Tag Archives: book reviews

The Winston Brothers: Beard Science by Penny Reid

A friend and I have a running joke about Penny Reid that she is on probation with us, though we clearly keep reading her contemporary romances and seem to take turns actually paying for them. Reid was on secret probation, then double secret probation, then an unprecedented triple secret probation, before peeling back to regular probation and now she’s on “wait and see”status. That’s all a long walk to say that Reid’s work has been uneven, but can be very enjoyable when the elements in her books come together. The Winston Brothers series has two strong books, Beauty and the Mustache and Grin and Beard It, this decent one, and one outright disappointment in Truth or Beard.

TL:DR opening paragraph: Penny Reid can be very good, but she has just as many misses as hits.

From Amazon: Jennifer Sylvester wants one thing, and that one thing is NOT to be Tennessee’s reigning Banana Cake Queen. Ever the perpetual good girl and obedient daughter, Jennifer is buckling under the weight of her social media celebrity, her mother’s ambitions, and her father’s puritanical mandates…Cletus Winston is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery covered in conundrum sauce, and now he’s in a pickle. Despite being convinced of his own omniscience, extortion by the exalted Banana Cake Queen of Green Valley has taken him completely by surprise

The Winston men, Cletus, Beau, Billy, Jethro, Roscoe, and Duane, live in small town Tennessee and are the source of much of the hi-jinks that locally ensue. Their father was a hell-raiser, their mother a saint, and now that both have gone to their reward (jail for him, Heaven for her), the Winstons are moving on with settling down and finding love. Cletus is the family eccentric, an image he cultivates to hide both his intelligence and his sundry machinations. Unfortunately for him, Jennifer Sylvester is a people watcher who not only has Cletus’s number, but is willing to use it.

Living her life under her mother’s thumb and as a monument to what I believe is called “performative femininity”, Jennifer wants to improve her situation but isn’t necessarily seeking a complete emancipation. Looking to hone her dating skills and carve a measure of independence, she blackmails offers Cletus a marriage of convenience silence about her knowledge of his skullduggery in exchange for dating advice. He accepts, they fall in love, she frees herself, he smartens up. The End.

Neither a hit, nor really a miss, Beard Science was okay. I read it months ago and I while I’m pretty sure I liked it just fine, I have not revisited it at all, nor am I expecting to.  From what I can remember, I’m not sure I approved of Cletus’ shenanigans thwarting the local criminal element as they smacked of vigilantism. The fact that he has good intentions or knows best is no defense. There are other, better Penny Reid books out there and they are listed below.

Penny Reid’s Catalogue:

Knitting in the City Series:
Neanderthal Seeks Human – Strangely compelling
Friends Without Benefits – Meh
Neanderthal Marries Human – More strangely compelling
Love Hacked – Pretty darn good
Beauty and the Mustache – Really liked it
Ninja at First Sight – Cute-ish
Happily Ever Ninja – NOPE!

Winston Brothers Series:
Truth or Beard – too much comeheregoaway
Grin and Beard It – pretty darn good
Beard Science – please see above
Beard in Mind – not yet published
Dr. Strangebeard – not yet published
Beard Necessities– not yet published

Other:
Elements of Chemistry – Very frustrating, young adult romance
The Hooker and the Hermit – Loathed it, made me stabby

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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Sixty Five Hours by N.R. Walker

 

Sixty Five Hours was my third N.R. Walker romance in a short period of time. It’s about two gorgeous and successful people who have a short window of time to prepare an advertising campaign. As this is a contemporary kissing book with a marriage of convenience plot, virtually all of the preparation work falls to the men to complete and they undertake it at one of their homes.

A by-the-numbers romance very much in what I think of as the Harlequin vein, specifically whatever their spicy collection is called, Sixty-Five Hours was sufficiently entertaining and sexy for me to want to read more N.R. Walker books, but at the same time lacking a style punch which makes me want to pay more than $3 or$4 each, if I’m really interested. I can try to outline what I think of as harlequinesque, but it will sound like all of the standard romance tropes: Everyone is beautiful, practically perfect, and financially secure or will be soon enough; all challenges are resolved and tied up neatly with a bow; nothing seems to be at stake; and the characters move on to a white picket fence life. See? That’s many/most romances. There’s a brisk efficiency to them that I am trying and failing to capture.

Cameron and Lucas work together at a successful advertising agency owned by the latter’s father. They have a shot a landing the Lurex account (read: Durex) and, I think this may actually be realistic in advertising, the meeting is in 65 hours. The pair have a weekend alone to come up with and outline their proposal. Apparently, no one in the art department or any copy writers need to be included. What with this being a romance, Lucas is in the closet at work – and not that out of it elsewhere – and has been very interested in Cameron since he was scooped up by the agency four months ago. Lucas covets Cameron’s status as an out gay man, his charming demeanor, and his handsome form. Cameron, for his part, doesn’t know Lucas is gay and has confused his reticence with dislike.

Everything proceeds apace and as expected from the set up to the denouement. Cameron and Lucas become a couple, the pitch goes off perfectly, and Lucas comes out to his family.  Along the way, Walker generates some very nice heat between her leads and a believable, down-to-earth sexiness that is what will get me to read more of her books. We all know how romances proceed, it’s nature of the journey that makes all the difference.

Also by N.R. Walker are Learning to Feel which was much like this one and The Weight of It All which I really liked.

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 LGBTQIA romances, too.

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Would it have killed them to use a hyphen in sixty-five?

Learning to Feel by N.R.Walker

Short Version: Learning to Feel is a fairly  traditional contemporary romance that passed the time, but N.R. Walker’s plotting choices struck me as a bit much.

Long Version:

In a moment of common sense and self-preservation, sad-sack Nathan leaves his job as an ER doctor in Boston, to take a role in rural Maine. It’s a contract position that he hopes will get his life on track, help him work less, and includes free rent on a farmhouse. When Nathan arrives, he finds a painter finishing up the house and his world promptly turns to colour.

Trent is an itinerant artist working as a house painter to pay the bills. He and his loyal hound have been living at the farmhouse while he completes the effort for Nathan’s new digs. Trent is blonde, cute, and everything homophobic people fear. No, he’s not some raging stereotype, rather he is a gay man so magnetic that he has the Power of Conversion. Nathan has been hitherto not just straight, but essentially asexual. Trent’s arrival in his life is not just the gay-for-you trope, it’s I-am-born-anew-in-my-sexual-awakening! The world is transformed, my priorities have changed, I am a whole person now!

Other than the LGBTQ romance Trope of Conversion, Learning to Feel is a fairly standard story built around two nice people meeting and connecting as they do in so many kissing books. Their lives merge pretty seamlessly and Trent never seems to mind that Nathan basically takes over ownership of the dog. N.R. Walker is a decent writer who delivered a competent romance, although she has done much better work.

Question: Is the gay-for-you trope specific to romances about men falling in love that are written by and targeted to a readership made up of straight women?  Are there romance novels by and for gay men? What percentage of romance readership is male to begin with?

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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Wags Series: Good Boy by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

When the hero of Good Boy was introduced in Us, I referred to him as the World’s Largest Plot Moppet.  I was wrong, clearly he is the world’s biggest puppy. I have seen very mixed reviews of this contemporary romance as there are troubling elements at the same time as it is also frequently charming. YMMV, as the kids today say.

Blake Riley and Jessie Canning hooked up several months ago and while it was mutually satisfying, she isn’t looking for more. Brought together again for her brother’s wedding to Blake’s teammate (Wes and Jamie of Him and Us), Blake is eager to start something with Jess and willing to leverage more casual sex, if that will get things moving for them.

Jess has been a bit lost. In a career experiment she (successfully) planned her brother’s nuptials, but has decided that she actually wants to be a nurse. When she gets into university in Toronto, this contemporary New Adult sports romance moves where it just so happens that Blake is a forward for the hockey team standing in for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Returning to my puppy analogy, Blake is a big, friendly, loyal, and enthusiastic guy. He’s sincere but not terribly bright and, like your new Great Dane puppy, he tends to do things he oughtn’t and is forgiven by virtue of… I’m not sure what, because Blake does a couple of things with impunity that should be deal breakers  –

  1. After being set up to sleep on the chesterfield (that’s Canadian for couch), Blake climbs into bed with Jess while she is sleeping. She wakes up next to him and slips out of bed without immediately returning to SCREAM HIM AWAKE whilst simultaneously dousing him with ice water. He says he had asked her if it was okay he climb in with her and she said yes while she was half asleep which does not help his case.
  2. Blake sends an unsolicited photograph of his genitals to Jess after she has told him that his attentions are not welcome.

I suspect there’s more, but those two were pretty major. Blake’s interior monologue makes it clear that he’s well-intentioned and he can be a lot of fun. Were Kennedy and Bowen trying to show a hero who does all the things he shouldn’t, but succeeds anyway? Or that not every guy who crosses the line is a jerk? Is Blake the puppy that drives you crazy until one magical moment when he settles in and you realise that all of the growing pains were worth it?

Good Boy had some other story elements that I wondered about, such as the stereotypical gay friend and a truly irrational ex-fiancee, but really it all comes down to where you stand on Blake. I enjoy the occasional big lug, though not necessarily Jethro Clampett, and landed on the charmed side for Good Boy even if it wasn’t a classic.

Continue reading

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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