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Heidi Hart

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

"Never Sweeter" by Charlotte Stein

Never Sweeter: A Dark Obsession Novel - Charlotte Stein

I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

I wrote in my last review that if Courtney Milan published her grocery lists, I'd probably read them. Well, if Charlotte Stein published her grocery lists, they'd probably turn me on. 

 

I'm not usually a fan of New Adult, but I loved the premise of Never Sweeter. The heroine, Letty, was viciously bullied in high school, and I'm not talking simple name calling or fat shaming (though I don't mean to minimize those hurts): a truck full of jocks literally ran her off a cliff. Two years later, she's at college, recovered from her physical injuries and starting to recover from the emotional damage -- but just as her life is coming together, one of the jocks responsible for running her down shows up in her film class. 

 

I thought the way Stein addressed Letty's bullying and the long-term impact on her self-esteem and her ability to trust was brilliant. -And the way she made Tate a believable and likable hero, without minimizing his culpability for what he did in high school, was amazing. Few writers could pull that off in an authentic way, but Tate is vulnerable and remorseful and very, very appealing, and the reader falls in love with him right along with Letty, even while sharing Letty's extreme reservations (since we know what he's done). 

 

My only complaints about the book are that the end is a bit too sudden, and there's a subplot involving the mafia which felt like an unnecessary slathering of Crazysauce on top of an otherwise extremely authentic and relatable story. These are relatively minor quibbles, though. I wholeheartedly recommend this, and I'll definitely read it again. 

"Her Every Wish" by Courtney Milan

Her Every Wish (The Worth Saga) - Courtney Milan

If Courtney Milan published her grocery list, I'd probably read it. She's at the tippity-top of my auto-buy list. She's smart, funny, and unabashedly feminist: totally my catnip. 

 

Her Every Wish is a novella about Daisy, who was introduced in Milan's last novel, Once Upon a Marquess. One thing I loved about this novella is that it isn't set in the glittering ballrooms of the ton at all, but rather in the seedy, working-class neighborhood where Daisy shares a room with her aging mother. This gives us a view into a part of London that the historical romance genre rarely visits, and it's refreshing.

 

Daisy works in a flower shop and dreams of opening her own mercantile, but no one takes her ambitions seriously because she's a woman. Some time ago, Daisy had a liaison with Crash, but it ended badly in a way that isn't revealed until well into this novella. Crash is initially portrayed as a flirt and a cad, but as his character is revealed, it's clear he's not that simple. Crash is descended "from a long line of sailors and dock whores" and doesn't even know what race he belongs to, which is also a refreshing contrast to the typical aristocratic lords so much more common as romantic heroes. 

 

However, this story frustrated me because it revolves around a Big Misunderstanding trope. Daisy and Crash went to bed together, then one said something the other misunderstood, and suddenly their great love was over before it began. Big Mis stories generally don't work for me because they require the main characters to be poor communicators, and when you have characters as smart as those drawn by Ms. Milan, it's frankly hard to believe they could be so thickheaded. 

 

Her Every Wish also fell a little flat because of its structure. Crash and Daisy went to bed together and had a falling out, but the reader never gets to see the buildup of their relationship -- how they met, what attracted each to the other, how Daisy put aside her maidenly modesty and decided Crash was worth her virginity, what made Crash fall in love. Without that backstory, it's hard to feel invested in the rekindling of their relationship during the novella. 

 

Finally (and this is a very minor quibble), I am not a stickler for historical accuracy by any means, but lately Milan's witty dialogue sometimes strikes me as so anachronistic that it yanks me out of the story in a way I find jarring. For example, there was a variation on the phrase, "Come to the dark side. We have cookies," that made me roll my eyes. If this sort of thing makes you crazy, this may not be the book for you. 

"Nobody but You" by Jill Shalvis

Nobody But You (Cedar Ridge) - Jill Shalvis

Jill Shalvis' contemporary romances are like your favorite junk food. Reliably satisfying, exactly what you're expecting, but often a little disappointing when you get to the end and realize you've squandered your calorie allotment and could have made better choices. 

 

Nobody but You, like most Shalvis books, features a tough alpha hero with a soft, gooey center, and a perky, quirky heroine who's down-on-her-luck at the moment. Jacob is home on leave from the military, recovering from the combat death of his best friend. Sophie is getting over an ugly divorce. They plan for their sexual relationship to be a no-pressure, no-future rebound thing, but of course they both develop Feelings. 

 

While I enjoyed this book, I was disappointed by how superficial it was (though that's pretty typical for Shalvis). Both main characters are going through a lot, but Jacob in particular, and I would have liked to see more emotional growth as he worked through his grief over his buddy's death and as he negotiated the relationships with his mother, stepmother, and siblings -- relationships he has neglected for close to a decade. Instead, the author did too much telling us what the characters felt and very little showing us. I think my disappointment was heightened because Jacob's homecoming was heavily foreshadowed in the previous books in the series (which focus on his brothers), so to have his reunion with his family so airbrushed here was anticlimactic. 

 

I also thought there were several plot twists toward the end of the book that felt inauthentic, and struck me as lazy coincidences meant to move the story along rather than something that would actually happen. Things like, when the conflict between the couple lags, Shalvis stirs it up by having them have a sudden fight that could have been avoided if they talked to each other like adults. And then when it's time to make up, she manufactures a crisis big enough to make the fight seem insignificant (which, in fact, if they'd known how to communicate, it would have been). 

 

But, you know, it's Shalvis. If she keeps writing, I'll keep reading... because she's like my favorite junk food. 

"Lust is the Thorn" by Jen McLaughlin

Lust Is the Thorn: Love Is the Rose - Jen McLaughlin

ARC courtesy of Netgalley and Loveswept in exchange for a (brutally honest) review.

I loved the theory of this book - a man on the cusp of joining the priesthood struggling with the temptation presented by his late best friend's sister - but the execution didn't work for me. The character development was very superficial and they engaged in a lot of very redundant naval gazing. The main characters are named Rose and Thorn (um, yeah. *rolls eyes*), and they just did not seem very authentic, and they seemed to be lacking emotional contours and depth. The story was very straightforward and predictable.

"Nuts" by Alice Clayton

Nuts (The Hudson Valley Series) - Alice Clayton

When Roxie moves back to upstate New York to take over her mother's diner for the summer, she doesn't plan for the move to be permanent. She spent her whole childhood trying to get out of Bailey Falls, after all. Furthermore, when she meets a gorgeous hipster farmer, Leo, she plans to keep their relationship a casual summer fling... but life doesn't work out as she planned.

 

Alice Clayton is hit-or-miss with me, but this one was mostly a hit. It was breezy and funny and the plot seemed tighter than most of the previous books I've read of hers.

"Us" by Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy

Us - Elle Kennedy, Sarina Bowen

I don't read much m/m, but I love Sarina Bowen, and I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Him, because it was refreshing to see an authentic portrayal of bisexuality instead of yet another Gay-for-You trope. (Dear Straight Women Authors Writing M/M Romance: Gay-for-You? That's not really a thing. Love, a Bisexual Mama in a Same-Sex Marriage)

 

Us continues telling the story of Jamie and Wes's relationship. They've moved to Toronto; Wes is having a terrific rookie season in the NFL, and Jamie has a job he enjoys coaching gifted young goalies in a junior league. They've agreed to keep their relationship in the closet until Wes's rookie season is over, because he needs to prove his value as a player before putting his team through the media storm of his coming out -- otherwise, the team may just cut him loose.

 

The pressures of keeping their relationship under wraps strains too much, though, when one of Wes's teammates moves into their building and starts showing up at all hours of the day and night. Suddenly, Wes and Jamie can't even relax and be themselves in their own home. Add to that the stresses of Wes's demanding travel schedule and some troubles at Jamie's jobs, and both start to question whether their relationship can survive.

 

As with Him, I found Us refreshingly authentic. The pressures on Jamie and Wes are not just conflict for the sake of Plot; they are the same adjustments most people make in finding their feet in their first long-term, committed relationship and in their first adult job, complicated by the confines of the Closet. I also appreciated that Jamie and Wes were not closeted because of shame or fear; that they were both totally okay with who they are and with their relationship and they had a plan for coming out as soon as Wes proves himself a Hockey Player and not just as "the first gay guy in the NHL." I understood his need to prove himself, because he is gay but he is not only gay.

 

As with Him, my only frustration with this book was that Jamie and Wes did not always communicate as well as they should have, but they always had the necessary difficult conversations eventually -- just not as quickly as I might have liked.

 

If there's more to this series, I will definitely read on.

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey

The Secret Subway - Shana Corey, Red Nose Studio

Full disclosure: Shana Corey is a college friend of mine, but that's not what makes this book awesome. The illustrations are incredible and very unique. The story (which is true!) about an inventor who creates a pneumatic tunnel for a passenger train to help alleviate New York's traffic problems -- 40 years before the modern subway system was built -- is both interesting and entertaining. There's a kind of fun, steampunk feel to this book that I loved, and my sons (3 and 5) loved "The Secret Subway" because they love trains and inventions. 

"The Hostage" by Susan Wiggs

The Hostage - Susan Wiggs

I picked this up on sale a month or so ago because of the series premise: a quartet of finishing school girls get caught up in the swarm of humanity fleeing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This first book in the series focuses on Deborah, the only daughter of one of the city's most wealthy men. During the fire, she is kidnapped and held for ransom by Tom Silver, a fisherman from Isle Royale who blames Deborah's father for the death of a loved one killed in an explosion at a mine her father owns.

 

Susan Wiggs is very, very good at setting a scene. The descriptions of the fire are masterful. The journey by water from Chicago, up through the locks at Sault Sainte Marie, and finally to the pine wilderness of Isle Royale is beautiful. The months of isolation during the winter on Isle Royale are simultaneously cozy and compelling, and desolate and lonely. I'm happy to have read the book just for the unique settings.

 

The romance fell flat for me. Deborah was too sheltered and too timid for my tastes. Tom was too much a stereotypical villain with a heart of gold. Their relationship was believable, albeit predictable (yet another kidnap victim falls in love with her captor), but it didn't connect with me emotionally.

"Big Rock" by Lauren Blakely

Big Rock - Lauren Blakely

"Big Rock" is narrated in first person point of view by the hero of this romance, Spencer, who has a big (rhymes with 'rock') and knows how to use it (or so he claims). He gets around a lot, but when his father is ready to sell the family jewelry business to a conservative, uptight stick-in-the-mud, Spencer needs to put his manwhoring ways on hold for a week and pretend to be engaged to his best friend and business partner. What does his father's business dealings have to do with Spencer's personal dealings, you ask? Absolutely nothing, except Plot. 

 

Having read that paragraph, I bet you know exactly where this book is going. You're right. It's exactly that predictable. He and Charlotte swear their engagement is all pretend, that no one will fall in love, that things won't get weird... but sh*t gets real, they develop feelings, and things get weird. There are no unexpected plot twists. 

 

Yet it's fast and readable and reasonably entertaining. The characters are likable if a little bit flat. The dialogue is funny. The sex is steamy. If you're not looking for anything groundbreaking, but just want a quick, feel-good read, this might be right up your alley. 

"Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

I'm very conflicted about this book. I had heard great things about it, and when I started it, it was immediately clear why so many readers sing its praises. It's beautifully written, and the Wood is the most chilling, most disturbing, and most imaginative villain I've ever encountered in literature. I also loved the bond between the narrator/heroine/Chosen One Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia, which is the central relationship in the story. (This book easily passes the Bechdel Test.)

 

And yet, as I read, I developed some serious reservations that lead me to warn that this book is not for everyone. First, it's pretty gruesome and violent. That doesn't bother some readers as much as it bothers me. It wasn't gratuitously violent, and the violence was in keeping with the plot, but it was disturbing enough that I couldn't read this book before bed -- and since bedtime is when I do the lion's share of my reading, it took me about five times as long to read Uprooted as it usually takes me to read a book of this size. That always reduces my enjoyment a little, because the more I have to stop and start, the more disjointed the reading experience feels.

 

The second thing that really, really bothered me, was the "romance" aspect between 17-year-old Agnieszka, and the Dragon, the centuries old wizard who takes a 17-year-old girl as a servant every decade. Because of the age difference and the vastly differential power dynamic between the two of them, the physical aspect of their relationship was super squicky and inappropriate. It also wasn't very believable or compelling. The Dragon was grumpy old goat, and Agnieszka could have admired his wisdom and guidance without wanting to get in his pants.

 

"Beyond Ruin" by Kit Rocha

Beyond Ruin - Kit Rocha

Since the beginning (Beyond Shame), the Beyond series has blown me away by being so massively compelling and entertaining even though, by all my usual benchmarks, these books shouldn't interest me at all. The Beyond books feature so many things I usually hate: a post-apocalyptic dystopian setting, a patriarchal social order, casual violence and addiction, and lots and lots and lots of casual and group sex. And yet the world-building is so strong, the characters are so likable, the plot so gripping, and the writing so smoothly compelling, that these books are like catnip for me. Whenever a new one comes out, I set aside whatever else I'm reading and dive in to the Sectors.

 

Now 7 books and several novellas into the series, I still love the world-building and the series-overarching plot about the building confrontation between the Sectors and the poisoned utopian city at their heart, Eden. Things on that front are really heating up in Beyond Ruin, and I can't wait to find out what happens next. (Warning: the ending of Beyond Ruin is more cliffhangery than previous books have been, but that's because we're now right on the cusp of the conflict the whole series has been developing.)

 

I have noticed over the last several books that the blush is coming off the rose a bit for me in terms of the relationships/romances that each individual book focuses on. Part of it is that every single couple seems to have the same kinks (a tendency toward BDSM, in varying degrees of intensity), which was hot in the early books but has become stale and less believable over time: these are different couples/polys, with their own issues, and I find it hard to believe that they all get off on the same kind of sexual play.

 

As to "Beyond Ruin" in particular, the relationship here didn't work for me because it's a quad between Maddox and Dylan (both men) and Jade and Scarlet (women). These two couples (M/D and J/S) were in relationships before they became a foursome, and the development of their group relationship just didn't gel for me. This isn't the first time the Beyond series has tackled a poly relationship -- Beyond Jealousy starred Rachel, Cruz, and Ace. Where that story worked, and Beyond Ruin doesn't, I think stems from the fact that all three of the participants in Jealousy have their own, equal bond with each of the others, whereas in Beyond Ruin, the men's relationships with each other works, the women's relationship with each other works, but Dylan bonds with Jade (and not so much with Scarlet) and Mad bonds with Scarlet (and not so much with Jade), and in every grouping it feels like someone is on the outside looking in. I read the whole book with a deep skepticism that such a foursome could really work, because there seem to be jealousy issues and loyalty issues and trust issues that will sabotage their happily ever after. Also, I found the use of pronouns in the sex scenes very confusing and awkward -- when you have multiple "hims" and "hers" in the scene, it was very hard to keep track of whose tab A is headed for whose slot B.

"The Boy in the Black Suit" by Jason Reynolds

The Boy in the Black Suit - Jason Reynolds

My wife, a middle school special education teacher, recommended this book to me. She really liked it because there is such a dearth of books about young black men who are not addicts or gang members or tragically abused or otherwise completely dysfunctional. Matt, the teenage narrator of this story, is a normal kid: he goes to school, he goes to work, he crushes on girls, he hangs out with his best friend. The conflict in his life (and in the story) is external to him. His mother has died of cancer, and his father has turned to booze for solace, leaving Matt to fend for himself in a rough neighborhood. He finds a mentor and a job with Mr. Ray, the director of the local funeral home. To his surprise, Matt finds a great deal of comfort attending funerals at work: seeing other people deal with their grief helps him to process his own.

 

Matt's emotional journey through grief was subtle and, at times, very beautiful, but on the whole I found this book a little slow. I think it could be a very, very meaningful story for someone going through (or who has gone through) a similar loss, but it didn't register with me on an emotional level (likely because my life experience is very, very different from Matt's), and so while I could appreciate and enjoy the story, it never fully engaged me.

"Elements of Chemistry," by Penny Reid

Elements of Chemistry: Parts 1-3 - Penny Reid

This book is an unfortunate victim of bad timing. When Penny Reid opted to name her arrogant, billionaire venture capitalist protagonist Martin Sandeke, I'm sure she had no idea who arrogant, millionaire venture capitalist jackhole Martin Shkreli was. Yet by the time time I read it, Martin Shkreli had launched himself into infamy by price gauging AIDS patients and being indicted for securities fraud. It didn't help that Elements of Chemistry's Martin is repeatedly called "Jerk Face" by the book's heroine and described as having a "jerk smirk." Therefore, every time I read Martin Sandeke's name, this is what I pictured:

 

Martin Shkreli smirk

Not so sexy, right? And even though Martin Sandeke is described multiple times as blue eyed and "truly a magnificent specimen" of manhood, insanely fit because he's a rower, I just couldn't shake the image, which really, really made it hard to root for Martin's happy ending.

Setting that aside, I really like Penny Reid's humor and her unabashedly smart, often geeky protagonists. Elements of Chemistry employed the witty, laugh-out-loud funny banter I so enjoy in Reid's work, and I got caught up in the romance in the first two parts of this book. I loved that, despite her inexperience, heroine Kaitlyn always knows what she wants and how to advocate for herself, and her no-nonsense honesty is so refreshing. I love her relationship with her best girl friend, Sam, who is a fully-drawn character in her own right and not just there to decorate the plot.

But Elements of Chemistry is also a good example of why I don't usually read New Adult. The tropes are just so tired. Who knew there were so many tormented billionaire bad boys with dysfunctional childhoods in the college dating pool? I do not understand the literary appeal of the billionaire bad boy. Spoiled, entitled children are about as sexy as, well, this guy:

Shkreli smirk

 

(* Exception: Courtney Milan's Trade Me does a pretty good job of turning the billionaire trope on its ear. )

Then there's the fact that New Adult protagonists are usually total Mary Sue's and Gary Stu's, and this book is no exception. Kaitlyn is drop dead gorgeous but she doesn't know it until her roommate introduces her to the magical concept of eyebrow shaping. Her mom's a senator and her dad's a medical dean and her grandparents were nuclear physicists, and poor Katy struggles because she likes science but she isn't a prodigy until, she sits down at Martin's piano and whoops! Turns out she's a musical prodigy who just picked the wrong major. Martin is not just a rower -- he's the youngest, fastest, bestest collegiate rower ever. He's not just heir to a multi-billion dollar communications empire; he's also an inventor and an entrepreneur in his own right, holding several patents before he even graduates from high school. While I can see a certain escapist fantasy appeal in such perfect characters, I think their perfection detracts from the story. I'd rather read about characters I can relate to, who struggle through adversity or have real, immutable flaws, as we all do.

The worst flaw of Elements of Chemistry is the way it falls apart in the third part of the book. Kaitlyn and Martin have broken up and gone separate ways, and after eight months their paths cross and they decide to try to be friends. Obviously, the reader knows this is stupid, but despite their Mary Sue/Gary Stu brilliance, the protagonists descend into more than a hundred pages of being Too Stupid to Live. It is especially frustrating because Katy and Martin's communications had always been so forthright and honest up to that point, and to find them still trying to be honest but stupidly missing each other again and again was just maddening.

Even with its many flaws, though, this was a quick and entertaining read. I don't regret the time or money I spent on it, and I will definitely read more of Penny Reid in the future!

"The Hooker and the Hermit" by L.H. Cosway & Penny Reid

The Hooker and the Hermit - Penny Reid, Luci Cosway

I had some believability issues with this book, but on the whole I enjoyed it quite a bit. Ronan is staying in Manhattan after being suspended from his rugby team after beating up a teammate for sleeping with his long-time girlfriend. He reluctantly hires a P.R. firm to help clean up his public image, where he meets Annie, a deliciously uptight nerd who can do wonders with his online reputation. Unbeknownst to everyone, Annie is the public alter-ego of famous celebrity blogger Socialmedialite, who has already established a slap-slap-kiss-kiss email correspondence with Ronan after posting a post-workout picture of him on her blog. 

 

I've never read L.H. Cosway, but I like Penny Reid, and this book had the funny-yet-decidedly-oddball flavor I've come to associate with Penny Reid, especially in the dialogue. I found the plotting of this to be tighter than other books of Reid's that I've read, which was a good thing, and the dialogue and the authors' voice was smart and funny, which I really enjoyed. The sexy parts are a little racier than Penny Reid's usual fare, with a mild BDSM-kink, but nothing that the average mainstream romance reader would find too off-putting. 

 

As I mentioned, I struggled a little bit with willing suspension of disbelief. First, there's the coincidence that Annie-as-Socialmedialite and Annie-as-P.R.-professional both run in to Ronan at the same time. Second, Ronan gets followed by paparazzi everywhere he goes, which I can buy when they're in Ireland, but I had a hard time believing that the NYC paps would give a fig about a disgraced Irish rugby player. Third, Ronan's fall for Annie is pretty insta-lovey, especially since he's just getting out of an ugly relationship. 

 

Those issues didn't do much to diminish my enjoyment of the story, though, which was fast-paced, lighthearted, and a lot of fun, and very engaging even as I had several quibbles with the plot. I will definitely read on the series. 

"Act Like It" by Lucy Parker

Act Like It - Lucy V. Parker

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. I loved the smart, fast-paced, funny dialogue. I loved the British slang. I loved the London setting. I loved the sensible, intelligent, kind heroine and the cranky, misanthropic hero. I love discovering a new author I will definitely read again. I really loved that it only cost $0.99!

 

Lainie is an up-and-coming actress with a supporting role in a West End play, and work has become very awkward since her boyfriend-slash-onstage-love-interest got caught very publicly stepping out on her. This makes Lainie a sympathetic figure in the media, and the bosses at her theatre decide to capitalize on her newly-single, media-darling status to help polish the reputation of the actor who plays the show's villain, who has a bit of an anger management problem in real life. Richard is delightfully grumpy and gruff, which is only fun because Lainie doesn't waste time trying to please him. She does as she likes, and in time, he comes around to wanting to please her. 

 

Everything about this book was fun, and I loved that the setting and the language made  "Act Like It" different from everything else I've read lately. I loved the interplay between the characters' private relationship and their public personas as London theater celebrities. I loved that their work was an integral part of the plot. I loved how smart both Lainie and Richard are, and how they communicate like reasonable, responsible adults. I'll definitely be re-reading this one again soon!

"Wicked Sexy Liar" by Christina Lauren

Wicked Sexy Liar - Christina Lauren

A lot of series lose steam as they go along, but this one keeps getting better. This is book four in the "Wild Seasons" series, and it's better than book one, "Sweet Filthy Boy," though connected to that story more than the subsequent books in the series. Each book stands alone, but it will probably be a little more satisfying if you read at least "Sweet Filthy Boy" first, because that book introduces Mia, who is the ex-girlfriend of the hero, Luke, of this one. 

 

"Wicked Sexy Liar" is a Reformed-Rake/Taming-of-the-Manwhore story. Five years ago, Luke broke up with Mia, his high school sweetheart, and went a little crazy on the rebound. He's spent the interim having lots and lots and lots of casual sex, and when he meets London, that's what they're both looking for. 

 

Of course, London's got a magical hooha, and as soon as Luke hooks up with her, he can't get enough, but she has good reasons for wanting to keep things casual, especially when she realizes Luke is her friend Mia's ex. (Because friends' exes are, of course, off limits.) 

 

The entertainment of the Manwhore-Taming trope usually stems from watching the hero get his comeuppance, after years of dismissing clingy women, in finally finding himself in the role of the Clinger rather than Clingee. "Wicked Sexy Liar" does the same, but even though it isn't groundbreaking, it's entertaining. Christina Lauren does snappy dialogue really, really well, and the secondary characters are well developed and contribute to the story (rather than merely being scenery in it -- yet another reason to read the series in order, though again, this would stand alone). 

 

I loved Luke's relationship with his sister Margot, and I love how smart and sassy and grounded London is as a heroine. The ending of this book was a little too abrupt, but still emotionally satisfying, and the first 4/5ths of the book were great fun.