Flirting with Disaster, Ruthie Knox

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.

Flirting with Disaster, Ruthie Knox

Flirting with Disaster, Ruthie Knox

Flirting with Disaster is the second novel in Ruthie Knox’s Camelot series and the one she’s been calling her “stuttering hacker” book.

Katie Clark, youngest of the Clark siblings, has recently moved back home after being unceremoniously dumped by her secret husband, Levi. Levi is a jerk and I want to kick him in the same place that Henry kicks Jamie in this book. Basically, he talked Katie into going to Alaska with him and marrying him so one of them could get in-state tuition, and then when he got bored left her and took all the money. ASSHOLE.

So Katie’s back in Camelot and living rent-free with her brother Caleb and working in his security company–initially as the office manager/receptionist but with an eye to also working in the field.

Sean Owens also works for Caleb. Back in town to clean out his recently deceased mother’s home, he’s also the president of a successful internet security firm in California. We know he’s successful because he has expensive clothes and accessories (at one point it’s mentioned that he has a $10,000 watch). He also seems to hate Katie–or at least that’s what Katie thinks, as he never speaks to her.  What Katie doesn’t know is that Sean’s a stutterer and when he’s unsure of himself, he stutters more. And he is extremely unsure around Katie–he’s had a crush on her since they were in high school and the hard Ks in her name are especially difficult for him.

This is, more or less, a road trip book. Katie and Sean are investigating nebulous threats against pop star Judah Pratt and are following him from gig to gig. Initially, Judah won’t tell them what’s going on but once Sean digs into the social media activity of his fans and into some of the other media coverage, they’re able to figure out that Judah is being threatened and that he’s gay.

In between trying to figure this out, Katie tries to figure out what the deal with Sean is and he tries to pretend that there is no deal–eventually, though, she gets him to open up.

This book did not make the same kind of impression on me that Knox’s other books have. It felt a bit meandering and unfocused and I had a hard time sinking into it. I just tend to have a hard time relating to contemporaries with characters who have ridiculous sums of money at their disposal and Sean is definitely in this category–it costs him nothing to give up his stake in his company at the end and it just didn’t feel realistic.

On the other hand, the stuttering did feel realistic–it’s clear that Knox did a lot of research into how stuttering works and it shows. Sean’s stuttering is consistent and it’s obvious that it’s been a major factor in his life.  I liked the way his emotional state affected his ability to speak and the way he’s not magically cured at the end. I want to say that I liked his complicated relationship with his mother, even after her death, but hat would be a weird thing to like because it’s a significant source of pain in his life. I appreciated it and I appreciated that it was presented as a relationship–even when those we love are gone, we are still affected by their presence in our lives and I loved that Knox made this so clear.

This is a pretty good read but if you haven’t read any Ruthie Knox I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one–pick up Ride with Me or About Last Night if you’re interested in seeing exactly what she can do within the constraints of the contemporary romance genre.

Along Came Trouble, Ruthie Knox

Along Came Trouble, Ruthie Knox

Along Came Trouble, Ruthie Knox

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review. That fact in no way affected my opinion of it.

Ruthie Knox is one of my favorite contemporary romance authors and Along Came Trouble, while not quite awesome as Ride With Me or About Last Night, is still pretty great. And it could just be that I have high standards for Knox’s work, too–I expect a lot from her books because of her track record.

Along Came Trouble is the first book proper in Knox’s Camelot series, which began with an amazing novella, “How to Misbehave”. It’s set a number of years later in the same small town in Ohio and the main characters here are Ellen and Caleb.  Caleb is Amber’s brother, recently out of the military and trying to establish his own security business in town.  Ellen is a local lawyer, divorced and with a young son.  Her brother, Jamie, is an international superstar and he’s taken up with Ellen’s pregnant neighbor, Carly–bringing the paparazzi to the wholly unprepared small town.

This is a book about interdependence and independence both–this provides most of the tension in the book, in fact. Caleb has been hired by Jamie’s security company to provide security to both Ellen and Carly. Ellen wants none of it and Carly isn’t particularly enthusiastic either. And, in both their cases, it’s completely understandable: Carly and Jamie are on the outs and Ellen has fought hard to be her own person outside her brother’s shadow and with a detour through an abusive marriage.

I’d been putting off reading this because I wasn’t sure it would live up to Knox’s other books. I shouldn’t have been worried about that because it does. All the characters are thoroughly believable and a major part of that is because Knox gives them all lives outside the pages of the book–it’s obvious that they’re each the heroes of their own stories even if we don’t know what that story is.  I found this most apparent in Caleb’s parents, Janet and Derek. Between the events of “How to Misbehave” and this book, Derek Clark has had a stroke which has had far-reaching impact on his ability to maintain the apartment complex owned by him and Janet.  This is a source of contention between them and Caleb tries to help where he can–the main reason he moved back to Camelot after his stint in the military was to be able to help his family out.

Relationships between parents and children (and grandchildren) is a major theme of this book. Ellen is so fiercely independent in part because her mother focused all her energy on her brother. Carly was raised by her Nana, who is one of my favorite characters ever (I am firmly on the Nana needs a story of her own bandwagon–are you listening, Knox?).  Ellen’s son, Henry, spends several days a week with his paternal grandmother but only a few hours a week with his father (due to Richard being an emotionally abusive alcoholic with a pathetic leather vest). Being able to see the characters in community with each other, in their other relationships makes them feel so much more real which then makes them more sympathetic and believable.

This is also, in places, a very funny book. Knox has a knack for capturing the little moments between characters. I especially liked the following passage:

“I know, but we skipped all the early dates, and I could really use one of those third-date neck massages.”

“The kind where we watch a movie and then I move back behind you on the couch and rub your shoulders, and you offer to take off your shirt to make it easier, and then before we know quite what happened, we’re making out?”

“Exactly. But don’t skimp on the massaging. I have to be seduced slowly, like I don’t really want it.”

There may have been audible and knowing snorting when I read that bit. Knox is also good at cutting to the heart of emotional matters, as she does when Ellen is thinking about her and Jamie’s father, who they never knew:

Theirs had died before they were old enough to remember him. It was a phantom-limb situation: you got used to the absence, but you could always feel it, and sometimes it itched.

This might be the best description of what it’s like to have a dead parent that I have ever read. Ever.

The only real flaw in this book, for me, was the compressed timeline (although the week or so that this book covers does not end in an engagement or even anything more definite than “let’s try to have a relationship”; there is an epilogue that takes place a few months later). Caleb and Ellen seemed to move incredibly quickly from meeting to realizing that they could have something really great together, especially considering the degree of stress they’re under due to Jamie’s stormy relationship with Carly.

I also tend to have problems with books where there’s a book-world celebrity in it–it always feels really contrived in a way that I have a hard time explaining.  However, in this book it made perfect sense–and it was made clear that Jamie’s celebrity was the result of a lot of hard work on his part as well as natural talent. I liked seeing Jamie chafe at the restrictions his celebrity put on his life and the way his actions were shown to have repercussions on people outside his bubble of famous–again, this is a character in community with others.

So to sum up: Great characters and great relationships, and the only real flaw is the really fast development of the relationship between Ellen and Caleb.  This is a wonderful book.

How to Misbehave, Ruthie Knox

How to Misbehave, Ruthie Knox

How to Misbehave, Ruthie Knox

Note: I received a promotional copy of this book via Netgalley.

This book.

GUH.

No, really. One has to love a book that has the line, “Her orgasms were a shy species, afraid of men.”

This book also made me completely unaware of the serious drafts in my living room. It takes a hell of a book to distract me from the heat-sucking breeze and this book certainly did that.

Ruthie Knox’s “How to Misbehave” is a short-ish novella set in the small town of Camelot, Ohio in 1999. Amber is a local girl who went to a local college and who, while she lives in her own place, never really left home.

I really love the setting–I’m from a small Midwestern town and while I did leave never to return, many of my friends did not. I have a certain amount of familiarity with this kind of setting, so I was pre-disposed to be sympathetic to Amber–more so than usual, that is. I am almost always disposed to feel kindly towards romance novel protagonists.

Anyhoodle, Amber works at her local recreation center which is being remodeled. And there’s a hunky construction worker she has her eye on (I will note that I see lots of construction workers at my day job and none of them come even close to being as hunky as Tony Mazzara, but then again, it’s a different kind of construction). And then, since it’s the Midwest, there’s a tornado siren. Oh, tornado siren. I do not miss you. Except on Saturdays at 1 pm. And Amber and Tony are stuck in the basement with no power and they start talking. And it turns out that Amber’s been a good girl her whole life and she wants to learn to misbehave–and Tony’s offering to teach her and things seem to be going someplace and then–the all-clear sounds and the spell is broken.

Nonetheless, Tony ends up in Amber’s apartment and they end up fucking each other’s brains out and it’s really quite lovely and completely relevant to the development of their relationship and then Tony shows her how he’s broken and it is, truly, a terrible thing but possibly not something that requires an entire life of penitence (repentance, maybe, but not soul-shriveling penitence). And then he leaves her–just as he told her he would.

Since this is a romance, they naturally do find their way back to each other and their happy ending.

Both Amber and Tony are, despite the shortness of this book, whole people. Knox is really great at characterization; she makes every phrase work–there’s not a lot extra here. Their backgrounds are believable and thoroughly grounded in the setting and their conversations are just wonderful. These are two people who are each, in their own way, unhappy and a bit damaged and their coming together makes them–not whole, but something more than whole. They’ll carry their hurts around with them their whole lives, but being with the other will help smooth the rough edges and make the pain a bit easier to bear and really, isn’t that what all of us want out of our relationships?

Mixed Reviews

Two books to talk about today–one which was a DNF and another which I loved. I’m going to start with the DNF because, well, in some ways it’s easier for me to talk why I don’t like a book than why I do. When I like a book, I tend to get a bit flappy and exuberant.

Her Wicked Ways, Darcy Burke

Her Wicked Ways, Darcy Burke

So the book I wasn’t able to finish was Darcy Burke’s Her Wicked Ways. The premise of the book was definitely right up my alley–the female protagonist, Miranda, is a rebellious young woman sent to the country to rusticate with relatives and think about what she’s done. The male protagonist, Fox, is an impoverished member of the local gentry (I think he’s a baronet?) who has an orphanage to maintain and who has a secret identity as a highwayman in order to do things like repair the roof and buy clothing for the plot moppets. He also has a not-so-secret feud with the local MP who done stole the girl he loved back in the day (and then she DIED for PLOT REASONS possibly involving refrigerators).

So Miranda and Fox first meet when she’s en route to her relatives’ home and he stops their coach in order to rob them. Since she’s been a bad girl for unspecified reasons, she has nothing of value so they end up kissing for some reason. Then she ends up volunteering at the orphanage where she is initially put off by the plot urchins but they eventually win her over despite the lice. The only things Miranda is allowed to do is help out at the orphanage and go to church. Because forcing someone to do Good Deeds is totally how you reform their character.

And this is about when I stopped reading because I found that I didn’t care. And I was really bothered by how restrictive Miranda’s uncle was especially since we don’t know exactly what Miranda’s done to deserve such treatment. The way her relatives treat her is damn near abusive–she is isolated and told constantly that she doesn’t deserve better and it really bothered me. Especially as Miranda seems to become more tractable and amenable to being controlled. Also, her father (who is a duke) sends her a letter that pretty much proves that all the men in her family are giant dickbags.

As for Fox, he has a lot of manpain about the girl he lost to the wealthier neighbor–who is corrupt and so obviously the bad guy that there’s basically no narrative tension–he’s drooling over Miranda and taunting Fox and being mean to orphans. There are better ways to write a villain. Really. There are.

So I stopped reading it because I have way better things to do with my time.

Like reading Ruthie Knox.

Ride With Me, Ruthie Knox

Ride With Me, Ruthie Knox

I enjoyed About Last Night tremendously, so I’d added Ride with Me to the mental list of books to buy and it was one of the books I bought when I fell off the wagon last week and I’m so glad I did. This isn’t a long book, but there’s a lot of great stuff going on in it.

Tom and Lexie are brought together via a cross-country bike ride–grudgingly on Tom’s part, as he was unaware his sister was arranging for someone to ride with him. They both have histories–Tom is mostly estranged from his family and Lexie’s had a string of bad relationships that’s made her a bit apprehensive, especially since her parents met on this same bike route.

Anyhow, they’re both prickly and wrapped up in themselves and have very different riding styles–Tom is spontaneous and Lexie is not (which says some interesting things about how we compensate for our pasts in our present). At the same time, though, they’re intrigued by each other. Reading them slowly come together was just lovely–Knox has a way of really digging into the nitty gritty of their emotions that I found very satisfying to read.

This is a relationship of equals in every way and there are a lot of great moments. I think one of my favorite bits is the hot sauce scene (no, not in that way, pervert). And their arguments. And the scene where Lexie masturbates in a tent while thinking about Tom. And their frank desire for each other and the way they finally act on it–and the way, they both tried to make it a no-strings-attached fuck-buddy friendship and failed utterly. And then the way Tom figures out what it is Lexie wants/needs from him. And they each know that people aren’t perfect–the set-up of this book basically requires them to be really intimate with each other, even when they’re mad. As I think about this book, I keep coming back to the idea of grace–unearned and undeserved. There’s grace in this relationship–Tom and Lexie need to open their hearts to the possibility of happiness and it’s hard for them to do it, like their bike ride, but once they do the rewards are immeasurable.

And the ending, honestly, made me cry. I hardly ever cry at the end of romance novels because I am a cynical and hard-hearted woman. So anything that makes me sniffly has got to be pretty special and this book really is just that: special.

Quickie Reviews

I’ve read a lot of books over the last week or so, but none of them really made me feel like writing a whole lot about any of them, so I thought I’d put them all in one post.

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas

Beguiling the Beauty, Sherry Thomas

First up are the first two books in Sherry Thomas’s Fitzhugh trilogy, Beguiling the Beauty and Ravishing the Heiress. I really enjoyed these both quite a lot–and I suspect that I may have enjoyed Tempting the Bride (review) even more if I’d had a better idea of the back story between all the characters. But water, bridge, yadda yadda.

These two books are Venetia and Millie’s books, respectively, and while they don’t have anything as ridiculous as “heroine gets amnesia from getting kicked in the head by a horse” in them, they also deal with some interesting tropes from the genre.

Venetia’s romance is one of secret identity and revenge with a small digression into fossils (which reminded me of Amanda Quick’s Ravished and Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked, both of which involve fossils as major plot points). It was an interesting read but I found myself increasingly tired of being told so often how beautiful Venetia was, although the way she used her beauty in a knowingly calculated way at times was a refreshing change from the usual.  I had a hard time feeling invested in the relationship between her and Lexington, though, and I’m not sure why.

On the other hand, I ate up Millie and Fitz’s story with the proverbial spoon and I think that was because there was SO MUCH ANGST. Theirs is a marriage of convenience–Fits has inherited an estate that is deeply in debt and Millie’s father has a lot of money and a need to marry her to someone with a title. They agree to not consummate their marriage for 8 years and to give each other their freedom in the interim. What this amounts to, of course, is Fitz being free to do as he wishes and Millie being chastely faithful to him because she’s fallen in love with him. Over the eight years, their marriage develops into a deep friendship and partnership and their unrequited longing for each other was deliciously unbearable until they finally–finally–come to each other and confess their true feelings. It was delightfully angsty and really satisfying to read.

About Last Night, Ruthie Knox

About Last Night, Ruthie Knox

Then I picked up a copy of Ruthie Knox’s About Last Night (digital only, alas) based on a recommendation from Rachael Herron because I am a sucker for pretty much anything involving knitting.

This one’s about Cath and Nev, two people who are familiar with each other because they live in the same neighborhood and take the same train (as someone who used to take the bus to work this really resonated with me–you do get to know the regulars). Cath is escaping her past and trying to make a new future and Nev is trying to make a life for himself that is somewhat independent from his family.

One thing I really liked about this book was the way Cath was so good at letting Nev know what her boundaries were and how he did his best to respect them–even when he didn’t want to. For large chunks of the book he doesn’t know where she works or lives or her phone number. She gets to be more or less in control and I really liked that. The conflict felt really natural, too–Nev’s family doesn’t understand him and have an idea of what his life should be like and he mostly goes along with that until he can’t anymore because he basically has to choose either Cath or going along with his family.  I really liked the crunchy complicatedness of both Cath and Nev and I’m definitely going to pick up some more of Knox’s books as they come out and as the budget allows (I have had a bit of a book buying binge this last week).

Bared to You, Sylvia Day

Bared to You, Sylvia Day

Next on the list is Sylvia Day’s first Crossfire novel, Bared to You. Loaned to me by a friend, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much–I’ve heard people at work talk about this title in much the same way they talk about Fifty Shades of Grey (which I’ve read and was sort of meh about), so my expectations were pretty low.

I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not a great piece of writing and I’ll probably never reread it (and may very well not read anything else in the series), but it wasn’t bad either. I really liked Eva and the slow reveal of her past and the way she was pretty good at communicating her desires and needs and boundaries to Gideon. Gideon wasn’t always good at listening, presumably because of some of his own issues that were hinted at in this book (there were a number of references to his first experiences with consensual sex which probably means that like Eva he has sexual abuse in his past) but he was willing to listen and try to do better.

I will admit that I have a hard time believing the “stupidly wealthy at the age of 28″ thing going on with Gideon because it is, frankly, unbelievable (Gideon reminded me a lot of J.D. Robb’s Roarke). I also have a hard time believing that Eva would develop such a strong rapport with her boss in such a short period of time and that she would be so amazing at her job in such a short period of time as well–not to mention the ethical problem of her becoming involved with a prospective client. I get that these books are, to a certain extent, wish fulfillment fantasies but come on. On the other hand, Eva’s roommate and best friend is a bisexual man who gets it on with both men and women in the book and there’s definitely something to be said about that (especially since the co-workers I heard talking about these books have also said a lot of really gross things about queer people that made me feel sad and uncomfortable and helpless, so one can hope that the non-judgemental way that Cary’s sexuality is portrayed in this book will eventually sink in).

Carrie's Story, Molly Weatherfield

Carrie’s Story, Molly Weatherfield

And finally, the last book I’ve read so far is Molly Weatherfield’s Carrie’s Story–a book I’ve wanted to read for a very long time and just never got around to it (when it initially came out a decade ago I was too broke to buy books on a whim).

If you’re looking for a BDSM-lite book, this isn’t the book for you. It’s not quite as extreme as what I remember from Anne Rice’s Beauty books or Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series, but it’s definitely more hardcore than Fifty Shades of Grey. A lot of the reviews of Carrie’s Story on Amazon are about how it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey. And no, it’s not–BDSM isn’t pathologized in it and the narrator (the titular Carrie) is smart, self-aware, and wonderfully analytical of what’s happening to her. She is a passive participant in her objectification and her internal journey was, to me, more interesting than what was happening to her body.

Carrie’s narrative voice is a big part of what makes this book so successful and it is her voice that allowed me to suspend my disbelief around a lot of the fantastical aspects of the setting. It’s hard for me to articulate why I liked this book so much–a lot of my liking has to do with the way that everyone is aware that they are acting in a system that has been explicitly designed to be fundamentally unfair and that it is, in many ways, a reflection of the way that the world we live in is also unfair–except that the power exchange isn’t consensual and the submission and subjugation isn’t chosen but imposed. There’s a lot more going on in this book than just a lot of explicitly kinky sex and I really wish that I’d gotten around to reading it sooner.

So that’s what I’ve been reading this past week–I am feeling a bit overloaded with romance right now and think I’ll be strategically retreating into SF/F for the next little while in order to cleanse my palate.