Recent Reads, great books by Lauren Dane, Rachel Aaron & Kristen Ashley

Opening Up (Ink and Chrome #1) by Lauren Dane: I read Dane for her heroines. She also writes complex, sometimes heavy family relationships, hot & interesting heroes but her heroines are just amazing. PJ is the grand-daughter of a racing legend and the black-sheep of her car-parts selling family. At work she is marginalized by her sexist asshole father and managed by her siblings. PJ follows her heart out of the company and launches her own car customizing business. PJ might be young but she is smart, tenacious and knows what she wants, and she wants Asa. Asa is gorgeous and sexy. He respects her work and finds her delightful but doesn't want to saddle her with his demons (abandonment issues & hardscrabble childhood). There was relatively little relationship angst in this book after their initial dance around each other as PJ's family/work conflict dominates but the romance was sexy and satisfying. I can't wait to read more Ink and Chrome books,

Nice Dragons Finish Last (Heartstrikers 1) by Rachel Aaron. Julius's mother is a legendary and powerful dragon. She rules her large family through fear and manipulation. Impatient with Julius's lack of ambition, she drags him out of his room and away from his video games and drops him in the middle of the DFZ (Detroit Free Zone), without his powers and money and tells him he has a month to prove himself worthy of his family name or he dies.

Marci is almost a certified Mage, only a few week away from her degree when her father's vicious employer kills him and sets out to kill her too.

Both Marci and Julius are trying to stay alive in the DFZ and build a unlikely partnership as they team up to track down a runaway dragon.

This is the first book in a fun, imaginative and engaging Urban Fantasy series. I loved the whole thing, from Julius and Marci's fledgling flirtation to Julius large, dangerously unpredictable family.

Ride Steady (Chaos #3) by Kristen Ashley : I devoured this book. I think it is the best of the series so far. As a kid, Carson grew up learning how to take a hit, and keep his head down. He learned to plot, plan and keep his dreams to himself. Eight years after leaving town after one last confrontation with his father, Joker is where he wants to be. He is brother in Chaos, where he turns his art into customized bikes. He thinks he has left his past behind till he runs into his teenage crush Carissa on the side of the road.

Carissa was a cheerleader and the quarterback's girlfriend, but she didn't play the mean girl games and always had a smile for Carson. While Joker's life has been in a upward trajectory, Carissa has fallen far from her high school glory. After the loss of her sister and her mother's death, all Carissa has ever wanted was to have a family. So she held on to her jerk boyfriend for dear life. Eight years later she has been dumped by her lawyer husband who has replaced her with an even younger fiancée, she is desperately trying to make ends meet, working overtime as grocery clerk, caring for her toddler son while trying to figure out how to hold on to custody. Her ex wants to scrape her from his life and take their son with him. While Carissa is initially wary of getting help from a biker, she soon recognizes what a good man Joker is, even if she doesn't realize, this beared, lean and shaggy haired man is her old crush, Carson.

There a great versions of familiar KA motifs, fun cameos by other KA characters, and a surprisingly mature and beautiful romance, where the hero and heroine solve problems and share concerns with each other. It is one of those rare books that at 640 pages I was left wanting more.

The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology with stories by Lena Hart, Kianna Alexander, Piper Hugley & Alyssa Cole

The stories in this historical romance anthology move forward through American history from 1866, post-Civil War New York City through to 1961, Civil Rights Era Virginia. They are stories about finding and nurturing love in the face of adversity and oppression. The stories in The Brightest Day are tied together by references to celebrations of Juneteenth.  Juneteeth celebrations commemorate July 19th, 1865, the last of the Freedom days, when slaves in Galveston, TX finally received their freedom. The celebration of that day spread beyond Texas to different black communities around the United States.  The stories express the diversity of African American experience in the United States and get better and better as you move through the anthology. 

Amazing Grace by Lena Hart:  In post-Civil War New York a young black woman, Grace Shaw, agrees to an arranged marriage to a wealthy Montana miner she has never met in order to provide for her family. On her way West, she falls in love with the last person she expects. Logan Foley is looking to start over for the second time in his life. Once the half-Mexican bastard son of white plantation owner, he reinvented himself as teenager, when he father claimed him as a heir. Now he is starting over again, moving West to Colorado to homestead, abandoning his father's ruined plantation and his slave owning past. Logan and Grace meet by chance but are tied together in ways they don't expect.

The romance centers on identity and intentions.  Both Grace and Logan must both come to terms with the choices they have made in order to secure their futures and please their families. These choices turned into bad ones that place them in difficult situations with lasting life consequences. Logan has the most to overcome as his slave owning past nearly cost him Grace's love. I enjoyed this story even though it felt compressed. There was certainly enough material & conflict to justify more pages. I didn't feel we spent enough time with Grace and Logan to fully develop why they fell for one another beyond their instant awareness and attraction but I still believe that they have what it takes to make a life together.

Drifting to You by Kianna Alexander: A prominent black Fayetteville family inaugurates their new boat with a celebratory Juneteeth Cruise of Cape Fear,NC in 1875. The family contracts Rosaline Rhodes a successful and hard-working baker to provide her famed spice cake for the outing. Having Rosaline on board all day provides Will Pruett, the local shipbuilder with the opportunity to finally let Rosaline know of his feelings for her. But Will Pruett is not the only one interested in courting Rosaline and soon Rosaline will have to choose.

I thought this books did a very good job addressing the social tensions within the black community post-Civil War. There is stigma to having been born a slave, and Rosaline for however much she has raised herself up, still faces that. I did feel however that I was dropped into the middle of a story, as Rosaline and Will have been denying their attraction for good long while and are only really getting started by the end of the story. There was also several interesting secondary characters who seem ripe for stories of their own.

A Sweet Way to Freedom by Piper Hugley: It is 1910 and Missouri "Missy" Baxter the pride of Milford and the first black teacher in Winslow, GA can no longer hide she is in "a family way". Arlo Tucker is the sweet-talking good-time man responsible for her condition.  Missy is determined not succumb to his charms again, less she be disappointed again. Arlo has always been able to evade responsibilities and emotional entanglements but for the first time he doesn't want to be let off the hook.  He wants Missy and wants to do right by her, and he needs to figure out away to convince her to give him another chance.

I just loved this story. I was crying for Missy and Arlo after the first few pages.  I strongly felt their conflicted emotions.  Arlo is full of fear, sure that he will only bring Missy pain, and Missy is hurt, determined not to be a fool again. Despite the fear and hurt they do truly love one another and I loved how they come to show each other forgiveness and grace. Hugely is fantastically skilled at characterization.  The large cast of secondary characters making up the Winslow community are all distinct and well developed without stealing focus from Arlo and Missy. I already have a one of Hugley's novels in my TBR, and will been pushing it toward the top of the queue.

Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole: Sofronia "Sofie" Wallis has done her best since her mother's death to be the good girl her father desperately wants her to be. She quieted her voice, she has lowered her eyes and done her best not to run into trouble. As the struggle of the Civil Rights movement is brought close to home, she longer feels that being quiet and meek is going to protect her and she is motivated to go against her father's wishes and join the non-violent protest movement.  Ivan Friedman has never forgotten Sofronia, he remembers vividly the hours they spent together at children.  To him she shines as brightly as always and he doesn't want leave her side again even if the whole world looks at them with derision. 

This story had great internal and external conflict and the way Sofie and Ivan interact was fantastic. I believed the intensity of their attraction, their awareness of the tension and danger they face by reconnecting.  I had previously read the epilogue to this story (it has been published on Cole's blog as part of a Hanukkah blog hop this past winter) but it was even more meaningful and beautiful after reading the rest of their story.

While I think the last two stories in the Anthology are certainly the strongest, the anthology as whole was enjoyable and worth reading. It was well balanced, and provided a great journey and I will be on the lookout for more books by these authors .


The Girl Next Door (Bend or Break #3) by Amy Jo Cousins

811EYqcZ1iL._SL1500_This is book three of Amy Jo Cousins's mixed/crossover NA series Bend or Break for Samhain. I have not read the first two books which were M/M, and while some past conflicts and events are referenced the book stands well on it own. 

Cash is a former rich/jock/party boy who has radically remade his life. He left a job at his dad's firm, leaving the fancy car and downtown condo behind, to go work his dream job. He has been working in the inner city coaching kids for little more than minimum wage for two years and generally just working very hard at doing things the right way.  He has never felt like the smartest kid in the room, but is very aware of how massively privileged he has been in life, so he is doing his best to do something worthwhile and real.  But his life is complicated by the surprise arrival of his runaway gay teen cousin.  He doesn't want to screw things up further for his cousin, so he calls on his best friends Tom and Reese  for help. Tom and Reese urge him to call Steph. 

Steph is the reason for Cash's life change only she doesn't know it. She broke his heart when she ended their friends with benefits arrangement, to pursue a relationship with a closeted Muslim girl their last year of college together.  Although it has been two years since Cash and Steph have had any real contact when Cash needs help she drops everything to help him. 

I liked how quickly Steph and Cash fell back into their old habits of sexual flirtation and interest and how that was both very good (in bed) and very bad (emotionally) for them.  Their sexual compatibility and interest has never been an issue, but falling into bed together easily just masks their inability to honestly confront and talk about their feelings for one another. They are both playing the same game, hoping not to be hurt if they don't push for more and if they don't define what they are doing together.  The what-are-we-doing-but-I-want-more conversation between Steph and Cash gets pushed back into the background for a very long time, but once they do have it is spectacular. I loved how big and out of control their conversation became.  It felt like just the kind of friendship-splitting fight that could and would happen if a couple have been dancing around each other emotionally for months.

I liked the book as a whole a lot, particularly the exploration of the complicated ways friendship/relationships rules develop. There was an incredibly hot threesome (mentioned in the blurb) that I thought was fantastically executed but that I struggled somewhat to make sense of story wise. In talking to a friend about it I  realized that I might have been carrying some Erom expectations into this book as I don't usually read NA.  I had expected the threesome to serve as challenge or confirmation for Cash and Stephany and their relationship. But they were at the same place emotionally at the end of the threesome as they were at the beginning.  Cash trusts Steph and is blown away by her sexual adventurousness.  And it did not turn into a relationship test. What we do see is what a loving, tender and all around good guy Cash is by the way he treats Varun through out. We also see a continued exploration of Cash's straight but not narrow sexuality. However the threesome might have been pivotal for Varun and I'm curious if it will be revisited in Varun's book.  

Despite the story being told exclusively from Cash's point of view the story sometimes felt crowded. While Steph is first and foremost in  Cash's mind, his life is complicated. He is trying to figure out how to make his budget balance, how to take care of his cousin, how to do well at his job, how to be a good friend and at the same time figure out how to keep Steph in his life however much distance and artificial obstacles she wants to put between them. I thought his realization of how to finally achieve that was wonderful and true to his character and I can only wish Cash and Steph many many years of happiness.

I received a review copy of The Girl Next Door from the author, Amy Jo Cousins.

Recent Reads: Nalini Singh, Carolyn Crane, Joanna Bourne & Julie James

Shards of Hope by Nalini Singh:  This is the 14th novel in Singh's sprawling Psy-Changeling series.  In this installment Singh is laying the groundwork for new threats to the stability of the Psy-Changeling world while tying off loose ends from the first fall of the silence story-arc .  However the romance between the two long-time Arrows partners is always center stage. I loved the friends to lovers dynamic been Zaira and Aden.  I loved the over-the-top deeply possessive, blunt, fierce and unfiltered dialogue she gave to Zaira. Both Aden and Zaira have blood on their hands, guilty consciences but deeply love one another.   I am very eager to see where Singh goes next in the Psy-Changeling universe.

Aden was groomed by his parents to be the perfect rebel, but he surpassed their meager expectations to become the undisputed leader of the Arrows, winning their total loyalty by freeing  them from those who sought to use them as a disposable & mindless killing squad.  But Aden also wants to lead them to a new future where the group created to be the guardians of Silence, learn to live full lives and truly become a family. Many fear this change and are uncertain how to move forward.  He must make plans for a new future while facing new threats from within and without.

Aden know he can't forge a new future for the Arrows without  Zaira at his side. Their friendship was forged when he reached out to care for her feral, dangerous, abused child abandoned to the cruel hands of the Arrow trainers.  Zaira survived and pledged herself to always proetect Aden but she questions her sanity and fitness to live in a post-Silence world.  Aden must work to convince Zaira that she is precious and the only person he wants as his partner and mate, despite her wounded soul. 

Behind the Mask by Carolyn Crane: When her twin sister is traded to the head of a drug cartel, Zelda, a retired CIA agent reluctantly returns to the field to take her sister's place & infiltrate the cartel. The assignment does not go as planned when she is traded to El Gorrion. Zelda is then unexpectedly rescued & taken captive by Hugo Martinez. Zelda suspects Hugo to be Kabakas, a mythical vigilante she once obsessively hunted. Hugo and Zelda must overcome mutual suspicion and compromising attraction to protect the town of Buena Vista from El Gorrion. 

Carolyn Crane continues to impress in her 4th Undercover Associates book.  Crane delivers pulse-pounding action and suspense while skillfully developing a complex & intensely erotic romance that packs an emotional punch.  Crane clearly communicates character motivations and vulnerabilities. Her dark, emotionally and physically wounded heroes and heroines act believably in extreme circumstances, even while falling in love with the wrong people at worst time.

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne: Annique "The Fox's cub" is a legendary French spy facing an impossible choice when she becomes guardian to ruinous war plans coveted by everyone. Trapped and facing torture from one her despicable superiors, she teams up with Grey, an English spymaster  imprisoned in the same dungeon.  Their alliance is brief and fraught, and they develop deeply intimate but impossible relationship.   Both Grey and Annique are passionate, patriotic professionals who are nearly torn apart by their dangerous game of cat and mouse.

I had heard very good things about this series, but I was still blown away.  The layers and layers of subterfuge, betrayal and  pain Annique uncovered took my breath away. Bourne set up fantastic internal and external conflicts for this couple to overcome and I was a sucker for their star-crossed, enemies to lovers story. The supporting cast was fascinating too so  I will definitely be reading the rest of this series.

Suddenly One Summer by Julie James:  Victoria Slade, a highly successful but cynical divorce lawyer needs a new place to live when panic attacks triggered by a recent unsuccessful home invasion start interfering with her sleep and everyday routines.  Ford Dixon is doing his best to keep busy, diving deep into his investigative reporting work and remodeling his apartment to avoid dealing with his grief over his recently deceased alcoholic father. When Victoria temporarily moves in next door to Ford, sparks fly but they get off on the wrong foot. However they end up teaming up to help Ford's sister with a sensitive issue that requires both their skill sets. 

I love Julie James's Chicago based FBI/US Marshall series.  The series has been one big breezy ball of banter-y competence porn. Her heroes and heroines work hard, play hard and look good doing it. But while they look like they have everything together they are missing something crucial in their lives.  In some ways Ford and Victoria are no different.  Both are highly successful in their chosen careers, are surrounded by supportive friends and both are doing their best to not let their vulnerabilities show. However I really connected with the reasons behind Victoria's and Ford's commitment issues and they what they had to do to overcome them.  I particularly appreciated the positive depiction of therapy. I also thought that James did a great job presenting Victoria estrangement from her Cuban American family and indirectly from her Cuban American heritage. It rang very true, as I have seen it in my own family.

Grave Phantoms by Jenn Bennett

GRAVE-PHANTOMS_COVER_MED-438x706I loved Bitter Spirits and Grim Shadows, but I have been impatiently waiting for Bo and Astrid's story since Bennett introduced them in the first book.

Grave Phantoms is Paranomal suspense romance set at the end of the Roaring 20s. The mood is heavy with a looming sense of uncertainty and change.  Astrid and Bo's flirty friendship has been interrupted as they have been apart for half a year with Astrid away at college. Heavy winter rains and flooding threaten Magnusson warehouses, distracting Bo & Winter and spoiling Astrid's homecoming plans.  Then a long-missing yacht full of occult artifacts and amnesiac survivors crashes into the Magnusson docks.  When Astrid accidentally touches one of the artifacts she blackouts and starts seeing visions.  Bo and Astrid must race to figure out the provenance and purpose of the artifact to insure Astrid's safety.

The big occultist plot in the novel involving pirates, pre-Columbian magical artifacts and eternal life, is interesting but I hardly paid attention to it. It did give Astrid and Bo excuses to be out together investigating and meeting interesting people, and it did get quite scary at points, but the real stakes of the story are firmly on whether Bo and Astrid can figure out a way to love & live together in a way neither is diminished. 

Bo Yeung is Winter Magnusson's  right-hand man. He has risen from foiled pick-pocket and errand boy to second in command in the Magnusson bootlegging operation because of his intelligence, initiative and loyalty. Winter has welcomed Bo into his home and treats him like family. 

Astrid Magnusson is Winter's little sister.  She has come of age in the flapper era, reveling in being young, blonde, rich and daring.  But adulthood has Astrid pushing boundaries more than ever as she tries to figure who she is, other than a bootlegger's sister.  A semester away at college has clarified what she wants but not how to get it.  She is scared that her attempts at making Bo notice and think of her as woman have pushed him away.

Bo is hurt and confused by Astrid but still undeniably in love with her.  Bennett did a great job teasing out some of the pressures Bo is under as Chinese American man in early 20th century San Francisco.  He is much more sensitive to the pitfalls of a relationship between them as he crosses as between Chinatown & the Magnusson's Pacific Heights neighborhood routinely, and living in both worlds has made him sensitive to the problems they would face.

The social censure and the practical realities of their inter-racial romance always loom in the background. Where would they live, how would they support themselves if Winter disapproves are all issues that Bo has spent a great deal of time thinking about. In the past being out and about with Astrid has been easy, because he was just her driver or bodyguard, but it is completely different for them to be out together as a romantic couple. The way they have to acknowledge power dynamics & negotiate how they can be together in public without Astrid unintentionally emasculating Bo was very powerful.  For Astrid it means not smoothing things over, or covering them up even if that is easier.  She needs to accept that it will sometimes be ugly and uncomfortable and that saving them from rudeness by lying will hurt more in the end.  Astrid is used to having Bo in her world, but she needs to see him in his before she can really start imagining how they can make space for themselves in the world together.  

I fascinated and surprised by how central Astrid & Bo's sexual histories would be to the romance. They both had to grown and accept that they had sexual pasts with other people. They want to be jealous, and I appreciated how painful it is for them both to face up to the fact that they had both pursued other sexual partners & relationships while becoming emotionally attached to each other. Learning to live with that an accepting that is part of becoming adults, and I loved the resolution to that romantic conflict.  I loved the Epilogue and the new lives the Magnusson-Yeung clan have created for themselves.

 I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin Group: Berkley via NetGalley

All for You (Paris Hearts #1) by Laura Florand

Five years ago Joss left without warning to join the French Foreign Legion. Joss was Celié's brother's best friend, and her teenage crush. Celié has never forgotten him or the her youthful hopes and fantasies. When he left their rundown neighborhood, she chose to not sit in despair, hoping he would return for her, but instead set off on a quest of her own. While Joss has been off in the Legion looking to become the best he can be, Celié has climbed the ranks of Parisian chocolate makers to become one of the very best in the world.

After 5 years Joss tries to walk back into Celié's life only to discover that not only has she not been sitting around  waiting for him to return and cover him in kisses, but is actually terrifically angry with him. Joss is confused but undeterred, determined to claim Celié's heart.

I loved this romance. In this story Florand constructs a fascinating narrative about perfection, objectification, aspiration, fantasy and reality. Joss is a courtly lover come to life. He had set off to be prove his worth, so that he could claim the love of the woman he adored. The hope of her love, the thought of being worthy of her, sustained him through the incredibly rigors of his Legionnaire's training. He is faithful to his love of her despite constant temptations in his lonely life. His commitment is extraordinary, but it is misguided and self-involved.

Celié was hurt by his sudden absence, left alone to sort out and try to understand what if anything they ever had. She has spent five years trying to remake herself into someone who doesn't need or want a knight-in-shining-armor. She deeply resents the idea that he went of on this quest for her, that he chose to go do something alone for the idea of her, rather than risk failure while trying to make a better life for them together.

I loved how Florand explored the difference between being an object of desire and hope and actually being in a relationship. Joss and to lesser extent Celié have to disentangle their fantasies about each other and the relationship they wanted to have with the other from the reality of who they actually are.  I loved that they need to learn to listen to each other's needs, to see each other as human beings. I loved that they have to fall in love with each other again, even if they never fell out of lust with each other.

I was fascinated by the disconnect between Joss and Celié about the nature of love & actions of love. Joss is determined to be good enough for Celié. He fails to communicate his fears and failures, so that he might present her with a perfect finished product . His vision of love is a kind of work-righteousness. He must be good and perfect so that he might earn love and affection. Celié understands love not as something that can be earned but something that is shared. Celié wants for Joss to accept that she has always love him, and that she felt cheated by the fact they did not struggle to make something of their lives together. In the novel Joss eventually surrenders his self-focused and solitary vision of love, and accepts one where he trusts his partner with his failures and includes her in his decision making progress. Celié in turn has to forgive Joss for trying to do it alone and accept and love the new man he remade himself to be and let him share in her life.

The story was told with great charm and humor by Florand. She has a wonderful ability of creating beautiful, strong men who are squishy and vulnerable inside. Joss's struggle to wrestle his feelings into words, to allow his feelings to show on his face and body warring against years of ruthless training and along with his struggle to relax & reintegrate to civilian life were very convincingly portrayed.

One of the things I love the most about Florand is her ability to create a fictional Paris that can be an attractive fantasy but still feel like a real place. I love that Florand acknowledges the rude and lewd cat-callers that haunt the Seine's romantic banks. Florand's characters don't spend a lot of time in seedier side of Paris,  but they acknowledge it exists. But the strength of Florand's sense of place in her novels led to an unintentionally jarring element in the story. In the story Joss continually struggles with low-level survival anxiety. His years in war-zones make him hyper-vigilant and he has remind himself that he is not longer in one, and school his reactions. When these scenes came up I couldn't help thinking how Joss would fare in post-Charlie-Hebdo attack Paris and how that would complicate his reintegration to civilian life. I don't think it was an oversight by Florand, but rather a testament to her ability to create characters that I care about and whose world feel solid enough that I want to connect it to our real world.

I also continue to appreciate the way she is able to have former protagonists appear in her series without stealing the focus. She is not scared to acknowledge that Dom and Joss are cut from the same cloth, yet they are given very different kinds of heroines and romances. I liked how Dom interacted with Joss and that what they both meant to Celié has always been different. I look forward to reading more books in this series following Celié s fiercely competitive friends and peers.

I received a review copy of All for you from the author, Laura Florand.

Guilty Pleasure & The Pleasure Principle by Jane O'Reilly

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

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

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

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

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


Cover58622-mediumThe Pleasure Principle:

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

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

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

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

Winter Rain (Love in the Rain Book 2)

Winter Rain cover

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

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

4 stars

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

3 stars

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

3 stars

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

3 stars

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

2 stars

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

5 stars.

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

2 stars.

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

No rating

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

5 stars


Tempting the Player by Kat Latham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 4 stars


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



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

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


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

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

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


4.5 stars to Binary Witness


Code Runner (Amy Lane Mysteries #2):

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

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

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

4.5 stars to Code Runner