Review: Sentinel Security: Steel by Anna Hackett

Review: Sentinel Security: Steel by Anna HackettSteel (Sentinel Security #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #4
Pages: 272
Published by Anna Hackett on January 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

His skills and ruthlessness made him a legend.

The dark, dangerous former spy.

Now the operative turned billionaire known as Steel collides with fiery agent Hellfire when they discover they’re both on the kill list of a deadly assassin.

CIA agent Devyn “Hellfire” Hayden came from nothing and made herself into one of the CIA’s best deep-cover agents. She’s dedicated to her country. She’s always on the move. She’s a loner. Just the way she likes it. Letting people close is a weakness and she’ll never be weak again.

But when she finds herself under attack by an assassin targeting the world’s best intelligence agents, it sends her straight into the path of the only man who tempts her. The dark, lethal Killian “Steel” Hawke.

Killian Hawke rose through the ranks of the CIA, and knows his name is whispered in fear by his enemies. But when his sister needed him, he left and started Sentinel Security. He protects all those he considers his: his sister, his friends, his employees, and his clients.

But there is one stubborn redhead he also wants to claim.

As Devyn and Killian work together to unmask the assassin hunting them, they are forced to confront their white-hot attraction and their violent need to protect each other. Killian is tired of dancing around what he feels for her. Now that she’s in danger, he’ll do whatever it takes to make her safe, claim her heart, and possess her soul.

My Review:

Lovers of the Sentinel Security series have been teased with the inevitability of this story from the very beginning of the series, every bit as much as Killian “Steel” Hawke and Devyn “Hellfire” Hayden have been teasing each other from the first time they met. Back in the day when they were both among the CIA’s best agents.

But when they first laid eyes on each other, Hellfire was an agent on the rise, and Steel was all too aware that he was on the edge of burnout and that his days with the agency were numbered. He didn’t need the temptation, and she couldn’t afford the distraction. Or the other way around. Or both.

Definitely both.

So he turned away and went on his way, out of the CIA and into building his own top-flight, high-end, security business, Sentinel Security. While she continued her rise through the ranks of the CIA to become the best of the best – just as he once was. And still very much is, just in a slightly different and frequently adjacent sphere.

Every time they’ve run into each other – occasionally just about literally – since the Sentinel Security series began, they’ve drawn the kind of sparks off of each other that were bound to lead to one hell of a fire.

If they can just get out of their own ways. As long as they can get themselves out of the sights of an assassin who only thinks he can claim to be the best by taking down the best.

He thinks he can prove he’s in their league. Hellfire and Steel are about to show him just how much he’s not.

Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, I adore this author and her work and am always thrilled to have a new story in whichever series she happens to be working on.

Second, I always love the romance that features the leader of whatever group that series happens to be featuring, so I’ve been waiting for Killian’s story since the series began. (I’m just grateful I didn’t have to bite my nails through quite as many stories as in some of her previous series.)

Third, while I was always intending to read Steel this week I had one book absolutely disappointingly fail, so I was both thrilled and grateful to pick up Steel and dive right in. I knew I would enjoy it, but it turned out to be the perfect book at the perfect time.

Just as Killian Hawke turned out to be, not the perfect man but the perfect man for Hayden. Someone she could trust to have her back in a firefight, who would pull her up when she needed it instead of beating her down when she was already there. Someone who loved her and appreciated her for the kickass woman she was instead of trying to make her be less than in any way, shape or form.

Because she’s perfect for him just as she is. If she was anything less or anything different, she wouldn’t be the woman, the person he needed at his side.

But it isn’t ever going to be easy – and neither is this operation. Someone has a list of the top agents for every spy agency around the world and is planning to assassinate the “Top Ten” on the list. A list that Hellfire and Steel are both on.

The assassin has already eliminated two of their colleagues, had a go at a third, and now they are next. Which means that they are following the trail of their would-be assassin while he’s trying to pull them into his trap. The stakes are the highest, the tension is off the charts and the pages are turning as fast as the reader can flip them.

It’s a race to the finish; either his – or theirs. But together they can conquer anything. Even each other’s doubts, fears and demons. It’s a wild ride from beginning to end. Yet another terrific action adventure romance from an equally terrific author.

As always, I’m already looking forward to her next book, Knightmaster, the first in the Oronis Knights series. I’m always up for good science fiction romance and I know that’s just what I’ll get in March. And Sentinel Security will be back in April, and I’m sure it will be another pulse-pounding romantic adventure!

Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan

Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel MonaghanNora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 272
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Nora's life is about to get a rewrite...
Nora Hamilton knows the formula for love better than anyone. As a romance channel screenwriter, it's her job. But when her too-good-to work husband leaves her and their two kids, Nora turns her marriage's collapse into cash and writes the best script of her life. No one is more surprised than her when it's picked up for the big screen and set to film on location at her 100-year-old-home. When former Sexiest Man Alive, Leo Vance, is cast as her ne'er do well husband Nora's life will never be the same.
The morning after shooting wraps and the crew leaves, Nora finds Leo on her porch with a half-empty bottle of tequila and a proposition. He'll pay a thousand dollars a day to stay for a week. The extra seven grand would give Nora breathing room, but it's the need in his eyes that makes her say yes. Seven days: it's the blink of an eye or an eternity depending on how you look at it. Enough time to fall in love. Enough time to break your heart.
Filled with warmth, wit, and wisdom, Nora Goes Off Script is the best kind of love story--the real kind where love is complicated by work, kids, and the emotional baggage that comes with life. For Nora and Leo, this kind of love is bigger than the big screen.

My Review:

This initially anti-romantic Nora actually writes those made-for-TV-sponsored-greeting-card-company romances that the Nora in yesterday’s book initially believed cast her as an unfeeling villain in every single outing. Unlike the romances that either of them reads, writes, agents or even watches, the particular script that this Nora is dealing with when this story begins is the story of her own life, and it’s about to be filmed in her very own picturesque but slightly run down home.

Or rather, it’s about to be filmed on her lawn and in “The Tea House” on the grounds where she does her writing. It’s a bit of art imitates life imitates art, as that Tea House was her emotional escape from an emotionally abusive but otherwise absent husband. It was the place where she wrote the scripts that literally kept their life afloat – because the asshole was just too “good” – at least by his own definition – to go out and get a damn job to contribute to the household.

Which also wasn’t good enough for him in any way, shape or form. Not Nora, and not their two kids. So he upped and left and she was actually pretty damn happy about it. She chose not to be a victim of any of her circumstances, and that’s her story and it sold and it’s being filmed and just the fees from using her house for part of the movie shoot is going to get her out of the debt the asshat left her in.

But her asshat ex is being played by the Sexiest Man Alive, and Nora is just a bit smitten. Or at least her fantasy life has suddenly taken on some new dimensions. Still, Leo Vance’s invasion of her life and occasionally her house is just a bit of excitement in her otherwise pretty ordinary and pretty contented life.

And she can’t wait for the film crew to be gone so she can get back to writing. But when the film crew leaves, Leo decides to stay. And stay. And STAY.

That’s where what was merely a blip – although a pretty damn big blip – of excitement turns into a whole lot more. Leo doesn’t just camp out in her tea house, he becomes part of her life and the lives of her two kids, Arthur and Bernadette. In a few short weeks, they become a family.

It’s easy for all of them to fall for him. He’s more involved in all their lives than the asshat EVER was. And it’s not an act. He’s not playing a part. So when Nora and Leo finally give in to the simmering tension between them, it seems like something that shouldn’t be possible might be possible after all. They might, just maybe and possibly, have some kind of future. No matter how much that seems like a fairytale.

But just when they do – they don’t. Leo gets a call, jets off to LA and then to Asia to film a big movie, and he ghosts the whole family. He misses all the things he promised he’d come back for and just disappears out of their lives if not out of their hearts.

Howsomever, this isn’t Nora’s first time on this particular merry-go-round. She wasn’t a victim before, and she isn’t going to be one now. She knows what to do. She writes her pain. She picks up the pieces and moves on. She survives.

It’s then, and only then, that the truths finally come out. The only question is whether or not it’s too late.

Escape Rating A: I fell into this one nearly as hard as I did Book Lovers, and that’s saying a lot. The two romances have a lot in common, particularly in the way that they both mix in a lot of relationship elements. Because this isn’t just a romance between the scriptwriter and the actor, it’s also a love story about the actor and the scriptwriter’s kids. They have to be able to become, not just a couple but actually a family in order for this to even possibly work.

And Nora is as surprised as anyone – if not a bit more so – that it might possibly work. So she’s not surprised at all when it doesn’t. Heartbroken this time around, but not surprised.

One of the things that makes celebrity romances so much fun – especially when they work as well as this one does, is that we’ve probably all had that daydream at least once or twice – if not a whole lot more times. It’s not remotely likely or even plausible, but it’s fun to dream.

But to make it work as in a novel that dream has to at least seem like it might possibly come true in this one particular case. (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, both by Olivia Dade, also play with this idea but in a completely different way.) And it does seem to be working in Nora Goes Off Script – at least from Nora’s perspective.

Howsomever, because the story is told entirely from Nora’s point of view, we get why it works but we also see exactly how much she questions whether the relationship has ANY long term potential whatsoever. She knows she wants it to, but she’s realistic about wondering whether it can. That we don’t see things from Leo’s point of view means that we share her doubts and totally get why, when he disappears it’s disappointing but not as surprising as either she – or we – want it to be.

(Some of the folks in my reading circle saw these events as a giant misunderstandammit. While it’s true that the mess might have been cleared up by a conversation or a series of texts in their particular case, because of the agency in the middle of things it was easy to see that that conversation actually couldn’t happen. YMMV, as theirs obviously did.)

That all of Nora’s justified angst does lead to both another big money script sold to Hollywood AND to an HEA without her having to compromise a thing – because she shouldn’t – was a surprise and a delight. The ending fed the fantasy in a way that made this reader end the book with a big smile on my face – although probably not as big a smile as the one on Nora’s daughter Bernadette’s face.

Nora Goes Off Script is the author’s debut adult novel, although she has previously published both YA fiction and grown-up nonfiction. I’m so very happy that there is more where this one came from, and I’m looking forward to reading her sophomore adult romance, Same Time Next Summer, coming out THIS summer!

Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Review: Book Lovers by Emily HenryBook Lovers by Emily Henry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 377
Published by Berkley on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn't see coming....
Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.
Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.
If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

My Review:

When it comes to Happy Ever Afters, one size definitely doesn’t fit all – even if a certain ubiquitous type of romance movie leads you to believe it does.

You know the ones I mean, on the channel created by the equally ubiquitous greeting card company, where a City Person™ is forced by circumstance to spend a month (or two) in a (very) small town and discovers true love, happiness and fulfillment in the welcoming embrace of that small town and particularly in the arms of one of the handsomest or most beautiful people who loves the place and everyone in it that all that love converts the City Person into a country person.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about the city people that former City Person left behind back in the big city. Because there’s always someone in that city who they were supposed to marry as soon as they got back – which they never do. Whether that other City Person just doesn’t really understand or love them after all, or whether that person is the reincarnation of Cruella de Vil (whether male or female, doesn’t matter), that person who thought they knew where their life was going and who it was going with is left in the lurch, scrambling to put things back together.

Nora Stephens has been that ‘left behind’ person four times now. She’s a highly respected, perhaps just a teensy bit cutthroat book editor who will do anything and everything for her clients – but doesn’t leave much time, energy or effort for herself. She’s been left behind in love so many times that she’s given up on the idea.

The one person in her life that she always makes time for – even if not nearly fast enough or often enough – the one person she loves without reservation is her younger sister Libby. So when Libby entreats, inveigles and somewhat emotionally manipulates Nora into taking a vacation, together, just the two of them, away from Nora’s all-consuming job and Libby’s beloved husband and two little girls, Nora caves. Pretty much instantly. Libby has that effect on her.

Nora can sense there’s something that Libby’s not telling her. And whatever it is, she needs to get to the bottom of it so she can fix it for her sister. Because that’s what Nora always does, one way or another.

Because she can’t fix the one thing that both of them want more than anything. She can’t bring back the mother who died and left her girls behind. So she’ll give everything else instead. Including her own dreams of a Happy Ever After.

Unless, just this once, Libby can fix things so that it’s Nora who finally gets to have it all. While still managing to remain that City Person> But finally a City Person with her very own, fitted just for her, HEA.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one for all the reasons that made Nora’s HEA seem so impossible to her at the beginning. Because her HEA fits her and doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold. And I loved her for it every bit as her sometimes-nemesis (but not really) does. So there’s a reason Book Lovers won so many plaudits and was on so many “Best of the Year” lists and I’m there for every single one of them.

The story is a bit meta, but in a terrific way. It’s a book about romance tropes and a romance between two people who love books, fall for each other, and have a romance that appears to be casting against all those romance tropes, only to learn that they’ve been happening while they haven’t been looking at anything but each other.

There’s also a bit of a relationship fiction/women’s fiction/chick lit story going on very much in the foreground of the story, as the only long-term relationship in Nora Stephens’ life isn’t a romance – because she’s been avoiding those or failing at them (or a bit of both) – right, left and center.

The sustaining relationship in Nora’s life is her love for her younger sister Libby. Normally, I don’t like misunderstandammits, but it’s fascinating in this book because the misunderstandammit in Book Lovers isn’t in Nora’s very slowing brewing romance with Charlie Lastra, but rather with her sister Libby.

There’s something wrong between them, and Nora knows it but doesn’t know what it is. Libby’s keeping something important from her, but she doesn’t know what that is, either. It’s only when the blowup actually happens that we – and Nora – finally understand why it needed to happen. AND why it had to reach such a huge boiling point so that Nora could finally hear it instead of trying to fix it. That what it’s about is so very real was a big part of why this book was just so damn good.

This is a story with not just one beating heart for the romance, but actually two – one for the romance and one for their sisterhood. It gives the story the kind of balance that it needs to make it work. Because Nora can’t be truly happy unless things are alright with Libby, which can’t happen until Nora stops playing “mom” so she can just live being “sister”.

And then there’s the romance. As much as the romance in this story doesn’t fit a lot of the usual tropes as Nora describes them early on, it does fall very nicely into the enemies to lovers trope. Not that Nora and Charlie Lastra ever were truly enemies. They’re not rivals or competitors in any way. They just met on what turned out to be a terrible day for each of them. Every single word of their entire conversation wasn’t heard without being filtered through their respective miseries. They gave each other good snark but just couldn’t get past their own admittedly terrible crap to see the person on the other side of the table.

Two years later, unbeknownst to each other, in the middle of trips that they’ve each been separately strong-armed into, they run into each other in the tiny town of Sunshine Falls, NC, to discover that their enmity isn’t really all that strong, but their bantering snarkitude is excellent.

It’s not every couple who gets to say they bonded over truly terrible Bigfoot erotica. But when you’re both book lovers, the bad ones are THE MOST FUN to giggle over. Together. (If there’s any truly great Bigfoot erotica I doubt that either of them would want to know. And neither do I.)

I loved Book Lovers very, very hard. Which means I’m now very much looking forward to the author’s next romance with relationships story, Happy Place. It’s coming in April so happily I don’t have that long to wait!

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu MandannaThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family--and a new love--changes the course of her life.
As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don't mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she's used to being alone and she follows the rules...with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and...Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he's concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn't know she was looking for....

My Review:

What would happen if people discovered that there really were witches in the world, and that magic really did work – if only for a privileged few? Most of the urban fantasy/paranormal stories that use this premise in the world we know tend to look at how witches were treated historically – whether the women (and it was almost always women) – who got burned, stoned or drowned could actually practice magic or not and take the Harry Potter option of a Statute of Secrecy or equivalent prohibitions.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Even without the possibility of witchcraft, humans already find plenty of reasons to persecute each other over perceived differences that mostly total up to some people hate and fear others and will latch on to any excuse to practice that hate in the hopes of putting that fear to sleep. People who are different because they have actual, real, mysterious powers? The line to pick up torches and pitchforks forms on the right. Please maintain an orderly queue.

In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, the witches in question, irregular or otherwise, have taken that very reasonable fear and run a bit too far with it. Pretty much running away from each other into the mixed results at best bargain.

Mika Moon is a witch. And she’s lonely. She is forced to live a secret, and fears staying anywhere long enough to put down roots or develop friendships for fear that if people get to know her they’ll figure out what she’s hiding. Or they’ll simply decide that she’s just not worth their time, their care or their friendship.

Her entire life is a sad song of just not being enough to make anyone want to stay. Unless, of course, they have a USE for her powers.

So she’s sure that the advertisement she’s seen on the interwebs, that someone is searching very specifically for a witch, is probably a scam of some kind – at best. Howsomever, between losing her most recent job, not having enough money to pay rent and feeling like it’s time to move on from her current location, Mika is at loose ends.

The job, if it really exists, comes with room and board – along with the mystery of why someone is looking so specifically for something and someone that isn’t supposed to exist. That the location of this puzzling offer is called “Nowhere House” adds to the sensation that Mika is probably being pranked.

At least until she gets there, and meets the job head on. Three little witches, all gathered together in a way that Mika’s been taught is never supposed to happen, need an adult witch to teach them how to do magic. And more importantly, how and when NOT to do it.

Mika’s never been a teacher before. She’s been taught that witches are NEVER supposed to gather together – and certainly never to practice magic together. But the girls need her, and Mika needs a refuge where, for once in her life she can be exactly who and what she is without having to keep so many secrets.

That the adults in the house all know about magic, and seem to have a Mika-shaped hole in their lives and their hearts is the icing on a cake that Mika never thought she’d even get to taste.

Everything about Nowhere House seems like it’s made of magic. The answer that Mika has to discover for herself is whether or not it’s real – or just another illusion.

Escape Rating A-: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches was absolutely charming – and I was utterly charmed by it. It’s a heartwarming read with just the right touch of magic to keep you turning pages, both to be part of this wonderful if extremely irregular household and to see what happens next.

It’s also a story that sits very comfortably on the border between cozy fantasy, paranormal romance and relationship fiction, snuggled right next to The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – with both Witch, Please by Ann Aguirre and Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck looking on with stern disapproval.

By that I mean that the magical household is centered around the care of the children, in this case the three young witches. Their caretakers are not magical themselves, but they obviously love the children very much, and have gone more than a bit overboard in protecting them. They are, for the most part, an utterly delightful gang, including the young, grumpy librarian, Jamie, while the madcap Ian felt more than a bit like an homage to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, particularly in his later incarnation as “The Curator”.

And just as in The House in the Cerulean Sea, there is more than the possibility of a romantic relationship in the air – which Ian is delightfully encouraging with mad abandon – to the consternation of Jamie, Mika and his own husband Ken.

But amongst the joy of Mika finding her place in the world, the girls learning magic and the adults making an eclectic but warm and loving home for the children and each other, there are clouds on the horizon. Just as in Witch, Please and Small Town, Big Magic, the forces of official witchdom, in the persons of the elderly ladies who have overshadowed Mika’s life as a witch from childhood, are ever present as the voice in Mika’s head telling her that everything she is doing is wrong and will be punished. Severely. Because she is breaking ALL THE RULES.

At the same time, it’s obvious fairly early on that a secret is looming over the entire household, and that secret, with all of its accompanying chickens, must come to roost before the story can reach anything like a happy ending.

So the Sword of Damocles casts a long shadow over everything – at least until it crashes down and cuts through all the hidden issues and agendas, including all the secrets standing in the way of pretty much everything. And, while it may seem like everything wraps up just a bit too neatly, by this point in our investment in the story that’s kind of what we want.

And in the end, that happy ever after, for the girls, for Mika and Jamie, and quite possibly, eventually, for witches everywhere, is utterly magical.

Review: Sentinel Security: Striker by Anna Hackett

Review: Sentinel Security: Striker by Anna HackettStriker (Sentinel Security #3) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sentinel Security #3
Pages: 276
Published by Anna Hackett on December 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
Goodreads

He's a hot British billionaire.
The rich, muscled, former special forces soldier.
He's a temptation she doesn't want and can't afford, but now she's working undercover in his company to catch a rogue arms dealer.
Former MI6 agent Hadley "Striker" Lockwood found a new life in New York working for Sentinel Security. Her work fills a tired, jaded hole inside her. Life is just how she likes it, and she definitely has no desire for a man to mess that up.
When her next assignment sends her back to London to hunt a dangerous arms dealer, she finds herself not only face to face with a darkly tempting billionaire, but going undercover as his newest employee.
Bennett Knightley left the SAS with dark scars scratched on his soul and a determination to help in different ways. His successful company Secura makes high-tech gear for soldiers around the world, but now it's under attack. Shipments are going missing, and his people are being targeted.
Enter Hadley-intelligent, stubborn, beautiful, and with walls a mile thick. Bennett's never been tempted to mix business and pleasure, but with Hadley in the office he's torn between their mission and claiming the maddening woman for himself.As Hadley and Bennett close in on their enemy, they fight hard against their overwhelming attraction. She's been burned before but the hot billionaire is getting under her skin. With Hadley, Bennett feels parts of himself coming back to life-now he has to not only convince her to trust him, but convince himself he deserves her.

My Review:

Once a member of Britain’s elite SAS (Special Air Service (the UK’s equivalent – more of less – of the US SEAL Teams), when Bennett Knightley retired from service he took his skills and determination from the front lines and created a highly profitable, high-tech company that specialized in the business of making the best protective equipment on the market for the military and the people who support them who are fighting the same good fight that he once did.

It’s also his way of exorcising his own demons. In honor of the friends he couldn’t protect in the past, because there was never enough good equipment to go around, he’s providing the best protection he can in the present and the future and making sure it goes where it will do the most good.

But someone has Bennett’s company in their sights, diverting his shipments and corrupting his people, putting that same protective gear in the hands of the very forces that Bennett is desperate to protect people from.

And swaying the court of public opinion to make it seem like Bennett is just another money-hungry capitalist selling out to the highest bidder no matter how dirty their money might be.

That’s where Sentinel Security, in the person of Hadley Lockwood, codename Striker, comes into the picture. And into Bennett’s company Secura, working undercover as a communications executive so she can see where the place has been infiltrated and hopefully get a lead on who has a serious desire to hang Bennett out to dry in as many ways as possible.

They’re supposed to work together. And they do. Entirely too well and not just in the office. But Hadley refuses to trust any man with her heart, while Bennett is still paying penance for all the people that he could not save.

All the while, there’s clearly someone out there who thinks Bennett hasn’t paid nearly enough. In spite of the threat, neither Hadley nor Bennett can resist reaching out for a present neither of them ever expected – even though they both know that any future is far from guaranteed.

Escape Rating A-: The two types of this author’s stories that I like best, whether they are science fiction romances like her Galactic Kings series or action adventure romances like Sentinel Security. The first, and the one I always await eagerly, is the romance that features the leader of whatever group the series is following. In the case of Sentinel Security that’s Killian “Steel” Hawke and his book is up NEXT! YAY!

But the other type, and one that manages to happen more than once in each series – after all, when it comes to leaders there can usually be only one – are the romances where the female half of the impending duo is every single bit the elite operator that the male half is – if not a bit more so as in The Medic.

Those elite operators who are so deliciously often the hero of her romances are just so kickass and badass that any woman who tangles romantically with them who is not just as badass in her own right sometimes gets a bit damselfied. Not because she really is, but because in comparison she really does need protection and a lot of it for whatever fix she’s stuck in.

Sentinel Security agent, formerly of MI6, Hadley “Striker” Lockwood does not need protection. She’s an expert either in providing that protection or in making sure that the villains wish they had a whole lot more of it than they actually do.

So Hadley doesn’t need Bennett to protect her from danger just as he doesn’t need Hadley to protect him. But they each are more than capable of watching each other’s backs in the middle of an operation as well as stealing each other’s hearts in their all too brief downtime.

Which makes Striker just the kind of romance of equals that I always enjoy. In this story, they’re both equally capable of taking down the villains. And they are both equally wary of putting their hearts on the line.

So if you love the kind of romance where everyone kicks ass, takes names and puts down the villains on their way to a well-earned happy ever after, Striker is a winner.

And I’m utterly thrilled that the head badass at Sentinel Security, Killian Hawke, is going to be forced to acknowledge that he’s met his match in every possible way in Steel, coming in January. That’s next month. YAY!

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie London

Review: Pets of Park Avenue by Stefanie LondonPets of Park Avenue (Paws in the City, #2) by Stefanie London
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Paws in the City #2
Pages: 336
Published by HQN Books on December 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"One of the year's most delightful rom-coms."—New York Times bestselling author Julia London on The Dachshund Wears Prada
The perfect romcom for dog lovers! Pets of Park Avenue is the story of a self-confessed hot mess who learns that life is more fun when things don't go according to plan.

What do you do when The One is also the one who broke your heart?

Self-proclaimed hot mess Scout Myers is determined to prove she’s finally got her act together. Raised by grandparents who saw her as her wayward mother’s wayward daughter, Scout’s used to being written off. So when the opportunity for a promotion arises at Paws in the City, the talent agency where she works, Scout is desperate to rise to the occasion. With shared custody of her little sister also on the line, Scout can’t afford a single mistake…like suddenly needing a canine stand-in for an important photoshoot. Luckily (or not) she knows the owner of the perfect pup replacement: the estranged husband she walked out on years ago.
On the surface, it appears Lane Halliday’s life has been blissfully drama free without Scout, but she suspects her handsome-as-ever not-quite-ex-husband doth protest too much. Working together even feels like old times—except for all that lingering, unresolved tension. But Scout’s not sure she’s ready to confront the reasons she left Lane, and when their plans to finalize the divorce become very real, Scout starts to wonder whether second chances might be worth a little hot mess.
Paws in the CityBook 1 - The Dachshund Wears Prada

My Review:

Pets of Park Avenue combines a second chance at love romance with a bit of a comedy of errors wrapped around the paws of an adorably fluffy little Bichon Frisé who seems to be experiencing nearly as much sad fluff as her people.

Both the one she still has and the one that only thinks she got away.

This followup to The Dachshund Wears Prada follows the second member of the Paws in the City media team, that self-proclaimed hot mess – and Isla’s best friend – Scout Myers. When the small agency’s star Bichon Frisé, Sasha, is accidentally dyed hot pink in the middle of a big opportunity for both the dog and the agency, Scout is the one sorta/kinda in charge of their canine charge.

At least, she’s the one who feels responsible for the accidental dye-job. Because being held responsible for every accident that happens in her vicinity and taking the blame for all the fallout is just what her cold, rule-bound, hidebound grandparents have conditioned her to do.

Theirs was not a house in which the phrase “shit happens” was ever even uttered, let alone believed. If Scout was nearby, it must have been her fault – whether it was or not. Because Scout was just like her mother, their wayward daughter, and had to be straight-jacketed into proper behavior no matter how much it broke her spirit.

Reining Scout in was the only way her grandparents could hope to save Scout’s little sister Lizzie from her terrible influence. So they did. At every opportunity. Until they kicked her to the curb at age 21. For not being properly obedient and respectful and for not following every last one of their stifling and arbitrary rules.

So Scout feels responsible for the temporarily pink Bichon, and needs a well-behaved substitute until the dye and the resulting buzz-cut grow out. Which is where her not-exactly-ex-husband, and his suddenly not-exactly-perfectly-behaved Bichon come in.

Scout ran out on both the man and the dog five years ago because, well, reasons. Reasons that they never told each other. They were together for one glorious month and have been separated for five years of limbo but Scout needs a dog just like Sasha, and Twinkle Stardust (yes, really) is her best chance to fix what’s broken.

With the agency and possibly with herself.

What she really needs is to either put her past behind her or, perhaps, put it back in front of her again. She’s a bit older, possibly wiser, and trying to be more responsible. Because she wants custody of her teenage sister. Because she needs to start adulting.

And because she’s never found anyone to remotely match the one that she left behind.

Escape Rating B: The thing about Pets of Park Avenue that made this one so interesting was that it’s Scout’s discovery that she doesn’t need to get it together because she’s had it together all along. It’s also about the difference between what is said and what is meant, and that’s a sad and often hard lesson to learn.

In other words, Pets of Park Avenue isn’t as light and fluffy as one of the Bichon Frisés. I missed The Dachshund Wears Prada, at least the social media account that both establishes Isla as a media influencer AND gets her in so much trouble. Because the voice of the Dachshund that Isla puts out there is wry, funny and so very sharply observant that it gives the book a lighter tone than this one in spite of just how much Isla also needs to overcome.

Scout IS a hot mess in this book, but not for any of the reasons she thinks she is. She’s a hot mess because that’s all she’s ever been told she can be, and she’s taken that lesson so very much to heart. Throughout the story, it seems as if her grandparents are the villains of the piece. And they kind of are.

But they also kind of aren’t. Or at least, they didn’t intend to be. But what they meant versus what they said and how they said it, how much they saw AND treated Scout as if she was a carbon copy of her mother, sent their relationship and Scout herself off in some terrible directions that she spends the whole story dealing with.

The second-chance-at-love romance was, at first, heartbreaking. But as the story continues, they are both forced to acknowledge that they were just too young and too impulsive. The bitter turns to sweet as they look back at themselves and look now at each other in order to figure out what direction they need to go, together or apart. Either way would have made a satisfying ending, but I preferred the direction they chose – if only to give Twinkle Stardust her own happy ever after.

So The Dachshund Wears Prada had a whole lot more lightness in it. Pets of Park Avenue was leavened with a bit more bittersweet. I’m looking forward to seeing what just what kind of canine and human drama we’ll get in Confessions of a Canine Drama Queen next summer!

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia Dade

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia DadeShip Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Spoiler Alert #3
Pages: 416
Published by Avon Books on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand--and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again...
Maria's one-night-stand--the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note--just reappeared. Apparently, Peter's her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they're about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him...but he now wants nothing to do with her.
Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won't sabotage his career for a woman who's already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends--possibly even best friends--but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.
For years, they don't touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don't have a future together, since Peter's going back to Hollywood, while Maria's returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he's determined to change her mind, and he's spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.
His shipwrecked Swede doesn't stand a chance.

My Review:

This third book in the Spoiler Alert series may seem a bit detached from the previous books, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels. Which makes total sense as all of Peter and Maria’s scenes in the infamous (and fictional) God of the Gates TV series (all resemblances to the final seasons of Game of Thrones indubitably intended) were filmed on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Ireland.

The Aran Islands substitute for the remote island where the characters they play in the series, Cyprian and Cassia, were literally shipwrecked early in the book series that was adapted – sometimes very badly indeed – for the hit TV series. An island where their characters spend six long and frustrating years pining for each other, transforming from enemies into lovers.

Into dead. Because it’s that kind of series. As we know even if we never watched the thing.

Life has imitated art more than a bit, as Peter and Maria also spent their six years filming the series pining for each other every bit as much as their characters did. Only to give in to temptation after the cameras film their final scene – just before they are scheduled to leave the island and go their separate ways.

While they don’t immediately end up dead in real life – because they haven’t really been guarding a hellmouth for six years that has finally opened to bring their doom – their much longed-for relationship keeps tolling its own death knell even as they find ways to spend yet more glorious days and nights together.

Both Peter and Maria came to that deserted island with some serious abandonment issues, and not just in romantic relationships. They may love each other, they certainly want each other, but they can’t seem to get past the trauma in their pasts to realize that they both want the same things – but are no good at expressing what they need and want to the most important person either of them will ever find.

Their characters were shipwrecked, and the real-life (relation)ship that fans have been shipping throughout the entire run of the series looks like it’s wrecked as well. Unless they can find a way to turn it into an HEA with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of the one thing that Peter is bad at – communication.

Escape Rating A-: The beginning of this was just a bit jarring – not their one-night stand, not at ALL – but that the story went all the way back to the early days of the series, back when the showrunners were still adapting the author’s work. When the scripts were still more than halfway decent even if the two showrunners were already scum.

The earlier books in the series, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, started during the final seasons of the series, at the point where the showrunners had gone past the author’s work and were, well, winging it. Badly. Destroying all the character arcs and most of the characters along with them. Both of those earlier stories center around stars of the series behaving badly because they so desperately want to reveal that the final season is AWFUL with a capital AWE and they fall in love either while behaving very badly (All the Feels) or while violating their NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in new and creative – literally and literarily – ways (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels).

Peter and Maria and their film crew, while not exactly shipwrecked themselves, are isolated from the rest of the cast and crew except via group chats and off-season convention appearances. Their story arc was completely separated from everyone else’s and so are they.

Which doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with the shittiness of the showrunners every bit as much as the rest of the cast – or maybe even a bit more because the showrunners think their physical isolation gives them some sort of psychological advantage. Or simply because they are asshats. Which they most definitely are.

And that’s where one of the more interesting threads of the (book) series in general and this entry in it in particular comes in. Peter and Maria are playing shipwrecked Vikings. They are both big people – which is appropriate for the characters they play. So, while the books don’t specify that they are bigger than the usual Hollywood actors, it seems like good casting.

But the showrunners, being slimeballs, have a plan to make Maria – and by extension Peter, but honestly it’s aimed at Maria – go on a crash diet before her second season because they’re supposed to be starving on the island. And she refuses and makes it stick – even in the face of being fired and re-cast. Maria is righteously all about body positivity, and not wrecking her body for life for anyone or anything, and she’s very aware that her body positivity campaign has played extremely well in the media. AND that the slimy showrunners are already in trouble on every side and need her way more than she needs them.

Those showrunners pulled similar shitty stunts on the plus-sized heroines of both Spoiler Alert and All the Feels and got their heads handed to them both times, but it was terrific to see it happen again – with bells on – this time around.

Oh yeah, there’s a romance in here too. And it’s a bit of a heartbreaker – not that it doesn’t come around to an HEA in the end. As it should. Because ALL the best shipping fics do – no matter how much angst the characters have to go through along the way.

But it’s a heartbreaker both because they nearly break each other’s AND because they’ve had both of theirs broken so many times in ways that have nothing to do with romance but still rear their ugly heads when they might just manage to reach that HEA. Because they’re both afraid of getting left – again – and think they’d rather walk away than have it happen. Again.

Not that they’re both equally stubborn and clueless about it or anything like that.

Last but not least, and speaking of things coming around again, the book series as a whole is rooted both in fanfiction as a labor of love and in the complaints and gossip about the final seasons of the real TV series, Game of Thrones. Which also ran two seasons beyond the last published book in its series and also did “interesting” things with its characters and their arcs. Earlier in the book series I wondered whether Spoiler Alert  would lose the pointedness of some of its inside jokes after Game of Thrones finished.

But then House of the Dragon came along, a prequel series based on the same author’s work that is equally unfinished in book form. So we might have more of Spoiler Alert  to look forward to no matter how, if, or whether House of the Dragon ever floats your shipping boat.

And that is an EXCELLENT thing!

Review: Extra Witchy by Ann Aguirre

Review: Extra Witchy by Ann AguirreExtra Witchy (Fix-It Witches, #3) by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance, romantic comedy
Series: Fix-It Witches #3
Pages: 368
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After two failed marriages, Leanne Vanderpol is here for a good time, not for a long time. She only loves the witches in her coven, and she cares more about her career than happily ever after. A difficult past makes her skittish, and she doesn't trust relationships to stick. But when she decides to run for city council instead of wasting her talents cleaning up messes for the mayor's office, she fears her past could be used against her.
Unless she can find the right husband to shore up her political career...
Trevor Montgomery might have peaked in high school. He was popular then, and in college as well, but he partied away his future, met the wrong person, and everything fell apart. Now he's jobless, dateless, and hopeless, at least according to his toxic family. Then a chance meeting with the redhead of his dreams offers an unexpected ray of light just when he needs it most.
Can a woman who doesn't believe in forever find true love with a man who's stopped believing in anything at all?
The third in an adorable witchy rom-com series by New York Times bestselling author Ann Aguirre, perfect for fans of:The bonds of sisterhoodA career-driven heroine who thinks she isn't marriage materialA pan hero who struggles with depressionAnd a shocking family secret

My Review:

I picked this up because this is the third book in the Fix-It Witches series and in spite of my very mixed reaction to the first two books, Witch Please and Boss Witch, I was determined to finish the series. Even if I had to rage read my way through this final book.

Which I pretty much did. At least right up until the halfway point – when it got better. And kept on getting better from there until the end.

But that first 50% was one hell of a slog.

First, there’s the pattern of the series as a whole, in that the second book in the Fix-It Witches series, Boss Witch, picked up the action in the middle of Witch Please and re-told the second half of THAT story from a new perspective. Which means that the action of this third book in the series begins in the middle of the second book and proceeds to tell some of that same story from yet another point of view – and in considerably more detail.

To make that part of the long story short, this is not a series where you really need to worry about not having read the previous books, because you will read at least half the previous book before you learn if anything truly new happens in the one you have in hand.

What made the first half of this one particularly hard to get through were the parts of Boss Witch that got repeated. We already know that Leanne Vanderpol seemed to have married Trevor Montgomery totally out of the blue because we see that event from an outside perspective in the earlier book.

But the deets…well the deets are a bit of a hot mess and so are both Leanne and Trevor. Trevor is Titus the Cinnaman’s best friend, so we met him back in Witch Please. From the outside, it seems like 30-something Trevor hasn’t figured out what he wants to do when he grows up. That would be the kind explanation.

The unkind description would be that he hasn’t grown up, and that his life resembles that of Shaggy (Scooby-Doo’s human) a bit too much. That’s certainly what his parents would say, when the truth is that Trevor has been sunk in a clinical depression for a long time and doesn’t see much of a way out even though he really would like to find one.

Which is where Leanne enters his life.

Leanne is a doormat with ambitions. She doesn’t mean to be a doormat, but she is the person everyone relies on to take care of things she shouldn’t have to take care of because that’s pretty much how her flighty, witchy mother raised her. Or truthfully didn’t raise her but left her to raise herself. Her boss, the city manager, is dumping on her and her irresponsible mother has just arrived in town and Leanne is having a bit of a meltdown because she can’t let herself let out all the crap she’s holding in.

Neither Leanne nor Trevor remotely have their shit together – no matter how much it seems like Leanne does on the surface. The first half of the story sinks under the weight of their collective inability to figure out what to do with their lives to a degree that might have worked well in their 20s but not when both are in their mid-30s.

When they get together anyway, the story doesn’t merely pick itself up. It actually starts to shine way more than I was expecting by that point. Separately, they are each a mess. Together, they make each other strong in their broken places.

Enough for both of them to finally start getting their own acts together. They just have to get out of their own ways to realize that not only have they caught feelings for each other – but that they deserve the happiness and fulfillment that comes with them.

Escape Rating B-: The rating is considerably higher than I thought it was going to be in the first half of the book. Their romantic comedy-esque marriage of convenience starts out as plenty convenient but not remotely comedy. They are both way too messed up for that.

But giving each other a truly secure foundation, something neither of them has ever had, is the making of both of them in a way that was rather delightful and completely unexpected – even if they did connect so quickly that I wondered if their insta-love was at least partly fueled by some kind of witchcraft.

Still, the second half of this one had a lightness and a verve and a witchy spark that was missing in the first half, and Leanne and Trevor turned out to be a couple whose whole was literally greater than the sum of their original parts. So I’m glad I made myself finish, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this witchy Midwestern town even if the series continues.

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Drunk on Love by Jasmine GuilloryDrunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An intoxicating and sparkling new romance by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory. Margot Noble needs some relief from the stress of running the family winery with her brother. Enter Luke: sexy, charming, and best of all in the too-small world of Napa, a stranger. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and Margot is delighted that she lucked into the perfect one-night stand she'll never have to see again. That is, until the winery's newest hire, Luke, walks in the next morning. Margot is determined to keep things purely professional, but when their every interaction reminds her of the attraction still bubbling between them, it proves to be much more challenging than she expects.
Luke Williams had it all, but when he quits his high-salary tech job in Silicon Valley in a blaze of burnout and moves back to Napa to help a friend, he realizes he doesn't want to tell the world--or his mom--why he's now working at a winery. His mom loves bragging about her successful son--how can he admit that the job she's so proud of broke him? Luke has no idea what is next for him, but one thing is certain: he wants more from the incredibly smart and sexy woman he hooked up with--even after he learns she's his new boss. But even if they can find a way to be together that wouldn't be an ethical nightmare, would such a successful woman really want a tech-world dropout?
Set against a lush backdrop of Napa Valley wine country, nothing goes to your head as fast as a taste of love--even if it means changing all your plans.

My Review: 

The meet-cute that uncorks Drunk on Love is a classic for a reason. Strangers meet in a bar, at a party, or wherever – although in this particular case it’s a neighborhood bar with excellent drinks and great food. They strike up a conversation on one pretext or another and simply hit it off in a way that neither of them can resist.

So they don’t. A great meal, a fantastic night, and a not too terribly awkward morning after and then they’ll never see each other again. Or so one or both of them believes.

Then they do meet again, later that morning after, in the most awkward way possible. And so it begins.

In the case of Margot Noble and Luke Williams, what makes that awkward morning after into an even more awkward gift that is just going to keep on giving – at least for the reader – is that the new job that Luke walks into in the tasting room of a local winery turns out to be the family winery belonging to Margot and her brother Elliot.

Elliot Noble is the winemaker, Margot Noble is the business manager, which means Elliot mostly gets to work behind the scenes, while Margot is out front, managing the finances, drumming up business, schmoozing restaurants to get them to offer and promote Noble wines – and, you guessed it, running the tasting room at the winery.

In other words, Margot is Luke’s new boss. Which is where this romantic comedy kicks into high gear – and sometimes even gets drunk on the Noble Family Wineries’ products. Because neither of them can forget the best night either of them has had in a long, long time – if ever. And they both know it can’t happen again as long as Luke is working in Margot’s tasting room

But they both want it to. So, so bad. Because they already know it’ll be so, so good. If they can just find a way to make it – or let it – happen.

Escape Rating B: I loved the way that Drunk on Love started, and even more so as Margot was a bit older than Luke which is one of my favorite tropes.

Very much on my other hand, this one middled in places that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea – or that I just wasn’t in the mood for at the moment, leaving me with some mixed reading feelings.

The kickoff for this was a winner. Absolutely. There’s always something delicious in a forbidden romance but there are few non-squicky ways to make that happen in the 21st century. This is one that works.

That there is a certain amount of deception in this kind of romance is a given. What drove me bananas about the story wasn’t so much the coverup of their relationship but rather the lies they are telling themselves about pretty much everything else.

Luke is back home in Napa because he burned out at his high-paying, high-powered, high-tech job but can’t manage to tell anyone about it – in some ways, not even himself. So in order to cover that up he covers up more stuff until he’s at the bottom of a pit of lies and just can’t seem to stop digging.

Margot, on the other hand, is doing very well in her position but can’t believe that her brother thinks she is or even wants her there. Their relationship is filled with nothing but tension that might or might not still have a cause. They’re in the middle of a giant misunderstandammit and can’t seem to find a way clear of it.

It’s not just that Margot and Luke are standing in their own ways, but that the way they are doing so stands in the way of any potential future happiness. It’s hard to watch these two very sympathetic and likeable characters flail around at reaching their HEA, but once they do it’s very much earned.

So if you like a bit of angst mixed with witty banter between a couple of really great people who need a few good swift kicks to move them to an HEA, try a glass – or a chapter or two – of Drunk on Love. If you prefer the witty banter in your romcom to be undiluted, grab a copy of the author’s The Wedding Date – a bubbly delight from the very first sip to the last.

Review: Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

Review: Would You Rather by Allison AshleyWould You Rather by Allison Ashley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Noah and Mia have always been best friends, and their friendship is the most important thing to them. Life is going great for Noah and he’s up for a promotion in a job he loves. But Mia’s life is on hold as she awaits a kidney transplant. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and, never wanting to be a burden, has sworn off all romance. So when the chance of a lifetime comes to go back to school and pursue her dream, it’s especially painful to pass up. She can’t quit her job or she’ll lose the medical insurance she so desperately needs.
To support her, Noah suggests they get married—in name only—so she can study full-time and still keep the insurance. It’s a risk to both of them, with jobs, health and hearts on the line, and they’ll need to convince suspicious coworkers and nosy roommates that they’re the real deal. But if they can let go of all the baggage holding them back, they might realize that they would rather be together forever.

My Review:

The United States is the ONLY wealthy, industrialized nation on this planet that does not provide universal health care. And that is what honestly makes the U.S. health insurance industry the big, scary, and all too real villain in this romance.

Noah and Mia have been the bestest of best friends since they were seven years old. They absolutely do love each other, whatever form that love might take – and whatever feelings about the form that love might take they are hiding from each other and the rest of the world. Especially from themselves.

But Mia has a life-threatening chronic illness. Her kidneys are slowly but inexorably failing. Her condition is currently managed by expensive medications and occasional hospital admissions for flare-ups, but it’s manageable. At least so far.

She does need a kidney transplant, and her life has in many ways been on hold since she was diagnosed. Two of the specific things that she has put on hold are her career aspirations and any possibility of romance.

Mia does not want to kill anyone else’s hopes and dreams the way she did her parents’. Not that they see it that way. At all. But when she was diagnosed in her late teens, their savings were pretty much completely wiped out by the cost of her care that wasn’t covered by insurance. She just isn’t willing to do that to any potential romantic partner.

She dropped out of college when she was diagnosed – not surprisingly as it was a LOT to deal with. She’s stuck in a dead-end job because she needs the excellent health insurance the company provides. Without it, she will, quite literally, die.

The job has several good points and one really bad one. She is the administrative assistant at the architectural firm owned by Noah’s dad where Noah himself works. BUUUUT, one of the other architects is a douche who seems determined to make her miserable and puts her down at every turn. (There’s a bubbling vat of acid waiting in the wings for him, I swear.)

So, when she gets a scholarship for mid-career learners to return to college and finish the degrees they abandoned, she wants to take it. But she can’t. Because (insert evil villain music here) she needs the insurance from her job.

And that’s where this story both kicks off and goes just a teensy bit off the rails.

Noah offers to marry her so she can stay on his insurance and chase her dream of becoming a pediatric nutritionist, a job that will also pay at least twice what she’s making now and undoubtedly come with its own excellent insurance. Or, she’ll get a transplant which will automatically qualify her for Medicare – again solving the insurance problem. (The real crime in this story is that SO MUCH is caused by the evil insurance companies!)

What they are planning is a marriage of convenience, 21st century American style. Or so it seems. What they actually get turns out to be anything but.

Escape Rating B-: There’s so much of this book that is so good. It’s a terrific friends-into-lovers and fake relationship romance rolled into a lovely story, and those tropes are classics for a reason.

Noah and Mia have been besties for-literally-ever. Their deep friendship is the foundation on which both of their lives are built. They are each other’s person in some seriously profound ways. That they both want more but are too afraid to admit it because of the consequences if it doesn’t work out feels real. They know they belong together, but they have both made the decision that being together as friends is enough – or at least that it’s not worth the risk of trying for more because neither of them can face the thought of ending up with less.

Where the story sent me into a ranting internal monologue was in the nature of the “fake” of their fake relationship. They’re not the first or the last people, undoubtedly in real life as much as in fiction, to have married out of something other than romantic love. The problem in the story is that it conflates the issues involved in faking a Green Card marriage with marrying to get insurance.

Their marriage isn’t fake or a con. It’s a real marriage, with real legal documentation. They share a real house and a real life. Whether or not they ever plan to have sex or romance is not the insurance company’s problem and they are NOT committing fraud. They ARE married with all the legal consequences and legal responsibilities thereunto.

The real, true issue in the story is the lies they tell to their friends, their families and most importantly, Noah’s employer. Who is also his dad and they do have a good relationship which means that Noah could have been upfront about this mess from the beginning. But the story treats the reason for their marriage and their intention to dissolve it after Mia completes her education as the big bad sin, when it isn’t. It’s the lying that is both the sin and the thing that’s going to trip them up over and over until it’s dealt with.

So the blurb and at least the first third of the story make it seem as if their so-called “fake” marriage is the problem when the real, true problem is that they lied about it. And that they’ve been doing a whole metric ton of lying about a whole lot of very real issues – to themselves and each other most of all.

Where the story gets both very, very good and in many ways very, very sad is that once the first lie gets exposed, all the cats claw their way out of all the bags and they both have to deal with all the issues they’ve been hiding from themselves. And papering over by being so invested in their friendship that they let each other bury some real and serious shit that is painful to deal with and is only going to be more painful for being hidden.

So there’s a LOT to unpack in this story. It’s not nearly as bright and breezy as the blurb might lead you to believe. It is seriously NOT a rom-com. And it would have been a lot better – and a lot less frustrating (and this review would be a lot less ranty) if it had started out by focusing on the real culprits in the mess.

Once it finally gets on the path it should have been on in the first place, the story of two people who have loved each other nearly all their lives who have been living a pretense that suddenly becomes real, the story has a whole lot of charm along with a marvelously cathartic resolution and a solidly earned HEA.