Kulti by Mariana Zapata

5 stars when I read it for the first time in March of 2015. 5 stars today.

The truth is most great things are worth work. And that’s why I love Zapata. Her characters make you work for it. There’s no random sex. No steamy teasy scenes. Kulti is an asshole. Sal is a tomboy with a temper. This isn’t a cutesy book. And the payoff is so totally worth it.

I don’t use the phrase “reading slump.” I’m superstitious about it. But I will say I read parts of 4 books yesterday – including reading nearly half a book. 3 of them pissed me off. The 4th book I’m still reading, but it doesn’t deserve my shitty attitude. I am not a rereader. I find that I enjoy the anticipation of what’s coming next a lot. And knowing what’s coming usually deadens the thrill. But when I couldn’t find a book I didn’t hate I thought I’d give Kulti a second read. I was nervous. I have read this book one time, and it made the short list of favorites. I was worried a second reading would expose some cracks (as recently happened with The Hating Game.) I shouldn’t have bothered worrying. Sal and Kulti were better this time around. I knew what to expect with from his psycho-ass. And my respect for Sal is just through the roof. She is truly the romantic heroine to whom I most relate (along with Elizabeth Bennett.)

From 70% on I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. This remains one of my favorite books of all time – with a hero and heroine who own me. I’ve read about 900 books since I first read Kulti. A few of them compare – none of them outshine.

Fall By Kristen Callihan

It felt like Kristen Callihan wanted to write a book about depression so she made it happen. Jax has been a big, important and interesting character in the earlier books in this series. He deserved an organic relationship that flowed from who he was rather than a stilted romance that most heavily starred his depression.
It is admirable to write about characters that have depression or anxiety or don’t like crowds (Ahem, Min. In The Duchess War). Multi-faceted heroes and heroines are the best to read. And I want to be challenged. I want to read romance that isn’t rote or formulaic. I want my characters to address their problems and find strength together.
Jax and Stella simply didn’t have a real connection. I didn’t like either one of them – they were mostly a bundle of issues reacting rather than acting. From their silly meeting to their constant running into one another to every minute spent analyzing their shaky relationship to death – this didn’t feel like two people overcoming stumbling-blocks on their way to love. Rather it felt like a book about depression where an obligatory romance was inserted.

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Let’s say you work at a largish small company. Like 80 employees. And in a different division is a woman named Samantha. You bump into her in the office kitchen a couple of times as she’s making her Earl Gray. She wears cute tights. You like her bangs. You begin to look out for her – maybe see if she wants to walk to the coffee shop together. Start eating your lunches together while you talk about your favorite podcasts. This goes on for a few months. You don’t see Samantha outside of work. You don’t even have her cell phone number. One day at lunch Samantha tells you she’s met a guy – let’s call him Ed. She went to a house party last weekend and met a friend of a friend. She thinks it might be something. He’s got a schnauzer and wears suspenders.

And now you and Samantha are having lunch together most days of the week. And she’s telling you that he didn’t text her the night before. The next day she’s beaming over the flowers that showed up at the front desk with a card from him. A month later Samantha tells you she and Ed had a huge fight because he got nervous at dinner with her brother, drank too much, and threw up all over her Honda Accord. He’d embarrassed her, but you could understand his nerves over meeting her family. He likes her and wanted to make a good impression. You’ve never met Ed, but you like Samantha. And you know that Ed is a good guy. When Samantha comes back from a ski vacation the following Christmas wearing an engagement ring you gasp in delight and hug her in the break room.

That’s what this book was like for me. Celebrating the ups and downs of love with two sweet people who felt real. They had obstacles. They had fears and doubts. They had a realistic love that I relished watching flourish. There was some drama – all of it perfectly in keeping with the sensible vibe of the book and the characters. But what drove this story was the two wonderful, kind, flustered people coming together as they were intended. The world loves a love story – particularly one where the characters (even one that’s a Duke) feel like folks that could be sitting next to you eating egg salad while telling you about a little weekend away they’d just taken.

5 happy stars.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

***Updated review October 31, 2018***
This weekend Sam suggested that I try Scribd. I figured I’d do the 30 day trial and see how much reading it brought me. I am not a book-listener so I wasn’t anticipating using that Scribd service. Fast forward to Monday afternoon when I’m diagnosed with the flu. Burning up with fever. Muscles aching. Randomly dozing off at every opportunity. Both the ARC and the amazing Duran I’m reading felt like too much – for very different reasons. I looked for The Hating Game on Scribd and saw it was only there as an audiobook. What the heck? I couldn’t be any more miserable, and I was desperate for one of my favorite books of all time.
It turns out listening to The Hating Game was exactly what I needed. Oh, I’m still sick and miserable. But the time goes by faster when an incredible book is read aloud.
I’m not sure that I’ll read or listen to this book again though. It has a magic to it. But I fear that it’s a shiny veneer that would rub off upon too close an inspection. I want this book to remain the unspoiled confection that it is. So today I bid a fond adieu and say a sweet thank you to this wonderful, funny, touching, kind, and happy book.

***Original Review August 31, 2016***
Take the stars. All of them. Load them up in a wheelbarrow or cargo plane or semi-truck. Take them all! I got to the bottom of page 4 and fell so hard – I was like that skydiver with no parachute.

Honestly, I’m going to revisit this review in a month. I have to know if these feelings subside. I love this book like you’d love a person. A tiny fireball person. Or a big hulking psycho in a robin’s egg blue shirt.

I think this is the best romance I’ve ever read. I’m not sure how to get over it. It’s like someone broke up with me. I want to sip tea in the window seat while rain streams down and Radiohead plays in the background.

I want to travel back in time to a moment I haven’t read this so I can read it for the first time. Better yet – I want to curl up into a tiny ball and drop into these pages – never to be seen again.

Clever. Well-written. Light with a surprising depth. These little sentences that made me stop and grin. Vivid colors and bright funny images. A sweet funny woman and a very bottled-up man in an engaging private war with immense repercussions.

Anyone But You by Jennifer Crusie

Read during a breather in the Duran binge. It was cute, and I didn’t want cute. Mostly I wanted Duran. But it’s hard to read one incredible emotional book after another without one of them suffering because of my overload.

It only took a few hours to read this, and it was fun. Easy. But nothing was engaged. And at times I was frustrated and impatient with the characters and their hang-ups. Still, so-so Crusie isn’t bad stuff.

Now back to the Duran…

The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran

As we’ve talked about before – angst is such a personal thing. Generally, particularly in contemporary romance, I avoid it. (Suanne being my notable exception). I find that angst is frequently created by the plot. A lazy author device where horrible incident after incident is thrown at the characters. Their reactions aren’t explained beyond “x just happened so of course this is the reaction.” But we don’t all react the same to stress.

So when an author is spoon-feeding me her character’s reactions with no emotional context I’m resentful and bored. Meredith Duran avoided all of this. There were difficult and harsh events in the story, but they weren’t the center of the upheaval. My feelings – sadness and stress and worry and and love for the characters – came from the characters themselves. Julian and Emma were the strength of the story – its bedrock. Organic sentiments were stirred by them – not by the crap happening to them. It’s a difficult distinction. It involves an author doing work – making characters that I will love and with whom I will connect rather than writing cringe-worthy high-drama that belongs in a soap opera.

I suspect I’ve found something magical in Duran – a truly special author. I’m anticipating reading everything she’s written.

Faking It by Jennifer Crusie

This was not truly truly a 5 star read. But it’s my prerogative – and next year or in 3 years I’ll look back and remember this idiotic book that had me smiling throughout.

It’s charming bc it’s the story of two grifters falling in love. With terrible sex. And lies. And the most insane family I’ve read outside an Irving novel. Tilda and Davy were offbeat and bizarre and real. Rather than a book where a character has a quirk or imperfection this was a story where the characters were quirks and imperfections.

Matilda. Louise. Nadine. Ethan. Gwennie. Ford. Rabbit. Clea. Mason. Andrew. Eve. Jeff. Michael. Davy. And Sophie. Plus a visit from the Mayor! I am going to miss you guys so much. There was nothing normal about this book, and i couldn’t be happier about that.