative made me happy to read them.

Stacked (CBR12 #43)

Stacked (Devil's Bastards MC, #1)

There’s a special joy when your friends write and publish their first book. Last year when Aviva published Stacked and its sequel Say My Name I scooped them up and then in typical me form saved them for when I needed a boost. I should have read this one sooner, if only to join the chorus of positive reviews, but either way I’m glad to have read it now because it was just what I was looking for.

(As a note, I’m thanked in the Acknowledgements of Say My Name as I was an early reader of chapters while these works were in draft form, it has not affected my review.)

Stacked is the story of Imogene Saunders, a passionate librarian dedicated to making the small town library she’s now in charge of accessible to everyone. Whether her coworker likes it or not, and she’s decidedly against Imogene. Our meet cute takes place in sticky book bin situation, which is delightful, and Imogene’s rescuer is a very sexy biker. Imogene and Mags, her sexy biker, run into each other a few times, both when he brings his niece to the library and when he runs into Imogene at the bar, and he falls for her almost despite himself. Imogene for her part wasn’t expecting to grow closer to her leather-clad knight while fighting to turn her library renovation dream into reality.

Imogene is a fucking delight. She’s unabashedly herself, and Aviva layers in the kind of details that make her feel real, but don’t push too far into caricature. We’re also given details of some of Mags angst, specifically relating to his sister and niece, and Imogene gets him to think more critically about his opinions and assumptions, but are left with questions about his role in the MC. Which, for me, was perfectly fine.

Aviva published two books in this series last year, and this year announced  she would not be continuing with it, the way the MC made its money had painted her into a corner – there was no way to authentically write badass feminist characters falling for these men in future works, and it was proving difficult to justify redemption arcs or HEAs. I deeply respect her choice to walk away from this, acknowledge the errors that made that the best decision (her latest book Hot Rabbi is already out and I am VERY excited about it). All that said, you can read this book without the black cloud of what the MC is up to ruining it, its enough on the periphery of this book, and I suggest you do.

The Governess Affair (CBR12 #42)

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan

For my Bingo Gateway Square, I decided on a personal Gateway and one that I would recommend to others. The Governess Affair was my on ramp into the writing of Courtney Milan (and her near perfect Brothers Sinister series) and it’s been a love affair for the past six years. As for others, this lovely little novella is good for a general introduction to romance and romance novellas specifically.

I struggle often with reading novellas or short stories – too often for my liking the story feels like it ends before the narrative should, or worse, is left thin. Neither of those things happen in The Governess Affair. In this crisp hundred-page novella we get the story of Serena Barton, the titular governess who finds herself put out from her job after a run-in with the Duke of Clermont. She decides to take her revenge by quietly sitting in front of his residence until her demands are met… the problem being that it falls to the Duke’s man of business, one Mr. Hugo Marshall, to see that she is on her way so that the Duke can win back his bride, her fortune, and Mr. Marshall’s wages to boot.

It’s not an uncommon historical romance set up, but what makes this one stand out in my memory over the years is the depth to which the characters are developed. The best books I read feature the most well drawn characters and Milan crafts three dimensional characters who exist in a world you are easily able to understand over and over again in her oeuvre. As a bonus her protagonists are beautifully self-aware, which is just down right refreshing.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (CBR12 #41)

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (Feminine Pursuits, #2)

Let’s get this part out of the way early – I was prepared to love this book and I only really like it.

Here’s the thing: there’s too much story here and I feel like a heel for saying so. But, bear with me.

One of the things I love most in really good romance writing is that the authors aren’t afraid to interact with larger themes. These books aren’t just sexytimes (we have erotica for that) they are not just character studies (although lord knows I love a character study), they are in fact observations about living, and living with emotions. In order to unpack the emotional lives of the characters the authors explore the world around them, and in historical fiction (often hanging out in the Regency era) there is plenty of political turmoil to muck about in.

Waite does just that, laying in the backdrop of her story with the absolute insane drama of George IV’s rise to the throne of England and his attempt to divorce his wife Queen Caroline in 1820. But that isn’t the only story running in the background, we are also dealing with sedition laws, the struggle of the non-free press, women’s political disadvantages across all lines including but not limited to marriage and children, the political power of the church and landed aristocracy to legally enforce morals, and the fact that sexual relationships between men were outlawed and punishable by hanging while the same relationships between women generally flew under the radar and there were no laws specifically criminalizing their activities.

All good, right? Yes, except the balance of these plot points was off. Waite aims big here and delivers a nuanced story set outside the expected. The main story of The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is that of Agatha Griffin and Penelope Flood, they are older women (mid to late 40s), queer, and decidedly working class. It’s a lovely slowburn romance (although… maybe a little too slow for me) as these two women meet, strike an unexpected friendship through letters, and become each other’s partner long before they become lovers. The hurdles in their relationship are based on the societal upheavals happening around them as well as the day to day lives they lead.

I did really like this book, and I love that Waite populated her book with characters living all sorts of lives. Some same sex pairs sharing households were together, some were not, and some were left up in the air. Marriages ranged from good to awful, and the clannishness of a small town was explored, as was the parallels to the neighborhoods in London. There’s so much here that’s so good, I just wish I loved it.

The Duke and I (Reread CBR12)

The Duke And I (Bridgertons, #1)

Continuing down the road of comfort reading I’ve decided to do some rereading of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series. I first read the books in 2015 and loved them then, and I’m happy to report that after my latest reading of The Duke and I, the first book in the series,  that I’m just as pleased now as I was then. Even better, there’s a Netflix adaptation of the series on the way – season one finished filming before COVID shutdown most television production but we don’t have an announcement about premiere date but Netflix has been holding to sometime in 2020… I may be hoping that this review puts just that much more energy into the universe to get that date announcement, we need it (and once Umbrella Academy season 2 drops there’s a definite window of opportunity),

So, what is the story all about? From Goodreads: Simon Basset, the irresistible Duke of Hastings, has hatched a plan to keep himself free from the town’s marriage-minded society mothers. He pretends to be engaged to the lovely Daphne Bridgerton. After all, it isn’t as if the brooding rogue has any real plans to marry – though there is something about the alluring Miss Bridgerton that sets Simon’s heart beating a bit faster. And as for Daphne, surely the clever debutante will attract some very worthy suitors now that it seems a duke has declared her desirable. But as Daphne waltzes across ballroom after ballroom with Simon, she soon forgets that their courtship is a complete sham. And now she has to do the impossible and keep herself from losing her heart and soul completely to the handsome hell-raiser who has sworn off marriage forever.

This book was initially my introduction to Quinn and all the things I enjoyed about her writing I enjoy now. Quinn writes great family dynamics, her humor works for me and had me laughing loud enough to startle the cats. There is a plot point in this story that doesn’t sit well, there are issues of consent that aren’t great. But I’m still happy to spend time with Quinn’s writing and the world of the Bridgertons in this its 20th anniversary year. Interspersed with other reading I’ll be endeavoring to read the next two books in the series in relatively quick succession as they are all set in back to back years (books 4-6 are similarly grouped), and the next in the series will also be making an appearance on my Bingo board.

Not the Girl You Marry (CBR12 #36) Not the Girl You Marry eBook: Christopher, Andie J ...

In fulfilling the color squares that form one of the diagonals on the Cannonball Read Bingo Card this year I have decided to go all-in with Romances. They have some of the most vibrant covers in publishing right now, and I’ve got a bunch to choose from. First up, because I feel particularly suited to choosing one at all, is the glorious violet color covered Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher.

I had every hope of this being a book for me, reviews from emmalita and Malin (#BlameMalin) gave every indication that this was something I would enjoy, and I had been holding off until I felt like I could really appreciate it. I ended up ripping into it after a truly awful week in my professional life and needing some emotional salve.

Christopher takes the rom-com How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days and gender swaps it and updates it. Christopher wrote in her Author’s Note that when she sat down to write this book in 2017 she was writing with the express purpose of seeing herself on the page – a biracial woman who had been through the dating wringer – and the type of hero she hopes will enter her own life. Christopher goes on to expound on how being part of the Loving Generation (children of interracial couples who were legally allowed to marry following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case) impacted her youth and her time in the dating pool. Short version – people suck. Christopher brings that lived experience into her book and takes what could have been a light, frothy retelling and imbues it with real stakes and a place in the world as it exists, not just out there in Romancelandia.

Not the Girl You Marry is the story of Hannah Mayfield and Jack Nolan neither of whom wants to be in a relationship right now, but each with a workplace incentive to be in one. Jack is a a journalist, and his viral success at “How To” articles and videos has pigeon-holed him and kept him covering hard-hitting politics – the beat he would like to be following. With a lead that he thinks can make the change happen that he wants professionally, he strikes a deal with his boss to write a final fluffy bit of clickbait: How to Lose a Girl. Problem is, he’s already met Hannah and is trying to win her over and isn’t sure that he really wants to ruin his chance with her.  Hannah is an extremely successful event planner, focused on climbing the career ladder at her firm which is one of the most prestigious in the city. Determined to secure her next promotion Hannah has to deal with her image problem, she needs to show her boss that she has range, including planning dreaded, romantic weddings. Enter Jack. He’s the perfect man to date for a couple weeks to prove to her boss that she’s not scared of feelings.

Christopher could have gone down a couple different trope avenues with this one, in fact having either character fess up to what was going on and setting them down a fake relationship narrative was what I kept expecting. I’m both sad and relieved that Christopher chose instead to have her leads make the same big mistake – they lied, and they lied until they were caught. She then gives herself a few chapters for them to right their lives and their relationship in a way that was very satisfying. It also felt amazing to have Hannah be difficult and to have that reckoned with. As someone who has decided to wear that label proudly, it was refreshing to see.

The Ruin of a Rake (CBR12 #26)

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series, #3)

I should have read this one much closer to the previous two in the series, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Brown Affair because so many of our previous characters reappear here and are woven into the plot. As a reader you can tell that Sebastian was getting more comfortable in her writing, overall, this book is stronger than the previous two, even if Sebastian shortchanges the plot a smidge in the final third. I continue to really like how Cat Sebastian builds her stories: they are steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the characters help heal or fill in the weaknesses in their partners, or in this case how the world around them sees them.

Cat Sebastian’s Turner Series are queer historical romances – her books feature complex and exceedingly lovable gay, bisexual, nonbinary, and otherwise diverse characters. The Ruin of a Rake is the story of Julian Medlock and Lord Courtenay. Lord Courtenay is the titular rake and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel which looks to be based on his exploits, he finds himself unable to see his nephew, and is willing to do anything to improve his reputation. Enter Julian Medlock, possibly the most proper man in al of London who has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes, and lusts after, most. With time spent in each other’s company their mutual interest grows and eventually Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve; and Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety.

There are several back and forths between the pair and the associated characters in each of their backstories as the figure out what life could look like if they can sort out what kind of life it is that they want. I’ll leave you with an answer that Sebastian gave in an interview said about writing to reflect identity “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better! When I’m writing outside my identity, I either hire a sensitivity reader or ask someone who shares the character’s identity to do a sensitivity read. Every time […], the reader has found things I never in a million years would have considered problematic.”

The Ultimate Pi Day Party (CBR12 #21)

The Ultimate Pi Day Party (Baldwin Village, #1)

Apparently incoming global pandemics make concentrating on reading tough for your friendly book club maven. Other than Station Eleven I didn’t finish another book for three weeks. But now that we’re in the “ordered to stay home by my governor” phase I’ve apparently settled in and am ready to return to a semi-normal schedule. So, as the anxiety fog begins to thin, I remembered that I had intended to read and review The Ultimate Pi Day Party by Jackie Lau for Pi Day on the 14th. I missed that goal, but its still March so I’m claiming the win.

This is my first full length Lau, having previously read her novella series Holidays with the Wongs. This one reminds me most of A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas which while really good was my least favorite of the four novellas. Lau sets up her leads with emotional baggage that is relatable to the reader and also matched to each other.

Sarah has defied her mother’s hopes and moved to the big city of Toronto (it was strange to read another book namedropping the same streets as Station Eleven so soon) and opened her own pie shop, Happy as Pie, in the Baldwin Street neighborhood. The store is doing well, and she’s hoping to expand into catering and possibly a second location down the line. Into her store walks Josh, CEO of a tech company his father sees no value in and number 19 on a list of Toronto’s 35 most eligible bachelors under 35. There are sparks which must be navigated with the fact that Josh has hired Sarah to cater a party at his house. Lau handles this all so well, Sarah and Josh each have a history of not dating, each has professional goals and focuses, each has a parent they are struggling with. The parts of Pi Day that worked best for me were the parts where Sarah and Josh were being dumb about their feelings, figuring out how to maneuver wanting to be in a relationship with no practical skills other than kindness.

As I’ve mentioned before I am often dumb about my emotions, so those plots and characterizations almost always ring true for me. I enjoyed reading along as two people were dumb about their feelings, got less dumb about those feelings but at different rates, and then finally stopped being completely dumb about their feelings for each other.But that isn’t all that’s happening in this book as Lau unpacks some bigger emotional problems. In Pi Day its parental issues, specifically parents who have either intentionally or unintentionally withheld approval to their kids. Josh’s dad is the one intentionally withholding from his son following a mistake in his teenage years and its damaged him emotionally in ways he is only just beginning to reckon with. Josh’s personal history opens the book up to important conversations about consent, safe sex, and abortion. Unfortunately, I had trouble with Lau’s pacing around Josh’s backstory – I wish she had given herself some additional real estate in the time immediately before and after the titular Pi Party. Or that literally anyone had mentioned Josh’s mom to him as a counterpoint to his father. But this is still a good book, and you should be reading Lau.