Monthly Archives: October 2022

Pride and Puppies by Lizzie Shane

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Pride and Puppies by Lizzie Shane

Shane, Lizzie. Pride and Puppies (Pine Hollow #4). Forever, 2022. pp. ISBN 978-1538710319 $15.99

***

This Jane Austen-themed romance centers on orthopedist Charlotte and her search for a Darcy. After a breakup, she declares she will stay single for 6 months and lavish her attention on a dog instead, and gets a golden retriever that she names Bingley. George, a physical therapist at the complex where she works, assists with many things dog-related as he has a dog, himself, and proves to be a steadfast and loyal friend, respecting her dating moratorium even though he’s had a crush on her for ages. Once they realize they have feelings, they act on them very quickly, with all juicy details left behind closed doors. When Charlotte overhears George, who is a transplant from Colorado, discussing a job offer, she panics and old demons about being simultaneously too much and not enough surface, which George, aware that he isn’t lightning for most women, begins to doubt he’s a choice and not just someone Charlotte is settling for.

Austen quotes precede each chapter, and the backstories and subplots are rich; both characters are real and honest about their flaws. Charlotte’s mother loved Austen, and she and her sisters treat Austen’s words as gospel. George also grew up with sisters and has been struggling to be away from his family and find his fit in Pine Hollow, a charming small town in Vermont. He makes friends and forms a band with seniors, who share relationship advice. The dogs steal the scenes with their antics, and puppy parenting is real and realistic (you mustn’t love dogs to read). I haven’t read the other titles in the series, but didn’t feel like I was missing any key plot points.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #Pride&Puppies from #NetGalley.

Speechless by Lindsey Lanza

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Speechless by Lindsey Lanza

Lanza, Lindsey. Speechless. self-published. 340 pp. ISBN 979-8218076191 $16.99

**

Lucy, a writer of fairy tale spinoffs for teens, is flying across the country to move in with her college roommate. She is literally at the airport and getting ready to board her delayed flight when her bestie CANCELS on her. Henry, a tall and handsome Brit, lands in the seat next to her after a stranger is mean to her service dog. Henry just happens to be her favorite composer! He promptly invites Lucy and Rowan to come and stay with him and his motley crew of musicians in Malibu. It becomes a seven dwarves-like tale, with Lucy cooking up a storm for Surfer (Graham), Flirty (Jayce), Quiet (Preston) and Surly (Craig). At one point there is an authorial intrusion of writer Lucy commenting her life is like the plot of a romance novel…

Chapters are told in alternating points of view from Henry and Lucy’s points of view. Lucy is suffering from some undisclosed condition that warrants the service dog, and Henry seems to be not only obsessive or ADHD, but may also have some crippling social anxieties. Lanza does utilize the music motif well, staging the plot in terms of a classical arrangement with movements, finale and encore.

I nearly gave up early in this novel when Henry was described as a cross between two actors I’ve never heard of. At the least, this is bad writing because it runs the risk of becoming dated AND limits the audience, but at worst, it’s just lazy. I gave up in chapter 17 when Graham defines Lucy as “normal” and Henry as “not normal” based on their behavior and neuroses. There has been so much work done to destigmatize mental illness and to reframe disability that these words have no place in contemporary narrative, and a competent editor would have noted this and redirected their author. At this point I recognized that Speechless was self-published and put it down for good.

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

When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robbins

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When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robbins

Robbins, Eden. When Franny Stands Up. Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022. 400 pp. ISBN 978-1728256009 $16.99

****
I am a huge fan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. HUGE. By 20 pages in, this felt at first like a disappointing rip-off in a magical realism/urban fantasy setting. Like Midge, Franny is Jewish, uncensored, has a posturing lesbian mentor, and her idol, the infamous Boopsie Baxter, is a takeoff on Moms Mobley. Unlike Midge, Franny doesn’t have a husband or ex, but she does rails against some of the same 1950s era women’s rights issues in terms of labor and cultural expectations. This speculative fiction novel, grounded in a post WWII Jewish setting, quickly hits its stride.

Franny, in her late teens, escapes downtown in 1940s Manhattan to catch Boopsie’s act. Intrigued by an interview in which the comedianne talked about the IT quality that kills in the business that the paper doesn’t name, Franny sets out to discover just what a “Showstopper” is.

Fast forward a few years, and after an unsavory incident with her best friend’s brother in a back of car, Franny is so traumatized at being made to dance with him at wedding that she runs out, lands at a comedy club, and heckles until she’s tossed out (very similar to Midge’s showing up in her negligee after her husband asks for a divorce). One thing leads to another and soon she has been taken under the wing of a group of (possibly lesbian) stand up comics, trying to break into a career.

The food, slang, fashions and hairstyles of the WWII era add so much to the setting, and the writing is dreamy. The process of joke writing as emotional and physical catharsis for trauma is compelling and I cheered when Franny found her voice, took risks, defied convention and her parents, and spoke her truth. The novel addresses redlining, anti-Semitism, feminism, and family alongside the War.

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

Owner of a Lonely Heart by Eva Carter

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Owner of a Lonely Heart by Eva Carter

Carter, Eva. Owner of a Lonely Heart. Dell, 2023. 416 pp ISBN 978-0593158913. $16.99

****

This interconnected story centers around a hospital, where widowed Gemma and her big Bear provide therapy for cancer patients in between her freelance art career; where Casey is getting a month’s worth of proton treatment to reduce her brain tumor, Bob; where Gemma meets a handsome kind man named Dan who is parenting his 12-year old for the first time as she goes through a second round of cancer treatment.

Told in multiple points of view, we hear Gemma and Dan’s voices more than Casey. We also hear from Gemma’s husband Alexander who has left behind a book he wrote and illustrated for their as yet unborn child. Alex, a puzzle fan, claims to have a final puzzle for Gemma to unravel, and that still weighs on her mind as she goes through a third round of IVF with their frozen embroyos. Dan angsts about his past and the pains he’s taken to make something respectable of himself, but isn’t willling yet to make himself vulnerable to the women he is coming to care about, or to his ex, Angelica, who has mental health issues and thinks the worst of him after twelve years of single parenting.

More of a novel with romantic elements than a romance novel, themes of family, parenting, and nature/nurture emerge through the three stories. Cancer, mental health and infertility are treated with sensitivity, but I would have liked to see more help for Casey’s mom, whose over the top dramatic responses to the simplest things verge on paranoia and neurotic. I

Spoiler alert (highlight to read): I was also left confused by the concept that hot air balloon would not be a risky choice to consider for a newly and possibly precariously pregnant person.

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

The Suite Spot by Trish Doller

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The Suite Spot by Trish Doller

Doller, Trish. The Suite Spot (Beck Sisters #2). Griffin, 2022. 288 pp. ISBN 978-1250809476. $16.99.

***

As in The Float Plan, change is what happens when it’s more painful to stay than leave. When single mom Rachel is unfairly fired for rebuffing the inappropriate advances of a powerful guest, she leaves behind not just her crappy job, but her mom and her ex, who barely parents, and signs on to manage a boutique hotel with an brewery–agrotourism, if you will. Unfortunately, when she arrives on an island in Lake Erie in Ohio, she doesn’t find a brewery hotel to manage, but rather an incomplete vision of one. Owner Mason is grouchy and guarded and intends to rely on the experience, expertise and taste of his new employee to bring the vision to life. She’s hooked! Details of the scenic setting and antiques shopping rounded out the romance nicely.

A few things didn’t ring quite true. Custody being what it is, you can’t just walk away with your kid, dads have rights. And technically, Mason is Rachel’s boss, irregardless of chemistry, it’s a big gamble, with a kid, to put financial security and physical safety and home at risk. Hence, things move at a slow pace. While Anna and Keane make an appearance, this is stand-alone romance. I’m an unabashed fan of heroines with curves and books with food or design details, so this was a 4 star rating for me.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TheSuiteSpot from #NetGalley back in March, but it expired and I checked it out as an ebook from my local library system.

An Improbable Season by Rosalyn Eves

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An Improbable Season by Rosalyn Eves

Eves, Rosalyn. An Improbable Season. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0374390181. $19.99

***

Marketed as a Bridgerton read-alike because it’s set in the Regency era, An Improbable Season focuses on the London debut of two sisters and their cousin, only one of whom actually seems interested in settling down and marrying. Admirably, one is looking for the intellectual heart of the city, and I had trouble from the beginning keeping the characters–defined as the scientist, the poet and the one who wants a family–or their beaus–straight and had to keep flipping back (even though details were conveyed through diary entries, field notes, and actions) to remind myself who was who. While chapters alternate in focus, the narrative voice and point of view is the same throughout. I would have much rather read a stand-alone novel about the romances of each protagonist in a three-part series, which would have left more time and space for nuanced character development, and more complete world-building.

For the record, Thalia Aubrey is an aspiring poet and has ignored the affections of family friend Mr. Hetherbridge for years, falling for the rakiest rake, Mr. Darby; Kalliope, the sweet one who loves parties second only to family is accidentally caught with Hetherbridge in the gardens with a ripped dress and the two are forced into a betrothal as Kalli navigates and attraction to and attention from a Mr. Salisbury, who seems to love her awkwardness; cousin Charist Elphinstone, a scientist and naturalist who has a fondness for insects and feminism, plans only to observe the Season and then engages in a battle of wits and wills with the Indian-born style maker Mr. Leveson, who becomes her love interest.

As the three young ladies arrive in London, details of the journey or preparations for the Season are omitted, launching right into visiting other women and girls, with nary an eligible bachelor in sight, quickly remedied once the parade of calling cards begins. There is drama, and gossip, etiquette to be learned, and dancing late into the night, but also hurt feelings, soul searching, sneaking around, and finally, solidarity.

Much knowledge is simply assumed, with period details, London locations, and terms are mostly undefined (bluestocking, Gretna Green, Almacks, modiste, nabobs, milliner); careful readers will be able to figure out some references with context, and while I had fun looking up the various punches served, a few more sensory details would have been gracious. The excellent author’s note at the end fills in some of the blanks and addresses British colonization and women of science of the time period. The inclusion of a person of colonized India ancestry educated in Britain and struggling to find his place in the world was a welcome addition.

I will say the courtship scenes are tame but full of sensual details, and the endings/beau that each young lady ended up with was … well, improbable. Which makes me think either I really didn’t read carefully, that some details were just red herrings, or there was a goal by the author, a long time reader of Regency romances, to meet the expectation set by the title.

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

The Last Encore by Elodie Colliard

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The Last Encore by Elodie Colliard

Colliard, Elodie. The Last Encore. self-published, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9781778137907.

**

Avery, a photographer, is recovering from multiple traumas: sexual assault in high school and the abrupt disappearance of her best friend shortly thereafter, and more recently, her mother’s mental health decline and her father’s dissolution of their marriage. She has mixed feelings when her best friend from high school, a talented pianist, reappears in her life after ten years of silence. Hired to play at a benefit where Avery is accompanying her father as his date (even though she’s furious at him for the affair he had), Josh is the musical equivalent of the keynote speaker and plays a song to tug at her heartstrings before he even knows she is in the audience. They reconnect, but the balance of indignation and let’s just forget about our conflict and our chemistry for not to try to restore the friendship, is not quite believable. The anxiety rings true and so does the trauma, but the processing isn’t on the page to see.

Minor details like Avery’s dad working for a hospital and not connecting with family if they are brought there in an emergency, and feeding her pet cat raw fish (a strict no-no!) make the whole novel a little less believable. Typos, poor grammar, and more telling than showing are the hallmarks of lack of professional editing.

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

A Dash of Salt and Pepper by Kosoko Jackson

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A Dash of Salt and Pepper by Kosoko Jackson

Kosoko Jackson. A Dash of Salt and Pepper. Berkley, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN 978-0593334461. $15.99

***

I am a sucker for culinary romances and New England settings. Solid writing, but the contemporary setting and fast and furious pop culture allusions felt frenetic to me, and I put it down at 40% read–I just could not get vested in the character.

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

The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic by Samantha Verant

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The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic by Samantha Verant

Verant, Samantha. The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic. Berkley, 2023. 352 pp. ISBN 978-0593546000. $17.00.

****

It’s always interesting to see how things trend in entertainment, in subject or theme. This is one of several novels set in Paris revolving around food I’ve read in the last few months. Kate is a woman on a culinary mission to open an authentic Parisian restaurant in spite of the location’s cursed reputation and the sneery son of the landlord, Charles, a chef in his own right who doesn’t believe she can pull it off. His mother, wildly eccentric Garrance, offers to provide both business advice and spice stock from her exotic indoor garden; oddly, any changes Kate makes at Garrance’s request result in tremendous success…

Full of romance and intrigue, The Spice Master at Bistro Exotic offers an authentic and exquisite French setting and decadent, delicious food writing, within the framework of a magical realism story. The novel includes recipes featured in the narrative, with clear instructions and ingredients that are fairly easy to source, prefaced by a note about philosophy (a recipe is a guideline!) and substitutions. They are mouthwatering and inspiring.

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

A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

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A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie  Murphy and Sierra Simone

Murphy, Julie and Sierra Simone. A Merry Little Meet Cute. Avon, 2022. 432 pp. ISBN 978-0063222571. $21.99

*****

When plus-sized adult film star Bianca von Honey and former bad-boy Nolan Shaw, a boy band member turned actor, get cast opposite one another in a Hallmark movie-esque time travel rom com, she’s under orders to not reveal her porn industry connection, and he’s under orders to maintain a squeaky-clean image for rebranding. Bee keeps her composure when she meets the fantasy-inspiring man whose photos are still taped all over the walls and ceiling of her childhood bedroom, and Nolan pretends not to recognize Bee as the alt-porn star who has been not only feeding his spank bank for three years, but hides his super-fan top-tier support of her members-only ClosedDoor (think OnlyFans) account. The chemistry seems to be there, but she thinks the funny look on his face when they meet is because he thinks she’s fat (he doesn’t).

No one except Bee knows Teddy Ray Fletcher, producer of the film under the newly minted Fletcher Productions, is also Uncle Ray Ray, budget porn mogul. Due to an unfortunate accident that takes out several original crew members, Teddy substitutes behind the scenes crew members gleaned from the adult film industry for hair, wardrobe, and gaffer. Mums the word, because no one can know the streams have been crossed, or the family-friendly Hope network will drop the Duke the Halls project and Teddy will be out a lot of much needed cash.

BrillIantly plotted, inclusive, diverse, sweet and raunchy, the narrative is fucking hilarious and full of quick comebacks, racy references, cultural allusions and laugh-out-loud funny moments. It’s entirely likely authors Murphy and Simone alternated the chapters as Bee and Nolan, but the voices and narrative, while different, are cohesive. I have sense that Murphy brings along the YA drama and angsty, pop culture allusions and movie-making know how, while Simone adds in the romance and historical aspects to create a really seamless whole; when Bee and Nolan are arguing over which BBQ reigns supreme (Texas or Kansas), the authors might be making their own preferences known, but it works.

Characters were multifaceted and diverse in background, ethnicity and sexuality, all normalized and embraced. Most of the Christmas romances I read exist in a vacuum of other religions and cultures not existing, but A Merry Little Meet cute references multiple Jewish-adjacent characters, which was refreshing and affirming. This holiday romance novel also deals positively with mental illness, sex work and slut-shaming, body positivity and fat shaming and feminism.

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