Urban Feed

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.


Guilty Pleasure & The Pleasure Principle by Jane O'Reilly

Cover58621-mediumI read these two novellas last month. I didn't review them right away because I needed to think about how I felt about them. I liked a lot of what Ms. O’Reilly was doing in these novellas, and I found them undeniably hot but I struggled a bit with some of the choices made by the characters. Both the novellas center on women rebounding and reclaiming their sexuality in the face of misogyny, and unexpectedly falling in love not just in lust with their sexual partners.

In Guilty Pleasure, Tasha is the lone female architect her company. She has a sexist boss and sexually harassing clients. Always a hard worker, she is spurred into ridiculous levels of work-alcoholism when a new male architect, Ethan Hall is hired. She finds emotional release by masturbating at her desk long after everyone else has gone home. She knows it is dangerous for to her career if she were caught, but the fear doesn't stop her, and instead drives her on, till the night that Ethan walks in on her.

Ethan it turns out it is not the repressed workaholic automaton she has imagined him to be. Ethan becomes her sexual partner-in-crime. They drive each other into greater and greater risks in the office and more exploration outside the office.

I wanted to reach in the book and shake Tasha, and say “honey no!” to her self-destructive short-sighted choices. I have a hard time with books with lots of workplace conflict and I just wanted to get her out of that situation. Her sexual explorations with Ethan were certainly pleasurable, but so ill-timed I seriously worried for her. But in the end she gets herself out of her work conflict herself in completely satisfactory way.

I felt that Ethan and Tasha’s relationship was one dimensional. They are clearly sexually compatible, but little else was developed on the page, and I wished we could have seen them not just be told that they related to each other in other ways.

 

Cover58622-mediumThe Pleasure Principle:

When Verity discovers that her ex-boyfriend has negatively rated her sexual performance on a website, Verity breaks down at work. In response her boss & secret crush, Cal Bailey, an unapologetic playboy and rumored host of sex parties, invites her to his house for one of those fabled parties. At the party Cal takes a special interest in her but she is quickly overwhelmed by all the public sexuality only to run into her ex on the way out. Cal steps in, deflects her ex and walks Verity home where he confronts her. Cal is distressed to discover that Verity has internalized her ex’s ugly and hateful assertions that she is frigid, and decides it is his responsibility to show her that she is not bad at sex and that she can enjoy it. Cal has to work very hard to build up her confidence, earn her trust and help her feel less exposed.

When I read it, I enjoyed Pleasure Principle more than I did Guilty Pleasure, because I wasn't nearly as stressed for Verity as I was for Tasha. The trajectory of the story was comforting as Cal is essentially a jaded Rake who find meaning and intimacy while mentoring an in experience woman about the joys of sex, and I know how those kind of stories turn out. Verity however almost upsets the plan, because she is determined not get attached to Cal, it is only after she realizes how and why Cal has become invested in this project that she can see his hurts and needs. In the end the more they interact, the more they have sex, the more private they get. They move away from Cal’s voyeurism & exhibitionism withdrawing to private spaces, where they don’t need or want anyone else. Verity comes accept that this isn't a sacrifice for Cal, because what they have together means more to him. In this novella I felt we had more development of the relationship outside the bedroom but it still was not robust.

There were moments in these stories that I really loved, so I am open to reading more from Ms. O’Reilly, as I found her voice was very compelling and immediate.

 I was invited to consider these books for review by Ms.O'Reilly and received review copies from UK Carina via NetGalley


Winter Rain (Love in the Rain Book 2)

Winter Rain cover

Winter Rain is the second anthology of short stories published by Pink Kayak press benefiting RAINN. I read and reviewed Summer Rain earlier this year. Like most anthologies this collection showcased a lot of variety in terms of style, tone & setting. My favorite stories in this collection, Suleikha Snyder's Spice and Sand & Tamsen Parker's Needs were very different from each other but stood out from the rest by packing strong emotion, character growth & romance into small packages.

Dream by Delphine Dryden -- Robin's best days are the first Tuesday of every month when she takes time off work to visit her therapist George and her voice coach, Celia. When rains from a storm trap Robin in Celia's house, they finally truly see each other. It is a story of connection and how powerful it can be to have someone see through our veneer of competence, to our imperfect selves and accept those flaws, hurts & baggage. Both Celia and Robin have a lot of mental health issue to resolve, but they are full of hope they can figure things out together.

4 stars

Sales Tax Not Included by Inara Scott -- Nash Hanover tried to runaway from the mess his father made but after near fatal bout of malaria he is right back in the small town he grew up in. He has become obsessed with catching the attention of Chloe the cashier at dollar store down the block from his apartment. Chloe is determined to ignore him because she can't see one good thing coming from his attention. This story moved a bit too fast for me and would been better served by a longer word count. The story was too compressed for me to quite believe in the couple at the end, even as an HFN.

3 stars

Exposure by Serena Bell: Jenny was publicly embarrassed and romantically disappointed after sending an inappropriate tweet from her boss's account and ran away to work as temporary caretaker at campground deep in the woods. Six months of licking her wounds later, Beck her childhood friend & crush has been commissioned by her parents to try to bring her back. This story was working really well for me, till the first sex scene where the Bell does some distracting handwaving to justify the characters having unprotected sex. It kicked me out of the story in a major way, and I couldn't recover to enjoy the end.

3 stars

Sand Dollar Cinderella by Amber Lin-- When Jaime was a teen a private picture of herself circulated around her high school and pretty much killed her dating life. It is years later and she is ready to leave that behind and move on with the rest of her life. First thing in her agenda is to rid herself of her virginity. When her original plan is foiled by a well meaning friend, she decides to pick up her brother's old friend who just came back to town and doesn't recognize her. She doesn't know however how much he wants to leave his one-night stand days behind him. I liked that he figured out pretty quickly that she wasn't being honest with him, and that he didn't let things drag on. Overall the story felt like it was setting up a series, or at the very least a sequel featuring Jamie's brother and her best friend Mirabelle.

3 stars

Behind the Mask by Alexis Hall -- Pretty standard super-villain origin story premise with a m/m romance twist. Masquerade created his persona to give Justin a purpose after he returned from war still grieving his closeted quarterback boyfriend . As a longtime superhero comic fan the premise didn't seem new or interesting nor the resolution satisfying.

2 stars

Spice and Sand by Suleikha Snyder -- I don't know a lot of Hindu mythology but that didn't stop me from greatly enjoying this story. Rambha is nymph whose dancing can shake the earth. She has been cruelly separated from her husband, Nalakuvara, for centuries. Even though she lives pleasure-filled heaven, she longs to be reunited with him. She risks displeasing her demon king Indra by refusing to dance and challenges him for an opportunity to claim her husband. He lets her have the opportunity but when she finds him, Nalakuvara is living as composer for Bollywood films, Nicky Kohli . He has no memory of Rambha, although he is hugely attracted to her. Rambha however knows she can not be satisfied with only his desire, it would be torture and cruel substitution to have him with him knowing who she is so she flees, hoping he will seek her and come to know her. Snyder did a great job weaving the mystical and the fantastical with the earthy and the modern. Rambha is proud, bold and sensual, and deeply devoted to her husband. Their relationship has weathered violence & separation, and she will not let it die. Nicky moves through feelings of fascination, incredulity and desperation as he starts to see who she had been to him and once again risks all to have her. This is one of the highlights of this collection.

5 stars.

Remembering Yesterday by Stacy Reid -- This was a plot straight from soap opera, complete with cartoonishly conniving family. Ava survived a serious car accident that left her with partial amnesia. With her memories fractured, Ava feels broken, unable to move on with her life even if she is going through the motions for the sake of her parents. When Devlin walks past her something clicks into place, and soon fragmented context-less memories are flooding her. Confused but determined, Ava confronts Devlin, to find out what he used to mean to her, and why he isn't in her life. Ava will learn more about herself than she bargained for. This is not a trope I enjoy and this story did not impress me enough to overcome that. I found Ava to be incredibly immature and not simply because she is only 23. Devlin remains largely a blank slate, even as Ava starts to remember him. I had too many questions for the plot to work for me.

2 stars.

Sometimes it Storms by Cole McCade I couldn't finish this story so I won't give it a rating. Ethan is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the story chronicles his struggle with sexual intimacy, and Aurelie's patient love through the painful process. The backstory, presented in vivid flashbacks was so dark I just couldn't make it all the way through.

No rating

Needs by Tamsen Parker -- As soon as she could Ryn left the family farm in rural Iowa for the lights of the city and never wants to go back. Ryn is a city planner with a long list of exes, when she meets Sam, handsome, cultured & interesting. Rather than fall into another boring conversation about their careers, they playfully choose to make the topics of their professions off-limits. One date leads to another, and soon Ryn is falling hard for him till she learns something about him that stops her in her tracks. I loved this story. Sam is sexy, patient & a true grownup. Ryn had to grow up in a couple of ways and I loved her grovel and the HEA.

5 stars

 


Tempting the Player by Kat Latham

Cover53587-mediumI enjoy watching sports, and used to be a big baseball fan, but I don’t read a lot of sport themed romances;  Kat Latham’s London Legends series is the exception. Tempting the Player is the third book in the series. The heroes are all been members of the London Legends, a fictional European league rugby team. Latham does a wonderful job explaining elements of rugby & rugby culture that might be unfamiliar to American readers without bogging down the plot.  While Sports-stars and rock-stars are supposed to be the new billionaires,  like that her London Legends players are not in fact multi-millionaires, and instead read more like working-class men, who work physically demanding jobs, albeit ones that come with media scrutiny, racy  holiday calendars and crazy fans. Her stories are filled with good humor, and just right touches of physical comedy.

Libby and Matt are best friends and neighbors. They share custody of a rescue teacup Chihuahua, and on nights they are both in town they spend cozy nights together watching movies.

Libby is a hard-working airline pilot for no-frills discount airline, working long hours as she tries to climb to the top of the seniority pile and make Captain.  She knows her career is murder on families and relationships having seen her parents marriage and that of many colleagues disintegrate.  A champion list maker, she has pretty set ideas &  criteria describing the kind of partner she thinks she needs to make it possible for her to keep her career and build a family. But she keeps dating men who Matt hates and considers unambitious prats and unsurprisingly those relationships never go anywhere. Her sister thinks the problem is that she is hung up on Matt, despite thinking Matt is all wrong for her. After all he doesn’t fit any of her criteria: He is younger than her, in a demanding career of his own and shown no interest in re-marriage.  Yet they spend hours together, share common interests and similar senses of humor. Libby’s sister advises her to get over Matt by shagging him and get over him, so she can move on date more productively.

Matt is deeply aware of how he has constantly disappointed people in his life, His rugby-star father, his first wife, his teammates. Libby has been one of relationship in his life unsullied by disappointment. Spending time with Libby has been safe in every way for Matt, he basks in her admiration and companionship and relaxes at the lack of sexual expectations. Libby has been the one no-pressure thing in his life. And Matt is under a lot of pressure with the Legends. After years of under performing, they need him to step up when their starting defender needs to take some time away from the field. It is clear to Matt that this is his last best chance to save his career. However his on-field play is only part of the equation. They can no longer keep ignoring his paralyzing fear of flying, if they are to count of him to be a starter.  Matt treasures his friendship with Libby above all else… even his growing attraction to her but Matt needs Libby to help him get over his fears, and risk disappointing her or he will be finished.

I loved how the conflicts in this novel exposed both of them. Both Libby and Matt were clinging to their friendship in unhealthy ways, using it to fill needs they didn’t want to acknowledge. Libby needed to finally admit that she wanted more from Matt, and Matt needed to lean on Libby and ask for her help, even if that made him vulnerable and recognize that she was worthy of that trust.

I loved how complicated both Libby and Matt’s relationships with their careers were and how she portrayed how messy it can be to start baring yourself to another person, even someone you have known for a longtime, and trust. I liked that even though they have been best friends for so long, they had so much to learn about each other because of how much of their own vulnerabilities they have been hiding out of self-protection. I really liked that in the end they were really choosing each other, not settling. 

Latham combined two of my favorite tropes, “friends to lovers” and “we can keep it casual” to great effect in this story. The resolution was super romantic,  & funny (almost a bit OTT for me) but lovely and right and consistent with the tone of the story.

 4 stars

 

A review copy of Tempting the Player was provided by Carina Press.  Tempting the Player was published Nov.10, 2014.

 

 


Binary Witness & Code Runner (Amy Lane Mysteries 1 & 2) by Rosie Claverton

There was a time in my life where mystery and detective novels dominated my reading. I loved Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, PD James & Patricia Cornwell. I read everything from hard-boiled noir to cozy cottage mystery. But I reached my breaking one night with a particularly gruesome Ian Rankin novel that had me spending too much time in the serial killer’s head (Red Right Hand). After that my mystery novel reading tailed off, and while I still pick up a mystery story from time to time, and I still addicted to Masterpiece Mystery if I read a mystery now, I've picked it up for its romantic elements. Last month when Sunita and others recommended Binary Witness on twitter, at the time priced at only  .99 cents, I took a gamble and order it and requested the sequel Code Runner from Netgalley. I loved them both. 

 

Binary Witness (Amy Lane Mysteries #1) is set in Cardiff and opens with a young woman stalked and attacked outside her house. We are then introduced to Jason Carr, an ex-con former street tough trying to pull his life together. He is unwelcome in his old neighborhood and has strained relationships with his mom Gwen and sister Cerys with whom he lives. He has secured a low-paying job as a cleaner. The work is hard and disgusting but it is honest. Jason doesn't have a lot of opportunities in his life, never has had, but he can't return to his former life and he isn't content to live on welfare.

One of his first assignments brings him to Amy Lane’s doorstep. Amy is a reclusive & neurotic hacker who works as un-official consultant to the Cardiff police force. Her sister in Australia has arranged for the house cleaning service to come and check in on Amy, knowing she often forgets to eat and maintain her house. None of the other cleaners has made it into her house but Jason convinces her to let him in. Once in he sets out to disinfect Amy’s lair, and make her eat. Jason is there when the Cardiff police officers Bryn and Owain arrive to ask for Amy's help in finding a pair of missing girls.  Amy who only has fuzzy awarness of the what Jason's actual job duties should be starts treating him as pseudo-assistant and errand boy, and since Jason is captivated by the case as is all of Cardiff he rolls with it. Jason’s street connections and gift of gab become valuable assets to Amy, helping her when she hits dead-ends in her digital sleuthing. Both Amy and Jason frequently over-step legal boundaries in their investigations while Detectives Bryn and Owain look the other way in mild-horror but deep pragmatism.

While the mystery is top-notch what really drew me to the story were the genuine relationships. Amy and Jason’s friendship and partnership is fascinating. I loved how they watched out for each other, their crabby bickering and value they give to each other’s lives. I particularly loved Bryn's suspiscious, hostile yet  eventually grudgingly admiration he develops for Jason. While I was completely satisfied with the resolution of the mystery, I was very happy I had Code Runner to jump right into because I wanted to spend more time with Amy and Jason.

 

4.5 stars to Binary Witness

 

Code Runner (Amy Lane Mysteries #2):

Code Runner starts several months after the events of Binary Witness. Amy and Jason have found new routines, thriving when busy with cases but struggling with the changes when not caught up in cases. Jason is now employed full-time as Amy’s live-in assistant, and the change in expectations and schedule has caused more than a few conflicts.

Jason takes a couple days of holiday away from Amy to camp at the beach with his mother and sister and stumbles upon a dead body. His first instinct after calling the police is to take pictures for Amy and that nearly gets him arrested. Amy and Jason can’t resist an open case and Jason ends up investigating against the wishes of the police force. In this case Jason’s old gang world and his new world intersect in ways he never anticipated. Framed for the murder of the younger brother of one of his old associates, Jason is arrested and imprisoned. Jason will have to trust Amy to solve the crime without him and do his best to stay alive. Amy has to work without his assistance, outside the usual channels, deprived of her best tech & without the approval of her usual associates.

I read Code Runner in one sitting, once I started I couldn’t put it down. The relationships established in Binary Witness were complicated and tested in Code Runner. I loved that the more Jason and Amy are drawn together the more they are keeping from each other out of fear of destroying their partnership. I really hope there are more Amy Lane Mysteries on the way.

4.5 stars to Code Runner


Dance Hall Days & Five Dates by Amy Jo Cousins

Recently I had the opportunity to read two m/m novellas by Amy Jo Cousins. In both the stories the main characters have to strip away protective layers of prejudice and defensiveness in order to move beyond sexual chemistry to real intimacy and the possibility of love. All the characters have access to plenty of sexual partners for casual encounters but want more. The tension lies not in whether they will notice each other and find sexual release together but whether that moment is one that marks the end of the relationship or its start. 

Dance Hall Days is the the second to last novella in Dreamspinner Press’ “All in a Day’s Work” Anthology. Frank Armstrong is a bouncer at a dance hall catering to gay men in Depression era London. Large, solid and serious, his job is to watch the door, but he can’t keep his eyes from wandering all over Laurie. Laurie is a singer who performs in glittering drag and not all the kind of man Frank usually goes for. Laurie is not circumspect or conflicted about his interest in Frank and ends up unequivocally dedicating a torch song to him. Instead of reciprocating, Frank flees the dance floor, retreating back to his post. Embarrassed and vulnerable Laurie nurses his broken-heart by going home with all the wrong men. Feeling used & teary after yet another empty and specially hurtful encounter with a posh patron, Laurie is mortified when Frank finds him in the coat-room sniveling. Frank is gruffly and awkwardly trying to comfort Laurie when they hear the terrifying high-pitched whistles that signal a police raid. In desperation, Laurie hurriedly forces Frank into a hidden closet so they can avoid being arrested. In the dark of the closet it is Laurie’s turn to comfort and be strong for Frank who suffers from claustrophobia. There Frank accepts Laurie’s caresses but Frank and Laurie will both have to strip off their prejudice and misconceptions about each other if they want more than a few moments of sexual release with each other.

Cousins did a wonderful job re-creating both the glittering yet grimy ambiance of the illicit dance hall, both refuge and ghetto. She captures the isolation, desperation and loneliness of living on the fringes of society, sought after and used. How differently Frank and Laurie respond to the pressures of being gay in society that doesn't accept it makes it difficult for them to reach for each other. My happiness as they walk off together into the night is tempered by worry and wonder about what the future holds for them.

From the Anthology I can also recommend reading My OTP by Bru Baker and Not Quite 1776 by Therese Woodson.

 My OTP by Bru Baker  is about a pair of myth-busting TV personalities, whose easy chemistry and camaraderie inspire fans to fill tumblr with saucy gifs. But it is not just the fans who are shipping them and hoping to figure out if they are really a couple. Fun and breezy, a lovers to more story.

Not Quite 1776 by Therese Woodson was also worth reading. Henry is a historical interpreter who excels at one-night stands and flees from emotional entanglements in pursuit of his own vision of liberty. Owen is the sexy historical reenactor that inspires him to want something a little bit deeper and to not retreat from his offer of more. 

I appreciated receiving a review copy of “All in a Day’s Work” from the author, Amy Jo Cousins.

 

4.5 stars for Dance Hall Days

 

DownloadFive Dates:

Devin is an amazing older brother. Ten years ago, he stepped in to defend his pregnant sister Lucy, deflecting the brunt of his parents wrath by coming out. He then dropped out his master’s program to take a job that would help him pay their bills. Since then he has been active uncle and generally put his own life on the back burner. Other than trips to the gym he rarely makes times for himself, and contents himself with occasional casual hookups. When he loses yet another bet to his sister, he finds himself on a blind date with a beautiful young man he would never dream of approaching otherwise, the first of 5 dates to be arranged by his sister to settle his debt.

Jay is young, hip and incredibly angry when he discovers that Devin’s sister used a ten-year old photo on the dating site profile. While Jay does find Devin attractive, he is not at all the kind of man he is looking for anymore. Jay is adamant about not wanting to date another “daddy”, having just ended a painful relationship with a older more educated man who subtly and consistently denigrated him.

An embarrassed and apologetic Devin is able to convince him to stay for the dinner & Devin’s persistence and good nature eventually pierce Jay’s angry bubble and they end up enjoying each others company despite the awful start and then share a scorching parting kiss. Devin is well aware of Jay’s confusion and anger with himself so he leaves it up to Jay to make the next move, despite being completely infatuated with him. What follows are a series of false starts, sexy texts,interrupted dates, self-torture, & bad moves as Jay tries to reconcile his fears about getting involved with an older man and his attraction and growing feelings and desire for Devin. 

This novella was fun despite touching on many serious background issues such as  teen pregnancy, familial rejection, racism, stereotyping and power inequalities in some gay relationships because the main characters are more than a collection of hurts.  There is a HEA, with the promise of more but it just feels like the beginning of a story to me.  They have fallen in like for each other, but they will need to have a lot more dates before they fall in love.

 4 stars for Five Dates.


Afternoon Delight by Anne Calhoun

AfternoonDelight-final-250x374Sarah Naylor has spent the previous two years of her life taking care of her aunt Joan till her death of ovarian cancer. A professional chef looking for a new start and return to the carefree life she had before, Sarah left San Francisco to help launch a new food-truck enterprise in NYC.

Tim Cannon lives a fast paced life. Rushing from call to call, bolting down food in his downtime and meeting fast women for uncomplicated sex is all he has time for as a EMT. After a hard day training a probie EMT, Tim heads toward the park to find a hot-dog vendor and inhales two dogs and pretzel before Sarah strolls up to him and offers him a free rice bowl from her food truck. Part-promotional strategy and all flirtation, Sarah encourages him to slow down and try her food. He likes the food but lusts after Sarah. A few afternoons and a couple of bad pick-up lines later Sarah goes off with Tim to his small lower East Side apartment complete with Murphy bed for sex hotter than either of them expected.


“Continuing his deceleration into the slow lane would mean feeling what he wasn’t ready to feel, not for Sarah, not for anyone.”


Each time Sarah and Tim got together there is a challenge heightening the tension and before long they are both much more involved with each other than is prudent if all they want is an uncomplicated spring fling. Between shared meals and intense sexual encounters Sarah and Tim become increasingly intimate, surprising each other by asking the deeper questions and honestly answering them. But just when they both seemed poised to accept the fact that they want more from each other something Tim said or more accurately failed to say to a co-worker has them parting in the drama-free way they always expected. But instead of relief at the end of a temporary arrangement they are both miserable. There is fantastic groveling and believable character interactions that lead to a satisfying reconciliation.


“But unlike him, she was letting the experience slowly simmer inside her, letting it change her for the better.”


As someone who loves food and exploring cities, I wished I could have tasted and seen everything they did. I loved how Tim sets out to show Sarah why he loves NYC, not in a touristy way but in the way of someone who knows it intimate rhythms and is happy to take on the challenge of impressing someone hard to impress. I also particularly liked Tim’s point of view, how we see it slow-down as he slowly starts surrendering to feeling and tasting again. I also loved the way Sarah’s progression from someone trying recapture a particular way of living out of obligation and eventually accepting her changed self gently unfolded.


This is the first Anne Calhoun novel I have ever read but it won’t be my last. Afternoon Delight should be listed under the definition of Erotic Romance as almost all the major relationship breakthroughs happen during sex or shortly thereafter and it does it just right.

I am thankful to have received a review copy of Afternoon Delight from Penguin/Intermix via Netgalley.


Private Politics by Emma Barry

The second book in the Easy Part series by Emma Barry, Private Politics is the story of Washington fundraiser Alyse Phillips and political blogger Liam Nussbaum. Alyse didn’t always know what she wanted out-of life, only what she didn’t want. She knew she didn’t want to have a just-good-enough-marriage in the upper East Side just like her parents and sister. Alyse essentially stumbled into a career she loves. She is passionate about her work raising funds for an international girl’s literacy non-profit, even if most people see her as a glorified party-planner. Often dismissed by others because of her good looks and sparkling persona, Alyse is distraught to discover irregularities in donation paperwork as she gathered materials for their auditor. Alyse turns to her roommate Millie for help, who calls her fiance’s good friend Liam to help Alyse investigate and figure out what her options are.

Liam Nussbaum has been infatuated with Alyse for months, a crush Alyse does little to encourage. When Alyse turns to Liam for help, he is wary and guarded. Exposing the bad-actors in at YWR could catapult his political blog to the big-leagues but working with Alyse could either be his best shot at getting closer to her or put his heart through the wringer. Liam with his round soft face, less than chiseled body is acutely aware of how out of his league Alyse is.

Private Politics is well rooted in Washington DC, the city’s pulse and local color a vivid part of the book and Alyse and Liam are distinctive and original main characters. Alyse is beautiful and knows just how to use her beauty as distraction and manipulation. She is not mean-spirited just calculating and skilled at managing people. She knows the value of appearances, of head tilts, timely words, and has the right touch to make her a very successful fundraiser. She is a serious person who excels at appearing un-serious. Liam is affected by her, infatuated even, but all the same deeply aware of the artificiality of the composed persona Alyse presents to the world and treasures any genuine interaction he has with her.

While Alyse is careful and calculated, Liam is a not. He open,genuine,earnest, brilliant and principled. He has built up his college blogging hobby into a thriving small business. The transition isn’t without growing pains, as Liam is learning to trust his staff with editorial decisions and to take the necessary journalistic risks order to make waves. He is the perfect anti-dote to the alpha-hole hero. He is a responsible, thoughtful adult who cares how the decisions he makes affects the people around him.

When a threatening note pushes Alyse out of her apartment, Liam invites her to stay at his place, much to the amusement of their mutual friends who have been waiting for Liam to make a move for months. Liam’s struggles with the appropriateness of expressing and acting on his desires and complicating both their lives. I just loved them together, how they surprise each other, and how hard it is for them to negotiate their relationship. I loved the romance, how Liam’s honesty about his feelings and wants both spook and fascinate Alyse. I loved how Alyse slowly comes to see Liam as increasingly attractive the more she gets to know him. I loved their self-deprecating inner voices, their banter and the perfect dose of investigative hijinks. As soon as I finished Private Politics I jumped online and bought Special Interests.

Come to Washington for the political intrigue and fall in love with Alyse and Liam, who are almost too smart for their own good. 

 

I am grateful for the review copy of Private Politics provided by Carina Press.