Book Review: Bet Me

Rating: 4 out of 5

I'm done with my 8th book, out of the 20 I pledged to read this year! I must admit that I'm on a roll to complete my quota!

After reading an article on Jezebel, titled, "So you want to get into romance novels. Start here!", one of my 2015 goals as Book Club Babe was to read more of the 'classics' in the romance genre.

There were so many great books to choose from in this article, with hundreds of internet commenters adding their own suggestions as well. A top contender was Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie. Here's the summary Jezebel wrote to convince me to add it to my TBR list:

Basically anyone who reads a lot of romance will sooner or later hurl some Jennifer Crusie book at your head while screeching I TOLD YOU TO READ IT ALREADY, GODDAMMIT.

Welcome to Temptation, about a woman who falls for a small-town mayor while accidentally (?) making some soft porn, is probably more universally beloved. But my fave will always be Bet Me, about charming Cal and cranky Min. She's plump without being a pathetic sad-sack; their happily-ever-after is childfree by choice.

Childfree by choice? Sign me up! I'm so sick of female leads gushing about their love interests and how cute their future kids will look. Enough with the biological clocks already! Not all women have them!

One of those women in Minerva "Min" Dobbs, an actuary who overhears Calvin Morrissey make a bet with her sleazy ex that he could bed her in a month. Convinced that Cal is a beast, she only accepts his dinner invitation to give him grief. This plan backfires as they quickly fall head over heels for one another.

This romance novel is so different from any that I have read before. First, it stars an unconventional couple, given that Cal has a supermodel body and Min is very curvy. Min is constantly abused verbally and emotionally by her harpy mother for eating carbs and not sticking to a diet for Min's sister Diana's upcoming wedding. Fortunately, Cal couldn't give a damn about her size, because he falls in love with her just as she is.

That being said, much of the foreplay in this book (and there was a LOT of it, since they didn't actually hook up until the last couple chapters) revolved around food, which just isn't my cup of tea. I can't be the only one who thinks that fetishizing plus-size women by feeding them donuts isn't the best seduction tactic.

Despite the weird scenes with chocolate icing, I thought Bet Me was hilarious and fun. Crusie created excellent secondary characters, including Cal's nephew Harry and Min's adopted cat Elvis. The tone was sweet and playful, encouraging readers to believe in happily-ever-afters without being overly sappy.

I highly recommend Bet Me to romance novel lovers, whether they're new to the genre or very familiar. And, of course, I will definitely read more of Jennifer Crusie's work in the future!

Book Review: It Happened One Wedding

Rating: 4 out of 5

I love when I have an author whom I can rely on for always writing great stories. I have read every single novel by Julie James, renowned romance novelist known for her FBI / U.S. Attorney series set in Chicago.

You can read my reviews of James' other novels by clicking the links below:

This book stars FBI Special Agent Vaughn Roberts and investment banker Sidney Sinclair. When a blind date goes bust for Sidney at a coffee shop, Vaughn tries pulling some moves on her instead, but she doesn't fall for his playboy ways and turns him down.

Later that night, they end up at the same restaurant only to find out that their respective siblings are marrying each other! Awkward yet sexual tension commences as they're forced into close contact to help plan their wedding.

This is a fun story that's refreshingly realistic, because it takes some time before true feelings emerge. Insta-attraction, definitely, but none of that horrible insta-love that plagues romance novels these days.

In fact, Sidney and Vaughn casually hook up for most of the novel, with Sidney afraid of falling for another womanizer after suffering a broken engagement to her cheating fiancé, and Vaughn enjoying his bachelor lifestyle too much to settle down. I appreciated the slow burn as both characters realize their undeniable connection throughout each chapter.

That's not to say that little happens between them. Rest assured, the love scenes are hot, which I've come to expect from James. There's just something about combining crime-busting with lip-locking that keeps me coming back for more of her books.

If you're looking for a contemporary romance that's sexy without being sappy, I recommend this book and any other by Julie James.

Audiobook Review: Love Irresistibly

Rating: 4 out of 5

Julie James does it again with yet another novel in her U.S. Attorney series. The last two installments followed the romances of the Rhodes family. In A Lot Like Love, heiress Jordan Rhodes falls in love with undercover F.B.I. agent Nick McCall, and in About That Night, her ex-con brother Kyle Rhodes (aka "the Twitter terrorist") becomes smitten with the assistant U.S. attorney Rylann Pierce.

Love Irresistibly (2013) continues the narrative of the Chicago office with Cade Morgan, the assistant U.S. attorney who was responsible for putting Kyle Rhodes behind bars. His next assignment involves catching a corrupt senator, and he needs the help of Brooke Parker, general counsel for a prestigious restaurant company.

Brooke assists the case by allowing Cade and his team to bug the senator's reserved table at an exclusive fine dining establishment. The case is closed without many hitches, and the rest of the novel navigates their subsequent relationship and the emotional obstacles that stand between them.

Both struggle with a fear of commitment, Brooke due to her insanely busy work schedule, and Cade due to abandonment issues with his estranged father. One of the many reasons why I like reading Julie James' books is that even though her characters are strong and independent, they also can be afraid to show their vulnerable sides.

This story was especially enjoyable when it came to Cade's reunion with the teenage half-brother he never knew existed. Together they bonded over football and girl problems, while working through Cade's anger over their father who left him. The biggest lesson everyone learned was making sure not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But enough about high-profile prosecution and family drama! Let's talk about love scenes! After feeling major disappointment with the last two romance novels I read (Deeply, Desperately and Absolutely, Positively by Heather Webber), it felt nice to get back to the good stuff.

I can always trust that James will deliver when it comes to passion. A huge pet peeve of mine is a romance novel that lacks in romance, and this was not one of them. None of that ridiculous cut-to-black, 'one thing led to another' writing that is frankly both prudish and lazy.

James cranks up the heat to the point where it was difficult maintaining a poker face listening on the train. A word to the wise: if you're going to buy the audiobook version, perhaps reserve your listening until after you complete your daily commute!

Steaminess aside, there are tons of great things about James' books. I've read all six of her past novels and already bought her 7th. But for my sake, this time it's in print!

Book Review: A Lot Like Love

Rating: 4 out of 5

A while back, I read Julie James' About That Night, a romance between ex-con Kyle Rhodes and Assistant U.S. Attorney Rylann Pierce. I realized that I had skipped a novel in her FBI series, so now I've filled in the gap!

This book stars Kyle's twin sister Jordan, who manages an upscale wine store in Chicago. Every year she attends a swanky party hosted by Xander Eckhart, who has made a fortune in the restaurant and nightclub business.

When the FBI learns that Eckhart is supplying that fortune with the mob's drug money, agent Nick McCall is assigned to an undercover mission to plant bugs in Eckhart's office to gain crucial evidence to convict him. His way in? Acting as Jordan's date to the party.

However, when the mission is compromised, Nick and Jordan must continue behaving like a couple, and soon the the line blurs between what is work and what is real.

Julie James is one of my favorite romance novelists because she excels at drawing from her own legal career experience and creating great stories. In fact, if I were to make a checklist of what I'm looking for in this genre, here's what it would look like:

  • Strong female characters with lives outside their relationships

  • Great chemistry with plenty of witty banter and innuendos

  • Electrifying sexual tension building up to hot and heavy love scenes

  • A suspenseful plot with believable obstacles and antagonism

  • A satisfying happily-ever-after conclusion

James meets all of those qualifications in her stories--all of which would make fantastic chick flicks--which is why I keep coming back for more. I always know that I'm jumping into a fun, light-hearted read.

This one in particular is excellent, because I loved the power play between Jordan and Nick. Both are used to being in control, and throughout the novel, they must learn to trust and be vulnerable around one another. They also realize the importance of honest communication, and that at the end of the day, your career isn't worth sacrificing love and family.

I also preferred A Lot Like Love to About That Night, because Jordan was my favorite Rhodes twin, but I'm glad that I now know both sides of their story. Out of Julie James' seven novels (one that is being released on Tuesday!), I have now read five of them.

Next on the James list is Love Irresistibly, but first I want to finish A Well-Tempered Heart, Jan-Philipp Sendker's sequel to the exquisite The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Can't wait!

Book Review: About That Night

Rating: 4 out of 5

If you have ever watched "Law and Order" and thought to yourself, "You know what this needs? Sexiness to spice things up!" then this book is for you.

Author Julie James practiced law for several years before writing full-time, and each of her seven current novels revolves around the legal profession. Because she writes what she knows, her stories are credible--as well as fun.

It's her strong characters, suspenseful plots, and sexy scenes that keep me coming back for more. I've almost read her entire work, including Just the Sexiest Man Alive, Practice Makes Perfect, and Something About You.

About that Night is the third book in James' FBI / U.S. Attorney series (which started with Something About You). Due to an organizational mishap, I accidentally misplaced the second book A Lot Like Love, which didn't make my  2012 to-read list and clearly went into hiding for all of 2013! I didn't re-discover it until I finished its "sequel."

And while each book can stand alone, they contain recurring characters who are in some way connected to the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago. Something About You starred Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Lynde, who has since been promoted. In About that Night, Rylann Pierce is the assistant reporting to Cameron.

The story follows Rylann and her love interest Kyle Rhodes, who met while Rylann was in law school. Due to unforeseen circumstances, they are not reunited until nine years later--on opposite sides of the courtroom.

Kyle is a computer security expert and heir to billionaire Grey Rhodes who created the most popular antivirus software. After a betrayal by an ex, Kyle has an angry, drunken fit, hacking into her Twitter for revenge and then shutting the social network down. Now dubbed the "Twitter Terrorist," he faces charges for his white collar crime.

Rylann is given the assignment to prosecute Kyle, but what happens when she finds out that he's a witness to an even bigger scandal? And how will they deal with all their unresolved sexual tension from nine years ago, especially given their taboo relationship of prosecutor and defendant?

About that Night is an easy, light-hearted read that focuses less on criminal suspense and more on navigating a complicated relationship in the real world. Rylann is an admirable female lead, with a sensible head on her shoulders and an ambitious devotion to her career. More romance novels need characters like Rylann who look before they leap and won't drop everything for a man.

It will be interesting to go back and read A Lot Like Love, which stars Kyle's twin sister Jordan. I'll get a peek into Kyle's Twitter fiasco and learn about how Jordan began her relationship with undercover FBI agent Nick McCall.

All I know is that when it comes to romance, you can't go wrong with Julie James.

Book Review: Nerds Like It Hot

Rating: 2 out of 5

Hey everybody! I've finally got a break from traveling for a few days--that is, before I head back to my hometown to spend my birthday with family and friends. But I might have to blow out my candles wishing for a better read, since this last book was a disappointment.

I've been a fan of romance novelist Vicki Lewis Thompson for years now, having read six of the eight stand-alone novels in her Nerd series (Check out my reviews of My Nerdy Valentine and Gone With the Nerd).

In Nerds Like It Hot, Hollywood makeup artist Gillian McCormick witnesses a murder, and to avoid being eliminated by the mob, she goes into hiding on a cruise for single geeks.

By her side is former actress Cora Bledsoe, who makes Gillian over to be the spitting image of her friend Marilyn Monroe. And guarding Gillian are two private investigators, Dante Fiorello and Lex Manchester.

Despite being hunted down by the Mafia, Gillian and Lex manage to grow fond of each other. Unlike in other Thompson novels, their sexual tension builds extremely quickly, which eliminates the anticipation that makes romance novels successful.

Not to mention, their first love scene ends just as rapidly as it began! I'll just say that if there's one thing required of a male lead, it's stamina. Talk about frustrating!

What's also frustrating is the forced emotional obstacles that Gillian places on her relationship with Lex. First, for some reason she believes that no man would love her plain Jane brunette exterior after disguising herself as a Marilyn Monroe, blonde bombshell. Someone needs to inform this makeup artist that true beauty lies on the inside.

Also, she frequently harps on the fact that she's a Cancer and he's an Aries, as if that means anything. Any woman who throws a hissy fit over astrological incompatibility doesn't deserve the brain she was born with. Enough with the stupid pseudoscience!

Lastly, even though the dangerous criminal was unique and hilarious, the novel suffers from the too-easily-solved plot of the romance genre. I like knowing that there will always be a happy ending, but authors should try their best to make the suspense believable.

With the Nerd novels, I expect geeky, sexy fun. Unfortunately, the characters aren't nearly geeky enough (good grades does not a nerd make), the sex was often awkward, and any fun that occurred was only thanks to the secondary characters with little screen time.

Perhaps I'll appreciate this story more after watching the film, "Some Like It Hot" at my Old Hollywood-themed birthday party, as I'm sure Thompson threw more nods to Monroe than I was able to catch.

But for now, I just might be outgrowing the Nerd series. If anyone has better romance novel recommendations, let me know!

Book Review: My Nerdy Valentine

Rating: 3 out of 5

Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerd series is one of my favorites among romance novels. They're just as fluffy and predictable as other love stories, but instead of all the controlling vampires and the clueless victims who fall for them that you see in the genre, they depict hard-working, talented women and intellectually stimulating men. Of Thompson's seven stand-alone novels in this series, My Nerdy Valentine is the fifth that I've read (You can read my review of Gone with the Nerdhere.)

Unfortunately, My Nerdy Valentine was not as nerdy as I wanted it to be. Thompson's other books have featured introverted, fashion-inept electrical and software engineers, but stockbroker William Sloan's only perceivable nerdy traits were an embarrassing hat and a love for trivia. He wasn't portrayed as having a supermodel's body, but that's easy to dismiss since he's certainly not lacking in sexual abilities.

William's leading lady Amanda Rykowsky is an intern for a prominent sex therapist, so their "meet cute" occurs when Amanda runs into William after a sex toy shopping excursion, thus spilling her collection in the hall of their building. If this racy premise sounds intriguing, you'd be disappointed: although Amanda's job creates sexual tension throughout the novel, the two don't seal the deal until two-thirds of the way in. And not once do they actually use any of Amanda's "office supplies!" For a romance novel, talk about disappointing!

Thompson always inserts a mysterious antagonist into her stories, but this time, there's no mystery about it. In the weeks before Valentine's Day, Amanda starts getting creepy cards and voicemails from a secret valentine, so William offers to be her pretend boyfriend to protect her. Despite the cliche, what's more of a bummer is that the reader knows who the perpetrator is all along. I preferred the novels where Thompson at least attempts to make things suspenseful.

Overall, it's a decent escapist read for the V-Day season, but I'd recommend Nerd in Shining Armor and Nerd Gone Wild if you're interested in trying Thompson for the first time. I'd also appreciate any suggestions to other romance novels if you've got them!

Audiobook Review: Something About You

Rating: 4 out of 5

With all the traveling that I've been doing the past few weeks, I've been able to finish another audiobook. This one was called Something About You by Julie James. I've read James before, so I had no doubts that this would be a fun read.

The novel features the relationship between Cameron Lynde, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Chicago, and Jack Pallas, an FBI agent. The two met under tense circumstances, when Cameron was pressured to not press charges against a crime lord which Jack tried to take down.

Three years later, fate brings them together when Cameron witnesses a murder and Jack is assigned to the homicide case. Their icy dislike for one another soon melts into some electric sexual tension, especially when Cameron's life is at risk and Jack becomes her personal security.

James has a background in law and lives in Chicago, so all the legalese felt natural. With four other novels under her belt, she's quickly becoming a bestselling name in the world of romance. I also enjoyed Just the Sexiest Man Alive and Practice Makes Perfect, and her two other titles in her FBI/U.S. Attorney series on currently on my to-read list.

It was my first time listening to a romance novel, which was entirely different compared to the humorous memoirs of Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Chelsea Handler that I listened to earlier this year. Something About You is pretty steamy, so hearing the love scenes out loud amplified the experience.

A bad narrator can completely ruin an audiobook, but luckily Karen White did an excellent job given the circumstances. Although I would prefer a man to read male characters so that the dialogue sounds more realistic, I was engrossed nonetheless. Let's just say on one road trip I missed my exit because I was so engaged with the story.

So whether you're an amateur or veteran when it comes to romance novels, try listening to an audiobook version of one. The genre's already great for escapism, and Something About You is a fun, sexy read to get sucked into. Just make sure that if you're listening to it in your car, pay attention to the road!

2011 Book Review Catch-Up: Part 2

The new year is less than a week away, and I still have four books to review before I present my complete ratings list. So let's just jump right in, shall we? Today I wanted to review two romance novels: Gone with the Nerd by Vicki Lewis Thompson and The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan.

Gone with the Nerd (Rating: 4 out of 5)

I'm not a big reader of romance novels, especially not the embarrassing bodice-rippers with shirtless guys on the covers. But you haven't read Thompson's Nerd series, you're in for a real treat. Currently seven stand-alone novels, the series focuses on women attracted to geeky computer programmers and engineers instead of princes and vampires. Gone with the Nerd, published in 2005, follows the sexual tension between actress Zoe Tarleton and her attorney Flynn Granger. Determined to nab some more serious roles, Zoe travels to California's Bigfoot country so she can secretly rehearse her lines as a dowdy chemist. Flynn offers to go over lines with her, but what happens when their chemistry jumps off the pages? And what about all the mysterious accidents that keep occurring, including the poisoned food and killer bees? Granted, the plot's predictable and the dialogue's cheesy, but the love scenes are ultra-hot and Thompson always promises a happy ending. I also recommend Nerd in Shining Armor, Talk Nerdy to Me, and Nerd Gone Wild.

The Lover's Dictionary (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Calling this a romance novel is a bit misleading, but it's an excellent tale of love and loss. From the author famous for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and published earlier this year, it's a unconventional story showing the rise and fall of the narrator's relationship through word entries like a dictionary. Each letter of the alphabet can have multiple entries, which vary in length from a few pages to a single sentence. You never learn everything about their lives together, but you piece together their ups-and-downs all while learning new vocabulary! Written in a non-linear style, it's a refreshing take on the person-meets-person plot (it's even ungendered for universality). Beware, at only 224 pages, you'll finish this book in one sitting. So wish it could have been a longer read!

One of my favorite entries: autonomy, n. “I want my books to have their own shelves,” you said, and that’s how I knew it would be okay to live together.

So if you're interested in some good, not-old-fashioned love stories, check out these two. And be sure to read my final catch-up mini-review tomorrow!