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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell by Avon Gale (Tour Dates #1)

34824809Victoria “Vix” Vincent has only two weeks to find a replacement fiddle player for her band’s summer tour. When classically trained violinist Sawyer Bell shows up for an audition, Vix is thrilled. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance, even though Vix tries to remember that Sawyer’s presence is only temporary.

Sawyer’s parents think she’s spending the summer months touring Europe with a chamber ensemble. But Sawyer is in dire need of a break from the competitiveness of Juilliard, and desperately wants to rediscover her love of music. Going on tour with her secret high school crush is just an added bonus. Especially when Vix kisses her one night after a show, and they discover that the stage isn’t the only place they have chemistry.

But the tour won’t last forever, and as the summer winds down, Sawyer has to make a tough decision about her future—and what it means to follow her heart.

Review:

If you like romance be sure to check out Cats and Paperbacks, where Natasha writes reviews highlighting lgbtqia+ books.  She posted a list of her favorite books with lesbian main characters and I jumped on this one – rock band! Touring! Queer romance meets stardom!

In my ‘must read NAO’ haste, however, I missed that while the book covers a diverse rock band, they are not rock stars.  The group crams into a van, drives all night between gigs, and at times plays to half-empty houses.  There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it makes for lovely romance – but it pushes the book out of Kazen catnip territory.

Moving on, the book!  Sawyer is a Julliard violinist but she loathes going back to school.  Instead of touring with a prestigious chamber orchestra she tries out with a rock band and gets the part.  Over the course of touring she sparks fly between her and the lead singer Victoria, they fall in love, and things happen.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell is one of those books that’s very good at what it does while simultaneously not being quite my thing.  If you’re looking for a realistic contemporary f/f romance you won’t go wrong.

The Seduction Hypothesis by Delphine Dryden (Science of Temptation #2)

17825418Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship fizzled. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he’s going to have to prove it.

Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention get-up, he realizes what she’s been craving all along. And he is inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…

Lindsey is surprised by her reaction to Ben’s kinky new seduction techniques, and suddenly sees him in a different light. After several erotic encounters she’s falling for Ben all over again. And wondering if the intimate connection will last once they head home…

Review:

I didn’t like this one anywhere near as much as the previous but I’m a little conflicted.  First, this tweet was rolling around in my head:

Ben is a baby Dom and has no clue what he’s doing.  He’s super possessive and an alpha-hole to any guy that enters Lindsey’s orbit.  Ivan, the hero from the previous book, is more in line with the tweet – respectful and a normal, nice guy outside of the bedroom.  Another Dom side character sticks up for Lindsey in a gentlemanly way.  I liked these guys better than the hero.

Both characters know very little about the practical side of BDSM and jump in after a dollop of research and a trip to the sex toy store.  This bothered me, not in a ‘you’re doing it wrong’ way but in a ‘eeep someone may get hurt’ way.  After finishing I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and someone* made a good point – a lot of couples get into the lifestyle this way.  They see something they like and jump in with both feet, whether they’re ready for it or not.  By the end of the book Lindsey and Ben are planning to go to a club and get their learning on but it was too late for me.  During the sex scenes I was more worried than anything else. (‘Why are you using rough rope? Do you know what you’re doing?!’)

Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not my thing.  Here’s hoping the third book is better.


*I’m not sure if her reviews are private so I’m going to avoid linking without permission

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

31684565Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm, and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

Review:

While reading I kept thinking, “this is the perfect category romance, filled with LGBTQIA+ folks that make it even more awesome.”  So much to love.

Cassidy is in the mold of a Harlequin Presents hero, a high-powered New York lawyer that works hard and plays harder.  She wears exquisitely tailored suits by day and plows through a large swath through the NY lesbian scene by night. Katie, on the other hand, has become unmoored from her social network after her engagement is broken off by her cheating fiancee Paul.  She pulls herself together to do the lawyer thing and ends up in a boardroom negotiating with Cassidy, another firm’s counsel.  Their immediate connection makes Katie wonder if she’s ever truly known herself, while Cassidy wonders why she can’t toss Katie aside like her other lovers.

So we have an alpha heroine, another heroine that wants more from life, glamorous work in a stunning city, topped off with a meet-cute.  Straight-talking best friend? Check. Romantic weekend getaway? Check. Two people falling in love, both because and in spite of their best efforts? Check and check.

It reads fast, is perfectly plotted, and kept me invested in the love story throughout.  The characters are well-rounded and have fully-realized motivations, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding that makes me want to smack a heroine on the upside of the head.  Katie and Cassidy’s love is earned, and it is delicious.

The writing is good, too:

Katie had never been a fantasizer of any kind.  She was more of a planner, a doer. She was a pleaser of others – not one for exploring self-pleasure or whatever….

But Cassidy was hot. And the only other women Katie ever thought of as hot were the ones she wanted to be. Not do. Be.

She could almost see the other photos in a family album somewhere, of the two of them bullet-belted, toting rifles, flashing huge grins over some enormous dead animal. They were the kind of guys Cassidy would cross the street to avoid because her intolerance of them was palpable, yes, but also in fear they’d attack her for sport, too, if she came too close.

I love When Katie Met Cassidy and hope Perri keeps writing books in this vein – brava.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

To Have and to Hold by Tamryn Eradani (Enchanting Encounters #2)

 

40236108Following the success of Project: Notice Me, Kyle and Aidan are now in a three-month extension of their play. If three months wasn’t so short, then it would be everything Kyle wants.

They’ve been together long enough to meet each other’s friends and to try new things. Kyle only hopes that at the end of the three months, he isn’t the only one who wants more.

Review:

I love the first book of this series, To Seek and to Find, because it’s BDSM erotica that is grounded in reality.  Members of the club Enchanting Encounters form a loving community of kinksters and I was so happy to rejoin them.

Just as in book one we follow Kyle and Aidan, who have decided that their two week-old relationship deserves a three month extension.  They’re still figuring out what they like, visiting each other’s apartments for the first time, and passing muster with best friends and neighbors.

I really like the BDSM itself.  The meaning Kyle’s cuffs take on, conversations in the club, a rope bondage scene with Kyle’s neighbor – I’m here for all of it.  Some are carryovers from and callbacks to the first book and I like how the narrative thread isn’t being dropped.  People at the club, in particular, are being fleshed out and I hope they’ll get their own stories going forward.

The sex is sweet and scenes varied, but there’s precious little plot holding them together.  I’m glad there’s no Big Misunderstanding, but I wanted a bit more there there.  New chapters often start with a jump in time and change of place that left me at sea. And some things just didn’t make sense – Aidan lives in a duplex supplied by his employer but the neighbors have free run of his kitchen for reasons I can’t discern.

If you don’t like the third person present you may be put off but it doesn’t bother me.  Despite the more objective standpoint, though, we never get deep into Aidan’s head.  I didn’t mind it for the first book – a touch of mystery! room to grow! – but I’m having a hard time connecting to our Dom hero without it.

All in all a decent if slightly slumpy second book in the series.  That being said there’s a teaser for book three and I like the direction Eradani is headed.

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