romance

Book Review: Lighting the Flames by Sarah Wendell

I’ve mentioned about a zillion times that I’m a big fan of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, even though it balloons my TBR up like nobody’s business (what, like that’s a bad thing???). I’ve read the two other books by its creators and current host- Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (read in the days before this blog; Goodreads link here) and Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell. So you know I had to read the romance novel Sarah Wendell penned herself, titled Lighting the Flames (Smart Bitches Trashy Books, LLC, 2014). Winter! Camp! Hanukkah! Romance! So many cozy good things going on here.  

Genevieve and Jeremy have been camp friends forever, but last year, he left early, with little explanation, and only after kissing her. Now they’re back together for a special winter camp, hoping to pull together a last-ditch effort to save Camp Meira from financial ruin and figure out what’s going on between them.

Color wars and snowfall, chilly temperatures and arts and crafts- not exactly the typical camp experience, but as Gen, Jeremy, and the campers light the Hanukkah candles each night, it’s obvious how special of a place this is. And little by little, Gen and Jeremy open up to one another, growing closer and closer until they can no longer deny what’s between them. Can they make it last outside the confines of Camp Meira, into their adult lives in the real world?

This is a sweet romance novella. There were times when I thought the writing could be stronger, but where Sarah Wendell really succeeds is in setting the scene. Camp Meira in the wintertime leaps off the page. It’s snowy, it’s cold, it’s icy, and the heaters are constantly breaking, but it’s gorgeous and cozy as hell. I’m *not* a fan of cold or being outdoors in the winter (shivering hurts my back and exacerbates my chronic pain), but she makes winter camp sound fun.

Gen is hurting from the recent deaths of her parents; Jeremy is settling into life working with his dad at the family business, a Jewish funeral home. He’s the one who sat with her parents after they passed (there are a few places in this story where some knowledge of Jewish traditions might be helpful, but it’s not necessary). They have some painful discussions on this topic, so if you’re grieving, this may be a good book to wait on until you’re further along in the healing process. Ms. Wendell handles this delicate situation with grace and ease, and it’s sweet to see Gen and Jer forge a new, more mature connection as they bond over Gen’s loss and Jeremy’s adult handling of their deaths.

Lighting the Flames is sweet and will put you smack-dab in the freezing winter cold and snow of Camp Meira. I’m not sure I love the cold and snow any more than I did before, but I enjoyed the coziness of reading about two people falling in love amidst the freezing temperatures.

Visit Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Follow her on Twitter: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

One of the things 2020 has taught me is to balance my reading better, that it’s better on both my mental health and my stamina and ability as a reader to inject plenty of lighter books among the heavier subjects. Although I’m still drowning in the all-my-books-came-in-at-once deluge, it was actually a pretty good thing that my library notified me that my copy of The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren (Gallery Books, 2020) had come in about eight weeks ahead of schedule. I needed something on the lighter side after finishing Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Carey has worked for home decor and redesign power couple Melissa and Russell Trip since she was 16; at 26, she’s given a huge amount of her time and talent to them and it’s a bit like trying to keep an angry hippo on a leash at this point. They’re *not* getting along, and with a new show and, of all things, a new book about how to have a great marriage, things are in serious trouble, especially since she and Russ’s new assistant, James, just discovered Russ balls-deep in their last show’s host. OOPS.

Now Carey and James have been thrown together in order to supervise Melly and Russ on their book tour. Carey’s not so sure about this; James isn’t exactly her cup of tea, but after being stuck with him in such a small space and with the common goal of keeping their bosses from destroying their own empire, they find themselves falling for each other. As Melly and Russ fall apart, Carey and James grow closer, but it’s a precarious kind of closeness when the stakes are *this* high…

Cute book. Carey has been with Melly and Russ since she was a teenager; they seem to have somewhat took over some parenting duties and given her opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have. Between that and the fact that she suffers from dystonia, a neuro-muscular disease (for which she needs the insurance they provide), she feels a loyalty to them that won’t allow her to envision more for herself. She’s somewhat trapped in an uncomfortable, semi-abusive relationship with her employers from which she’s not safe enough to leave, and that sums up a lot about what it’s like to be young-ish and employed in the US today, unfortunately.

James is a bit stodgy and self-important at the beginning. He’s an engineer who got shafted by his last employer shutting down due to white-collar crime (I hate that term; it’s insulting. Rich upper-class crime, let’s call it), and he needs this job to improve his now-dismal resume. He was hired on to be an engineer for Russ and Melly, but he was almost immediately shoved into the role as Russ’s assistant and it’s obvious he feels he’s too good for the role. That might have been why I didn’t get immediate warm fuzzies over him like I do about the majority of Christina Lauren heroes. He does come around to value Carey for who she is and what she’s contributed to the brand, but the whole attitude of “I’m too good/educated/classy for this job” is an instant turn-off.

Melly and Russ are a hot, hot mess. They’re a Chip-and-Joanna Gaines-like couple and Russ is absolutely over Melly’s famewhoring, claw-her-way-to-the-top-and-drag-my-husband-behind drive. He just wants to build things and drink beer and watch sports, and this causes him to make some terrible decisions. There’s no excuse for infidelity like that, even if Melly is basically the Cruella de Villa of the design world. I felt bad for him for putting up with so much for so long, but he also let Melly steamroll Carey and let some bad stuff go down for years that he knew wasn’t right (trying not to spoil anything here!), so I had plenty of issues with him too. So while they were both kind of terrible people…they’re well-written. They’re both constantly screwing up and showing their worst selves, and then they let a bit of decency peek out so you can’t entirely loathe them, just mostly.

I didn’t love this the way I’ve loved some other Christina Lauren books- again, I think James’s initial snobbery ruined that for me a bit- but it was a nice read that helped break up some tougher books. I saw that Christina Lauren’s next book is a Christmas-themed one, and honestly, I’m kind of ehhhhhhhh about that. I’ll still end up reading it at some point, I’m sure, but Christmas books don’t really call to me that much. If you’ve read an ARC of it and loved it, though, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Christina Lauren’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

Follow Christina.

Follow Lauren.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez

I am currently suffering from the wonderful problem of having all my books come in at once, and that problem began with the arrival of my library ebook copy of The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez (Forever, 2019). This book hadn’t been on my radar prior to this spring/summer, but as soon as I heard about it on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, I hit the want-to-read button and requested it from the library. There was a months-long wait; no problem, I thought, I have no problem virtually standing in line.

And then, of course, everything comes in months before, all at the same time. I’m not complaining…

Kristen is long distance dating a military man who’s due to get out in a matter of weeks and who will be moving in with her, but instead of being excited, she’s hardcore freaking out. How is he going to fit into her life? How will Tyler deal with her constant heavy, painful periods that have pushed her to having a hysterectomy soon? He’s not even the type of guy who feels comfortable making a run for tampons… Kristen’s not feeling great about their future, and then she meets Josh.

Josh is the station’s newest firefighter, best friend to Kristen’s best friend’s fiancé (got that?). After their meet-cute fender bender, sparks fly between them and Josh is in, but Kristen, determined to be faithful to Tyler, keeps him at arms’ length…especially after he talks about wanting a ton of kids. That’s not something she’ll ever be able to give anyone, and thus there’s not even the slimmest chance, even if she were single. Which she isn’t.

But things keep heating up between them, and when the universe yanks away the final barrier, Kristen finds herself in Josh’s arms. It’s everything she could have dreamed of, but how could she be so selfish as to deprive Josh of what he wants most in this world? When tragedy strikes, they’ll have to figure out where each of them stand, and how to move forward in a world where everything has changed.

Wow, are reviews ever mixed on this one! While I enjoyed the book, I totally understand why.

Kristen. She’s bold, brash, in-your-face, doesn’t take crap from anyone…except her overbearing, dragon-lady of a mother. She’s been managing a long-distance relationship with Tyler the Marine for the past two years. She runs her own business designing clothing and items like stairs and doghouses for small dogs. She’s always there for her best friend Sloan, and at 26, fibroids and extremely heavy, painful periods that last for weeks on end are pushing her to a partial hysterectomy. She won’t be able to have kids, something that doesn’t seem to bother her too much until she meets Josh, Sloan’s fiancé’s best friend. The attraction between Kristen and Josh is strong from the beginning, but when he starts talking about wanting a whole passel of biological kids, Kristen knows there’s no hope there, not even if she were single.

Kristen’s inability to talk to Josh about her upcoming hysterectomy is the key problem in this story. If she had been open and honest from the beginning and laid out the facts- I’m having surgery in a few months to remove my uterus- it would have spared everyone a lot of drama. Instead, she choses to avoid that conversation entirely. I see a lot in writing circles on Twitter and in books on writing that if the problems in your book can be solved by a single conversation, your plot isn’t strong enough, but I think Ms. Jimenez’s writing in this story is strong enough and her characters are complex enough that they’re able to carry the book despite this.

Infertility is a huge theme in this book- Kristen’s acceptance of and struggle with it (because both can be true at the same time). It seems like a lot of readers didn’t enjoy the ending; I’m on the fence about it. I understand why the author wrote it the way she did, it’s not entirely unheard of and I know a handful of people who have experienced something similar, but it can also be a giant slap in the face to people in Kristen’s shoes. If you’re struggling with infertility, have struggled in the past, or love someone going through these struggles, this may not be the book for you.

Josh as a hero is pretty great. He unknowingly puts his foot in his mouth about wanting biological kids, pushing Kristen to clam up about her upcoming surgery, but he’s swoon-worthy as a love interest, always looking out for Kristen and taking care of her and anticipating her needs. It’s Kristen’s upbringing at the hands of her demon mother that has rendered her unable to believe that she’s worthy of such care that forces her down the road of problem-avoidance, a detail that I think deserved a little more attention throughout the story, but Josh handles this admirably.

However, I didn’t care for how often Josh veers into ‘she’s not like other girls’ territory with Kristen; he never outright says it, but it comes dangerously close and that made me uneasy. I had thought romance was past that by now, but apparently not?

That said, I did like this. Josh and Kristen are fun together, and their chemistry is off the charts. There’s a major content warning for sudden death, though; if you’re struggling with grief, wait until you’re feeling stronger and ready to read about this topic before picking up this book. These chapters felt like a punch to the gut for me, so I can only imagine how much they would affect someone whose pain is fresh and raw. Take care of yourself.

I enjoyed The Friend Zone enough that I already have its follow-up, The Happy Ever After Playlist, on hold at the library. And that’ll probably come in in about ten seconds…

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

For the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book recommended by my favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club, and what a perfect time to pick up Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2020), who had popped up on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books that I had *so* enjoyed. She’s smart, funny, witty, and such a joy to listen to; she tells great stories, has an amazing laugh, and I seriously live for the episodes when Sarah from Smart Bitches has her on. I read Ms. Rai’s The Right Swipe last year; I enjoyed it, though it was a little harder for me to relate to Rhiannon’s driven sense of ambition (I’m, uh, way more laid back and go-with-the-flow!). I enjoyed her writing style, though, and was eager to read more from her. And lo and behold, Girl Gone Viral was available via my library’s ebooks with NO WAIT. It felt like I’d won the lottery when I hit that check out button.

Katrina King is more than a bit of a recluse, but she’s working on it. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, and PTSD have steered her life for years, but she’s been working with a therapist and doing everything she can to take back control, and step by step, she’s making it work, adding places outside her home she can travel to. What’s not working is her mad, unrequited crush on her bodyguard, Jasvinder. He’s perfect, beautiful, everything she could ever dream of wanting in a man, and she’s like 99.7% sure he views her as just a client. Sigh. When a photo of Katrina and another customer at a cafe, complete with speculative Twitter thread, goes viral, Jasvinder takes Katrina to hide out at his family farm where she can be safe from the prying eyes of the world and from the people in her past who don’t have the best intentions.

At the farm, Jasvinder’s long-avoided family drama is front-and-center, as are his feelings for the woman he’s been protecting for years. He’s in serious, serious love, but how can he admit that without sounding like a creep? As his past elbows its way forward, his family situation needs immediate attention, and he and Katrina begin to grow closer. But it’s their mutual growth that feeds their mutual attraction…maybe going viral isn’t the worst thing that could have happened…

LOVED. THIS. SO. MUCH. I got Katrina. I could relate. She’s determined and driven like Rhiannon, but in a quieter way, and what really spoke to me was her panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which I’ve been diagnosed with. I was never as severely affected as she is, but I know the terror of being stricken with a panic attack in public, how scary and embarrassing it is. I’ve had to sit down on the floor while waiting in grocery lines (those used to be my worst places, the places most likely to cause a panic attack. Grocery stores are actually *really* common places for people to have panic attacks), which was really embarrassing at the time. I understood her needing to work to grow her list of places she could visit; I had to do the same, years ago, and there are *still* places that are hard for me to go on my own, but like Katrina, it’s something I try to work on and keep pushing myself. I don’t know that I’ve ever so fully related to a fictional character before. Alisha Rai has done a fabulous job at portraying a character with my exact same brain malfunction, and I’m impressed and grateful to see that so well-written and so expertly crafted and handled in fiction.

Jasvinder.

Jasvinder.

SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON.

He’s a former Marine who struggles with PTSD and is dealing with something straight out of the headlines today, to which he reacts in completely understandable ways. He’s honorable, not wanting to overstep his boundaries with Katrina, but adorable in the ways that he loves her in secrecy. His love for and frustration with his family work together in such a realistic fashion; Ms. Rai nails family drama and the push/pull of navigating stressful relationships with family members over sensitive topics. Jas is seriously one of the most swoonworthy romance heroes I’ve read recently in contemporary romance, and I so enjoyed his chapters.

To sum it up, I adored this book. Loved Katrina, loved Jasvinder, loved their love story, loved Jasvinder’s dedicated, loving,opinionated family, loved his attempts to make new friends with Samson from The Right Swipe, loved Katrina’s friend group with Rhiannon and Jia (is Jia next???? OMG JIA IS NEXT AND I AM DYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYING! February is when this book is supposed to hit, and I for one am willing to fast-forward EVERYTHING to get there!!!). This was a lovely, lovely distraction from the mess of the outside world, and I didn’t want the book to end. Anyone know how to jump into the world of a book and never leave???

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The next 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt I had to fill was ‘your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge.’ Okay, cool. Since this is the first time I’ve participated in the challenge, I had to go dig through previous years’ challenges, until I found prompt #18 from 2017: A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile. I knew that was the one, because I’d been looking for an excuse to reread one of my favorite books of all time: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel (Onyx, 1994). I first read this book when I was sixteen, having purchased it on a solo trip to the nearest bookstore to my hometown, about a 30-minute drive away. I was eyebrow-deep in depression all through my teen years, and occasionally, on really bad days, I’d drive to the bookstore and soak up the atmosphere there while searching for a book to take my mind off the darkness and self-loathing in my brain. I stumbled upon this book, bought it, took it home, read it…then read it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s probably my number one reread of all time, and I’m not much of a rereader. This book never fails to make me smile.

Krissa and Danny French are siblings growing up on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Their surroundings are both beautiful and desolate; theirs is a community whose economy depends solely on the mines. Their father, injured in a mining accident and who can now only pull light duty, is angry, sullen and violent towards Danny. Their mother is high-strung, full of criticism and only sees what she wants to see. Danny is viewed by his parents as the bad child, Krissa the good. It’s only when Krissa sees, for the first time, evidence of her father’s abuse on Danny’s skin that she begins to understand that her family is different from everyone else’s. And it’s on this occasion that things change between her and Danny.

Danny opens up to her about his plans, his goals, to leave the Range. He wants to get far away and he plans to go in style by getting into an Ivy League college. Unfortunately, his grades aren’t stellar and he needs to learn Krissa’s study habits to improve. With her help, he’s able to get himself into Princeton, but not before he convinces her to follow in his footsteps and get off the Range as well. Krissa’s not as certain as he is, but she knows she wants to see at least a little more of what’s out there. One of Danny’s tickets out is music- he’s a talented singer, a great guitar player, and his participation in choir (as difficult as it can sometimes be for a rebel like him) helps win him recommendations that lead to his college acceptance, and ultimately, change his life and Krissa’s.

At Princeton, Danny meets Quinn Hunter, the privileged son of self-involved parents. Quinn is as different from Danny as possible- he’s blond, polished, WASP-y, raised in a world of tennis lessons, sailing, and house servants. The two get off to a rough start, but Danny’s intrigued enough by Quinn to take a chance, and the two begin a friendship and a musical partnership that will take the world by storm. Danny writes the music, Quinn writes the lyrics, and together they form the band Dodd Hall (named after their Princeton dorm). In the spring, Danny’s sister comes out to visit, and with a single look, Quinn is not only smitten, he’s deeply, head-over-heels in love. And Krissa feels the same way- it’s because of Quinn that she decides to come east for school at all.

The book goes back and forth between the 70’s, during the heyday of Dodd Hall, their rise to fame and their fiery end, and the 90’s, when Krissa and Quinn haven’t spoken in 15 years and she’s divorced from someone else and has four boys, and she and Danny only speak once a month. As you inch forward with Dodd Hall’s story, you learn piece by piece what happened to them and how it affects Krissa, Quinn and Danny’s lives now. You read about the love story of Krissa and Quinn, the twisted triangle between Danny, Quinn and Krissa, and what happens when too much weight is placed on one side of that triangle. You learn how fame affects even the smallest aspects of a person’s life and how easily it can destroy everything, how fragile trust is, and how easily it can go up in smoke when manipulation enters the picture. Throughout the book are “excerpts” from “articles” in Playboy, Rolling Stone, and books on rock ‘n’ roll that really add that extra punch of realism to the story.

This is a story rich with emotion and description. At times, the writing gets a little flowery with the metaphors, but they still work well within the story to show the depth of the beauty of Krissa and Quinn’s love- before it all fell apart, of course; their breakup, if it can even be called that, was absolutely devastating to me when I first read it. I might’ve actually cried, and I know it at least made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t until reading this as an adult that I fully understood exactly why Krissa did what she did and how trapped she must’ve felt. Struggling to find my identity after the birth of my daughter helped me relate to Krissa’s desperation for an identity outside the confines of Dodd Hall. The music, the fame, the love, the search for self, it all comes together to make such a wonderful, perfect book.

I never quite understood Danny when I was younger, and he’s still not my favorite. I was more like good-girl rule-follower Krissa. The book often talks about how working with your hands is soothing for the soul, and I smiled as I re-read that; it’s something I’ve incorporated into my life as an adult, but I hadn’t remembered that it came from this book (particularly the scene where Krissa’s making pierogies…which is also something I make by hand, and which I learned *could* be made by hand by reading this book. Don’t @ me, I never actually tried them until I was at least 18 and that was at college, and they definitely weren’t homemade then!). And Quinn… He was as close to a perfect romance novel hero as my sixteen year-old heart could have imagined. Rereading this helped me to realize how much Kathleen Gilles Seidel has influenced my own writing. This reread was a pure joy for me.

I own a paperback copy purchased from a used bookstore years ago, as my original copy was unfortunately lost; its pages are yellowing and the ink is a bit faded, but I will treasure it forever. Physically, the book has been out of print for years, but if you’re lucky enough to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited (I do not), you can read this book there, or pay a mere $1.99 to read it. (Many thanks to my friend Sandy for pointing this out! It gives me SO much joy knowing that people can still continue to experience the magic of this book.)

It’s been almost twenty-four years since I first read Till the Stars Fall, but the story hasn’t lost its shine for me. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. Or, alternately, do you have a book like this, one that you keep coming back to over and over again, that never loses its luster? What makes that book so special for you?

Visit Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge was (cue ominous music) a western. I’ve never really been a fan of that particular genre; ranching and horses and cows don’t interest me in the slightest. I had been planning on reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, but then I realized it was over 900 pages and noped out of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love big books, but my pandemic-exhausted brain seriously cannot right now. (I’ll put that one on the back burner for later, because everyone I’ve ever heard speak about that book has raved about it, so I’ll get to it at some point.) Fortunately for me, my library’s version of the Libby app had a section of all the western ebooks they own, including a whole lot of romances, which I hadn’t even thought to consider. Sure, let’s do that. After scrolling for a bit, trying to find one that both interested me AND wasn’t checked out (apparently herding cattle in Texas is a majorly popular fantasy?), I finally basically gave up and chose Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2013).

Laura’s sister has gotten herself into gambling trouble- AGAIN- so after asking a wealthy cousin to help with a loan to pay off her debts, Laura’s taken a job at billionaire Colton Nelson’s ranch in order to pay back the money she owes. Poor Colton’s had women throwing themselves at him since he won the lottery a few years ago, so his employees (including Laura’s cousin) come up with a plan: have Laura and Colton pretend that they’re dating so that Colton is finally left in peace. Laura’s not thrilled with this, but her cousin sweetens the deal by allowing her to talk to her sister in gambling addiction rehab, so she begrudgingly agrees.

They pull the scam off, presenting themselves to the tonwsfolk as a couple head over heels in love…maybe a little too well, since it’s not long before they’re sucking face for real. Laura’s not sure what she really wants, other than her independence; Colton doesn’t need a woman, but he’s sure enjoying this one. Throw in a handful of quirky ranch employees and family members, including a mercurial 16 year-old, and everyone has an idea of what Laura and Colton should be. But their relationship is something they’ll have to figure out themselves…

Ehhhhhhhhh. Didn’t love this one. It was readable, I’ll say that. I didn’t buy the chemistry between them at all, especially in the beginning, since it was based on things like, “OMG, we both enjoy the same obscure flavor of Sno-Cone!” …really? That’s what you want to build your relationship on? I didn’t see each character as that much of a catch, either. Laura’s personality is based on being a hard worker and also bailing her sister out at every turn (and her trust issues); Colton…also had trust issues, but didn’t seem to have all that much of a personality beyond that.

And then there was a scene when Colton was dressed in “cutoff denim shorts, boots, and the shirt he’d worked in that day, unbuttoned.” Uh…I don’t think that’s quite the super hot look the author thinks it is; all I could think of after reading that was, “This guy is definitely auditioning for The Village People.” (My own father used to mow the lawn in cutoff jean shorts in the late 80’s. It was…a look.)

Follow that up with the fact that there’s ZERO CONDOM USAGE in this book. HOW ARE ROMANCE AUTHORS STILL DOING THIS IN 2020? Well, okay, I looked at the copyright when I read this and it was published in 2013- so still, NO EXCUSES! Consent is sexy. Protection is sexy. If you can write, you can find a way to make keeping your partner safe hot, because otherwise, all I’m thinking when I read scenes like that is, “Someone is definitely getting that strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.” That, and, “And somehow they’re still going to be soooooooooooooooooooo shocked when she turns up pregnant.” Neither of which happened in the happy-flower-kittyland of this book, but reality? Yeah, no one likes the consequences of unprotected sex. Romance authors, wrap those fictional penises up, please.

And one more nitpicky point of contention. If your first sex post-coital pillow talk includes the phrase, “We worked up an appetite, didn’t we?”, I don’t know there’s a woman in the world that’s going to find this endearing.

As far as romances go, I found this lukewarm at best. Someone must like it; Carolyn Brown has written what looks like zillions of books, so these kinds of things must work for some readers, but I’m not one of them. If you’ve read any of her other books and enjoyed them, I’d love to hear about it. I don’t want to turn away from an author after not enjoying one book (unless the book was hella problematic, and then I’ll absolutely flee). The writing here was usually okay, but the story and the characters were what didn’t work for me. If you have a Carolyn Brown book that worked for you, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Carolyn Brown’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour

#TheWriteReads Presents: Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D. L. Orton Blog Tour

Howdy ho, fellow readers! Your friendly first chapter reviewer here with a new book that seems fairly apt for the times, Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D.L. Orton (Rocky Mountain Press, 2015). Right from the start, this seems like a whopper of a story, and I have questions.

The prologue starts out in what seems like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where Isabel is forcing herself to buy a gun from a skeevy creeper in the parking lot of a burned-out Walmart somewhere out west in view of the Rockies. Instead of money, she’s got a backpack full of spices- pepper, dry mustard, you know the kind- and the parking lot she’s in is full of other makeshift businesses. She goes through with the purchase, not without Skeevy Creeper Gun Dude nearly murdering a stray dog and making some gross lecherous comments towards her (BECAUSE OF COURSE). The prologue ends with Isabel looking at the wasteland around her and asking herself, “Oh my God, Diego, what have we done?”

Wait- Diego? Who’s Diego??? And what on earth did they do?!?!!???

As the first chapter starts, ten months before the apocalyptic hellscape of the prologue, we meet up with an earlier version of Isabel, who is somewhere in her early 40’s. Life seems normal as she’s coming out of what seems like divorce proceedings in downtown Denver, until she twists her ankle catching her heel in a grate and is rescued by a man who seems familiar- yup, you guessed it, Diego. The two of them had a romantic relationship that ended several years ago; neither one of them seem completely over the other, but now that they’ve reconnected, Isabel reluctantly agrees to have dinner with him.

*record scratch*

How on earth did they get from business casual in downtown Denver to the apocalyptic nightmare scenario in the prologue in just ten months? (Although, looking around at the world right now…*nervous laughter*) Dystopian/apocalyptic fiction isn’t usually my thing, and I don’t think I could mentally handle it right at this moment, but I’m deeply curious as to what the heck happened. This is a strong, strong beginning, and I have a feeling that D.L. Orton had a LOT of agents requesting full manuscripts after seeing these first pages!

There’s time travel here (which I love), and romance, and this is something that’s going to stay on my kindle so I can read it further when my exhausted brain can manage it better and more fully, but this is an intriguing beginning, and if you’re into dystopian love stories (I did not know that was a genre!), this just may be the book for you. I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s reviews so I know exactly what I’ll be getting into and when I can handle more.

Plus, check out that gorgeous cover. I love the swirl of bluish light!

Thanks to Dave from #TheWriteReads and D.L. Orton for including me on this tour!

Visit D.L. Orton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads and TheWriteReadsOnTour on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: 40-Love (There’s Something About Marysburg #2) by Olivia Dade

When Olivia Dade is handing out copies of her new book on Twitter, you accept immediately, AMIRITE???

For real. I was lucky enough to be on Twitter at night a week or two ago when she was offering up copies of 40-Love (Hussies and Harpies Press, 2020), and I clicked that link SO hard. I’ve never read her before but I’ve enjoyed her on Twitter, and hey, free book (and free publicity for her! Win-win). I filled out the form and the book was in my email inbox that morning. Ah, life as a book blogger!

(I mean, the cat probably barfed on the floor that same morning, and I’m SURE my daughter fought me tooth and nail over doing her schoolwork, but let’s just pretend for a moment that the book blogging life is nothing but glitz and glamor, okay?)

Tess Dunn is smack in the middle of a relaxing beach vacation when the wardrobe malfunction of the century threatens to erase her years of hard work (seriously. ‘Public indecency’ is not a good charge to have on your police record when you’re gunning for that job as principal). By chance, the only nearby adult- uh, mostly an adult?- is the resort’s tennis instructor, Lucas Karlsson. The two don’t exactly get off on the right foot, but after Olivia’s best friend and vacation buddy signs her up for some of Lucas’s lessons, sparks are flying alongside those tennis balls on the court.

Sure, Lucas is younger than Tess by about thirteen years, but he knows what- more like WHO- he wants- at least in that aspect of his life. Career-wise, he’s been biding his time at the resort since injuries forced him off the professional circuit. But Tess has helped him to clarify a few things in her short time on the island. Though, as we know, vacation isn’t real life, and the two of them will have some heavy decisions to make if they’re going to make this work.

Such a cute, fun story. I opened my copy on my kindle, read the first line- “Jesus, this stupid bikini was killing her”- burst out laughing, and knew this was my pick for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a great first line. (Ladies, we’ve all owned some version of that swimsuit, haven’t we? UGH). Tess is a strong heroine who knows what she wants and doesn’t really hesitate to go for it. She’s confident in her abilities and her body, and she’s got a fun, funny personality.

Lucas is a thoughtful hero caught in a holding pattern, wearing the outward appearance of a bro that masks his sweet charm. He’s deeper than he looks, and probably deeper than most young men his age, possibly due to his experiences with so many injuries and so much pain throughout his tennis career. The loss of that career has caused him to doubt himself and his abilities, but he never wavers in his affection for Tess and takes every chance to express it.

What I adored most of all, though, was the setting. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’ve all been stuck at home, or that the weather has still been a little cool here, especially when I was reading this (but now, not so much!), but a steamy, palm-tree filled island off the Florida coast? Talk about a dream vacation right now- although, to be fair, anywhere that’s not one of the rooms in my house or the residential areas within several miles of my house on my walking route sounds like a dream vacation. But really, Olivia Dade created a perfect resort with amazing weather, awesome amenities, delicious-sounding restaurants, and gorgeous beaches (including a nude beach!) that had me mentally digging my toes into the sand and relaxing in the warm waves. Ahhhhhhhhh.

The tennis stuff, I didn’t love, but that’s merely a personal thing. I’m not huge on sports in books (although hockey’s a minor exception), and I’ve never really had any interest in tennis at all, so I wasn’t personally drawn to that. It’s absolutely not overdone, though; Ms. Dade covers it just enough so that the non-sportsing reading will be able to understand, if not relate to, Lucas and his background. This is still an enjoyable read even if you can’t tell the difference between a tennis ball and a bowling ball.

If you’re looking for a fun summer romance and just want to take a mental beach vacation, 40-Love is a great choice. Don’t forget the sunscreen, and, uh, maybe secure that bikini top a little more, just to be sure, okay?

Thanks to Olivia Dade for a copy of this book!

Visit Olivia Dade’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: American Royals by Katharine McGee

This is the best part of reading challenges right here, finding new-to-me authors and new books that I love, especially ones that I might not have looked twice at if I hadn’t been prompted to pick them up. The only reason I even knew of American Royals by Katharine McGee (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019) was because it appeared as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge‘s prompt of a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. While I’ve enjoyed a few books about characters learning they’re actually royalty, I don’t know that I would have picked this up based on the title or the cover, but upon reading the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Imagine that instead of becoming President, George Washington instead chose to serve as America’s first king. And instead of the American populace electing a (potentially new) leader every four years, the throne passed from father to son, until the law changed in order for the throne to allow women to reign as queen.

The Washingtons, America’s royal family, are the fascination of the country, especially since daughter Beatrice is set to succeed her father, the first future queen after a long line of kings. She’s prepared her entire life for ascending the throne, but despite her privilege, her lack of options in life are beginning to feel restrictive. Her younger sister Sam, known for being the wild child to Beatrice’s more uptight personality, has spent her childhood doing all the things Beatrice can’t; far from feeling free, she chafes at being the spare (being, of course, four minutes older than her twin brother Jeff).

When Beatrice’s parents reveal that she needs to pick out a husband, a series of events are set in motion that will pit sister against sister, reveal tragic secrets, and lead both sisters to fall deeply in love. But for royalty, the crown must come first above all other things, and difficult choices will need to be made by all.

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

Ms. McGee tells the story of young adult royals in a multiple third person narrative that will have you turning the pages so quickly you develop a nasty case of tendinitis in your right hand and wrist (okay, maybe I can’t fully blame her for this, ow, but it didn’t help! Still worth it, though). Her characters are all so very well-rounded that they practically leap off the page and seem like real people you could actually Google. Over and over again, I wondered if maybe having a monarchy would have been the right choice; if it had led the country to a family like the Washingtons, it just might have been.

Beatrice is cool and regal on the surface; on the inside, she’s torn between her duty and responsibility to her country and her growing love for her guard, Connor. Sam is jealous of her older sister, but never so much as now, when Beatrice seems to be getting everything Sam always wanted. Nina, Sam’s best friend, is in love with Jeff, but can she ever fit in to palace life? And Daphne, Jeff’s scheming socialite ex, is always skulking on the edges, desperate to claw her way back into Jeff’s life and into a position as his future princess.

Ms. McGee has created deep, complex emotions behind these royal characters, but she writes them in a way that feels natural and never forced. It’s an amazing, fictional deep dive into about the most entertaining ‘what if???’ scenario I’ve ever read. It ends on a serious note, and I am HERE for the sequel, Majesty, which is due out in September 2020. I’ve already added it to my TBR, and for someone that’s not much into series, that alone should tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Racing the through palace halls, sitting down for a chat in the study, digging through the vault of Crown Jewels, waltzing at a ball, the settings for every chapter are fabulous and Ms. McGee puts you right there in the DC palace that you’ll wish were real from the first page.

While American Royals is classified as YA, I feel that it reads the same as adult fiction. The characters who narrate it are all in their very late teens or early twenties, but the style reads as easily as any adult contemporary fiction. If you’re not usually interested in young adult novels, don’t let that stop you here; this is a compelling story that deals with heavy emotional themes and makes for an enjoyable read for any age.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this a scenario you’d considered before? What led you to pick this book up? Are you interested in the sequel? If you’re American, do you think we’d be better off if Washington had made the decision to be king?

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.