Spy Rom: Ripped by Edie Harris & Beyond Innocence by Kit Rocha

BloodMoneyRipped-189x300Ripped is the second book in Edie Harris's romantic suspense series "Blood Money" for Carina Press, continuing the romantic suspense plot from Blamed.

Tobias Faraday is the head of old, powerful, secretive and family-run Faraday Industries. Faraday Industries is huge power in military and intelligence circles, leveraging their inventions and innovations into political power and access for over 200 years.

But that power and access made one of their own a target. After Tobias's sister Beth was taken and tortured in Blamed in retribution for her involvement in assassination attempt gone wrong, he concentrates all his efforts into rescuing her and destroying those who hurt her.

Chandler McCallister knew too much and said too little. Trapped in a brutal undercover assignment, she didn't intervene and in fact assisted those who targeted Beth. The information she provided the Faradays almost came too late. Her career at MI6 is in tatters, and her life might soon be over.


Her only play is to help Tobias infiltrate the inner circles of Kedrov's organization so that he might exact his revenge. She trades her cooperation in what is likely a suicide mission for the chance to stand by her sister Pippa's side on her wedding weekend to ensure lurid secrets from their family's past don't derail the wedding.

Harris played with some of my favorite tropes, enemies to lovers & pretend relationship, when Tobias chooses to pose as Chandler's plus one at Pippa's wedding. Pretending to be lovers soon proves a dangerous temptation that has them both dangerously off balance.

I quite liked this book. The action was very intense but not as triggers as in Blamed, the connection, attraction and trust between Tobias and Chandler was fast but still believable. They are both professionally cold for a living, protective of their siblings and isolated. I loved how themes of atonement, forgiveness and sacrifice, some of my favorites, kept resurfacing in their relationship. However, this is only the second of an interconnected multi-book series, and there is a lot of time spent introducing secondary characters, and seeding future plots that are likely to bear fruit as the series progresses. While the characters are intriguing, some of the introductory scenes with these secondary characters bogged down the narrative. 

A review copy of Ripped was provided by Carina Press via NetGalley.


Beyondinnocence-400Beyond Innocence is the 6th full-length book in Kit Rocha's fantastic dystopian erotic romance series (there have also been 3 fantastic novellas). In this dark future, Eden is one of the few cities to survived a cataclysmic event. It is a oasis of wealth and luxury but personal freedom is scarce as city is run by a cabal of religious politicians who use strict morality rules to control the population in collusion with the military. Outside the closely monitored walls of Eden are the sectors, loosely governed regions that compete to supply and trade with Eden.

The O'Kanes run a Sector 4. Originally, the O'Kanes were a brawling & sexing bootlegging operation that controlled trade and provided security for Sector 4 merchants. They have become increasingly interested and involved in inter-sector politics and diplomacy due to increasing incursions and interference by opportunistic parties in Eden and rival sectors. As the series has progressed the O'Kanes have become more sophisticated and politically savvy and more of threat to those in power in Eden. More than ever the O'Kanes need information and intelligence rather than relying on their brawn to save the day. Beyond Innocence is a romance between two new and non-traditional O'Kane allies during a dangerous and pivotal moment for the O'Kanes.

Bree Bridges and Donna Herren (who jointly write as Kit Rocha) jokingly refer Beyond Innocence as their Duke/Spy book. Jared, the hero of Beyond Innocence is in some ways that archetype, wealthy, immaculately dressed, a huge contrast to the rough, scarred and tattooed O'Kane heroes that have dominated the series. But Jared gained all that wealth and access to highest echelons of Eden by working as whore, rising from a childhood on the streets to wealth and luxury by providing the repressed women of Eden a romantic fantasy and multiple orgasms at very high price. He has agreed to spy for the O'Kanes for a multitude of complicated reasons, but due to the covert nature of his work, he is still an outsider in the cozy O'Kane community.

Lili Fleming is a stranger in O'Kane lands, waking up from a long drug-numbed life. The daughter and wife of two recently deceased former sector leaders and O'Kane enemies, she fled her home in a bloody nightgown and a fur coat with pockets stuffed with pills. The O'Kanes have given her sanctuary and time to recover but the pills have finally run out and she now has to face the alarming landscape of Sector four and the O'Kane Compound without their numbing.

Lili was raised to be an ideal domestic trophy wife who served the needs of her powerful husband: decorating his arm, bearing his children, keeping his house and enduring any physical and emotional abuse with the aids of pills. Only knowing sex to be a scary obligation and relationships only a tool of control and abuse, she can't make sense or believe in the joy and pleasure the women of the O'Kane compound celebrate. In that sea of sex and leather she seeks out the familiar, the one un-inked painfully handsome man in a crisp dress shirt, Jared.

Jared and Lili's love story grows out their outsider-status. They are trying to sort out what it means to belong to the O'Kane. Neither of them have much experience belonging to someone else, or in trust others with their well-being. They are both remaking their life, finding ways to put old skills to new use.  Like recognizes Like, and they see past well practiced public masks they wear.  While there is plenty of sex in this story, their connection and intimacy is slowly developed, an innocent friendship to form first.  The trust they build with each other, makes their sexual exploration incredibly meaningful.  I just loved the moment when Jared makes sure they use condoms the first time they have PIV sex. In the Beyond world, condom sex is pretty rare since most people need fertility drugs to procreate and STD's are not a thing.  But Jared knows enough about Lili to care about how she might be at risk of pregnancy, and how that would complicate things dramatically for them.  Jared is similarly careful and considerate with delicate Lili through out their relationship even as he exposes to more and more O'Kane wantonness to that she might learn her own desires. In his relationship with Lili, serving as sexual tutor, he reclaims a part of his life that he had become alienated from, because he do it while being his genuine self.

The dynamic shifts in the second half of the book when Lili is the one who is reclaiming the skills that defined her as trophy wife. She is able to reclaim and re-purpose her love of cooking as way to contribute in the O'Kane camp, and connect with Jared.  She ends up using all relationships skills she honed as trophy to do what no other O'Kane is able to do when it matters most.  In the end their relationship matures to a true partnership, that makes them both stronger instead of diminishing them. 

There is wonderful balance between the over-arching plots and romantic relationship development time, even as new characters are introduced and we check in with prior couples. There is a wonderful pay off in having journeyed  this far into series and it was fun to see the O'Kane world through the eyes of outsiders who question and doubt the world they see.

I am always eager for more stories from Sector 4.

A review copy of Beyond Innocence was provided by the authors


TBR Challenge "Kickin' It Old School" Book: The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale

This month's theme is "Kickin' It Old School", books that have a copyright date 10 years or older.

I read a lot books from the early aughts when I first started reading Romance. Raiding my library's ebook collection introduced me to the likes of Balogh, Quinn and Kleypas  and  I read as many of their books as I could get my hands on.  For this month's challenge I decided go for a book a little older and reach back past my comfort zone to a book from 1990.   While I have read a handful of 90's novels,  mostly Loretta Chase's or Nora Roberts's books that I've picked at library sales, I haven't read many others from the era when I was reading mostly Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Last fall I picked up  Prince of Midnight when the ebook went on sale, because Kinsale is a fave of some of my favorite twitter rom people. I've actually been trying to read it since late December, or more accurately trying to listen to it, but I stalled out due to lack of listening time.  The narration on the audiobook was actually lovely but I rarely had time to listen for more than 1/2 hr at a time and never two days in a row. I caved and gave up on the audiobook. Once I started on the written version I really started to pick up speed and was able to finish in a couple of days.


The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale

S.T. Maitland was once a dashing & celebrated highway man/avenger of wrongs known as the Monseigneur du Minuit.  But an explosion killed his beloved horse, destroy half his hearing and deprived him of his sense of balance, so he retreated to the French country to paint in a ruined and isolated castle.   His rustication is interrupted by  the arrival of Leigh Strachan, a young person in search of justice and revenge.

Leigh Strachan's family has been killed. She seeks revenge against the cult leader who turned her out of her home after gaining control of her hometown. She has traveled out of England in male drag and seeks the fabled Seigneur du Minuit's personal assistance or at the very least his mentorship.

Leigh and S.T. are almost immediately at odds over everything, while being thrown together into increasing if unwilling intimacy through sudden illness and dangerous encounters with bad people. S.T. eventually insists on accompanying Leigh back home in order to assist her in whatever limited way he can.  Leigh no longer wants his help but can't leave him either.

I really loved the slow burn deepening of Leigh and S.T.'s feelings as their relationship progressed. S.T. was immediately infatuated, and is always seeking her favor, and she always stymies him. She never responds or behaves in the way he hopes she will.  Her unexpected responses make him question himself, and his ingrained responses and behaviors.  Leigh fights her growing affection for S.T. as much as she possibly can. Hating each and every feeling he reawakens in her.  Their journey from France to England is a long battle to stay numb and unmoved by S.T..  How their relationship morphs dramatically once they reach shore and the new interpersonal conflicts they need to negotiate in the second half was fantastic and honestly a great deal of fun.

Leigh and S.T. have a complicated sexual relationship.  Leigh is only willing to engage with S.T. sexually if it is an impersonal obligation or in barter for his services.  This allows Leigh to not risk her feelings, and gives her power over S.T., allowing her to taunt and challenge his lusts.  S.T. is incredibly frustrated that Leigh will not engage with him in a way he considers fair.  She refuses to acknowledge her own desires, deny her attraction, and resists seeking her own satisfaction.  He is trying to tame and pacify her through sex and inspire her to want his affection and domestic dream.  It subverts the traditional romance trajectory, where the hero is often the one domesticated through sex.  The power dynamics of their sexual relationship and their push-and-pull over sex and desire were fascinating and I feel I will need re-read in order to pull out all the inter-locking pieces.

 As much as I loved this book, and how it has inspired me to see out other Kinsale novels, I struggled with elements of the plot.  There were some really wild coincidences tying everything together and it just didn't work for me.  If  the story had simply been about a rogue vicar who builds a powerful personality cult, and abuses his power to drive out the Strachan, it would have had plenty of power. But the cults connection to the Hellfire club and the ramifications of that were just too much for me.

My favorite part of the whole book was the final chapter.  Their declarations of love, and how were finally able to claim each other was amazing.  I loved their HEA and their romance. I was also so happy to finally be able to mark the book  finished.

Joint Review: Entreat Me & Radiance by Grace Draven

Ana: Growing up I read a lot of Fantasy & Science Fiction but it has been years since I’ve read a romance-driven Fantasy novel. About a month ago I invited Elisabeth Lane of “Cooking Up Romance” to read a Grace Draven novel with me.  Due to some miscommunication (I failed to specify which Grace Draven novel I meant) we ended up reading two Grace Draven novels.  We read Radiance and Entreat Me. 

RadianceCover-216x300Radiance is the first book in a new Fantasy Romance series set in a world where magical Elder Races and upstart Human nations are in competition for land and resources. In order to secure an important treaty the Kai, a magical and nocturnal people whose power is in decline agree to marriage between one of their princes and a noblewoman from Gaur, one of the human kingdoms.  Despite finding each other physically repugnant Brishen & Ildiko, find first companionship and then love against a backdrop of political and diplomatic intrigue.


Entreat-Me_medEntreat Me is rich and surprising retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story.  Ballard was ambitious land-obsessed warlord, who foils his betrothed’s elopement with a rival, earning his wife’s everlasting enmity and curse on his lands and son.  Louvaen is young widow dedicated to protecting her father and beautiful younger sister Cinnia  from an unscrupulous trader who covets.  When Cinnia runs away with Gavin, her newest suitor & Ballard’s son, she pursues them to ensure Cinnia is not going to end up in a worst situation. What she finds when she reaches Ketach Tor is both better and worst than she could have imagined.  It is a story of sacrifice & choice.

Elisabeth: Ha! I’m not sure you failed to specify which book we were supposed to be reading together. I think I might have just been confused. Wouldn’t be the first time. I definitely liked one better than the other though, which is unusual for me. I tend to either like or dislike authors’ works wholesale, but I had very mixed reactions to these two books.

Ana: ooh, I am eager to find out which you liked more.  Elisabeth do you have a preference about which novel we discuss first?

Elisabeth: Can we can start with Radiance?

Ana: I really wanted to read Radiance because I had seen lots of talk about it on Twitter in the last few months.  I was intrigued by the idea of a cross-species romance.  I really enjoyed reading the Last Hour of Gann last year and was looking for something similar.  What did you think of it?

Elisabeth: I loved that the cross-species romance dynamic in the book. The descriptions of humans from an outside perspective made me laugh several times. Unfortunately, that was kind of the highlight for me. There wasn’t a whole lot else to it. Though it seems like the entire series is going to follow this one couple and their conflicts with the outside world so we may get increased action and depth as the series progresses. What did you think?

Ana: I am not usually a marriage of convenience person, but surprisingly as marriage of convenience romance it really worked for me, but I agree that we didn’t get enough development of the larger fantasy plot. I liked their growth as couple, but I wanted more action/interaction with the major players of that world.  It really felt like a setup book.

Elisabeth: Yes. I read a lot of fantasy and it strikes me that there are conventions that fantasy readers accept that romance readers might not and vice versa. I mean, the idea of a 900 page book isn’t really all that daunting to a fantasy reader, but a romance reader might balk. I really found myself wishing this had been a single book instead of a series spread between three books. The pacing--and like you say--the action was really concentrated in like the last 50 pages.

Ana: There was so much going on then!  I felt I lost track of some of it in my rush to read to the end. I hadn’t realized it was book one of a series when I started reading it.

Elisabeth: Right. It didn’t have a cliffhanger exactly, but it was very clearly not the end of the story. Brishen and Ildiko were clearly a happy, safe couple at the end. But the epilogue set up what seemed to be a totally separate, larger plot that is barely hinted at in this book.

Ana: Yes, I think as a romance reader I would have been pretty satisfied with it as it was. The Epilogue recentered the conflict somewhere else.  Up to that point, I think I expected the 2nd book to feature a different couple. (my romance expectations once again!).

Elisabeth: Definitely. I expected us to move on to [Brishen’s second-in-command] Anhuset and [Brishen’s neighbor] Serovek’s romance in the second book. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. So that’s what we thought could have used some improvement. What did you like about it?

Ana: We did that backwards a bit!  I really liked Ildiko and Brishen’s initial meeting and how that set the tone for their romance. They make a commitment to good humor, honesty and loyalty.  I really liked how despite outward appearances they both have similar life outlooks. They are both trying so hard to make things work.

Elisabeth: The conflict between them is a very quiet one to be sure. I like that they make this very adult decision to be civil to each other (in their amusingly insulting way). The one remaining obstacle seemed to be their attraction to each other. And that was a nice slow burn, which I always really enjoy. After all, they’re complete strangers with little in common. It makes sense that it would take them a while to warm up to one another.

Ana: It really felt that it was a story about two people learning about each other’s needs and wants in a somewhat sedate way.  I was frankly surprised how quickly we left the Court.

Elisabeth: Yes, the pacing felt off. And there were some nominal editing errors as well. Honestly, I enjoyed this book, but not as much as the other one we read, Entreat Me.

Ana: Yes, let’s talk about Entreat Me!  You read this first right?  You love Beauty and the Beast retellings, and this is one.

Elisabeth: I do. I’m kind of obsessed really.

Ana:  What did you like about it?

Elisabeth: This book just really worked for me from start to finish. The first time we met Louvaen, I could tell that she was going to be my kind of heroine. She’s not terribly pretty, but she’s smart, dedicated to her family and fairly ruthless. I just respected everything about her and couldn’t wait to see what kind of hero she’d be paired with.

Ana: I really liked her too. I particularly liked that she is a rare romance widow who just loved her first husband.  She wasn’t abused or mistreated by him.  He was a good man, but he is dead.  I am always a big fan of heroes and heroines who have prior positive relationships.

Elisabeth: I also loved that her previous relationship left her in a totally sex positive place. Her marital experience was just entirely good and she didn’t have any shame about that.

Ana: I loved that she could feel that way and still be zealous guardian of her sister.  I like practical smart heroines and she is certainly one.  The story though is really about both sisters.  What did you think of Cinnia?

Elisabeth: I loved Cinnia just as much as Louvaen. I was prepared to find her the bratty, helpless, beautiful younger sister and I loved that she defied the fairytale stereotype. She’s not quite as fearsome as Louvaen, but just because she’s pretty, that doesn’t mean she’s dependent and unintelligent.

Ana: I really liked that Draven had both sisters be aware of the double edged blade that incredible beauty is.  It is both an asset and a curse for Cinnia and that plays into Louvaen’s feelings of responsibility for her.

Elisabeth: So what did you think of the heroes?

Ana: haha, I love a dark tortured lover, so I loved Ballard. I loved his dark backstory and the fact that he was a pretty horrible ruthless guy back in the day.  He valued land over people, and paid for it quite dramatically.  His son Gavin I felt was the least developed character in the book.  I liked his gallantness, but I don’t feel we got to know him as well as we did everyone else including Ambrose and Magda. [Ballard’s sorcerer and cook, respectively]. 

Elisabeth: Yes, despite the fact that he’s a full-grown adult, Gavin functioned as a bit of plot moppet. He was there to be tortured for his father and be the gorgeous suitor for Cinnia. But that didn’t really bother me. There was more than enough going on with the other characters.

Ana:  Yes, plot moppet is about right. It is not a huge deal, just felt liked a bit of missed opportunity.  I really liked that we had all the flashbacks to Ballard’s first wife and everything that led to the curse but I wished we had a few flashbacks to Ballard and Gavin’s life together. The love Ballard had for him was so absolute despite all the reasons he could have had for hating him.

Elisabeth: That love and devotion to family really provides a point of commonality between Ballard and Louvaen too. Both of them have sacrificed for the people they love. Though Ballard has been at it just a wee bit longer and has the wisdom and experience to guide Louvaen in that regard. I always enjoy in a fantasy/paranormal/etc. setting when one character is dramatically older than another (like hundreds or thousands of years) and they actually act like it. I get frustrated when ancient beings seem not to have learned ANYTHING in all that intervening time.

Ana: Yes, I loved that.  I loved that Magda, Ambrose and Ballard had that going for them. Even if they have been confined in the castle for so much of that time, they still have a great pool of life experience to drawn on.   I also loved the theme of lost parents, bad parents & replacement parents in the story. There was a richness to the depictions.  It just wasn’t one kind of lost parent.  Louvaen lost her mother as a baby, and tries to reject her magical heritage because it isn’t part of her day to day life, she loved Cinnia’s mother, and tries to take Cinnia’s mother’s place when she dies.  Unlike both her mothers she has to learn to let her “child” go. Ballard on the other hand becomes a father to a child his wife meant to deny to him.  He loves him, instead of destroying him like she meant for him to do. It is just much more complex than your usual step-mother/foster mother depictions.

Elisabeth: I’d definitely agree with that. In general, I thought there was really a delicious richness to the entire story. I kept feeling like, “Well, of COURSE that’s what the roses in all the Beauty and the Beast tales were there for” and “Yes, it makes sense that the Beast wouldn’t have just been a bad guy hanging out in the castle all by himself.” It really developed the Beauty and the Beast mythology in a new, interesting and unusual way, which I feel like it can be hard to do after centuries of telling and retelling that same basic story over and over in different ways.

Ana: Anything not work for you?

Elisabeth: Honestly? Not really. I was totally caught up in this story. I thought everything from the characterizations to the world-building to the plot was top notch. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year.

Ana:  And I feel like we have only touched on a few things that were great about the book. There are just so many things going on relationally and plot wise.  I’m glad to have read it, because I probably wouldn’t have, dismissing it as “just another fairy-tale retelling”.

Elisabeth: And I’m very glad I read it before reading Radiance. Otherwise I might not have been so eager to try another book by Draven. It wasn’t that I hated Radiance, not at all. I just didn’t adore it the way I did Entreat Me.

Ana: For me, I came out of reading Radiance thinking, hey that was a pretty good marriage of convenience rom in a fantasy setting.  But Entreat Me showed me how rich her books can be, so I will be looking to read more books by Draven in the future.

Elisabeth: For sure. There is so little amazing Fantasy Romance out there that I think I’ll be sticking with the Wraith Kings series too just to see where it ends up.

Ana: I will too. Although I do hope we get something about  Anhuset and Serovek in the other books because I really liked them both.  

Elisabeth: I did too. And it will probably clarify some things thematically if a human and a Kai actually end up choosing each other instead of being forced upon on other at some point in the series. So any closing thoughts about either of these books?

Ana: I think we covered it!  Thanks for reading not just one book with me this month but two!

Elisabeth: Well, they were both languishing on my TBR pile so it’s not like it was a chore! I enjoyed it very much as always. Thanks for inviting me to chat with you about them!

If by any chance you are not reading Elisabeth Lane’s blog, do it. You will find thoughtful reviews and recipes inspired by romance novels she reads.  We are planning to do this again sometime in the summer, maybe something Historical languishing in our TBRs.


About Elisabeth

I live in the Washington, DC suburbs with my husband and our dog. I spent nearly 15 years in marketing before quitting to become a full-time housewife. I match the romance novels I read with a recipe from my personal archives or just make up a new one. I post a couple times a week, most often a book review with a recipe, but sometimes just my thoughts on a particular romance topic. I love to experiment in the kitchen, go ballroom dancing and spend lots of time in thrift stores looking for mid-century modern pottery to add to my collection.

Read more about me and my adventures pairing romance novels with food at 

Grave Phantoms by Jenn Bennett

GRAVE-PHANTOMS_COVER_MED-438x706I loved Bitter Spirits and Grim Shadows, but I have been impatiently waiting for Bo and Astrid's story since Bennett introduced them in the first book.

Grave Phantoms is Paranomal suspense romance set at the end of the Roaring 20s. The mood is heavy with a looming sense of uncertainty and change.  Astrid and Bo's flirty friendship has been interrupted as they have been apart for half a year with Astrid away at college. Heavy winter rains and flooding threaten Magnusson warehouses, distracting Bo & Winter and spoiling Astrid's homecoming plans.  Then a long-missing yacht full of occult artifacts and amnesiac survivors crashes into the Magnusson docks.  When Astrid accidentally touches one of the artifacts she blackouts and starts seeing visions.  Bo and Astrid must race to figure out the provenance and purpose of the artifact to insure Astrid's safety.

The big occultist plot in the novel involving pirates, pre-Columbian magical artifacts and eternal life, is interesting but I hardly paid attention to it. It did give Astrid and Bo excuses to be out together investigating and meeting interesting people, and it did get quite scary at points, but the real stakes of the story are firmly on whether Bo and Astrid can figure out a way to love & live together in a way neither is diminished. 

Bo Yeung is Winter Magnusson's  right-hand man. He has risen from foiled pick-pocket and errand boy to second in command in the Magnusson bootlegging operation because of his intelligence, initiative and loyalty. Winter has welcomed Bo into his home and treats him like family. 

Astrid Magnusson is Winter's little sister.  She has come of age in the flapper era, reveling in being young, blonde, rich and daring.  But adulthood has Astrid pushing boundaries more than ever as she tries to figure who she is, other than a bootlegger's sister.  A semester away at college has clarified what she wants but not how to get it.  She is scared that her attempts at making Bo notice and think of her as woman have pushed him away.

Bo is hurt and confused by Astrid but still undeniably in love with her.  Bennett did a great job teasing out some of the pressures Bo is under as Chinese American man in early 20th century San Francisco.  He is much more sensitive to the pitfalls of a relationship between them as he crosses as between Chinatown & the Magnusson's Pacific Heights neighborhood routinely, and living in both worlds has made him sensitive to the problems they would face.

The social censure and the practical realities of their inter-racial romance always loom in the background. Where would they live, how would they support themselves if Winter disapproves are all issues that Bo has spent a great deal of time thinking about. In the past being out and about with Astrid has been easy, because he was just her driver or bodyguard, but it is completely different for them to be out together as a romantic couple. The way they have to acknowledge power dynamics & negotiate how they can be together in public without Astrid unintentionally emasculating Bo was very powerful.  For Astrid it means not smoothing things over, or covering them up even if that is easier.  She needs to accept that it will sometimes be ugly and uncomfortable and that saving them from rudeness by lying will hurt more in the end.  Astrid is used to having Bo in her world, but she needs to see him in his before she can really start imagining how they can make space for themselves in the world together.  

I fascinated and surprised by how central Astrid & Bo's sexual histories would be to the romance. They both had to grown and accept that they had sexual pasts with other people. They want to be jealous, and I appreciated how painful it is for them both to face up to the fact that they had both pursued other sexual partners & relationships while becoming emotionally attached to each other. Learning to live with that an accepting that is part of becoming adults, and I loved the resolution to that romantic conflict.  I loved the Epilogue and the new lives the Magnusson-Yeung clan have created for themselves.

 I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin Group: Berkley via NetGalley

Taming the Legend by Kat Latham

Cover60923-mediumAsh's whole life has been dedicated to Rugby. While team-mates and friends have found partners, built families, Ash has channeled all that energy and focus to being the best player he can be. Hoisting high the championship trophy, knowing he has played in his last game,  he doesn't know what do next. Everyone wants to know and he really doesn't know. When Camila Morales interrupts Ash's post-game/retirement party, looking as beautiful as the day he last saw her 18 years before, Ash is thrilled to see her.  Camila doesn't feel the same way. Camila is incredibly angry with Ash, and incredibly angry that she needs his help so badly.

Camila is angry with Ash for not being there when she needed him, but she needs his help desperately. When her father died, he left to her the summer camp they had been running together and an unexpectedly large overdue mortgage she can't pay.  She needs Ash to lead her team of misfit teens to victory at the San Diego Sevens, so she can use the cash prize to save the camp. It is a terrible plan but it is the only one she has.

Kat Latham's  London Legends series are my favorite sport-themed romance series. I love the international setting, the working-class feel to the heroes (Rugby players don't have astronomical paydays) and her heroines are strong, independent, smart women.  When I saw that she had written a second-chance-at-love story for Ash Trenton, the supremely focused former team captain,  I clicked request without even bothering to  finish reading the blurb.  Then I had a shock to my system.  As I read the first couple of chapters and I started noticing some hints to a kind of storyline I like to avoid, so I ran to look at the blurb and there it was:

 "Camila was just sixteen when Ash moved on to start his rugby career, leaving her heartbroken…and on her own to make a life-changing decision."

The blurb was clear enough.  There are only so many things that are considered life-changing decisions when you are 16.  Had I read the blurb I would have probably hesitated requesting. As much as I love the second-chance-at-love trope, I pretty much hate Secret Baby stories.  Despite my dread and because it was Latham I stuck with it.  And I was really impressed with it.  The twist Latham gives to the secret baby story was really well done.  I appreciated that everything about that plot point complicated rather than clarified the relationship between Ash and Camila.

I really liked how Latham slowly developed both Camila and Ash's past and present relationships. Both of their lives have been incredibly changed by the choices they made as teens, choices and sacrifices they question but don't feel they would undo.   They have to re-examine what they have come to believe about their time together, consider how that marked them, reclaim parts of themselves they have ignored and to forgive each other enough to try again. And they must do this knowing that their reunion might be as potentially short as it was their first one, when overseas job offers start pouring in for Ash.

Taming the Legend was sexy, emotional and fun. I liked the characters, and was moved by their conflict.  The emotional arcs for each character were moving and believable  and I loved the resolution.  

I received at digital review copy of Taming the Legend from Carina Press via Netgalley.

Busted by Shiloh Walker

BustedFive years ago Trey Barnes had the worst night of his life.  His wife had just died, his newborn son Clay was barely clinging to life at the NICU.  Not being able to cope with the idea of sleeping in their marriage bed, he checks into a hotel, turns off his phone and looks for a little oblivion at the bottom of a glass. At the sketchy bar down the street from his hotel he finds that drink, and oblivion. But trouble finds him there when he becomes a mark and is roofied and beaten by those trying to steal from him. When Trey wakes up in the hospital he has  no recollection of the night before, and has to learn the horrible truth about his wife's death all over again.

Five years later, Trey is starting to feel whole again. His writing career is taking off again. His son Clay is healthy, curious & smart. Trey feels like he is finally waking up emotionally and physically. After years of not having any kind of lustful or even mildly noticing women in any kind of sexual way,  he has certainly noticed Ressa Bliss, the children's librarian, at Clay's favorite library.

Ressa Bliss has certainly noticed Trey,  although she always keeps their interactions friendly and professional. She regrets never learning his name before transferring to a new library, she also doesn't want any distractions in her life.  She is focused on being the best foster mom she can be to her cousin's daughter.

When Ressa unexpectedly runs into Trey at literary conference, far from their kids & jobs, they both jump at the chance to notice each other more thoroughly in bed. A misunderstanding leads to harsh words being exchanged and their weekend ends on a sour note. Everything might have ended there if not for the fact that Clay and Ressa's foster daughter Neeci turn out to be in classmates in the same Kindergarten class. Clay and Neeci become fast friends and Trey is not about to less Ressa slip away from him again.

I liked the romance, I believed in their chemistry, and they had great flirty banter. I loved that despite the fact they came from very different backgrounds, they shared so much common ground. I loved their dates and the fun they had talking and enjoying books.  Books are a huge part of the story. I loved how Ressa advocated for herself early one, setting boundaries with Trey, making sure their budding romance did not interfere with her parenting, making sure he cleared up all loses ends before they began dating.  

But there was a lot of plot in the second half of the book complicating the romance. There were intrusive siblings, a romantically obsessed neighbor and secrets from the past coming back to haunt both Ressa and Trey.  But I liked Ressa and Trey together  even if I did eventually lose patience with Ressa determination to deny herself.  When push came to shove she had a very hard time getting out of her own way & almost single-handedly wrecked their relationship through secret-keeping and an unwillingness to forgive herself. It is a testament to how genuinely attached  Trey had become that he didn't even blink in taking her back.

(Random Aside: I loved this cover. Ressa looks so happy and smiling but it confused the heck out of me.  From the cover and the fact I hadn't read the previous Barnes books, I simply assumed that Trey was a black man. He isn't.  I was probably  25 percent into the book before I realized that. I kept puzzling over hair & eye descriptions of Trey and Clay, before I realized that I had just assumed incorrectly.  I really did like how Walker eventually addressed  they fact that they were in an inter-racial relationship in the book and how that wasn't by far the biggest issue they had to face. )

(Random Aside #2:  I thought Walker did a good job with a librarian heroine except for the fact that it seemed like she had gone to college for undergrad degree in Library Science, which is not really a thing. Almost all Librarian jobs require a Masters Degree. That is a minor thing in the end.)

 I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Signal Boost (Off the Grid #2) by Alyssa Cole

Signal Boost is the second novel in Alyssa Cole's post-apocalyptic series Off the Grid for Carina Press.  A mysterious event has damaged  the world's or at least North America's electrical grid and crippled communication systems.  In Radio Silence, John leads his best friend Arden out of Rochester, NY to his family's well stocked remote cabin.  There John's big brother Gabe and Arden unexpectedly fall in love.  Signal Boost is John's story and a continuation of the post-apocalyptic plot.

Pre-Flare, John or Jang-wan as he known to his family was a happy gay man, studying computer science and sharing an apartment with Arden. Post-Flare, his life has become stifling and monotonous, he lives for his pre-dawn conversations with Arden before the rest of the family wakes.  The predictable routine of his Post-Flare life is upset when he tackles an intruder trying to pilfer tomatoes from their vegetable garden.

Mykhail was an astro-physics graduate student Pre-Flare, home on extended leave to take care of ailing relative. His Post-Flare life has been incredibly traumatic. He hasn't had any of the comforts the Seong family has enjoyed. He has experienced the horrible things since the Flare and has very little to live for. The one thing that keeps him going is the hope that if he find his way back to his former college campus he can  help get the grid up and running again. Mykhail is convinced his former professor and graduate adviser was one of the few people prepared to respond to this event.  

Jang-wan & Mykhail immediately hit it off.  Mykhail is funny, interesting and they connect over long conversations about the cosmos while stargazing. Jang-wan jumps at the opportunity to be of  use. His orienteering skills can get Mykhail to Burrell where his computer skills might be again be of use. 

On the road Jang-wan & Mykhail get to know each other a lot better and face perilous situations. Jang-wan learns all about Mykahail's complicated family, and the life choices.  The heightened emotional situations they experience on the road eventually breakdown Mykhail's resistance to his attraction and admiration for Jang-wan.  The story takes a big shift at this point, moving from trek-road-trip romance to romantic suspense. Many things don't seem right at Burrell College and  Mykhail's will to pursue their relationship is very quickly tested.

I was really looking forward to this book. I enjoyed Radio Silence a great deal and the teaser chapter for Signal Boost was fantastic. But uneven pacing & world building issues tripped me up.  I liked the characters, but I liked the idea of them together more than I liked the execution of it.  Jang-Wan and Mykhail's lengthy conversations about the stars and astrophysics felt like they had been cribbed straight from Neil Degrasse Tyson's Cosmos series.  Jang-Wan & Mykhail's complex emotional and relationship issues  were abandoned in the last quarter of the novel, replaced by a larger set of issues. The action scenes and intrigues were exciting but I felt Mykhail & Jan-Wan's romantic arc suffered.  

 There was a lot of great potential in this story but it did not quite live up to my expectations.

I received a review copy of Signal Boost from Carina Press via NetGalley

Ride Me Hard by Shari Slade (The Devil's Host MC, Book 1)

RideMeHard-200x300Star is waitress at dead-end diner. She hates her job and is close to losing her apartment. Star has no one good in her life, her boss is awful, her cousin a low-life and the local cop keeps his eye on her not because he wants to protect her but because he wants to feel her up.  In walks Noah, big, bad bruiser and enforcer for the Devil's Host MC. Everything about him signals danger and destruction but Star is fascinated even as she comes close to being paralyzed with fear. He is not there for Star, but for her cousin who owes debts to his club. When her cousin runs out the backdoor, Star is left behind alone.

Ride Me Hard is first of a projected five installment biker-romance serial following the same couple with a HEA at the end. The first story was short but action packed. Slade uses many familiar biker tropes to good effect and introduces a heroine that is believable even as she makes extremely risky choices. 

Star's lack of self-preservation instinct is convincingly presented as being fueled by having nothing to lose and her desire & attraction to Noah.  Noah is  harder to pin down. Protective but undeniably dangerous, the king of mixed messages,  reassuring her one minute, saying something scary to his club brother the next and Star doesn't know if she can trust him. Whether Star has misread Noah, and what he plans to do with her beyond continuing to sex her up are questions left to be resolved in the next installments.

I thought it this was great start, interesting and hot, establishing the stakes and the characters well and I liked what I read enough that I will return for more.

I received a review copy of Ride me Hard from the author Shari Slade.

Ride Me Hard will be available at all the usual places on May 1st.

All for You (Paris Hearts #1) by Laura Florand

Five years ago Joss left without warning to join the French Foreign Legion. Joss was Celié's brother's best friend, and her teenage crush. Celié has never forgotten him or the her youthful hopes and fantasies. When he left their rundown neighborhood, she chose to not sit in despair, hoping he would return for her, but instead set off on a quest of her own. While Joss has been off in the Legion looking to become the best he can be, Celié has climbed the ranks of Parisian chocolate makers to become one of the very best in the world.

After 5 years Joss tries to walk back into Celié's life only to discover that not only has she not been sitting around  waiting for him to return and cover him in kisses, but is actually terrifically angry with him. Joss is confused but undeterred, determined to claim Celié's heart.

I loved this romance. In this story Florand constructs a fascinating narrative about perfection, objectification, aspiration, fantasy and reality. Joss is a courtly lover come to life. He had set off to be prove his worth, so that he could claim the love of the woman he adored. The hope of her love, the thought of being worthy of her, sustained him through the incredibly rigors of his Legionnaire's training. He is faithful to his love of her despite constant temptations in his lonely life. His commitment is extraordinary, but it is misguided and self-involved.

Celié was hurt by his sudden absence, left alone to sort out and try to understand what if anything they ever had. She has spent five years trying to remake herself into someone who doesn't need or want a knight-in-shining-armor. She deeply resents the idea that he went of on this quest for her, that he chose to go do something alone for the idea of her, rather than risk failure while trying to make a better life for them together.

I loved how Florand explored the difference between being an object of desire and hope and actually being in a relationship. Joss and to lesser extent Celié have to disentangle their fantasies about each other and the relationship they wanted to have with the other from the reality of who they actually are.  I loved that they need to learn to listen to each other's needs, to see each other as human beings. I loved that they have to fall in love with each other again, even if they never fell out of lust with each other.

I was fascinated by the disconnect between Joss and Celié about the nature of love & actions of love. Joss is determined to be good enough for Celié. He fails to communicate his fears and failures, so that he might present her with a perfect finished product . His vision of love is a kind of work-righteousness. He must be good and perfect so that he might earn love and affection. Celié understands love not as something that can be earned but something that is shared. Celié wants for Joss to accept that she has always love him, and that she felt cheated by the fact they did not struggle to make something of their lives together. In the novel Joss eventually surrenders his self-focused and solitary vision of love, and accepts one where he trusts his partner with his failures and includes her in his decision making progress. Celié in turn has to forgive Joss for trying to do it alone and accept and love the new man he remade himself to be and let him share in her life.

The story was told with great charm and humor by Florand. She has a wonderful ability of creating beautiful, strong men who are squishy and vulnerable inside. Joss's struggle to wrestle his feelings into words, to allow his feelings to show on his face and body warring against years of ruthless training and along with his struggle to relax & reintegrate to civilian life were very convincingly portrayed.

One of the things I love the most about Florand is her ability to create a fictional Paris that can be an attractive fantasy but still feel like a real place. I love that Florand acknowledges the rude and lewd cat-callers that haunt the Seine's romantic banks. Florand's characters don't spend a lot of time in seedier side of Paris,  but they acknowledge it exists. But the strength of Florand's sense of place in her novels led to an unintentionally jarring element in the story. In the story Joss continually struggles with low-level survival anxiety. His years in war-zones make him hyper-vigilant and he has remind himself that he is not longer in one, and school his reactions. When these scenes came up I couldn't help thinking how Joss would fare in post-Charlie-Hebdo attack Paris and how that would complicate his reintegration to civilian life. I don't think it was an oversight by Florand, but rather a testament to her ability to create characters that I care about and whose world feel solid enough that I want to connect it to our real world.

I also continue to appreciate the way she is able to have former protagonists appear in her series without stealing the focus. She is not scared to acknowledge that Dom and Joss are cut from the same cloth, yet they are given very different kinds of heroines and romances. I liked how Dom interacted with Joss and that what they both meant to Celié has always been different. I look forward to reading more books in this series following Celié s fiercely competitive friends and peers.

I received a review copy of All for you from the author, Laura Florand.

Necessary Restorations (The Walsh Series #3) by Kate Canterbary

Sam Walsh is a gifted award-winning highly in-demand architect. He is perfectly put together on the outside.   His immaculate clothes, a much-too-cool-for-you sneer and strictly-anonymous one-sided-relationships are his armor, so nothing and no one can touch him. Tiel Desai is brilliant. A brilliant musician, a gifted music therapist and sought after professor and researcher. Long ago exiled from her family she revels in marching to beat of a different drum. Her jingly casualness and non-conformity is her armor.  Tiel and Sam would have never gotten to know each other,  if the elevator they were riding in didn't first stall and later plummet with them trapped inside. 

This is a opposites attract story about two emotionally messed up people drawn to each other even as they try to push each other away. The intense intimacy of surviving that the elevator accident forges a bond between them neither of them quite understands. The adrenaline and the post-survival alcohol and dancing lubricates them enough so they drop their guard enough to become attached to each other.  Their relationships is hard to define, not quite platonic but not quite anything else. Their lives start revolving around each other.  Tiel interrupts Sam's self-destructive pattern of club hook-ups, filling his evenings with music gigs & band-hunts all over Boston. Before either of them notice they form a real relationship, even if they can't quite define it, and willfully mislabel it.

Eventually the late-night cuddles & affectionate touches escalate to the point they have admit to they have been more than just friends but they both have a horrible time admitting they want more. They both have an incredible amount of baggage around sex and relationships. Their issues are big enough that their sexual chemistry can't paper over it.  Their insecurities and self-sabotage sink them.  They are in any position to heal each other but instead they spur each other to get their lives in order and stop hiding from their issues. It is only after they have faced those issues that they become strong enough to claim each other.

It was fascinating how my feelings about Tiel morphed as the book progressed. Initially I saw her the same way Sam did,  a confident, mature and self-contained.  But as the book progresses her jealousy, and inability to accurately value her talents becomes more evident. As the book progresses the subtle nature of Tiel's self-destructive nature comes to the fore. The vulnerability Tiel tries to hide when she first encounters Sam's family felt very raw and painfully real.  The differences between their families of origin, and the distinct nature of their messed up relationships with them are not small obstacles to overcome and I appreciated that Canterbary takes them seriously.

I normally avoid books where cheating or the suspcion of it a crucial plot element.  Sam doesn't, but Tiel's fears that he will. While not blind to the source of her insecurities  (her horrible first marriage and  Sam's reputation as player), she doesn't see till fairly late in the book how she courted and feed her insecurities.  I was pretty mad at Sam for failing to see how some of his behavior would look, and not protecting Tiel from it.   But Sam is so incredibly destroyed when it all explodes and the fact that he take the time to get himself better that I couldn't stay mad at him for long and I was relieved when Tiel forgave him too.   Their reconciliation in someways feels one sided as Sam is the one who has to do the big gesture but I think Tiel's transformation was just as significant and made it possible for her to forgive and claim Sam rather than turning him away.

 This was my first Walsh book and my first book by Kate Canterbary. Although this book was way angstier and more tortured than my usual, I will definitely look for more of her books as I was able to enjoy a story-line that I normally avoid.

 I received a review copy of Necessary Restorations from the author via NetGalley