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Love in Panels Review: Treason of Truths by Ada Harper

This review was first published at Love in Panels:

I adored the first book in this duology and so I had high expectations for this romance. I was eager to go back into this world and and explore the flip-side of the tropes from the first book. Unlike Galen and Olivia who meet during an assassination attempt and grow in to love and trust, Sabine and Lyre have been partners and friends for decades. Again Harper works to upend trope expectations while leaning into others. I loved the contrast between Lyre and Sabine’s styles and how that played into the way their romantic conflict were resolved. I am looking forward to more queer romantic adventures from Harper and I hope we see more like this from Carina Press in the future.

Lyre has found contentment and purpose serving spy Empress Sabine, guarding her throne from the shadows as her spy-master but when the empress ignores her advice and insists on accepting the mysterious Cloud Vault’s invitation for a summit between the Empire and Syndicate, Lyre is forced to take actions that neither of them ever anticipated.

Lyre and Sabine’s relationship is a friends-to-lovers slow burn romance, where both of them have long-ago committed their hearts while learning to deny the depth of their feelings and smother any acknowledgement of passion in order not risk their friendship and partnership. They had one night early one when things almost boiled over, and neither of them speak of it. While Lyre’s loyalty to Sabine has always been legendary, she fears if the truth of her past was revealed it would sunder their relationship and if it didn’t, it would threaten the security of Sabine’s throne.

Like the first book in this series, intense action dominates the book. Sabine, Lyre and a band of allies slip and slide through the murky underbelly of the Cloud Vault’s flying citadel, tangling with deadly carnivorous vines while trying to untangle the motives of their secretive hosts. About half-way my interest flagged a bit during some of the longer action sequences but my longing for more romance between Lyre and Sabine was rewarded by an incredibly swoony final chapters of the novel. I am not usually a fan of grand gestures but Sabine’s whole life is one of theatrical and strategic actions meant to wow her subjects and rivals and it was wonderful to see Lyre step out of the shadows and prove herself able to stand by her beloved’s side and stop playing the romantic martyr.

Content Warnings: guns, torture, abduction.

 


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.


Free Fall by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner (Fly me to the Moon, Book 5)

Free Fall coverOne of the best things that can happen to you as a reader is to find a writer whose books just work for you, whose core story is the story you love to read. As a reader I have been very lucky, over the last 5 or 6 years I've found several such writers. Emma Barry is one of those writers. Whether she is writing nerdy accountants, swaggering astronauts or uptight engineers as heroes or workaholic public servants, managing housewives or sultry sorority girls are heroines, I am here for it.

At the start of Free Fall, Vivy is just 19, daddy's little girl, a college girl is majoring in sociology, who loves her sorority sisters and is too loud, too big and much too much for her  prim and petite society mother. She is in that middle space, no longer a child but not a full-fledged independent adult yet.  One night she accompanies her father, a defense contractor with big contracts with the space agency, to a party at an astronaut's house. After a while she decides to go outside and get some air. Dean Garland, one of the astronauts, follows her out.

"It was unfair, and so like a man, to look that good and that cocky."
                                                                                        Vivy in Barry and Turner's Free Fall

He claims to have been lured out by the bigness of her laugh, which instead of pleasing Vivy, cools everything off

"Settle down, quiet down, sit down, look down: all her life, her mother had tried to wrestle Vivy into a smaller space, a smaller size. But Vivy couldn't be less"
                                                                                    Vivy in Barry and Turner's Free Fall.

But Dean recovers, not letting Vivy slip away back inside offended, frank in his interest and ignorant of who her daddy is. He doesn't flinch away from her sharp teasing, clearing liking it just as much as he likes the look of her.  The combination is irresistible and Vivy is soon kissing him in the dark under the moon and then following him to his house down the block for more.


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: 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. 

 

 

 


2018 -- Mid-Year Favorites #readRchat

Mid-Year Favorites
This past weekend #readRchat, a monthly romance reader focused twitter chat, asked us to name of our Mid-year Favorites.  These are mine:

Favorite Books 

This has been such a good year for books. I know authors have struggled more than ever to write stories with HEAs, but as a reader I need HEAs more than ever. So thank you all for keeping your fingers typing and your pens and pencils sharp.

Muscular man in blue plaid, his shirt open, held by a dark haired beauty in a black cocktail dressRai's Forbidden Hearts series is soapy intersectional romance that is super sexy. It has a fantastic overarching family saga plot that is finally unraveled in Hurts to Love You. My favorite book in the series is undoubtedly, Wrong to Need You but I loved how Rai wrapped up the series and seeded her new one in this one. 

Cover of Ivan by Kit Rocha, Shirtless tattooed man, woman in white dressI adore Kit Rocha books, so it should be no surprise that Ivan (The 3rd book in their Gideon Rider's series) made my list. This was a cross-class, bodyguard/princess romance.  Ivan is the son of a martyred hero, who grew up on the streets when he and his widowed mother lost everything because of his uncles's failed coup. He seeks redemption and wants nothing more than to die protecting the Rios family. That is until he fell in love with the Rios princess, Maricela, who he is assigned to protect. 

A couple dancing, man in tuxedo and woman in red dress
It has been thrilling to see a Puerto Rican authors getting  RITA noms and mainstream attention, so I was excited to read Oliveras's Her Perfect Affair. It didn't disappoint. I really loved Rosa's and Jeremy's story, especially the way she didn't a cave under the pressure and compromise herself into a marriage of convenience.  I love the Fernandez sisters and I am looking forward to the third book so much. 

 

I"ll have a review up of the fabulous Duke by Default over at Love in Panels in a couple of weeks.

 

Favorite books read in 2018 published in prior years:

 

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton 51OkGLhwV+L._SY346_My favorite books of the first half 2018, written in previous years were Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs and Jo Walton's Tooth & Claw.  I had originally skipped reading Fire Touched because my libraries didn't own it in ebook or audio (while they had all the other ones) and Penguin backlist prices are always steep.  However I was shamed by all the other Briggs fans for skipping what they consider one of the best books in the series. They were not wrong to shame me. I really loved how Adam, Mercy and the Pack work together and they dynamics of how their pack shifts to make room for Aiden.

Jo Walton totally committed to her concept in Tooth and Claw. It is fantastic and fully, Austen or more accurately Victorian Fiction starring dragons. Not with Dragons, but Dragons.  The worldbuilding was fantastic from the cannibalistic Lords getting rich and fat off the flesh of their peasants to the politics of honor and power.  As an Austen fan, I adored it.

Favorite New Installment of an Ongoing Series:

image from winterfell.blogs.com image from winterfell.blogs.comIron and Magic is a book I really enjoyed and definitely didn't know I wanted till I read the excerpt the Andrews had posted on their website. I found Hugh a fascinating villain but I was not one of the ones clamoring for his story. However I am fascinated with Hugh as someone recovering from religious zeal and although I don't know a lot about Elara, I do want to know more about her past and the power she carries.

Ocean Light, I really enjoyed Ocean Light, especially Kaia and her clanmates. I was fascinated by seeing the story of Bowen's background and how he became the Alpha of the humans but it was decidedly a middle, set-up book, were the focus was on clicking things in place for the Trinity vs. Consortium fight that has been brewing for several books. 

Favorite Debut Book of 2018: 

I focused this year on new-to-me authors but I didn't necessarily start with their debut books. Some of the New-t0-Me authors I have read and enjoyed this year are Therese Beharrie, whose Surprise Baby, Second Chance, I reviewed this month, Mia Hopkins, whose Thirsty was erotic, emotional and fascinating and Ada Harper's whose Conspiracy of Whispers was fantastic.   Hoping I fall in love with during the second half of the year with a couple of debut books whose ARCs I am over due to read but are both historical which I haven't been reading much of right now, (sorry Jude Lucens and Eve Pendel).

Favorite Author Discovery:

image from winterfell.blogs.comI adored Peter Darling and I immediately checked my TBR to see if I had bought Austin's other books Coffee Boy and Caroline's Heart.  I am saving them for I need something beautiful and moving to read.  

Favorite Underrated Book of the Year so Far:

image from winterfell.blogs.comIn my review in January I wrote the following:

This story was just fantastic, and then you add the fact that O'Keefe and Lang's stories are included in there too, and I can't believe more people aren't reading these. They are just stellar nuggets of contemporary romance. 

Favorite Audiobook :

I was delighted with the narration for this book. It was sly, arch and funny and I really got a great sense of all the characters.

image from winterfell.blogs.comBest Surprise of 2018:

A8/ can’t say I ever go in not expecting to love a book but I was absolutely delighted with how good Katz’s Cybernetic Tea Shop #readrchat really great SFF f/f ace rom. https://t.co/LBfBhagyJl

— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) July 7, 2018


Ruby Lang recommended this book during #Rombklove and it was just a delight to read. The 
worldbuilding was subtle and the story sweet and all about how we make connections.

Favorite Romance Adjacent/Related piece of Pop Culture:

Jane-the-virgin33My 14-year is a big fan of the CW and of television in general. She was shocked to discover that I had not been watching Jane the Virgin, especially since she knows I love romance. My only defense is that I watch TV sporadically, binge watching British murder mysteries series when I am burnt out of reading.   But I have adored what I have watched of the first season and I look forward to spending time with my daughter as we watch the Villanueva family find their HEAs.

 

Most Anticipated book of the 2nd half of 2018:

Duke by Default  beautiful black woman in a colorful dress in the arms of a silver fox man in a grey shirt and black pantsI hope you are all anticipating A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole. I loved what Cole did with Portia ( the difficult best-friend in A Princess in Theory) and the personal  journeys she takes Portia and Tavish on.  On my TBR for this month is Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's Free Fall from their fantastic Space Race Era historical romance,  Fly Me to the Moon series.   I'm also anxiously awaiting the concluding chapter in the Ilona Andrews's Kate Daniels series, Magic Triumphs.

A Year in Review:

2018 has been a fantastic year for romance. I have read so many fantastic books. If you want to see all I have read so far this year, you can read my bookthread on twitter. I am posting a mini-review for each book I read this year. I have loved keeping track of my reading this way.

I also decided that I should drop all that data into spreadsheet and crunch some numbers. 

I still overwhelming read M/F, 90% of the books I have read so far this year have been M/F, which shocked me until I read through the list again. I have been reading a lot of backlist UF and Contemporaries featuring m/f couples. Just looking at that stat alone, I am glad I decided to log what I am reading.

31% of the books I read were by AOC, so there is still a lot of room for growth there.  The numbers show that I am overwhelmingly reading Contemporary, PNR and Urban Fantasy with a smattering of the other sub-genres. I've only read a handful of Historicals or SFR this year.Genre Breakdown