Tag Archives: classic romance

The Ivy Years Series: The Year We Fell Down, The Year We Hid Away, Blonde Date, The Understatement of the Year, and The Shameless Hour by Sarina Bowen

So many “new adult” romances, so little time. I recommend The Ivy Years series by Sarina Bowen and will be looking into her back catalogue. Taking place at a New England college, Harkness, the stories are not light and yet avoid melodrama. These are young people coming into their own and figuring out who they want to be. Each story features at least one character who is an athlete, mostly they are involved in hockey, but there are also soccer and basketball team members, and the football players are the villains. My experience of university may not have matched this jock heavy world, but since the beauty of a large student body is in creating its own neighbourhoods, I don’t mind all the sports, plus it justifies the ripped heroes.

Quick Overview:

  1. The Year We Fell Down – BAM! This book got me right in the feels.
  2. The Year We Hid Away – That’s a lot for two such young people to have going on.
  3. Blonde Date novella – YAY! Short and sweet and adorable and added to my classics list.
  4. The Understatement of the Year – Surrender. Lying to yourself is exhausting.
  5. The Shameless Hour – “You don’t get to tell me who I am.”
  6. The Fifteenth Minute – a misstep, skip it

The Year We Fell Down

Corey was a star athlete until a career ending and life-changing injury transformed her plans. She has arrived as a freshman at the school she was meant to play hockey for, but now she is living in the wheelchair accessible part of the dorm. The upside is that she gets a bigger room and has a great roommate. The up-upside is that Hartley, a dreamy member of the mens’ hockey team, has a badly broken leg and is living in his own accessible room across the hall. The downside is that he has a long distance girlfriend.

There is very little self-pity in Corey and whatever sadness she does feel is entirely deserved. While Hartley is mending from a break, she is never going to walk unaided or have sensation in her leg and feet again. It’s a tough road and she is making the best of it, showing remarkable resilience, but not in an unrealistic way or one that is free of emotional upset.  I think many of us have experience with life taking an 180 degree turn and having to change our expectations, so Corey was easy to relate to.

But what about her beloved (Adam) Hartley? He’s a mensch. He’s got issues of his own informing his life decisions, but whatever Corey has got going on, he’s ready to be part of it. They made a sweet couple and a sensible one.

The Year We Fell Down did make me cry, but I can’t judge whether that has to do with the writing or because I have dealt with a potentially debilitating health issue and it affected my reading experience.

The Year We Hid Away

Bridger MacCaulley and Scarlet Crowley have their parents to thank for the ocean liner’s worth of baggage they have between them, but what is university for if not getting out from under one’s childhood? Scarlet has found herself a pariah after her father is accused of genuinely heinous crimes and Bridger has been saddled with more responsibility than someone his age should have to deal with. While his burden is visible, Scarlet’s promises years of pain. She has changed her name and is trying to start a new life.

For a book with so much agita, I found it remarkably melodrama free. There were extreme story elements and responses, but in proportion to the events taking place. Bridger and Scarlet’s responses to their individual pressures are mature to the best of their abilities, but if the characters’ problems had been lesser or limited to just one of them, the story’s construction would have worked better instead of being really good despite this limitation.

Blonde Date novella

Oh, thank GOD! A quick, reasonably light, sweet novella. One of Scarlet’s roommates – Blonde Katie as opposed to Ponytail Katie – needs a date for a sorority event. To complicate matters, their brother frat members, and specifically her douchelord former boyfriend, will be in attendance. Scarlet volunteers Bridger’s neighbour, a young man she knows from high school. Andy Baschnagel is tall and he gangles (H/T Douglas Adams), and he is a genuinely nice and sincere guy. He has been smitten with Katie from the first time he saw her and desperately wants to make a good impression on this date.

The entirety of Blonde Date takes place over one evening and it’s just lovely. Admittedly, I am sucker for a novella and this is the best example of stripping a love story down to its basics I can think of. Katie has recently been shamed by the frat boys and with Andy’s calm kindness starts to figure out who she is and that who she wants to be may be different from what she thought, AND the affable guy gets the girl. HUZZAH!

The Understatement of the Year

In high school, (Mike) Graham and (John) Rikker were embarking on a relationship and were attacked the first time they showed affection in public. Rikker was badly hurt, Graham fled. Several years later, Rikker has transferred to Harkness and joined the hockey team (with Hartley and Bridger up there) after being outed and subsequently mistreated at his original college. It isn’t fun being a publicly gay athlete, but it beats the closet Graham has himself both locked and barricaded inside.

Rikker and Graham fight their way to togetherness, two steps forward one step back, but end up where they need to be. Rikker’s family has failed him, Mike won’t give his a chance to succeed. With patience and  forgiveness, the guys become a couple. They were both extremely likeable and had great chemistry.

The Shameless Hour

This is the novel in which Sarina Bowen took the slut shaming undercurrents in the previous stories and directed kleig lights on them. Bella is the men’s hockey team manager and she has worked hard and had a great time off the ice as well. When she meets a dejected Rafe, freshly dumped and drinking champagne alone on his birthday, the two hook up. He would actually like to date, but Bella is the rake in this romance and she is on the move.

A couple of weeks later, early in the morning, Rafe finds Bella stumbling out of a frat house in very shaky condition. I want to stress in case it is a big NOPE for you when choosing a book, that she has not been assaulted sexually; however, she has been traumatized. It was very hard to read and I admit to jumping ahead several chapters and then going back to catch up with the story. The devastating effect of her mistreatment and the public attempt at shaming her is the dramatic momentum of the story. Bella is incredibly strong and surrounded by people who love her, but she is not invincible and it takes her time to come back to herself and act on behalf of all women who have been victims of sexual double standards.

But what about the boy? Rafe is in many ways the wallflower in this book and in keeping with that role, he is wonderful and waiting patiently to be noticed. He is a great friend to Bella and ready to support her regardless of the outcome of their relationship, though he has a clear preference.

The power of The Shameless Hour’s reversal is that, of course, Bella has acted like legions of romance novel heroes, but unlike the ones who tomcat their way through stories, our culture likes to tell her that being a good woman requires a different standard of conduct. Bella has made her peace with this B.S., but that doesn’t mean it is easy for her to live on her own terms.

New Adult romance recommendations can be found here.

Sarina Bowen’s catalogue can be found here. Bowen has also co-written two very enjoyable and steamy M/M romances with Elle Kennedy called Him and Us.

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

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

All her life, Valancy Stirling has lived on a quiet street in an ugly little house in northern Ontario, Canada and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and unforgiving aunt. The deeply squelching kind of small town life L.M. Montgomery describes for Valancy is one that I recognize as Canadian, but of course is universal. To escape her life of quiet desperation, Valancy has created a world apart for herself called “The Blue Castle”. This private realm in which things are beautiful and she has value has changed and grown with her since childhood and now, at the age of 29, it is her intellectual and emotional sanctuary.

When Valancy receives a shocking letter, she takes the reins of her life, doing what she wants to, saying what she feels, and refusing to bend any longer to her repressive existence. Given the setting and early twentieth century time period, this rebellion consists of changing churches, refusing to participate in her maddening family dynamics, and becoming employed. Her so-called loved ones are the kind of people who feel Valancy’s life is careening out of control because she said “darn” and therefore almost swore, so when she takes is a step further and marries a local man of poor, but unproven, reputation, her family is so scandalized that they fear for her sanity and disown her. Delightfully, Valancy soon discovers more fulfillment and adventure than she ever thought possible, including someone to love and the modest, true, real-world version of her Blue Castle.

L.M. Montgomery is famous for her Anne of Green Gables, Avonlea, and Emily of New Moon books. I am an Anne devotee and many of the lovely elements of those stories are present in this sweet, adult romance. Montgomery is a wonderfully evocative writer with a light touch for setting a scene and painting a landscape. So much of this story is about Valancy reveling in her environment and simple day-to-day activities, but Montgomery portrays it all with lyrical, measured prose. The window to Valancy’s world is just captivating.

As someone from Ontario, I have been to Muskoka where Valancy lives. It is incredibly beautiful and this book made me terribly homesick for its geography. Being Canadian also gave me a layer of familiarity with the characters. Ours can be a severely Protestant culture, leery of being overly enthusiastic,  making a fuss or drawing attention to oneself, and with an absolute horror of self-confidence and pride. Shown in this context, Valancy’s quiet, incandescent joy in her new life, as well as her deep-seated insecurities, felt very real.

I have a list of favourite and classic romances that The Blue Castle has been added to. When I first dove into this genre, the classics were all around for me to find and for people to recommend. As I read on, the flood of truly great and new-to-me romances has slowed to a trickle. Discovering a book like The Blue Castle is such a treat.  Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

blue castle

The Bridgertons Series: Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

Because starting with the eight book Bridgerton series is what I suggest, other than Courtney Milan, to anyone who wants to try out a historical romance, it seemed like a good idea to provide reviews of her best novels. Herewith are my go-to Julia Quinn review adjectives: light, deft, witty, clever, convivial, bright, romantic. I use them every time I discuss a Quinn book, and, as this review benefits from being of one of her less recent novels, I get to express all of my love and approbation without any of the pesky misgivings her later catalogue brings out.

Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is a wonderful novel about a woman who finds herself with the man she has been in love with for many years. Penelope fell in love with Colin Bridgerton at first sight, Colin takes about a decade plus 200 pages longer, but ends up in the same place.

A protector trapped in a rake’s body, Colin happens to be the best-looking son in a family of handsome men, as well as being incredibly charming, laid-back, and, not to underestimate the power of this, nice. As his sister Eloise’s best friend, Penelope is a frequent visitor to their family home. Colin has been coming and going, traveling the world with the freedom that comes with wealth and a y-chromosome in Regency England. Penelope has been wending her way towards spinsterhood in London, and this time when he comes back something in their relationship shifts. She is a classic wallflower, overlooked and with a wearying family, but a marvelous woman for those paying attention, and mostly satisfied with her life. Her “mostly satisifed” is about to change and she will help Colin with his disgruntlements, too.

Each chapter opens with a gossip article from Bridgerton series fixture Lady Whistledown. Never seen, she has been commenting on London society for a decade. Acerbic, but fair, determining her true identity becomes the crux of the story and the agent of Penelope’s transformation to someone with confidence speaking her mind honestly and without fear. Helped along by series favourite, the redoubtable Lady Danbury, Penelope comes out of her shell and Colin quickly comes to appreciate her. As this is a Quinn novel, their courtship takes the form of simply delightful banter mixed in with growing flashes of attraction and sincere romance. It is such fun and extremely satisfying.

penelope

I will be reviewing Hyacinth Bridgerton’s book next.

A summary of Julia Quinn’s catalogue, including a complete summary of the 8.5 Bridgerton novels, 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.

Julie Anne Long’s Catalogue

HISTORICAL ROMANCES

Early Books:
The Runaway Duke – early work, dated
To Love a Thiefvery enjoyable

Three Sisters Trilogy: early series, fine
Beauty and the Spy
Ways to Be Wicked
The Secret to Seduction

Pennyroyal Green Series:
The Perils of Pleasure  – fun
Like No Other LoverDelightful, hot
Since the Surrender – fine, prostitution shouldn’t be funny
I Kissed an Earl – very popular
What I Did for a DukeCLASSIC, fantastic hero
How the Marquess Was Won – really good, but it fell apart
A Notorious Countess Confesses excellent
It Happened One Midnight very good, but somehow not memorable
Between the Devil and Ian Eversea – meh, more of the hero from What I Did for a Duke
It Started with a Scandal – enjoyable enough, but nothing special
The Legend of Lyon Redmond FANTASTIC, better if you read the series first
Malcolm and Isabel (Malcolm/Isabel) – contemporary coda to the series

The Pennyroyal Green series ranked, numbers 1 and 2 are non-negotiable:

1. What I Did for a Duke
2. The Legend of Lyon Redmond
3. A Notorious Countess Confesses
4. It Happened One Midnight
5. Like No Other Lover
6. I Kissed an Earl
7. Between the Devil and Ian Eversea
8. It Started with a Scandal
9. The Perils of Pleasure
10. Since the Surrender
11. How the Marquess Was Won

Palace of Rogues Series:
Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Tristan/Delilah) – very enjoyable, recommended
Angel in a Devil’s Arms (Lucien/Angelique)

CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES –  I really prefer the historicals

Hellcat Canyon Series:
Hot in Hellcat Canyon
Wild at Whisky Creek
Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap (Mac/Avalon) – pleasant, nothing special
The First Time at Firelight Falls

Lisa Kleypas’s Catalogue

Themes: Make your own life and your own luck. Hard work is rewarded. To find a true partner, you will need to leave your comfort zone. Also, find an incredibly hot  man who adores you.

HISTORICAL ROMANCES

Standalone Novels/Early Series:
Surrender – don’t, dated
Stranger in My Arms – don’t
Suddenly You – pretty good, reasonably racy
Somewhere I’ll Find You – don’t
Because You’re Mine – don’t
I Will – nope
Where Dreams Beginpersonal favourite, I LOVE THIS BOOK
Again the Magic main plot has sturm and drang, secondary plot is great and has a marvelous hero

Gamblers Series:
Then Came You  – good, a lot of readers really like it
Dreaming of You CLASSIC, one of romance’s ultimate heroes, I have read it many times
Where’s My Hero – novella follow up to Dreaming of You – for completists

Bow Street Runners Series:
Someone to Watch Over Me – a bit dated, one great moment
Lady Sophia’s Lover  – SMOKING hot hero, pretty good overall, dated
Worth Any Price – don’t, unless you want a lot of sex and no emotion, then do

The Wallflowers Series:
Secrets of a Summer Nightpersonal favourite, delicious hero
It Happened One Autumn – good not great, pompous hero, the heroine is a bit of a pill
The Devil in WinterCLASSIC with the ultimate Rake/Wallflower combination
Scandal in the Spring – sweet ending to the series
A Wallflower Christmas – for completists only

The Hathaways Series:
Mine till Midnight
great, has my all time favourite heroine
Seduce Me at Sunrise – too much agita for me
Tempt Me at Twilight personal favourite
Married by Morning a near miss, but still good
Love in the Afternoon excellent, sweet and grows on me with each re-read

The Ravenels:
Cold-Hearted Rake – lays groundwork for the new series, could be stronger
Marrying Winterbourne – middling, hero manhandles the heroine
Devil in Spring – best of the series, but not up to Kleypas’s standard
Hello Stranger – strangely dated; hero born and raised in England has an Irish accent
Devil’s Daughter – best of the series, charming hero

CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES

The Travis Series:
Sugar Daddydidn’t really like the hero
Blue-Eyed Devilgood, not great
Smooth Talking StrangerGreat, but can a hero be too perfect?
Brown Eyed Girl – Based on reviews, I didn’t bother.

Crystal Cove Series: Not my cup of tea, did not read.

Author Commentary & Tallies Shameful

Shortcuts:    

I have more lists over there on the right—>

My AUTOBUY List (Links Will Take You to a Summary of the Author’s Catalogue)
Tessa Dare (on probation right now, so not an autobuy, but still an autoread)
Laura Florand – She’s been on hiatus since 2017. I miss her SO MUCH!
Lisa Kleypas
Julie Anne Long – historicals
Courtney Milan – The. Very. Best.

2020 READING LISTS:

Recommended books are in bold.

The (Shamefree) Tally 2020

  1. Fashionary Fashionpedia: The Visual Dictionary of Fashion Design
  2. Fisher, Carrie Wishful Drinking
  3. Whedon, Joss & Georges Jenty Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home
  4. Costello, Lauren Braun & Russell Reich Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft

The (Shameful) Tally 2020

  1. Clayborn, Kate Beginner’s Luck (Ben/Ekaterina “Kit”)
  2. Kelly, Carla Regency Royal Navy Christmas (Micah/Asenathe) (Andrew/Lorna)
  3. Kleypas, Lisa Chasing Cassandra (Tom/Cassandra)
  4. Lauren, Christina Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating (Josh/Hazel)
  5. McQuiston, Casey Red, White, and Royal Blue (Alex/Henry) FANTASTIC!
  6. Parker, Lucy Headliners (Nick/Sabrina)
  7. Quinlan, Bria The Last Single Girl (John/Sarah)
  8. Reid, Rachel Tough Guy (Ryan/Fabian)
  9. Roberts, Nora Vision in White (Carter/Mackenzie)
  10. Snyder, Suleikha Tikka Chance on Me (Tyson/Pinky)
  11. Sosa, Mia Crashing into Her (Love on Cue (Anthony/Eva)
  12. Weatherspoon, Rebekah Wrapped: A FIT Adjacent Christmas Novella (Aiden/Shae)
  13. Weatherspoon, Rebekah Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny (Rafe/Sloan)

2019 READING LISTS:

Recommended books are in bold.

The (Shamefree) Tally 2019

  1. Shrimpton, Jayne Victorian Fashion

The (Shameful) Tally 2019

  1. Balogh, Mary Someone to Trust (Colin/Elizabeth)
  2. Balogh, Mary Someone to Honor (Gil/Abigail)
  3. Balogh, Mary Someone to Remember (Charles/Matilda)
  4. Blakeman, Aviva Stacked (Mags/Imogene)
  5. Blakeman, Aviva Say My Name (John/Zelda)
  6. Bowen, Sarina Brooklynaire (Nate/Rebecca) DNF
  7. Bowen, Sarina novella Studly Period (Pepe/Josephine)
  8. Bowen, Sarina novella Yesterday (Graham/Rikker)
  9. Bowen, Sarina, Speakeasy (Alec/Mae)
  10. Bowen, Sarina Fireworks (Benito/Skye)
  11. Dare, Tessa The Wallflower Wager (Gabriel/Penny)
  12. Dare, Tessa novella His Bride for the Taking (Sebastian/Mary)
  13. Kelly, Carla The Unlikely Master Genius (Able/Meridee)
  14. Kelly, Elizabeth Christmas Rescue (Elias/Ivy)
  15. Kennedy, Elle The Risk (Jake/Brenna)
  16. Kleypas, Lisa Devil’s Daughter (West/Phoebe)
  17. Lang Ruby Acute Reactions (Ian/Petra)
  18. Lang, Ruby Hard Knocks (Adam/Helen)
  19. Long, Julie Anne Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Tristan/Delilah)
  20. Long, Julie Anne Angel in a Devil’s Arms (Lucien/Angelique)
  21. Milan, Courtney Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (Violetta/Bertrice)
  22. Morton, Lily Rule Breaker (Dylan/Gabe)
  23. Parker, Lucy The Austen Playbook (Griff/Freddy) – FANTASTIC
  24. Reid, Penny A Marriage of Inconvenience (Dan/Kat)
  25. Reid, Rachel Game Changer (Scott/Kip)
  26. Reid, Rachel Heated Rivalry (Ilya/Shane) – GREAT
  27. Thorne, Sally 99 Percent Mine (Tom/Darcy)
  28. Walker, N.R. novella Red Dirt Heart Imago (Charlie/Travis & Lawson/Jack)
  29. Walker, N.R. Switched (Israel/Sam)
  30. Walsh, Brighton Our Love Unhinged (Cade/Winter)
  31. Walsh, Brighton Second Chance Charmer (Cade/Winter)

2018 READING LISTS:

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The Brothers Sinister Series: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

The Suffragette Scandal is an instant classic and a master work of romantic fiction.

In a genre that wallows in cultural necrophilia, you have to love characters fighting actively against the  aristocracy and existing power structures. Or at least I do. Apparently, so does author Courtney Milan because she is doing it again in a novel that is easily one of the best historical romances ever written and one that simultaneously subverts and embraces the genre. Never afraid to beat romance tropes about the head and shoulders, The Suffragette Scandal, like The Countess Conspiracy before it, takes feminism and themes of identity and wraps a love story around them.

In 1877 Cambridgeshire, Frederica Marshall, Free to her friends, runs a newspaper that is, by, for, and about women and the issues they face, much like the romance genre. A radical who has chosen her battles carefully, she is the target of derision and efforts to silence her. Into Free’s life walks Edward Clark. He approaches her with a warning that someone is trying to sabotage her and an offer to help stop him. He makes it clear that he is not doing so out of altruism, he claims to be incapable of it, but because the enemy of his enemy is his friend. Already aware of the challenge Edward mentions, she decides to trust him even when he says she shouldn’t. Free knows better than Edward. She knows better full stop.

Free’s current problem comes in the form of Lord James Delacey, a man whose overtures she had the temerity to reject. It would seem farcical that a man should react so extremely to rejection, if we didn’t know that it is sometimes so sadly true. A woman standing up when virtually the whole world is telling her to sit down, Free makes a convenient public target for Delacey’s ire:“That’s precisely it. You said no, so that is what I am giving you. No newspaper, no voice, no reputation, no independence.”

Spending her life lighting candles against the darkness, Free is a magnificent character. Sanguine and undaunted, she hides none of her intelligence and knows she should not have to. She is not naive, she knows what she faces, but she has decided who she will be and acts accordingly. Her choices have a price she is willing to pay and she finds strength in small victories and in laying the groundwork for the victories to come, even the ones she knows she will never see. Her swain is one of those alluring rogues one encounters in romance. Edward has a disaffected view of the world and of himself, but he is also heartbreaking, appealing, and understandable. As a younger man, he tried to stand up and was forced down so violently that he tells himself he has withdrawn from considerations of right and wrong. Free makes him see that “maybe pessimism was as much a lie as optimism” and in each other they find a suitable partner to stand against the world with.

I cannot possibly do The Suffragette Scandal justice. It is everything a romance novel can be when giving full rein to the genre’s central tenet of a woman’s right to self-determination and in conjunction with Milan’s undoubtedly masterful skills as a writer. It’s a glorious homage to the brave and quiet warriors of the world insisting on what is right. It’s romantic. It’s funny and moving and entertaining. It’s on sale now and you should buy it.

Reviewer’s Note: As a captious reader (I maintain a list), I want to give kudos to Milan for the little details, too, such as the fact that Free’s long hair is held up by nineteen pins instead of the usual two, and, although Free is “small but mighty”, Edward acknowledges that their height difference makes kissing somewhat awkward.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, 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.