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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.

 

yourpropertyjustgotdamagedbysaxtonhale

 

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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 – Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon

Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon, Romantic Fantasy by Kerrelyn Sparks

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I thought this would be a fun, quirky story with light-hearted romance, and Fantasy is almost always a good fit for me. Unfortunately, this was very not for me. Not because it’s the third in a series. It can be read as a standalone, as is often the case in Romance series.

Gwennore is an intimate of the previous two heroines. While at a massive birthday party (seriously, the way the Embraced get their magic means that everyone has the same birthday), she and her friend’s three-year-old daughter are abducted by dragons. Gwennore fights for the child’s return and in doing so makes a bargain to help General “Gorgeous” Silas Dravenko investigate the madness and intrigue infesting his kingdom’s court.

The romance is refreshingly based on mutual admiration and time spent together as well as lust. To be fair, the time they spend together isn’t nominally very much because the pacing is such that the entire story takes place over a short time and they do need to be in love by the end. A great deal of the novel harkens back to Old School Romance. The heroine is virginal, has a youthful lack of self esteem despite a strong support system of other women, and there is a strong focus on purity, easily scandalised society, and marriage and children. The Fantasy elements are also rooted in older tropes.

That was the first of my two problems. This book does not work very hard to be Fantasy. There are basic cookie cutter ideas like elves with pointy ears, murderous trolls, dragons that breathe fire, and royal courts based on the most rudimentary understanding of a Western monarchy. None of these things meld together well, nor do they hold up under logic or examination.

Sad to say, my second problem was with the writing. The voice is oddly juvenile. With the sexual references removed, this could easily be for a younger audience. The vocabulary is limited, overly modern for a Fantasy setting with Western historical influences, and childish. For example, iterations of the phrase “fall for” appear twenty times, and the curse is referred to as “so-called curse” fourteen times. This phrase is also the only use of the word “so-called” in the text. A great deal of time is wasted in repetition and perpetuating misunderstandings or deceit that a child could see through. Ironically, the child character in the beginning doesn’t behave or speak like a real child.

I like this genre. I love Mark of the Tala and the other books in that series. I’ve read a lot more of it in YA, and I’ve liked most of that too. I suppose I just want better commitment to and execution of the Fantasy elements. The romance is fine. He convinces her that she was Beautiful All Along and their banter over the rules for dating dragons is quite cute. And the madness subplot was interesting. It simply wasn’t enough to engage me.

Less picky readers will enjoy the banter between the two romantic leads, the large cast is a lot of fun (I loved Dimitri), and Gwennore’s innocence can be charming.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)