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review 2014-12-12 15:54
Slow Burning Christmas Contemporary
Maybe This Christmas - Sarah Morgan

This a slow-burning, secret-crush, friends-to-lovers, contemporary romance with a holiday theme. I read the first in the series, Sleigh Bells in the Snow, last Christmas, and I didn't love it because I really didn't like the heroine. This book is better, and certainly works as a stand alone if you haven't read the previous books in the series (there's a second book that I haven't read). 


Brenna and Tyler have been best friends since childhood, but Brenna has always been in love with him, but kept her feelings to herself, believing Tyler would never love her back. Tyler is a commitment-phobe who keeps all of his relationships superficial after accidentally getting a high school classmate pregnant. He's attracted to Brenna, but would never act on it out of fear of jeopardizing their friendship. Both live and work at Snow Crystal Spa and Resort, a ski area in Vermont, but when the resort gets overbooked at the holidays, Brenna has to move in with Tyler, and their mutual attraction suddenly threatens their friendship the way they both always feared it would. 


I found the first half of this book kind of slow, but I know there are people who really enjoy slow-burning, tension-building romances, and this definitely fits that bill: the couple don't share their first kiss until page 269. The last third of the book moved a lot faster and I found it emotionally cathartic (it made me cry twice) without being too angsty. 


I had a few quibbles with some of the subplots -- Brenna's tense relationship with her parents resolves just too easily, for example, and Tyler's ex is just too shrewish to be believed -- but nothing that ruined the story for me. 

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review 2014-09-04 01:10
Likeability is Key
Love Hacked - Penny Reid

Maybe this makes me shallow, but whether or not I find a main character "likeable" makes a huge difference in my enjoyment level. Love Hacked is a prime example. I have read the two previous books in Penny Reid's Knitting in the City series, and enjoyed Reid's humor and writing style, and liked the stories reasonably well, but rated both books only three stars because I found the main characters so unpleasant. Elizabeth (Friends Without Benefits) I found to be so toxic I couldn't see what the hero saw in her. Janie (Neanderthal Meets Human) was better, but still hard to connect with in that she's very rigid in her world view in a way that I am not. I warmed up to Janie's love, Quinn, but it took awhile, because at first blush he's a typical icy, reserved alpha male. 


By contrast, I really, really liked both Sandra and Alex in Love Hacked. Sandra is funny, smart, and relatable, and Alex is one of the best contemporary heroes I've come across in months: he has a heartbreaking backstory, but it hasn't broken him, and he is honest and emotionally forthright (in contrast to alpha men like Quinn, who don't like to talk about their feelings or even acknowledge that they have any). -And the fact that I liked both characters so much made Love Hacked an almost five star read: everything I liked about Penny Reid's writing combined with a couple whose happiness I could invest in (because if I don't like a character, how am I supposed to give a damn about their HEA?). 


I found the premise of this story really fascinating, too: more so than plain-jane-meets-billionaire (Neanderthal) or celebrity-pining-for-the-one-that-got-away (Friends). Sandra is a therapist who has spent two years trying to find Mr. Right, but no matter how normal they seem, they can't help but open up to her Magical-Therapist-Vibe and they always wind up crying before the first course. Alex is the waiter who has watched her reduce men to tears every Friday night for two years… but he's so much more than a waiter. Alex has a Tortured Past, but unlike all the other guys Sandra meets, he's not interested in letting her put on her Therapist Hat and poke around in his psyche. This means that Alex is the one guy that Sandra can't figure out, which makes him endlessly fascinating--but also scary. 

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review 2014-04-23 13:23
Quirky Canadian Friends-to-Lovers Contemporary
Plain Jayne - Laura Drewry

I am a sucker for the friends-to-lovers trope (maybe because I married my best friend from middle school), so when I saw this ARC in the NetGalley catalog, it had "CATNIP" written all over it. Jayne and Nick grew up together in a small town outside of Vancouver. Jayne was raised, reluctantly, by her cold and unloving grandmother after her mother died of a drug overdose, while Nick grew up in a close, warm, secure nuclear family. Jayne left town the day after her high school graduation, after her grandmother made it clear she wasn't welcome any longer. She's been back only rarely since, most recently for Nick's late wife's funeral several years prior to the start of the novel's events. That visit was disastrous, since Abby (the wife) had always been jealous of Jayne and Nick's friendship, and Abby's bereaved mother consequently flipped out when Jayne showed up at the funeral, the result being that Jayne essentially got run out of town on a rail.


When the novel begins, Jayne and Nick are in their early thirties. The grandmother has died and left her bookstore and apartment to Jayne, but in terrible shape: after Jayne left, Gram became a hoarder and the building is packed to the rafters with rats and trash, and the city has threatened to condemn it and tear it down if Jayne can't get it cleaned up and up to code in just a few weeks. Nick offers to help, putting his contracting skills, and even his crew, to work to meet the unreasonable deadline. Since the apartment is uninhabitable, Nick also offers Jayne his spare bedroom, much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Lisa.


If that sets "Infidelity Trope" alarms off in your head, you can relax. I usually hate romantic triangle stories, but my favorite thing about this book was that all of the characters aspired to behave like civil adults, and not hurt each other. Jayne didn't horn in on Lisa and Nick's relationship, and in fact went to pains to reassure Lisa that they were just friends. Lisa was clearly uncomfortable with Nick's and Jayne's close bond, but she trusted Nick and didn't behave like a jealous shrew. -And Nick lived up to that trust, and he did not make a move on Jayne until after he'd realized he had no future with Lisa. He broke things off with Lisa in a scene that was painful but honest and honorable before he even told Jayne that his feelings for her went beyond friendship.


Another thing I liked about this book was how deftly and believably the author crafted Jayne's character, and specifically her deep-seated loneliness and insecurities due to her neglectful childhood. Nick is the only person who has ever made her feel loved, but she knows how fragile that bond is, so she's terrified to risk their friendship. She'd rather be relegated to the friendzone than lose him entirely, and that means holding him at arm's length because in his enthusiasm to help her, Jayne knows Nick puts his relationships with Lisa and with his mother (not Jayne's biggest fan) at risk, but Nick doesn't see it. With her background, Jayne could have been a sad, insecure doormat, but she isn't: she hides her sorrows from everyone (except the reader) and does what needs to be done, looking out for Nick's best interests even when he doesn't know she's doing it.


There were other quirky things I enjoyed about this book, too: Jayne (like me) is a huge fan of 80s music and John Hughes movies, and the book is sprinkled with nostalgic quotes and references to those sources. I also encountered some delightfully colorful Canadian idioms, such as "I could eat the north end of a southbound skunk right about now." Um, yum?


However, there were parts of the narrative that dragged, and there were characters and sideplots included just to give the story that twee "small town feel" (or maybe they're sequel-bait, but either way they felt superfluous), and the author's attempt to explain why Jayne's Gram was the way she was felt too convenient and unsatisfying, which tainted the ending for me. This is Laura Drewry's debut effort, though, and if her writing improves with practice and experience, there may well be great things ahead.


***I received a free ARC from Loveswept and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***



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review 2014-01-30 15:19
A Mixed (Knitting) Bag
Friends Without Benefits - Penny Reid

I have always been drawn to the idea of knitting -- of having something to do with my hands while sitting still, of creating something beautiful and useful from a few balls of yarn, of being able to show my love to friends and family with hand-made gifts from the heart -- but in practice, I am a knitting failure. I've tried to learn several times, with several teachers, but I haven't the skill, patience, or fine motor coordination to accomplish anything but a few lumpy, holey scarves made with big, chunky yarn. 


As with knitting, I liked this book perhaps better in theory than in execution. This story (the second in Penny Reid's Knitting in the City series; I haven't read the first) combines some of my favorite tropes: second chance romance, friends-to-lovers (or enemies-to-lovers, depending upon how you look at it), the unrequited secret crush. Nico and Elizabeth grew up together. As children, Nico loved Elizabeth, but showed it by teasing and tormenting her cruelly (as boys will), so that she thought he hated her. In high school, Elizabeth fell in love with Nico's best friend, who then died of cancer. Nico comforted Elizabeth in her grief, she slept with him once, freaked out, and ran away. When the novel begins, they haven't seen each other for eleven years, since that fateful night when they were teenagers. 


Now Nico is a famous comedian with his own Comedy Central-style show, and Elizabeth is finishing her last year of residency as a medical doctor. Their paths cross again when Nico's niece comes under Elizabeth's care. Two things become immediately clear: 1) Nico is still very much in love with Elizabeth, and 2) Elizabeth has not dealt with her grief, and consequently she is very much afraid to love anyone. For most of the book, the dilemma seems quite hopeless. 


Parts of this story worked very well:


I loved Nico's honesty. So often, romance novels manufacture dramatic conflict by making a huge issue of the hero's resistance to falling in love and his inability to express his feelings once they develop. Friends Without Benefits uses that tired trope, too, but gender-flips it: Elizabeth is the one who, having lost her mother and her first love as a child, isn't willing to surrender her heart. Nico, in a refreshing contrast both to Elizabeth's fear and to the stereotypically emotionally-stunted romance heroes of the genre, is totally in touch with his feelings and unapologetically honest about them. He tells Elizabeth how he feels and what he wants, he owns his mistakes and apologizes for them, and he doesn't compromise his self-respect while he waits for Elizabeth to come to terms with her own emotions. Nico is much, much more emotionally mature than Elizabeth, and I really liked that about him. 


I loved Elizabeth's Knitting Group. Every Tuesday night, Elizabeth gets together with a bunch of girlfriends to knit, gossip, and drink wine. This is the thread that binds the series together: presumably, by the end, all of the knitters will have had their own love stories. In the midst of my present social isolation, living in rural America far from all of my best school mates, raising toddlers whose bedtime routine starts at 6:45 pm, I long for this sort of social Girl Time even more than I long for romance and hot sex (my wife and I have that, occassionally, even with small kids). In my case, I'd prefer a book group to a knitting group, but for a group of friends like that, I'd make another stab at learning to purl. Elizabeth's friends are fun, funny, supportive, and honest, and they love her too much to let her persist in her deluded and emotionally-stunted relationship patterns. 


Parts of this story didn't work for me:


Elizabeth is a hot mess. Even gender-flipped, the I-don't-wanna-fall-in-love-because-REASONS trope is tired and tiresome. Much as I may sympathize with Elizabeth's childhood losses and her impulse to guard her heart, her emotional immaturity made her pretty tough to like for the first two-thirds of this book. She's not just guarded: she's condescending (example: when Nico tells her he loves her, she doesn't believe him; she says he thinks he loves her, as if she's in a better position to know his heart and mind than he is) and sometimes even cruel (example: when she feels her resolve to resist Nico slipping, she makes arrangements to sleep with another man whom she doesn't even like, intending to use him to innoculate herself against Nico's love -- which is a pretty crappy thing to do to both men). 


When Elizabeth finally starts to get her shit together, Nico flakes out. At about 70% through the story, just as things are starting to wrap up toward the Happy Ever After, something happens in a the plot which makes Elizabeth want to be closer to Nico but sends him fleeing back to his show in New York. Honestly, the fight that preceeds his departure seems contrived, as if Ms. Reid's plot got away from her and the HEA showed up before she'd wrapped up the story, so she made her characters have a big blow up just to buy a little time. Nico had been so honest and mature to that point, and Elizabeth had been such a basketcase, and all of a sudden their roles were reversed and neither was behaving true-to-character. It was all a set-up to a Grand Gesture Grand Finale, but I didn't like it: I'd have preferred more emotional honesty and less dramatic fireworks. 


Poor Editing. Finally, and this is a frequent complaint about indie-published books, I was bothered by typos and grammatical errors (including an egregious misuse of "literally," which ranks right up with "irregardless" as my one of my top grammar pet peeves) throughout the story. Ms. Reid also has a tendency toward redundancy, using long chains of adjectives when one or two would suffice, and sometimes expressing the same sentiment (sometimes in the exact same phrasing) several times in the same scene. As I understand it, these first two books have been fairly well-received and have brought Ms. Reid success beyond that enjoyed by most indie-published authors. I hope that she'll consider using some of the proceeds of that success to pay for professional editing and proofreading of her next books -- with a little help, I think her writing could probably make the leap from 'Good' to 'Excellent'. 


Bottom line: Ms. Reid's writing is funny and insightful, and I'll probably read on in the series in the hopes that I'll like future stories better when Elizabeth-the-hot-mess doesn't have such a central role. 

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text 2014-01-29 02:04
Status Update: I've read 30%. Grammar Pet Peeve!
Friends Without Benefits - Penny Reid

"I was bargaining with myself. A literal Angel and Devil perched on my shoulders [....]"


That is sooo not what 'literal' means... Unless this chick has wicked strong shoulders!



I've read 26%:


How refreshing! A hero who recognizes and declares his feelings without a whole lot of macho posturing. No boring "he-loves-me-but-won't-say-so-because-REASONS." (Now, if only the heroine were not so emotionally constipated.)



I've read 21%:


I want to like this book, but the heroine seems so clueless and boneheaded, failing to notice (or deliberately misinterpreting) what is patently obvious to everyone else. Tell me it gets better!

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