Review of “The Devil’s Own Duke” (Wallflowers vs. Rogues #2) by Lenora Bell

Bell, Lenora. The Devil’s Own Duke. New York: Avon Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0062993465 | $8.99 USD | 384 pages | Regency Romance

Blurb 

USA Today bestseller Lenora Bell returns to her Wallflowers vs. Rogues series with a romance between a lady and the scoundrel claiming to be next-in-line for her father’s title.

Lady Henrietta Prince is far too busy for romance. She’s dedicated her life to turning her family vineyards into a profitable sparkling wine venture. But when she shares a thrilling kiss at midnight with a handsome stranger, she’s captivated…until he claims to be the distant heir to her father’s dukedom.

Ash Ellis is a gambler who lives life on the edge. Now he’s locked his sights on a glittering prize and nothing will stand in his way.

When Henrietta is forced to marry the wicked rogue to keep her beloved vineyards, she vows that Ash will never have her trust, or her love. Even if his kisses are more intoxicating than the finest champagne.

His new bride is certainly beautiful, but biddable? Not so much. Ash will settle for nothing less than Henrietta’s total surrender…but is he the one in danger of losing his heart?

In the series 

#1 Love is a Rogue

Review 

3 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Devil’s Own Duke is a well-intentioned book, continuing Lenora Bell’s pivot away from a cast of all-Duke heroes to highlight heroes of the lower classes. The basic setup is great, although one key element is what leads to the whole thing falling apart as the story goes on. 

The characters are intriguing. I really liked both Henrietta and Ash; class warfare is a staple of the historical romance genre, and I love what was done here, with Henrietta being a strong minded advocate for women, but has a lot of room to grow in terms of awareness about her privilege as a member of the aristocracy, and Ash wanting to leverage his possible connection to the aristocracy and eventual inheritance to work toward reform of child labor laws, influenced by his own dark childhood. While I wasn’t sure how to feel about him at first, especially with the way he dismissed her (albeit before he really knew who she was and that she was different), I came to warm up to him as the book went on. 

I also really liked the appearances of the characters from prior books. The ladies’ society is still my favorite part of this series, and I loved seeing the women interacting and discussing women’s issues (which are not at all anachronistic, contrary to popular belief). 

However, the book hinges on a deception, and in cases like this, I feel mishandling it always reflects badly on the deceiver. In a romance, that makes it hard for me to believe in the relationship going forward without them believably making amends. I understand Ash’s good intentions, as I previously noted, but I still was like, “Really?” And to have the reveal happen so late in the book, then be overtaken by an external crisis which literally threatens their lives, after which it apparently doesn’t even matter anymore? Like, Henrietta literally reverts from “it’s all a lie!” to reassuring him that he is noble, because of his ambitions. I mean, that’s great, and not untrue, but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that he lied! You may love him now, but what about later on when the glow of the honeymoon has worn off? What else does he have the capacity to lie about?

This book was sadly a bit of a disappointment, but that’s purely a matter of taste. Deception/Big Lie plots are ridiculously hard to pull off, and so I’m not surprised this one was more of a miss for me, and there’s also this sense of ambiguity here where even Ash isn’t 100% sure if he is the heir or not, something which obviously could not conclusively be answered, given the genre limitations. But it’s still a pretty fun read, and I think most historical romance fans will enjoy it. 

Author Bio 

Lenora Bell is a USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of historical romances with Avon Books. A teacher with an MFA in Creative Writing, Lenora has lived and worked on five continents. She’s currently fixing up a big old building in small town Alaska with her carpenter husband and two tiger-striped rescue kitties (#RomancingTheRenovation). She loves hearing from readers! Join her Facebook Reader Group for exclusive excerpts, giveaways and news: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Lenor…

Learn more at www.LenoraBell.com

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Review of “My Fair Concubine” (Tang Dynasty #3) by Jeannie Lin

Lin, Jeannie. My Fair Concubine. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 2012.

ISBN-13: 978-1459220569 | $3.99 USD | 280 pages | Historical Romance—Tang Dynasty

Blurb 

Yan Ling tries hard to be servile—it’s what’s expected of a girl of her class. Being intelligent and strong-minded, she finds it a constant battle.

Proud Fei Long is unimpressed by her spirit—until he realizes she’s the answer to his problems. He has to deliver the emperor a “princess.” In two months can he train a tea girl to pass as a noblewoman?

Yet it’s hard to teach good etiquette when all Fei Long wants to do is break it, by taking this tea girl for his own….

In the series 

#1 Butterfly Swords

#2 The Dragon and the Pearl 

#4 The Sword Dancer 

#5 A Dance with Danger 

Review

3 stars

My Fair Concubine is the middle book of Jeannie Lin’s loosely connected Tang Dynasty series, being a stand-alone published  in between two slightly more closely connected duologies. I missed this one during my first run with the rest of them, because I was a strictly print reader at the time, the books had gone out of print, and while I could find print copies of the others, I could not find one of this one. And I do think the time away, especially after having read more of Jeannie Lin’s work since these early Harlequin category historicals has impacted the reading experience to an extent. It’s still pretty good,however, because she’s always had talent and a keen eye for detail, and is able to engross you in the setting, whether it’s your first book of hers or you’ve read all of them. 

The heroine is all right…she’s not the most compelling Jeannie Lin heroine, even taking into account this is an early work…I remember some of the others in the series being awesome. But Yan Ling is sweet in her own way, and I appreciated that through her situation, the story was able to explore the misogyny of the times, especially with her essentially working to become a concubine. 

I really liked Fei Long, and felt for his struggle to preserve the family honor, leading him to have to make some tough decisions after his sister ran away. I loved seeing him bond with Yan Ling as he was educating her, and it led to some pretty steamy moments, although it was a bit of slow burn getting there. 

The book is a bit slower paced, even considering it is a category romance and thus shorter than “single-titles.” The lessons did feel a bit repetitive, and it was a bit too slow of a burn at times, but ultimately, it was worth it, even if it did drag on occasion. 

While this is not my favorite of Jeannie Lin’s books, it is very much a timing thing, and I still enjoyed it for what it is and acknowledge why many others may enjoy it more. I would still encourage anyone who hasn’t to pick this (and all of her other books) up as soon as possible. 

Author Bio 

JEANNIE LIN grew up fascinated with stories of Western epic fantasy as well as Eastern martial arts adventures. When her best friend introduced her to romance novels in middle school, the stage was set. Jeannie started writing her first romance while working as a high school science teacher in South Central Los Angeles. After four years of trying to break into publishing with an Asian-set historical, her 2009 Golden Heart® Award–winning manuscript, Butterfly Swords, sold to Harlequin Mills & Boon. With two releases and four more upcoming titles all set in the Tang Dynasty, she’s keeping her fingers crossed that this hard-sell genre will one day be hard to resist. As a technical consultant, backpacker and vacation junkie, she’s traveled all over the United States as well as Europe, South Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam. She’s now happily settled in St. Louis with her wonderfully supportive husband, and she continues to journey to exotic locations in her stories.
Visit Jeannie Lin online at http://www.jeannielin.com

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Review of “Wicked as You Wish” (A Hundred Names for Magic #1) by Rin Chupeco

Chupeco, Rin. Wicked as You Wish. 2020. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Fire, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1728243269 | $11.99 USD | 432 pages | YA Fantasy 

Blurb 

Many years ago, the magical kingdom of Avalon was left desolate and encased in ice when the Snow Queen waged war against the country. Its former citizens are now refugees in a world mostly devoid of magic, which is why
the crown prince and his protectors are stuck….
in Arizona.
Prince Alexei, sole survivor of the Avalon royal family, is in hiding in a town so boring that magic doesn’t even work there. Few know his secret identity, but his friend Tala is one of them. Tala doesn’t mind – she has secrets of her own. Namely, that she’s a spellbreaker, someone who negates magic.
Then hope for their abandoned homeland reignites when a famous creature of legend and Avalon’s most powerful weapon – the Firebird – appears for the first time in decades. Alex and Tala unite with a ragtag group of new friends to journey back to Avalon for a showdown that will change the world as they know it.

Review 

3 stars 

Rin Chupeco has been on my to-read list for a while, and now, thanks to the library, I’m reading three of her books (and hopefully more) as we head into Halloween season. Wicked as You Wish is definitely on the more fun side of the spectrum, especially given what I’ve heard about some of the others, which delve more into the supernatural. 

And in theory, it’s exactly my sort of book. I love the concept of a version of our modern world that simultaneously holds all the characters and stories…it felt somewhat akin to Once Upon a Time in that regard. It doesn’t have the most intricate world building, but there are tons of little references to characters we know and love, like Peter Pan and Hook, who had a fierce battle called “the Burn” which led to an explosion destroying Neverland leaving a desert separating different parts of the kingdom. Or there’s the Snow Queen working with ICE…it’s such a clever form of social commentary wrapped in a reference and I chuckled reading bits like that, even while also pondering the darkness implied by stuff like that. 

Chupeco also has a really engaging writing style. While there are weak spots in the book, the writing with such profound statements laced with dark humor absolutely won me over. 

The characters weren’t that engaging. I did appreciate the wide range of representation, with various races and sexualities and other identities included on-page. But other than that, I didn’t really connect with them on a deep, emotional level. The fun fairytale gimmick dominates the story to the point where I feel like the character development gets a little lost, which isn’t entirely a bad thing, although maybe there could have been more balance to the two elements. 

However, the book is fun and  action-packed, with great twists and turns that kept me engaged and awaiting the sequel. While I can easily see this book being one you either love or hate depending on your preferences, I would still recommend it based on the strength of the fairy-tale premise and how fully it commits to it. 

Author Bio 

Rin Chupeco wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. They now write about ghosts and fairy tales but is still sometimes mistaken as a revenant. They were born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunts that place to this very day. Their pronouns are they/them

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Review of “Real” by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard

Cujec, Carol, and Peyton Goddard. Real. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2020. 

ISBN-13: 978-1629727899 | $16.99 USD | 299 pages | MG Contemporary 

Blurb 

Inspired by a true story, Real speaks to all those who’ve ever felt they didn’t belong and reminds readers that all people are worthy of being included.

My name is Charity. I am thirteen years old. Actually, thirteen years plus eighty-seven days. I love sour gummies and pepperoni pizza. That last part no one knows because I have not spoken a sentence since I was born. Each dawning day, I live in terror of my unpredictable body that no one understands.

Charity may have mad math skills and a near-perfect memory, but with a mouth that can’t speak and a body that jumps, rocks, and howls unpredictably, most people incorrectly assume she cannot learn. Charity’s brain works differently from most people’s because of her autism, but she’s still funny, determined, and kind. So why do people treat her like a disease or ignore her like she’s invisible?

When Charity’s parents enroll her in a public junior high school, she faces her greatest fears. Will kids make fun of her? Will her behavior get her kicked out? Will her million thoughts stay locked in her head forever? With the support of teachers and newfound friends, Charity will have to fight to be treated like a real student.

Review

5 stars 

Real is another recommendation from Beautifully Bookish Bethany, and I immediately wanted to read it based on her endorsement. While my situation (including my diagnosis) differs from that of both the protagonist, Charity, and one of the co-authors, Peyton Goddard, whose life serves as inspiration for the story, I still saw a bit of my younger self in this book and could empathize with many of the situations in the book. 

I really like Charity’s characterization, and how the narrative navigates the experience of having the knowledge and intelligence, but not being able to convey it, and the misconceptions it leads people to believing. 

I also appreciate the nuance with which the people around her are drawn, with all their assumptions. Many of her peers treat her as a non-person, an “Other,” but she also ends up finding teachers and aides who are willing to work with her and accommodate her needs, and there are a few good students who end up supporting her too. I also really loved her relationships with her parents, and how they constantly advocated for her. Her dad was especially amazing, because of how he was able to teach her to ride a bike or surf, while some of the doctors she saw said she wouldn’t be able to do those things, as well as having a negative attitude about her prospects in general. 

I loved this book and appreciate how it tackles tough topics, like ableism and  abuse with care while also conveying a message of hope to the young audience the book is primarily intended for. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone. 

Author Bio 

Carol Cujec, PhD, has worked as a writer and educator for two decades. Her own teaching and parenting experiences have given her welcomed insights into celebrating neurodiversity. Carol lives in San Diego with her husband, three children, and a mischievous orange tabby.

Peyton Goddard is an advocate for inclusion and has written about and made many presentations on living with autism. Her message is one of valuing all people and protecting those most vulnerable from abuse which she experienced for several decades when she lacked a dependable mode of communication. Her message centers on “changing this worrisome world” through compassionate understanding and support for all. Peyton lives with support in her own apartment, adjacent to her parents’ home in San Diego.

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Review of “A War of Swallowed Stars” (Celestial Trilogy #3) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A War of Swallowed Stars. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1510733800 | $17.99 USD | 272 pages | YA Science Fiction/Fantasy 

Blurb 

“A rare gem of a sequel . . . Each page drips with action and moral complexities.” —Natasha Ngan, New York Times bestselling author of Girls of Paper and Fire, on A House of Rage & Sorrow

A prince without his kingdom.

A kingdom without its princess.

The destruction of the stars themselves.

War is destroying the galaxy. Esmae has vanished without a trace. A terrifying, ravenous beast is devouring the stars one by one. Titania is offered a gift that may well be a curse. Alexi, the exiled prince, is asked to pay a heavy price for his mistakes. And far, far away, on a dark, mysterious planet, a sleeping god stirs awake.

War or family.

Pride or peace.

As the end of the world draws ever closer, Esmae and Alexi must decide how far they’ll go to win—and who they’ll sacrifice along the way.

Celebrated author Sangu Mandanna promises a gripping conclusion to the Celestial Trilogy in A War of Swallowed Stars.

In the series 

#1 A Spark of White Fire

#2 A House of Rage and Sorrows

Review 

5 stars 

A War of Swallowed Stars concludes Sangu Mandanna’s Mahabharata-inspired sci-fantasy Celestial trilogy, and does so in epic fashion. There are high stakes going into this one, which picks up right on the heels of the previous one, and I raced through it, finding myself satisfied with how it concluded. 

Once again, Titania is my favorite character, especially in how she is utilized to provide some of the exposition about the large and interconnected cast once again. The humor with which she conveys who everyone is, while getting the reader up to speed (which is very much welcome after a long break between books) is always amusing. 

Given that, like the original myth, family relationships play a major role in the story, I enjoyed the way new perspectives of major characters were incorporated. Each character’s voice is distinct and I never felt like I was pulled away from one for too long, as each was given enough page time. And for characters I was already attached to, like Esmae, I was continually invested, especially as she goes through a lot from betrayal to loss of those close to her. 

This book is action-packed, epic, and devastating, and is a wonderful conclusion to a great trilogy. I absolutely recommend this trilogy to pretty much anyone, especially if they love mythology-inspired stories in  SFF. 

Author Bio 

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. She is the author of The Lost GirlA Spark of White Fire and its sequels, and has contributed to several anthologies. She lives in Norwich, in the east of England, with her husband and kids.

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Review of “The Orchid Affair” (Pink Carnation #8) by Lauren Willig

Willig, Lauren. The Orchid Affair. New York: Dutton, 2011.

ISBN-13: 978-0451235558 | $15.00 USD | 496 pages | Regency Romance/Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

Laura Grey, a veteran governess, joins the Selwick Spy School expecting to find elaborate disguises and thrilling exploits in service to the spy known as the Pink Carnation. She hardly expects her first assignment to be serving as governess for the children of Andre Jaouen, right-hand man to Bonaparte’s minister of police. Jaouen and his arch rival, Gaston Delaroche, are investigating a suspected Royalist plot to unseat Bonaparte, and Laura’s mission is to report any suspicious findings.

At first the job is as liv a aely as Latin textbooks and knitting, but Laura begins to notice strange behavior from Jaouen—secret meetings and odd comings and goings. As Laura edges closer to her employer, she makes a shocking discovery and is surprised to learn that she has far more in common with Jaouen than she originally thought.

In the series 

#1 The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

 #2 The Masque of the Black Tulip 

#3 The Deception the Emerald Ring 

#4 The Seduction of the Crimson Rose 

#5 The Temptation of the Night Jasmine 

#6 The Betrayal of the Blood Lily 

#7 The Mischief of the Mistletoe 

Review

3 stars 

The Orchid Affair is the Pink book I’ve enjoyed the least upon revisiting. I do like that it feels like we’re back in the thick of the “main” action with our historical characters, being back in Paris and seeing Jane again, instead of on one of the several, albeit interesting, detours the series has taken. But I still find myself feeling a bit…underwhelmed. 

History/plot wise, it is the most interesting. Along with the first book, it feels the most like a spiritual successor to the classic Scarlet Pimpernel stories, because this one also involves a conspiracy with a lost heir that the major characters must protect. I love the intrigue, especially with the questions around the loyalties of some of these characters and how they end up coming through for good in the end. 

But as for the characters themselves? The romance? After some of the engaging personalities of the characters of some of the previous books, I found Andre and Laura rather dull. They’re good people, but they’re no Vaughn and Mary, or even Turnip and Arabella. I also didn’t really feel like their relationship was as compelling as any of the previous couples, even the ones I had issues with…they at least conjured emotions from me, whereas I just felt like Andre and Laura ended up together due to proximity and convenience. I get the sense there was an attempt at doing a Sound of Music thing for them, but it didn’t really work. 

And my gosh, the family drama in the contemporary timeline is wild! It’s not as annoying as I remember it, but goddamn, do I hate Jeremy and Mrs. Selwick-Selwick! And the “poor-Serena” saga continues…and even Colin turns against her! He does so for understandable reasons, but still! Given how annoying Eloise could be, it’s kind of nice to have one where she wasn’t jumping to ridiculous conclusions and was more an observer in all the madness. One thing I did feel was a bit off was how this one was structured, as she isn’t actually looking into any archives this time, so the historical bits are based primarily on recollections of  past research that just happen to line up with the Paris setting, so the seamlessness that made the others work is a bit lacking here. 

While this one wasn’t a favorite in the series, it is still an enjoyable read, as all of the books in the series are. I’m still very much excited for the Readalong chat about this book on Tuesday, September 28,, and if you’ve (re)read it in time, you should absolutely join in the fun! Register here!

Author Bio 

Lauren Willig is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty works of historical fiction, including Band of SistersThe Summer CountryThe English Wife, the RITA Award-winning Pink Carnation series, and three novels co-written with Beatriz Williams and Karen White. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, picked for Book of the Month Club, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best, and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. An alumna of Yale University, she has a graduate degree in history from Harvard and a JD from Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City with her husband, two young children, and vast quantities of coffee.

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Review of “The Sound of Stars” by Alechia Dow

Dow, Alechia. The Sound of Stars. Toronto, Ontario: Inkyard Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-133591551 | $18.99 USD | 426 pages | YA Sci-Fi Romance 

Blurb 

“This debut has it all: music, books, aliens, adventure, resistance, queerness, and a bold heroine tying it all together. ”—Ms. Magazine

Can a girl who risks her life for books and an Ilori who loves pop music work together to save humanity?

When a rebel librarian meets an Ilori commander…

Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the death of one-third of the world’s population. Today, seventeen-year-old Ellie Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library.

When young Ilori commander Morris finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. But Morris isn’t a typical Ilori…and Ellie and her books might be the key to a desperate rebellion of his own.
“The Sound of Stars is a marvelous genre-bending debut.” The Nerd Daily
The Sound of Stars is a stunning exploration of the comforts that make us human and the horrors that challenge our humanity.”—K. Ancrum, author of The Wicker King

“This book has everything! Aliens set on conquering earth! A determined heroine with a hidden stash of books! And the power of music and stories to give those with every reason to hate the power to love. Who could want anything more?”—Joelle Charbonneau, New York Times bestselling author of The Testing and Verify
 
An absolute must-read for everyone.” —Book Riot

“Dow’s debut is a testament to hope and the power of art.” —Buzzfeed

Review 

5 stars 

The Sound of Stars was recommended by a few different people, one of them being Beautifully Bookish Bethany as a great book with anxiety and chronic illness rep, among other elements. As she notes, I found it to have a great balance of exploration of the bleakness of the situation, while also emphasizing the sweetness of the growing bond between a teenage girl rebel librarian and an alien who is meant to be against her, but instead feels a kinship with her. 

I love that each of them had a deep love of the arts and engaged with this love even though it had been suppressed. And given the constantly moving trends of both the book and music fields, I love that Alechia Dow didn’t go the predictable route of having her characters only love the classics, and while even so, there are some references that haven’t aged well, a side effect of being “on trend” with pop culture as it was at time of writing (I cringed every time Harry Potter was mentioned given what has come out about JKR, and I had to laugh at a casual reference to Taylor Swift’s months-long album rollout being used in the context of talking about a surprise album release, given that 2020 saw her release two surprise albums), but it’s not the book’s fault the references sort of got a bit dated since the release. 

As for the characters beyond that, I loved them. I could empathize with Ellie and how she navigated the world which had changed to become hostile to people like her. And while I’ve never seen the fascination with non-humanoid love interests (just not my cuppa, but whatever floats your boat), Morris is delightful. I really liked seeing the connection between them evolve as Morris learned more about humans. The way Ellie’s demisexualilty comes into play and how he can understand it is incredibly beautiful, meaning in a sense, he might also be considered demi as well. Given the ongoing conversations about the need for good two of the spectrum of asexuality in romantic stories, it was so sweet to read a book that addressed it upfront. 

I also loved how relevant it felt, conveying a gravity to the situation that sounds achingly familiar while also providing hope for a resolution. And ultimately, it’s just a great book all-around, and one I’d recommend to anyone, even if they’re not the biggest fan of sci-fi. 

Author Bio

 Alechia Dow is a former pastry chef, teacher, and librarian. When she’s not writing, you can find her having epic dance parties with her little girl, baking, reading, or traveling.

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Review of “Poison Priestess” (Lady Slayers #2) by Lana Popovic

Popović, Lana. Poison Priestess. New York: Amulet Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1419745928 | $17.99 USD | 281 pages | YA Historical Fiction/Horror

Blurb 

Book 2 in the Lady Slayers series, about French murderess and fortune teller Catherine Monvoisin

In 17th-century Paris, 19-year-old Catherine Monvoisin is a well-heeled jeweler’s wife with a peculiar taste for the arcane. She lives a comfortable life, far removed from a childhood of abject destitution—until her kind spendthrift of a husband lands them both in debt. Hell-bent on avoiding a return to poverty, Catherine must rely on her prophetic visions and the grimoire gifted to her by a talented diviner to reinvent herself as a sorceress. With the help of the grifter Marie Bosse, Catherine divines fortunes in the IIle de la Citee—home to sorcerers and scoundrels.
There she encounters the Marquise de Montespan, a stunning noblewoman. When the Marquise becomes Louis XIV’s royal mistress with Catherine’s help, her ascension catapults Catherine to notoriety. Catherine takes easily to her glittering new life as the Sorceress La Voisin, pitting the depraved noblesse against one other to her advantage. The stakes soar ever higher when her path crosses with that of a young magician. A charged rivalry between sorceress and magician leads to Black Masses, tangled deceptions, and grisly murder—and sets Catherine on a collision course that threatens her own life.

In the series 

#1 Blood Countess 

Review 

3 stars

Having enjoyed the previous book in the Lady Slayers series, I was excited for Poison Priestess, to explore the life and misdeeds of another historical lady serial killer. And while I found myself again enjoying some aspects of it, I also once again found this book falling a bit short. 

Popović is a great writer, capturing the period she chooses in vivid detail. She is also great at capturing the grittiness of the atmosphere, and definitely committed more to it this time around, especially with her protagonist, Catherine, being a perpetrator of some of the heinous acts, and this story following how she ended up going down that path and making the choices she did.

I did appreciate what was done with Catherine, and how she was determined to maintain security in the dark court of Versailles and made connections with these influential people involved in dark things. I did wish there was more done with her character development, and often felt like I was distant from her perspective, even though I was meant to be in her head. Ironically, while I wasn’t sure how to feel about the prior book having an outsider character as the protagonist, I now think that was a stronger choice in retrospect. 

I didn’t hate this book, and I think this did have the strength in that I was less familiar with who Catherine Monvoisin was, so I was more easily able to engage with the story without thinking too much about it, and then going and looking into it later. Like its predecessor, I can see this being a great read for fans of history and the lives of lady serial killers. 

Author Bio

Lana Popović is the author of Blood CountessWicked Like a Wildfire, and Fierce Like a Firestorm. Born in Serbia, she lived in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania before moving to the United States, where she studied psychology and literature at Yale University, law at Boston University, and publishing and writing at Emerson College.

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Review of “Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating” by Adiba Jaigirdar

Jaigirdar, Adiba. Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating. Salem, MA: Page Street Publishing Co., 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1645672579 | $17.99 USD | 345 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets LGBT romance in this funny, heart-warming rom-com about first love and identity.

When Humaira “Hani” Khan comes out to her friends as bisexual, they immediately doubt her. Apparently, she can’t be bi if she’s only dated guys. Cornered into proving her sexuality, she tells them she’s dating someone—Ishita “Ishu” Dey, the straight A student who seems more concerned with studying than relationships.

When Hani approaches her about fake dating, she agrees on one condition–that Hani help her become more popular so she can win the school’s head girl election. It’s the perfect plan to help them achieve their goals, until Hani’s friends become jealous that she’s spending more time with Ishu. They’ll do everything they can to drive a wedge between them and ruin Ishu’s chances of becoming head girl.

Now, Hani has a decision to make: does she break off her relationship with Ishu for the sake of her friends? Or does she tell Ishu how she really feels and turn their “fake” relationship into something real?

Review

4 stars 

I really enjoyed Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut, so I was eager for Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating. Once again, it’s a charming YA sapphic love story, this time following two Irish-Bengali girls. While there are some tough topics addressed in the story, it is more or less fun and lighthearted. 

I really felt for Hani and the situation she’s in with her two “friends.” They clearly have little respect for her culture or religion, and she’s a people-pleaser, so she lets them walk all over her. I was glad when she began to take action upon seeing how they treated her upon her coming out to them as bisexual, and them being really bi- and lesbophobic, although I did wish that action had included cutting them off sooner. However, being in her position and given her age, I can understand her mindset. 

I really liked Ishu, and especially in how apart from anything that would give her an advantage in the running to be Head Girl, she was more confident and didn’t care what people thought of her. I love how her perspective of the toxic people Hani hangs out with serves as a contrast, and how, even though they aren’t even really close initially, Ishu goes out of her way to make sure Hani’s basic needs are met when going out, like ensuring the restaurants they go to are halal. I was particularly proud of Ishu when she stepped in to advocate for Hani’s needs to Hani’s “friends” when the group were all going out to a restaurant that was not halal, and had only one option for vegetarians. 

I also really liked the positive family relationships in the book. Hani’s family is accepting of her bisexuality, forming a stark contrast to her “friends,” and showing the nuance around the subject of Muslims and queerness. And even with some of their issues, I really liked Ishu’s relationship with her sister, complex though it was, and how Ishu’s relationship with her parents is a bit more fraught and even toxic, due to the fact that she feels the need to prove her worth in the wake of her sister being a bit of a disappointment. 

I did feel this book suffered from some pacing issues that impacted my enjoyment, especially in how certain things were executed, like Hani taking most of the book to realize how toxic her friends are and not really having a ton of page time to make things up to Ishu. However, it’s still more or less a pretty fun, engaging story that hits most of the right notes. 

If you love sapphic YA contemporaries and/or fake relationship stories, I definitely recommend giving this book a try. 

Author Bio 

Adiba Jaigirdar is the critically-acclaimed and bestselling author of The Henna Wars and Hani & Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating. A Bangladeshi/Irish writer and teacher, she has an MA in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kent, England and a BA in English and History from UCD, Ireland. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she is probably ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, or expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at adibajaigirdar.com or @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.

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Review of “No Ordinary Christmas” (Mistletoe, Maine #1) by Belle Calhoune

Calhoune, Belle. No Ordinary Christmas. New York: Forever, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1538735985 | 8.99 USD | 336 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb

Mistletoe, Maine, is buzzing and not just because Christmas is around the corner! Dante West, local cutie-turned-Hollywood hunk, is returning home to make his next movie. Everyone in town is excited . . . except librarian Lucy Marshall. When Dante took off for LA without warning—or even a goodbye—he broke Lucy’s heart. She swore not to spend one more minute thinking about her ex, but Dante makes an offer Lucy’s struggling library can’t refuse: a major donation to film on-site.

Dante is thrilled to help boost his hometown’s economy and finally begin making amends to the people he hurt years ago when he left, starting with Lucy. But seeing his former best friend on set every day feels a lot less like closure and more like a fresh start. It’s one thing for Dante to fall for Lucy all over again, quite another for a famous movie star and a small-town librarian to find lasting romance. Can the magic of the holiday season give Lucy and Dante’s first love a second chance?

Review

3 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review all opinions are my own. 

No Ordinary Christmas is a fun, sweet, lighthearted Christmas romance. It’s low steam and by an author who’s previously written for Harlequin LoveInspired, so it definitely has the feel of a Hallmark movie. But I’m always excited when Black romance authors across the heat level spectrum come across my radar, so I was excited to give this a try. 

I was particularly drawn to the fact that the heroine, Lucy, is a librarian. While you don’t get a ton of library stuff here, I did like that it served as sort of a factor for forced proximity between Lucy and Dante, due to them making an agreement that he can use the library as a location for his movie in exchange for a donation to the library.

And just as you expect going into a small-town oriented romance, the town of Mistletoe  itself is a character. Given its name, I love the way the wintry setting was conveyed, so even someone who’s never seen snow like myself could become immersed in it. It’s also just cozy and sweet and everything you want from a little town you’re going to spend an extended (fictional) stay in. 

I didn’t really connect that much to the characters. I did somewhat like Lucy, as in addition to the librarian thing, she has spunk, and her family relationships are great, particularly with her sisters. But I did struggle a bit more with Dante. He kind of just up and left to pursue his acting dreams, leaving not only Lucy, but his family too. While I tried to connect with him objectively, as on the surface, he didn’t really do anything wrong, I found it hard to really connect with him. The romance itself was especially hard to fully invest in without having full context for what they had before that he gave up on, and while it was nice to see them still have sparks, it’s hard to know if all their previous problems were satisfyingly addressed. 

But perhaps that wasn’t the point of the book. Going that route might require more angst than the “Hallmark-esque” style would require, and I can appreciate this for what it is. And if that style of romance also appeals to you during the holiday season, you should definitely check this out. 

Author Bio 

Belle Calhoune writes heartwarming, inspirational romance novels set in small, cozy towns. Married to her college sweetheart and living in southern Connecticut, she is the mother of two girls. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she is one of five children. Growing up across the street from a public library allowed her to become an avid reader who aspired to be a romance writer. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys reading, spending time in Cape Cod, traveling and enjoying time with friends and family.
Belle hopes her books will provide readers with inspiration, entertainment and an escape from day to day life. 

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Review of “The Bone Shard Daugter” (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart

Stewart, Andrea. The Bone Shard Daughter. New York: Orbit, 2020. 

ISBN-13: 978-031654135 | $16.99 USD | 496 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb 

The Bone Shard Daughter is an unmissable debut from a major new voice in epic fantasy — a stunning tale of magic, mystery, and revolution in which the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her power and her place on the throne.

“One of the best debut fantasy novels of the year.” — BuzzFeed News
“An amazing start to a new trilogy.” — Culturess
“It grabs you by the heart and the throat from the first pages and doesn’t let go.” — Sarah J. Maas

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

“One of the best debut fantasy novels of the year.” —BuzzFeed News

“An amazing start to a new trilogy.” —Culturess

“It grabs you by the heart and the throat from the first pages and doesn’t let go.” —Sarah J. Maas

“Epic fantasy at its most human and heartfelt . . . inventive, adventurous and wonderfully written.”  —Alix E. Harrow

“Utterly absorbing. I adored it.” —Emily Duncan

“A thoroughly fantastic read.” —Kevin Hearne

“Stewart’s debut is sharp and compelling. It will hook readers in and make them fiercely anticipate the rest of the series.” —Booklist

“Groundbreaking epic fantasy for a new age.” —Tasha Suri

“Begins with a spark of intrigue that ignites into a thrilling adventure.” —Hafsah Faizal

Review 

4 stars 

The Bone Shard Daughter is a book I had heard mixed things about, although it leaned toward the favorable, and I finally decided to give it a shot with some level of apprehension given what I’d heard about some of the style choices. And while I was initially intimidated to see it was about five different characters, and only a couple are immediately connected to each other, I ultimately found I could easily vibe with it, especially with how Andrea Stewart managed to keep up the engagement in each character consistent, and the story being well-balanced between them, and capturing the distinct voices and POV shifts.

There are two characters who seem to be the “main” focus: Lin, who is the character the title and blurb is most focused on, and is struggling to remember her previous life at her father’s behest; and Jovis, a smuggler, who finds himself rescuing children from tithing for the sake of the bone shard magic. Then, we have the main supporting characters, an f/f couple, Phalue and Ranami, who are from different social classes  working to help struggling citizens on their island, and then there’s Sand, a woman isolated on another island with no memory of how she got there. I did feel that some characters were more interesting than others, but that is in part due to the way the story is set up. 

The world building is really compelling, creating a sometimes creepy vibe. With the bone shard magic combined with the amnesia element, it allows for the reader to discover the world and the magic along with the characters. The twists and turns also provide compelling subversions of tropes, so while the book seems approachable, the execution is not at all like what you’d expect. 

This book is unique and intriguing, and really stands out amid the fantasy I’ve read recently due to the choices it makes. If you’re looking for a fantasy that is approachable, while still making bold choices in its execution, you should pick this up. 

Author Bio 

Andrea Stewart is the daughter of immigrants, and was raised in a number of places across the United States. Her parents always emphasized science and education, so she spent her childhood immersed in Star Trek and odd-smelling library books.
When her (admittedly ambitious) dreams of becoming a dragon slayer didn’t pan out, she instead turned to writing books. She now lives in sunny California, and in addition to writing, can be found herding cats, looking at birds, and falling down research rabbit holes.

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Review of “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer

Meltzer, Jean. The Matzah Ball. Toronto, Ontario: MIRA, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0778311584 | $15.99 USD | 416 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

“The Matzah Ball had me laughing out loud…an all-around terrific read.”—Debbie Macomber, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Oy! to the world

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.

But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.

Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze. 

“A luminous celebration of all types of love, threaded with the message that everyone is worthy of it.”—Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of The Ex Talk

Review

3 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Matzah Ball is a pretty cute holiday romance that attempts to give Hanukkah the same mainstream treatment that Christmas gets every year…and even commenting on that fact in-text. I love the little jokes about the ins and outs of publishing, especially the publisher/author email correspondence with them shooting ideas back and forth. 

But more importantly, this book also sees the heroine, Rachel, deal with chronic fatigue syndrome, which Jean Meltzer based on her own experience. I really got the sense of how this condition dominates one’s life, yet Rachel tries to make the best of it and embrace what opportunities she has, while also knowing her own limits. 

I really liked the exploration of Rachel’s identity as Jewish, while also negotiating that with her love of Christmas. It was great to see that Hanukkah can be magical and special along with her, and to have her find a way to imbue that in her book. I also appreciated the nuances that Meltzer shared in regards to Jewish people and their feelings in regards to both traditions. 

I did struggle with the romance at times. It just seemed a little petty to be carrying a grudge for all these years. That also seemed like a poor vehicle for some really cringey slapstick comedy. As the book went on, and I started to see where Jacob was coming from, I could sort-of understand that he had his own experiences with chronic illness in his family, and appreciated how he course-corrected upon learning about Rachel’s. But between the ridiculousness of that, and the way he reacted to finding out about her using him for inspiration by snooping around, I ended up not being sure. I mean, yeah, she did have something to apologize for, as far as not being genuine in her pursuit of helping with the Matzah Ball at first, but he also needed to apologize for not hearing her out, especially when he was the one being poking around where he didn’t belong. 

This book is very well-intentioned, and in some ways, it succeeds in what it sets out to do, particularly in terms of the representation, but it didn’t fully engage me as a romance. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. If this title interests you, I think you should give it a try. 

Author Bio 

Jean Meltzer studied dramatic writing at NYU Tisch and has earned numerous awards for her work in television, including a daytime Emmy. She spent five years in rabbinical school before her chronic illness forced her to withdraw, and her father told her she should write a book―just not a Jewish one because no one reads those. The Matzah Ball is her first novel.

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Review of “A Reckless Match” (Ruthless Rivals #1) by Kate Bateman

Bateman, Kate. A Reckless Match. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1250801562 | $8.99 USD | 336 pages | Regency Romance 

Blurb 

“Kate Bateman’s writing sparkles.” – USA Today bestselling author Laura Lee Guhrke

Meet the Davies and Montgomery families – two households locked in an ancient feud, destined to be on opposing sides forever. Until now…

CAN LIFELONG HATE

Madeline Montgomery grew up despising––and secretly loving––the roguish Gryffud “Gryff” Davies. Their families have been bitter rivals for hundreds of years, but even if her feelings once crossed the line between love and hate, she’s certain Gryff never felt the same. Now, she’s too busy saving her family from ruin to think about Gryff and the other “devilish” Davies siblings. Since he’s off being scandalous in London, it’s not like she’ll ever see him again…

TURN TO TRUE LOVE

As the new Earl of Powys, Gryff Davies planned on spending his post-war life enjoying the pleasures of London. But when an illegal duel forces him to retreat to his family’s Welsh castle, he realizes the only exciting thing in the dull countryside will be seeing the fiery Maddie Montgomery. Thoughts of his nemesis sustained Gryff throughout the war; but the girl he loved to tease has grown into a gorgeous, headstrong woman – who loathes him just as much as she ever did. Will secret tunnels, dangerous smugglers, and meddling from their feuding families be enough to make Maddie and Gryff realize that their animosity is really attraction…and maybe even love?

A Reckless Match is the first in a new regency romance series by Kate Bateman about two feuding families, and reunited childhood enemies whose hatred turns to love.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

A Reckless Match is the first  in a new series by Kate Bateman, and a marked improvement from my perspective on the previous one, which didn’t really work for me. This one starts off with just the right amount of bonkers and ridiculous, with the premise of the series being a centuries-long family feud that has aspects that are more legend and conjecture (was it over a pig, or a woman, or…?) than cold, hard reality. And I really liked that the current Montgomerys and Davieses seem to relish in it more as a good-natured competition for the sake of motivation than a real blood feud, as explored both through the fond reminiscences of the Montgomery father upon the passing of the previous Davies patriarch and in the fun love-hate dynamic between Maddie and Gryff themselves. 

One thing that definitely helped with Maddie and Gryff was the obvious self-awareness that there’s some sort of attraction there from both parties, although it does take just the right circumstances for them to act on it. I feel like, at times, this isn’t conveyed as well, so it just seems like two people who can’t stand each other seem to just randomly like kissing or having sex, so it’s nice to have something different. I really enjoyed the banter between them as they fully confronted their feelings about one another. And while their doubts towards the end, where some of their old feelings cropped up again, did make me a bit antsy, but not for long, and there is little in the way of angst for them, especially as they do spend the bulk of the book in confronting external dangers. 

I really liked this one, and the supporting cast of family members  is also a delight, leaving me wondering what’s next, especially with the way things ended with this one. If you love historical romance, you’ll definitely enjoy this one. 

Author Bio 

Kate Bateman, (also writing as K. C. Bateman), is the #1 bestselling author of Regency, Victorian, and Renaissance historical romance. Her Renaissance romp, The Devil To Pay, is a Romance Writer’s of America 2019 RITA® Finalist and her Regency-set A Counterfeit Heart (Secrtes & Spies series) won the 2018 Book Buyer’s Best contest for Best Historical Romance.

Kate wrote her first historical romance in response to a $1 bet with her husband who rashly claimed she’d ‘never finish the thing.’ She gleefully proved him wrong. Her books feature her favorite intelligent heroines, (badasses in bodices!) wickedly inappropriate banter, and heroes you want to both strangle and kiss.

When not traveling to exotic locations ‘for research’, Kate leads a not-so-secret double life as a fine art appraiser and on-screen antiques expert for several TV shows in the UK, each of which has up to 2.5 million viewers. Before writing romance, Kate was director and valuer at her own UK Auction House, Batemans in Stamford, Lincolnshire. She currently splits her time between Illinois and her native England and writes despite three inexhaustible children and that husband… who still owes her that dollar.

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Review of “The Royals Next Door” by Karina Halle

Halle, Karina. The Royals Next Door. New York: Jove, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0593334195 | $16.00 USD | 368 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

One of PopSugar’s Top Summer Reads of 2021!

An ordinary summer goes royally awry when a prince and princess move next door, bringing their handsome bodyguard with them, from New York Times bestselling author Karina Halle.

Piper Evans: elementary school teacher by day–avid romance reader and anonymous podcaster by night. She has a quiet, reclusive life, taking care of her mother, who lives with mental illness, avoiding her regrettable ex, who bartends in town, and trying to make inroads in the tight-knit island community that still sees her, five years in, as an outsider.
And she’s happy with how things are–really–until British royals rent the property next to hers and their brooding bodyguard decides she’s a security threat. Piper quickly realizes that one person’s fairy tale is an ordinary woman’s nightmare as a media frenzy takes over the island and each run-in with Harrison Cole is hotter and more confusing than the last. But beneath Harrison’s no-nonsense exterior lies a soft heart, one that could tempt a woman who’s sworn off attachments into believing in white knights.

But when Piper finds herself smack in the middle of a royal scandal that rocks the island she’ll need more than Harrison’s strong arms to shield her–she’ll have to do a little rescuing herself. With careers, hearts, and friendships on the line, Piper and Harrison will have to decide what they’re willing to give up for a chance at their own happily ever after.SEE LESS

Review

4 stars 

The Royals Next Door first caught my attention due to the fun looking cover, then the premise (inspired in part by Harry and Meghan!), but I didn’t have a ton of expectations beyond that. I ended up really enjoying this lighthearted spin on a few different popular tropes, from royalty, to bodyguard and more, that also has a depth and nuance in its handling of mental health. 

One of the things I grabbed onto right away was Piper being a romance podcaster. While this book isn’t super-meta in terms of romance genre references, I liked that her character highlighted why many, from authors to bloggers to readers, keep their romance reading fairly quiet outside the romance community, in order to avoid judgment and misconceptions, something that does come to a head when she’s outed by someone in her community who seeks to blacken her reputation and question her capability to be a teacher for young children. 

I also really liked the way mental illness in the family was addressed, with both Piper and her mother navigating these issues together. And having been through a similar situation as Piper has been through with her mother, I was touched by the compassionate depiction of mental illness and the way loved ones are impacted. 

The romance is super cute. Piper and Harrison don’t have the most auspicious start, but things grow over time in a sweet, slow-burn kind of way. And I love how multifaceted Harrison is too. Like, on the surface, he’s this tall, tough guy with tattoos and big  muscles, but he’s actually the sweetest: he loves to bake, and he’s down to do things like grocery shopping and laundry. 

As for the “Royals” part, I really liked it. It’s a sly commentary on the Meghan-and-Harry situation, from them living in the US after having left the family, to some facets of the rift with the rest of the Royal Family that will be recognizable to anyone who’s followed their story…yet still obviously fictionalized to avoid legal issues. 

I enjoyed this book a lot, and I’m excited to hear that Karina Halle is writing more Royal romance, if the excerpt at the end is any indication. If you love Royals, bodyguards, slow burn, enemies to lovers, or any combination of the above, you’ll enjoy this book. 

Author Bio 

Karina Halle is a screenwriter, former music & travel journalist, and the New York TimesWall Street Journal, and USA Today Bestselling author of over sixty novels all across the romance genre. She lives with her musician husband and their adopted pit bull on an island off the coast of British Columbia, where the trees are tall, the ocean is wild, and the ideas for her future books never stop flowing.

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Review of “Earl’s Choice” (Regency Royals #2) by Jess Michaels

Michaels, Jess. Earl’s Choice. Dallas: The Passionate Pen, LLC, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1947770621 | $4.99 USD | 202 pages | Regency Romance 

Blurb 

Thomas, the Earl of Bramwell, has one duty: to repair his family’s fallen fortunes by marrying Princess Ilaria of Athawick. It’s not something he looks forward to, but he is resigned to it and it seems the princess is equally unenthusiastic. Everything changes when he meets her body double, Sasha Killick. His life is immediately turned upside down by the beautiful woman who catches his attention far more than any princess.

Sasha is an adopted daughter of the royal family, but she’s always felt on the outside looking in on her family. Because of how similar they look, she does what is required to help protect the princess, which is how she finds herself out on a terrace with Thomas. Now her head is spinning. This is the man intended for a woman she considers her sister. She cannot betray someone she loves, even if Thomas does make her heart flutter.

An immediate attraction begins to build to a love that can never be. But when Sasha’s life is endangered by people seeking to harm Ilaria, Thomas must decide if he’s willing to lose the woman who has altered his existence in every way that matters.

In the series 

#1 To Protect a Princess

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Earl’s Choice is a “companion” novel to the prior book, To Protect a Princess, in the sense that both take place at the same time following the same events from different perspectives. As such, it does work as a stand-alone, but the character relationships are compelling enough that it’s worth it to read both. 

And indeed it is Sasha and Thomas as characters who carry this book, Sasha in particular. I really liked Sasha and her unique place in the royal family, sometimes raised as one of them, but not really one of them, a fact the deceased late king made clear when he was alive. I really liked Sasha’s relationship with Ilaria, and how they care for each other, something that was a facet of the first book, but seeing it from Sasha’s POV was much more impactful. 

I really liked Thomas as well, because of the way he valued Sasha from the beginning. She was meant to serve as a double for the woman he was supposed to marry, but instead he saw her and only her. He too has some baggage from his upbringing, and, like her, is resigned to doing the right thing, even if it means sacrificing his own happiness, which created decently compelling stakes for them as a couple. 

The conflict did feel a bit repetitive from the prior book, given each couple is in a similar situation, what with the political marriage being necessary, so to fall for someone else is obviously forbidden. However, I think Thomas and Sasha being a bit more duty-focused, while making the story a bit monotonous in their thoughts at times, did allow differentiating in character from those of the first. 

On the whole, I did enjoy this one more than the first book. I feel more familiar with the political structures of Athawick going into this second book, and felt that it being a second book allowed for a bit less of the over-explaining that dragged down my experience of book one. If you love Regency and/or Royal romance, I definitely recommend trying this one! 

Author Bio 

USA Today Bestselling author Jess Michaels likes geeky stuff, Vanilla Coke Zero, anything coconut, cheese, fluffy cats, smooth cats, any cats, many dogs and people who care about the welfare of their fellow humans. She is lucky enough to be married to her favorite person in the world and live in the heart of Dallas.

When she’s not obsessively checking her steps on Fitbit or trying out new flavors of Greek yogurt, she writes erotic historical romances with smoking hot heroes and sassy heroines who do anything but wait to get what they want. She has written for numerous publishers and is now fully indie and loving every moment of it (well, almost every moment).

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Review of “First Love, Take Two” (The Trouble With Hating You #2) by Sajni Patel

Patel, Sajni. First Love, Take Two. New York: Forever, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1538733363 | $15.99 USD | 336 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

On the verge of realizing her dream of being a doctor, Preeti Patel should be ecstatic. But between the stress of her residency, trying to find a job, and managing her traditional, no-boundaries family, Preeti’s anxiety is through the roof. Relationships and love aren’t even an option. Fortunately, Preeti’s finally found a new place to stay . . . only to discover that her new roommate is her ex.

Preeti never quite got over Daniel Thompson. Super-hot, plenty of swagger, amazing cook—the guy is practically perfect. And if it weren’t for their families, there might have been a happily ever after. But it’s hard to keep her sanity and libido in check when the man of her dreams is sleeping mere feet away. Can Preeti and Daniel find a way to stand up and fight for each other one last time . . . before they lose their second chance?

In the series 

#1 The Trouble with Hating You 

Review 

5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

First Love, Take Two is a deeply moving second chance romance. Highlighting numerous issues, like racism, mental health, and familial relationships, it does so with care and sensitivity, while also presenting a sense of lightness in the characters’  banter and interactions in the midst of these tough issues. 

I love Preeti and completely empathize with her. Her struggles with anxiety spoke to me personally, even if I don’t have the exact same experiences with those particular stressors. But the impact of her residency, navigating the job market, her family’s judgments, an arranged marriage-in-the-making with someone she can barely tolerate…it was all so well conveyed. 

I also loved her relationship with Daniel, especially given the history there and how her family played a role in influencing the breakup last time, what with the intense in-community racism and colorism. I love the way Preeti reckons with that the second time around, standing up for their love and supporting him, just as he supports her when she pursues help for her anxiety and depression. 

While I did feel at times that the book could have used some of Daniel’s POV to flesh out the relationship, I also feel like Patel made the right call in writing the book solely from Preeti’s POV, especially when it came to addressing racial issues. She can speak from her experience as a desi woman, and I think it’s great that she wanted to tackle the issue of an interracial relationship. But experiences like Daniel’s would mean a lot more and be more personal coming from a Black author. 

I loved this book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes diverse contemporary romance. 

Author Bio 

Sajni Patel was born in vibrant India and raised in the heart of Texas, surrounded by a lot of delicious food and plenty of diversity. She draws on her personal experiences, cultural expectations, and Southern flair to create worlds that center on strong Indian women. Once an MMA fighter, she’s now all about puppies and rainbows and tortured love stories. She currently lives in Austin where she not-so-secretly watches Matthew McConaughey from afar during UT football games. Queso is her weakness and thanks to her family’s cooking, Indian/Tex-Mex cuisine is a real thing. She’s a die-hard Marvel Comics fan, a lover of chocolates from around the world, and is always wrapped up in a story.

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Review of “Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zhao, Xiran Jay. Iron Widow. New York: Penguin Teen, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0735269934 | $17.99 USD | 400 pages | YA Science Fiction 

Blurb 

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Review 

5 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Wu Zetian is one of the most intriguing historical heroines I’ve come across over the years, and so I was intrigued by the high-concept, ambitious premise of Iron Widow, which reimagines her story and broader Chinese history in general in a completely different sci-fi world. And while this mix definitely seemed like an odd one, especially with the author, Xiran Jay Zhao,  having to clarify the misconceptions for themself in multiple places while promoting the book, it works. 

The book is simultaneously a love letter to Chinese culture and history, with its tributes to multiple historical figures, locations, and traditions, and a story that unpacks the eternal nature of the issue of sexism and tearing down the patriarchy. She subtly critiques both the harem system of imperial China and its legacy there,  as well as the ways in which patriarchy still lingers even in the more “liberated” societies, like the debate about reproductive rights that has been in the US news consistently within the last several years. The way that is conveyed through the pilot system, with women being given up as concubine-pilots, and it typically means that while they’re able to help, their male partners use up all the girls’ life forces through the psychic link, which results in their deaths. 

I loved Zetian for turning the tables on the situation as revenge for what happened to her sister. I admired her for channeling her rage against this system that was against her and triumphing, in a matter that is similar in a spiritual sense, if not in deed, to her historical namesake. 

And the polyamorous rep is awesome! I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I ultimately really liked it. I really liked that Zetian, Shimin (called the Iron Demon and has a dark past of his own), and the super sweet Yizhi all care about each other, without there being any jealousy. While the romance isn’t central to the story, it’s a nice component, given the more intense elements of the rest of the book. 

This book is freaking awesome and epic, and absolutely recommend this to anyone who loves sci-fi or Chinese history. 

Author Bio

Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-gen immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet​. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.

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9Review of “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #1) by Holly Jackson

Jackson, Holly. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.

ISBN-13: 978-1984896391 | $10.99 USD | 400 pages | YA Mystery/Thriller 

Blurb 

THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT! 

An addictive must-read mystery with shades of Serial and Making a Murderer about an investigation turned obsession, full of twists and turns and with an ending you’ll never expect.

Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

Pretty and popular high school senior Andie Bell was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. It was all anyone could talk about. And five years later, Pip sees how the tragedy still haunts her town.

But she can’t shake the feeling that there was more to what happened that day. She knew Sal when she was a child, and he was always so kind to her. How could he possibly have been a killer?

Now a senior herself, Pip decides to reexamine the closed case for her final project, at first just to cast doubt on the original investigation. But soon she discovers a trail of dark secrets that might actually prove Sal innocent . . . and the line between past and present begins to blur. Someone in Fairview doesn’t want Pip digging around for answers, and now her own life might be in danger.

Review 

4.5 stars 

I don’t remember how I heard about A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, but I thought it would be a great read as we head into spooky/Halloween season, and I was proved to be correct. It’s twisty and kept me on the edge of my seat, demanding I finish it immediately. 

I really liked the structure of the book, with a combination of the main story and copies of all of Pippa notes. It really helped with the immersion into the narrative, keeping me engaged and guessing. 

The plot revealed a lot of messed up stuff, from rape and drugs to an inappropriate relationship between an adult and a teenager, and almost no one involved came out looking good, even the victim. With each plot twist, I had as many questions as Pip did, and I enjoyed going along for the ride with her. 

Pippa makes for an interesting character to follow, because she’s one of the few truly good people in the story, the one who sets out to find answers due to her connections to those affected. I admired her determination, even as things grew dire, and took a somewhat tragic (and admittedly somewhat enraging turn). I also really liked the bond she formed with Ravi due to them both wanting to clear his brother’s name. I wasn’t sure about them at first, but I ended up really liking them together as a couple. 

I will say I question the logic of transplanting a clearly UK-set book to the US, and doing so quite clumsily. Changing  British to American English for the sake of clarity to the audience, I’d get to an extent. But to change the setting, and to do it so clumsily? Why is publishing so US-centric?! And yet, they keep the character names British…like, I can’t think of a single American called Pippa, or the formal name it’s associated with, Philippa. Not to mention the behavior…I wasn’t that bothered by it, but I can tell from glancing at reviews that some others were. 

Apart from those minor worldbuilding/grounding nitpicks, I really enjoyed this, and am incredibly excited for the next one. If you love mysteries, I definitely recommend giving this one a try! 

Author Bio 

Holly Jackson started writing stories at a young age, completing her first (poor) attempt at a novel when she was fifteen. She graduated from the University of Nottingham, where she studied literary linguistics and creative writing, with a master’s degree in English. She enjoys playing video games and watching true-crime documentaries so she can pretend to be a detective. She lives in London. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is her debut novel.

Follow Holly on Twitter and Instagram at @HoJay92.

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Review of “Peter Cabot Gets Lost” (The Cabots #2) by Cat Sebastian

Sebastian, Cat. Peter Cabot Gets Lost. [United States]: Cat Sebastian, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1393337249 | $5.99 USD | 217 pages | Historical Romance 

Blurb 

Summer 1960:

After years of scraping by, Caleb Murphy has graduated from college and is finally getting to start a new life. Except he suddenly has no way to get from Boston to Los Angeles. Then, to add to his misery, there’s perfect, privileged Peter Cabot offering to drive him. Caleb can’t refuse, even though the idea of spending a week in the car with a man whose luggage probably costs more than everything Caleb owns makes him want to scream.

Peter Cabot would do pretty much anything to skip out on his father’s presidential campaign, including driving across the country with a classmate who can’t stand him. After all, he’s had plenty of practice with people not liking him much—his own family, for example. The farther Peter gets from his family’s expectations, the more he starts to think about what he really wants, and the more certain he becomes that what he wants is more time with prickly, grumpy Caleb Murphy.

As they put more miles between themselves and their pasts, they both start to imagine a future where they can have things they never thought possible.

In the series 

#1 Tommy Cabot Was Here 

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the author and am voluntarily posting a review. 

Peter Cabot Gets Lost is, by Cat Sebastian’s own admission,  a story that “involves no plot except people leaving their home.” (“Acknowledgments”) And given the time in which this story was written is a memory we all share in not being able to go out, travel, and have human connections, I found it to be a nice, light balm for the soul, a sweet, low-stress read to cleanse the palate between longer, more intense ones. 

At its heart, this is a very character- and relationship-centric story between people who could not be more different, yet who each grow over the course of their journey and find they might be perfect for each other, balancing each other out in their flaws and vulnerabilities. Caleb definitely seems to have the short end of the stick at first, but his messy life is beginning to come together. Meanwhile, Peter comes from a privileged, perfect existence, but beneath that we see someone who is frightened about the future. The two of them are adorable together, and watching them fall in love at this specific point in time was like a warm hug I didn’t know I needed. 

This book is a delight; fluff, but not lacking in substance. Cat Sebastian fans (especially those who liked her previous foray into this time period with her prior story about Peter’s uncle Tommy) will adore this. And it’s also a great short read for fans of queer romance to start in their Cat Sebastian journey if they have not read her before. 

Author Bio

Cat writes steamy, upbeat historical romances. They usually take place in the Regency, generally have at least one LGBTQ+ main character, and always have happy endings.

Before writing, Cat was a lawyer and a teacher. She enjoys crossword puzzles, geeking out over birds, gardening badly, and–of course–reading. In high school, her parents went away for a week, and instead of throwing raucous parties, Cat read Middlemarch. Even worse, Cat remembers little of a trip through Europe because she was busy reading Mansfield Park. Her proudest moment was when she realized her kids were shaping up to be hopeless bookworms too. Currently, her favorite genres are romance, mystery and fantasy.

Cat lives with her husband, three kids, and dog in an improbably small house. After growing up in the northeast, she now lives in a part of the south where every body of water seems to contain alligators or sharks, and every restaurant serves biscuits and gravy. She likes the biscuits, but not so much the alligators.

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Review of “A Delicous Dilemma” by Sera Taino

Taíno, Sera. A Delicious Dilemma. Toronto: Ontario: Harlequin, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1335408068 | $5.99 USD | 283 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

It’s hard to remain enemies when you’ve broken bread together

Val Navarro’s first mistake: going out dancing after a bad breakup when the chef should be focused on her family business. Her second mistake? Thinking the handsome, sensitive stranger she meets could be more than a rebound – until she discovers he’s Philip Wagner of Wagner Developments. His father’s company could shut down her Puerto Rican restaurant and unravel her tight-knit neighborhood. When Philip takes over negotiations, Val wants to believe he has good intentions. But is following her heart a recipe for disaster?

From Harlequin Special Edition: Believe in love. Overcome obstacles. Find happiness.

Review 

4 stars 

I was so excited when I heard about Harlequin’s Romance Includes You Mentorship, and while I considered entering at the time, I was content to sit back and observe this time around to see how it panned out. My excitement increased again when Sera Taíno, who I know from a few romance FB groups and on Twitter, was the winner, especially as I was familiar with her work in short-form from a couple short stories I had read from her. And the result, A Delicious Dilemma, is very much…well…delicious. It’s a sweet, yet spicy offering chock-full of Puerto Rican culture (especially the food!), and is infused with the importance of family and friends, all while also conveying a compelling romance at its heart. 

I really liked Val, and both related to and was in awe of her. I liked how she took her role as the oldest sibling in the family seriously by looking out for everyone. I also really liked her special relationship with her dad. 

Philip is a great hero, and I like the way he’s crafted to have stumbled a bit in having deceived Val about who he is, but done so with good intentions. I rooted for him as he came into his own and bonded with Val, eventually coming to grow enough spine to stand up to his father in defense of Val’s community. 

I really enjoyed this one, and am excited for what’s next! If you love culturally rich, food oriented romances, you’ll enjoy this one! 

Author Bio 

Sera Taíno writes romances exploring love in the context of community and family with an emphasis on inclusiveness. She is the inaugural recipient of the 2019-2020 Harlequin Romance Includes You Mentorship. Her debut contemporary romance, A Delicious Dilemma, published with Harlequin Special Edition, is now available.

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Review of “The Devil and the Heiress” (The Gilded Age Heiresses #2) by Harper St. George

St. George, Harper. The Devil and the Heiress. New York: Jove, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0593197226 | $7.99 USD | 292 pages | Victorian/Gilded Age Romance 

Blurb

A BuzzFeed Best Book of June!

Sparks fly when a runaway heiress bargains with a devilish rogue to escape a marriage of convenience.


No one would guess that beneath Violet Crenshaw’s ladylike demeanor lies the heart of a rebel. American heiresses looking to secure English lords must be on their best behavior, but Violet has other plans. She intends to flee London and the marriage her parents have arranged to become a published author–if only the wickedly handsome earl who inspired her most outrageously sinful character didn’t insist on coming with her.

Christian Halston, Earl of Leigh, has a scheme of his own: escort the surprisingly spirited dollar princess north and use every delicious moment in close quarters to convince Violet to marry him. Christian needs an heiress to rebuild his Scottish estate but the more time he spends with Violet, the more he realizes what he really needs is her–by his side, near his heart, in his bed.

Though Christian’s burning glances offer unholy temptation, Violet has no intention of surrendering herself or her newfound freedom in a permanent deal with the devil. It’s going to take more than pretty words to prove this fortune hunter’s love is true….SEE LESS

In the series 

#1 The Heiress Gets a Duke

Review 

5 stars 

The Devil and the Heiress is even more delightful than the previous book. While I enjoyed the first one and would recommend it, I found myself in awe of this one. It manages to take a trope I’m very iffy on, a hero who initially uses the heroine as a pawn for his own gain, and win me over. 

And it helps that the characters were both so damn likable and sympathetic, even with their flaws. Christian has self-awareness about when he’s done wrong, and I appreciate how that factors into his growth throughout, while also giving him enough to work on towards the end for the big, splashy, act-of-atonement as he comes to realize how to make it up to Violet in a way she will see as genuine. And for Violet’s part, I love her spirit and refusal to be part of anyone’s moneymaking or social climbing scheme: not Christian’s, her parents’, and nor any other suitors’. She has feelings for Christian, but when things come out and she feels conflicted, she sets boundaries and makes him work to win her back…and he does so in an incredibly satisfying way. While I knew it was going to turn out all right, I found myself going through a roller coaster of emotions, anxious to know how it would all turn out. 

I also really liked how this one set up the next one, just as the previous one did for this one. It’s once again fairly subtle in the introduction and brief interaction of the characters, but I’m already excited for more of the series to see where Max and Helena end up! 

This book is pure perfection, and if you love historical romance with rakish heroes and feisty heroines, you won’t want to miss this one! 

Author Bio 

Harper St. George was raised in the rural backwoods of Alabama and along the tranquil coast of northwest Florida. It was a setting filled with stories of the old days that instilled in her a love of history, romance, and adventure. By high school, she had discovered the historical romance novel, which combined all of those elements into one perfect package. She has been hooked ever since. She lives in the Atlanta area with her family and loves to hear from readers.

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Review of “The Passing Playbook” by Isaac Fitzsimons

Fitzsimons, Isaac. The Passing Playbook. New York: Dial Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1984815408 | $17.99 USD | 300 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

Blurb 

Love, Simon meets Bend It Like Beckham in this feel-good contemporary romance about a trans athlete who must decide between fighting for his right to play and staying stealth.

“A sharply observant and vividly drawn debut. I loved every minute I spent in this story, and I’ve never rooted harder for a jock in my life.” – New York Times bestselling author Becky Albertalli

Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother, and a David Beckham in training. He’s also transgender. After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of isolation and bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio.

At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boys’ soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans—he’s passing.

But when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even though it would mean coming out to everyone—including the guy he’s falling for.SEE LESS

Review 

4.5 stars 

The Passing Playbook is another amazing LGBTQ+ release to come out this year. Simultaneously sweet and lighthearted, yet also deep with a lot to say about the  trans and queer experience, especially with a world that is largely against them for myriad reasons. 

Spencer’s story really resonated with me, and I loved reading about someone who’s come to the realization he’s trans, but chooses to pass in order to assimilate in his new school. The idea of being closeted is rarely treated with much depth or compassion in queer fiction today, never mind that even with all the progress made, there are still reasons people might not be ready to come out and shouldn’t have to unless they’re ready. I appreciated the way Spencer’s story treaded that line. And he‘a just generally a really easy character to relate to, even if I’m not going through the exact same things, especially when he describes sentiments about his introverted and anxious nature, especially in contrast with his more extroverted parents. 

I appreciate that Spencer was more or less surrounded by supportive people. His parents try their best, and support him in his choices. I did have minor nitpicks with the way his younger brother was portrayed, as Theo is autistic, and while not an offensive portrayal, it did feel a bit stereotypical. 

I really liked how Spencer’s relationship with Justice reinforced the nuanced conversation about being closeted, with Spencer at least out to some people, while Justice is not out, period, due to his Christian parents. I could understand where both were coming from on their respective journeys, and love that they were able to come together, in spite of them being at different places and being from radically different backgrounds. 

I love the great conversations this book taps into around issues impacting the LGBTQ+, from gender-neutral bathrooms to the obvious one of trans athletes in sports, and the advocacy for those issues. But more importantly, this is a fabulous book celebrating queer joy, triumph, and first love. If that appeals to you, you should absolutely pick it up. 

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Review of “Illusionary” (Hollow Crown #2) by Zoraida Cordova

Córdova, Zoraida. Illusionary. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0759556034 | $18.99 USD | 345 pages | YA Fantasy 

Blurb 

Reeling from betrayal at the hands of the Whispers, Renata Convida is a girl on the run. With few options and fewer allies, she’s reluctantly joined forces with none other than Prince Castian, her most infuriating and intriguing enemy. They’re united by lofty goals: find the fabled Knife of Memory, kill the ruthless King Fernando, and bring peace to the nation. Together, Ren and Castian have a chance to save everything, if only they can set aside their complex and intense feelings for each other.

With the king’s forces on their heels at every turn, their quest across Puerto Leones and beyond leaves little room for mistakes. But the greatest danger is within Ren. The Gray, her fortress of stolen memories, has begun to crumble, threatening her grip on reality. She’ll have to control her magics–and her mind–to unlock her power and protect the Moria people once and for all.

For years, she was wielded as weapon. Now it’s her time to fight back.

In the series 

#1 Incendiary 

Review 

4 stars 

Illusionary concludes Zoraida Córdova’s Hollow Crown duology, and it does so in epic fashion. Picking up right where the prior book left off, it builds perfectly on the first one, with character growth and culmination of plot threads. 

I love Renata’s character arc through this one, where she is continuing on her path of discovery and finding herself. I also liked her evolving relationship with Castian, going from being enemies to something more, even if he wasn’t even that present on the page, not to mention starting off in a bit of a villainous role in the prior book. 

I also loved the greater insight into Moria’s politics, history, and landscape. With the shift away from the castle to a “road” setting, it served as the perfect way to expand, while still all remaining grounded, and then all coming full circle at the end. 

This is a satisfying conclusion to the duology, although I would not be opposed to some other stand-alone or prequel  work in this world. If you enjoyed the first, you will enjoy this one as well. 

Author Bio 

Zoraida Córdova is the acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels and short stories, including the Brooklyn Brujas series, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate, and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina. In addition to writing novels, she serves on the Board of We Need Diverse Books, and is the co-editor of the bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old, as well as the cohost of the writing podcast, Deadline City. She writes romance novels as Zoey Castile. Zoraida was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and calls New York City home. When she’s not working, she’s roaming the world in search of magical stories. For more information, visit her at zoraidacordova.com.

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Review of “Love & Other Natural Disasters” by Misa Sugiura

Sugiura, Misa. Love & Other Natural Disasters. New York: HarperTeen, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0062991232 | $17.99 USD | 340 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

Review 

4 stars 

I had never read anything from Misa Sugiura before, but my interest was piqued when I saw the cover and description of Love and Other Natural Disasters. And while I don’t always love fake dating and love triangles (never mind squares) aren’t always my thing, I really liked the direction this story went in, subverting these tropes and really using them to explore the characters and help them develop. 

I really liked Nozomi, and how she started off the book thinking she wanted one thing (and being in a relationship with one person), only for her perspective to change as the story progressed. This is one of those books that I feel really understands the purpose of what a love triangle (square) is meant for, with reader investment in a specific love interest changing as Nozomi’s does, instead of being weighted toward one, with another coming in as a flighty distraction. 

And I really liked the way that when things blew up for them, the messiness was handled well with each of them having to work out their complex feelings in the wake of the situation, especially as they were all in different places at first. 

I also liked how them all being BIPOC (one is Black, the other three, including Nozomi, are Asian) presented an opportunity to discuss issues of the intersection between race and queerness. I really liked seeing how the intersection was already present in Nozomi’s family, with another family member having come out previously, and Nozomi feeling hesitant to come out to her. 

This book is a lot of fun, with messy sapphics and a sweet story about love and acceptance. If you love YA contemporaries, especially with fake dating, I think you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio 

Misa Sugiura’s ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. Her first novel It’s Not Like It’s A Secret, won the Asian Pacific Islander American Librarians’ Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature; her highly acclaimed second novel, This Time Will Be Different, made the Best of 2019 lists of YALSA, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library. Her short story, “Where I’m From” appears in Come On In, a young adult anthology of stories about immigration. Her latest book, Love & Other Natural Disasters has been praised by the American Library Association as “hilariously awkward” and “honestly poignant.” You can find her online at misasugiura.com and @misallaneous1 on Twitter and Instagram.

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Review of “The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels” (Dangerous Damsels #1) by India Holton

Holton, India. The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels. New York: Jove, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0593200162 | $16.00 USD | 324 pages | Historical/Fantasy Romance 

Blurb 

“The kind of book for which the word “rollicking” was invented.”—New York Times Book Review

An Indie Bestseller
One of Bustle’s Best New Books Out June 2021
Popsugar Best Summer Read of 2021

A prim and proper lady thief must save her aunt from a crazed pirate and his dangerously charming henchman in this fantastical historical romance.


Cecilia Bassingwaite is the ideal Victorian lady. She’s also a thief. Like the other members of the Wisteria Society crime sorority, she flies around England drinking tea, blackmailing friends, and acquiring treasure by interesting means. Sure, she has a dark and traumatic past and an overbearing aunt, but all things considered, it’s a pleasant existence. Until the men show up.

Ned Lightbourne is a sometimes assassin who is smitten with Cecilia from the moment they meet. Unfortunately, that happens to be while he’s under direct orders to kill her. His employer, Captain Morvath, who possesses a gothic abbey bristling with cannons and an unbridled hate for the world, intends to rid England of all its presumptuous women, starting with the Wisteria Society. Ned has plans of his own. But both men have made one grave mistake. Never underestimate a woman.

When Morvath imperils the Wisteria Society, Cecilia is forced to team up with her handsome would-be assassin to save the women who raised her–hopefully proving, once and for all, that she’s as much of a scoundrel as the rest of them.SEE LESS

Review 

4 stars

The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels is one of those books you’ll either love or hate. It’s zany, the logic is a bit out-there, and it’s an unapologetic mix of historical and paranormal/fantastical without much rhyme or reason to it. 

Needless to say, it’s funny, and it might be one of the few trade paperback “romcoms” that is actually deserving of the name. I was in stitches from the first page, a list of the cast, with everyone from the titular Lady Scoundrels, pirates, other misfits, and even ghosts. And as the story ensued and all the banter and antics played out, I remained continuously engaged, smiling and laughing all the while. 

The characters did leave something to be desired, as while you get to know them superficially, I never felt bonded with them emotionally like I would like to in a romance, thanks to the omniscient narration keeping a sense of distance from them, in an attempt to do a pastiche of 19th century literature. I did like them in principle though. I love an adoring hero, even if he is a bit of a rogue, and the fact that Ned falls for Cecilia almost immediately, and is demonstrative about it, is absolutely a win. I also liked Cecilia, and felt she made a wonderful counterpart for Ned. 

And even if I couldn’t get 100% emotionally invested, reading about the Society and their adventures is a lot of fun, and I’m totally down to read more of them if they’re all in a similar vein. And while I did note that this might not work for everyone, it’s entirely dependent on your sense of humor and your historical romance preferences. If you don’t mind something delightfully ridiculous that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is a blend of historical romance with fantasy without a ton of grounding or logic, you’ll absolutely enjoy this. 

Author Bio 

India Holton lives in a small seaside village in New Zealand, where she writes historical fantasy romcoms about plucky girls, unconventional women, and the men who love them. India’s writing is fuelled by tea, buttered scones, and thunderstorms.

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Review of “Rise to the Sun” by Leah Johnson

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. New York: Scholastic Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1338662238 | $17.99 USD | 322 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

Three Days. Two Girls. One life-changing music festival.

Olivia is an expert at falling in love . . . and at being dumped. But after the fallout from her last breakup has left her an outcast at school and at home, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf. A crush-free weekend at Farmland Music and Arts Festival with her best friend is just what she needs to get her mind off the senior year that awaits her.

Toni is one week away from starting college, and it’s the last place she wants to be. Unsure about who she wants to become and still reeling in the wake of the loss of her musician-turned-roadie father, she’s heading back to the music festival that changed his life in hopes that following in his footsteps will help her find her own way forward.

When the two arrive at Farmland, the last thing they expect is to realize that they’ll need to join forces in order to get what they’re searching for out of the weekend. And as they work together, the festival becomes so much more complicated than they bargained for. Olivia and Toni will find that they need each other, and music, more than they ever could have imagined.

Packed with irresistible romance and irrepressible heart, bestselling author Leah Johnson delivers a stunning and cinematic story about grief, love, and the remarkable power of music to heal and connect us all.

Review 

4 stars 

Rise to the Sun is another cute sapphic Black  romance from Leah Johnson, this one following two Black girls during a music and art festival over the course of three days. With this book, Johnson proves she’s very much here to stay in YA contemporary fiction. 

I loved the general vibe of the book, with the setting incredibly well conveyed, textually capturing what the atmosphere of the music festival feels like. And with the pandemic having made it all but impossible to engage with live music festivals and concerts, I love that Johnson decided to pay tribute to them. 

I liked both of the leads, and I love the way Johnson gave them layers and emotional complexity while still maintaining a light touch. I identified with Olivia and how she tries to please others, to the point of contorting herself to be what she thinks they want, and she’s also dealing with having intimate photos of her with an ex leaked. Toni’s grief for her father is also well conveyed, especially in how it connects to the festival. Their romance is cute, and I love the way they complement each other. 

This is a delightful book, perfect reading for anyone missing music events or in-person connection over the past year. And it’s just generally a solid YA  contemporary that fans of the genre will love. 

Author Bio 

Leah Johnson is an eternal midwesterner and author of award-winning books for children and young adults. Her bestselling debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, was a Stonewall Honor Book, the inaugural Reese’s Book Club YA pick, and named a best book of the year by Amazon, Kirkus, Marie Claire, Publishers Weekly, and New York Public Library. Leah’s essays and cultural criticism can be found in Teen Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan among others. Her sophomore novel, Rise to the Sun released from Scholastic in 2021.

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Review of “The Trouble With Love” by Toni Shiloh

Shiloh, Tomi. The Trouble with Love. [Place of publication not identified]: Toni Shiloh, 2021.

ISBN-13: 979-8645615116 | $4.99 USD | 228 pages | Contemporary Romance/Chick Lit/Christian Fiction 

Blurb 

I, Holiday Brown, have it all. A platinum record. Multi-million dollar home in Manhattan that I share with my two best friends. Life is looking fantastic until my roommate’s brother decides to bunk in our guestroom while his house gets renovated.

W. Emmett Bell has always been the bane of my existence. He’s annoying, stubborn, a know it all, and just might be the most gorgeous man I’ve ever laid eyes on. But I refuse to fall for him. But when his sister’s threatened by a stalker, dynamics change. His unwavering faith isn’t quite as self-righteous as I’d always thought, and maybe he has a good side I’ve overlooked all these years.

Or maybe it’s all too much trouble.

The Trouble With Love is the first book in the Christian Chick Lit series: Faith & Fortune.

Review 

4 stars 

I received a complimentary copy from the author and am voluntarily  posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I had never read one of Toni Shiloh’s books before, but I had heard about her in passing as one of the more well-known Black Christian fiction authors. She also generously offered a copy of any of her books upon my joining her review team (which I did in the wake of her Bethany House publishing news and cover reveal), and my interest was struck by this one, The Trouble with Love. 

And I ended up really enjoying it. I don’t read a ton of romance about celebrities, but I’m not against it, especially if written well, and in this case, it definitely was. I loved the balance between introducing the characters and the glamorous world they work and live in and presenting them as real, grounded people who an ordinary person can relate to. 

Holiday is incredibly well-drawn, and she feels authentic as a twenty something figuring it all out, from her faith to her career moves  to her love life. 

I really liked the sweetness and banter between her and Emmett. I loved their nicknames for one another, especially with his for her being based around holidays in the calendar year. 

I also really liked getting a sense of the bonds between the friends as an anchor for the series, and hope it remains consistent going forward. There’s one friend (also Emmett’s sister)  dealing with a stalker, so even with the fairly lighthearted tone, there’s an ominous threat lingering in the background, coming into play somewhat with the events of the crisis point here, but with more questions left to be answered in her book. 

 Shiloh does a great job of conveying a story that mixes sweet romance with more serious issues without the latter overbearing the tone of the former. And with a cast of mostly Black characters, standing out against a genre that is largely lily-white, this is a great alternative for anyone interested in the Christian fiction genre but wanted something a bit different from the norm. And for secular romance and chick lit readers, while the faith elements are present, they aren’t overbearing, so I can see how this would appeal to anyone looking for a sweet romance. 

Author Bio 

Toni Shiloh is a wife, mom, and Christian fiction writer. Once she understood the powerful saving grace of the love of Christ, she was moved to honor her Savior.

She writes soulfully romantic novels to bring Him glory and to learn more about His goodness.

Before pursuing her dream as a writer, Toni served in the United States Air Force. It was there she met her husband. After countless moves, they ended up in Virginia, where they are raising their two boys.

When she’s not typing in imagination land, Toni enjoys reading, playing video games, ​making jewelry, and spending time with ​her family.

Toni is a member of the American Christian ​Fiction Writers (ACFW) and of the Virginia ​Chapter.

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Review of “A Midnight Dance” by Joanna Davidson Politano

Politano, Joanna Davidson’s A Midnight Dance. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-0800736903 | $16.99 USD | 384 pages | Victorian Romance/Christian Fiction 

Blurb

All theater romances are tragedies. Ella Blythe knows this. Still, she cannot help but hope her own story may turn out different than most–and certainly different than the tragic story of the Ghost of Craven Street Theater. Yet as she struggles to maintain her tenuous place in the ever-shrinking ballet company, win the attentions of principal dancer Philippe, and avoid company flirt Jack, Ella cannot deny the uncanny feeling that her life is mirroring that of the dead ballerina.

Is she dancing ever closer to the edge of her own tragic end? Or will the secrets that are about to come to light offer release from the past?

Mystery and romance make the perfect dance partners in this evocative story from fan-favorite Joanna Davidson Politano.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

A Midnight Dance is another intriguing romance with a dash of suspense, which is in keeping with Joanna Davidson Politano’s style. And the fact that it follows a Victorian ballerina and the landscape of the early-Victorian theatre was an additional draw for me. I knew a bit about how the performing arts had changed since this time, but it was fascinating to see what it was like for ballet specifically, especially with Ella being based on Marie Taglioni, whose style of dancing “en pointe” helped shift the landscape of dance at the time to the female leads instead of the previous emphasis on male dancers. 

I really liked Ella, and how she negotiates her love of dance with her faith. I could relate to her as she tried to find her place within the dance company, especially given the stakes at the time for female dancers. 

I love the way Politano writes her romances that give some mystery as to who her heroine ends up with, without it verging into a full-on, overdramatic love triangle. I loved the way it was executed here as well, and it was ultimately sweet and satisfying. 

The mystery element is compelling, especially with Ella seeing parallels to her own life, especially given she has her own secrets. 

This is another great book from Joanna Davidson Politano, and is perfect for anyone looking for a sweet romance with a side of mystery. 

Author Bio 

Joanna Davidson Politano freelances for a small nonfiction publisher but spends much of her time spinning tales that capture the colorful, exquisite details in ordinary lives. Her manuscript for Lady Jayne Disappears was a finalist for several contests, including the 2016 Genesis Award from ACFW, and won the OCW Cascade Award and the Maggie Award for Excellence. She is always on the hunt for random acts of kindness, people willing to share their deepest secrets with a stranger, and hidden stashes of sweets. She lives with her husband and their two babies in a house in the woods near Lake Michigan and shares stories that move her at www.jdpstories.com.

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Review of “If the Shoe Fits” (Meant to Be #1) by Julie Murphy

Murphy, Julie. If the Shoe Fits. Los Angeles: Hyperion Avenue, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1368053372 | $15.99 USD | 292 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

From #1 New York Times best-selling author Julie Murphy comes the first in a brand-new adult series inspired by the classic fairy tale stories we all know and love, perfect for adult readers who crave contemporary, escapist rom-coms.


After having just graduated with a degree in shoe design, and trying to get her feet on the ground, Cindy is working for her stepmother, who happens to be the executive producer of America’s favorite reality show, Before Midnight. When a spot on the show needs filling ASAP, Cindy volunteers, hoping it might help jump-start her fashion career, or at least give her something to do while her peers land jobs in the world of high fashion.

Turns out being the only plus size woman on a reality dating competition makes a splash, and soon Cindy becomes a body positivity icon for women everywhere. What she doesn’t expect? That she may just find inspiration — and love — in the process. Ultimately, Cindy learns that if the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Review 

4 stars 

If the Shoe Fits is both the first adult book from Dumplin’ author Julie Murphy and the inaugural book of Disney‘s new adult imprint, Hyperion Avenue. And given it’s Disney and a modern retelling of Cinderella, you probably know what to expect going in. But as a result, it’s a lovely treat for the romantic at heart who longs for those Disney vibes, with a bit of a twist. 

I loved Cindy. As a fat person myself, I love seeing more heroines like her who may face some fatphobic judgment from the world, but don’t let it get them down; instead they find ways to make it work for them. The fact that she loves shoes and wants to be a designer is both clever and touching. 

I also loved the way the girl-hate was toned down massively for this one. The stepsisters are absolutely precious, and I love that the sisters all support each other, even when all are thrust into the dating competition. Cindy’s relationship with her stepmother is a bit more complex, but there is love there. And even most of the other girls on the show are pretty cool and she becomes friendly with a few of them. There is one mean girl, but it’s definitely a staple of these types of shows to have at least one girl there to cause drama. 

The romance is cute. It is a bit predictable, but in a good, comfort-food kind of way. Henry isn’t that interested in his mother’s expectations for him or the media attention, and he likes Cindy for who she is, and she reciprocates. The modern twists also provide new dynamics to their relationship, so while you know they’ll make it, it’s still a surprise as to how they get there. 

And because it is licensed by Disney, I love the sly little nods Murphy got to include. From the fact that Cindy has triplet half-siblings named Gus, Jack, and Mary (who absolutely stole the show in the few scenes they were in…especially Gus!) to the sweet tribute to that late Disney Legend Ilene Woods (original voice of Cinderella in the 1950 film) by name Cindy’s mother after her, it’s full of references that left me smiling. One of the stepsisters, Anna, even has a romance of her own that plays a small role in the plot , alluding to the sequels, where Anastasia falls in love with a baker.

This book is super sweet, and perfect for everyone who loves Cinderella. It captures the spirit of the original, but through a modern, more diverse lens. 

Author Bio 

Julie Murphy lives in North Texas with her husband who loves her, her dog who adores her, and her cats who tolerate her. After several wonderful years in the library world, Julie now writes full-time.

When she’s not writing or reliving her reference desk glory days, she can be found watching made-for-TV movies, hunting for the perfect slice of cheese pizza, and planning her next great travel adventure.

She is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novels Dumplin (now a film on Netflix), Puddin, Ramona Blue, and Side Effects May Vary. Dear Sweet Pea is her debut middle grade novel.

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Review of “Certain Dark Things” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Certain Dark Things. 2016. New York: Tor Nightfire, 2021. 

ISBN-13: 978-1250785589 | $17.99 USD | 272 pages | Fantasy/Horror

Blurb 

From Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic, comes Certain Dark Things, a pulse-pounding neo-noir that reimagines vampire lore.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Review

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.

Certain Dark Things is a revamped (haha!) novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, published back in 2016, but suffered from setbacks in the market back then, leading it to go out of print. And now, with the trend for vampires and horror coming back around, it’s only appropriate that this hidden gem gets to come back from the dead, now that Moreno-Garcia is a more established author. 

One of the things I adored was the way it adds new facets to vampire lore. I knew a bit about vampire mythos on which Moreno-Garcia builds her narrative, but I love the incorporation of the various different species of vampires, with their different origins and characteristics. And the diversity of the vampires allows for the motifs conveyed to be more issue based, as most of Moreno-Garcia’s stories end up having some elements of racism and colonialism, and other social issues embedded in them. The setting is also vividly captured, so even though it is set in an alternate version of Mexico where vampires exist, it feels believable and grounded, as well as immersive. 

I liked the sense of intrigue and danger, with the various different threats, from a rival vampire clan to a cop who winds up investigating the trail of bodies the vampires leave in their wake. 

I had a bit more of a mixed experience with the characters. I did become invested in Atl and how she was determined to evade capture, but ended up being thrown together with Domingo, and finding herself growing attached to him over time. And he in turn ends up bonding with her, and becoming her “Renfield,” or human companion. I was admittedly a  bit less invested in the other perspectives, but I can see how each of them complement the greater narrative purpose. 

I love this take on vampire fiction, and I’m glad it’s getting a second life. If you love vampires, but have also been looking for a fresh, diverse take on the mythos, you should absolutely check this out. 

Author Bio 

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of several novels, including Velvet Was the Night, Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow and Untamed Shore. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters). Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination.

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Review of “The Charm Offensive” by Alison Cochrun

Cochrun, Alison. The Charm Offensive. New York: Atria Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1982170714 | $17.00 USD | 368 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

A MOST ANTICIPATEDROM-COM SELECTED BY * BUZZFEED * LGBTQ READS BUSTLE * THE NERD DAILY * ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT * FROLIC MEDIA * AND MORE!

The Charm Offensive will sweep you off your feet.” —PopSugar

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Charm Offensive is a cute deconstruction of the incredibly straight world of reality TV dating shows, a la The Bachelor franchise. I love how it explores the ins and outs of that realm in a tongue-in-cheek way, from the questions of who’s genuinely in it to find love vs. doing it for fame/money to the way the film crew is essentially projecting an image with editing choices made to the footage. 

The leads are both incredible. I loved that both Charlie and Dev deal with mental health issues that are addressed on-page and depicted compassionately. I appreciate the way it straddles that line between showing that both are deserving of love despite the way their past experiences may have impacted them, while also showing that it’s not the ultimate fix for their issues. 

I also love the supporting cast, especially in how queer it was, which I didn’t expect going in based on the premise. There’s one supporting character who ends up as the lead for the new, more queer-friendly version of Ever After, and I’d love a follow up to see how that plays out! 

This book is delightful, a perfect balance of lighthearted and emotionally moving. Fans of The Bachelor and/or  LGBTQ+ romance will adore this book! 

Author Bio 

Alison Cochrun is a high school English teacher living outside Portland, Oregon. When she’s not reading and writing queer love stories, you can find her torturing teenagers with Shakespeare, crafting perfect travel itineraries, hate-watching reality dating shows, and searching for the best happy hour nachos. You can find her on Instagram or at her website www.alisoncochrun.com.

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Review of “She Who Became the Sun” (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan

Parker-Chan, Shelley. She Who Became the Sun. New York: Tor, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1250621801 | $27.99 USD | 411 pages | Historical Fantasy 

Blurb 

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.

To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything

“I refuse to be nothing…”

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Review 

5 stars 

She Who Became the Sun is one of my most anticipated 2021 fantasy releases. Pitched quite daringly as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles,” it definitely lives up to that hype, although I’ve also seen another comparison being made to The Poppy War, and that is definitely a great in-genre comp title for some of the elements of war and, antiheroes, and the grasp for power. 

One of the things I loved was the way Zhu’s identity was handled. The setup is that, due to the prophecy saying that the son Zhu Chongba will rise to greatness, while the second daughter will be nothing, that is how young Zhu is treated…she isn’t even given a real name in-text in the beginning. But when they are orphaned by a bandit attack, the actual Chongba succumbs to despair and dies, proving he’s the useless one, while Zhu takes up his identity and becomes a monk, then joins the ranks of the rebel army against the Mongols, this proving the potential that had been prophesied…in a completely unexpected way. 

 I loved the complexities with how her gender identity was handled, as most “girl dressed as a boy” books neglect to explore things like gender dysphoria. However, in Parker-Chan’s hands, the topic is well-conveyed. I love the way Zhu conveys her identity to Ma, who she has begun to bond with over the course of the story. 

I also like that while we’re getting the rebel side from Zhu’s POV, we also get insights into the Mongol side of things from the eunuch general, Ouyang. He’s out on a personal vendetta of his own, and I appreciate how the story highlights how Zhu and Ouyang are massively complex people who’ve done bad things, yet still fleshing them out so you root for them. Like Zhu, he’s also in a queer relationship, in his case with Esen, one which he has an immense amount of anguish over, due to internalized homophobia and how he’s meant to hate Esen. I was so deeply moved by those tortured scenes and I just wanted them to have a break…but there’s no doubt that the writing was effective in that regard. 

I loved this book and can’t wait for the next one! If you’re looking for a dark, brutal Chinese historical fantasy with complex morally gray, but still sympathetic leads, you’ll definitely enjoy this! 

Author Bio 

Shelley Parker-Chan is an Australian by way of Malaysia and New Zealand. A 2017 Tiptree Fellow, she is the author of the historical fantasy novel She Who Became the Sun. Parker-Chan spent nearly a decade working as a diplomat and international development adviser in Southeast Asia, where she became addicted to epic East Asian historical TV dramas. After a failed search to find English-language book versions of these stories, she decided to write her own. Parker-Chan currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she is very grateful to never have to travel by leaky boat ever again.

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Double Review: “A Spot of Trouble” (Turtle Beach #1) by Teri Wilson & “Witch Please” (Fix-It Witches #1) by Ann Aguirre

I received ARCs of both A Spot of Trouble and Witch Please from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Sourcebooks Casablanca is doing a combined preorder campaign for two of their September 7 releases, the contemporary dog-oriented romcom, A Spot of Trouble by Teri Wilson and the witchy paranormal romcom, Witch Please by Ann Aguirre. As such, since I had review copies of both, I felt it made sense to do a combined review. If you preorder or buy in the first week, you receive a signed bookplate for your corresponding book(s) and a limited edition print (Witch Please) and/or a limited edition dog sticker (A Spot of Trouble). Check out this form for more info.

Wilson, Teri. A Spot of Trouble. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1728214795 | $14.95 USD | 256 pages | Contemporary Romance

Blurb 

Adorable dogs, hilarious hijinks, and true love are in store in this brand-new romantic comedy from USA Today bestselling author Teri Wilson!

Violet March and Sam Nash are as different as night and day and have been enemies ever since Violet accused Sam of dognapping her beloved Dalmatian. Sam knows that’s impossible—for one thing, Cinder is a well-trained fire safety demonstration dog who never steps out of line for serious firefighter Sam. Sprinkles, on the other hand, has never met a command that she didn’t ignore completely, much like her bubbly owner. Against a backdrop of canine hijinks and a summertime softball league, the two Dalmatian owners constantly butt heads, but by the time the 4th of July Fireman’s Ball rolls around, they begin to realize that sometimes love isn’t so clear-cut, and a little puppy love might be just the thing they’ve been missing…

Review 

2 stars 

This book just wasn’t it for me…appreciate that it’s lighthearted and quirky, especially given how muddled the definition of “rom-com” has become. However, the book did not deliver on what seemed like a cute premise. 

Let’s start with the heroine, Violet. I’m patient with heroines for the most part, but she seemed very childlike in her behavior, not to mention the way others around her infantilize her. I’m not the most competent person around and even I have my immature moments, but even I found this characterization a bit much. 

Sam is…all right? He’s generally more sensible, so to call this a “grumpy/sunshine” pairing misunderstands dynamic, and I’m not even a fan of that half the time. But the way he eventually began to find Violet endearing, as if it was an issue of him loosening up and not her having to grow up…

I did like the dogs though, and the loose inspiration it takes from 101 Dalmatians. I loved Sam’s relationship with his dog, Cinder. And while the puppy swapping plot is a bit out there, I didn’t mind it as much as some of the other elements. 

This book didn’t work for me, but that’s not to say it won’t work for someone else. If you like silly, out there romcoms with overly quirky characters, you might enjoy this more than I did.

Author Bio 

USA Today Bestselling Author Teri Wilson writes heartwarming contemporary romance with a touch of whimsy. Three of Teri’s books have been adapted into Hallmark Channel Original Movies by Crown Media, including UNLEASHING MR. DARCY (plus its sequel MARRYING MR. DARCY), THE ART OF US and NORTHERN LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS, based on her book SLEIGH BELL SWEETHEARTS. She is also a recipient of the prestigious RITA Award® for excellence in romantic fiction for her novel THE BACHELOR’S BABY SURPRISE.

Teri has a major weakness for cute animals, pretty dresses and Audrey Hepburn films, and she loves following the British royal family.

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Aguirre, Ann. Witch Please. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1728240169 | $15.99 USD | 352 pages | Paranormal Romance 

Blurb 

Danica Waterhouse is a fully modern witch—daughter, granddaughter, cousin, and co-owner of the Fix-It Witches, a magical tech repair shop. After a messy breakup that included way too much family “feedback,” Danica made a pact with her cousin: they’ll keep their hearts protected and have fun, without involving any of the overly opinionated Waterhouse matriarchs. Danica is more than a little exhausted navigating a long-standing family feud where Gram thinks the only good mundane is a dead one and Danica’s mother weaves floral crowns for anyone who crosses her path.

Three blocks down from the Fix-It Witches, Titus Winnaker, owner of Sugar Daddy’s bakery, has family trouble of his own. After a tragic loss, all he’s got left is his sister, the bakery, and a lifetime of terrible luck in love. Sure, business is sweet, but he can’t seem to shake the romantic curse that’s left him past thirty and still a virgin. He’s decided he’s doomed to be forever alone.

Until he meets Danica Waterhouse. The sparks are instant, their attraction irresistible. For him, she’s the one. To her, he’s a firebomb thrown in the middle of a family war. Can a modern witch find love with an old-fashioned mundane who refuses to settle for anything less than forever?

Review 

2.5 stars 

This one was slightly better? But still not for me. I like the premise, even if it’s not typically what I look for in my fantastical-leaning reads, but I liked the idea of a witchy romantic comedy about a witch who could fix appliances and a cinnamon roll baker. 

And in some aspects, it’s not bad. Danica is pretty cool, and I did like seeing what she could do. And while Titus came on really strong with his affections, I didn’t mind him as the story went on, as he is rather cute and awkward. And I liked the way Danica called him her “Cinna-man!”

The book club bit was fun, and I really wish there had been more of that. I loved the shoutout for one of my favorite fantasy books, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri…you gotta love when authors give each other shoutouts via book! 

But I definitely felt like the magic and the world building wasn’t really grounded, and there’s some issues with believability. There was some sense of other witch families and the way magic works through bloodline. I did appreciate the sense of stakes where this particular family lose their magic if they marry a mundane (non-magic) partner, but given the romance was cute but not “I’d die for you” levels, I just wasn’t super invested. And then, there’s this thing where they’re not supposed to tell their non-magic partner about magic, and it’s just like, you’re lying about something major to someone you love? 

Sadly, this one didn’t work for me either, but I can see why, if you like paranormal romance and are looking for something on the more lighthearted side, that you’d enjoy this.

Author Bio 

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Ann Aguirre has been a clown, a clerk, a savior of stray kittens, and a voice actress, not necessarily in that order. She grew up in a yellow house across from a cornfield, but now she lives in Mexico with her family. She writes all kinds of genre fiction, but she has an eternal soft spot for a happily ever after.

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***

I am a bit bummed neither was a hit for me, but both are charming in their own way, so if either strikes your fancy, I’d encourage you to pick up whichever you like; and take advantage of the preorder campaign! 

Review of “Gearbreakers” by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Mikuta, Zoe Hana. Gearbreakers. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2021. 

ISBN-13: 978-1250269508 | $18.99 USD | 405 pages | YA Sci-Fi Romance 

Blurb 

Two girls on opposite sides of a war discover they’re fighting for a common purpose—and falling for each other—in Zoe Hana Mikuta’s high-octane debut Gearbreakers, perfect for fans of Pacific Rim, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga, and Marie Lu’s Legend series.

We went past praying to deities and started to build them instead...

The shadow of Godolia’s tyrannical rule is spreading, aided by their giant mechanized weapons known as Windups. War and oppression are everyday constants for the people of the Badlands, who live under the thumb of their cruel Godolia overlords.

Eris Shindanai is a Gearbreaker, a brash young rebel who specializes in taking down Windups from the inside. When one of her missions goes awry and she finds herself in a Godolia prison, Eris meets Sona Steelcrest, a cybernetically enhanced Windup pilot. At first Eris sees Sona as her mortal enemy, but Sona has a secret: She has intentionally infiltrated the Windup program to destroy Godolia from within.

As the clock ticks down to their deadliest mission yet, a direct attack to end Godolia’s reign once and for all, Eris and Sona grow closer—as comrades, friends, and perhaps something more…

Praise for Gearbreakers:

“An absolute joyride … Zoe Hana Mikuta is a talent to be in awe of.” —Chloe Gong, New York Times-bestselling author of These Violent Delights

“Dark, fierce, thrilling, and tender, Gearbreakers will make your blood sing.” —Nina Varela, author of Crier’s War

Review 

4.5 stars 

Gearbreakers is an impressive debut from Zoe Hana Mikuta. And I feel like whether you like it or not is highly dependent on your expectations. While it’s not lacking in interesting plot/world elements, it’s more character and romance heavy, to the point where Mikuta describes this as a “rom-com with robots.” 

With that said, I really liked the central relationship between Sona and Eris. I love how each is strong and feral in their own way, presenting a great enemies-to-lovers setup, with them growing from distrust to falling in love. There’s fun banter and tenderness, both of which are juxtaposed against the high-stakes moments. 

There’s also some lovely supporting characters, like Jenny, who is awesome, and generally just great found-family vibes, always welcome in a queer story, and helpful to provide contrast to some of the more toxic biological family members. 

Meanwhile, the plot is much more slow moving, but it’s well paced with the romance to provide challenges for them along the way. 

The world is interesting, with a dystopian/cyberpunk feel. Mikuta’s writing is incredibly atmospheric, engrossing me in the tyrannical Godolia and its mechas. 

This book is an absolute delight, and I can’t wait for the sequel next year! If you’re looking for a romance-heavy sapphic sci-fi, I think you’ll love this! 

Author Bio 

Zoe Hana Mikuta currently attends the University of Washington in Seattle, studying English with a creative writing focus. She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where she developed a deep love of Muay Thai kickboxing and nurtured a slow and steady infatuation for fictional worlds. When she is not writing, Zoe can be found embroidering runes onto her jean pockets, studying tarot or herbology, or curled up with a cup of caramel coffee and a good, bloody but heartwarming book. Gearbreakers is her debut novel.

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Review of “Never Saw You Coming” by Erin Hahn

Hahn, Erin. Never Saw You Coming. New York: Wednesday Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1250761248 | $18.99 USD | 320 pages | YA Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

“BOLD. IMPORTANT. BEAUTIFUL.” – Laura Taylor Namey, New York Times bestselling author of A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow

In Erin Hahn’s Never Saw You Coming, sometimes it takes a leap of faith to find yourself.

Eighteen-year-old Meg Hennessey just found out her entire childhood was a lie. So instead of taking a gap year before college to find herself, she ends up traveling north to meet what’s left of the family she never knew existed – all while questioning the ideals she grew up with.

While there, she meets Micah Allen, a former pastor’s kid whose dad ended up in prison, leaving Micah with his own complicated relationship with faith. The clock is ticking on his probation hearing and Micah, now 19, feels the pressure to forgive – even when he can’t possibly forget.

As Meg and Micah grow closer, they are confronted with the heavy flutterings of first love and all the complications it brings. Together, they must navigate the sometimes-painful process of cutting ties with childhood beliefs as they build toward something truer and straight from the heart.

“Heartfelt and utterly genuine… I already want to reread it.” – Erin A. Craig, New York Times bestselling author of Small Favors

Review 

4.5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I didn’t really look into what Never Saw You Coming was about…I just saw the cute cover and the name Erin Hahn, and I’d recently read one of her short stories and liked what I read, so figured, “why not?” Given the issue with branding expectations, I appreciate that Hahn provided context both in a content warning in the intro to the book and on Goodreads to help prepare me for the serious topics the book would grapple with along with the cute romance (as well as further going into her own experiences in the author’s note at the end). It helped me to be prepared. 

I feel like this book is very much needed in its criticism of evangelical Christianity, with its “purity” culture and hypocrisy. I appreciate how Hahn digs into the way so-called “Christians” direct shame toward women for the way they dress and for sexual behavior, and to LGBTQ+ people for simply existing, while (mostly cishet male) authorities within the church are the ones with the skeletons in their closets. And while not immediately relevant to the text itself, I was moved by Hahn’s description of her experience querying Christian agents and publishers, who would tell her that she was “not a good fit,” because her characters weren’t “pious enough,” with further remarks about how Christian fiction publishers  submission guidelines can be a “great” way to make you feel bad about yourself. And while I have a complicated love for some Christian fiction, I couldn’t help but see the truth in that; I mean, look at what won the RWA Vivian Religious and Spiritual Elements category. 

I wasn’t sure how to feel about Meg or Micah at first, but as I got deeper into the book, I got the sense it was somewhat by design, due to the intense things both are dealing with. I really liked seeing how their shared membership of the church brought them together, but their feelings as the story went on led to them challenging the church and religious doctrine through their alternate perspectives influencing each other. It was great seeing them evolve from their prior beliefs, including that regarding premarital sex, and that religious faith can be so much more complex than extreme modesty to the point of objectification and restricting one’s normal  human desires.

This book is really beautiful and unexpected, and I love that the focus is on how the man-made institutions of religion are the problem, and not on religious/spiritual belief in itself, although I can certainly see some less spiritually inclined readers not appreciating this book for that reason. However, this is definitely a book I’d recommend to everyone, due to the continued relevance of the topic and the beautiful way Hahn conveys her message. 

Author Bio 

ERIN HAHN is the author of You’d Be Mine, More Than Maybe, and Never Saw You Coming. She married her very own YA love interest, who she met on her first day of college, and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a.k.a. the greenest place on earth, and has a cat named Gus who plays fetch and a dog named June who doesn’t.

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Review of “The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina” by Zoraida Cordova

Córdova, Zoraida. The Inheritance of Orqídea Divina. New York: Atria Books, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1982102548 | $27.00 USD | 336 pages | Magical Realism/Fantasy

Blurb 

Perfect for fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, and Sarah Addison Allen, this is a gorgeously written novel about a family searching for the truth hidden in their past and the power they’ve inherited, from the author of the acclaimed and “giddily exciting” (The New York Times Book Review) Brooklyn Brujas series.

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low or empty, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—even for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed, leaving them with more questions than answers.

Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly’s daughter, Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, the four descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked back.

Alternating between Orquídea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an enchanting novel about what we knowingly and unknowingly inherit from our ancestors, the ties that bind, and reclaiming your power.

Review 

3  stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a beautifully written adult debut from Zoraida Córdova, and objectively, I have no complaints. It’s atmospheric and hypnotic, sweeping the reader  into the Ecuadorian riverside setting. 

But this is very much a slow-burn, and it really takes time to get invested. I really enjoyed the overall themes and plot points with the family bonds and digging into the mysteries of Orquídea’s life, but more on a broad, basic level, especially with the story frequently going back and forth in time. I found reading about Orquídea’s past a bit more interesting than the present, as the latter involved parsing out the multiple family members who I wasn’t attached to, while I found myself more easily invested in a younger Orquídea. The final part of the book leaning more in favor of her memories definitely helped me feel more engaged by that point. 

I also felt like it was a bit dense to the point of some of it going over my head style wise…but that could just as easily be a feature, not a bug, for the book, as “true” magical realism isn’t something I pick up often. 

I’ve read a few of Zoraida Córdova’s YA books, so I’m glad to see her branching out into new styles and subgenres for an older audience, even if it doesn’t entirely work for me. But fans of magical realism will definitely enjoy this a lot more! 

Author Bio 

Zoraida Córdova is the author of many fantasy novels for kids and teens, including the award-winning Brooklyn Brujas series, Incendiary, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, Star Wars The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark, Come on In: 15 Stories About Immigration and Finding Home, and Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. She is the co-editor of the bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old. Her debut middle grade novel is The Way to Rio Luna. She is the co-host of the podcast Deadline City with Dhonielle Clayton. Zoraida was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. When she isn’t working on her next novel, she’s planning a new adventure.

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Review of “Love for Beginners” Wildstone #7) by Jill Shalvis

Shalvis, Jill. Love for Beginners. New York: William Morrow, 2021. 

ISBN-13: 978-0063025431 | $16.99 USD | 357 pages | Women’s Fiction 

Blurb

When Emma Harris wakes up from a coma she learns that her fiancé and her BFF have fallen in love, she’s lost her job, and the life she knew is gone. Overwhelmed but grateful to be alive she decides to start over from scratch. Not as easy as it sounds, of course. But she’s never been a quitter, even if she wishes she could quit rehab, where her hot but evil physical therapist, Simon, puts her through the wringer.

Desperate for a new start, Emma opens a doggy day care. Unfortunately, the only space she can afford is owned by her childhood nemesis Ali Pratt. But hey, she’s been through worse, right? She tries to roll with the punches, but a friend drops his grandpa off at the doggy day care because he can’t find senior care. On top of that, she and Ali bring  the term ‘frenemies’ to a whole new level. And then another grandparent shows up. And another.

In the midst of all that, Emma realizes she’s accidentally fallen for Evil PT. But the most horrifying thing of all is that Ali just might have turned into the best friend she’s ever had. And as Emma grows from the pain of her past and takes on her new path, she comes to realize that life isn’t what you’re given, it’s what you make of it.

In the series 

#1 Lost and Found Sisters 

#1.5 The Good Luck Sister

#2 Rainy Day Friends 

#3 The Lemon Sisters

#4 Almost Just Friends 

#5 The Summer Deal 

#6 The Forever Girl 

#6.5 Mistletoe in Paradise

Review 

4 stars 

Love for Beginners is the latest in Jill Shalvis’ Wildstone series of loosely connected standalone small-town women’s fiction. It’s another heartwarming and sweet read, with personal growth, friendship, and romance all playing roles in the story. 

I really liked and rooted for Emma as she tried to figure out what she wanted out of life after getting a second chance at it after waking up from a coma. I really liked how the uncertainty of her situation was conveyed, from the simple passage of time with her unawares, to not having a place to stay since her then-fiancé and best friend ended up getting together. The fact that she instinctively feels pulled to start a doggy day care definitely scored points with me. 

And while she lost a friend, I liked seeing the way her new circumstances led to her reevaluating her relationship with her childhood enemy, Ali. She too is in-between, having pushed her ex away and is regretting it. I really liked how it explored her side of things, to explore the vulnerabilities behind the mask, while also seeing the two women bond as they figure their lives out in multiple ways. 

Emma also develops a romance with her physical therapist and  Ali’s cousin, Simon, who is a bit of a hard-ass, but ends up being effective in motivating Emma. While there are some questionable lines with the crossing of professional and personal, I felt the transition from medical professional/patient(?) to romantic partners was handled with sensitivity. 

I enjoyed this installment a lot, and found it to be a nice comfort read. If you love small town contemporaries, you’ll enjoy this one. 

Author Bio 

ltiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jill Shalvis lives in a small town in the Sierras full of quirky characters. Any resemblance to the quirky characters in her books is … mostly coincidental. Look for Jill’s bestselling, award-winning heartwarming and full of humor novels wherever books are sold and visit her website for a complete book list and daily blog detailing her city-girl-living-in-the-mountains adventures.

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Review of “Among Thieves” by M.J. Kuhn

Kuhn, M.J. Among Thieves. New York: Saga Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1982142148 | $26.99 USD | 352 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb 

A thrilling fantasy debut—a high-stakes heist novel set in a gritty world of magic and malice, and perfect for fans of Six of Crows!

In just over a year’s time, Ryia Cautella has already earned herself a reputation as the quickest, deadliest blade in the dockside city of Carrowwick—not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

For the past six years, a deadly secret has kept her in hiding, running from town to town, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster—the sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms of Thamorr. No matter how far or fast she travels, his servants never fail to track her down…but even the most powerful men can be defeated.

Ryia’s path now leads directly into the heart of the Guildmaster’s stronghold, and against every instinct she has, it’s not a path she can walk alone. Forced to team up with a crew of assorted miscreants, smugglers, and thieves, Ryia must plan her next moves very carefully. If she succeeds, her freedom is won once and for all…but unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are nearly as selfish as she is, and they all have plans of their own.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Among Thieves is the first book from MJ Kuhn, and it’s a solid debut. It’s billed as a heist-fantasy with morally gray characters, and it definitely delivers. 

The story follows a band of thieves, and all are pretty well drawn. Ryia, a mercenary,  is suggested by the blurb to be the protagonist, and she does have a pretty big role, with her fleeing from the Guildmaster, who has been trying to capture her for years. But the fellow thieves she joins up with play equally important roles as POV characters, and I appreciate how well balanced it was in fleshing them all out, as at first, I was worried that having so many POVs would mean some would be better drawn than others. Each of them have secrets and their own motivations that make each of them interesting to follow. 

The world building does leave something to be desired. There’s names of locations thrown at you, but there isn’t a super strong sense of the time or place to ground you in this setting. There is a vague sense of grittiness to the atmosphere that I appreciated, however. 

The plot is engaging and kept me flipping pages with every twist and turn. While there’s a lot of darkness and intensity, I appreciate that it was balanced by some soft, fluffy moments as well. 

This is a promising first book from an author I’m excited to see more from. If you love fantasy heist books (it has been compared to Six of Crows, which I haven’t read), you might enjoy this one. 

Author Bio 

M. J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered office worker by day. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and a very spoiled cat named Thorin Oakenshield.

Less than a year into her life as a full-time office-worker she began using her nights and lunch breaks to work on her first novel, and she hasn’t looked back since.

When she isn’t reading or writing you can find her playing the piano, weightlifting, or anxiously awaiting the next installment of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

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Review of “The Ghosts We Keep” by Mason Deaver

Deaver, Mason. The Ghosts We Keep. New York: PUSH, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1338593341 | $18.99 USD | 336 pages | YA Contemporary 

Blurb

Perfect for fans of Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli, this book will rip your heart out before showing you how to heal and celebrate life in the process.

When Liam Cooper’s older brother Ethan is killed in a hit-and-run, Liam has to not only learn to face the world without one of the people he loved the most, but also face the fading relationship with his two best friends. 

Feeling more alone and isolated than ever, Liam finds themself sharing time with Marcus, Ethan’s best friend, and through Marcus, Liam finds the one person that seems to know exactly what they’re going through, for the better, and the worse. 

This book is about grief. But it’s also about why we live. Why we have to keep moving on, and why we should.

Review

5 stars 

Having recently loved Mason Deaver’s debut, I Wish You All the Best, I was excited to hear he had a new book, The Ghosts We Keep. And while I knew it dealt with grief in the wake of familial death and the trauma resulting from that, I was still hit with a wave of emotions, even more so when I realized how real life events in Mason Deaver’s life had influenced the fictional ones. 

I really connected with Liam. He completely falls apart after his brother Ethan tragically dies, and the mess of his emotions is so compassionately conveyed. I hated how everyone around him approached the situation with him, and while I understand you can only do so much in a situation, I sympathized whenever Liam lashed out at his parents or friends, to the point of isolating himself. 

I really liked the scenes between Liam and Marcus, and how it helps Liam to get more perspective on his brother and the different facets of Ethan, while also attempting to provide some clarity for Marcus in the wake of his own grief. 

I also love the way queerness was included in the story. Like Deaver themself and the MC of their prior book, Liam is non-binary, using both he and they pronouns. There are also others in the supporting cast who are from other parts of the LGBTQ+ community, with the story touching on issues like misgendering, coming out, and other stuff. 

This is a deeply emotional read, and I love the way it deals with the issues at its center frankly and honestly while also presenting a sense of catharsis, a ray of hope, and a path to healing. While the issues it discusses might make it a sensitive read for some, it is deeply cathartic and relatable and worth the read with the proper preparation of what you’re getting into. 

See Mason Deaver’s website for CWs: https://www.masondeaverwrites.com/content-warnings-tgwk 

Author Bio 

Born and raised in a small North Carolina town, Mason Deaver is an award-nominated, bestselling author and designer living in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Besides writing, they’re an active fan of horror movies and video games. As you can see from the photo above, they’re a big fan of plants as well.

You can find them online at various places,
Instagram – @mason_deaver
And their website – masondeaverwrites.com

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Review of “So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix” by Bethany C. Morrow

Morrow, Bethany C. So Many Beginnings. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1250761217 | $17.99 USD | 291 pages | YA Historical Fiction 

Blurb 

Four young Black sisters come of age during the American Civil War in So Many Beginnings, a warm and powerful YA remix of the classic novel Little Women, by national bestselling author Bethany C. Morrow.

North Carolina, 1863
. As the American Civil War rages on, the Freedpeople’s Colony of Roanoke Island is blossoming, a haven for the recently emancipated. Black people have begun building a community of their own, a refuge from the shadow of the “old life.” It is where the March family has finally been able to safely put down roots with four young daughters:

Meg, a teacher who longs to find love and start a family of her own.

Jo, a writer whose words are too powerful to be contained.

Beth, a talented seamstress searching for a higher purpose.

Amy, a dancer eager to explore life outside her family’s home.

As the four March sisters come into their own as independent young women, they will face first love, health struggles, heartbreak, and new horizons. But they will face it all together.

Praise for So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix

“Morrow’s ability to take the lingering stain of slavery on American history and use it as a catalyst for unbreakable love and resilience is flawless. That she has remixed a canonical text to do so only further illuminates the need to critically question who holds the pen in telling our nation’s story.” —Bookliststarred review

Bethany C. Morrow’s prose is a sharpened blade in a practiced hand, cutting to the core of our nation’s history.A devastatingly precise reimagining and a joyful celebration of sisterhood. A narrative about four young women who unreservedly deserve the world, and a balm for wounds to Black lives and liberty.” —Tracy Deonn, New York Times-bestselling author of Legendborn

“A tender and beautiful retelling that will make you fall in love with the foursome all over again.” —Tiffany D. Jackson, New York Times-bestselling author of White Smoke and Grown

Review 

4 stars 

I received a complimentary copy through BookishFirst and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

So Many Beginnings is part of a series of “Remixed Classics” the publisher, Feiwel and Friends is doing to provide new, culturally diverse lenses to classic stories. And while the starting point for a retelling is typically reverence for the source material, I appreciate Bethany C. Morrow’s frankness about the fact that she didn’t have that personal connection to the story, but took advantage of others’ attachment to it “to trojan horse in a story and history you weren’t checking for otherwise,” even as she faced racist reviews accusing her of “cultural appropriation.”  

Because, aside from some of the basic setup with them being four sisters with the same names, the familial relationships at the heart of the story, and somewhat similar (to varying degrees) personalities, and the fact that it’s set during the Civil War, the story is different and more nuanced, so it’s not just taking the original and racebending the cast, as has become the new trend in Hollywood. She sets her story in the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, something I had not heard of, something she also admits to in her author’s note, attributing it to the culture in the US of protecting the legacies of the people majority-white Americans view as heroes: enslavers and colonizers. 

I really liked seeing the subtle ways in which the characters were adapted. Just like in the original, Jo is my favorite, and perhaps the best written of the four. I liked how she writes nonfiction about the Black experience in America, and enjoyed seeing how her ups and downs with that, including a questionable publishing opportunity, parallel the experiences of the original. I also really liked her relationship with Lorie, and their intense, close friendship. Given the intense conversations around whether the original Jo/Laurie should have ended up together, I appreciated how this was done, still allowing Jo to be her own person and exploring the fact that she doesn’t want anything physical with him, but values his companionship. 

I also really liked the way Beth’s character was written, with her mysterious illness and the questions around that. I loved how layered it is, what with both the general misunderstanding of chronic illness, plus the way white medical professionals mistreat Black patients with these conditions and accuse them of lying, and then there’s the historical lens where the understanding of medicine was more limited to begin with. I appreciate how it does give her a chance for a happier outcome, as she’s given an opportunity to live her life and pursue opportunities, even if they do lead to her parting from her beloved family. 

I had mixed feelings about Meg. I liked the general direction for her at first, as her character has always been the most “traditional,” wanting to marry and have a family. But I was a bit bummed by how this came to pass. She’s interested in someone early on, and it seems they might have a long distance thing, but it doesn’t work out. Then, almost out of nowhere she’s marrying someone else? I did like how some aspects of this relationship paid tribute to the Meg/John relationship of the original, including Jo’s skepticism, but I just wasn’t wild about who she ended up with. 

And the reasoning for that romance fizzling out was setup for him to be Amy’s love interest…does Amy ever get a man of her own, or is every version of her destined for a former flame of one of her sisters? I mean, I get it, the guy is wealthy, so it works out for her, and it leaves the new Jo/Lorie arc unaffected. And I do appreciate that Amy makes her terms for their relationship clear, making him prove he wants her, and not just one of the March sisters, which feels like a direct response to some of the criticisms of the original Amy/Laurie pairing, where it seemed like he only chose her because she was Jo’s sister. 

This is a beautiful book, containing the heart of what is so beloved in the original, the importance of sisterhood and family, while also excavating and interrogating history through the lens of nostalgia. Whether you’ve read Little Women or not, this is definitely a must-read. 

Author Bio 

Bethany C Morrow is an Indie Bestselling author who writes for adult and young adult audiences, in genres ranging from speculative literary to contemporary fantasy to historical. She is author of the novels MEM and A SONG BELOW WATER, which is an Audie, Ignyte and Locus finalist. She is editor/contributor to the young adult anthology TAKE THE MIC, the 2020 ILA Social Justice in Literature award winner. Her work has been chosen as Indies Introduce and Indie Next picks, and featured in The LA Times, Forbes, Bustle, Buzzfeed, and more. She is included on USA TODAY’s list of 100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read.

Literary rep: Victoria MariniIrene Goodman Literary Agency

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Review of “Seven Days in June” by Tia Williams

Williams, Tia. Seven Days in June. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1538719107 | $27.00 USD | 336 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

Seven days to fall in love, fifteen years to forget and seven days to get it all back again . . . From the author of The Perfect Find, this is a witty, romantic, and sexy-as-hell new novel of two writers and their second chance at love.

Brooklynite Eva Mercy is a single mom and bestselling erotica writer, who is feeling pressed from all sides. Shane Hall is a reclusive, enigmatic, award-winning literary author who, to everyone’s surprise, shows up in New York.

When Shane and Eva meet unexpectedly at a literary event, sparks fly, raising not only their past buried traumas, but the eyebrows of New York’s Black literati. What no one knows is that twenty years earlier, teenage Eva and Shane spent one crazy, torrid week madly in love. They may be pretending that everything is fine now, but they can’t deny their chemistry—or the fact that they’ve been secretly writing to each other in their books ever since.

Over the next seven days in the middle of a steamy Brooklyn summer, Eva and Shane reconnect, but Eva’s not sure how she can trust the man who broke her heart, and she needs to get him out of New York so that her life can return to normal. But before Shane disappears again, there are a few questions she needs answered . . .

With its keen observations of Black life and the condition of modern motherhood, as well as the consequences of motherless-ness, Seven Days in June is by turns humorous, warm and deeply sensual.

Review

5 stars 

I heard about Seven Days in June through Twitter, something about readers being excited that Reese’s Book Club had picked a romance, when they usually tend toward more emotional “women’s fiction,” which may feature romantic arcs, but those aren’t always central or ending with an HEA. Upon picking it up, I glommed it within a couple hours, and it might be a contender for one of my favorites of the year. 

I loved the honest depictions of the issues both leads were dealing with. I particularly appreciated the portrayal of Eva’s struggle with migraines, as that is something I deal with as well. I could relate to the hurdles she faced, both in dealing with the illness itself and in the societal lack of understanding of the issue, including the ways the system might fail you medically. 

I also appreciated the way both Shane and Eva’s past traumas were conveyed, and the way Shane’s addiction was portrayed. There are many sensitive issues throughout the story, but Williams handles them all deftly and with care. 

I loved the overall concept, with the idea of an alternate take on Romeo and Juliet where they broke up and reunited years later. I loved the exploration of what went wrong in their past, and rooted for them to find a way to be together in the present. 

The picture is complete with the inclusion of Eva’s preteen daughter, Audre. She’s delightfully precocious, somewhat angsty, and has an old soul, while still being believable. 

I also really enjoyed the discussions about publishing, particularly in how Eva ends up being pigeonholed in terms of genre as a Black woman, such as the demands from publishers that Black stories center their trauma instead of being fun, while white authors are allowed to write “a good story for the sake of a good story.” I loved Eva and the other Black women writers fighting for their right to write “fluff” and dismantle industry misogynoir. 

While the book is intense in its themes, there are some lighthearted moments too. I loved the inclusion of the humor that lightens the mood. While many of the insights into the book industry feel unfortunately relevant, they’re also very tongue-in-cheek, satirizing the very bizarre reality of the publishing world. 

This book is absolute perfection on every single level, and while the sensitive topics will mean it might not be for everyone, it’s definitely worth the read if you go in prepared for what to expect. 

CW: alcoholism, substance abuse, parental death, suicidal thoughts, self-harm

Author Bio

 Tia Williams had a fifteen-year career as a beauty editor for magazines including ElleGlamour, and Essence. In 2004, she pioneered the beauty blog industry with Shake Your Beauty. She wrote the bestselling novel, The Accidental Diva, and penned two YA novels: It Chicks, and Sixteen Candles. Her award-winning novel, The Perfect Find, will be adapted into a Netflix film starring Gabrielle Union. Tia is currently an Editorial Director at Estée Lauder Companies, and lives with her daughter and husband in Brooklyn.

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Review of “Carved in Stone” by Elizabeth Camden

Camden, Elizabeth. Carved in Stone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-076428437 | $15.99 USD | 352 pages | Historical Romance/Christian Fiction 

Blurb 

Her gilded world holds a deeply hidden secret. 

After years of tragedy, Gwen Kellerman now lives a quiet life as a botanist at an idyllic New York college. She largely ignores her status as heiress to the infamous Blackstone dynasty and hopes to keep her family’s heartbreak and scandal behind her.

Patrick O’Neill survived a hardscrabble youth to become a lawyer for the downtrodden Irish immigrants in his community. He’s proud of his work, even though he struggles to afford his ramshackle law office. All that changes when he accepts a case that is sure to emphasize the Blackstones’ legacy of greed and corruption by resurrecting a thirty-year-old mystery.

Little does Patrick suspect that the Blackstones will launch their most sympathetic family member to derail him. Gwen is tasked with getting Patrick to drop the case, but the old mystery takes a shocking twist neither of them saw coming. Now, as they navigate a burgeoning attraction and growing danger, Patrick and Gwen will be forced to decide if the risk to the life they’ve always held dear is worth the reward.

Elizabeth Camden’s writing is full of . . .

“Richly drawn characters and fascinating American history.”– All About Romance

“Fabulous love stor[ies] wrapped around compelling historical events.”–Booklist

“Adventuresome, entertaining romance.”–Foreword Reviews

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

Elizabeth Camden once again draws from history to create a compelling historical romance. This time, her inspiration is JP Morgan and the influence he and men like him had on the economy during the turn of the century in the US. Having read several books, both fictional and nonfiction, set around this time period, I was fascinated and impressed with Camden’s immersive historical detail. 

Her two leads this time around are rather layered, and while I wasn’t sure what to think of them at times, I ultimately found a lot to like about them. Gwen comes from an upper-crust background, but has largely shunned her family’s scandals after they impacted her, choosing a quiet life. She’s compassionate and has a willingness to do what needs to be done, but also, while she is a bit out-of-touch with the reality of what some people go through, she comes to an awareness of her own privilege over the course of the book. Patrick, by contrast, has built himself up into a success from a youth of struggle. I did find his pride regarding her money a bit much at times, but I appreciated the way it was handled, showing both his good intent and the fact that he might be a bit too proud and short-sighted in his own way, with Gwen even remarking on his brand of snobbery at one point. 

The mystery element took a bit to get into, but I felt it was ultimately satisfying. There are some great revelations about Gwen’s missing brother, kidnapped as a child, and a scandal surrounding a libelous  book about the kidnapping that Gwen and the rest of the family are trying to suppress. 

This is a great first installment in a new series, and it’s perfect for fans of sweet historical romance with a generous helping of mystery. 

Author Bio 

Elizabeth Camden is a research librarian at a small college in central Florida. Her novels have won the coveted RITA and Christy Awards. She has published several articles for academic publications and is the author of four nonfiction history books. Her ongoing fascination with history and love of literature have led her to write inspirational fiction. Elizabeth lives with her husband near Orlando, Florida.

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Review of “Fast Pitch” by Nic Stone

Stone, Nic. Fast Pitch. New York: Crown BFYR, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1984893017 | $17.99 USD | 192 pages | MG Contemporary 

Blurb

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone comes a challenging and heartwarming coming-of-age story about a softball player looking to prove herself on and off the field.

Shenice Lockwood, captain of the Fulton Firebirds, is hyper-focused when she steps up to the plate. Nothing can stop her from leading her team to the U12 fast-pitch softball regional championship. But life has thrown some curveballs her way.

Strike one: As the sole team of all-brown faces, Shenice and the Firebirds have to work twice as hard to prove that Black girls belong at bat.

Strike two: Shenice’s focus gets shaken when her great-uncle Jack reveals that a career-ending—and family-name-ruining—crime may have been a setup.

Strike three: Broken focus means mistakes on the field. And Shenice’s teammates are beginning to wonder if she’s captain-qualified.

It’s up to Shenice to discover the truth about her family’s past—and fast—before secrets take the Firebirds out of the game forever.

Review 

4 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I’ve read a few short stories from Nic Stone in the past, but never read a longer work from her. So, even though I have little interest in softball, I jumped at the chance to review Fast Pitch. And even as a non-fan of sports, I still enjoyed it. 

Despite my lack of sports knowledge, I’m still aware of the trend of the girl being the underdog in many sports stories, so to see a heroine like Shenice who excels at softball. I loved the camaraderie between the Shenice and the other Black girls on the team as they face off against the racism and bigotry that comes their way as the first all-Black team. 

There’s also a sense of Shenice following in the footsteps of previous generations of her family who also played the sport, including her father, grandfather, great-uncle, and great-grandfather. I admired her determination to get justice when she found out that her great-grandfather JonJon’s career came to an end after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, somewhat clouding her focus from the here-and-now with her team.

I like how Stone depicts sensitive issues to the Black experience, while also conveying a fairly lighthearted tone with the sense of community in the bonds between the characters. This is a fun book centering Black girlhood, and one I would recommend for both kids and adults. 

Author Bio 

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her adorable little family on most social media platforms.

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Review of “The Riviera House” by Natasha Lester

Lester, Natasha. The Riviera House. New York: Forever, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1538717318 | $15.99 USD | 480 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb 

The New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Secret weaves a lush and engrossing novel of World War II inspired by a true story and perfect for fans of Kate Quinn and Pam Jenoff.

Paris, 1939: The Nazis think Éliane can’t understand German. They’re wrong. They think she’s merely cataloging art in a Louvre museum and unaware they’re stealing national treasures for their private collections. They have no idea she’s carefully decoding their notes and smuggling information to the Resistance. But Éliane is playing a dangerous game. Does she dare trust the man she once loved with her secrets, or will he only betray her once again? She has no way to know for certain . . . until a trip to a stunning home on the French Riviera brings a whole new level of peril.

Present Day: Wanting to forget the tragedy that has left her life in shambles, Remy Lang heads to a home she’s mysteriously inherited on the Riviera. While working on her vintage fashion business, she discovers a catalog of the artworks stolen during World War II and is shocked to see a painting that hung on her childhood bedroom wall. Who is her family, really? And does the Riviera house hold more secrets than Remy is ready to face?

Natasha Lester brilliantly explores the impossible choices ordinary people faced every day during extraordinary circumstances, weaving fact with fiction and celebrating women who push the boundaries of their time.

Review 

3.5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I’ve never read anything from Natasha Lester before, but I’ve heard good things about her work, so I decided to take a chance on The Riviera House. The Nazis’ art theft is a topic I had heard a bit about, but hadn’t looked into very much, so I was excited to learn more.

I found the historical timeline incredibly well-researched and engrossing. I liked the seamless mix of real and fictional characters working on the art cataloging project. One of the major historical characters is Rose Valland, and I liked learning a bit about her. 

I also felt Éliane’s story was well-written, working with the Resistance and taking advantage of the fact that Nazis underestimate her. 

The present narrative is interwoven through a shared setting of the French Riviera, and the fact that Remy uncovers the actions of Éliane and the Resistance in her chapters. Remy is also dealing with her own personal familial losses, and while I wasn’t as invested in her chapters and did feel like some of her initial chapters dragged, I did like seeing her find healing. And structurally, I feel like Lester’s approach was more balanced, allowing us to spend more time in each time period in mostly-multi-chapter bursts, instead of pulling us back and forth from chapter to chapter, at least initially; she does start to do the chapter-to-chapter switch towards the end, but by then, I feel like it’s more effective. 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and look forward to catching up on Natasha Lester’s backlist, and any future books she’ll release in the future. If you like historical fiction about World War II, you won’t want to miss this!

Author Bio 

Natasha Lester is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS, THE PARIS ORPHAN / THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER and THE PARIS SECRET. Her new book, THE RIVIERA HOUSE, is coming in August 2021.

Prior to writing, she worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing.

Her first historical novel, A KISS FROM FITZGERALD, was published in 2016. This was followed by HER MOTHER’S SECRET in 2017 and her first international bestseller THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS in 2018. Since then, her books have been translated into many different languages are now published all around the world.

Natasha lives in Perth, Western Australia with her 3 children and loves fashion history, practising the art of fashion illustration, collecting vintage fashion, travelling, Paris and, of course, books.

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Review of “Heroine’s Journey” (Heroine Complex #3) by Sarah Kuhn

Kuhn, Sarah. Heroine’s Journey. New York: DAW Books, Inc., 2018. 

ISBN-13: 978-0756410872 | $7.99 USD | 377 pages | Fantasy 

Blurb 

The third book in the smart, snarky, and action-packed Heroine series completes the “Heroic Trio” as Bea Tanaka joins her sister, Evie, and diva Aveda Jupiter in their quest to free San Francisco from its demon portal problem

If there’s one thing Beatrice Tanaka never wanted to be, it’s normal. But somehow, her life has unfolded as a series of “should haves.” Her powers of emotional projection should have made her one of the most formidable superheroes of all time. And she should have been allowed to join her older sister Evie as a full-fledged protector of San Francisco, pulverizing the city’s plethora of demon threats.

But Evie and her superheroing partner, Aveda Jupiter, insist on seeing Bea as the impulsive, tempestuous teenager she used to be–even though she’s now a responsible adult. And that means Bea is currently living a thoroughly normal life. She works as a bookstore lackey, hangs out with best friends Sam Fujikawa and Leah Kim, and calms her workplace’s more difficult customers. Sure, she’s not technically supposed to be playing with people’s mental states. But given the mundanity of her existence, who can blame her?

When a mysterious being starts communicating with Bea, hinting at an evil that’s about to overtake the city, she seizes the opportunity, hoping to turn her “should haves” into the fabulous heroic life she’s always wanted. But gaining that life may mean sacrificing everything–and everyone–she holds dear…SEE LESS

In the series

#1 Heroine Complex 

#2 Heroine Worship 

Review 

5 stars 

Heroine’s Journey is the third in the series, and finally, Bea, the overlooked and underestimated younger sister, gets her due. 

I really liked the exploration of the sisterly dynamic. Evie has always seen her younger sister as immature, while Bea sees Evie as suffocating. Now, just as Evie had to reckon with the complexity of her friendship with Aveda/Annie, now the two sisters have to come together and work things out. Both are still dealing with the loss of their mother from years ago, and I loved seeing them reckon with that, and how that played into the plot. 

I also really liked seeing Bea’s own friendships. Her bond with Leah is incredibly positive, and I love that Bea had someone who was unconditionally supportive in her life while negotiating the messier bonds she has with Bea, and her former friend, Nicole. As for that relationship, I wasn’t sure how to feel at first, but I liked seeing the two make up and own up to their mistakes. 

While some of the interpersonal stuff felt heavier than the previous two books, there’s still some of the same lighthearted fun. I liked the meta references with Bea working in a bookstore. The fact that the store is inspired by The Ripped Bodice (owned by sisters Bea and Leah Koch—hence the names), quirky one-eyed bookstore dog and all, adds a lot of extra humor and inside jokes for those aware of TRB and Sarah Kuhn’s relationship with them. 

I really liked the friends/academic rivals-to-lovers dynamic between Sam and Bea. The romance was the most subtle in this one, and less steamy than the other two, but I feel like it suited the tone the story was going for. 

This is a great conclusion to the first trilogy, seeing each member of the Heroic Trio individually come of age and/or embrace their powers/identity, along with embracing their relationships with each other. I’m excited to see what the next trilogy brings. 

Author Bio 

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels–a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House’s One World, One Book title of the year. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.

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Review of “The Second Mrs. Astor” by Shana Abe

Abé, Shana. The Second Mrs. Astor. New York: Kensington, 2021. 

ISBN-13: 978-1496732040 | $16.95 USD | 352 pages | Historical Fiction 

Blurb 

“Abé is an exquisite storyteller….deeply moving.” —Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue

Inspired by the scandalous real-life love story between America’s richest man and teenage beauty Madeleine Force — and the aftermath of their tragic honeymoon aboard the Titanic.

Jack Astor was American royalty, the richest man in the world, and Fifth Avenue scion of the Gilded Age. Madeleine Force was a beautiful teenaged debutante suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into fame simply for falling in love with a famous man nearly three decades her senior.

From their scandalous courtship to their catastrophic honeymoon aboard the Titanic—a tragedy that made them the most famous couple of their time—their love story is brought to life in this sweeping work of historical fiction by New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist Shana Abé. Perfect for fans of Fiona Davis and Melanie Benjamin.

Madeleine Talmage Force is just seventeen when she attracts the attention of John Jacob “Jack” Astor. Madeleine is beautiful, intelligent, and solidly upper-class, but the Astors are in a league apart. Jack’s mother was the Mrs. Astor, American royalty and New York’s most formidable socialite. Jack is dashing and industrious—a hero of the Spanish-American war, an inventor, and a canny businessman. Despite their twenty-nine-year age difference, and the scandal of Jack’s recent divorce, Madeleine falls headlong into love—and becomes the press’s favorite target.

On their extended honeymoon in Egypt, the newlyweds finally find a measure of peace from photographers and journalists. Madeleine feels truly alive for the first time—and is happily pregnant. The couple plans to return home in the spring of 1912, aboard an opulent new ocean liner. When the ship hits an iceberg close to midnight on April 14th, there is no immediate panic. The swift, state-of-the-art RMS Titanic seems unsinkable. As Jack helps Madeleine into a lifeboat, he assures her that he’ll see her soon in New York…

Four months later, at the Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansion, a widowed Madeleine gives birth to their son. In the wake of the disaster, the press has elevated her to the status of virtuous, tragic heroine. But Madeleine’s most important decision still lies ahead: whether to accept the role assigned to her, or carve out her own remarkable path…

“A touching, compelling, and haunting love story that will delight fans of historical fiction and enthrall those of us for whom the Titanic will always fascinate.”HazelGaynor, New York Times bestselling author of When We Were Young and Brave

“An engaging novel told with both heartbreaking care and vivid detail. The Second Mrs. Astor is historical fiction at its gripping and irresistible best.” –Patti Callahan , New York Times bestselling author of Surviving Savannah and Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Review 

3.5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

I had read a few of Shana Abé’s romances, and was intrigued to see she was now writing a historical fiction novel. And the fact that The Second Mrs. Astor was about the Titanic, as well as the scandalous and obscenely wealthy Astor family, piqued my interest further. 

I really liked Abé’s nuanced take on Madeleine Astor and her relationship with her husband, John Jacob “Jack” Astor. The exploration of the taboos in a modern vs. historical context, with her being so much younger, and still a teenager at that, plus the different perspective of how society viewed divorce (as it was starting to become more permissible in high society) is fascinating to unpack. While there’s a perception presented of Madeleine in the press as a gold-digger and social-climber, and Jack as primarily focused on chasing his libido, there’s a sense that, at least from Madeleine’s perspective, that it is love, although I can’t help but wonder if the tragedy of the outcome influenced her perspective, at least in this fictional rendition. 

While Abé admits there isn’t a lot of information available about Madeleine, I appreciate how Abé did her research among the wealth of information about the Titanic, as well as the Astor family, and worked to fill in the gaps from there. 

I did have an issue with the POV and style of this book, with the use of first and third person interchangeably. The book is set up as Madeleine confiding her memories to her son, “Jakey,” with a first person framing narrative. But then, most of the book is told in third person. I could have put up with this, if there weren’t also these first person intros to almost every chapter. What does this serve? I feel like I gained way more emotionally from the first person bits, where she’s confiding her feelings, while I mostly felt detached from the third person POV. Either commit to it being a full-on fictional memoir or don’t do it at all! 

This book was enjoyable and I appreciate the work the author did in conveying the complexity of Madeleine and the Astor family relationships. However, as POV is something many readers are picky about, I’d only recommend it to readers of historical fiction who are patient with a “stylized” approach to mixing first and third person. 

Author Bio

Shana Abé is the award-winning, New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of seventeen books, including the acclaimed Drákon Series and the Sweetest Dark Series.

She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California, and currently resides in the mountains of Colorado with her very patient husband and a lot of pets.

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Review of “Heroine Worship” (Heroine Complex #2) by Sarah Kuhn

Kuhn, Sarah. Heroine Worship. New York: DAW Books, Inc., 2017. 

ISBN-13: 978-0756410865 | $7.99 USD | 377 pages | Fantasy

Blurb 

Asian-American superheroines Evie Tanaka and Aveda Jupiter protect San Francisco from perilous threats in the second book in Sarah Kuhn’s snarky and smart fantasy trilogy • “The superheroine we’ve been waiting for.” Seanan McGuire

Once upon a time, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang) was demon-infested San Francisco’s most beloved superheroine, a beacon of hope and strength and really awesome outfits. But all that changed the day she agreed to share the spotlight with her best friend and former assistant Evie Tanaka—who’s now a badass, fire-wielding superheroine in her own right.  They were supposed to be a dynamic duo, but more and more, Aveda finds herself shoved into the sidekick role. Where, it must be said, she is not at all comfortable.

It doesn’t help that Aveda’s finally being forced to deal with fallout from her diva behavior—and the fact that she’s been a less than stellar friend to Evie. Or that Scott Cameron—the man Aveda’s loved for nearly a decade—is suddenly giving her the cold shoulder after what seemed to be some promising steps toward friendship. Or that the city has been demon-free for three months in the wake of Evie and Aveda’s apocalypse-preventing battle against the evil forces of the Otherworld, leaving Aveda without the one thing she craves most in life: a mission.

All of this is causing Aveda’s burning sense of heroic purpose—the thing that’s guided her all these years—to falter.

In short, Aveda Jupiter is having an identity crisis.

When Evie gets engaged and drafts Aveda as her maid-of-honor, Aveda finally sees a chance to reclaim her sense of self and sets out on a single-minded mission to make sure Evie has the most epic wedding ever. But when a mysterious, unseen supernatural evil rises up and starts attacking brides-to-be, Aveda must summon both her superheroine and best friend mojo to take down the enemy and make sure Evie’s wedding goes off without a hitch—or see both her city and her most important friendship destroyed forever.

In the series 

#1 Heroine Complex

Review 

4 stars 

Heroine Worship offers more fun for the cast of Heroine Complex. This time, Aveda is the POV character, and I was intrigued to get to know her a bit more after book one. 

Aveda (real name: Annie Chang) is as multilayered as the first book suggested. She’s definitely snobby and manipulative at times, but I like the balance of seeing her determination and passion, as well as how she develops self awareness about how her actions have impacted others. 

I also really liked seeing more of her friendship with Evie. They have their issues, and I loved how Kuhn addressed them. I also loved seeing the new challenges they faced and how they handled them together. 

The subtle romance was also great this time around too. Annie’s love interest was foreshadowed in book one, so I really liked seeing it develop more. 

This is a delightful sequel, and I’m excited to get to Bea’s story next! If you love superheroes, you’ll enjoy this! 

Author Bio

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels–a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House’s One World, One Book title of the year. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.SEE LESS

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Review of “The Devil You Know” (Mercenary Librarians #2) by Kit Rocha

Rocha, Kit. The Devil You Know. New York: Tor, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1250209382 | $18.99 USD | 416 pages | Sci-Fi/Romance 

Blurb 

The Mercenary Librarians and the Silver Devils are back in The Devil You Know, the next installment of USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Kit Rocha’s post-apocalyptic Action/Romance, with hints of Orphan Black and the Avengers

Maya has had a price on her head from the day she escaped the TechCorps. Genetically engineered for genius and trained for revolution, there’s only one thing she can’t do—forget.

Gray has finally broken free of the Protectorate, but he can’t escape the time bomb in his head. His body is rejecting his modifications, and his months are numbered.

When Maya’s team uncovers an operation trading in genetically enhanced children, she’ll do anything to stop them. Even risk falling back into the hands of the TechCorps.

And Gray has found a purpose for his final days: keeping Maya safe.

In the series 

#1 Deal With the Devil 

Review 

2.5 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Devil You Know is the second in Kit Rocha’s Mercenary Librarians series. It technically works as a stand-alone, but I think the intricacies of the character relationships might make sense and matter to you more if you have read the first book. I read it, and I can’t for the life of me remember much about most of these people, because I read it about a year ago. 

This book falls into the trap I often see where authors try to combine SFF with romance in some significant way: you want to have the main couple at the center, but you also want to have this wider scope of what’s going on in your world and with other characters, and an imbalance in the “formula” results in the book not working. 

The “main” chapters follow Maya and Grey as they’re engaged in both the external plot and falling in love in the process, and it’s nice, if a bit slow. But part of what slows it down even more is the constant interjection of chapters from practically every other cast member’s POV. You get Knox and Nina from book 1, and it was kinda nice to see them. But then, there’s Dani, Rafe, Mace, Richter, Ava, Tessa. I understand wanting to flesh out the secondary characters, maybe give insight into the previous leads or tease the leads of the next book. But this felt like overkill. And when some side characters start to feel more important than the characters you’re supposedly focusing on…I just don’t know how I’m supposed to process all of this.

I do have hope for the next book, especially as I have an idea who might be the focus, based on how much they stole the show, and while book one also had a few extra POVs, the scattered nature of the narrative was unique to this book. I would still encourage those excited for this one to pick it up, as my opinion is definitely in the minority, and there are others who enjoyed this. 

Author Bio 

Kit Rocha is the pseudonym for co-writing team Donna Herren and Bree Bridges. After penning dozens of paranormal novels, novellas and stories as Moira Rogers, they branched out into gritty, sexy dystopian romance.

The Beyond series has appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, has been nominated for best erotic romance in the RT Reviewer’s Choice award five times, and won in 2013 and 2015. Their most recent adventure is partnering with Tor to launch their critically acclaimed Mercenary Librarians series.

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Review of “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Danan, Rosie. The Rommate. New York: Jove, 2020.

ISBN-13: 978-059310160 | $16.00 USD | 319 pages | Contemporary Romance 

Blurb 

“Warmly funny and gorgeously sexy.”—New York Times Book Review

A LibraryReads Pick

House Rules:

Do your own dishes
Knock before entering the bathroom
Never look up your roommate online
 
The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too tempting to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…
 
Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.SEE LESS

Review 

5 stars 

I’m pretty  sure everyone on Earth (at least most of the romance-reading Earthlings) has read The Roommate, and most have loved it. I can blame my not picking up until now on the fact that I read a review from a friend citing the lack of conflict, and saw something else mentioning the third act breakup, and I was just like, “nope, not now.” But I decided to finally pick it up recently, a decision that was further solidified by the concerns around the recent news surrounding OnlyFans.

Speaking of which, I love unapologetic sex positivity of this one. While I admit I wasn’t always that way, I’ve come to really embrace when books highlight the full range of sex positivity in its characters instead of giving into purity culture. The idea that a character can do sex work because they enjoy it, and not because they were forced into it or exploited, is a powerful thing, and I like the focus on that here.

I really liked the relationship that developed between Clara and Josh. They’re such compelling, unique characters, and I liked the way they play off each other. Josh is proud of what he does, and I liked how this influenced Clara to take a look at the internalized misogyny and misconceptions she’d been carrying about the adult film industry, becoming an advocate for sex positivity along with him, and them working together when he runs into a contract dispute with the company he works with. 

I also loved the subversion of some other common tropes, most prominent of them being the “evil ex-girlfriend.” Given who Naomi is and that she and Josh worked together, I could easily have seen things go in a different direction with her. However, I loved how supportive she was, and I’m so excited to read her book next! 

If you haven’t read this book yet, you absolutely should. It’s charming and funny, yet also manages to talk about serious issues with ease and compassion. 

Author Bio 

Rosie Danan writes steamy, bighearted books about the trials and triumphs of modern love. When not writing, she enjoys jogging slowly to fast music, petting other people’s dogs, and competing against herself in rounds of Chopped using the miscellaneous ingredients occupying her fridge. As an American expat living in London, Rosie regularly finds herself borrowing slang that doesn’t belong to her.

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Review of “Impassioned” (The Phoenix Club #2) by Darcy Burke

Burke, Darcy. Impassioned. [Place of publication not identified]: Zealous Quill Press, 2021.

ISBN-13: 978-1637260272 | $4.99 USD | 251 pages | Regency Romance 

Blurb 

Welcome to the Phoenix Club, where London’s most audacious, disreputable, and intriguing ladies and gentlemen find scandal, redemption, and second chances.

In nearly two years of marriage, Sabrina Westbrook has barely spoken to her husband and shared a bed even less. Both activities would require they actually live together. As it is, the Earl of Aldington attends to his seat in the House of Commons, while she and her crippling social anxiety tend to his country house and gardens. 

Their arrangement is quite civilized, and their letters are painfully polite. Their twice-yearly visits are…awkward. But, if Sabrina can muster the necessary courage, all of that is about to change. Starting tonight.

Heir to a dukedom, Constantine Westbrook knows his duty: to country, to family, and to the shy, retiring wife whose beauty stole his breath the moment they met. Whose arousing, enticing body he’s never seen in the light of day. Or any light at all.

However, there’s something different about the woman who shows up in London unannounced. For the first time in their marriage, Sabrina has a request. No, a demand. But wanting and having are two different things. And to give Sabrina her heart’s desire, they’ll both need a few lessons in love…

In the series 

#0.5 Invitation 

#1 Improper 

Review 

2 stars 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own. 

While I had mixed feelings about the first in the series, I had hope for it to be an interesting, fun one, especially with multiple threads for various characters set up in the prequel short. Unfortunately, Impassioned ironically lacked…passion, making this a drag to read. 

There are some good elements here. Sabrina’s battle with social anxiety resonated with me, as someone who also deals with the same thing. I admired her for working to open up more, and saw myself in those attempts to muster courage. I was happy when she finally got the daring to take things into her own hands and demand what she wanted. 

Constantine is…alright. He’s not terrible as a hero, even though he has made some mistakes. He’s a pretty decent person at the core, trying his best with the information he has. 

And that gets to the crux of what I struggled with. This book is one of those that hinge on miscommunications, and while I understand some of the reasoning for it, it just got tedious. Like, you can talk to a woman you presumably don’t know (and don’t realize is your wife in disguise) in a pleasure club about your issues with your wife? I could see things from her end, with her still working on her social skills, but his? 

One thing I can say is I do appreciate that this book didn’t go the typical route of “it’s all hunky dory in the bedroom, but we can’t talk to each other out of bed.” They’re just awkward and struggle in multiple respects. But that resulted in a weirdly stilted, staid, largely passionless book. 

It seems I’m one of the few who didn’t care for this one, so it’s more likely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” If you like historicals and have patience for the miscommunication trope, you’ll likely enjoy it more than I did. 

Author Bio 

Darcy Burke is the USA Today Bestselling Author of sexy, emotional historical and contemporary romance. Darcy wrote her first book at age 11, a happily ever after about a swan addicted to magic and the female swan who loved him, with exceedingly poor illustrations. Click here to Join her Reader Club.

A native Oregonian, Darcy lives on the edge of wine country with her guitar-strumming husband, artist daughter, and imaginative son who will almost certainly out-write her one day (that may be tomorrow).

They’re a crazy cat family with two Bengal cats, a small, fame-seeking cat named after a fruit, an older rescue Maine Coon with attitude to spare, and a collection of neighbor cats who hang out on the deck and occasionally venture inside. You can find Darcy at a winery, in her comfy writing chair, or binge-watching TV with the family.

Her happy places are Disneyland, Labor Day weekend at the Gorge, Denmark, and anywhere in the UK—so long as her family is there too.

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