A- #BookReview: At First Spite by Olivia Dade

A- #BookReview: At First Spite by Olivia DadeAt First Spite (Harlot's Bay #1) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Harlot's Bay #1
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Bestselling author Olivia Dade welcomes you to Harlot's Bay in this delightfully sexy rom-com about a woman who buys the town's famous Spite House, only to realize the infuriating man she can't stand lives right next door--and their unwilling proximity might spark something neither can ignore.
When Athena Greydon's fiancé ends their engagement, she has no choice but to move into the Spite House she recklessly bought him as a wedding gift. This is a problem, for several reasons: The house, originally built as a brick middle finger to the neighbors, is only ten feet wide. Her ex's home is attached to hers. And Dr. Matthew Vine the Freaking Third (aka the uptight, judgmental jerk who convinced his younger brother to leave her) is living on the other side, only a four-foot alley away.
If she has to see Matthew every time she looks out her windows, she might as well have some fun with the situation--by, say, playing erotic audiobooks at top volume with the windows open. A woman living in a Spite House is basically obligated to get petty payback however she can, right?
Unfortunately, loathing Matthew proves more difficult than anticipated. He helps her move. He listens. And he's kind of...hot? Dammit.

My Review:

Today is Valentine’s Day, which means that today’s review absolutely had to be a romance.

So when At First Spite sashayed its way to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile, with a come-hither look and a sassy come-on, I didn’t even try to resist its siren song.

Welcome to Harlot’s Bay, Maryland, a place that really, truly, seriously – if laughably – leans into its salacious name – and history.

Athena Greydon thought she’d be moving in with her new husband, Dr. Johnny Vine, tanned, rested and refreshed after their picture-perfect, one month Hawaiian dream vacation, meticulously crafted and created by Athena herself and her innate desire to learn and experience ALL THE THINGS.

Instead, Johnny is off on that vacation alone, after he left her just about at the altar because his brother Matthew convinced him to dump her, while Athena is moving into Spite House, the tiny slice of house attached like a limpet to the side of Johnny’s row house in ‘downtown’ Harlot’s Bay. In the pouring rain, alone with a 10 foot-wide, four-story house that is now all she has left to her name.

It was supposed to have been a wedding present to her new husband, because he wanted to tear out the wall and expand his own house. Now it’s a refuge for Athena’s pride, sailing all alone on a sea of regret.

Athena needs help to get herself moved in, and the only person offering is the last person Athena wants to ever see again. Johnny’s older brother, Dr. Matthew Vine, the man with the stick up his ass and the endless number of reasons why Athena would make a terrible wife for Johnny.

And he’s absolutely right, as the story eventually proves, but not from the perspective through which Athena originally sees – or actually hears – the argument. It’s not so much that Athena would make a terrible wife for Johnny as it is that Johnny would make a terrible husband for Athena. Or honestly, that they are just so wrong for each other that Matthew can’t even articulate it – if only because he’s spent nearly all his life parenting his younger brother and can’t even let himself think that he doesn’t have enough spoons left to parent them both.

Even though it looks like that’s exactly what will happen if they make it to the altar. And Hawaii. And the not so happy ever after that would inevitably come after.

For all three of them. Because, as much as Athena and Johnny are wrong for each other, Athena is entirely too right for Matthew – and vice versa. Even if no one will ever forgive anyone if THAT scenario comes to pass. So, of course, Matthew can’t let that happen, either.

Until it does.

Escape Rating A-: It’s clear early in At First Spite that the narrow confines of Spite House aren’t nearly wide enough to handle ALL of the emotional baggage that Athena, Johnny, and Matthew have deposited there, in spite of Athena being the only person actually living within its walls.

Because they are all hot messes – but not the same kind of hot mess.

As often as the author’s trademark sassy humor and snarky banter trip the light fantastic across the pages of this romance, the story in At First Spite is absolutely NOT all fun and games. (If that’s what you’re looking for, I highly recommend Spoiler Alert and its sequels because WOW what a terrific ride that series is!) Which leads right back into the hot messes that the three – and yes, really, it’s all three of them and it is, sorta/kinda, just the type of romantic triangle that should have landed them all in a session with Dr. Phil – or even the late Jerry Springer.

The heart and the heartbreak of the story in At First Spite lives at the corner of parentification and depression, and it’s not a pretty place – but it certainly is a real one. Not that any of the characters are all that great at communicating what’s going on inside their heads.

I want to be glib and snarky here myself, and that is utterly the wrong mood to strike. This is serious stuff, and stuff that all of us at least brush against at some points in our lives – no matter how much we’re taught not to, well, talk about it.

Athena’s situation – and Matthew’s contributions thereto – cause her to finally hit an emotional bottom she’s been tap-dancing over the top of for most of her life. At the same time, Matthew’s reluctant acceptance that everything he’s said about Athena is way more about his relationship with his younger brother than it has anything directly to do with Athena herself is a struggle that he keeps losing – which is where the parentification part of the story comes in – and very nearly does them all in along with it.

While Johnny’s charmed life of charming everyone around him, getting mostly what he wants while knowing that Matthew will pick up the pieces has to come to an end – he has to figure that shit out for himself while Athena and Matthew are concentrating – as they should be – on each other.

So, on the one hand – possibly the hand with a whoopie-cushion in it – this first book in the Harlot’s Bay series (and YAY about THAT!) introduces us to this charming, quirky town and the equally charming and quirky people in it. Along with their seemingly endless love for broadcasting salacious audiobooks of monster porn from the literal rooftops.

And on the other, much more serious hand, there’s a beautiful story about two people helping each other stand on their own two feet, discover their own worth in their own selves and learn to stick to their own guns about it, and learn to grovel appropriately when necessary with the help of grand gestures that also involve – you guessed it – rooftop audiobook broadcasts of anatomically impossible monster porn.

Along with the beginning of the story of one irresponsible man-child finally manning up and getting out from under his brother’s overprotective shadow. The rest of which story will hopefully be told later in the series, but in the meantime the next book is titled Dearly Departed, a story which will somehow, both heartbreakingly and hilariously in equal measure, manage to lead to a happy ever after for the local supplier of all audiobooks monster porn. Because I can’t wait to find out the who, what, when, where and why of that whole, entire thing.

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Wants by Anna Hackett

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Wants by Anna HackettThe Hero She Wants (Unbroken Heroes) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Unbroken Heroes #2
Pages: 220
Published by Anna Hackett on January 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The last thing he wants is to trek into the jungle to save the President’s daughter.
Shepherd “Shep” Barlow left the military behind. All he wants is to stay on his Colorado mountain—alone, with no interruptions, and no people. He especially likes to avoid people.
Then his former commander arrives, asking him to risk his life on a deadly mission to Central America. A mission to rescue the archeologist daughter of the President of the United States.
Once a member of a covert Ghost Ops team, Shep has the skills to get in quietly and rescue Ms. Sinclair. And as much as he wishes otherwise, he can’t leave an innocent woman in danger.
Hayden Sinclair loves her work. It keeps her far away from the liars, cheats, and phonies in Washington D.C. But when she’s abducted from her archeological dig in Nicaragua, she’s plunged into a life-or-death situation. Her captors plan to use her as a bargaining chip, and Hayden knows she has to escape.
What she never expected was to collide with the world’s biggest, grumpiest rescuer.
On the run in the jungle with six and a half feet of rugged, muscular, scowling man, she finds Shep rude and annoying. But as her captors ruthlessly hunt them, she also discovers a man who’ll risk his own life to protect hers.
Neither of them are looking for love, especially when they have to fight to survive…besides, there could never be a happy ending for the daughter of the President and a grumpy, battle-scarred soldier, could there?

My Review:

Archaeologists make the best protagonists – because there are just SO MANY WAYS they can get into trouble. Just ask Indiana Jones – or better yet, his father, Professor Henry Jones.

That rule certainly applies to this author’s work, as her very first heroine, in her very first book, At Star’s End, was an archaeologist among the star-scattered human diaspora. It’s a theme that has cropped up again and again, not just with the entire Treasure Hunter Security series (distant ancestors of the crew in that first book, but, also in this latest work with Dr. Hayden Sinclair, expert in pre-Columbian Central American history.

An archaeologist who also happens to be the daughter of the sitting President of the United States.

Hayden was determined to go on this dig, and determined to do it as a working archaeologist and not as a visiting dignitary or show pony or whatever. This is her job, and she’s determined to do it well and more importantly without a whole squad of Secret Service agents guarding her every step.

No matter how much, as it turns out, she might need them. Or, at least her teammates and fellow archaeologists do. Or did.

After all, the kidnappers plan on keeping her alive so that she can be auctioned off to the highest bidder looking for leverage on the U.S. President. The rest of her colleagues are merely…collateral damage.

Hayden Sinclair, is tied up and held captive in the middle of a compound full of the men who just killed her team and her friends. She should be at her lowest ebb – and she kind of is. But that doesn’t stop her from rescuing herself.

Only to walk straight into the arms of the one-man rescue team that has been sent to take care of that job FOR her.

Shep Barlow may be just a bit behind on Hayden’s jailbreak, but he’s EXACTLY the man she needs to walk beside her every step of the way home. No matter what it takes. No matter what he has to give up.

Because he’s the hero she wants, and she’ll do anything and defy anyone to keep him. Even her own father. Even Shep himself.

Escape Rating A-: This whole, entire series so far gives me a giant earworm. Everytime I even think about either of the books in this series so far, I get the chorus of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” playing in my head. Or even better – or worse depending on persistence – the scene from Shrek II.

Although Hayden doesn’t actually NEED a hero. She’s already rescued herself. Not that she can’t use Shep’s help and survival skills, because she certainly can. But she’s no delicate flower and doesn’t need anyone who will treat her like one.

The title of this entry in the series says it all. Hayden doesn’t NEED a hero, but Shep Barlow is certainly the man she wants – precisely because he knows better than to treat her like she needs rescuing. Not even her father is able to figure that out.

What makes the story in this one such a compulsive page-turner is the way that Hayden and Shep jump together out of the frying pan and into yet another fire, over and over again, as her kidnappers do their damndest to close off all avenues of escape.

What makes the romance in this one sing and zing is that this is a romance of equals in spite of the heroine-in-jeopardy start, a romance that has to carry both partners’ heavy baggage until they finally figure out they can drop it all and hold onto each other for dear life. For the rest of their lives.

The Unbroken Heroes series has been terrific so far, beginning with The Hero She Needs and continuing with this second book, The Hero She Wants. The third book in the series, The Hero She Craves, is coming in June and I expect that terrific streak to continue. What I’m loving about this series so far is that, although the link in the series is through those heroes, it’s the heroines who stand up, take charge, and participate oh-so-actively in their own rescues.

There are no delicate flowers here, and that’s the way I like it. One of the other things I like is that this particular set of heroes has interesting friends in some very high and dangerous places, like Hayden’s father-the-president, and the stories have high stakes that extend beyond the mutual rescue and the heart stopping romance.

Which is reminding me quite a lot and very much of M.L. Buchman’s romantic suspense series(es), particularly his Miranda Chase series, where smart civilians find themselves walking the halls of power to find the loves of their lives and keep the country safe along the way. So if you’re looking for something to tide you over between Anna Hackett’s heroes, consider this a recommendation for M.L. Buchman’s books as excellent readalikes with lots to explore.

Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for Anna Hackett’s next entry in her action/adventure romantic suspense Fury Brothers series, Burn, coming in March.

A- #BookReview: Port in a Storm by Rhys Ford

A- #BookReview: Port in a Storm by Rhys FordPort in a Storm (Sinners #8) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Series: Sinners #8
Pages: 192
Published by Dreamspinner Press on January 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

San Francisco SWAT Lieutenant Connor Morgan and Crossroads Gin drummer Forest Ackerman make an odd couple. Connor, an Irish-born cop from a tight-knit family, never imagined he’d find his happily-ever-after with a raised-on-the-streets musician, but Forest had the gentlest soul he’d ever met. After a long, hard road of heartbreak, murder, and trouble, they fell hard in love and married.
Then Fate intervenes and throws their lives into a chaos neither one of them is prepared for.
During a brutal SWAT raid, Connor stumbles on Tate, an abused, vulnerable little boy caught in a shoot-out with his father’s drug-running gang. As heavy fire riddles the walls, an injured Connor rescues Tate from the fray… only to be struck numb when a caseworker pries a sobbing Tate from his arms.
Scarred from his own childhood experiences, Forest doubts he can be a good enough father, but Connor assures him they can give Tate what he needs and more. Soon they are on an insane ride where trust and affection are hard-earned, especially when coming from a little boy raised in society’s filthiest gutters. Facing down every challenge thrown their way, they battle to give Tate what Connor treasures and Forest never had—a family to call his own.

My Review:

Port in a Storm, the long-awaited final book in the utterly awesome Sinners series combines coda and confirmation into one beautiful if sometimes heartbreaking package, coming full circle halfway around the world to end where it all began. With a dog named ‘Dude’.

We first met the Morgan Family and the members of Crossroads Gin back in 2012, in Sinner’s Gin – although I personally didn’t discover the series until five years later after falling in love with the author’s characters and work through her Cole McGinnis series.

Either way, it’s been a long road, getting from there to here. But here we are just the same.

As this story opens, it seems as if the current generation of the Irish-American, mostly SFPD cops of the Morgan family have found their various happy ever afters, often by pairing up with one of the members of Miki St. John’s resurrected band, Crossroads Gin.

That’s certainly true for Kane Morgan and Miki himself, whose meeting, facilitated by a dog that neither of them has ever fully admitted is theirs – honestly they are his, anyway – kicked off the entire series back in that first story.

But SFPD SWAT Lieutenant Connor Morgan and the band’s drummer Forest Ackerman, as happy as they are together – and they most definitely are – discover that there’s a child-shaped hole in their lives that they need to fill with Tate Robinson, a seven-year-old boy that Connor rescues in the midst of a drug raid.

A raid that was intended to net the major drug cooker listed as ‘father’ on Tate’s birth certificate.

Connor’s team may have come up empty-handed as far as the drugs or their maker were concerned, but left with a heart full of the need to get one desperate child out of the foster care system that still gives his husband Forest so many nightmares.

The battle in Port in Storm isn’t the Morgan family’s usual fight against criminals and drug dealers nor is it an attempt to break up or break down the band or any of its members. Instead it’s the battle against an overworked – at best – foster care system that seems to be more about ticking off boxes and protecting bureaucrat’s asses than it is about making the right decision for a young child even though that right decision has been handed to them on a silver platter.

Escape Rating A-: Those of us who are fans of the Sinners series were pretty convinced that book six, Sin and Tonic, was the ending – a happy ending that all the characters had earned and deserved – especially Dude.

And that the short story collection, ‘Nother Sip of Gin, was basically lagniappe. A lovely treat, a bit of a filling in of the corners, a chance to visit with old and dear friends one last time.

Until this. Until Port in a Storm and this nearly heartbreaking but ultimately just happily teary story that confirms that happy ending for everyone and ties it up with a really marvelous bow. Even better because we weren’t expecting it so we’re all crying a bit that it’s over but smiling because it happened.

(In other words, treat the above as a huge hint not to start here OR with either ‘Nother Sip of Gin or Sin and Tonic, because these are the endings. Start with Sinner’s Gin and settle in for a fantastic read!)

The actual story in Port in a Storm – is about just that. About a young boy finding his very own port in own storm with a badass cop and a rockstar drummer who also happens to be a foster care survivor himself. It’s about Tate Robinson finding the best home he could ever have found, with two men who have stepped up to be his dads in every single way, backed by friends and families who will help them figure out how to be dads and help Tate himself figure out how to love and trust again in spite of everything he’s been through.

That the social worker and agent of the system who does her damndest to break up their family is an avatar for Dolores Umbridge – complete with pink suits and simpering non-smiles – says all that needs to be said about how wrong the system was in this case and how right Connor, Forest and their whole entire family are for Tate.

And I’ll admit I wish we got just a bit more explanation of why and how she got involved and was so determined to break their family apart. But that was the only tiny niggle in one whole, entire, utterly marvelous wrap to a terrific series. So I’m left being just thrilled that we got to see everyone’s HEA confirmed and with bells on.

And that’s awesome – but maybe it’s time to go back and read the whole saga from the very beginning. Because that would be awesome too!

 

Review: The Hero She Needs by Anna Hackett

Review: The Hero She Needs by Anna HackettThe Hero She Needs (Unbroken Heroes Book 1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Unbroken Heroes #1
Pages: 223
Published by Anna Hackett on December 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The last thing he expects to catch in his river is a billionaire heiress.
Loner Boone Hendrix left the military with ghosts that haunt him. He lives with his dog Atlas on a farm in Vermont. Alone. Just the way he likes it. Until he rescues a half-drowned, beautiful brunette from his river.
Gemma Newhouse is the daughter of the richest man in America, and from the abrasions on her wrists and her drugged state, she’s on the run from someone dangerous. She’s nothing like Boone expected—sweet, smart, and likes baking—and she ignites a fierce need inside him.
Being a member of a covert Ghost Ops team taught him deadly skills, and he’ll use them all to keep her safe.
Gemma can’t remember the last twenty-four hours. All she knows is that someone abducted her. Someone dangerous. Her only goal is survival and she’s used to taking care of herself. She’s a constant disappointment to her driven, successful parents. She doesn’t want a brilliant career, all she wants is to bake and make people smile.
Finding herself in Boone’s strong arms wasn’t on her plan. Nor was his rugged face, hard body, and gold-brown eyes. She sees how much he’s cut himself off from life, how he believes he’s broken.
Thrust together, she realizes this quiet hero will do anything to protect her. Despite the danger around them, they can’t resist their growing attraction, but her captors are hunting her…
And Boone is the only thing standing in their way.

My Review:

When Gemma Newhouse runs away from her mysterious captors in the middle of densely forested nowhere, she doesn’t have time to hold out for a hero, she needs one right NOW. She doesn’t know there’s one just down the river – literally – so she does her damndest to get herself out of her kidnappers’ hands.

She doesn’t merely find one hero, she finds two. Or rather, one of those heroes pulls her out of the river that has been carrying her away from whoever grabbed her off the street in Los Angeles – just not as far or as fast as she would have liked.

If she were still conscious, that is.

But Atlas is a Very Good Boy, so he alerts his human that there’s something in the water that needs to be rescued. Which is exactly what Boone Hendrix does. Because that’s what he does – even if, or especially because – there was no one to rescue him when he needed it the most.

But, maybe that’s now after all, and maybe Gemma is that rescue. If he can just keep her alive long enough to deliver her to safety and figure out who is after her and why. While somehow managing to keep his hands off of her – even if that’s exactly where she wants them to be.

Unless, just maybe, she’s his rescue too.

Escape Rating A-: I always love it when the heroine rescues herself or is an active participant in her own rescue. Which is EXACTLY what Gemma Newhouse does. Everything that happens in this action adventure romance happens because first and most importantly, Gemma Newhouse put on her big girl panties and escaped from her captors.

She’s not a badass agent, she’s not a cop, she’s just a more-or-less ordinary woman that a bunch of asshole men believe is at their mercy for reasons she doesn’t even know yet. But as soon as she can get her feet under her after the drugs she was injected with even start to wear off – she’s off and running.

Boone – and Atlas – are her reward for taking care of her business. She just doesn’t know it yet.

The romance between Boone and Gemma is sweet and hot and funny, all at the same time. (Although a lot of that fun is that Gemma doesn’t want Atlas to witness any of the human’s ‘funny business’.)

Speaking of Atlas, he is a very good boy and is every bit as fine and good at the end of the story as he was at the beginning – if not a little better because he has two humans to spoil him instead of just one. So don’t worry about Atlas.

There’s more than enough to worry about between Gemma and Boone. Gemma is a combination of poor-little-rich-girl and bird-in-a-gilded-cage, but again, she’s doing a damn good job of filling her own well of purpose and happiness and kicking the door off the gilded cage. (OTOH, if she’d kept the bodyguards her dad wanted her to have she probably wouldn’t be in her present fix. OTOH, that might just have resulted in a couple of dead bodyguards as the stakes in all this are pretty high.)

It’s also excellent and different that Gemma’s relationship with her wealthy parents is still a loving one even though that relationship has a bunch of sharp edges in it. They’re not terrible, she’s not a misbehaving fuck-up, it’s just that they are not remotely on the same wavelength and everyone gets a bit hurt by it. Except for her parents’ megabucks, that relationship feels grounded in the real, which made it more interesting and all the better to empathize with.

Boone is one of the author’s classic too-damaged-to-think-he’s-good-enough heroes. He used to be a member of Vander Norcross’ Ghost Ops team (Vander’s book is The Powerbroker), and those ops left plenty of scars that may never heal. So Boone’s got a bad case of the I’m-not-worthies when it comes to a relationship with Gemma, but he’s all in on saving her life and is absolutely the right man for that job.

So, soft and sweet but with a core of steel goes head to head with hard and brittle with a core of marshmallow. The sweet treat that gets baked in that fire means that a good time is had by all the characters and absolutely for the reader as well.

I had a great reading time with this first entry in the author’s Unbroken Heroes series, and I can’t wait to see what happens with her next hero early next year.

Review: Role Playing by Cathy Yardley

Review: Role Playing by Cathy YardleyRole Playing by Cathy Yardley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, geek romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 331
Published by Montlake on July 1, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From Cathy Yardley, author of Love, Comment, Subscribe, comes an emotional rom-com about two middle-aged gamers who grow their online connection into an IRL love story.
Maggie is an unapologetically grumpy forty-eight-year-old hermit. But when her college-aged son makes her a deal—he’ll be more social if she does the same—she can’t refuse. She joins a new online gaming guild led by a friendly healer named Otter. So that nobody gets the wrong idea, she calls herself Bogwitch.
Otter is Aiden, a fifty-year-old optimist using the guild as an emotional outlet from his family drama caring for his aging mother while his brother plays house with Aiden’s ex-fiancée.
Bogwitch and Otter become fast virtual friends, but there’s a catch. Bogwitch thinks Otter is a college student. Otter assumes Bogwitch is an octogenarian.
When they finally meet face-to-face—after a rocky, shocking start—the unlikely pair of sunshine and stormy personalities grow tentatively closer. But Maggie’s previous relationships have left her bitter, and Aiden’s got a complicated past of his own.
Everything’s easier online. Can they make it work in real life?

My Review:

I was tempted to start this review by doing one of those “there are two types of people” kind of things, but those always leave some people out. Also, in this particular case, there are four types of people, introverts, extroverts, ambiverts and omniverts.

This is very much a story about introverts, as both Maggie and Aiden are both clearly on the far end of the introvert side of the introvert vs. extrovert teeter-totter. Maggie, in fact, may be just a bit too far over, as she realizes that she hasn’t been outside in days and has run out of absolutely every food in her pantry and will be forced to rely on condiments if she doesn’t go to the local small town gossip factory that passes for a grocery store.

For anyone wondering why not just get food delivered, well, food delivery is something that Maggie misses – a lot – by having moved to tiny Fool’s Falls in eastern Washington State. She’s so far out of town that even the local pizza place doesn’t deliver.

Maggie is a freelance editor, so she doesn’t need to go TO a job to HAVE a job. She’d rather socialize online anyway, which is why she’s still very much an online gamer at 48. She’s also suffering – really, really hard – from empty nest syndrome as her son, and fellow introvert – has just started college at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But she’s right about the grocery store being town gossip central, and she’s equally right about being accosted the minute she steps in by one of the local, means so very well but isn’t listening, obvious, oblivious, obligate extroverts who is determined that Maggie get out of her house and won’t take no for an answer.

Won’t even hear ‘no’ as an answer.

Which is where Role Playing takes off, as Maggie finds herself stuck in the role of introvert at a party of extroverts who all focus on her. One thing leads to another – not necessarily bad things, just frustrating things from Maggie’s point of view – leading to the lovely heartwarming answer to a question that hasn’t been asked but should be: how do introverts find each other as they retreat to their homes to escape a world full of loud, intrusive extroverts who are just sure that their way is best.

The answer is delightful from beginning to end, and all the more so because Maggie and Aiden – or rather Bogwitch and Otter – are not your typical 20somethings finding true love. Instead, it’s a story about two grown ups who have given up on finding someone who will ‘get’ them EXACTLY as they are, and who will love them not in spite of their introversion, or even because of it, but because together they fit in a way that neither ever expected to find.

And it makes for the best kind of romance, between two people who have accepted who they are in themselves and have finally found ‘their’ person in spite of all the meddlers and extroverts trying to get in their way.

Escape Rating A: I picked this book out of the virtually towering TBR pile for two reasons. One, I loved the author’s Fandom Hearts series with its combination of romance and geeky fun. And two, because it’s a reality in my house, particularly this month when there are long weekends and time off built in, that the two introverts who live here are going to be spending a LOT of time playing video games. Because that’s part of what brought us together, too.

So, I fell hard for this book because I felt hard for both Maggie and Aiden, but especially for Maggie. I really got her, both in the whole sense of how easy it is to get lost in your own little world when your job lets you avoid the big world outside – even if it’s lonely. AND her combination of extreme annoyance and absolute cringing when confronted with determined extroverts – because they are all determined and they are all wrong but convinced that they are right.

(Obviously I’m venting my own feelings here, but hers were just SO REAL and felt SO TRUE. Also, I’m also still a gamer, and a bit older than Maggie, so people’s reactions to that part of her persona felt equally spot on.)

I digress, but hopefully in a germane way.

And then there’s Aiden, who is caught up in a bunch of really, really HARD adult dilemmas, with no good outlet for the stress except, of course in this context, gaming. (I understand so completely that there are nights when pixels just need to die that I can’t even…)

Both Maggie and Aiden are in some very hard places, but they are also very grown up places. Maggie needs to make a life that works for her by herself now that her son is in college. Which is going to mean changes – and that she’ll have to find ‘her people’ somehow because Kit’s presence in the house kept the social isolation at bay for both of them.

Aiden has also been in a holding pattern as he came home to tiny Fool’s Falls to take care of his dying father. But his father has been dead for a year and Aiden is left in a place he never wanted to come back to, dealing with his grief-stricken mother who is determined to blame Aiden for never being the son his parents wanted him to be in spite of his very real success.

His mental health requires his departure, but his mother still needs him even if she seems to hate everything he is and does. (If you’ve ever read any 9-1-1 fanfic, Aiden’s mother is toxic in the same way that Eddie’s mother is. I digress again, but geeky references are part of the fun of this story)

Maggie and Aiden find each other through the gaming that everyone in their lives thinks they should have given up years ago. Quite possibly because it’s a symbol of the fact that they are both determined to live THEIR OWN lives and not FOR anyone else.

Obviously, I had a ball with Role Playing, to the point that I’m a bit chagrined that I missed it when it came out back in July , but am oh-so-glad I rediscovered it now thanks to Book Riot’s Best Books of 2023. I sincerely hope the author gives us some more grown-up but still geeky romances to fall in love with, but in the meantime I’m going back to see where I left off with Fandom Hearts the next time I need to put a little more heart in my reading!

Review: Keep by Anna Hackett

Review: Keep by Anna HackettKeep: A Grumpy Single Dad Romance (Fury Brothers Book 2) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Fury Brothers #2
Pages: 250
Published by Anna Hackett on October 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

My boss is a tough, grumpy bounty hunter—and a hot single dad—and now he’s sworn to keep me safe, whether I like it or not.
My name’s Macy, and I always look on the bright side of things. Life’s too short not to. Super grump extraordinaire Colton Fury is the total opposite. Luckily for him, along with the muscled bod, tattoos, and rugged face, it works for him.
When I start getting creepy calls at the office and someone breaks into my house, it becomes clear I’m a target, and Coltsort of…loses his mind. He turns even bossier and more protective.
Now I’m living with him and his super cute daughter, and trying very hard to remember that I can’t let myself fall for him.Before long, there’s kissing, touching, and a whole lot more. Colt tells me—okay, more like growls at me—that he doesn’t do relationships. And I promise him no strings or complications.
Every day that passes, the complications are growing and I’m starting to realize I want them. All of them.
But soon, it’s not only me in danger, and it’s not only Colt who’ll risk it all to save the people he loves.
The Fury fierce, loyal, and live by their own codeFive men who grew up in foster care and became brothers by choice. They vow to always have each other’s no questions, no doubts, no hesitation. They protect their own…always.

My Review:

Colton Fury and Macy Underwood are each firmly of the opinion that they have their lives together all by themselves. Separately, that is.

Neither of them does relationships – at least romantic relationships. Macy’s certainly all in on her job as Colt’s office manager, wrangling the arrangements for his frequent trips to capture the latest escaped criminals while coercing him to deal with the resulting paperwork as often as needed.

Macy feels needed, the job pays well, and the problems she left behind in San Francisco are well back in her rearview mirror. Or at least she believes they are. And believes that big, tough successful bounty hunter Colt Fury – along with his equally fierce and protective brothers – take care of their own when anything goes wrong.

As evidenced by the way they all gathered around Dante Fury and HIS bartender turned love-of-his-life Mila when her past troubles came calling for her in the first book in the series, Fury.

Colt, on the other hand, doesn’t do relationships because the way he sees it his life is already full up. Not with romance, because he doesn’t think he deserves that, but with the loyalty of his brothers and the heartwarming and heartstopping love between Colt and his niece-turned-adopted-daughter, seven year old Daisy Fury. Making sure that Daisy has everything she needs is a full time job all by itself, and he thinks he can’t afford to split his heart’s focus to find a more adult kind of love.

When Macy starts receiving prank calls she assumes it’s nothing that needs anyone to handle it besides herself. Just like her free-spirited mother taught her.

At least until the pranks escalate to life-threatening accidents, and Colt Fury can’t stop himself from stepping in and taking over Macy’s security and a bit more of her life than either of them ever planned on. Not that they haven’t both had entirely too many seriously hot daydreams about all the delicious possibilities.

But Macy’s ex didn’t take no for an answer then, and doesn’t plan on taking one now that he’s chased her down to New Orleans. Unless the Fury Brothers take him down before its too late for both Macy AND Daisy.

Escape Rating B+: I liked Keep better than Fury because I was able to get inside Macy’s head in a way that I wasn’t Mila’s or even Dante’s. I also enjoyed Macy more as a character because she was getting on with her life and living her best one in spite of the EvilEx™ lurking behind her in San Francisco. She’s not focusing on him, she’s not constantly looking over her shoulder at him, she’s not even thinking much about him until he turns up like a bad penny and puts himself back in her life.

One of the fun things about this series so far is that the romances haven’t been insta-love. We enter the story at the point where the relationship turns so fast on its dime that it almost seems that way, but Colt and Macy have been working together for months when their story begins. They are already part of each other’s lives – and part of each other’s daydreams even if neither of them is willing to admit that.

Well, Macy is willing to admit to the occasional sexy daydream, but recognizes that it’s not a good idea to go there because they work together. Colt, on the other hand, has a bad case of “I’m not worthy” that he’s only able to start getting over when Macy needs him to protect her.

There’s also a bit of ‘Kidfic’ mixed in, as Colt is an excellent dad to Daisy, and part of the whole Fury Brothers brotherhood is wrapped around taking care of little Daisy Fury. When Macy goes all in on being another one of Daisy’s caregivers it gives the story a gooey center that just worked for me. (I’ve been reading a whole lot of 9-1-1 fanfic recently, in spite of having never watched the TV series, and a whole lot of that fandom is kidfics – which are awesome if the kid is awesome and Daisy so is!)

Of course Colt gets over his stupidity in thinking that he’s a) not good enough for Macy and b) gets to make that decision for her. Meanwhile, Macy, in spite of a bit of stupid decision making over a threat to Daisy, manages to rescue the little girl and sets up her own rescue quite handily in the process, proving to herself and the reader that she’s the perfect addition to the Fury Brothers’ family.

One final comment. This series so far has books with VERY long subtitles. The subtitle for Dante’s book, “a fake dating workplace romance” was only true for a little while. Not that it wasn’t a workplace romance, but the fake part of their fake dating didn’t last very long at all.

Very much on the other hand, Colt is a grumpy dad from the very first page of his story until the last. Grumpy is part of Colt’s core personality. That grumpiness hides a heart of marshmallow when it comes to his family, but he’s a grump through and through. That gets to a place of being considerably happier in his grumpiness over the course of this story adds just that extra bit of sweetness – albeit still covered in a crusty – but delicious – exterior. (Come to think of it, Colt is a bit like a s’more – or at least Macy certainly thinks so!)

Ending this entry in the series on a high note, at least for this reader, it looks like business mogul Kavner Fury will be going head to head with Treasury Agent Coleman in the next book in the Fury Brothers series, sometime next year. I always love it when the heroine is able to kick ass and take names alongside the heroes, so I can’t wait to see Coleman do her level best to take Kav down – one way or another!

Review: The Book Club Hotel by Sarah Morgan

Review: The Book Club Hotel by Sarah MorganThe Book Club Hotel by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, holiday fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Canary Street Press on September 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This Christmas, USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan returns with another heartfelt exploration of change, the power of books to heal, and the enduring strength of female friendship. Perfect for fans of Emily Henry and Jennifer Weiner.
With its historic charm and picture-perfect library, the Maple Sugar Inn is considered the winter destination. As the holidays approach, the inn is fully booked with guests looking for their dream vacation. But widowed far too young, and exhausted from juggling the hotel with being a dedicated single mom, Hattie Coleman dreams only of making it through the festive season.
But when Erica, Claudia and Anna—lifelong friends who seem to have it all—check in for a girlfriends’ book club holiday, it changes everything. Their close friendship and shared love of books have carried them through life's ups and downs. But Hattie can see they're also packing some major emotional baggage, and nothing prepares her for how deeply her own story is about to become entwined in theirs. In the span of a week over the most enchanting time of the year, can these four women come together to improve each other’s lives and make this the start of a whole new chapter?

My Review:

This is the story of how the Hotel Book Club transformed the Maple Sugar Inn into The Book Club Hotel – with a little bit of help from the spirit of Christmas. It’s also the story of four women living the old saying that goes, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

The members of the Hotel Book Club, former college roommates Ericka, Anna and Claudia, have met up every year since those college days at some hotel or another to catch up with each other, sightsee a bit, drink wine and talk about books. Not necessarily in that order.

As the story begins they are all just one side or the other of 40. Which is turning out to be one hell of a milestone birthday for each of them – even if they are having a difficult time admitting that to themselves – let alone each other.

There’s that saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence? They’re all feeling a bit of that because they went very different directions after college, which was not exactly a surprise as they were not exactly peas in a pod when they met.

Anna and Claudia both envy Ericka for her high-powered and highly-successful career and the lifestyle it affords her. Ericka and Claudia both see Anna’s happy marriage and picture-perfect family as a touchstone, proof that some relationships do work and some marriages are successful and some families are perfect – even if that hasn’t been the experience for either of them in their birth families or their own history. While Ericka and Anna both have a touch of that same envy over Claudia’s passion for and expertise in being a chef.

And all of those things are true, but, under the surface each situation is nowhere near as perfect as it seems from the outside. Anna is beset by empty-nest syndrome as her ‘job’ as the ever-supportive mother to twins Meg and Daniel is moving to a new and dreaded phase as those twins get ready to leave for college.

Claudia’s 10-year relationship with John has just ended, and she’s just lost a job that burned her out so badly she’s thinking seriously about re-inventing herself as something, anything, to get out of soulless kitchens run by abusive dictators that do not respect her skills AND leave her no time for a personal life.

While Ericka is waffling on the first steps of the road not taken. Or rather, the road her father took minutes after she was born, leaving her and her mother behind to fend for themselves while he ran about as far away as he could get. An event that sent her life into an utter inability to depend on anyone else for anything ever – with Anna and Claudia seeming to be the only exceptions.

When the friends gather at the Maple Sugar Inn that early December, they enter what seems like a picture perfect place to spend a week putting each other back together – even if none of them can admit that’s a big portion of what they are there for.

Just as they arrive, that picture-perfect picture melts down. The innkeeper Hattie is having a crisis of her own. Multiple crises, in fact, as both her head housekeeper and her five-star chef have quit in the midst of tantrums worthy of a two-year old while the inn is full to the rafters and there seems to be no help in sight.

But there is. And in the course of helping Hattie set the inn on the course she finally has the spoons to create for herself, Anna, Claudia and Ericka each find the fork in their own roads – and reach out to take it.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up for two reasons, and I’m not sure which is first or second. The whole concept of a vacation just to read and spend time with lifelong friends and read, (did I mention read?) and relax and oh, yes, read – sounds a bit like heaven. And the setting of The Book Club Hotel seemed particularly idyllic, including a brief trip to a ‘Winter Wonderland’ without having to stick around for the next several months of freezing temperatures, gray snow and mud. (Been there, done that, the t-shirts are all long-sleeved and insulated.)

The Stacking the Shelves stack that included this book garnered a whole lot of comments about just how wonderful this particular vacation sounded, so I’m clearly not alone in thinking it would be lovely.

That other reason for picking up The Book Club Hotel is that I really enjoyed this author’s The Summer Seekers a couple of years ago, and was hoping for something similar.

In spite of the wildly different settings, that particular wish was just a bit too on the nose. The characters read a bit too similarly particularly Ericka and Anna standing in for emotionally distant Kathleen and helicopter worrywart mother Liza.

The story follows a familiar outline. Four women, each at their own personal crossroads, come together accidentally and on purpose and forge or re-forge the bonds between them while figuring out which way to turn at that crossroad with a little help from their old and new friends.

It’s a familiar formula because it works – and it certainly does in The Book Club Hotel. And that’s down to the four protagonists, Ericka, Anna, Claudia and Hattie. It helps a lot that not only are they all individually charming, each in their own ways, but they also represent different but very real dilemmas. Readers may not identify with all of them, but it would be difficult not to resonate with one or two. (Personally, I was on Team Ericka and Team Claudia but your reading mileage may take you down the other fork in the road.)

What really makes it all work is that each of these women does find a happily ever after, but it’s not the SAME happy ever after – and it shouldn’t be. I particularly liked that not all of those HEAs were wrapped around relationships and children. They each needed to work on themselves, and happiness followed from that work.

I have to confess that, in spite of my deep, abiding love for the concept of an actual Book Club Hotel, the story in said hotel didn’t pull at my heartstrings quite as hard as The Summer Seekers but a good reading time was absolutely still had by this reader.

If you like women’s fiction/relationship fiction, I’m confident that you will, too.

Review: Fury Brothers by Anna Hackett

Review: Fury Brothers by Anna HackettFury: A Fake Dating Workplace Romance (Fury Brothers Book 1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Fury Brothers #1
Pages: 286
Published by Anna Hackett on September 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

I’m not looking for a hero, and definitely not a fake relationship with my new boss, nightclub owner Dante Fury—over six feet of dark, hot, and dangerous.
But he isn’t taking no for an answer.
The plan was to run, live under the radar, survive. My life’s been destroyed by some very bad people and everything I know is gone—career, friends, family. I thought I could hide as a bartender at New Orleans’ hottest new club, Ember.
I can’t trust anyone, but after I’m attacked, Dante is determined to play protector by claiming me as his. No one would dare touch the woman of one of the Fury brothers. Suddenly, I’m living at his place, and he’s touching me, kissing me, taking care of me…
Dante makes it very hard to remember this relationship isn’t real. He makes my heart race, but he’s way out of my league, and he’s protecting his own broken pieces.
Nothing this fake should feel this right.
The bad guys won’t give up, but I’m starting to think the biggest danger to me is Dante Fury.
The Fury fierce, loyal, and live by their own code. Five men who grew up in foster care and became brothers by choice. They vow to always have each other’s backs; no questions, no doubts, no hesitation. They protect their own…always.

My Review:

In spite of the subtitle, the ‘fake dating’ between Mila Clifton and Dante Fury doesn’t last very long at all because there is nothing fake about their attraction to each other even before they attempt to ‘fake date’.

The only people they are really ‘faking’ are each other, as Mila is on the run from some very bad people who have left a trail of dead bodies behind her in their pursuit of a woman who worked too hard and heard too much on one dark night she wishes she could get back.

Dante Fury doesn’t seem to believe in love – or at least doesn’t believe that it’s for him and his four brothers, men who survived foster care by sticking together and protecting themselves from anyone and everything.

Now the Fury Brothers protect their corner of New Orleans from anyone who thinks they can bring bad shit onto their turf. Cleaning up ALL of NOLA is WAY beyond even the Fury Brothers’ capacity, but keeping their own territory secure is right up their alley.

At first Dante does his level best to convince himself that he’s only looking after Mila because she’s ‘one of his’, a bartender who works at his nightclub, Ember. But he’s only fooling himself and it doesn’t take him long to realize it.

Mila, on the other hand, has seen every person she’s turned to while she’s been on the run get murdered, one after another. She trusts herself, and fears for anyone that her pursuers might believe she’s gotten close to. So she doesn’t.

Not until Dante Fury wraps his protection around her and refuses to let go – or to let her slink off into the night. No matter who or what stands in his way. Not even Mila herself.

Escape Rating B: It’s no secret that this author’s science fiction romances are my favorites, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get a lot of reading pleasure out of her contemporary, action-adventure romances, sometimes in spite of myself.

Fury is one of those ‘in spite of myself’ kinds of reads. Which means that any negatives I bring up are a ‘me’ thing and quite possibly not a ‘you’ thing.

Except maybe this first one. Fury is told in alternating first-person perspectives that switch between Mila Clifton and Dante Fury – which makes sense because at the beginning they aren’t on the same page with each other. Come to think of it, at the beginning they aren’t even on the same page as themselves!

But I didn’t really feel like I was in either of their heads, so the ‘I’ voice didn’t quite work for me. It’s also not the author’s usual style and I wasn’t expecting it. I DO like first-person narratives, even dual or dueling ones, as you’ll see in my review of Prophet later this week, but I couldn’t get into either Mila’s or Dante’s heads in spite of being, well, in their heads.

I do have to say, and this is completely a me thing, that being in Mila’s head was particularly uncomfortable because of the ‘heroine in jeopardy reacting by running’ trope isn’t one of my favorites, although I was grateful that this time it didn’t go all the way into the trope by having Mila on the run from a stalker or an abusive ex. Still, it makes for a reactive rather than a proactive heroine, and that’s just not my jam.

Which means I liked the whole thing a LOT better once Mila started standing up for herself and standing her ground. Especially because she was totally, completely and utterly in the right – it just took the Fury Brothers standing with her to get her to take back her life and I was absolutely there for that part.

Two things I do love about this series so far are the setting AND the vibe between the Fury Brothers. I always love a story set in New Orleans, and even the glimpse we get of the city in this first outing has me itching for more.

And the Fury Brothers themselves are fascinating, both in their origin story and in the way they’ve pulled together and pulled themselves up in spite of their rough starts in life. The whole concept of them creating a solidly bound family of choice and the way they maintain it and even add to it is fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of them.

Which means I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Keep, which is looking like it will be Colt Fury’s story about raising his niece while running away from the paperwork involved in his own business – along with the determined woman who will hunt him down and make him take care of ALL his business – including, most definitely, herself.

Guest Review: Chef’s Choice by TJ Alexander

Guest Review: Chef’s Choice by TJ AlexanderChef's Choice (Chef's Kiss, #2) by T.J. Alexander
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, queer romance, romantic suspense
Series: Chef's Kiss #2
Pages: 336
Published by Emily Bestler Books on May 30, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A fake dating arrangement turns to real love in this deliciously delightful queer rom-com from the author of the sweetly satisfying Chef’s Kiss.
When Luna O’Shea is unceremoniously fired from her frustrating office job, she tries to count her blessings: she’s a proud trans woman who has plenty of friends, a wonderful roommate, and a good life in New York City. But blessings don’t pay the bills.
Enter Jean-Pierre, a laissez-faire trans man and the heir to a huge culinary empire—which he’ll only inherit if he can jump through all the hoops his celebrity chef grandfather has placed in his path. First hoop: he needs a girlfriend, a role that Luna is happy to play…for the right price. She’s got rent to pay, after all! Second hoop: they both need to learn how to cook a series of elaborate, world-renowned family recipes to prove that Jean-Pierre is a worthy heir. Admittedly, Luna doesn’t even know how to crack an egg, but she’s not going to let that—or any pesky feelings for Jean-Pierre—stop her.
Another swoon-worthy and heartwarming queer love story from a charming new voice in romance.

(More chefs! More queer folk!  Now I just need the sci-fi. Marlene’s recommendation in a comment on my last post has been added to my reading list, so look for a review on that once conference season is over for me.)

Guest Review by Amy: The opening chapter of this book hit me like a shovel to the face; Luna O’Shea gets fired, abruptly, for no other apparent reason than for being transgender. This is something that is unfortunately common among gender non-conforming people in the United States, and  that sort of discrimination is not even prohibited  by law in much of the country. Having had a number of friends this has happened to, I found the chapter very triggering and unpleasant, and I had to put the book down and sleep on it, complete with nightmares of me being treated that way.  I was tempted to tell Marlene this was a “DNF,” a book that I simply could not finish. But I knew deep in my soul somewhere that author TJ Alexander would not do us dirty like that, and there was something good right behind that painful setup. Turns out, I was right, and I’m glad I kept reading. Once you’re past the rocks and shoals of that first chapter, there’s a lovely, fun story to be had here.

Escape Rating: A+. “Wealthy heir-apparent must appear to be in a relationship to inherit, so he gets a fake girlfriend” is a tried-and-true plot; the romance industry has made use of it for decades, and it’s a great venue for some really comedic scenes. TJ Alexander gives us a slight twist on it here; the wealthy young Frenchman Jean-Pierre isn’t simply an idling playboy, he’s also a transgender man, so there’s some family-acceptance issues in his life, too. His famous chef grandfather has set him a challenge:  recreate a pretentious, difficult nine-course meal that he is famous for, and he’s the heir. Fail, and he’s out of the will.  He needs a fast cover story for why he’s in New York, instead of talking to his (also famous chef) grandmother from the other side of the family, and transwoman Luna takes the bait – money, of course – and finds herself embroiled in family drama.  They’re going to take Papi’s challenge…but neither of them have a clue how to cook.

Our story begins a few months after the end of the companion story, Chef’s Kiss, and Simone and Ray figure in heavily, along with some of the other supporting cast from the earlier novel. I was delighted to see this, as I had really enjoyed the development of their relationship, and seeing what it looked like some months later as an established relationship was nice for me. It gave me a sort of Nora Roberts-esque wish that there was a third story to tell here somewhere, that could be plugged in around these two.

Meanwhile, back to the future in Chef’s Choice…as simply must happen, the not-couple is forced to act like a couple by circumstance way too early, when Luna’s mom shows up, drawn to town by the paparazzi pictures of her daughter with the young man, and a visit to Luna’s weekly friends-gathering at the local pub. Smooth, urbane Jean-Pierre handles all this with a healthy dose of Gallic stubbornness, but when Luna points out that their arrangement is little different from sex work, he loses his cool for a bit. There’s some back and forth – these two complicated people are trying really hard to make it look like they’re the perfect couple, and the challenges pile up fast.

The pair spend a weekend at his grandmother’s lavish condo being taught to cook by Simone and Ray, and we get some of the first hints that something more might be afoot for Luna and her “JP.”  Ray is non-binary, and when introduced, Jean-Pierre takes some time to make sure he has their pronouns right in both French and English. Luna finds that sort of caring unspeakably hot – she wants to “shove JP against the labeled shelves and grind like a freaking pepper mill.” That particular statement had me laughing loudly. The book is liberally garnished with fantastic one-liners and in-jokes like that, and it helps make the well-trodden plot a light, fun read, even through all the trials and tribulations.

I shan’t ruin the ending for you. In my review of Chef’s Kiss, I gigged the book slightly for its abrupt ending. I have no such complaint here; Jean-Pierre and Luna go to France for the cook-off, and the various threads of the story come together into a smooth, satisfying end. Along the way, Alexander grasps the question of “what makes a man, a man?” in their development of Jean-Pierre’s character, and touches on how gender non-conforming folks may struggle with the choice of how to interact with the world around them. Both questions are handled in a most gentle way, giving the reader space to consider these matters for themselves without struggle or pain.

Normally, in a book review, we don’t spend much time on the author’s acknowledgements, but this bit at the very end stuck out to me:

So if you’re reading this, you beautiful, powerful, tired trans person, please know that this was my love letter to you. I hope it brought you a little joy; you deserve every bit you can get.

Both of the tales in this series absolutely did. TJ, if you ever read this: thank you, from the bottom of my non-binary transgender heart.

TJ Alexander writes with mandoline-sharp wit, a clever eye for details, and a deep understanding of queer life and culture. This work, like its predecessor, gets my strongest possible recommendation.

Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Review: Beach Read by Emily HenryBeach Read by Emily Henry
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 358
Published by Berkley on May 19, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.
Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.
They’re polar opposites.
In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.
Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.

My Review:

Beach Read has been in the virtually towering TBR pile ever since I read – and fell in love with – Book Lovers early this year. I’ve been “playing along” with the Kindle Achievements every quarter, so when the list of possible titles to fulfill that last badge included Beach Read, it seemed like the universe was telling me that now was the time. So here we are.

Both January Andrews and Augustus Everett are best selling authors – but most definitely NOT in the same genre. January writes women’s fiction (not all that different from the author herself), while Augustus Everett is famous for his dark and gritty literary fiction.

Their characters and worlds do not even begin to intersect – but they do. They are both graduates of the same University of Michigan Creative Writing Program. In fact, they attended together and graduated at the same time, spending four years competing for every single award and critiquing pretty much every single one of each other’s works.

Saying they are familiar with each other is hardly a stretch – even if they have nothing in common. Or believe they have nothing in common. At least not until they find themselves next door neighbors in a northern Michigan beach community, wanting nothing to do with each other.

But needing each other all the same.

They’ve each fallen into some really deep ruts, and they are separately having a damn hard time crawling out of those ruts. January has stopped believing in happy ever afters, after the one she believed her parents had found turned out to be based on a lie. A year after her dad’s death, she has a book due, an empty bank account, and a severe case of writer’s block.

Leading her to her dad’s old home town and the house he shared with his childhood sweetheart at a point considerably after either of their childhoods.

Gus has never believed in happy ever afters. Or even happy for nows. He’s always looked on the dark side and is in the throes of his third book, this time about death cults and their few survivors. But he’s going through his own case of writer’s block, for reasons that he isn’t willing to share with January. Because sharing isn’t something that Gus does easily. Or at all.

Still, they’re both writers and they’re both stuck and they have a whole lot of common ground to build on – even if that ground is more than a bit shaky on both sides. So they challenge each other as a way of breaking their writer’s block.

And it turns into the making of a happy ending for everyone – including sorta/kinda – the protagonists of not one but two surprising new books.

Escape Rating A-: I enjoyed Beach Read, but not quite as much as Book Lovers, because it’s a bit too much like Book Lovers. Which isn’t fair to Beach Read, as it was published first even though I read it second. Still, if you like one you’ll like the other – although it probably isn’t a good idea to read them too close together.

Like Nora and Charlie in Book Lovers, January and Gus are not just both in the book business, but in the same end of the book business as each other. (Nora and Charlie were both editors, January and Gus are both authors). Which means that both books, in addition to being just the kind of stories that January writes, are steeped in the book business – merely different aspects of that business.

And both stories begin when the protagonists meet when both parties are in the midst of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” What makes both stories fun to read is the way that they get themselves and each other past the horribleness.

We’re in January’s head in this story, so we know what she’s been through, what she’s thinking, and what she’s feeling. Because she and Gus knew each other fairly well – and very nearly better than that – once upon a time, we are also aware of all of her pre-conceived notions of who Gus is and what he thinks of her and in both of their situations.

Which gives Beach Read a very strong sense of “assume makes an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’” because January’s assumptions about Gus were and are too frequently wrong, wrong, wrong. But this steers clear of misunderstandammit territory because Gus has a damn hard time communicating his thoughts and feelings in any way other than expiating the worst of them through his writing.

While it was a given from the outset that January and Gus were going to reach at least the kind of happy for now that both the character January AND the author usually write, what made this book interesting and different was the books that January and Gus each produced on their way to it, and how those books managed to be both a departure from their usual styles while still expressing the core parts of their personalities and their reasons for becoming writers in the first place.

So a good reading time was definitely had in Beach Read. Because it was most definitely a good reading time, and because one of the other possible titles for that last achievement was the author’s People We Meet on Vacation, I bought that too. I’m pretty sure I’ll be picking that up and meeting those people the next time I’m looking for a feel-good read!