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Strong Signal and Fast Connection (Cyberlove 1 & 2) by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell

28561501Strong Signal (Cyberlove #1):  Garrett Reid is serving the last 9 months of his military career deployed in Afghanistan.  He spends his precious few hours of downtime playing video games, where one day he is mercilessly destroyed by an overpowering opponent. Angry he decides to virtually track down the Orc only to discover that he is Kai Bannon,a "gaymer" with his own Twitch stream (video gameplay channel) with legions of adoring followers and subscribers. At first Garrett hate-watches the stream, trash-talking in the Chat, but before long he finds himself grudgingly admiring him and starting to feel protective of Kai (after hypocritically benefiting from tumblrs full of stalker/fan-fodder about Kai).  He can't resist sending Kai a concerned email. Kai and Garrett then start exchanging initially tense then later, funny and tentatively flirtatious emails, then gchats and more. They have a great opposites-attract dynamic that blossoms into a beautiful sense of compatibility for two people who struggle to be understood, seen and truly known.

There is so much going on in this novel and all of it good. Erickson and Hassell layer emotionally-rich and realistic portrayals of imperfectly loving families, online communities, economic pressures, sexual identity and the tensions and conflicts inherent in building authentic intimacy and friendships while interacting online.  While Kai and Garrett's sexual chemistry is hotter than fire it is not enough to overcome the serious obstacles they face in building something permanent. A lasting relationship require they both put in serious work on themselves and the way they communicate in order to make their relationship work.

I have a great deal of respect for how Hassell and Erickson dealt with Kai's mental health issues. Garrett and Kai love each other but that doesn't magically cure anxiety.  While having an understanding partner is super important, in the end therapy and medication is how those things are addressed. And it is powerful to have Kai be the one who puts in that work and effort, because he values himself and wants more for himself.

30415154Fast Connection (Cyberlove#2):

Dominic Costigan is at loose ends. Twenty-six and recently out of the military, he feels just as lost and directionless as he was at 18, living in his parents' basement and working the counter at the family bagel shop.  At the same time he feels extremely alienated from his old friends, who don't understand why he doesn't simply go back to being the hookup obsessed dude-bro  he used to be. Having only recently become aware of his bisexuality, he is completely unsure about how to approach men and signal he is looking for something more than just a one-night stand.

Luke Rawlings only wants one-night stands. After a disastrous relationship wrecked his career and endangered his family he keeps his sexual needs very separate from the rest of his life. But Dominic's charm, persistence and  vulnerability wear down Luke in bending and eventually breaking his strict compartmentalization, complicating his life in ways that he never expected to value.

I was again moved by the richness of the storytelling. Erickson and Hassell weave multiple storylines and themes into a very satisfying whole. I loved the centrality of family and how fragile but tangled those bonds can be. Both Dominic and Luke are very protective of their families, despite the very different ways those families operate. I love how Erickson and Hassell portray the tender work necessary to rebuild relationships after meltdowns.

Both these novels illustrate one of my favorite relationship lessons -- Relationships take work and while sex can spark relationships it is the commitments made to walk the hard path together that sustain them.  Time and time again Kai & Garrett and Luke and Dominic can get everything right sexually but it is the fact that they come back to each other when things get hard, when apologies need to be made and after things have gotten uncomfortable that builds toward the HEA.  Kai, Garrett, Luke and Dominic are broken, flawed people and they are worth of love in that brokenness.

I can't wait to dive into Santino Hassell and Megan Erickson's backlists and I eagerly look forward to Cyberlove #3.


Marked in the Flesh by Anne Bishop (The Others, Book #4) Early Review

22062202Meg Corbyn,  Simon Wolfguard and the rest of the ensemble cast that make up the Lakeside Courtyard community and its connected settlements return in Marked in the Flesh as they try to figure out how save humanity from extinction as the HFL (The Human First and Last ) Movement's heinous attacks on the Others captures the interest of the Elders, the more primal and powerful beings in Thasia.

Meg and Simon's relationship is certainly on the back burner through this novel. Meg and Simon spend most of the novel involved in separate plots. Meg's primary focus is on being the Trailblazer, and working to find way to keep herself and the other Cassandra Sangue from cutting themselves into insanity and death. Simon and the Police Pack are working to try to mitigate the damage being done by the HFL to Human-Others relationships and preparing for the inevitable backlash from the Elders.  His focus is the survival of those humans he has come to care for and planning for a life afterwards.  While the novel does close with yet another step forward in intimacy between Meg and Simon, it just served to emphasize how little time they have spent together during the novel.

The novel's main theme seemed to be communication and isolation. Everyone in this novels is constantly scrambling to email and call each other in order to share prophesies, veiled warnings and urgent alarms.  A significant part of the novel's plot is communicated via emails, speech excerpts or newspaper clippings.  There is also a lot of miscommunication, misinterpretations. and intentional obfuscation.  In the end however everyone clearly receives the message, and Meg figures out how to best help the Cassandra Sangue communicate their own. Despite the darkness and fear near the end of the novel there is a sense that at least the Cassandra Sangue will have a potentially brighter future.

While Marked in the Flesh is fourth book of a five book series, I could have easily confused it with a final book. A lot of storylines seem to be awfully close to their conclusions, while a few new mysteries were raised in the final chapters it seems to me that the final book will feel more like an extended epilogue as it deals with the aftermath of the world-shaking events in this volume.

I was not as emotionally invested in this book as I was in the others since Meg and Simon where not as involved but it was still compelling and I will be back for the concluding story.

 

I received a review copy of Marked in the Flesh from ROC/Berkley Publishing Group.  Marked in the Flesh is scheduled to be released  March 8, 2016.


TBR Challenge Review: Naked in Death by JD Robb

October's TBR challenge theme is Paranormal or Romantic Suspense. I chose to read the first in JD Robb's best-selling futuristic sci-fi romantic suspense series "In Death". It was very daunting to even consider starting a 40 book deep series, but I bought the 1st "In Death" back in January when it was on sale. It has been sitting in my TBR taunting me since then. I mostly listened to "Naked in Death", reading chapters when I couldn't wait till my next convenient listening time.  

I loved the book. It was more graphically violent than I expected but I was completely engrossed in the story and the romance even though I figured out who the killer less than a third of the way through the story.

Eve Dallas is a tough cop in New York hundreds of years into the future.  While the culture and tech have in some ways radically changed the way people crime, motives and policing have only changed superficially. While Dallas carries a laser, and uses crime-analyzing computer, she is still buried in piles of reports, bureaucratic red-tape in chronically under-staffed department with a chief of police more interested in returning political favors than solving crimes.  While sex work might be legal & space-travel commonplace, money, political power and sex continue to deeply intertwined.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

A demoralized, emotionally raw Eve is called to the scene of a murder just hours after surviving a traumatic encounter with a child murderer.  She finds a once vibrantly beautiful politically connected sex-worker murdered, possibly by a new serial killer. Eve drives herself nearly to her breaking point trying to find the killer and stop him before he kills again, against the strong headwinds of political pressure.

Roarke is a self-made billionaire with a mysterious past whose acquaintance with the first victim and large collection of antique guns make him a suspect.  Rourke quickly becomes fascinated with Eve. Her determination to solve the crime and refuse to be intimidated or swayed by his money and power catch his attention. Despite his alpha-pushiness and boundary crossing (more like trampling), his humor and emotional vulnerability make him incredibly attractive. He is baffled at his own response and desire for Eve, but proves again and again that he will put her needs above his every chance he gets. Unlike ruthless billionaire heroes Roarke almost always makes himself emotionally vulnerable in ways he doesn't demand from Eve. While he is used to getting his way, and getting whatever he wants, he doesn't see Eve as someone to acquire as much as he wants her.  His interventions on her behalf never diminish her. Their love affair has all the markings of a fascinating and genuine partnership.

Their first love-making scene was epic.  I am sure someone has written scads on the marital-violent language of their first encounter, because craft-wise it was a master class on writing truly un-skippable sex scene, that has ramifications to the whole story. While Eve's instincts tell her that Roarke is not a suspect, the scene is filled with tension, because he is not truly cleared yet and getting involved with him, even if he means her no harm is truly dangerous to Eve's career, which is the only thing that matters to Eve.

The series is not for the faint of heart but it is fantastic blend of romance and police procedural, and I will be coming back for more.

The audiobook was capably narrated by Susan Ericksen.  

PS.  I am embarrassingly behind on my ARC reading and reviewing.  =(


30 Days by Christine d'Abo

Alyssa buried her husband, her first and only lover two long years ago.  She has slowly and carefully been rebuilding her life, and her identity. Re-entering the dating scene as 35 year-old widow is daunting. Her late husband anticipated her hesitation during the last months of his life and left Alyssa a letter and 30-day challenge to encourage her reconnect with her sexuality as necessary first step before considering chancing couplehood again.

Harrison is Alyssa's new and temporary neighbor and seems like the perfect candidate to help her complete this project without risking getting too attached.

30 Days was very fun but unsurprisingly also very emotional. The book deals frankly with grief, and the long non-linear process of letting go of a beloved spouse.  Alyssa in a sense is trying to balance two relationships. She is in the midst of untangling her experiences of sex & love from her feelings for Rob while slowly falling in love with Harrison.

I really liked how slow Alyssa is to recognize and notice Harrison for himself and not just as convenient sexual partner. While she recognizes he is someone she can trust, is attracted to him, recognizes his skills and charm,  she learns the hard way how little she has tried to get to know him.  The conflict, tensions and hurts that develop between Alyssa and Harrison are believable and were resolved in satisfying and romantic way.

 

 I received a review copy via NetGalley .

 

 


Recent Reads, great books by Lauren Dane, Rachel Aaron & Kristen Ashley

Opening Up (Ink and Chrome #1) by Lauren Dane: I read Dane for her heroines. She also writes complex, sometimes heavy family relationships, hot & interesting heroes but her heroines are just amazing. PJ is the grand-daughter of a racing legend and the black-sheep of her car-parts selling family. At work she is marginalized by her sexist asshole father and managed by her siblings. PJ follows her heart out of the company and launches her own car customizing business. PJ might be young but she is smart, tenacious and knows what she wants, and she wants Asa. Asa is gorgeous and sexy. He respects her work and finds her delightful but doesn't want to saddle her with his demons (abandonment issues & hardscrabble childhood). There was relatively little relationship angst in this book after their initial dance around each other as PJ's family/work conflict dominates but the romance was sexy and satisfying. I can't wait to read more Ink and Chrome books,

Nice Dragons Finish Last (Heartstrikers 1) by Rachel Aaron. Julius's mother is a legendary and powerful dragon. She rules her large family through fear and manipulation. Impatient with Julius's lack of ambition, she drags him out of his room and away from his video games and drops him in the middle of the DFZ (Detroit Free Zone), without his powers and money and tells him he has a month to prove himself worthy of his family name or he dies.

Marci is almost a certified Mage, only a few week away from her degree when her father's vicious employer kills him and sets out to kill her too.

Both Marci and Julius are trying to stay alive in the DFZ and build a unlikely partnership as they team up to track down a runaway dragon.

This is the first book in a fun, imaginative and engaging Urban Fantasy series. I loved the whole thing, from Julius and Marci's fledgling flirtation to Julius large, dangerously unpredictable family.

Ride Steady (Chaos #3) by Kristen Ashley : I devoured this book. I think it is the best of the series so far. As a kid, Carson grew up learning how to take a hit, and keep his head down. He learned to plot, plan and keep his dreams to himself. Eight years after leaving town after one last confrontation with his father, Joker is where he wants to be. He is brother in Chaos, where he turns his art into customized bikes. He thinks he has left his past behind till he runs into his teenage crush Carissa on the side of the road.

Carissa was a cheerleader and the quarterback's girlfriend, but she didn't play the mean girl games and always had a smile for Carson. While Joker's life has been in a upward trajectory, Carissa has fallen far from her high school glory. After the loss of her sister and her mother's death, all Carissa has ever wanted was to have a family. So she held on to her jerk boyfriend for dear life. Eight years later she has been dumped by her lawyer husband who has replaced her with an even younger fiancée, she is desperately trying to make ends meet, working overtime as grocery clerk, caring for her toddler son while trying to figure out how to hold on to custody. Her ex wants to scrape her from his life and take their son with him. While Carissa is initially wary of getting help from a biker, she soon recognizes what a good man Joker is, even if she doesn't realize, this beared, lean and shaggy haired man is her old crush, Carson.

There a great versions of familiar KA motifs, fun cameos by other KA characters, and a surprisingly mature and beautiful romance, where the hero and heroine solve problems and share concerns with each other. It is one of those rare books that at 640 pages I was left wanting more.


The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology with stories by Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, Piper Hugley & Alyssa Cole

The stories in this historical romance anthology move forward through American history from 1866, post-Civil War New York City through to 1961, Civil Rights Era Virginia. They are stories about finding and nurturing love in the face of adversity and oppression. The stories in The Brightest Day are tied together by references to celebrations of Juneteenth.  Juneteeth celebrations commemorate July 19th, 1865, the last of the Freedom days, when slaves in Galveston, TX finally received their freedom. The celebration of that day spread beyond Texas to different black communities around the United States.  The stories express the diversity of African American experience in the United States and get better and better as you move through the anthology. 

Amazing Grace by Lena Hart:  In post-Civil War New York a young black woman, Grace Shaw, agrees to an arranged marriage to a wealthy Montana miner she has never met in order to provide for her family. On her way West, she falls in love with the last person she expects. Logan Foley is looking to start over for the second time in his life. Once the half-Mexican bastard son of white plantation owner, he reinvented himself as teenager, when he father claimed him as a heir. Now he is starting over again, moving West to Colorado to homestead, abandoning his father's ruined plantation and his slave owning past. Logan and Grace meet by chance but are tied together in ways they don't expect.

The romance centers on identity and intentions.  Both Grace and Logan must both come to terms with the choices they have made in order to secure their futures and please their families. These choices turned into bad ones that place them in difficult situations with lasting life consequences. Logan has the most to overcome as his slave owning past nearly cost him Grace's love. I enjoyed this story even though it felt compressed. There was certainly enough material & conflict to justify more pages. I didn't feel we spent enough time with Grace and Logan to fully develop why they fell for one another beyond their instant awareness and attraction but I still believe that they have what it takes to make a life together.

Drifting to You by Kianna Alexander: A prominent black Fayetteville family inaugurates their new boat with a celebratory Juneteeth Cruise of Cape Fear,NC in 1875. The family contracts Rosaline Rhodes a successful and hard-working baker to provide her famed spice cake for the outing. Having Rosaline on board all day provides Will Pruett, the local shipbuilder with the opportunity to finally let Rosaline know of his feelings for her. But Will Pruett is not the only one interested in courting Rosaline and soon Rosaline will have to choose.

I thought this books did a very good job addressing the social tensions within the black community post-Civil War. There is stigma to having been born a slave, and Rosaline for however much she has raised herself up, still faces that. I did feel however that I was dropped into the middle of a story, as Rosaline and Will have been denying their attraction for good long while and are only really getting started by the end of the story. There was also several interesting secondary characters who seem ripe for stories of their own.

A Sweet Way to Freedom by Piper Hugley: It is 1910 and Missouri "Missy" Baxter the pride of Milford and the first black teacher in Winslow, GA can no longer hide she is in "a family way". Arlo Tucker is the sweet-talking good-time man responsible for her condition.  Missy is determined not succumb to his charms again, less she be disappointed again. Arlo has always been able to evade responsibilities and emotional entanglements but for the first time he doesn't want to be let off the hook.  He wants Missy and wants to do right by her, and he needs to figure out away to convince her to give him another chance.

I just loved this story. I was crying for Missy and Arlo after the first few pages.  I strongly felt their conflicted emotions.  Arlo is full of fear, sure that he will only bring Missy pain, and Missy is hurt, determined not to be a fool again. Despite the fear and hurt they do truly love one another and I loved how they come to show each other forgiveness and grace. Hugely is fantastically skilled at characterization.  The large cast of secondary characters making up the Winslow community are all distinct and well developed without stealing focus from Arlo and Missy. I already have a one of Hugley's novels in my TBR, and will been pushing it toward the top of the queue.

Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole: Sofronia "Sofie" Wallis has done her best since her mother's death to be the good girl her father desperately wants her to be. She quieted her voice, she has lowered her eyes and done her best not to run into trouble. As the struggle of the Civil Rights movement is brought close to home, she longer feels that being quiet and meek is going to protect her and she is motivated to go against her father's wishes and join the non-violent protest movement.  Ivan Friedman has never forgotten Sofronia, he remembers vividly the hours they spent together at children.  To him she shines as brightly as always and he doesn't want leave her side again even if the whole world looks at them with derision. 

This story had great internal and external conflict and the way Sofie and Ivan interact was fantastic. I believed the intensity of their attraction, their awareness of the tension and danger they face by reconnecting.  I had previously read the epilogue to this story (it has been published on Cole's blog as part of a Hanukkah blog hop this past winter) but it was even more meaningful and beautiful after reading the rest of their story.

While I think the last two stories in the Anthology are certainly the strongest, the anthology as whole was enjoyable and worth reading. It was well balanced, and provided a great journey and I will be on the lookout for more books by these authors .

 


The Girl Next Door (Bend or Break #3) by Amy Jo Cousins

811EYqcZ1iL._SL1500_This is book three of Amy Jo Cousins's mixed/crossover NA series Bend or Break for Samhain. I have not read the first two books which were M/M, and while some past conflicts and events are referenced the book stands well on it own. 

Cash is a former rich/jock/party boy who has radically remade his life. He left a job at his dad's firm, leaving the fancy car and downtown condo behind, to go work his dream job. He has been working in the inner city coaching kids for little more than minimum wage for two years and generally just working very hard at doing things the right way.  He has never felt like the smartest kid in the room, but is very aware of how massively privileged he has been in life, so he is doing his best to do something worthwhile and real.  But his life is complicated by the surprise arrival of his runaway gay teen cousin.  He doesn't want to screw things up further for his cousin, so he calls on his best friends Tom and Reese  for help. Tom and Reese urge him to call Steph. 

Steph is the reason for Cash's life change only she doesn't know it. She broke his heart when she ended their friends with benefits arrangement, to pursue a relationship with a closeted Muslim girl their last year of college together.  Although it has been two years since Cash and Steph have had any real contact when Cash needs help she drops everything to help him. 

I liked how quickly Steph and Cash fell back into their old habits of sexual flirtation and interest and how that was both very good (in bed) and very bad (emotionally) for them.  Their sexual compatibility and interest has never been an issue, but falling into bed together easily just masks their inability to honestly confront and talk about their feelings for one another. They are both playing the same game, hoping not to be hurt if they don't push for more and if they don't define what they are doing together.  The what-are-we-doing-but-I-want-more conversation between Steph and Cash gets pushed back into the background for a very long time, but once they do have it is spectacular. I loved how big and out of control their conversation became.  It felt like just the kind of friendship-splitting fight that could and would happen if a couple have been dancing around each other emotionally for months.

I liked the book as a whole a lot, particularly the exploration of the complicated ways friendship/relationships rules develop. There was an incredibly hot threesome (mentioned in the blurb) that I thought was fantastically executed but that I struggled somewhat to make sense of story wise. In talking to a friend about it I  realized that I might have been carrying some Erom expectations into this book as I don't usually read NA.  I had expected the threesome to serve as challenge or confirmation for Cash and Stephany and their relationship. But they were at the same place emotionally at the end of the threesome as they were at the beginning.  Cash trusts Steph and is blown away by her sexual adventurousness.  And it did not turn into a relationship test. What we do see is what a loving, tender and all around good guy Cash is by the way he treats Varun through out. We also see a continued exploration of Cash's straight but not narrow sexuality. However the threesome might have been pivotal for Varun and I'm curious if it will be revisited in Varun's book.  

Despite the story being told exclusively from Cash's point of view the story sometimes felt crowded. While Steph is first and foremost in  Cash's mind, his life is complicated. He is trying to figure out how to make his budget balance, how to take care of his cousin, how to do well at his job, how to be a good friend and at the same time figure out how to keep Steph in his life however much distance and artificial obstacles she wants to put between them. I thought his realization of how to finally achieve that was wonderful and true to his character and I can only wish Cash and Steph many many years of happiness.

I received a review copy of The Girl Next Door from the author, Amy Jo Cousins.


Recent Reads: Nalini Singh, Carolyn Crane, Joanna Bourne & Julie James

Shards of Hope by Nalini Singh:  This is the 14th novel in Singh's sprawling Psy-Changeling series.  In this installment Singh is laying the groundwork for new threats to the stability of the Psy-Changeling world while tying off loose ends from the first fall of the silence story-arc .  However the romance between the two long-time Arrows partners is always center stage. I loved the friends to lovers dynamic been Zaira and Aden.  I loved the over-the-top deeply possessive, blunt, fierce and unfiltered dialogue she gave to Zaira. Both Aden and Zaira have blood on their hands, guilty consciences but deeply love one another.   I am very eager to see where Singh goes next in the Psy-Changeling universe.

Aden was groomed by his parents to be the perfect rebel, but he surpassed their meager expectations to become the undisputed leader of the Arrows, winning their total loyalty by freeing  them from those who sought to use them as a disposable & mindless killing squad.  But Aden also wants to lead them to a new future where the group created to be the guardians of Silence, learn to live full lives and truly become a family. Many fear this change and are uncertain how to move forward.  He must make plans for a new future while facing new threats from within and without.

Aden know he can't forge a new future for the Arrows without  Zaira at his side. Their friendship was forged when he reached out to care for her feral, dangerous, abused child abandoned to the cruel hands of the Arrow trainers.  Zaira survived and pledged herself to always proetect Aden but she questions her sanity and fitness to live in a post-Silence world.  Aden must work to convince Zaira that she is precious and the only person he wants as his partner and mate, despite her wounded soul. 

Behind the Mask by Carolyn Crane: When her twin sister is traded to the head of a drug cartel, Zelda, a retired CIA agent reluctantly returns to the field to take her sister's place & infiltrate the cartel. The assignment does not go as planned when she is traded to El Gorrion. Zelda is then unexpectedly rescued & taken captive by Hugo Martinez. Zelda suspects Hugo to be Kabakas, a mythical vigilante she once obsessively hunted. Hugo and Zelda must overcome mutual suspicion and compromising attraction to protect the town of Buena Vista from El Gorrion. 

Carolyn Crane continues to impress in her 4th Undercover Associates book.  Crane delivers pulse-pounding action and suspense while skillfully developing a complex & intensely erotic romance that packs an emotional punch.  Crane clearly communicates character motivations and vulnerabilities. Her dark, emotionally and physically wounded heroes and heroines act believably in extreme circumstances, even while falling in love with the wrong people at worst time.

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne: Annique "The Fox's cub" is a legendary French spy facing an impossible choice when she becomes guardian to ruinous war plans coveted by everyone. Trapped and facing torture from one her despicable superiors, she teams up with Grey, an English spymaster  imprisoned in the same dungeon.  Their alliance is brief and fraught, and they develop deeply intimate but impossible relationship.   Both Grey and Annique are passionate, patriotic professionals who are nearly torn apart by their dangerous game of cat and mouse.

I had heard very good things about this series, but I was still blown away.  The layers and layers of subterfuge, betrayal and  pain Annique uncovered took my breath away. Bourne set up fantastic internal and external conflicts for this couple to overcome and I was a sucker for their star-crossed, enemies to lovers story. The supporting cast was fascinating too so  I will definitely be reading the rest of this series.

Suddenly One Summer by Julie James:  Victoria Slade, a highly successful but cynical divorce lawyer needs a new place to live when panic attacks triggered by a recent unsuccessful home invasion start interfering with her sleep and everyday routines.  Ford Dixon is doing his best to keep busy, diving deep into his investigative reporting work and remodeling his apartment to avoid dealing with his grief over his recently deceased alcoholic father. When Victoria temporarily moves in next door to Ford, sparks fly but they get off on the wrong foot. However they end up teaming up to help Ford's sister with a sensitive issue that requires both their skill sets. 

I love Julie James's Chicago based FBI/US Marshall series.  The series has been one big breezy ball of banter-y competence porn. Her heroes and heroines work hard, play hard and look good doing it. But while they look like they have everything together they are missing something crucial in their lives.  In some ways Ford and Victoria are no different.  Both are highly successful in their chosen careers, are surrounded by supportive friends and both are doing their best to not let their vulnerabilities show. However I really connected with the reasons behind Victoria's and Ford's commitment issues and they what they had to do to overcome them.  I particularly appreciated the positive depiction of therapy. I also thought that James did a great job presenting Victoria estrangement from her Cuban American family and indirectly from her Cuban American heritage. It rang very true, as I have seen it in my own family.


Grave Phantoms by Jenn Bennett

GRAVE-PHANTOMS_COVER_MED-438x706I loved Bitter Spirits and Grim Shadows, but I have been impatiently waiting for Bo and Astrid's story since Bennett introduced them in the first book.

Grave Phantoms is Paranomal suspense romance set at the end of the Roaring 20s. The mood is heavy with a looming sense of uncertainty and change.  Astrid and Bo's flirty friendship has been interrupted as they have been apart for half a year with Astrid away at college. Heavy winter rains and flooding threaten Magnusson warehouses, distracting Bo & Winter and spoiling Astrid's homecoming plans.  Then a long-missing yacht full of occult artifacts and amnesiac survivors crashes into the Magnusson docks.  When Astrid accidentally touches one of the artifacts she blackouts and starts seeing visions.  Bo and Astrid must race to figure out the provenance and purpose of the artifact to insure Astrid's safety.

The big occultist plot in the novel involving pirates, pre-Columbian magical artifacts and eternal life, is interesting but I hardly paid attention to it. It did give Astrid and Bo excuses to be out together investigating and meeting interesting people, and it did get quite scary at points, but the real stakes of the story are firmly on whether Bo and Astrid can figure out a way to love & live together in a way neither is diminished. 

Bo Yeung is Winter Magnusson's  right-hand man. He has risen from foiled pick-pocket and errand boy to second in command in the Magnusson bootlegging operation because of his intelligence, initiative and loyalty. Winter has welcomed Bo into his home and treats him like family. 

Astrid Magnusson is Winter's little sister.  She has come of age in the flapper era, reveling in being young, blonde, rich and daring.  But adulthood has Astrid pushing boundaries more than ever as she tries to figure who she is, other than a bootlegger's sister.  A semester away at college has clarified what she wants but not how to get it.  She is scared that her attempts at making Bo notice and think of her as woman have pushed him away.

Bo is hurt and confused by Astrid but still undeniably in love with her.  Bennett did a great job teasing out some of the pressures Bo is under as Chinese American man in early 20th century San Francisco.  He is much more sensitive to the pitfalls of a relationship between them as he crosses as between Chinatown & the Magnusson's Pacific Heights neighborhood routinely, and living in both worlds has made him sensitive to the problems they would face.

The social censure and the practical realities of their inter-racial romance always loom in the background. Where would they live, how would they support themselves if Winter disapproves are all issues that Bo has spent a great deal of time thinking about. In the past being out and about with Astrid has been easy, because he was just her driver or bodyguard, but it is completely different for them to be out together as a romantic couple. The way they have to acknowledge power dynamics & negotiate how they can be together in public without Astrid unintentionally emasculating Bo was very powerful.  For Astrid it means not smoothing things over, or covering them up even if that is easier.  She needs to accept that it will sometimes be ugly and uncomfortable and that saving them from rudeness by lying will hurt more in the end.  Astrid is used to having Bo in her world, but she needs to see him in his before she can really start imagining how they can make space for themselves in the world together.  

I fascinated and surprised by how central Astrid & Bo's sexual histories would be to the romance. They both had to grown and accept that they had sexual pasts with other people. They want to be jealous, and I appreciated how painful it is for them both to face up to the fact that they had both pursued other sexual partners & relationships while becoming emotionally attached to each other. Learning to live with that an accepting that is part of becoming adults, and I loved the resolution to that romantic conflict.  I loved the Epilogue and the new lives the Magnusson-Yeung clan have created for themselves.

 I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin Group: Berkley via NetGalley


All for You (Paris Hearts #1) by Laura Florand

Five years ago Joss left without warning to join the French Foreign Legion. Joss was Celié's brother's best friend, and her teenage crush. Celié has never forgotten him or the her youthful hopes and fantasies. When he left their rundown neighborhood, she chose to not sit in despair, hoping he would return for her, but instead set off on a quest of her own. While Joss has been off in the Legion looking to become the best he can be, Celié has climbed the ranks of Parisian chocolate makers to become one of the very best in the world.

After 5 years Joss tries to walk back into Celié's life only to discover that not only has she not been sitting around  waiting for him to return and cover him in kisses, but is actually terrifically angry with him. Joss is confused but undeterred, determined to claim Celié's heart.

I loved this romance. In this story Florand constructs a fascinating narrative about perfection, objectification, aspiration, fantasy and reality. Joss is a courtly lover come to life. He had set off to be prove his worth, so that he could claim the love of the woman he adored. The hope of her love, the thought of being worthy of her, sustained him through the incredibly rigors of his Legionnaire's training. He is faithful to his love of her despite constant temptations in his lonely life. His commitment is extraordinary, but it is misguided and self-involved.

Celié was hurt by his sudden absence, left alone to sort out and try to understand what if anything they ever had. She has spent five years trying to remake herself into someone who doesn't need or want a knight-in-shining-armor. She deeply resents the idea that he went of on this quest for her, that he chose to go do something alone for the idea of her, rather than risk failure while trying to make a better life for them together.

I loved how Florand explored the difference between being an object of desire and hope and actually being in a relationship. Joss and to lesser extent Celié have to disentangle their fantasies about each other and the relationship they wanted to have with the other from the reality of who they actually are.  I loved that they need to learn to listen to each other's needs, to see each other as human beings. I loved that they have to fall in love with each other again, even if they never fell out of lust with each other.

I was fascinated by the disconnect between Joss and Celié about the nature of love & actions of love. Joss is determined to be good enough for Celié. He fails to communicate his fears and failures, so that he might present her with a perfect finished product . His vision of love is a kind of work-righteousness. He must be good and perfect so that he might earn love and affection. Celié understands love not as something that can be earned but something that is shared. Celié wants for Joss to accept that she has always love him, and that she felt cheated by the fact they did not struggle to make something of their lives together. In the novel Joss eventually surrenders his self-focused and solitary vision of love, and accepts one where he trusts his partner with his failures and includes her in his decision making progress. Celié in turn has to forgive Joss for trying to do it alone and accept and love the new man he remade himself to be and let him share in her life.

The story was told with great charm and humor by Florand. She has a wonderful ability of creating beautiful, strong men who are squishy and vulnerable inside. Joss's struggle to wrestle his feelings into words, to allow his feelings to show on his face and body warring against years of ruthless training and along with his struggle to relax & reintegrate to civilian life were very convincingly portrayed.

One of the things I love the most about Florand is her ability to create a fictional Paris that can be an attractive fantasy but still feel like a real place. I love that Florand acknowledges the rude and lewd cat-callers that haunt the Seine's romantic banks. Florand's characters don't spend a lot of time in seedier side of Paris,  but they acknowledge it exists. But the strength of Florand's sense of place in her novels led to an unintentionally jarring element in the story. In the story Joss continually struggles with low-level survival anxiety. His years in war-zones make him hyper-vigilant and he has remind himself that he is not longer in one, and school his reactions. When these scenes came up I couldn't help thinking how Joss would fare in post-Charlie-Hebdo attack Paris and how that would complicate his reintegration to civilian life. I don't think it was an oversight by Florand, but rather a testament to her ability to create characters that I care about and whose world feel solid enough that I want to connect it to our real world.

I also continue to appreciate the way she is able to have former protagonists appear in her series without stealing the focus. She is not scared to acknowledge that Dom and Joss are cut from the same cloth, yet they are given very different kinds of heroines and romances. I liked how Dom interacted with Joss and that what they both meant to Celié has always been different. I look forward to reading more books in this series following Celié s fiercely competitive friends and peers.

I received a review copy of All for you from the author, Laura Florand.