She didn't believe in reincarnation--she was too practical for that--but if it did exist, she wanted to come back as 90s Meg Ryan.
When this year began, I hadn’t read a Tessa Bailey book. Since April, I have attempted to remedy that situation by blazing through at least twenty, and I have loved every. minute. of . it. As her website states, Bailey writes “flirty and dirty” contemporary romances (emphasis on “flirty” and “dirty”), replete with super alpha heroes and strong women and the absolutely outrageous attraction between the two. I repeat, absolutely outrageous.
Runaway Girl, her latest book, releases today and it tells the other side of the story Bailey gives us in Getaway Girl. Here’s a synopsis for the uninitiated: in Getaway Girl, Elijah Montgomery, mayoral candidate, is left at the altar by his fiancée, Naomi Clemons. He gets a ride home from Naomi’s black sheep relative, Addison Potts, who is the owner of a dirty Christmas ornament shop. Hijinx—and romance—ensue.
I fell in love with Elijah and Addison in Getaway Girl—their love story unfolds beautifully from one page to the next in a way that leaves my heart singing. So I was curious to see how I would approach Naomi, who left, in my eyes, one of the most wonderful contemporary romance characters ever written--Elijah Montgomery--at the altar.
As much as I wanted to hold onto my entirely (un)righteous anger toward Naomi, I couldn’t do it. From the opening lines of Runaway Girl, Bailey writes Naomi as a character who wants what everyone really wants: to be understood, to be seen, and to be loved. Naomi is tired of being put on display; she’s tired of competing for attention and not being enough; she’s tired of her fiancé not knowing what wine she drinks; she’s tired of having a story already written for her and not feeling “worthy” of that story. Before she knows it, Naomi is ditching Elijah and heading for Florida in her wedding dress, determined to run into an adventure.
Unfortunately for Naomi, she realizes as a stranger is helping her pee over a gas station toilet that she has few marketable skills, and she has little money. So she applies to be a pageant coach…
Jason Bristow is a member of the Special Forces home on leave who is taking care of his sister, Birdie. He’s planning on returning to combat, but in the meantime, he’s willing to finance Birdie’s pageant aspirations. He hires Naomi to be Birdie's coach...or maybe it's more accurate to say that she hires herself.
Naomi and Jason couldn’t be more different: Naomi wants to have an adventure by pushing herself outside of her boundaries; Jason is terrified that he’ll lose someone again and wants to control everything around him to keep people safe. The attraction between these two will make you fan your cheeks, but will they act on it, knowing that it can only be temporary?
Bailey’s sensitive characterization of Naomi and Jason is a thing of wonder: we are privy to their fears and dreams, and I was rooting for them to accept the truth about themselves and what they wanted as much (okay, nearly as much) as I rooted for them to greedily grab onto their love story. There was one tiny part of the plot that I wasn’t entirely on-board with, but for nearly all of Naomi’s journey I was there, waiting for her to realize her own strength and cheering when she did.
No one writes a romance like Tessa Bailey, and Runaway Girl is another banner example. She’s mastered a combination of emotionally aching characters, sly humor, and sex scenes that leave you completely dazed, and it's romance kryptonite. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s gut-wrenching, heart-melting, and altogether inimitable.
**I received an ARC of this book from Tessa Bailey but all opinions provided are my own.
Imagine an updated When Harry Met Sally, but with more quirks. More effervescence. More buoyancy. Then you have something like Christina Lauren’s Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating.
Sound good? It’s amazing.
The female lead of Josh and Hazel’s is an eccentric dazzler named Hazel Camille Bradford who dances like no one is watching at very public concerts and “can always be counted on to do or say the worst possible thing in a delicate moment.” She attracts people like a butterfly but her personality repels some of those same people soon after, particularly the boyfriends who expect her to tone down her eccentricities after they’re together.
Our male lead is a kind, hot man named Josh Im who is most definitely not looking for a new best friend, especially not Hazel Bradford, who has embarrassed them both in a series of (naked and otherwise) incidents over the years. Hazel believes these incidents have made her “entirely undatable” to him, which in turn, she argues, can help them be opposite-sex best friends.
And before Josh knows it, they are.
He’s recovering from a break-up and he’s a little formal, a little straight-laced. She wants to bring him back to the land of the living. They’re both attracted to what they see in the other, even as they continue to set the other up on disastrous double dates that only make them wonder if they’ve already found who they’re looking for.
Will Josh and Hazel continue not dating, or will the things bringing them together be too much to ignore? And maybe more important for this dynamic duo: would the differences between their personalities make them stronger, or drive them apart?
Watching Josh and Hazel become best friends gave me the same endorphin rush I get when I avoid a work-out or hear a montage of The Cranberries while wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt on a fall day. It’s that good.
Part of what makes it so beautiful is how unapologetically weird Hazel is, and how Josh loves her for who she is even though he is absolutely nothing like her. She’s not a source of embarrassment or curiosity to him, even though he definitely marvels at who she is.
Hazel’s a character that I think a lot of women can relate to; how many of us have been told that we aren’t enough, or in Hazel’s case, are too much? I’ve been using the word “awkward” to describe myself for years, and Hazel Bradford is my spirit animal—albeit louder, a fiercer dancer, and topless in public more frequently. I wasn't always 100% on board with what Hazel was doing--hello, I'm a classic awkward introvert, and Hazel is more of an awkward extrovert--but I admired that in real life, Hazel wouldn't care one jot about that.
With every book, Christina Lauren, a writing duo, reveals something new about their writing talents. I was/am a big fan of their Beautiful series, and then Love and Other Words (2018) wrung my heart out and then left me smiling. I’m still thinking about that book. Then Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating came along. I smiled; I laughed; I fell in love. I recognized bits of myself on the pages and resolved that I am good the way that I am but that it also wouldn't hurt to be braver.
Thank you, Christina Lauren, for the experience.
Matt Cannon and Sabrina Cross are delightfully, deliciously combustible. When I first encountered them in Lauren Layne’s Hot Asset, I knew that despite the digs they were throwing at each other’s expense, their romance was coming and it was going to be glorious. I was right, people, and now I have the urge to pull an Oprah and declare us all winners because everything about their romance in Hard Sell is. so. good.
I’m a Lauren Layne devotee, and here’s why: she knows how to write a really, really great HEA. Imagine you get a present, and it’s covered in really expensive wrapping paper and tied in twine with a sprig or two of a plant tucked inside for good measure. Holding it makes you feel happy because someone took the time to give you something beautiful.
That’s how I feel reading a Lauren Layne book. Everything’s there: the solid characterization, the deftly explored conflict, the wondrous ending, and it’s all packaged in a marvelous way and topped with extras like banter, weekend brunch, and beloved friends who help the romance along by intervening and keeping their mouths shut when necessary.
Take Hard Sell, which is one of my favorite Layne books already. Matt Cannon, a Wall Street wunderkind, faces losing his job after a Wall Street Journal reporter writes about a wild bachelorette party he attended in Vegas. He didn’t do anything illegal but members of his party did, and as his bosses point out, what people think matters. Their solution is for him to give the appearance of settling down, and the easiest way to do that is to find a temporary girlfriend.
Matt’s solution is to hire Sabrina Cross, a fixer and best friend to his best friend. They’ve known each other—and pretty much despised each other—for four years. But for all that, they’re also blisteringly attracted to one another. Sabrina could say no to Matt’s question—after all, she’s not sure that it’s a good idea for two such combustible people to play pretend romance. But for all their fighting and arguing, they’re not complete enemies. He needs her help, she’ll get paid for her services, and she thinks that maybe, just maybe, pretending will allow them to get over the attraction and also resentment.
Good luck with that.
Layne always does an excellent job of making you feel like you know her characters, but in this book, she’s truly exceptional. Matt and Sabrina are both smooth-talking sophisticates—they know how to make friends and work a room—but Layne subtly shows us their vulnerabilities and deepest longings and how those might be at odds with what they so easily say. Most precious of all is when these characters open up to one another...but even if they do start to get along, is that enough for them to risk it all and try commitment?
Layne is at the top of her game with this one. (That’s the extent of my sports analogies, I’m afraid). If you’re looking for a book to give you the happy sighs and the feeling that love triumphs all, check this one out. It will not disappoint.
Like this one? The Naptime Writer also recommends: any other Lauren Layne book. You can go back to Hot Asset, the first in the 21 Wall Street series, or read Layne's much loved Walk of Shame (a standalone). Other options include Kate Meader’s Down with Love and Christina Lauren's Beautiful Player, for more smooth-talking sophisticates.
**I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions included are my own.
The sheer inventiveness of Minerva Spencer’s historical romance Dangerous left me stunned and admiring. I’ve read about princes and princesses, highlanders, and pirates, and I’ve read lots about marriages of convenience, but I’ve never read a historical romance about a woman who escaped from a harem and now looks to marry in England.
I feel compelled to use so many “so”s when describing this book: it’s so bold, captivating, and sensual that it feels positively decadent.
Dangerous is the romantic adventure I didn’t even realize that I’ve been looking for: a 33-year-old woman, Euphemia Marlington, called Mia, must find a husband because the ton talks too much about her and where she’s been for 17 years. Little do they know that she’s been living in a harem, where she was sent after being kidnapped by corsairs, and that she has a teenage son, Jibril, whom she left in Oran—by his command—so that he could attempt to wrest control of his father’s holdings. That truth might send someone running for smelling salts.
When the book opens, Mia’s father, the Duke, lectures her yet again. Mia doesn’t care for it.
“Euphemia Marlington considered poisoning the Duke of Carlisle. After all, in the harem poison was a perfectly reasonable solution to one’s problems. Unfortunately, poison was not the answer to this particular problem. First, she had no poison, or any idea how one acquired such a thing in this cold, confusing country. Second, and far more important, poisoning one’s father was considered bad ton.”
But Mia’s moved to consider marriage by his threats, as well as her common sense: if she can find the right spouse, she’ll have the freedom she requires to leave said spouse so that she can retriever her secret son, Jibril.
Enter Adam, a marquess. He’s also the subject of chatter because his two previous wives died and members of the ton suspect that he is behind their deaths. He needs an heir.
Mia and Adam decide to marry for three big reasons: they're attracted to one another, they see the other person as capable of providing what they need, and perhaps more than that, they don’t have a lot of other viable options.
Minerva Spencer doesn’t just write a thrilling adventure story, she writes a thrilling romance. The attraction between Mia and Adam is palpable, a live, electric thing that propels the plot forward. But while Mia and Adam seem remarkably honest with one another, they’re actually both keeping something huge secret, and it might tear their marriage apart.
Spencer, who is a stellar writer and an exhilarating voice, makes Dangerous feel modern: a sign of where romance is going. I adored the more mature hero and heroine who both know what they want, even if they’re soon persuaded in the early days of their marriage that what they thought they wanted isn’t enough. And perhaps even more than that, I loved reading about a heroine who is nuanced, who is devoted to her child but not just a mother, who is kind but not a push-over, and who loves and lives passionately, if not perfectly.
Like this one? The Naptime Writer also recommends: any book by Sarah MacLean (her characters are also wonderfully unconventional) and Kerrigan Byrne (they're much darker than this one, but they're also a compelling mix of adventure and romance).
Give me that HEA, please.
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