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Love in Panels Review: Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Catalina has always had to hold back her power, ever conscious that one slip could steal the will of those around her and make her vulnerable to their obsessive love. Now, with the future of House Baylor and Baylor Investigations squarely on her shoulders, she has to shake out her wings and do what needs to be done to find answers for herself and her clients. The last person she expects to derail her investigation however is Alessandro Sagredo, international playboy and the only man who has ever been able to even attempt to resist her. His skill at killing and disappearing are yet another mystery for Catalina to detangle.

In Sapphire Flames, this writing team reintroduces us to the fabulously bickering Baylor clan and launches the reader right into the deep end of magical house intrigues. Secrets, dangerous allies, reluctant partnerships and an engrossing mystery will please long-time fans of the series while making them desperate for future volumes. If you have not read any of the Hidden Legacy books before, you can start here as the Andrews are careful to seed enough exposition about the complex magical world they have built to invite new readers in but the new readers will surely miss the significance of many of the secrets Catalina is trying to untangle.

Like the previous Hidden Legacy books, Sapphire Flames is full of longing and tense attraction paired well with intense action scenes and emotional complications. Although many elements will feel familiar, the story takes surprising turns that are sure to delight new and long-time fans alike while hinting to the bigger themes they plan to tackle in this second series.

I can’t wait obsessively re-read them!

Content Warnings: Suicide Attempt, Murder, Violence, guns

Please note that this is rated R for violence, but is PG-13 for sexual content.


The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #1)

 

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics Cover  two women entiwnedLucy Muchelney worked at her father's side for years doing all the tedious work of astronomy without credit, purely for the opportunity to pursue her passion. After her father's death she feels most alone and vulnerable, her artist brother anxiously eager to see her settled in the same kind of comfortable marriage her long-time lover Priscilla has just abandoned her too, and threatening to sell her telescope, conscious that a lady astronomer would not be soon accepted.

Catherine, Lady Moth, was widowed three years before, yet she is still haunted by her late husband's dismissive and abusive treatment of her and her interests.  Like many of the other women of the Polite Science Society, she has served Science by supporting the scientific pursuits of others, directly and indirectly.  She is incredibly wary of Lucy's bright eyes, desperate ambition and clear genius but welcomes her into her home because she can't bear to turn her out.

Through the course of the novel we see Catherine and Lucy circle around each other, their growing awareness blossoming, along with the realization that they can leave behind the strictures and confining roles their previous lovers had bounded them in, while finding in each other someone who truly sees them and champions them.

One of my favorite elements in the novel is Catherine's growing confidence that her needlework is ART rather than simply a frivolous feminine pursuit.  I loved the moment where she first advocated and negotiated on her own behalf, after a lifetime of doing on behalf of others.  Likewise I loved the moment Lucy is dumbstruck by the fact that she is not alone as scientist, that there have been hundreds of women before her, echoing Catherine belated realization of her own mother's long-time love affair with woman.  Lucy anger at realizing how many women have been erased and sidelined  before her, and the comfort and power she draws from their persistence was incandescent.  It is such a powerful dismantling of the "not-like-other-girls"dynamic that so many women have in STEM develop, having sought approval from the men in their orbit.

As fabulous as the build up was the payoff to both the romantic and career story-lines was simply glorious.  The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics is worth every minute of lost sleep and will leave you breathless in wonder, much like the night sky leaves Lucy and Catherine. 

 

 


Love in Panels Review: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

I reviewed Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh at Love in Panels:

 

It is hard to jump into a long-running series, especially one with a dozen interconnected books, but Nalini Singh’s Wolf Rain makes it easy. Although there are a lot of familiar characters for long-time readers to enjoy, the story focuses tightly on Memory and her journey to learn how to live outside of captivity. While Singh continues to develop the current Psy-changeling Trinity arc, primarily through alternate POV chapters peppered throughout the novel, it doesn’t distract from the central romance. Long-time readers however will be pleased by a return to the SnowDancer Wolf Den, and its playful and vibrant pack. Alexei’s grumpy and protective personality is the perfect foil for Memory’s fierce but fragile fury.

 I adore stories where MC’s find unexpected belonging, and I loved how Memory struggles with impostor syndrome worried that her new friends might reject her because of the dark side of her powers but instead finds a purpose and a new people who see her more clearly than she does herself and love her. As cozy and comforting that aspect of the narrative was, Wolf Rain like most Psy-Changeling novels, is full of tense action and violence and reads much like a romantic suspense novel.

I loved how powerfully Singh portrays grief and its different manifestations, from the feeling of loss and absence, anger and sadness to irrational preoccupations. I was frankly astounded by the way Singh made me feel about a secondary character’s traumatic injury as I moved from shock to anger and betrayal to appreciation. I was less satisfied how clinically and abruptly Alexei’s fears about mating and his family’s predisposition to feral-ness was handled.

Wolf Rain pairs Singh’s trademark intense action with emotional character-driven storytelling and is a fabulous jumping on point for anyone interested in trying the Psy-Changeling series.

Content Warnings: Animal Death, Past Trauma (murder of parent, mental violation), Near death of prominent character, Kidnapping/Abduction

Ana received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.


Love in Panels Review: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

I reviewed the Bride Test by Helen Hoang over at Love in Panels:

Chastised for being unable to cry at his best-friend and cousin’s funeral, Khải comes to believe that he is unnaturally unfeeling, unable to love. Khải is actually autistic, a diagnosis his immigrant Vietnamese family mostly ignores, instead thinking him as simply a little strange. In Vietnam, My/Esme is just a bit strange too, but in her Khải’s mother sees the perfect bride for her son - humble, hard-working and honest.

While The Bride Test is at points quite funny, at its center it is a deeply emotional story about familial bonds and an immigrant's desperate striving to make a better life for herself and her family. Hoang parallels My’s experiences as a new immigrant trying to figure out the rules of a new culture as an outsider to Khải’s autism and his efforts to navigate the feelings and reactions he doesn’t fully understand. Both My and Khải have to work very hard to decode each other’s feelings and intentions, working to overcome their differing cultural expectations and learn each other boundaries.

The book was marvelously tense, with the countdown to the expiration of My’s visa at the end of the summer never far from either of their minds, especially as they become intimately involved. Sex and their inexperience at intimacy, while at points humorous, is also deeply serious. I loved how Hoang gently built up their rapport, and how it heightened the stakes every time there was a misunderstanding or setback. In the end, they both understand each other better and do more for each other than they ever dared to expect.

While I struggled to get started with The Kiss Quotient, I couldn’t put down The Bride Test, racing breathlessly to the final chapters because I needed to know if Khải and My/Esme would get the HEA they both richly deserve. I wasn’t disappointed. It was perfect.

Content Warnings: Ableism, depression

Ana received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.


Love in Panels Review: In a Badger Way by Shelly Laurenston

I Reviewed In a Badger Way, by Shelly Laurenston over at Love in Panels:

The bonkers adventures of the McKilligan sisters continue in the second book of Laurenston’s Honey Badger Chronicles. Stevie, the baby sister of the chaotic trio and a musical and scientific prodigy, is struggling. Her meds aren’t working to control her panic disorder anymore, her good-for-nothing father and her dangerous uncles seem headed toward a confrontation, and at the same time The Group needs her help to figure out who is targeting shifter hybrids.

Shen Li doesn’t let a lot rile him. His seemingly infinite patience makes him the ideal bodyguard for Stevie’s good friend, the utterly obnoxious but undeniably talented Kyle Jean-Louis Parker. He is used to fielding unreasonable demands, and keeping the little whelp from getting killed on a regular basis, but when Stevie gets drawn into a dangerous plot, his easy-going nature might not be enough to keep them all safe.

In a Badger Way is more romancey than Hot and Badgered but remains strongly focused on Charlie, Max and Stevie. Their relationships and history remain at the center of the story. Laurenston gives as much focus to Charlie and Max starting therapy and learning let go of some of their overprotective reactions to threats against Stevie as it does to Shen and Stevie’s relationship. Like all Laurenston books, this story is filled with 500% more named and interrelated characters than most other books, and has at least 3 different plotlines going at the same time. There is over-the-top violence, madcap hijinks and crass jokes a plenty.

The depictions of mental illness, depression and panic attacks in these books are far from respectful but at the same time also taken very seriously. Stevie's panic attacks might be portrayed in an ridiculous way, yet the fact that people have reactions and feelings they can’t always control is treated as normal, as is looking for help.

I really enjoyed that Shen and Stevie’s dynamics. He is no pushover with Stevie, but at the same time so different from her overbearing sisters that Stevie can trust him to be a partner that is not out to control or overprotect her. I also loved that Laurenston does not shy away from having former leads looks utterly ridiculous outside their books. It just such a refreshing thing to see. They absolutely have their HEAs but that doesn’t mean they all get along with each other or are always right. Can’t wait to see what Max’s book is like and who she will get paired up with.

Content Warnings: depression, kidnapping/abduction, Medical Procedures,mental illness, sexual harassment

 


The Governess Game by Tessa Dare (Girl meets Duke #2)

Cover of the Governess Game by Tessa Dare. Two people, embracing, forehead to forehead on the edge of a deskI find Tessa Dare's writing delightful and reading them like being in the fluffiest and warmest of bubble baths, but underneath the fluff she is doing really some serious work piercing the Regency Romance bubble with decidedly un-fluffly topics, such as racism and abandonment.  

In the Governess Game, outside of a few dear friends, Alexandra Mountbatten is totally alone in the world. Her Philippine Mestiza mother died when she was a young child and her beloved father went down with his ship in a storm.  She makes her living as professional timekeeper, winding and setting the clocks of wealthy patrons.  She arrives at the home of Mr. Chase Reynaud to offer her services only to be mistaken for an applicant for the perpetually vacant post of governess to his two young wards. He doesn't care who she is and doesn't remember the time they briefly met the year before, but he is desperate to keep her.

"I don't care if you're gently bred, roughly bred or a loaf of brown bread with butter. You're educated, you understand propriety, and you're . . . breathing." -- Chase Reynaud in Tessa Dare's The Governess Game

But his charm offensive and extremely lucrative offer are not enough to sway her.

"And then she did what Chase yearned to do, often. She flung open the door, fled the house and didn't once look back." -- Tessa Dare's The Governess Game

But an accident and lost chronometer not much later has Alexandra re-evaluating the merits of his offer and ends up changing all their lives.

If the governess trope is not one of your favorites, I usually avoid it, know that early on Dare makes it clear that Alexandra has other options for shelter and job opportunities, so the power imbalance of employer and employee is minimized but it does not go unacknowledged as it does in too many stories.  

Dare layers banter, word-play (I lost track of how many alliterative names they came up with for Chase's hideout, but I cackled at each one) and surreal situations (such as Millicent's daily deaths and funerals) into a confection that serves to highlight the moments of piercing emotional realism.  When Alexandra wakes shaking after nightmares flashing back her days adrift alone in a dinghy or when Chase is confronted by his guilt over his cousin's death and his feelings of inadequacy as a father-figure and future duke, those moments sear.

I loved how Dare deconstructs the familial relationships in this book,  unacknowledged brothers, wards of uncertain parentage &  estranged relatives and how Chase, Alexandra, Rosamund & Daisy find a way to reassemble themselves into a new family. As much as Chase, Daisy and Rosamund consider themselves lost causes, unlovable or unworthy of loving, Alexandra refuses to give up on them.

Dare's style is not for everyone (don't come here looking for detailed depictions of wallpaper) but this series are dollops of delight. I love that heroines are unbowed by their past pain, but not emotionless "strong-female heroine", they hurt, they struggle but they are determined to build lives for themselves.  At points I wanted to shake Chase out of his wallowing in guilt and self-reproach but I adored the scene when Ash ( the hero of the Duchess Deal) bursts in on Chase and Alexandra determined to save her from Chase. 

"I came as soon as I hear you'd taken up residence in this place." He walked past her to stare down Chase face-to-face. "You deserve to know what a worthless scoundrel he is, Alex"

"Yes!" Chase exclaimed. He reached for Ashbury's hand and pumped it in a vigorous greeting. "Thank you. I've been trying to tell her myself, but she won't listen."

 

But Alexandra has listened, and seen. I love that love isn't blind. Alexandra sees his guilt, his past bad actions, and still sees he is more than that.  But their journey as a couple takes them through many ups and downs of dashed hopes before Chase gets his act together.  There is a good grovel and reconciliation at the end, with little touches, that made it far from generic, but very grounded in the specifics of their narrative.

 

I received a ARC from the publisher for review consideration via Edelweiss.

 

 


Love in Panels review of Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

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

 

The Hot-mess Heiress and the Sexy Swordbae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ocean Light by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling Trinity #2)

Yellow backlight cover of NaliniSingh's Ocean Light a man and a woman in profile  superimposed on the skyline of venice_Ocean Light is the second book in Nalini Singh's second Pys-Changeling series, Psy-Changeling Trinity.  While Silver Silence was successful in becoming an accessible new entry point for readers intimidated by the expansive original Psy-Changeling series, Ocean Light is a much more demanding book.  This book deepens the new series central mystery, expanding the players, establishing new relationships and continuing to grow the world, while at same time having to find way to catch new readers up on Bowen Knight's backstory. I am curious to see how successful this was for new readers. As an established reader, I was well acquainted with Bowen Knight, who has been a long-running secondary  POV characters in the Psy-Changeling series. I felt we got to see a whole new side of him as he falls in love with Kaia, especially learning new information about what has driven him to be so passionate about seeking a way to protect Humans from unscrupulous and predatory Psy via technological interventions.

As a romance, I loved how play played a huge part of Kaia and Bowen's courtship. While Kaia starts out deeply suspicious and wary of Bowen, just like the rest of BlackSea, she gets to know him better challenging and teasing him. His natural curiosity pushes him to try to figure out Kaia and make sense of her relationships with other BlackSea packmates.

I loved meeting the BlackSea changelings, and comparing and contrasting their way of behaving as pack and how it differs from the SnowDancer and DarkRiver (both more communal and more individualistic) and exploring the ways the Human Alliance has grown into its own kind of pack under Bowen's leadership.

Once aspect of the story that I am going to have to sit with a bit longer and tease out my feelings about was the way Kaia's long-term anxiety issues was used narratively. While I loved that her anxiety issues were not easy to resolve and were not simply something she could will or power away for the sake of love, I wasn't entirely comfortable about how contained and specific it was.  I wish her struggles with Anxiety had been introduced less obliquely earlier in the novel rather than packed into an already frenetic second-half as an unexpected obstacle to their HEA.

As a long-time fan of Nalini Singh's Psy-changeling series -- I've been reading her books for as long as I have been reading romance -- I love that we are exploring parts of the Psy-Changeling world that had not been previously explored, and that she continues to correct the erasure of queer identities in her previous books by making little mentions here and there.  I really liked the casual way Kaia's mom explicitly acknowledges and accepts that Kaia could fall for a boy or a girl, as she whispers a loving warning to her baby about her family's predisposition for falling hard and fast in love. These little mentions are small steps, but they make feel more welcomed in the world that I've read for so long and it affirms that the changes she made in Silver Silence were not one offs.

 

 

I received a ARC for review consideration from the Publisher via NetGalley.


Shadow of Doubt by Linda Poitevin

44. Shadow of Doubt by Linda Poitvien. (ARC, 5/10) RomSuspense. Started out promising but too much of the emotional conflict was the MCs arguing if it was too risky for the RCMP heroine to keep helping the framed DEA agent hero on the run. #ttr #bkbrk https://t.co/0rfLpBBgLs

— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) June 3, 2018

 

51BEYqNiYELI really loved the start of this book. A RCMP officer find a bullet-ridden man on a rain-soaked back road on a stormy night and is forced to bring him home.  Kate Dexter is all business, practical, wary and very very suspicious. She doesn't have time to ogle the handsome and extremely well built victim.  She worries about how dangerous it makes him.

Poitevin captured the extreme tension within Kate as she tries to decide how to respond to situation. Her instincts are at war with the police procedures and every minute she hesitate the bigger the cost to her career.   Poitevin carries that tension over  to the intense action and suspense scenes.  

However while the action kept Jonas Burke, a framed ATF agent on the run, and Kate ricocheting around Ontario and the Northeast United States,  the romance stalled.  I was frustrated by the repetitive nature of Kate and Jonas arguments.  While Poitevin eventually gives us the backstory as to why Jonas is so fiercely and stubbornly independent, I was too bored with Jonas continued insentience that Kate stop helping him, and his doubts about her abilities even though she consistently proved herself extremely capable.  Jonas's realization of the errors of his ways came much too late for me and while the epilogue was sweet and perfect, I still think Kate should have smacked him and walked away, because she endured too much from Jonas as he tried to push her away. I thought Kate should have hooked up with her ex or her fabulously supportive partner instead.

Shadow of Doubt had a fantastic heroine, gripping action and a frustrating lug of a hero, who tried to pushed away the best partner he could have ever hope to have found.

 

I received a ARC from the author for review consideration.

 

 


A Scandal in Scandinavia by Kelly Maher

Cover of A Scandal in Scandinavia, handsome white man in dark suit and tie with a close-cropped beard. A huge fan of Scandinavian crime novels, Missy is indulging in a long-wished for vacation, exploring the cities her favorite series were set in, after finally severing ties with her long-time best-friend.  The dramatic break-up of their friendship (triggered by an ugly scene in the 2nd Capital Kisses novella, The Bridesmaid and the Hurricane) is having Missy reevaluate much of her life and the many poor relationship choices she has made over the years under her former friend's bad influence.  She is determined to avoid romantic or sexual entanglements on this trip as she has a lot of emotional work to do for herself.

Rik's is trying to breakup an international thieving and smuggling ring that is using his family's tour company as cover, while dodging his mother's determined matchmaking by going undercover on a tour led by the chief suspect. His attention is captured however by Missy and trying to figure her frequently mixed signals.

There was a lot to like in this little novella, the third in the Maher's Capital Kisses series. I particularly appreciated the authentic travel details, including the rhythm of multi-city motorcoach tours. I though Maher captured the tension and tentativeness on faces after friendship implodes and Missy hesitation, and mixed feelings felt believable. She is not yet done sorting through her feelings of regret and has a way to go before she can recapture confidence in her choices. I quite enjoyed the investigation subplot, including its dramatic conclusion the romance itself felt a little unfinished. Although the ending was a promising HFN, and Rik is sweet, A Scandal in Scandinavia, could have benefited from a epilogue as Rik and Missy have a lot of growing and exploring to do before a HEA is assured.

I received a review copy of A Scandal in Scandinavia from the author for review consideration.

 

LAST CALL TO Enter my giveaway of Beyond Temptation! Just comment on the cover reveal post to enter. I'll be selecting a winner tomorrow morning.