Book Review: Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis

Second Chance Summer by Jill ShalvisSecond Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis
Rating: 5stars
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I was so excited when I heard about Jill Shalvis’s new Cedar Ridge series. I’m actually still working my way through her Lucky Harbor books, which I love, so I had hopes that this new series would have the same type of feel as Lucky Harbor. I absolutely loved Second Chance Summer!

The book takes place in Cedar Ridge, Colorado, a resort town. Lily Danville moves back home after her stint as a cosmetologist in an upscale San Diego salon ends in disaster. She’s hesitant to come back, as she left Cedar Ridge ten years prior, following her sister’s accidental death and her father’s subsequent death not long after that. But she’s desperate for a job and needs to make a fresh start, so she reluctantly returns to her hometown.

Lily has a history with Aidan Kincaid, who’s now a firefighter and on the local search and rescue team. After the death of Lily’s sister, she didn’t just run away from Cedar Ridge; she also ran away from her relationship with Aidan. Now that she’s back, it’s obvious that their mutual attraction is still there and stronger than ever.

The corner of his mouth quirked. “Did you just kiss me to shut me up?” he asked. She blew out a sigh. “It made a lot more sense in my head.”

But there are complications in each of their lives. Lily struggles with a combination of grief and guilt over her sister’s death, even to the point of somehow blaming herself–even though it was an accident. In turn, Aidan feels his own guilt over the fact that his deadbeat father abandoned the family years ago, creating years of repercussions for everyone he left behind. Lily and Aidan are each suffering from their own type of self-blame, even though neither of them is responsible. Together, they slowly have to come to terms with letting go of their respective pasts and figuring out how to find happiness in the present, with each other.

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t give her a chance to devastate him again. But somehow over the past few weeks he’d lost sight of keeping his heart safe and moved onto wanting to heal her heart.

In Second Chance Summer, Shalvis writes with her signature combination of humor and emotional depth that I love so much about her writing. In this book, we’re introduced to the other Kincaid brothers, who we’ll see again in later books. As with the Lucky Harbor series, this story has a strong supporting cast of characters, especially Aidan’s mom and brothers. I just loved the banter between Aidan and his brothers, as well as the comedic dialogue between Lily and her friend/boss, Jonathan. And of course, the romance between Lily and Aidan is off the charts. Shalvis knows how to write some amazing love scenes and the ones in this book are some of the steamiest I’ve read from her. Loved them!

I’m eager to revisit Cedar Ridge in the next book and I highly recommend this excellent start to the new series.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Hard Ride by Opal Carew

Hard Ride by Opal CarewHard Ride by Opal Carew
Rating: 2stars
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A+ for that cover. That’s an awesome cover.

I wanted to like this book, but unfortunately there are several things that didn’t work for me. I read and enjoyed the previous book in the series, Riding Steele, but Hard Ride seemed disjointed to me.

The basic plot is that Liv needs money to help her sick sister, so she enters into a contract with Shock that she’ll be his sex slave for a month.

Okay, what? Let me back up.

Liv knew Shock in college (back when he was called Devin) and they had a close relationship, but it didn’t go beyond friendship even though they both wanted it to. But Liv pushed him away, for reasons that become clear later. When Liv and Devin (who now goes by Shock, his ride name) meet again, she asks him for money and he agrees to help her out–on the sex slave condition. Seriously, he has his lawyers draw up a contract and everything.

At this point, I feel like I’m reading a surprise billionaire Dom book, rather than a biker book. In general, I don’t like billionaire Doms. So you can see why I had trouble there. But really, what kind of friend is he? She’s clearly desperate for money, but she doesn’t tell him that it’s for her sister. He agrees to help her, but uses it for his own sexual gain. That’s…not a good friend.

Even though he’s living as a biker, Shock is very wealthy. His family lost their wealth after a scandal, but after that, he went off and made his own fortune. Even still, he chose to walk away from the business world in order to join the other bikers. (He still owns his company, but obviously doesn’t run the daily operations since he’s always on the road.)

Meanwhile, Liv has an extremely painful past that she explains to Shock and which also reveals why she pulled away from him emotionally back in college. When Shock learns this, he’s incredibly sweet and supportive. He even offers to tear up the contract. But Liv has this duty-bound thing where she insists on fulfilling the contract.

So, they go forward with the sexual relationship, but it just didn’t feel natural to me, considering Liv’s past. Additionally, I found it really tough to like her as a character because she withholds communication from Shock throughout the book. He asks her why she’s upset, but she’ll lie to save face and say she’s fine. That drives me crazy. I wish characters would talk to each other! You can have conflict in other ways, but let the characters be honest with each other.

There’s also the matter of how the bikers share their women. Even though Liv has a traumatic past, she basically is open to being shared amongst all the men in the group. I had a really hard time believing that she would be so willing, certainly not this soon.

Lastly, there’s this other odd subplot where Liv finds out that Shock may or may not actually be married. It’s explained away and dismissed so quickly that I didn’t understand why it was included in the story to begin with.

I was disappointed with this book because I liked the previous one, but I will probably read the next in the series anyway. I like the ensemble of characters and would like to see how the rest of their stories turn out, but this is one that I wouldn’t recommend.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Last First Kiss by Lia Riley

Last First Kiss by Lia RileyLast First Kiss by Lia Riley
Rating: 5stars
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I loved everything about this book. I’m actually trying to think of anything I disliked, but I’m at a loss because it’s so well-written and enjoyable.

Annie Carson is a popular mommy blogger. From reading her blog, Musings of a Mighty Mama, you’d think that she has an ideal life. She has a successful husband and an adorable five-year-old son named Atticus. The beautiful photos that Annie posts are Pinterest-worthy. Her blog comments are filled with her readers’ admiration about what a wonderful life she has.

But the reality is that Annie’s life is not perfect at all. In fact, Annie finds out that her husband has been cheating on her. After the divorce, she and Atticus move back to Annie’s small hometown of Brightwater, California.

Annie intends to fix up her family’s old farmhouse and sell it so that she and Atticus can move to San Francisco, where she’ll have ample opportunities to advance her blogging career. They’ll also be closer to her sister, who lives nearby. But upon her return to Brightwater, Annie runs into Sawyer Kane, the local sheriff and cowboy who once broke Annie’s heart when they were teenagers. What happened between them years ago was a big misunderstanding and now Sawyer wants to make things right.

As a boy, he’d loved that bewildering, beautiful girl and lost her. Maybe this was his chance to be the man who finally got a shot at righting past wrongs.

The Carsons and Kanes have had a feud spanning multiple generations. Sawyer’s Grandma Kane believes that the Carson land rightfully belongs to the Kane family and makes no attempts to hide her disdain when Annie moves back to town. Indeed, some residents of Brightwater treat Annie poorly because her father was rather eccentric when Annie and her sister were growing up. Their dad was known as Kooky Carson, mostly due to the fact that he was quite a hippie and embraced all kinds of alternative practices.

But here in the present, Annie doesn’t give much thought to what people think of her or her father. She just wants to do what’s best for her son. It’s apparent throughout the story how much she loves him and wants him to be a happy little boy. There are plenty of opportunities when Annie could wallow in self-pity about the unexpected turns her life has taken, but she doesn’t. I think that’s why I liked her character so much. She’s no pushover and her son is her number one priority.

Something else that I loved are Annie’s blog posts. The book has a hilarious opening chapter. Several other chapters open with her blog posts, which she self-censors to show her best face on her blog. Her true thoughts are included (but struck through) so that we, the readers, can get an idea of how she’s really feeling. I really enjoyed Annie’s quick sense of humor.

Was it a kiss? What’s a kiss, technically? WHAT IS LIFE? Ah forget it. Who needs kisses when there’s a sale at Save-U-More on Ben & Jerry’s Funky Monkey?

Sawyer is a lovable hero and the definition of strong, silent type. And how could I not love a hero who’s a cowboy sheriff by day and amateur astronomer by night? *swoon* He has always held a torch for Annie, even after she left town years ago. He has a crazy ex-fiancee who tries to worm her way back into his life, but he only has eyes for Annie. It’s super sweet. Understandably, Annie is hesitant to get involved with Sawyer since she’s planning on leaving Brightwater in the near future. Also, she’s not sure how Atticus will be affected. But there’s a really lovely exchange between Annie and Atticus that shows how good for her Sawyer is:

“Do you love Sheriff Sawyer?”
The engine revved and she eased her foot off the clutch. “What makes you ask that?”
“Whenever you see him you smile.”
“Do I?” She mentally raced through explanations and arrived at the most simple. “I guess he makes me happy.”
“That’s good. I like you happy.”

At first, when Annie comes back to town, Sawyer is surprised to learn that she has a child and he admits that he doesn’t know much about kids. But the more that he spends time with them, the more easily he finds himself interacting with Atticus. In turn, Annie realizes what a good presence Sawyer is in her son’s life.

Annie and Sawyer’s chemistry just sizzles. There’s this delicious air of sexual tension whenever they’re together. So when their relationship turns physical, it’s just plain awesome. The fact that they had this history together from years ago makes the relationship that much more meaningful.

Life has a funny way of denting us all in ways that will never fully be fixed. But if you are lucky, one day you might find someone who loves those banged-up parts.

As I mentioned, I absolutely loved this book and I would recommend it to fans of Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor series and Maisey Yates’s Copper Ridge series. It has a similar small-town setting and a really well-done cast of supporting characters, combined with a romance that’s fueled by humor and sexiness. This was my first time reading something by Lia Riley and I’m looking forward to the next books in the Brightwater series.

I received an advance copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan

Archer's Voice by Mia SheridanArcher’s Voice by Mia Sheridan
Rating: 5stars
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I’ve had Archer’s Voice on my Kindle for eight months and just finally read it. (Yes, it has really been eight months; I just checked. My TBR is monstrous.) My good friend Lennis, a fellow romance reader, recommended it to me. She said the hero is a mute hermit, so at that point I was pretty much sold.

At the beginning of the story, Bree arrives in the town of Pelion, Maine, with hopes that she can escape her troubled past. Back in Ohio, her father was killed in front of her during a robbery and Bree was almost raped. Although it has been months since the incident, she suffers from traumatic flashbacks and nightmares. Bree’s mother died when Bree was young, and although she has a few close friends in Ohio, she feels the need to get away from her life for a while.

I never felt entirely safe. Would I again?

Archer is the town loner of Pelion. He lives by himself on an isolated plot of land, rarely venturing into town for food and supplies. On Bree’s first day there, she runs into Archer and their meeting is simultaneously sweet, confusing, and comical. It turns out that Archer is mute, which Bree doesn’t learn until later, but which explains why he doesn’t respond when she rambles on during their initial meeting. Some of the residents of Pelion think that he’s either deaf or just not right in the head, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Bree discovers that Archer can hear her when she speaks to him, then finds out that he knows sign language, just as she does. (Bree’s father was deaf, so they communicated through sign.)

Sometimes an understanding silence was better than a bunch of meaningless words.

Initially, Archer is extremely reticent to let Bree into his life–and understandably so. He has lived alone for so many years and hasn’t really communicated with anyone during that time. So when Bree blows into his life, he doesn’t know how to react at first. But as Bree begins sharing her secrets with him, the more he learns to do the same, little by little. They communicate primarily through sign language, though sometimes Bree uses her voice.

They wind up becoming good friends, much to the confusion of Archer’s cousin Travis, who has been pursuing Bree since she showed up in town. Although Bree appreciates the attention from Travis, she doesn’t feel a constant pull toward him, the way that she feels with Archer. From the moment that they meet and she treats him with kindness, rather than treating him as a freak, they connect and only get closer.

Bree’s relationship with Archer progresses and eventually becomes romantic. Archer is such a wildly endearing character. He’s utterly inexperienced and he’s also probably the most beta hero I’ve ever read. I just loved his character. How could I not love a character whose favorite book is Ethan Frome? (Although he’s right: it really is one of the most depressing books ever.)

He was going to kill me with sweetness overload. He simply nodded as if it had been nothing.

Bree moves to Pelion with the intent that it’s only temporary. But the more attached she becomes to the people of the town, most especially to Archer, the more connected she feels with the concept of living again. Following the tragedy of her father’s death, all she wants is peace and to feel more like herself. In Pelion, she’s discovering that.

There’s a lot of family drama in this story, especially with regard to physical abuse and domestic violence. However, I didn’t find it gratuitous or too difficult to read. Bree is still working through her past traumas and as it turns out, Archer has a devastating family history as well. It’s the reason he has isolated himself, both physically and emotionally. But together, Bree and Archer learn to trust each other and open themselves up to the possibility of being seen–really seen–and understood by another person. It’s a struggle to let go of their respective fears, but over time, love heals them both.

I wanted him just as he was. I’d never hear his chuckle, but that was okay. I had his heart, and his thoughts, and him. And it was more than enough. In fact, it was everything.

Probably one of the only slightly critical things I have to say about the book is that Bree’s descriptions of Archer get a bit repetitive after a while. She goes on about his physical appearance quite a bit–which I didn’t mind!–but she uses a lot of the same descriptors and phrases over and over.

When I finished the book, I had that euphoric feeling I get when I’ve read something I really loved. In this case, I sent my friend Lennis a bunch of frantic all-caps messages, both during my reading (PLEASE TELL ME THIS WORKS OUT OKAY) and immediately after (OMG LOVED IT 500 STARS). I’ll summarize by saying that this is one of the best New Adult books I’ve read. When I bought my copy of the book, I had been aware of its popularity, but I’m always a little skittish with some bestsellers because sometimes I don’t see what all the hype is about. In this case, it’s absolutely deserved. I’m so excited to read more from Mia Sheridan and I’ve already added several of her other books to my TBR list.

Book Review: Midnight Ride by Cat Johnson

Midnight Ride by Cat JohnsonMidnight Ride by Cat Johnson
Rating: 5stars
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I LOVED this book. I’m new to Cat Johnson’s books, but now I want to go back and read her various other series because I loved this so much.

This is the first book in the Midnight Cowboys series, which is a spin-off of the Oklahoma Nights series, which I haven’t read yet. But it’s not necessary to read that before reading this book. I didn’t feel lost or confused about the different characters.

Janie is a 36-year-old widow. She lost her husband, Tom, to cancer a year ago. Although she still lives on the ranch that they owned together, it’s hard for her to maintain the upkeep of the land since Tom died. And although she has a good friend, Rene, who lives close by, Janie is extremely lonely.

Tyler is a 24-year-old ranch hand who works for Janie’s neighbor, Rohn. Tyler also rides rodeo and occasionally works at his friend’s shop. One evening, a pretty comical misunderstanding at a bar results in Tyler hiding in the bed of Janie’s truck. After her initial surprise and confusion, they meet officially.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and hopefully, so much more.

Eventually, Tyler offers to help Janie with her ranch work, but he refuses to accept any pay. Janie can’t allow herself to take advantage of Tyler’s kindness, so she agrees to make him dinner every night in exchange for his work.

Janie and Tyler get to know each other as each day passes. I was actually surprised to realize that they’ve only known each other for about a week or so before their relationship moves beyond friendship. The writing feels very deep, in the sense that I didn’t feel like this was a case of insta-love or insta-lust. Even though they’re both physically attracted to each other right away, they spend a little time getting to know each other first since Janie is clearly hesitant after her husband’s death.

Tyler made her do crazy things. She knew that, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.

When Janie and Tyler get together, it seems right, but Janie just can’t see past their age difference. I thought this part of the book was really interesting. She’s constantly worried what people in town will think if they see the two of them together because she feels so much older than the girls who are Tyler’s age–the girls he’s typically dated. But Tyler, smitten as he is, assures Janie over and over that he’s only interested in her.

But it’s easy to understand Janie’s hesitation. Her husband was 10 years older than her, and when she and Tyler meet, she’s 12 years older than him. For Janie, that age difference is a chasm they just can’t cross. Even though Tyler reassures her constantly, she still feels doubt and self-consciousness over how other people will perceive them. So, the physical relationship progresses, but Janie is still unwilling to take their relationship public, despite Tyler’s persistent requests to take her out.

Speaking of which, Tyler is nothing if not determined and pretty darn endearing. At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d like his character since he comes across as super charming and cocky in the beginning. Also, it’s clear that he’s been a bit of a player in the past. But the more that Janie gets to know him, the more she sees that he’s quite a hardworking, decent guy and she truly wants to be with him–if not for that age thing.

And Janie is obsessed with the age thing. On one hand, I understood her fear that Tyler would get bored with her and want to trade her in for a younger woman one day. I think that’s a legitimate fear, at least in the beginning. But the more she sees Tyler, the more he proves himself to her and earns her trust. Frankly, I just got to the point where I wanted Janie to give up and take that leap already. But I know it was hard for her, mostly because she’s still grieving the loss of her husband.

Maybe she had been living only half a life, inhabiting a world of dull gray until he’d brought back the vivid color to it. But with the vibrancy of really living, all the feelings, both good and bad, also returned.

There are a couple of moments toward the end of the book where I was a little scared that Janie and Tyler wouldn’t end up together. And Tyler does some incredibly sweet things for Janie that actually had me tearing up a bit! I did not expect all that sweetness and emotion, so those were a nice surprise. Ultimately, Janie has to figure out how to let go and start living again, especially when she understands that this is what Tom would have wanted for her. So, it feels very satisfying when she finally gets that through her heart as well as her head.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series as well as going through Cat Johnson’s backlist and reading her other books in the meantime. I felt a little giddy when I finished reading this, just because I enjoyed the writing so much. It’s a strong start to a new series and I’m really interested to see where it goes from here.

Book Review: Asking for It by Lilah Pace

Asking for It by Lilah PaceAsking for It by Lilah Pace
Rating: 5stars
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I’m just going to preface this review by posting a mild spoiler alert upfront, as well as a trigger warning. The publisher has attached this note to the book description:

Reader Advisory: Asking for It deals explicitly with fantasies of non-consensual sex. Readers sensitive to portrayals of non-consensual sex should be advised.

After I finished reading Asking for It, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even so, I struggled with the right words to describe the book, because it’s so emotionally rich and complex while dealing with such sensitive subject matter.

Vivienne is an artist and graduate student. For years, she has kept a secret: her sexual fantasies involve rape. We learn fairly early on that Vivienne was raped as a teenager. As an adult, she’s seeing a therapist, who has helped Vivienne work through her feelings of guilt and shame. Yet still, the fact that she fixates on rape fantasies troubles her deeply. She continues to struggle with the feeling that she’s somehow damaged beyond repair.

When Vivienne meets Jonah, a scientist and professor, it’s almost like it’s meant to be. Through an awkward and mortifying turn of events, Vivienne’s secret is revealed in the presence of Jonah. Later, Jonah approaches Vivienne and reveals his own secret: his sexual fantasies involve rape as well, but with him as the aggressor.

The two of them come to an arrangement that they’ll explore their fantasies together while somehow remaining mostly strangers. At first, their agreement is almost businesslike in nature. There’s no contract signed, but they do speak candidly and with a specific level of trust. It’s an enormous risk for both of them, especially since the scenario could go horribly wrong. But after their first encounter, it’s clear that they understand each other deeply.

So begins the relationship, which is anything but typical. The games between Vivienne and Jonah escalate as time goes on and as they gain more of each other’s trust. As this happens, the lines between their original arrangement and their evolving relationship blur considerably. The intention was never to become attached or emotionally involved, but that’s ultimately what occurs.

Throughout all of this, Vivienne is faced with her complicated family relationships. When she was raped as a teenager, she confided in her mother, who didn’t believe her. She also attempted to tell her sister, but denial overruled Vivienne’s truth. So it’s easy to see why Vivienne closes herself off emotionally and isn’t willing to share all her secrets with the people in her life, even her closest friends.

In turn, Jonah comes across as aloof and distant to those who don’t know him well. But over time, Vivienne learns how wrong that perception is. Even after their brutal encounters, Jonah treats Vivienne with the utmost care and concern for her safety, both physical and emotional. There are so many dichotomies happening here: Vivienne’s needs versus her shame, Jonah’s seeming coldness versus his tenderness. In fact, that’s a huge part of Vivienne’s journey throughout the book–her learning how to reconcile her desire now with the traumatic events of her past.

When Vivienne and Jonah finally open up and tell each other their stories, it feels like catharsis. But Jonah’s got demons of his own. They’re hinted at in the beginning of the book and revealed toward the end. Although Jonah has to step back from Vivienne as well as their deepening relationship, I know that it’s necessary for him–but it’s also temporary. At least, that’s what I’m betting on while I await the sequel.

I want to be clear that this book is not controversial for the sake of controversy alone. It addresses some very vital issues related to trauma, shame, and recovery. The scenes between Vivienne and her therapist are especially revelatory because we get to see Vivienne’s progression between her sense of self-loathing in the beginning of the book toward more of an acceptance of who she is by the end. She’s still not fully there yet, but she’s getting closer. I like to think that Jonah will get there, too. I’d be really interested to read the story from his point of view, if only to give a clearer understanding of what shaped him into the person he has become. Vivienne has started to release some of the shame she had felt for so long; perhaps, in time, Jonah will let go of his as well.

After I finished the book, I thought about it for days upon days afterward. This book will not be for everyone, but it handles the subject matter so well and I highly recommend it.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.