Book Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silva Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a sweeping romance with a dash of magic.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina—and himself—that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

A book doesn’t have to be long to be a completely immersive reading experience. Case in point: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — a 320-page novel that left me feeling utterly transported.

The Beautiful Ones was originally published in 2017, but is being reissued this month via Tor Books, with a gorgeous new cover. I hope this book gets tons of attention — it’s definitely one of my top reads of the year.

From the very first page, we’re swept up in a love story that feels desperate, epic, and heart-pounding all at once.

Ten years earlier, a pair of nineteen-year-olds, Hector and Valerie, fell madly in love. But their relationship was unsanctioned and seemingly faced impossible hurdles. Hector was a young, poor performer, but Valerie was one of the “Beautiful Ones” — a descendent of an old-money upper class society family. Valerie’s family, however, having lost its fortune, was relying on Valerie marrying wealth in order to redeem them from impending disaster. Hector and Valerie pledged to marry and became secretly engaged, and then he left to seek his fortune — only to receive a letter from Valerie several months later, letting him know she’d married someone else.

The world of The Beautiful Ones is familiar in many ways, yet with its own oddities. It has a Victorian feel to it, with a huge emphasis on manners, class distinctions, reputation, and social connections. At the same time, this is a world where people may have rare talents, such as Hector’s telekinesis — which elevates him to heights of fame and admiration, but which in a woman is considered somewhat gauche, a bit of a magic trick that polite women don’t display in public.

“Nina, if you want to play these games in the privacy of your room, I will not chide you, but in the presence of others, you should restrain yourself…

“It is not normal. It is a performance at a fair, like the freaks they display for a few coins…

“I don’t mean you. I mean, in general, these are carnival games, these are things unfit for ladies.”

The story is centered in the city of Losail, considered the epicenter of fashion and society. There’s a continent called Iblevald where Hector spends ten years exploring and performing, which sounds tropical and dangerous, with cities as well as undeveloped areas. Losail sounds like it could be in France (certainly, many of the names are French or French-inspired), but this is really a world that’s not ours, so the comparisons only go so far.

As the story begins, Hector returns from his ten years abroad, now a wealthy and famous man, appearing in performances in Losail to great fanfare. Why Losail? Because that’s where he’s heard that Valerie and her husband live, and after all these years, he’s still obsessed. He knows she’s married, but he can’t help himself — he has to see her, be near her once again.

As he attends his first social engagement, he’s crushingly disappointed to learn that Valerie is not present, but instead ends up meeting Antonina — who prefers to be called Nina — Valerie’s husband’s young cousin who is staying with the couple as she enters her first social season. Nina is sweet, impulsive, not held back by manners, and very, very curious. She also has talents of her own — telekinetic powers that come out when she’s particularly emotional, usually without her control, which have earned her scorn and a nickname (the Witch of Oldhouse) back in her country village.

Nina is starstruck and full of admiration for Hector, but he sees her as a means to an end — getting close to Valerie again. As Hector starts to court Nina, he’s clearly using her, but even as his obsession with Valerie continues, Nina’s essential goodness begins to impress him in unexpected ways.

But then Nina smiled. It was like looking down and finding the first green sprouts rising from the frozen, black earth. Almost invisible and yet there, heralding spring.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stick to major themes instead of plot points from here on out. The Beautiful Ones has the breathless feel of a romantic tragedy, but there are also moments of joy and sweetness and emotional connection. The obsession that at first had me thinking of Wuthering Heights turns into something else, and I loved both Nina and Hector’s emotional journeys over the course of the book.

The book includes chapters from different points of view, and it’s fascinating and illuminating to be inside Nina, Hector, and Valerie’s heads. Each are very, very different, and the intentions (and manipulations) that become apparent can be moving or shocking, depending on whose POV we’re focused on in any given moment.

I was thoroughly spellbound as I read this book, and found it hard to focus on anything else in my life until I could sit back down and keep reading. There’s so much drama and tension, and it all builds to an unforgettable set of confrontations and consequences.

Nina herself is a fabulous character, with hidden depths, a core of steel, an undeniable curiosity and intelligence, and a heart that wants nothing more than to love and be loved. She makes this book so enjoyable, and you can’t help rooting for her happiness at every turn.

I love the elegance and the urgency of The Beautiful Ones. There’s a tense, dramatic mood created right from the start, and I couldn’t help fall under the spell of the beautiful writing and the magical atmosphere that builds from page to page.

The Beautiful Ones is a must-read! Don’t miss it.

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Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!

Book Review: Maggie Finds Her Muse by Dee Ernst

Title: Maggie Finds Her Muse
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A sparkling romantic comedy starring a bestselling author who goes to Paris to overcome writer’s block and rediscovers family, independence, and love along the way.

All Maggie Bliss needs to do is write. Forty-eight years old and newly single (again!), she ventures to Paris in a last-ditch effort to finish her manuscript. With a marvelous apartment at her fingertips and an elegant housekeeper to meet her every need, a finished book—and her dream of finally taking her career over the top—is surely within her grasp. After all, how could she find anything except inspiration in Paris, with its sophistication, food, and romance in the air?

But the clock is running out, and between her charming ex-husband arriving in France for vacation and a handsome Frenchman appearing one morning in her bathtub, Maggie’s previously undisturbed peace goes by the wayside. Charming and heartfelt, Dee Ernst’s Maggie Finds Her Muse is a delightful and feel-good novel about finding love, confidence, and inspiration in all the best places.

What a refreshing change to read a romance with a mature woman in the lead role!

Maggie is a successful romance writer, but she’s stuck. The second book in her current trilogy is about to be released, and she’s fast approaching the deadline for book #3. There’s a lot at stake, including a potential TV option that will take her to the next level of financial success and finally enable her to buy the beach house of her dreams. The problem is, Maggie is completely blocked. She’s got nothing on the page, and she just can’t ask for another extension.

Her trusted agent Lee offers a change of scenery as a desperate last-ditch effort to get her writing again: Come to Paris with him and his husband, live in their fabulous apartment free of charge, and let the Parisian vibe restore her to full inspiration once again.

After dumping her live-in boyfriend (who gives off a traditional romance alpha-male vibe, but is actually a self-centered leech), Maggie sets off to Paris. And soon, her creative juices start flowing again. But Maggie is a writer who relies on superstition (like wearing the same old sweater every single day until she finishes a book), and she starts to believe that Max, a charming Parisian who happens to be staying in the apartment as well, might just be her new muse. But what happens if Max leaves? How will she keep writing if her flesh-and-blood inspiration isn’t present any longer?

Along the way, Maggie spends time with her adult daughter and her ex-husband — her first love, who’s newly retired and interested in rekindling their romance after all these years. And yes, it might be nice to spend more time with Alan, who’s lovely and intelligent and comfortable — but what about that spark she feels whenever Max is around?

There’s a lot to love about Maggie Finds Her Muse. As I said at the start of this review, three cheers for a romantic heroine who’s not in her 20s! I love reading about a smart, successful, motivated woman who’s able to take charge of her professional and personal life. Maggie isn’t perfect — she has insecurities and doubts, but she’s also lived life and has learned a lot about herself, her needs, and what she expects from a potential partner.

“Do you think a person becomes too old for love?”

… “No, I don’t think you’re ever too old,” I said. “But I do think that how you love changes. The things you look for when you’re young are not the same ones you want when you’re older. Not in your life, or in the person you want to share it with.”

It was really fun reading about her writing process, and I liked hearing about the story elements she explores over the course of the book. While her actual book doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d ever read (war-torn romantic drama), I was amused by scenes of her figuring out blocking by having her friends act out action sequences. I did feel not quite so charmed by the setting of her books, an invented country with vaguely foreign elements, which sounds like a Westerner’s standard generic anywhere-but-here kind of setting — warlords, non-English names that are hard to pinpoint, desperate escapes through deserts and mountains… It all feels a little too America-centric, like anyplace that’s not the US must be uncivilized and “other”. But I’m probably over-analyzing. After all, this is romance!

The Paris setting is delicious, of course. Maggie enjoys the food, the sights, the people, the customs, and so we as readers get to do so as well. It made me want to pick up and fly to Paris RIGHT NOW, but only if my trip would include a marvelous flat and totally chic and supportive housekeeper/cook/emotional guide like Maggie has.

“Maman, you cut me to the quick,” Max said, eyes twinkling. “surely, there’s room in one of those books for a dashing older gentleman who can ignite a bit of passion, non?”

Oui. That’s definitely a oui.

As for the romantic elements, Maggie and Max are well-matched and are clearly the pairing to root for in the romantic triangle. Max is suave, kind, confident, and totally supportive of Maggie. They’re not without their difficulties, but I like that Maggie, as a romance writer, is very much aware of the genre tropes, and is horrified when her friends point out that she has fallen into a romance novel complication in her real life.

“Maggie,” Alison soothed, “what I think Cheri is trying to say is that maybe you were the victim of A Great Misunderstanding.”

I sat very still.

A Great Misunderstanding is a commonly used device in romance writing wherein the hero or heroine says something that is completely misconstrued by the other party, and chapters of angst and possible revenge sex happen before the truth is finally known. I hate A Great Misunderstanding and have never used it in any of my books, if for no other reason than if I did, neither Cheri nor Alison would ever read anything I wrote ever again.

“No,” I whispered.

Overall, Maggie Finds Her Muse is a sweet, delightful read. The characters are smart and relatable, and I couldn’t help but want every single one of the people we meet to get a perfect HEA.

From reading the author bio on Goodreads, I learned that Dee Ernst specializes in writing older (okay, I hate calling them that — let’s say age 40+) leading characters, and I think that’s awesome. This is an author whose work I’ll be following!

Book Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Title: Second First Impressions
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

From the USA Today  bestselling author of The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine comes the clever, funny, and unforgettable story of a muscular, tattooed man hired as an assistant to two old women—under the watchful eye of a beautiful retirement home manager.

Ruthie Midona is a 25-year-old who seems to have found her niche, living on-site in a cottage at the retirement community where she works. She’s there 24/7, except when she dashes out on an errand for one of the residents, and obsessively checks all doors and locks, is available at a moment’s notice whenever needed, and takes her job very, very seriously.

She also gives off a 95-year-old vibe, as Teddy Prescott laughingly tells her when they first meet at a gas station. He thinks she’s in costume as an old lady, down to the glasses on a chain around her neck, until she sternly lets him know that no, this is just how she dresses.

But not for long.

While Ruthie’s boss Sylvia is off on a cruise, Ruthie is temporarily filling in as the property’s office manager, and she hires a vivacious temp to help her out. Melanie is 22, fun, creative, and very invested in turning Ruthie back into someone who acts her own age, and decides to set Ruthie on an improvement plan aimed at loosening her up and getting her to date and find true love.

A complication arises when the new property owner shows up with his directionless son… and of course, it’s the guy from the gas station: a very attractive man with glorious, gorgeous long hair and a body that’s covered in ink. Teddy is more than meets the eye, though. Sure, at first glance he’s a good-looking charmer with no job, living off his family’s wealth — but he’s actually a gifted tattoo artist who dreams of opening his own studio, rather than settling down, getting a haircut, and going into the family business. Teddy’s dad gives him no choice — he’s cutting him off financially, and can either find a way to support himself or accept that the business is his future.

Teddy moves into the other side of Ruthie’s cottage and takes a job working for the fearsome Parloni sisters — two elderly women who go through young male assistants incessantly, driving them away through crazy tasks and unceasing demands. Teddy is made of just the right stuff, though, and is a hit with the ladies… and as he settles into the cottage, he reveals to Ruthie that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

I was a little skeptical at the beginning… but my “second first impression” of this book is that it’s really quite charming! Ruthie and Teddy are so different at first glance, but they soon learn how much they connect once they get past first impressions. Teddy has no boundaries and impinges on Ruthie’s space and time constantly, but as Ruthie soon learns, she’s cut herself off so much from real human contact that having someone around who’s actually interested and cares is a jolt to her system.

I really liked seeing their connection develop, from simple shared tasks to opening up about their hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities, to sharing the hurts from their pasts that have led them to where they are at this point in their lives. They each have a lot to get over, and finding a way toward their dreams will be difficult, but knowing one another gives them each a new burst of strength and inspiration.. and even hope.

The characters are sweet and fun and entertaining, and the setting at the retirement community is adorable without coming across as saccharine. (Side note — why do I keep encountering romance novels set at senior homes? Is this a thing now? Because as sweet as this is in fiction, the reality is far grimmer than a bunch of eccentric old folks just needing someone young and attractive to organize a prom for them.)

I’m not typically a fan of workplace romances in fiction, but this one worked for me, maybe because the office pieces are mostly offset by time spent on the property, interacting with the residents and the high volume of tortoises who make their home there.

The writing is cute and quirky, and some of the wording made me giggle:

Every time he looks up and seeks eye contact with me, I know that complete dazzlification has occurred.

I’m not sure I quite understood this one, but that’s okay:

He reaches for me, maybe to smooth the hair back from my face, but my grenade pin is caught on his pinky.

But I do think this is funny:

The shine in his hair gives me a candle-flicker in my uterus.

There really are lots of adorable moments of banter and flirtation, but I guess I neglected to bookmark them as I devoured this book. You’ll just have to read the book to find them!

Second First Impressions is a great spring/summer read. It verges maybe too far into the fantasy realm, in that I couldn’t see characters like these actually connecting in real life. Still, as light entertainment, it’s a fun, positive, and uplifting read, and makes for a nice escape from the real world!

Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!

Audiobook Review: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop by Jenny Colgan

Title: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2013
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 31 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rosie Hopkins is looking forward to Christmas in the little Derbyshire village of Lipton, buried under a thick blanket of snow. Her sweetshop is festooned with striped candy canes, large tempting piles of Turkish Delight, crinkling selection boxes and happy, sticky children. She’s going to be spending it with her boyfriend, Stephen, and her family, flying in from Australia. She can’t wait.

But when a tragedy strikes at the heart of their little community, all of Rosie’s plans for the future seem to be blown apart. Can she build a life in Lipton? And is what’s best for the sweetshop also what’s best for Rosie?

A Christmas-themed book is such a non-typical reading choice for me — unless it’s a book by Jenny Colgan, and especially if it includes favorite characters and is a follow-up to a favorite book!

I absolutely adored Sweetshop of Dreams, and just needed to keep main character Rosie in my life a little longer, so naturally, I couldn’t resist starting Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop right away.

This 2nd book in the series (it’s a trilogy) picks up about a year after the events in the first book. Rosie is happily settled in the little town of Lipton, running the town sweetshop, living with her beloved boyfriend Stephen, and feeling happier than she’s ever felt in her her life.

As Christmas approaches, things are looking good. Rosie’s family is about to arrive from Australia (although she hasn’t quite gotten around to telling Stephen yet). Stephen has just started his dream job teaching at the little local primary school. They’re happy in their cozy cottage, and Rosie is relieved to know that her great-aunt Lillian is happy too in her retirement home, where she merrily raises holy hell amongst the old folks and is as feisty as ever.

But tragedy strikes due to a freak accident that injures Stephen and threatens the future of Lipton’s school. As Stephen recovers and Rosie’s family hits town, tensions rise and eventually come to a head. Meanwhile, because of the accident, an elderly man suffering from dementia ends up in Lipton, and appears to have connections to the town that no one could have imagined.

Once again, Jenny Colgan’s book strikes just the right note of joy and love, while blending in dramatic complications and moments of fear. The tensions play out throughout the plot, but we readers can rest easy knowing that the author would never truly leave us in devastation. There are sweet secrets revealed, plenty of feel-good family moments, adorableness from small children, dramatic rescues, and plenty of romantic highlights too.

As the 2nd book in a trilogy, Christmas at Rosie Hopkin’s Sweetshop left me very happy, but also eager to read more about these characters — most of who I’d like to either hang out with or give big hugs to, or both.

This was a quick and cheery listen that also packs in emotional moments and enough worries and sorrow to keep it from going too far over the line into a nonstop sugary utopia. I’ve loved both books about Rosie, and need to start #3 immediately! Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

Title: Sweetshop of Dreams
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Beverley A. Crick
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: 2012
Print length: 422 pages
Audio length: 12 hours 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A delicious rom-com about finding yourself and breaking out of routines, The Sweetshop of Dreams is full of tempting desserts, family secrets, and second chances.

Rosie Hopkins has gotten used to busy London life. It’s…comfortable. And though she might like a more rewarding career, and her boyfriend’s not exactly the king of romance, Rosie’s not complaining. And when she visits her Aunt Lilian’s small country village to help sort out her sweetshop, she expects it to be dull at best.

Lilian Hopkins has spent her life running Lipton’s sweetshop, through wartime and family feuds. When her great-niece Rosie arrives to help her with the shop, the last thing Lillian wants to slow down and wrestle with the secret history hidden behind the jars of beautifully colored sweets.

But as Rosie gets Lilian back on her feet, breathes a new life into the candy shop, and gets to know the mysterious and solitary Stephen–whose family seems to own the entire town–she starts to think that settling for what’s comfortable might not be so great after all.

A one-sentence review: I loved this audiobook!

Need more?

Jenny Colgan’s books inevitably lift my spirits and get me deeply involved in her characters’ lives, and Sweetshop of Dreams is no exception.

Rosie is an auxiliary nurse, working busy hospital shifts and living in a small London flat with her boyfriend Gerard, who’s maybe a little too comfortable with their living arrangements. She thinks he’ll propose… eventually… but meanwhile, it’s been years, and he seems perfectly content with the status quo.

But after Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian injures her hip, Rosie’s mother Angie asks her to go stay with Lilian for a little while. Someone needs to get Lilian moved into a care facility and get her ancient sweetshop prepped for sale. And since Angie is currently living in Australia with Rosie’s brother’s family, it falls on Rosie to see to the family obligations in England.

Off Rosie goes to the small country village of Lipton, thinking she’ll be in and out in a matter of weeks. What she finds, though, is that Lilian’s shop hasn’t been opened in a few years, and that Lilian herself is underfed and weak, having stubbornly refused outside help or to leave her cozy little cottage. Rosie dives in, tending to Lilian and cleaning up and reopening the shop — because how can she put it on the market to sell unless she can demonstrate that it’s a viable business?

The longer Rosie stays in Lipton, the more she becomes involved in village life. Even though she sticks out like a sore thumb at first, with her city ways and clothes that can’t withstand the country weather, she eventually makes friends and finds a new purpose in life.

In a dual-timeline approach, we also get little snippets of Lilian’s life during the 1940s, as the young men of the village head to war and Lilian helps her father with the sweetshop. Through these flashbacks, we learn about why Lilian has been alone all these years and what caused the heartbreak she experienced so long ago.

Rosie is a lovely character, upbeat and curious and not afraid to jump in when a pair of hands are needed. Although she’s there for the shop and for Lilian, she also becomes friends with the village doctor, who involves Rosie in his most challenging case — which leads to a whole new set of possibilities for Rosie after she finally dumps her city boyfriend.

I really enjoyed Lilian as a character as well, and found myself so moved by her backstory and her experiences. The book treats Lilian with great respect as she ages, and I found her relationship with Rosie to be just so sweet and lovely.

And the sweetshop!!! Can I just say right now that I’d love to live inside it for a year or so? It sounds so bright and wonderful, full of nostalgic treats and joy and happiness. This book makes village life seem like something idyllic and peaceful and funny and wonderful.

The audiobook narrator, Beverley A. Crick, does a terrific job with Rosie and Lillian, but also masterfully conveys the voices and personalities of the other village residents, from small schoolboy to grumpy old farmers. Listening to this book was such a treat!

Sweetshop of Dreams does include a love story for Rosie, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the sole focus of the book. Instead, this book is a sweet mix of romance, quirky characters, family bonds, and a celebration of community, and it’s utterly enjoyable.

As with the best of Jenny Colgan’s books, Sweetshop of Dreams kept me enchanted by the setting and the people, and left me wanting to spend more time with all of these characters. Luckily for me, there’s a follow-up Christmas book (Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop), and while I don’t normally read Christmas books, I just can’t resist this one!

Book Review: A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong

Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: October 31, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Time slip/ghost story
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.

Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past. 

Who doesn’t love a good time-slip/haunted house/ghost story romance? I was ready to love this book from page 1.

At age 38, Bronwyn is an established history professor, a widow of eight years, and the new owner of Thorne Manor, the Yorkshire estate she’s just inherited from her great-aunt. Some of her happiest memories are from her summers at Thorne Manor, but also, some of her worst.

As a small child, Bronwyn finds a time slip, allowing her to travel back in time 200 years to play with William, a boy her age who lives in the house. At age five, her family chalks up her William experiences to having an imaginary friend. After an absence of ten years due to her parents’ divorce, Bronwyn returns at age 15, and once again slips back and forth in time. This time around, William is also 15, and their friendship begins to blossom into love. But a family tragedy occurs in Bronwyn’s time, and she leaves Thorne Manor, seemingly for good.

As the story opens, adult Bronwyn arrives back at the manor once more. She’s convinced herself that her time with William wasn’t real, so she’s startled by a vivid dream where she wakes up in his bed. Soon, she realizes that the time slips are real after all, and she is able to reconnect with William, who is now an adult as well.

William at first is angry and tries to send her away, believing she abandoned him all those years ago. As they spend time together, he’s able to understand why she disappeared from his life, and their reunion quickly becomes passionate as they fall back into the love that started so many years earlier.

There are complications. Bronwyn, in her own time, sees ghosts. She encounters three very distinct ghosts, and all seem to have messages for her. Are they trying to warn her or scare her away?

In William’s time, she learns that he’s retreated to his country home in part because of scandal and rumors. His younger sister has disappeared, his best friend’s wife has disappeared and is presumed dead, and his former fiancée is missing as well. Gossip depicts William as a murderous mad lord, luring victims to their death on the moors. Can any of this be true? Bronwyn doesn’t believe William is capable of murder, but clearly, someone killed the people who haunt her own time, and she’s determined to learn the truth and free the spirits of the dead.

Ah, what a fun, captivating read! Yes, a big suspension of disbelief is required, but that’s to be expected in a novel where the main plot hinges on slipping through time.

I loved that Bronwyn is a mature, professional woman with a clear head on her shoulders. She’s smart and reasonable, and has also suffered in her life. She understands love and loss, and while William was her first love, he wasn’t her only love. It’s also pretty cool to see her enjoy her time in William’s world not just as a romantic interlude, but as an amazing experience as an historian, learning all she can about daily life in that era from first-hand experience.

The mystery is really well constructed and kept me guessing. The author does such a skillful job of sprinkling clues and red herrings that my suspicions really were all over the place, and I definitely went down the wrong path in my mind. I was pleased with the resolution and how well the answers fit together with what we’d learned about the various characters.

William and Bronwyn have great chemistry and mutual respect. I love that even when they’re trying to figure out what a future together might look like, Bronwyn never considers giving up her own world to live in his. She values her career, her independence, and her friends and family — she’ll spend as much time with William as she can, but she won’t make him her entire world. And to his credit, he doesn’t ask that of her.

I did find the time-slipping a little too easy. Bronwyn can basically slip back and forth at will, so that it starts to feel practically ordinary. If William has a busy day ahead, she’ll plan to pop back home to take care of her kitten and return for dinner. It starts to sound as if she’s just going down the road, rather than jumping back and forth across centuries.

Also, I had to laugh that Bronwyn has her smartphone with her when she time-slips, and that William just accepts that she can take photos and play music with her bizarre little device. And, the fact that William has apparently added to his fortune by investing based on what he learned about the future from 15-year-old Bronwyn… ummm, okay.

Still, I will freely admit that my secretly-a-sucker-for-a-good-romance heart really enjoyed the love story, and I got very caught up in the ghosts and murder mystery too.

A Stitch in Time is, plain and simple, a sweep-you-up kind of romantic tale, with great gothic elements to make it so much more.

I’ve never read any books by this author before now, but I understand that she’s a prolific urban fantasy writer and that A Stitch in Time was a big departure for her. Well done! Goodreads lists this book as the first of two, which confuses me a little because the story has a very satisfactory ending.

Still, if the story of Thorne Manor, William and Bronwyn, and time slips continues? I’ll be there for it.

Book Review: In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Title: In a Holidaze
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One Christmas wish, two brothers, and a lifetime of hope are on the line for hapless Maelyn Jones in In a Holidaze, the quintessential holiday romantic novel by Christina Lauren, the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…but not for Maelyn Jones. She’s living with her parents, hates her going-nowhere job, and has just made a romantic error of epic proportions.

But perhaps worst of all, this is the last Christmas Mae will be at her favorite place in the world—the snowy Utah cabin where she and her family have spent every holiday since she was born, along with two other beloved families. Mentally melting down as she drives away from the cabin for the final time, Mae throws out what she thinks is a simple plea to the universe: Please. Show me what will make me happy.

The next thing she knows, tires screech and metal collides, everything goes black. But when Mae gasps awake…she’s on an airplane bound for Utah, where she begins the same holiday all over again. With one hilarious disaster after another sending her back to the plane, Mae must figure out how to break free of the strange time loop—and finally get her true love under the mistletoe.

Jam-packed with yuletide cheer, an unforgettable cast of characters, and Christina Lauren’s trademark “downright hilarious” (Helen Hoang, author of The Bride Test) hijinks, this swoon-worthy romantic read will make you believe in the power of wishes and the magic of the holidays.

As a rule, I do not read Christmas-themed books. But, rules are made to be broken, especially when the Christmas-themed book in question is by Christina Lauren, the author duo whose books I always seem to love.

In a Holidaze is a feel-good holiday story with a little bit of Groundhog Day mixed in as a twist. Maelyn Jones loves her family’s Christmas tradition. For as long as she can remember, her parents, their college best friends, and the assorted offspring gather at a cabin in Utah to catch up and celebrate. It’s the best sort of found family.

The only downside for Mae is that her teen crush on Andrew Hollis, the older of two brothers who are sons of the cabin owners, has morphed over the years into unrequited love. For ten years, Mae has pined for Andrew, but Andrew has never looked at her as more than a kid sister.

This year, Mae’s holiday gets complicated. On the last night at the cabin, she drunkenly makes out with Andrew’s younger brother Theo, which she instantly regrets. Not only that, but Andrew’s parents inform everyone that they’re selling the cabin, so this is the last year of the traditional Christmas holiday together.

Mae is upset and depressed, and not at all excited about going back to her disappointing life and job back home. A random car accident on the drive back to the airport launches Mae into an impossible new reality — she wakes up back on the airplane on the way to the cabin to start the holiday all over again.

Of course, no one else realizes that anything weird is afoot, but Mae is freaking out. After a couple more reboots, each caused by a seemingly fatal accident, Mae is determined to stop being so cautious and timid and just go for what she wants… and that includes telling Andrew how she feels.

From here, it’s a feel-good romance, as lifelong friends discover passion and deep emotional connection. The setting is such fun — a snowy cabin, a big family, holiday traditions like sledding and setting up the tree and having snowball fights, board games and drinks by the fire. The big extended family is of course very invested in the Mae/Andrew romance, and some complications arise that almost ruin everything. But, this is a holiday romance, so despite some fears along the way, I was pretty confident that things were going to work out just fine.

Christina Lauren books are always a good time, and I really liked this one. I loved the set-up — the large group gathered at the cabin for a week — and how the different friends and family present interact, support one another, act out, make fun of each other, and show just how strong a family of friends can be.

Mae and Andrew are sweet together, and the only issue I had was that I spent the 2nd half of the book holding my breath in case another random reboot would happen and wipe out all the wonderful relationship steps these two managed to take.

In a Holidaze is really a sweet read, and is a perfect choice for when the weather turns colder. Ideally, this book should be read while wearing flannel, under a big cozy blanket, in a comfy chair next to the fireplace, while snow falls outside. Don’t forget the hot chocolate!

Book Review: Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo

Title: Ties That Tether
Author: Jane Igharo
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When a Nigerian woman falls for a man she knows will break her mother’s heart, she must choose between love and her family.

At twelve years old, Azere promised her dying father she would marry a Nigerian man and preserve her culture even after emigrating to Canada. Her mother has been vigilant about helping–forcing–her to stay well within the Nigerian dating pool ever since. But when another match-made-by-mom goes wrong, Azere ends up at a bar, enjoying the company and later sharing the bed of Rafael Castellano, a man who is tall, handsome, and white.

When their one-night stand unexpectedly evolves into something serious, Azere is caught between her growing feelings for Rafael and the compulsive need to please her mother who will never accept a relationship that threatens to dilute Azere’s Nigerian heritage.

Azere can’t help wondering if loving Rafael makes her any less of a Nigerian. Can she be with him without compromising her identity? The answer will either cause Azere to be audacious and fight for her happiness or continue as the compliant daughter.

At first glance, Ties That Tether might seem to be just another contemporary romance. But really, it’s so much more.

Right off the bat, we know that Azere has done something completely out of character. After a terrible first date with yet another mom-approved man, Azere decides to cool off by having a drink in the hotel bar… where an attractive stranger strikes up a conversation with her. After talking for hours, they end up in bed and have a fantastic night together — but Azere leaves quietly the next morning, never intending to see him again.

Azere is Nigerian Canadian, born and raised in a village that she remembers fondly, until her father’s death when she was 12 years old led the family to immigrate to Canada under the protection of her paternal uncle. While Azere and her sister Efe learned to become Canadian, Azere’s mother holds the girls to their heritage, and most of all, she holds Azere to the promise she made to her father on his deathbed: To marry a Nigerian Edo man.

Azere feels guilt over her one-night stand, because she’s never been with a non-Nigerian man before, but intends to move on and be a dutiful daughter once again, until the man in question, Rafael, shows up in her office as a new hire with whom she’ll be working closely. Rafael is white, of Spanish decent, and is nothing like the type of man her mother would approve of. But there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two of them — and then something complicates matters further (no spoilers from me!) in a way that guarantees that Azere and Rafael will have to deal with their feelings for one another.

Besides the terrific connection between Azere and Rafael, this book really shines when it comes to exploring the immigrant experience, spotlighting the pressure to be loyal to one’s heritage while at the same time trying to establish a new life in a new world.

I’ve been compromising for thirteen years, rearranging things so I can exist in two different worlds. Now, he wants me to exist in a third — his. I can’t do that. And maybe I’m being unreasonable and even selfish, but I’m terrified — terrified that adopting Rafael’s culture will put me at great risk of losing mine. After all, my mother warned me of the possibility.

Azere is a wonderful character. She adores romantic movies, which I find incredibly endearing. She can pull out rom-com quotes or comparisons for seemingly any occasion, and it’s just so cute.

Our bodies are in perfect sync, complementing the band’s tempo. I’ve somehow been transported into the movie Dirty Dancing. I’m Baby and Rafael is Johnny.

Azere tries so hard to be the good daughter her mother expects, but her mother leaves her no room for anything but the way she thinks she should be, going so far as to threaten to disown Azere if she persists in a relationship with Rafael. It’s a terrible situation, and the author lets us see the awful pain Azere experiences, being forced to choose her family or the man she loves, with no middle ground available.

The book does a very convincing job of showing the challenges of being an outsider in a new country — particularly for children, who are expected to live up to family expectations and keep traditions alive, yet whose day-to-day existence can be brutal at an age where differences can mean exclusion. Only by adjusting their clothing, food, and other outward signs of their culture can Azere and Efe finally make friends and fit in as young girls.

The writing is lovely, letting us inside Azere’s head (and occasionally Rafael’s), showing the heightened emotions of falling in love without going too far over the top… and sometimes, surprising with how powerful simple words can be.

From Azere:

Whenever he kisses me, no matter how brief, reason eludes me, and I forget I’m kissing lying lips.

And from Rafael:

This is my rescue mission. Though, unlike the fairy-tale-themed movies she once made me watch, there are no dragons to slay or evil queens to overthrow. In this case, the damsel stands as her own obstacle. So rather than using a sword or a life-restoring kiss, I use words, hoping to wake her from the obligation-induced trance she’s been in for years.

The course of true love never did run smooth, so of course there are all sorts of issues beyond the cultural differences that stand between Azere and Rafael. Still, given the nature of romances, there’s never any doubt that these two will end up together — it’s just a question of how, and how long it will take.

The author, like Azere, immigrated from Nigeria to Canada at age 12, and it’s obvious that she knows what’s she’s talking about. Azere’s struggles and experiences feel authentic and realistically portrayed. She’s a wonderful main character, and I loved seeing the care and thoughtfulness she devotes to fulfilling her own romantic destiny while not discarding her family heritage.

I really enjoyed this book, start to finish. It’s a quick and captivating read that pulled me in right from the start. The romance itself is terrific, full of steam and attraction, as well as true emotion and vulnerability. If anything, Rafael is maybe a shade too perfect (and even though Azere has cause to distrust him, we readers know perfectly well that he’s hiding bits of his past for valid reasons and can guess what those reasons are). As a couple, Rafael and Azere are easy to root for — they’re just so right for each other.

Ties That Tether is a delight. Don’t miss it!