I’m going to borrow from Joey of Friends acclaim to summarize Helen Hoang’s fantastic The Bride Test: a sexy, kind, smart, hero and heroine who want someone to accept them? Good. The funniest scene with hammer pants that one could conceive of? Good. Lots of scenes with Khai’s brother Quân? Good.
Like lots of other people, I was bowled over by Hoang’s first release, The Kiss Quotient. The Bride Test definitely avoids the dreaded second book will-it-live-up-to-the-hype question—smashes it to smithereens, in fact.
It starts with our hero Khai’s mother, presenting our heroine, Mỹ, with an offer: to leave Vietnam and come to the United States as her son Khai’s fiancé, and convince him to go through with the engagement. Though Esme—as Mỹ calls herself in the US—has a huge motivation behind her decision to accept the proposition, she also has a tough task ahead of her: Khai does not believe that he’s capable of loving others, and he does not want to marry. Ever.
The relationship between Esme and Khai took me on a tour of all the feelings: hilarity (see hammer pants above); frustration; pride; lust; and lots of secondhand happiness. Given how she’s presented Esme and Khai earlier in the book, Hoang portrays the evolution of their relationship authentically, and beautifully. It doesn’t just happen; it requires trust and work, and that’s something lovely.
It also requires that Esme and Khai believe in their own value, something that Esme has trouble with at first. Seeing her grow throughout the book as she becomes her own heroine is its own kind of rush.
And the cherry on top of it all? How Hoang surrounds Esme and Khai with an amazing set of interesting, nuanced family members—characters who are characters. They are loving and quirky and fun to watch/read. And also hot. Thanks, Quân.
There was one small aspect of the reconciliation at the end that bothered me—it seemed a little too easily resolved, especially since the deception in question was kind of a big one, in my mind—but everything else was wonderful, offering further proof of why Helen Hoang is one of the best romance writers out there.
I received a complimentary copy of this book via the publisher, but all opinions provided are my own. Thanks, Berkley!
Q: What second book are you excited to read this year?
I received an ARC of this book via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
She’s a charmer of beasts who has a bounty on her head. He’s the assassin in charge of killing her.
That sounds like the perfect premise of a fantasy romance to me.
Smart and wildly inventive, Maxym M. Martineau's Kingdom of Exiles had me captivated from the first page. It’s the kind of book I can really sink my teeth into: a morally complex, live-life-on-the-edge-of-danger heroine and hero (who are determined to kill and/or use the other for much of the book!)*, a diverse round of secondary characters, and a true dilemma facing them all that I have faith they’ll overcome, even if I don’t see how.
Even better are the closing pages, where Martineau ties up things just enough to leave me satisfied, but also leaves enough undone to hint at the craziness to come. Because when the final paragraph is over, there are still secrets between the characters—secrets each narrator has hinted at to the reader—and secrets which are guaranteed to wreak absolute havoc in a future book.
Kingdom of Exiles is enemies to lovers done splendidly. Martineau took me on a gripping adventure that left me wanting more: more of her originality, drama, romance. She has a lot to bring to the genre—she already has this very impressive addition—and the exciting news is that I think she’s just getting started.
*Seriously, I had big reservations about some of the things the hero and heroine were doing but they show major growth throughout the book.
TNW Arbitrary Rating: 4.25 stars. (See how useless my rating scale is?)
Q: What fantasy romance read do you recommend to everyone? One of mine is Naomi Novik's Uprooted.
I’ve never read a Sara Richardson book before, and I haven’t read very many cowboy romances at all—outside of a few Nora Roberts, I think—so Hometown Cowboy was a fun adventure in trying something new.
It was also just a great book: emotional, tender, and sexy, with an adorable heroine and hero who kind of stumble into love.
The romance between perennially-looking-for-love Jessa Mae Love and always-focused-on-bull-riding Lance Cortez starts in somewhat She’s All That fashion, when Jessa Mae’s caught wearing a brand-new bra that does wonderful things for her bust and Lance suddenly notices her. Though Lance’s attention is caught, his attraction doesn’t stop there (luckily for all parties concerned, us readers included).
Jessa Mae might be known for having a number of broken engagements, but Lance also discovers that--besides being beautiful--, she’s devoted to the people she cares about, and as he notes on a couple of occasions, she’s not afraid to put herself out there emotionally.
But Lance needs Jessa Mae to help take care of his dad, her good friend, so that he can concentrate on winning the Worlds bull riding competition. And there’s no way that Lance wants to get involved with Jessa Mae, anyway, because he does not want to be in a relationship, will never want it, and she’s got that written all over her.
Dear Readers: what do you think will happen?
Richardson takes us on an emotionally resonant ride.
Lance’s efforts to navigate his way through relationship life are sometimes pretty funny, especially when he takes advice from other people. But they’re mostly kind of lovely, because he’s someone who’s been scared of love for so long. And I respected Jessa Mae, who may be nice, but proves that she’s no pushover.
The chemistry between Jessa Mae & Lance is stellar, and Richardson has a number of promising secondary characters who revolve around our two lovebirds, helping them on their journey and only rarely discouraging them (though I'm not quite sure what to think about Naomi!).
Hometown Cowboy is a beautiful read that's not afraid to tackle the tough stuff. A love story about people figuring out how to love, and doing it really well. **heads off to read more of Richardson’s books.
Q: who are your favorite cowboy romance authors? I'm thinking I need to spend a little more time in this genre!
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Grand Central Publishing and Forever Pub but all opinions included are my own.
I received a complimentary copy of this book via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
I’ve got that anxious, excited feeling I used to get in English class because I was bursting with stuff to say, and it’s about Maria Vale’s Forever Wolf. This isn't the first time I've thought this about one of her books: I’ve never read a romance novel like this before.
Forever Wolf is the third in Vale’s The Legend of All Wolves series, and it’s beautiful. It’s also the darkest book in a romance series that doesn’t shy away from the dark.
The first thing to say about the plot is that this is a shifter romance, about wolves.
Our heroine Varya is a shielder—a position of esteem—in the Great North pack. She journeyed to the pack alone after all the wolves in her former pack died, and to her, the pack is everything. She’s known for upholding order, even when that devotion doesn’t exactly win her any friends.
But then she runs across an injured wolf, Eyulf, and on him she smells her old home. She has a connection with him, even as she knows that there will never be a place for him in her pack. But is there a place for him with her?
Vale’s books have lots of action, if you like that sort of thing.
But you also need to know that Vale's a gorgeous writer. The pack, the place the pack inhabits, the outside world, it’s all fantastically rendered. Throughout each novel in the series, she shows how pack can offer home, stability, and community, but how its very nature can be inclusive, sometimes leaving no place for outsiders like Eyulf. It also often requires great personal sacrifice, even as it gives much.
Sometimes in romance, the reader is made aware of the tremendous odds facing the main characters, but semi-miraculously, those odds are surmounted in the final pages. Vale does something different, something that I think is braver.
Not every problem is miraculously erased or overcome in her books.
Make no mistake: she writes romances and her characters do end up together, but not always in the ways you’d expect. In that way and others, Maria Vale writes paranormal romances that feel really realistic. Sometimes—a lot of times—we don’t get unqualified happy endings.
Parts of Varya and Eyulf’s story might make you slightly sad; there might even be some disappointment or frustration.
But on balance, Forever Wolf reminds us that there’s no discounting how huge love is, how it can buttress us up even as we’re facing huge change or loss.
No, Vale’s books aren't joy-filled romps, and you’ll probably feel like your heart is breaking at least once when you read one, but they are books that are absolutely suffused with love. Are you reading them yet?
Have you ever wondered what happened to a child star from your past? Not the ones who went on to different high-profile projects, but the ones who fell from the heights of fame, into the dirty, non-craft-services-supplied existence we call real life?
Holly Danner is the latter version of that child star in Sarah Skilton’s Fame Adjacent, a novel I couldn’t get enough of.
Unlike her other former castmates, Holly didn’t go on to land more entertainment opportunities. Now, there’s an anniversary of her show planned and she was the only main castmate not invited. But unbeknownst to everyone associated with the event, she has every intention of going, after she finishes a six-week internet addiction course.
There’s only one big problem (actually, there are more than that, but to Holly, there’s only one): the anniversary has been moved up, and in order to attend, she has to leave the program early and hitch a ride with Thom, a recent graduate.
Fame Adjacent is part cross-country caper and part let’s-make-confessions-and-bare-our-souls-to-each-other romance. Moments of hilarity are interspersed with painful revelations, which helps explain how Holly and Thom grow so close, so quickly. And yet both Holly and Thom have some ground to cover if there’s any hope at all of them being together…
This book is so fun and funny, sometimes sly and sometimes over-the-top. It’s also incisive and substantive, with plenty of big question issues to chew on: like how we—as a culture—idolize celebrity and fame and social media perfection; and how we sometimes feel like we haven’t done enough, especially when we view ourselves in light of those aforementioned things we idolize; and how we have to figure out a way forward.
I adored how Fame Adjacent is an adventure featuring an indomitable heroine who never runs out of bold ideas, or heart. And how she’s sometimes self-absorbed, but always (eventually) aware and apologetic.
Fame Adjacent is a romance, and it’s a wonderful one. It’s also a story about being imperfect (aka human) and fiercely loveable.
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Grand Central Publishing, but all opinions provided are my own.
The Naptime Writer also recommends: Ruthie Knox's Ride with Me; Jennifer E. Smith's YA Field Notes on Love; and Tessa Bailey's Too Hot to Handle, for other road trip romance.
Q: What's your fave road trip you've taken? Mine was when Daniel and I drove from Kentucky to California to visit family. I was scared to go because we were broke, but he told me that we wouldn't have the opportunity again, and he turned out to be...right.
Picture a crumbling estate managed by a severely grumpy theatre critic and television host, Griff. Griff looks like Lucius Malfoy and, in my head, has the voice and gravitas of Alan Rickman.
You with me?
To Griff's great dismay, his brother has signed a contract allowing basically a choose-your-own-adventure play (based on a game based on Jane Austen characters) to be performed at a theatre on their estate.
Who’s playing Lydia Bennet?
Why, none other than Freddy Carlton, a delightfully irrepressible actress who has taken her fair share of knocks in Griff’s column.
What follows is spectacular. There’s banter galore, between an icy, acerbic critic-by-trade (a Slytherin!) who is used to managing everything in his life, and a frequently underestimated, plucky dynamo who is trying to figure out how she can honor herself and what she wants without losing her dad’s respect and affection.
There’s also plenty of steam.
The love scenes are exciting to be sure, but they’re also poignant and real—they’re full of moments we all long for and they're also approachable, they’re inhabited by characters who are lovely and attractive but not physically or otherwise perfect. It’s so well done, and truly lovely.
Finally, there’s an exciting historical mystery that Freddy and Griff try to uncover that lends extra pathos to The Austen Playbook.
If you want to see romance beautifully done, pick up The Austen Playbook or any of Lucy Parker’s other books. She’s very special.
The Naptime Writer also recommends: Lauren Layne’s Walk of Shame; Sarah Skilton’s Fame Adjacent.
**I received a complimentary copy of this book via Netgalley, but all opinions provided are my own.
Q: Who is a grumpy personality you can’t get enough of?
Give me that HEA, please.