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Love in Panels Review: Treason of Truths by Ada Harper

This review was first published at Love in Panels:

I adored the first book in this duology and so I had high expectations for this romance. I was eager to go back into this world and and explore the flip-side of the tropes from the first book. Unlike Galen and Olivia who meet during an assassination attempt and grow in to love and trust, Sabine and Lyre have been partners and friends for decades. Again Harper works to upend trope expectations while leaning into others. I loved the contrast between Lyre and Sabine’s styles and how that played into the way their romantic conflict were resolved. I am looking forward to more queer romantic adventures from Harper and I hope we see more like this from Carina Press in the future.

Lyre has found contentment and purpose serving spy Empress Sabine, guarding her throne from the shadows as her spy-master but when the empress ignores her advice and insists on accepting the mysterious Cloud Vault’s invitation for a summit between the Empire and Syndicate, Lyre is forced to take actions that neither of them ever anticipated.

Lyre and Sabine’s relationship is a friends-to-lovers slow burn romance, where both of them have long-ago committed their hearts while learning to deny the depth of their feelings and smother any acknowledgement of passion in order not risk their friendship and partnership. They had one night early one when things almost boiled over, and neither of them speak of it. While Lyre’s loyalty to Sabine has always been legendary, she fears if the truth of her past was revealed it would sunder their relationship and if it didn’t, it would threaten the security of Sabine’s throne.

Like the first book in this series, intense action dominates the book. Sabine, Lyre and a band of allies slip and slide through the murky underbelly of the Cloud Vault’s flying citadel, tangling with deadly carnivorous vines while trying to untangle the motives of their secretive hosts. About half-way my interest flagged a bit during some of the longer action sequences but my longing for more romance between Lyre and Sabine was rewarded by an incredibly swoony final chapters of the novel. I am not usually a fan of grand gestures but Sabine’s whole life is one of theatrical and strategic actions meant to wow her subjects and rivals and it was wonderful to see Lyre step out of the shadows and prove herself able to stand by her beloved’s side and stop playing the romantic martyr.

Content Warnings: guns, torture, abduction.

 


Love in Panels Review: Night and Day by Andie J. Christopher

This review was first published on Love in Panels:

Letty Gonzalez is trying to rebuild her career after her ex-boss/ex-boyfriend fires her when he realizes that he won’t be getting into her parents' deep pockets through her. Max Delgado is a sculptor on the verge of breaking out, trying to get ready for a major exhibition of his work. When Letty shows up at his door, he is expecting a model not a temporary assistant. 

Letty can’t afford to let this grumpy and much too sexy artist send her away. She needs this job. Although she won’t pose for him, her presence in his studio as she goes about her work organizing his life is irresistible and all-consuming, tempting him to want things he shouldn’t. Since his meddling matchmaking Abuela Lola hired her, he can’t even fire her.

While this book was solidly likable and enjoyable, it felt like it was trying to be three different books at the same time. The first - an erotic romance about a grumpy sculptor trying to convince his shy plus-sized artist’s assistant that she is beautiful and desirable. The second - an angsty romance about a couple struggling to communicate, scarred by unhealthy and abusive family dynamics. And finally - a forced proximity rom-com about a kooky but irrepressible grandma trying to set up her grandson with a pretty girl. A book can try to do all these but in this case, the mash-up wasn’t fully successful and the story moved forward in fits and starts while the mood would swing wildly.

Once thing the book did very successfully is portraying complex and dysfunctional Cuban-American families that were utterly relateable. Letty’s and Max’s families value social status and appearances, but it manifests in different ways. For Letty, this means constant negative comments about her looks and passive aggressive policing of her diet by her mother. She seeks financial independence from her parents because she has long ago learned the kind of emotionally manipulative strings that come attached to any financial help. Letty is smart, determined but has been emotionally battered by first her parents and then her ex. She over-thinks and misconstrues comments, as she is so used to expecting every comment to include a hidden barb. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the way this storyline was resolved as I wanted her journey of self-acceptance and self-confidence to be more internally motivated rather than having the unexpected validation of becoming a plus-size bathing suit model confirm for her what Max and her sister have been telling her. I did love the truly supportive relationship Letty has with her swimsuit model, size-2 sister. They are not pitted one against the other to the reader because of their body shape. They are both beautiful. They are both interesting, funny women and they love each other very much.

In Max’s family the importance of status and image lead to a long-term denial of his mother’s addiction and his father’s use of money to manipulate and control. Max’s conflicted and fraught relationship with his newly-sober mother felt realistically drawn and as was his hyper-awareness of his short-temper. I really appreciated that Christopher had Max verbalize his fears and open up about the reasons he was scared to death to get involved with someone seriously. Too often these kinds of feelings are only expressed in internal monologue and the other MC has no opportunity to challenge those notions. And it felt true to life that even knowing the issues involved two people might still misunderstand and misconstrue things because they are working through their own emotional baggage. The one issue that Max struggled with that I was surprised the book did not challenge more directly was his preoccupation with being able to provide Letty the kind of life he imagines she is used to. He holds on to the mistaken idea that Letty would care that he is not yet as financially self-reliant as he wants to be.

The ending had too many of the conflicts and villains vanquished off-page by the power of Lola's Fairy Godmother-like witchiness and the actual reconciliation felt somewhat rushed but I am still interested in reading more books in this series because of the genuineness of the family relationships and the frankness of the characters about their messy feelings. This is a solid romance that could have used some more focus, but delivers in sexiness and emotion.

Content Warnings: Past trauma (child abuse), fatphobia


Love in Panels Review: At Your Service by Sandra Antonelli

This review was originally published on Love in Panels

At Your Service by Sandra Antonelli

Sandra Antonelli is a long-time advocate and promoter of romance featuring older protagonists. While the majority of romance authors and publishers focus on characters in their twenties and thirties, Antonelli and other fans of seasoned romance thirst for characters with a few more gray hairs and a lot more life experience. At Your Service is the first of Antonelli’s new In Service series, a mystery/romantic suspense series which will feature main characters over 40. At Your Service was an engrossing and highly-enjoyable romance, with great pacing, action and banter and a fabulous heroine, Mae in her mid-50s, who is just little bit older than the hero, Kitt.

Mae loves working as butler - she thrives on feeling productive and useful. For the last three years, she has juggled being both landlady and butler to Major Kitt, whose globe-trotting work is both dangerous and mysterious, but whose appreciation for her scrambled eggs is always constant. She might quirk an eyebrow at the way he hustles his young married paramours out of his apartment on the morning afters but she does not share her judgment, it wouldn’t be professional.

But the wall of perfect professionalism crumbles when Mae is first mugged, then burgled, and finally swindled before she kills a man in self-defense in his flat. Someone is targeting Mae and she is in way over her head, so he bullies her into letting him help. Together they race to discover who and why someone is after Mae and untangle their grand scheme while tangling with the several intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, wrestling with murderous bankers and brushing up against the Mafia. It is was a complicated but highly entertaining caper.

I enjoyed the action and adventure but if you are triggered by physical violence be aware that both Mae and Kitt get seriously banged up through the course of the novel, they are drugged, tazed and nearly drowned, and stumble upon a bevy of murdered bodies. But through it all Antonelli keeps up witty banter but manages not to trivialize or diminish the emotional roller-coaster both Mae and Kitt are experiencing as they survive multiple near-death experiences. They are both feeling emotionally messy and that is acknowledged and reflected in how they behave and in the quality of their decision-making. 

One of my favorite tropes is a widow finding love after a grief, but I have mixed feeling as to how this played out in the novel. I loved Mae’s realization that her feelings for Kitt were deeper and more significant than she had ever let herself admit and that she reached out for him the mornings in the same way she had reach out to for her late-husband Caspar. Kitt knows how deeply Mae grieved Caspar and that affects his ability to understand that her feelings for him have changed. I was disappointed, however, very late in the novel when certain facts about Caspar are revealed to both the reader and Mae. Although Antonelli uses these to further the romance plot, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I was also disappointed in the “not-like-other-girls” subtext to Kitt’s love of Mae. He refers to his past lovers as meaning nothing and thinks of them as no more than temporary disposable diversions on multiple occasions, while classing Mae differently. While that is part and parcel of his characterization as a cross between James Bond & Mr. Rochester type, it rankled a bit, especially when Kitt is convinced that he has been protecting Mae by overlooking her. I did appreciate that Mae saw his behavior for what it was, a misogynistic response to early heartbreak and calls him out on callousness. Other aspects of his hyper-masculine/Alpha hero persona were hyped up and I was particularly fascinated by recurring the hero or bully discussion Mae and Kitt have through the novel.

“You’re a bully,” she said.

“I was hoping you’d see me as heroic.”

“Heroic. Which means you expect me to lean up and cover you with kisses to thank you profusely?”

“I think I’ve enough of your blood on me already.”

“Heroic. Maybe you’re a little of that, but mostly you’re a bully.”

“ I can live with that.”

-Mae and Kitt in At Your Service by Sandra Antonelli

 

I stayed up late into the night reading At Your Service, and then dove back to reading as soon as I could the next morning and I recommend it to all who are looking for funny, smart romantic suspense with a strong focus on romance that doesn’t skimp on the mystery. I will be eagerly awaiting more from Antonelli, especially if her heroines continue to shock both their heroes and adversaries by refusing to go meekly or cave quietly, whatever the situation.

Content Warnings: Guns, Kidnapping/Abduction, Murder.


Love in Panels Review: Stripped by Zoey Castile

This review was originally published at Love in Panels:

Zac Fallon has been stripping for 10 years and he has always loved everything about it. He loves making women smile, being in the spotlight, the camaraderie with the other guys in the show, the freedom to travel and the money. But he just doesn’t quite love it as much as before - something is missing in his life.

Robyn Flores had it all together once. She is the one who did everything right but ever since since her 

best friend, Lily, the wild one of their duo, got engaged and started settling down, her life has started falling apart. She is happy for Lily, maybe a bit jealous of how together and happy she seems, that she can’t bring herself to tell Lily about how much she struggling. Robyn can barely get to work on time, is coming dangerously close to losing her teaching job and has little clue of why she can’t bring herself to care.

This Magic Mike XXL-inspired romance by Zoey Castile (who writes YA as Zoraida Cordova) was a roller-coaster - part frantic romantic comedy, part angsty relationship drama. While there are lots of glitzy and sexy scenes, what I loved were the quieter romantic moments that let me see why Fallon and Robyn were getting so wrapped up with each other so quickly. Castile captures the allure of someone who listens but might not be there to judge one’s bad choices the next day, especially as Robyn struggles to figure out what she wants to do, not what she thinks will please the people in her life.

But he listens to every word and, somehow, the space between us on the couch disappears and we’re sitting side by side...”

-Robyn -- Stripped by Zoey Castile

I also I really like the frank moments late in the novel where Lily and Robyn finally face why their friendship is floundering and it was interesting to contrast the state of their relationship to that of Fallon’s with Ricky and Aiden.

“... they want the spectacle. I want someone who might see more in me.”

-Fallon -- Stripped by Zoey Castile

The ‘Magic Mike Life” that Fallon is living is losing its charm after 10 years. Hosting an apartment-full of women for an after-party, just feels like a chore rather than a perk. But is an adjustment to become someone’s boyfriend, even a temporary one. Castile does a good job presenting the double edged ness of Fallon’s career. While he has plenty of people who get it and support him simple small talk with Robyn friends and family feels like traps, intentionally or unintentionally. Fallon is ready for something new, for a change, but outside of loving Robyn what that new thing was left too vague for my liking. 

I got a little tripped up in the early chapters by several eyebrow-raising references related to Robyn’s teaching (how can any teacher avoid meeting their new principal for two months? Do they not have faculty meetings?) but if anything, it showed how checked out Robyn was from her career and her life in general. Her gigantic heavy work bag she lugs back and forth to work did make me feel seen. I also appreciated that she frequently considered filling out union incident reports because she was certainly entitled to have done so. The whole storyline with Lukas, her inappropriately fixated principal was an ode to trusting one's instincts when other people think someone is okay.

There is a lot to like in this romance and I am intrigued enough by a lot of supporting characters, particularly Ricky the lead choreographer and organizer of the crew that I will come back to the Happy Endings series again.

If you are looking for a Magic Mike XXL-inspired romance with a sweet hero that doesn’t sugar coat the challenges, is full of emotionally messy people, set in a NYC that is as diverse as the real one and has just enough humor to balance the angst you should check this out.

I received an ARC for this book for review consideration from its publishers, Kensington.


Mini-Reviews @ Love in Panels for Wild like the Wind by Kristen Ashley and The Protector by HelenKay Dimon

I have two mini-reviews over at Love in Panels today.  Check out what I had to say about Kristen Ashley's Wild Like the Wind and The Protector by HelenKay Dimon.

 

Wild Like the Wind, by Kristen Ashley
Ana says: Pass for everyone but series completists 

 

WLtW was a deeply uneven book, with a terrible first half and a tolerable second half.  The Hound, Shepherd Ironside has had unrequited feelings for his best-friend Black’s widow. He has kept his feelings under wraps for decades, as it would be breaking their MC’s brotherhood code to make a move on another man’s woman, even if he is long-dead.  Keely only wakes up to the fact that she loves Shep, after an emotional confrontation causes him to stop coming around and she realizes she needs to make the moves.

The first half of the book is written in Hound’s POV and it was dreadful. In her better books Kristen Ashley’s the deep POV leads to an immersive ride however, Hound’s POV was riddled with info-dumpy passages that sounded nothing like the typically taciturn biker, including one where he catalogs the hotness of his biker brothers in addition to several where he rhapsodizes about the heroine’s home decor style.  The book improves once we switch over to the heroine, Keely’s POV because these passages are just not as jarring. What doesn’t improve however, are the passages extoticizing the heroine’s 1/4 Apache heritage.

If you are invested in the series’s overarching suspense plot, there are significant breakthroughs and setting up for the conclusion of the series plotline in the next book.  

Content Warnings: Crime, domestic violence (not MCs)

Ana purchased this book.

 

The Protector, by Helen Kay Dimon
Ana says: DNF

 

Cate Pendelton has been turning over every rock in her efforts to find out the why and hows of her sister’s death in a secretive commune. Damon Knox left Salvation, PA under tragic circumstances and vowed never to return, but knows that the only way Cate will be able to find the answers she needs is if he brings her back with him.

Although the tropes in this book should have appealed to me (bad first impressions, fake relationship), neither the plot nor the characters caught my attention. In previous books, the banter carried me even when the plot stalled, but in this one the bickering that too quickly turned into lust didn’t feel genuine. I wanted to sympathize with Damon, but he was too obnoxious and unwilling to level with Cate about his past.  And I felt little connection to Cate beyond her frustration with Damon because we knew so little about her beyond her determination to find closure about her sister’s death. Although I loved The Fixer and The Negotiator, I never clicked with The Protector and when I put it down at little over half-way into the book I didn’t have any interest in picking it up again.

 Content Warnings: Crime, guns

Ana received an ARC from the publisher, Avon, via Edelweiss.


Love in Panels review of Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

Duke by Default  beautiful black woman in a colorful dress in the arms of a silver fox man in a grey shirt and black pantsToday I am over at Love in Panels with my review of Duke by Default, the second book in Alyssa Cole's delightful Reluctant Royal's series.  Stop over there to read it!

 

The Hot-mess Heiress and the Sexy Swordbae

Cole continues to please with her second Reluctant Royals series book, A Duke by Default, blending sexiness and emotionally affirming themes with challenging character arcs. 

Portia’s new internship, the one that she has pinned so many of her hopes and dreams on, gets off to the rockiest of starts. Misunderstandings pile upon miscommunications and leave both Portia and her new boss, Tavish, a master sword maker, with the worst of first impressions and a face full of pepper spray. But Portia is determined to make it work, even when Tavish turns out to be as stubborn and frustrating as he is attractive.

Portia was Ledi’s troubled and difficult best-friend in Cole’s A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1). In A Duke by Default, Portia is determined to remake herself. A Jill of all trades, a nomad and a perpetual student, she has dealt with her feelings of insecurity and her fraught relationship with her parents through avoidance and problem drinking. She only starts to forgive herself and start making progress on her “Project Portia”, when her sister sends a her a link to a video about living with ADHD.

Pulled in too many directions and struggling to keep his armory afloat, Tavish is desperate enough to let himself be talked into accepting an apprentice he doesn’t want but he isn’t at all gracious about it. The grumpy wanker is suspicious of change, skeptical of Portia’s methods and hesitant to trust her. He is frankly a terrible boss. However he is determined to keep his commitments to his community so he is eventually persuaded to listen to Portia. However trusting Portia to manage his web presence is one thing, believing the surprising secret she uncovers about his family is something completely different.

Cole takes Portia and Tavish, who are at times both hard to love and have a hard time accepting love on parallel but distinct personal journeys where they have to reexamine the default ways they react to other people and reevaluate what they have come to think about themselves when confronted with life-changing truths that upend everything they thought they knew. I love difficult heroines, so I warmed up to Portia right away, but it took me a long time to warm up to Tavish. I did love, however, how he changes how he speaks to her, once he realizes how Portia is much more vulnerable and easily hurt than she lets on.

World-building is a underappreciated component in contemporary romance and Cole excels at it. She grounds her fantastical premises (the African prince in your spam folder is an actual prince, and you are the secret heir to a dukedom) by crafting a world that looks and feels modern and familiar. Cole uses little things such as how her characters use or avoid social media to the way she describes Tavish’s working class neighborhood, a mix of long-time residents, recent immigrants & affluent gentrifiers uneasily co-existing to build up a sense of place and currentness.

The only fault I found with the story was how quickly things turned for Tavish and Portia in the last quarter of the book. It jarred me so much that they only way I could move forward was to jump to the end and read backwards before I could go back read to their reconciliation. It was sweet, fairytale-like, yet it doesn’t erase the challenges they will face making a life together.

For fans of the previous book, Ledi and Thabiso make several appearances in the book as do other secondary characters from A Princess in Theory, but the book stands alone easily. I wholeheartedly recommend it!


Resort to Love by Priscilla Oliveras review over at Love in Panels

I accepted Suzanne's invitation to join the Love in Panels Review team.  I will be reviewing one or two books a month for them. 

Ever since RT announced that it will be closing, I've been trying to figure out it I wanted to join another group venture or just write for myself.  This is the best of both worlds. I have total freedom of what I choose to review for Love in Panels, and I get to support a review blog I respect. 

 

I'll always link to my reviews here too, but I hope you add Love in Panels to your  bookmarks!