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

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.

Review: The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

Review: The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat SebastianThe Queer Principles of Kit Webb (The Queer Principles of Kit Webb, #1) by Cat Sebastian
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Queer Principles of Kit Webb #1
Pages: 348
Published by Avon on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Critically acclaimed author Cat Sebastian makes her trade paperback debut in a stunning historical romance about a reluctantly reformed highwayman and the aristocrat who threatens to steal his heart.
Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.
In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.
Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.
But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts withstand the impediments in their path?

My Review:

From an author who writes, and I quote here from her Twitter bio, ”Marxist tracts with boning”, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is a queer romance that definitely has radical and liberal underpinnings – at least by 18th century British definitions of both – but mostly only one kind of boning. The sexual kind and not the foundation of ladies’ corsetry. And not quite enough of it.

Well, some of the secondary characters undoubtedly are wearing undergarments with whalebone or something similar, but our protagonists are a bit too fascinated with each other and fixated on their revenge to give anything remotely resembling a damn about it.

Kit Webb, formerly an infamous highwayman and currently the bored-out-of-his-mind but fairly successful owner of a London coffeehouse, misses the adventure of his days on the roads, forcing the rich and snooty to “Stand and deliver” at as many opportunities as possible.

Those days are done for Kit. His last job resulted in a jail sentence, the loss of his best friend and partner, and a bullet wound in the arse that got infected during said jail sentence. It’s clear that there are still plenty of days, even a year into his forced retirement, that he isn’t certain which pain is greater, the loss of his partner or the debilitating pain in hip and leg that forces him to use a cane.

And he’s bored, bored, bored with the straight and narrow life he’s reduced himself to in penance.

Until Percy, Lord Holland, saunters into Kit’s life with a proposition. Actually, two propositions, both illegal. Percy needs a highwayman to rob his utterly rotten father, and Percy wants to take Kit to bed. Or any other conveniently flat surface. In spite of their mutual desire being just as utterly against the law in 1751 as the highway robbery that Percy rather desperately needs to have carried out as soon as possible.

While he can still afford to pay someone to help him get back at his father. Before he’s disowned. Not for anything that Percy has done. But for something his father did long ago that Percy is going to be the one to pay for. Not that the Duke of Clare hasn’t done plenty of things that many people – including Kit Webb – want to make him pay for. As painfully as possible..

Percy just wants to make his bastard of a father pay for making him one on his way out the door.

Escape Rating B: For a book named for one character, it feels like it’s much more about the other. Not that Kit and Percy aren’t both interesting and surprisingly well-rounded characters – at least separately – but Kit holds all his cards very close to his vest while Percy is absolutely a fountain of both internal and external dialog. He talks more, he reveals more and he ends up stealing more of the scenes by doing both those things.

My favorite line from the whole thing, “I used to think that revenge was about defending one’s honor, but it turns out that honor is just spite dressed up for Sunday.” But Percy says that from a position of privilege, a privilege he knows he’s going to lose. Which makes his later thought that he “realized he had had it wrong when he told Kit that honor is just spite dressed up; spite was honor when it was the only weapon you had against someone more powerful,” all that much more profound and poignant, especially as those opposite thoughts are both powerfully true.

Kit, on the other hand, while plenty intelligent, isn’t nearly so fascinating to listen to. It’s possible that he’s just so damn bored that he’s boring himself. He’s certainly ripe for the promise of adventure that Percy drops in his lap. As well as ripe for Percy to drop in his lap.

But the story alternates its point of view from Kit to Percy and back again, and they are a study in contrasts. And not just because it seems impossible to get Kit to start talking, and equally impossible for Percy to stop.

It’s particularly impossible to get Percy to stop worrying over the doom that is about to fall on his head, while just as difficult to get Kit to open up, even inside the confines of his own head, about the doom that he feels like fell on his.

On the other hand, one thing that they have in common is a hatred for the same man, Percy’s father, the Duke of Clare, even if neither will admit to the other what lies at the root of that hatred. A secret that very nearly drives them apart.

Some things did niggle at me during the course of this story. The first was that the doom that Percy is facing is the same thing that powers the entire Westcott series by Mary Balogh – a series that I have mostly loved. It’s not fair that my familiarity with the consequences that ensued in that 9-book series made Percy’s dilemma fall a bit flat. But it still happened.

Telling half the story from Kit’s point-of-view left a big chunk of things in the head of a character who isn’t talking much to himself or anybody else. He’s a hard nut to crack and he doesn’t for a significant chunk of the story.

There’s not nearly as much about the heist as the blurb leads the reader to believe. This story is a LOT more talking, thinking and pining than it is action either on the highway or in anything even vaguely resembling a bed. It was terrific watching these two inch closer to each other and get to know the real person behind the assumptions they begin with, but there’s a lot more UST than one expects. The 80/20 law is in play here and perhaps not in the best way, as the romance is 80% UST and only 20% RST (which would be resolved sexual tension rather than its unresolved opposite).

This is all in the way of saying that I had fun reading this book, just not as much fun as I expected, and not necessarily the kind of fun I expected, either.

In the end it is revealed that this is the first book in a series – which is honestly a bit of a surprise from where it began, but by the end it’s a welcome one. While I’m glad that Percy (and Kit) have found something as close to a happy ending as seems possible in this time and place, Kit is kind of a great stone face of a character for much of this book. Marian, Percy’s childhood best friend and about to be ex-stepmother, on the other hand, is even more voluble than Percy and MUCH more adventurous. I already have an eARC of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes and I can’t wait to see how she gets out of the fix she is most definitely in!

Review: A Lot Like Adios by Alexis Daria

Review: A Lot Like Adios by Alexis DariaA Lot Like Adiós (Primas of Power, #2) by Alexis Daria
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Primas of Power #2
Pages: 381
Published by Avon on September 14, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Hi Mich. It’s Gabe.
After burning out in her corporate marketing career, Michelle Amato has built a thriving freelance business as a graphic designer. So what if her love life is nonexistent? She’s perfectly fine being the black sheep of her marriage-obsessed Puerto Rican-Italian family. Besides, the only guy who ever made her want happily-ever-after disappeared thirteen years ago.
It’s been a long time.
Gabriel Aguilar left the Bronx at eighteen to escape his parents’ demanding expectations, but it also meant saying goodbye to Michelle, his best friend and longtime crush. Now, he’s the successful co-owner of LA’s hottest celebrity gym, with an investor who insists on opening a New York City location. It’s the last place Gabe wants to go, but when Michelle is unexpectedly brought on board to spearhead the new marketing campaign, everything Gabe’s been running from catches up with him.
I’ve missed you.
Michelle is torn between holding Gabe at arm’s length or picking up right where they left off—in her bed. As they work on the campaign, old feelings resurface, and their reunion takes a sexy turn. Facing mounting pressure from their families—who think they’re dating—and growing uncertainty about their futures, can they resolve their past mistakes, or is it only a matter of time before Gabe says adiós again?

My Review:

It’s safe to say that ALL humans over a certain age have at least some emotional baggage, and that the age in question is probably a lot lower than anyone likes to think about.

A Lot Like Adios is a second-chance romance. Well, for Michelle it’s a second chance romance. For Gabriel, it’s a second chance at pretty much everything. Both of these characters have LOTS of emotional baggage – all of it steamer-trunk sized. Their relationship has its OWN steamer trunk of baggage, enough to furnish a life across the country and away from each other, which is exactly what Gabriel did when they were 18.

He packed up his life, his heart and his emotional baggage and shipped them all to UCLA, trying his best not to look back at his parents’ house in the Bronx. The house that Michelle lived right next door to. The house that felt like a prison, with Michelle as the only light coming through the bars.

Michelle and Gabriel were best friends through grade school and high school. Michelle thought their friendship would last forever – even if it never became anything more. But Gabe had a secret, a secret that came out the same night they were on the cusp of that more. He was leaving for UCLA in less than a week, and he hadn’t ever told his best friend that he was even trying to get away.

From his parents, not from Michelle. But by keeping it a secret, he lost it all.

Now Gabe is back in the Bronx. Briefly. As briefly as he can possibly manage. He’s become the success that his father claimed he would never be, and he’s back to expand his very successful celebrity gym from LA to New York City. Michelle is the best in the business at creating ad campaigns and branding for businesses just like his. They’ll need to WORK together to achieve his goals, even though work is the last thing on either of their minds.

But first, Gabe has to figure out what his goals REALLY are. For his business. With his estrangement from his entire family. And most important of all, with Michelle.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story about unfinished business. Both literally, as Gabe’s and Michelle’s separate work-lives are sitting at uncomfortable crossroads for completely different reasons, and figuratively in the relationship sense.

As the story opens, both of their emotional lives seem to be nothing but unfinished business, and it all circles back to the breaking of their friendship all those years ago. They were HUGE parts of each other’s lives for over a decade. All of their formative experiences included each other. And then they cut themselves off, leaving an equally huge hole in both their pasts and their futures.

That the split occurred just as they were exploring the possibility of being more than friends made the situation all that more heartbreaking. In their hearts, they hoped to be each other’s forever and never quite moved on from that wrenching and seemingly final goodbye.

But Michelle stayed a part of her intrusive, invasive, but ultimately loving and mostly supportive family. Gabe cut most of his off after a last and final argument with his father. The man did not mince any of his words, telling Gabe to leave and not come back. Gabe took the man at his word – even if in his heart he’s still working for the approval his dad always withheld.

When Gabe comes back to the Bronx to discuss expanding his business with one of his financial backers he doesn’t want to be there. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near his family, he doesn’t want to work with Michelle and he doesn’t want to break his own heart again. Or at least that’s what he tells himself.

What he really wants is an entirely different story, so a huge chunk of A Lot Like Adios is getting him to figure that out. Gabe can’t admit what he really wants until it’s shoved in his face. Michelle, on the other hand, knows exactly what she wants but believes that it’s out of reach.

So the story is Gabe figuring himself out, one step forward and sometimes three steps back. Michelle’s story is getting past heartbreak one more time, and deciding how she’s going to survive and thrive whether Gabe gets his head out of his ass or not, because she’s betting not.

But wishes sometimes come true after all.

At the end of my review of last year’s marvelous You Had Me at Hola, I expressed a wish that the author would write more about the Primas of Power, the cousins who provide both a cheering section and a push whenever the heroine needs one in that story.

Lo and behold, we have A Lot Like Adios, the sequel to You Had Me at Hola, the second book in the Primas of Power series. My wish has been granted. Now I’m wishing for more!

Review: All the Feels by Olivia Dade

Review: All the Feels by Olivia DadeAll the Feels (Spoiler Alert, #2) 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 #2
Pages: 385
Published by Avon on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Following Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade returns with another utterly charming romantic comedy about a devil-may-care actor—who actually cares more than anyone knows—and the no-nonsense woman hired to keep him in line.
Alexander Woodroe has it all. Charm. Sex appeal. Wealth. Fame. A starring role as Cupid on TV’s biggest show, God of the Gates. But the showrunners have wrecked his character, he’s dogged by old demons, and his post-show future remains uncertain. When all that reckless emotion explodes into a bar fight, the tabloids and public agree: his star is falling.
Enter Lauren Clegg, the former ER therapist hired to keep him in line. Compared to her previous work, watching over handsome but impulsive Alex shouldn’t be especially difficult. But the more time they spend together, the harder it gets to keep her professional remove and her heart intact, especially when she discovers the reasons behind his recklessness…not to mention his Cupid fanfiction habit.
When another scandal lands Alex in major hot water and costs Lauren her job, she’ll have to choose between protecting him and offering him what he really wants—her. But he’s determined to keep his improbably short, impossibly stubborn, and extremely endearing minder in his life any way he can. And on a road trip up the California coast together, he intends to show her exactly what a falling star will do to catch the woman he loves: anything at all.

My Review:

I was really looking for some fanfiction to read, but I’ve reread my faves so many times that I’ve practically memorized them. So I picked up the next best thing, even though it won’t be published until mid November and I really shouldn’t post the review until late October but here I am anyway. It’s early June and I’m reading All the Feels and loving every minute of it.

When I say it’s the next best thing to fanfiction, it’s way closer (literally as well as figuratively) than the old Ma Bell commercial about “long distance is the next best thing to being there”. Which honestly might have been true at the time, but does not preclude a huge gap between the two experiences. It just means that there wasn’t anything better sitting in that gap.

Which is pretty much how I felt when I started All the Feels, so that I could get, well, all the feels.

But speaking of spoilers, and Spoiler Alert, and kind of giving you a spoiler alert, All the Feels doesn’t so much take place after Spoiler Alert as it does in parallel with it. It takes place at the same time, during those nine months between closing out the filming of the last season of God of the Gates and the broadcast of the final episode.

So the stories spoil each other just a bit if you read them in order and a whole lot more than a bit if you read All the Feels first.

Consider yourself warned. Then go ahead and read them anyway because they are both marvelous!

Escape Rating A: This was, totally, absolutely and screamingly obviously, the right book at the right time for my reading – even if it really messed with my posted schedule. I needed the feels from this book, so I dove right in and wasn’t sorry I spent the whole day with it glued to my face.

One thing I keep wondering about is how well these books will “wear” over time. Because the TV series that Marcus (Spoiler Alert) and Alex (All the Feels) are starring in, caught up in the filming and promoting of and regretting more than a bit at many points, is all too clearly a poke in the eye with a sharp stick at the final season of Game of Thrones. A poke that works really well right now but may date the whole thing in the future. I really hope these stories hold up though because they have awesome things to say about romance and fake life in Hollywood and the real people who are caught up in it and loving yourself as you are and accepting yourself and accepting that you are worthy of love and consideration as you are and standing up for yourself and just SQUEE.

I want to hug this book so hard – and hug Lauren along with it.

Ironically, this story has one of the same elements as the book that I was rage-reading just beforehand that made me pick this up (I think that book was Someone to Cherish but I didn’t write it down at the time and now it’s driving me crazy trying to remember.). Lauren begins this story believing that everyone in her life is more important than she is, that everyone else’s feelings are worth all the consideration and hers are worth none, and generally being a doormat. (Unlike the other book, Lauren has given these people power over her not because law and society have decreed that she must but because she’s been brought up to be that way by a family that doesn’t realize they are abusing her and honestly each other.

Lauren has to learn to stand up for herself – and she finally does and that’s part of what makes this one so good.

On the other hand, Alex, who on the surface looks like he has it all and is acting out like a spoiled brat, turns out to be nothing of the sort. Much of the story is Lauren taking up more space in the world while Alex learns to, not so much take up less space as to get out of his own damn way.

That they fall into “like” long before they fall in love is what makes the romance work. They need to like each other – and they need to learn to like themselves – before they have a chance at love. When they finally both get there, it’s obvious that there’s still a lot of work for both of them to do, but they are on the right path.

Relationships take work, so the ending of this story had, pardon me, all the right feels. They love each other, they want to make it last and they know they have a lot of work to do both separately and together in order to make a go of it. We see them take the first steps and it’s just lovely.

And OMG I hope this series continues, because the entire thing is just plain marvelous and I want MORE!

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia HibbertAct Your Age, Eve Brown (The Brown Sisters, #3) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Brown Sisters #3
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

In Act Your Age, Eve Brown the flightiest Brown sister crashes into the life of an uptight B&B owner and has him falling hard—literally.
Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It's time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she's not entirely sure how…
Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.
Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

My Review:

At the tail end of 2020, I was in a rather desperate mood for stories with happy endings – so I scheduled an entire week of romances. Two of those romances were the first two books in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown and Take a Hint, Dani Brown. Both of them turned out to be exactly what I was looking for that week, contemporary romances with a bit of bite and more than a bit of depth, and with absolutely marvelous and hard won happy endings.

But the series is a trilogy, because there are not one, not two, but three Brown Sisters. Now it’s time for the third and youngest of the Brown Sisters to get her due, by following, as her sisters did in their turns, the titular instruction.

Eve’s parents pretty much force the issue as the story begins. It seems as if 20something Eve is an example of a “failure to launch”. She’s in her mid-20s, she’s still living at home, she’s still living off the generous allowance – read that as trust fund distribution – her wealthy and successful parents provide for her, and she’s never held down a “real” job for any length of time.

She’s tried plenty of things, but Eve has a tendency to give up when the going gets tough. Something that she can afford to do, because her parents are financially backstopping her seeming inability to start adulting.

When Eve gives up her latest venture as a wedding planner because her client turned bridezilla, Eve’s parents give her an ultimatum that admittedly feels a bit like kicking her when she’s down.

They’re taking away her allowance and her room in the family mansion. She has a year to find and keep a job, AND support herself with her own earnings, before they’ll consider supporting her again.

At first, it feels like a bit of necessary tough love. Eve doesn’t seem to be adulting, and her self-talk sounds very self-defeating. She sees herself as a failure next to her driving and successful older sisters, and she does run away when things get hard.

And yet, she tries. She tries hard at everything she does. But just like her sisters, the drumbeat of her parents’ disappointed voices keeps her putting herself down at every single turn. She knows she’s a disappointment to them, because they constantly reinforce that message. So she lives down to it.

Faced with having to figure out things by herself and for herself, or so it seems, Eve first takes herself on a long drive to think over her options and escape her demons. Only to quite literally run right over one.

Eve needs a job. Jacob Wayne needs a chef for his Bed and Breakfast. Cooking classes are among the many, many things that Eve has dabbled in, so she sees his “help wanted” sign and drops in without an appointment or a CV in hopes that she can wow him into letting her have the job, at least on a temporary basis.

Jacob is sure it’s not going to work. He’s anal retentive to the max, and Eve is a master chaos agent. He shouldn’t let her into his B&B, let alone into his life. But once she’s run over him with her car, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

Not that, as it turns out, either of them ever seriously did have any choice but each other.

Escape Rating B+: The entire Brown Sisters trilogy has been absolutely marvelous, but I think that Eve is probably my least favorite of the sisters. Now that the series is complete, I can say that I liked Dani’s story the best, Chloe’s second and Eve’s not quite as much – but still quite a lot.

First let me say that I think these books can each be read as a standalone. The stories don’t exactly depend on each other, or on knowledge gained in one carrying over to the next, but I think there’s more depth if you read them all. And they’re all marvelous so why wouldn’t you?

But I said that Eve was my least favorite of the sisters, or at least her story is my least favorite – and I need to get back to that.

Although this series isn’t in first-person singular, this book still reads as being very much from Eve’s point of view. At the beginning, Eve’s negative self-talk really reads like a downer. And it also reads very much as if Eve’s parents are right – however disastrously they go about it. That Eve’s problems are self-inflicted because she just doesn’t have enough stick-to-itiveness.

It’s only as the story goes on, as we see Eve stick to her new job at the B&B, and most importantly as we see into the heart of her coping mechanisms, that we begin to realize that Eve is dealing with her own shit in ways that are much less obvious than either her sister Chloe’s chronic pain and fibromyalgia or Dani’s commitment-phobic workaholism.

Once Eve is able to put a name to her neurodiversity, that she is on the autism spectrum, as she accepts herself as she is, we do too. And it’s much easier to both feel for her and to see that her coping skills and where they fall short also feed into the way that her autism and the fact that girls are less likely to be diagnosed than boys has fed into her parents’ ableism and assumptions about the reasons for her behavior.

In comparison, Jacob is a whole lot more straightforward. He is also on the spectrum, but, well, he’s a guy. His autism was diagnosed in childhood, he’s been learning to cope with it ever since. His behavior, his actions, his coping mechanisms all seem more obvious because they are – because as soon as he was under the care of someone who actually cared, he got help. And he got that help because his caregiver knew what to look for because he was male and the signs were what they were expected to be.

Also, as much as Eve’s parents and extended family love each other, and they definitely do and it’s wonderfully obvious, her family is also a hot mess. They mean well, but that well-meaning really messes things up in the execution. It was obvious from the outset of Jacob and Eve’s romantic relationship exactly what was going to precipitate the inevitable breakup crisis. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop while watching it hanging up their heads by a fraying shoelace. That her family turned out to be the agency for it seemed equally inevitable.

Not that the friendship stuff that was inserted to string out that tension a bit longer wasn’t fun and interesting on its own but I had reached the point where the story needed to get on with it so they could reach the happy ending.

I was so very ready for that. And it was awesome and lovely and acknowledged the progress of both of their journeys, all at the same wonderful time. I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to the Brown Sisters and their eccentric family, but I’m looking forward to whatever and whoever this author introduces me to next!

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis DariaYou Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Primas of Power #1
Pages: 365
Published by Avon on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Leading Ladies do not end up on tabloid covers. 
After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez. 
Leading Ladies don’t need a man to be happy
After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had. 
Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars. 
With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.

My Review:

I went looking for happy endings again. Is anyone surprised? In that search I discovered a whole bunch of friends’ recommendations for this book, as well as remembering that it had been on several best of the year lists – and that I had a copy! Problem solved for a day – not that I didn’t immediately go looking for more for the rest of this week.

While Jasmine and Ashton do have each other at “Hola”, it’s also true that the title is quite a bit catchier than the actual truth, which is more like a mutual “you had me when you spilled coffee on me” because that’s not half so romantic sounding – or succinct.

This is a story that works in multiple directions. One is that it’s a story of two people who both believe, and for very good but completely different reasons, that they need to concentrate on their careers and absolutely NOT on any possibility of romance.

Second, it’s a story about validation. Again, for entirely different reasons, both Jasmine and Ashton are laboring under the mistaken belief that they are not good enough, not doing enough, not accomplishing enough, not trying hard enough, not doing the right things rightly enough.

In other words, they both have serious cases of impostor syndrome. Some of that arises from their family situations, and some of it comes from the way that the entertainment industry which they are both involved in, suffers from a baked-in preference for actors AND people behind the camera and in the front office, who are not like them.

Both are Latinx and both have had plenty of barriers put in their way in their chosen profession. Which leads to the third thing about this story, in that it is a celebration, not just of Latinx culture in all of its own diversity, but also in the joy of being part of a team that has your back and helps you put forth your best everything because of what you all share – particularly in a world that tells you how “other” you are at pretty much every turn.

The romance is, in many ways, an opposites attract kind of love story. Jasmine is very open. She trusts easily and she falls in love easily – both to her own detriment. As a result, much too much of her personal life gets splashed on the tabloids, even if most of what they write is made up nonsense.

Ashton, on the other hand, is extremely private and closed off. He has a secret that he is desperate to keep, but keeping that secret also keeps him from opening himself up even to friendship, let alone anything more.

She’s public and he’s private. She’s gossip fodder and he ruthlessly suppresses publicity. It shouldn’t work. Neither of them really wants it to work, at least as the story begins.

But they’re playing the romantic leads in a made-for-streaming romantic comedy series. On screen, they have to generate serious chemistry, which means that off screen they need to at least be able to talk to one another.

Talking, as it so often does, leads to a whole lot more. A more that neither of them wants to reveal. Until the paparazzi take care of all of that for them in, of course, the worst way possible.

And very nearly destroy the best thing that’s ever happened to either of them.

Escape Rating B+: While this wasn’t quite as transportive as a couple of the romances from my week of happy endings – I’m thinking in particular of Take a Hint, Dani Brown and Spoiler Alert – a good reading time was definitely had by all. Or at least by moi.

I loved the romance between Jasmine and Ashton. It read like a variation of the fake-romance trope, but a variation that definitely worked. It wasn’t exactly that they were faking a romance, but they were faking a romance. It’s just that everyone knew it was a fake, because it was the onscreen romance between their characters.

Come to think of it, they were really faking NOT being a romance. A kind of double-fake. It worked, and the reasons for it worked.

While Ashton’s reason was more important, that he was a single father who was hiding his son in order to keep him safe, it was Jasmine’s reason that resonated most with me. As a middle child, she often felt overlooked between her overachieving older sister and her younger, always the baby sister. And so many of her family interactions, while well-meaning, intentionally or otherwise reminded her over and over (and over) that her goals and achievements weren’t as important or as successful, from her family’s perspective, as theirs. She felt overlooked and as a consequence looked for validation in romantic relationships – and looked too hard and all too often with men who didn’t value her either.

Jasmine’s feelings, and her response to them, will resonate with a lot of women who felt overlooked or overshadowed in their families and used similar methods to find validation, whether that overshadowing was the result of middle-child syndrome, workaholic parents or some other reason.

Ashton’s reasons, on the other hand, while they make sense were more the result of his understandable paranoia after a stalking incident than anything actually based in reality – as Jasmine pointed out. If he wants to be a famous actor and someday win an Oscar, he can’t keep his private life truly private. It’s understandable that he wants to but his goals are mutually exclusive.

In the story he clung to that overwhelming desire to keep his son a secret a bit too long. The point had been made, and made, and made to the point where it began to feel repetitive and I just wanted the story to get on with it. Your reading mileage may vary.

That being said, the story was lovely and I really enjoyed myself with Jasmine, her team and especially the Primas of Power, her terrifically supportive cousins who always had her back – especially when they needed to push her forward.

So a wonderful romance, a terrific story, and I’d love to see more about the Primas of Power and Jasmine’s entire clan!

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertTake a Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters, #2) by Talia Hibbert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #2
Pages: 361
Published by Avon on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Talia Hibbert returns with another charming romantic comedy about a young woman who agrees to fake date her friend after a video of him “rescuing” her from their office building goes viral...
Danika Brown knows what she wants: professional success, academic renown, and an occasional roll in the hay to relieve all that career-driven tension. But romance? Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. Romantic partners, whatever their gender, are a distraction at best and a drain at worst. So Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom.
When brooding security guard Zafir Ansari rescues Dani from a workplace fire drill gone wrong, it’s an obvious sign: PhD student Dani and ex-rugby player Zaf are destined to sleep together. But before she can explain that fact, a video of the heroic rescue goes viral. Now half the internet is shipping #DrRugbae—and Zaf is begging Dani to play along. Turns out, his sports charity for kids could really use the publicity. Lying to help children? Who on earth would refuse?
Dani’s plan is simple: fake a relationship in public, seduce Zaf behind the scenes. The trouble is, grumpy Zaf’s secretly a hopeless romantic—and he’s determined to corrupt Dani’s stone-cold realism. Before long, he’s tackling her fears into the dirt. But the former sports star has issues of his own, and the walls around his heart are as thick as his... um, thighs.
Suddenly, the easy lay Dani dreamed of is more complex than her thesis. Has her wish backfired? Is her focus being tested? Or is the universe just waiting for her to take a hint?

My Review:

As my “week of happy endings” kicked off last Friday with the first book in the Brown Sisters trilogy, Get a Life, Chloe Brown – Dani’s older sister’s story – it is only fitting that I close the week with this book, all about the middle sister in the Brown family.

And what a story it is!

This story, and this series so far, is all about finding love a)when you are not looking for it and b) while you’re carrying baggage that you’re sure means that no one will ever really love you as you are except for family. Part of me is tempted to say these characters are all “positive” about their negative chances, because none of the protagonists so far begin their stories even remotely hopeful about their chances at finding anything resembling love and acceptance of the romantic kind.

And, as both of these stories show, it’s important to see people carrying emotional baggage finding happiness, because everyone is carrying some. Unless of course, they’re dead, and in paranormal romance even death doesn’t stop characters from finding their HEAs.

So this story, and this series so far, are about people who deal with their baggage and find love and happiness neither in spite of it nor because of it, but rather because they’re dealing with their own crap in constructive ways that make romance possible.

Love doesn’t magically cure what ails you – whether that ailing is physical or emotional – but it can help give you the strength to handle it a bit better. And that’s what is at the heart and soul of this series so far.

In the case of Dani Brown’s slightly flirty friendship with Zafir Ansari, both of them are carrying some pretty heavy baggage of the emotional kind. Nerdy, driven, single-minded and obsessively focused Dani has internalized the idea that she isn’t capable of the emotional work of maintaining a relationship. She’s happy to be friends-with-benefits with people, but relationships require work that she doesn’t believe she’s no longer interested in even attempting. So she has rules about getting involved with people outside the bedroom.

In Dani’s world, friendship is good, sex is great and romance is entirely off the table. She’s too busy pursuing her dream of becoming one of the relatively few black, female full professors in Britain to make the time for relationship maintenance and all of the compromises she knows it requires. Compromises she already knows that she’s very, very bad at.

Zafir Ansari is dealing with an entirely different set of emotional burdens. He’d love to find a happy ever after, and he’s more than willing to try, but whoever he becomes involved with has to be able to deal with his occasional panic attacks, uber-protective anxiety binges and his complete unwillingness to revisit whole swaths of his past because that way lies depression. He lost his father and his older brother in an accident and the resulting downward spiral caused his promising rugby career to implode.

But he has gotten his life mostly back on track, running a combination coaching and counseling program for boys who need help dealing with emotional and mental health issues without resorting to the dead end trap of toxic masculinity. As the program doesn’t pay the bills, he has a day job as a security guard at the university where Dani is an underpaid and over-driving teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate.

Zafir wants a happy ever after, and Dani is just looking for a new fuckbuddy. They should restrict themselves to flirting, because they have entirely different relationship goals. Or at least they think they are.

When a recording of Zafir’s dramatic “rescue” of Dani from a trapped elevator during an evacuation drill goes viral, they decide, with eyes more or less wide shut, to embark upon a fake relationship, a classic of the romance genre, in order for the publicity to boost Zaf’s counseling program.

Oh, and they’ll be friends with benefits for the length of time it takes the social media craze to die down and the future for Zaf’s program to be secure.

Everyone knows just how fake relationships turn out in romance novels. Especially Zaf, who reads them voraciously. He’s all in, even if thought he wouldn’t be. The question is whether Dani can admit that she is, too. Before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: Dani’s story is even better than Chloe’s – and Chloe’s story was damn good.

But as much as I loved Chloe’s story, I found Dani’s to be just that extra bit easier to identify with because of her recognition and rejection of the performative nature of being part of a relationship. Women usually end up doing the emotional heavy-lifting in a heterosexual relationship, and some of us just aren’t equipped for it. Not that we don’t love the other person, but there are just some parts of relationship maintenance that we either don’t get or can’t be bothered with or that suffer in comparison to career or personal goals.

The latter of which is considered perfectly okay when a man feels – or doesn’t feel – that way but for which women get roundly and soundly criticized.

At the same time, part of what makes this romance so good is just what made Chloe’s story so good. In spite of often being emotionally clueless, Dani supports Zafir’s goals and his broken places, just as he does for her. They come to love each other as they are, not as the other wants them to be.

And the journey here for both of them is learning to deal better with their own shit. Zafir needs to be able to incorporate the good parts of his past with his present. He’s cutting himself off from both happiness and opportunities because he tries to maintain a hard line between the before – before the accident that took his father and brother – and the aftermath where he copes as long as that door isn’t opened.

Dani, on the other hand, needs to open the door in her own psyche to deal with a trauma that she hasn’t been willing to admit is there. That she’s afraid she can’t maintain a relationship so she refuses to try.

Like Chloe’s story, Dani’s romance with Zaf works because it feels real, and so do the tensions that nearly tear them apart. Get a Life, Chloe Brown was the perfect opening for my week of romance, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown was the perfect ending.

Even better, the Brown Sisters’ story is not over – which is wonderful because they’re part of a terrific family that continues to be marvelous to get to know. Youngest sister Eve’s story is coming up this spring in Act Your Age, Eve Brown. I can’t wait to see her try!

Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia DadeSpoiler Alert (Spoiler Alert #1) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Spoiler Alert #1
Pages: 416
Published by Avon on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 
Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he's known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.
April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.
Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.
With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

My Review:

Fanfiction, and for that matter fandom culture in general, tends to get a bad rap. But, if there are really only seven basic plots, and considering that there really is nothing new under the sun, everything is fanfiction. Every story is at least a tiny bit of a takeoff on something else. I read somewhere that John Milton’s Paradise Lost (published in 1667!) was fanfic about the Bible. Whatever you think of that particular variation of the concept, the idea of fanfiction has been around for a very long time.

And you’ve probably read some yourself, whether you considered it as such or not. After all, all Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan Doyle are fanfiction. It just happens to be legal fanfiction as most or all of the Holmes canon, depending on which side of the pond you are on, is out of copyright and can be played with or played upon at will.

But fanfiction in the context of this story has a specific meaning, it’s fiction written about someone else’s intellectual property, in this case a hit TV show based upon a best-selling book series that is, itself a kind of fanfiction, as it is a retelling of Homer’s Aeneid, a story that has been told, retold and sorta/kinda told since Virgil first wrote down his version between 29 and 19 BC. Over 2,000 years ago.

Plenty of time for lots of fanfiction to accrete around a story.

Much of contemporary fanfiction, as propagated on Archive of Our Own (AO3), Fanfiction.net and an ever increasing number of Discord servers, just like the fanfiction in the mimeographed fanzines that came before them, tend to be romances, whether explicit or not, although often very. Explicit, that is.

Fanfiction takes that age old question, “What if?” and applies it to someone else’s story. Often by pairing – or shipping – two characters who are not romantic partners in the original, no matter how many fans think they should have been.

The story in Spoiler Alert is a glorious chef’s kiss to fanfiction, a lovely story of wish-fulfillment that goes right, and then wrong, and then right again, and a beautiful romance between two people who no one would ever have shipped – but everyone should have.

Especially the two people who are the heart and soul of this surprising and wonderful romance.

Escape Rating A: I have to say that I absolutely adore fanfiction. It’s been a saving grace this year on days when I just could not get into a book. I could drop into a piece of fanfiction and let it whisk me away to a world I already knew with characters I already loved. For hours if not days. Rereading my favorites has been a comfort this year of everything going to whack.

I’ve also written a bit of fanfiction, a long time ago. There is no feeling like pouring your heart and soul into a piece of work and getting responses and kudos and occasional constructive criticism back. I still have friends from that part of my life.

So I understood where April was coming from on more than one level. Both in just how satisfying the writing is and just how difficult it can be to maintain an identity separate from your professional life because you know the reaction you will get. It was a release for her to find somewhere that allowed her to be her authentic self at work as well as in the fanfiction community.

Her story was also a beautiful piece of wish-fulfillment. Many, many, MANY fans of media properties have had that fantasy of meeting the actor playing their dream character and having a happy ever after romance with them, in spite of all the odds against it.

What made April’s story special was that her wish-fulfillment was wrapped around Marcus accepting her and loving her for exactly who she really is – not for some magical transformation to make her more acceptable or conventional in some way. And that her part of that journey was to put herself first and remove toxic relationships from her life, even if those relationships were with her parents. Even if that relationship was with the love of her life.

It was also great that Marcus’ life wasn’t perfect either. He also had toxic relationships to either cut off or change, and what made those relationships toxic was completely different, but every bit as real, as April’s. They both need to get to better places, more authentic places in their lives. And it was crucial that they don’t help each other get there directly but rather give each other the strength to walk their own paths in their own ways.

Even when that path forced them to part because they had – or rather Marcus had  – violated that authenticity with April.

In addition to the lovely, charming, beautiful romance between April and Marcus, there are also plenty of laugh out loud aspects to this story.

It’s easy to see the parallels between Gate of the Gods and Game of Thrones, and that’s obviously intended. From a certain perspective, Spoiler Alert is fanfiction about the entire production of GOT, and the tongue-in-cheek nods and send ups of GOT make the whole thing that much funnier. Especially when it seems like half the cast is writing fanfic under various pseudonyms in order to anonymously stick it to the douchecanoe showrunners.

The whole story is kind of an in-joke on an in-joke and all the funnier – and occasionally more poignant for it. So read Spoiler Alert for the romance, but stay for the tremendous fannish fun.

Just read this book, period, exclamation point, if you’re looking for a wonderfully nuanced romance! There’s a reason – actually there are LOTS of reasons, why Spoiler Alert has been on so many Best Books lists this year. See for yourself!

OMG there’s going to be a sequel! SQUEE!

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

Review: The Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 359
Published by Avon on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

A wedding planner left at the altar. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina’s managed to make other people’s dreams come true as a top-tier wedding coordinator in DC. After impressing an influential guest, she’s offered an opportunity that could change her life. There’s just one hitch… she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.
Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he’ll be working with his brother’s whip-smart, stunning —absolutely off-limits — ex-fiancée. And she loathes him.
If they can survive the next few weeks and nail their presentation without killing each other, they’ll both come out ahead. Except Max has been public enemy number one ever since he encouraged his brother to jilt the bride, and Lina’s ready to dish out a little payback of her own.
But even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon Lina and Max discover animosity may not be the only emotion creating sparks between them. Still, this star-crossed couple can never be more than temporary playmates because Lina isn’t interested in falling in love and Max refuses to play runner-up to his brother ever again...

My Review:

Sometimes, families are the absolute worst. At other times, they’re the greatest! In Lina Santos’ experience as a wedding planner, they can be both, entirely too frequently on opposite sides of the aisle at one of the weddings she has planned. Or rescued. (Three little words, “chartreuse wedding gown”. Enough said)

But the one wedding she couldn’t rescue was her own. Not only was Lina left at the altar, but she was left with the task of letting all of the guests know that there wouldn’t be a wedding after all. Because the groom had bailed, leaving his brother to inform the bride and the bride to deal with all of the fallout.

Fast forward a few years. Lina has put the wedding-that-wasn’t behind her. In a lot of ways, fairly easily. She chose Andrew because he didn’t really touch her heart, so his runaway from the runway was more of a blow to her pride than any other part of her.

Which didn’t mean that she was overcome with joy to discover that Andrew and his brother Max, the best man forced to deliver the news to the no-longer-a-bride Lina, were the PR team for the luxury hotel chain that was looking to hire a full-time wedding coordinator.

A job that Lina desperately both wants and needs. What she doesn’t either want or need is to expose their collective and seriously messy past to a possible boss. So she panics and pretends she doesn’t know either of them.

Even better – or worse – or both, they go along with the ruse.

A ruse that Lina and Max are going to have to maintain for six weeks while the hotel’s new owner goes through a very thorough vetting process. A time period that is more than long enough to strain both the ruse and Max and Lina’s ability to tolerate each other for the length of time necessary for Lina to get the job and Max to prove to both the hotelier and his mother-the-PR-boss that Max is a different and separate person from his conniving, competitive older brother Andrew.

Not that Max is any less competitive, or possibly any less conniving where Andrew is concerned. But this level of connivance, deception and, surprisingly temptation is big enough to bite them all in the ass.

Especially once Max and Lina figure out that the heat in their back-biting is masking a desire to bite each other in an entirely different way!

Escape Rating B+: Max isn’t so much the worst best man as this scenario is the worst nightmare for a wedding planner – being forced to work with the erstwhile groom who left her at the altar and the almost-best man who was stuck giving her the news. Not that Max didn’t take some of the blame for Andrew’s actions, and not that Lina wasn’t more than willing at the time to shoot the damn messenger.

But in spite of the scenario beginning as soap opera worthy and descending from there, Max isn’t even the worst best man that Lina’s ever dealt with, on the job or off.

And they do begin this mess with something in common – they both want to get something over Andrew. In a whole lot of senses, he’s a professional embarrassment for both of them – Lina for the obvious reason, but Max because Andrew has been riding on his intellectual coattails their entire lives, and managing to take all the credit for Max’ hard work into the bargain.

This enemies to lovers romance is billed as a rom-com, and it is filled with the kind of witty banter that makes rom-coms so much fun. But underneath all of that, there’s more going on in this story than first meets the eye.

At the beginning, Max’ attitude towards Andrew, their mother, the job and Lina all come off as very manipulative. His desire to get one over on his brother seems to be driving his actions, and his thoughts are more than a bit on the ugly side.

Max’ relationship with his brother is toxic for both of them, and it seems as if their mother doesn’t see just how much poison she’s adding to that brew. The situation underpins the whole story, as Max is a bit unclear at the beginning whether he’s helping Lina or just using her. And it feels like a bit of both. Max’ manipulativeness soured me a bit on the story at that point, but so many people said so many good things about it that I stuck with it and I’m glad I did.

When Lina and Max become involved with each other, there are plenty of questions all around about whether their emotions are real or whether they’re both using the situation to get back at Andrew. There’s also a heaping helping of concern about whether any relationship they might have can get itself out from under Andrew’s shadow.

At the same time, there’s also a lot that gets said, and needs to be said, that doesn’t get clearly articulated near enough. Max wants Lina to show more of her emotions, but Lina – and every other woman reading this story – is very clear that being able to display your emotions in a professional setting is very much a male privilege. If she gets righteously upset, she’ll be seen as merely a stereotypical “angry black woman” or a typical “hot-blooded Latina as she is Afro-Latinx. If she cries in a work setting, she’s labelled as a “hysterical female” who can’t control her emotions. It’s happened to her. It’s cost her a job and a career. It’s happened to all of us so we do our best to clamp down our emotions at work. As Lina successfully does.

The resolution here is for them to find a way to deal with the very real situation that their relationship drags into the light. Not to paper them over, not to magic up a happy ending, but to earn one.

And that they definitely do!

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia HibbertGet a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1) by Talia Hibbert
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Brown Sisters #1
Pages: 373
Published by Avon on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?
• Enjoy a drunken night out.• Ride a motorcycle.• Go camping.• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.• And... do something bad.
But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.
Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.
But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

My Review:

Because yesterday’s book had a slightly higher, let’s call it “discomfort” factor than I was expecting from something promoted as a play on classic mysteries, I went looking for something a bit lighter in tone – or at least something I could reasonably expect to have a happy ending. My search led me to Get a Life, Chloe Brown, as I have the whole series in the virtually towering TBR pile but hadn’t quite been in the mood for it.

Until now. I was definitely in the mood for something light and maybe even a bit fluffy, and was hoping this would fill that particular bill. And even though the baggage that both of the protagonists are carrying is much too heavy to make this book either light or fluffy, it still gave me the happy ending that I was craving.

And all the better for dealing appropriately with that baggage.

Chloe needs to carve out a tiny bit of space from her loving, intrusive, extremely overprotective family. Not that Chloe doesn’t need a bit of help and protection, because she does. In the aftermath of a nearly deadly bout of pneumonia a few years ago, Chloe found herself living with both fibromyalgia and chronic pain.

It’s a situation that has forced Chloe to learn to manage her illness – with the help of the medical professionals she finally located who believed her and didn’t brush her off. Because if she doesn’t manage her health, the issues with it will manage her. And sometimes they still do, in spite of her efforts.

Along the way she’s lost friends and a fiance who refused to believe her, and her family, her parents, her grandmother, and her two sisters, have all stepped in to fill the gaps in Chloe’s social network.

But they’re smothering her with their good intentions, so after another near-death experience – this time with a drunk driver who swerves away at the last possible second – Chloe decides to go out and get herself a life without her loving family looking over her shoulder and swaddling her in cotton every single second.

She does find a new apartment, although the new social life is a bit harder to come by. What she does have is a new frenemy/obsession, the gorgeous, tattooed superintendent of the building. She sees him as a bit of a rough badass, and he sees her as a stuck up rich girl with a snooty attitude and her head up her very shapely backside.

When he discovers her rescuing a stray cat from a very tall tree, the ensuing mayhem allows them both to discover that neither is exactly who the other thought. And that each might provide the other with the kind of friendship that is forged not from what they have in common, but from the elements each needs and sorely lacks – but that the other has in abundance.

If only they can manage to get their own personal baggage out of the other’s way.

Escape Rating A-: As I said at the top, I was expecting fluff. What I got was a whole hell of a lot more nuanced than that, and I think I enjoyed it more because of that nuance. Not that fluff can’t be a wonderful thing if that’s what you’re looking for at a particular time, but this was just more than I expected and I was very happy with that.

The baggage that Chloe and Red are dealing with is both heavier than I expected and was handled so much better than I expected. The crap they’re carrying around isn’t easy and there are no quick solutions.

At the same time, they both recognize that they have a crapton of crap – even if it takes Red quite a bit longer to figure that out – and they both are coming to terms with their own shit. (I can’t be the only person in the world who had a relationship go to hell because both parties had their own crap and weren’t both willing to deal with it.)

And on my third hand, the stuff they each had to deal with was real and hard and not generally dealt with well or at all in romance. Chloe has a chronic illness. It’s something she has learned how to handle, but it will most likely never be cured. So her illness and her management of it and her health is part of what she has to deal with every single day. Even the good days, because it’s always lurking.

But there’s also the emotional baggage along with it. Not just her family’s overprotectiveness, which comes from a place of love but can be unintentionally belittling, but Chloe’s quite real fears of abandonment – because those feelings arose from reality. Her friends and her fiance didn’t believe her illness was real, so they treated her like she was a lying faker and left her to cope by herself.

The result is that she has walled herself away from people other than her family because everyone else has betrayed her trust when she needed them the most. So when her relationship with Red changes from disdain to friendship to flirting to love, she’s afraid he’ll leave because it’s happened to her before.

When he does leave she’s devastated but determined, because he leaves her not because of her crap but his own. His last girlfriend was a rich girl like Chloe, but she was abusive – something that you don’t see nearly enough in romance but does happen. He leaves Chloe because he panics and conflates her behavior with the ex, even though it isn’t so. But it’s something he has to work through and Chloe can’t do it for him anymore than he can deal with her abandonment issues for her.

No matter how much he can, and does, help her deal with the practical issues of her illness and the management of it.

So there was way more to unpack in this story than I was expecting – and it was all terrific stuff. Stuff that slid very nicely between the lines of this terrific, fun, flirty and very sexy romance – almost as nicely as Chloe and Red slid between the sheets – and eventually managed to stay there.

I loved Chloe Brown, and I liked her sisters Dani and Eve – along with the whole family – quite a lot. More than enough that I’m looking very much forward to reading Dani’s story next – and next week – in Take a Hint, Dani Brown!