Words Worth Noting

Favorite Quotes

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Review: They're Strictly Friends

They're Strictly Friends They're Strictly Friends by Chloe Liese
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is possibly the best book yet from author contemporary romance author Chloe Liese. They're Strictly Friends revolves around Lucas and Elodie, true friends, who share a powerful attraction that extends beyond the physical, but are also experiencing setbacks that make them reluctant to get romantically involved. They have a lot in common: a history of playing professional soccer, wealthy upbringings, and a head for math and business, plus their two best friends are married to each other, and they both adore their godson Jamie. Though imperfect, these are two very good, substantive and lovely people, and that's incredibly refreshing.

While Lucas comes from a loving supportive family, however, Elodie is all but estranged from her controlling and emotionally abusive family from the start. When that family finally cuts her off financially and Elodie suddenly finds herself without a job or a place to live, Lucas takes her in without hesitation. That puts them in close proximity, and, inevitably, that shaky reticence quickly crumbles. It's a great set-up, and it is easy to see how the relationship grows and deepens organically from there.

Elodie and Lucas still face important obstacles, however. Even after Lucas and Elodie give in to temptation, the health issue Lucas is facing complicates their relationship in a very credible way. I was easily drawn in and quickly invested in their love story. It's funny, touching and original and compels you to keep going. I recommend.

I am thankful to have received an advanced review copy through Netgalley.

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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Review: An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Unseen Attraction is the first installment in the Sins of the Cities series by K.J. Charles, three closely interconnected books centered on a messy, deadly interfamilial feud over succession to an earldom and one of England’s greatest fortunes. In addition to an engrossing central mystery, which unfolds slowly over the course of the three books, there are three central love stories -- one in each book. The intrigue is compelling even though the build up and middle are stronger than the ending which still seems just a bit rushed.

In An Unseen Attraction, however, the action and romance are perfectly paced. Charles deftly introduces the family and other key players, but she primarily focuses on Clem, a bastard, biracial second son of an Earl and an upper servant of Indian heritage. After growing up mostly on the margins of this illustrious family, when the story opens, Clem is running a boarding house in London owned by his half brother, the Earl of Moreton. The arrangement suits the handsome, Anglo-Indian Clement just fine. Clem is sweet and good and intelligent, but has what we would now recognize as information processing issues, and that undermines his confidence. Those challenges give many people, his family especially, an excuse to underestimate and abuse him even more than they already would because of his ethnicity and illegitimacy. Running the boardinghouse allows Clem to use his strengths, his fastidiousness, patience, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, and maintain some semblance of independence. It also puts Clem in a position to meet and cultivate a slow burning but steamy relationship with a boarder, Rowley Green, a man who understands and fully appreciates him.

The one catch is that the house comes with a permanent and difficult tenant, who is somehow connected to and protected by his older brother. Clem has orders to see that the reverend always has a place there rent free and feels satisfied about it. Not long into the book, however, bad things start to happen around the dissolute reverend. His room is ransacked and though no valuables seem to be missing, he’s in a real upset over it. Not long after that things get far worse. These events threaten the stability that Clem has worked so hard to establish in his precarious position. His tenant is hiding something, and Clem’s brother also seems to be hiding something as well. It may be obvious to Clem’s new friend Rowley (and possibly to readers as well) that there is more to the relationship between the Earl and the clergyman than the brother is disclosing, but the secret is not easily guessed.

Beyond the bare bones of the narrative, what really matters here is the specificity and care Charles takes with setting--the finely drawn detail around Victorian culture and the natural and built environment of London-- and, above all, character. Clem and Rowley are indelible and vivid protagonists. They aren't aristocrats or hyper-masculine heroes, and that is a relief. They are ordinary, kind, fallible men made extraordinary in their connection, care and commitment to each other in the face of societal sanction. For Rowley it's simple: '“I’d like to make you happy,” Rowley said softly. “However that might be done.”' That is no small thing to Clem, a man used to either being overlooked or appreciated for his looks and little else: “Rowley, there are lots of people who think I’m worth looking at. Not so many who think I’m worth listening to. Not like you.”
Their love isn't showy. It can't be given their context. But in K. J. Charles's hands, it's undeniable and, in its own quiet way, profound:
I love you. Such small words to make such a huge change. Not the kind of change other people had, with a wedding in fine clothes and people cheering, but a change that would do very nicely for the two of them. Mr. Talleyfer and his lodger, privately and unobtrusively domestic, left to themselves. It was very close to Rowley’s idea of paradise.

Well, it's almost paradise. For the remainder of the series, we learn more and more about what the connection is between Clem's brother and the troublesome former reverend, and why it’s worth blackmailing and murdering people over. The underlying conflict spawns a sprawling but cohesive and mostly comprehensible mystery involving murder, legitimacy, inheritance and class and racial conflict. It’s really very good. An Unseen Attraction is an excellent introduction to a trio of books that I believe constitute a minor masterpiece (I'm not sure I've used that word before)— thoughtful and convincing both on the romantic and suspense elements.

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Review: The Bromance Book Club

The Bromance Book Club The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the idea of this book. I liked its execution. The Bromance Book Club is a second chance love story with a twist. Gavin and Thea, the couple at the center of this story, love each other, but they met and married young, had twin girls and never took the time necessary to get to know each other, work through their own baggage and make their marriage work. The twist is that Gavin’s friends and colleagues on his professional baseball team have offered to coach him on how to get his wife back. Their secret weapon/guidebook? The traditional bodice ripper romance novels one would assume these traditional, hypermasculine men wouldn’t be caught dead reading under normal circumstances.

The setup reminds me of the refrain me of a Sheryl crow song: “are you strong enough to be my man?” because the story really does revolve around a specific type of strength, the internal fortitude it takes to push aside pride in the name of love and become a good partner. As the book shows, that kind of strength sometimes goes against the typical conventions of masculinity.

The logic of the book club is straightforward: if romance novels reflect women’s fantasies, then couldn’t a man use them to learn what women really want and adjust his wayward behavior accordingly? It’s a kind of social learning experiment—the men learn by observing and then emulating or avoiding the behaviors that work for or against the men in these stories.

The action mainly involves Gavin gaining insights from these novels and his friends coaching to work through a lot of mistrust, misunderstanding and misplaced pride that led to the separation in the first place. It’s a light and gimmicky but original premise and it’s fairly well executed. The everyday complications and hurdles the couple faces are recognizable and down to earth. Overall, the Bromance Book Club is a fun, engaging escape with a few original touches and sweet, engaging characters. It doesn’t stay with you long after you close the book, but it’s a nice ride while it lasts.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Review: Muffin Top

Muffin Top Muffin Top by Avery Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fat Heroines don't necessarily herald fat acceptance. This lesson was reinforced for me in spades with a spate of reading I did recently including Muffin Top by Avery Flynn. This is a story of Lucy, a fiercely smart but secretly insecure fat young woman (that's the language she uses) and Frankie, a hunky fireman, who’s tiring of being thought of as nothing more than a man whore. At the start, the two know each other through family connections, but they aren't really friends. When Frankie comes to Lucy's rescue in an ugly encounter at a bar, he offers to help her once more by accompanying her as her fake date/boyfriend for an upcoming high school reunion. Although Lucy's a high-profile crisis communication consultant and has a vibrant social life and she sort of wants to go, she's loathe to put herself back into a setting which was far from happy one as a single woman.

I had a hard time with this book even though I’m intentionally seeking stories with heroines who are characterized as plus-size or fat. The story is well told and engaging. But as in Take Me by Bella Andre and Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein, the central conflict revolves around the fat heroine’s fragile sense of self and her inability to believe that a beautiful man could ever be attracted to let alone love her. Muffin Top is less brutal than Never Sweeter in which the hero used to be the heroine’s high school tormenter. But here, as in Misadventures of A Curvy Girl and Take Me, the outside world is loathe to accept the idea of a romantic relationship between a “curvy girl” and a handsome guy. Of course the guys are always not only handsome and attractive in an average way; they’re exceptional physical specimens, the kind of men who attract attention and resentment. Their attractiveness provides motivation for onlookers to object to the relationship and for other women to be rude to the heroine out of jealousy. A man's good looks, in other words, are the flame that lures angry moths to a fat woman who's just trying to get by in the world without too much attention. In Muffin Top for example, Lucy’s high school rival loudly and publicly proclaims there must be something wrong with Frankie for being with Lucy. This is not mere acknowledgment of lingering social stigma. There are multiple scenes like this of Lucy suffering personal insult and public humiliation.

Public humiliation and punishment are also a recurring theme in other books with larger women as heroines as well. In Sierra Simone’s Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, the heroine’s ex-boyfriend and a host of other people say terrible things about the two men the heroine is involved with. Though their relationship is passionate and fulfilling, the comments are so hateful she runs away, believing the world will never let them be together.

What I keep wondering is why so many of these books are so repetitive and what the effects might be. People are supposed to be happy about the representation of plus size women as lovable but is this really that? Negative self talk is damaging, but isn’t a diet of these types of stories a form of vicarious negative self talk that others fat people and reinforces negative associations and expectations?

This story was a little better than some others in its openness about Lucy’s size and the impact it has. I found it notable that this heroine was larger than other main characters who are categorized as fat or curvy— her specific dress size, which is 20, is mentioned — and she is unable to fit comfortably in airline seats and therefore chooses to drive across country. The text explicitly discusses the ways that society makes life difficult for larger sized people. Flynn is also particularly good at creating a credible dialog between Lucy and Frankie with regard to sex and sexuality and their physical relationship. It goes beyond enthusiastic consent. It’s character building. It helps us understand who they are, how they relate to each other, and how their chemistry evolves. As a result, Muffin Top reads as genuinely sex positive in a healthy way.

What I’m wondering is what readers prefer. How do women of similar size feel about the recurring insecure fat heroine saved by a hunk trope. Because in many ways even though it’s not the intention, as successful as she is in other ways, the heroine’s self worth is saved by the love of a conventionally attractive man, the kind society values. The underlying sense is that his status affirms and bolsters hers. That, ironically, reinforces social hierarchy and affirms damaging conventional beauty standards. Do these curvy women ever have men that aren’t stereotypical alpha men? Why not? Would that love be worth less? If what counts is social status conferred then yes, but why is romance affirming that? How are these narratives still considered progress?

There are alternative narratives that don’t reinforce traditional hierarchies, Olivia Dade’s work for one. Teach Me is wonderfully sensitive and the heroine isn’t entranced by traditional standards of masculinity or high status—the hero is not that kind of guy and she loves him for it— and it’s a wonderful reprieve.

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Monday, December 02, 2019

Review: If I Never Met You

If I Never Met You If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I Never Met You is easily one of my favorite comic novels in a while.* Author Mhairi McFarlane is endlessly witty and deceptively sophisticated, and her sixth book is full of exactly the kind of quotable, wry social observation that I love. My kindle overflows with the highlights to prove it.

The beginning chapters, however, knocked me around a bit. The heroine got knocked down in life, and I felt it. I was embroiled and invested in the story emotionally and in terms of wanting to know what comes next. That’s a testament to the author. But it was a little sadder than I expected or wanted when I started reading, so it took me a while to commit.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I like Mhairi McFarlane’s writing a lot. I’ve ready all but one of her previous books. And even so, this book turned out to be so much more than I expected: smart, funny, poignant, thoughtful and thought provoking, and just a little heartbreaking at first. At the center of it all is Laurie, a biracial woman in her mid-thirties reeling from the dissolution of a long term relationship with a man she’s been with her entire adult life and thought was the love of her life. Making matters worse, her ex is also a colleague at her law firm, and the whole office is abuzz with their news. In the wake of that breakup Laurie strikes up a friendship with Jamie, a slightly younger coworker who’s having his own relationship issues and they enter into a face-saving fake dating arrangement they hope will benefit both their reputations. Laurie’s feeling more than a little bruised. She wants to rid herself of the stink of rejection and maybe get her own back at Deceitful Dan (her ex), and Jamie wants to be taken more seriously and play down his playboy rep. With all three parties being attorneys at the same law firm, things get complicated and contentious very quickly.

What makes the book really special is that it adeptly and authentically engages with the issues around race and gender that Laurie would face as a woman of Afro Caribbean heritage in predominantly white male environments. McFarlane excels at depicting how Laurie navigates the world and the breadth and depth of all different types of love in her life. Platonic love in friendship is particularly important. Mhairi McFarlane tackles the social complexities with insight, sensitivity and humor and still never loses sight of the romance.

As an woman of Afro Caribbean heritage these subjects are all too real and personal for me, and I was not sure what to expect, so it was wonderful to see how well McFarlane handled these aspects of the story while still making me swoon. The hero, Jamie, gets better and better as we get to know him. But I wouldn’t consider this a story about a reformed rake. He’s not an alpha, or a beta. Or a cinnamon roll hero full of gooey goodness. The truth is more complex. He’s human. And that’s what makes it work. Highly, highly recommend.

*Disclosure: I received an advanced review copy of this via Edelweiss and I’m so glad I did. These are my wholly honest unexpurgated thoughts.

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