New romances include a story about young love rekindled, a second chance at love for a Wallflower’s daughter, and hijinks from a honey badger shifter.
The Girl He Used to Know
By Tracey Garvis Graves
St. Martin. 273 pp. $26.99.
The Girl He Used to Know is an uplifting novel about a love lost and found again. It opens with Annika running into her old boyfriend Jonathan in Chicago. The awkward encounter ends with her impulsively asking him whether he wants to get together sometime and getting his number. She vows to herself that she will call him, that she will apologize, that she will ask him whether they can start over.
The book then flashes back to her days as a college freshman, when she met Jonathan at a chess club meeting. We find out Annika had a hard time adjusting to life on campus. Socially awkward, she was isolated and lonely, but she was good at chess and was persuaded to join the club. Jonathan joined the club later and was drawn to the pretty but shy girl. With gentle persistence, he began a friendship with Annika.
Switching back and forth between Annika’s viewpoint and Jonathan’s, between their time as students and as adults, the story of their relationship unfolds. We come to realize the endearingly quirky Annika is a high-functioning autistic person, that judging social cues and communication will always be hard for her.
As their young relationship progressed to love, and as their adult relationship warms up again, we see how Annika has matured over the years and become more confident and capable of navigating daily life on her own. What the crisis was that led to their breakup 10 years earlier remains a mystery for much of the book.
We root for Annika as she pushes herself to fight for Jonathan’s love again, to find a way to let him know how much he still means to her. We want Jonathan to realize he has never stopped loving Annika. But a shocking development will test their rekindled love. The climax of the book had me riveted.
The Girl He Used to Know may draw comparisons to last year’s witty, sexy debut by Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient. That book’s female lead is also autistic.
Devil’s Daughter: The Ravenels Meet the Wallflowers
By Lisa Kleypas
Avon. 384 pp. $7.99.
With Devil’s Daughter: The Ravenels Meet the Wallflowers, Lisa Kleypas continues the long-running historical romance series that began with Secrets of a Summer Night, originally published in 2004. In that novel, we are introduced to the Wallflowers, four women who are tired of being overlooked by suitors and who make a pact to become friends and help one another find husbands.
In Devil’s Daughter, we are introduced to Phoebe, Lady Clare, a young widow with two sons. (Phoebe is the daughter of Evangeline, one of the Wallflowers, and Sebastian; their romance is the subject of The Devil in Winter, the 2006 novel that is the third installment of this series.) Phoebe is preparing to travel to attend her brother Gabriel’s wedding to Pandora Ravenel (whose story appears in the 2017 novel Devil in Spring). Unfortunately, the wedding means she will probably have to meet Pandora’s cousin West Ravenel, who had bullied Phoebe’s late husband, Henry, when they were at boarding school as children.
Upon arriving at the Ravenel’s estate, Phoebe goes after her wandering son, and they meet a man who is directing the bustling servants. She is struck by his good looks and the vitality that is such a contrast to her late husband.
There is an instant attraction between Phoebe and the man, who speaks kindly to her young son. She is shocked when he introduces himself as West Ravenel.
During her stay for the wedding celebration, Phoebe tries to keep her distance from West, but they are constantly thrown together, and she eventually warms to him, realizing he is no longer that childish bully and may be someone she wants to know better.
West realizes Phoebe is trying to be aloof, but he is drawn to the beautiful young widow. He thinks he should not pursue a relationship — he has a disgraceful past as a young rake and is a younger son with no estate of his own.
Kleypas is a master at conveying the aching want and emotional turmoil between two people who are fighting their attraction. West believes his unsavory past makes him undeserving of someone like Phoebe. She, in turn, doesn’t want to dishonor the memory of her late husband.
Devil’s Daughter can be read as a standalone, but the reader’s enjoyment is richer if the supporting characters are recognized. (At least do yourself a favor and read the outstanding Wallflowers series.)
In a Badger Way
By Shelly Laurenston
Kensington. 400 pp. $15.95.
Shelly Laurenston is the author of a long-running series of hilarious books about shape-shifters. (She also writes about dragon-shifters as G.A. Aiken.) Laurenston is known for her off-the-wall characters who can shift into lions, wolves, bears, etc. In a Badger Way is Book Two of the Honey Badger Chronicles about the three MacKilligan sisters — beautiful, smart, and crazy-lethal.
Stevie is a genius. Ever since she was a child and her prodigious intellect became known, she has been sought after by governments, underworld figures, and assassins. Her older sisters Charlie and Max have been keeping her protected — and soothed — all her life. Despite all her talents, Stevie battles crippling anxiety and panic attacks. And when Stevie gets into a full-blown attack, she can’t control her shifting or the dangerous hybrid creature she becomes.
Stevie’s young friend Kyle is staying with the sisters for a while to give his jackal family a break from the obnoxious teen. With him is Shen Li, a panda-shifter and Kyle’s bodyguard.
With all the craziness going on at the sisters’ house, Shen is a laid-back source of calm. He is content to live in the moment, maybe while enjoying some bamboo snacks. Stevie is drawn to his confident serenity and decides the handsome shifter will be her boyfriend, much to Shen’s surprise and confusion. But whenever she smiles at him, he feels a zing.
Stevie is drawn into a dangerous investigation of a lion scientist she used to date; he is suspected of conducting lethal experiments on hybrid shifters. She agrees to help but is also curious to know whether he has figured out a way to change hybrids, to “fix them.” Stevie is acutely aware that she is only a panic attack away from being a danger to others and is ashamed of her lack of control.
For all the joyful zaniness of her characters, Laurenston can also cover some heavy topics amid the hilarity and action. Mental health issues are addressed as Stevie works toward self-acceptance with the love and support of her sisters and Shen.