For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes

April French doesn’t do relationships and she never asks for more.

A long-standing regular at kink club Frankie’s, she’s kind of seen it all. As a trans woman, she’s used to being the scenic rest stop for others on their way to a happily-ever-after. She knows how desire works, and she keeps hers carefully boxed up to take out on weekends only.

After all, you can’t be let down if you never ask.

Then Dennis Martin walks into Frankie’s, fresh from Seattle and looking a little lost. April just meant to be friendly, but one flirtatious drink turns into one hot night.

When Dennis asks for her number, she gives it to him.

When he asks for her trust, well…that’s a little harder.

And when the desire she thought she had such a firm grip on comes alive with Dennis, April finds herself wanting passion, purpose and commitment.

But when their relationship moves from complicated to impossible, April will have to decide how much she’s willing to want.

Review:

Oh, how I love this book – let me count the ways.

The quickfire oh-so-good:

  • First, this is an incredibly sweet romance. It’s a kink-based relationship and the love and care are utterly melt-worthy.
  • Romance featuring a trans woman, written by a trans woman! Woo!
  • It does not read like a debut at all. The voice is assured, and considering some of the tricks Aimes pulls off? Woah.
  • One of the most interesting things, as a long-time romance reader, is the way she plays with narrative. The story isn’t completely linear, but it’s not a chopped salad of events, either. Everything makes sense, and the way it plays with conflict and expectations is amazing.
  • Speaking of – reader expectations are subverted on the regular in the most interesting way.
  • With the non-traditional narrative and subverted expectations, the conflict comes from places you rarely see it, and it’s worked through in similarly non-traditional ways. I would love to get into more details, but the last thing I want to do is spoil it for anyone, please forgive.
  • Dennis is a Black millionaire and April is a white trans woman, and they recognize that they’ve both faced oppression and microaggressions while also recognizing that one person’s experience doesn’t equal the other’s. That, being white, April doesn’t have the same interactions with police that Dennis does. That Dennis will never know what it’s like to move through the world, and more specifically Texas, as a trans person.
  • The bits that could be repetitive aren’t, and it’s so carefully plotted.
  • Both characters go to therapy for great reasons! And we see two therapy sessions with different people and dynamics! And Dennis gets a Dom mentor to go over the emotional side of being a top, which I’ve never seen before!
  • Each character has a bestie, but they are very different, not only from the person they’re besties with, but the relationship itself. Jason is a white guy who has been friends with Dennis forever and they can read each other’s moods and expressions with ease. Fatima is a hijabi woman who’s lunch friends with April at work, and over the course of the book we see their relationship deepen and grow.
  • …did I mention that it’s sweet and melt-worthy?

The only less-than-perfect things for me are details of a subplot and not even worth mentioning here.

If you like romance and are open to reading a (sweet!) kink-based relationship, you have to give For the Love of April French a try, and feel free to shout my way on social media as you do!

Content notes: BDSM/kink including impact play; mentions of surgery; misgendering; a short, mini panic attack on the page

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

The Hate Project by Kris Ripper (The Love Study #2)

Oscar is a grouch. That’s a well-established fact among his tight-knit friend group, and they love him anyway.

55422666Jack is an ass who’s always ready with a sly insult, who can’t have a conversation without arguing, and who Oscar may or may not have hooked up with on a strict no-commitment, one-time-only basis. Even if it was extremely hot.

When Oscar is fired (answering phones is not for the anxiety-ridden), he somehow ends up working for Jack. Maybe while cleaning out Jack’s grandmother’s house they can stop fighting long enough to turn a one-night stand into a frenemies-with-benefits situation.

The house is an archaeological dig of love and dysfunction, and while Oscar thought he was prepared, he wasn’t. It’s impossible to delve so deeply into someone’s past without coming to understand them at least a little, but Oscar has boundaries for a reason—even if sometimes Jack makes him want to break them all down.

Review:

After thoroughly enjoying The Love Study I was primed to love The Hate Project, but some elements hit too close for me to enjoy myself fully.

The good:

  • Oscar comes off as a grouch in the first book and here we learn why – he has social anxiety that can lead to panic attacks. It made past actions understandable and gave me more appreciation for how Ripper set up that first book.
  • The dynamics of the friend group are becoming clear and I love the way they interact and support each other. Oscar’s friendship with Ronnie is particularly interesting and they shine on the page together. We also learn more about Mason, one of the MCs of the next installment, through his relationship with Oscar. The found family elements, which felt a little forced in the first book, are in delightful full force.
  • Jack’s grandma is an awesome lady, a no-nonsense grandma that gets her own mini story arc and characterization.
  • Ripper pushes the edges of what’s considered du rigueur in romance and I am here for it. The Love Study has an HEA without a solid commitment, and here sex does not lead to the ‘I love you’ realization that it does in many romances.
  • Some people may find the anxiety rep empowering and comforting, however…

The not-so-good:

  • …Oscar’s thought spirals are so similar to ones I’ve experienced (thank you, birth control!) I found myself skimming whole sections. And while Oscar’s single PoV works well for the story it also means we’re always in his head, close to that anxiety.

I have all the love and respect for what Ripper is doing but unfortunately this book wasn’t the one for me. I’m very much looking forward to the next book – a poly relationship, yay!

Content notes: anxiety including panic attacks, grief, disordered eating

The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley (The Wild Wynchesters #1)

50374203Chloe Wynchester is completely forgettable—a curse that gives her the ability to blend into any crowd. When the only father she’s ever known makes a dying wish for his adopted family of orphans to recover a missing painting, she’s the first one her siblings turn to for stealing it back. No one expects that in doing so, she’ll also abduct a handsome duke.

Lawrence Gosling, the Duke of Faircliffe, is tortured by his father’s mistakes. To repair his estate’s ruined reputation, he must wed a highborn heiress. Yet when he finds himself in a carriage being driven hell-for-leather down the cobblestone streets of London by a beautiful woman who refuses to heed his commands, he fears his heart is hers. But how can he sacrifice his family’s legacy to follow true love?

Review:

3.5 stars

The Duke Heist was just what I needed – a romp of a Regency with a caring beta hero who melts my heart.

The good:

  • Chloe’s siblings are all orphans, brought together by a rich baron, and I am sold on the found family. Each brother and sister has their own skills, from painting to training animals to disguises, and they prove valuable when trying to steal back a painting that’s rightfully theirs.
  • There is a range of rep within the secondary characters – people of color, chronic pain, what appears to be a nonbinary or trans character (no label is given on the page), and perhaps one more queer character (again, no label).
  • Laurence is a titled member of society who gives speeches in Parliament, but I would classify him as a beta hero. He is fully aware of his responsibilities, almost to the point of them being painful, and he considers and puts the needs of others first, regardless of their class or station. The care he takes with Chloe is meltworthy.
  • Servants are people with names and personalities – everyone, not just the butler or a token ladies’ maid. We get a scene of them sitting around a table with the duke and it’s fun and heartwarming, as well as something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a Regency before.
  • While the conflict appears to be enemies to lovers, I would categorize it as two people who have bad impressions of each other from a distance without actually knowing each other. Get them in the same room though….
  • I love flipped tropes and we have a couple, including a semi-flip of “the hero buys the heroine a wardrobe” trope.
  • I cannot wait for the next book – it appears to be a queer relationship and the heart eyes. I can’t stop with the heart eyes.

The not-so-good:

  • The opening came on a bit strong for my liking. It’s like romp! Tons of characters! In your face! and I wasn’t ready for it. Your mileage may vary
  • The plot gets pulled to and fro in a couple of places. It’s been a few days since I finished and while the emotional moments stick with me, the story feels more jumbled the more I think about it.

…but that’s it. A strong start to a series I’m looking forward to continuing – there’s five more Wynchesters who need a happily ever after!

Thanks to Forever for providing a review copy.

Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder (Third Shift #1)

53279743Joe Peluso has blood on his hands. But lawyer and psychologist Neha Ahluwalia is determined to help him craft a solid defense…even if she can’t defend her own obsession. Because Joe took out those Russian mobsters for good reason–those six bad guys were part of the ruthless clan of bear shifters who control Brooklyn’s Russian mafia. His vigilante justice has earned him countless enemies in New York’s supernatural-controlled underworld, and no friends in a government that now bends to Russia at every turn.

Joe knows that creatures like him only deserve the worst. But meeting Neha makes him feel human for the first time in forever. But when the Russian mob attacks the jail for payback, Joe and Neha go on the run–from monsters who want him dead and from their own traitorous hearts.

Review:

I enjoyed Snyder’s Tikka Chance on Me so when I saw she’s coming out with a paranormal romance I jumped at the chance to read it. I usually shy away from books with mafia elements or ex-military heroes, but I enjoyed her look at motorcycle gangs so why not give it a try?

I’m so glad I did. Off the top, this book won’t be for everyone – the hero is a bit of an arse, there are two danger bangs, and while the consent is there it isn’t the most explicit. None of it ended up bothering me, though.

On to the good!

  • This is the first fiction I’ve read that truly interacts with what America has become politically since 2016, pushing it further into a dystopia. Think new Patriot Acts, detention camps on both borders, and drones tracking people in Sanctuary Cities. It’s an alternate 2021 that went off the rails even more than we actually did.
  • There are a bunch of supernatural folx, but Snyder doesn’t try to explain them all at once. Many series start with one kind of shifter then branch out, so I like that we’re starting with a mix here.
  • While we have a wolf character packs aren’t a thing. Instead of those forced relations we’re heading towards a found family, which is utterly my jam.
  • There are many PoVs and they work well together – the hero, heroine, Neha’s coworkers, and the staff at Third Shift.
  • Pretty much every character is from a marginalized group, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ folx, a Jewish guy, Sikh folx of varying devotion, and of course shifters.
  • The diversity of Indian culture is emphasized and celebrated – different languages, religions, styles of dress, and more. We even have a naga, so bonus points for non-Western supernatural beings.
  • I love the secondary characters and cannot wait for them to get their own HEAs, especially a certain Irish vampire who’s too charming for his own good.
  • One character is a cop but he has reservations about his day job, and things… change by the end. I like the way it’s handled.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalove, thanks to the fated mates trope. If you’re a paranormal romance fan it’s par for the course.
  • If you’re into explicit consent the danger bangs may leave you feeling squick-y. I’m not a huge fan of sex just after getting away from the bad guy, but I got through okay.

Big Bad Wolf takes place in a world that I do not want to live in but am happy to visit in fiction, especially with such a great cast of characters – I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca for providing a review copy.

Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha (Mercenary Librarians #1)

40078832._SY475_The United States went belly up 45 years ago when our power grid was wiped out. Too few live in well-protected isolation while the rest of us scrape by on the margins. The only thing that matters is survival. By any means. At any cost.

Nina is an information broker with a mission: to bring hope to the darkest corners of Atlanta. She and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to help those in need. But altruism doesn’t pay the bills—raiding vaults and collecting sensitive data is where the real money is.

Knox is a bitter, battle-weary supersoldier who leads the Silver Devils, an elite strike squad that chose to go AWOL rather than slaughter innocents. Before the Devils leave town for good, they need a biochem hacker to stabilize the experimental implants that grant their superhuman abilities.

The problem? Their hacker’s been kidnapped. And the ransom for her return is Nina. Knox has the perfect bait for a perfect trap: a lost Library of Congress server. The data could set Nina and her team up for years…

If they live that long.

Review:

I held on to this advance copy for a while, sure I would like it – and what’dya know, I love it.

The good:

  • Yay for science fiction to take us away from our current world. Sure, it depicts an America where government has been taken over by corporations, infrastructure has collapsed, and it’s every chemically and mechanically enhanced person for themselves… but at least it’s not our reality! I kid (kinda…) but it was nice to be so fully immersed in another world, even one as gritty as this.
  • The worldbuilding is solid. There’s one slight info dump early, but this America is so different from ours it felt justified. After that we learn things in bits and pieces, and by the end of the book I feel like I have a solid grasp of the world.
  • I love all of these characters, and they’re all fleshed out as people with different abilities, likes, and quirks. Bonus for found family vibes and casually mentioning that someone has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, because that’s totally a thing.
  • The structure helps introduce us to the characters one-on-one, as in addition to chapters from the two main characters’ point of view we also get interstitial chapters from everyone else. Being inside each person’s head let me get a better grasp for who they are while hinting at potential future conflicts and love interests.
  • Yes love interests, because Deal with the Devil is a great blend of science fiction and romance. I get the impression that we’ll be following a different couple in each book while the overall story arc continues. There isn’t as much sex as in Rocha’s other works, but what’s here is hot and advances the story as it should.
  • And the plot! Things are always happening. At 65% or so I was worried because many books would have ended things there, but the story afterward was just as important and maybe even more interesting.
  • The fights are so well done. They’re gripping but also made me cackle with joy.
  • And the banter! Once the band is together the wit and one liners fly – this is my love language.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Be ready for a bunch of tragic pasts with torture and abuse, along with the murder and death you’d expect in a story with mercenaries. The fights are about action, not gore, so I wasn’t grossed out.

The not-so-good:

  • The documents placed between each chapter could have been a little more clear – I’m know I’m going to get more out of them on a reread.

In short, Deal with the Devil takes place in a gritty, post-apocalyptic world where librarians and their friends save the day while maybe falling in love. I wasn’t sure if escaping to a different hellish world would work for me but I blew through pages and enjoyed the ride.

Thanks to Tor and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

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.

Binding Shadows by Jasmine Silvera (Tooth and Spell #1)

49231123._SY475_Hunting lost books is more than a job; it’s a way for Barbara to hide her powers in the mundane world of the university library. But the prickly new professor in charge of her latest assignment proves more than he seems, and rules are no match for her growing fascination.

After years of battling to cage the beast within him, Tobias returns to Prague and the safety of his pack of brothers. But keeping his family safe means never revealing his dual nature, not even to the irresistible research assistant with a nose for rare books.

Now, a 400-year-old witch’s revenge threatens to reveal everything they’ve concealed. Trapped between a witch and a necromancer, Barbara and Tobias must choose: embrace the powers that could expose them or allow their secrets to destroy them.

Review:

3.5 stars

I have been all about paranormal and science fiction romance lately so when the author asked if I’d be interested in a werewolf romance featuring people of color, written by a person of color I was all, yes please!

The reading process was utterly enjoyable – interesting characters in a world with a unique magic system, with enemies and happenings left and right. As soon as I finished I thought, four stars!, but unfortunately the book hasn’t stuck with me.

Why, though? I’m not sure. It’s probably me – a pandemic ramped up while I read this and heaven knows I was distracted. Regardless, I am excited to return to the world whenever the next book comes out, and hopefully I have a bit more brain space to give it its proper due.

Thanks to the author for providing a review copy.

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.

Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

Crux by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #2)

32335970._SY475_Erin McGarry fears she’s becoming the very thing she hates. She travelled to the planet Jekh to get her big sister, Courtney, out of a jam, and now Erin has become a colonist, too. To complicate her ordeal further, as one of very few women on a planet of desperate men, people expect Erin to pick a lover – or two – and settle down. With the Jekhan race having nearly been obliterated by Terran colonists, Erin refuses to help further dilute their culture. But at least two men think Erin’s objections don’t hold water….

Review:

This felt solid, largely because the heavy worldbuilding was taken care of in book one. I love the overarching plot, the themes of colonization and how best to rebuild a society that’s in trouble at a genetic level. The issues explored hark back to historical situations in the US but are completely different at the same time.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, however. I wasn’t on board with Esteben because while he and Erin have a power exchange-esque dynamic it’s never discussed as such. As a result it feels creepy and kind of wrong, especially compared to her sweet relationship with swoon-worthy Headron.

There are a couple of elements that carried over from the first book that I wish didn’t, including native English speakers blithely using hard to understand idioms in front of people learning the language. I find it disingenuous that Erin and Courtney care so much about preserving Jekhan culture but don’t bother to learn their language, not even single words. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their position as colonizers, and at the same time expect all Jekhans to speak perfect English. GAH.

All that being said I’m excited to read the next book. I’m not sure the romance (m/f, not m/m/f) will be for me, but the large-scale story has me hooked.