Category Archives: book reviews

Practice Perfect Series: Hard Knocks by Ruby Lang

I feel so on trend! It’s another love story with a concussion plot point as I continue to recover from one.

Acute Reactions was a well-written romance with some comeheregoaway issues in the plotting. It’s looking like a consistent issue with Ruby Lang, but it’s a minor quibble, I really enjoy her dry, funny style, and will be looking for her books. Hard Knocks has less of the vacillation issues and, from what I’ve read of the third book, Clean Breaks, it’s stronger still.

Transplanted Canadian Helen Chang Frobisher is a reasonably newly minted neurologist who has gone into practice with her friends Petra (Acute Reactions) and Sarah (Clean Breaks). When Helen consults on a concussed hockey player from Portland’s sad-sack Oregon Wolves team, she meets Adam Magnus. He’s not the concussed player, he’s at the hospital with his teammate. Helen and Adam are into each other and they share an incendiary one night stand.  She bolts, he’s disappointed, and they move on.

Except that Helen’s visits her family in the Okanagon Valley where her father is sick and declining from Atypical Parkinsons disease. Distressed and aware of the negative impact of repeated head injuries, though she is unable to confirm this is what happened to her dad, she decides to write an editorial suggesting Portland ban hockey for player safety. Adam responds and the two find themselves in public forum discussions about the issue at the same time as Helen is fighting her attraction to him for all she’s worth.

While he’s not fighting the attraction, Adam is dealing with his declining career and what to do next with his life. He’s a really great guy, seemingly perfect at first, but Lang provides excellent background details to let the reader understand how he has gotten where he is. He knows he’s not one of the greats and his hockey playing days are numbered, but he needs to keep his job as he figures out what he’s going to do with the next phase of his life.

Ruby Lang’s writing is really strong when presenting the reality of getting a career/adult life going and the distraction that falling in love can represent. Love, like life, finds a way, but it’s nice to see work being an obstacle to togetherness and emotional availability.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author and Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful, or on my  streamlined recommendations list.

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London Celebrities Series: The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

YAY! Lucy Parker is back with another wry, gratifying, and witty romance featuring a difficult man and a delightful woman.

Freddy Carlton is theatre royalty, descended from generations of performers and the granddaughter of the playwright of a seminal masterpiece called The Velvet Room. Poised to move into the highest ranks of Serious Acting, she’d rather do work that brings joy to herself and others. We met her as a late teen in Pretty Face and she is now a full adult, though only 23. With her father strong-arming her career from youthful roles towards mature glory, a showdown is coming.

J. Ford-Griffin (Griff) is a theatre historian, critic for one of the serious London papers, and family gatekeeper for a cluster of privileged eccentrics. Acerbic and observant, the reader first meets him as Freddy overhears his incisive and insightful review of her latest stage turn. She can enjoy his wit, even as she is discomfited by his seemingly innate understanding of her ambivalence towards the state of her career. Her exuberance makes him equally uncomfortable, but he gets used to it.

Conveniently, Freddy gets cast in a Jane Austen murder mystery/choose your own adventure play to be performed at the family manor Griff is trying to save from ruin. The live broadcast will provide income for the estate and the weeks of rehearsal mean Freddy and Griff will get lots of chances to find themselves thrown together.  Running alongside this marriage of convenience is a subplot involving a passionate affair between Griff and Freddy’s grandparents. Family secrets and discoveries play a large role in bringing the leads together and complicating the hell out of their relationship to threaten their public and private lives.

Particularly good at both prickly banter and showing the soft underbellies of her characters, Parker provides sparkling acrimony and intimate recognition between Freddy and Griff.  One moment I really enjoyed was Freddy telling Griff not to be so high-handed when speaking to her. Arch verbal repartee is all well and good, but  a real relationship requires sincere interaction.

The live televised theatre production and family histories provide a ready supply of potential sturm and drang  throughout The Austen Playbook. As Freddy and Griff become a couple, they move themselves into the eye of the storm and an entertaining relationship.  I sometimes find it hard to believe that a man this high in the instep could be quite so demonstrative in his affections, but that’s the wish fulfillment part of the genre.

London Celebrities Series:
Act Like It – SO GOOD!
Pretty Face – EVEN BETTER!
Making Up – Good, I’ll get to a review, I have re-read it
The Austen Playbook – see above

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author and Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful, or on my  streamlined recommendations list.

The Ravenels: Devil’s Daughter – The Ravenels Meet the Wallflowers by Lisa Kleypas

The Ravenels series by Lisa Kleypas series has turned into “Sebastian and Evie’s Kids Get Hitched” and I am not complaining, Devil’s Daughter has the trademark Kleypas elements of wit, charm, a compelling hero, and delightful smolder. I’m just going to  assume you are familiar with all of the books and characters that feed into this one. 

Readers first met Phoebe, Lady Clare, as a squalling infant in one of my favourite Sebastian, Lord Saint Vincent moments from any of his appearances: “There, darling,” St. Vincent had been known to coo into the infant’s ear. “Has someone displeased you? Ignored you? Oh, the insolence. My poor princess shall have anything she wants…” 

Phoebe has grown up, married, had children, and been widowed by our next encounter with her. She’s stayed with her parents for two years while she grieves and is about to move back to her son’s estate and start dowagering for all she ‘s worth. She just needs to get through her brother’s wedding at her sister-in-law’s family estate which is managed by [cue trumpets] West Ravenel.

First introduced as a dissolute charmer, West was a spoiled and bored man-child who found unexpected redemption in a purpose in life. His is the book I have most looked forward to in the series and Kleypas has done very well here. Phoebe is instantly impressed by West as a lovely bit o’crumpet, but soon recognizes him as the bully who beset her husband at school. He’s sorry, she forgives, he performs protestations of unworthiness, and the dance begins. Sebastian makes frequent appearances remaining perfect into his sixties. Evie is around, too, being all serene, maternal, and irresistible to her husband.

I don’t know if Kleypas was consciously responding to criticisms of the previous Ravenel entries, but Devil’s Daughter is BY FAR the best of the bunch and most successfully abandons the outdated tropes in the four previous novels. Any problems I had investing in the story  because of disappointment brought with me from the previous installments, was likely entirely my issue and not the story or writing. Sebastian and West are a bit too idealized, but Kleypas is gonna Kleypas. It’s a genre based on hot men and wish fulfillment, and, let’s be honest, I am going to keep buying her books. This is was the first book in the series I have revisited or exclaimed “YAY!” at the end of.

I would love to visit more of the Wallflowers, surely I’m not the only one who would gladly climb Simon Hunt like a tree, but there is another Ravenel daughter who is up next with a mystery man and ruthless, self-made gazillionaire Tom Severin. He’s floated on the periphery in Ravenels books and even his closest friends don’t trust him so it should be interesting.  I’m getting a Harry Rutledge/Tempt Me at Twilight vibe from him and that is very promising.

Captious Aside: There is no way on God’s Green Earth that Sebastian would allow himself to be called “Gramps”.

Ravenels Series:

  1. Cold-Hearted Rake – I can’t remember anything about it. Wait! She has dark hair.
  2. Marrying Winterbourne – Self-made man who  physically intimidates his beloved.
  3. Devil in Spring – Best to this point, but there’s a scene of questionable consent.
  4. Hello Stranger – Dated tropes

A complete summary of Lisa Kleypas’s catalogue, with recommendations (two classics and one of my personal favourites), can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

Practice Perfect Series: Acute Reactions by Ruby Lang

Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve read a contemporary romance that featured neither so-called new adults, nor athletes?

There is so much to like in Ruby Lang’s Acute Reactions that I could get past what I thought needed work; however, I would like some reassurance that the same structural problems  aren’t found in all of her books.

Instead of starting out with an established medical group, allergist Petra Lale has opened her own practice right after completing her training. Ian Zamora co-owns a successful restaurant and needs allergy shots to cope with his girlfriend’s cat. Things go sideways for him when he visits her practice and is instantly captivated by Petra. She has the same reaction, but her Hippocratic oath provides a road block.

Establishing their careers, Acute Reactions’ leads are driven people. It is their main priority and Lang reflects just what that means for their home lives and romantic entanglements. Ian and Petra are likable, upright, engaging characters in their early thirties. Their motivations and backstories are clear and, while not belaboured, do well to explain their personalities and reactions. Petra should be horrified and distracted by becoming involved with a patient. Ian’s counterbalance is that, as a product of discord, he tries to resolve issues for those around him, acting as peacekeeper.  Their stumbling blocks are significant and believable, but being young and healthy,  love, like life, finds a way.

Lang’s writing is charming and she creates excellent smolder. My challenge with Acute Reactions was the plotting issue of Petra’s repeated comeheregoaway response to her relationship. New couples can go through ups and downs, but she had a retractable leash tied to Ian. He’s smitten, she’s wary, they collide, she runs away. It got old. I shouldn’t be thinking, “maybe these two should just move on”,  while reading a romance; in fact the conceit was repeated enough times, that I was reluctant to start on the next two books in the series Hard Knocks and Clean Breaks . I did because I bought the Practice Perfect trilogy as a set, but I’m giving each of them some side-eye.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

Brooklyn Bruisers Series: Brooklynaire by Sarina Bowen

Brooklynaire was my first DNF of 2019. The story angered me enough that I  both jumped ahead and checked with a friend to see if its glaring blind spot was addressed. It wasn’t and I gave up.

Long Version: Sarina Bowen is a strong romance writer whose work can be uneven and, more importantly, problematic, but I keep reading her books. The Ivy Years series is truly excellent and includes a classic novella, Blonde Date; however, the last novel (The Fifteenth Minute) is, at best, tone-deaf. Co-written with Elle Kennedy, Bowen’s Wags series has similar issues and while I enjoyed Good Boy, in spite of questionable elements, I did not like Stay owing to some love scene issues and the way they blatantly excuse sexual harassment.

In short, Sarina Bowen is a good example of “YMMV’. But none of her usual items were my challenge with Brooklynaire. In it, a workplace romance between a billionaire boss and his operations manager takes off after years of longing and covertly enjoying each other’s scents. I don’t like the boss/employee trope, but I do like a marriage of convenience plot, so I overlooked it and started reading.

Nate is a self-made billionaire who, from a tech startup, has built an empire which now includes a Brooklyn hockey franchise.  Seven years ago, he hired Rebecca to run his small, but rapidly growing office and her role has evolved with the company. Secretly in love with each other, when Rebecca gets a concussion, she and Nate finally start to connect.

Ensuring she gets the care she requires, Nate supports and sends gifts to Rebecca as she recovers in the apartment she shares with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and their new baby. Realizing Rebecca needs calm, Nate asks her to come and stay at his giant house. It is a generous and logical progression of the marriage of convenience set up: She moves in, their long simmering interest boils over into a steamy encounter, love blooms, tra la la, the end,  were it not for this flashback to when Rebecca is first hired:

“Salary,” Stew mutters, and Nate makes a reply. Stew nods. “What about stock options?”

Nate’s nose wrinkles “Nah, not for the clerical staff.”

Whatever Rebecca thinks. She isn’t really sure what stock options are, but what she needs right now is a real paycheck, anyway.

Reading Note: Eff you, this better get fixed.

Reviewer’s Note: It doesn’t.

Rebecca has worked for Nate for seven years from a tiny startup to a multi-billion dollar corporation. He has enough money to buy a hockey franchise and he has never, EVER, given Rebecca any stock options or any kind of remuneration appropriately recognizing her contributions. What a dick!  She should be a millionaire. At the very least, she should be able to afford a larger apartment and not worry about her medical bills. This bullshit story decision was made to perpetuate the uneven power dynamic between the two leads. Why couldn’t they be more equal? Rebecca could still come and stay with Nate. Billionaire heroes aren’t my favourite to begin with and sending flowers is nice, but insanely successful bosses who don’t reward the staff that has been intrinsic to their success take a sledge-hammer to my willing suspension of disbelief. Nate was unredeemable, so I quit.

Reviewer’s Fun Fact: I read this book about a woman with a concussion while I had one myself which was pretty challenging. Rebecca’s was much milder than mine and while I started this review at 9 weeks in, I am finishing it at 16 weeks  since screen work is my biggest challenge; thus, even if Brooklynaire is lousy, at least it helped me track my progress.

Sarina Bowen’s Catalog

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

Even with a wink to romance standards, this cover is ridiculous:

The Holidays Series: The Stocking Was Hung, Cupid Has a Heart-On, The Firework Exploded, & The Bunny is Coming by Tara Sivec

Tara Sivec caught my eye on a romance newsletter with a book called Zed Had to Die. I started with a sample and got sucked into buying the entirety of The Stocking Was Hung because I am a sucker for fabulously cheesy titles* and I had no idea what the writing would sink to. Sivec’s bailiwick looks to be romps and I’ll just say that I’m glad I got the rest of the books in the series on loan from Amazon Unlimited (or whatever it’s called). There were sufficient cheap laughs and just enough sincere romance to hold my attention for the first two books before I resorted to sliding through the last two.

The Holiday Series Set Up: A thirty-three year old woman, Noel (Noelle) Holiday, has run screaming from her boyfriend’s pre-Christmas proposal, lost her job, and is en route to Ohio for the holidays. Having to face her loving, intrusive, and judge-y family in her current state of disaster is something she dreads. Sitting in an airport bar feeling sorry for herself, she spills her beer on the man sitting next to her and discovers he is hot with a hotness that is hot and, since he, Sam Stocking, feels the same way about her, he agrees to pretend to be her boyfriend for Christmas. A marriage of convenience ensues which is, I admit, my favourite romance trope. They end up engaged by the end of book one, The Stocking Was Hung, officially engaged at the end of book two, Cupid Has a Heart-On, get married in book three, The Firework Exploded, and you can guess what happens with the fertility symbol in book four, The Bunny is Coming.

The four books progress from the marriage of convenience in The Stocking Was Hung through Big Misunderstandings in the last three books. Noel’s family is much more than promised in the set up and the forced frivolity gets ramped up and progressively more ridiculous. There’s a lot of literal and metaphorical flouncing and door slamming. When I started the series, I told myself to lean in to the farce. It’s not like the books took themselves seriously, so it wasn’t my job to either, but there was just so much nonsense; such as,

  1. Noel’s deranged, over sexed transgender aunt who immediately grabs the junk and then continues to sexually harasses every man she meets, offers everyone drugs, or provides unsolicited sex advice.
  2. Noel’s judgemental and over sexed mother who is either criticizing Noel or providing unsolicited bedroom antic advice and details about her own love life.
  3. Noel’s overprotective father who takes that old chestnut about not buying the cow when you can get the milk for free and turns it into a litany of dairy-based “keep your hands off my daughter” threats.
  4. Noel’s parents obsession with their daughter’s sex life and their own with a bizarre level of detail. It’s not romp-y, it’s creepy.
  5. Sam’s dudebro sexism and gay paranoia.
  6. Noel’s dudebro sexism and generally high-strung nature.

There was too much over-reaction from protagonists in their mid-thirties and her obnoxious family in order to drive the plot and it descended into ridiculousness that became painful. Or I’m a humourless cow. One of the two. Given the titles, I may have been expecting too much .

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.

*My review of Scrooge McFu*k is still pending.

The Stocking Was Hung (The Holidays #1) by [Sivec, Tara]

The Ravenels: Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

Is romance queen Lisa Kleypas’s current historical romance series old school, out-of-date, or both? She is four books into what looks to be a six book series and there hasn’t been a winner among them. I’m disappointed, but since her catalogue has so many great novels, and more than one classic, I will forge ahead and read the next one, too. Let’s review the Ravenels series so far, shall we?

Cold-Hearted Rake – I can’t remember anything about it. Wait! She has dark hair.
Marrying Winterbourne – Self-made man who intimidates his beloved.
Devil in Spring – Best to this point, but there’s a scene of questionable consent.

I want to begin by going back to Devil in Spring because it had an opening that I think encapsulates what Kleypas is missing for me these days. In the Prologue, Evie St. Vincent and her husband, Sebastian – the ultimate rake and wallflower pairing – engage in a flirtation after she bathes one of their grandchildren. Even as a joke with his wife, why is Sebastian making comments about taking advantage of servants working in his home? More importantly, the couple are are both still beautiful, youthful, and lithe, even after 30 years of marriage. Could they not have been touched by time in some way?  I don’t mind Sebastian’s preservation since romance trades in wish-fulfillment, but hers bothered me. I really wanted the narration to say that if Evie’s body had softened or changed, Sebastian had never noticed because that would be a sweet and romantic view of a long marriage. Instead, the reader is treated to the lissome and dashing, “everyone was beautiful forever” approach that I think of as old school romance that felt dated to me.

The kinds of heroes I remember from romance in the 1980s, 1990s, and, indeed, in earlier works by Lisa Kleypas, were always the best looking, the most skilled, insouciant in the face of pain or hardship,  perfectly in control paragons of taut masculinity. It’s what Hello Stranger has in Ethan and it kept making me cringe.  Strangely, conversely, Hello Stranger has a wonderfully modern gesture of a heroine, but I suppose at some point in this review I should provide a plot synopsis before I return to my regularly scheduled umbrage.

Garrett Gibson is the only Board Certified female doctor in England. In addition to her full-time job as an on-call physician for a large company, she volunteers her services in London’s slums. Trained in self-defense and armed with a walking stick, she has been successfully protecting herself, but, one night when things get rough, out of the darkness steps Ethan Ransom. Familiar to series readers as a likely Ravenel by-blow, he is a worthy man of somewhat ill repute working undercover for the government, and off the clock as Garrett’s watchdog. They bond over their shared love of hand-to-hand combat. He respects her strength, she falls for his everything.

To be more specific, Garrett simply swoons over Ethan’s “I was born and raised in North London, but my parents are from Ireland, so I have a brogue I try to hide” Irish accent. Kleypas messes up culturally a couple of times in this book, but his so-called accent consistently distracted and annoyed me. You know who else’s parents emigrated from Ireland? My husband’s. Does Mr. Julien have an Irish accent ? No, he does not because he GREW UP IN CONNECTICUT! More importantly, Kleypas’s “exotic accent” device reminded me of the aggravation of what I called the “Romany bullshit” in the Hathaways series. People who have not lived or spoken to other members of their cultural group since childhood recall its language, customs, and obscure medical knowledge. No. Ethan can be culturally Irish. He can’t be audibly so. I won’t even go into the esoteric sexual skills he learned from some sex guru in India. They tie into the outdated magnificent, stallion of a man, barely in control of his urges in presence of his beloved, and wise in the ways of pleasure character elements that also fall under the old school versus outdated question with which I began the review.

Given the level of frustration I’ve just described, I’m sure you can imagine that I do not recommend Hello Stranger. I will give Kleypas this: She finally has a book in which the hero does not give the heroine “the gentlest shake.” It’s about time.

A complete summary of Lisa Kleypas’s catalogue, with recommendations (two classics and one of my personal favourites), can be found here. Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful or my  streamlined recommendations list.