Alexis Hall

Review: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

02:30

Title: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake 
Author: Alexis Hall
Genre/Themes: queer m/f romance, reality TV baking competition
Release Date: 18 May 2021

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

My rating: 4 Stars



Blurb

Following the recipe is the key to a successful bake. Rosaline Palmer has always lived by those rules—well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she’s teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there’s a whisk there’s a way . . . and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation’s most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves—and Rosaline is determined to stick to the instructions. However, more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory. Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it’s shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs—about herself, her family, and her desires.

Rosaline fears falling for Harry is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Yet as the competition—and the ovens—heat up, Rosaline starts to realize the most delicious bakes come from the heart.

Review

I love Alexis Hall's writing and this book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2021. It was not exactly what I expected it to be but after some frustration and adjustment of expectations around the middle, I ended up enjoying it a lot.

There is a sort of love triangle, rather it's three people that are mixed up in the romantic relations in the story. It's not something I intentionally look for in my romance but I felt it was fitted the characters and made sense in their character development. Rosaline is very close to my heart, I see a lot of me in her - somewhat neurotic, anxious, lacking confidence, questioning her parenting (incidentally I also have an 8yo daughter) and professional/life choices.

The story has strong women's fiction vibes, since it focuses mainly on Rosaline and her efforts to find the right direction in her life. Romantic relationships are a big part of it but we also see her professional development, the messed up relations with her family.

The nods to GBBO were fun to read. Here is where I admit that I haven't watched the full show, mostly know it from gifs and that one-time Bulgarian edition. Still, I loved seeing reality TV for what it is - fun and entertainment but also meticulously scripted and edited.

I love how real and fully developed all characters in Alexis Hall's stories read to me, and not just the MCs, but the secondary characters as well. They are all, even the evil ones, different, unique, each has a voice and presence of their own.

I hated Alain and Rosaline's parents right from the start. Alain's easy confidence, seeming perfection appeared attractive initially but it also put me on edge. I don't trust who never doubt themselves, who are always put together and in control. It makes me instantly suspicious that this a facade for something much less pretty.

That said, I understand Rosaline's attraction to him, he is everything she strives to be in her life (at least what her parents had taught her to want from life). Gradually though, we see her willfully ignoring the red flags about Alain that kept popping up. The whole setting on the set of a reality show and the extreme stress it put on her daily life led her to making some rushed decisions,

Harry, is Alain's opposite in every possible way, and while initially Rosaline only noticed him for his looks, gradually she got to know the real him and he is the absolute best. He is kind and understanding, genuinely cares about her and is always there when she needs him. At the same time he is also shy and anxious, a typical mate in many respects but also open and willing to learn to do better.

There is an attempted sexual assault and it's not graphic but the whole scene was very vivid, Rosaline's fear was palpable through the pages. The manipulation and gaslighting that went with it were rage inducing but also so, so familiar. It's a brilliant scene, though a tough one to read.

I really wanted Rosaline to to spend more time with Harry instead of Alain though ever ytime she was with Harry the connection between them was real and believable and the reverse was true of her interactions with Alain - you can see how hard she worked to convince herself this was what she wanted and it was good and right and making her happy while it was becoming clearer and clearer that this was not the case.

I like that this is not a love-at-first-sight romance. It takes Rosaline some time to see Harry, to realise there is potential for something between them, to allow herself to imagine a different future for herself.

I love how the story focuses on the the small things that make the big picture, how we change and grow, how it's ok to not know what you want, to not feel confident and assured all the time, to make mistakes and change one's mind. No one is perfect, no one has all the answers. Life is actually all about trial and error, finding and keeping the things and people that make you happy and fulfilled.

In short, this story is often hilarious while being serious at the same time, it creates a great sense of place, the storytelling is masterful and engaging as always. 

CW: teen pregnancy (in the past), discussion of abortion, casual queerphobia, attempted sexual attack, manipulation and gaslighting, neglectful and manipulative parents


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Martha Wells

Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

05:06

Title: Fugitive Telemetry 
(The Murderbot Dairies #6)
Author: Martha Wells 
Date of publication: 27 Apr 2021
Genre: Science Fiction 

Author's Links: Goodreads / Website / Twitter

My rating: 5 Stars



Blurb 

No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall.

When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?)

Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans!

Again!

Review

This is another great installment in the Murderbot series and I just can't get enough of these stories. I am so happy there will be more books coming out in the future.

This time Murderbot helps with a murder investigation it has to work with a whole bunch of other bots and humans. It is forced to interact with so many entities, some friendly, more of them suspicious of its nature.

I loved everything in the story - Murderbot's sarcasm and hatred for any emotion, its loyalty and care for its people (and their care for it, each of them showing it in their own way), the complex interactions with humans and other bots. Murderbot is more humane than many of the humans I have read in SFF and I love it with all my heart for it.

The writing is great as usual, tight and detailed at the same time, telling a complex and completed story in a novella length. The text sends clear messages against capitalism, slavery, colonialism but none of it is heavy handed or in your face, they are just there in every every page of the story.

The murder mystery in itself was intriguing and engaging and kept me guessing who the perpetrator was till the very end.

The story has everything I want in SFF - feelings (despite Murderbot's hatred for them), humour and suspense, good guys coming together against the bad ones, breaking down of stereotypes and defying expectations.

Every book in this series has been a delight and this one is no exception.

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Alternate History

Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

14:30

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Date of publication: 27 Apr 2021
Genre: Historical Romance, Paranormal elements, Alternate History

Author's Links: Goodreads / Website / Twitter

My rating: 4 Stars




Blurb

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina—and himself—that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.


Review

This was a highly enjoyable read, my first book by this author and it will definitely not be the last.

This is ahistorical romance set in an imaginary world inspired by the Belle Epoque, with a touch of magic. I found it to be richly drawn and engaging. The plot was intriguing with some twists and turns that I didn't expect. The romance itself is a slow burn, some ambiguity in the starts, a love triangle of sorts that got we worried that it will not be my kind book but I am very happy with the way this triangle unfolded and the direction the romance took.

I loved being Nina's head, a young woman, somewhat naive, somewhat shy and nerdy. We see her trying to figure out who she is and what she wants in life as most young people do. There mistakes made, wrong turns taken which to lessons learned. The process of her getting her agency, making her own choices was fascinating to observe.

Hector was an interesting hero in his own and even more so in his romantic relationships. It's a journey of figuring out himself as well. Initial he was certain who he was and what he wanted only to gradually discover things are not quite like that. I appreciate that he didn't fall head over heels in love with the heroine the first time he saw her. It was slow process, some initial irritation, dismissal even, only to grow really close to her and get to appreciate what she brings into his life.

Friendship and support, total acceptance of the other as they are, these are the foundations of their romance and I loved seeing it.

I also appreciate how the multidimensional the main villain was, she not a cardboard evil mastermind, but a real full-blooded person with their own dreams and fears and anger and hate. Yes, she is cruel and ruthless but we see her motivations, we see how she got the be the way she was and I liked that a lot.

I also loved the meta aspect of how reading romances has shaped Nina's expectations of men and love. It gave some levity to the story and created these heart-warming moments of fun and sweetness.

An important aspect of the story is the topic of forgiveness, asking for it and granting. It's a cure all, it's complex, it requires continuous efforts on both sides.

The story also gives some commentary on family relations, how different they can be - 100% supporting and caring (even if misguided sometimes) or totally destructive and suffocating.

Overall, I found this to be a charming romance, compelling and deftly written.

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Contemporary Romance

Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

02:30


Title: Love at First
Author: Kate Clayborn
Date of publication: 23 Feb 2021
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Author's Links: Goodreads / Website / Twitter

My rating: 5 stars




Blurb 

Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar...

No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can't work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance...

Review

I have a really hard time reviewing books that I loved and this is one of my favourites of 2021 so far and likely will be an all-time favourite romance. I have read all Kate Clayborn's books and have enjoyed most of them and I think this is her best one to date. 

I am not much of a crier when reading romance but this book broke me and then fixed me in the best possible way. There is such depth of emotion and grief and tenderness that it is hard to put into words but it gets to you and makes your heart ache. 

Nora is amazing, but Will was everything for me. I loved how real they both read to me, awkward and tentative and messing up and feeling too much. We have these two people navigating the world very much on their own, dealing with grief and childhood trauma.

It's the gentlest, most tender romance between two people who are closed off, very much stuck in the past. The focus is very much on romantic love starting as enemies, going through bickering and playing tricks on each other, to end as soulmates. The other main element in the story has to do with family and community in all their complexity - their power to lift you up, the give you strength and unwavering support but also their power to destroy, to make you feel small, invisible, insignificant. 

I loved seeing unlikely friendships blossoming, seeing the struggle between loyalty and moving on with your life, trying new things despite being afraid to do it.

All in all, I just loved this book with all my heart! 

CW: child neglect, grief, loss of parents (in the past), loss of a grandparent (in the past), illness

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Contemporary Romance

Review: Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron

02:00

Title: Accidentally Engaged 
Author: Farah Heron
Date of publication: 2 March 2021
Genre / Themes: Contemporary Romance / Muslim MCs

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Goodreads

My rating: 4 Stars


Blurb

Reena Manji doesn’t love her career, her single status, and most of all, her family inserting themselves into every detail of her life. But when caring for her precious sourdough starters, Reena can drown it all out. At least until her father moves his newest employee across the hall--with hopes that Reena will marry him.

But Nadim’s not like the other Muslim bachelors-du-jour that her parents have dug up. If the Captain America body and the British accent weren’t enough, the man appears to love eating her bread creations as much as she loves making them. She sure as hell would never marry a man who works for her father, but friendship with a neighbor is okay, right? And when Reena’s career takes a nosedive, Nadim happily agrees to fake an engagement so they can enter a couples video cooking contest to win the artisan bread course of her dreams.

As cooking at home together brings them closer, things turn physical, but Reena isn’t worried. She knows Nadim is keeping secrets, but it’s fine— secrets are always on the menu where her family is concerned. And her heart is protected… she’s not marrying the man. But even secrets kept for self preservation have a way of getting out, especially when meddling parents and gossiping families are involved.


Review

This is a very engaging contemporary romance with with a strong focus on messed up families. I liked the story a lot, it has many twists and turns and unexpected developments which is rare in romance but it worked well here.

The heroine is a modern-day Muslim 30-something woman in Canada and we see her struggling to balance her family traditional values (at least one the surface) with hectic life in the big city. We see lots, and lots of food and food making (the reality cooking show is a major plot point but the focus is very much kept on the cooking rather than on the show aspect). I liked how the food was something that brought the MCs together, something they had in common but also something they enjoyed doing together. Nadim's relationship the sourdough starter was hilarious and so, so endearing.

A found the romance really interesting, there was a strong chemistry between Reena and Nadim but also many hiccups in their getting together - inner and outer conflicts abound. Their relationship was very closely interwoven with their families, for better or worse. We see strong friendships and tense family relations and many characters. working through stuff, not always in the healthies way but making a conscious effort to be better.

I felt at some point there were too many secrets, it was distracting and overwhelming. On the negative side we get only the heroine's POV which did give us a very in-depth look into her character but in comparison Nadim felt much less developed. I still liked him a lot and felt convinced in them as a couple but would have loved to get more insight into his character/motivations.

All the relationships we see in the story are complicated, even when the people care for each other and it felt very real and relatable. It takes a lot of effort and honesty to form and sustain any relationship. And despite Reena's family being meddling and overbearing, they ultimately cared for her (and each other) unlike his father where no reconciliation seemed possible.

Ultimately this is the story of two young people finding their place in life - professionally and personally - all under the heavy shadow and too close surveillance by families.

CW: eating disorder (off page), depression (in the past), toxic family dynamics

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Historical Romance

Review: To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters

02:04

Title: To Love and to Loathe
Author: Martha Waters
Date of publication: 6 Apr 2021
Genre / Themes: Historical Romance / Romcom

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

My rating: 4.5 Stars




Blurb

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham are infamous among English high society as much for their sharp-tongued bickering as their flirtation. One evening, an argument at a ball turns into a serious wager: Jeremy will marry within the year or Diana will forfeit one hundred pounds. So shortly after, just before a fortnight-long house party at Elderwild, Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when Jeremy appears at her home with a very different kind of proposition.

After his latest mistress unfavorably criticized his skills in the bedroom, Jeremy is looking for reassurance, so he has gone to the only woman he trusts to be totally truthful. He suggests that they embark on a brief affair while at the house party—Jeremy can receive an honest critique of his bedroom skills and widowed Diana can use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana thinks taking him up on his counter-proposal can only help her win her wager. With her in the bedroom and Jeremy’s marriage-minded grandmother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Willingham, helping to find suitable matches among the eligible ladies at Elderwild, Diana is confident her victory is assured. But while they’re focused on winning wagers, they stand to lose their own hearts.

Review

I loved the first book in the series, To Love and to Hoax, and this was just as good - light-hearted and funny m/f historical romance with a serious core.

This romance features a house party and a marriage, frenemies-to-lovers and it all worked great for me. There is also lovely minor f/f subplot. I appreciate how queer relationships were discussed in the text, no homophobia but easy acceptance instead. Initially I was worried about the representation of the marriage obsessed over-eager noble lady and how misogynistic it came across but I am happy to say that the truth about her turned out to be rather different and I loved it.

I really liked a lot of the story elements, besides the romance - the exploration of roles of men and women in Victorian society, how they play them and can use them to subvert the norms, how power and freedom intersect. I liked seeing both the men and women carving a place for their happiness in a very strictly regulated world. The story says a lot about the masks people wear in society and how the real person behind the mask can be much more interesting and real.

Both MCs were wonderful in their own way. Diana and Jeremy are both currently in a situation of privilege but also aware of it and trying to use it to care for themselves and for others.

Very much like the first book in the series, there is a strong element of playfulness here, Diana and Jeremy expressing their feelings for each other through pushing each other's button, lots of witty banter and play pretend.

I loved the element in their intimacy where she teaches him how to give her pleasure. There was fun and joking in the bedroom but also deeply honest and somewhat awkward conversations around pleasure and desire.

The ending felt a bit rushed and his proposal was too public for my taste though I have to admit it was a good fit for them.

I loved the glimpses of Emily and Belfry and can't wait for their (I hope) story.

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Nalini Singh

Review: Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh

02:10

Title: Quiet in Her Bones
Author: Nalini Singh
Date of publication: 23 Feb 2021
Genre: Thriller

Author's links:

My rating: 4 Stars 


Blurb 

My mother vanished ten years ago.
So did a quarter of a million dollars in cash.
Thief. Bitch. Criminal.
Now, she's back.
Her bones clothed in scarlet silk.

When socialite Nina Rai disappeared without a trace, everyone wrote it off as another trophy wife tired of her wealthy husband. But now her bones have turned up in the shadowed green of the forest that surrounds her elite neighborhood, a haven of privilege and secrets that's housed the same influential families for decades.

The rich live here, along with those whose job it is to make their lives easier. And somebody knows what happened to Nina one rainy night ten years ago. Her son Aarav heard a chilling scream that night, and he's determined to uncover the ugly truth that lives beneath the moneyed elegance...but no one is ready for the murderous secrets about to crawl out of the dark.

Even the dead aren't allowed to break the rules in this cul-de-sac.


Review

Nalini Singh is my favourite PNR author, her Psy-Changling series set the bar that I use to measure any other PNR against. She also writes contemporaries which are a hit or miss for me but still, I mostly enjoy them. This is only her second thriller. I loved the first one despite the issues I had with the resolution and who the murder turned out to be.

This book is thrilling and scary and amazing but once again I have some issues with the ending.

Aarav is one of the most unreliable narrator I have ever read and going on the journey to discover the killer with him was a wild ride by all means. I admit I didn't guess the killer till the very end and very much like Aarav and suspected everyone at some point.

Like Nalini Singh's previous thriller, this one is very atmospheric with a strong sense of place which I really liked. The murder mystery in a cul-de-saq neighbourhood of the rich was very engrossing and kept me on the edge till the last page.

I found the story scarier that some horror I have read, not so much because of the murder and some of violence that happens but because of witnessing Aarav's mind breaking, and seeing him not trusting himself, not knowing and not remembering, it was brutal and so powerfully presented.

I was on board with everything going on, though some aspects of the mother-son relationship made me uncomfortable, till the very end. It was easy to hate his father, it was more difficult to pinpoint my feelings for Aarav and Nina - there is sympathy and desire to help and protect. But also they lied and cheated and manipulated the others. They were not good people but complex ones - hurt and hurting but also caring and loyal.

I felt uncomfortable with the violence we see with regard to some queer side characters. It was not only them that get hurt in the story, straight characters also suffer abuse and violence, but I feel at least some of the violence towards the queer characters could have been spared (it was not queerphobia or gender-based violence, I need to clarify).

Now, the ending, on the one hand I had suspicions that didn't turn out to be true and I am happy and relieved about it. At the same time I felt the resolution of the murder mystery took the focus away from Nina. She was very much in the center of the story and her life and disappearance basically shaped Aarav the way he was. Going in the direction it went, the ending did a disservice to Nina in my opinion.

All in all, I had minor complaints with the story and feel this is a solid thriller with a compelling mystery plot, engaging written with a more or less satisfying resolution.

CWs: domestic violence, abuse, car crash, hospital stay, cheating, suicide, drugs, alcohol addiction (in the past), mental health issues, migraines, memory loss


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Alternate History

Review: Sword Dance and Saffron Alley by A. J. Demas

02:00

Title: Sword Dance (Sword Dance #1)
Author: A. J. Demas
Date of publication: 31 July 2019
Genre: Alt-history Romance, queer romance

Author's links:

My rating: 4 stars

Blurb
Five years ago, Damiskos’s brilliant military career was cut short, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that are not all physical. Adrift and still grieving, he tries to find meaning in an unsatisfying job.

Work takes him to the remote seaside villa of an old friend, where, among an odd assortment of guests, he meets the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda. Enigmatic and beautiful but distinctly prickly, Varazda is the antithesis of the straightforward and serious Damiskos. Yet as they keep getting in each other’s way at the villa, their mutual dislike is complicated by a spark of undeniable attraction.

Then the villa’s guests begin to reveal their true characters and motives—no one here is what they seem—and Damiskos finds himself at the centre of a bizarre web of espionage, theft, and assassination. Varazda may need Damiskos’s help, but not as much as Damiskos, finally awakening to a new sense of life and purpose, needs Varazda.

Sword Dance is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, an m/nb romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.

Review

This is the second book I read by this author and it is set in a vaguely similar world - alternate historical world reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome. I liked the world building before and I liked it here. It's a rich and vividly depicted world.

I liked suspense/murder mystery at a house party plot and was invested in it despite finding it all going a bit silly towards the end, still it''s very enjoyable and good enough background for the romance plot.

I found both MCs very interesting and likable. Damiskos and Varazda are opposites in many ways but both are decent human beings, who care about others and are open to exploring the attraction between them.

Damiskos is an ex-soldier, uncertain about his future, disabled. He struggles to find his direction in life but at the same time is comfortable in his desires and sexuality. Varazda is a non-binary sword dancer, an eunuch, a freed slave. Acting was part of his job (dancer and a spy) but women's style is also part of who he was - long hair and kohl and dresses and accesories. I found him to be a captivating character, both strong and loyal but also insecure, lacking experience in consensual sex, never before having  had a lover/partner on his own free choosing.

Their relationship started under extreme circumstance and was to some extend adrenaline driven, though their moments of tender heart-to-hearts were my favourite. The awkwardly shared fears and doubts and dreams under the cover of the night melted my heart. 

There is no HEA at the end of this book, just the promise to explore things between Dami and Varazda further.

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Title: Saffron Alley (Sword Dance #2)
Author: A. J. Demas
Date of publication: 6 Feb 2021
Genre: Alt-history Romance, queer romance

Author's links:

My rating: 4 stars


Blurb

A month ago, eunuch sword-dancer and spy Varazda collided with ex-soldier Damiskos at a seaside villa during a dizzying week of intrigue, assassinations, and a fake love affair that—maybe—turned real. Now Varazda is back home in Boukos, at the center of a family and community he dearly loves, and Damiskos is coming to visit.

Things aren’t going according to plan.

Varazda’s family members suspect Damiskos’s motives. Varazda grapples with his own desires. Add in a horrible goose, a potentially lethal sculpture, and yet another assassination plot, and any man other than Dami would be boarding a ship straight back to Pheme.

It’s going to take all of Damiskos’s patience, and all of Varazda’s strength, to make this new relationship work. After all that, solving one more murder shouldn’t be too hard.

Saffron Alley is the second book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the continuation of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance. It crosses over with One Night in Boukos, but you don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this one.


Review


I was happy that I could read this book right after I finished the first one so I could pick up Dami and Varazda's story right where they left off.

I loved the romance here even more than in book 1 but also found the suspense, especially the whole plotline with Varazda's friend Ariston even more ridiculous than in book 1. This did nothing to detract of my joy of the rest of the story though.

Seeing Dami and Varazda becoming a couple, navigating V's family and friends, deepening their intimacy (which had its ups and downs) was wonderful.

My favourite element in the romance is how much of it is basically caring about each other, being mindful of the other person's issues (Dami's disability impairs his movement and V is also considerate of that without making a big deal about it; V's trauma impacts his ability to be intimate of Dami and Dami did his best to make their intimate experiences as comfortable, as satisfying as possible for V without making him pressured or inadequate in any way).

I absolutely loved seeing them navigate V's family and domestic routines. Dami is great with V's found family, no questions, no doubts, complete understanding of V's obligations and care for his loved ones. I liked how they navigate their intimacy, made accommodations for the traumas and disabilities of the other without making it a big deal. There was awkwardness and misunderstandings, but also a lot of care for each other, subtle gestures of support, love, trust which I loved seeing on page.

This book delves deeper into Varazda being non-binary/genderfluid. I enjoyed seeing him embrace himself (and his friends' absolute acceptance of who he is) but since I am a cis person myself I don't feel qualified to judge how well the non-binary representation was done.

The story ends abruptly but with a tentative HFN and the promise of a HEA. I am excited to read the next book in the series and see how Damiskos and Varazda and their loved ones will settle together as one big family.

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Historical Romance

Review: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles

02:01

Title: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
Author: KJ Charles
Genre/Themes: Historical romance, M/M romance
Release Date: 24 Feb 2021

Author links: Website / Twitter / FB Group / Goodreads

My rating: 4.5 Stars


Blurb 

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin's cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after?

Review 

This is a standalone m/m historical romance, similar in vibe to Band Sinister (which I love btw) and enjoyed it immensely.

KJ Charles is auto-read author for me and often pick her books even without reading the blurb. This is one of those times and the general promo as soft romance was enough for me to make me request the ARC.

And this story is just what I need - soft romance, high heat, no murders.

It's an engrossing story which for the most part kept me on my toes as to how the main romance (and all secondary relationships ) will play out. It is a rare thing in romance, especially when there is no action packed suspense plot. Somehow KJ Charles managed to do it, keep me guessing almost till the end and loved the unexpected twists and turns so much.

I liked both MCs and found their families and friends, even the truly bad ones, to be well drawn. Robin and Hart are opposites in many ways, grumpy-sunshine kind of romance which is my absolute catnip. 

We got intriguing full-fledged characters who read like real people. Some are beautiful and graceful and funny, others - not so much. Some love social events and being the center of attention, others - prefer the countryside or mathematics. 

I didn't expect the debt/payment bit that came at the start of Robin and Hart's relationship and was initially apprehensive how it will be handled re consent in a sexual relationship. But they talked things through every single step of the relationship and this left me confident that there is not pressure/forcing of any sorts. And apart from the surprising start, I absolutely loved their romance with all its complexities and mis-steps and finding a way to apologise and change oneself into a better person. 

I want to make a special note about families in this story. We see both amazingly close and supportive families but we also get  families that are abusive and harmful. This aspect in the story was very important for me and it is what makes it not exactly a light-hearted romance in my eyes. It's serious and moving and emotional and I loved it.

I highly recommend this book and tentatively hope for a sequel (Alice and Marianne's adventure in Europe totally have the potential to be awesome).

CWs: abuse, child abuse (in the past), neglect (in the past)

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Paranormal Romance

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

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Title: Big Bad Wolf (Third Shift #1)
Author: Suleikha Snyder 
Genre /Tropes: PNR, politics, mafia
Release Date: 26 Jan 2021

Author's links:


My rating: 3 Stars


Blurb

In 2016, New York became a Sanctuary City for supernaturals...but things quickly spun out of control. Now, Third Shift is an elite team of operatives tasked with exposing the gritty underbelly of New York's criminal-supernatural underworld, taking down the worst of the worst and protecting human- and shifter-kind alike.

Joe Peluso has blood on his hands. But lawyer and psychologist Neha Ahluwalia is determined to help him craft a solid defense...even if she can't defend her own obsession. Because Joe took out those Russian mobsters for good reason--they were responsible for the death of his beloved foster brother. Those six bad guys were part of the ruthless clan of bear shifters who control Brooklyn's Russian mafia, so his vigilante justice has earned him countless enemies in New York's supernatural-controlled underworld, and no friends in a government that now bends to Russia at every turn.

Joe knows that creatures like him only deserve the worst. Darkness. Solitude. Punishment. But meeting Neha makes him feel human for the first time in forever. He's never wanted anything in his life like he wants Neha, and he'll break almost any rule to spend a minute alone with her. But when the Russian mob attacks the jail for payback, Joe and Neha are forced to escape. Before long they're on the run--from monsters who want him dead and from their own traitorous hearts.

Review 

This is an intriguing PNR that I read in one sitting. It's action-packed, engaging, with a wonderful cast of supporting characters. Despite enjoying a lot of elements in this story, there are also some things that  didn't work that well for me.

This a paranormal romance set firmly in the politics of present-day America. I found the political messages, which I understand and fully support, to be very heavy handed in the text, very in your face, overshadowing the paranormal and romantic aspects in the story. Quotes from the news is not is not what I am looking for in PNR. 

It's the first book in what shapes to be multi-book series and I felt the world building was very sketchy and was overshadowed by the thriller aspect. I am sad to say at times it read more like a mafia book than a PNR. 

I did like the diversity of the cast, the fast pace and the whole secret operations/team of super soldiers aspect worked very well for me. There was tension and intrigue and humour, a side romance that I very much liked. 

I have mixed feelings about the main romance though. It was steamy and the sexual attraction was off the charts. At the same time, I was not a fan of the danger banging and felt there is not enough substance in Neha and Joe's relationship. It was a fated mates sort of situation though both Neha and Joe very much insisted in entering the relationship on their own free will. Both Joe and Neha acted on their attraction their own, not just being led by some supernatural forces. 

Yet, I didn't understand fully her attraction to him and they kept having the same argument over and over again of him not being good enough/worthy of her. It was repetitive and didn't really show any growth of their relationship beyond the sexual attraction.

I was not bothered by Joe being  grumpy, surly, mostly unrepentant about his past. Giant surly heroes with the softest heart are my catnip. What I was bothered by was his lack of trust in her, no growth in their relationship. 

On the positive side, I absolutely loved the side characters, all of them, Neha's friends/bosses and relative, the whole third Shift crew, they were all great, full-fledged and I can't wait to read more about them. 

Overall, this book was not what I expected and it had both things that worked great for me and things that I found annoying, making it very hard for me to review it. It's very much a YMMV situation, so I would suggest you give it a try if you like high-stakes, fast-paces, PNR with strong political aspect and diverse cast. 

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Alix E. Harrow

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Genre /Tropes: Fantasy, Witches
Release Date: 13 Oct 2020

Author's links:

My rating: 4 Stars





Blurb

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.
 

Review


I absolutely loved this author's debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and was very excited to read this one too. In the end reading it was a wild ride, it's a rich, mesmerizing and loudly feminist but also dark, slow at times and disturbing. 

It started a bit slow for me and it took me a while to warm of the the three sisters but after the half mark, it picked up pace significantly and I couldn't put it down till the end.

The author creates a rich world of spells and witching populated with diverse characters, all standing firmly on their own, all of them quite memorable. At the same time there were some dark and painful to read scene for me to read personally

In full honesty it all felt very gender essentialist to me at aroudn 30%, and I was worried it will go fully into "all men are bad and all women must fight them with any means at their disposal". I am glad to say this changed and as the story continued there was less focus on gender but rather on power dynamic, people with all the power and rights and people with none of them. 

It was truly empowering, there were moments of joy, true friendship and camaraderie. I would say the focus is on building relationships of all kinds - familial, between friends and co-workers, between lovers. 

I appreciate the casual queer rep and the way the author explored racial relations, labour and voting rights. 

There are strong love/romance elements which made the romance reader in me ecstatic. They were not the main focus of the story but they were solidly drawn and made me believe in them and in their HEAs. 

The ending was both unexpected and fitting in a way. It felt right but also made me ugly cry, so there is that and I am not saying anything more in order to avoid spoiling it for other readers. 

In short, I would recommend this book with the caveat that you need to be in the right headspace for it. 

CW: abuse, torture, difficult childbirth, burning at the stake, sexual harassment

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2020

Favourite Books of 2020

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2020 was a rough year and reading was a struggle for me at times. I barely read 45 books this past year, the lowest number for me for the past couple of years. Despite the small number, there were some real gems among them and I have compiled them in a list with 10 favourite books of 2020. 

1. Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall. Simply the best queer romcom I have read. Funny and sweet and touching, both very real and very over the top. You can read my full review here.


2. Network Effect by Martha Wells. I binged read the Murderbot series and they basically saved may sanity during the lockdown. Never in a million years I thought I would come to care so much about a sentient murder bot and their friends. 


3. Whiteout by Adriana Anders. I really this early in 2020 and it was such a great start to what turned to be a really difficult year. The story was pure adrenaline rush with a dose of romance and I am super excited for the next book coming out in August 2021. You can read my full review here.


4. Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalik. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, mostly after reading the previous two book in the series, I approach this one as SFF with romantic elements, rather than as a proper romance. Two people falling in love amidst trying to save their world in some space adventures. You can read my full review here.


5. One Night with the Sexiest Man Alive by Ainslie Paton. This book is all the titles as - one sexy, tropey romance that pushed all my buttons. Strong Pretty Woman vibes (minus the sex work), movie worthy grovel scene in the end. You can read my full review here.


6. Headlines by Lucy Parker. I have loved all of Lucy's books and this one is no exception. Such great enemies to lovers romance. You can read my full review here.


7. Wolf in Sheep's Clothing by Charlie Adhara. This is book 4 in an ongoing series following the same couple (human and werewolf) investigating crimes together. It's high heat, intense suspense and an ever growing romantic relationship. You can read my full review here.


8. Alpha Night by Nalini Singh. Another winner in the Psy-Changeling series. These books were my introduction to paranormal romance and continue to be my favourtie till this day. What I love the most about this story how unique it is in the Psy-changeling world yet it fits perfectly in it.


9. Sweet On You by Carla de Guzman. It's a Christmas romance set in the Philippines and I loved it. steeped in local traditions and delicious food it was a balm to the soul to read. You can read my full review here.


10. To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters. It's a delightful regency romcom that made me laugh and swoon. You can read my full review here.


And bonus entry:

11. Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma. I picked this on a twitter rec and was taken by surprise how gorgeous it is. It's a bit melancholy, a bit sad, a lot political and ultimately charming and hopeful and i loved it. You can read my full review here.



Historical Romance

Review: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters

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Title: To Have and to Hoax 
Author:  Martha Waters
Date of publication: 7 Apr 2020
Genre / Themes: Historical Romance / Marriage in trouble / Romcom

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

My rating: 4 Stars


Blurb

In this fresh and hilarious historical rom-com, an estranged husband and wife in Regency England feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention—and maybe just win each other back in the process.

Five years ago, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley met, fell in love, and got married. Four years ago, they had a fight to end all fights, and have barely spoken since.

Their once-passionate love match has been reduced to one of cold, detached politeness. But when Violet receives a letter that James has been thrown from his horse and rendered unconscious at their country estate, she races to be by his side—only to discover him alive and well at a tavern, and completely unaware of her concern. She’s outraged. He’s confused. And the distance between them has never been more apparent.

Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own. James quickly sees through it, but he decides to play along in an ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses—and a lot of flirtation between a husband and wife who might not hate each other as much as they thought. Will the two be able to overcome four years of hurt or will they continue to deny the spark between them?

Review 

This is a delightful historical romcom, a solid debut by Martha Waters. It's a marriage in trouble plot and the MCs have been estranged for four! years after they had a fight. There is a also ridiculous game of pretend she starts as a way to make him show his feelings for her. It is not something that should work for me on paper but in reality, it was great fun, whimsical and light-hearted but also going deep into issues of family, marriage, intimacy. 

The writing is engaging and clever, the humour worked great for me and overall the story felt rich and very atmospheric. 

The main conflict in the story, a massive row that left Violet and Audley barely speaking to each other for four! years, could have been easily resolved with an honest conversation. It felt like they have wasted four years over nothing, and all their friends agree with me but at the same time it didn't bother me as much as I expected because of them never being in denial about their feelings and then when their game of pretend began they quickly saw through it and went on pretending while admitting their feelings to themselves (and each other eventually).

Audley is the uptight, highly determined and focused, a white knight in shining armour kind of herop (my catnip basically) who is madly in love with his wife but he is really incapable to talk about his feelings, admitting he made the wrong assumption was very difficult for him. Violet is flirty and frivolous, smart and curious and energetic and absolutely loved her. 

They have a turbulent relationship, they have to work on being more open, more trusting, need to find a way to be together but I can see they both want it and ready to put in the effort, so I can see them work as a couple in the long term and that is what got me over their stubbornness and stupidity to cling to their anger for four! years.

I love their tight circles of close friends and can't wait to read more books in the series featuring them. 

I would recommend this book with the caveat that the main conflict is based on a misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved if the MCs just talked to each other. 

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Contemporary Romance

Review: The Forever Girl by Jill Shalvis

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Title: The Forever Girl (Wildstone #6)
Author: Jill Shalvis
Date of publication: 12 Jan 2021
Genre / Themes: Contemporary Romance / Small town 

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

My rating: 3,5 Stars


Blurb

When Maze returns to Wildstone for the wedding of her estranged bff and the sister of her heart, it’s also a reunion of a once ragtag team of teenagers who had only each other until a tragedy tore them apart and scattered them wide.

Now as adults together again in the lake house, there are secrets and resentments mixed up in all the amazing childhood memories. Unexpectedly, they instantly fall back into their roles: Maze their reckless leader, Cat the den mother, Heather the beloved baby sister, and Walker, a man of mystery. 

Life has changed all four of them in immeasurable ways. Maze and Cat must decide if they can rebuild their friendship, and Maze discovers her long-held attraction to Walker hasn’t faded with the years but has only grown stronger. 

Review

I haven't read the previous books in the series but this works perfectly as standalone. I'd say this story fall between romance and women's fiction - there is a central love story and a HEA but also a lot of time and focus is dedicated to the other characters (found family of the MCs).

I enjoyed the world Jill Shalvis, one were friendships and family matter, where people try to do their best despite the circumstances, where they make mistakes and take wrong turn along the way but are ultimately led by kindness. We get usual dose of pets and babies, mostly for comic relief without overshadowing the romance. 

On the negative side, I felt too much of the conflict was based on misunderstanding. I realise why the Maze ad Walker couldn't discuss things openly from the start. The trauma of their childhood is a serious one that has marked them and it was not easy for them to overcome their fears and to see themselves as worthy of love. 

There were some unexpected plot twists which I liked even though the story more or less went in the direction I expected it to go from the start. It's this familiarity, knowing what is coming, that makes these books comfort reads for me. 

I found this to be a comforting, hopeful story, making me buy the romance between the MCs, leaving me convinced they are right for each other and are good for each other and can make each other happy. It's this hopefulness, the promise of a better future together, that's the reason I read romance.

CW: Child abuse, neglect (in the past), fire, lost of a loved one

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