Get a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters #1) by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown book coverThere's a lot of deserved buzz around this enemies-to-lovers story. It's set in England and features a black woman suffering from chronic pain and white troubled artist working as a building superintendent, and it's definitely interesting and different.

Chloe is a web designer who comes from a rich family and has just moved out of her parents mansion as part of a life-improvement venture. After a near-death experience, she made a list of all the things she should do to make her life better. Things like riding a motorcycle, having a fun, drunken night out, and traveling the world with nothing but hand luggage.

Although she and Red, the building's superintendent, constantly butt heads, she has sneakily admired him painting while shirtless. After he helps her down from an ill-advised rescue of a cat in a tree, she discovers that he needs a website for his art. She decides he can help her with some of her list, so they agree to a trade: she'll do the site for free if he helps her "get a life" via her list.

Gradually they get to know each other and discover their mutual attraction, and things go from there. Red is a really nice guy, even though I didn't find him as appealing as Chloe did, but that's fine for the story. Chloe finds him very attractive, and their antics show he feels quite the same.

Overall, this is a good story featuring at least one character who's typically underrepresented in romance (though things are starting to change). If you're looking for a different but hot story, try this one out.

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

This is a followup to last year’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, featuring Trisha’s cousin, Ashna.

Recipe for Persuasion book coverAshna wants to save the restaurant she inherited from her father, Curried Dreams. Her friend is in TV and convinces her to be on a cooking-with-celebrities show. She has no idea who she’ll be paired with, but it turns out to be Rico, who is both her ex-boyfriend (from high school) and a world-renowned, just-retired soccer player. Unbeknownst to Ashna, Rico arranged to be her partner in an attempt to provide some closure to their relationship and prove to himself (and her) that he’s over her. Instead, they become fan favorites and the sexual tension between them is strong throughout the book, despite the fact that Ashna pretends to not know him, which annoys Rico. The further they get in the competition, the tenser things get between them, in all ways.

Ashna has a lot of other stuff going on, too. She’s still trying to manage the restaurant, and then her somewhat estranged mom shows back up. The two of them have a very complicated relationship due to the fact that her mom, Shobi, basically left her behind with Ashna’s aunt and uncle to take care of her, while she spent her time in India working on women’s rights. She is about to receive the Padma Shri, which is an Indian national medal given for distinguished service. Shobi is an important character in the book and has a few point of view chapters, even though it’s mostly Ashna’s story. Ashna’s never forgiven Shobi for abandoning her, but she learns that there is more to that complicated story.

The story is told mostly in present time, though there are several important flashbacks to Ashna and Rico’s early days and to Shobi’s, as well. It’s told from three points of view: Ashna, Rico, and a little from Shobi. Despite the intense sexual tension throughout the book, the heat level is lower than I expected, given Dev’s previous books.

Overall, this was a good novel with lots of angst and false beliefs to overcome. If you’ve enjoyed Dev’s earlier novels, you’ll definitely like this one.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy (Reluctant Royals) by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice ShyThis novella features Likotsi, Prince Thabiso’s no-nonsense assistant, who we met in A Princess in Theory. The implication in that book was that she was maybe a bit of a player, but we also know something happened to/with her while she and Thabiso were in New York City. This book tells us what, as well as rights thing.

At the beginning of the book, Likotsi is in New York and on vacation and has a plan for the day, in the form of a list. She’s going to visit all the places she visited last spring with Fab, a woman who she’d fallen hard for in just a few dates. A woman who abruptly and without explanation cut off contact. Likotsi's hope is that by visiting these places, she can form new memories that will replace those she had involving Fab, and can move on.

When they run into each other on the subway, that plan is foiled. Fab invites her to go for tea. Likotsi barely says yes, but she thinks maybe she can find out why she was unceremoniously dumped months earlier. They hang out and begin making new memories in new places, which is driving Likotsi crazy, even though she can’t step away. And then, Fab reveals to the reader why she ended things. It’s a while longer before she tells Likotsi, but when she does, they are finally able to come to an understanding. And a plan for the future.

This was my first true ff romance, but I think I picked a good one—I love Cole because she writes great characters, and this one met those expectations perfectly.

Wrong to Need You (Forbidden Hearts #2) by Alisha Rai

Wrong to Need You book coverWrong to Need You is the second book in the Forbidden Hearts series, which deals with the Kane and the Chandler families and their tangled and troubled history. Sadia Ahmed is Paul Kane’s widow (she never changed her name—yay!), which makes Jackson Kane her brother-in-law. That makes for a slightly awkward pairing for sure, which both characters are fully aware of.

Sadia runs Kane’s, the family cafe that Paul ran before he died. She also works as a bartender for extra money, because the cafe isn’t doing great. She doesn’t love owning and running it. She’s been admiring a stranger who’s been coming into the bar for a while. He’s buff and has nice hands, which she thinks is weird of her to notice, but I don’t. So she’s shocked when she finds out it’s none other than Jackson, her long-lost brother-in-law. He disappeared ten years earlier after being cleared as a suspect in an arson incident that resulted in the Chandler’s grocery store burning down. But it turns out things are pretty complicated (as you’d expect in a Rai book).

Sadia’s long-time cook has left the cafe and she’s desperately in need of a chef. As soon as he learns that, Jackson sort of forces his way into the job (not in a bad way). She’s hesitant but agrees for one day, which turns into a longer-term-but-still-temporary situation. Turns out he’s a chef (who knew? Not any of his relatives). Then she, against her better judgment, offers to let him stay in her garage apartment so he’s not stuck in a hotel for the short time he’s in town. Given who wrote this book, you can guess what comes next—some hot scenes. But again, it’s not all that simple. When Jackson learns something shocking about Paul, he’s hurt and his family troubles get stirred up. And when Sadia learns the same secret, it freaks her out, too.

One other aspect of the book that’s important is Sadia’s six-year-old, Kareem. He quickly forms an attachment to Uncle Jackson and both Sadia and Jackson want that relationship to continue. But as far as the two of them are concerned, they’re both certain they’re wrong for each other. As it turns out, that’s not the case. They just have to deal with lots of emotional turmoil to realize it’s okay, and even that dead Paul is probably okay with it, too.

If you like lots of angst, complicated family relationships, and steamy love scenes, you will enjoy Wrong to Need You*. Check it out.

*One tiny caveat. The family thing with the Kanes and Chandlers is seriously complicated. I had forgotten most of it since reading the first book, which left me going, Who? What? Huh? sometimes, so I’d recommend reading Book 1 not long before reading this one.

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

The Matchmaker's List book coverThe premise of this book is simple: Raina, a half-Indian 29-year-old Canadian, has promised her (Indian) grandmother, who raised her, that she will agree to be set up on dates if she isn’t married by 30. Everyone remotely familiar with Indian culture will understand that this is a typical situation for women in their late 20s. Raina’s grandmother, Nani, jumps the gun a bit and starts harassing her early, giving her a list of suitable Indian men for her to contact and even setting up a meeting herself. Raina wants to find someone on her own, but meets some of these men, leading to some pretty funny scenes. To make matters worse, Raina’s best friend is engaged to a perfect guy, and she doesn’t seem to understand Raina’s situation.

There is actually a lot going on in the book. It shows how Indian culture operates, even in Canada, and how much unfair pressure gets put on women. Raina tries to be a dutiful granddaughter but she’s a strong, modern woman who doesn’t think that the only thing she’s good for is marrying and reproducing. She has a successful career in banking and works hard and a lot, and in many ways she doesn’t have time to date. But even more significant is her ex-boyfriend, who she’s very hung-up on. She thinks they might have a chance and doesn’t want to throw that away by settling for someone just for the sake of getting married. So the book deals a lot with the psychology of trying to please one conservative (but evolving) culture while living in an ostensibly more modern one.

I really liked the story, although there are some things that happen in the second half that I didn’t love. Raina allows Nani to think something about her that isn’t true, and Raina lets that little lie go on long enough that it hurts people. That kind of bugged me. This isn’t a romance even though it is a story about love, partially because it’s impossible to tell who’ll she’ll end up with (even though any reader would guess that she’d end up with somebody). I have to admit I felt a little unmoored by this because I wasn’t sure who to care about besides Raina and her family and friends. What guy should I root for? I had no idea. And the romance with the guy she does finally end up with felt a little forced. I didn’t really see their attraction build like I would have liked. Though to be fair, I did really like the guy (much better than the ones she passed on!).

Despite having those qualms with the story, I think Raina herself is a wonderfully complex and likable character. The other main characters (primarily her friend Shay, Nani) are also interesting and well-depicted. There’s some good conflict with both of them that felt very realistic and it was satisfying to see it resolved.

In summary, if you’re curious about/interested in Indian culture in Canada and America, this will definitely educate you while keeping you entertained with a good story. I imagine it’s probably also especially popular with any second-generation+ immigrants who have to deal with two worlds the way Raina does. It can’t be easy.

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai

The Right Swipe book coverOkay, so it took me a little longer than a week or two to get to this. Life is very busy at the moment. Regardless, I was looking forward to reading this one as I’ve enjoyed Rai’s other books. It didn’t disappoint. Another book with a strong heroine and a sympathetic hero.

Rhiannon runs one of America’s major dating apps. She is a pretty hard person for a variety of reasons. She’s been burned pretty bad by love, in a way that also impacted her career, so it was double-devastating. But she’s come out of it a Winner. After a hookup that was supposed to lead to a second date but instead led to her being ghosted, she’s shocked to see the contemptible ghoster himself at a large dating app conference. She vows to not give him the time of day, but then finds out he’s the unofficial face of Matchmaker, an old dating site that Rhiannon is interested in buying. Then she ends up having to share an interview spot with him.

For his part, Samson does have a very good reason for ghosting her. He tried to get in touch with her after the fact, but she’d blocked him already. So he’s excited to see her at the conference. One of his roles with Matchmaker is to “find true love” through the site by means of going on several (filmed and aired) dates with matches the site suggests. He’s not just a public face for the site, but he’s also the owner’s nephew, so he has more than a passing interest in things going well. After a terrible date, where he makes a total fool of himself, he convinces Rhiannon to do a little dating lesson series with him, also filmed. The premise is that as the owner of Crush, she knows something about dating and can teach Samson.

Their chemistry is as good as it was during their hookup and Samson does manage to tell Rhiannon why he ghosted her. She is tempted to forgive him but still isn’t ready to risk her heart. Still, they decide to have a temporary casual relationship that goes very well. Then Rhiannon gets an opportunity to make an offer for Matchmaker, along with several other potential buyers. They all have to go to Samson’s aunt’s house to make their competing offers over a couple days. Rhiannon ends up writing Samson off after making an assumption about something during the bidding process and that constitutes the dark moment that tears them apart.

There’s a lot to love about this book: characters of color, genuinely strong women, a believable nice guy, a healthy dose of feminist sensibilities, the pull on heartstrings. It’s also pretty hot, like you’d expect from Rai. The main characters were complicated and relatable. I did feel like Rhiannon overacted a teeny tiny bit regarding the assumption she made about Samson when they were at his aunt’s house. I mean, she’s set up as pretty damaged so it’s not inconceivable. But still, when they got past it, I was happy.

Overall, this is a good one for fans of steamy contemporary, especially if you like something a little different from the standard white characters. Fans of Rai will especially love it.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

The Bride Test book coverThis is a followup to Hoang’s first book, The Kiss Quotient, which I liked and reviewed. The Bride Test feature’s Khai, the cousin of Michael from The Kiss Quotient. Khai’s the other character from that book who’s on the autism spectrum.

I liked Esme, the heroine, from the beginning—she’s hardworking and unpretentious, unlike all the other women Khai’s mother is trying to pick from to be his future bride. That’s the setup—she’s gone to Vietnam to find a wife for him, unbeknownst to him. Esme’s cleaning the hotel bathroom across from the room Khai’s mom has reserved for interviewing the candidates. After not finding anyone, she “interviews” Esme and finds her suitable. Esme’s current life isn’t amazing and she thinks that if she could get to America, she’d have a greater chance of making it that way. So she agrees to a trial run over the summer and leaves behind her mom, grandma, and young daughter. (I have to say that if I hadn’t known it was real, I would have been screaming, “No! Don’t do it! It’s a trap!” But that’s the comfort of reading a romance—nothing truly awful happens, at least not to the main characters in the course of the novel.)

I have to admit that Khai was harder to like. Now, I’m sure this is partly to do with the fact that I couldn’t really connect with him emotionally, perhaps due to his slightly stunted (but not entirely absent) emotions. But as the story proceeded, I found him more sympathetic. And by the end it was clear that he had grown at least a little (though it did take some time).

Khai’s mom moves Esme into Khai’s house with little warning, basically. She does explain the situation to him and he vows to stay away from whoever this girl is. But of course, once he sees her, she’s beautiful and he can’t stop thinking about her. For her part, Esme likes Khai despite his often odd behavior. She works in Khai’s mom’s restaurant and starts taking adult education classes. That storyline actually becomes important later, which I appreciated. Esme turns out to have a lot more to her than anyone (including Khai’s mom) expected.

If you liked the first book, you’ll probably like this one. As a side note, if you like reading about weddings, you’ll like it, as well—Khai and Esme go to a bunch. If you like heroes you have to warm up to, and admirable heroines, you should give it a try.

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory book coverI reviewed A Duke by Default—the first in this series—a couple months ago, and now I’ve read the first. It was great to get to know Portia as she was Before, since in Duke we learned she was trying to improve herself, but we never saw exactly from what. This book shows us what Ledi has to put up with in Portia. Not that that’s the focus of the book, but the dark moment is sort of enabled by Portia (though of course it’s the hero’s fault).

Ledi is a grad student in epidemiology who works very hard (probably harder than everyone around her since she’s both female and black…). Because she was a foster kid after her parents died when she was very young, she has no family and no money. So she also has to work as a waitress to bring in some cash. She’s been getting these stupid scam emails from someone named Likotsi from Thesolo, a supposed small country in Africa, that insist she return to Thesolo and take her rightful place as the prince’s wife.

Thabiso is the prince in the email and he and Thesolo are as real as can be. He’s kind of an ass in the beginning, with his personal assistant, Likotsi (writer of the emails), sort of acting as his conscience. He’s not evil or anything extreme, but he’s absolutely rich and entitled. When he finds Ledi at work, he spontaneously decides to take the place of a new hire she is supposed to train, in order to get to know her a little. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant will know that this won’t go well (a guy who’s never lifted a finger serving people… yeah, right). It goes even worse than you’d expect, which makes for even better reading. So then he moves into the apartment across from her (Likotsi rightly points out that this is stalkery behavior, but he doesn’t care).

With him across the hall from her, he gradually breaks down her defenses and they become friends and more than friends until everything comes crashing down, leaving Ledi feeling like the biggest fool and Thabiso like a real asshole (deserved).

Ledi is an awesome character—I love how hardworking she is, but more importantly she’s very smart. Of course she has trust issues, since she aged out of the foster system without being adopted. So this is her primary growth—learning to trust people. Thabiso’s not a bad guy, even in the beginning, but especially by the end. He’s been enlightened about how real people live and he realizes how badly he damaged Ledi by lying to her for so long.

The only little quibble I had with the book was that when Thabiso convinces Ledi to go to Thesolo with the promise of an epidemiology practicum, I don’t think she would have gone without Portia knowing about it because I don’t think she’d trust him to not be tricking her into going. A small thing.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. Cole’s a great writer and she actually has real knowledge about science—enough to make authentic references to Ledi’s work and even crack a joke here and there. Good stuff.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors book coverI don’t think you can be a fan of romance and not also love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (like I even needed to name the author, right?). Dev’s new standalone novel gives a big nod to that novel, without being at all derivative. First off, Dev switches the roles—in her novel, Trisha, the heroine, is the “snob” while DJ is the one she disses early on.

Trisha is a talented neurosurgeon who has to deliver very mixed news to a patient named Emma—she can remove the tumor that will save Emma’s life but not without causing her to lose her sight. This is devastating enough, but Emma’s also a visual artist, making it doubly bad. Trisha’s got an overbearing family who she feels like has shunned her (especially her father) because of something that happened a long time before. Her brother is running for a political office in California and the whole family is focused on supporting him, and Trisha is trying to get back in her family’s good graces. She attends an event at her parents’ house, where she encounters the event chef and manages to insult him.

DJ can’t believe he actually overhears this woman referring to him as “the hired help.” He’s a highly-trained (and Paris-trained, at that) chef who’s just back in San Francisco because his little sister is facing brain cancer. He doesn’t expect to see the woman again, so he and Trisha are both shocked to run into each other in Emma’s hospital room.

Unsurprisingly, they clash despite each being very attracted to the other. DJ keeps his attraction pretty under control, but Trisha struggles a bit more, constantly putting her foot in her mouth and insulting him over and over again. Then she spontaneously decides to admit her attraction to DJ, which goes over very, very badly. (It’s a great scene that perfectly captures the awkwardness and feeling of the parallel scene in Austen’s book.) And there’s a baddie named Julia Wickham who worms her way into DJ’s world, nearly disrupting everything.

The sexual tension between Trisha and DJ is great. And Dev is a talented writer, with her strong dialogue and descriptions. There was one thing that bugged me, though, that I feel like mentioning. The way Trisha’s family dealt with the situation with Julia and what she did—which isn’t revealed until later in the book—made me uncomfortable. There’s even a line about how releasing the details would set women’s rights back a hundred years—I didn’t agree with that at all. It was actually pretty messed up and Julia was clearly the bad guy there. However this line comes from one of the characters, and I don’t have to agree with everything they say or do.

Anyway, there is quite a bit going on in Trisha’s life. DJ’s busy too, but most of his non-Trisha time is spent with Emma, who also is Trisha’s concern. So this is definitely Trisha’s book. It’s also her most “American” book, with very little time spent in India (all of it’s in flashbacks, too). Still, if you’ve liked Dev’s other books or you enjoy reading about complex family dynamics, you’ll probably like this one, too.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

The Proposal book coverI was looking forward to reading this book, Guillory’s next after The Wedding Date. This one also features a black heroine, but this time the hero is Latino.

I really liked the overall story here—Nik (short for Nikole) is proposed to on the Jumbotron at a Dodgers game by her boyfriend of just a few months, who she doesn’t even like that much. In front of everyone, she turns him down. Then she’s rescued by Carlos and his sister and from there Nik and Carlos develop a relationship. I liked both of the characters and found them somewhat relatable. She’s a successful freelance writer and he’s a pediatrician. The other characters in the book were also good. Nik has two close friends and her ex (the proposer) is an amusing total loser. Carlos has a friend but his family is huge in his life.

Despite all that, I didn’t love the book. It wasn’t bad by any means and I never considered not finishing it, but some of the dialogue fell flat for me. Some of the humor did as well—I did think there were funny parts in the book but I got the feeling I didn’t find them as funny as I was supposed to. Also, in the beginning, they were each unsure if the other liked them despite what I considered blatant signs that they did, which irked me. I just feel like this book was pushed out a little before it was ready. In my humble opinion.

Despite how I felt, many people will probably enjoy this book. And it’s definitely great to see some brown characters hitting the mainstream. In this case neither of the main characters is white, which is definitely cool.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient book coverThe Kiss Quotient is an unusual romance with its heroine being on the autism spectrum and a hero who’s half Swedish and half Vietnamese (though culturally more Vietnamese-American since his Swedish father is out of the picture and his entire extended family is through his mom). So double bonus points for diversity. But does it work?

Yep, it does. They’re both great characters, though Stella’s my favorite. The premise is that Stella’s mom is pressuring her to get married and start having kids since she’s at the ripe old age of thirty (I hate biology). Stella isn’t opposed to the idea of kids, but relationships terrify her. She has mild touch aversion and sex is nothing but torture for her. But she decides her mom is right and the only way she can possibly have a relationship is if she gets better at sex. She needs practice. So she hires an escort. Obviously.

Okay, ignoring the fact that I don’t think it’s that easy to hire one who will assume sleeping with you is the primary purpose (though maybe it is—I wouldn’t know), this is a great premise. So Stella finds Michael and she explains her situation, which weirds him out at first, but then he goes along with it. Still, he’s baffled that she can’t just find a guy the normal way because she’s beautiful. But things don’t go well on their first practice session because Stella freezes up.

Michael usually has a limit of one night with a client, but he ultimately agrees to more lessons with Stella because he’s worried about how other escorts might treat her. They might not be as gentle and understanding as he is. Because although he doesn’t know she’s on the spectrum, he instinctively senses how to deal with her due to have an autistic cousin.

Michael breaks more of his own rules with her and soon enough they’re in an actual practice relationship because that made more sense to both of them in terms of useful lessons. She meets his family and that doesn’t go well at all due to her lack of social awareness and certain other concerns she has (it’s one of those things that’s funny and sad at the same time).

The problem is that each of them knows this is practice and even though they’ve fallen for each other, they assume everything’s fake (except their own feelings, of course). Stella knows Michael will not want her when he finds out she’s autistic and he is convinced that she won’t want him when he founds out what a douche his father is (assuming she’ll guess he’ll end up being the same).

The resolution is interesting and satisfying to watch as the book is well-plotted. The characters are complex and surprise you at times, but in ways that make sense. There is quite a bit of steam (this is the point of the practice, after all), but most of the encounters go awry in ways that are again a little funny and a little sad. It’s just that you know Stella is into it but her issues keep her from letting go. Fortunately, Michael’s a good guy. And ultimately, things do get better.

Overall, I really liked this book. It’s great to see the kind of characters that don’t populate many romances presented as real, complex people. I’m looking forward to Hoang’s next book.

A Bogie in the Boat (Linx & Bogie Mysteries #2) by Elizabeth Hunter

A Bogie in the Boat book coverElizabeth Hunter was one of the keynote speakers at Emerald City Writers Conference a couple weeks ago. I posted previously a little about her speech, which I enjoyed, but now I’m going to review the free book we all got from her (yay, free book!). A Bogie in the Boat is the second in a series that’s not really a romance, thought there is a romance in it. (I’m still including it here because Hunter does write romance, too.) Linx is a young urban artist in the LA area (she does large murals and got in trouble in the past for graffiti). She also is a medium and has one ghost named Frank attached to her, a detective who was killed on the job in the 1950s. Her mom and grandma (nan) are both also mediums. Otherwise everything’s normal. So that’s the basic world setup.

In this book, a neighbor discovers a dead body and comes to tell Linx’s nan about it, but she’s out so Linx herself goes to see the body and call the police. This is how she ends up with another ghost attached to her, something that hasn’t happened before. It’s always just been Frank. She doesn’t particularly want this new ghost, who doesn’t remember how he died, so now she has to help solve his murder. Enter (the living) Detective Lee, who turns out to be a very attractive Korean-American guy with impressive arms. Intrigue and mild romance ensue.

I should mention that Linx’s best friend is Raul, whose grandmother is Haitian if I remember correctly. Hunter was brought to the conference this year (theme: diversity) because her books are full of people of color, just like they should be when they’re set in LA. Of course, this isn’t an issue book by any means—it’s just a fun little novella about a crime-solving medium/artist in a realistic setting.

I enjoyed it and will be looking for Hunter’s other books.

Dr. Strange Beard (Winston Brothers #5) by Penny Reid

Dr. Strange Beard book coverAt 26, Roscoe Winston is the youngest of the Winston clan and a vet(erinarian) in Nashville. We’ve also seen him to be a bit of a flirt in previous books. We come to learn why he’s that way, and how he’d had his heart broken in high school by Simone Payton.

Simone’s a cool chick—she’s currently working as an undercover FBI agent even though that’s not really her calling (which is in a research lab). It’s a temporary assignment. There’s been a string of murders in East Tennessee that the FBI knows are being perpetrated by the president of the biker club the Winstons’ father is in. The fact that Simone’s from there gets her assigned to the case. She’s working at the diner her mom runs in Green Valley. Simone is focused on her career and believes that the whole idea of love is stupid. She doesn’t like feelings and never has. But unfortunately for her feelings, her assignment brings her in contact with Roscoe.

Roscoe, for his part, isn’t happy to see her because she rejected him in high school after they’d been best friends forever, and the memories still pain him. He has a fantastic memory, so he relives the whole rejection any time he sees her. And he keeps seeing her pop up inexplicably everywhere he goes.

What Roscoe doesn’t know is that she’s trying to protect him and break the case at the same time. He’s become important because his father wants to talk to him for some reason. And Simone can’t let that just happen without inserting herself.

Dr. Strange Beard does start off a little slow, I have to admit. Simone in particular was hard to get into because she’s very logical and tries to deny emotion. But by a quarter in, it started to pick up more and then got good—and Simone is great. Roscoe’s sweet and different from his brothers. The book leans a bit toward romantic suspense, especially in the second half, which isn’t surprising given Simone’s profession. The build-up with the suspense delivers with an emotional and riveting grand finale in the diner.

My recommendation is pretty much the same as it is for all of Reid’s books: read it if you’re a fan or if you like quirky and smart heroines.

Hate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts #1) by Alisha Rai

Hate to Want You book coverHate to Want You is a complex novel with a bucketful of family secrets.

The grandfathers of Olivia (Livvy) Kane and Nicholas Chandler were best friends and started a grocery store together that became very successful. Livvy’s was even in a Japanese internment camp during WW II and Nicholas’s didn’t take advantage of that situation. They continued managing it once he was back out.

Livvy and Nicholas grew up together and dated for years, all until a tragic and fatal car accident involving Livvy’s father and Nicholas’s mother. Then, somehow (how was never entirely clear to me), Nicholas’s father bought/cheated the Kanes out of their share of the company. After that, Nicholas and Livvy broke up. They each have a different story about how that went down, however. Livvy left town afterward and hasn’t been back except for a couple exceptions.

It’s been about a decade since the accident and Livvy is back in town. Nicholas goes to visit her at the tattoo parlor she works at in the opening scene. This is breaking all their rules. They’ve been seeing each other once a year (on Livvy’s birthday) for casual sex and Livvy skipped the last one. The sexual tension between them is off the charts the second they’re together. This isn’t a good thing for either of them, really, and just highlights the unhealthy approach they’ve taken to their relationship. Neither of them has really gotten over the other but each of them has reasons to stay away. But with them back in the same town it’s hard to keep them apart. They try to keep it casual, but that’s as unhealthy as it was over the past decade. There’s a lot of work for them to do before they can be together in a meaningful way.

There are many things that set this book apart from other second chance romances. First, one of the characters isn’t white and this is totally normalized, doesn’t even come up as worthy of mentioning. I think the only thing that made it certain to me was the mention of the internment camp. Second, Livvy (and probably her mother) has clinical depression. The way Rai dealt with this was nice—very realistic. She addresses the fact that it’s always there, but the severity of the current state can vary depending on certain triggers. Nicholas also has his own issues even though they’re not as significant as Livvy’s. He’s very closed off mostly because of the way his father has always treated him. He has to learn to overcome that before he and Livvy can really go anywhere. Still before and after that, there’s plenty of sexytimes for the reader to enjoy.

Another thing that sets this book apart is that we get a healthy dose of Rai’s feminist observation:

The world was unkind to women. It was devastating to women who didn’t believe in themselves.

and

The quickest way to get a dude to stop hitting on you was to say you’re with another guy, because men respect other men more than they respect a woman saying no.

If you enjoy complicated romances between characters with lots of painful history, this one might just be for you.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole

Let Us Dream book coverLet Us Dream is another slim but packed novel like Cole’s Let It Shine—and it’s equally good. This one’s set 50 years earlier, in 1917 Harlem. The heroine is Bertha Hines, a cabaret owner who has a secret that keeps her constantly nervous and a past that keeps her fairly buttoned-up. Amir Chowdhury is a Muslim Indian in the U.S. illegally, trying to make his way.

Bertha isn’t satisfied with the status quo at all and is trying to participate in the suffragette movement, but the white women who run it aren’t welcoming to a black woman cabaret owner (ostensibly because of her career choice, but probably really because of her race). So instead she educates her employees on politics and encourages them to advocate for the vote for women among their male clientele.

Amir is an experienced cook, but his options are limited because of his status, so he ends up washing dishes at Bertha’s establishment. They butt heads early on. However, they find they each have something the other needs—Bertha can teach him about American politics and he can teach her how to dance more authentically (she does an Indian-inspired dance for the club). Working closely together brings their simmering attraction to the forefront. And when Amir and Bertha help one of Bertha’s employees give birth, they bond over the moment and realize there really is something between them.

But it’s not easy. Bertha’s got the police wanting to shut her down and Amir’s illegal—and they’re not even the same race. That last point was an interesting one for me—could they even marry (or were the laws written solely to protect the “purity “—ugh—of whites?)? Because nowadays, they could marry and Amir could come in legally (I mean, it would take some work, but could be done). But I wasn’t sure how it would work back then. Cole doesn’t even go there, but it didn’t stop me from wondering.

There are some fairly heartbreaking moments, like when Amir sees a white man outside the club and instinctively calls him “sir.”

He cringed at how the honorific slipped out. Why should he call some White man lounging in an alley like an urchin “sir”? The only power that the man held over him was the color of his skin, but that was all that was necessary in America, it seemed. Back home, too, now.

Overall, this is a nice book. Not too steamy but full of interesting historical details in another period you don’t see much (especially in romance). If you liked Let It Shine, definitely check this one out, or if you’re just curious about a different time.