Review of "Unbound by Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan

Bradley, Celeste, and Susan Donovan. Unbound. 2011. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.

Paperback | $14.99 | ISBN-13: 978-1250032645 | 368 pages | Regency Romance/Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I read Breathless last year, completely unaware it was a sequel/spin-off of another book, because it wasn’t marked as such anywhere (although it does stand on its own). And while I was curious to read Unbound, its more salacious nature did put me off a tad.

However, upon finally picking it up when I was bored, I found myself engrossed in both arcs, although, as with Breathless, the historical arc was the stronger of the two. Given that the story revolves around the question of a how an English courtesan ended up becoming an abolitionist in America, I was on the edge of my seat with all the twists and turns as Ophelia took control of her life.

And while not initially drawn to the mysterious “Sir” (or the character who is later revealed to be him under the mask), that was by design, and I found myself awestruck when I found out his identity, especially as he ended up being a key figure from her previous life. And while you don’t get his perspective, I still found his growth from entitled aristocrat into a champion of women’s liberation and equality for all moving.

Piper’s story hits a bit closer to home in some ways, so I found myself living vicariously through her as she came to discover her own sexuality in the least likely of places. And while I also wasn’t wild about Mick initially, as his side of their past relationship came out, I began to see him as a viable partner for Piper. And I love how it’s another way that the two stories align: while the two women are finding their sexuality, the men they love must grow and evolve to become worthy of them.

This is a surprising dual-timeline romance that has a bit of everything: sweet moments and (very) sexy ones, hilarious and emotional, and of course, a good balance between the interwoven historical and contemporary arcs. I recommend it to all romance fans.

Review of “The Bromance Book Club” by Lyssa Kay Adams

Adams, Lyssa Kay. The Bromance Book Club. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984806093 | 339 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

I was excited by the idea of The Bromance Book Club, because I love the idea of men reading romance and finding out not only what it is about romance that appeals to women, but how romance novels can be great instruction for real life love once you go beneath the surface.

And that aspect is incredibly well done. While I definitely wished for more “book club” interaction between the guys, I liked the way they all sat Gavin down and presented him with romance novels as an educational tool for love and also a possible way to connect with his wife. And they also discuss the stigma the genre gets, and how it relates to toxic masculinity governing the deeper issues Gavin is facing, as well as those the other men faced at previous points in their lives.

The romance was a slightly harder sell for me, at least at first. While I could understand Gavin’s deficiencies to an extent, given the way romance readers and writers talk about sexual pleasure and being able to have love and their dreams, it still seemed a bit off to me that Thea blamed Gavin for him justifuably pulling away when she found out she lied. I did warm up to her more as her “backstory” (as the guys say) was discussed, and how she came to realize her own role in the crumbling relationship.

This was ultimately a cute and fun read, and I can’t wait for the next book, because the guys are awesome, especially Mack, that book’s hero, and I can’t wait to see how Liv makes her turnaround. If you love romance, I very much recommend this book.

Review of “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” (The Brown Sisters #1) by Talia Hibbert

Hibbert, Talia. Get a Life, Chloe Brown. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062941206 | 369 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I’ve long wanted to read Talia Hibbert, as she’s been raved about by my romance reader friends. So, I was pleased to hear about her signing with Avon, especially since Get a Life Chloe Brown sounded so good. And while the hype died a painful death once I read some other books I was eagerly anticipating this year, I’m glad to say it was not the case with this one.

One of the things that excited me, in addition seeing a black author who’d made her mark on the indie scene get mainstream attention in the midst of the difficult conversations about racial diversity in publishing, was its depiction of chronic pain. While it’s not a disability I know much about, I admire Hibbert’s decision to do her part to spread awareness about it, based on her own experience. And I found a lot to admire about Chloe, who starts the book somewhat sheltered due to her disability, but is determined to “get a life” and accomplish all the things on her to-do list.

And, Red, her partner in these escapades is also such a beautiful character. He’s such a sweet guy, in spite of what appearances might suggest (long hair, tattoos, rides a motorcycle). I also love the exploration of why it took him so long to warm up to Chloe, and while it was in essence what I expected, as the trigger warning at the beginning suggests, there is some discussion of domestic violence and how it led to his feelings of inadequacy where his artistic talents are concerned, and I felt it was delicately handled.

This is a beautiful romance: sometimes funny and sometimes emotional, sometimes sweet and sometimes steamy, but 100% great all around. I recommend this to anyone looking for a sexy contemporary romance.

Review of “Tell Me How You Really Feel” by Aminah Mae Safi

Safi, Aminah Mae. Tell Me How You Really Feel. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250299482 | 312 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Tell Me How You Really Feel is pure fun, queer rom-com goodness. The two protagonists are charming, and I couldn’t help but root for them as they went from not really getting each other to falling in love.

Sana’s a great character, and while I’m sure there are others that I haven’t read about yet, it’s nice to see a cheerleader in fiction who also have a strong academic focus, breaking the stereotype of so many high school movies. I could empathize with her struggle to decide what her future plans were, and how it was so entrenched in the sacrifices both her parents and grandparents made for her.

Rachel’s character growth is great as well, and I really liked seeing her opinions about her film being challenged by Sana’s perspective, even though her film teacher is encouraging her to stay on the same path she originally intended.

I did feel like I wanted a bit more exploration of the “why” they supposedly didn’t like each other. It’s mentioned once or twice in-text, but I feel like the backstory with Sana originally asking Rachel out got more attention in the blurb, and is all but ignored in the book itself, in favor of the other things they don’t have in common. While I don’t agree with some that this isn’t a strong enough case of enemies-to-lovers (especially since some people’s idea of the trope crosses into the point of no redemption for me), I just feel like that one facet should have been more fleshed out.

This is a great read with a great f/f romance. I recommend it to other lovers of sweet YA romances.

Review of “The Right Swipe” (Modern Love #1) by Alisha Rai

Rail, Alisha. The Right Swipe. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062878090 | 386 pages | Contemporary Romance

4.5 stars

I was a bit unsure going into The Right Swipe, in part because I didn’t know how Alisha Rai could follow up such an epic series like the Forbidden Hearts, which made my Top 10 2018 favorites lists. And while the setup for the series does mean the focus is less on family, there is still just as much emotional depth to pack a punch here, even if the beginning does start off feeling a bit too rom-com-esque.

Rhi’s (I am calling her by her nickname as opposed to her full name due to an association of trauma with her full name, discussed in the book) arc is absolutely wonderful. I loved her from the outset, being a woman working in a male-dominated field, and the way she talks about making her company not just more welcoming to women, but to members of marginalized groups, from people of color to members of the LGBTQ+ community. And when the deeper significance was revealed in her past with her boss at her previous company, my heart truly broke for her and how she felt she couldn’t get close to another man beyond a casual hookup again. And the discussion of the reality that finding someone who is drastically different and does love her instead of take advantage of her is helpful in letting her trust again, but doesn’t erase that trauma, is also wonderful and a leap forward in representation of mental health in romance, which still largely clings to troubling tropes in that regard.

Samson is also amazing, and doesn’t lack for emotional complexity either. I love how the legacies of his father and uncle shaped him, and the exploration of how doing the right thing ended up bringing him shame in his career, as well as the deeper issue of mental health in professional sports.

This book is absolutely wonderful, and while it’s definitely not as “spicy” as Rai’s previous works (something I did actually find a tad lacking, which is funny, given my tendency toward “sweeter” books), it’s still full of heart, and is a great extension of the world Rai built with her prior series (complete with cameos and references to prior characters, although you do not have to have read those books to understand this one). I would recommend it to lovers of contemporary romances.

Review of “Singapore Fling” (Carpe Diem Chronicles #2) by Maida Malby

Malby, Maida. Singapore Fling. [United States]: EOT Publications, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0999543238 | 261 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Having enjoyed book one in the Carpe Diem Chronicles, I made sure I snagged a copy of Singapore Fling recently, when an opportunity presented itself. And once it arrived in the mail, I dove in almost immediately, reveling in all the feels and feeling upset once I reached the final pages and I once again had to say goodbye to this world.

One of Malby’s strengths is, of course, her gift with recreating the atmosphere of the places she sets her books, from the locations to the food. I now am desperate to make a trip to Singapore for the food alone. Word of caution: Do not read on an empty stomach!

And while Maddie and Aidan were introduced in Boracay Vows, I didn’t know what to expect of either of them, except perhaps that Aidan is a bit more arrogant than Blake. But while some characters may call him “Alphahole Aidan,” giving me a bit of pause initially, given the way I attach the term to some more loathsome heroes, I can’t help but feel like the nickname is undeserved. He’s a bit more on the brooding side, but I could truly empathize with his dedication to his work, especially when his relationship with Maddie led to a possible conflict of interest and him having to make a tough choice.

And Maddie is also a wonderful character. I love how her relationships with people are explored, delving into the fact that she didn’t have a conventional family upbringing leading to her valuing the family and friends she does have and keeping them close. It forms a compelling contrast to Aidan’s more conventional family and further informs the conflict between them in a wonderful way.

Once again, Malby delivers a colorful, sumptuous read, and one that leaves me waiting with baited breath for the next. I enthusiastically recommend this to fans of sexy, fun multicultural contemporary romances.

Review of “You Belong With Me” (Restoring Heritage #1) by Tari Faris

Faris, Tari. You Belong With Me. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0800736477 | 360 pages | Contemporary Romance/Christian Fiction

4 stars

I received a free copy in exchange for a review, as pat of the Revell Reads Blog Tour Program. All opinions are my own.

As has been the case with the other books I’ve requested through Revell Reads, I was primarily drawn to You Belong With Me due to the promise of the blurb, with the idea of the book (and likely the series as well) about preserving the historic aspects of the small town of Heritage. And while I’m still fairly new to small-town contemporaries, this is one of the most interesting I have read thus far, given the restoration element. And while it’s not the only part of the book, I found it wasn’t the only part I enjoyed either.

Faris manages to include two romances running parallel with each other, giving them equal page time, so while the blurb did not indicate this, I was not bothered when it would divert from Hannah or Luke to focus on Hannah’s brother Thomas and his ex, Janie, who he still has feelings for. I loved the exploration into the complications that led to said breakup, which turn out to be somewhat heartbreaking, and the conversation where it all comes out that brought the two of them back together.

I found Hannah and Luke’s relationship building a little underwhelming by comparison, but I did like the arc that Luke went on to figure out who his biological parents were, and was incredibly excited when he found them.

This is a delightful, sweet small town contemporary, and given that it is a debut, I’m quite impressed to see where Tari Faris goes from here. I would recommend this to those who love contemporaries with a lot of heart, with just as much focus on family and community as there is on romance.

Review of “Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston (+ Rant on the Fetishism of All Things British)

McQuiston, Casey. Red, White and Royal Blue. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250316776 | 421 pages | Contemporary Romance

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans love all things British, to the point of fetishization, as YouTuber Dominic Noble observed on Twitter recently. And the existence of Red, White and Royal Blue confirms this is true the romance reading community, if the thousands of romances, mostly historical with a few contemporary sprinkled in, didn’t already cement it. However, while American authors do try for the most part to be accurate to at least the basic nuances of British culture (with a few notable exceptions).this book does not. This book demonstrates that the author has no awareness about the distinction between the terms of “England” and Britain. If I were a drinker who had alcohol on hand, I could have had a drinking game as to the amount of times Henry is referred to as a “Prince of England.” Not to mention the election of the “Prime Minster of England.” But then, every so often, something is described as British.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s an AU. I’m fine with fictional royals, even if I feel this story would have been better served by going the Alyssa Cole route and making up a fictional country, as the fact that Prince Henry is from Britain has little bearing on the plot, as some of the elements with Alex revealing to his mother who he’s dating lead to discussions of the ramifications don’t necessarily depend on where the prince is from. But given that it is described as “political fantasy,” but the royals within the story are stil within the House Windsor, not to mention the name-drop of a surname seeming a bit too similar to the real life Mountbatten-Windsor that many of the real life British Royals use, I wanted more explanation for how all this worked in the context of British history.

There are a few minor saving graces to this book. The relationship between Alex and Henry is great and got a lot of laughs from me, especially the flirty emails. And I think, had it been handled a little bit better, it could have made a statement about how difficult navigating one’s sexuality when you’re in such an important political family is. I know Prince William recently said he’d be accepting if his children came out as gay, but there’s no denying it would still be difficult for them if they were, as depicted here.

I also think it’s also great that McQuiston wasn’t afraid to confront American politics, especially when it’s such a polarizing topic, providing an alternative ending to the 2016 election and looking forward to what I anticipate to be an equally contentious 2020 presidential race. All art is political, and I think it’s great to see a romance author who not only recognizes that but channels that in her characters with not only a female president, but a son who is also interested in politics, even while still getting his education.

For the most part, I just feel like this book was on the whole not for me, due to the inaccuracies and inconsistencies. If the things I described are a problem for you, I would skip this book. However, given it is much beloved by other romance readers, if you are looking for an idealistic political fantasy romance and aren’t massively bothered by all the errors I mentioned, then by all means, pick it up.

Review of “Tribute” by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. Tribute. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Hardcover | $26.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399154911 | 451 pages | Romantic Suspense

3.5 stars

I found myself picking up Tribute after finding myself in one of those rare situations where I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what I wanted to read next, and only knew that it should have a contemporary setting. I also wanted to give Roberts’ stand-alone romantic suspense another shot, since I’m feeling some withdrawal from the In Death series, and I haven’t found a suitable series to read while I await the next book’s release and subsequent processing at the library.

In retrospect, this may have been a poor choice to start with, but it was one of a bunch I had on hand, and I think it is conceptually interesting and gets a few things right. I liked the idea of a granddaughter exploring what happened to her movie-star grandmother, especially since there’s something so fascinating about the tragic personal lives of classic Hollywood stars. And while the execution of some of the elements feels a little rough, and the reveal a little underwhelming, I enjoyed the dream-sequence moments where Cilla and Janet interact, transporting Cilla to various points in Janet’s life.

It also allowed for great development for Cilla in her relationships with other characters, particularly her relationship with her mother, given that the relationship is somewhat strained because of their differing desires where Janet’s house is concerned. But it was great that this digging into the past ultimately provided closure, as that was the root for a lot of familial issues.

I also felt like the romance was quite enjoyable for what it was. Ford is an example, along with Carter from Vision in White, of a well-written Roberts hero. I love that he’s a graphic novelist, which is a profession I don’t recall ever seeing in a romance novel before. He’s also incredibly funny and intelligent, and just all-around a great person. It also doesn’t hurt that he has an equally quirky dog, Spock, who I would argue, almost steals the show.

This is definitely not the best Roberts I’ve read, especially in terms of its advertised subgenre, but there are plenty of things it does well that will appeal to new-ish readers exploring Roberts’ backlist for the first time.

Review of “Vision in White” (Bride Quartet #1) by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. Vision in White. New York: Berkley Books, 2009.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425227510 | 343 pages | Contemporary Romance

4.5 stars

Vision in White is arguably one of the best books I’ve read by Nora Roberts so far. Whether it is her best book ever is debatable, given how I haven’t read much from her due to a few negative experiences, but she is at the top of her game here, creating a story that not only has engaging leads with a compelling romance, but also the friendships that she also does incredibly well.

I mostly picked this one up because of what I heard about the hero, Carter. The book club friend who not only recommended this to me several times, but gifted me a copy among other Nora titles, noted that he’s exactly the type of hero I’d like, and she wasn’t wrong. I love that he’s more on the geeky side, and a bit awkward. While I’ve heard his type is a Roberts staple, I still felt there was something unique and likable about him, although this may be my inexperience with her work coming into play here.

I also really liked the emotional depth given to Mac, and like that Roberts tends to go against the norm (or at least what’s considered more popular) by having her heroines dealing with trauma. I really enjoyed the central focus of the series being that she comes together with her best friends to develop a wedding planning business, with the irony being that, even though she had participated in pretend weddings as a kid, her dysfunctional family has soured her to the idea of marriage. I loved seeing how her trust issues were explored, and while she isn’t always the most likable character, I could understand where she was coming from, and her development felt natural.

My one minor quibble is that this book makes extensive use of acronyms, and while they are explained in the book, some are so uncommon, it was a chore to remember them. MOH for “Maid of Honor” or MOB for “Mother of the Bride” makes some sense, particularly after being told what it means once, but there was also this weird mini-plot point that led to the best man in one of the wedding parties they’re planning for being called the CBBM, or “cheating bastard best man” (at least I think that’s what it was?), and there were a couple more that sound clever on paper, but just don’t stick out in my mind. I hope the rest of the series isn’t so bogged down with shorthand like this.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this one, and will be continuing the series and seeking out more of Roberts’ contemporaries that catch my interest, since that seems to be genre she writes in that works the best for me. I would recommend anyone new (or new-ish) to Roberts’ work pick this one up, since it really is a gem, and not to be missed.