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.

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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.

Erstwhile by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #1)

31282859As an adamant opponent of Terran settlement on the planet Jekh, Owen McGarry made his family name synonymous with “traitor” on Earth. Nearly twenty years after Owen’s supposed death, his granddaughter Courtney wants to learn the truth—even if she has to travel to the far-flung colony to do it.

Court soon learns that not only was her grandfather right about the Jekhans, but that conditions on their world are far more hostile than she feared. Terran forces decimated the population of the resident human-alien hybrids, and the people who remain seem to be all out of fight. That is, except for the pair of men Court finds hiding in her basement.

Review:

I needed an off the wall romance to reset a brain beset by sad literary fiction, and this cover promises just that – a triad, in space! I didn’t need much beyond that, but Trent brings a bunch more.

The good:

  • Considered, in-depth world building. Trent has built an entire society complete with history, traditions, and -isms, for a lack of a better term. The beginning of the novel scratches the surface and things get deeper as you go on. At first I wasn’t sure Trent would go that deep, so I was happy to see she thought the world out completely.
  • The romance is okay and the plot works fine, but the characters are what keeps the story going. It’s not about watching the relationship evolve as much as it’s watching them recognize and overcome differences.
  • But above all, the themes discussed made the book for me. There’s a look at how first contact can go oh so wrong. Earth colonized the Jehkhan’s planet in a way that calls back to the treatment of Native Americans, yet isn’t a carbon copy. Intercultural relationships are examined in a way that feels true, and recalls moments (okay, fights) in my own international marriage. Along with the characterization it gave me a lot to chew on.
  • It read quickly and was just what I needed in the moment, always a plus.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalust quickly leads to more, and Court doesn’t examine some (spoilery) big steps as much as I would like.
  • After a bunch of characterization work the plot takes off like a rocket for the last chapters, coming out of nowhere and depositing us in a completely different place, a bit stunned and confused.

Erstwhile ended up being more intellectual than I would have thought from the cover and description but still provided the romantic escape I needed. I’m looking forward to getting into book two and seeing how the world deepens from here.

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.

A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #3)

38622940Nya Jerami fled Thesolo for the glitz and glamour of NYC but discovered that her Prince Charming only exists in her virtual dating games. When Nya returns home for a royal wedding, she accidentally finds herself up close and personal—in bed—with the real-life celebrity prince who she loves to hate.

For Johan von Braustein, the red-headed step-prince of Liechtienbourg, acting as paparazzi bait is a ruse that protects his brother—the heir to the throne—and his own heart. When a royal referendum threatens his brother’s future, a fake engagement is the perfect way to keep the cameras on him.

Nya and Johan both have good reasons to avoid love, but as desires are laid bare behind palace doors, they must decide if their fake romance will lead to a happily-ever-after.

Review:

Trigger warning for abuse.

I’ve had very hit and miss experiences with Cole’s other contemporary novels, but this is my favorite Reluctant Royals book by far.

The good, in no particular order:

  • Like most of Cole’s books it’s own voices Black representation.
  • There are several LGBTQIA+ characters. One’s queerness becomes a plot point, but the others are simply themselves and that is awesome.
  • Nya has some trauma in her past and it isn’t info dumped but you get it.
  • All the consent! Nya is not experienced in the sexual department and Johan rushes nothing and asks for permission before everything. Love.
  • Nya and Johan both have a bunch of emotional issues they’re dealing with, but their baggage matches. It’s great to see two people who help each other with their stuff constructively, and don’t set each other off.
  • At one point it looks like we’re headed for a Big Misunderstanding but the characters talk to each other like adults. The way it should be!
  • There’s some great positive modeling, including how to bring up the subject of pronouns with someone who may be questioning their own.
  • As always Cole brings in current events. Johan’s country is largely white and a former colonial power, and the government and people are going through growing pains, figuring out what they want their future to look like. How do you interact with your former colonies? Do you welcome refugees? What is the place of a monarchy in this day and age?

The not-so-good:

  • While I love the romance the plot is disappointing, especially the ending. It has good elements overall but I don’t feel like Cole stuck the landing.

I’m happy I stuck with the series through a DNF and two mediocre reads, and am looking forward to whatever Cole may come out with next.

Close Quarter by Anna Zabo (Close Quarter #1)

35534292On a transatlantic cruise to New York, sculptor Rhys Matherton struggles to piece his life back together after losing his mother, inheriting a fortune, and finding out his father isn’t his father after all. He spills a tray of drinks on a handsome stranger, then he finds himself up against a wall getting the best hand-job he’s ever had. And for the first time in his life, he feels whole.

Rhys enjoys the company of Silas Quint, but for the eerie way no one pays attention to them even while they kiss in a crowded bar. Silas explains he’s a forest fae able to glamor the room around them—and more importantly, that he’s on the cruise to hunt vampires. Rhys thinks Silas is full of it, until he discovers vampires are real, and he’s part of their main course.

Review:

Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series (first book Syncopation) is amazing, but now that it’s over ~sob~ I wanted to dip into their backlist. The first book I came up with was Close Quarter, a paranormal m/m romance set on a cruise ship.

I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sold by the jacket copy. Fae and vampires on a cruise ship? But Zabo does a good job of introducing us to the characters and slowly building out the world. We learn about fae and vampires (called soulless) along with Rhys and while there aren’t many high level ‘why the world is like this’ answers, I don’t expect that in the first book of a series.

I’m a fan of the relationship because, thanks to some paranormal handwaving, it’s based on an intimate knowledge of each other. There’s some great banter, too.

“You’re so damn young. Beautiful. Like a spring morning.”
“What, cold, foggy, and damp?”
Silas shifted on the tub’s edge, turned his hand to capture Rhys’s fingers. “Warm and occasionally dense. But full of promise.”

As hinted in the same jacket copy, the sex starts early and happens often. I love steaminess in my romance, and a bunch of the sex scenes help us understand Rhys and Silas’ relationship and how it evolves. At the same time, I think there’s too many of them. Whenever they finish fighting a baddie it’s back to the cabin for sex. At times it feels like stalling, waiting for night to fall so they can get back to killing soulless.

While the plot is fine it needed a little more. I would expect a 262 page book to have a solid subplot, but beyond Rhys wondering about his family we come up short. Part of that is because there are precious few characters – beside good guys Rhys and Silas we have the Big Bad, his cookie cutter lackies, and a waiter on the cruise ship. That’s it.

I would argue that this book could be edited down into a 150 novella and made amazing. As is it’s still a fun read and I would continue the series, but Close Quarter was written in 2012 and there still isn’t a sequel. Ah, well. I’m looking forward to moving on to Zabo’s contemporaries.

Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #5)

40404706Although beautiful young widow Phoebe, Lady Clare, has never met West Ravenel, she knows one thing for certain: he’s a mean, rotten bully. Back in boarding school, he made her late husband’s life a misery, and she’ll never forgive him for it. But when Phoebe attends a family wedding, she encounters a dashing and impossibly charming stranger who sends a fire-and-ice jolt of attraction through her. And then he introduces himself…as none other than West Ravenel.

West is a man with a tarnished past. No apologies, no excuses. However, from the moment he meets Phoebe, West is consumed by irresistible desire…not to mention the bitter awareness that a woman like her is far out of his reach. She’s the daughter of a strong-willed wallflower who long ago eloped with Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent—the most devilishly wicked rake in England.

Review:

West has been developing as a character over the entire course of the Ravenel series so I was excited to see that he is the hero of book five. He’s become an awesome guy and deserves a happily ever after! While Devil’s Daughter is a solid romance in the Kleypas mold I was hoping West’s story would be my favorite of the bunch, but alas.

The good:

  • Kleypas has been writing historicals for a long time and she knows what she’s doing. No major problems with the plot and the characterization is good, making for a solid read.
  • There are many cameos of characters from previous books, both in the Ravenel series as well a her previous Wallflower series. She succinctly reminds us who each person is and no one overstays their welcome, and there’s a nice balance between old and new that didn’t stress me out.
  • Yea for fun banter! I think I like West and Phoebe together best when they’re in this mode, especially the quips over dinner. There’s also a lovely rejoinder to the all to common line, ‘I don’t deserve him/her’ that will stick with me.
  • Phoebe has two small children and they act like children. The one year old is most notable for overturning his applesauce and making a mess, and the preschooler is most interested in playing in the river. No plot moppets here!
  • Part of the non-romance plot revolves around how farming was changing and becoming more technological. Some people wanted to continue the way they always had, but West is committed to changing with the times.
  • Phoebe’s dead husband isn’t villainized, nor is their love put forward as something less than the love between Phoebe and West. They’re merely different, and it tickles me that the book asserts that a person can have more than one “true love” in their life. It’s lovely to see.

The not-so-good:

  • While the kids weren’t plot moppets a cat was used as one. Cute as all heck, moved the plot along… and was never mentioned again once it served its purpose. Gah.
  • I’m done with the trope where a kid is timid around people in general, but gloms onto the love interest because fate. ‘Normally my son’s shy around strangers, but he’s crawling all over the guy I like!’ Sigh.
  • The main conflict starts as stated in the jacket copy, with Phoebe deciding she hates West before he even meets him. It resolves quickly enough then transitions to West worrying that his sordid past will be used against Phoebe’s sons if they get married. Each conflict is fine on its own but they’re not linked together very well, making for some disjointedness.

Devil’s Daughter is another solid book from Kleypas, but considering that I had such high hopes for West’s story I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Hello Stranger is still my favorite Ravenel book, no question.

Flinch: A Grenton PD Short Story by L. Setterby

32502525David Bourdon isn’t over his ex.

He misses their old life. He misses Ann-Marie’s laugh, her sultry voice, the way she swears like a sailor.
He had good reasons for leaving her. She can do better than him. He’s fucked up; she’s not.

But now Ann-Marie wants him back. On one condition: he has to be honest with her, for the very first time. About what he likes. What he wants her to do to him.

He thought leaving her took all the courage he had. He was wrong.

Review:

I’m not a big short story person when it comes to romance, but Wendy the Super Librarian loves Setterby and suggested Flinch as an introduction to her work. And who am I to complain when it’s free and I have a long flight ahead of me?

It’s truly a short story, clocking in at under 30 pages, and as a result there’s not much story here. David needs pain in order to enjoy sex, but he never told his ex that. He tells her when they meet by chance, leading to an erotic hotel room encounter.

On the good side, masochistic men are thin on the ground so I’m glad to see one as the hero. The writing is fine, the sex scene is fine, it’s.. fine.

Flinch didn’t blow my mind, but it’s unfair to expect that at this length.  I liked it enough enough to try out Setterby’s novels in the future, so there’s that.

Reverb by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #3)

43185688Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess—gorgeous, sexy and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: a stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing—not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training—prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice—lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

Review:

What a wonderful end to an amazing series!

The good:

  • Mish is a pansexual cis woman, David is a trans man, and they’re in a book full of lots of queer folks written by a non-binary person. All the yes.
  • The romance is like-likes-like, which I don’t see very often. Mish and David both see themselves as protectors and have a similar personality type, and as a result they have a feel for what makes each other tick. It brings them closer while also contributing to issues down the line.
  • I love that Zabo doesn’t have Big Miscommunications in their books. People talk to each other about their feelings like the adults they are – insert mock gasp of shock here. 😉
  • The found family dynamic runs through the series and is extra strong here. You can sense that the group is nearly complete and that David is the last puzzle piece. And him fitting goes both ways – the band accepts him as part of the family, and he has to realize and accept that he both fits and is wanted.
  • There’s a natural friendship between David and Adrian as the two guys who are with the band but don’t play on stage and it works so well.
  • The queerness of the band is never forgotten, and they are totally there for their fans and each other, from lead singer down through the roadies.
  • Little realities of touring ring true and make sense. For example, when they get donuts at a rest stop they make sure to buy the most garish ones they can find because they’ll look good on Instagram.
  • There’s tons of positive modelling, showing how delicate situations should be handled. When David sees a crew member hesitating to enter the men’s room, unsure of their reception, he warmly says “come with me” and strikes up a conversation.
  • In a similar vein, David is cis-passing, so Mish doesn’t realize that he’s trans. We see him come out to her from his point of view, worried she won’t be accepting. Her reaction is honest, real, unforced, and utterly respectful and accepting. We see how much it means to David, and I fell in love with both of them even more.

Neither here-nor-there:

  • The BDSM element so strong in the first two books is really light here. That being said, if you’re interested at all in this series I suggest you start with book one, Syncopation, in order to enjoy the character arcs and warm fuzzies to their fullest.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!

I’m both sad to see this series end and excited to see what Zabo does next – it appears that Twisted Wishes’ opening band could get its own spin off series and I hope it does, and soon!

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

The Rose by Tiffany Reisz (The Red #2)

38827724On the day of Lia’s university graduation party, her parents—wealthy art collectors with friends in high places—gift her a beautiful wine cup, a rare artifact decorated with roses. August Bowman, a friend of her parents and a guest at Lia’s party, tells her it’s known as the Rose kylix and it was used in the temple ceremonies of Eros, Greek god of erotic love, and has the power to bring the most intimate sexual fantasies to life.

He dares her to try it for herself, and when Lia drinks from the Rose kylix she is suddenly immersed in an erotic myth so vivid it seems real—as though she’s living out the most sensual fantasy with August by her side…

Review:

There’s so much to love about this book! Reisz is one of my favorite authors for a reason. 🙂

The good:

  • Reisz is bi and August, our hero, is also bi. Yea!
  • I don’t care about mythology but the way the gods are depicted kept me interested. It made me want to know more about them as “people”, not just the stories they’re depicted in.
  • The romance is just wonderful. Lia first experience with sex wasn’t all that great – nothing non-consensual but in the way that, for a lot of women, your first sex isn’t great sex. After that the guy heaped all kinds of baggage on her and it affects how she feels about sex even now. August is understanding and supportive, and without pushing her farther than she wants to go helps her enjoy sex in the way she wants.
  • The book as a whole is as feminist as hell. There’s little things like Lia’s mom (the heroine of the previous book in the series, The Red) calling the walk of shame a ‘walk of fame’. Why should a woman feel ashamed for having an amazing night of sex? Men can rock it, women should rock it, too!
  • Big things are talked about, as well. There’s lots of discussion of which myths have been passed through history and why – namely because men have decided this or that story is worthy of being immortalized in a painting or play. If there are myths that scare men, maybe showing them as silly, stupid, or weak in the face of a kick-ass woman, there’s a much lower chance that the story would survive the centuries when the gatekeepers all have dicks.
  • At one point the ending steers towards bittersweet, which made me feel conflicted. On one hand I love these two particular characters so much that I want them to have a carefree happily ever after, on the other hand Reisz is stellar at bittersweet resolutions and I know she would make it worthwhile. We ended up getting an unambiguously HEA (yea!), but I can’t help but wonder what a bittersweet ending would have looked like.
  • Speaking of the ending, as with many romances based on Greek myths there’s a deus ex machina at the end. I’m not usually a fan of an all-powerful character sweeping in and fixing things with the sweep of a hand, but here it feels oddly earned. There’s enough strife and heartache to balance things, and it doesn’t feel like an authorly ‘get out of jail free and save the romance in one fell swoop’ card.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • The first book in this series was indie published, while this one was picked up by a major publisher. I noticed that a couple of lines weren’t crossed here, most notably anal sex. There’s no mention of the word, the action looks like it may stray in that direction for a second with all kinds of euphemisms), but it always veers away again. Reisz doesn’t shy away from much of anything sexual, so I figure it must have been a restriction from the publisher. I have no idea about the reasoning, but if that’s the case – boo.
  • If you’d like to try erotic romance by Reisz but aren’t into BDSM this would be a decent place to start. While the sex is adventurous and fantastical it’s light on themes like bondage and submission.

Another awesome work from Riesz – brava! And Lia has three brothers (not to mention some best friends), so there’s no telling where things will go from here. ~rubs hands together greedily~

Thanks to MIRA and Netgalley for providing a review copy.