His Improper Lady by Candace Camp

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His Improper Lady by Candace Camp

Camp, Candace. His Improper Lady. (Mad Morelands) Harlequin, 2021. ISBN 9781335966520 $9.99

***

In this historical romantic suspense novel, detective Tom Quick, an orphan himself, joins forces with thief Desiree Malone after she breaks into his office to looking for clues that might help her locate the aristocratic father she’s never known. One of her finds might have a clue to Tom’s past…

The plotting is strong and the intriguing twists and turns will have the reader powering through. Because this was more mystery than romance, it did not hold as strong appeal for me, but the writing and details are good, the connections compelling, and the air of the supernatural appealing.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #HisImproperLady from #NetGalley

Piece of Cake by Mary Hollis Huddleston; Asher Fogle Paul

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Piece of Cake by Mary Hollis Huddleston; Asher Fogle Paul

Huddleston, Mary Hollis and Asher Fogle Paul. Piece of Cake. Harper Muse, 2023. 361 pp. ISBN 9780785258902 $17.99

***

Journalist Claire and bridal influencer Dominic are reluctantly paired up to host reality show–style docuseries focused on a series of Southern weddings, each one more extra than the last, in the hopes of saving the wedding magazine Claire works for. Over the top productions, bridezillas, and crazy bachelorette parties force them into proximity.

I like opposites attract stories and this was East Coast slick meets Southern charm. The twist of a dude being a wedding influencer was funny, then charming, but underneath it… was a woman with a good idea who didn’t get to do it based on her own merit; a man needed to be brought in to help. The money spent on just one day in a couple’s life is unfathomable to anyone making minimum wage, but readers who read for escape will enjoy the over-the-top details and bad behavior.

I liked this better than Without a Hitch and I appreciate the insider sense similar to Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries; it’s possible I dislike the wedding industry too much to enjoy these novels. I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #PieceOfCake from #NetGalley.

I’m Only Wicked With You by Julie Anne Long

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I’m Only Wicked With You by Julie Anne Long

Long, Julie Anne. I’m Only Wicked With You (The Palace of Rogues, #3). Avon/Harper Voyager, 2021. ISBN 9780063045088. $8.99

*****

This poetically written novel brings Regency manners, details and culture alongside natural history and allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. A period romance, Hugh Cassidy meets Lady Lillias Vaughn when she and her family are staying at the same boardinghouse as he, and though she is essentially grounded for unladylike behavior, they are frequently forced in mandatory socializing (the rules of the Grand Palace on the Thames are a great construct to bring a diverse set of characters together!). He’s a veteran, laborer, and entrepreneur on a mission to recover a friend’s missing daughter, and while she is an enigma, quiet in the corner until provoked, an incorrigible young woman who chafes at societal expectations. Her exasperated father tells her she must find a man to marry or he will find one for her. Of course, he means a duke, not an ambitious American…

The narrative is steamy, emotional, humorous, and heart-pounding, and the slow tease of attraction is delicious. When Hugh and Lillias are inevitably caught in a compromising embrace, they are hastily engaged–with her parent’s blessings, much to Lillias’s shock. There’s just one small problem: they each believe they are in love with someone else. And so, in spite of the lust between them, Hugh offers to help Lillias catch the man she’s set her cap for, family friend Giles Bankham, who is betrothed to another. This only brings out Hugh’s competitive nature, and serves to show how well-suited Hugh and Lillias are. While everyone around her views her as “more,” they really mean, “too much” — but for Hugh, she’s just right.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #I’mOnlyWickedWithYou from #NetGalley.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

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The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

Sebastian, Cat. The Queer Principles of Kit Webb. Avon/Harper Voyager, 2021. 352 pp. ISBN 9780063026216 $15.99

***1/2
This was the first queer duke-on-duke romance I’ve read, and it contained well-balanced action, emotion, intrigue and romance in a historical setting. Kit, disabled, has a shady past and has abandoned his life of crime to run a coffee shop. Aristocrat Percy seeks Kit for hire to recover his mother’s book. A changed man, Kit won’t participate in the crime, but WILL give lessons to ensure Percy’s success. Time spent in proximity leads to friendship and then more.

Although in the past he has only been with women, Percy is compelling, and Kit doesn’t question the attraction, which might be out of place for a Georgian-era setting. I am not a fan of mystery in general, and did find myself skimming a bit through the slow burn.

It took me almost two years to sit down and write a review because I just didn’t love it in the way I loved Red, White and Royal Blue, which also pairs an aristocrat and commoner, and a person who mostly dated women with someone who exclusively dates men.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TheQueerPrinciplesOfKitWebb from #NetGalley.

The Seven Year Slip by Ashley Poston

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The Seven Year Slip by Ashley Poston

Poston, Ashley. The Seven Year Slip. Berkley, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 9780593336502 $17.00

*****

What makes this truly a fantasy novel? A fantastic rent-free apartment in NYC! This modern magical realism romance is filled with love of art, travel, books, and food, set alongside a messy on-the-cusp-of-thirty career crisis. Clementine has inherited a magical apartment from her beloved aunt and travel companion. Occasionally, when she enters the apartment, instead of her unpacked boxes, her aunt’s peacock chair is back in it’s corner, and the apartment has slipped seven years into the past. One day when Clementine comes home, there’s a handsome, tattooed, stranger there, the son of her aunt’s friend who was granted use of the apartment while Analea is in Europe with her niece. A dishwasher and aspiring chef who wants to make memories with food in a warm, cozy restaurant of his own one day, Iwan charms Clementine with pie and nickname for her (both lemon).

In the present timeline, Clementine is now a book publicist, potentially up for a promotion that will alter her life–or possibly leave her with NO life apart from her work. She discovers that the celebrity chef author her imprint is trying to acquire is none other than Iwan, but he is greatly greatly changed, going by James and making fussy food that is nearly impossible for home cooks to recreate. James creates a cooking challenge to help narrow down his choice of publishers, and they reconnect. He’s hurt from their relationship, but his past hurt is not in Clementine’s timeline yet, and their reconciliation is delicate as a mereguine.

In addition to the past/present timeline, the mystery shrouding Aunt Analea’s death and the relationship she had that could not withstand a literal test of time is brilliantly juxtaposed with the burgeoning relationship between Clementine and Iwan. Supporting characters are diverse and richly constructed. The narrative is witty, lusciously detailed, warm, raw, honest and unputdownable. I read it TWICE. Truly, every word Ashley Poston writes is luminous. Like The Dead Romantics, The Seven Year Slip involves supernatural elements and lots of poignant longing; the appearance from the protagonists from The Dead Romantics is icing on the cake–or the whipped cream topping a slice of pie.

I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #TheSevenYearSlip from #NetGalley.

Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune

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Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune

Fortune, Carley. Meet Me at the Lake. Berkley, 2023. 336 pp. SBN 9780593438558 $18.00

***

No matter what you put in your 10-year plan, does it really come out like you thought it would? A chance encounter leads to a full day spent together and changes college student Fern’s trajectory. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would inherit the family resort her single mother successfully manages, and Fern even majored in business, but she would rather live in the city and run her own coffeeshop than return to the bush. When she has the audacity to call muralist Will’s wall art “basic,” they form a quick bond and agree to spend the day together.

Through a tour of Toronto, Vietnamese sandwiches, an art museum stop, a ska concert and the world’s biggest plate of nachos, they share their hopes and dreams, most embarrassing moments, and very little about the people they are in relationships with, Will reminds her that it is her life, not her mother’s. Their day morphs into evening and although they are each seeing someone, recognize the kindred spark and make a plan to meet at Fern’s family’s resort a year from the date of their first encounter. Will doesn’t show up, and it’s heartbreaking but also part of what Fern needs to speak up for herself and advocate for her needs.

When her mother dies, Fern inherits the property and business. Selling it would be finance the coffeeshop of her dreams–and destroy the dynasty, put people of work, and threaten the good relationship she has with her ex-boyfriend who is the acting manager. Too introverted to hostess like her mother, Fern refuses to greet guests and make announcements in the dining roof, and hides behind the check-in desk. A chance encounter with a guest is revealed to be Will, checking in for a month-long stay, has her re-evaluating again. The artist was acting as business consultant to Fern’s mother, and now Fern needs to decide if she’s going to sell, or stay–and if she can forgive Will, or not.

Chapters alternate between past and present to relay the narrative in a carefully controlled way. The chemistry and dramatic tension are spun out in a way may leave some readers frustrated. The delicate handling of mental illness and grief add depth this second-chance romance.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #MeetMeAtTheLake from #NetGalley.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Garmus, Bonnie. Lessons in Chemistry. Doubleday, 2022. 400 pp. ISBN 978-0385547345 $29.00.

*****

Elizabeth Zott, an opinionated, smart, and talented aspiring chemist tries to further her research and runs into male privilege, under-equipped labs, lack of funding, and sexual assault–until procuring beakers from another scientist gets her noticed by Nobel Prize winner Cal Evans. They develop a mutually respectful and lovely relationship, where a rescue dog named Six-Thirty completes their child-free family–until Cal suffers a tragedy and Elizabeth finds herself with a child out of wedlock. The novel centers around how Elizabeth came to star on a popular television show Supper At Six, where each recipe has a foundation in chemistry, sending housewives to the store for sodium chloride and acetic acid. Her deconstruction of cultural norms that hold women back and encouragement of fans to follow their dreams make her both popular and a threat. My most favorite part was Elizabeth’s attempt to teach the dog English vocabulary–and the dog’s narration.

The writing was so absolutely stellar–funny, poignant, infuriating, and magical, peopled with impossible and flawed characters. Modern women will shudder at how little we’ve come since the sixties. The sport of rowing plays a major role, as does chemistry, and these elements elevate the story from a mere romance to something really special. The many accolades are well-deserved; this is a powerful debut novel.

I listened to Lessons In Chemistry via Audible and the narration was crisply delivered with unique voicing for each distinct character. This is a fabulous readalike for fans of science-y books about women overlooked, featuring strong women and research, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot or Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax.

I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #LessonsInChemistry from #NetGalley.

Will They or Won’t They by Ava Wilder

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Will They or Won’t They by Ava Wilder

Wilder, Ava. Will They or Won’t They. Random House/Bantam/Dell, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN 9780593358979 $17.

****

Pam and Jim. Lorelei and Luke. Nick and Jess. The will-they-or-won’t they television trope involves two characters with #UnresolvedSexualTension that take a loooooong time to hook up (or maybe never do), and it’s related to the Zeigarnik Effect that postulates that people remember unfinished/interrupted tasks better than completed tasks: the interest in unresolved things is higher and keeps us watching (or reading).

Enter Lilah and Shane, who got their big break together (her after years of diligent showing up for auditions, cast in increasingly bigger productions), and him (unfairly!) from a discovery at his day job. Cast as attracted colleagues who never consummate the relationship on the paranormal television show Intangibles, their relationship deteriorates over the course of the show until she ditches in season five for a movie contract. It flops. Invited back for the finale (and unbeknownst to their complicated past), the producers intend for their characters to (finally!) hook up, but can Lilah and Shane make nice between scenes when they can’t seem to stand one another?

This well-told tale moves back and forth in time (spoiler: they didn’t always hate each other) and in the best of enemies-to-lovers fashion, lots of the angst is unresolved miscommunication, not meanness or pettiness or different values systems. The reader needs to suspend disbelief that the issues couldn’t have been solved with one open, honest chat, but it’s par for the course for the trope, and not entirely unrealistic that people don’t enjoy difficult conversations and fear rejection. The story feels light, but is grounded by mental health and body issues. Lilah is the one not into relationships, which is a bit of plot twist. The banter is fun, their connection emotional AND banter-y, and it was hard to put down. Recommended for fans of Once in a Blue Moon by Christina Laurens and Reunion by Kayla Olson (I have not yet read Wilder’s How to Fake it In Hollywood yet, but it’s queued up next in Audible!)

I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #WillTheyOrWon’tThey from #NetGalley

The Little Board Game Café by Jennifer Page

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The Little Board Game Café by Jennifer Page

Page, Jennifer. The Little Board Game Café. Aria, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 9781804548349 $16.98

***

This was delightfully and authentically geeky. Emily has always wanted to run a little cafe and jumps on the opportunity when it arises; but the cafe is a failing business due to it’s poor location, and even her delicious baked goods can’t compete with lack of foot traffic. When a local gaming group’s customary meeting place falls through, she finds success in hosting their get-togethers, and learns some fun games in the process. She can’t get a good read on the attractive convener; is he interested in her, or not?

This is a very charming and sweet story that will have you cheering for the underdogs. Sometimes characters venture into stereotypes upon meeting and then settle into more realistic, fully dimensional people. Sure to be fun for foodies, gamers, and fans of cozy reads set in English villages.

I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #TheLittleBoardGameCafe from #NetGalley.

Play for Me by Libby Hubscher

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Play for Me by Libby Hubscher

Hubscher, Libby. Play for Me. Berkley, 2023. 368 pp. ISBN 9780593547229 $17.00.

****

Not every romance has to involve a book store of bake shop. When the rookie pitcher is too injured to play, trainer Sophie Doyle makes a controversial call on a player that rabid Red Sox fans think cost the series — and costs her the job, as well as her relationship and housing. She finds work at a New Hampshire boarding school where her clients are wrestling with academics and other extra curriculars as well as athletics. Faculty housing is sparse and utilitarian and all-male, but it only takes one almost-glimpse of skin in the shared bathroom for a lock to get installed. Conflict arises when a student who excels at both baseball and piano is pulled in two directions, and music instructor Jonas is as convinced is a prodigy at piano as Sophie is that is a prodigy at baseball. When grumpy Jonas, a former concert pianist, reveals he can barely play, Sophie has physical therapy exercises that may help him limber his hands.

The writing and relationships are excellent. I love both music and baseball, and found the entry point fairly low, readers do not need to know a lot about or be passionate about either to engage with the story and characters. The subplot of Sophie’s dad, struggling with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, adds depth and the other roommates (a gay couple) add color. As might be fitting with a private school setting, the sex is discreet and behind closed doors even though their attraction is evident and encouraged by students.

I received a free, advance reader’s review copy of #PlayForMe from #NetGalley.