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Favorite Short stories & Novellas of 2018

ShortsAt many points this year novellas and short stories have been just what I needed to read. I am always amazed what authors can do with a limited word-count. The emotional stories that they can cram into small packages. I am huge fan of the Rogue Anthologies project and the range of authors that have participated in them.

Two of my favorite romance short stories of the year came out the same volume, Rogue Acts.

  •  Cover Me by Olivia Dade is a Marriage of Convenience between good friends for insurance purposes that ignites into so much more.  The sweet hero is determined to care for his new wife. Loved the incandescent scene at a town hall meeting were Elizabeth roasts her congressman & opens James eyes.  (mf, contemporary) CW: Cancer scare

  • The Long Run by Ruby Lang is a Gently funny & hopeful story of neighbors who get off on the wrong foot.  It is all about the small efforts toward change & community building that truly make a difference when things seem dire. It is about finding hope & joy even when things are hard. Loved Annie’s too-loudness & Monroe’s chill-hiding shyness. (mf, contemporary)

I've read two very different but truly charming novellas in the last couple of weeks that catapulted on to this list:

  • Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder  Pinky has moved back town to help her parents run their Indian restaurant in small-town Indiana. She has developed an unhealthy attraction to the handsome motorcycle club enforcer who stops in every night and taunts her by mouthing "soon" to her when he catches hers looking.  It is a story of secrets and identity crises, from Pinky taste for wildness despite to the seeming contradictions between Trucker's menacing persona  and their comic book /musical theater fueled banter. It was a rollercoaster full of sweetness and hotness ( mf, contemporary) CW: Cancer diagnosis for parent.

  • Craft of Love by EE Ottoman  I loved the gentle pacing of this sweet novella. Ottaman crafted a satisfying romance that slowly unfolds from Benjamin  & Remembrance's tentative admiration & respect. I loved how Ottoman illustrated the growing attraction & how regard built into  fondness. Both Benjamin & Remembrance has reasons to be anxious and tentative when it comes to love & friendship and Ottoman get it just right.(mf, trans MC, US-set Historical novella)

This year I also read a mystery novella set in a PNR world. I don't know how to catalog it as it didn't have a romance, but it is really a coming of age story. It was a fantastic bridge transitioning the series to a new lead character.

  • In Diamond Fire by Ilona Andrews, Catalina is entrusted with finding a Rogan family heirloom before Rogan & Nevada’s wedding. The only way she can solve the mystery in time and make sure her sister and family and safe is to use her powers something she has always been scared to do. Catalina tests herself and find new skills and challenges ahead. (Paranormal Mystery)

What short-stories and novellas gave you just what you were looking for this year?


Favorite Contemporary Romances of 2018

Favorites of 2018contemporaryI am working on putting together my best of list for Love in Panels and working on my nomination slate for the #readRchatAwards and the contemporary category is going to be a problem.  I have six 4.5/5 star reads in that category alone.

These are the contenders, and some of my favorite contemporaries this year:

  •  Twice in a Lifetime by Jodie Griffin F/F with BI MCs in their early 50s. Sexy, emotional, a little angsty. I typically back away from office romance but I loved Talia and Eve’s story. Great characterization/tension (CW: violence, guns)
  • Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai M/F, 3rd book in the Forbidden Hearts series.  Secrets & hidden feelings complicate Gabe & Eve’s affair. Loved the quiet affection in this book: surreptitious supportive touches, quick hand-squeezes, & eyes meeting. (Past Trauma: emotional abuse)
  • Her Perfect Affair by Priscilla Oliveras M/F. Friends to Lovers with complications. Rosa & Jeremy’s night together was hot but morning after awkwardness turns into regrets. Both have guilt/family issues to sort out before they get on the same page. Really lovely romance with a great portrayal of familial tensions.
  • Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole . M/F. Portia upends Tavish’s life when she arrives as his Scottish Armory to be his apprentice. Age-gap, cross-class, completely charming & fun. Portia has undiagnosed ADHD, and a history of problem drinking. Hero is a grumpy child of refugee. The climatic conflict felt a bit abrupt and I had to read the end from the back to the front but I loved it anyway. (CW: problem drinking)
  • Thirsty by Mia Hopkins. M/F.  ex-con, Good girl, friends-with-benefits, hero POV only. Sal anxiety was intense & I got stuck halfway through because of the large emotions. He struggles so much to reach for something better. Feels so trapped by his past mistakes. The only thing I wanted was a couple of POV chapters by Vanessa but Hopkins did a fantastic job creating complex supporting characters even without giving them their own POV chapters. (CW: threats of gang violence)
  • Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon M/F.  Sloan is a doctor who needs an emergency replacement nanny for her twins when her previous one suddenly bails. Great consent, power dynamics, relationship status discussions, with a gentle supportive hero. There is a great friends/family circle for both characters. (CW: Controlling ex, violent outburst)

Have you read these?  Are they are on your favorites list?


What to see, taste and read in Puerto Rico

At this time last year not a single romance could hold my interest. Instead all I could do was hit refresh on the twitter #hurricanemaria #hurracanmaria hashtags, and check the weather website between texting with my mother as the storm moved into the island. While the storm didn't land till the 20th by the 19th the effects were being strongly felt.  My mother was hunkered down in her apartment after filling all her jugs and garbage cans full of water.  She felt as ready as she could be. We would later learn, that her preparations as good as they were weren't going to be as good as she would want them to be. I am so thankful for all the interest and support we received from folks in Romancelandia,

Thankful for the people who as the months crawled past still cared about what happened in PR, even as the rest of the world moved on.  In the past few months I've had friends and twitter folk ask about visiting PR, for recommendations about places to see and things to do. I can tell you that tourism has been a priority since the storm.  There has been a lot of effort put into restoring access to historical sites, and tourist hot-spots.  My mom whose apartment in PR is in the middle of tourist zone of Isla Verde had her power and water there restored very quickly after the storm (2 weeks) versus the months it took to get to other locations are around the San Juan Metroplex.  So if you are considering a trip to Puerto Rico, know that you can will find plenty to see and do.

What should you see and do in Puerto Rico?

Absolutely visit Old San Juan. El Viejo San Juan is beautiful, and the historic heart of the Island. Its cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, lively bars and restaurants are worth your time, even if it feels a little cliche because every other tourist makes a stop there.   Take your time, explore the callejones, and you might find out why every Puerto Rican leaves their heart there even if their body across the world and why all of us in the diaspora sing to ourselves the "En mi viejo San Juan" when homesickness hits. And if you are facebook makes sure to follow the Puerto Rico Historical Building Society, their daily pictures from San Juan never fail to ease my heart.

If you go to Old San Juan. I very much recommend you visit both El Morro and San Cristobal.   I grew up having picnic lunches on Sunday afternoons on the wide fields of El Morro, under trees that overzealous park rangers robbed us of after another terrible hurricane (Hugo). However Puerto Ricans of all ages still fly kites there and delight in climbing on the fortifications.  From the walls you can spy down to one of the most famous cemeteries on the island, where many of our famous writers and dignitaries have been buried. 

 While in the Old City treat yourself to a piragua or some coco and pina sherbert and find a bench to people watch from. You won't regret cooling off in such a delicious way as you walk around.  If you want something hardier for lunch, visit La Bombonera.  This spanish restaurant and bakery is one my favorite places to visit on the island. They offer good solid food and delicious sugar-powdered Mallorcas, whose carby goodness are worth every buttery calorie.

As you wander around, stop in the San Juan Alcadia (Town Hall) and sneak a peak at the beautiful stained glass windows of Flamboyans just inside.  Amble down Calle Cristo, till you spot the Parque de Las Palomas unless pigeons freak you out.

  If you love history to to see the Casa Blanca museum is it open.  The home was build by Ponce de Leon's family in 1521 and it is a marvelous example of architecture from that era. The walled gardens are quite beautiful. There are tons more things to look for and explore there, but these are some of my favorites. 

If you  read romance, maybe pick up Mia Sosa's One Night with the CEO, for a story that partly takes place in Puerto Rico, with the leads, staying at the famous El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan and traveling to Luquillo Beach to eat the beach front kiosks there. (I beta read this for Mia Sosa).

Outside of Old San Juan, there other can't miss stop in Puerto Rico is El Yunque.   El Yunque National Rainforest, is magnificent mountain that the Tainos of Puerto Rico once thought was home to the creator god Yukiyu.  El Yunque was hit hard by Maria. A lot of trees were snapped in half and while the vegetation is recovering, not all the trails or roads in the park are yet open. But what is open is still absolutely worth your time.  I have so many memories of crawling up the mountain roads up to El Yunque for a drive, and running up Yokahu tower to see the misty, view down to Luquillo beach.  It is an easy day trip from the San Juan area, and a hike in El Yunque is easy to combine with an afternoon spent on Luquillo's famous beach after grabbing some lunch at the kiosks. I'm not sure which kiosks have opened back up after Maria, but there is always some crispy fried beach food  (Alcapurrias, Bacalaitos, or Pastelillos) available there.

Further down the east coast you will find the town of Fajardo, the home of one of several bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico. I grew up visiting the one La Parguera, that sadly  has dimmed over the years because of too much gas-fueled tourboat activity. However the ones in Fajardo and Vieques were better protected and are only toured via Kayak or electric boat.  The one in Vieques is harder to reach, but the brightest of them all.  Vieques, is a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico and absolutely worth visiting, if you have time and are able arrange transportation there.   

My own place in Puerto Rico is even further down the coast, on the Caribbean ocean, in the town of Maunabo.   Maunabo was hit very hard by Maria, as it made landfall just a few miles up the coast in Yabucoa.  It took over 9 months for water and power to be restored to the area.  It gorgeous and well off the beaten path, with gorgeous beaches and beautiful Punta Tuna Lighthouse.

As you drive around the coast make sure to try some mofongo and asopao de Langosta, one of my favorite Puerto Rican foods.  There are tons of little roadside restaurants along the southern coast, with fresh seafood, including many near the marinas in Salinas.

Puerto Rico's second city is Ponce on the southwest end of the island. It is home to a fantastic art museum, and has a very cool little downtown, with its picturesque Parque de Bombas. If you visit make sure to travel up to El Castillo Seralles  and the nearby Cruceta El Vigia for its panoramic views of the city. Just outside Ponce you can also visit, La Hacienda Buena Vista, an former coffee plantation, run by non-profit committed to protecting Puerto Rico's natural treasures.

For the beach lover, I would certainly recommend you continue to travel down the coast, and enjoy delicious pineapples grown in Lajas before exploring the beaches of Cabo Rojo.  You can also travel up to Mayaguez on Puerto Rico's western shores. This is the town my grand-father Sammy was raised in.  

On the northwestern coast is the town of Rincon, whose beaches are famous with surfers across the world and where one can sometimes spot whales during their migrations.

Along the northwest coast, the town of Arecibo's most famous landmark is it radio telescope, at the Arecibo Observatory.  I usually combine a visit there with a trip to the Camuy Caves but since they haven't reopened yet, the  Cueva Ventana  with its breath-taking views might be a better alternative.

Don't miss traveling into the center mountainous regions of the island. Up in Ciales, you can find a Coffee museum, that my mom and sister have enjoyed visiting. My maternal grand-mothers family is from Naranjito, and I will always associate driving up to the mountains to Naranjito, with feelings of home, making pasteles with my extended family and eating spit-roasted pork at Christmas time. You can have some delicious Pernil from the lechoneras in Guavate.

If you end up driving toward Cayey, see if you can spot El Palito solitario, the lonely tree one of the peaks near the El Jibaro statue. It was one of the trees I was most happy to hear survive the storm as I looked for it every time we crossed the mountains from the San Juan area toward Ponce.

Whatever type of vacation you prefer, active, beach or relaxing, you can find in Puerto Rico.

Who should you read?

D1wYve0bxCS._SY135_IIf you plan to read on the beach or on the flight over make sure to pick up some great romances written by amazing women of the Puerto Rican diaspora before you travel to Puerto E1bxNPU73wS._SY135_ Rico.

Make sure to check out Priscilla Oliveras, Alexis Daria, & Mia Sosa's work. Oliveras, Daria and Sosa all write very different women whose Puerto Rican roots ground them and drive them. The help me feel see as one of the many Boricuas in the diaspora, living and working far from my island but whose heart beats to the rhythm of the coqui.

And D1a4-NdYJXS._SL250_FMpng_ for historical romances set in the Spanish Caribbean, check out 51ofF1WqwOLLydia San Andres

 

 


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.


Latest Listens: Mini-Audiobook reviews for Twisted by Laura K Curtis, The Hidden Legacy Series by Ilona Andrews and Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins

In the past month I have spent a lot of time with audio-books, in fact I listened to books each day. Walking around the neighborhood, digging out weeds in the yard, and listening during long drives, books have been keeping me company.  I have been listening to a mix of new-to-me books and revisiting some comfort reads. My favorite genres to listen to are Mystery, PNR and Historical and this past month has been filled with wonderful examples of all three.

 

Blonde woman with hair blowing on her face, woods in the backgroundI have been meaning to read Curtis's books for a long time, as we've followed each other on twitter for years and have met in person several times over the last few years.  I was very excited for her when I saw she had arranged to produce an audio book with Angele Masters whose narration on Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series I really enjoyed.   While it took me a couple of chapters to excise Veronica and Stoker from my head (as the MCs in this book are also arch and gruff), I really sunk into the story.   The mystery, a cold case that threatens power players in a small town and the romance, hesitant and wary, were both very nicely developed and I was very engaged in both storylines. I hope she continues to produce more audiobooks for the Harp Security Series, as I am eager to listen to more of their adventures.

CW: guns, gun violence, murder, references to past trauma (sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape).

I received a copy of this audiobook as a gift from the author.

 

HiddenLegacyI re-listened to Gordon and Ilona Andrews fantastic PNR series, Hidden Legacy. Blazing through from Burn for Me, straight into White Hot and on to Wildfire.  While I adore the Kate Daniels series, I have to agree with Elisabeth Lane and many others that Hidden Legacy is probably their best series. The world, and the relationships, just gel together so much earlier.  It was fabulous to re-listen, and see what stuff I missed as I raced to read them the first time. I love noticing how early Rogan realizes she is a prime, and starts anticipating what she will need to do, all while she is just trying to stay alive and deny her growing feeling for him.  I can't wait for the follow up stories that are coming this fall. I love so many of the supporting characters and I wish I could have a dozen novellas.  

My only nitpick with Renee Raudman's narration of these books is how old she makes Nevada's mother, Penelope sound. She is 45 and sounds ancient.  As someone creeping toward my mid-forties, I would have liked a less creakiness to her voice. Although I am sure someone else feels the same way about Grandma Frida's voice.

CW: gun violence, torture, murder

 

Cover of Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins. Black man, shirtless, wearing a black stetson and black leather duster.I continue to love listening to Beverly Jenkins's novels on Audio.  I have struggled to read historical romance recently but I know that no matter what Beverly Jenkins book I have queued up next I will get swept up in the story.  While Kevin R. Free's Scottish accent in the prologue was very rough, I urge to persevere as the rest of the book is wonderfully narrated.  I came into this book a little wary because I had mostly heard about the hero, and I am heroine-centric reader, however Maggie is wonderful in her own right, even if Ian's tends to steal the show. And why shouldn't he, he is a knight-in-shinning-armor, hiding behind a black hat, leather duster and a checkered past.  This is a road-trip romance, and  I loved how Jenkins has Maggie learn about Ian's many identities as they travel from town to town looking for judge or sheriff he can safely deliver her to while encountering folks who remember him fondly or have grudges to settle with him. I loved how their relationship morphed, and how they became essential to each other, when at first what they most wanted most was to get rid of each other.  I expect that I will want to listen to this again in the future.

CW: guns, gun violence, attempted rape, sexual harassment, abusive language/slurs & racism directed at MCs. 

I love audio-books and this has been a fantastic month.  I hope you find something wonderful to listen to for the next time you have to tackle you next drive or chore 


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!


Thirsty by Mia Hopkins (Eastside Brewery Bk 1)

Second chances new start (1)When his temporary post-prison living arrangements fall apart, Salvador Rosas need a cheap place to crash, quick.  Chinita, an old lady from the neighborhood lets him crash in her garage for $200 and the labor of cleaning it out.  Chinita's granddaughter Vanessa, loses her mind when she finds out, but lets him stay anyway, on probation. 

Sal was sent to prison at 19, after spending most of his teens stealing cars and running with a Hollenbeck gang in East LA, ever since his family started disintegrating after his mother and sister's death. He knew back then that Vanessa  was too good for him, with her good grades and her drive. But just as he was being sentenced, she was finding out she was pregnant by the first boy she ever kissed, another gangster just like him, Sleepy.

In the 5 years Sal spent in Prison, Vanessa's life changed. Widowed before she became a mother, she didn't get out of the neighborhood, but she did get her degree. She works hard as bookkeeper, studying hard to pass the CPA exam. She let her life get derailed once and is determined not to let it ever happen again.

Thirsty is told exclusively through Sal's POV, his worries, anxiety and tension about what to do next with his life is central and that focus is what makes this story work. Sal is big, dangerously built, charming and super-sexy, but from his POV we also know how he struggles to acclimate to life outside of prison, to figure out what the right choices are for him.  We  know that he is wary, anxious and utterly convinced that he isn't worth taking a risk on.  That contrast between his outward  image from images-na.ssl-images-amazon.comappearance and his inner vulnerability allows me to connect to him.

Hopkins does a wonderful job with depicting the complexity of Vanessa and Sal's connection to their neighborhood and their Mexican American heritage.  While I don't love the fact that Sal and Vanessa's ex, were both gang-members and the centrality of gang life to the story, and I wish there were more non-gang affiliated supporting characters in the story, I still liked it.  Chinita and her gang of elderly chismosas were a ton of fun. I also liked the contrasts Hopkins developed between the two white men who enter Sal's life.  Barry is his boss at the gym, sees someone he can exploit in Sal. He might frame his offer to train him to be a trainer as something that would benefit both of them, but Sal is right to be wary. To Barry, Sal is an opportunity.  Alan on the other hand, recognizes in Sal someone with potential.  He mentors and befriends without in non-patronizing way.  He feeds Sal's curiosity by sharing his passion openly and I wasn't surprised that he was there when Sal needed him most.

If you enjoy stories about second chances, about finding a new path in life despite past mistakes, try Thirsty. Despite my wariness that the story w
ould reinforce the very harmful stereotypes of Latinx criminality, it was a story that was very respectful of the challenges of growing up with few choices and focused on building a better future.