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.

Wilkie in Winter!: Epoch the First

WILKIE IN WINTER I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. A hundred thank-yous to the wonderful Estella Society for hosting this event. Today we shall discuss the First Epoch of The Woman in White, or as I like to call it, the much-more-successful-first-act-than-the-first-act-of-The-Moonstone. (It’s a long nickname, yes, but it makes some good points.)

Of Wilkie Collins’s two most famous works, The Moonstone has a stronger finale, and The Woman in White a much much much stronger set-up. Where The Moonstone spends a lot of time on place-setting, The Woman in White has a short set-up where we meet Our Hero, Walter Hartright, and his friends and relations; and then, straight away, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery: He meets a woman in white, who won’t tell her name or her circumstances, but who is in some sort of atmospheric trouble and desperately needs his help to get to London.

just like this, except the woman has fair hair, and the enormous blue hand is the totality of strictures imposed on Victorian women

When Walter gets to his job in Cumberland, he is shocked to find that one of his pupils, Laura Fairlie (a woman of extraordinary beauty and sweetness, obv), is nearly identical to the mysterious, desperate woman he helped out in London. The memory of the woman in white gives him chills. Her similarity to Laura gives him chills. Hanging out in graveyards gives him chills but he elects to do it anyway. Like, kind of a lot, considering he’s a drawing master.

It’s hella atmospheric

Nobody cares about Laura Fairlie anyway because MARIAN! Marian is Walter’s other pupil, and she is — let’s face it — the point of this book. Marian Halcombe is Laura’s half sister. Where Laura is beautiful, sweet-natured, and dumb, Marian is outspoken and brilliant and ugly. Laura is too fearful and timid to even be told that there is a crazy lady walking around wearing her face and talking smack about her affianced husband — oh yeah, I was too bored with Laura to mention that the reason Walter’s love for her is doomed is that she’s engaged to this minor noble, Sir Percival Glyde, and she can’t get out of it because ?her father set it up? I don’t even know, and she’s too sweet-natured to change her mind. Oh, and she’s an heiress, also. Whatever.

So, MARIAN. While Laura is painting second-rate pictures or whatever she does to pass the time, Marian is using her wits to figure out whether Sir Percival Glyde is, in fact, a villain. (She thinks yes.) She and Walter try to get Anne Catherick to explain her horror of Sir Percival Glyde; but it’s tricky to get any sense out of her because she’s crazy. After Walter leaves (because of doomed love), Marian enlists the family lawyer to help her out. They do this by basically going to Sir Percival Glyde and saying, “Are you evil?”

Marian’s philosophy (for now)

Sir Percival Glyde gives a totally Snape-in-the-first-chapter-of-Half-Blood-Prince answer to this. Marian has reservations still, but the family lawyer buys it completely. Then he discovers that the proposed marriage settlement for Laura is insanely profitable to Sir Percival Glyde and would give Sir Percival Glyde a twenty thousand dollar incentive to murder Laura, basically.

Here’s where the book really picks up, suspense-wise. The strength of The Woman in White is how vividly it portrays the choicelessness of the women. Though Laura is wealthy and Marian clever, they still depend enormously on the goodwill and integrity of the men in their lives. All of Marian’s considerable intelligence cannot save Laura from the marriage; in fact, she depends on the goodwill of Sir Percival Glyde to remain in Laura’s life after her marriage. Whatever Wilkie Collins’s views were on women, he makes crazy suspense out of female inequality in his era.

I’m excited for the second epoch! The first epoch is scene-setting — which is great — but the second epoch is where it’s really at. Marian gets to do stuff, and Count Fosco shows up, and those are both good things.