Hockey, House Parties, and Taxidermy: A Romance Novels Round-Up

The time has come, the walrus said, for another romance novels round-up! I know you’ve been yearning for it. This election season was difficult, the results were worse, and these last few months more than ever I’ve needed cuddly tropey fluff to get me through.

Hard Knocks

Ruby Lang is a new-to-me author I discovered through the wonderful Romance Novels for Feminists (which has never yet steered me wrong), and I received Hard Knocks for review consideration from the publisher. Hard Knocks is about a hockey player nearing the end of his career (Adam) and a neurologist (Helen) who thinks he’s cute when he brings his friend in for a concussion check-up but does not think much of all the brain damage sports can wreak upon their players.

Oh how I love discovering a new romance author whose books are just right for me. Hard Knocks is witty and charming, with banter between the leads that is also witty and charming (in the way that so many romance novels try and fail to have their banter be, i.e., effortlessly), and I’m delighted that there’s another book in the series for me to read.1 Things I particularly loved include how angry Helen is (I love angry heroines); the fact that nobody gives a crap that she sleeps with Adam casually; frank discussion of finances (so rare); and how angry Helen is.

Did I say one of those twice? I really love angry heroines. I can already tell that Ruby Lang’s going to be one of my go-to romance authors–very much recommended!

Do You Want to Start a Scandal, Tessa Dare
Do You Want to Start a Scandal, Tessa Dare

Charlotte Highwood creeps into the library to let Lord Granville know that she absolutely does not intend to let her mother entrap them into marrying — and kind of gets entrapped into marrying him. She’s determined to find them both a way out of it. He’s a spy. Everyone’s stuck at this manor house for one of those house parties where people are so nosy and everyone is maybe creeping away to do assignations.

Frankly, this is a delight from cover to cover. I love and revel in angsty romances (cf. my longtime love for Meredith Duran), but it was a refreshing treat to encounter a heroine as cheerful and indomitable as Charlotte. She refuses to allow herself to be caught up in anything like a Big Misunderstanding and perpetually cuts through the romance novel trope bullshit to say and do exactly what she means.

Hold Me

Courtney Milan was one of the first — maybe the first? — romance authors I tried when I decided to give romance novels another chance; and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her latest historicals have felt a trifle pat, so I’ve been on a break from them, but her new contemporary series — of which Hold Me is the second — has been excellent so far. In addition to thoughtfully exploring issues I care about (poverty, work-life balance, complicated parental relationships, independence v. intimacy), they lay out sincere emotional problems and show us how the characters navigate those issues.

Maria Lopez runs a popular blog where she imagines end-of-the-world scenarios in great detail. She has an ongoing semi-flirtation with one of her regular commenters, whom she called Actual Physicist and who calls her Em. When she goes to deliver a message to one of her brother’s friends (a scientist), the friend, Jay, is horribly rude to her, making immediate assumptions about her intelligence based on her appearance (girly! heels!), and she takes an immediate dislike to him. Well guess what y’all. Guess what turns out to be the case.

I liked this book a hell of a lot. Maria’s trans, and I love that it isn’t an issue in her relationship to Jay. I love that we see her as part of a group of queer friends, and that part of her emotional arc involves speaking honestly with her friend and former roommate Angela (who’s getting her own book, yay!) — in other words, that overcoming her feelings problems doesn’t revolve solely around Jay. I love You’ve Got Mail-y premises like this one, and Hold Me is a hugely satisfying book along those lines.

KJ Charles has a new series called Sins of the City that’s inspired by Wilkie Collins’s fiction, and frankly that’s all the information I needed to get excited about An Unseen Attraction. (Actually all I needed was KJ Charles’s name, but this Wilkie Collins thing didn’t hurt.) I received An Unseen Attraction from the publisher for review consideration, via NetGalley.

Clem manages a lodging house where everything is in perfect order, apart from the one tenant Clem’s noble half-brother won’t ever let him evict. When that tenant turns up brutally murdered, Clem’s tidy world is turned upside down — and so is the life of another of his tenants, the sexy taxidermist Rowley Green.

So much Wilkie Collins in this book, y’all. I loved it. Dark secrets to be uncovered, the promise of more scandal to come in subsequent books, it’s all completely up my alley. Better yet, Charles does a wonderful job of showing how Clem and Rowley learn to be ever-better friends and lovers to each other, treading gently around insecurities but setting boundaries where necessary. Clem is on the spectrum and Rowley comes from an abusive home, and they make mistakes with each other. The tension doesn’t arise so much from a Big Misunderstanding as from the clashes that happen around conflicting motives, loyalties, and ways of being a person. Charles is terrific at depicting Clem and Rowley’s attempts to navigate all of this, and it makes their happy ending all the more satisfying.

Basically, if the idea of a story about love, taxidermy, and murder most foul appeals to you, I’d recommend you run straight out and preorder An Unseen Attraction. It comes out on 21 February and is well worth your time.

What romance novels have you been enjoying lately, friends? I always need more recs!

  1. It’s about a guy with allergies who falls in love with his allergist. I mean, come on. That could not be more charming.

Blood Magic and Apocalypses: A Romance Novels Round-Up

Welp, here it is somehow Friday already, and I do not feel that I have accomplished anything this week. Anyone have good weekend plans? Mine focus heavily on hibernation. In the meantime, here are some romance novels I’ve been reading lately.

Rag and Bone, KJ Charles

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.)

KJ Charles writes about half-and-half straight historical romance novels and creepy magic creepiness romance novels, and I would be hard-pressed to say which genre I prefer. Rag and Bone is in the latter category, a companion novel to her “Charm of Magpies” series. Crispin was raised by a warlock and got into bad habits, but now he has been found by good magic-users, who are trying to teach him to do magic that doesn’t skip on the raggedy edge of necromancy. Unfortunately for him, and for his (secret, cause it’s olden times) lover, a dustman called Ned, there is an old, malevolent force stalking the streets of London.

Rag and Bone is hella creepy — as are all the books in this series: come for the sexytimes, stay for the nightmare-inducing British witchcraft.1 In his warlock days, Crispin cut off a piece of his finger and used the bone to make a pen that writes in his blood and serves as a conduit for his magic. There’s unexplained spontaneous human combustion. There’s the sound of singing, and nobody to do the singing. As always in Charles’s books, you get halfway through the book and can’t imagine how things are going to work out for her characters; but then, of course, they do. This is romance! So knowing that, it’s just fun to watch Charles get her characters into increasingly horrific scrapes, trusting that she’ll also be able to get them back out.

Mixed Signals, Alyssa Cole

The third in Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series, Mixed Signals is best read after the first two — but you should read the first two!2 The basic premise of the series is that solar flares (I think? I’m fuzzy on the science) have put out the lights across America. The chaos is about what you’d expect, and the survivors of the immediate aftermath must find a way to make their lives in an irretrievably altered society. Since this is a combination of two things I love — romance novels and process dystopias — I am obviously in for this.

By the start of Mixed Signals, it is years on from the initial collapse of society, and the country is rebuilding. Maggie Seong was only a kid when the lights went out, and now that she’s heading off to college, there’s been enough progress to where there are, you know, colleges to go to. As Maggie struggles to work out what she wants, her campus faces attacks from Luddite groups who want to undo the progress that everyone has worked so hard to achieve. The central romance (of the friends-to-lovers type) is a little thin, actually, but I didn’t mind because Cole’s worldbuilding is so much fun. I love this series, and I hope Cole keeps thinking of new stories for this world she’s created.

Once upon a Marquess, Courtney Milan

I…didn’t really care for this one. Courtney Milan was one of my first introductions into romance novels, way back in 2012/2013 sort of time, and it was sort of a revelation to me that romance novels could be funny and feminist and great. But I haven’t loved her most recent historicals (her book Trade Me was quite good! with all the negotiating of power dynamics!), and Once upon a Marquess was heavy-handed in the way that’s been frustrating me with Milan lately. Sigh!

It’s particularly sad because Once upon a Marquess is the first in a new series, the kind where each family member gets a story, and I love those. I’ll probably read at least one more in the Worth series before giving up, though.

Listen to the Moon, Rose Lerner

If you have talked to me about romance novels in the last recently, you’ll probably have heard me say, “ROSE LERNER SHOULD BE MORE FAMOUS.” Listen to the Moon is more grist for that opinion mill. The historical world her characters inhabit feels completely lived in, and the obstacles that stand between her protagonists and their happy ending are never contrived.

Listen to the Moon is a particularly fun book because it’s that rarest of beasts, a historical romance between two working-class people. John Toogood is a gentleman’s gentleman who has lost his position through no fault of his own, while Sukey is a maid-of-all-work who drives John mad by settling for good-enough (rather than perfection). Rose Lerner has obviously done extensive research into the ins and outs of being a house servant in the 1800s. This book is a treat on every level.

What about y’all? Read any good romance lately? I need some recommendations for upcoming airplane travel!

  1. Or the other way around! I don’t know your life.
  2. Confession, I cheated and skipped the second one because it was checked out at my library. I don’t recommend this. I followed the plot of Mixed Signals just fine, but I wished I hadn’t missed out on whatever went on in Signal Boost.