Romantic Reads · stuff I read

From Alaska With Love by Ally James

A soldier has six weeks to convince the only woman he has ever longed for to take a chance on life with him in Alaska….

Sara’s letters were the only bright spot during Gabe’s devastating tour in Iraq. With each new correspondence he fell harder, needed her more, wanted to be with her. Now, after initially rejecting his offer to meet, she’s shown up at the door of his isolated cabin in Alaska looking for…what? Gabe’s not sure what made Sara change her mind, but he knows he never wants to let her go.

Major Gabe Randall is everything Sara Ryan wants but nothing she feels she deserves. A modern-day spinster, Sara hides behind family obligations and the safe, quiet life she’s resigned herself to living. But secretly, even though she may have stretched the truth about who she is in her letters to him, she wants Gabe. Will he still want her when he discovers the real woman behind the pen?

Once they meet, Gabe asks her for six weeks in Alaska. Six weeks to spend getting to know each other, and then she’ll have to decide whether they are better together or apart.

I’ve had the galley for From Alaska With Love kicking around in my iPad for a while so it caught my eye while I was scrolling around for something to read (I apologize to all September galleys, my brain is like a hamster with a squeaky wheel right now). Now, there’s going to be a spoiler in this review, so be forewarned.

This was a sweet but ultimately just OK contemporary romance. I loved the meet-cute – a random Letter to a Soldier, posted on a whim, sparks an email conversation, and eventually Facetiming sessions, between a career military man deployed in Iraq and a woman stuck in her life as the unappreciated nanny to her niece (who she loves, she doesn’t begrudge her little niece any of that, it’s the rest of the family that proves the problem). So after developing a lovely long-distance relationship where they get into the reality of Gabe’s deployment and Sara’s kind of garbage family, Gabe and Sara agree to meet – he buys her a plane ticket to meet him in Alaska where he’s stationed when not on deployment. But he decides to surprise her at her home in North Carolina first – and this is where I got real mad at a choice the author made in this book.

Here be a spoiler: Sara’s brother answers the door and when Gabe introduces himself, THE BROTHER SAYS HE’S SARA’S HUSBAND. And the scene devolves into something really uncomfortable from there. Gabe is hurt, very hurt, because Sara hasn’t told her family about him, and has also not told them she has agreed to visit Alaska in one week, and Sara can’t articulate why she thinks she owes her (omg, such garbage) family despite the way they treat her. AND NEITHER OF THEM IMMEDIATELY THROAT PUNCH HER BROTHER. Y’all, I have two younger brothers and there is no way on this Earth would either of them just say that as a joke or to protect me from some perceived rando dude because GROSS. They would just be like “I’m her brother, who the hell are you?” And done. You’d get the same fallout and revelations from the scene without the shitty panic and grossness of that statement.

So I had to pause a bit – did I want to finish the book after this scene? It happens about halfway through the book. I went ahead and finished, because the correspondence between Gabe and Sara was so nice and I was hoping the author would get that level of sweetness back.

It did get there, although Gabe was an ice-cold twerp for a week after Sara arrived in Alaska. He only thawed toward her after overhearing a phone conversation Sara has with her cousin where he realizes how her family treats her and why she kept him a secret. From there he has a one-eighty in his attitude and we’re back to that lovely relationship from the first half of the book. So the romance turns out in a satisfying way (the letters come back into play and allll the heart-eyes for that). There are some beautiful scenes in Alaska with the Northern Lights and a fancy Christmas party before we get to the HEA. But Gabe and Sara never really TALK about the elephant in the room, namely why she never told anyone about Gabe except for her cousin. The reader knows how poorly she was treated by her mother, her sister-in-law (who I wanted to push down a well), her brother, and various extended relatives (the opening page of the book is kind of infuriating with respect to which family member you dislike the most). But I felt that Gabe and Sara didn’t quite do the emotional labor for this part.

So there are a lot of sweet scenes around one big, honking stumble. Plus a cute dog.

Dear FTC: I read a galley I got from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #2)

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Summary from Goodreads:
In this historical f/f romance you’ll find:
•a grumpy widowed engraver working far too hard to keep her print-shop going until her son is old enough to take over
•a middle-aged lady beekeeper who goes striding about in trousers and loves bucolic poetry
•a Queen on trial in Parliament and the press
•luxuriant English gardens with extremely naughty statues
•satirical ballads about tight pants
•… and more than you probably ever wanted to know about early 19th century beekeeping!

Could Olivia Waite outdo herself after The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics? Yes, yes she could.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is a lovely f/f historical. We met Agatha Griffin at the Royal Academy exhibition in The Lady’s Guide and her print shop handles the printing of Lucy’s Guide. Four years later, Agatha is now a widow, running the shop with her son Sydney and her apprentice Eliza, the gifted young artist who was briefly Lucy’s maid. Griffin’s has their printworks in the nearby village of Melliton, where one odd, beekeeping lady named Penelope Flood resides. When Agatha discovers a swarm of bees who have started making a hive among the plates for a local poet’s book, Mrs. Flood is recommended to her as the person who would know exactly what to do with the bees.

Penelope is rather intrigued by the no-nonsense printer from London. Mrs. Griffin is a world away from Penelope’s rural, beekeeping life in Melliton. The two women start corresponding through letters – because of the bees – but soon strike up a friendship, then perhaps something more. Olivia Waite lets the relationship between Agatha and Penelope develop gradually through these letters, with beekeeping knowledge interspersed between exchanges about their families or friends, weaving a bond between the two women. After a while, Agatha begins to visit Melliton more often, eventually staying with Penelope for Christmas. This is a relationship that develops between two women in their forties – neither are looking for their life’s One Great Passion, they each have established lives – so the realization that they have an emotional bond that goes deeper than friendship is especially poignant.

Being poignant or a lesbian romance does not mean this book soft-pedals the plot. The book is set largely in the year between King George IV’s attempt to divorce his wife Queen Caroline and his coronation. That bit of British Royal history is largely integral to the development of Penelope and Agatha’s relationship. The printing and sale of political broadsides and raucous ballads in Agatha’s print shop runs afoul of sedition and censorship laws in England at the time, particularly that from the Radical end of politics (you know, the ones that think you should treat people as equals or not trash or actual humans or whatever, and that’s clearly bad for the Establishment). Penelope’s neighbors in Melliton – both the good ones and the rotten ones – are affected by these larger events through the enforcement “morality” in the village and squabbling over an inheritance (just a CW that there is implied homophobia, although that jerk gets his comeuppance). There’s also a lot of between-the-lines commentary on Nice White Ladies (and other people) Doing Virtue Signalling. All this impacts how Penelope and Agatha slowly slide from friendship into love.

This is a Big Plot novel, so it moves a bit more slowly than I expected, but it wraps up so, so wonderfully. Plus there’s all the stuff about bees. And Penelope’s circle of wonderful friends in Melliton. And Sydney and Eliza and their relationship. Just go read it.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian (Seducing the Sedgwicks #3)

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Summary from Goodreads:
Will Sedgwick can’t believe that after months of searching for his oldest friend, Martin Easterbrook is found hiding in an attic like a gothic nightmare. Intent on nursing Martin back to health, Will kindly kidnaps him and takes him to the countryside to recover, well away from the world.

Martin doesn’t much care where he is or even how he got there. He’s much more concerned that the man he’s loved his entire life is currently waiting on him hand and foot, feeding him soup and making him tea. Martin knows he’s a lost cause, one he doesn’t want Will to waste his life on.

As a lifetime of love transforms into a tender passion both men always desired but neither expected, can they envision a life free from the restrictions of the past, a life with each other?

I’d been wondering how this book would play out ever since Hartley found Martin hiding in his attic in A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, dragged him off to Will, and then realizing that Martin and Will have some “history.” (Also, Hartley being surprised about Will and Martin then wondering if the other two brothers – who are still school age – might also be attracted to men is kind of adorable, since he’s the only one who seems to think that might be unexpected. Oh, Hartley <3)

The plot of Two Rogues Make a Right? So sweet. A recovering ex-Navy opium addict with PTSD kidnaps his old friend, a consumptive, emotionally-straitjacketed baronet, and they hole up in a game keeper’s cottage to let the baronet recover from a bout of illness (in the absence of modern antibiotics what you need is fresh air, not the pollution of London). And maybe the two of them will rekindle not just their friendship, but also recognize it as something more.

If you love friends-to-lovers plots – plus some pining – this book is for you. Will and Martin have history as kids, then are separated when Will is sent to the Navy, plus what Martin has found out about his father, they tread very carefully with each other. Will, because Martin is chronically ill with tuberculosis and has been near death on occasion. Martin, because of what his father did to the Sedgwicks – and others – doesn’t quite know how to broach those subjects. In addition, Martin has been very, very closely guarded due to his illness all his life and has essentially has very little freedom to make his own choices. So they have “friendship feelings” and they also have “perhaps some romantic feelings” and “does it ruin the friendship to explore the romantic feelings feelings.” There is also “hurt/comfort” which is the gentlest part of this relationship – Will takes great care with Martin as he recovers from this exacerbation of his illness but then Martin gives care and comfort to Will when he faces his demons.

This romance feels especially poignant, to me, when I consider that Martin, suffering tuberculosis in a era well-before modern antibiotic treatment that could actually clear the infection, can only manage his symptoms. He has no cure. So when he and Will come together (that’s not a spoiler, this is a romance novel), they have no guarantee that they have decades together. But they are willing to love and take that risk. I was crying at the end. It reminded me of a Lorraine Heath from a few years back in this way.

This book is as sweet and gentle as A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is rough-edged and steamy. I loved it. Those Sedgwick males, gotta love ’em.

Two Rogues Make a Right is out tomorrow, June 23! [Note: I don’t think you necessarily have to have read the previous two books in the series, It Takes Two to Tumble and A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, but the backstory and family history of this book is very tied up in the revelations of the previous two. So the main plot can stand alone, but for the full picture pick up the first two. You won’t be disappointed.]

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon (The Boyfriend Project #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

USA Today bestselling author Farrah Rochon launches a new series about three young women who become friends when the live Tweeting of a disastrous date leads them to discover they’ve all been duped by the same man.

Samiah Brooks never thought she would be “that” girl. But a live tweet of a horrific date just revealed the painful truth: she’s been catfished by a three-timing jerk of a boyfriend. Suddenly Samiah-along with his two other “girlfriends,” London and Taylor-have gone viral online. Now the three new besties are making a pact to spend the next six months investing in themselves. No men, no dating, and no worrying about their relationship status . . .

For once Samiah is putting herself first, and that includes finally developing the app she’s always dreamed of creating. Which is the exact moment she meets the deliciously sexy, honey-eyed Daniel Collins at work. What are the chances? When it comes to love, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. But is Daniel really boyfriend material or is he maybe just a little too good to be true?

Super-cute office romance between a genius app developer and the new (adorable) computer programmer at her company (who is actually an undercover agent trying to crack a money laundering ring)? YES, PLEASE.

The opening for The Boyfriend Project is A+. Samiah is getting ready for a postponed date with Craig – they’ve been dating a couple of weeks – when her sister tells her about a woman live-Tweeting a terrible date. As the tweet thread goes on, Taylor realizes that bad date is Craig! At the restaurant she was supposed to be at! So Samiah shows up at the restaurant and starts tearing strips off Craig. Then Taylor joins in. Then London arrives to also tear into this waste case. They just lay into this triple-timing scammer while complementing the shit out of each other. Then they become friends. I loved it.

In the course of this friendship development, Samiah swears off dudes for a while. She has too much on her plate: so many high-level work projects plus her own side-hustle to create a Tinder-type app, but for finding friends. Well, oops, that new guy Daniel who keeps getting coffee at the same time she does – and leaving her the good granola bars – is really, really cute. And nice. And smart. Unknown to Samiah – to anyone at Trendsetter, really – Daniel has got himself hired as a programmer, but he’s really there to try and crack their cybersecurity unit to bring down a money-laundering ring that appears to be operating with some help on the inside from Trendsetter. Samiah isn’t one of the suspects, but it would be unethical to start a relationship while undercover…right? But he and Samiah fit together really well, both personally and professionally.

Samiah is an incredible advocate for Black women in STEM, particularly programming, because she had so much pushback when she expressed interest in computer engineering because of racism and sexism. And Daniel, for all that he’s an ex-Marine and a Treasury department agent, is really just a mild-mannered dude who loves to code (although it’s really frustrating, in my opinion, when the money-laundering plot comes to a head and all his secrets come out, you want to stomp on his foot; Samiah does make him grovel though).

Can’t wait to see what’s in store for Taylor (a personal trainer) and London (a pediatric surgeon). They’re such a good group of friends together with Samiah. I’m looking forward to more of their banter.

The Boyfriend Project released Tuesday, June 9!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Summary from Goodreads:

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

I wanted to like Real Men Knit so, so bad. The idea was such a good set-up: four brothers inherit their mom’s Harlem knitting shop (and these handsome brothers are all actual knitters, too) then one of them realizes their childhood best friend is suddenly hot. I ate up the first third or so.

But then it just stalled. I didn’t feel like the romance between Jesse (the youngest brother, the dabbler/player who wants to keep the shop open) and Kerry (the part-time shop assistant who grew up with the store as a safe haven) got a lot of traction. At 50% through the book we were still just a couple of days after Mama Joy’s funeral and Jesse is still acting like a player and arguing with his brothers and Kerry is still convinced that Jesse is only good for a few weeks of fun (at most). Even when Kerry’s apartment building has an emergency and she has to move into the shop temporarily it doesn’t seem to move the relationship forward much. At 75% we were only what seemed a few days farther along with the same stuff happening…but then EVERYTHING happened at once and suddenly it jumped a few weeks later (?) and Kerry and Jesse seemed like totally different characters. I didn’t quite believe that this was Happy Forever or Happy For Now.

So the structure and timeline of the book was really what kept pulling me out. But I loved how Kerry and her best friend Val interacted and how Jesse and his brothers interacted and also how this book really tried to break down the stereotype that knitting is to be looked down on because it is a “feminine” or “soft” activity. And the local ladies who come for the knitting group are too adorable. Jackson also notes that keeping the shop open pushes back against gentrification. Yes, the brothers could sell the shop and building and make a little money….but then the neighborhood loses another Black-owned small business and another anchor in the community. You really get to see how much the shop means to everyone.

Real Men Knit is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.
stuff I read

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Summary from Goodreads:

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.

I read the plot description for Beach Read in the catalog several months ago and was just YES, I CAN HAZ GALLEY? Blocked romance writer and “srs bsns” lit fic writer make a bet about who can write and sell a novel written in the other person’s genre PLUS a rom-com? As Jen Prokop would say, “PUT IT IN MY VEINS!!”

I loved it. This is the melding of what seems like MANY discussions I’ve heard or seen of taken part in about literary fiction vs. romance fiction combined with an actual Romance Story. When January and Gus spar over assumptions of each others’ work those are literal conversations I have witnessed, then they start to break down the barriers. Which is great. Because for those of us who read both types (and all types) of fiction there is no “better” genre. Each genre does different things and sometimes they overlap and sometimes they have really eye-watering tropes. And I think Emily Henry does a good job giving us two characters who have to work through some prejudices toward each others’ work.

Along the way we are treated to a wonderful second-chance, enemies-to-lovers, forced-proximity (those two houses are REAL close to each other) with a bet – and there’s a road trip with what seems like only one sleeping bag, so it hits about sixteen versions of romance catnip for me – romance between January and Gus (and I just realized there’s a matchmaking auntie couple in this book, ALL MY CATNIP, I love it). But these two writers aren’t just having garden-variety adorable writers’ block. They’re each dealing with some very hard real-life issues. January’s father has died and left her the beach house – but it also seems like this is the house where he was having an affair while January’s mother was battling cancer. This revelation has blind-slided January who thought that her parents had an ideal in-it-forever marriage. Gus is working through the dissolution of his marriage (which is a teensy spoiler, but I don’t do cheating romances so I consider this a public service to let you know that his wife has left him prior to the start of the book) and underlying issues left from parental abuse. January and Gus work through all of this in their writing and through their relationship with each other.

Beach Read released last week, so you should be able to pick up a copy wherever you buy your books.

TW: death of a parent (off page, but January’s very much processing her grief/revelations about her father’s life in this book), past abuse by a parent (off page, but alluded to), cheating by a spouse/partner.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but I’m gonna buy a copy because I love it that much.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

8880488Summary from Goodreads:
This is New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Crusie’s novel about long shots, risk management, true love, and great shoes. . . .

Minerva Dobbs knows how to work the odds.
Calvin Morrisey always plays to win.

But when they face off, neither one is prepared.
Because when real life meets true love, all bets are off. . . .

Minerva Dobbs knows that happily-ever-after is a fairy tale, especially with a man who asked her to dinner to win a bet, even if he is gorgeous and successful Calvin Morrisey. Cal knows commitment is impossible, especially with a woman as cranky as Min Dobbs, even if she does wear great shoes and keep him on his toes. When they say good-bye at the end of their evening, they cut their losses and agree never to see each other again.

But fate has other plans, and it’s not long before Min and Cal meet again. Soon they’re dealing with a jealous ex-boyfriend, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a determined psychologist, chaos theory, a freakishly intelligent cat, Chicken Marsala, and more risky propositions than either of them ever dreamed of. Including the biggest gamble of all—true love.

Bet Me has been on my very long Romance TBR forever but Sarah and Jen at Fated Mates finally tipped me over the edge. I loved it. Cal and Min are fantastic and their surrounding group of friends are just a hoot. It’s basically a fairy-tale disguised as a rom-com so that’s a solid intersection of my interests – plus many, many little tidbits in this book have direct correlations to 90s rom-com movies starting with the Julia Roberts Movie Playlist for Diana’s wedding. Even the ending to “the bet” turns out in an extremely screwball rom-com fashion.

I would have been forced to poison all the parents tho, YIKES. Min’s mom is EXTREMELY fatphobic and the heroine has internalized a lot of negative body image so if those things are triggering for you this may be one to skip. But Cal is basically “you’re attractive as fuck just as you are also we should eat good food because eating is pleasure” so I’m down with him. (I also read a review that was really critical about how much chicken marsala is eaten by the characters, especially Min, and clearly that person has never found their absolute favorite food or had their favorite dish at a favorite restaurant ever.)

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this on my Nook because the library is closed to the public and they didn’t have a copy on Overdrive. (Which, by the way, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ST. MARTIN’S – the ebook is $11.99 and the paperback is $25.99, for a book first published in 2004. This is how you price a book out of circulation. I’m a bookseller – if I get a trade paperback (and the current cover is awful, yo) into the store to sell and it’s priced $25.99 and NOT 1500 pages long or an academic title it won’t sell. Because a romance reader can buy 2-4 books for that price.)

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Say No to the Duke by Eloisa James (The Wildes of Lindow Castle #4)

40220892Summary from Goodreads:
One little wager will determine their fate—a daring escape or falling into temptation with a rakish lord.

Lady Betsy Wilde’s first season was triumphant by any measure, and a duke has proposed—but before marriage, she longs for one last adventure.

No gentleman would agree to her scandalous plan—but Lord Jeremy Roden is no gentleman. He offers a wager. If she wins a billiards game, he’ll provide the breeches.

If he wins…she is his, for one wild night.

But what happens when Jeremy realizes that one night will never be enough? In the most important battle of his life, he’ll have to convince Betsy to say no to the duke.

I started reading Say No to the Duke as a galley last year and just couldn’t get into it. So I put it aside. I’m glad I did because I think it was a case of “it’s not the book, it’s me” – for whatever reason, it just wasn’t grabbing me and since I don’t get paid to review, I hit pause.

Since Eloisa’s next Wilde installment Say Yes to the Duke is due out this month, I picked this back up. I really liked it. The plot is mostly internal, with both Betsy and Jeremy having to deal with some mental stuff before they can truly come together (Betsy, the internalized misogyny that sexual desire means she’s going to abandon her family like her mother did; Jeremy, his guilt over the deaths of his men in battle and his ongoing struggle with PTSD). They bicker delightfully, especially at the beginning. There is some external plot that feels shoehorned in to tie-up a plotbunny at the end but that’s minimal. The auction scene is a treat.

I would definitely like a book for Aunt Knowe (ok, so her first name is Louisa and the family last name is Wilde and she’s the duke’s twin sister….so if she hadn’t ever married (or married a commoner) she would be Lady Louisa or (at a stretch) Lady Wilde, not Aunt or Lady Knowe. Am I missing something??? She’s a fun character and there’s definitely a story there!!)

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley sent to my store by the publisher but I also had a copy I preordered on my Nook last year (so I could have read that, too, I guess).