Review of “For Real” by Alexis Hall

Hall, Alexis. For Real. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide Publishing, 2015.

Paperback | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1626492806 | 339 pages | Erotic Romance

4.5 stars

I never would have anticipated prior to this year that I would ever pick up a book like For Real, given my complaints in the past about books with sex scenes (or allusions to sex) too early in the book for my taste. But this one came highly recommended, and I was even encouraged to put some of my qualms about BDSM aside (although admittedly most were fostered by the negative response to the portrayal of BDSM in other, more notable works, like the Fifty Shades series).

So, I was incredibly surprised to find how much I enjoyed this one. And while some of those other books failed to invest me in the sexy bits due to lack of character depth or overall likability, this book was different. Laurie and Toby are both compelling and well-rounded, and neither feels like a stereotype of what a dominant or a submissive is…in large part due to this book completely flipping the roles, and having younger Toby be dominant in the kinky bits.

However, it’s the emotional connection that stands out here. I love those little moments , such as how after spending the night together, Toby makes Laurie breakfast, and you genuinely feel them falling for one another, even if there is this fear, especially on Laurie’s side, that it won’t last.

I do have some minor quibbles with the way the dual first person narrative ended up being executed. You can more or less follow who’s narrating for most of the book, but there’s one chapter when the feelings are super heightened where both perspectives are given, and it felt a little jarring to read a passage from one person’s head, then guess that we’re hopping to the other person’s, and back and forth.

This is, however, for the most part a wonderfully subversive book that I think most romance fans should read, regardless of whether they think they are a fan of BDSM or not

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Review of “The Girl He Used to Know” by Tracey Garvis Graves

Garvis Graves, Tracey. The Girl He Used to Know. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250200358 | 291 pages | Contemporary Romance

4.5 stars

I had randomly added The Girl He Used to Know to my TBR without even really thinking about it or even bothering to read much of the blurb, because I’m a sucker for the illustrated cover trend. It was only later when I actually went back to look at it that I saw what a happy coincidence it was that the heroine was not only a librarian who had gotten her Bachelor’s in English (although, now that I think of it, the heroine does look like your stereotypical librarian on the cover), but was also socially awkward, meaning that prior to even starting the book, I already felt I related to her.

Therefore, much like with last year’s The Kiss Quotient, I was deeply moved as I went on Annika’s journey to finding out about herself and becoming more confident in her skin. And while Garvis Graves is not on the autism spectrum or intimately acquainted with anyone who is, I felt like she took the proper care with writing Annika in a way that made her struggles resonate with someone like me.

Jonathan is also exactly the kind of hero I would want someone like Annika to be with, and I thought it was beautiful to watch their past relationship and present one unfolding simultaneously. I love that he nurtures her and sees her in the past arc, and I love the way it informs Annika wanting to be more confident and capable as she pursues a relationship with him again years later, especially given how her own fears held her back the first time.

I also thought it was an…interesting…choice to set the final crisis towards the end around 9/11, and I wish I had put all the pieces together sooner, given that it was all there, from him having a job that is based in New York to the fact that the “present” day arc begins in August 2001. While I did feel like this could have been substituted with any major crisis, perhaps a more recent one or a fictional one, it still accomplished the intent of the whole situation, which was to compel Annika out of her comfort zone and have her taking risks to be there for him for once.

On the whole, this is a solid book about hope and growth of character. I definitely recommend for those looking for a heartwarming contemporary romance.

Review of “The Cliff House” by RaeAnne Thayne

Thayne, RaeAnne. The Cliff House. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335004901| 361 pages | Women’s Fiction

3 stars

The Cliff House was my first book by RaeAnne Thayne, and I definitely won’t be the last. Despite this apparently being somewhat different in style from her romances, I like the small-town feel that exudes through the book, one I am guessing is a common staple of Thayne’s work.

Unfortunately, this book suffered from trying to do a little too much with a single book. The premise promises a lot, with the development of three women’s stories and romances. And while I cannot see a way to keep the current simultaneous nature of the events while also fleshing out the stories, I feel it fell a little flat in trying to squeeze it all into a single book.

The one storyline I felt came through and made me feel invested was Daisy and her developing relationship with Gabe. It was great to see her taking risks and living, not to mention those little moments of bonding that she has with Gabe throughout. It doesn’t hurt that their arc involves a stray (or is he?) French Bulldog.

I did think the one thing that held the story together, in spite of weaknesses in my investment with Stella and Beatriz’s story arcs, was the relationships between the women, especially as secrets come to light. I think, in spite of Thayne’s romance origins, this is a book that could have benefitted from more exploration of the familial relationships in favor of trying to develop three romances.

For the most part, this was a decent book, although I’m not sure if this is the best indicator of Thayne’s work. I would recommend it if you like romantic women’s fiction with multiple perspectives, and would encourage anyone else who’s interested to also seek out a second opinion from a seasoned RaeAnne Thayne reader to decide if this the place to start with her work.

Review of “Meet Cute” by Helena Hunting

Hunting, Helena. Meet Cute. New York: Forever, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1538760185 | 370 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Meet Cute was a wonderful breath of fresh air following a DNF of another hotly anticipated April release. While it is a fairly predictable combination of rom-com-meets-family-drama, I found it incredibly charming, especially in its balance of the family aspect and the romance, and will definitely be picking up more Helena Hunting as the opportunity arises, as she was an author I took a chance on based on the cute cover, as well as the compelling blurb.

What stood out for me for Kailyn was her relatability in the blurb of being able to meet her teen idol, and acting like a huge fangirl, and how it develops from there, to friendship to betrayal to them ending up having to work together on a professional basis.

Dax was also interesting, as I liked the idea of looking at a retired child star, and not only his motivations for stepping back from the spotlight, but his present relationship with his family, especially since it plays such a crucial role in the book. His relationship with Emme stood out to me as the best part, because it’s obvious he’s trying to be a good brother and guardian, but there are some things he’s a little out of his depth with, like menstruation. While some might find the handling of the situation from his perspective a bit awkward, I felt for the most part it did feel relatable, even if it did fall into a stereotype of men not really understanding those things.

My only major complaint is that the villain, while feeling like she had great motivations at first, devolved into something somewhat cartoonish by the end, especially with the train of events in the second half where Emme is framed for something she didn’t do. It all just seemed so overdone and predictable without any attempt to shake it up.

That said, this is still a relatively fun contemporary, and if this is an indicator of her writing, I will definitely at least be reading a few more of Helena Hunting’s books. And I would recommend this to other fans of contemporary romances with a good (if cliche) balance of humor and heart.

Review of “The Undateable” (Librarians in Love #1) by Sarah Title

Title, Sarah. The Undateable. New York: Zebra/Kensington, 2017.

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1420141832 | 310 pages | Contemporary Romance

3.5 stars

I picked up The Undateable originally because I love finding librarians who are also romance authors (or romance authors who used to be librarians, or librarians who love romance in general), and the premise of a stereotypically “Disapproving Librarian” finding love sounded fun. I bumped it up my TBR when the book I originally was going to read proved a bit too much to focus on while reading simultaneously with the final (currently available) Stormlight Archive book, since I craved something a bit more light and fun.

And it is that. Sometimes the humor in books doesn’t translate well for me, but this one definitely did, and I found myself laughing out loud multiple times at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. While a book being devoted to a heroine being set up on multiple dates with other men by the hero might not work for everyone, I enjoyed this setup.

It especially worked in terms of establishing Bernie’s growth. While I was a bit unsure if she was doing it for the right reasons, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as an undateable recent library and information science graduate on job hunt, and I was very much living vicariously through her, knowing that if I had the resources and especially the courage, I might be doing the same thing. And while it is initially awkward to see her try to negotiate things like makeup and heels and whatnot, by the end, I feel like she finds what works for her.

However, I’m not sure if this plot entirely worked as a romance, as I did not really root for her and Colin at all. I mean, Colin has his moments of growth, like the realization that he has gleaned a lot about what women want through Bernie, but there’s not a lot about him that stands out as being spectacular. But there wasn’t a big “aha!” moment where it really all came together where I felt like they were meant to be a “forever” thing, as it’s presented to be by the end of the book. I could see them start dating, but considering how they don’t even like each other at the beginning, I felt like there was a weak transition between opponents and forever lovers.

This was generally a cute book, but weak in developing the essential selling point of the genre for me. However, it has its moments and with its laugh-out-loud-worthy humor, I would recommend this to anyone who loves a good romantic comedy.

Review of “My So-Called Bollywood Life” by Nisha Sharma

Sharma, Nisha. My So-Called Bollywood Life. New York: Crown, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0553523256 | 296 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

4 stars

In the midst of all the madness and disappointment surrounding the announcement of the RITA finalists, one of the bright spots was the inclusion of My So-Called Bollywood Life among the YA finalists. While I had not read the book until now, it seemed like a perfect excuse to finally bump it to the top of my endless TBR.

And it’s a great book, educating the reader about a specific period of Bollywood films, and even if you aren’t necessarily aware of the copious references (I wasn’t), it’s still a fun read highlighting an element of Indian culture that many may know about in passing, but may not be aware of the content of the films themselves.

Winnie is a likable, if flawed heroine. I love her determination to follow her dreams no matter what. And while she does make some stupid decisions, like breaking into an ex’s house and stealing (in her mind taking back) things from him, thinking about it from the mindset of the target audience does kind of put it into perspective.

I also enjoyed how there is a good balance between the acknowledgment of the power of prophecy and fate, and one’s ability to make their own destiny. This leads to a culturally nuanced take on the “getting over an ex and navigating feelings for someone else” plotline that I really enjoyed.

My one major complaint is that, while Bollywood films and film stars play a big role in the plot, the review blog that is set up to be a part of the book in the first pages of the book is almost nonexistent except for the epigraphs reviewing select films that also relate to each chapter’s plot. I’d have liked to see the blog play a bigger role in the story, especially given that Winnie’s Bollywood dreams are otherwise so well emphasized.

On the whole, this was a cute book, and one I’m glad to see in the running for the RITA for Best YA Romance. I would definitely recommend this book to others who love multicultural romance or Bollywood films.

Review of “The Matchmaker’s List” by Sonya Lalli

Lalli, Sonya. The Matchmaker’s List. 2017. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451490940 | 352 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

3 stars

The Matchmaker’s List was a much more disappointing read than I thought it would be, largely due to making a hash out of what is a good premise. But even so, it does still have some good qualities, most relating to the main setup of the story.

I love getting a look at the dynamics of love, dating, and marriage in different cultures, and this one did that relatively well, especially in terms of demonstrating the extended family’s involvement in an individual’s love life. The relationship between Raina and her grandmother isn’t perfect, and they don’t see eye-to-eye, but I love their slightly dysfunctional relationship all the same, especially when you see how both are affected by Raina’s flake of a mother, who the grandmother failed to rein in. Even when Raina messes up (and boy, does she), it’s obvious she’s doing it out of some form of love for her grandmother, just as the grandmother is doing what she does out of love for her.

That brings me to a discussion of the negative and problematic elements. This book unfortunately suffers from what I have started to call it “the Big Lie Syndrome,” where the plot gets out of control because our protagonist tells one lie that expands into more lies, and delays telling the truth. And what a lie it is. While I admit I wasn’t massively bothered by her lying about being gay, especially as I read on and saw what Lalli was trying to say about the conservative views among Indian immigrant families and breaking down those barriers, it still felt incredibly disingenuous to have this lie forgiven at the end, especially by actual LGBTQ characters, one of whom comes out to her at one point in the book. The grandma, I can understand, but I don’t know if I would have been so forgiving if I was in those other characters’ shoes.

I also found myself annoyed that she spent so much time mooning over a guy who clearly was only available when it was convenient for him, to the point of not even seeing a great guy right in front of her, just because she wasn’t willing to date a non-Indian. While she comes around in the end and I did feel that she had a solid arc, I questioned her intelligence when it came to her choice of an ideal romantic partner at times.

All that being said, this is still a decent book, with great ideas, even if they did get a little lost in execution. I would recommend this to those who are looking for a multicultural romantic comedy, and also don’t mind an incredibly flawed heroine.

Review of “Whiskey Beach” by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. Whiskey Beach. New York: G.P. Putnan’s Sons, 2013.

Hardcover | $27.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399159893 | 484 pages | Romantic Suspense

3.5 stars

Following the recent #CopyPasteCris scandal and the way Nora Roberts became one of the leading voices speaking out about it and the problems in the industry, I decided yet again to try another of her books, selecting Whiskey Beach due to it being on the list of plagiarized titles. And while I did find some of similar issues that I have had with Roberts’ work in the past, I did find the story had a lot of promise.

I was drawn to the idea of a plot and setting that had this historic lore to it, and while it was slow to develop in that regard, I did like that the way it was incorporated was intriguing and played well into the resolution of the murder of Eli’s estranged wife. I also liked that, for the most part, Eli was a well-written character. I could feel for him and what he had been through, but I love that he came to find new purpose in his life through this experience.

The more romantic suspense I read, the more I find that this subgenre straddles that weird line of having to balance the plot elements that cater to the suspense plot vs. building a believable romance that I can invest in, and it can be hard for even the most experienced writer to negotiate the two in a way where both are equally interesting. There are exceptions, including Roberts’ own work, but this one seems to be one where there was that difficulty, at least from my perspective.

This leads into my issues with the early development of the relationship between Eli and Abra. It took me ages to become endeared to Abra, especially given how pushy she was initially. Also, while the relationship did start to feel more organic as the book went on, the mostly physical nature of the relationship at first felt a bit forced, and I more or less found the romance less interesting than the resolution to who was behind the murders and why Eli was being targeted.

This was more or less a decent book, and one that did have enjoyable aspects to it. And given the love it has received from friends who love Nora, I do think a newer Nora fan who has been eagerly digging through her backlist or one who somehow missed it would enjoy this a bit more than I did as a casual reader of hers.

Review of “Once Ghosted, Twice Shy” (Renegade Royals 2.5) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. Once Ghosted, Twice Shy. New York: Avon Impulse, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062931870 | 144 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Despite not being massively wowed by the Reluctant Royals series to date, I was super excited for the release of this novella, in part because I really enjoyed Likotsi’s character, but also because I was happy to see more f/f romance from a traditional publisher. And I was truly blown away. While I could definitely see ways that this story could have been fleshed out to be a bit longer (and definitely wanted it, because Fab and Likotsi’s relationship is amazing), I did like that it portrayed a beautiful love story between two black queer women, providing some intersectionality as well.

While I was initially skeptical when I saw the dual timeline setup, given that I had seen this attempted in novellas before (and even full novels) with mixed results, I really liked it in this one, getting a sense for how their past fling had potential and the reason it ended in the past, and seeing them reunite and address their lingering feelings and the reason Fab ended up breaking it off in the present. Both of them are incredibly sympathetic, and I enjoyed that they had a dynamic where, even though things did end on a bad note, when they reunited, they did not try to deny the feelings that still existed between them.

And while it is more subtle, I did like how the story touched on some of the issues facing black people today, through the explanation of Fab’s family situation. And I found it wonderful that Likotsi offered to help, regardless of how things worked out between them in the end.

This was a delightful palate cleansing novella, and one that has me anticipating more in the series. I would recommend this book to fans of black and/or queer romance.

Review of “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Maurene Goo

Goo, Maurene. The Way You Make Me Feel. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0374304089 | 323 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

4 stars

The Way You Make Me Feel is another delightfully adorable book by Maurene Goo. Once again, like with her previous effort, there is this wonderful depiction of diverse characters, with a fascinating cultural trend at its heart. I loved getting a “taste” of Korean/Brazilian fusion cuisine and the ins and outs of running a food truck.

The characters and plot felt a little bit more uneven this time around, however, with my initial confusion that the romance seemed to be heavily promoted, when it was distracting from the elements I was really interested in, which was Clara’s overall growth and her evolving relationships with her dad and enemy-turned-friend, Rose. However, as Hamlet’s place in the story grew more prominent, I began to understand it a little more, but I can’t help but wonder if the story was made into a romance just because it sells, because the story had a lot to reckon with in terms of these evolving relationships, and I felt it could have benefited from a narrower focus on things that assisted Clara’s growth of character.

I do admire that this story features a heroine who is a bit unlikable at first, even if I was prepared to dislike her, as it made her journey much more rewarding. I love what an exploration into her family’s dynamics reveals about her personality and why she is the way she is, with the experiences of growing through doing real work and seeing the bad parts of herself mirrored back to her motivating her to change.

Having read both books, I’ll say if you read and enjoyed I Believe in a Thing Called Love, I wouldn’t go into this with as high expectations that it will measure up completely. But I do recommend anyone this book to anyone who’s looking for a lighthearted and funny contemporary that also has just the right amount of heartfelt emotion mixed in.