multi-ethnic

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.


Destiny's Surrender by Beverly Jenkins (Destiny #2)

Destiny's surrenderBillie Wells doesn't believe in fairy tales. Her life has always been hard and she has done everything to survive from picking pockets, scavenging and once her body started changing, sex work.  While the attention and care Drew Yates is undeniable, she can't let herself rely on it or even let herself believe in it. She knows who she is and what they are. She is his whore, not his wife or novilla and can't imagine a world where she would be anything but that.  She still soaks up whatever nuggets of knowledge of the world and culture he shares with her, treasures the gifts, the chocolates, and silks he brings on his visits and big and small the luxuries they are to enjoy when they are together.  When she learns she is pregnant she doesn't even consider contacting him, not just because he has been away for months, but because they have never been exclusive for longer than a few days at time, so many other clients could have fathered her child.  Though she misses him terribly, her choices and consequences are her own to deal with.

Drew Yates knows it is time of him to settle down. While his mind often wanders back to Billie when he isn't with her, he knows he needs to find himself a proper Spanish bride to bring back to his mother.   When months of spent among friends and family in Mexico don't yield any likely candidates he renews his search in Yerba Buena (San Francisco). While he doesn't find any women with Billie's curiosity, directness and strength of will, he does identify a young woman, whose poise and beauty catch his attention, among all the young ladies hiding behind their duennas, even though her mother is a terror. He can only hope his mother will be able to nurture her into blossoming. Spotting a heavily pregnant and haggard looking Billie almost distracts him from his chosen course but her adamant rejection and dismissal, makes him more determined to start this new phase of life.  But when an old enemy threatens Billie and her young son, surprisingly, his own, his carefully planning is for naught.

I adored Billie. She is fierce and flinty. She doesn't sink into self-pity or regret for the tough choices she's had to make her whole life and she doesn't anyone shame her. She doesn't ever expect anyone to stand up for her, but has genuine affection when someone willfully and knowingly do so, from Addie, to Alanza to Mariah.  Jenkins doesn't sugar coat or gloss over the hardships faced by sex workers from abuse and exploitation by pimps and johns, social isolation, the risks of disease, pregnancy and abortion, but the sex workers themselves are never vilified. They are working people and have their relationships with their johns and fellow sex workers  shaped by it. The other women have been competitors and peers and while some of their patrons have been kind, others detestable and most forgettable.  Her frankness unsettles many but I loved watching her interact with Alanza, who while bold and courageous has still been incredibly sheltered by her upbringing and station in life. I also love how Alanza who is devoutly catholic, never shames Bilie for anything but the time that Drew and Billie lose themselves in screaming match, frightening Antonio.

Shirtless Black man with a black woman in a hiked up lilac dress embrace on rock by a riverDrew goes on a journey in this book. His whole life is upended.  Learning he is already a father, having his carefully cultivated engagement shattered and facing scandal just as his career faces other threats is a lot, but he also has to come to terms with his own feelings about Billie, something he has determinedly tried to ignore for years.  Learning to do the hard work of loving someone rather than simply depending on his charm was great to see. He has to unlearn so many selfish and self-centered habits in order to earn a place in Billie and Antonio's life and it was lovely to see him do the work.

As I previously experienced in with other of Jenkins' novels, I loved the secondary characters. Alanza continues to shine as a steadfast but demanding mother, starting to embrace her own life as her sons grow and find their life-partners. She is a doting grandmother and someone on the cusp of experiencing a sexual awakening of her own.  I also loved Addie, the New Orleans born, mid-wife/seer, who rescues and shelters Billie and gains the revenge she long sought.  I was also curious about Rosa, Drew's smothered and sheltered ex-novilla and wondered if she will find her own HEA in Monterrey among Drew's Mexican family.  

Destiny's Surrender's audiobook was fabulously narrated  by Thomas Penny as I literally couldn't stop listening and he captured both Drew and Billie's emotional ranges!  

I highly recommend Destiny's Surrender for its fierce and flinty heroine and for having the hero do the emotional work necessary to regain the trust of his heroine.


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. 

 

 

 


Surprise Baby, Second Chance by Therese Beharrie

48. Therese Beharrie ‘s Suprise Baby, Second Chance (eARC, 8/7) forced-proximity, SAfrican-set m/f. Rosa left their seemingly happy marriage without a word & their near reconciliation has consequences.Strong emotional conflict as they face their anxieties https://t.co/BbUvioLYKK

— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) June 23, 2018

A black woman with light brown curly hair is hugged and nuzzeled by a handsome black man in white shirtsleeves.Rosa walked away from what Aaron thought had been a happy marriage. Her surprise abandonment, shattered his confidence and his sense of what they had together.  It is Rosa who is blindsided when she walks into what she expects is her mother-in-law's birthday bash to find herself stranded alone with her estranged husband at his family's vacation home.

Stuck together for the weekend, Rosa and Aaron can no longer avoid talking about the hidden guilt and anxiety that has driven them apart. Despite the fact that they both care deeply about each and still are deeply attracted they find a way to reconcile and overcome the ways they have denied each other trust and intimacy when they needed it most.

Beharrie has her characters unpack  and reckon which whole host of mental anguishes and anxieties that stem from the very particular way they met. Cancer, caretaking and parental abandonment both physical and emotional play a huge role in their relationship dynamics, more than each of them realize at the start of the novel.

The escalation of their confrontations and the very realistic way they spiral off-topic to other sensitive topics felt very real, especially they way to very verbal people can talk circles around each other while failing to understand what the core conflict really is.

The book felt emotionally true, especially Rosa's conflicting desires and questioning of her choices and her deep fear of becoming someone Aaron comes to resent. Aaron's struggles to confront his own anxieties about being someone deserving of love where equally heartbreaking.

And this is all before they have to figure out how to respond at the news of an unplanned pregnancy.

This book packs an emotional wallop that never shies away from the very un-cute downsides of forced proximity scenarios. I appreciate how truly uncomfortable it is not to be able to escape an emotionally intense conversation because you are literally trapped in a the room together and then seemingly trapped in a relationship because of impulsive choice.

Neither of these characters responds in all the right ways. They really struggle which makes their efforts at trying to put together their relationship and becoming more accepting of their own mental health struggles was highly emotional book to read.

 

An ARC of Surprise Baby, Second Chance was provided by the author, Therese Beharrie for review consideration.

Surprise Baby, Second Chance is available for pre-order right now and it due for release on Aug 7, 2018.

  


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.


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

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

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

 

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

 

 


The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

43. The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz. #RomBkLove rec D17 STEM.(f/f ace)Globe-trotting AI-mechanic Clara falls for Sal, a Tea-shop running robot, one of the last of her kind.Emotional story about grief, trust, routines & new beginnings. #ttr #bkbrk https://amzn.to/2GQf93e

 

— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) June 3, 2018

Meredith Katz The Cybernetic Tea Shop  steaming cup and saucer with a pile of gearsClara is a gifted programmer and AI-tech, whose highly-coveted skills facilitate her nomadic lifestyle. With wanderlust always spurring her to move on and try living and exploring a new place, she never gets too comfortable or attached, always ready to pack up and move on. 

Sal on the other hand has bound herself to her Tea Shop, seeking to live out her beloved owner's wish that it celebrate 300 years in operation.  She is one of the last remaining true AI's, created before the manufacture of sentient and sapient AIs was outlawed.  Having outlived her original owner by centuries, she struggles to remain operational, to adjust to the ever-changing world, to survive the increasingly frequent acts of vandalism and not simply sink into nostalgia and melancholy. Her life is one of routines, and the safety of the familiar.

I loved the gentleness of this story, the time it spends on the quiet moments, the companionship that grows into affection and love.  I was swept away by it and the way they took care with each other, determined as they are not encroach or override each other's wills and desires.

There is plenty of meaty science-fiction content to sink one's teeth into, and I loved the world building but most deeply this story was about all the little things that go into slowly falling in love and wanting the best for our partners.

I am thankful for Ruby Lang's mention of this story on #Rombklove Day 28. I will be looking to read more Meredith Katz in the future.

 


Loving the Secret Billionaire by Adriana Anders

Shirtless Man putting on a flannel shirtA scrappy pre-k teacher is a political underdog running against a slick incumbent.  She is doggedly trying to make a difference in her city, taking the bus to far flung neighborhoods to campaign after a full-day of work, when meets Zach Hubler. Zach's overgrown yard and dark house are not a likely prospect but it is the only house on the block without her opponent's sign in its yard.  Zach is charmed by Veronica and takes an interest in her campaign.

When better campaign materials and hordes of volunteers start circulating around town Veronica is baffled until a stray comment by one of her new supporters, prompts her to return to Zach's doorstep and learn who he is really is.

I enjoyed this novella but I am not quite sure what to make of depiction of blindness, While Zach is portrayed as being incredibly confident and independent, the way Veronica responded to his blindness, becoming hyper-aware of all the non-verbal communication she needs to verbalize or her wonder at his ease in navigating the world through the accommodations he has in place felt off and a little bit weird, like she has never previously interacted with a blind person.

"I couldn't nod at the little questions, couldn't play things off with a shrug. Conversation with this man involved commitment. It was frightening and refreshing."

But despite side-eyeing that I really enjoyed Zach and Veronica's backwards and text-filled courtship, it was delightfully awkward and hesitant as Veronica struggles against her curiosity and chemistry with Zach and the certainty that he is being less than honest with her.  I loved how Zach's inexperience challenged Veronica to be more assertive and explicit in her requests and desires, unable to rely on him knowing what should be done.

The reasons Zach is so reclusive and secretive are mercifully not directly tied to his blindness but we don't have much more explanation for it. The book is centered on Veronica and on her race for City Council and how Veronica responds after Zach's intervention radically altered the City Council's dynamics on her behalf.

This novella first appeared as a short story, titled Grassroots in the first of the Rogue Series of Anthologies, Rogue Desire. I enjoyed the story in both its forms, and the romance is not substantially altered as most of the expanded word count goes to develop that campaign plotline a little further and to introducing Veronica's best-friend and campaign manager, O'Neal Jones, who is the heroine of the follow-up novella "Loving the Wounded Warrior" . If you missed Rogue Desires, and are a fan of Anders' Blank Canvas stories, and you enjoy underdog stories or love virgin heroes, check out Loving the Secret Billionaire.

 

I received an ARC of both "Rogue Desire" and "Loving the Secret Billionaire" for review consideration.