Alyssa Cole

Review: An Unconditional Freedom

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Title: An Unconditional Freedom (The Royal League #3)
Date of publication: 26 Feb 2019
Genre: Historical romance, the Civil War 

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Goodreads

My rating: 4.5 Stars

Blurb

Daniel Cumberland’s uneventful life as a freed man in Massachusetts ended the night he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. To then have his freedom restored by the very man who stole his beloved’s heart is almost too much to bear. When he’s offered entry into the Loyal League, the covert organization of spies who helped free him, Daniel seizes the opportunity to help take down the Confederacy and vent the rage that consumes him.

When the Union Army occupies Janeta Sanchez’s small Florida town, her family’s goodwill and ties to Cuba fail to protect her father from being unjustly imprisoned for treason. To ensure her father’s release, Janeta is made an offer she can’t refuse: spy for the Confederacy. Driven by a desire for vengeance and the hope of saving her family, she agrees to infiltrate the Loyal League as a double agent.

Daniel is both aggravated and intrigued by the headstrong recruit. For the first time in months, he feels something other than anger, but a partner means being accountable, and Daniel’s secret plan to settle a vendetta and strike a blow for the Union can be entrusted to no one. As Janeta and Daniel track Jefferson Davis on his tour of the South, their dual hidden missions are threatened by the ghosts of their pasts and a growing mutual attraction—that might be their only hope for the future.

Review 

What a fantastic end to an amazing series!

These are such important books, offering a little known and an invaluable perspective on the Civil War in the US. I enjoyed all the books and with An Extraordinary Union my favourite, this comes a close second. It's a powerful character-driven story with a strong suspense elements (the MCs are al spies and agents, after all). 

I won't be giving away any plot details and I can say that it's tied with the previous in the series but works well as standalone. The whole series draws a powerful portrayal of the people involved in the Civil War and this one adds yet another layer to the grand picture.


Daniel was a broken man, set on revenged, disillusioned, hardened, one who fights for his people but ultimately he has lost hope in his country. There is so much hurt and devastation in his life, and blame, all the self-blame for having been naive and hopeful, for being weak and unable to move on. 
He was a free man with big plans for the future and he was kidnapped and enslaved and everything was taken away from him. In a way his story was one long coming back from the dead, learning to trust and to hope and dream again.
 panic attack, suicidal thoughts, anxiety. flashbacks of trauma and torture. 


Janeta was an amazing, so interesting, so unusual. She started as a double agent, determined to spy for the Confederacy. Her father was a white Cuban slave-owner and, her mother was a slave he freed and later married. She through a most difficult and transforming journey in this story. She had to face hard truths about herself and her family that she had been avoiding. She found her people in the face of Daniel and the slave they met on the road. I started disliking her and by the end I was fully on her side. 

The story has a varied cast of great side characters who brought life and richness to the story. Seeing Malcom and Elle (the MCs in book 1) in the end bought things full circle. 

Ultimately, this is a dark but hopeful story. The focus for me was not so much on the HEA but on the MCs making a choice who they want to be in this life, standing up for their to love and happiness and after all, unconditional freedom. 

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Ebook price: $9.99, books 1 and 2 are on sale at the time of posting this review: $2.99 each

Contemporary Romance

Review: The Inside Track by Tamsen Parker

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Title: The Inside Track (License to Love #2)
Author: Tamsen Parker
Genre/Themes: Rockstar romance, Mental illness
Release date: 26 Feb 2019

Author’s links: Website / Facebook / Reader Group / Twitter

My rating: 3.5 Stars

Blurb

Love might mean coming as you are, but staying is a different matter.

Nick Fischer is a screw-up; everyone knows it and they’re not afraid to tell him so. The only thing he’s got going for him is that he plays a reliable rhythm guitar for License to Game, and his big fat bulldog, Princess Fiona, is so ugly she’s cute.

Dempsey Lawrence is a former child star turned financial advisor, and while she’s curious about the hot mess of a man who’s her co-panelist for a presentation on financial literacy, she has no intention of pursuing anything with him. Too loud, too crass, too wild, Nick is altogether too much. Plus, he’s famous, and she is so over stardom and everything that comes with it.

Except that when Dempsey gives Nick an inch, he takes a mile, and she finds that she doesn’t mind so much. Until Nick brings the pitfalls of stardom to Dempsey’s doorstep, then all the attraction in the world might not be enough to promise a happily ever after.

Review

This was an engaging romance between a rockstar hero with ADHD and a former child star now financial consultant with agoraphobia.

I mostly enjoyed this romance and found both characters interesting. I liked the hero and the way his ADHD was presented, especially at the beginning. His POV become more challenging to read as the story progressed though I mostly enjoyed it. I wanted some more depth, a bit more seriousness/angst if you like. He was too accepting, too easygoing, to the point that it seem he didn’t care enough. 

The romance had a well done consent, a bit of femdom and was very sex positive (there is a male sex worker as a side character who was an awesome friend in addition).

The heroine had developed agoraphobia after traumatic sexual experiences as a teen. She was in a bad family situation no real support network apart from people who worked for her in one way or another. They have become her family over time and her only close relationships. Building a life that she can manage and feeling more or less happy. He brought new light into her world, stirred things up. But also cause her a lot of stress. His star status, the attention he attracted was really bad for her mental health. I found this aspect of the story the least convincing. She didn’t leave her house but had a celebrity boyfriend who brought his bandmates and friends over (with her consent but it caused her a panic attack), put her live on stage via chat, had a stalker attack him in her house. I feel it was all too much for her to deal with. 

We see them discussing it and trying hard to balance things out but I am not convinced how they would make it work in the long term. It was a matter of compromise and they both seemed committed to it and put a lot of effort and thought into it, but in the end I feel it was all much for her to be able to deal with it.

The second half was a bit messy, too many things going on, some over the top plot elements detracted from my overall enjoyment of the story. I loved how he worked out his grand gestured with the help of his friends and how fitting it was.

Overall it was a nice romance with interesting characters where I wanted some more depth and conflict and a little less drama. I'm not fully sold on their HEA but the HFN was solid in my mind.

CW: panic attacks, stalker, breaking and entering, knife attack

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#romanceclass

Review: Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra

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Title: Kiss and Cry (Six 32 Central Book 2)
Author: Mina V. Esguerra
Genre/Themes: Second chance romance, sports, Philippines 
Release date: 1 March 2019

Author’s links: Website / Goodreads / Twitter / Facebook

My rating: 4 Stars

Blurb

Calinda met Ramirez when she was 20 and he was 22. She was the rising star of women's skating, and he was the superstar forward of men's hockey. Her parents and coach were against their relationship, and because Calinda wanted to prove that no hot guy would ever distract her from her dream, she chose skating over him — and also avoided him all together. 

Ten years later, they meet again as gold medalists and prominent sports advocates, still single and undeniably attracted to each other. It's still not a good time for them, because Ramirez is retiring from hockey and moving back to the United States. Calinda doesn't do relationships, really, and proposes they use his final three weeks in Manila to explore what might have been, and do all the things they wish they'd done (there's a list!). Then he can leave for good, and they can both move on with their lives without this one regret.

Review 

This is a nice, easy going, low conflict romance with some angst and lots of realistic talk about sports behind its glamourous facade. I loved that we a different aspect of professional sports, one where it’s like a day job – some fame and popularity on local level, but none of the huge wealth and celebrity. status. Both MCs love their sport despite it not being the most popular in their country and they are trying to a living out of it.

The story also gives us a lot of thoughts on leaving and staying, on living in two countries and not feeling truly at home in either. The story is very atmospheric, set in Manila, we see s much of life there - the food, the local customs and everything. At the same time we get enough glimpse of Ram’s life in the US to see how the immigrant experience shapes who he is.

It's a second chance love story where the MCs are in their 30s and get together in some sort of belated fight for independence, some sort of revenge, of taking back control over her life that was taken from them 10 years ago. In reality though, this is just the continuation of their love story that started all those years and they never stopped wanting to be together. 

It's deeply romantic but both acting very practical on the surface. I loved how neither of them wanted to force the other person to shape their whole life around you. I appreciate the open discussions of consent and the respect the MCs showed each other.

I felt the story lost some momentum around the middle but in the end it all worked well. I absolutely loved how simple and ordinary his grand gesture was, how fitting to both of them. Their love was not an easy solution of a difficult life situation. The practical difficulties of being together were not glossed over but rather discussed between the MCs and a solution was found that worked for both of them.

Light-hearted, yet with some unexpected depth, this is a lovely sports romance and I highly recommend it to everyone. 

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Historical Romance

Review: Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles

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Title: Any Old Diamonds
Author: KJ Charles
Genre/Themes: Historical, MM romance
Release Date: 30 Jan 2019

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Facebook Group / Goodreads

My rating: 3 Stars

Blurb

Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes is the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, with a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary—so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it. 

The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman’s most secret desires, and soon he’s got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them...all without getting caught.

Review 

Any Old Diamond is a historical m/m romance with a twisty plot and a kinky romantic relationship between the MCs that I expected to love but ended having mixed feelings about it. I really struggled with the first part of the story and had to put it a way for a bit before I continued with it. While I liked the second part much better it was not enough to make the book a success for me.

We have a morally dubious jewel thief and an aristocrat who is cut off by his father and ostensibly seeks revenge getting together but I didn't feel the romantic connection between them. Things between them started based on lust and the enjoyment of the kink they shared. But it never felt more than that - Alec seemed grateful that someone appreciated his kink and didn't shame or beat him up for it (unlike previous lovers) and Jerry didn't show much feelings at all in the first half. I didn't feel anything beyond the purely physical connection between them. Jerry had no regrets about who he was and what he did, he was self confident and self assured but didn't strike me as a villain or a sociopath really.

Halfway through the story there is a major plot twist that I appreciate plotwise but it also did'nt feel natural, especially with regard to Alec whose POV we get throughout the story. I understand the suspense and keeping it a secret from everyone, the reader included, but it felt out of character for Alec. For me it seemed that after that twist we had both MCs being completely different from we had come to see from them. I'm all for character development and change but this felt abrupt and too sudden to be convincing.

I had an issue re consent in some of the sex scenes, especially the angry against-the-wall sex towards the end. It read more like an assault than a consensual mutually enjoyable sex. Furthermore, it is the last explicitly described sex scene in the book, what followed was mostly kissing and fade-to-black scenes and that only added to my discomfort about that scene. 

Another scene which I found problematic is where on of the MCs outed the other as gay. It was done in a fit of anger and while I understand why the character acted this way, there was a very lackluster apology for it after that. The reaction of the outed person was also problematic for me since he didn't stand up for himself but rather felt he deserved it because he had lied previously. He took the blame believing his own behaviour had provoked the other person to do act so aggressively (he used the same excuse for making sense of the violent angry sex that followed soon after). 

All this makes we wary of believing in the HEA for these two characters together.

On the plus side, I loved the writing, the plot was full of twists and turns which I enjoyed and the side characters were great (yes, Susan Lazarus, I'm talking about her).

Overall, this was not the book I expected and while I like some bits in it, overall, it didn't work for me. Still, I'm curious about Templeton's story and plan on reading it when it comes out.

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Historical Romance

The Earl I Ruined by Scarlett Pekham

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Title: The Earl I Ruined
(Secret of Charlotte Street #2)
Author: Scarlett Peckham
Date of publication: 11 Dec 2018
Genre: Historical Romance

Author's links:

My rating: 2.5 Stars


Blurb

She’s beautiful, rich, and reckless… 

When Lady Constance Stonewell accidentally ruins the Earl of Apthorp’s entire future with her gossip column, she does what any honorable young lady must: offer her hand in marriage. Or, at the very least, stage a whirlwind fake engagement to repair his reputation. Never mind that it means spending a month with the dullest man in England. Or the fact that he disapproves of everything she holds dear. 

He’s supposedly the most boring politician in the House of Lords... 

Julian Haywood, the Earl of Apthorp, is on the cusp of finally proving himself to be the man he’s always wanted to be when his future is destroyed in a single afternoon. When the woman he’s secretly in love confesses she’s at fault, it isn’t just his life that is shattered: it’s his heart. 

They have a month to clear his name and convince society they are madly in love… 

But when Constance discovers her faux-intended is decidedly more than meets the eye—not to mention adept at shocking forms of wickedness—she finds herself falling for him. 

There’s only one problem: he can’t forgive her for breaking his heart.


Review 

This is the second book in the series but can be read as a standalone. I requested an ARC following the glowing praise for the debut book of Ms Peckham and first in the series, The Duke I Tempted.

I expected a diverse historical with interesting characters, exploring the emotional and physical connection between them but I got a messy, superficial story that left me disappointed.

I know female readers of romance often come as much more unforgiving of the heroine than of the heroes and while I try hard not to be that kind of reader, i really, really disliked the heroine here. My problem is not that she started as spoilt, well-meaning but careless, oblivious to her privilege. She is really young and acted in an attempt to help other women, protecting them from men who could use/abuse them. My problem is that I didn't really see her grow into a better person through the story. I don't feel she became a more sympathetic and understating person. Yes, there is some journey exploring her sexuality and desires which I liked though I think it could have used more depth and detail.

I didn't get a good reading of the hero either. He was presenting as strict and adhering to laws and conventions, while he was completely different on the inside. He acted so to protect himself and those he cared for. Yet, we didn't see much of his real self, moments when he was himself were few and far between and left me wanting more. For most of the story, both MCs kept their pretense even when they were together making the whole story feel more like a comedy comedy of manners of sorts. The plot relied too much of gossip, pretense and disguise. I wanted more honest and open discussions between the MCs, exploring their desires.

I had other issues with the plot as well, it was overcrowded, there was too much going on with side character and their stories, much of it not adding adding significant. I felt there was not enough depth and detail. The hero's past as a dom for hire, his whole secret life in the illegal sex club was vaguely alluded too, we never got to see him (or both of them) there. It was just something in the background while it was central to the character's personality.

In short, the story had the potential to be something new and refreshing but instead it felt messy, superficial and not as good as expected it to be.


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Contemporary Romance

Review: Three Little Words by Jenny Holiday

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Title: Three Little Words 
(Bridesmaids Behaving Badly #3)
Author: Jenny Holiday
Date of publication: 29 Jan 2019
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Author's links:

My rating: 5 Stars


Blurb

Gia Gallo is officially in bridesmaid hell. Stranded in New York with her best friend's wedding dress, Gia has six days to make it to Florida in time for the ceremony. And oh-so-charming best man Bennett Buchanan has taken the last available rental car. Looks like she's in for one long road trip with the sexiest - and most irritating - Southern gentleman she's ever met...

Bennett's pretty sure that if there was ever a woman to break his "no flings" rule, Gia would be it. Sure, she's stubborn. She's also funny, smart, and the attraction between them is getting hotter with every state line they cross. While Bennett doesn't do casual, Gia doesn't do "relationships." But if they break the rules, this unlikely pair might discover that their impromptu road trip could turn out to be the best ride of their lives.

Review 

I absolutely loved this book  - it's fun and happy-making but with serious edges and some darkness to it which make it the perfect kind of contemporary romance for me.

Gia is an awesome heroine, a fashion model at the end of her career - no bitchness, no aloofness but also no fake modesty regarding her looks. I found her stress of having to start something new/unfamiliar, the uncertainty, the sense of lacking (academic smarts, experience outside the world of modelling) very relatable.

She is also not looking for a relationship after being burnt before, one-night stands, or at best, a repeat performance, is her thing. And then she meets Bennett who turns her life absolutely upside down, rather helps her see other possibilities both in her personal and in her professional life.

Gia is battling an eating disorder and she is not quite ready to admit it. And Bennett is a chef, a top chef at that. I loved how this aspect of their relationship was handled, he didn't pressure her, his delicious cooking and his love for her didn't cure her, they helped her admit the problem and start looking for professional help to cope with it.

He is wonderful overall, caring and patient with Gia while dealing with his own demons, and they were some pretty dark demons. She was an unexpected source of solutions for a number of his issues. She literally made him face his past and move on from it.

They started are reluctant strangers, forced by the circumstances on a road trip that lead to unexpected and scary for them both intimacy and openness. 

The story ends with the sweetest, mushiest epilogue - perfect end to the series. We see all the previous couples and glimpses at their lives down the line were heart-warming.

The whole series shows great female (and male!) friendships. I liked how the family relations were presented in the story - re-establishing contact with one's family without forgiving and forgetting, some hurts are too deep to heal. Still, this was a hopeful aspect of the story for me. I also loved all the food, the idea of a community restaurant was new to me and found it really intriguing.

The writing was what I have come to expect from Jenny Holiday, lovely, engaging writing, real, down-to-earth characters, nuance both in the presentation of the good guys and the bad ones.

I highly recommend the whole series! (this book can be read as as standalone but it would be work even better if you have read the previous books)

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2018

My Favourite Reads of 2018

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2018 was a rough year in many ways but I had romance books to save me in the darkest times. Here is the list of the books that I enjoyed the most in 2018 - some backlist titles, some latest releases, some queer, some not, all around all of them affected me deeply.

Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai is the final book in the Forbidden Hearts series and it completes this family saga kind of romance in a most moving and beautiful way. It's closely knit series working best if read in order - lots of drama and secrets, forbidden love and ultimately, carving one's own happiness despite the circumstances in a complex mix of family and friendship dynamics.. I loved the MCs and the side characters and appreciate the incidental queer rep. Goodreads / Amazon

Band Sinister by KJ Charles - historical m/m romance done in the style of Georgette Heyer's romances but queer. Light-hearted, fun, pure joy to read. Great side characters, an awesome female character in m/m novel which is still rare and I loved it. Review / Amazon

Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder - a biker novella of sorts. Desi heroine. Cinnamon roll hero in disguise. High heat level with so much heart. It packs a punch in just a few pages. Review / Amazon


Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein - backlist title, former bully hero, the girl he bullied is the heroine. Not an easy read but it worked for me. He does so much emotional labour and I bought his redemption. There was softness and unexpected vulnerability to this big man. it was the heroine who set the tone, who made teh decisions about them. Review / Amazon


Best of Luck and Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn, I just can't pick a favourite book in this series, they are all amazing, wonderful contemporary romance that deal with variety of issues - difficult family dynamics, close-knit female friendship, mental health and chronic illness, professional success and failure, grief, addiction, forgiveness. Review / Amazon


The Wolf at Bay by Charlie Adhara - debut murder mystery shifter m/m romance. This is not my typical subgenre but I found it very well written and engaging. Human MC with anxiety, his werewolf partner and lover. A gripping suspense/mystery plot, tender and heart-felt romance and interesting family dynamics. Review / Amazon


A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole. Portia and Tavish are everything in this contemporary royal romance. Heroine with ADHD, older divorced hero (maintaining a friendly relationship with his ex!) who turns out to be the heir of a duke. Brilliant, fun with a serious edge. Wonderful heroine who is allowed to make mistakes, to act out, to be imperfect. Review / Amazon


A Conspiracy of Whispers by Ada Harper - dystopian sci-fi m/f romance. The prickliest assassin heroine, most caring aristocratic warrior, great incidental queer rep. Interesting world-building, some issues re fertility/reproduction came as a surprise for me but in the end, I'd say they were handled well. Review / Amazon


Thirsty by Mia Hopkins - first person present tense POV story of a ex-gang member is the romance I didn't know I needed in my life. Hero with anxiety, trying to get his life back on track. Single mother heroine working to get back to her dreams that somehow got derailed. Review / Amazon

Make Me Fall by Sara Rider - m/f contemporary with cinnamon roll hero and a heroine recovering from a break up upending her life. I felt so deeply her struggles to make new friends, to start anew both personally and professionally. Review / Amazon

Object of Desire by Dal Maclean - murder mystery m/m where romance is not front and central but the story ends with a strong HEA, so I'm definitely counting it as romance. Review / Amazon

Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh - m/f romance set in the Indian community in Australia, a sort of modern arranged marriage, only with real feelings. Review / Amazon



Saving Hearts by Rebecca Crowley - m/f football romance. hero is a goal keeper at the end of his career, using gambling to deal with anxiety and mental health issues. Heroine is former football player herself, now working the professional football association, also battling gambling addiction. They are as mismatched as they can be. Review / Amazon (on sale for $2.99 at the time of posting)


A Daring Arrangement by Joanna Shupe - gilded age historical set in New York. I love this time period with its inventions and changing moral code and ridiculous, over-the-top spending. Review / Amazon
The Henchmen of Zenda by KJ Charles - This is a wonderful adventure romance in the vein of Dumas's The Three Musketeers but queer. It's based on the Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894). It's fun and full of court intrigue and treason and sword fighting and an engaging romance between an older experienced gay man and a charming younger bi man. Review / Amazon

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