Football Romance FTW: Skin in the Game by Jackie Barbosa

BarbosaSkinAs an NFL fan, I am a sucker for a good football romance. But as they say about good science fiction (it must be good science AND good fiction), I need it to be good football AND good romance. I’ve read some where the football was wrong (or completely unbelievable), and others where the romance didn’t work for me. I’m happy to say that this book has good football, good romance and a huge bonus: a woman football coach.

Angie Peterson is a math teacher and the assistant coach of the high school football team in her hometown in Minnesota. She’s a whiz at spatial visualization, so she understands and crafts football plays really well. She has loved the sport all her life, and the chance to coach (and to replace the current head coach when he retires) means a lot to her. But the head coach has a heart attack and develops pneumonia, and Angie doesn’t get along well with the other assistant coach, who’s sexist ass-hat. Worried that this friction will end up costing Angie the chance to replace him, the head coach goes looking for an interim replacement for himself, someone who can be a sort of figurehead coach, and who couldn’t possible be considered a long-term replacement.

His choice is an old protégé, Cade Reynolds, the star quarterback of the team in the year they won the state championship, a college and then an NFL star, who is currently not on a team because of a long rehab for a shoulder/arm injury. Coach figures that Cade can come take his place and make everyone happy. However, before anything can be done about the coaching position, Cade and Angie meet in a coffee house and hook up for a night of passion — Cade because she’s hot and available, Angie because she’s had a crush on him since high school, and she wants to get one night with him before he figures out who she is.

I liked so much about this book. I liked that Angie, and eventually Cade, really cared about the high school students — the one time Angie feels that she has put her own interests ahead of her students, she reacts exactly as I’d expect of an ethical teacher. I enjoyed the way their relationship developed from insta-lust and sexual compatibility to respect, shared humor, and real admiration for each other’s abilities. They made a good team, and they brought out the best in each other — that was refreshing.

In addition to helping with the high school team, Cade is pursuing a return to the NFL. That subplot was developed believably, I thought, and with a good appreciation of the choices involved. The resolution surprised me a little, but it worked, and I was impressed that the ending included a “public proposal” that worked for me, since usually I hate those.

Probably the only things that bothered my about this book were the times Angie and Cade got caught in compromising positions at the high school. While I like a good strong sexual attraction, I also like to think that intelligent adults can restrain themselves at clearly inappropriate times and places, especially when they are responsible for supervising minors. But I realize how much of that is my own background talking!

All in all, I’m really glad that I read this book, and I hope it’s not too long before we see a sequel — the book is billed as the first in a series, and there’s a pretty broad hint at the end about which couple might figure in the next book. I’m eager for more!

Context note: I know this author through interactions on Twitter. The timing of this review is deliberate; Jackie lost her teenage son in a car accident recently, and many of us in the romance community want to help by supporting her work while she’s not in a position to do much promotion or online interaction. I have also contributed to the Julian Fraire Memorial Fund.


DABWAHA From Where I Sit

It’s time again for the Dear Author Bitchery Writing Award for Hella Good Authors, DABWAHA, a March-madness popularity contest of romance and related works run by Jane of Dear Author and Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Voting begins in just a few minutes!

I’m participating by listing, and commenting on, the nominated books that I’ve read. As usual, there are a lot in some categories, fewer in others, none in one group. For once, one of the LGBT* nominations is f/f, and one features a trans* character. There’s also an f/f book in the Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy category, illustrating one problem of this classification system. An astute commenter points out that I got this wrong; this is the m/f book in between the two f/f books in the series. Which still leaves me wondering about those categories, but never mind.

Love Irresistibly by Julie James. I liked this book, but I didn’t love it as much as I have some of the author’s previous books. I will always remember it as the book where the main characters open champagne bottles with corkscrews.

Sleighbells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan. Another reliable author, and this book was really good. It has elements of romantic comedy, with the heroine very much a fish out of water. It was a warm, fuzzy read.

Run to You by Charlotte Stein. This wasn’t as compelling as some of her others, but it’s a very hot book. Stein writes interesting erotic romance — I never feel like her characters are types, as they are unique individuals with complex sexual desires, not just standard fetishes.

Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy
Caught in Amber by Cathy Pegau. Lesbian science-fiction romance, and it’s good in all three of those ways. Okay, so I was thinking of the third book, not the second, in this series. The main couple in this book is straight. It’s still a good story, though. Original world building and strong characters made me recommend this series to folks who don’t usually read f/f.

Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith I DNFed this book. I read the first section (in the heroine’s point of view), and it made me very uncomfortable; what I heard from others and read in reviews made me decide that it wasn’t going to get better for me.

Skies of Gold by Zoe Archer. The world of the Ether Chronicles is very well done in the whole series — strong steampunk, with an interesting vision. Archer’s writing often includes very strong heroines (of the “kick ass” variety) and powerful action scenes. I loved this third book even more than its predecessors in the series, which is saying a lot; both main characters are damaged and wary, but they are also strong and intelligent, and the romance and action plots balance in an almost perfect way.

Ripped by Sarah Morgan. I had a little trouble getting started with this one — I just couldn’t buy the initial set-up. But I trust the author, so I picked it back up and ended up liking it. I thought the “how could this hot rich guy want little old scientist me” was a bit thin as a conflict, but I guess that’s why it was written as short fiction.

Unbuttoned by Maisey Yates. I felt that this conflict, in contrast, was almost too much for the length of the story. It felt rushed in a couple of places, and I’d have preferred a little more development instead of the epilogue — I liked the pre-epilogue ended. But this is a solid novella, featuring “big brother’s best friend,” a favorite trope of mine.

Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex. We did a group read of this book. I liked parts of the book very much, and I was glad to see a romance with Asian American characters. But there were some unquestioned stereotypes and other problematic elements that kept it from being a real hit.

His Until Midnight by Nikki Logan. I enjoyed this book; it has an interesting set-up that reminded me of Same Time Next Year. The tight focus on the two main characters, and their focus on each other during their meetings, really drew me into the intensity of their feelings. It’s always tricky when a romance novel features attraction that began when one party was married, but this one takes pains to ensure that there’s no infidelity.

The Other Side of Us by Sarah Mayberry. Mayberry is one of my favorite authors of contemporary romance, and this book is a good example of why. I got sucked right into the characters’ lives, and the things keeping them from committing to love were believable, so that I got really caught up in whether they’d be together or not. The heroine is physically rehabbing, and both characters have reason to want solitude, but they each have a friendly dog, so they are forced to interact. Funny and touching, if a little cliché at the end.

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas. If I had to settle for one romance author’s books for the rest of my life, it might be Thomas. Every book is different, but they are all terrific. In this one, Thomas takes on the marriage of convenience (my favorite!) and puts her own twist on it. A couple of time she came perilously close to the edge for me — that edge being the point where you just want to smack both characters for being afraid of trust and honesty when they so obviously love each other. But we never went over the edge, because each time I accepted the psychology for why these two couldn’t trust each other (or themselves) sooner.

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin. Lin’s Tang Dynasty romances just keep getting better and better. This murder mystery takes us deeper into the Pleasure Quarter of the Imperial City and also offers another look at law enforcement. The hero is a delightful Scarlet Pimpernel figure, and the heroine is one of Lin’s best — a quiet woman who discovers her own value while mostly concerned about others. As with the author’s other books, I don’t feel like I’m having too much information shoved at me, and yet I feel that I understand enough about the time and place to appreciate what the characters are experiencing. That’s not a balance that all authors can manage, especially while telling a powerful love story AND a mystery. The mystery aspect may be a little under-developed, if you like detective fiction that gives you enough clues to possibly solve the crime yourself. I was so caught up in the romance that it didn’t bother me at all.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan. This is a really good book. Jane and Oliver are wonderful main characters; there’s a nice balance of comedy and drama in their romance. Like a lot of readers, I was almost more interested in the secondary romance between Jane’s sister Emily, who has epilepsy, and an young Indian law student. I wanted more of that! As usual, Milan combines strong writing, excellent research and innovative thinking into a romance that kept me guessing and then left me satisfied.

Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare. I spent this whole book wondering how the author was going to pull off the ending — I mean, it’s a romance, the two main characters are obviously in love, but the situation seems impossible. At least, it seems impossible. It’s the Pygmalion problem: you *can* teach a lower-class girl to “pass” as a member of the upper class, but what then? Does she return to obscurity (“What am I fit for now?”), or does she live a lie, denying her real past and any family connections, living in fear that she’ll be discovered? I have been disappointed by plots like this before (Julia Quinn’s An Offer From a Gentleman comes to mind, because the book/characters don’t seem to acknowledge the very real difficulties faced by those who want to fool the ton. I should have known that I could trust Tessa Dare. I won’t say how she manages it, but I was not at all disappointed in the choices made that brought about the story’s happy ending. And along the way, signature Dare humor (some with a twist of pathos), delightful repartée, intelligent and strong characters, good friendships and family relationships (and some not-so-good ones repaired), and a really, REALLY strong romance.

Sweet Revenge by Zoe Archer. A lot of action and risk-taking make this an exciting book; the series concept of a company trying to avenge injustice in Victorian England is a little much for me to accept, but if you just go with it, it works. There are strong women who can think and shoot, and men who can accept those things. Those wanting historical romance that’s not all about the aristocracy should welcome this book and its sequels.

Young Adult / New Adult
I read a few YA books this year, but nothing that made this list.

His Kind of Woman by Nona Raines.This was my TBR Challenge read this month (see the post before this one). It’s novella length, a sweet sexy read, and it has an adorable transwoman heroine.

Code of Honor by Radclyffe. This is a series I’ve been meaning to read. I bought this one, and I’ve read a few chapters, and it’s solid. I love the idea of the President’s daughter being an out, married lesbian! The only reason I haven’t read more is that my series compulsion is twitching, and I’d have to go back and read seven books to read in order.

Captive Prince Vol. 1 by SU Pacat & CS Pacat. A DNF for me. I tried because there was a lot of squeeing on Twitter, but it was not for me.

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements
A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn. I liked this story, set in colonial Kenya in the early 20th century. It’s a rather dark romance, because mostly it’s about life in Africa being harder and more dangerous, although also more rewarding, than the heroine expects. Both main characters are rather misfits, and their coming together is difficult. I thought the book characterized indigenous people fairly, and it certainly doesn’t glorify the British Empire, but I know some readers objected to the appropriation of the Masai experience. Longer review is here

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Another DNF. I didn’t feel that this book was working for me as a romance.

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. Another fabulous book by one of my favorite authors. As usual, she blends paranormal, historical and romantic elements — this time much of the action in the present and the past happens in Russia. I thought all three aspects of the book were brilliant.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I just got this on digital loan from my library. I hear mixed things from other readers, but if it makes it past the first round, I’ll probably have read it and have my own thoughts.

TBR Challenge: His Kind of Woman

NR_HisKindofWomanI bought this novella when Jayne at Dear Author gave it an enthusiastic B review last year. When it appeared on the DABWAHA list, I decided this was the perfect time to read it. Nona Raines is a new-to-me author, but I enjoyed this book enough that I would read another by her.

His Kind of Woman is a sweet love story, Here’s the official description:

When Roy Girard went looking for Victor Varrano, he never expected a woman to answer the door. He soon discovers that Victor is now Venetia. Roy’s startled, but even more surprised by his attraction to her. As they spend time together, he doesn’t want to let her go. But she’s sure to dump him when she learns his secret.

Venetia’s falling hard and fast for Roy. But when she learns that his brother was the bully who tormented her in high school, she’s shattered. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that the man who made such amazing love to her could so completely betray her trust.

I thought the issue of Venetia being a transwoman was handled really well. She had insecurities about revealing it, since her own family didn’t accept her, and Roy is her first romantic relationship since the completion of her transition, so she has reason to be anxious. Once Roy learns that she’s trans, he has to figure out whether that affects the attraction he feels towards her. It doesn’t; if anything, it makes him even more protective of her. I loved that Roy, having never known someone trans, reacted by going online and learning as much as he could. I think there was enough detail in the story for most readers to understand, without it becoming overwhelming or distracting from the romance. There’s no hint of “freaky” in the sex scenes, either.

Venetia and Roy are the only fully developed characters, since this is a short work, but the secondary characters are a diverse group, and I liked that. That feel more real to me than the usual contemporary romance where every one is cis-gendered and nearly everyone is straight. I also was pleased that Venetia, while not in a relationship at the beginning of the book, had friends, a good job, outside interests — in other words, she had a life and was getting on with it.

I’m really glad I read this, and I recommend it. It’s only available from LooseID, and it’s specially priced at 99 cents right now for DABWAHA.

Book Squee: Heads Up About Some Books I Enjoyed

I’ve been reading, but not reviewing — what’s new? So here’s a catch-up post about some books that I’ve read, all as Advance Reader Copies, and enjoyed recently.

LinJadeTemptressThe second book set in the Pingkang Li, the pleasure quarter of the Imperial City, this is another terrific Tang Dynasty historical romance. These books are mysteries, as well as romances, which means I get to see the main characters working together to find a solution (always something I value in romance, because it lets me see that they really do make good partners). Wu, the constable, and Mingyu, the valuable pleasure hostess, met and clashed over the murder in the first book, The Lotus Palace (which I also really liked). There’s already attraction and rather grudging respect between them after that, which is where they pick up in this book. Mingyu finds the body of her murdered patron, so once again she is a material witness and a potential suspect.

In all of Lin’s books, I love the rich historical detail, the gentle introduction of necessary information, and the lyrical, slightly formal language — these elements work together to create a world that I love to visit. The rigid social structure and harsh laws of the time and place are a wonderful setting for challenging romantic involvements with real external conflict, and yet every relationship is different. Her heroes and heroines are indeed “heroic,” in the sense that they are good people a reader WANTS to see rewarded with a happy ending, but they come from all walks of life and levels of society.

I was glad that the previous book set up this relationship; it gave it a complexity from the beginning that served the story well. It takes a lot for Mingyu to find her way to Wu, and for him to accept that a relationship with her is something to which he can even aspire. I appreciated how difficult this was for both characters and what it took for them to come together with love and trust.

I liked seeing some of the characters from previous books make a re-appearance — not just cameo bits, but giving Mingyu a family (through her sister’s marriage) of enjoyable characters. I have hopes that the third Pingkang Li mystery will feature as heroine a character I’ve become fond of in the previous books; I’ll be reading it as soon as it’s available, I’m sure.

MayberrySatisfactionSarah Mayberry is another go-to author for me; I’ve enjoyed every book by her that I’ve read. This one (self-published, as opposed to fitting in a category line) is special. Maggie is a great heroine — she’s smart, funny, even sexy; she owns a bookshop and is making a success of it. But she’s never had an orgasm, and she’s starting to think that she needs to see a doctor about it. Her thoughts about that, and her hesitation, are portrayed very believably. So before going that route, she takes the huge risk of seeking sex with a stranger, a man she thinks is both a great lover and interested in sex with no strings. Rafe is a tattoo artist and business entrepreneur; he is still hurting over a bad break-up, but he can’t help being intrigued by Maggie’s problem and attracted both to her and to the idea of being the one who can help her.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot and characters, because they are delightful to discover — I was REALLY glad that I read this as an ARC and had no idea what to expect. (I will say that I’m glad to hear that Mayberry is planning books for the secondary characters, too.) But I do want to point out that this is more explicit sexually than Mayberry’s Harlequin Super Romances, and that’s definitely a strength of the book. Writing an anorgasmic character is a real challenge, and writing a sexual relationship that helps her overcome her condition is a HUGE challenge. It can’t be a book about the magic wang, and it shouldn’t be a book where the heroine’s condition turns out to be “no big deal.” I would hate it to be a book about how she can only experience sexual pleasure with this one guy, and yet once they have been together, you can’t really put her with anyone else and expect romance readers to accept it. The way Mayberry solved this dilemma, and they way she shifts the story from being about sexual compatibility to emotional, is brilliant, in my opinion.

city-of-jasmineDeanna Raybourn’s new historical romance is primarily set in and around Damascus in the 1920s. Our heroine, Evie, is an aviatrix engaged in trying to fly across the seven ancient seas. Evie thinks she’s a widow, because her estranged husband is supposed to have been on the Lusitania when it went down, but early in the novel she receives clues that perhaps Gabriel isn’t dead; these clues lead her to Damascus and start her questioning everything that happened in her marriage and its demise.

How am I not going to love a book about a 1920s woman flying an airplane? I mean, anyone who knows me knows I’d be all over this book. And I really did enjoy it. As with Raybourn’s previous novel (set in Colonial Africa), some readers may have issues with how she has appropriated the indigenous culture to serve as a setting for the romance of a white couple. I think she has done a pretty good job of showing the indigenous people as capable and deserving of self-rule, as well as showing them as unique and interesting individuals rather than just types. In my view, she depicts aspects of the culture(s) as a white visitor would encounter them, but also with sensitivity. I did have some issues with one big piece of the story, which I won’t spoil, but on balance it didn’t ruin the book for me. This is an adventure love story, and the heroine gets to do her share, and that’s a win for me.