London Celebrities Series: Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

Lucy Parker is TWO for TWO! Buy this one!

Pretty Face follows the contemporary romance that I hope you’ve already read, Act Like It, in Parker’s London Celebrities series and she continues to mix clever writing and emotional sincerity to gain engaging, recommendable results. Herewith the only note I took while reading, “wonderfully sarcastic”; although, I highlighted several passages, such as, “It’s a lost art, condescension. Most workplaces are so PC these days that you just don’t get patronized in quite the same way.” and “The house looked like an interplanetary prison.”

Set in London’s theatre sub-culture, Pretty Face is the marriage of convenience story of a lauded and difficult director, Luc Savage, and a classical actor trapped in the body, and specifically the sex kitten voice, of a successful soap opera performer. Convinced to let Lily Lamprey audition to play Elizabeth I in the production of a new play at a theatre he owns and has renovated, Luc learns that despite her vocal challenges which are, of course, addressable, Lily is a very good actor who wants to live up to her potential and have a more serious career.

[starter pistol fires]

Luc and Lily are both caught off guard by their instant connection and the sense of rightness in it what they each feel. He’s older, 40, and recently out of a long-term relationship he has realised he wasn’t really all that invested in. She’s 26 and trying to get her future on the right track. A romantic entanglement (gossip) might help the box office, but the press is already setting her up for failure and sleeping with her boss is not going to help her reputation. It doesn’t matter. They belong together. Of course, they do.

As Lily, Luc, and the rest of the theatre company work towards opening night, things go awry on and off stage providing professional and personal challenges, and sometimes both. It’s a deftly written, witty ride and Parker combines bright, prickly people with a sincere romanticism that works really well. The reality in romances might be heightened but when the emotions are grounded, it brings these novels to the level I think most readers hope for.

Enjoyable isn’t really the right word for Parker’s portrayal of the relentless sexism that Lily puts up with in her life as a goddess often assumed to have the brain of a beetroot, but the way she endures the constant onslaught was a fantastic character detail. Women are accustomed to being patronized, Lily is used to rising above the constant disrespect that is amplified by being a public/tabloid figure with a beautiful, voluptuous appearance.

Please buy this book and help make sure Lucy Parker gets to keep writing.

Wait.

WAIT!

I lied.

I did make one other note while reading: “Jesus!” when I read the description of the hero, “Luc Savage looked like Gregory Peck, circa some dapper time between Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird. There was more bulk in the shoulders, silver in the hair and darkness in the soul; otherwise, the resemblance was uncanny.” These are all very good things.

I spoke English for a living for several years, as an adult ESL teacher, and watched Roman Holiday with a few of my classes. Once or twice, or every time, my students may have heard a “Good lord,” from my place at the back of the classroom while watching. I’m not made of stone.

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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 to which I will be adding Pretty Face soon after clicking “Publish”.

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The Ravenels: Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas

“He smelled like an expensive forest.”
The goddess of romance writers, Lisa Kleypas, has not lost her clever touch.

What starts as potential ruination and scandal quickly changes into a fierce love match when Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, and Lady Pandora Ravenel are caught in a compromising position when her dress is caught in the scroll work of a settee at exactly the wrong moment. Encouraged, but not badgered, by her family, Pandora agrees to spend time with her erstwhile seducer despite her very strong and laudable resistance to marriage and her complete loss of civil rights and public identity the moment she becomes someone’s wife. She has plans for a business and doesn’t want to be subsumed by her relationship with a man. Gabriel, on the other hand, is damn sure he wants her to be his wife almost immediately and is eager and willing to accommodate her need to be her own person, if that is what she needs. Huzzah! Things proceed quickly apace with one of those nonsensically condensed romance novel timelines and they are married mere weeks later. Why a young woman who was reluctant to marry would turn around and storm the altar is beyond me, but sure.

The best of the Ravenel series so far, Devil in Spring is still not up to the standard readers are accustomed to from Lisa Kleypas. As in the preceding two books, there were some uncomfortable elements which I did not remember from her earlier works. I went so far as to check a couple of Kleypas books (one Wallflower and one Hathaway) for the patronizing and infantilizing details that caught my eye here. They were absent in those books and especially jarring in this one where so much of Pandora’s character is built around her avowed need for self-direction and independent regard; for example,

  1. “Easy child…”
  2. “Poor mite.”
  3. “…and tuck you in like a good little girl” (after a sex scene)
  4. “…good girl…”
  5. “Be a good girl today…”
  6. “her fist closing in a fold of Gabriel’s shirt like a baby’s”

It’s not just that he sometimes talks to her like a child and always seems to know best, though I don’t appreciate that, it’s that he does it in juxtaposition with their very adult sexual relationship. Additionally, there is a love scene with dubious consent. I understand that the heroes of these books are meant to be seductive and alluring, but in one particular interaction, it was very clear to me that Pandora was reluctant and unwilling to participate in a sexual act. What I had hoped it would be a moment about a completely inexperienced young woman being given time to adjust to new activities turned into a standard, “I promise you’ll like it,” and Gabriel continuning after she has pushed him away. What the hell?

On a more charming note, yes, the reader does get time with Gabriel’s parents, the incomparable Evie and Sebastian, and their family gets a last name. I am hoping that Gabriel’s sister Phoebe, last seen as a screaming infant in Mine Till Midnight, gets her own story, although I will be reluctant to pay for it at this point. The Ravenel books are 0.5 for 3  and while I keep reading and hoping, Kleypas hasn’t yet provided a consistently enjoyable read in her return to historical romance.

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.

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The Weight of It All by N.R. Walker

The Weight of It All was one of those quietly enjoyable reads that are hard to review. It was wonderfully simple and just plain nice. In this contemporary romance set in Sydney Australia, two sweet people fall in love in a funny and engaging romance short on drama and long on kindness.

Freshly dumped and taking his ex’s parting salvo of “old and fat” to heart, Henry Beckett and picks himself up and ventures to the local gym to see what he can do about the jerk’s evaluation. Assigned Reed Henske as his personal trainer, and motivational Thor, the two men instantly hit it off and proceed in an orderly and realistic manner towards a loving, long-term relationship.

Henry is very funny and self-deprecating in that way all those of us who don’t have the best filters have learned to be. Reed appreciates him and is able to play along as he quietly pursues Henry and waits for him to notice. Both he and Reed just want to be seen and accepted for their true selves. The supporting players were strong and I appreciated that they represented parallels in the men’s lives.

I have no real complaints about The Weight of It All other than that it didn’t really feel like anything was at stake. Given that it’s a genre with strictly prescribed outcomes, it’s safe to say that nothing ever is, but conveying a sense of urgency in the story is part of the writer’s obligation, but even that sounds far more critical than I mean it to. It’s a lovely story and it made me excited in a fluttery and goofy way for Henry and Reed when things went well and that is something I look for in the romance novels and don’t often get.

N.R. Walker has a large back catalogue, so I have already downloaded several more free e-books and, depending on how those go, I will be glad to make my way through her published works. Most of her novels are about gay couples and I sincerely hope they follow the same path as The Weight of It All by avoiding the LGBTQ “gay for you”romance  trope in which a story element is the exploration of sexual orientation as opposed to just two people falling in love.

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. I have a list of LGBTQ romances, too.

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Scoring Chances: Power Play by Avon Gale

My quest for good romance continues with a book recommended to me on Pajiba my online home away from home.

Max Ashford’s career in the NHL was cut short when a checking accident on the ice left him with compromised peripheral vision. Working on a career behind the bench, he joins head coach Misha Samarin with the Spartanburg Spitfires in South Carolina. It’s an ECHL team – meaning a double A hockey franchise that acts as a feeder to the minors and, with any luck for the players, to the NHL itself. The pay isn’t great, but Max is paying his dues and Misha is financially secure after a long career playing for the NHL. He also happens to be the opponent who was involved in Max’s career ending injury.

Chosen for the potential publicity resulting from their NHL encounter, the Spitfire’s unscrupulous  owner hires them for  the losingest team in the league. Neither man is thrilled and only Misha is still carrying any baggage from the accident, but he and Max slowly pull the players into a solid team. Along the way they, of course, fall in love.

Overall, I enjoyed Power Play. The lead characters were both interesting and likeable, Max in particular is adorable, and Gale alternated between their perspectives really well, including Misha’s excellent, but not perfect English. For drama, the story had Misha’s angst over many elements in his past including what he had to do to get away from his monster of a father and safely out of Russia. A gay man who has largely closeted himself, he has some issues to work through and is a brooder. Cheerful, easygoing Max, on the other hand, has recently realised he is bisexual and while the attraction to Misha surprises him, he’s not fighting any battles against it, or anything else.

With Power Play, I am again wondering where I can find a romance in which both leads are just, if you’ll excuse the pun, straight up bisexual or gay. Why does this kind of relationship have to be new to one or both of the men involved? Why can’t they both have have comfortably dated men in the past? I don’t need sexual initiation scenes. I just want to read a love story about two people finding their match without drama surrounding their orientation. Having looked at other books in the series, it seems each pairing suffers from this same syndrome so I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of them. Fortunately, the same lovely person who suggested this book provided me with a long list of other LBGTQ romances to try, so I will be moving on to another novel soon.

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. I have a list of LGBTQ romances, too.

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Brooklyn Bruisers: Hard Hitter by Sarina Bowen

Sarina Bowen burst into my romance reading life in 2015 with her Ivy Years series and my discovery happily coincided with her career taking off. This has provided me with lots of reading material. Though none of her more recent books have captured the magic of those first ones I read (Blonde Date is a perfect novella), I am continuing to buy her books; however as the prices have gone up, my interest is going down. It’s one thing to be a $5 author, it’s another to be an $8 or $10 one. At this point, only Laura Florand, Lisa Kleypas, and Courtney Milan are in the latter category. I don’t want them to be lonely, I really don’t, though, to be fair, I used to have a job where I earned scads of AmEx points and consequently didn’t have to actually pay for a book for several years. It’s made me spoiled and cantankerous, but I digress.

Patrick O’Doul is the captain and enforcer on the new NHL franchise team the Brooklyn Bruisers. Purchased by a tech billionaire as a hobby, the young team is getting its skates under itself and the assorted employees are falling in love as the book series grows. Patrick’s love interest is a massage therapist for the team (I can’t remember, but I’m assuming that there is more than one for all those men) and he has been reluctant to let her, or anyone for that matter, lay hands on him.

Ari Bettini is devoted to her job with the hockey team, traveling and training with them as necessary, and it provides focus away from her long-term relationship that recently went completely sideways before crashing into a wall and bursting into flames. When she finally gets Patrick on her massage table to address his hip issue, sparks quickly fly. The two become involved and complications naturally ensue which lead, as well they ought, to a happily ever after for the couple.

Patrick  worships the ground Ari walks on and I while I love an unapologetically besotted hero, it wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that many elements of Hard Hitter felt under-explored or oversimplified. Patrick was a bit of a cipher with a cursory backstory insufficiently fleshed out to give his portrayal true heft. It was the “that poor man has secret pain” approach to character development which Bowen has fallen back on in other books as well. Ari suffers from the opposite problem.  She has been given too much baggage, but the result is similarly underplayed. He ex-boyfriend’s behavior changed greatly towards the close of their relationship and the escalation to threats of violence not only from him but from thugs he is associated with should have been a lot more traumatic for her. If either Ari or Patrick’s experiences had been more thoroughly addressed, it would have benefited the story.

After Hard Hitter and even with my qualms, I will still read the next Sarina Bowen book, but on sale or from my library. I just won’t be paying full price again until she writes a more satisfying book.

Sarina Bowen’s Catalogue gives an overview of her published works . 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.

No Better Angels Series: The Secret Heart by Erin Satie

I received The Secret Heart in a gift exchange for the Cannonball Read which is an online book club I belong to. It was selected for me by my “romance twin“, the fellow reader with whom I most often agree on books. It was interesting.

From Amazon: Adam, Earl of Bexley, lives to work. His only relief is the sordid savagery of bare-knuckle boxing. Not women, and definitely not a disreputable, scheming woman who dances in secret with such passion…Caro Small is desperate to escape her selfish family. Her only chance is a good marriage, and she intends to marry Adam—whether he likes it or not. But the more she schemes to entrap him, the more she risks trapping her own heart.

Despite that description, and having read hundreds of romances, The Secret Heart was a change of pace. The tropes and expected genre twists were still present, but Erin Satie balanced historical reality and choices that skewed a bit differently from most. Starting with a hero who is of less than average height and leads whose private pursuits are unusual, but understandable and give personality insight, it was the character elements I enjoyed most.

“Don’t look down, little bird.”

In terms of types, romance heroines are victims of circumstance or a wallflower, sometimes both. Caro needs to make an advantageous match to save her mostly undeserving family from financial ruin. She is very young, 17, and was raised by her father’s mistress whom he had planted in their household as a governess. This combination of family dysfunction and the older woman’s grooming have resulted in Caro being naturally calculating in her pursuits. Often, the victim of circumstance type is reduced to “poor thing”, but I really enjoyed the notion that Caro had been shaped into a basically well-intentioned, but crafty, quietly scheming individual.

Almost equally as compelling as Caro’s character is Adam’s. Eking out what freedom he can in his (exalted) lot in life, he may fall into the Protector hero type, but he is a Victim of Circumstance as much as Caro is. With an aggressively autocratic father, Adam is still young enough at 19 to be figuring out how to secure his own independence and to make good as much of an escape as is possible for someone in his world. In this, Adam and Caro fit together well, but their respective thorns make it far from comfortable despite their attraction and sincerity.

Satie writes well and with style, but the Adam and Caro’s story never really caught me emotionally. Their youth, while likely realistically in keeping with the setting, was a distraction to me as I considered both of them, especially Caro, children and I don’t want to read about sexually active characters that young. Written with both high stakes and a healthy dose of melodrama, The Secret Heart caught my attention more as an engaging experiment in romance than as an involving read. I’m not planning to follow up with the other novels in the No Better Angels series.

Sidebar with [SPOILER]: In the story’s final act, Adam asks Caro to be his mistress and he will reject his familial obligations in favour of their relationship. I have long wanted this to happen in a romance and Satie’s writing had been interesting enough that I hoped the plot would resolve itself in this way, but the ending took a turn for the traditional. It’s a shame since their lives will be a gilded cage and it would have been lovely for Adam and Caro to achieve genuine autonomy.

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.

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My Favourite/Favorite Romance Novel Heroes and Heroines

There are books and novellas that I recommend. There are novels I loathed.

Inspired by a commenter’s request, these are my favourite romance novel heroes and heroines, and I have a separate post for my couples. Ranking them would take too long, so I haven’t.

If you’re uncertain, I suggest leaning towards the couples list for a starting point.

Favourite Heroes

Ashley, Jennifer Many Sins of Lord Cameron  – GUILTY PLEASURE
Ashley, Jennifer The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie
Balogh, Mary Only Enchanting
Bowen, Sarina The Understatement of the Year M/M clarification: Graham
Callihan, Kristen The Game Plan
Dare, Tessa Three Nights with a Scoundrel
Dare, Tessa A Week to Be Wicked
Enoch, Suzanne The Rake
Florand, Laura The Chocolate Touch
Florand, Laura The Chocolate Temptation
Gabaldon, Diana Outlander  OBVIOUSLY, plus the series
Kelly, Carla Libby’s London Merchant
Kelly, Carla The Surgeon’s Lady
Kleypas, Lisa Where Dreams Begin
Kleypas, Lisa Lady Sophia’s Lover
Kleypas, Lisa Secrets of a Summer Night – Top 5 Hero
Kleypas, Lisa The Devil in Winter 
Kleypas, Lisa Tempt Me at Twilight  TWO REVIEWS
Kleypas, Lisa Smooth Talking Stranger
Lauren, Christina Wicked Sexy Liar
Linden, Caroline Blame It on Bath
Long, Julie Anne What I Did for a Duke  CLASSIC
Milan, Courtney Unveiled – I’d marry him.
Milan, Courtney Unraveled FAVE
Milan, Courtney A Kiss for Midwinter  CLASSIC
Quinn, Julia An Offer from a Gentleman
Zapata, Mariana Kulti 

My Favourite Heroines

Bryce, Megan To Tame a Dragon
Chase, Loretta Lord of Scoundrels  CLASSIC
Dare, Tessa One Dance with a Duke
Florand, Laura The Chocolate Touch
Gabaldon, Diana Outlander  OBVIOUSLY, plus the series
Heyer, Georgette Venetia
Jenkins, Beverly Indigo She’s amazing.
Kleypas, Lisa The Devil in Winter 
Kleypas, Lisa Scandal in the Spring 
Kleypas, Lisa Mine till Midnight – I’d marry her.
Lauren, Christina Beautiful Player
Milan, Courtney This Wicked Gift
Milan, Courtney The Countess Conspiracy
Milan, Courtney The Suffragette ScandalI want to be her.
Quinn, Julia Romancing Mr. Bridgerton 
Quinn, Julia It’s In His Kiss
Reid, Penny Neanderthal Seeks Human
Thorne, Sally The Hating Game CLASSIC

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.

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