Dance All Night by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #2.5)

42379549Broadway hotshot Nik Kovalenko is a confirmed bachelor. Ballroom champion Jess Davenport is a bona fide Scrooge. Last year, they shared a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party that made both of them believe—briefly—in the magic of the holiday season. The magic was cut short when Nik went on tour the next day, but he never stopped thinking about that kiss—or Jess.

When the holidays roll back around, Nik runs into Jess again. He doesn’t want to spend another year pining for the Scrooge who got away, so he tells Jess he’ll stay if she’ll give him a shot at being her Christmas Present.

Jess thinks he’s full of it, but she agrees to three dates. If Nik can make her believe in holiday magic in a place as un-wintery as Los Angeles—and convince her that he’s ready to stick around—she’ll give him a chance. But he won’t know until New Year’s Eve. If she kisses him at midnight, he’ll have his answer…

Review:

This book is exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.  Work has been rough lately and being able to escape into this book on the train ride home was just the thing.

The good:

  • Women of color written by a woman of color – excellent. (The author is Latinx.) The heroine has curly hair and it comes up several times in the plot, as in, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to sleep tonight and I’m bringing my satin pillowcase.’
  • Nik is probably the sweetest hero I’ve ever read. Not calculating sweet, or saccharine sweet, but – he thought of and did that because his freakin’ soul is just sweet. I’d give examples but I don’t want to spoil anything because:
  • The book is novella length and perfectly fits its pages. It’s all A plot, no subplot, and the story doesn’t feel stretched out or rushed. All of the emotional beats are here.
  • There’s a nice dose of holiday spirit, from sweater parties to family dinners. Nik’s family immigrated to the US from Ukraine and I enjoyed learning about Eastern Orthodox holiday traditions.
  • The Dance Off isn’t filming but there is still dancing, yea! Nik is a Broadway dancer more than a singer/actor, and the scenes where they dance as a couple are lovely.

The not-so-good:

  • The only thing I can think of is that Nik may be a little too perfect, but it’s not a thought that crossed my mind while reading. He’s the right kind of perfect for me.

A wonderful read to heal your heart and get into the holiday spirit, and the perfect book at the perfect time for me. I’m excited for the next book in the series, slated to come out in 2019, yea!

Thanks to NYLA and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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Little x by Elna Holst (A Tinsel and Spruce Needles Romance #2)

42835577Malmö, Sweden, 1996

Sofie Andersson is a dyslectic born under the star sign Aries, who drives the local buses for a living. Her hobbies include knitting terrible hats and intermittent lesbianism. This December she is on the point of moving into her first flat of her own, figuring out her place in the world, when an instant attraction to a handsome stranger leads her to question everything she’s taken for granted.

Review:

I picked up this story because it’s from a LGBTQIA+ publisher that I love and because it’s an f/nb romance. How often do you see that? It’s a short story so I won’t say much beyond the blurb.

The good:

  • The author is LGBTQIA+, and I think this is the first romance I’ve read with an intersex protagonist.
  • Roz is misgendered often, being addressed as he when they use they/them pronouns, but it’s usually corrected quickly on the page.
  • The story is set in Sweden in 1996, something I haven’t seen before.

The not-so-good:

  • The writing and plot are confusing. We’re introduced to lots of people quickly and given the barest of connections between them – mother, best friend, older sister.
  • Some past events are alluded to but glossed over.  It turns out this is the second in a series but I didn’t realize that until after I finished.
  • Little attention is paid to the where. Conversations feel like they’re floating, not anchored to a space. I started assuming location – the best friend is a fellow bus driver, so they must be at the depot, I guess. And so on.
  • The conflict, which revolves around Roz having to go back to America at the end of the semester, is sloppily handled.

A quick read thanks to its length, and I love seeing a f/nb relationship on the page, but it could have been much better.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Mating the Huntress by Talia Hibbert

42034959Chastity Adofo knows a monster when she sees one. As soon as Luke Anthony wanders into her family’s coffee shop, she recognises the evil lurking beneath his charming smile and fantastic arse. The handsome werewolf is determined to have her—but she’s determined to cut out his heart.

Little does she know, Luke’s plans for her are far more pleasurable than murder. And when the full moon rises, all bets are off…

Review:

I’ve enjoyed Hibbert’s writing in the past but each of the two novels I read had something that was not my thing.  In Bad for the Boss it was a suspense storyline I could have done without, and The Princess Trap had some triggering subjects discussed in the here and now, which I need to prepare my heart for.

Mating the Huntress, however, is good paranormal fun.  Chastity comes from a family of werewolf huntresses but hasn’t been allowed to face them herself.  Luke runs into her scent by chance, realizes they’re mates, and manufactures a meeting.  Chas goes along because she sees her chance for her first kill, and also ’cause he’s kinda cute.

It’s hard to say more because this is a novella and while the story didn’t feel overstuffed I wanted more pages.  I wanted a B plot, more characterization, and the world building could use some fleshing out.  Interesting elements are teased, but there’s no room to expand on them.

There’s lots to like, and lots that makes it a quick, easy read – interracial romance by a black woman author, all kinds of consent all over the place, and genuinely funny exchanges that may leave you cackling.  It helped me forgive the fated mate storyline and shorter page length.  I would love to see Hibbert build out a paranormal world from zero over the course of a series – Mating the Huntress is a start but I would love to see something with more depth.

Unbuttoning the CEO by Mia Sosa (The Suits Undone #1)

27477568As the CEO of a large tech company and a semi-reformed bad boy, Ethan Hill is used to calling the shots. But when he’s sentenced to work two hundred hours of community service-for reckless driving, of all things-this chief executive needs to keep his real identity under wraps. Which gets increasingly difficult when he can’t stop thinking about his sexy new (temporary) boss.

The moment Graciela Ramirez meets Ethan, she’s tempted to throw all professionalism out the window. She can’t afford to get emotionally involved, but after a steamy session behind office doors, a no-strings-attached fling might be exactly what they need. He’ll protect his secret. She’ll protect her heart. What could possibly go wrong?

Review:

I loved Sosa’s Acting on Impulse and wanted some breathing room before picking up the next book so I jumped to this series instead.  It turns out Unbuttoning the CEO is Sosa’s first novel, and it feels like it.  Not bad – it won a Golden Heart award after all – but uneven plot and character motivations as well as a lack of communication annoyed me.

I was surprised to find the basic setup is exactly the same as Impulse – a powerful/rich guy who goes by his middle name in business uses his first name for Reasons, and meets a beautiful lady under these barely false pretenses.

Acting on Impulse uses the tropes well – when the guy is “outed” the hero and heroine get around to talking and working through it.  Here Ethan keeps his secret much longer while having a ‘no strings’ relationship with Gracie, and neither is all that interested in communicating.  They do things to provoke reactions in each other and read too deeply into the results.  Gracie in particular does things that make little sense, like dropping a bunch of cash on a birthday present for her no-strings lover.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book first.  It reminds me that a so-so first novel can easily lead to great reads down the line, something always worth remembering.

Picture Perfect Cowboy by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #10)

39092063Jason “Still” Waters’ life looks perfect from the outside—money, fame, and the words “World Champion Bull-Rider” after his name. But Jason has a secret, one he never planned on telling anybody…until he meets Simone. She’s the kinky girl of his dreams…and his conservative family’s worst nightmare.

Review:

A new release by Reisz, especially one in the Original Sinners universe, is always a reason to cheer.  Here she returns with some of her favorite elements – BDSM (of course), horses, and beloved series regulars – in a contemporary erotic romance.

The good:

  • Bi (as well as maybe pan) rep by an own voices author ❤️🌈
  • Zee tropes, zey are flipped.  Instead of a baby sub, endemic in the genre, we have a baby dom who is guided by a professional submissive.
  • The couple’s romance and emotional journey is well paced and thought out… until the end.
  • Reisz is always explicitly sex positive and guilt negative, and it’s a joy to read.
    “This is what I think,” she said. “If you’re enjoying it and I’m enjoying it, then we’re doing it right.”
  • There are cameo appearances by Nora and Soren – yum.  That being said the story stands on its own, even if you’ve never read an Original Sinners book.
  • It’s small and random, but I love that speaking two languages isn’t presented as weird.  No “wow!” or “you’re so smart!” or cultural stereotyping, just the fact that the hero knows Spanish (and the heroine has a passing knowledge, as well).  This bilingual appreciates it.

The oh-so-close:

  • The final conflict hinges on a misunderstanding. It’s not a Big Mis, and it makes sense, but the category length (~200 pages) means it comes up and is resolved very quickly, with a facile epilogue.  All the emotional beats are there, though, so yea for that.
  • Reisz gravitates to shorter page counts but I like her at novel length, damn it.  The characterization is so wonderful that I want to see more of everyone.  Here the best friends, Luke especially, would have benefited from fleshing out.
  • I love that the story is low angst… but that started giving me angst.  “What’s the end conflict going to be?  Groupies discovering the girlfriend?  A sexy video or text getting hacked?  What if he forgets the condom ahhhhhh” (He doesn’t, by the way.  Perfect gentleman.)  This is a me thing, though, and you’ll probably be fine. 😅

Three cheers for Reisz in the mode I like her best.  It’s also a good entry point into her work if the summary and shorter length appeal to you.  If you’d rather skip the BDSM try Her Halloween Treat instead.

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Acting on Impulse by Mia Sosa (Love on Cue #1)

33783458After a very public breakup with a media-hungry politician, fitness trainer Tori Alvarez escapes to Aruba for rest and relaxation. She vows to keep her vacation a man-free zone but when a cute guy is seated next to her on the plane, Tori can’t resist a little harmless flirting.

Hollywood heartthrob Carter Stone underwent a dramatic physical transformation for his latest role and it’s clear his stunning seat mate doesn’t recognize the man beneath the shaggy beard and extra lean frame. Now Carter needs help rebuilding his buff physique and Tori is perfect for the job.

Sparks are flying, until a pesky paparazzo reveals Carter’s identity. Tori is hurt and pissed. Can Carter convince Tori he’s worth the threat to her privacy that comes with dating a famous actor, or will Tori chisel him down to nothing before he even gets the chance?

Review:

I picked this book up for a readathon and I am so, so glad I did.  It’s a perfect “me” contemporary romance – low-stress, great plot, all kinds of rep, and so much fun.

The good:

  • The heroine is Puerto Rican and the author is an Afro-Latinx woman from Puerto Rico – huzzah own voices!
  • The entire cast is diverse racially and in terms of physical ability, and as far as I can tell the only white character of note is the hero.
  • The competence porn is on point.  Tori is a wonderful trainer, Carter is a good actor, the family restaurant is doing well, the gym is well-managed, and more.  People may have varying degrees of confidence and there are setbacks, but everyone rocks at what they do and supports each other.
  • Tori’s roommate and best friend Eva is a joy.  Their relationship reminds me of one of my best friends and they always put each other first, before the men in their lives.
  • Other supporting characters are fully developed and I can’t wait to read their happily ever afters, too.
  • Stereotypes are casually subverted and I am so here for it.

    A flight attendant taking drink orders hovers in the vicinity.  I pull down my tray table and ask him for a cup of coffee.

    “Him”!  Yes!

  • Spanish is used throughout and while it’s italicized it isn’t translated every time, a huge plus in my book.
  • Difficult or potentially problematic situations are dealt with in beautiful ways.  Tori calls Carter out immediately when he says something shitty and he apologizes genuinely and on the spot.  He never forces her to do anything and asks for consent every step of the way.  Even throw away lines are recast.  For example, there’s a scene where a typical alpha-hole hero would tell the heroine that he doesn’t ‘take no for an answer’.  Here’s what Carter says instead:

    “Yeah, I understand. You should know this, though – I will always take no for an answer, but the minute you say otherwise, you’re mine, and I won’t hold anything back.”

    All of the alpha, none of the hole.  I love to see this on the page and it warmed my heart.

  • While there are stressful moments they’re resolved quickly.  ‘Oh no, a paparazzo took a picture!’ is on one page and is handled deftly on the next.  This kept the romance low-stress for me, and while there is angst it was well within what I can handle.  It was much appreciated in a week where the real world news was beyond the pale.
  • The plot is intricately crafted and well-paced, with the pieces fitting together perfectly.  It’s a slow burn but when they do get to the sex?  ~fans herself~

The not-so-good:

  • There are shades of instalust in the beginning but it’s non-creepy and didn’t bother me. That’s it!

I can’t wait to read more of Sosa’s books, and am so grateful that Latinx-a-thon introduced me to her work.  Yea finding a new author to love!

Lair of the Lion by Christine Feehan

9666290Rumor said the powerful Nicolai DeMarco could command the heavens, that the beasts below did his bidding . . . and that he was doomed to destroy the woman he took as wife.

Impoverished aristocrat Isabella Vernaducci would defy death itself to rescue her imprisoned brother. She’d even brave the haunted, accursed lair of the lion—the menacing palace of legendary, lethal Don Nicolai DeMarco.

Then Isabella met a man whose growl was velvet, purring heat, whose eyes held dark, all-consuming desire. And when the don commanded her to become his bride, she went willingly into his muscled arms, praying she’d save his tortured soul . . . not sacrifice her life.

Review:

I love Beauty and the Beast retellings so while I wasn’t an instant fan of Feehan’s Dark series I picked this up with few qualms.

To start, anyway.

The good:

  • The “beast” conceit hangs on a bit of magic I like – most people see Nicolai as a literal lion so they’re understandably scared of him.
  • The first half didn’t turn me off completely.  I wasn’t expecting mastery and just wanted a quick read, so things were on an okay track.  However.

The not-so-good:

  • Isabella is just this side of Too Stupid To Live.  There’s evil lurking about and Nicolai tells her not to leave the castle… upon which she runs outside every chance she gets.  And it gets her into damsel-in-distress trouble every. single. time. GRAH.
  • There’s a fixation with Christianity that made me feel like I was being preached to.  When Isabella first arrives at the castle she’s relieved that some of the servants cross themselves, as this is a sign that they’re ‘good Christians’.  The curse is set up as a good/Christian vs. bad/old/unenlightened/witchcraft divide.  I did not need or want it.
  • In that vein, an older, kindly character warns the hero and heroine not to have sex until after they’re married.  When they do the deed anyway Isabella is almost instantly punished for her indiscretion.  Not Nicolai – he’s the one doing the backhanded punishing.  As a result the heroine doesn’t get a chance to associate sex with happiness and love, only as a forbidden fruit.  Me not happy.
  • Isabella’s characterization is troubling.  We are never given a concrete number but she’s portrayed as being at a tender age.  She’s the “young charge” of an elderly maid, and there’s an undercurrent of, ‘go away, little girl’ to some interactions.  I had trouble imagining her any older than sixteen, which squares with her idiotic decisions but not sex with a guy who seems like he’s in his thirties.  (Again, no age given for him, but still.  He has his shit together, at least.)  She’s also referred to as pure, as never even having thought about sex, and so on.
  • Female friendships are thrown under the bus.  Isabella is introduced to a couple of women who live in? near? the castle so that she can make some friends.  They’re never allowed to be friends, though – there’s jealousy and all of the petty stereotypes of how women supposedly back stab each other at any opportunity.  It even helps fuel the big bad battle.
  • We never learn what the big bad actually is.  It’s an evil force… that is defeated. Yea?
  • Furthermore, it attacks people completely at random, taking away suspense from a who-dun-it Feehan tries to build.

There are quite a few four and five star reviews for this book on Goodreads but oh boy, not for me at all.  One star.

Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #2)

35564582New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.

Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice, and his attraction to her, but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.

Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?

Review:

Disclaimer off the bat: I’m not the biggest contemporary romance person and I wasn’t able to finish the previous book in the series, A Princess in Theory.  The entitled prince buying people off wasn’t quite my thing.  I still picked up this book, though, because I wanted to see what #swordbae was all about.

The good:

  • All kinds of rep here, including a black woman and bi-racial guy in an interracial relationship, and ADHD.  There’s also representation for someone who is giving up alcohol because they want to, damn it, and someone who is not interested in marriage.  Own voice reviewers on Goodreads have given the ADHD rep particular praise, which makes me happy.
  • There’s careful, considered handling of issues all around.  For example, this is an off comment:

    “There are already stories circulating that Johan and I are sharing you, which would be fine if any of us were into that, but that’s not the healthy setup being spread around.”

  • I like that Cole uses totally believable but not real company names.  SuperLift (ride sharing) and InstaPhoto (social media) for the win.
  • Mini flipped trope – she buys him clothes. Yea!

Duke by DefaultThe not-so-good:

  • It took me a while to get into the story, and I didn’t feel fully connected until the halfway point or so.

I can’t think of any other big negatives, just that contemporaries are not my usual so while I liked this book well enough it didn’t immediately become a favorite.

All that being said I am on board with the next book, which will feature a playboy prince with a heart of gold.  He pops into this story for a bit and I got some Devil in Winter vibes – sold.  Also looking forward to the next historical Cole writes, as those are exactly my thing!

Counterpoint by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #2)

39675785Twisted Wishes lead guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder—the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Review:

I absolutely loved the first book in the series, Syncopation, and this one is just as awesome.

The good:

  • Rep! Pansexual main character, gay main character, main character with anxiety and panic attacks, m/m relationship.  And written by a non-binary author, huzzah!
  • Adrian is a Dominant but not an asshole.  He checks in with Dominic constantly for consent and can be downright deferential at work.  He reminded me of this tweet – they do exist!

  • Being penetrated is separated from being the sub (yea!), and Adrian goes to pains to point out that BDSM may be therapeutic but it does not equal sessions with a qualified professional.  Common sense but so many romances overlook it.
  • The D/s is without humiliation or pain, but with bondage – a rare combo.Counterpoint
  • While a whole lot of stuff goes down there’s no stereotypical Big Misunderstanding because – get this – the characters are grown ass adults and talk with each other.  I know, crazy concept!
  • Zabo takes a trope I don’t like (Big Secret) and makes me appreciate it, no small feat.
  • They also write inner conflict like woah.  We saw shades in the the last book but not like this.
  • The themes resonate with me – found family, the value of doing something you love, the idea that a partner should make you more… you.

The not-as-good:

  • Zavier turned into a golden boy since the last book, losing his flaws. It’s weird considering the rest of the characterization is so good.
  • The story technically stands alone but you’re going to want to read Syncopation first.

I like this romance almost as much as the previous in the series, which is amazing considering it’s based on a trope I don’t care for.  I read it cover to cover in a day and cannot wait for the next volume.

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

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.