Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #1)

35832861Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. Her latest partner is handsome, rippling with muscles, and stars on the popular reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles and the fact that he had to join The Dance Off due to family obligations… but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, but as they heat up the dance floor it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead. When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy.

Review:

I’m not a reality television fan but it doesn’t matter, Take the Lead is a fun contemporary romance that charmed me from the beginning.

The good:

  • Own voices romance with a Puerto Rican heroine, huzzah!
  • The story sucked me in, which doesn’t always happen when I read contemporaries.  I like my romances to be a bit separated from normal life and this fits the bill, with two celebrities falling in love while on a competitive tv program.
  • Both Stone and Gina know that tv people are kind of evil so neither one is caught off guard when producers push them into a “showmance”.  I appreciate that one character doesn’t have to school the other on how Hollywood works, keeping the couple on an even footing.
  • I was there for all the dance scenes, despite not being all that into dance.
  • The writing is solid, and I wouldn’t have thought this is a debut.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • While I was having fun the show season feels a bit long to me.
  • The story trades in secrets and miscommunication, not my favorite tropes.

I really enjoyed this book despite it not being in my romance wheelhouse.  So if you like celebrity culture, family secrets, competition, and a tiny slice of (fun!) crazy, this is the perfect book for you.

Thanks to Swerve and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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A Fare to Remember by Opal Carew

29939400Stevie has given up on love and just wants a simple life driving her taxi. But her plans are turned upside down when gorgeous billionaire Reid Jacobs steps into the back of her cab. Commanding and mysterious, he’s a temptation she can’t resist—and soon their torrid one night stand leads to an intoxicating affair.

In Reid’s strong arms, Stevie finds herself falling harder than she ever imagined. But is she ready to trust again? And when his business partner falls for Stevie, will it change everything? One thing is clear: she’s about to take the ride of her life….

Review:

There are so many problems here but first,

The good-ish:

  • The rich/poor trope gets circumvented, releasing some oh-no-this-can’t-work tension.
  • The writing holds its own.

The not-so-good:

  • Cab driver picks up a hot fare, drives to a deserted alley, and has unprotected sex with him.  In the entirety of the book there isn’t a single mention of condoms, birth control, or health status, even when a third is brought into the relationship.  When a book is set in the modern day real world completely ignoring STDs and pregnancy is at best unreasonable, and at worst irresponsible.  I’m not asking for a lot – a mention of a clean test, a wrapper crinkle – but give me something.
  • Amazing sex equals instant love.  Never mind that getting to know you stuff or talking about your childhood – love is transmitted from the penis to the vagina, apparently.
  • …and not from penis to penis.  A second man is brought in and is sexual with both Stevie and Reid, but his feelings are never considered.  He’s treated like a human sex toy – nice to have around, but not a member of the relationship.  Not cool.
  • BDSM elements are brought in carelessly, without a warning or a safe word.  And not just light bondage – a ball gag, people. No.  No no.
  • While the sex is hot some of it defies physics.  At one point I thought, “no way is all of that fitting in there that easily.”
  • The Big Misunderstanding is a product of the heroine being idiotic.

All in all – grah.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan (Cyclone #1)

24600366Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Systems. But when he makes an offhand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.

To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.

But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart…but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.

Review:

I gotta be honest – I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this book.  Contemporary romance isn’t a wheelhouse for me so I’m picky about tropes, and rich buy/poor gal is pretty low down my list.

But I really want to read the second book in the series so I sucked it up and I’m glad I did.

The good:

  • The romance is both interracial and intercultural, and as someone in such a relationship myself I appreciate the representation.
  • Tina’s roommate is a trans woman and while she doesn’t play a huge role in this book she’s the heroine of the next.  Mixing LGBTQIA* couples with cis couples in a series is awesome and I cannot wait to start book two.
  • Blake is a good guy and he models good behavior in a heartwarming way.  When Tina says that she’s scared she’ll be come attached to him he respects that.  He doesn’t say “don’t be scared, baby” or “trust me,” but comes back with the ideal:

    Is there anything I can do to make you feel safe?

    People need to hear this to know it’s the right thing to say. So glad it’s here.

  • The rich/poor thing doesn’t get overly crazy or annoying.
  • I also liked the small flipped trope that I’m not going to go into because spoilers.
  • Tina’s mom is hilarious.

    Good thing he’s not your boyfriend, though, Tina.  He’s so skinny, I think a condom would pop right off.

The not-so-good:

  • There’s a part near the end where I could see exactly what was coming and the dread nearly did me in.
  • I started to lose interest when rich people problems came up, especially near the end.

A solid romance that overcomes some of the limitations of its tropes.  I may just have to start book two about… now.

Blame It on the Duke by Lenora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

23434074Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.

Review:

I discovered Bell shortly after her first book, How the Duke Was Won, and I’m so glad I did.  Her romances are low angst and solidly written, and while the historical detail can be iffy in places I have too much fun to care.  Each book feels like an improvement on the last, and while I’m not ready to award four stars yet I know she’s headed in that direction.

With that in mind, let’s get to the bullet points!

The good:

  • Alice’s reason to travel makes sense.  I love that she doesn’t give up her dream, even when her gender and, in a way, the romance, work against her.
  • The characters are well-drawn with realistic motivations and backgrounds, from the hero and heroine on down.  When a surly, rude butler was introduced I thought, oh no, there’s no explaining this.  But there is a reason and it works.
  • Nick doesn’t want children and Alice does a gut check and realizes that she doesn’t either, and that decision is respected and not used as a plot pawn.  There isn’t a pregnancy scare or an “oops, I’m pregnant and I’m so happy” epilogue.  This is so rare in romance, especially historical, and I really appreciate it.
  • We see how mental illness was handled during the Regency in a way that respects the the view of the times while also trying to make it better.
  • I can’t wait to see Lear get his own book.  A pirate hero with a heart, woo!  The doctor would make an interesting (and POC!) hero, too.

The not-so-good:

  • The historical detail feels off in places, and I had a lot of questions about the manuscript Alice is enamored with.
  • While the first two thirds of the book went fine I was not a fan of the big “fight” in the last third.  I found myself skimming just to get to the end.
  • And there at the end Nick says some stuff that could have gone very, very wrong.  I’m glad it all worked out but if I were Alice I would be so, so mad.

All in all a light, fun, slightly wallpaper-y Regency romance.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (Dear Lady Truelove #1)

30653952Henry, Duke of Torquil, wouldn’t be caught reading the wildly popular “Dear Lady Truelove” column, but when its advice causes his mother to embark on a scandalous elopement, an outraged Henry decides the author of this tripe must be stopped before she can ruin any more lives. Though Lady Truelove’s identity is a closely guarded secret, Henry has reason to suspect the publisher of the notorious column, beautiful and provoking Irene Deverill, is also its author.

For Irene, it’s easy to advise others to surrender to passion, but when she meets the Duke of Torquil, she soon learns that passion comes at a price. When one impulsive, spur-of-the-moment kiss pulls her into a scorching affair with Henry, it could destroy her beloved newspaper, her career, and her independence. But in the duke’s arms, surrender is so, so sweet . . .

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book – the good parts were good, but the parts that annoyed me really annoyed me.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

The good:

  • The internal conflict is thick and delicious.  There isn’t a lot of external, moving around plot, but the inner lives of our couple keeps the story moving nicely.
  • There are two instances where love crosses class lines, each different in their own way.
  • Guhrke obviously researched the 1890s and revels in the slang and phrasing of the period.  It’s a breath of fresh air for those of us who usually read in Regency-land.
  • Irene is a strong woman and is involved in issues of the day, first and foremost getting women the vote.

The not-so-good:

  • Irene’s views match our modern views almost perfectly, to the point that she feels like she’s parachuted in to re-legislate the Victorian era in long discussions with Henry.  Women should get able to go to university, become doctors, vote, run a newspaper, have sex outside of marriage… I’m sure I’m forgetting something.  Oh, and high society can go hang.  I’m for every single one of these things, but Irene talks of little else.  It grates.
  • Henry pushes back as well as he can, pointing out how this or that social norm exists for a reason.  Irene is uncompromising, though, and…
  • …the resolution boils down to Henry agreeing with Irene in every way and rearranging his entire mindset and worldview to match hers. I would have liked more of a compromise – “I guess I’ll learn how to be a dutchess” doesn’t count.
  • The way they finally get together for sex is more finagling than anything else.  I didn’t feel the love.

While I’m disappointed by the characters the writing is solid so I can see myself picking up another book by Guhrke.  This was my first – can you recommend a better place to start?

One Week in Greece by Demi Alex (International Affairs #3)

35426062Bethany Michaels is headed to the sun-bleached island of Mykonos on business, not pleasure. But an unexpected face from the past will introduce her to a brand-new desire . . .

Proving her business acumen to her demanding father is Bethany’s only goal as she boards a ferry for Mykonos—and the beautiful resort she’s determined to acquire for her family’s hotel chain. Gorgeous Greek hunk Paul Lallas stands in her way—alongside his lover, Justin Bentley, who broke Bethany’s heart into a million pieces years ago. When the two men make their very personal interest in her clear, mergers and acquisitions are suddenly the last thing on Bethany’s mind. Could the chance to live out every one of her forbidden fantasies lead to a future more blissful than she ever imagined?

Review:

While some underlying principles are good to see the story is an overall meh.

The good:

  • Pansexual rep via one of the main characters – love to see it.
  • The woman is not the hinge of the triad.  Bethany dated Justin years ago, and now he’s in a committed relationship with Paul.  The dynamics of adding her back in are handled well.
  • The complexities of being serious in a three person relationship are touched on realistically.  Do we want to get married?  What would that look like?  Do we want to have kids, and how would we handle that?  Where do we want to live, and how will we each be able to continue our careers?  In this sense the happily ever after feels solid and earned.

The not-so-good:

  • The book truly takes place over a week, making those realistic life convos feel rushed.  “I just meet you seven days ago and now I’m tying myself to you forever” (in the case of Bethany and Paul) is a bit much.
  • The story arc in general isn’t satisfying.
  • The writing is clunky throughout.  The two guys sound the same, to the point that I had to remind myself which is which, and the sex is merely okay.  Ish.

Good rep, glad to see the foundational ideas are there, but the execution could use some work.

Untamed by Elizabeth Lowell (Medieval #1)

Synopsis:

10252717Returning home triumphant from the Crusades, Dominic le Sabre is determined to claim the bride promised to him by the king, but the high-born Celtic beauty is equally determined to resist him.

Review:

Many parts of this book made me cringe, but it was more for tropes I hate than anything else. In fact, the solid writing and (slightly plodding) story kept me from abandoning the book all together.

The good:

  • learning medieval tidbits about castles and falconry
  • how thoughtfully (and sexily) the hero seduced the heroine
  • Meg’s inner strength and belief in her convictions. She doesn’t let a stupid alpha male keep her from what she has to do.

The not-so-good:

  • heroine being held captive (sorta) for a good chunk of the book
  • all this talk of “I must have sons!” without any regard to whether Meg would, you know, actually want sons. Or kids in general.
  • Dominic never ever trusts Meg, even after she proves herself several times
  • the spy was mad easy to spot
  • the battle scenes seemed short for how important they are. But maybe that’s my urban fantasy roots showing

While this book wasn’t for me I would recommend it to someone whose taste in tropes run opposite to mine.

Moonstruck by Lauren Dane (Diablo Lake #1)

25771199Katie Grady left Diablo Lake to get over a humiliating breakup; but her family needs her help, so she’s back, in a sublet right across the hall from the guy she’s lusted after for years. Jace Dooley is hotter than ever, and their friendship picks up along with massive doses of grown-up chemistry.

The very scent of Katie sharpens Jace’s canines, makes the wolf within him stir. There’s nothing more alluring to a Pack Alpha than a sexy female who is so very in charge. She won’t be coddled, but if he plays his hand just right she might be convinced to become his.

Katie presents a challenge to Jace’s wolf nature, whose chief instinct is to protect. Especially now that she’s coming into the magic that is her birthright – and suddenly Jace isn’t the only one who’s interested in Katie, or the raw power she’s just learning to use.

Review:

I like some of Dane’s other work so I had high hopes for Moonstruck but it’s not quite my thing.

The good:

  • Dane is a solid writer and the story basics are well in hand.
  • The town dynamics are interesting with two werewolf packs and witches in the middle, acting as a moderating force.

The not-so-good:

  • The heroine says weird stuff simply for the sake of being weird. It’s… weird, and not in a good way.
  • In the same vein, the relationship between Katie and her best friend feels forced and their conversation is cringe inducing. I nearly DNFed in the first chapter, it bothered me so much.
  • You could take the paranormal aspects out and you’d end up with the same story – a small town “the one that got away” romance with feuding families and ailing relatives. I like it when the magical stuff is more central to the story.

So let’s give this one a big ol’ ENH.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #3)

30179647Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught-by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

Review:

This book got a lot of buzz when it was announced because Gabriel is the son of Evie and Sebastian, the couple from Kleypas’ amazing Devil in Winter.  Is this one on the same level?  Not quite, but I still think it’s the best Ravenel book so far.

The good:

  • The first half of the story, our couple’s meet cute and courtship, is awesome.  I was getting ready to give the book four stars, I love it so much.
  • The whole ‘thou shalt have kids because we need an heir/it’s the thing to do/you’re a woman’ thing doesn’t even come up. Heck, Pandora doesn’t even want to get married, to start.

    She didn’t want to belong to anyone, and she especially didn’t want anyone to belong to her… she knew she would never be happy in a conventional life.

    Unconventional women for the win.

  • Prior characters are woven into the story in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the main storyline.  Evie and Sebastian are as wonderful as I remembered, and having a department story magnate in the family proves as helpful as one would imagine.
  • Related – some minor characters reappeared, and it looks like one may get her happily ever after in the next book.  Oo.
  • Overall the book is a fast, fun read, busting me out of a reading slump.  Woot.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Pandora is an ‘artsy’ imaginative type, not well suited to strict rules or remembering where she left things.  She strikes me as a (loose) Anne of Green Gables type – prone to flights of fancy with strong underpinnings of smarts.  It doesn’t bother me but if you don’t like that sort of thing you’re warned.
  • Hmmm, now to think of it Gabriel is kind of a Gilbert type in a roundabout way… time to reread Anne of Green Gables!

The not-so-good:

  • Kleypas does this thing in a lot of her books where the couple gets married or is otherwise together before the 70% mark of the book, so she puts one or the other in mortal danger.  Railway accidents, attacks, it could be anything, but someone is going to have a brush with death before the end.  I have to admit, after half a dozen books I’m sick of it.  Sometimes it’s worked into the story well but here it’s more random and annoying.  Gah.
  • The cameos and throwbacks mean that characterization is a bit thin for minor characters, and I’m not sure how the book would read as a stand-alone.
  • Drago(n), who I think is a new character for this book?, is grossly underdeveloped.  His relationship with Pandora could be amazingly nuanced and deep, but instead we watch his opinion of her change after a conversation and a half.  I wanted more.

After being somewhat disappointed with the first two books in this series Devil in Spring is a nice pick me up, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Beards and Bondage #1)

34745311City girl Claudia Cade’s carefree life is plunged into chaos when a camping trip with her brother in the national forests of Northern California turns into a deadly dash for her survival. Nature photographer Shepard Olsen has resigned himself to a quiet existence, with only his dog by his side, until a woman in need of his protection shows up on his doorstep and throws his universe into disarray.

Claudia is desperate to heal from her traumatic loss, but can’t stop thinking about her run-in with evil….or the grizzled mountain man whose quick thinking and good aim saved her life. When she shows up on Shep’s doorstep again, she finds she isn’t the only one who can’t move on.

The two begin an intense, passionate relationship of Dominance and submission, pleasure and pain, but with dark memories haunting them and decisions about the future rapidly approaching, Claudia can’t help but wonder…how long can they be each other’s haven?

Review:

There is so much to love here.

  • Representation and diversity done well, written by a woman of color. I am and will forever be here for this.
  • Also – interracial romance! Huzzah!
  • While having a dominant man employing blindfolds and floggers may be a fantasy the characters are wholly based in reality. Check out our hero:

My dick isn’t a magic wand. I wasn’t going to save her. I wasn’t going to heal her with my kisses… and I sure as fuck wasn’t going to fix myself.

And some girl talk:

“I know you probably had a carrot and some champagne today and I know there’s an image [to maintain], but we are both thick women and we are beautiful that way.”

“Amen,” I say. “Extra pepperoni, please.”

  • The hero and heroine have their head on their shoulders and know what they want, even if they’re not sure how to go about getting it. Misunderstandings are one of my biggest romance pet peeves and there’s not even a whiff of a Big Mis here.
  • People have problems – you could probably say they’re “damaged” – but there’s no wallowing. It’s refreshing.
  • The story itself moves along nicely and kept my interest.

This was my first book by Weatherspoon and I’m thoroughly impressed. A recommend for erotic romance fans, even if a side of bondage isn’t usually your thing.