This Week, I Read… (2021 #21)

#55 – All In: Double or Nothing, by Lane Hart

  • Mount TBR: 52/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I finished this solely because it was a constant train wreck and I wanted to see how the love triangle/menage crashed out in the end. It was not a good book, it did not have a good plot or good characters, and while I have no objection to indulging in a smut-fest for its own sake, honestly, the copious sex scenes weren’t great either.

First, it can’t decide if it’s a menage romance or a love triangle, and in trying to split the difference, you end up with a lot of really awkward dynamics. Our heroine comes off as being a selfish, indecisive idiot who doesn’t mind hurting these two men with her dithering, while Heroes #1 and #2, who were best friends before this woman entered their lives, are reduced to constant fighting (both with words and physical violence) about which one of them is going to “win” her. It’s gross all around.

Second, it utterly fails at being a love triangle if that’s what it really means to be, because Heroes #1 and #2 are basically indistinguishable from each other. Sure, they have different names, and are introduced with different hair colors on the heads that top their identical muscle-bound bodies. Okay, fine, they’re both super hot, but they talk the same way, they both bond with the heroine in basically the same way–lots and lots of sex, and very little talking–and they’re both immature jerks trying to one-up the other until the heroine finally decides on one of them. (To be slightly more fair, one of them is supposed to be a little more sweet, while the other is supposed to be a little more “caveman,” but the difference between them only matters briefly at the beginning, then dissolves into no real difference at all when they both decide to be idiots about the whole situation.)

Third, the heroine’s backstory is over-the-top tragic but doesn’t actually matter, because the story isn’t at all about any trauma she’s suffered. I guess it’s supposed to be a reason to pity her and let her get away with this awful behavior? But I don’t buy that, and on a larger scale, it’s Problematique (TM) to have your young heroine be traumatized and abused and a sex worker, and then make her a complete nympho in her personal life, because that says to me that, as a character, she’s so damaged that the only way she can connect with someone is through sex, as a substitute for love, and that’s not at all what this story is about! The narrative claims she’s falling in love with both dudes, and the plot doesn’t deal with her past in any significant way or show her growing as a person.

Fourth, the dudes are also pretty problematic, because one is a cop who meets the heroine when he responds to her car accident, and he immediately goes full-pervert and nearly drools on her while he’s supposed to be doing his job. And then hits on her and asks her out while he’s giving her a ride in his squad car. NO NO NO. Second dude is a little better when he first meets her, except they’re at a bar (where she’s supposed to be meeting dude #1, but he’s late) and when she admits to being twenty, so she can’t drink, he buys her a drink! Illegal! And then it’s not entirely clear at first how drunk or sober she is when she bangs him later that night, until afterward when she’s puking her guts up in his bathroom…so she definitely wasn’t sober enough to consent to sex. Hero #2 got an underage woman drunk and took her home to bang her, and that’s not what I want to see in my romantic leads.

Fifth, the plot makes no sense. There’s very little of it, because this is smut, so I didn’t expect much to string together the many sex scenes, but this plot? Makes no sense. There’s actual cheating going on before the three of them enter the menage stage of the relationship, but instead of that being a deal-breaker for the cheated-upon party, they go for a shared-custody sort of situation and the shenanigans begin. Nobody acts in a way that makes any sense, except, notably, late in the story when the heroine is pissed that her men paid off her school tuition without asking her first, and they were boggled that she was angry. That was just about the only set of emotional reactions to anything in the whole story that felt genuine, because yes, they were being controlling when they thought they were being helpful, so of course they were confused by her anger.

Sixth–I won’t spoil what the ending actually is, just in case anyone who gets this far in my review does honestly still want to read this book, but I will say that I was not satisfied by it.

I’m glad this was a freebie, I’m sorry I wasted a few hours reading it, and I won’t be reading anything else by this author.

#56 – Hot as Puck, by Lili Valente

  • Mount TBR: 53/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Kept you up late reading
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Humor is intensely personal, and what makes one person double over with laughter can leave another absolutely indifferent, or even disgusted. I always go into rom-coms knowing I may be disappointed.

But here, I was head over heels for the hero by the end of chapter two, and laughing my ass off constantly. While I didn’t end up loving every minute of the plot–there were a few elements I could have done without–the humor and the characters more than made up for any small quibbles.

I loved that this is a sports romance lite: so many that I’ve read are somehow aspirational, like the women “catching” a sports star is guaranteed to make them happy for life, or that the lifestyle is what matters, not the relationship. That’s not the case here–with some minor changes, this story would have worked just fine if the hero had basically any other job that kept him fit and active. It’s a part of his character that he’s a hockey star, and that informs the plot only as much as necessary to reflect his life–the plot doesn’t revolve around his hockey career, and I like that.

I also like that he’s a crafter, and so is our heroine, and crocheting is basically as important to the story as hockey is. Bonus: the author demonstrated she knows the difference between knitting and crocheting, which you wouldn’t think would be a high bar to clear, and yet it is. As someone who’s known how to do both since childhood, I appreciate anyone who gets it right, because so many people get it wrong, and when I’ve called people out on it (in person, not me haranguing authors in reviews) I usually get dismissed with “it’s all basically the same thing, right?”

But I’m getting diverted, back to the book. Best friends romance! Friends with benefits mashed up with “I’m clueless about sex, please help me!” It’s all a delicious stew of tropes that interlock neatly, with that humor mixed throughout. I nearly finished this in one day, but I fell asleep just before I got to the end and had to finish it in the morning. I knew there was more to this series, of course, but when I flipped through the end matter I almost squealed when I saw how deep the author’s back catalog is. It’s too early to say she’s a new favorite–this is only one book, after all–but there are a lot of first-in-series freebies for me to grab, as well as going on to book two in this one, which I did read the sneak peek of (I don’t usually, I like to be surprised, or I’m not planning to read it anyway when I didn’t like the first book) and I’m honestly tempted to buy it right now.

It’s genuinely been a long time since a rom-com made me laugh this much. I can recommend this to romance fans almost wholeheartedly–there’s a lot of swearing, to the point where it’s a joke about a few characters near the end having to not swear in front of someone’s kid; it’s also stuffed full with dirty talk, even outside of the sex scenes themselves, if that’s a thing that you don’t care for. (I found both aspects to my taste, and also hilarious, but again, humor, and also kinks, are personal, so your mileage may vary.)

#57 – Next to You, by Daisy Prescott

  • Mount TBR: 54/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While this had decent character development and an okay beginning, it really got muddled in the middle and trite towards the end.

I’m not a fan of blatant miscommunication as a romantic conflict, but this story actually handled it in a new-to-me way: a somewhat disastrous and disjointed conversation at a party between the couple and another woman who was after the male lead. No one was on the same page about what was going on, and you could practically see everything crumbling away as everyone dug themselves a pit. But that interesting point of conflict lead to a lot of “now neither of us knows what we are, and we’re both putting off doing anything about it” that got really boring.

And resolving it all by putting the two leads together at another party (a big fancy fundraiser) that neither knew the other would be attending… (yawn.) On top of it being one of the most overdone things I’ve seen in contemporary romance, the end of the book relies on putting both leads back in touch with their families, neither of which had been all that important to the story beforehand, so the entire thing feels very fish-out-of-water, very forced. It might have helped if the book were actually a little longer, and there was more time to gradually transition from “we’re both in Aspen” to “we’re both in Chicago.” Especially since when the hero goes to Chicago, it’s not immediately clear why, and I spent most of a page wondering if he had followed the heroine there to resolve their conflict; no, he was actually there because his father ordered him to be, but hopefully while he’s in town he can sort out his love life. Again, it was abrupt to the point where it felt forced, rather than natural.

Everything about their interactions from that point until the epilogue felt awkward to the point of being out of character, so it was hard to keep my investment going for these two floundering fools who had started out as characters I found charming enough to get attached to.

On top of that, I had enough minor issues to not be excited about reading more of this series, or this author–especially the worn-out Stan Lee joke about Stanley/Stan/Lee’s name, because why name your hero one thing when the heroine could call him three? The waffling between Stan and Lee was actually a little confusing at the beginning, and “confused” is rarely what I want to be when I’m reading, especially what promised to be a cute, fluffy romance.

It’s not terrible, but it’s not that great, either.

#58 – Sit…Stay…Beg, by Roxanne St. Claire

  • Mount TBR: 55/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Let’s be generous and say 1.5 stars, because it’s better than one of my recent one-star reads, but definitely worse than another recent two-star read.

I am not a dog person, but I’m not not a dog person either, so I thought I could still enjoy it. I didn’t realize going into this that being a dog person is a requirement. Dogs are arguably more important to the hero than the heroine (which is an issue I’ll revisit) so I felt mildly alienated the whole time that I don’t love dogs as much as anyone in this book.

I dislike romance series that front-load the premise and set-up in the first book to the detriment of the story of the first book, and this was a prime example of that. The prologue is a heavy-handed and maudlin backstory that set a depressing tone for what is supposed to be a happy romance, and throughout the story this history is brought up repeatedly, to the point where I don’t believe the prologue was necessary at all; everything in it could have been revealed organically as the plot unfolded, and it would have been far better that way. In addition, every sibling in this huge family had to be shoehorned into the plot somehow so that we could meet them all, which took away time from the romance but didn’t really add much otherwise. I think the “family” bits could have been limited to Garrett (the lead) and Molly (the former best friend of the other lead) as the primary focus, with Dad and Gramma Finnie being the stronger supporting roles. Everyone else was completely extraneous.

Now let me gripe about the actual story, because Garrett is garbage. He got burned badly once by a woman, so now all women are untrustworthy liars, and he got burned badly once by the media, so all journalists are untrustworthy liars. Our heroine is both of those things. They spent most of the book doing this weird (and at times, questionably ethical) half-interview-half-romance thing, and then when something goes wrong near the end, Garrett one-eighties from “I love you” to “I’m completely unwilling to hear your side of the story because obviously you’re an untrustworthy liar,” and I get that in most romances, it’s the hero who makes the mistake and the heroine who forgives him, because that’s how the genre works, but man, Garrett really effed up, and his apology fits with the theme of the book (dogs are better than people, which is maybe not actually supposed to be the theme but that’s what I got out of it) but doesn’t actually address in any depth how he screwed up, or the magnitude of the hurt he inflicted both by abandoning the heroine over a betrayal she didn’t actually do, and by refusing to listen to her because she’s clearly a no-good lying journalist.

Like, seriously, Garrett, get the fuck over yourself. If you really have trust issues that deep, get counseling, don’t expect the woman in your life to fix you, or yeah, maybe just be alone for the rest of your days with the dogs you like better than people because you’re a bitter mistrustful person, and our heroine could probably (and maybe should) do better.

I’ve read two other novels by this author, also first-in-series freebies I picked up over my years of scrounging romance deals, and since (looking back) I gave those two reads three and four stars, I’m genuinely surprised I thought this was so bad. I certainly won’t be continuing this series, because I’m not dog-person enough to connect with them; I haven’t felt any great need to go back to either series I’d started before, either, so maybe it’s time to scratch this author off my reading lists.

#59 – Bend, by Kivrin Wilson

  • Mount TBR: 56/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 85%.

But Elena, I hear you say. If you were that close, why not finish it?

Listen, I was putting up with the fact that this plot didn’t justify a 400+ page novel and a good 40% of the narrative was excessive stage direction. Both lead characters had to describe their every action in detail, right down to clicking through a screensaver to wake up a computer to type up a report. Just say you typed up the report! Or, actually, don’t, because it’s not at all important to the plot, sum up that you end your ER shifts by doing your paperwork and sometimes that means you end up staying late, which is (or at least could be) an important aspect of your life!

I stuck it through despite this being a best-friends-to-lovers story where the leads hardly seemed like friends at all, because the sex question comes up in the very first chapter and we never get to see what they’re like as friends, we only get to see them awkward and at odds with each other until they finally start banging. For most of what I read, they actually don’t seem to even like each other.

Still, that wasn’t bad enough to make me abandon it. I was skimming past paragraphs of pointless description or everyday minutiae, but I still wanted to find out the plot, so I tried.

I gave up at the beginning of chapter 28, because it should have been chapter 27. And I mean that quite literally. The two chapters are clearly reversed, and this book never should have been released with a mistake that large.

How can I tell? Chapter 27 is from Mia’s POV, after a significant family event (which I won’t spoil because it’s not relevant to my complaint what the event is, only that it happens.) The emotional fallout leads to an important conversation, practically an intervention, for Mia about the state of her love life, and it seems to come out of nowhere, because it references a “talk” with Jay, the love interest, that we don’t see happen. I thought it was a weird narrative choice to not actually show the big family event and that talk between our leads, because if the author is detailing screensavers and every sip of a beverage someone takes, why leave out something so big and plot-relevant?

Then Chapter 28 is headed with “Three Weeks Later,” and shows Jay showing up to the family event.

…what? Oh, that was supposed to happen first. The event didn’t take place three weeks after Mia dealt with the consequences of it, because this isn’t a time travel novel and it has to obey the laws of physics. The time skip is between Chapter 26 and “now,” except 27 + 28 are in the wrong order, so I didn’t know that at first.

This is clearly supposed to be the beginning of the end, the road to the emotional climax that gets our lovebirds back together after the big split that ruined everything…so why publish it in this state? How do two chapters get reversed, and it goes to print this way?

#60 – Goodbye Paradise, by Sarina Bowen

  • Mount TBR: 57/100
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

In my wilder years of snagging up romance freebies, I somehow ended up with a lot of examples of the “escaped from a cult” genre, and I honestly thought I’d read and discarded all of them already. The differences here are that a) those were invariably about a lone young woman running away, and this is about two young men; b) that lone young woman inevitably falls into the first bed she finds with some protective older (but not usually “old”) man, whereas these two guys are only interested in each other; and c) those other novels only rarely attempted to deal with both the trauma and the day-to-day shortcomings that a cult life stamps on a person raised there.

This novel absolutely tries, and maybe doesn’t do as great a job as I wanted–for all the talk of sex in general and specifically homosexuality being a sin, it goes from a serious issue to a gentle joke pretty fast, after Josh and Caleb start getting each other off. And the story does far more to deal with the practical concerns of being a former cult child–not having a birth certificate, not having proper schooling, and so on–than the emotional scars.

As a romance, though, it’s on fire. These two are clearly made for each other, I believed right away that they’ve known each other their whole lives (unlike many friends-to-lovers pairs I’ve read, who hardly seem like friends at all) and the sex scenes are both hot and emotionally relevant to the story.

Now this means I have another Sarina Bowen series on my list–I’m two books into True North–and for a minute there, I was like, wait, isn’t the next book in that series also about a runaway from a cult? Yes, yes it is, and it turns out he’s even mentioned in this story as being from the same cult. So that’s a nice touch, and I can go into it (whenever I do get to it) with a reasonable amount of confidence that his backstory will be handled well. Because even if part of me is griping “but these men weren’t traumatized enough!” the story here was still really good.

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