review: everdark

Note: Everdark is the second book in Elle Jasper’s paranormal romance series, Dark Ink Chronicles. If you haven’t read the first book in the series, Afterlight, you might want to look away. Spoilers ahead.

Everdark by Elle Jasper (2011)

Like the second season of a decent (but not great) television series, Everdark suffers a sophomore slump. Not only does it take a long time (a really long time) for the book to get going, but just when it seems like the story is gaining some momentum, you realize that not a whole lot is happening. Perhaps worse, what does happen seems to be the same thing that happened before, and before that, and before that. Worst of all, once the moment for the big showdown arrives, it’s completely anti-climactic because, well, there really is no showdown. Then the book ends on a cliffhanger. Everdark was a frustrating read for me, and when it came time for me to give it a rating, it only earned two stars (out of five) from me. If you read my review of Afterlight, you know I wasn’t fully invested in the idea of continuing the series after the end of the first book but that I was willing to give it a try. Now that I have finished the second book (and a lot sooner than I had anticipated) I can’t really say I would recommend the series to readers, especially not when there are so many other great book series out there. This goes double for my readers who are on a book budget. Everdark is not available with a Kindle Unlimited subscription, and it also isn’t available through my local library’s print or ebook collections. So if you want to read it, you have to buy it for either full price at your favorite bookstore or search for it during your next trip to your favorite used bookstore. My suggestion—spend your book dollars elsewhere, and don’t feel any reason to rush into reading book two if you’ve recently finished reading Afterlight. Continue reading

review: afterlight

Afterlight by Elle Jasper (2010)

Afterlight is the first book in Elle Jasper’s vampire/paranormal romance series, The Dark Ink Chronicles. Yes, I’m bringing you a vampire romance novel today, so let’s get the preliminaries out of the way, shall we? If you liked the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, but at the same time prefer your vampire romances to be written for adult readers (as opposed to young adult readers), you will like this first book in the Dark Ink Chronicles. I stumbled upon Afterlight while browsing the shelves of my local used bookstore. It’s been on my bookshelf for at least a year now, but with loads of time on my hands at the moment and nowhere to really go (I read this book during my state’s stay-at-home order prompted by COVID-19), I’ve been searching for new series to dive into and focused on clearing my physical and virtual bookshelves. I decided to finally pick up Afterlight, and the truth is that it kept me up past my bedtime and then kept me entertained for the better part of a Saturday. At the time of this writing, this book isn’t available from my local library or through Kindle Unlimited, but if you find it on your next trip to your local used bookstore and you like vampire romances, it’s worth your book dollars. Continue reading

review: echoes of fire

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

Echoes of Fire by Suzanne Wright (2018)

Echoes of Fire is the first book I’ve read by Suzanne Wright, and I’m asking myself how I have missed stumbling upon this author until now. I was absorbed by the story and the characters right from the beginning and stayed up past my bedtime on a Sunday night because I didn’t want to put the book down. And that was after having spent most of the day with my head in the book. Wright has instantly gone to my “read more books by this author” list. Echoes of Fire is the fourth book in Wright’s Mercury Pack series, shifter romances set in a contemporary world where humans know about the existence of shifters. Not having read any of the other books in this series (or its sister series featuring the Phoenix Pack), I can assure you that this book definitely stands alone. Concerned about your book budget? At the time of this writing, Echoes of Fire is included with your Kindle Unlimited subscription (if you’ve got one), but it’s not available through my local library. But listen, this book is worth your book dollars. Especially if you love racy romances and shifter romances that are well-written, fast-paced, and totally engaging. Continue reading

review: only with you

Only with You by Layla Hagen (2019)

Only with You is the fourth book in Layla Hagen’s contemporary romance series, The Connor Family, but rest assured that these books can be read as standalone novels. I have also read the first book in this series, Anything for You and it is one of my favorite reads of 2019. I highly recommend both books to readers who love steamy romance novels with real, everyday characters. I’ve now had two experiences with Layla Hagen’s work and she’s an author I am adding to my must-read list. I have loved both of these books and can’t wait to read more in this series. On a budget? At the time of this writing, Only with You is not in the Kindle Unlimited library nor is it available from my local library, so it will cost you a withdrawal from your book budget. It’s totally worth every dollar and I have no regrets about my purchase. If you have read and enjoyed The Sullivans series by Bella Andre or the With You series by Kristen Proby, you will love the Connors. Continue reading

review: irresistible

Irresistible by Melanie Harlow (2019)

Dear Readers: I do not want to bury the lede here. Irresistible by Melanie Harlow is a fantastic, five-star read that made me cry, and then it made me laugh at the same time it was making me cry. Honestly, what more could I ask for? Nothing. Not. One. Thing. Irresistible is my favorite read of 2019 so far (and in case you were wondering, this is book #30 for the year), and here I am, once again writing about how amazing Melanie Harlow’s books are. Need another incentive? As of this writing, you can find Irresistible in the Kindle Unlimited library. If you’re not a subscriber, do not despair because this book is worth every penny of your book budget dollars. Give this author a chance to wow you. Continue reading

review: take me home

Take Me Home by J.H. Croix (2015)

J.H. Croix is a new-to-me author I found while browsing through my BookBub account. I decided to take a chance on Take Me Home, the first book in Croix’s contemporary romance series, Last Frontier Lodge. For readers on a budget, know that as of the date of this writing, this book is currently a free ebook but it’s not available in the Kindle Unlimited library and it also isn’t available from my local public library. If you’re looking for a steamy romance novel for your next read and want a new series to try, Take Me Home just might check all of your boxes, but don’t let your expectations get too high. Continue reading

review: a dangerous hunger

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

A Dangerous Hunger by J.S. Scott (2014)

A Dangerous Hunger is the second book in the paranormal romance series, The Sentinels. I haven’t read book one in this series and have to admit that was a mistake on my part. After finishing A Dangerous Hunger, my guess is that the books in this series are best read in order. That being said, I’ll do my best to avoid revealing any spoilers.

In the world of The Sentinels, there is a war raging between good and evil to which the humans of the world are blind. Standing on the side of evil are the Evils, demons created by the mythological Greek gods who were banished to the demon realm existing between Earth and Hades when they got out of control. However, with the power of the Greek gods waning to almost nothing, the Evils have been able to break free from the demon realm and terrorize humans. Enter the Sentinels. Also created by the Greek gods, the Sentinels stand on the side of good and were tasked with the responsibility of keeping humans safe from the Evils. The Sentinels are human men turned into immortal demons, their souls plunged into eternal darkness. That is, until they meet their radiants—mates who will bring light to their existence. It is within this world that the story of Talia and Drew unfolds. Continue reading

review: hot winter nights

Hot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis (2018)

Hot Winter Nights is the sixth full-length novel in Jill Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay contemporary romance series. Each novel in the series can stand alone and be read in any order. If you want to pick up the first book in the series, it’s Sweet Little Lies. Thus far, Accidentally on Purpose (find my review here) and Chasing Christmas Eve are my favorite books in the series. On a budget? Here’s the info you need to know: Hot Winter Nights is not in the Kindle Unlimited library (as far as I know, none of Shalvis’ work is) but it was available through my local library in e-book and paperback format. I’ve also been able to find Shalvis’ books in my local used bookstore. I haven’t ever been disappointed by one of Shalvis’ books (I also love the books in the Lucky Harbor series) and haven’t regretted spending my book dollars on one of her novels. She’s one of my go-to authors who I trust to give me a good romance novel, and if you’ve been around my book blog for a while, you know I don’t say that about a lot of romance authors. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

review: guarding brielle

Guarding Brielle by Nicole Flockton (2018)

Guarding Brielle is the fifth book in Nicole Flockton’s Guardian SEALs series. I didn’t know until I started reading Guarding Brielle that this book exists within the world of military romantic suspense created by Susan Stoker. Guarding Brielle is adjacent to Stoker’s SEAL of Protection series and brushes against her Delta Force Heroes series. Also, be aware that this book is part of a larger Kindle Worlds series—Special Forces: Operation Alpha World (there’s a handy list in the back of the book identifying the titles in this series). Had I known all this going in, well, I might have made a different buying decision. Which is to say, I’ve always been lukewarm where Stoker’s novels are concerned. In short, if you have read Stoker’s novels, know that Guarding Brielle will deliver more of the same, and from there you can decide if you are totally down for more of the same or you’ve already had enough. If it’s all new to you, don’t worry. Guarding Brielle can be read as a standalone book. Also, if you are the kind of reader who prefers romance novels more on the sweet side of the spectrum, this book may appeal to you. It is definitely not a racy read. But…Guarding Brielle isn’t one of my recommended reads and honestly, I have no intention of going back to read any other books in this series. Before we dive into what this book is about, here’s another warning: if you are the kind of reader who is easily annoyed with typos, you’re going to want to take a pass on this one because I’m sad to say the book is poorly edited. Okay, that’s all the preliminaries, I think. Moving on. Continue reading

review: wild in love

Wild in Love by Bella Andre & Jennifer Skully (2018)

After a bit of a reading break, I went to my book shopping list and discovered that Wild in Love by Bella Andre and Jennifer Skully had finally been published. Quickly, I snapped it up and planned to spend my day reading the last book in the Maverick Billionaires series (which, by the way, apparently isn’t really going to be the last book, but more on that later). My reading excitement stemmed from my previous experiences with the first four books in this series. I knew I had liked them all, and I’d been waiting for this last book for more than a year. Well, I bought the book, I read the book, and here I am to review the book. Spoiler alert: I was a little disappointed.

If you are new to the Maverick Billionaires series by Andre & Skully, then know that you can read these books in any order. For the most part they standalone. You can safely read ahead, as there won’t be any spoilers of any other books in this series. If you want to read the series from the beginning, start with Breathless in Love.

This is the story of Tasha and Daniel. At the beginning of the story, Tasha is in a self-imposed exile, intent upon doing penance for the sins of her father. She has bought a wreck of a cabin by the lake, but to keep herself busy and turn the cabin into a livable home, she has dived into DIY home improvement. The solitude and loneliness weigh on this natural extrovert, though. Tasha believes this to be her due and that she doesn’t deserve to have friends, happiness, or anything good in her life. Daniel is vacationing at his lake house, the interior of which is still under construction. It’s a project he intends to complete himself, and since he has made his fortune by opening DIY home improvement stores and making DIY videos, completing the interior of the house is more a labor of love than work. Daniel is the last of the Mavericks who is still single, and from the beginning of his story, we are given a man who wants to find a perfect love, the kind of love he believes his parents have. No messes, no arguments, just an endless string of moments of bliss. But a phone call with his mother disturbs his image of the idyllic love and marriage. From the outset, the trajectory of each character’s growth arc is clear: Tasha has to return to the world of the living and accept that she’s not responsible for her father’s sins, and Daniel has to learn that there’s no such thing as a perfect love or perfect marriage and be willing to risk his heart anyway.

You know how you read a novel and you get close to the end and realize not a whole lot has happened so far? Wild in Love is like that. Don’t get me wrong—there is a story, but there’s no plot. One side of my brain wants to defend this and point to this book as an example of the character-driven story. Perhaps, but if that’s the case, I need much more compelling characters whose motivations and desires cause them to make choices that complicate their lives and the lives of others before they get to the end of their growth arcs. That’s not really the case with Wild in Love, and maybe part of that is due to the isolated, single setting environment in which nine-tenths of the story takes place. Because the story takes place on the lake where Tasha’s and Daniel’s homes are somewhat secluded, there isn’t the opportunity for external conflict to come in and be disruptive. So Andre & Skully rely heavily upon internal conflict and the tension between Tasha and Daniel. For this reader, it doesn’t really work. I did keep turning the page, but mostly because I didn’t want to abandon the book, especially a book whose release I’ve been waiting for. I’m one of those readers who wants to care about the characters, and it was hard to do that with Tasha and Daniel.

Then there’s the fact that this is the last book in the series. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know how I feel about the last book of a series—it should be epic. The tension should be higher, the stakes should be greater, the emotion should be at its highest peak. To be clear, I really did enjoy all four books prior to this one, and I have been looking forward to reading the last Maverick’s story. But there wasn’t anything epic about this book, and there really wasn’t anything special about it either, and that’s disappointing. At the same time, it is a reminder of the challenges that come with writing a series. Some books in the series will be better than others. However, based upon what I read in the back matter of the book, there is going to be at least one more book in this series. From what I can tell, it will be what I’m calling “Maverick-adjacent” since it features a character we’ve met before, but who isn’t part of the original group of five.

Final analysis? It’s hard for me to say to skip this book if you’ve read all four of the previous books. Wild in Love gives closure to the original concept of each Maverick getting his own story. So if you’ve read all of the other books and decide you want to read this one, maybe go in with lower expectations than I did. If you’ve not read any of the books in this series, please don’t start with this one. Indeed, I’d say start with any other book but this one.

Have you read Wild in Love or any other books in the Maverick Billionaires series? What did you think?

review: fast burn

Fast Burn by Lori Foster (2018)

Do you remember when I reviewed Close Contact, which is the third book in Lori Foster’s Body Armor series?  Well, I didn’t like that book and found it to be a bit disappointing.  Since then, though, I have read the second book in this series, Hard Justice (which I loved and recommend for fans of romantic suspense) and I just finished reading the fourth and final book, Fast Burn.  I loved reading this one, too, and honestly, I now want to go back and read the first book in this series.  The third book may have been a dud, but Fast Burn was the perfect read for a lazy Sunday.  If you like reading about lady bosses, the trouble that finds, and the men who love them, pick up this book post haste.  The suspense kept me turning the pages and this one will appeal to readers who like their romances to fall more on the sweeter end of the spectrum.  I actually went into a physical bookstore and bought the paperback edition of this book (thanks to a gift card from someone who loves me, a 17% off coupon for St. Patrick’s Day, and my store membership).  It’s worth your book budget dollars and your reading time.

This is the story of Sahara and Brand.  Sahara is the owner of Body Armor Security, a company she took control of when her brother, Scott, disappeared mysteriously in a boating accident.  In the sixteen months that she’s been in charge, she has remade the image of the agency, handpicking MMA fighters seeking a new life after ending their fighting careers and training them to be bodyguards.  Hands down, Sahara is my favorite lady boss character I’ve read all year.  She’s smart, resourceful, good at reading people and situations. There are really two things she wants most when the story begins—to finally recruit Brand Berry into the agency as a bodyguard (something we see her trying to accomplish during books two and three of the series) and find her brother, who’s presumed dead by everyone except her.  Brand is an MMA fighter who is considering what the next step in his career will be.  He is interested in Sahara’s job offer, but he wants to date Sahara, not work for her.  He has to make a choice about whether or not to accept a fight in Japan, which will help him cover new financial obligations arising from his birth mother’s recent health crisis.  Though Sahara and Brand are firmly locked in a clash of wills through most of the story, I wouldn’t really call this an enemies-to-lovers story (putting that out there in case that particular trope isn’t really your thing).  It creates the tension and conflict that moves the love story along, but these two don’t have to get over hating each other before falling in love with each other.  Consequently, the romance plot of the story drew me in as a reader and immediately I felt invested in these two finding their happily ever after.

The story is told through the alternating third-person POVs of Sahara and Brand, but also be aware that there is a third POV from the antagonist’s POV (again, putting that out there just in case multi-POV isn’t your thing; it’s not really my thing but it’s not bothersome in this story).  If you’ve read any of the previous books in this series, you were already primed to expect that the suspense plot of Sahara’s story would revolve around finally finding out her brother’s fate.  After being kidnapped by a group of men who have a connection to her brother, she is closer to her goal than she’s ever been before.  This is where the main characters from the previous books enter the story, ready and determined to help Sahara stay alive and find the truth. Her character arc can only come full circle once she knows what happened to her brother and as a result, is able to move on with her life and out of the limbo she’s been in since his disappearance. In the process, Sahara also learns that while she is very much the boss, she’s also part of a family.  And if it seems that Fast Burn is all about Sahara Silver, well, it is.  She is the focal point of the story and everything in the novel revolves around her.  Don’t get me wrong—Brand isn’t a flat character who is there only to be a plot device and a means for propelling Sahara’s character development. I like Brand and he’s very much a part of the story, but this is one of those stories where if you don’t like Sahara, you won’t like the book.

But like I said earlier, I love Sahara’s character and I really enjoyed this book.  The Body Armor Series is a good example of a series where not all of the books are equally entertaining but as a whole it’s a series worth reading.  The good news is that if you want to skip any book in this series, or if you want to skip around and not read them in order, you can and you won’t have missed anything important or be confused.  There were, however, several references to the first book in the series that I didn’t get because I haven’t read that one, but otherwise I followed along just fine.  If you’re looking for a good romantic suspense series with likable characters, smart suspense plots and satisfying love stories, try this series.

Have you read Fast Burn or any other books by Lori Foster? What did you think?

review: the purest hook

The Purest Hook by Scarlett Cole (2017)

I have found a new author to add to my list of favorites, and her name is Scarlett Cole. Look. The Purest Hook is packed with loads of dramatic tension and I was tense the whole time I was reading. I can only admire a book that evokes an emotional response and creates a visceral reading experience. I started this book late after work one night and read for about two hours before forcing myself to stop and get some sleep. I picked it right back up in the morning, and then read straight through to the end. I borrowed this book from my local library so if your book budget is a bit tight, look for it there. Honestly, though, this is one writer I want to support so that she’ll write more books, so I’ll be buying her stuff from here on out. Three books into her backlist and I haven’t been disappointed. Listen. Get thee into the Second Circle Tattoos series! For the most part, each book stands alone, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning with The Strongest Steel (if you’re interested, you can read my review here).

This is the story of Pixie and Dred. Pixie is the office manager at Second Circle Tattoos. Seven years ago, she ran away from home and landed in Miami, where Trent and Cujo, owners of Second Circle, took her in and gave her a place to call home. She likes show tunes and Broadway musicals. Though the guys have taught her how to tattoo, Pixie’s real dream is to start her own business making custom dresses and costumes for little girls. She’s managed to build a life for herself, but like any good protagonist, there are things in her past that haunt her and threaten to destroy the life she’s built. Dred is the lead singer for a metal band called Preload. He, too, has a troubled past filled with secrets he would rather not be made public. While Dred comes up with any number of reasons why he should avoid Pixie, particularly that he should focus on his career and that there will be time for everything else later, he can’t stop himself from asking her to go out with him each time they meet. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between Pixie and Dred. Neither of them defines family by blood ties, and both of them are being exploited.

For me, characters are probably the most important element of a book. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you already know that I read the sample before deciding whether I’m going to buy a book by a new author or one I’m still on the fence about. More than anything else, if the characters aren’t compelling, or if they are just carbon copies of favorite characters in the genre, then I’m not going to buy the book. It would have been really easy for Cole to present Dred as a stereotypical rock star—the arrogant, self-absorbed, damaged asshole who simply needs the love of the right woman to reform and be a better man (you’ve read that one, probably more than once, right?). You know the kind of character I mean—the one you don’t really like and certainly would never consider to be date material in real life. Dred Zander doesn’t fall into that category, and his character development from start to finish turns him into a compelling character that you just want to keep reading about. Indeed, I’d say all of the male protagonists in this story are genuinely likable characters, even when they make stupid choices (mind, the female protagonists also make stupid choices). Pixie is perhaps closer to type and her character arc is closer to being flat than one filled with change, but she’s not a broken damsel in distress in need of rescuing. What I loved about them together is the way their struggles and challenges moved in parallel. Pixie and Dred aren’t so much in conflict with each other as they are in conflict with themselves and the antagonists they have to defeat.

The story is told through the alternating, third person point-of-view of Pixie and Dred. And though there’s plenty of unresolved sexual tension between the lovers for the first half of the story, the real accomplishment is the sustained dramatic tension. From the beginning, Cole reveals Pixie and Dred’s secrets one layer at a time, and each new revelation heightens the dramatic tension. My heart rate sped up several times as I waited to find out what happened next. Though it would be easy to shelve this book in the rock star romance category, it’s not so easily labeled, and that ends up being a good thing because the story doesn’t fall into predictability. In that sense, Dred isn’t drawn as your typical rock star male protagonist, and that just makes him all the more interesting as a character. Another noteworthy aspect of the story is that, although Pixie fled from an abusive home, the plot doesn’t turn on actual or an implied threat of violence against women. This is something I’ve appreciated about the books in this series. Cole finds other ways to put her characters in jeopardy and danger, other ways of introducing conflict into the story. This isn’t to say violence is wholly absent, just that the premise of the suspense plot doesn’t rely upon it.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. I didn’t hesitate to give it a five-star rating, only the second such rating I’ve given all year. It was difficult to stop myself from instantly downloading The Darkest Link, the fourth and final book in this series. That’s how addicted I have become to these books. I’m also on board with diving into the series that follows this one and delves into the lives of the members of Preload. If you’re like me—someone who reads a lot, is easily bored by 80% of the TV shows currently on air, and mostly disenchanted by or disinterested in the film industry’s recent offerings—and thus spends a lot of time looking for entertaining and satisfying reads, then I highly recommend giving this series a try. I really loved The Strongest Steel, The Fractured Heart was a good read, but The Purest Hook might be my favorite so far. But please start at the beginning of the series—it’s worth your time and your money.

Have you read The Purest Hook or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: the strongest steel

The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole (2015)

Are you here to find out whether or not you should add The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole to your to-be-read list of books? Short answer: yes. Want to know more? Keep reading…

The Strongest Steel is the first book in Cole’s Second Circle Tattoos series. The book is set in Miami and is a contemporary romance falling more on the sweet side of the spectrum than the steamy side. Also, the book is more of a romance with elements of suspense, than romantic suspense. I was able to borrow this book from my library, so if you are on a book budget like I am, or if you’ve already overspent your book budget (I could be guilty of this, too) but want a book to read, see if your library has this title. Even though I borrowed the book, I would have paid for it and had no regrets about spending the money (even if it sent me into the red with my book budget – I may also have some experience with this, too). I am glad I found this title, and that it’s taken so long to show up on my radar only reinforces my suspicion that where I’m concerned, Amazon’s algorithm is way, way off.

This is the story of Harper and Trent. Harper works in a small cafe. Cole is careful to keep Harper’s full story shrouded at the start of the book, slowly revealing bits and pieces of her history as the story progresses. What we do learn about her is that she has scars on her back, received during a violent attack four years ago. What Harper seems to want most at the start of the book is to cover those scars with a tattoo, seeing it as a way of moving forward and putting the violence of the past behind her. Trent is the owner of Second Circle Tattoos and just like you’d expect, he’s a tattoo artist (don’t call him a tattooer). The name of his business is taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy (how much do I love the interweaving of classic literature into contemporary novels??) and all of his tattoos are inspired by the classic text. Part of Trent’s mission as a tattoo artist is to serve those seeking tattoos as a form of emotional healing from the trauma that left their bodies scarred. Trent’s studio is successful and he’s content with his life, but when Harper approaches him at one in the morning and asks if he can tattoo her scarred back, his life takes an unexpected turn. The love story and romance between Harper and Trent is the focal point of the novel. Yes, there is some trouble lurking on the edges of the story, but the main source of tension stems from the path to true love being anything but smooth.

The story is told from Harper and Trent’s alternating third-person point of view. Both Harper and Trent are well-developed characters, though I would say that Trent’s character arc is more flat while Harper’s character arc is one of positive change. She has definitely grown as a character by the end of the book. The supporting cast of characters in the story is worth mentioning, particularly since they will be featured in their own stories as the series continues. Cujo is Trent’s best friend and also works in the studio as a tattoo artist. Lia is also a tattoo artist, and Pixie runs the reception desk and is effectively the office manager. There is also Drea, Harper’s best friend, who works at the same coffee shop as Harper. The supporting cast is a good one. Each character gets just enough “screen time” to make me curious about them and interested to see how they are developed in future books. The world Cole has started to build in The Strongest Steel, with Second Circle Tattoos standing at the center of that world, is one where friends are family and everyone supports each other. Along with Harper and Trent, the supporting characters are flawed but likable, and I can’t overstate how important that is to me when considering whether or not I want to continue reading a series.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot. If there were something between four and five stars, that’s the rating it would get from me (since there isn’t, I gave the book four stars). I wanted to keep turning the pages and I was invested in Harper and Trent’s story and engaged while reading. For me, The Strongest Steel falls into the quality read category. It’s a book I enjoyed reading and don’t feel like it was a waste of my reading time. If you liked the Hard Ink series by Laura Kaye, I think you’ll also like The Strongest Steel. There is more action in the Hard Ink books and they are also a bit steamier than The Strongest Steel, but I would still put them in the same section on my bookshelf. I plan on reading more of this series and have already added the second book, The Fractured Heart, to my to-be-read pile (and that’s saying a lot, considering I usually avoid the enemies-to-lovers trope, which is the convention the book turns on).

Have you read The Strongest Steel or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: after we fall

After We Fall by Melanie Harlow (2016)

If this is the only sentence you read, here’s what you need to know: read this book if you love romance novels. It’s the first novel to get a five-star rating from me this year and I want to read more books by Melanie Harlow. After We Fall is the second book in Harlow’s After We Fall series. I downloaded a heaping handful of samples onto my kindle one morning and when I got to the end of the sample for this book I instantly hit buy and there’s not a bit of buyer’s remorse.

This is the story of Margot and Jack. Margot is your stereotypical rich city girl, the daughter of an old money family in Detroit. Her father is running for Senate, and her mother is all about appearances and tradition. Margot has always gone along with her parents’ wishes, being the dutiful daughter and doing what was expected of her (going to Vassar, majoring in English). The next step in the line of duties seems to be getting married and starting a family. At the start of the story, Margot is on the cusp of doing exactly that. Indeed, her story begins with a marriage proposal. A dozen thrown scones later, she’s effectively banished from Detroit and told to keep a low profile until her shocking and scandalous behavior is forgotten. This is the catalyst that pushes Margot out of her normal world and into a new world she knows nothing about—a small farm in northern Michigan. In many ways, Jack is Margot’s opposite. He left college to enlist in the military after 9/11 and spent eight years in the Army. After returning home, Jack marries the love of his life, Steph, who died two years later. When the story begins it’s been nearly three years since his wife’s death. Jack is still grieving and is also dealing with traumatic events that took place while he served in Iraq, events that make him feel directly responsible for his wife’s death. The only things Jack seems to find any joy in are spending time with his one-year-old nephew, Cooper, and working the farm he owns along with his brothers, Pete and Brad. It’s those brothers, along with Pete’s wife, Georgia, who hire Margot’s marketing firm to help them build the farm into a successful business, a decision that forces Jack out of his normal world.

The ensuing romance between Margot and Jack is turbulent and more than once evoked an emotional response from me (I teared up and laughed out loud). Margot and Jack are honest and real characters, relatable and vividly drawn. Repeatedly they are thrown into situations with each other that highlight their differences and show who they are, what they want and what matters most to each of them. Sometimes they do the right thing and sometimes they make mistakes, but the whole time I was reading I was invested in their love story and kept reading to see how they would get their happily ever after. Jack’s character arc is more fully developed than Margot’s and thus he undergoes more change throughout the story. And yet Margot changes as well, starting out as the dutiful daughter that cares what other people think of her and becoming a more independent woman who lives her life on her terms regardless of anyone else’s opinions. Harlow drives this home during a conversation between Margot and her mother near the end of the story. The point I’m trying to make here is that both Jack and Margot are engaging characters. I was completely engrossed in their story and I think you will be, too.

The story is told through Margot and Jack’s alternating first person point-of-view (POV), and it turns on the recognizable trope of the city girl/country boy opposition (though why it’s always the woman from the city who is the fish out of water in the country, and rarely vice-versa, is beyond me). I have to admit that Harlow does something in this book structurally that typically turns me off when it comes to a romance novel. The meet cute between the lovers doesn’t occur until chapter seven. While I’m pretty adamant about the meet cute happening in the first or second chapter (at the latest) of a romance novel, the delayed moment of Margot and Jack’s meeting works in Harlow’s favor here. I got to know Margot and Jack a little bit before they met, pulling me into their separate lives and seeing them as individuals before they are thrown into the falling in love portion of the story. Another aspect of the novel that did have me raising my eyebrows is the supporting cast of characters. Margot’s friends—Jaime and Claire, who are featured in books one and three of this series—are fine, but I gave Jack’s brothers, Pete and Brad, the side-eye. Jaime and Claire work in terms of showing Margot’s support system, but Pete and Brad don’t really come off as being all that supportive of a brother who’s had the experiences Jack has had. Perhaps that’s the reason for including Georgia in the supporting cast. I kind of wanted to tell Pete and Brad to have some compassion, but maybe their lack of compassion and brotherly love and support further underscores the myriad of reasons Jack is struggling with his past and having trouble moving forward.

I loved this book. I don’t give out five-star ratings easily or often, but After We Fall earned it. Not only does Harlow deliver a compelling romance, she also manages to slip in an important message about agribusiness and food justice. This was exactly the kind of read I was looking for and it definitely goes onto my recommended reads list and my list of favorite books for 2018. Give this one a try, it’s book budget money well-spent.

Have you read After We Fall or any other books by Melanie Harlow? What did you think?