book review: In the Barren Ground by Loreth Anne White

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Thank you to NetGalley and Montlake Romance for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it, as always!

I fell in love with Loreth Anne White’s writing when I read A Dark Lure. It was so unbelievably atmospheric and sensual and raw and terrifying. I read it – captivated – wishing only for more.

In the Barren Ground is a bit of a departure, in that it’s mostly mystery and there is barely any romance or sex. It’s as if White is pulling an Iris Johansen, and pulling out of writing romance altogether, to which I say – please don’t. I know that romance gets a bit of a bad rap, but the genre has a TON of loyal and devoted fans. And Loreth, you write fantastic romance. For real. A Dark Lure was very, very powerful and part of that was because of the build up of the romantic relationship between the two leads.

With that said, In the Barren Ground was very, very good. It has all of the taut suspense I’ve come to expect from White, as well as the compelling mystery that I couldn’t untwist for the life of me until the last second. Even then, there were still elements that left me breathless – it was definitely a page-turner.

There are some aspects of the novel that made me cringe. For one thing, the heroine has a hang up about sex, and seems to think she’d be a slutty slut for going to bed with the hero. Far be it for me to object to a woman feeling badly about herself for a natural human need, but come on now. It’s 2016. Can we move on?

Secondly, the hero is a bit problematic. Not saying he’s not appealing in a certain sense, but I didn’t buy his journey so much. I wanted to, no doubt. But his transition from scoundrel to good guy didn’t have a ring of Han Solo about it. It felt like White was directing the action, rather than the characters. Which brings me back to the lack of sex and romance. This novel would have benefited hugely from both.

But back to the good stuff. White’s sense of place is ridiculously good. One of my pet peeves is not feeling I *know* where the characters are. You’ll never have that issue in White’s novels. I was there with Tana and Crash, in the snow, in the neverending cold, in with the howling wind and the barren grounds. There was something almost gothic about the atmosphere – intentionally so – and it was beautiful and breathtaking.

All in all, this was an unputdownable read. My quibbles about romance / sex are personal preferences that of course not everyone will share I just hope that in future, White can marry the two again with her mystery, because THAT is a gorgeous thing to behold.

 

book review: The First Taste by Jessica Hawkins

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ARC kindly supplied by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

First of all, can we discuss that cover? Hellloooooo.

Second of all, can we discuss how damn good Jessica Hawkins is? To be fair, I’m already a big fan. The first book I read by her was Slip Of The Tongue (The First Taste is a sequel of sorts) and I went on to read the rest of her work, including one of my favourite series of all time – Cityscape. David and Olivia. Sigh, I can barely type their names without wanting to dissolve into a puddle of feelings.

So I had high expectations for The First Taste. I was trepidatious, considering I’m used to Jessica writing “forbidden” romances, and to be truthful, I prefer those above all others. However, my concerns were unfounded – The First Taste is smart, sexy and unputdownable. Best yet, it features a wholly unique heroine. Amelia isn’t like any ‘romance novel’ heroine I’ve read about before, and I found her to be a breath of fresh air (much like many of Hawkins’ heroines actually, but Amelia was next-level).

The First Taste is about Andrew Beckwith (Sadie’s brother from Slip Of The Tongue), a single parent, entrepreneur and sexy-as-fuck maaaan. (Yes, that needed the extra a’s.) When Sadie’s boss Amelia mistakes Andrew for the plumber coming to fix the office toilet, sparks immediately fly between the two. Both are prickly, intelligent, determinedly unemotional and most importantly – unavailable. So what can one night of sex hurt… right?

Well, wrong, clearly… or we wouldn’t have a book. :p Amelia and Andrew have shattering sex. The kind that destroys your expectations. The kind that ultimately changes your life. Because after that intense, raw, passionate night – Amelia and Andrew find it very difficult to keep to their respective status quos of “no relationships, ever, thanks bye”. Instead, they find themselves wanting to be in each other’s lives and struggling to understand how they can possibly fit together when they’re so very different.

Amelia doesn’t eat carbs. Andrew loves pasta. Amelia is a city girl. Andrew loves the outskirts. Amelia thinks kids are weird. Andrew is a single father to a squishy lovebug of adorableness named Bell. Amelia is badly, badly broken from her past marriage. Andrew is recovering from the abandonment of Bell’s mother and his girlfriend. Both of them have baggage to spare. The trick is whether they can unpack it together and whether or not love – true, abiding, sensual, imperfect – love is worth it.

The journey to them finding out is rife with drama and the kind of sex scenes that will make you want to read this book alone, with a glass (or bottle) of red wine. Seriously, they are toe-curlingly delicious.

All in all, The First Taste was everything I didn’t know I wanted – a soul-affirming tale of two damaged souls finding each other in the quagmire of daily life. A beautifully written ode to second chances. And a very mature, very sexy and very real take on love in your thirties.

book review: Into the Light by Aleatha Romig

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Thank you to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it, as always!

Not sure I should thank the publisher for sending me this ARC because now I’m like a beast at the door, slavering for the sequel and willing to cut a b*tch to get my paws on it. This was so damn good. I had zero idea what to expect from the summary, and this floored me with how entertaining, electrifying and many other e-adjectives it was.

Into the Light begins with darkness. Sara Adams wakes up in a hospital bed, blinded, unable to walk, with strange people around her that she does not – and can not – remember. Comforted only by the man who calls himself her husband, Jacob, Sara is introduced to ‘The Light’, a way of life she chose long ago, and evidently decided to escape. Hence, the hospital bed and her devastating injuries.

In ‘The Light’, women are controlled by their husbands. They may not question. They may not ever speak ill of a man. They may not refuse sex. If they do anything out of turn, they are ‘corrected’ by their husband – which generally involves some sort of physical abuse. Sara is bewildered, inquisitive and naturally intelligent. Even as she is seduced into the world by Jacob, she wonders – why did she become part of this community?

And why did she try – and fail – to leave?

On the other side of the United States is Stella Montgomery, an investigator working in Detroit. Stella’s discovered an alarming trend – people are disappearing – or turning up dead, right there in her city, at an astonishing rate. Their only link? They are all women. One of them is her best friend, Mindy. Against the wishes of her boyfriend Dylan, Stella is determined to discover a deeper connection and find Mindy in the process. Unknowingly wandering into the dragon’s lair, Stella gets closer and closer to danger …

Wow. As the story mounts, the tension ratchets up to a fever pitch. The author deserves major kudos for the fact that I only guessed the biggest twist (and there are a few!) right before she revealed it. And I thought I was probably crazy for thinking it too. That’s the mark of a talented and deft writer.

Atmospheric, sexy, mysterious and with a pervading sense of doom, Into the Light is one of the best romantic mysteries I’ve read this year.

Suffice to say, I can.not.wait.for.the.sequel. I am actually dying a bit here. Aleatha, write quickly, my darling! You are a gem.

book review: Still Mine by Amy Stuart

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Thank you to Touchstone and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

From the book’s blurb: The Girl on the Train meets The Silent Wife in this taut psychological thriller. Honestly? No.

But. This is still an atmospheric, subtle and genuinely haunting book. Rather than a thriller, it felt more like a rumination on how our surroundings reflect back into our lives, seeping through the cracks and poisoning our blood, our choices and our dreams.

Clare is on the run. When she arrives in Blackmore, a remote mining town in the mountains, it’s clear she has a mission: to find out more about a missing woman, Shayna Fowles. Before long, Clare is drinking with the locals, living in one of their trailers, and even striking up an uneasy romance with Shayna’s ex-husband (who is suspected of killing her). With me so far?

To be honest, the mystery really didn’t interest me. Thankfully, as the truth behind Shayna’s disappearance is a dud. What did interest me was how the closure of the mine (after a deadly explosion) reverberated through Blackmore, rupturing families and spurring a mass exodus. Blackmore is a town that is slowly dying, much like Clare was slowly dying in her previous life.

But why is Clare searching for Shayna? Who is Malcolm, the man who hired her? Why does Clare have nightmares every night, and go through withdrawal each day?

As Stuart unwraps Clare, she unwraps the way a community can be bloodied and broken by circumstance, and how far we will go to hurt – or save – those we love.

book review: Love to Hate You by Anna Premoli

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Thank you to Aria Books and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

While I wouldn’t say this was the best romance I’ve read lately, it felt satisfying in a way I can’t quite articulate. Perhaps it’s the age-old tale of the commoner falling in love with the Earl. Perhaps it was the slightly old fashioned writing, or the push and pull of two characters who really, really seem to dislike each other – at first.

Ian, the Earl of Langley, and Jennifer Percy (no title) work together at a law firm that specializes in getting rich people out of paying tax. They also loathe each other. When they’re asked to work together, and paparazzi mistake them for a couple, Ian stumbles upon a fantastic idea: they should pretend to date! That way he can get all of the floozies who flock to him off his back! What could go wrong!

Well, this is a novel, so let’s face it… tons can and will go wrong. Starting with Ian falling in love with Jennifer, natch. Ending with her insufferably granola family and his insufferably snobby family. Also ending with Jennifer’s hideous personality (I say this with affection because I can be a bitch too, but Jennifer is truly, truly a straight-up, stone-cold bitch and she has zero time for Ian for literally 79% of the book, so…).

Despite it all, Ian perseveres (a guy outside of a book would not, ladies. I warn you) and a romance is born. But what about their warring families? Their differences? The class system? Egads!

I’m pretty sure it’s not a spoiler to say all’s well that ends well, even if I think Ian should leave Jennifer and marry me. I would be nice to such a lovesick and gorgeous puppy.

The End.

book review: Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

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Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

This was a sheer delight. 

At first, I didn’t think so at all… I’ll admit. So I urge anyone reading to give this time. Don’t immediately buy into the Kinsella-adjacent marketing. For one thing, Sophie Kinsella’s books are inherently about ‘wacky’ characters (who often do deeply stupid things for which they rarely take true responsibility), and for the most part – romance. This book is not really wacky, nor is it in any way a romance. It’s about friendships, careers, parents and how rejection stings deeper than the worst wounds can ever sting.

It’s also wonderfully, dryly funny.

Kate, in short, is a mess. Which is fine with her scatterbrained and highly intelligent parents, but not so much with her friends and her wound-tighter-than-a-spring sister, Angela. You see, Kate’s been dumped by her tres-French boyfriend and her career is in tatters. When she finds a job as an Admissions assistant for a rigorously academic school in Manhattan, she decides to take her chances. What’s the worst that could happen after all?

Self-pity isn’t in the agenda for Kate after she begins her new position. In fact, nothing is – other than overzealous parents, ditzy and/or insufferable children, her colleagues Henry and Maureen (Maureen is my new book girlfriend) and “the dark time” of selecting candidates for the new school year.

Watching Kate navigate this new world – and the increasingly hilarious letters from parents and children begging to be let into Hudson’s Day – is, as I said, delightful. As is the lack of emphasis on romance (the downstairs neighbor is a welcome footnote, but just that – a footnote).

It’s refreshing to watch Kate’s growing competency, and glimpse the tertiary characters struggle with – or take joy from – her growing up and away.

book review: Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan

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Thank you to Penguin – Random House UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

It’s a shame that this book has been boxed into the “thriller” category, because it’s really more of a straight up mystery, with a ‘surprise twist’ (re: I guessed it midway through, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel).

Dear Amy has an interesting premise. Margot Lewis is an agony aunt who begins to receive letters from someone purporting to be Bethan Avery, a young girl who disappeared years before. Interspersed with Margot’s story, we also watch as Katie Browne, a troubled teenager, is held captive in a dark cellar by a sadistic kidnapper. As the plots converge, it becomes clear that Margot’s mysterious letters may hold the key to finding Katie – and maybe, Bethan too.

Like I said, I guessed the twist. It’s also strange to me that I believed Margot to be in her fifties for a good portion of the novel, before I realized she was actually quite a bit younger. However, she’s an enjoyable character in the sense that she’s very human – she generally dislikes most people, reacts believably to her husband’s infidelity and has a sarcastic sense of humour. In short, she’s a bit neurotic and unlikable. (Aren’t most human beings?)

Midway through, the novel begins to spiral into into the realm of the ‘unbelievable’, but it was still an entertaining read. Callaghan has a deft hand with tension at some points (none at all in others… fault of the editing, perhaps?) and her grasp of the unreliable narrator is strong. Treat this as a mystery, and you’ll be satisfied. Just don’t go looking for too many ‘thrills’ – this is mainly a study of the mind.

book review: Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

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Thank you to NetGalley, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and Roaring Brook Press for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

This was a tough one for me to review.

It isn’t unusual for authors to see stories in events that hit the news. I’m grateful that Mathieu waited a while before publishing this. It’s – of course – inspired by the rescues of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who spent four years and four days respectively, in the clutches of Michael J. Devlin, a convicted child rapist.

The boys have thankfully been kept out of the spotlight since their rescues. I hope the release of this book doesn’t tear apart the fragility of any peace they have managed to find. With that said, on with the review.

Afterward is a subtle and spare novel. There are no histrionics or overwrought passages. Fitting, as it’s told largely from the perspective of Caroline, a young teenager dealing with the kidnapping – and rescue – of her little brother. When Dylan returns, Caroline struggles to understand the snatches of her speech her brother (who has autism) manages to convey. As his behavioral problems escalate and her parents’ already fractured marriage begins to crumble further, Caroline seeks out the boy who was rescued along with Dylan – hoping to find answers, and peace.

With Ethan, Caroline discovers an unlikely friendship. In Ethan, we discover a boy who was not allowed to be ‘whole’, and instead, was disassembled by his kidnapper, until only fragments of memory remain. A blessing? Or a curse? Ethan attends therapy, wrestles with conflicting feelings about his return, and strikes up a budding relationship with Caroline.

Despite a few ill-advised kisses, thankfully Mathieu does not change the focus of the book into a romance. The friendship between Ethan and Caroline is rich enough in scope without adding the complication of sex into it. But it does provide a moving portrait of how a boy might adjust after being tortured – and crucially, seduced – for so long, by his kidnapper. As Ethan opens up in therapy, the book becomes heartrendingly realistic, and doesn’t shy away from the difficult, often agonizing questions.

All in all, a very thoughtful and sensitively written book about the aftermath of trauma, from all perspectives.

book review: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

No, this is not like Gone Girl or Girl On a Train. When will the Gone Girl comparisons end? Somewhere, I bet even Gillian Flynn is asking herself that question. “Is it over yet?” she ponders, sipping a martini and killing a character off gleefully. “Can I emerge? Will people ever stop this madness?”

Perhaps not. And even though Behind Closed Doors has zero in common with Flynn’s work, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t race out right now and buy it. Because you definitely should. Spare, unflinching and great fun even in its grossness, B.A. Paris’ novel is an unputdownable knife blade into the dark heart of a marriage.

Obviously saying too much will necessitate spoilers, so I won’t. The blurb tells quite a bit, of course. Grace, the perfect wife. Jack, the perfect husband. Friends, suspecting nothing. Grace’s thinness. Jack’s over-protectiveness. What does it all mean? A simple case of co-dependency? An abusive marriage? Something darker?

And it is dark. Paris doesn’t shy away from the vileness inherent in Jack’s rotten soul, nor are his motivations or his line of work made any less horrifying than they could be. Yes, he has a bit of the gothic to him, but he reminds me of Ted Bundy – good-looking, charming, careful. You’d never suspect him. Even as he snuck up into your dorm room and took a hammer to the eggshell of your skull.

Behind Closed Doors is a lightning read. I just kept going until it was over, and unlike others, I adored the ending. Everything that needed to be said was said in that moment. In the end, a small blip in time or a conversation that seems to mean nothing, can actually mean everything.

(Harlequin Romance) book review: Green Lightning by Anne Mather

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Note, sometimes I like to go back and read old school Harlequins, okay. If that’s not your particular brand of gin, don’t fuss. I also write “regular” book reviews. 

This is a great book, albeit completely wrong on so many levels, given the heroine is approx seventeen, and the hero is approx forty. Not to mention he’s been raising her since she was a kid. So, let’s get that out of the way.

Helen is a willful, spoiled orphan, living with her ‘Uncle Heath’ (actually no relation, which Mather goes to great pains to point out during the course of the novel – no small wonder, because gross).

Heath employs ‘Angela Patterson’ to look after Helen and teach her how to wear clothes well, do her hair, act in society, be ‘proper’, etc. Of course, it turns out, Angela has her sights set on Heath and wants to be his ladywife. Helen is like, um, no bitch and thwarts the ice queen at every turn.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Helen is hopelessly in love with Heath, and Heath is obviously attracted to her — as much as he knows it’s a felony.

Regardless, the writing is awesome and Helen is likeable and spunky. Much as I wanted her to meet someone her own age, I’m sure she’ll grow out of her love for “Uncle Heath” when she sends him to the nursing home… next year.