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.

The Governess Game (CBR10 #46)

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I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly. Dare writes what I fondly refer to as Historical Fantasy Romance. There is *some* historically accurate details running through her narrative but they are very thin and often bent to suit her plot needs. In the second outing in the Girl Meets Duke series we’re following Alex Mountbatten, introduced in The Duchess Deal, who makes her living by setting clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. Following a terrible, and hysterically inappropriate interview for a governess position she doesn’t realize she’s being interviewed for, Alex loses the chronometer that is her livelihood. With literally no way to make her living she returns to the home of Chase Reynaud and takes the governess position after all. Chase Reynaud is heir presumptive to his uncle’s Dukedom as well as the guardian of two little girls, and a renowned rake who wants none of the responsibility of any of it.

With that starting point we’re off on a classic Dare story. Readers who don’t enjoy her works usually either don’t like the anachronisms or find her structure too repetitive. I don’t have problems with either of those things, and in reality read her books for exactly those things. I like knowing what to expect and Dare’s writing breaks down into a pretty clear set of standards. We’ve already covered the first, Alex Mountbatten is absolutely an independent lady making her own way in the world, in fact, Dare sets her up to have had no other option since the age of 10.

While Dare tends to specialize in a Marriage of Convenience plot, this book plays on the motif by having the characters living under the same roof as employer and governess. Chase is the Wounded Hero to Alex’s Independent Lady, emotionally stunted by events in his past who is nevertheless smitten with the heroine. The being smitten leads to smolder and steamy sexy times, and because Dare is writing in a more and more feminist way Chase focuses on consent in his interactions with Alex. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. While Chase’s emotional withholding worked less well for me than Alex’s very realistic fears there was never a false note in their emotional interactions.

The other two common aspects of a Dare novel are interesting, but not overtaking, side characters and an infusion of comedy or whimsy in some regard. Dare is not afraid of humor and in The Governess Game it is the two characters of the little girls where this strength is used. Children can devolve to plot moppets very easily in Romance, but Dare manages to write believable children who are never twee and rooted in the emotional landscape of their experiences. They are also the stage for the laugh out loud moments in the story: the morning burials of Millicent the doll who dies each day (sometimes more than once per day) from some terrible disease and is buried in the toy box following a eulogy from Chase.

I read the book in one afternoon/evening taking only a few breaks. I did not want to leave these characters even while a headache was developing. There was perhaps one too many will they/won’t they back and forths, but the characters we are introduced to, the characters we see again, and the direction we’re headed for book three next year all worked for me in just the way I hoped they would when I purchased the book.

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

The Arrangement (CBR10 #43)

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I have stuff going on in my personal life right now (as do we all from time to time) so I found myself ready to check out of reality for a bit and sink into a safely fictional reality where things end happily. Off to Romancelandia I went to visit Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club and check off the Brain Candy square for bingo.

The Arrangement is the second book in the series, and I’ll admit that I was a bit put off by which characters were going to be our focus having enjoyed the romance of people in their thirties in the series opener. In The Proposal we’re introduced to the entire Survivors Club, including youngest member Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh who was blinded in the war at the tender age of 17. Now 23, he’s determined to reclaim his adulthood from the women in his family who have dedicated themselves to making his life easy. Their latest trick is setting up him up with a wife. Vincent is decidedly against anyone who understands and realizing the woman they’ve set him up with is as truly uninterested as he, takes off with his valet without word for his family.

As his travels bring him to his childhood home he runs across Sophia Fry who is living with relatives. When Sophia’s cousin attempts to trap Vincent in marriage Sophia steps in to stop it, costing Sophia her place in their home. Feeling responsible for her destitute state Vincent convinces Sophia to marry him – and agrees to a classic marriage of convenience arrangement – a year of proper marriage and then they can each be on their way to independent lives.

It’s a bit of a slow burn, even with the marriage of convenience bringing the characters together quickly. Balogh accounts for the relative youth of her characters (23 and 20) and the inherent inexperience they each bring to the table in all matters and achieves a sweet love story. The last third is plagued with the usual problems in this trope: communication issues and could have been trimmed by about forty pages without hurting the narrative structure in any way. I’ve landed at 3 stars, and remain interested in the rest of the series, even though I’m now nervous about book three, which features the only member of the Survivors Club who did not appear on page in this installment.

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, and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Her Every Wish (CBR10 #28)

Her Every Wish (The Worth Saga) by [Milan, Courtney]

For my next review and #CBR10Bingo square, let’s stay on brand, shall we? This morning I woke up unconscionably early and decided I had time for a novella before I had to deal with the day: so off to my bingo list and the award-winning novella by Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish.

Her Every Wish won the 2017 RITA for Romance Novella. The RITA awards are given by the Romance Writers of America, aims to promote excellence in the genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas (there is a separate award, The Golden Heart, for unpublished work). It is a wide field, up to 2,000 romance novels are entered in the competition into one of over a dozen categories (that number fluctuates year to year). There are two rounds of judging and the winners are announced each year at the RWA conference in July.

As beloved as she is, it is hard for me to believe that this was her first win and her second nomination, but Romancelandia is a wide and busy place and whether it affects things or not, Milan self-publishes. For those wondering, she was nominated a third time this year for her novella “The Pursuit of…” in Hamilton’s Battalion, a collection sitting on my digital shelf, and her first nomination was in 2014 for The Countess Conspiracy. I’ve not read the book which precedes this one, Once Upon a Marquess, as it was a bit of a disappointment to others and this series is still early in the writing stage, and set to be seven novels long. I had decided to wait it out until there was more of the series to read (although Emmalita’s review of After the Wedding got me to purchase that book and this one). In broad strokes Milan is endeavoring to continue her feminist romance mission but adding even more to the expected tropes of historic romances set in England. Milan is an author on a mission to stop the whitewashing of history and include people of color and a variety of sexual identities into her work.

This novella focuses on Daisy and Crash. Daisy is the daughter of a failed grocer, her mother is in ill health, and financial security is a memory. The local parish announces a Christmas charity bequest to help young people start a trade; she sees it as her last chance to get her wish of security for herself and her mother. Her only problem – the grants are intended for men, but it didn’t say so explicitly so she’s attempting to bluff her way into a future. It all goes as roughly a one might expect for 1860s London and her former beau, Crash, steps in the help her succeed as best he can. Crash comes with his own baggage – his family line is filled with slaves, whores, and sailors, he has no idea his true heritage, and the world would not let him forget it, but he has been raised to do his best to keep going. He is determined to help Daisy keep going for her own sake.

In its short 100 pages Milan packs her novella with plot and characters, but also with the robust themes of learning how to accept someone as they are, for who they are, and finding value in yourself, of being worthy of your own wishes. It was an uplifting, jam-packed Milan novella in the style of some of my favorites, without the drawbacks of some of her missteps in the past. I am not at all surprised, and a bit glad, to know that this won last year.

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 for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Proposal (CBR10 #26)

The Proposal (The Survivors' Club, #1)

I have finally taken my first trip to a Mary Balogh romance. I’m still surprised when I manage to miss an author completely, but it usually means that there’s a well-liked series with good reviews which is complete that I can dive right into. In the case of Mary Balogh that series is the Survivors’ Club which tells the story of seven people who survived great tragedy (whether physical or mental) during the Napoleonic Wars and formed a tight friendship while they healed for three years away from Society. The first book in the series, The Proposal, held my attention so well and Balogh’s writing pleased me so much that I went ahead and requested the next few books from the library for the coming months and plan to blow through the series during the rest of the year.

The Proposal begins with Gwendoline, Lady Muir, who has seen her share of tragedy. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. Though, she isn’t the member of the Survivors’ Club: that would be Hugo, Lord Trentham, who scoops her up in his arms after a fall on the beach. He does not, however, view himself as a gentleman; he is a soldier whose bravery earned him his title. Born a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth he is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. In a very funny scene, a grumpy Hugh alerts his friends in the Survivors’ Club to his plan to find a wife to provide an heir and help with his sister. They tease he will obviously find one the next day down at the beach, and of course the very next day he is rescuing an injured Gwen and bringing her back to the house with him.

Embarrassed, Hugh doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have her interfere on the annual reunion of the Club. In a fine bit of plotting, this struggle where Hugo and Gwen are given time and space to get to know each other and become attracted but do not wish to be allows the reader to settle into the series. It is an infodump of sorts, but it worked well for me. In lesser hands the first half of the book would have been the end of the plot, but Balogh has more territory she wants to cover. Balogh builds a story around the mental wounds Gwen and Hugh both experienced, punching holes in the “happy” lives they have both created for themselves in the years since their respective tragedies, and analyzing the class differences of the social strata that Gwen and Hugh grew up and live in.

In the second half of the book their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. Mrs. Julien, one of my personal Romancelandia guides, is of the opinion the central theme of many Balogh historical romances is closed and broken people finding new lives and unexpected happiness. In The Proposal I would say that theme lines up exquisitely. Balogh creates a world and a story where over a respectable timeline; two mature adults in their thirties are given a second chance at happiness. And really, who better to be given these second chances than soldiers and those who have seemingly lost everything? I was warmed and won over by the sincere sweetness Balogh brought to her characters, and that while the characters have been through the proverbial wringer, the stories are not mawkish. Balogh shows a deft touch in how she layers and slowly reveals the sorrows of her characters without wallowing in them.

I feel Balogh earned a believable happily ever after for Hugh and Gwen. As they get to know each other, they recognize their first impressions were about expectations. Even at the books halfway point, when Hugh proposes to Gwen and she refuses, they are still functioning on expectations. But then Balogh builds out her narrative and Gwen invites Hugh to court her, if he wishes. I love that they continue to seek each other out, acknowledging they simply want to be with each other even if it is not a natural fit into either of their lives or worlds.  It is a novel that stays within its genre tropes, but nudges them with the ways in which the details and specific plot points are placed. The novel grows the universe of Balogh’s books, and I’m interested to see how that universe continues to grow and keep up with the characters we’ve met so far.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read – now in our tenth year! At Cannonball Read 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.