Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (True Colors #1)

Luc O’Donnell’s rock star parents split when he was young, and now that the father that he’s never met is making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material.  So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating.

 

I wasn’t completely with this book at the start – Luc is a bit of a disaster in more  ways than one, and I was looking forward to the stability Oliver was sure to bring. And what’dya know, he did.

The good:

  • Once I got into the groove of things I laughed out loud every few chapters – some of the characters are ridiculous and over the top in good ways. If you’re looking for a rom com bordering on lovingly silly this book is for you.
  • There’s complex emotional stuff going on here with both heroes, including with their families. Luc and Oliver support each other as best as they are able and pull away when they need a break, but it’s never left to fester long. Both are dealing with some fairly major stuff and we get to watch them talk about it and grow, both as people and in the relationship.
  • I love that some situations aren’t cut and dry – hard conversations with no right answers. No best way to console someone who’s crying his heart out. But our heroes do their best and it ends up being enough. More than enough.
  • I think it’s interesting that while Luc and Oliver are both gay they surround themselves with completely different kinds of people. Luc found a home in the LGBTQIA+ community when he needed one most, while Oliver’s circle of friends is almost completely straight. Both are presented as okay and valid – having mostly straight friends doesn’t make you any less queer.
  • The side characters are fleshed out and interesting. From Luc’s parents to the posh donors at a charity party, we get a solid feel for everyone as people.
  • There’s a nod at how difficult family can be when a couple decides they don’t want children (‘but we want grandbabies!’) and as someone without children myself I appreciate it.
  • Thanks to libro.fm I received the audiobook for review and my god, Joe Jameson does an amazing job with the narration. Luc’s fumbling is natural, more natural than it looks printed on a page, Oliver’s baritone is sexy, and the voices of women, especially, blew me away.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • The sex is infrequent and of the fade-to-black variety. If you’ve been wanting to try an m/m romance but were looking for something more tame in that department, this book is a great place to start.

The not-so-good:

  • I’m sad that we don’t have any chapters from Oliver’s point of view. At first I wanted to get out of Luc’s head for a while – he really is a disaster in the beginning – but I think seeing some scenes from Oliver’s POV would have added some depth.
  • It wouldn’t have worked for plot reasons, but I was dying to see Oliver get mixed up in Luc’s group of friends. How would he react? Would he become looser or clam up? Love them or like them? (There are no other options, natch.)
  • Some scenes got long, especially in posh dining rooms.

I ended up reading Boyfriend Material in a combination of print and audio and with such amazing narration I ended up liking the latter more. Three stars for the print, four stars for the audio, averaging out to 3.5 overall.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca and libro.fm for providing review copies.

Just Like That by Cole McCade (Albin Academy #1)

49875508._SY475_Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts. But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the Albin Academy boarding school—and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.

Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.

Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.

Review:

Just Like That is this month’s addition to the Carina Adores line, huzzah! I’ve been meaning to read McCade and this is a fine introduction.

Before I go any further I want to point out that there are tropes with squick potential including age gap (24/pushing 50) and the fact that this is a teacher/former student romance. The content warnings are detailed at the front, but I especially want to point out anxiety (including a panic attack on the page) and suicidal ideation.

The romance is hurt/comfort in both directions – Summer has a bright, soft personality and is continuing a lifetime struggle with anxiety, while Fox has built up prickly armor around a traumatic event from his past. Both are psychology teachers, so it should be no surprise that the conflict is entirely internal. Expect lots of talking and ruminating with a fair side of angst.

Let’s start with the good, at least for me. McCade’s writing is descriptive and flowery, and it won’t be for everyone. It was just what I wanted right now, though – flowing and lyrical in a way that felt comforting.

Fox is half-Japanese/half-Western and grew up in Japan to age 14. I found one small bobble in the Japanese culture references, which is pretty good considering how much authors usually get wrong.

As for the not-so-good, the believability isn’t quite there for me. Fox and Summer have make out sessions in their classroom on the regular, the assistant principal doesn’t even blink an eye when he walks in on them. There’s a side character that shares living space with Summer, but he disappears as soon as he’s not needed for the plot. And while I get the romance, I’m not completely sold on Summer and Fox as a couple.

Speaking of, to the reviewers saying that a formerly straight guy goes gay for his student – stop. Fox never said he was straight. There is something called bisexuality, let’s not forget it.

Between the squick potential and the writing style it’s hard to recommend Just Like That to everyone, but I’m sure it will have its fans. I’m looking forward to reading another book by McCade to get a better feel for what he can do.

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

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.

When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?

Review:

3.5 stars

I love Hibbert’s novels. She does so many things right – rep of all sorts (as evidenced by own voices reviews), characters who use their words and treat each other with respect, and comedy. She also does angst well but alas, angst isn’t my thing. As a result I love her fun, rompy novels like the mega hit Get a Life, Chloe Brown and have complicated feelings about the rest.

I want to be clear, Take a Hint is a very good book. The first third is full of laugh out loud fun – Dani making entreaties to a sex goddess with her bestie, banter, a routine evacuation drill that goes wrong and leaves Dani stranded in an elevator. Zafir, former rugby player turned building security guard, carries her out of the building Cinderella style and #DrRugbae is born. Everyone thinks they’re a couple, and Zafir could use the publicity to promote a charity he runs, so would Dani continue the fake relationship for a good cause. Of course. It’s not like Zafir isn’t tall, dark, and handsome. And definitely not kind. Nope.

The good:

  • Again, all the rep including Black bisexual woman, Punjabi Muslim guy, anxiety including panic attacks.
  • Content warnings are front and center when you open the book, great for those who want them.
  • Hibbert makes my least favorite tropes bearable, and here it’s secrets. It’s not ‘if I tell him this he’ll hate me’. Instead it’s ‘I’m not ready to face this myself, and I’m sure as hell not ready to tell him’. But before long words are used because we are all adults here.
  • The funny parts are really funny and had me grinning.
  • There’s a great message about mental health, seeking help, and not going it alone.

Neither-here-nor-there:

  • I love me a gender flipped trope, and here stereotypical roles for men and women are reversed. Dani is a workaholic, is only looking for a fuck buddy (her words), and has given up on love and relationships. Zaf has been to therapy, is emotionally fluent, reads romance novels, and helps Dani come to realizations about her past and herself. I recently read another novel that tried to do this and failed, but Hibbert delivers. It works.

The not-so-good-for-me:

  • After the first third we go deeper into the waters of internal conflict and angst. Not my thing, but I know a lot of people love it.

The not-so-good:

  • The plotting feels a little off. The conflict gets wishy washy in the middle, making the book easy to put down. And while the emotional work at the end is superb and the reason for the extra .5 star, the end feels a bit disjointed. It’s almost like we get an HEA, a black moment is thrown in, followed by another HEA.

If you like more angst in your romance you will love where Take a Hint, Dani Brown ends up. It’s not my thing so I didn’t like this one quite as much as Chloe’s installment, but it’s easy to recognize all that Hibbert is doing right and I love where she went at the end. I’m sad that there’s only one Brown sister left.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

43189874._SY475_Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

Review:

I was excited to read this book after hearing some wonderful reviews, but I have to admit, for the first 40% I was wondering what the fuss was about.

The beginning is all first book awkwardness, the scaffolding of an enemies-to-lovers romance bare and hanging in the wind. Simon is shown as an arse early and often, and other plot elements are predictable. The love triangle fake out dude, the reason Simon’s brother left – all incredibly obvious, at least to me.

But once the Ren Faire starts, look out! Simon’s character, a swashbuckling pirate, is out to woo Emily’s character, a tavern wrench. Sparks fly, but as soon as they get out of their costumes it’s back to the bickering status quo.

These two have plenty of stuff happening in their real lives – Emily was recently dumped in an ugly way by her near-fiancee, and Simon feels like his life has been set into motion for him with no choice but to go with the flow. The Faire lets them shed the baggage, but the real trick is working through that emotional load once the festival is over.

There’s a lot to like – competence porn, fun secondary characters, grand gestures, and good grovel when it’s required. Hot sex, dramatic human chess match scenes, and people talking through their problems? All here.

I wasn’t a fan of Emily’s thinking near the end, though. She’s suddenly riddled with misgivings, questioning and misinterpreting every little thing that’s said to her by both Simon and others. I’ve encountered this in several romances recently so I may be more sensitive to it, but I’m not a fan of driving conflict by having the heroine think, ‘he doesn’t love me after all’ after a single stray comment. The women are strong until they get buried in self-doubt. Gah.

Still, this is a strong showing for a debut. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series – several of the secondary characters are due their own Happily Ever Afters, methinks.

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

43092891Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. Another item? Do something bad. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Review:

Trigger warning for discussion of a previous abusive relationship.

How I love this book. Let me count the ways.

The good:

  • First and foremost is the rep. Some of it is own voices (both Hibbert and the heroine are Black British women with chronic pain) but every single bit feels well considered and empathetic and full of love. Other rep includes fibromyalgia, migraines, fat rep, positive depictions of therapy, and other stuff I’m surely missing. There are some great reviews by own voices folks, which gives me even more confidence, and just seeing the way she handles wearing glasses made me, as a useless-without-my-specs person, feel seen.
  • The book is British without screaming it. The spelling is American (I’m going to guess that was the publisher’s call) but there’s much more emphasis on class differences than you find in American romance, or even Britain-set romances written by Americans. It felt real and not the least bit stereotypical.
  • Their relationship is a slow burn in the way I like – getting to know the other person, and finding them more attractive the more you know.
  • Red is a-ma-zing. He expertly walks a line of being considerate of Chloe and her limitations without being mothering or infantilizing her. His consent is first rate and the respect and love he feels are all over the page.
  • There is a cat and it’s actually important to the plot, not forgotten as the romance heats up. Huzzah!
  • The banter is good, but the communication is better. There’s a bit of foot-in-mouth syndrome going on, but after the initial anger passes they get together to talk things out like adults. I am not a fan of Big Miscommunications, so the way romance has been evolving away from it has been amazing.
  • Do you need a warm hug right now? Of course you do. This book is that warm hug, full of love.

I inhaled Get a Life, Chloe Brown during a 24 hour readathon and have no regrets on the binge. It’s an easy recommendation for almost any romance fan, as well as for those who are thinking about getting into the genre.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Vampire Sorority Sisters #1)

10161265It’s rush but college freshman Ginger Carmichael more has important things on her mind, like maintaining her perfect GPA. No matter how much she can’t stand the idea of the cliques and the matching colors, there’s something about the girls of Alpha Beta Omega—their beauty, confidence, and unapologetic sexuality—that draws Ginger in. But once initiation begins, Ginger finds that her pledge is more than a bond of sisterhood, it’s a lifelong pact to serve six bloodthirsty demons with a lot more than nutritional needs.

Despite her fears, Ginger falls hard for the immortal queen of this nest, and as the semester draws to a close, she sees that protecting her family from the secret of her forbidden love is much harder than studying for finals.

Review:

I love Weatherspoon but her next book is half a year away (gah!) so I’ve decided to dip into her backlist. Better Off Red, a paranormal erotic romance, is her first book.

The good:

  • Huzzah for own voices queer romance! And if you’re looking for hot sapphic sex, we have lots of it here.
  • The plot is built around an interesting idea – that vampires would use a somewhat secretive institution, like a sorority, to recruit people to feed on. The world building in general is deeper and more well thought out than I was expecting in a debut.
  • I didn’t even think about rushing a sorority, so I like the look and observations about a corner of college life I know little about.
  • I’m a fan of the vampire mythology and ethos. Humans aren’t used merely as food – they’re carefully selected and protected for their entire life. It’s a loving relationship, both in feeling and deed.

The not-so-good:

  • There are some typical debut wobbles. The plot gallops a bit at the end, and I’m not sure I buy everything that happened.

Not amazing, but enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

37789271._SY475_A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.

Review:

Trigger warning for drug abuse.

This is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to read for the Booktube Prize – something that I’m interested in, but probably wouldn’t have picked up anytime soon. A Place for Us is a multi-generational family saga of sorts, which originally made me wary, but I ended up liking it. A bunch.

What makes the entire book for me, on top of great writing and character work, is the structure. The first major section is told from the perspective of the three children. We watch them grow up – moments between them, how they interact with the community, major events that shape their lives, even though they may not look significant to start. We bounce around in time, which made me nervous at first, but once we learn a couple of milestones (the eldest going to college, a particular birthday party or conversation) the timeline becomes easy to keep track of. Based on the kids’ stories we form some ideas why Amar is no longer part of the family.

The second section is from the point of view of their mother, and while some parts overlap she adds more information and another way of looking at things. We learn about conversations the kids had no idea about as well as the thoughts behind her actions, and it both interleaves a layer of story and changes our ideas and who is most wrong.

The father gets his say in the last section in a note written directly to Amir. He explains what he did and why, and realizes he may have gone wrong somewhere but isn’t sure how. The overall affect is a story that is told both straightforwardly as well as intricately.

The way everything is woven together is masterful and a bunch of interesting themes are explored – growing up as a brown person in the US during 9/11, how each person approaches their Muslim faith differently, the roles different children are expected to fill and why. I love that the religious elements are both so important and not explained in a Islam 101 manner. We aren’t spoon fed info about the faith, and I think the book is stronger for it.

All in all it’s hard to believe this is a debut. I actually enjoyed a multi-generational family story of sorts… I don’t think that I’m coming around to the sub-genre, necessarily, but this book is an outstanding example of it.

Fire on the Ice by Tamsen Parker (Snow & Ice Games #4)

36471949Blaze Bellamy is the bad girl of the short track speed skating world. She’s got a punk attitude to match her provocative dress and her dyed hair, and she’s determined to get onto the front pages of the papers regardless of how she has to do it.

Maisy Harper is the workhorse of the Canadian women’s figure skating team. Maisy would prefer to win her victory on the ice rather than in the press, and is exasperated by Blaze’s antics. After they both failed to make the medal podium at the last Snow and Ice Games, they drowned themselves in gin—and each other.

Despite their hookup being drunken, they both harbor fond memories of their night together and are keen for a repeat. But they’ve got different ways of going about getting what they want, and Blaze’s willingness to go to any lengths for the spotlight could ruin any chance she has with Maisy.

Review:

Fire is right! ~wipes brow~

The good:

  • The Snow and Ice Games stand in for the Olympics, because copyright, and it’s fun to watch people from totally different sports interact. Blaze only wants to go to events ruled by the clock, while Maisy wants to check out curling and ice dancing.
  • Maisy and Blaze’s public personas are near opposites, but their personalities have enough in common to make this thing work.
  • Their sports have given them very different bodies – the thick thighs of a speed skater, the petite build of a figure skater – and they love each other for it.
  • Yea for a name check of Surya Bonaly, who is badass.
  • Blaze is bi, poly, and out and proud, while Maisy prefers to shield her private life, including being lesbian, from prying eyes. Her homophobic parents, who have repressed her in all kinds of ways her entire life, are part of that.
  • There’s bunches of interesting conflict to drive the story forward. Will this be a hookup like before, or a relationship that lasts? Can Blaze resist the urge to drag Maisy into the spotlight? Will Maisy ever go against her parents?
  • Harmful stereotypes about people who are bi, as well as those who are poly, are challenged head on. They talk about how important communication is in a relationship, and they actually do it. Woot.
  • The story fits the length, a novella-esque 169 pages. There’s nothing slapdash, no hanging ends.
  • There are a bunch of lovely sex scenes, all different and smoking. However…

The not-so-good:

  • …they all come at the front of the book. It makes sense – this is a re-hookup, and both ladies are eager to get back into bed as soon as possible. It slows the story to a crawl, though, when you spend that much time doing one thing, no matter low lovely it is. For a while there I was worried the whole book would be pron without plot.
  • The story is there, almost all in the second half, and the sex dries up to nothing. It all makes sense as far as event timing goes, but at the same time I would rather the sex and plot were more balanced.

It all evened out into an average read for me, and I’m interested in reading more from Parker even though I won’t be searching it out right away. It’s rare for a single romance series to have differently gendered pairings, and I love how this one has m/f, f/f, and m/m all mixed together.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

In a small town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her house. Everyone in town, including her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and she doesn’t correct them. In New York, Dean Tenney, former major-league pitcher and Andy’s childhood friend, is struggling with a case of the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and he can’t figure out why. An invitation from Andy to stay in Maine for a few months seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button.
When Dean moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken.

Review:

Trigger warning for gaslighting and emotional abuse.

I have been reading and listening to Linda Holmes almost ten years now, and she is a pop culture critic of the first order. She’s smart and insightful, a damn fine writer and a wonderful person, so I’ve been looking forward to her debut novel Evvie (rhymes with Chevy) Drake Starts Over. And while it’s a good novel it has a bunch of elements that make it hard for me to fall head over heels in love.

First and foremost, it’s set in a small town where everyone around you knows your business and you have to care what the neighbors think. I grew up in a small town and got the hell out as soon as I was able, so I usually stay away from this type of romance. The rest is best addressed in the lists I love….

This and that:

  • Good: Holmes is obviously well versed in pop culture, and while there are tons of references they are of the well-wearing sort. I mean, are we ever going to be without Law and Order reruns? Doubt it.
  • Not-so-good: Having lived abroad for a long time I’m not up to date on the shows she mentions, and felt kind of left out. Your mileage will most likely vary, though.
  • Good: The relationships are complex, centered on family and found family. Evvie has a guy as her best friend, which I love because platonic friendships are everything to me, but
  • Not-so-good: The plot around it is people thinking, “they must love each other, why would they be so close otherwise, look at how he took care of her,” etc. It works for the book, but in general I just want guys and gals to be friends and have the world be happy about it, darn it.
  • Good: A realistic, respectful, and positive discussion of therapy, including a couple of short, down to earth sessions. Holmes has talked about having depression and going to therapy herself, so it’s own voices rep.
  • Not-so-good: While the romance is a slow burn I felt like I floated through it. The banter was okay, but not standout. And after making a big deal about consent it’s skipped over for comedic effect soon after.
  • Good: Evvie’s husband was an asshole, and how we learn about it, as well as how she processes it, is unspooled realistically. The emotional lives of the characters is amazing overall, nuanced and well-drawn.
  • Not-so-good: All of the conflicts boil down to a lack of communication. Not telling people things for “their own good”, because you’re embarrassed, or because you don’t want to face the consequences. It’s not the awful, stereotypical Big Mis often misused in romance, but I’m not a fan of the trope, in general. Most of this stems from the fact that Evvie has been keeping secrets, and it fits with her character… but that doesn’t make me love the trope instantly, you know?
  • Not-so-good: It’s a first novel, and those wobbles are here – getting ready for a date takes pages and we see every piece of clothing she fusses over, Dean goes from coaching football to both football and baseball mid-book without an explanation, and I didn’t quite buy the ending.

So while I’m a huge fan of Holmes and her work I’m afraid the tropes worked against me in this one. Still curious to see what she comes out with next.

Twice as Hard by Amber Bardan

33976005They caught me. Naked, shivering and dripping after a spontaneous swim in the forest. Two rugged men whose hard gazes captivated and scared me all at once.

They warned me. Told me I was on private property and I needed to obey the law…or I would be punished.

The idea of them both punishing me, pleasuring me, kept tormenting me. I couldn’t want them. I shouldn’t. But I did.

Review:

I knew I was getting into an erotic, possibly slightly taboo story, but I was not expecting the mind fuck – for the reader, not the heroine.

There are people out there who will enjoy it so I don’t want to give it away, but the first half of this book made me uneasy around issues of consent. And the heroine straight up lies in her inner monologue, compounding the problem. I love a good mind fuck when it’s directed at a character (see The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz) but this isn’t quite for me.

If you know what you’re getting into with BDSM kink you may want to try Twice as Hard, but proceed with caution.