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Things We Lost in the Fire

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Efren had been cold and wet for so long, his skin had forgotten every other sensation. Standing vigil outside the burnt, soggy remains of the garden shed. Just in case something came out.

The old man had been… a lot of things. He’d been a lot of things. A piece of work. An accomplished, bitter shit-talker. In possession of a mean temper and a right hook to match.

Who knew the bastard could have been sad too?

A body-wracking shiver coursed through Efren’s skinny body. He hadn’t dressed for the weather when he’d gone out early that afternoon—it had only been cold then—and when the rain hit, he’d figured he deserved it.

Fingers traced the tender flesh around his left eye. Blinking madly as fat raindrops rolled down his brow and into both eyes. Nothing was coming out. He couldn’t bring himself to go in. Nor to call whatever authority he ought to have called an hour ago.

Most of the streetlights in the neighborhood had gone. Victims of rocks and indifference. But his eyes had adjusted enough that he could still see a charred once-white undershirt. Light from somewhere glinted off broken glass. Maybe the moon?

Who was Efren supposed to call? The police? What would they do? Nothing he’d like, he assumed. The fire was long out. Did one call firefighters after the fire had been drowned?

Then it struck him. He didn’t have to call anyone. He could just… go.

So he did.

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Review – True Cowboy Christmas

True Cowboy Christmas, Contemporary Romance by Caitlin Crews

Series: Cold River Ranch #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I was provided an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley—rather unexpectedly. Which is appropriate, as this one was a delightful surprise for me. But before getting into why, here’s the setup.

Gray Everett, widower father of teenage Becca and eldest brother of Ty and Brady, has just buried his notoriously angry, bitter drunk of a father, Amos. To Gray’s dismay, Amos left the ranch to all three of his sons, in spite of the fact that the younger two left home and Gray alone seems to contribute. After some bickering, Gray realizes he is in need of a wife. A proper, rancher’s wife, to help around the place and give his daughter a more stable bit of family.

His eyes fall on the nearest neighbor, Abby Douglas. Stable is her middle name. She’s down to earth, kind, and famously competent. The local cafe—yes, just one—has seen constant changes in name and management, but Abby has kept it going from her own position for years. Unknown to Gray, Abby has also nursed a profound crush on him for even longer than that. So when he up and proposes the day after his father’s funeral, she’s both intrigued and completely disbelieving.

I am not a diehard cowboy lover. A dabbler, at best. So when the hero prosed on about the virtues of the land, hard work, legacy, and the Colorado sky, I wasn’t flooded with fellow feeling. The other side of that is that he dumps on glamour, trends, and progress. The word “princess” is used as a pejorative twice, which annoyed the hell out of me. The first 10-20% of the book was hard for me to read. Gray dominates the narrative, and Abby’s crush on him—while it would make for great fanfiction—makes their initial romance feel rushed and underdeveloped.

HOWEVER.

Not only was basically everything I was wrinkling my nose over addressed directly in the book, but it was done in such a knockout way that I’m still reeling. Abby and Gray both have significant issues thanks to their respective parents’ A+ Parenting. Abby’s is the kind of self-repression and loathing that is depressingly common in real life. The portrayal of her anxieties and feelings is amazing. It definitely makes up for her seeming lack of agency in the beginning. And that ties into the conflict between her and Gray.

Childhood Crush romances don’t usually work for me because it always seems like there isn’t enough conflict or enough anything. Literally half of the work is done—unless the author covers the fact that a crush is not real love, especially when done from afar. Abby has to learn who Gray is, and I love it.

It doesn’t quite stop this really being Gray’s story though. His issues with his family, both living and dead, take up a lot of space. They absolutely should. In fact, the more I think about the things that bothered me in the beginning, the more it all feels necessary to serve the story.

Both Abby and Gray begin their marriage of convenience with an imaginary person. The manufactured dream of a longtime crush, and the idealistic solution to the Marriage Problem. Neither considered that the other would do anything unexpected or undesirable. Seeing Gray realize that all of his relationships had already been similarly affected may have been my favorite thing while reading. He has very concrete opinions that he drops like facts. When it comes to people, those static impressions carry less and less weight as he contemplates the part he has to play in his relationships with them.

As a holiday read, it probably doesn’t tick all of the boxes for people who like Christmas books. There is no religious relevance that I could see. It was a difference in ideology and a point of contention for them, and not a major part of the plot. I prefer it that way, since I don’t like Christmas much myself, but I feel it’s worth pointing out.

It’s always memorable when I start out a book less than excited by the premise, less than engaged by the first few chapters, and then gripped and totally in love by the end. I eagerly await the next book in the series, and I want to check out Crews’s backlist. Seriously, I am obscenely impatient for Ty’s book because that man is an enigma and I NEED TO KNOW.

Recommendation-wise, I would tell basically anyone to read this. The writing style is fun, the niche elements are never too heavy for people who are indifferent or actively dislike them, and the emotional content is so so good.

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Review – Kiss the Girl

Kiss the Girl, a Contemporary Romance by Tara Sivec

Series: The Naughty Princess Club #3

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I love this series. Each book works as a standalone and bears repeat reading with glee and freshness. I had the roughest time of my life while reading this (obviously unrelated to the book) and ended up rereading sections rather than straight-up continuing as if it were a regular book. Simply because it resonated so deeply with me.

As presented in the previous Naught Princess books, Ariel Waters is a shit-talking, no-nonsense woman-shaped wrecking machine who drinks hard, plays hard, and doesn’t do feels. She is also a pretty damn good friend, especially if it ever came to buying bodies. She came out of a crappy marriage and lost her thriving antique business to alimony payments.

From the beginning, layers begin to pull back, revealing the softer vulnerabilities that Ariel has so far kept masterfully hidden under a thick veneer of STI jokes and liberal use of the word ‘fuck.’ She crumbles under the weight of adult responsibilities like turning in paperwork on time and behaving in a Starbucks. Due to this, she loses her house in the beginning of the book and finds herself bereft of her stuff—the antiques that give her comfort—and needs somewhere to stay. As her two best friends are not in a great place to provide that, she winds up staying on a boat provided by Eric Sailor, the co-owner of Charming’s who has shared a flirt and fuck off non-relationship with her since the first book.

It scared me how much Ariel reminded me of myself, considering I did not like her when I first read At the Stroke of Midnight. But that in itself is probably telling.

Almost more than a romance, this is a story about Ariel getting her power back, accepting those parts of herself she’s rejected, and adulting. The romance is empowering and very carefully crafted to be positive at all times, which I definitely appreciated. It could veer into over the top at times, but Ariel is over the top, so it isn’t like that’s not on theme. There are some romcom tropes in play that made it feel cinematic and nostalgic, while also addressing the kinds of things that make those tropes problematic.

In the first 25-40%, I’ll admit that the fairy tale meta humor was far less present than in the previous books. Especially when compared to In Bed with the Beast, which was employed it to great effect. The Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid is the only reference on offer and it’s all surface-level jokes that rely heavily on ‘Member That Thing? which…meh. Ariel’s ex is named Sebastian and has French affectations for some reason—mostly the meta humor is in people having certain names The antiques stuff is consistently a good draw from the Disney movie, so I ultimately decided I was happy with this element.

Fitting for the last installment in the series, this book doubles down on the most positive things the series has to offer as a whole—the fun, the sexiness, the ridiculous antics the three friends get into while drunk, and the healthy relationships they have with each other and their significant others. I love the mix of bickering and vulgar language that is vigorously stirred together with love of every kind and trust.

I recommend this and the other books to anyone who wants to inject some positivity into their lives and is super tired of other people telling them to curse less.

Deepest thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC in return for an honest review.

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Review – Don’t Look Back

Don’t Look Back, Romantic Suspense by Dawn Ryder

Series: Unbroken Heroes #6

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The publisher provided me with an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tension, high stakes, and beautifully stylised drama. While many Romance series can be read out of order, this series has a linear plot and a lot of it. I recommend reading this one after the others.

Particularly since it starts on a note of emotional suspense that relies on some attachment to main characters and supporting ones. At the christening of Vitus and Damascus Hale’s daughter, an assassin lurks with his finger on the trigger. Political intrigue and grudges held by a powerful man drive much of the action.

Thais Sinclair and Dunn Bateson are both competent, confident, and even a bit snarky, in a political thriller style. They have excellent chemistry, although I wasn’t entirely sure what kept them apart sometimes. Thais is an interesting character—she strives to be hard as nails, but desires a softness that she feels is incompatible with her job as an intelligence agent.

Unfortunately, due to the sheer size of the cast and the fact that some investment in the plot is predicated on prior knowledge, I had trouble getting into the plot. Which is a shame, because this is a plot-heavy book. If you like crime investigation fiction and romance and have trouble picking between them, this would be a great series to pick up. I love Romance that delivers more than the usual portion of subgenre.

The writing style is rather like a score of tense music. Thumping and engaging. Not a lot of downtime though, likely because it delves into multiple viewpoints. This makes it ideal for the kind of reader who has frequent yet brief reading sessions. I read it that way mostly. Longer reading sessions felt binge-y and tired me out.

It bears repeating: This is definitely not a standalone. That isn’t a bad thing, however as I hadn’t read any of the previous books, I was often confused. There are tonnes of characters, all with not only their own motivations and relationships, but often complex histories that have bearing on things happening in the story’s present.

It’s dense, the emotions are bigger than life, and the heroes are all alphas. If that’s your thing, start with Dangerous to Know and enjoy the ride.

…okay, I can’t help adding—the names are SILLY. I read “Saxon Hale” and snort-laughed. It made me want a romance based on Saxton Hale and the Administrator.

 

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Review – Dagger’s Edge

Dagger’s Edge, Romantic Suspense by Lora Leigh

Series: Brute Force #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

The publisher provided me with an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I can see the merits, but couldn’t personally enjoy it.

Journey Taite carries the scars of a hard life as a broodmare princess daughter of a crime lord. She fled and assumed the name Crimsyn Delaney, aided the daughter of her father’s enemy, and fell in with said enemy. Ivan Resnova fought his way to the top to remove his father’s bad influence and now fights to protect his people, his interests, and his daughter. Journey’s life is in danger, thanks to criminal political intrigue, and he means to protect her.

At its heart, this is a romance between a young woman and the older protective man she developed a juvenile entendre for, blossoming into mutual love. This is the kind of May/December romance that should be quite nice. There are parallels drawn to fairy tales (very lightly) and it certainly reminded me of Regency Romance where the heroine is often seventeen and the hero is over thirty.

Somehow though, it never gelled for me. Ivan is too pushy and even moments or dialogue that should have looked chivalrous just came off as vulgar. They have sex with astonishing frequency, and at least once, he initiated it in a way that I didn’t find sexy in the least. They do have some nice, sweet conversations that further their personal relationship, but by the end, I never got a feeling that they shared anything other than lust and really unhealthy possessiveness.

The plot is one of the lightest I think I’ve seen in this subgenre. The various crime families and their in-fighting mean that Journey is in danger. Ivan protects her by effecting a fake engagement. There’s some weak hand-wringing attempts to keep them apart, but they have so much sex that I don’t think industrial grade steel walls could successfully do that. Never mind the vague declaration that Ivan can’t love her or something. The happy ending is suitably happy, there’s a tiny twist that I thought was cute, and the supporting characters are just present enough and I enjoyed them.

Just not for me. Too much sex, not enough plot. It’s not irredeemable, simply not to my personal taste.

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Review – Deep Cover

Deep Cover, Romantic Suspense by Scarlett Cole

Series: Love Over Duty #3

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The publisher provided me with an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cabe Moss is still grieving his fiancée five years after her passing, but his interest in dating is reignited when he meets Amy Murray. The two put try to put the passion on hold while they get to the bottom of a case involving both money laundering and human trafficking. But their feelings are impossible to deny.

This is the third book in a series and the men of the previous two book play rather prominent roles. I wouldn’t say that you need to read the first two to ‘get’ this one, rather that the endings are reiterated in it, so people who hate spoilers should just start at the beginning of the series.

A lot of work went into this book, and it shows. The heroine is incredibly competent and experienced in multiple areas, and it feels like Scarlett Cole wanted to deliver a story that was both well-researched and well-considered. Cabe is a difficult hero to balance–both protective and mindful of Amy’s abilities and independence. Personally, I think it a success. She has the most emotionally invested in their joint mission, which I felt made her a stronger character overall, but that doesn’t really detract from anything.

Their relationship has a few bumpy misunderstandings, however they communicate openly and rather well. I didn’t like that Amy was down on herself for having conflicting desires regarding their relationship status, though. Believe in yourself, girl! Most of what keeps them apart is the job and professionalism. They also have their own individual hangups from their respective pasts. Cabe struggles more internally, which I liked. He had a lot to deal with, and any less would have felt hand-wavy.

I won’t lie, the beginning was painfully rough for me to read. There is a plethora of information and it comes in a torrent of straight-up telling. It doesn’t lack emotion where appropriate. There’s just too much information told too quickly and some of it is unnecessary. For example, there are more named characters than are warranted. It takes attention away from names a reader actually has to know and remember. Some information is not superfluous, but it would be better served in small doses delivered organically throughout the story, rather than dumped in the first two or three chapters.

After that though, they meet and start working together and it all smooths out. The research is extensive and mostly explained but not too much, all to the point of showing that Amy knows what she’s doing. The villains are a bit simple, though not cartoonish. They make for good antagonists. Particularly when the endgame kicks in. The ending plays out at a swift, exciting pace and it’s quite good.

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Review – In Bed with the Beast

In Bed with the Beast, Contemporary Romance by Tara Sivec

Series: The Naught Princess Club #2

The first book in the Naughty Princess Club was a roller coaster ride for me. The author was new to me and I am extremely picky when it comes to Contemporary Romance. My fairy tale ending was that I adored that book and I felt really good about liking it. It’s a clever, sexy, empowering story.

In Bed with the Beast is possibly even better. I was sent an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley and invited to review it, which sent me over the moon.

Book nerd Belle Reading is determined to take charge of her life and save the library she’s worked in and loved for nine years. But she’s all too aware of the many things that hold her back. She spends most of the book fighting them. Sometimes she’s wondrously victorious. Other times, not so much. A fight with her overprotective father at the beginning is the latter. He kicks her out and she starts sleeping in the library.

For various reasons, she doesn’t want to tell her friends she’s homeless. Then, in a truly brilliant twist on the source fairy tale, she winds up living with Beast, the bouncer she met in the first book. He’s gruff and surly, however he’s also well-read and caring in his own way. As fits a Beauty and the Beast story, they become friends first. Although of course the unresolved sexual tension is a delightful undercurrent throughout.

As a story that takes inspiration from a fairy tale, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen—and I have read a boatload of fairy tale retellings. I particularly love the way that Sivec took plot points and scenes from Disney and translated them to her setting. It’s passionate and respectful and creative AF. Beast is named Vincent Addams, a nod to the 1985 television show and the Disney animated film. When he told Belle his first name, I literally laughed out loud. I kind of wanted to applaud. Screw Ready Player One. THIS is how you do a reference. It’s subtle, clever, and funny but also sweet and lovely. All of the characters’ name references are.

There is no makeover for either character. It isn’t overplayed. Both Belle and Vincent change over the course of the story to become better people due to their own initiatives and the affection and respect they have for each other. But they expressly do not makeover or ‘fix’ each other. Ariel tries to talk Belle into contact lenses to replace her glasses—as if wearing glasses prevents Belle from being sexy or beautiful—and Cindy treats Belle as if she’s her mother, but she doesn’t put up with their shit. As for Vincent, he doesn’t have to change his attitude to be sunny or charming.

”He’s been overly polite with me during the few minutes each day we see each other, which I’m quickly realizing I don’t like one bit. I’ve actually grown to kind of like his surly, overbearing nature.”

Instead, he opens up and learns to trust Belle and communicate better.

While this was a five star book for me, there were times I shook my head a little. Stockholm Syndrome is more of a buzzword than an actual thing. It isn’t in the DSM-5. I liked that it came up, since it’s often levied against Beauty and the Beast, yet Belle with all of her factoids and reading didn’t take the opportunity to kick it in the ass. That gave me a sad face. It bothered me that virginity was used as an insult and this was not addressed. There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin. The moment passed, but I didn’t care for it. Then at the end, there’s a bit of a twist to keep Belle and Vincent apart that maybe resolves too quickly. I didn’t really mind that, but I could see how someone else might.

Overall though, I seriously loved this book. It was entertaining, the main character is funny and sweet, and the supporting cast provide plenty of humour without overstepping. The romance is absolutely perfect. Just the right blend of endearing, steamy, and mature discussion.

I do not reread hardly anything—too many unread books waiting on my TBR—but I could reread the Naughty Princess Club books any time.