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: 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?

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: 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.

review: one snowy night

One Snowy Night by Jill Shalvis (2016)

This novella is book number 2.5 in Jill Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series (preceded by Sweet Little Lies and The Trouble with Mistletoe, and followed by Accidentally on Purpose, which I reviewed here). One of the good things about this series is that each book stands alone and the books can be read in any order. I’ve said this before and will say it again, Jill Shalvis is one of those authors whose books I will always check out because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I don’t know if I would put her in my list of favorites, but she’s dependable and entertaining and hasn’t ever disappointed me.

One Snowy Night is an easy and quick read. I tried to read with my “reader” hat on but somehow my “writer” hat kept demanding to be worn. While reading, the development of the main characters—Max Stranton and Rory Andrews—preoccupied my mind as well as the basic story structure. The story is told through Max and Rory’s alternating third person point of view, and while I would say that the narrative is split fairly evenly between them, I wouldn’t say that by the end of the story I know either of them especially well. Sure, I know them in terms of their current situation—Rory has agreed to accept a ride from Max as they both travel from San Francisco to Tahoe on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with their families. Perhaps that is attributable to the short narrative as well as the fact that the story itself takes place within a time frame of approximately twelve hours.

The desire for forgiveness is what drives Rory’s character. What haunts her is the way she left home. At seventeen, she ran away from home after her junior year in high school in order to escape a household where she didn’t fit in and a family who blamed her for things she hadn’t done. Six years later, she is finally returning home and fears that she will do something to make her family continue to believe she is flaky and undependable. Proving that she has changed is the thing that drives all of her actions and emotions. In the end, it is her interactions with Max during the drive from San Francisco to Tahoe that shows what kind of person she is, and it’s up to her family to see and accept for themselves the woman she has become.

While Rory’s character arc is clearly defined, Max’s is a bit blurry and indistinct. He is haunted by the same incident in Rory’s past but his experience of it was different and he begins the story blaming Rory for what he thinks was her part in it. During the drive, he learns the truth about what actually happens, and this does change the way he sees Rory and allows him to act on the attraction he has felt for her in the time that they have both lived in San Francisco. Max travels a flat character arc through the story. He doesn’t change in any significant way (yes, it can be argued that he admits his love for Rory and that that is a significant change, but in my mind, this is a romance and that is what is expected and without that element the whole story fails to work). Rather, he reflects Rory’s positive change arc and assists her along the way, ensuring that once she does finally make it to her family home, her opinion of who she is and understanding that she is no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who ran away from home six years is what matters most. She won’t be devastated if her family doesn’t see the change and we feel confident that she’ll continue to be who she is even if she doesn’t have her family’s acceptance.

The structure of the story is also difficult to define in absolute terms. When it comes to story structure, I’m looking for the following six key turning points in the plot: catalyst, big event, midpoint, crisis, showdown, revelation. One Snowy Night does have external conflicts and obstacles that the characters must overcome along with inner conflicts that the characters must resolve. And yet, the lines between acts one, two and three are blurry and indistinct, and in my opinion, the turning points are largely absent. This is more observation than judgmental. The story moves along fine and has good pacing; there wasn’t a moment when I wanted to put the book down and stop reading.

If you’re looking for a few hours of escape into a book and want a light romance, One Snowy Night delivers. If you want something a bit deeper and more complex, I can recommend the first book in the series, Sweet Little Lies and the third book, Accidentally on Purpose. If you’ve already read every book in this series, well, then, perhaps like me you’re waiting for Spence’s story to finally be told in Chasing Christmas Eve.

Have you read One Snowy Night? Hit the comments and tell me what you thought of it.

review: accidentally on purpose

Accidentally on Purpose by Jill Shalvis (2017)

Do you have “dependable” and “reliable” authors on your bookshelf?  You know, those authors who you can depend on for a good read, no matter what book by them you might pick up? I do, and Jill Shalvis is one of those authors for me.  She is reliable in that whichever book of hers I happen to choose to read, I know I’m going to get a good book with characters I like and a charming supporting cast of characters that deepen the story. All I wanted from my day was to sit on the couch and read a book, and Accidentally on Purpose, the third full-length novel in Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series did not disappoint.

What is it about? It’s the story of a woman who is strong and independent, needs no one, and is accustomed to being in control of every aspect of her world and a man who is used to be in control of every aspect of his world and who is the protector–he protects his friends, the people who work for him and his clients.  Because of the way she grew up and a shared experience in the past that was mutually defining for both of them,, she has trouble letting people in and letting down her guard, and he is dedicated to making sure she is always safe and protected. They are two strong personalities who clash repeatedly until they learn to work as team and transform from you and me to ‘we’.

Who is in it?  Elle is the female protagonist and she is like many of Shalvis’ strong female characters who can and do take care of themselves and find it difficult to build trust and emotional intimacy.  Archer is the male protagonist and he is a successful business owner who has until now been emotionally unavailable.  Elle and Archer met when she was sixteen and he was a rookie cop.  After that, Archer kept tabs on how she was doing, and then eleven years later she takes a job managing the building in which he has his office.  She’s been a presence in his life for a year when the story begins, and though all of their friends can clearly see the attraction between them, Elle and Archer have been ignoring it, but that changes when Archer asks Elle to assist him with one of his operations.  She agrees, something she has done several times in the past, but this time, neither of them can easily walk away from the other.  When trouble arrives in the form of Elle’s sister, Morgan (could she possibly star in her own book in this series at some point in the future?), Archer’s commitment to convincing Elle to take a chance on him solidifies.

The supporting cast of characters will be familiar to you if you have read any of the other books in this series, but it is not necessary to read these books in order.  For those who have, Finn, Willa, and Spence make appearances in this book, with Spence’s presence being the strongest of all (I would love to know if his story will be the focus of the next book in the series).  In fact, I learned a lot about Spence in this book.  He is not as fully drawn, of course, as Elle and Spence, but I felt like there was a good introduction to who he is and sets readers up nicely to anticipate his story.

The story is told in third-person point of view and switches back and forth between Elle and Archer, though I would say a greater proportion of the story is told from Elle’s point of view.  I mentioned above that Archer character fits into the protector archetype.  That being said, I don’t think he’s a flat character, and neither is Elle.  Though they will both feel familiar to readers of romance, they aren’t colorless or cardboard copies of a character type.  There really are several moments during the story where I felt the emotion in a particular scene that Shalvis intended to evoke in readers.  Another thing that made this book satisfying to me?  Most readers of the genre are more than familiar with the typical plot pattern for a romance–girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back (or vice-versa, depending on who the main character is).  It’s the second part of that plot pattern-girl loses boy–that is quite often the most tiresome and disappointing aspect of most romances I read.  I understand why this moment always happen–it’s the crisis moment, the all-is-lost moment, that every book needs.  And yet for me it’s often the least enjoyable part because so frequently it’s just unbelievable.  But the good news is that the way that Accidentally on Purpose handles this moment wasn’t one that wanted me to throw the book (read: my e-reader) across the room and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Final analysis? If you enjoy contemporary romance with engaging characters, give Accidentally on Purpose a try.  I have also read the first book in this series, Sweet Little Lies, and recommend it as well.  Jill Shalvis is a dependable author who will deliver a satisfying read, and if you are interested in reading more by her, I would also recommend her Lucky Harbor series.

review: one with you

Note: One With You is the fifth and final book in Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series.  If you have not read the first four books in this series, there will be spoilers below.

One With You by Sylvia Day (2016)

One of the reading goals I set for myself for 2016 was to finish some series I had been in the middle of for a long while and catch up on others that have not yet ended.  The Crossfire series by Sylvia Day was on that list of series to be completed, and so here we are. The story of Gideon Cross and Eva Tramell has now reached its end.  I’m not going to lie–I was not happy with the way book four in this series, Captivated By You, ended, and also I haven’t been Eva Tramell’s greatest fan.  Looking at the series as a whole, my first conclusions is that I have liked the series, but maybe I haven’t loved it–at least, not since the end of book three. One of the first things you’ll read about this series is that it’s in the same category of Fifty Shades of Grey and well, I guess there’s no getting around that comparison though it’s one thousand times better than that series.  But, if I’m being honest, it’s also in the same category as the Hacker series by Meredith Wild and the Stark Trilogy by J. Kenner.  Of these four series, the Stark books by J. Kenner are the best, and though I don’t think it really matters, I still ask myself which is second best, the Crossfire series or the Hacker series.  I don’t yet know the answer to the question or if I ever will, but maybe I’ll work it out as I write about One With You.

Because this the last book in a series, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and perhaps that explains the length of the novel itself (and perhaps the length of the novel is one of the strikes against it rather than an aspect in its favor).  There are some loose ends to tie up in this series, and perhaps the best place to start with that without giving away too many spoilers is the resolution of the thread of the storyline that has explored Gideon’s relationship to his own family.  Throughout, he’s had strained relationships with his mother and his stepbrother, Christopher; his relationship with his stepsister, Ireland, has evolved; his relationship with his stepfather, Chris, got a lot more complicated at the end of book four but resolves itself in One With You.  Day doesn’t do the thing that you might expect–she doesn’t give an epilogue that tells you what the characters’ lives look like years into the future.  Instead, she leaves you with a chapter at the end of the book that gives you a sense that Gideon’s relationships with his family aren’t fully healed, but for the most part there’s hope for the future.  Along those same lines, now that Gideon and Eva are settling into married life and trying to figure out what it means to be a team facing whatever challenges come their way, it also means that Gideon has to handle becoming part of Eva’s family.  This aspect of the story plays into bringing the development of Gideon’s character to its finish.

Speaking of character development.  Gideon’s arc at the end of One With You feels like it ends with him being assimilated back into a familial structure that he appears to have existed outside of since his father committed suicide when he was a child.  He is still a flawed character prone to making mistakes, but at least now those mistakes don’t threaten to take away everything he holds dear.  On the opposite side is Eva’s character arc.  I said above that I wasn’t thrilled with how book four ended.  Probably because I felt like she resorted to a temper tantrum and an ultimatum to get her way and it just felt manipulative and selfish.  For me, one of the things she has had to learn throughout her journey is forgiveness as well as the fact that it’s unreasonable to expect that someone will always react and behave exactly as you want them to.  I don’t want to be critical, but I think that’s always been one of the aspects of her character that have turned me off from the very start.  No one can be exactly as we want them to be, even if they are trying their hardest to fit our ideal.  I think this is one of the realizations that was necessary for her character to show growth, and she does finally achieve it, though it happens after a horrible event takes place that I was not expecting at all.  One of the most important things about serial fiction that distinguishes the good from the bad is how invested I am in the characters and watching them develop over the course of several books.  In that aspect, the Crossfire series doesn’t disappoint.  Though I’m probably more partial to Gideon than Eva, I have to admit that once I started I couldn’t put a single one of the books in this series down.

Something else about the book that puzzles me and makes me want to write about it is one of the mysteries that surfaces in this book that has never been alluded to in any of the other books.  I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that it is a mystery that involves Eva’s mother, Monica.  What I don’t really get is why this was even in the book to begin with.  Theoretically, it would be something that drives the action, but it’s a plotline that really just exists on the edges of the story and for me doesn’t really add much overall.  Also, One With You follows the same narrative structure as Captivated By You–the narration switches with each chapter from Eva’s first person point of view to Gideon’s (Eva has the odd chapters and Gideon has the evens).  This is worth noting because for the first three books in the series, the books are told entirely from Eva’s first person point of view.  The change was a welcome one in book four and I’m glad Day carried the narrative style into the final book.  It made the final conclusion much more satisfying than if I’d only gotten it from Eva’s perspective.

Ultimately, it wasn’t an epic ending.  Yes, some surprising revelations are made and Gideon and Eva are finally on the same page at the close of the novel.  Their love story has a happy and hopeful ending.  There is also a tragic event that turns up the emotion.  It was a satisfying conclusion and my investment in the characters was rewarded.  Perhaps it tried to do too much, but I would rather that be the problem than not doing enough.  In the final analysis, this series has been a good read and I would recommend it to fans of the genre.  I started this series almost two years ago, and though I have enjoyed checking in with the characters over that span of time, I’m also okay with bidding them farewell.

review: hard love

Note:  This is the final book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series.  If you haven’t read the other books in this series, there will be spoilers ahead.

Hard Love by Meredith Wild (2015)

We have now come to the end.  Hard Love, the fifth and final book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series, spends part of its time wrapping the stories of the supporting characters while also resolving some of the larger plotlines threaded throughout the series.  It does this even as it throws Erica and Blake into one final crisis that threatens their happily ever after.

The supporting cast of characters all get their lives figured out in this book.  We find out what happens to Alli and Heath, James and Simone, Fiona, Daniel, and Marie.  Some minor characters come back for a bit–Michael, Blake’s mentor, his son, Max, and Risa, the woman who worked with Max to build a rival site to Erica’s Clozpin. Without revealing how everyone ends up, let’s just say there’s a bit of betrayal, a bit of forgiveness, a bit of redemption. Although this series isn’t really about the supporting characters, they add to the depth of the series and do a good job of being mirrors and/or antagonists to the main protagonists. The thing I appreciate is that these resolutions are, for the most part, sprinkled through the story rather than in one long epilogue at the end.

The main show is what post-wedding life looks like for Erica and Blake.  After learning in Hard Limit that she may not be able to have children, this becomes a focal point in their story as they try to make the impossible possible.  There’s also the main driver of the plot–upon returning from their honeymoon, they learn that Daniel (Erica’s biological father) has won the governor’s seat for the state of Massachusetts, however, the FBI and Boston Police are investigating what they think to be election fraud/rigging (a la Scandal, but let’s not get distracted). Blake becomes the main suspect, and proving his innocence becomes Erica’s priority.

The narrative departs from its first-person point of view that has been solely Erica’s for the first four books in the series.  Normally this bothers me, but in this book I love it and it works.  We get Erica’s and Blake’s first-person narratives, and the book is about half of one and half of the other.  Although I wouldn’t say there’s a distinctive difference in their two voices, I liked being able to see events from his perspective, and of course because of what happens in the story, his point of view is necessary or the book wouldn’t work at all.  One interesting thing about this is that there is a part of the story where Blake is not the character we have come to know.  He’s almost hopeless and drowning (and paralyzed by) his powerlessness.  At the same time, though, it’s Erica that uses what power she has to prove Blake’s innocence.  The power dynamics between them switch, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this power exchange has a lasting impact on each of them individually as well as on their relationship.  Erica realizes how strong she can be and the extent of the agency she possesses.  Blake is forced to cope with a sense of powerlessness and a period of time when he has no agency, and it is the impetus for the final change in his character arc–that is, he reaches the point of revelation and a moment when he finally breaks from the demons and mistakes of his past and fully embraces the “new” man he has become.  As I’m writing this, I’m actually resolving in my head the part of the book that wasn’t my favorite part and that has made me think that it’s not my favorite book in the series.  It’s still not my favorite book, but it’s completely necessary from the standpoint of completing Erica’s and Blake’s character arcs.

There’s a lot to like in this book and it is a satisfying end to the series.  I know there are readers who don’t like what they see as a recent trend (but which totally isn’t, serial fiction has been around for centuries) toward serialized fiction that follows the two main protagonists.  If that’s you, well, this series isn’t for you.  I have said this before and I will say it again–in my humble opinion, serial fiction is the book equivalent of a television series.  Just as much as I enjoy following all of the drama between Olivia and Fitz and Mellie on Scandal, so do I enjoy spending more than three-hundred pages with the characters of a particular book.  This is all to say that though I may not have loved the final book, I have loved this series and I’m glad that I started and finished it.  I haven’t been disappointed in it at all, and it’s a series I definitely recommend if you’re a fan of the romance/erotica genre.  I’m also a little sad to be done with this series.  My goal for 2016 is to complete some series that I am in the middle and have been in the middle of for quite some time.  Well, I can check the Hacker series off my list and say on to the next but I’m going to miss Erica and Blake.

review: caged

Caged by Lorelei James (2015)

Although Caged is the fourth book in Lorelei James’ Mastered series, it can absolutely stand alone.  The story focuses upon two characters that were peripheral in the first book in the series.  Molly Calloway is the female protagonist, and if you’re new to the series what you need to know about her is that she was mugged, and afterwards she enrolled in a self-defense class taught at Black Arts dojo.  Deacon McConnell, the male protagonist, is an instructor at Black Arts but he also is a fighter in the dojo’s MMA training program. This is a romance, so the summary of the novel is exactly what you’d expect–they meet, they breakup, they makeup and live happily ever after.

I’m still pondering the rise of the MMA fighter as a trendy male character in romance novels, but it works in this book; in fact, perhaps it is this very aspect of Deacon’s character that is critical to his development because in many ways this particular career choice marginalizes him.  The shaved head, the tattoos, and the aggression of the sport further push him to the fringes. It also gives James the opportunity to breakdown a stereotype (even if she does so in a conventional way).  His relationship with Molly gives him a connection to another person, and because of it the friendships he’s made with the instructors at Black Arts appear to deepen. By the end of the story, he’s also able to reconcile some of his family issues.  The loner is no longer a loner or a social outcast.  He is no longer the man apart or the man alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Molly, a woman who has been touched by violence and struggles to find a way to make herself feel safe and learn how to protect herself. The thing I like the most about the way James characterizes Molly is that the self-defense and kickboxing classes she has been taking grew out of a need to know that she could take care of herself, and in the process she’s not only found the physical strength she needs to do that but she’s also discovered her own inner strength that she draws upon repeatedly throughout the story, from dealing with her bully cousins to handling her relationship with Deacon.  The thing that Molly struggles with throughout the story–and is also the thing she must overcome in order to achieve growth as a character–is her unreasonable expectations for how the man she loves shares his secrets and his past.  That is to say, she must learn that emotional intimacy is not easy nor does everyone share as easily or willingly as others.  Maybe what it boils down to is a lesson in patience, and for Molly it’s a hard lesson to learn where Deacon is concerned.

I read a lot of romance novels, and this means that there are a lot of bad romance novels on my digital bookshelf.  Gratefully, Caged doesn’t fall into that category.  In case you missed it, I like my genre fiction (romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, suspense) to be edgy in some kind of way, I like my characters to be relatable, believable, and either likable or brilliant in the way they make me dislike them. I want the story to make me think about my own life in some way or another. I want it to be difficult for me to put the book down. I want the ending to be satisfying.  Caged hits these marks for me.  I could absolutely relate to the way that Deacon isn’t nearly as open or forthcoming with the details of his past as Molly wants him to be.  I get the way he has trouble communicating and isn’t big on talking about stuff.  The way that he struggles to share his thoughts and emotions and build an emotional bond with Molly is something that is familiar to me, and the way Molly’s inner strength and self-reliance has evolved since book one in this series is something else that resonates with me.

This is all to say I would recommend this book. I’m relatively new to Lorelei James’ work, but having read a couple of books by her now, I definitely won’t hesitate to read more.  I like her style of writing, and I so much appreciate the way she tells the story in third-person from Molly’s and Deacon’s points-of-view and doesn’t stray to other points-of-view. This keeps the novel focused and the story moving. It also induces me to become invested in the main characters and remain invested in them as the story unfolds. The more book reviews I write, the more I realize how much the narrative style affects how much I enjoy the novel. If you’re looking for your next read, pick this one up or Bound if you want to start with the first book in the series.

 

 

review: hard limit

Note: This is the fourth book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series.  The first book in the series is Hardwired. If you haven’t read the first three books, there will inevitably be spoilers below.

Hard Limit by Meredith Wild (2014)

I have to be honest.  I had a really difficult time putting this book down and read it in two sittings.  I think it’s because beneath all the trappings and conventions of this genre, I just like following Erica and Blake’s story.  I like them as characters and though everything that happens to them is completely melodramatic and over the top, I remain willing to suspend my disbelief and go along for the wild and crazy ride.  Kind of like Olivia and Fitz, but let me not digress.  If you have read the first three books in this series (Hardwired, Hardpressed, and Hardline) I’m sure you’ll like the fourth installment. It may be the best one of the series so far.

The book starts wonderfully–with a prologue that is told from Blake’s point-of-view and that involves events that happen two weeks after where chapter one begins.  As far as I can remember, this is the first and only look we’ve had at him and his relationship with Erica from his own point-of-view.  I wanted more, but at the same time I appreciate that Wild only gives us this brief tease and immediately and firmly returns to telling the story from Erica’s first-person point-of-view. Once the first chapter starts, the action, the tension and the conflict don’t stop.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t put the book down.  It’s tightly plotted, nothing to distract away from what’s happening, and there is a lot happening in this book.  Erica and Blake are planning to be married soon.  The partnership Erica made with Alex Huntington in the previous installment is set to take a few twists and turns. Sophia returns and another aspect of Blake’s past–both with her and in the aftermath of their breakup–are revealed and it is this part of the plot that generates continued tension and conflict between Erica and Blake. Daniel also comes back, and the sort-of cliffhanger ending of third installment where we learn about who has revealed the relationship between Erica and Daniel to the media comes to fruition and gets tied up by the end of the book.  Though the story is told from Erica’s point-of-view, Blake continues to be drawn and developed more deeply as a character–which is to say that unlike other series within this genre, he’s not a cardboard character without depth and whose arc seems artificial and contrived at best.  I like him, and he’s one of the reasons I have remained invested in this series.  To lesser degrees, the same can be said of other members of the supporting cast, particularly Marie (Erica’s surrogate mother) and Daniel.  A lot of this story revolves around the question of family, how families function or are dysfunctional, and the ties that bind families together.  The story also flirts with the ideas of betrayal and loyalty and how we come to realize who we can and cannot trust.  I know what you’re thinking–quite philosophical words about a romance novel, but I’m just calling it as I see it.  I’ve read a lot of copycats that weren’t worth the time I spent reading them, and in my opinion it’s hard to write this kind of romance with elements of suspense and do it well and in a way that isn’t just about how how the sex scenes are. Which, if you’re wondering, the sex scenes are really hot (and explicit, so if you don’t want that in your fiction, this series isn’t going to be for you).

The end of the book sets up the final novel in the series, Hard Love. While some subplots within the series as a whole have been resolved, there’s still the issue of Trevor–Blake’s hacker nemesis–to be resolved, and I won’t be surprised to see a final showdown involving Sophia.  The final chapter of the Hard Limit finds Erica and Blake flying away from Boston to their honeymoon destination. I’m looking forward to the final book but I’ll also be sad when I’ve gotten to the end because then it’ll be over.  Still, I’ve enjoyed every single book in this series and definitely recommend it if you like your romance with a little edge, a little suspense, and well-developed characters.