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Time to Set it aside: Mini-DNF reviews

Earlier this month in a bid to become more aware of what I have piling up in my ARC and Impulse-buy TBR, I spent a evening sorting through 67 pages of books on my kindle.  It was a good exercise. I found a bunch of good books that I forgotten I had bought and I rediscovered more than a few books that I had started but didn't finish for one reason or another. The ones that I still think I will re-start and finish went into my In-progress folder to wait for a new day and a different mood.  However for a fair number of ARCs that just won't working for me or I was done with even if I didn't actually finish it.

34820952The Cartographer by Tamsen Parker.  I believe this is the final book in the Compass series.  Rey is everyone's match-maker & kink coach and he falls for a guy that has way too many other things going on his life and really doesn't want Rey to manage him. I highly anticipated Rey's book and  I was enjoying it right up to the point where Rey screws up everything up. Or is about to. You know how you get a sense that everything is good, so the big dark moment is coming. Rey had worked so hard to build Allie's trust in him, that I knew whatever he did was just going to be infuriatiating. I got such a strong sense of anxiety, I had to jump to the end.  I ended up reading several of the final chapters, seeing if I could make it back to the center but I couldn't go back enough to see Rey hurt Allie.  I got too anxious even having just read the HEA. So I am just going to admit that I am done and content myself with knowing that he was able to fix it. ( I received an ARC for review consideration).  51SqybFmhDL

Dirty Deeds by HelenKay Dimon: I have very much enjoyed the previous two books in in Dimon's Tough Love m/m romantic suspense series. However this one fell flat for me from the beginning. I even hated the cover.  What is happening there. Is he checking the tag to try to figure out why his pants are falling off?  The set-up required the extremely smart, tactical and pragmatic Alec to abandon all previous characterization and behave like lust-crazed driven doofus. Everyone his life in the first few chapters including him can't believe he is being so stupid. I put it down and I am not even midly curious about how it turned out.  This is a rare dud, in what has been a great-run of books by Dimon in the past year. ( I received an ARC for review consideration from the publisher). 

51JzsloGFVL._SY346_Spellbinder by Thea Harrison:  This is another story where I have read nearly 85 to 90 % of it but not in order.   In Spellbinder we follow the villain of the previous book, Moonshadow, Morgan, who is enslaved by the capriciously evil Isabeau. Morgan exploits a badly phrased order by Isabeau to carve out a brief time away from her court in Avalon. During that time he stumbles upon a incredibly gifted musician, Sidonie Martel, becoming fascinated with her from afar. But his interest does not go unnoticed and she soon becomes a pawn of those who want to destroy Morgan and through him Isabeau.  This story was absolutely brutal. Sidonie goes through a harrowing ordeal in Isabeau's court and she is in peril for the vast majority of the book.  Although I believed Morgan and Sidonie's romance, appreciated the way Harrison complicated our understanding of Morgan, how they built up intimacy and found faith in eachtother, in the midst of tense and dangerous setting, but it was just so dark that I couldn't keep coming back. Maybe one day I will see how they faced Isabeau and destroyed her, but I haven't been able to build up enough forward momentum.

( I received an ARC for review consideration).

51aEVUzczWLBlood Guard by Megan Erickson I absolutely adore Erickson's contemporary romances so I was super excited to read her PNR romances. However I am not 0/2. I bailed on Daring Fate (Silver Tip Pack 1)  early on, I found the first few chapters simultaneously info-dumpy and bewildering.  However my issues with Blood Guard were wholly different. I was enjoying the book up to the point we met the hero. The heroine was fascinating and so was her world. But she is yanked right out of it by Athan, reveals to her that she contains powerful life-giving blood meant to be his brother's. Athan is bewildered by his confusing attraction to Tendra and by Tendra's insistence on not being treated as object.  This is bewildering to Athan because although he uses human women for blood and sex, he has not ever talked to one before.   It was just so jarring and stupid. I couldn't quite get past it. I have read plenty of heroes that share this character trait, but I guess I didn't expect it here and it annoyed me too much to want to continue.   I think the book did promise action, had a good sense of fun and ridiculous and was building great tension between the hero and heroine  but it just isn't for me. ( I received an ARC for review consideration from the publisher).

 

I didn't click with these books but maybe they will work for you!

 

 

 

 

 


#RomBkLove August Week 4: Food

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#RomBkLove August Week 4: Food. Hunger, Want, Thirst, Desire... Who combines food & romance to delicious effect?

Food is a big part of my family life, we have a lot traditions built around food. There are dishes we only prepare at Christmas (Coquito or Christmas Log) or foods (Pink beans and rice) we always have on hand. There are the soups or teas we always turn to when we are getting sick. How, when and what we eat at family reflects a lot of what is going on in our lives. If we are stressed and under pressure a lot prepared foods from Wegmans, but the more time we have, the more creative and fun it is.   I can't say I am like my mom who expresses her love through cooking but cooking is certainly one way I express my Puerto Rican identity. I have a hand-painted plate up in my kitchen that states that my kitchen is Puerto Rico, step in there and expect to find all the pilones, plantains, garlic, adobo, gandules and rice you might ever need.  

There are a thousand cupcake baking heroines but food in romance can play other roles, sometimes is it a caretaking act, providing warmth and comfort when it is needed, or sometimes and exploration or rediscovery of personal tastes and desires that in tandem with sexual desire and sometimes an expression of creative energy beyond simple sustenance.

Nessa the heroine in Kit Rocha's Beyond Surrender has one overriding passion in life. She has taken up and abandoned a thousand hobbies but the only thing that has held her attention for the whole of her life is making Bourbon. But the fact that her skill makes her incredibly value to O'Kane gang and their competitors means she has had to fend of too many suitors who are not interested in her personally, making her incredibly suspicious and wary.  I love this scene from Beyond Ecstasy, where that tension and conflict is highlighted.

In Fast Connection  by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell, Costigan's insistence in making himself a sandwich post hookup with Luke, highlights both his vulnerability and obliviousness. He wants to build a connection, make something more of his encounter with Luke, all while Luke is trying to usher him out of his house so he can keep his life strictly compartmentalized. The Costigan family bagel shop is also a source a lot of tension in the book, as Dominic struggles to work alongside his father again after leaving the military.

In Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang there are a ton of scenes food,one a turf war over a favorite sushi restaurant, an insane but cathartic food fight between siblings but my favorite and most fascinating was when Jake and Sarah take Jake's dad to a white-run Taiwanese restaurant, and how differently they react to the experience. This is not a book about food but like in my life food has a role in a lot of the most important scenes.

In Beverly Jenkins's Forbidden cooking is not just something that provides sustenance for Eddy it is a skill that can give her a way out of poverty. She stubbornly holds on to her cookstove, when she is abandoned in the desert, because without it she has not way to provide for herself. In the book the meals she shares Rhine while she is recovering at his place establish intimacy and his stubborn desire to care for her. The role of food plays in community comes up again and again in the book.

Laura Florand writes a lot of books that feature chefs or chocoletiers.  These books use food in classically romantic and seductive ways. If you want a romance that will make you want to order fancy chocolates or make your own hot chocolate from scratch you need to find her books.    

I really enjoyed Sabrina Sol's Delicious Desire series.  The first, Delicious Temptation is about a Mexican-American pastry chef who returns home to help keep her parent's traditional bakery alive, but it is a thankless sacrifice as they resent all her suggestions to update the menu. She then falls for a guy with a terrible rep.

In Kristen Ashley's books food is ever present. Sweets, junk food and above all comfort foods are sprinkled through each of these books, (for example Hillglosss Donuts, Sunny and Shambles's moist cakes, junk food football Sundays), and fancy restaurants are often sites of romantic confrontations and showdowns.  She has a recipe section on her site because you can't help but want to try some of these foods after reading. 

If you love food competitions and older protagonists you should read  A Taste of Heaven by Penny Watson . The heroine has been struggling since her husband's death and her daughters enter her in a reality cooking competition as a way to shake her out of her grief. The competition and one particular competitor in particular help her remember who she was before.

Alisha Rai's Pleasure series books, Glutton for Pleasure and Serving Pleasure feature sisters who run a Indian restaurant. The books are filled with rich flavors and savory smells, but the heroines are both starving for affection and touch and find love with unconventional men.

In Truly by Ruthie Knox the heroine has stabbed her former boyfriend with shrimp fork for proposing in the worst way possible. She meets the hero (beekeeper and chef with anger management problems) in a bar where she stranded without her IDs and credit cards, after her dramatic break up, where his offer of a drink turns into dinner that turns into more, and before they know it they have entangled themselves in each other's life like neither of them expected.

My last rec is isn't a book, it the review blog of one my dear friends, Elisabeth Lane.  Elisabeth combines her baking and writing talents in Cooking up Romance where she posts for fantastic recipes inspired by the books she reviews . And check out her instagram because it is drool worthy (and more frequently updated) and treat yourself to literary and culinary treat. 

 


Hate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts #1) by Alisha Rai

29422692Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler were a golden couple, heirs to a growing and successful grocery store chain founded by their grandfathers, until tragic car accident exposed secrets and a stolen inheritance tore their families apart.  In the decade since Livvy and Nicholas have only seen each other 9 times, meeting for a secret yearly hookup. For one night, they express only the lust and need they still feel for each other before locking away all their feelings for each other again.  On her 30th birthday, Livvy breaks the pattern, never sending the inciting text to Nicholas. and she then returns to their hometown of Rockville, NY after 10 years of nomadic living as professional guest tattoo artist.  Even though their families would explode if they knew, Nicholas can't stay away.

"Talking's not usually what we do when we're together"

I loved this book. It is intense, affirming, full of sexiness and humor. One of my favorite things about this romance was that Livvy and Nico have to acknowledge the underlying reasons for why they fell apart the way they did. They had been young and passionate but they hadn't known each other as fully as they have aught to.  At the end I wanted to do a little victory lap for Livvy and Nicholas for finally having the hard conversations necessary to build real trust and intimacy, not just with each other but with their families.  Those family relationships are not magically restored and made perfect and serious obstacles remain but they have started doing the hard work they need to do build a life together despite their ugly family history.

All the secondary characters in this amazingly inclusive cast with the exception of Nicholas' villainous father Brendan were fascinatingly well-rounded. I was incredibly happy to discover that Livvy's best-friend and widowed sister-in-law, Sadia, a Pakistani-American single-mother would the heroine in the next book, Wrong to Need You, particularly after learning who her hero is going to be. I also loved Tani Oka and Maile Kane's unexpected friendship, which could have come come off as "Odd Couple"-like due to their contrasting demeanors, but instead showcased empathy, compassion and complexity.  Through out the novel Nicholas and Livvy have to face that they didn't understand their parents marriages and relationships the way they thought they did, and that they might have to rethink livelong assumptions about their intertwined pasts. To that end I hope we see more of Nicholas's grandfather John, in future books, he provided needed perspective and was interesting figure, driven by his desire to do right by his old friend, dismayed by his son and hurting for his grand-children

"He'd tried binging on her in secret, stolen, isolated bites, telling himself that the small hit of excitement was enough.

It wasn't now."

I loved that Rai gives both Nicholas and Livvy serious yet distinct expressions to their emotional baggage. They respond to their familial traumas differently. While Livvy and Tani's depression and anxiety are front and center, Nicholas suffers more subtly, sublimating his emotions into over-exercising, self-denial and hints of disordered eating.  I wish Nicholas's issues were given more direct attention but Rai does have him start addressing the root issues to his behavior in a way that felt genuine.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next book and I am delighted that Rai's highly-anticipated Avon debut is as sexy and passionate as its gorgeous cover.  If you haven't read any of Rai's previous novels this new series is a fantastic place to start.

 

I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Hate to Want You was Published July 25th.

 


Sight Unseen: A Collection of Five Anonymous Novellas

Sight-unseen-b-small-2-377x600Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran, Erin Satie, Emma Barry and J.A. Rock contributed to this anthology/guessing game. I have read multiple books by 4 out of these 5 authors, so it was an easy decision to pick up this book.  Even not knowing who wrote which story, I could count on enjoying the anthology as whole.

The stories cover a gamut of sub-genres, from fantasy to historical. These stories are clearly experiments by the authors to write outside their usual niches and play with settings and tropes they aren't know for exploring and push the boundaries of the genre.

The book opens with "Lost That Feeling" about rebel witch who has erased 7 years of her life & needs to figure next step when she is rescued by her former rebel leaders. I loved the depiction of magic in this story and how it played with the amnesia trope within a magic fantasy setting. Alma is a living "what if" moment, and is conscious of the possibilities, while confused about the reasons that led her to that moment.  I would characterize this story as fantasy with romantic elements because the romance takes a far back seat to the philosophical questions of how to end injustice.

In "A Clear View of You", I adored the angry and cynical fake-psychic grad-student heroine, drowning in college debt. Harmony "Kate" Marsh is estranged from her hippie-magic obsessed mother, Pangaea.  North needs Kate's help to retrieve a magical orb in Pangaea's possession.  It is a fantastic story about truth, trust and family. I loved the interaction between North and Kate, and how he challenges her entrenched beliefs without forcing or coercing.  It had a lot of fun banter and humor through out.

In "Free," Brad is a timid accountant who finally builds up the courage to confront an oblivious biker princess, Wren Masters, about her father's biker club's drug dealing. It is a small town romance about unrequited crushes, growing up and moving on.  Of the novellas this was probably the most conventional in tone and style. The subversion is in how it reworks the the typical Biker romance, rejecting slut-shaming tropes, and elevating the law-abiding hero over well-hung arrogant biker.  I loved Wren was the sexual instigator and that her motivations are not simple or easy.

It is 1983, and CJ Crespo's band DonJon is falling apart. Donny, her creative but not romantic partner of a ten-years, has exchanged the excesses of the road for the strictures of religious conversion. Their careers are disintegrating but they are finally reaching toward each other. "Chariot of Desire" jumped forward and backward in time and it left me feeling pensive about passion & purpose & not terribly hopeful for CJ and Donny.

"The Heart is a Universe", the final novella is epic science fiction/romantic myth. Vitalis and Eleian are heroes to their planets.  Vitalis is the Chosen One, the brightest of her generation, chosen by her people as a child to face a deadly task that assures their ability to remain on their planet.  Eleian pulled his planet from the brink of chaos, facing off against a tyrant and helping them restore democracy, before retreating from public life. What most don't know is that he has been ill since birth, and only experiences brief moments of health and vitality.  He uses one of them to orchestrate a meeting with his hero and inspiration Vitalis.  I cried a lot reading this story, sympathetic frustrated tears, mostly as these two, struggled with anger, duty and doubt.  

As a whole this anthology was very interesting and ambitious. As a guessing game despite having read 4 out of the 5 authors and knowing for sure who wrote one of the stories, I don't feel any confidence in my authorial guesses but it was fun to read a set of stories without knowing who authored what. As a discovery tool, I will definitely try more books by the one author I had not read previously, J.A. Rock.


Silver Silence (Psy-Changeling Trinity, Book 1) by Nalini Singh

Silver-silence-186x300Silver Silence is the first book in a new series by Nalini Singh set in her Psy-Changeling universe. It is special in several ways. First is the start of a new story-line, and although it builds on what has gone before it works a accessible entry-point for those who might not be interested in reading the previous dozen books. Second, this is the first Psy-changeling books to feature bear changelings.

Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series was one of my gateways into Romance.  I devoured the original series, although not every book worked for me, I regularly re-read several of the books.  However as the series has progressed the over-arching plot had gotten larger and larger, to the point where she had to write an ensemble book, Allegiance of Honor without a central romance to wrap up things.  I am going to be honest and say that for me that book was trudge to read, the vignette style, interrupted by the Xavier's diary, was a snooze, despite the fact that I loved the vast majority of the characters.  I read about half of it when if first came out and only finished it last month, as I waited for Silver Silence.

My recent re-readings of the Psy-changeling books have been bit uncomfortable as I have changed a lot as reader since I first read this series and I've become more sensitive to problematic choices, for example the near absence of LGBTQ people. While this series has always had racial and religious diversity, LGBTQ people didn't seem to exist in the Psy-Changeling world, and I am no longer comfortable in fictional worlds that erase queer people. So while I was excited to read a new Psy-Changeling book I was also wary. 

Silver Silence is the story of Silver Mercant and Valentin Nikolaev.  Valentin is the Alpha of the StoneWater Bears, one of the largest bear clans in Russia.  Silver Mercant is Psy, a highly gifted telepath and head of a world-wide coordinated disaster response organization   Although many Psy are starting to explore their emotions, Silver remains firmly Silent, yet that does not discourage Valentin.  After months of largely one-side courtship Valentin gets his big break when he interrupts an assassination attempt on Silver's life. Determined to protect her, he offers her refuge with his clan while she recovers and they work together to uncover who is targeting her and why.

The book was very enjoyable and I ended up re-reading it almost immediately. Despite my wariness, Singh made a lot of good choices in this book.  First of all, there was clear LGBTQ inclusion. Two major gay characters were introduced, one is Silver's empath brother, Arwen and the other high-ranking lieutenant in Valentin's clan, Pavel. These characters got a good deal of page time, and a flirtation, that hints at a future romance. It is a small step, but for a world where LGBTQ have been absent it was exciting to see.  (I do admit to being very distracted by Arwen's name however).

 The second good choice was the ways where  Silver Silence mirrored Singh's first Psy-Changeling book, Slave to Sensation and then took things a different direction. In both books a Psy takes refuge with changelings while facing threats on her life.  Spending time in close quarters helps breakdown the Psy's ingrained resistance against romantic/sensual experiences.  In Slave to Sensation, Lucas frequently pushes Sasha past her comfort zone, deliberately pushing boundaries and overriding her choices. 

 In Silver Silence, Valentin does not proceed without Silver's explicit consent. He is blunt, determined and stubborn but he respects Silver's choices even when it hurts him.  He encourages her and makes sure she has everything she needs. His protectiveness does not make her world smaller. Silver is presented as more powerful than Valentin in all ways but the physically, and that he is not threatened by her prominent global position but instead actively supportive of it.  Valentin's love for Silver is self-sacrificial, and constant when many would have given up. Singh does a great job presenting this as fidelity not simply stubbornness.

"Who are you to me?" 
"Yours," he said, "I'm yours."

 

I am very excited by the new directions and choices Singh is making and I am no longer wary but excited about this new series. If you have never tried a Psy-changeling book this is where I would encourage you to start.


Beards and Baggage Binge: Under Her Skin & By Her Touch by Adriana Anders and Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon

This weekend I indulged in a mini-binge of books that can be summed up as beards and emotional baggage.

UnderherskinFirst off I read Adriana Anders, Under Her Skin (Blank Canvas 1)

It is a story about finding a safe harbor, working toward self-acceptance, and starting over.  There really great depictions of female friendships, a richly drawn small town community and little femdom kink to spice things up.

Uma has been on the run for months, hiding from her abusive ex. She has comes to Blackwood, VA, because the small town has a clinic that offers free laser tattoo removal treatments to domestic violence victims. Her gas gauge is on empty literally and metaphorically when she answers a very odd ad for a living-in-helper to a cantankerous old lady.    

Ivan is the ex-con next-door, a gentle giant, that helps teaches self-defense courses along with his sister at the local gym and makes his living as iron-worker/blacksmith.  He carries a lot of emotional baggage of his own, but works very hard to make sure he is someone Uma can trust with her body and her heart.

I really liked that while Ivan suffers from white-knight syndrome, in his desire to fix up Uma, he isn't the one that saves her and that he realizes that he can't do that work for her.  In the end Uma saves herself and Ivan.

I really enjoyed this and immediately picked up the 2nd book.  Under Her Skin is currently on sale for 99 cents, and it includes a seven chapter preview of book 2, so don't be alarmed when Under Her Skin start wrapping up around the 67% mark.

(Uma is a white, despite her Indian name, her mom is a hippie who lives in India at a Ashram).

51DI1vY3rQLBy Her Touch by Adriana Anders

This book revisits a lot of the same themes present in the first book, self-forgiveness, finding a community and people who see past the marks of violence to see the person underneath.

I don't think this book will work for everyone as it is a Doctor/Patient romance, where ethical boundaries are certainly crossed.  There were definitely many moments where my eyebrows almost flew off my face. I

Clay Navarro, is an undercover ATF agent who comes to Blackwood to to hide out and get some tattoos removed while he waits for a big court date against the big biker gang he had infiltrated. He has serious PTSD issues, that he is self-medicating with vodka and is not sure whether his worries about mole in his office are PTSD-related paranoia or a legitimate concern. He has cut himself off his team and is struggling to figure out who he is anymore.  

Dr. Georgette Hadley is pumping herself full of hormones as she prepares to be artificially inseminated with her late husband's sperm.  She questions her instincts and feelings when she agrees to start treating Clay, off the book and after-hours.  Her attraction to Clay, despite his undisclosed but certainly dangerous background, makes her recall her reckless youth, and how her life almost derailed once. 

I don't think this book was completely successful at untangling consent issues but I did like that while both George and Clay are fucked up emotionally, they are still worthy of love. They are not over their pains or issues at the end of the book but they have made a commitment to figuring those things out together rather than rejecting each other because they see themselves as too broken. 

I am a little disappointed that book three is not about Jessie (Ivan's sister and George's neighbor). She is begging for a HEA.

 (Clay is of Peruvian decent and he faces a lot racial and ethnic-based abuse as part of his undercover work in criminal biker gangs)

518ve87qrmLHaven (Beards and Bondage 1) by Rebekah Weatherspoon.

Haven was a great book to end this mini-binge with.  Haven was an emotionally intense and surprisingly fun story  about finding an unlikely but deep connection in traumatic circumstances.  The pacing through out was fantastic but particularly in the pulse-pounding early chapters.  The dynamics of Claudia and Shep's relationship are complex, as they are hyper-aware of how wary everyone is of intensity & of the limited nature of their acquaintance. They honestly wrestle with how fraught it can be to untangle their actual experience of each other from what they have both built up about each other in their heads.  They struggle to give each other what they need and things don't go smoothly in vividly believable ways.   They are both unabashedly kinky, but that it isn't a cure or a reaction, but still a complication as they try to figure out if they can fit into each other's lives.  I wish there had been just a little more grovel at the end, but the reactions were completely within character. 

Shepherd Olsen's quiet and solitary life is dramatically disrupted when a bloody and shrieking black woman runs up to his isolated cabin near Federal park lands in Northern California. He springs into action, rescuing her and making sure she gets the help she needs, even as they are separated by the intense investigation.

Not only did Claudia Cade lose her brother Miles on the mountain, she also lost her way. She thought getting back to her job and her home in NYC would help but she can't quite fit back into her old life. Things that were comfortable before chafe, and fail to satisfy. She is disconnected from herself and her friends and her mind keeps going back to the mountain man, who held her and kept her safe on the worst day of her life. 

Shep's life has not gone back to normal. Maybe because Claudia was gone before he could say good-bye, his mind frequently goes back to her and the life he hopes she has been able to return to. He is shocked and confused when she shows back up on the mountain needing something from him that is she is scared to articulate.

Claudia and Shep are not perfect people, they fail, struggle and nearly give up. They need help from more than just each other but they find something in each other worth working for.  

Rebekah Weatherspoon continues to succeed in crafting stories that are emotionally layered and full of humor. I loved the whole cast, even when they don't love each other.

(Claudia is black woman from the Caribbean, she immigrated from Grenada as a child. I though Weatherspoon did a fantastic job in weaving this into her story.)

I received an ARC of Haven via Netgalley from the author. Haven will be released April 25th, 2017 and is available for pre-order at all the usual places. 

 


A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock Mysteries #1) by Sherry Thomas

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Charlotte Holmes, the  youngest Holmes daughter's incisive, logical mind and assertive attitude at first  delight, but  later irk her conventional father. Beautiful, soft and feminine, he wants her to satisfy herself by becoming a triumph in the marriage mart, while she rather be educated, so she might provide for herself without having to accept the many compromises and humiliations she has seen her parents endure in their loveless marriage.  When her father fails to honor his word to her, she takes drastic measures and leaves the family home to see employment and take control of her life.

Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock is not infallible, instead keenly observant, decisive, but occasionally naive Most importantly however is her determination to succeed and survive in a world that would very much like to see her fail. Thomas's reinvention of Holmes and Watson was fantastic.  The way the mystery unfolds, with it is twists and turns was incredibly engrossing. I listened to the middle five hours of the audiobook (engagingly ready by Kate Reading) yesterday and after reluctantly going to bed, immediately listened to the last two hours this morning as soon as I woke up because I need to know how things would turn out for Charlotte.

The real triumph of the book was the rich characterizations and fascinating motivations of all the major characters. There was great banter & tension and I loved the complicated multi-layered relationships, and their embedded hard to resolve conflicts. I feel bereft upon finishing the book, so much so that I might listen to it again and I can't wait for the rest of stories in this series. Thomas has created a rich world for Sherlock, established a strong cast of allies and antagonists and many fascinating mysteries to come.

One caution for  romance lovers, while Sherry Thomas is fantastic romance novelist and there is romantic tension in this book is very rich, it is neither the focus of the book nor is the romantic conflict one that will easily resolve itself into a HEA.


A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1) by Deanna Raybourn

51NzMcKLDSL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I love historical fiction, mystery and adventure stories and this book had all of that and a touch of romance. This is the first book in a new mystery series set near the end of the Victorian Era, around the time of the Queen's Jubilee by Deanna Raybourn.  I loved Raybourn's Lady Jane mysteries and this series looks to be even more interesting.

Veronica Speedwell, a naturalist, who specializes in hunting rare butterflies, has just buried her last remaining relative, her adoptive aunt, in a small rural village. When she returns home to pack up her belongings and set off on her own she is attacked in her cottage by an intruder and rescued by a mysterious old German baron, who insists that her life is in danger and he is here to protect her. She reluctantly agrees to go with him to London (mostly to save herself the train fare) because he claims to have known her mother and might be able to tell her who her father was. He is however killed before he can tell her after leaving her in the care of a trusted associate, a gruff-disgraced former naturalist and adventurer, known as Stoker.

ACB-350Stoker and Veronica reluctantly team-up and they together and go on the run from those pursuing Veronica and work to solve the Baron's murder. The plot is twisty and the dialogue very clever and funny. Veronica and Stoker have great sexual/romantic tension as they forge their tentative partnership and I love the push/pull of their relationship. Neither of them are easy people, and both have lots of emotional baggage to overcome.  I enjoyed the colorful locations (a cluttered warehouse, a traveling carnival, a ramshackle ballroom stuffed with scientific treasure) where Veronica and Stoker take refuge and unusual  supporting characters  very much.  I am looking forward to reading Veronica and Stoker's future adventures.

I listened to this as an audiobook and the performance by the narrator, Angele Masters was fantastic, as she gave each character a distinctive voice without being distracting.


Gambled Away: A Historical Romance Anthology

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I loved this anthology. Rich characterization and intriguing stories about resourcefulness, resilience and redemption that are never repetitive despite sharing a common plot element.

As this anthology includes many of my favorite authors I hope many people take a chance and explore some of their other novels and that they team up again in the future.

All or Nothing by Rose Lerner: This story was surprising, engrossing and emotionally complex. It is a story about lust, longing, trust, hope and how important it is to hold on to truth.  Maggie da Silva's life is outwardly glamorous. She and her best-friend and lover Henny host a small gambling den, where together they charm aristocrats into emptying their pockets for chance to be singled out to gamble on winning Maggie's sexual favors.  Simon Radcliffe-Gould is a struggling architect and terrible gambler who can't resist coming every week because he is infatuated with Maggie. He is titillated and mortified when he wins Maggie. Torn between honorable intentions and desire, he persuades Maggie to pose as his mistress at house-party hosted by Simon's ex-lover, so he can complete a commission without getting sucked back into a relationship with him.  

Lerner is masterful in balancing the emotional tension in this story, as both Maggie and Simon have a lot they need to figure out about themselves, their needs and what they are unwilling to compromise on before they can even consider how to turn their temporary entanglement into something lasting. I don't think I will be done thinking about Simon and Maggie and the truths they hold on to for a very long time. I was particularly moved by Maggie determination to reclaim her Jewish faith. Maggie's feelings about her faith are rich and complex as she seeks away to live authentically despite the challenges of growing up without any access to those who might have taught her the traditions her family was forced to abandon because of religious persecution and forced conversion.

“The Liar’s Dice” by Jeannie Lin

Set during the Tang Dynasty, Lin's novella is part of her fantastic Lotus Palace series and features many familiar characters as secondary characters while still being completely accessible to those who have  not be lucky enough to read the previous books.

Wei-wei, Lady Bai, has always been a dutiful daughter but she has grown restless and seeks to experience a little of bit of the freedom that would have been hers if she had been born a boy. After borrowing her brother's scholar's robes she sneaks into her sister-in-law's tea house to experience for herself what she has only ever read about. On her way back home she runs into Gao a shady acquaintance of her brother  and together they stumble upon murder victim. Worried that the murder might be connected to her brother's recently uncharacteristic behavior and could inadvertently destroy her brother's newfound joy, they team up to solve the murder.

The Liar's Dice was essentially a mystery novella with a touch of romance. Wei-wei tests the limits of her freedom, confronts her brother and gets to know a mysterious but unsuitable man in Gao. The ending of their flirtation is hopeful but far from assured. As a mystery novella it was highly enjoyable, full of fantastic and fascinating detail but as romance it left me somewhat unsatisfied.

“Raising The Stakes” by Isabel Cooper  As Okies stream into 1938 California, desperate as dust storms and drought push them off their land, Sam, a card-shark, wins a magical flute that allows her to summon a otherworldy fae warrior to come to her aid.  After the initial shock wears off, the clever and shrewd, Sam enlists Talathan's aid in conning a greedy revival preacher in order to save her family farm from foreclosure. Sharp, cunning Sam bewilders and tempts Talathan with her forthrightness and hidden vulnerabilities and makes them both long for something more than temporary team-up.

Cooper grounds her fantasy with great period detail and sells the partnerships between the nomadic gambler and fairy warrior through humor and snappy dialogue, but the romance between them still felt tentative by the end.

“Redeemed” by Molly O’Keefe 

Guilt-ridden Dr. James Madison is struggling to figure out how to rebuild his life, camping out in a brothel and turning away his friends. Addiction has wrecked his career and nearly destroyed the life of his assistant, but it is the daily grind of recovery and re-integration into society that is wearing him down. 

When Helen Winters, the caged singing star of the titillating traveling "Northern Spy" act  arrives in to town, James can't decide if he should intervene when it seems that Helen is being drugged and possibly held against her will by her manager and guardian. 

Like the previous stories in O'Keefe's fantastic post-Civil War western series, Into the Wilds, Redeemed explores the complicated legacy of the Civil War on its survivors.  All the characters are richly drawn and the romance was emotional and heart-wrenching.

“Gideon and the Den of Thieves” by Joanna Bourne When Gideon Gage a trader and mercenary infiltrates the lair of London's most powerful crimelord,  Lazarus, he finds unlikely allies in Hawker and Aimee, two of Lazarus's most loyal subjects.

Hawker and Aimee are conspiring to protect the ailing Lazarus from challengers, through a campaign of distraction and misdirection  because they know that Lazarus's perceived strength is all that keeps their little band of street urchins and waifs from utter destruction. Lazarus might be the devil but he is the devil they know and count on.

Bourne's novella is set is near the very beginning of her Spymaster's series chronology.  A very young Hawker, at his most  vicious, sarcastic and feral and Aimee, french refugee who works as Lazarus' s fence, is everything her heroines usually are, independent, resourceful and deeply scarred by her past.  I enjoyed the novella's focus on Aimee and Hawker's friendship and their relationship with Lazarus.

 

The anthology is currently available for free through Kindle Unlimited but it is more than worth its regular $2.99 price tag.  I received advance copy from the authors for review consideration.

 


A Queer Trade by K. J. Charles

K.J. Charles has built a fascinating magical Victorian world through her numerous Charm of Magpies related novels.  I'm not completely caught up on the main Charm of Magpie books, but I couldn't resist jumping ahead to read this one because is features victorian era black hero.  A Queer Trade is the prequel to Rag and Bone which was released last week and I am currently in the middle of reading.

Crispin Tredarloe's master dies while he is away visiting family and returns to discover his master's heir have started emptying the house and have disposed of many magical papers. He is desperately searching for the paper waste man that hauled away his masters' spells before they can harm someone and expose him. This particularly urgent because Crispin Tredarloe isn't simply a magician's apprentice but an illegal warlock. If the blood magic is exposed and traced back to him, his life might be forfeit.

Ned Hall's trade might be unusual trading in paper, recycling people's old letters, and discarded notes into wrapping and packing, but it is honest work, and its freed him destitution after his family cast him out for being gay. His attraction to Crispin is quickly tested by Crispin's casual snobbishness and likely insanity.

I love how Charles's is aware of  and then layers various impediments and conflicts into Ned and Crispin's relationship, race and class differences on one end, and then give them a shared understanding of familial rejection.  I look forward to reading more about these two.