Shana reviews Humbug by Amanda Radley

the cover of Humbug

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Humbug is a quiet Christmas novel with an age gap romance. I found it a relaxing and wholesome read, but it’s an unbalanced workplace romance. The book struggled to decide if it wanted to focus on the characters’ careers, or their love story.

Ellie is a brilliant statistician who is stuck in a dead end job at an HR recruitment firm. Everyone in her office knows that she loves Christmas because her desk looks like a Hallmark holiday movie year-round. So when her firm’s CEO, Rosalind, needs someone to organize an epic office Christmas party at the last minute, she taps Ellie to be her new executive assistant in a cushy penthouse office. There are just two problems. One, Ellie is terrified of heights and can barely stand to be in her new office without hyperventilating.  Two, Rosalind hates Christmas, and her last assistant canceled all the party plans. As they work together, mutual crushes abound! But since neither can imagine the other wanting them, we get a slow sweet burn with plenty of personal growth along the way. 

Rosalind is an intimidating, and exacting boss, and Ellie is initially a nervous wreck around her. But Rosalind is also a compassionate coworker, and a protective single mother, who appreciates Ellie’s talent. And Ellie is clearly talented. The woman engineers a winter wonderland from scratch, outside, during a London winter!

I loved watching Ellie rediscover her confidence through working with Rosalind. At the beginning of the book, Ellie has forgotten her worth and is grateful for any job after a period of unemployment. Slowly, Ellie learns that she’s been coasting along with an unfulfilling role, with roommates who take her for granted. I liked seeing Ellie find her happiness and I think this would be a great read for someone feeling stuck in their life or career. But I was left wishing that the end of the book had focused more on resolving Ellie’s career, and less on ramping on the romance. Still, if you love watching characters slowly figure out they like one another, and prefer your romances with no sex scenes, this may work for you. 

I appreciated that Rosalind was portrayed as both a nurturing person who adores her articulate queer daughter, and as a shrewd businesswoman. She’s powerful and sexy, without feeling unattainable. I don’t usually like ice queen romances OR boss/employee romances, but I loved both of those tropes in Humbug. I thought the power dynamics were smoothly addressed. While there’s several work scenes where Rosalind enjoys flustering a blushing Ellie, Rosalind is too ethical to act on her growing attraction to Ellie. And though there is an age gap, and the two women are clearly at different points in their lives, they both clearly respected one another. 

My favorite part of the story was Ellie’s unapologetic love of all things Christmas. It was intense, and adorable, and I loved that Ellie happily accepted other characters’ more  muted—or hostile—feelings about the holiday. This is a classic Christmas rom-com, with holiday cheer and a predictable storyline. I would vote for Humbug as my favorite Christmas novel of 2021.

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.

Nat reviews Thorn by Anna Burke

Thorn cover

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My recent infatuation with the Compass Rose series should have been all the warning I needed not to start an Anna Burke book just before bedtime. This dark, Grimm style and very gay retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” kept me reading well past midnight to get just “one more page!” Thorn, with its complex characters and their histories, goes so much further than just subbing in perpetually hungry wolves and a large ice bear for talking candles and singing teapots.

Burke does a great job with world building, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where you and our young protagonist, Rowan, have just been dropped. A very cold, very isolated place that one wouldn’t necessarily choose to live. Rowan’s father, a failed merchant turned aspiring fur trader, has had no choice but to flee the city with his three daughters and start a new life to escape his debts. While he’s not a villain by any means, he treats his children as commodities, and is preoccupied with returning to some status in society.

When we first meet Rowan, we see how different she is from her sisters. As the eldest, there’s a lot of pressure on her to take care of the family. It’s here we also find out that she’s betrothed to the neighbor’s son (let’s call him baby Gaston) and would very much prefer not to be. On top of it all, she absolutely hates living in this godforsaken, frozen little village. It doesn’t take long for us to get an idea that Rowan doesn’t love her homelife. 

The Huntress, our cruel and mysterious “beast”, is something of a legend and a myth for those living in the nearby village. But she and the curse that keeps her confined to the mountain are very real. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s there all the time within the boundaries of her land. Our beast has been condemned to a life of solitude, and the cold and loneliness in the story are very much intertwined. 

When a hunting party crosses the threshold of her lands and kills two of the Huntress’ wolf companions, Rowan’s father, one of the unfortunate trespassers, is spared by the Huntress only to commit the more serious crime of stealing a white rose. The Huntress doesn’t delay in retrieving her stolen property. Rose for a rose, thorn for a thorn. 

I enjoyed the vivid descriptions Burke offers, and I haven’t been that creeped out by a flower since watching The Ruins. We see a lot of interesting imagery with the rose throughout the book, and some particularly unnerving scenes where the flower winds its way from one person and into another. Burke also does a great job getting to the heart of the characters’ relationships in a relatively short period of time. We see Rowan fighting to resist a growing attraction to her captor, and a reluctance to admit that this new life is as free as she’s ever been. We also catch glimpses of the Huntress’s past, and how this literal ice queen came to be cursed and live in an enchanted castle with her pack of four legged Hounds. 

One of my favorite parts of this book, which made me laugh out loud, is an indulgent scene requiring the need for skin to skin contact for warmth — despite a perfectly serviceable hot spring in the basement of the castle. Thanks to Anna Burke for that fan service. 

As usual, Burke’s prose is strong, and it particularly shines in this book. You will feel the cold in your bones. You will smell the musty old castle and its musky animal inhabitants, and taste the venison stew. The main characters are well developed, and we get to see both of their perspectives throughout the book. The big romance tropes here are age gap, ice queen and enemies to lovers. There is of course an iconic library scene, and an “it doesn’t matter now, just let them come” scene right before the curse is broken. While the general promise of happily ever after is fulfilled by our star crossed lovers staying together, we also feel the angst and pain of other consequences. And with that, Burke leaves us with a bit of her book’s winter chill.

Mary Springer reviews Calendar Girl by Georgia Beers

Calendar Girl by Georgia Beers

Addison is a complete workaholic, and in trying in earnest to prove to her mother she can take over the company, she ends up pushing herself into a stomach ulcer and being rushed to the hospital. Her mother forces her to hire a personal assistant to try to make work easier. Katie Cooper is rapidly loosing her father to dementia and is in need of money to help her mother with the bills. But Addison resents having to let Katie into her space and do her work. Meanwhile, Katie is determined to do her job and get past Addison’s cold, detached demeanor.

As someone who is a type A personality herself, as well as who is a little too familiar with Katie’s struggles with her ailing father, this book had a lot to relate to. The author clearly had done her research, and I greatly appreciated that. These parts of the book jumped off the page and really helped engage me.

I enjoyed how Addison was honestly portrayed in a way that made sense for how her employees didn’t like her, but at the same time we could understand where she was coming from. In the first chapter she has to fire two employees for acting inappropriately in the office. I could understand why they would be upset, but also understand why Addison had to do it. Sometimes when authors try to create “ice queen” characters, they either go too far to try to make them mean, or do too much to make them understandable. The author here does a great job of finding a balance.

Katie Cooper was relatable in terms of her struggles with her father, and trying to find a job that was in her major. She was very sweet and kind, but was also willing to confront Addison and call her out on her mistakes. I liked that she was able to take control of her narrative.

The kiss and sex scenes were very steamy and fun. However, the romance between the two could have been a bit more organic. There were some scenes where I was definitely rooting for them, but then some where I couldn’t find the same energy for the narrative.

However, my main problem was in how the conflict was resolved. Throughout the novel it felt like Addison’s mother was the antagonist to her goals. I didn’t feel like that conflict was satisfyingly dealt with. At the end I was left crying out, “But what about that? Aren’t we going to confront that person?” This also meant that Addison’s whole narrative felt unsatisfying. I like to feel triumphant at the end of a story through the character’s arcs. Addison does have character development, but she doesn’t seem to receive much reward for it.

Overall, this was a fun romance I would recommend to someone looking for a light and quick read.

Mallory Lass reviews Lily and the Crown by Roslyn Sinclair

I couldn’t find a way to write this review without spoilers, so you may want to proceed with caution if that’s a deal breaker. Also, this book wasn’t my jam. Despite featuring one of my favorite tropes (age-gap), being a space opera, and lots of people singing its praises, I couldn’t get into it. Lily and the Crown developed from a Devil Wears Prada AU fanfiction, so that was also part of the intrigue for me.

Lady Ariana “Ari” Geiker is a 20 year old botany prodigy who has turned her quarters into a botanical garden. She is the daughter of Lord Geiker, stationmaster on Nahtal which affords her certain excesses and freedoms. When we first meet her, she is presented as a workaholic with reclusive tendencies. To her surprise, her father sends her a woman slave (captured in a recent pirate raid), who he hopes will keep her company and make sure she eats regularly. Ari can’t bear the thought of having a slave, so she forces the woman to choose a name. “Assistant” is settled on. Assistant is a captured and interrogated pirate slave in her 50’s. Or is she? I think the reader is meant to be in on the fact that she isn’t who she claims to be. She is actually Mír, the ruthless marauding pirate leader.

The setup of this story irked me from the beginning and here is why:

First:

The whole story is premised on the fact that this universe has slaves. The only way Assistant finds her way into Ari’s life is through this ruse of her being a pirate slave turned spoil of war. The fact that there are slaves with no real explanation of why that is a part of this space society bothered me. No one is nice to them except Ari. We didn’t get an explanation as to why there are slaves until 2/3rds through the book, and it wasn’t satisfying:

“Slaves were ordinary people. They came from everywhere—children whose parents sold them out of poverty, people captured during war or raids, people who had gone too deeply into debt and had only themselves left to sell for repayment.“

If slaves were ordinary people, and thus anyone was at risk of becoming a slave, you would think they would be shown more humanity. It just didn’t jive, and I think another plot device could have been used to set this story up. If slavery is going to be worked into the backdrop of a universe, I expect some larger social commentary than “slavery is bad and we should try to abolish it” (which is Ari’s, and ultimately Mír’s position). It’s not enough.

Second:

The reader knows Assistant is not who she says she is, so the entire book is a lead up for that revelation to finally, finally, come to Ari. I just didn’t find the lead up all that engaging. In fact, the last 5th of the book–when that reckoning finally happens–is the best part, and I think if it would have come much earlier, I would have been more engrossed. I am certainly more interested in what happened between the end of the book and the epilogue than I was with what happened between their first meeting and the reveal.

Now, about why it took so long. Sinclair spends a lot of time really hammering home that Ari is just missing the boat. Ari repeatedly brings up that the people around her think she is weird. I was trying to figure out if her social miscues were because she was on the autism spectrum, but in the end, I think she was just sheltered. Her mom died early in her life, and her dad was too occupied with his role as military strategist and consumed with his grief over his wife’s death to raise Ari with any semblance of a normal upbringing. This makes her socially awkward, sheltered and extremely naive.

So while we are waiting for the reveal, Assistant sets out to seduce Ari. I think in part because she is intrigued by her oddities, her enthusiasm for plants, and her obvious intelligence. But I also think coming from the life she did, leader of a massive rebellion, she was bored. As was I. Seduction quickly turned to sex, but I didn’t like how Ari losing her virginity transpired. Assistant pounced on her in the middle of the night after telling her a violent bedtime story that clearly unsettled Ari. Ari’s body certainly responds to Assistant, and she comes willingly. I still feel a little icky about her emotional/mental state before and after. The power dynamic for me is out of whack. Assistant holds all the cards in their intimate relationship, never letting Ari pleasure her. After their first time, they are consumed with each other. Assistant, with taking Ari as often and in every space in their quarters she can, and Ari, with the first person she has ever truly felt cared for her, and who she feels she is caring for in turn by keeping her out of the traditional slave life. She even comes to the conclusion Assistant feels obligated to have sex with her because of her role.

The bulk of the sex between Ari and Assistant was missing all the wonderful negotiation that usually comes with age-gap relationships. It isn’t until the reveal that Ari gets on nearly equal footing with Mír, and then they really shine together. Ari exploring Mír’s body for the first time was a wonderfully written scene. I just wish it came earlier and served as the start of the second half of the book. Ultimately, we discover Ari sets Mír off balance, and that scares the crap out of her. It’s also an exploitable weakness in war.

Despite the deception, once Ari reconciles Assistant and Mír as one in the same in her mind, she still needs something Mír may not be able to give: her love.

Will these two find a way to put their complicated and tangled pasts behind them and find a way to move forward? Will Mír succeed in taking over the Empire? Will Ari stand by her side or go back to her plants? Can they find a middle ground?

Sinclair’s writing is good, and despite not jiving with this story, I would pick up something else she’s written.