Review: The Rise Of Virginie by Katey Hawthorne

Virginie
Cover designed by Natasha Snow

I would rate this 4 stars.

Stefan is homeless, couchsurfing from friend to friend. Whilst staying with Megan, they decide to start a new band. Since she had a previous bad experience dating her bandmade Deanna, they make a vow to not have sex within the band. Sounds simple, yet Stefan’s fear that no one will want him around without sex highlights what his life has been like since leaving home. When he meets Han, who works at the library, they eventually bond over poetry and music. Han is one of the only POC in this small town in West Virginia. Being the reverend’s adopted son, he’s set up as a good boy; a virgin who sings in the church choir. This alternates between the first person point of view of Stefan and Han as they grow closer. Once they add Deanna as the base player, the four of them form a queer punk band named Virginie.

Stefan and Han are writing original songs together in between working at their jobs and practicing covers with the band. I liked the song lyrics in this, the poetry. The no sex rule actually allows Stefan to get to know Han without falling into his default of meaningless sex or friends with benefits. Once they start having sex (because of course they do) everything is playful; Han gets to experiment and learn from a friend. Things start moving forward for them when they get noticed by a promoter and talent agent. Of course, that’s went everything implodes, both with jealousies within the band, and Stefan’s mother Angela, who is a drug addict in an abusive relationship.

What I really liked about this was the things I expected to be a big deal (e.g. Han coming out, premarital sex, religion) weren’t. Addiction is a major storyline in this book, so petty dramas fall by the wayside. Most of the conflict comes due to Stefan’s past abuse and trauma. This book also tackles many issues through the music: Big Pharma, the opioid problem, and condescension towards the poor and Southerners. I did wonder if the difference in upbringing between Stefan and Han would be too huge a crevasse to bridge, but Han works hard to educate himself so he can be a good friend and support to Stefan. It was nice to see Han’s father be a positive and supportive Christian character. Han’s mother takes longer to come around, but Han’s issues with his mother are not all about Stefan. Caring too much what other people think, judging children because of their parents, lack of empathy and shaming others–these things divide communities. So while this is a cute story about young adults trying to become a successful band, with lots of fun sex, the author puts the band in it’s context geopolitically, and that makes all the difference to elevate this above many similar works.

Katey Hawthorne’s Website

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Drawing The Prince by Kim Fielding, Stars From Peril 3

 

DrawingThePrince
© 2019 Alexandria Corza http://www.seeingstatic.com/

I would rate this 3.75 stars.

This is the third book in the Stars From Peril series. Although there is mention of Jaxon Powers and Landry Bishop from book one and two, this works well as a standalone. Cal Walters is a 23 year old artist who knows the right people. His insecurities about whether people buy his art because he’s talented or because he’s trendy due to his friends, has given him a little chip on his shoulder. Due to a bet with his friend Merc, he has to go on three blind dates. Third time’s a charm when he meets 28 year old Teofilo Vabriga-Kastav, playboy prince of the tiny nation of Porvunia and passionate art lover. Teo has insecurities of his own, never knowing if people like him for himself, or just want to be with him because of his family. He just doesn’t tell Cal he’s a prince…

The meet cute is actually, cute. I wasn’t sure about either character at first–Cal is standoffish and Teo is a bit too smooth–but their facades crumble fairly quickly. Seeing most of the book from Cal’s POV, at first he’s attracted to Teo, but not quit sure he likes him. Teo’s POV is used more sparingly to great affect. Seeing how Teo describes Cal and how Cal makes him feel hooked me into the story. He may be privileged and a bit spoiled, but he is actually a nice person and has a sincerity about him that’s surprising. Cal’s starting to develop that cynicism of living in California and being in the wealthy art scene, but he’s just a kid from Nebraska trying to protect himself. When Teo creates a painting competition in Porvunia in part to lure Cal there, they give in to their passions. Their intimate time is sexy, fun, and filled with laughter. Cal kids himself this is a one night stand, but they are already too taken with each other and he knows it’s more. Lying to yourself is difficult if you’re an honest person by nature. The dynamics here are fascinating as Cal’s in charge, even though he’s the commoner and younger. When his anxiety or fear gets the better of him in various circumstances, it’s Teo who steps in to help him relax or sort things out. They fit.

Teo’s family, his bodyguards, Cal’s friend Merc, Cal’s Gram, and other characters from the small town of Peril help move this along, but no one does more than Anita, his guide in the capital city of Velenik. She makes Porvunia feel more real with tours filled with fun historical stories. She is also loyal and proves herself to be truly caring of the prince and her royal family. This book is full of charming little details, whether of a foreign country, or of the Nebraska landscape, a thriving city or a small rural town. Still, it’s Nebraska that burns more brightly here when Con shares his home and all the people he grew up with, who have their own stories.

This really works through the opposites of being working class vs wealthy, an only child vs large family and having no father and absentee mother vs hundreds of years of extended family. Yet, their love of the arts united them. They have both had the benefit of fortunate fate and grew up having very little privacy albeit in very different fish bowls. When an emergency tears them apart, it would be easy to let life get in the way, to let it move them in different directions, but Teo is not having it. This is the point where, as farfetched as the story seems, it gets even more farfetched. For instance, Teo getting rid of his bodyguards when he should be worried about being kidnapped for ransom, or his rushing in and thinking he knows what a small town needs to “save” it. There is plenty of foreshadowing here to show the reader the way through. It’s sweet, and no matter how unlikely, I wanted it to happen just like that even if I didn’t know it at the time.

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Arctic Heat by Annabeth Albert, Frozen Hearts 3

 

ArcticHeatcover
Cover art made by Carina Press.

I would rate this 4.25 stars.

Although the third book in the series, this can be read as a standalone with no issue. Owen is a former investment banker. After a bout with cancer, he has decided to volunteer alongside park rangers in the Alaskan wilderness. There are little glimpses of his Asian family home life. His illness has made him less shallow, more willing to have fun and try new things. As a professional ranger Quill has no interest in a green city slicker volunteer but his best friend and partner Hattie has a new desk job and he can’t do his job alone. Quill hates change–set in his ways he is a private man. Owen is a people person and has the experience needed to slot into Quill’s work, and life, if Quill will let him. Owen needs to recognize some things might be more important than his bucket list. Even for people with a lot of snow experience, this is a dangerous job. If they can learn to trust each other, they can both have everything they didn’t know they wanted. This is a slow burn, opposites attract story that ratchets up the sexual tension over several months out in the wilderness together.

I like that Owen is a take charge, independent man who doesn’t take help because it’s easy, but will ask for help or listen when he needs it. I like that he is honest about how he feels and what he wants. I like that he is thoughtful, that he never takes charge in a way that would be taking advantage of Quill. Being privy to Quill’s past experiences is necessary as he doesn’t always communicate that with his words, whereas Owen will. Most of this book is about Owen battling his own wants and needs–confronting his own past traumas and unhealthy learned behaviors. Quill also accepts responsibility for his decisions, never blaming Owen for them.

This book focuses on the delicate dance of shared intimacy moving them forward, and different life experiences holding them back. The most difficult part is Quill battling the hyper-masculinity he was taught and learning to let Owen be a real partner and take charge when it’s the best thing to do instead of fighting it because he thinks he should. Owen’s cancer isn’t just mentioned once as a plot reason for this volunteer experience; it’s discussed naturally throughout the course of the book, both to explain its mental affect on Owen’s outlook, and as something a lover of his would need to know and understand. Every time I started to feel a little cabin fever, there is some emergency or situation with park visitors to break up that monotony. All the things that happen emphasize the effect of learning to live in the now and enjoying the ride. That’s when Owen’s POV is the most poignant, when he realizes this is not just fun and games to him, that things happen that can’t be planned for.

All three of the books in this series show how people think themselves into a box. I love it so much when they allow themselves to think their way out of the box too. I liked how even with the circumstances, things are not magically fixed, conflicts not glossed over. The sex scenes, always hot, ramp up as the intimacy turns them into something more. Yet, Quill’s eloquence was still a little too smooth all of the sudden, the epiphanies and big gesture a tiny over the top. Still, if that’s the only real fault I can find, that means this is a really well done, solid romance novel with likeable characters that I wanted to find happiness together.

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Review: Love Is All: Volume 2 edited by Xio Axelrod

LoveIsAllVol2
Copyright © 2019 by Xio Axelrod LLC

I would rate this whole collection 3.75 stars.

This is a charity anthology, so I tend to think of the stories as a thank you for donating money. All anthologies are a mixed bag and people will like different stories than I do, but here are a few of my favorites from this collection. There is a variety of combinations (M/M, F/F, M/M/F, M/F) with bisexual, trans, and ace represented. They are all contemporary except for the one historical, paranormal romance. The foreword by Roan Parrish is quite eloquent.

R.L. Merrill, Pinups and Puppies (F/F, 4 stars)

This is told from the first person POV of Marianne, who is struggling with grief and reintegration after her retirement from the Air Force. She owns a vintage plane and volunteers to transport dogs to help shelters who find them homes. That’s how she meets Dinah, who co-owns the shelter. They both seem to have great support systems filled with family and friends. With great chemistry, their lives and interests slot nicely together, making them a cute couple.

Susan Scott Shelley, Sugar Crush (Bliss Bakery Series) (M/M, 4.5 stars)

Jack, a horror novelist, gets to know a baker named Gabriel when he joins a softball team to help his friend Shane. This has an opposites attract trope with great sexual tension and friends as extended family. This is about fitting into someone’s life and making room for them to fit into yours–giving each other a safe space and carving out shared time, while still having their own interests. Also, not letting fear or the past get in the way of the future.

Xio Axelrod When Frankie Meets Johnny (M/M, 4.25 stars)

DJ meets contractor/teacher in this hurt/comfort tale with an age gap. This story is what you make it. I highly recommend listening to all the songs that he plays for a hell of a good time. If an artist is mentioned, but not a song, pick one that has a title that fits the scene. I would have rated this higher, but I couldn’t tell if this was Johnny’s first time with a man or he was demisexual? There is certainly a misunderstanding I think could have been handled better, but the story is charming.

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Review: Arctic Wild by Annabeth Albert, Frozen Hearts 2

Arctic Wild Cover
Cover made by Carina Press

I would rate this 4.25 stars.

This is the second book in this series, but can be read as a standalone without any issues. Rueben’s best friend Craig, the spouse of a colleague at his law firm, has talked him into finally taking a vacation for his 48th birthday. Unfortunately, his friends cancel, leaving him alone with his guide. This trip wasn’t his idea and he doesn’t want to be in Alaska. It takes time for the scenery and companionship to grow on him. After Rueben unplugs from his phone and laptop, he is grudgingly starting to have a good time, and flirt with his guide. Tobias may be a smooth talker, but he has hidden depths behind his charming personality and quick smile. He also digs out his ethics and doesn’t sleep with his client when he has the chance. By the time the plane crash happens, I was already hooked on both these characters. Tobias is devastated his injuries might keep him from helping his sisters and his dad. He has little choice but to accept help from Reuben while he recuperates. The crash mades Rueben question his future and what he wants out of it. He vows to spend more time with his 14 year old daughter Amelia. What could go wrong with renting a house for the summer for all three of them?

For a relationship guy like Rueben, who likes to care for people, to agree to a summer fling is rare. For a hookup guy like Tobias to be friends with, and basically live with someone he’s having sex with, is equally unusual. I liked watching them both learn more about themselves. It’s not the age gap coming into play so much as the fact that this is Tobias’s first real relationship; he is not used to dealing with sharing his feelings or burdens. It’s also the first time he has prioritized something he wants for himself. Tobias’s father is such a large influence on him and his thought processes, that it takes him time to navigate through his inner conflict. Rueben hasn’t had the best luck at relationships, learning to put his job first because it gave him most of his sense of self worth. He has to work through breaking old habits–relearning to prioritize his daughter over his job, his life over his work.

This had all of the great writing, depth, and hot love scenes I would expect from this author. This book had an expansion of characters without making them flat or sacrificing any of the love story for the main characters. I thought the interactions with their respective family members all rang authentic. As a long novel, this really takes its time to immerse the reader in details about the activities, scenery, and characters. I found the plane crash to be realistically described while actually adding to the character development, rather than only as an excuse to trap the MCs together. This has some great tropes: opposites attract, fish out of water, age gap, slow burn, hurt/comfort and second chances. I would recommend reading both of these and look forward to the third one.

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Review: Love Is A Walk In The Park by V.L. Locey and Stephanie Locey

LoveIsAWalkInThePark_Cover
Cover design by: Meredith Russell

I would rate this 3.75 stars.

Sullivan is a dancer with big dreams of Broadway, but has ended up teaching mostly kids and the elderly at a rundown dance studio. He has a pitbull named Princess Pizazz Periwinkle, no really. One morning he sees Duane in the dog park with his Yorkie named Tiberius. It’s lust at first sight, but Duane is shy and a little awkward about putting himself out there. Sullivan has no such issues and Duane’s roomate Ronan helps encourage Duane. Of course, Pizzy and Tibby are doggie besties from there on out.

This story is told in alternating first person so the reader gets Sullivan and Duane’s thoughts throughout the book. Although the addition of details about their friends adds depth, Sullivan’s relationship with Aliyah mostly consists of insults, his awe of her art, and the fact she wealthy and it’s her condo. Duane’s relationship with Ronan mostly consists of him listening to Duane’s dramas. The book is realistic in it’s depiction of day to day life and trying to fit relationships in between work and sleep. There always has to be a conflict and in this case, it’s external to the relationship. Be aware there is an on page sexual assault. Emergencies and our reactions to them either drawn us closer, or push us apart from people. In this case, it’s all handled fairly quickly with not a lot of detail, allowing for minimal angst on the reader’s part. The final obstacle is when Duane’s parents come for a visit. Overall this is a sweet story of boy meets boy with explicit, but low heat, love scenes and a happily ever after.

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V.L. Locey’s Website

Review: Arctic Sun by Annabeth Albert

Artic Sun Cover
Cover Art Copyright by Harlequin Enterprises Limited

I would rate this 4.5 stars

Griffin Barrett is ex-military and a recovering alcoholic mourning the loss of his best friend and a series of bad decisions. Griff’s dream is to have his own little cabin in the middle of nowhere. The only thing keeping him from being a lone mountain man is helping with his family’s wilderness adventures business. When his uncle’s surgery means he has to be the tour guide for a group booked for photography, he is way out of his comfort zone having to deal with the customers on a 10 day trip. His mother and uncle seem determined to use this as an excuse to meddle: make Griff be more social, more involved in the family business, and more involved in life in general. But Griff is using the isolation and routine to help manage his demons.

One of said customers is River Vale, a former supermodel and now travel writer. Known as a foodie and “professional nomad,” he doesn’t have or want a home. Or is that true? It seems he’s been on the run from one place to another since his mother died. It becomes clear right away he has an eating disorder but he’s not quite the pampered, spoiled model Griff was expecting. Griff’s antisocial behavor intrigues River, who is used to everyone liking him and doesn’t know what to make of Griff’s attitude. The author does a good job of setting up a dynamic where both of them are off balance during their interactions.

There is an instant opposites attract dynamic. It soon becomes apparent they both have enough baggage for an airport, and more in common than either would have thought. The seduction of a reluctant Griff is strangely fun to witness. River is enticing. What is supposed to be a casual fling gets complicated. The love scenes are meant to further the characters’ intimacy and it’s great to see that they match the personality of the characters–the scenes are about them, not just to tantalize the reader. Yes, they are still hot.

Unused to letting people know him, Griff gets attached to the one man he has finally let in. River starts to get attached to the one man who seems to actually take care of him. It’s easier to be the best you, when you are in an environment you can control. The best part of the book comes when Griff visits River in Vancouver and meets his friends; it really highlights all of the challenges they will face if they are going to be a couple. I still would have liked to see more interactions with both families and friends (even flashbacks), which would have added more depth.

One of things that often frustrates me in books is where a miscommunication about something not that important is the plot device that keeps the MCs apart just a little longer. This book is a perfect example of how to use the fear everyone has that if someone really gets to know you, warts and all, they won’t like you. The author gets into the psychology of the characters to show their vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms. But what helps these characters in survival mode, often doesn’t benefit them the rest of the time. There is no overnight fix, just the slow working out of things over time and actually talking about the difficult things. In the end, they are sweet building their life together and planning for new adventures.

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Review: Better Not Pout by Annabeth Albert

Better Not Pout Cover
Carina Press does in house covers.

I would rate this 4.25 stars.

When I read the blurb that a military policeman and an elf get caught in a snowstorm, I knew I had to read the book. I’d read anything by this author anyway, but that’s just too much fun to pass up, right? The Sergeant Major is doing a favor for his CO by playing Santa for a charity event. Teddy is the director of a charity resource center for low income people and volunteers to be an elf. As Nick and Teddy get thrown together, they’re acting like more than a hookup, but there is a short timeframe on this romance as Nick is about to retire in a month and move away from base.

There’s a bit of an age difference here with Nick the grumpy “old man” in his forties and Teddy as the enthusiastic, sweet guy in his late twenties, but this is not Daddy kink. While you might expect this to be fluff, the characters are people who know life is not all fluffy. The connection Nick fights is real, the sex hot. I found them both cute in their own way. I enjoyed the alternating POV. I wanted these guys to get their happily ever after, and yes I could see all the ducks lining up in a row to make that happen, but it was no less charming. There was some angst to get there, not because anything awful happens, but because sometimes things don’t work out because people decide they won’t, rather than deciding that they will. That’s what made me cry.

The author does a good job of making me feel like I was watching all this, like I was at all the events. There are a few family members or friends highlighted–nothing that stands out a lot, but enough that the story feels three dimensional. People say you can’t fall in love in a month, but I was engaged a week after I met my spouse. This isn’t instalove; Nick and Teddy know everything they need to know about each other and have built a good foundation. The last chapter takes place a year later and shows what building a life together looks like. This was realistic, sweet, romantic, sexy, and I liked the characters.

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