Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #2)

35564582New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.

Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice, and his attraction to her, but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.

Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?

Review:

Disclaimer off the bat: I’m not the biggest contemporary romance person and I wasn’t able to finish the previous book in the series, A Princess in Theory.  The entitled prince buying people off wasn’t quite my thing.  I still picked up this book, though, because I wanted to see what #swordbae was all about.

The good:

  • All kinds of rep here, including a black woman and bi-racial guy in an interracial relationship, and ADHD.  There’s also representation for someone who is giving up alcohol because they want to, damn it, and someone who is not interested in marriage.  Own voice reviewers on Goodreads have given the ADHD rep particular praise, which makes me happy.
  • There’s careful, considered handling of issues all around.  For example, this is an off comment:

    “There are already stories circulating that Johan and I are sharing you, which would be fine if any of us were into that, but that’s not the healthy setup being spread around.”

  • I like that Cole uses totally believable but not real company names.  SuperLift (ride sharing) and InstaPhoto (social media) for the win.
  • Mini flipped trope – she buys him clothes. Yea!

Duke by DefaultThe not-so-good:

  • It took me a while to get into the story, and I didn’t feel fully connected until the halfway point or so.

I can’t think of any other big negatives, just that contemporaries are not my usual so while I liked this book well enough it didn’t immediately become a favorite.

All that being said I am on board with the next book, which will feature a playboy prince with a heart of gold.  He pops into this story for a bit and I got some Devil in Winter vibes – sold.  Also looking forward to the next historical Cole writes, as those are exactly my thing!

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Counterpoint by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #2)

39675785Twisted Wishes lead guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder—the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Review:

I absolutely loved the first book in the series, Syncopation, and this one is just as awesome.

The good:

  • Rep! Pansexual main character, gay main character, main character with anxiety and panic attacks, m/m relationship.  And written by a non-binary author, huzzah!
  • Adrian is a Dominant but not an asshole.  He checks in with Dominic constantly for consent and can be downright deferential at work.  He reminded me of this tweet – they do exist!

  • Being penetrated is separated from being the sub (yea!), and Adrian goes to pains to point out that BDSM may be therapeutic but it does not equal sessions with a qualified professional.  Common sense but so many romances overlook it.
  • The D/s is without humiliation or pain, but with bondage – a rare combo.Counterpoint
  • While a whole lot of stuff goes down there’s no stereotypical Big Misunderstanding because – get this – the characters are grown ass adults and talk with each other.  I know, crazy concept!
  • Zabo takes a trope I don’t like (Big Secret) and makes me appreciate it, no small feat.
  • They also write inner conflict like woah.  We saw shades in the the last book but not like this.
  • The themes resonate with me – found family, the value of doing something you love, the idea that a partner should make you more… you.

The not-as-good:

  • Zavier turned into a golden boy since the last book, losing his flaws. It’s weird considering the rest of the characterization is so good.
  • The story technically stands alone but you’re going to want to read Syncopation first.

I like this romance almost as much as the previous in the series, which is amazing considering it’s based on a trope I don’t care for.  I read it cover to cover in a day and cannot wait for the next volume.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Stripped by Zoey Castile (Happy Endings #1)

33009919The day Robyn Flores meets Zac Fallon is one of those days. You know, when you’re already late for work. Mostly because you haven’t really slept since your best friend abandoned you for her fiancé and her exponentially better life. The kind of day you drag yourself to the cleaners to pick up your laundry, only to discover you’ve got the wrong bag—Star Spangled sequined thong, anyone? So Robyn is definitely not ready for the ridiculously gorgeous guy at her front door, except that they have each other’s clothes. But then, is any woman ever ready to meet the love of her life?

Review:

Trigger warnings for incidental drug use and likely depression.

If you’re looking for a rom-com movie of a romance novel this may be just the thing.  Robyn is a 5th grade teacher that falls for her neighbor Fallon after a meet cute over a star spangled, sequined thong.  Imagine her surprise when a bunch of strippers arrive at her friend’s bachelorette party and he is one of them.

The good:

  • The whole story is basically Magic Mike fanfic, which I’m sure will delight many!
  • While some heavy things are touched on the funny scenes keep the book light overall.  Loving and gentle pranks played by supporting characters, odd and comical situations the hero and heroine find themselves in… I found myself laughing in parts.
  • Fallon is an all-around great guy and extremely lovable.  He’s sweet without being saccharine, muscled but not boneheaded, and is good to his family even though some of his family hasn’t always been good to him.
  • Castile takes on some big themes.  How do you do what’s right for you, despite inertia and expectations?  What does it mean when you grow apart from a friend you have a long history with?
  • The heroine is own voices Latinx representation, and other diverse characters are shown as themselves without it being pointed out to as unusual or notable.  Some where I saw this called “casual diversity,” and that may be the name I go with until I find something better. Here’s an example in some texting:

    Me [Fallon]: See you at the gym?
    Ricky: Nah, I have a date.
    Me: The girl or the guy?

The not-as-good:

  • This is a first novel and it shows in the writing. Thanks to Adriana at Boricua Reads for pointing out this isn’t a first novel, but the first novel under this pen name. As Zoraida Córdova she’s written a bunch of YA and NA books, so I guess this is her name for adult contemporary romance? Still, the writing isn’t as strong as I would like, and there are awkward bits and others that just don’t work. For example,

    ..a DJ puts on his big headphones and taps on the mic.
    “Too, two, and to, mic check.”

    That is a visual gag.  I don’t know how anyone could grok that immediately without seeing it, especially after a drink or two, as Robyn had. Characters use hashtags in their internal monologues, which got to me too.  Have you ever thought “#Bless”?

  • StrippedThe first novel-ness less than stellar writing also shows in the plotting.  It’s loosey goosey in parts and while not awful, it was more than I could overlook.  Insta-lust from both the hero and heroine doesn’t help, either.
  • Robyn is showing signs and symptoms of depression but no one brings it up in a meaningful way.  At one point Fallon says “Sounds like you were depressed” but she waves it off and nothing more is said.  I wanted one character, like the best friend that’s covering for her lateness at work, or her boss to say, ‘Hey, it sounds like you’re going through a tough time, have you thought about talking with someone?’  I also didn’t like that a few nights with Fallon cured her sleep problems, made her on time to everything, and lifted her mood.  ‘All I needed was a good bang – I’m cured!’ is a road I don’t want to go down.

If the Magic Mike-esque premise of Stripped is in your romance catnip I’m sure you’ll overlook my quibbles and love it.  I’m not the biggest contemporary person so I didn’t outright love it but I’m curious to read the upcoming book, Hired, and see how Castile grows as a writer.  An okay first effort.

Ice Queen by Joey W. Hill (Nature of Desire #3)

18802544Due to a computer error, Marguerite lacks the mentoring program stipulation required of all Zone Doms, which includes spending a number of hours learning about BDSM from the submissive’s perspective. Tyler considers it an act of fate that Marguerite chooses him to be the Dom who helps her fulfill that requirement. He is convinced she is a “switch”, a closet submissive, but the truth will be even more remarkable than the theory, changing their lives in ways neither of them anticipates.

Having no equal except one another in their skills at stripping a sub’s defenses bare, these two Dominants will turn their considerable talents on each other and discover that who is Master and who is slave doesn’t matter, not when two souls have found their mate.

Review:

Trigger warnings for descriptions of abuse, including that of a child, and dubious consent.

In general I love Hill’s work but this book bothers me a ton, for reasons that can be illustrated in one scene. Background: Marguerite, a highly regarded Domme, needs to undergo sub experience training in order to keep her credentials at the club. She sets up a weekend with Tyler to complete it. She sets ground rules – no kissing, no sex (though they never clarified beyond that, which strikes me as odd), and no asking about her scars.

Tyler doesn’t hold much regard for her ground rules, kissing and performing oral sex early on. But in preparation for a sensory deprivation scene he sees cigarette burns on her back and continues, regardless. He keeps attributing her anxiety, reluctance, and defense mechanisms to the Dom/sub dynamic, that she needs to learn how to trust. Not, you know, the fact that she was very likely abused in her past and she’s being tied up, effectively gagged, and has no way to give a safe word or signal.

“How do I tell you if something is wrong, if I need to stop?”

“I’ll be watching you very closely.” Tyler knew a safe word or gesture would do her no good at this juncture because everything was panicking her.

I may have felt some extra sympathy because the situation she’s in would likely give me a panic attack, but not having a safe word because that’s somehow ‘better’, against the sub’s wishes? Oh hell no.

And to add more nope-age, the text needs editing^ , there’s careless confusion and appropriation of Japanese and other Asian cultures, and near the end there’s a literal tea party of plot moppets with Very Deep Things being said at a gathering for seven-year-olds. Considering the next book is a continuation of this one I may be out of the series, which is a shame as Natural Law, #2 in the series, is so good. Sigh. Oh well.


^ One example: “…drew her attention to a shallow square tub filled with steaming water about three feet deep.” Shallow for a pool, maybe, but not for a bathroom.

How to Bang a Billionaire by Alexis Hall (Arden St. Ives #1)

31445002If England had yearbooks, I’d probably be “Arden St. Ives: Man Least Likely to Set the World on Fire.” So far, I haven’t. I’ve no idea what I’m doing at Oxford, no idea what I’m going to do next and, until a week ago, I had no idea who Caspian Hart was. Turns out, he’s brilliant, beautiful . . . oh yeah, and a billionaire.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by someone like that. But Caspian Hart makes his own rules. And he has a lot of them. About when I can be with him. What I can do with him. And when he’ll be through with me.

I’m good at doing what I’m told in the bedroom. The rest of the time, not so much. And now that Caspian’s shown me glimpses of the man behind the billionaire I know it’s him I want. Not his wealth, not his status. Him. Except that might be the one thing he doesn’t have the power to give me.

Review:

This is the second Hall book I’ve read and man, I like the way he writes romance.  The characters are well-formed, situations and feelings ring true, and any silly or crazy is enjoyed in the spirit it’s given.  I read How to Bang a Billionaire in a day during a readathon and put it down happy, excited to read the next book in the series.

Then I looked at the reviews.

It turns out it’s a retelling of Fifty Shades!  I have stayed away from any and all Gray so I had no idea.

I’m happy to report it’s an improvement of a retelling – gay as hell, written by a bi author, and not problematic (as far as I can see).  But learning the Fifty Shades connection was like a dunk in ice water – I needed to towel off and reevaluate.

The verdict:  I’m glad I read Hall’s retelling instead of the real thing.  I still want to see how these two get to an HEA, and I’m excited to keep digging into Hall’s backlist.

The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert (Dirty British Romance #1)

40785611Prince Ruben of Helgmøre knows exactly what he wants—and his current obsession is Cherry Neita. Everything from her rollercoaster curves to her fearsome attitude commands his attention. And best of all? She has no idea who Ruben is.

Until the paparazzi catch them in a dark alley, her scarlet lipstick smudged, and his hands somewhere naughty…

All Cherry wanted was a night or two with the hottest man she’d ever seen. Turns out, that man is actually a prince, and now he needs her to play princess. Well, princess-to-be. One year as his fake fiancée, and he’ll make all her problems disappear. Easy. Right?

Wrong.

Review:

Trigger warning for child abuse and domestic abuse as well as some racist remarks.

At one point I was reading five books, none of them romance. (I don’t know how it happened, either.)  So as soon as I finished one I dove into my digital to-be-read pile and came up with The Princess Trap.

The last Hibbert book I tried to read opens with scenes of abuse and I had to put it down.  I’m okay with mentions, especially when they’re of past events, but extended scenes told in the present tense are hard for me to read.  Luckily the opening of this book is fine – heroine working at a job she doesn’t care for meets a “hidden royalty” hero, sparks fly, etc.  Being discovered in a compromising pose leads to an engagement of convenience, jetting to an island kingdom, and some steamy scenes as they fall in love.

So lots of good stuff.  The author is a woman of color, the relationship is interracial, the hero is bisexual, and side characters indentify as LGBTQIA+ in slick, ‘this is totally normal’ ways.

She’d never brought a boy home.  Her sister had never brought a girl home.  They had no point of reference for [how their parents would react].

Love it.

the-princess-trap.jpgFurther on in the book, though, we flashback to child abuse (present tense), domestic violence is insinuated, and we see the aftereffects of more child abuse to a different character.  As a result I struggled.  I love that the author has hotline numbers and encouraging words in the acknowledgements, and the whole situation is handled incredibly well, but still.  I had a hard time getting through.

The only other thing that bothered me was the hero’s convenient BDSM-lite.  It allowed him to show an alpha side early on and hint at delicious wickedness, but it wasn’t revisited after the first sex scene.

Despite the personal minuses I still started and finished The Princess Trap within 24 hours, so… ~shrug~.  I learned my lesson though – I’ll be checking reviews for trigger warnings before I pick up another book by this author, as much as I like her work.

Butabuta’s Bookstore by Arimi Yazaki (Butabuta #19)

40647997While I was in the middle of Doctor Butabuta I bought this book, #19 in the long-running series.  Here our stuffed pig of a protagonist is the owner of a bookshop – huzzah for bookish stuff in novels!  He’s even surrounded by previous installments of his own series on the cover.

There is some publishing talk and handselling to customers but most of the action revolves around a community radio show.  Every week a listener writes in with their real life worries and Butabuta recommends a book to help them through their problems, a la The Novel Cure.

Overall I found the four short stories that make up this volume to be quite uneven.  While it has my favorite Butabuta story so far, about a student who is having difficulty transitioning to university life, it also has two stories I struggled to get through.  One follows an angsty teenager (ugh) and the other is an oversimplified look at the hikikomori phenomenon.  The ending makes light of what can be a symptom of a serious psychiatric disorder – not cool.

Getting back to the series as a whole, in each book Butabuta leads a different life so I expected massive changes, but I’m still surprised that he’s married in this installment.  Both his wife and daughter are human even though he’s a living stuffed pig… I don’t get it, either.  One character shared my confusion but frustratingly the question was left to lie.

Enough negatives – there are props to be given, too.  I love that the radio show recommends and reads excerpts from actual books.  One is even an English book in translation, much appreciated, and Yazaki touches on the reasons for her selections in the afterward.

With a bookish theme I had high hopes but Butabuta’s Bookstore fell a bit flat for me.  I’ll continue on with the series, but maybe not right away – an entire world of Japanese language literature awaits!

Glutton for Pleasure by Alisha Rai

22929829Devi Malik knows how to heat things up. She does it every night as head chef in her family’s Indian restaurant. Her love life, though, is stuck in the subzero freezer. Now, with a chance to fulfill a secret fantasy with her crush and his brother, it’s time to put her desire on the front two burners.

For Marcus Callahan, a love-’em-and-leave-’em attitude isn’t only a necessary evil of their kink. It’s a protective device. Jace’s dissatisfaction with their lifestyle grows with every glimpse of sweet little Devi.

Despite their reputation for vanishing with the dawn, they discover one night with Devi isn’t nearly enough. And Devi finds herself falling in love with two very different men.

Review:

I love Rai when she’s in erotica mode and that’s what we have here.  Glutton for Pleasure is her first novel and I’m happy to say it holds up quite well.

The good:

  • An Indian-American heroine written by an Indian-American author – huzzah own voices!
  • Rai doesn’t take herself too seriously, as you can tell from the opening lines:
    20180725_210500.jpg
    Bwahaha.
  • Devi is bothered by her weight but grows more comfortable in her body over the course of the novel.
  • Marcus and Jace may be identical twins but you would never confuse them on the page.  Their physical differences are even explained with a real medical syndrome, which I appreciate.Glutton for Pleasure
  • After the train wreck of Colters’ Woman I’m wary of siblings that enter a poly relationship but Marcus and Jace have their reasons.  I may not fully be on board but it does work, especially with the suggestion that Devi throws out near the end.
  • Even in her first full-length work we can see that Rai loves complicated and fraught family relationships.  Devi is one of three sisters and ooo boy, they have some history.
  • I would be remiss if I did not mention the smoking hot sex scenes. ~fans herself~

The not-so-good:

  • It reads like a first novel, lacking Rai’s current level of polish and cohesiveness.  It needs a little something – a subplot, more chances to develop the relationship outside of the bedroom… something.

A solid read overall but not the ideal starting place for Rai’s work – if you like family angst in your romance pick up Hate to Want You, and if you want something steamy go for Play With Me.

Over Tumbled Graves by Jess Walter (Caroline Mabry #1)

18918083Spokane, Washington: a bustling city split by hurtling white-water falls. During a routine drug bust, Detective Caroline Mabry finds herself on a narrow bridge over the falls, face-to-face with a brutal murderer named Lenny Ryan. Within hours, the body of a young prostitute is found nearby, dumped along the riverbank. Then another. And another. Soon Caroline and her cynical mentor Alan Dupree are thrown headlong into the search for a serial murderer police have nicknamed the Southbank Strangler. But while Caroline hunts a killer, he may also be hunting her.

Review:

This is the perfect book for someone that has read a ton of police procedurals and gripes that they’re too “same-y”.  Walter starts down that road but by the halfway point he’s subverting some tropes and dissecting others, exposing them to the light.  I haven’t read enough murder mysteries to do it justice in this review, but I’ll try.

Caroline Mabry is a new-ish detective that finds herself in the middle of a serial murder case.  Along with her philosophical mentor and a technologically savvy greenhorn, they hunt down a killer who is offing prostitutes and hiding their bodies after rubber banding some money to their hand.

When the body count starts to rise Mabry is sent to consult with Blanton, an expert profiler of legend.  He reminded me in some ways of Robert Ressler in that he’s known for getting into the minds of men who commit these heinous acts over and over again.

Blanton is not too happy that a woman has been sent, as:

I’ve never met a woman who contributed much to these kinds of cases. Fortunately for them, they don’t have the capacity for understanding this type of killer, for understanding the fantasy.

In other words, something about raping and killing people is inherently male, a fantasy that every guy harbors in some part of his (hopefully subconscious) brain.

Disturbing, no?

Maybe there were no monsters. Maybe every man who looked at a Penthouse was essentially embarking on the same path that ended with some guy beating a woman to death and violating her with a lug wrench. No wonder Blanton was dubious of Caroline’s role in the investigation. If she couldn’t imagine the violent fantasy, what could she imagine? The victim. The fear. And what good were those?

Over Tumbled GravesBlanton continues in this vein, echoing stuff that I’ve read in nonfic about profilers and remaining very disturbing.  By framing the book from a female detective’s perspective the unease settles in our bones, and I may never look at serial killer cases the same way again.

It bothers Mabry that the victims are seen as a collection of clues and not people – the number dead matters more than who they were.  She concentrates on those killed in stead of blindly following the profilers on her way to solving the case.

Walter made me think about serial killer literature in a new way.  If you’re well read in the genre I’m sure you’ll find more flipped and subverted tropes than I did.  On top of that the writing is a cut above and Spokane, or more accurately its waterways, is a character itself.

Eventually, the water prevails, even in cities of the dead. Eventually, the water comes for us all, washes over the statues and through the crypts, topples the headstones and tumbles the graves.

Plotty with well-characterized protagonists and much to mull over, Over Tumbled Graves is a heckuva book and is perfect for my Serial Killer Summer.  I’m looking forward to returning to it once I have more murder mysteries under my literary belt.

Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

37648566Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Review:

I absolutely loved Syncopation and gobbled it up.  There’s so much good here. Speaking of…

The good:

  • A nonbinary author writing about a queer rock band is all.the.yes. Loads of rep including aromantic, gay, and pansexual.
  • This is the first time I’ve read a romance with an aromantic character and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work.  The dynamic that develops between Zavier and Ray is wonderful and let me grok what one version of an aro relationship may look like.  It’s one of those cases where fiction gets something into your brain better than non-fiction ever could.Syncopation copy3
  • Ray doesn’t know that he’s into BDSM kink and Zavier guides him there with support and consent all the way.

    “I don’t want to be manhandling you and pressing you against a wall if that is not your thing.  Consent is sexy.”

  • I love not just the main relationship but the entire band.  Zabo fleshes the characters out and, at the same time, leaves you wanting more.  HEAs for everyone, I say!
  • This book has the best anaphylactic shock scene/rep I’ve seen in fiction.  If you suspect allergic shock Epipen first (while someone else calls an ambulance), ask questions later!  This is how you save lives, people.  All of the hospital stuff was thoughtfully done and this medical interpreter appreciates it.

The not-so-good:

  • The manager had so much more coming to him.  I needed more catharsis after all his crap.

I’ve never read Zabo before and I’m excited to check out more of their writing!  The next book in this series, Counterpoint, is an instant add to my TBR, and they have some backlist, too.  Oo.