What I’ve been reading lately – books by people named Penny

You know how humans are apt to generalize out of the particular? Well, I recently read books by two people named Penny (Penny Reid and Penny Watson, to be specific), and now my brain thinks that all books by people named Penny are likely to be awesome. I try to remind my brain that an author’s name does not have direct bearing on a given book’s chances of being awesome, but my brain does not listen.

First up is Penny Watson’s Apples Should be Red. 

Recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Start with sixty-two year old politically incorrect, chain-smoking, hard-cussing curmudgeon.
Add fifty-nine year old sexually-repressed know-it-all in pearls.
Throw in a beer can-turkey, a battle for horticultural supremacy, and nudist next-door neighbor.
Serve on paper plates, garnished with garden gnome.
Tastes like happily ever after.

The romance genre has a diversity problem, and it isn’t just one of race and class. While there has definitely been a shift over the past fifteen years or so to allow a wider age range of heroines (used to be they were all 17-21, give or take, and now they’re closer to 24-34, give or take), it would be easy, looking exclusively at romance fiction, to assume that heroes need to be in their 30s and that there’s no such thing as romance after 40. That really is a pile of malarkey, and I’m thrilled that Penny Watson decided to tell the story of these two characters in their golden years.

Apples Should Be Red is the story of a Martha Stewartesque woman thrown together with a grumpy, garden-savvy Jeff Bridgesish guy, except that the story is way more wonderful than that sounds. For starters, Tom and Bev are more well-rounded than their summaries might imply. Bev is not just a post-menopausal widow who can decorate the hell out of anything; she’s also a woman healing from several decades of bad marriage, a woman whose motherhood and wifehood has eclipsed her sense of self for so long that she’s a little lost. Tom is not just an antisocial old coot with a flourishing vegetable garden and a disdain for the trappings of femininity; he’s also an incredibly smart dude who prefers making things with his hands to theorizing, an independent man who is able to learn the value of flowers and neighbors. These two characters come alive through strong writing, snappy dialogue, and masterful plotting. The result is both laugh out loud funny and poignant; and it’s sexy as hell. I highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read more books by Penny Watson (especially Lumberjack in Love, which sounds right up my alley.)

I participated in DABWAHA this year, and was intrigued by a number of the books included in the original 64, including Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human (Knitting in the City #1). 

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without
volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn’t know how to knit.


After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can’t help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can’t afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn — the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies — to make her an offer she can’t refuse.

I fucking loved this book, you guys. There’s a pretty good chance that Penny Reid actually wrote it for me. I mean, she hasn’t met me (yet), but… whatever, it’s possible. Neanderthal Seeks Human had me from page one (which takes place in a bathroom stall without toilet paper, by the way). It is a delightfully quirky romance novel that takes full advantage of its slightly unreliable narrator and manages to be a little bit mysterious and a lot funny without downplaying any of the romantic elements. Oh, and it’s a nerd romance.

I may have mentioned from time to time that I am in favor of accurate depictions of friendship in books, so it’s kind of a given that my favorite thing about the book is the knitting group, this group of women who get together weekly to knit, drink, and tell stories about their lives. In Neanderthal Seeks Human, the group sort of plays the role of Janie’s inner monologue, interpreting the events in Janie’s life and suggesting appropriate actions. And the knitting group brings a lot of the comedy to the book’s party (including one very nearly ridiculous scene wherein the knitters take down a couple of gunmen with knitting needles, skeins of outrageously expensive yarn, and sheer moxie).

I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are some random editing issues in the edition I purchased, and I could have handled a little bit less external drama (the gangsters were a trifle OTT), and, while those elements were incredibly entertaining, they distracted just a little bit from the Janie/Sir Handsome McHotpants story. But a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfectly enjoyable. I have been recommending Neanderthal Seeks Human left and right, to strangers, to friends, to readers of romance, to people who would rather not ever read a romance novel. Honestly, I think anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy this book.

I wanted to move right on and read the second book in the series, but — so far — it’s available only on Kindle, and I’m pretty much a Nook girl. So I skipped to the third book, Love Hacked. Unsurprisingly, I loved it, too.

There are three things you need to know about Sandra Fielding: 1) She makes all her first dates cry, 2) She hasn’t been kissed in over two years, and 3) She knows how to knit. 

Sandra has difficulty removing her psychotherapist hat. Of her last 30 dates, 29 have ended the same way: the man sobbing uncontrollably. After one such disaster, Sandra–near desperation and maybe a little tipsy–gives in to a seemingly harmless encounter with her hot waiter, Alex. Argumentative, secretive, and hostile Alex may be the opposite of everything Sandra knows is right for her. But now, the girl who has spent all her life helping others change for the better, must find a way to cope with falling for someone who refuses to change at all. 

So I was a little worried when I picked up Love Hacked that it wouldn’t live up to the hype my brain built. I needn’t have worried. This book is, like Janie’s book before it, told in the first person past narrative from Sandra’s perspective, and it is awesome. And Alex? OM NOM NOM NOM. (Wait, is that creepy?) Further, it’s just as funny as Neanderthal, but it’s utterly distinct. And it makes me want to have occasion t-shirts (except I don’t like wearing t-shirts).

Love Hacked is slightly less recommendable to non-romance readers because it’s got significantly more sexy sexy times, but I still want to recommend it to all the people (all of them). It’s funny and touching and enjoyable and interesting. (And, again — I’m not saying that it’s perfect… editing errors and external sources of drama annoy me.)  But let’s just put this into perspective for those of you who know me well: this book has editing errors and I loved it anyway, and I want you to read it. I don’t know that there’s a better way to communicate how very much I liked it.

So there you have it: books by people named Penny are fucking awesome.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of Apples Should Be Red from the author in exchange for an honest review. I purchased the other two books.*

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What I’ve been reading lately – a little more historical romance fiction

It’s kind of fun to go back through a giant list of books read over a period of three months and identify some trends. I read a heck of a lot of historical romance fiction in January and February (and, as you know, a heck of a lot of erotica in March). So, here I am continuing the mini-review trend. I’ll catch up eventually…

Sinfully Yours (Hellions of High Street #2) by Cara Elliott

After an eventful Season, Anna Sloane longs for some peace and quiet to pursue her writing. Though her plots might be full of harrowing adventure and heated passion, she’d much prefer to leave such exploits on the page rather than experience them in real life. Or so she thinks until she encounters the darkly dissolute-and gorgeously charming-Marquess of Davenport.

Davenport has a reputation as a notorious rake whose only forte is wanton seduction. However the real reason he’s a guest at the same remote Scottish castle has nothing to do with Anna . . . until a series of mysterious threats leave him no choice but to turn to her for help in stopping a dangerous conspiracy. As desire erupts between them, Davenport soon learns he’s not the only one using a carefully crafted image to hide his true talents. And he’s more than ready to show Anna that sometimes reality can be even better than her wildest imaginings . . .

I got an email about these two books by Cara Elliott, and the name sounded familiar to me, so I did a search of my blog and turned up this post on Too Dangerous to Desire (Lords of Midnight #3). I decided to read the books — despite real fears of encountering more dog metaphors and strange laughter — because I am such a sucker for books whose characters are writers. (Tangent: it should not surprise you at all to learn that the only Julia Quinn books I still enjoy are the ones that reference the mad fiction of Sarah Gorley. /tangent)

Sinfully Yours is fun. It combines some of the best elements of lighthearted historical romance into a fast-paced romp that delivers laughs and feels in equal proportions.  For example, it has: a delightfully inept mother character who wants the best for her daughters (and interprets “best” as “a German prince who may or may not be pitching for another team”); a roguish hero who secretly designs and sells automata (OMG, he’s in trade!); a “perfect” heroine who secretly pens slightly risqué gothic adventure novels and doesn’t really know what happens after her hero and heroine kiss; an assassination plot that somehow requires the heroine’s help to foil; dastardly villains; good triumphing over evil; happily ever after ending.

It also has a few instances of “Ha ha ha” laughter (and, yes, I did think of Count von Count every time), and it seemed to me as though the characters moved from flirtatious to naked in a remarkably quick period of time.  I mean — it would have been a jarring sprint down the primrose path in a contemporary romance, but this is a historical romance. I expected the standard progression: longing glances, first kiss, kissing with passion, kissing with passion and groping, full on second base, etc. There are usually a lot of steps before the heroine has her hands shoved down the hero’s trousers (or under the placket of his breeches, as the case may be). I feel like such a pearl-clutcher writing all this, but there it is.

All told, though, I enjoyed Sinfully Yours because it’s fun and funny and because its heroine is a writer. If you like lighthearted historical romps and/or stories about fictional writers or tinker-type heroes, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Passionately Yours (Hellions of High Street #3) by Cara Elliott

The youngest of the Hellions of High Street, Caro Sloane has watched her two sisters have exhilarating encounters with dashing heroes, and now she is longing for some excitement of her own. After all, how can she write truly passionate poetry until she has experienced a Grand Adventure? But that seems unlikely to happen as she’ll be spending the next few weeks in the quiet spa town of Bath, where nothing grand or adventurous ever happens . . . until she and her new friend Isobel are nearly abducted while walking on a quiet country road—only to be rescued by Alec McClellan, the moody and mysterious Scottish lord she met at Dunbar Castle.

Alec has come to England to deal with a treacherous betrayal and fears that his half-sister Isobel is in peril from an old enemy. Does he dare share his secrets with Caro? The bold and brave beauty leaves him no choice, and together they are quickly caught up in a swirl of dangerous intrigue . . . where fiery desire between them may ignite into the greatest danger of all.

When I read these books last month, I liked Passionately Yours slightly better than Sinfully Yours, but now, four weeks later, I am finding that the latter was more memorable; however, I don’t find that its being memorable necessarily means that it is better. After all, the things that continue to resonate in my memory are (1) the things that I was always going to love about it (writer heroine, tinker hero, uptempo plot) and (2) the thing that I found incredibly strange (surprise peen).

The heroine in Passionately Yours is also a writer, albeit of the poetic variety, and so is the hero, though he’s much more secretive about it. Its story pretty well mirrors Pride and Prejudice, except with more intrigue, danger, and sedition. Caro and Alec meet and take immediate dislike to each other in the previous book, and that dislike continues in this one. But, of course, like Lizzy and Darcy (and Beatrice and Benedick) before them, their mutual dislike is actually just a disguise for mutual attraction — a reflex of these prickly and passionate characters. I thought both characters were interesting individually and together, and I enjoyed the romance of this story (which I thought was much more believable than the previous book).

The only problem with Passionately Yours, actually, is that it is so smooth a read — enjoyable but not particularly challenging — that it doesn’t stick around much once the last page is turned. Only you can know whether or not you would find that to be a point in its favor.

Improper Arrangements by Juliana Ross 

A reckless infatuation nearly ruined Lady Alice Cathcart-Ross in her youth, but from the moment she spies Elijah Philemon Keating scaling a rock face without a rope in sight, the man awakens her long-buried desire. Alice has come to the high Alps in search of a mountaineer, and in Elijah she finds the guide of her dreams.

Though Elijah is known as one of the greatest explorers of the age, a tragic accident has destroyed his taste for adventure and society. Elijah can’t deny his attraction to Alice, but he resolves to avoid the entanglement that could accompany it. He promises Alice one week in the Alps, and no more.

Alice agrees, valuing her independence above all else. But as the heights they climb by day are overshadowed by the summits of passion they reach at night, these vows become harder and harder to keep…

You read that blurb, right? OK, officially, I take exception to stories about women who have experienced some form of physical relationship in their past but — for whatever reason — have managed to live a celibate life until they meet the hero, when KAPOW, their lady areas light up in a conflagration of desire (I seriously read that line somewhere in about fifty different books. Wish I was kidding.) I know, I know — it’s vacation sex, and, anyway, it’s in a book and I should lighten up — but it’s just hard for me to imagine that Eli’s the first attractive man Alice has met in the years since she established an independent household for herself.

That said, I actually liked this story in spite of a few pet peeves.  It’s written in a first person narrative, and y’all know how I feel about that. There’s that instant attraction thing and the idea that the heroine has an independent life but feels the need to live it entirely alone until she meets a fine pair of forearms. But even with my starting bias against the book, I enjoyed it. It reads like a romance novel crossed with a travel diary, which worked strangely well. Both characters are distinct, interesting, and engaging. I loved the writing, which reminded me a little bit of E.M. Forster with a feminine twist. (It’s possible that my brain is just making that bit up because this story has English people wandering around the Alps.)

I liked Improper Arrangements, and I can’t wait to read the next book by Juliana Ross. Incidentally, I read (and loved) the first Improper book way back in the early days of this blog.

A Night with the Bride by Kate McKinley 

While at a lavish house party, Gabriella Weatherfield confidently bets her friends that she can convince the “unseducible” Duke of Somerset to kiss her. But Gabriella’s innocent wager turns wicked when faced with the duke’s intense blue eyes and talented hands.

Nicholas Montgomery usually strives to stay away from society, yet there’s no denying Gabriella’s wild beauty or the way she makes him want to lose control for once. Will the fire between them burn out when Gabriella uncovers the inner demons haunting Nicholas?

I really wanted to like this book. Here’s the thing… This story has a pretty good premise — Duke with issues overhears brassy, trade-wealthy heroine accept a dare to kiss him, hijinks ensue. That could have been really interesting, and for the first half of the book, I was impressed with the story. But then things got a little crazy.

I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but it is simply too staggering to suggest that a woman who has thus far been unimpressed with all the dudes she’s met would not just fall in love within the span of two days but fall so hard in love that she’s impervious to fears of madness though she lives in a society in which madness is feared, the mad locked away, the families shunned. I accepted the sudden attraction between the characters — even though it hinged on insta-lust and magic sex organs — but I could not believe the instant growth of love and loyalty, and without that belief, the second half of the book was strange, choppy, and unpleasant.

Sinfully Yours was released on February 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Passionately Yours was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book and paperback by Forever. Improper Arrangements was released on November 11, 2013 as an e-book by Carina Press. One Night with the Bride was released on March 4, 2014 as an e-book by Forever Yours. For more information about the books, click on the cover images above to visit each book’s page on Goodreads. Check out the authors here: Cara Elliott, Juliana Ross, Kate McKinley.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all four books from their respective publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

What I read in March – a wry confession

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I had set this wild goal for 2014 to read fewer books and to think about them more.  I want you to know how well I’m doing on that goal.  Are you ready? I read the following books from March 1-31. (Click on any of the covers to learn more about these books.)  Oh, and I’m listing them in the order in which they were read, from March 1 through to March 31.

That’s 22 books (9 novellas, 13 full-length novels). Maybe I jinxed myself when I so publicly stated my goal. Maybe it was just a coincidence that I ended up binge-reading several authors (Sarah Mayberry, whom I started reading in February, Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, Laura Florand, and Maisey Yates). Maybe I just really wanted to read during the month of March, and I should get off my own back.  Either way, I think we can conclude that I spectacularly failed at my goal last month.

But, OH, you guys…. I don’t even care, because some of these books were just so damn good.  If you’ve not read Charlotte Stein (and you’re in the market for erotica), you should do yourself a favor and pick up Control. That book is simply beautiful. And Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human will probably make my list of favorites for the year. And Unexpected was, well, unexpected — a contemporary, Oregon-set, cowboy-secret-baby-almost-engagement-of-convenience story that not only worked but also managed to fill me with hand-clapping, bouncing glee?! — and incredibly good (MissB: if you’re reading this, I think you’d love it.). And I really can’t wait until my bestest reading buddy Kim picks up Once Upon a Billionaire, so I can find out if she likes it as much as I did.

And don’t even get me started about those two Laura Florand books (or the one I just finished a few hours ago)… I didn’t think I could like a book better than I liked The Chocolate Touch but then I read The Chocolate Rose and realized maybe there could be a tie in my affections. But then I read The Chocolate Temptation (which I really want Tasha to read) and realized that, really, there’s no way to pick a favorite, and the best thing to do about it is just read all the books over and over and over again, the way my bestest friend in the whole wide world cycles through The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, there you have it. I may have failed at my goal, but I WON AT ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Stay tuned for future posts discussing these very books in greater detail. And happy Friday, everybody!