review: only love

Only Love by Melanie Harlow (2018)

Only Love is the third book in Melanie Harlow’s One and Only contemporary romance series. Each book in the series follows one of three sisters, Maren, Emme and Stella. I can tell you without reservation that Only Love can be read as a standalone book. I haven’t read the first two books in this series but wasn’t at all confused and I didn’t feel like I stumbled across any spoilers. This is the second book I’ve read by Melanie Harlow and I have to say—she knows how to write a romance novel. I think I liked After We Fall a little more (you can read my review of that book here) but I did enjoy Only Love and would recommend it to any reader who loves romance novels, especially the steamy variety.

This is the story of Stella and Ryan. Of the three sisters, Stella is the oldest. She is the responsible one, the one who has convinced herself that she wants a stable life with a stable husband even if it means stability comes with boredom. She’s a psychologist/therapist who seems to be able to analyze and figure out everyone but herself, and she chases her vision of who she wants to be, who she thinks she wants to be, rather than being who she really is. Ryan is a former Marine, divorced from his wife and now living in a house in Michigan that he is renovating while also working at a winery/farm. He has been doing odd jobs for Stella’s grandmother, who happens to live next door. Ryan’s obstacle to overcome is his need to not feel anything. He repeatedly says he simply wants to be alone and talks about flipping the switch on his emotions, turning them off (a la Damon Salvatore). Once he meets Stella, it becomes more and more difficult to flip that switch and be happy with being alone. While I liked Stella and Ryan as a couple and was invested in their love story, I have to admit that at first, I don’t think I particularly liked Stella all that much. Or maybe it’s that I had a hard time relating to her. I don’t want to spoil the first few chapters, but I think it’s enough to say that I was worried she would be the kind of female protagonist who could only find her value and self-worth in the roles of wife and mother. I did, however, warm to her and got to the point where I was rooting for her and Ryan to fall in love. It also was a challenge to warm to Ryan, and I’m going to attribute this to Harlow intentionally portraying him as someone who didn’t want to feel and craved only numbness. In this way, even when Ryan is narrating from his own point-of-view, he feels distant to the reader. Again, I warmed to him as his character developed and evolved, and he became more accessible in conjunction with his growing inability to flip the switch on his emotions.

The story is told through the alternating first person POVs* of Stella and Ryan, with a small handful of short scenes narrated by Stella’s grandmother, Grams. Normally, I wouldn’t like these “interruptions” by a first person narrative voice not belonging to the female or male protagonist, but I fell in love with Grams’ character and thoroughly enjoyed her intrusions into the narrative. Indeed, as the matchmaking force that ultimately put Stella into Ryan’s path, her narrative intrusions mirror her matchmaking machinations as the two lovers move through the familiar milestones of a romance plot (girl meets boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back). In addition to Grams, Harlow gives us Emme and Maren as supporting characters, both of whom act as confidants for Stella as well as contrasting personalities who help show Stella as a more rounded, fully-developed character. For Ryan, the best friend/sidekick character is an old buddy he served with in the Marines. One of the things that Harlow does well and sets her novels apart from others in the genre is that she uses her supporting cast effectively, letting the two main characters play off them in multiple ways and in doing so allows them to become more than just characters performing predictable roles in predictable fashion.

Listen. I’m an avid fan of romance novels and scoff at those who want to give the judgy side-eye to romance readers. Still, the massive glut of romance novels currently available makes it challenging for readers of the genre to find the kind of romances they like to read. I sample a lot of romance novels before deciding what I’m going to commit to buying and reading. The more romance novels I finish, the more I recognize the good ones from the bad ones, the bad ones from the ones that are simply unreadable, and the really good ones from the ones that are just okay reads that I’m going to forget hours after I’ve gotten to the end. Similarly, more than I ever have before, I’m keeping track of those authors whose work hasn’t let me down. Those authors who know how to deliver a romance with an actual love story. Because why do we read romance novels in the first place, if not to be swept out of our own everyday worlds and into a grand romance where we’re rooting for the two lovers to defy all the odds and find a forever kind of love? I mean, don’t we all want a happy ending, or am I just projecting here?

Thus far, Melanie Harlow hasn’t disappointed me and she’s earned her place on my list of authors whose work I can go to when I need to get my romance novel fix. If you are looking for a good romance, I recommend checking out Only Love. As of this writing, this book wasn’t available from my local library but it is currently available in the Kindle Unlimited library. That being said, it’s my opinion that this is a book that is worth your book dollars and the author is definitely someone worth supporting (because I really want her to write more books!).

Have you read Only Love or any of the other books in the One and Only series? What do you think?

*POV = point-of-view

review: witness to passion

Beware: Witness to Passion is a racy read. It contains naughty language and graphic sexuality. If you prefer sweet romances, this one is not for you.

Witness to Passion by Naima Simone (2015)

Witness to Passion is a standalone story in Naima Simone’s two-book Guarding Her Body series (note: from what I’ve been able to gather, this series is loosely connected to her Secrets and Sins four-book series). As I was getting to the end of this book, one thought going through my mind was that I want to read more books by Naima Simone. In my experience, it’s difficult to find quality reads in the romantic suspense genre. This book is a steamy, quality read and if that’s how you like your romance novels, pick this one up and give it a try.

This is the story of Fallon and Shane. When the story opens, it’s Fallon’s twenty-fifth birthday. She’s standing in a coffee shop getting coffee for herself, her boss and the boss’ handsy son. Upon leaving the coffee shop, she gets into her car and finds a break-up tweet from her boyfriend. But before she can drive away, Fallon witnesses a murder. The murderer approaches her and threatens her life should she tell the police what she saw. Fast forward three months, and Fallon has lost her job, is now working in a small diner to make ends meet, and is the prosecution’s star witness in a murder trial. What Fallon wants most is to start her own event planning business, and she wants to be able to live comfortably without being a financial burden and without relying upon her father’s wealth. Her parents’ marriage failed because of infidelity, and her mother is a serial dater. As a result, Fallon doesn’t see marriage in her future and views happily ever after as nothing more than a fairy tale. Shane, on the other hand, wants marriage, family, the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence. This difference in what they want puts them at odds and is a source of conflict and tension between them for much of the book. It is also an inversion of stereotypical gender roles and gender representation that normally offers a woman who wants marriage and family and a man who prefers to continue a streak of one-night stands. Shane is a security specialist, and when he learns from his sister (and Fallon’s best friend) that Fallon is in danger, he assigns himself as her bodyguard. Shane’s leading character trait is that he is a protector (my favorite kind of male protagonist), and we learn that while serving in the military he sustained serious injuries that pushed him into an early discharge.

The story is set in Boston and is told from Fallon and Shane’s alternating, third person point of view (POV). Simone strikes the right blend of romance and suspense and keeps the story moving forward. I wanted to keep turning the pages and it was hard to put the book down. In addition to playing on the inversion of gender stereotypes, the story turns on a recognizable trope in romance novels—she’s my sister’s best friend and therefore untouchable. Although the love plot and the suspense plot follow the expected, conventional paths, Fallon and Shane are likable and relatable characters and as a reader I was easily pulled into their love story. Unresolved sexual tension jumps between them and the romance is believable (because let’s be honest, in some books, it’s hard to believe that the two lovers are really falling in love, right?). Fallon and Shane are surrounded by a small supporting cast of characters, mostly comprised of Shane’s business partners and friends. With the exception of Tristan, one of Shane’s closest friends, none of the supporting characters is fully developed; however, there is enough to make you curious to know more about these characters and to serve as an introduction in the event that each one will be featured in a future book.

Witness to Passion is an excellent read and I’m glad I stumbled upon it. I will definitely read more books by Naima Simone and watch out for new releases from her. If you are looking to sample a book by a new author, or if you like romantic suspense, I think you will enjoy Witness to Passion. It’s worth your reading time and the debit from your book budget.

Have you read Witness to Passion or any other books by Naima Simone? What did you think?

review: damaged!

Beware: Damaged! is a racy read. It contains naughty language and graphic sexuality. If you prefer sweet romances, this one is not for you.

Damaged! by J.S. Scott (2017)

Damaged! is the third book in J.S. Scott’s Walker Brothers series. Though I was a bit skeptical of the book due to the exclamation point in the title (why is this necessary?) and though billionaire romances are a dime a dozen and so few stand out from the forgettable glut of books in this category, I have enjoyed other books by this author and decided to give this one a try.

This is the story of Kenzie and Dane. Kenzie has recently lost her job as a receptionist in a New York City art gallery. On the verge of being homeless and destitute, she gets a job offer from Trace and Sebastian (Dane’s older brothers) to be their brother’s personal assistant. With no other viable options, Kenzie packs her things and makes the journey from New York to Dane’s private island in the Bahamas. Having worked in an art gallery and being a novice artist herself, Kenzie is excited to meet Dane Walker, a world renown artist. Upon her arrival and first interaction with her new boss, she learns the reason that old saying exists—never meet your heroes. Dane has been living on the island for the past eight years in near isolation. He bought the island at the age of eighteen, after being a passenger in a plane crash that killed his father and left him with numerous scars on his body. Though the extreme isolation has taken a heavy toll on Dane’s psychological state and he longs for social interaction, he is irate with his brothers for sending Kenzie to the island and hiring her as his PA without his knowledge. His first inclination is to send her back to New York, but once he learns the circumstances she’d be going back to, he relents and allows her to stay. As the story progresses, both Kenzie and Dane show all the ways in which they are damaged, and readers are invited to believe in the power of love to heal all wounds.

Both Kenzie and Dane (is it wrong that I keep wanting to type Deeks here?) are likable characters. The story is told through their alternating first person point of view (POV), with a heavier bias towards Kenzie’s POV. Structurally, Scott does something noteworthy with the narrative. For about the first half of the book, she intersperses chapters from Dane’s POV that show specific moments in his past. She starts with a scene from eight years ago, then seven, then six, etc. Once those narratives catch up to the present time, she mirrors this framework with Kenzie’s POV, having her scenes also count down from past to present. One reason Scott has for doing this (at least in my opinion) is that she is trying to show what Kenzie and Dane were going through at relatively the same point in time. She continues this interweaving by giving them both a mantra they repeat to themselves to keep themselves going, to not give in or quit. Scott drives home this interconnectedness by making their birthdays be exactly one day apart. All of this makes the narrative a more interesting read for the careful and attentive reader.

The love plot turns on a highly prevalent and recognizable trope found in contemporary romance novels—namely, a romance between employer and employee. Given the current environment where a news article revealing sexual harassment appears every day, I question how long readers of romance novels will continue to find this an acceptable trope or if it is one they will begin to avoid or shun. I’m also curious about whether or not authors will continue to use the trope or if they will begin to cast it aside in favor of other tropes. Only time will tell.

I liked Damaged! I didn’t think it was great, but it was more than just okay. I was entertained and invested in Kenzie and Dane’s story. I say if you have read any of Scott’s work in the past and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy Damaged! If you’re a new reader and can’t really find anything else to read, but you’re intrigued by the back cover copy, give it a try. I don’t regret spending the money and I didn’t at any point want to put the book down and stop reading.

NOTE: I enjoy reading steamy romance novels but it’s not easy to find quality reads in this category. It can be challenging—even after you’ve read the back cover blurb and a sample—to know for sure if a particular book is worth your time and money. If you’re a reader like me who likes this category but wants quality over quantity, then drop a comment below and let me know if this review was helpful to you.

review: blind reader wanted

Beware: Blind Reader Wanted is a racy read. It contains naughty language and graphic sexuality. If you prefer sweet romances, this one is not for you.

Blind Reader Wanted by Georgia Le Carre (2017)

This is the story of Lara and Kit. Lara is a twenty-two year old young woman who makes her living as a sculptor (I only mention Lara’s age here because this could fall into the New Adult category, which I tend to stay away from and thus it may be a detail that matters to you). She lives in a small town where everyone knows her name, an insular community with a healthy grapevine for gossip and that shuns outsiders. Lara loves to read (definitely a point in her favor) and lives life fearlessly. Her best friend is Elaine, and though everyone knows her, she’s a loner with no close family. Kit is also a loner, having come to the small town of Durango Falls five years ago. He lives on an isolated tract of land near the mountains, and in the time he’s been in town, the locals have made up all kinds of stories and gossip about him. Kit has been fine with this solitary existence, preferring to make friends with the wolves on his property than cultivate friendships with the townspeople. Kit has scars on his body resulting from third degree burns sustained from military combat, and though he has avoided people since settling in the town, loneliness drives him to post an ad in the local library for a blind reader. He wants someone—a woman—to come to his home and read to him to alleviate his solitary existence.

The meet cute happens quite late in the story (in my humble opinion, in a romance novel, the lovers should meet in the first chapter, the second chapter at the latest). When it does finally happen, though, for Kit it’s love at first sight. Okay, because this is not the first romance novel I’ve read, I’ll continue to suspend my disbelief. The first meeting between Lara and Kit is stilted and awkward, but Lara agrees to accept the job as his blind reader, and this is how the two will continue to come into contact through the first half of the story. However, this means that there is not a lot of interaction between the two main characters through the first half of the novel. For me, this is problematic because what I think I’m reading is a romance novel, but it’s hard to believe the romance when the lovers hardly see each other for half of the book. It’s also problematic because it makes it difficult to build believable sexual tension between Lara and Kit, and further still, I found it difficult to get fully invested in their love story or in them as characters.

The story is told through Lara and Kit’s alternating first person point of view (POV). Because first person is typically closer and more intimate, I shouldn’t have struggled to get involved in these characters and want to root for them. But I did. I also had a structural problem with the novel (and yes, this is me talking with my writer hat on, but it frustrates me as a reader as well)—the chapters are super-short and often end mid-conversation. For example, we’ll have a conversation between Lara and Kit, and the chapter will end right in the middle of it—not necessarily for cliffhanger effect. You expect that the next chapter will be from the other POV, but when you turn the page, you’re still in that same character’s POV. So why stop in the middle of a conversation? I wanted this author to make more effective use of scene breaks. Also, I find this trend in contemporary fiction toward super-short chapters a bit insulting to me as a reader, as though I have no attention span at all and have to be fed the story in short bursts lest my fragile attention wander (and if my attention does wander, that’s a fault in the story for not keeping me engaged). My other problem with this story is that the author has trouble keeping character names straight. There are two characters in the novel whose last names change multiple times. Yes, this is probably me being nitpicky but well that’s my prerogative as a reader, right?

I start a lot of books and don’t finish them because something turns me off and makes it easy for me to put the book down. I’m trying to do less of that this year. I’m trying to finish more of what I start and I’m also trying to review more of what I read. Mission accomplished with Blind Reader Wanted. However, if you’re looking for a racy read (and by racy, I mean steamy hot romance) that includes well-developed characters and a compelling story, look elsewhere.

NOTE: I enjoy reading steamy romance novels but it’s not easy to find quality reads in this category. It can be challenging—even after you’ve read the back cover copy and a sample—to know for sure if a particular book is worth your time and money. If you’re a reader like me who likes this category but wants quality over quantity, then drop a comment below and let me know if this review was helpful to you.