Sophie Jordan’s Beautiful Sinner hit me right in the heart.
Days later I’m still feeling the glow of a Happily Ever After realized; I’m still floating from the sweet justice of two lovely characters getting the ending they deserve.
The latest release in her Devil’s Rock series, Beautiful Sinner tells the long-awaited story of Cruz Walsh, a man who confessed to a murder which he did not commit (for reasons revealed later in the novel) and who has now been exonerated and released from prison. Though Cruz has been deemed innocent of the crime, he’s still viewed as guilty by most of Sweet Hill’s residents and as an object of endless curiosity by many of the others.
Reporter Gabriella Rossi never wanted to return to the place where she was bullied by her classmates and called “Flabby Gabby,” but she drops everything—even taking a sabbatical from her job at an Austin newspaper—so that she can care for her Nana. When her boss asks her to get the inside scoop on Cruz—reminding her that the woman he was believed to have murdered was her cousin—Gabriella is dismayed and interested. She’s a truth-seeker and Cruz’s story—the mystery of why he did what he did—calls to her.
But Cruz doesn’t want to share his secrets, especially with the media, even if a night spent in a locked janitor’s closet reminds him of how much he’s always been attracted to Gabriella.
This story is unbelievably sweet and the main characters are admirable: both Cruz and Gabriella nobly sacrifice their own opportunities so that they can take care of people they love. BUT don’t be fooled: Beautiful Sinner is also hot, hot, hot. The chemistry between Cruz and Gabriella is undeniable and Gabriella can’t help but want to act on it, even if she knows that sex with Cruz would only complicate things since they’re both haunted by the past.
Will Cruz and Gabby decide that they’re both worthy of a Happily Ever After? That it’s worth fighting for?
Beautiful Sinner pretty much blew me away. I rooted for Cruz and Gabriella. I wanted them to see how good they were. I fell in love with them. And even after the amazing Epilogue, I was greedy for more.
**I was given an ARC of this book from Edelweiss+, but all opinions provided are my own.
The Great Alone, set chiefly during 1970s and 1980s Alaska, took me on an adventure that I don’t think I’ll forget. The wilds of Alaska. The inimitable love between mother and daughter. The brightest—and darkest--depths of the human spirit. It’s all here, in this epic, masterful novel, and when I finished, I felt like I had been privy to something terrifying and beautiful, something that changed me and opened me up in the ways that the best literature does.
Thirteen year old Leni’s father Ernt Allbright was a Vietnam POW, and this fact has a significant impact on their life in 1970s Washington. He’s prone to nightmares and explosions of temper; he’s consistently fired from jobs. When he receives a letter from a fellow soldier’s father informing him that his son left his cabin and plot of land in the wilderness of Alaska to Ernt and his family, Ernt is ecstatic. This opportunity—to live off the land, to escape the evil of modern America—is exactly what he thinks he and his family need.
Leni is not so sure. There are times when her father frightens her, when the Allbright home confuses her. But she loves her dad too—isn’t love a complicated thing?—and she and her mom are “two peas in a pod,” so she'll follow her anywhere.
When the Allbrights arrive in Kaneq, Alaska and find their decrepit cabin, Leni and her mother are taken aback—particularly after the warnings about winter they receive from their few neighbors—but Leni’s father is blindly enthused.
But as the days pass, Leni starts “to worry as much about the dangers inside of her home as outside of it.” There’s little money, and they’re essentially starting over in this forbidding landscape, where, as the locals say, “you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” They’re not ready for the deprivations of winter. And worst of all: there’s her father’s anger, taking up space in the cabin, manifesting itself in explosive, violent ways, showing itself on her mother’s body. The winter darkness exacerbates it, and so does her father’s uncontrollable jealousy, which her mother attempts, at times, to ignite.
Will the Allbright family survive life in Alaska?
Will they survive life with Ernt and his anger, and the wearying toll that their strategizing, denying, and hiding has on them?
Hannah is a brilliant writer. Take, for example, her descriptions of Alaska, which becomes a great character in the book. She describes the landscape and the weather of this place frequently, and yet she finds new words, new phrasings, to reveal the dangerous beauty and that left me awestruck. Or how she renders the Allbright’s small world, how she illuminates the cracks, tensions, and explosions with sensitivity, sometimes using full force and sometimes delicacy, to show exquisitely and devastatingly what it’s like to live with an abusive person.
Like Leni’s mother says, for all the “bad” in their story, there’s “fun, too…and adventure.” And the same could be said for this book itself. The Great Alone is set in the wilds of 1970s Alaska, and much of the action is predicated on the desires/fears/dislikes of an abusive man, but that’s not where it ends, and that’s not what Leni’s story is restricted to. It’s also about growing up. Falling in love. Finding one’s way to truth and deciding what one can and can’t live with. Understanding. And love. So much love.
I’m a sucker for a Pride and Prejudice re-telling and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride is a “remix” unlike any other I’ve read. Set in Bushwick, Brooklyn and featuring the five Haitian-Dominican Benitez sisters, Pride took me on a journey that felt respectful toward Austen's original and yet thrillingly fresh, new, and authentic. You’ll see the skeletons of Austen’s characters in this story, but they’re re-conceptualized and sent out into the world as daring new creations, brimming with verve and vitality, obviously eccentric but treated by the narrator lovingly—and not cruelly—for the things that make them unique.
Zuri “Z” Benitez is Bushwick. She’s proud of where she comes from and who she is.
She's an almost senior who lives in a small apartment where she and her four sisters share a bedroom; she's the daughter of hard-working parents who are highly respected in their neighborhood; she's occasionally embarrassed by her loud mother and three of her sisters, but she loves all of her family members fiercely, passionately.
So she’s not happy when rich people begin gentrifying the place she’s always called home. The new black family across the street, the Darcys, is part of the problem. There’s the dad and a snobby mom and two teenage sons: Ainsley, who takes an immediate fancy to Z’s sister Janae, and Darius, who is insufferably stuffy and arrogant and who doesn’t even try to fit into his new neighborhood.
Do Z and Darius have anything in common? Is there any common ground for them to latch onto (but why would she want to when he treats her and her family so horribly, she wonders)?
In Zoboi’s hands, this re-telling is about the different life circumstances between a young woman and man and how those—and their respective feelings of pride regarding their backgrounds—affect the ways they view the world and the people around them.
But Pride is also about being young and black, and asserting oneself—being oneself—in a world that doesn’t always appreciate that. And how blind pride of all kinds—whether it’s in oneself or one’s family or one’s neighborhood—can lead to misunderstandings, self-rigidity, and stagnation, to a refusal to consider other possibilities.
Z is a charismatic narrator, with a beautiful way of seeing her world and of capturing her impressions in poetry. She’s the force here, even though I appreciated how complicated Darius is, how dynamic, and how warmth—for Zuri—shines underneath his formality.
Most of all, I adored how alive Pride is, and the fierce joy ringing from every page, even through the sadness.
Valerie Bowman’s Kiss Me at Christmas is a fascinating and lovable mix of sweet and spicy, with a heroine who on one hand, blushes frequently and is a model lady, and who on the other, propositions a Bow Street Runner of her acquaintance and offers herself as bait in order to solve an attempted-murder mystery.
But let’s not get ahead ourselves.
Kiss Me at Christmas opens in London, December 1818, with the aforementioned heroine, Lady Regina Haversham, contemplating her impending engagement to the respectable—but boring—Earl of Dryden. Lady Regina won’t marry for love, but she decides she can decide who she wants to lose her virginity to, and the answer is the handsome and virile Bow Street Runner, Daffin Oakleaf.
Daffin is taken aback by Regina’s awkwardly forward offer, and says no. But he can’t deny his attraction to Regina, despite the fact that she is related to one of his closest friends and also of a higher class. Then a mysterious series of attacks against Regina’s family brings Daffin closely into her orbit as her bodyguard (sigh).
Who is behind the attacks and why? And more important for the romance-minded, will Regina and Daffin act on the chemistry between them, even if it won’t—can’t—be anything more?
There were times when I wished that Regina wouldn’t make her infatuation with Daffin quite so obvious—particularly when he was doing such a fine job of keeping his own feelings contained. But that is part of Regina’s appeal: she’s honest and open, and willing to make herself vulnerable in pursuit of a greater purpose (like losing her virginity before she’s 30 *wink) . She’s also resourceful and brave, and more than one scene had me cheering for her.
Regina is one of several characters in Kiss Me at Christmas who is largely unconventional, even though those characters also navigate through elite society with aplomb. This balance between convention and rebellion kept me engaged in Regina and Daffin’s story and invested in the outcome of their romance: whether it would lead to a HEA, or whether the social chasm between them—and Daffin’s insecurity over it—was too great to overcome.
Also keeping me invested was the action-filled plot, specifically the nefarious attacks against someone in Regina’s family, and Regina and Daffin’s subsequent investigation, which reveals their best qualities and the lengths they’ll go to keep others safe.
Kiss Me at Christmas is a delight—a steamy romance that reminds readers of the joys of the season and of chasing happiness—and one person who enters the giveaway below will win a copy for their very own. Lucky you.
**I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley but all opinions provided are my own.
*1 U.S. only winner will be randomly selected on Monday. Answer the question provided in the Rafflecopter graphic below.
A princess who is second in line to the throne. A hot Scot. A Roman Holiday-esque adventure. A murder mystery.
This gorgeous book has it all—and it’s certain to hit the spot for all of those people who love their romance with a hefty dose of suspense and/or royal aficionados whose heartstrings are still resonating from all the love and romance on the other side of the pond (must be nice).
Theodora “Thea” Isabella Victoria knows how to play the role of princess because, in her words, “I really was a princess. I had the tiara, the palace, the framed certificate, and everything.” But in a real departure from a princess story, Thea’s fiancé, Christian Fraser-Campbell, a duke, abandons her at the altar, resulting in her ignominious exile to Perpetua, a territory of Drieden (the name of her kingdom), for four months.
After returning to the palace and her responsibilities as second in line to the throne, she escapes to a bar—as she is sometimes wont to do when her life’s demands become too much. There, she meets a man named Nick who makes her wonder if her betrothed deliberately left her at the altar, or if someone made him disappear. Now the hunt is on, and our runaway princess wants answers as the questions become more and more complicated…
The Royal Runaway kept me engrossed from beginning to end. First, there is Thea, the whip-smart narrator with a dry sense of humor; a beautiful historian of sorts who is also an able escape artist. Then there is the romance (sighhhhh)*, and a conflict between royal duty and the need to escape, which Emory thoughtfully plays up throughout the book.
And it’s all very well done. Somehow the book manages to be both effervescent and weighty, so that I was quickly turning the pages, lulled into happiness by the romance and adventure, and then occasionally shocked by the reminder that the stakes regarding Christian’s disappearance were actually quite high.
In short: The Royal Runaway is a lovely book that packs a wallop.
**The romance scenes in this book are *fade to black*, so this book is highly recommended for those who like to read exciting and charismatic romance stories that are also less explicit.
Four Dukes. Four spirited heroines. At Christmas-time!
The anthology How the Dukes Stole Christmas—with novellas written by Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan, and Joanna Shupe—releases today, and it’s a scrumptious, perfectly packaged morsel that makes even this (gestures to self) rabid fall enthusiast look forward to the holiday season with no small degree of anticipation.
Themes of this sigh-inducing collection include the heartwarming appeal of Christmas-time; portrayals of female empowerment—which sometimes includes teaching a grumpy, work-focused duke an important lesson or two; and shortbread.
Tessa Dare's Meet Me In Mayfair
Dare’s unexpectedly sweet novella begins with Louisa Ward’s goal of attracting a husband candidate that night so that she can save her family and herself from being evicted from their Mayfair home. Enter James, the Duke of Thorndale, and also the man responsible for their eviction notice. Will James be the answer to Louisa’s prayers in more ways than one, or will her goal come between them?
As a rule, I’m often drawn to Dare’s characters most when there’s a knowingness, a maturity to them. In this novella I encountered the softer side of Dare's repertoire, even if her heroine, Louisa, is still unconventional enough to challenge the duke's positions on women and to take him on a solitary tour of Mayfair on a winter's night. It's this combination that makes this novella so winning: for all the attraction between Louisa and James, there’s still an innocence to their relationship and this novella that is surprising, and on some level, refreshing, particularly when you remember that most of the story takes place over one intoxicating night.
Sarah MacLean's The Duke of Christmas Present
Sarah MacLean follows with this juggernaut of a novella that’s fueled by regret, guilt, and yearning and that hits with all the force associated with a master of her craft. Second-chance romance aficionados rejoice: this novella begins with a drunk Eben James, Duke of Allryd, coming face to face with a ghost from his past: Lady Jacqueline Mosby, the woman he was once affianced to, and who left him twelve years ago, after he became duke and set out to resuscitate his estate. Mosby has been traveling since then, and she’s leaving again soon. Twelve years, a fiancé, and more, lies between them. But is their love story over?
MacLean writes intensely—the yearning between Eben and Jack, as he calls her, is palpable—but for all that, her stories never feel bogged down or burdened with it. In this novella, MacLean deftly brushes the dust from their past and highlights the complexities of love; how sometimes being in love doesn’t automatically lead to a HEA, like for young adult Eben and Jack, but that love can lead people back to one another, if they’re willing to cover the necessary ground.
Sophie Jordan's Heiress Alone
Annis Ballister’s first meeting with Calder, Duke Sinclair is not the auspicious beginning we might hope for. She’s sprawled at his disdainful feet after being shoved there by her not-quite-so-adoring sisters. But luckily for us, they’re brought back together because (1) Annis’s delightful family accidentally leaves without her, (2), a violent band of thieves is roaming the area, and (3), Calder insists that she and her two servants return to his home with him for their safety. Annis and Calder didn’t have the best first impression of the other, and while Calder is reluctantly attracted to Annis, her plans for her future also stand between them. Will Calder and Annis succumb to their attraction and is that enough to bring two people—who at the novella's outset, want different things—together?
Though the beginning of Jordan’s novella is a bit cringe-worthy, Annis wins the reader over with her dignity and strength, and these qualities, along with the passion blazing beneath her placid exterior, are attractive to Calder, too. Heiress Alone is dramatic and sensual, and the attraction between these two characters propels the novella to its very satisfying ending.
Joanna Shupe's Christmas in Central Park
We move from the wilds of Scotland to a frenetic newsroom in New York City in the final novella, Joanna Shupe’s Christmas in Central Park. Mrs. Rose Walker is a wealthy, married domestic expert who dispenses advice for the readers of the New York Daily Gazette. In actuality, she’s Miss Rose Walker, an unmarried writer who gets her advice from her servant mother and the fellow servants she grew up with. Unfortunately for her, the president of the publishing empire associated with her paper, Duke Havermeyer III, just had to clean house after a lying scandal and demands that his most popular writer, Mrs. Rose Walker, host a party for members of the board to get him back in the board’s good graces. What could possibly go wrong?
Rose is supremely competent and assured, and a large part of her appeal is that she gets things done. She operates with ingenuity and aplomb, circumventing the constraints put upon her by society—and by Duke himself—admirably. Duke’s unwitting battle with a master strategist is a joy and a delight, and it’s enhanced by the truly explosive chemistry between them.
How the Dukes Stole Christmas is a lovely collection of Happily Ever Afters, all centered around the magic of Christmas—how it invites us to self-reflection and offers opportunities to re-assess our priorities and to redeem ourselves from the things we’ve let hold us back.
But it’s more than that, too. It’s a collection frequently featuring characters we don’t traditionally get to hear from in historical romances written by white women—servants, and in the case of Sarah MacLean’s novella, a very successful black businessman—who intervene in critical ways, and who inspire our main characters to be their best selves.
And, of course, it’s a collection centered around strong, fierce women who speak their minds, pursue their dreams, and move through their novellas with authority, even when they’re facing challenges outside of their control--and that's always sexy to me.
**I received an ARC of this anthology from the authors, but all opinions provided are my own.
*So much for my Freaky Friday posts. I made it one week. **puts head in hands.**
Make me watch a scary movie and I’m the clichéd person watching through the tiny slivers of space between my fingers. But give me a terrifying book and I’m an intrepid explorer, the person who isn’t scared to investigate the suspicious noise or bewildering chill in the house.
I’ve been waiting for a book to scare me, and I didn’t fully realize it until I began Hester Fox’s powerfully atmospheric The Witch of Willow Hall.
Unlike the romances I’ve been reading, this book offered no guaranteed Happily Ever After, and I could feel that uncertainty—and the fears, anger, and resentment—burning on every page as Lydia Montrose settled into her new home, Willow Hall, and learned its secrets.
It’s not just Willow Hall that’s the mystery here.
There is something…different about Lydia, something her mother tells her she must hide from others forever. It leads to Tommy Bishop being hurt when he and Lydia are children; it divides Lydia and her sister, Catherine, reminding them both of the first time their family was almost ruined; and it threatens to erupt at Willow Hall, where they’ve moved in an effort to escape Boston and the public ruination of their family.
Fox is adept at pacing; she shrouds so much of the house and characters in mystery, and then slowly pulls back the veil bit by bit, until Lydia—and the readers—have just enough information to scuttle along until the next crisis. And she’s even more skilled in how she makes use of imagery. The characters and their wild, isolated, terrifying setting are richly evoked, particularly when it comes to the creepy little details that distinguish a really good ghost story from a mediocre one.
There were a few details of the plot that I questioned—they didn’t seem to entirely make sense in terms of characterization—but The Witch of Willow Hall gave me so much that I was looking for: it's a well-crafted, engrossing ghost story that had me shivering in fright and glee.
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
The opening chapters of Lenora Bell’s For the Duke’s Eyes Only include the discovery of ancient treasure, a nineteenth-century woman wearing a mustache disguise, and a missing Rosetta stone. Sound adventurous enough for you?
This book held me spellbound as I followed India (Indy) and Daniel on their quest to retrieve the missing stone and watched their heated interactions with bated breath (imagine me entranced by their fireworks and mindlessly eating popcorn. Like this.).
For the Duke’s Eyes Only is not a wallflower book—it’s bold from the first pages of the Prologue. Indy and Daniel are betrothed, and they’re also best friends. Both children of dukes, they’re each other’s anchors, and they’re not just accepting of their betrothal, they know that they belong to one another. It just is.
But before the Prologue is over, Daniel has been retrieved by a family friend and Indy’s father reveals that their betrothal is over because Daniel’s father is suspected of high treason. That's not enough to tear them apart, though, and as the Prologue ends, Indy and Daniel have reiterated their commitment to each other, no matter what.
I’m a sucker for a friends to lovers romance, but For the Duke’s Eyes Only isn’t that simple. As difficult as it may be to believe--given how implicitly and explicitly devoted Indy and Daniel are to each other in the Prologue--Daniel betrays Indy when they’re young adults, and in a way she can’t forgive. Now, as adults, Daniel is a boozy womanizer (that sound you hear is my heart breaking); they’re both invested in the archaeological field but have markedly different philosophies; and they're bitter rivals of the other.
Why did the Daniel of Indy's childhood change, and will Indy be able to find that person again? Will the quest to find the Rosetta Stone bring them back together or drive them even farther apart?
I adore Lenora Bell's books. She’s crazy talented and innovative, and she writes books that have plenty of the good stuff we’ve come to associate with long-established voices of the genre but that also feel undeniably fresh. When you crack open one of her books—or tap the screen—you’ll get your Happily Ever After, but you’ll get lots of surprises on the way.
And let’s not forget how funny these books are, and how the eccentric characters captivate. Indy, in particular, is to die for—she’s dramatic and theatrical, determined and adventurous. She has to combat the prevailing attitudes toward women, specifically female archaeologists, and she does so with great aplomb and ingenuity (see earlier reference to a mustachioed woman). She’s pretty much the character a lot of us would love to be in a romance novel and/or real life.
If you’re looking for a sparkling love story that’s heavy on thrills and devotion, look no further than Lenora Bell’s For the Duke’s Eyes Only. You will be amazed.
I received this complimentary ARC from Edelweiss+ , but all opinions included are my own.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.