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.

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Queens of Geek book coverQueens of Geek is technically a YA romance, not something I usually review here (generally they’re too tame, but I made an exception because it was what I read this week and the characters are all eighteen so it could be considered New Adult, which I would review here). So.

As the title implies, there are some serious geek themes in this book. First of all, it’s set at “SupaCon,” a fictional ComicCon, that’s in San Diego, I think. It’s about three best friends from Melbourne, Australia making the journey to the US for the first time. It’s narrated by the two women, Charlie and Taylor.

Charlie’s an upcoming movie star with a popular video blog. Her parents are from China, though her race has no relevance to the story from what I could see. It just makes everything more realistic, as Australia is diverse, too. Charlie also has pink hair and is bi, though her last relationship was with her male co-star, making it a very public one. The breakup was painful and also public and she’s a little gun-shy now. She has a crush on another up-and-coming star, Alyssa, who’s also going to be at SupaCon.

Although Taylor is one of Charlie’s best friends, they aren’t very alike—Taylor is shy and anxiety-riddled. She’s also on the spectrum, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few months earlier. But she’s hoping to step a bit out of her comfort zone at SupaCon, even if she doesn’t know how. She doesn’t have a lot of confidence in general, but especially body confidence because she’s not some stereotypical sexy mama. She’s a little “curvy.” She credits Charlie with helping her to avoid falling down the well of self-loathing.

The third friend is Jamie, who also happens to be the guy Taylor’s been in love with for ages. Not that she’s going to say anything, because she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, which she values dearly. The friends all plan to move to LA in the fall. Taylor and Jamie have applied to UCLA and Charlie is moving there for her career.

A lot of reviewers have admired this book for its positive messages about women and girls. Throughout the book, they support, protect, and help each other out. And it is great, since a lot of books show a more negative view of female relationships. At times, I did think the book got so caught in all the good it was trying to do that the story itself suffered. Nothing ever got too dire—things mostly went at least okay for the characters.

Also, I have to mention that this book has some of the best two-way communication I’ve ever seen, even between Taylor and Jamie. Much of the dialogue could be sample conversations in a self-help book about how to communicate effectively. People say what they feel and what they mean and they actually understand each other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I noticed it.

Charlie and Taylor are both good characters, though I think Taylor is a little more complex and developed than Charlie. This is probably because her anxiety is explored in great depth. Jamie isn’t as developed as the other two, which I thought was a bit of a shame. I’d liked to have seen more of him. He’s also Hispanic and originally from Seattle but we don’t get much of him except to see how supportive he is of Taylor.

For those who live in geekdom, this book’s a dream. There are so many pop culture references that you’ll have to appreciate it. I’m not as in the mix as I used to be, but even I got a lot of the references. Overall, this was an enjoyable read with a lot of positive representation of things that frequently get a pass in the romance world. Still, it was light and fun.

Temporary by Sarina Bowen and Sarah Mayberry

Temporary book coverAnother enjoyable read from Bowen. Mayberry is new to me, but their styles meshed together seamlessly.

Temporary features hard-working Grace Kerrington, who’s unofficially taking care of her fifteen-year-old sister because their mom is a drug addict. She has a degree but has struggled to find a lucrative job. She’s temping and landed a gopher-type job at an Australia-based corporation called Walker Holdings. Just as the book opens, she’s given a weird assignment: catalog the belongings of the recently-deceased brother (Jack) of the company’s CEO. As soon as she’s in his condo, she’s in heaven because he was an art collector of sorts, and although she got a business degree out of necessity, art is her true passion.

However, the condo is also where she first meets Callan Walker, the son of the CEO. He’s also an internationally known philanderer with websites dedicated to admiring his body and money. He’s got self-confidence to match his bank balance. But he was really close to his uncle and only found out he’d died when he was hanging out on some yacht. He immediately returned to New York City and let himself into Jack’s condo.

So he’s sitting there when she comes in and she doesn’t expect anyone to be there and says a few things that make everything a tad awkward going forward. Or it would be if not for the steaming tension between them. Grace doesn’t even know who he is, but her sister does, which makes for some amusing conversations.

Callan got screwed over by his first real love and hasn’t gotten over it. And Grace is hoping her temp position will turn into a permanent one, so she knows not to risk it by getting involved with Callan. But it’s difficult since they’re basically working side-by-side in Jack’s condo—and that accent. It’s a struggle for her. What she doesn’t know is that Callan’s hiding the real reason he’s there—he’s looking for a more recent version of Jack’s will that he’s convinced exists. She also doesn’t know that getting involved with him could put her guardianship of her sister at risk and that Callan’s not quite the shallow playboy we think he is.

It takes them a little while to see that they’re the real deal, and there’s lots of fun to be had along the way. On the couch. In the closet. You get the idea.

This book has great emotional depth in addition to the amazing tension between Grace and Callan, which persists even after they first hook up. Dialogue is realistic and distinct among the characters. Grace regularly reminds us of Callan’s accent without it being intrusive or weird. Callan definitely grows in the book. Grace’s arc isn’t as strong to me, as most of the things that she reacts to are external, but she does have to learn to trust Callan. Still, I didn’t find the book lacking for this.

Check it out if you’re a fan of either author, or even if you just like well-written steamy reads, as the book delivers an excellent romantic journey.

Beard Science (Winston Brothers #3) by Penny Reid

Beard Science book coverJennifer Sylvester is kind of a joke in Green Valley, Tennessee, where she’s know as the Banana Cake Queen because—well, you can guess why. The recipe is a family secret. People don’t take her seriously. One of the locals called her “stranger than a vegetarian at a barbecue.” And on top of that, her parents are bullies, especially her mom. She’s forbidden to wear anything but her Sunday best clothes out in public. Now, she’s definitely old enough to be living on her own, but with the way her family treats her (borderline abuse), it’s really difficult for her to move out. They have her working full-time in the family bakery, but they don’t give her a salary. What she wants more than anything is to start a family, but with her so isolated, she never really meets men in any useful way.

Cletus Winston is one of the many Winston brothers we’ve met in previous books. He’s the weird one. But he’s also clever and entertaining. Jennifer knows he’s regarded as “the most powerful man in East Tennessee” (because “he could make anything happen”). He’s kind of arrogant, but somehow it’s not as irritating as it is on other people. He also doesn’t think much of her:

The show of confidence had been completely out of character for meek and docile Jennifer Sylvester.

Granted, I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t need to. She was a weak person.

But then she surprises Cletus by catching him on video doing something he shouldn’t, and then using that to get him to help her. Basically extorting him to get his help in finding a husband so she can start that family she so desperately wants.

Cletus decides that to accomplish what she wants, she needs lessons and practice. So he challenges her to do different things (paint her fingernails a bold color, dye her hair a color other than what her mom wants, …). Doing these things is difficult for Jennifer and overcoming this is her character arc. She feels undervalued by her family (because she is) and she needs to find some self-confidence somewhere and build it up. And get on with her adult life. Cletus helps her do that, but she’s the one who does the real work. Cletus doesn’t have as strong an arc, because his main thing is that he learns to see her as more than a meek and docile girl.

Like always with Reid’s books, this one’s funny and fairly steamy at times, though it’s a slow build. It’s equally surprising to Jennifer and Cletus when they end up together. Her dialogue is good even though it’s all about a couple of odd people who speak a little… oddly at times. As with all the books in this series, the setting’s fun and unusual (you don’t see rural eastern Tennessee come up often, do you?). We also see the setup for book #4, which was released fairly recently. Check Beard Science out if you like quirky characters.

The Fixer (Games People Play #1) by HelenKay Dimon

The Fixer book coverI was new to HelenKay Dimon with this book. This is another romantic suspense recommended at RT, this time for its strong heroine. So again I delved into the romantic suspense genre.

Emery Finn is definitely strong. She’s not afraid of confronting a man who clearly thinks of himself as in control. She’s not totally stupid about it—arming herself with a bat when she goes to see what he thinks he’s doing by sitting in a car watching her apartment.

Now, the fact that Wren is watching is a little creepy, it’s true. But that’s the field he’s in—surveillance, tracking down, “fixing” stuff, and the like. Normal in romantic suspense, not so much in straight-up contemporary. So I went with it. He’s dark and more than a little socially awkward, but not in the nerdy way. Emery teases him for not being human, or even being a little robot-like, which he resents. But he’s so used to being in control of himself that he has sort of lost touch with the normal-person part of himself.

The plot is pretty interesting, dealing with the disappearance of Emery’s cousin/best friend back when they were tweens. Emery’s been desperate to find out what happened to Tiffany since then—thirteen years. Even her career choice was influenced by the disappearance. I admit I was never entirely sure exactly what her job was, but she works for an agency that helps other people track down missing people, using databases and whatnot. However, the reason she comes into contact with Wren is that Tiffany’s father had Wren’s name among the various files and such he’d compiled in searching for his daughter. Her serious digging on him brings him out of the woodwork. Tiffany’s disappearance therefore forms the backbone of the story. The mystery of what happened isn’t too hard to unravel, but it’s still entertaining to watch it unfold.

After Emery and Wren first encounter each other, the interest is there, though Emery does a better job of denying it in her head for a while than Wren does. Still, it’s a relief when they do finally hook up for the first time. Dimon has a deft hand with the love scenes. They’re long and luscious and you always know what’s happening, but she leaves out a lot of the almost clinical detail that a lot of authors include. They’re a joy to read.

The characters are, as I’ve implied above, interesting and well-developed, although Emery’s deep emotional needs are more transparent than Wren’s. Still, Wren is compelling and his behavior is justified by his wounds. Overall, Dimon’s a very good writer and if you’re a fan of romantic suspense or very mysterious men, you’ll like this one.

Good Girls Don’t (Donovan Family #1) by Victoria Dahl

Good Girls Don't book coverThis book was my introduction to Victoria Dahl, who instantly became my favorite romance writer. I began devouring everything else she wrote, starting with the rest of the series. One overall comment I have is that the original covers on the series bely the sexiness packed within.

Good Girls Don’t features Tessa Donovan, a beautiful blonde who also happens to be an integral part of her family’s brewery business, and Luke Asher, the detective investigating a break-in at the brewery. Tessa’s the baby of the family with two older brothers who are both (hilariously) convinced that she is pure and innocent and needs protecting. A little early-on confusion ensues when Luke believes his old friend (and Tessa’s older brother), Jamie, about said innocence. But fortunately, they make it past all that silliness and seeing each other in a very adult way.

One of the reasons I liked the book so much was that the romance was definitely not the only thing going on. For one, there was the investigation of the break-in. Even more important is the fact that her brothers’ relationship is very strained, as the oldest, Eric, thinks Jamie is a thoughtless playboy even while Jamie is trying to take on more at the brewery. It won’t happen if Eric finds out what Tessa finds out the morning the robbery is discovered—that Jamie offered the daughter of one of their most important customers a tour of the brewery—and then took her home, if you know what I mean. Tessa’s really mad, but she also wants to keep the brothers on good terms so she thinks it’s her job to hide Jamie’s indiscretion.

As the story of the break-in unfolds, so does the web of protective lies Tessa’s has helped weave. Tensions get really bad with the family, but the two brothers sort of band together to protect Tessa. She doesn’t want or need protecting. But she does need some things she doesn’t recognize. When some of Luke’s own backstory comes out, it throws a wrench in their relationship. It takes some soul-searching to patch things up, but of course they do. As the reader you’re happy they do because they’re both very cute and smokin’ hot together.

Keepsake (True North #3) by Sarina Bowen

Keepsake book coverIn Keepsake, Bowen continues the story of the Shipley farm, moving us back there full-time. This time it’s Zachariah’s story. Zach grew up in a polygamous cult and got kicked out for a small transgression (mostly because he was a young man, when the old men wanted the girls all for themselves). Zach’s been working at the Shipley farm for a while and he’s beginning to feel that his time there is coming to a close. Not because he wants it to be, but because he thinks they need it to be.

But Keepsake is also Lark’s story. She’s one of May Shipley’s oldest and best friends. She just survived a terrible incident while she was on a work assignment in Guatemala, which broke her fearless, adventurous spirit. We don’t learn exactly what happened until close to the end, but we do know that she was kidnapped and held for a while. Everyone assumes she was raped and that’s why she is so traumatized, but she insists that’s not it. The result of her trauma is that she decides to spend some time at the Shipley farm because her parents aren’t taking her waking-screaming-from-bad-dreams very well. She’s going to help with the apple-picking and try to heal.

Zach and Lark have previously met at the farm and admired each other from afar. When it turns out that Zach is the first one to hear one of Lark’s screaming dreams in the bunkhouse at the farm, he goes in to comfort her, despite his own awkwardness in doing so—and Griff Shipley’s mandate for all the men to keep their hands off Lark. This happens several times as he becomes very attuned to listening for her. Also, interestingly, she ends up sort of comforting him, because he too is broken after his upbringing and exclusion from his home. These nightly interludes happen regularly and then, not too surprisingly, turn into more, though it does take a long time. It’s quite a slow burn of a story, in general. But in a delicious way.

Being with Zach doesn’t fix Lark. It seems like only time and some more therapy can do that. And Zach has some growing and self-discovery to do, himself. It takes some time apart before they figure out a way to come together and stay that way.

Both characters are richly developed and absolutely believable, despite their difficult life experiences. The chemistry between the two of them and the love scenes are as hot and sensual as you’d expect from Bowen, with the added complexity that Zach is a virgin and they both know it. Bowen handles that very well, expertly weaving in a bit of humor with the super-sexy. There’s also more going on with the supporting characters, especially May, which deepens the book quite a bit. Still, the focus is on Zach and Lark, and it’s a wonderful comfort story.

Run to Ground (Rocky Mountain K9 Unit #1) by Katie Ruggle

Run to Ground book cover

Now, I don’t read a lot of romantic suspense, but I got an ARC of this book when I was at RT this year. We actually discussed one of the author’s earlier books in one of the sessions in my writing boot camp at RT, too, and it sounded good. This is a spinoff series. The book comes highly recommended, with recommendations from Charlaine Harris among others.

Theo is a small-town Colorado K9 officer whose partner has just died suddenly. He’s also inherited his partner’s dog and they’re not bonding very well. Theo is in general not coping very well—he’s just sort of going through the motions. Even his new K9 partner is suffering because of Theo’s partner’s death; he’s struggling to fulfill his K9 duties even as Theo tries to get him working again. Despite all this, the moment Theo sees the new server at the local diner, he’s intrigued. He knows she’s hiding something and that he should therefore stay away, but he doesn’t.

The secret that Jules is keeping is that she kidnapped her four siblings (taking them out of an abusive home situation), got five new identities, and brought them to Colorado to hide. So she’s a very young woman trying to take care of kids in junior high and high school, all while knowing that if they get caught, not only will she go to prison, but they’ll all go back to their crap home situation. Understandably, Theo makes her very, very nervous.

But of course they can’t resist each other. The attraction between them is clear and well-portrayed, even though I personally don’t find Theo that appealing. He is kind of jerk to everyone but Jules, because he is emotionally damaged by the death of his partner (and, not long before that, his own K9 partner). Jules, on the other hand, is definitely likable. She’s trying so hard to support herself and her siblings that you can’t help but feel for her.

One thing about the book that disappointed me was a distinct lack of strong resolution regarding the cop vs. kidnapper conflict, which I felt seriously detracted from a true HEA. But I don’t know, maybe this is acceptable in romantic suspense. After all, some things can’t realistically be reconciled. So if you enjoy romantic suspense, especially if you also like cops and/or dogs, you’d probably enjoy this book and the series. If I liked the subgenre more, I’d pick up the second book or even the original series that this one spun off of.

Dream Lake (Friday Harbor #3) by Lisa Kleypas

Dream Lake book cover

I said in an earlier review that I’d definitely try Kleypas again. I did, and I’m glad. This time I picked up my preferred subgenre, contemporary.

Alex Nolan is an unhappy man. He’s a drunk, actually. He comes from drunk parents and although his two brothers seem to have done okay, he’s drowning his sorrows. It’s not entirely clear why he’s unhappy, though. He had a crappy first marriage, which is breaking up, so that’s part of it. But it seems like he’s just fundamentally unhappy. Maybe it’s who he is. He definitely thinks so.

Enter two people: a ghost and Zoë Hoffman.

The ghost somehow (it’s never quite clear how) gets attached to Alex and can’t travel too far from him, which drives them both crazy. The ghost has only vague recollections of his life, although it’s tied to the house that Alex’s brothers live in. But more importantly, Alex and the ghost need to figure out what’s tying them together, and how they can break that.

Zoë, on the other hand, is just a nice, sweet girl whose ex-husband shocked her by coming out as gay. She’s no match for Alex’s dark moods and when they first meet by chance at Alex’s brothers’ house, they’re both drawn to each other but Alex is total douchebag to her. Plus, she has problems of her own—her beloved grandmother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is already showing signs of fast decline. Zoë is going to have to take care of her from now on, which she plans to do by renovating a house near where she works, but the house seriously needs fixing up. Alex is recommended to her by her cousin because he’s an expected carpenter/builder-type. So enter Alex into her life.

Something about Alex pulls Zoë to him. Probably that ridiculous thing a lot of women have about fixing broken men, but in this case Alex makes the choice to fix himself and acts on it. Zoë loves to cook and plies Alex with baked goods and breakfast and eventually he starts to come around as a more decent person. But he’s still convinced he’s nothing but bad news for Zoë and warns her to stay away, despite the simmering attraction between them.

Fortunately for us, Alex’s ghostly friend helps him to see things in a slightly new light, even if it’s a painful process for both of them. Alex gets quite involved in helping the ghost solve his mystery, which ends up being tied compellingly to Zoë and her grandmother. When he and Zoë finally give in, it’s such a relief, but it also involves wholly believable transformations for both of them.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

A Bollywood Affair book cover

For some reason, I really enjoy reading (and watching) things set in Indian culture. It all started when I dated a Punjabi guy many years ago and I started reading Indian authors. I’m by no means an expert on Indian culture (or, cultures, as it’s a very big and diverse country), but it’s all interesting. I also have a certain amused appreciation for Bollywood, even though it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything.

When I was first reading Indian authors, I preferred high-brow, literary fiction, but now I generally stick to romance and YA. I was looking for some more diverse romance and stumbled across Dev and read her second book, The Bollywood Bride, first. I quite liked that one. I liked this one less well, because I couldn’t really appreciate the hero, although I liked the heroine, even though she couldn’t be more different from me. Most of A Bollywood Affair is set in the U.S. (Michigan, specifically), yet it’s a story about Indians rather than Indian-Americans.

Mili is twenty-four and she’s technically been married since she was four, when she she and a twelve-year-old boy named Virat were forced to marry by their very traditional grandfathers. The groom and his family soon left Mili’s village and haven’t returned. Mili is no feminist—she’s dutifully been waiting for her husband to return so she can start her wifely responsibilities. She’s afraid that the reason he hasn’t returned to her is because she isn’t good enough, so she’s always trying to improve. Her situation isn’t great—she and her grandmother don’t have much money. However, and a little ironically, being married gives Mili a little more freedom compared to the other girls in her village. So her grandmother allows her to go to America to study. This should make her an even better, modern Indian wife, right?

This all makes Samir Mili’s brother-in-law, even though he and Virat had both totally forgotten about the marriage until she reminded them with her first communication—a letter pointing out that she took care of their grandparents until they died, as were her daughter-in-law responsibilities in “our great culture,” as she puts it. She also says that it’s time for her to start taking care of him, too. And that she’s been caring for Virat’s ancestral home since his grandfather’s death, but now she needs money to pay for the more serious repairs it needs. This enrages the brothers because they think she’s some type of gold-digger.

Samir and Virat didn’t think the ceremony their grandfather had forced them into was truly real. In fact, Virat has been planning to marry his now-pregnant long-term girlfriend. So he needs a divorce from Mili. Then he’s in an accident and things look particularly dire, because now he’s in a coma and can’t pursue the divorce himself. Nobody wants the child to be a bastard—horrors. So Samir steps up to convince Mili to sign for the divorce from his brother.

By this time, she’s already in Michigan, so off Samir goes. Oh, and by the way—Samir happens to be a very well-known Bollywood director. Samir deceives her when he reaches Michigan. She knows he is the famous director, but she doesn’t know he’s Virat’s brother. But he ends up taking care of her after she breaks her ankle, so she thinks he’s a great guy.

So, as I mentioned, I do have some issues with the book. Samir is actually a big douche. He has a troubled past so we’re supposed to forgive him that and believe in his redemption at the end. But he doesn’t respect women, getting all pissy when they “inevitably” fall in love with him. So this is troubling. Mili is likable though, even if her innocence and devotion to a missing husband are kind of sickening at times. She grows a little, but not as much as I’d like. I wanted her to see how limiting the traditional view is and at least be glad she’s going to be able to escape that.

Despite these reservations, I still enjoyed the book. It is believable that Samir’s fallen in love with her and he does sort of face his past. Maybe he’s really changed. So if you’re looking for something a bit different from the vast majority of romances out there, check this one out. I wouldn’t recommend the book if you can’t read rake heroes, though.

Steadfast (True North #2) by Sarina Bowen

Steadfast book cover

Steadfast is a gritty second-chance-at-love story. We first met Jude in Bittersweet as the former junkie trying to make good. He had just been released from prison and then detox and worked on the Shipley farm as a way to get established again and stay clean. In that book, he comes across as a decent, if troubled, guy.

In this book, Jude has nowhere else to go as the harvesting season has ended, and he has returned to his home town, Colebury, to live with his father and work as a mechanic at his garage. Jude assumes that the love of his life, Sophie, is still in town. Of course he’s decided to stay away from her because he doesn’t want to drag her down with him. He’s genuinely trying to stay clean, fighting the cravings that haunt him every day.

Sophie is still in town. She’s finishing up her Bachelor’s degree and working as an intern in a social work position, which she’s hoping will turn into a full-time job after she graduates, even though she doesn’t really expect it to happen because her fellow intern is finishing his Master’s. Then there’s her mess of a family. Her father is a bonafide asshole, the local police chief who can’t do any wrong. And her mom has been basically nonfunctional since the accident that killed Sophie’s brother.

The accident is even more significant because her brother was in Jude’s car when he was killed. And although Sophie and Jude had been very much together when it happened, he went straight to jail and then prison and she hasn’t spoken to him in the three-plus years he’s been gone. He refused her letters in prison and she hasn’t even been able to learn anything about him. Her brother was a douche, but she’s still eaten up with desire to know what happened that night. What happened to her brother—and what happened to Jude.

So, with that setup, a lot happens. As I mentioned, this is a gritty book—we feel Jude’s suffering as he tries to resist the urge to find more junk to take himself away from everything that’s shit. Because on top of everything he’s dealing with, there’s some fallout from the night of the accident. Even though he doesn’t remember himself what happened, there were some drugs involved and somebody’s looking for them. Sophie is dealing with taking care of her parents, cooking dinner every night for her hateful and ungrateful father and her practically comatose mother.

But of course, when they run into each other, sparks fly yet again. After one of his NA meetings at the church, Jude ends up getting talked into volunteering to help at a community dinner by the priest, only to find that Sophie is a regular volunteer there.

After a while, they can’t keep away from each other even though they both try. She is trying to not be in love with him because he really hurt her, and he naturally thinks the best thing for her is for him to not be in her life. If her father finds out that she’s seeing Jude at all, she’s in real danger. We don’t see her father’s true nature until the end of the book, but we sense it throughout. That combined with the threat looming over Jude’s head means constant tension.

The book is immensely satisfying. There are enjoyable flashbacks to when Sophie and Jude were first together, when they were teenagers. And there are also a couple of good twists that I didn’t really see coming (at least not at first). Even though there’s plenty of sex, the sexual tension is there throughout (just as you’d expect from Bowen). Although it’s the second in the series, there’s no reason you need to have read Bittersweet first (except for the fact that it’s awesome).

Dreaming of You (Gamblers #2) by Lisa Kleypas

Dreaming of You book cover

I know it’s probably a little weird to review a book this old (originally published in 1994), but two things: 1. I own weird; 2. I’m just reviewing what I read, basically. And I’m catching up on the genre. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I’ve only been reading romance for about two years, having previously been one of those horrible snobs about the genre. And even then I called myself a feminist… sigh. <guilt>

So, I don’t normally read historical fiction because I find it either anachronistic or sexist (and often racist, too), which annoys me. A feminist friend of mine who reads it has told me that usually good authors compromise a bit on both to make it work reasonably well. I just hadn’t encountered this kind, I guess. At one of the sessions I went to at RT this year (one about creating strong heroines), they mentioned Derek Craven as the most appealing hero in all of romance. The entire panel sighed together over him, so I figured I’d check the book out.

And I did like it. The premise is that a successful novelist named Sara Fielding is writing a new book set partially in a gambling club and she goes to London to do research. There she stumbles across a scuffle in the street which turns out to be Derek Craven, the legendary gambling club owner, getting his faced slashed for spurning one of his many women. Sara shoots one of the assailants and she and Derek abscond to his club, where he gets patched up. Derek himself wants to keep her out, but one of his top employees, Mr. Worthy, takes a (reasonably innocent) shine to her and allows her to hang out at the club during the day to mingle with the staff for her research. All the staff—and that includes the club’s prostitutes, of course—adore her and admire her work, even if there is some humorous confusion about her most well-known protagonist, Mathilda.

Derek has no patience for Sara because he feels an unfamiliar pull toward her and he doesn’t see the need for her to be in her club all the time. So he forbids her from going there. But Sara’s a bit of a stubborn mule and finds a way to continue her research. They encounter each other again and finally Derek does effectively ban her from the club, and she goes back to her village and her near-fiancé. But she’s a changed woman and things don’t go swimmingly. Eventually she and Derek run into each other again after a meddling friend of his arranges it, and sparks fly.

There are the requisite Derek-saves-Sara scenes (two of them). But then there are also a couple scenes where Sara does the rescuing—one of Derek and one of herself. Those two are a little sloppy on her part, but I think it makes it more believable, and I bought in. I do find Derek himself a little more problematic, though. I could believe that he was a very troubled guy, based on his very rough beginnings. He was born to—and abandoned by—a prostitute and then raised by others “in the rookery.” I had to look this up—slums, basically. Anyway, Derek. He’s troubled and of course he’s a real guy, so he’s got a long line of women he’s slept with. In his case, he prefers married upper class women. You’d think this would get him in trouble with the husbands, but it’s one of the women who causes him the most difficulties. But when he meets Sara, he starts falling in love for the first time and he resists powerfully. I can buy this, and I can buy his finally yielding to it and being willing to change to a certain degree to be with her. The issue I have is one I have with most formerly-philandering alphas—I have a hard time believing he’s not going to step out on her eventually, even if he continues to love her.

But I guess that’s just my cynicism coming through. If it weren’t for that specific reservation, I’d have none with the book. I did enjoy it and I will likely try another one of Kleypas’s books.

Lost in Geeklandia by E. J. Russell

Lost in Geeklandia cover

I really enjoyed this book. I adored the heroine, a super-smart nerdy woman who had a ways to go in the self-confidence department at the beginning.

Charlie Forrester is a Portland, Oregon-based data scientist, with a BS in computer science, a MS in psychology, and a PhD in something impressive (I’ve forgotten exactly). But since this isn’t a cover letter for a job application, I won’t worry about getting it exactly right. Suffice it to say that she’s a self-described geek who’s earned the title by digging into data and analyzing it. She created a matchmaking system that crawls men’s social media and general web presence to identify the relationship stage they’re ready for and then matches them with women who are looking for someone. It’s a computer program that came out of her PhD dissertation and she calls it Studies in Predictive Mating Behaviors Predicated on Social Media and Online Interaction, but her friends—to her chagrin—call it the Love Program.

Daniel Shawn is an investigative journalist who was burned while trying to expose a con artist impersonating a matchmaker. He ended up falling for the con himself, resulting in a career-stalling public outing. His reputation ruined, he’s returned to Portland to take a crummy job at a small tech journal—the only one that will hire him, apparently. Daniel’s scholarly achievements are in fine contrast to Charlie’s, too—he’s obviously smart enough, but he was a total failure in high school and (I think) may not have even gone to college.

Perhaps more importantly, Daniel is a childhood friend of Charlie’s who ditched her in high school, and she’s hated him since then. She even created a system called the Global Prick Positioning System to track him. Daniel is of course oblivious to the damage he caused. He doesn’t know why they lost contact, thinking it was just a thing that just happened naturally. Friends grow apart and so on. When they run into each other after he returns to Portland and meets up with his old friend Philip, who also happens to be one of the men in Charlie’s “data pool”, Charlie can’t believe it. She’s freaked out and decides to just avoid him even though he’s interested in rekindling their friendship.

In actuality, he’s interested in far more than friendship, but she doesn’t realize it. When weird circumstances make her accept a date from him, she thinks he’s just “boob stupid” because her friends make her dress at least a little provocatively, rather than in her normal hoodie and jeans. He is a little, but he also remembers always caring about her, all the way back when he was a kid. Because of Charlie’s situation, they continue to date, with her thinking it’s fake even though she’s starting to forgive him for his teenage transgressions. Daniel’s being genuine the whole time, so the black moment comes when he finds out why she went out with him in the first place. Happily, everything works out. Phew.

As I mentioned, I loved Charlie for being so different from a lot of romance heroines. It’s great when we see women who are accomplished on their own and don’t really need a man (and who don’t end up doing all the stupid compromising). Because Charlie doesn’t need a man, even though she finds that she wants Daniel, after all. And Daniel is a very likable guy, too. He’s always loved that Charlie is smart and geeky and admires her for it. You feel bad for him being a bit of a chump on his last assignment and the irony that he’s sort of fallen for something similar with Charlie makes you worry about how he’s going to react when he finds out. But this time it’s because of their background, not his own naivety.

The only thing that disappointed me a little with the book was that the secondary characters weren’t developed as much as they could have been (though there was a good range of characters peopling the story). Oh, and it was a little short—I wanted more of Charlie and Daniel.

Anyway, if you want to read a book that’s about a smart woman who really knows her stuff (and Charlie does because the author does—she works in the field), I can’t recommend this book enough.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

The Hating Game

I almost literally devoured this book, an impressive debut. I had trouble putting it down (which I did only twice, for sleep). Told entirely from the heroine’s perspective in first person, it’s funny because her voice is great—it’s sort of smart silly. “I’m naked and putting on clothes, separated from Joshua by only a wall. I love you, wall. What a good wall.” Although obviously I knew they’d get together at the end, I was still desperate to see it happen.

Lucy Hutton is a small, bubbly, and quirky people-pleaser. Joshua Templeman is a tall, unfriendly, and slightly broody grump. They work side-by-side in a publisher’s office after a merger, each coming from one of the merged companies, and they despise each other, which gets expressed through their many passive-aggressive games. I’m not a big fan of the enemies-to-lovers trope because I often find it hard to forgive all the things that were done and said when they were still in the enemies stage. But I think Thorne was pretty careful to make the things neither over-the-top nor unforgivable. Joshua does say some mean things, but I think he doesn’t realize how personally she takes it. Basically, he’s lashing out because he’s mad at her for being so attractive to him.

Lucy and Josh are both really well-drawn as characters. Lucy is spelled out a little better because it’s all her point of view. She’s very lonely and not sure she’s doing the right thing with her life even though she cares tremendously about her job. She works hard and nobody can doubt her dedication. When the opportunity for a new role that would be a promotion comes up and she and Josh will be competing for it, her boss thinks she should get it—and so do we. As she prepares the application and continues her games with Josh, we get to see her grow and learn what she really wants out of life. It isn’t obvious in the beginning what Josh’s deal is, but we learn as the book progresses about his history and kind of understand why he’s a grump. The chemistry between them is palpable and there’s loads of sexual tension all over the place. “He smoothes down the T-shirt. My eyes slither along behind his hand. I want to scrunch up that T-shirt into a bowl and eat it with a dessert spoon.” It’s such a relief when they finally do get together.

On to a few other aspects of the book. Their banter is great—clever and flirty at times. The games themselves are funny. The setting of the office will be familiar to a lot of readers and everyone who’s worked in one will appreciate the antics of the workplace. And the company morale event is great.

I do feel obligated to mention that as much as I loved the book, it wasn’t perfect. For one, the size differential between Lucy and Josh is a little cliche, isn’t it? The book is sort of interestingly set… nowhere. It’s impossible to know where it takes place—I kind of guessed it was in Australia because that’s where the author is based, but it didn’t feel particularly Australian. This didn’t bother me a lot but some readers who care about setting will probably be irritated. I was also a little disappointed by how Josh solved their main problem all on his own without consulting Lucy at all. Finally, I wanted in Josh’s head sometimes, so it was kind of a bummer to have only Lucy’s POV.

But these little nit-picks didn’t keep me from enjoying it immensely. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Thorne’s next book.

Bittersweet (True North #1) by Sarina Bowen

Bittersweet book cover

Although I first came to Sarina Bowen through her Ivy Years series, which I loved, the True North series made her my favorite romance author. She draws you into her characters’ hearts like nobody else.

Bittersweet is set in rural Vermont and features Audrey and Griff, who had a couple of college hookups that never went any further. Now they’re in their mid-twenties and have moved beyond college frivolity. Griff’s father recently died and now he’s effectively running the family farm. Fortunately, he has a great family and a couple employees who help keep the well-oiled machine going. Audrey is a college dropout who keeps screwing up, but she’s got herself together and is really, really trying this time—especially after successfully completing culinary school and even excelling there. Unsurprisingly, what she really wants is to be a chef, but it’s not the kind of job you just walk into. For the time being, she works for a Boston restaurant conglomerate, which sends her to the wilds of Vermont to get produce and other organic products.

So they’re both shocked when Audrey ends up on Griff’s farm trying to buy his apples and cider. They’re not exactly enthusiastic about the little reunion. Griff just wants Audrey to go away because he’s assumed she’s the same girl she was at eighteen. Audrey’s a little more generous with Griff, despite the fact that he’s become a grumpy bear, but she needs him to agree to sell his ciders to her. Griff mocks her job (and Audrey herself): “So his new plan is to send a hot sorority girl in a halter top and short skirt to dazzle the poor hicks who grow his food.”

Still, when things go a little haywire with her rental car, she ends up hanging around a bit and even making a moan-worthy barbecue sauce for Griff’s whole family. And despite the mild animosity between them, it isn’t long before the reminder of why exactly they’d hooked up five years earlier rears its head and they get it on in an outside shower. “Then she stopped, her chin tilting upward. Her expression was a dare. And I always took a dare.” It’s mighty hot.

After that the chemistry is off the charts. Audrey sticks around to continue her job and they manage to meet up regularly. Both Griff and Audrey are complicated and interesting characters. Audrey has a strained relationship with her difficult and unusual mother who’s constantly disappointed by Audrey’s life choices. And Griff has the weight of the world on his shoulders with his responsibilities. It’s a lot of fun to watch them grow—Audrey finally comes into her own, getting past her previous failures, and Griff remembers how to chill out and enjoy life a bit. The other characters are also wonderful, all different and incredibly well-drawn. It’s pretty obvious who will be featured in the next books in the series, because you already want their stories. Jude the recovering addict, Zach the recovering cult member, and Griff’s family are all great.

Now, not everyone might appreciate the detail that Bowen goes into with the cooking and farming, but if you like reading food porn, you’ll be getting off regularly with this book. Both meals and the organic produce feature heavily as they are Audrey and Griff’s passions (well, a couple of them). A lot of time is spent in the minutiae of farm life and cooking, much of it going right over my head (I never cook and don’t know crap about farms), but what I did grasp was actually quite interesting. You can’t fault the setting building. You also can’t help but effortlessly pick up some knowledge, if you are a city person and enjoy learning about things.

I highly recommended both the book itself and the audiobook from Downpour.