It’s been forever since I did one of these columns, so this will cover a lot of books:
Ride with Me by Ruthie Knox
Ruthie Knox’s About Last Night was my favorite contemporary of 2012. I don’t read many straight contemporaries, because I typically enjoy them more mildly than other genres of romance. About Last Night was a rare exception, and it has led me to try more contemporaries recently (without that much success). I finally decided to read Knox’s first novel, which I’d been holding in reserve.
Ride with Me takes place on a cross country biking trip. Tom doesn’t want a riding partner, but his sister fixes him up with Lexie. Lexie finds Tom surly, and they agree to part company as soon as she can find another riding partner. But a sizzling attraction complicates their cross-country ride. They both have issues, Tom especially, so it takes a while for them to open their hearts to each other.
I didn’t love this quite as much as About Last Night, but it was almost as good. The cross country biking / campground setting was pure genius. I like to feel that books take me places, and that’s one of the reasons I’m not that drawn to books set in contemporary America. I live here, so it’s less exciting to me. But Ride with Me made me feel that I was on a trip, and it was almost as exciting as the London setting of About Last Night.
Lexie was adorable, a combination of openness to adventure and at the same time, insecurity. The more closed Tom had a core of goodness despite his surliness. I liked the way the trip made him realize what he was missing with his retreat from humanity. Most of all, these felt like real people and their story was romantic. It had funny moments (like the hot sauce scene) and emotional ones. I wanted a few more interactions outside the bedroom, and I thought the resolution was rushed and could have been more romantic, but this one charmed me. B/B+
Also reviewed by Jane here.
The Watchman by Robert Crais
A post by a friend who listed this book among her favorite romantic books got me to try this 2007 suspense thriller, even though that’s not a genre I read too often. It’s part of a series and I have not read the earlier books, but I was still able to enjoy this one.
Joe Pike, a former marine and policeman turned investigator/gun shop owner has promised a dangerous man a favor, and when the favor is collected it proves to be this: protect Larkin Conner Barkley, a spoiled, wealthy heiress whom someone is trying to kill.
But who is that someone? That’s what Pike must discover while dodging bullets and protecting Larkin who just wants to go home, not lay low in unfamiliar houses and neighborhoods.
This hard-boiled thriller is set in Los Angeles, and for the most part, I thought it captured the feel of the city pretty well. Pike is very much the strong, silent type and not that big on communication, which is what Larkin needs from him.
There is an understated romantic element to their relationship which, along with the suspense of the assassins’ pursuit, and the piecing together of clues to the mystery of why Larkin is being hunted kept me reading. Considering that this isn’t my genre of choice, I still enjoyed the book a lot. B-
When it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
What can I say about this collection of interlinked short stories? I have the feeling it won’t appeal to many lovers of lit fic, partly because Ringwald’s metaphors can be a little bit too on the nose, and partly because it isn’t incisive enough. On the other hand, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
I picked this up on a whim – it was on sale at Amazon – and discovered thoughtful, compassionate short stories about a group of people whose paths cross in ways both expected and unexpected.
The central character of the first story, “The Harvest Moon,” is Greta, a woman who sacrificed her professional ambitions to marry and have a family. Greta and her husband Phillip have one daughter, Charlotte, and Greta she is undergoing fertility treatments in the hopes of giving Charlotte a sibling.
In “The Harvest Moon”, it is clear Phillip is cheating on Greta with their daughter’s violin teacher, something Greta blinds herself to because she is not ready for her life to fall apart.
The next story, “Redbud,” follows Greta’s mother, Ilse, as she struggles to bridge the distance between Greta and herself. Ilse does not understand the choices Greta has made, from choosing not to pursue a career in order to be a stay at home wife and mother to hiring an expensive landscaper when Ilse has expertise in gardening and would have been happy to help.
The third story, “My Olivia,” introduces us to single mom Marina and her only child, Oliver. Oliver is the beautiful and beloved outcome of a brief fling on a Caribbean island. Marina, who never intended to have children, fell in love with her son and is a deeply devoted mother. But when Oliver demands to wear dresses, Marina does not know how to cope with her child’s gender identity.
As this “novel in stories” moves on to other characters and their stories, we glimpse people from earlier stories, sometimes as central characters, and sometimes peripherally. A protagonist for the entire collection eventually emerges but I won’t say who it is so as not to spoil it for readers.
Although this collection was a departure from my usual reading fare, I enjoyed it despite its occasional heavy-handedness. What I appreciated most was the compassion Ringwald has toward her characters. She sees their failings clearly, but she also sees their vulnerabilities and their humanity. There’s a focus on mother-daughter relationships and on the theme of betrayal. I loved that both the betrayed and the betrayers were portrayed with empathy.
Like The Watchman, When It Happens to You is set in Los Angeles. It captures the feel of the city even better. I was disappointed in the final story of the collection and in the direction it took the main character, but still, I’d rate this a B-/B.
Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
Like its prequel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight was exceptionally well-crafted. It had beautiful prose, terrific world-building, a tense, suspenseful plot, and Karou remained a sympathetic and appealing protagonist. The one significant flaw that kept this book from getting an A range grade from me is that it was so dark, intense and suspenseful that it did not provide as much of a tension valve as I needed.
The darkness was fitting, since the book deals with the aftermath of genocide, and yet, there were times when I felt like I could hardly breathe. Karou and Akiva begin the book on opposite sides, with Akiva believing Karou is dead (something I thought a little contrived) and Karou resurrecting the chimera soldiers in monstrous bodies at Thiago’s behest.
Both, but especially Karou, suffered much in this story, yet there were also rays of hope and moments of lightness. Not as many as I needed, but enough that I will be reading the next book in this series. This book made #5 on my top ten of the year list and as I said there, Taylor’s craftsmanship awes me. B+. Jia’s B+ review is here.
Wool by Hugh Howey
This novella, the first in Howey’s acclaimed Wool series, was a suspenseful little mystery. Set in a silo to which the remnants of humanity have retreated in the wake of an environmental disaster, the novella does a great job of making readers feel the claustrophobia of such a life.
The story begins with the terrific opening line “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do” and soon makes it clear that only children can be truly happy in this world.
Holston has volunteered to go outside and clean the camera screens that allow the people inside the silo to see outside, even though being the cleaner means certain death. Or does it? Holston’s reasons for volunteering are revealed in flashbacks, and the novella kept me turning the pages to find out more about them and to learn Holston’s ultimate fate. The novella was a downer but Howey’s clear prose, firm command of suspense, and the sympathetic Holston and Allison compensated. B.
The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James
This was a genre-bender, a ghost story/mystery/romance set in post-World War I England.
As far as the mystery goes, I figured out the identity of the villains early on (there weren’t many red herrings) and the romance, although nice, was more of a subplot and therefore underdeveloped. Where this novel really shines is as ghost story.
I liked the author’s voice, even though gothics rarely appeal to me and this book had a somewhat gothic style. I also liked that the narrator/main character starts out feeling drab and invisible and then finds her strength over the course of the story.
Sarah Piper, the narrator, is hired by a Alistair Gellis, an eccentric intellectual and wealthy writer, to help him research a ghost, and at first I thought Alistair would be Sarah’s love interest. I was a little disappointed when he turned out not to be because I’d love to read a romance with an intellectual type in the leading man role (I wonder why we never see that?).
The actual love interest is Alistair’s friend/fellow ghost researcher Matthew, a handsome war veteran with burn scars on his body. I liked him too. One plus with this book is that both the Sarah and Matthew were normal people, not wealthy or titled.
The ghost was a compelling character as well, a young servant girl who hanged herself after a trauma which included a sexual assault. This was one spooky ghost, scary but not terrifying which is exactly how I like my ghost stories. I don’t read horror because I don’t enjoy being scared out of my wits and Maddy (the ghost) was just the right amount of eerie/spooky for me.
There were also some atmospheric setting details and a few moving references to World War I. I think as long as the reader goes in expecting the ghost story to be the main focus and not the romance, it’s a good read for that kind of book. B-.
Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley
I got stuck about halfway through this story of a rather adorable fortysomething office manager who falls in love with her boss, who runs the motorcycle club which owns the repair shop where she works. After a one night stand with Tack, Tyra finds herself kicked to the curb the next morning. When she reports for work, they argue over whether she can work there. Tyra stands up for herself and Tack realizes he wants her.
Tack is ridiculously bossy on the outside considering what a marshmallow he is on the inside. I found his whole character absurd. I understand that bossiness can be sexy, and soft-heartedness can be loveable, but the two are conflicting character traits so in this case, the whole didn’t mesh for me. I couldn’t buy into Tack as a real human being rather than a cartoon. He reminded me a bit of JR Ward’s vampires but without the aid of a paranormal world to help me rationalize his existence.
Tyra on the other hand is very funny and I really enjoyed her sassiness with Tack. There were times when I felt she caved to him too easily but most of the time she had enough backbone that I was convinced she did exactly what she wanted to do.
The Motorcycle Club milieu was also fun and different. I think I would have finished Motorcycle Man despite the ridiculous hero if the book hadn’t been so lengthy. A lot of the length comes from Ashley’s long-winded writing voice. It’s a voice that drives some readers crazy and I understand why many feel she needs more editing.
At the same time, I also think the voice is part of the reason her books are such huge hits. Tyra’s narration is chatty, quirky and humorous, and because it’s not same old-same old, I can understand the appeal to other readers, even though for me it was just too long-winded and after a while I lost all patience.
I was 42% of the way through the book when I hit the wall. The story was taking too long to get where it was going and between that and the cartoonish hero, I was feeling too satiated to read any further. Here’s Kati’s A- review, but as for me, I’m giving it a DNF.*
The Other Side of Us by Sarah Mayberry
I got this book via Netgalley after Brie from Romance Around the Corner recommended it to me on Twitter. I’ve read two other Mayberrys which seemed promising but I didn’t love either one. Still, I picked this one up with high hopes. There was a lot to like here including a nice reversal of gender roles and two loveable dogs, but also some flaws.
Oliver, whose wife had cheated on him, encountered Mackenzie while organizing his late aunt’s place. Mackenzie was also recovering from a trauma – in her case, a bad car accident which injured her and derailed her career. When they first meet, Mackenzie is in so much physical pain that she is curt and rude, but later she gets an opportunity to be kinder, and she makes up for her initial abrasiveness by cooking Oliver dinner.
The two are attracted to each other but Mackenzie has to figure out some things – how to act on the attraction, as well as how take life at her own pace, and what kind of career goals she should set for herself. Oliver falls into the more nurturing role, and sublimates his own issues until quite late in the book.
This story had a lot of potential, but I felt that the pacing was a bit on the slow side, and I also had problems with the way Mackenzie’s former life as an ambitious career woman was depicted. I didn’t like that her career was cast in a negative light. Mackenzie was also said to have been hard-edged, and seemed from all accounts like an entirely different woman than she was post-accident. It was hard to reconcile the two sides of Mackenzie into one believable whole.
In addition, I felt that for much of the book, the focus was on Mackenzie’s issues and that came at the expense of Oliver’s. The book felt a little lopsided in that regard. For a long time, Oliver was a total sweetheart, seemed almost too perfect. Toward the end, he showed his armor chinks, but the conflict that surfaced at that time was given short shrift rather than resolved on page in a meaningful way.
I did like the characters (especially Oliver) and I thought their dogs, who had a romance of their own, were also adorable. This book was a nice way to pass the time but didn’t wow me the way it seems to have done for so many readers. I’m still waiting to fall in love with one of Mayberry’s books. C/C+.
A few other books I read during this time period:
- Deep Desires by Charlotte Stein, C review here
- The Second Seduction of a Lady by Miranda Neville, C review here
- The Importance of Being Wicked by Miranda Neville, joint B+ review with Jennie here
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, B review here
- Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase, A- review here
- Steel’s Edge by Ilona Andrews, C-/C review here
- Aftershock by Jill Sorenson, C- review here
- A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh, C+ (reviewed jointly with Sunita, who gave it a B)
*Since I wrote this post, Robin convinced me to give Motorcyle Man another try. If I manage to finish it, I will report back.