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.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

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

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

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

Review:

Trigger warning for discussion of a previous abusive relationship.

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

The good:

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

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

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

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

Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau (The Beast Charmer #1)

42366222Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review:

Content warning for physical and emotional torture.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy and this one delivers.

The good:

  • The characters make this novel. They’re complex and shaped by their pasts in real and meaningful ways. Hangups are spun out slowly, both to other characters and to the reader, and motivation and character arcs ring true.
  • In that vein, people keep their secrets for as long as makes sense and no longer. This is big for me, as I’m not a fan of secrets in general, but it works here.
  • There are heaps and heaps of plot once the story gets going, which is the escapism I wanted while stuck inside during a windy typhoon.
  • Themes include found family, finding home, redemption and forgiveness, and how to take care of those we love. Love itself is explored on many dimensions – romantic of course, but also platonic, material, familial, and love for those you are responsible for.
  • Side characters have pasts that are hinted at, and make me excited for more. It appears to be a Happily Ever After For Now for the main couple, with other couples coming together in future books.
  • Noc has the best cover for being an emotionally stunted man that I’ve seen in a long time. It makes for a slow burn and thoroughly confuses Leena.
  • Queerness is natural and a given – stated as fact and not commented on beyond that. When Leena turns on her charm both men and women get starry eyed. While some characters seem to prefer a particular gender for romantic partners, several others are attracted to more than one.
  • And speaking of sex, Leena is given the same latitude a male hero would get. She enjoys casual sex and isn’t above considering it as a means to an end. She’s experienced, enjoys her sexuality, and doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for her desires. Most excellent.
  • Similarly, Leena proves her self as equal to, if not better than, the guys early on. There are a couple of moments where she takes action without giving them warning because she knows better, something men do all.the.time in fantasy. It’s challenged and connects to a couple of character arcs, but it isn’t framed as something wrong, mean, or awful. She has to get shit done, yo.
  • The more that I think about it, gender differences are minimized overall. The immediate bad guy is indeed a guy, but the Big Bad is a woman. When the group stops at an inn she isn’t given a separate room “because she’s a girl” – everyone shares one room or gets their own as circumstances dictate.
  • The ending strikes a nice balance between wrapping things up (the romance and main conflict) and unresolved storylines (the Big Bad, several characters’ mysterious pasts).

The less-than-good:

  • There are some first novel wobbles where details don’t come together or quite make sense.
  • The worldbuilding is good but not perfect. It took a while for me to get my head around the world.
  • The healing nature of some beasts leads to convenient deus ex machina moments. Big stuff comes with a hefty price, which helps.
  • There’s an index of all the beasts mentioned but beware using it as a reference while reading – many spoilers are contained within.

I ended up giving Kingdom of Exiles 3.5 stars, and I can’t wait to see how the story develops from here!

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

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

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

Review:

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

The good:

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

The not-so-good:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review:

Fire is right! ~wipes brow~

The good:

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

The not-so-good:

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

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

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

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

Review:

Trigger warning for gaslighting and emotional abuse.

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

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

This and that:

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

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

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.