2014 – a summary of my reading, contemporary and quirky romance edition

Ok, I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week, but then my kids got the flu. You know how it goes. Read on for my favorite reads in contemporary romance and the nonexistent subgenre “romance novels that are quirky, perhaps a little nerdy, and also don’t have a lot of sex.” Stay tuned in a couple of days for my final roundup post on erotic romance, erotica, and the two non-romance, non-erotica books I read (and liked) in 2014.

Contemporary romance:

Between the Sheets by Molly O’Keefe
The Chocolate Touch / The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand
Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Still Life with Strings by L.H. Cosway
Private Politics by Emma Barry
Truly by Ruthie Knox

Look at the list above. These ladies are my auto-buy list for contemporary romance (and, in Molly O’Keefe’s case, for historical as well). Between the Sheets is my favorite of all of O’Keefe’s contemporary romances (that I’ve read: I’ve been saving some of the backlist to savor later on) because its characters just sang to me, especially Shelby. She’s one of those difficult heroines I treasure — her choices may not be the ones “nice” women make, but they’re the ones that make sense for her, even when they’re unhealthy. Ty and Shelby’s story is not lighthearted, but O’Keefe gave me (because, yes, this book is all for me. Back it up, bitches.) a story that was believably gritty and intense without being depressing (despite its forays into elder care, school bullies, incarcerated parents, and the ramifications of abuse).

On a somewhat more lighthearted note, Florand’s The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Temptation (along with the other six Florand books I read last year) provided 100% of my hot, French, chocolatier hero needs. Kim and I went gaga for Touch and probably each read it three or four times in a few months (and we’ll probably read it at least once more, soon, because we still need to write our dueling discussion on it.), and Tasha and I discussed Temptation together. If you read the last roundup post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for heroines, but it’s Florand’s heroes who always shine. Don’t get me wrong, her heroines are great, but Florand seems keenly aware that there is great power in a hot guy who smells strongly of chocolate, and she capitalizes on that power.

Kim and I reviewed Laugh, so I won’t add too much to my obscene word count here. I loved it for all of its details — the farming and Nina’s shorts, for instance — and for its portrayal of relationships in all their messy glory. Rivers’ characters, Sam grappling with his ADHD and Nina with her grief and fear for her friend, don’t have an easy time of it on their road to love, but sometimes the best things are hard-fought. Tasha said Still Life with Strings was good, so I read it and sent shouty texts to Kim that went like this: “KIM. KIM. KIM. KIM. Did you see Tasha’s post about Still Life with Strings? Have you read it yet? DOOOO IITTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” And she did. Lucky me, she loved it, too. (Would have been awkward, otherwise.) Ahem. This book is a tad unconventional (in all the best ways) matching a Stradivarius-wielding, slightly depressive, violinist hero and a bartending, street performing, avant-garde art enthusiast heroine. Mostly, I loved how fun it is and how it doesn’t shy away from class differences & the assumptions of the economically secure.

Private Politics is the second in Barry’s The Easy Part series (which is part The West Wing and part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — especially the first book in the series — and all romance gold). Private Politics concerns the masks we wear and the stereotypes that can define our lives and limit our chances, if we let them. So blond, perfect, socialite Alyse, used to using her looks and image to get things done (and to being undervalued), learns how to take herself seriously and to demand the same of others. Liam, a somewhat soft, nice Jewish boy, infatuated with Alyse, transitions from lovesick doormat to equal partner (demanding respect along the way). My favorite part was Liam’s mom, but that’s neither here nor there.

Finally, there’s Truly. Now, I’ll be honest. Technically, I read this book for the first time in 2013. (It was serialized on Wattpad), but I read it as a complete book when it was released in 2014, so… I’m counting it anyway. While I’m being honest, I’ve got to tell you that Truly has two of the most potent pieces of Kelly’s reading catnip imaginable: a tall heroine matched with a grumpy hero. For reals, I love those two things so much that my bias is out of this world. But wait, there’s more: Meg starts as an extreme case of mid-western politeness and learns how to be more difficult (and more true to herself) in the wilderness of New York City (and on the road back to Wisconsin); Ben, a grumpy, beekeeping, former chef, alone and adrift, makes what peace he can with his past and does some extraordinary groveling to make up for all the times he was a douchepony. Of course I loved it.

Books I keep trying to get people who don’t like romance to read (a.k.a. quirky romance):

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo / The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

So, here’s the thing. I’m a romance novel enthusiast: I read romance almost exclusively, and I think that most people, if they could get past the mental image of Fabio (oh that we could all get past that image) and the idea that romance fiction — in its entirety — is guilty pleasure reading (Don’t get me wrong… there are things I read that I feel deeply conflicted about enjoying. That just proves to me that I’m doing it right.), could find themselves actually liking a romance novel or two. Romance is frequently not the problem. After all, it’s what makes pretty much any story ever interesting and relevant to humans. Buuuuuuuut…. highly descriptive sex scenes? Now, those are definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

For those of you bravely reading this blog, certain that you’ll never, ever want to read any of the books I’m talking about because velvet-covered steel and dewy petals (and every synonym for “thrust”), this section is for you.

Attachments is a largely epistolary novel that weaves a story around emails exchanged between Jennifer and Beth, two employees at a newspaper, and narrative about Lincoln, the guy who’s been hired to monitor workplace email and ensure compliance with the company’s email policy. It’s funny and strange and ever so slightly creepy (but the creepiness didn’t bother me so much because Lincoln felt so conflicted about it). I loved it because (1) it was set around Y2K, (2) Beth and Jennifer’s emails are such an accurate depiction of friendship, and (3) it managed to have a totally believable romance even though the characters don’t actually meet until the very end.

The Girl with the Cat Tattoo is a romance and (kind of) murder mystery mostly narrated by the coolest cat ever. I’m a thwarted cat lady (my husband is allergic, so no kitties for me; otherwise, I’d happily end up with a houseful of cats and litter boxes), so the cat narrator appealed to me. The instant I finished it, I purchased The Geek with the Cat Tattoo, which I liked even better (no murder mystery to distract the story from the characters; Geek has a painfully shy human matched with a cat who controls minds and helps bring the reluctant hero and heroine together.).

Neanderthal Seeks Human self-describes as a “smart romance.” It begins in a toilet stall and follows the exploits of its narrator, Janie, an awkward architect/accountant/mathemagician who is two steps shy of autism spectrum. Janie’s POV is incredibly fun to experience, even when she misses all the obvious clues. Three reasons I love Janie: Panty Dance Parties, the way she uses the knitting group as a focus group to determine appropriate emotional responses, and her use of the moniker Sir Handsome McHotpants to refer to Quinn, the hero.  Honestly, I loved all the Knitting Series books, especially Love Hacked, but Neanderthal Seeks Human has a closed bedroom door, so I’m recommending it here. The later books in the series have significantly more sexy times (because their narrators aren’t Janie).

I hope you enjoyed this installment of my 2014 roundup. If you didn’t…

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.*

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!