Book Review: 30 Days by Christine d’Abo

30 Days by Christine d'Abo30 Days by Christine d’Abo
Rating: 5stars
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30 Days is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seriously, I loved this book SO HARD.

Alyssa Barrow is only in her mid-thirties, but she’s a widow after losing her husband, Rob, to cancer. They had a comfortable but loving marriage, having met when Alyssa was just nineteen. In fact, Rob is the only man she’s ever had sex with, but she’s always been okay with that.

I wasn’t still looking for that special someone–I’d found and lost him.

When Rob was nearing the end of his life, he told Alyssa that he wanted her to find happiness again after his death–to move on and fall in love again. So Rob, feeling a little bit like Alyssa has been deprived, leaves her with a stack of sex cards. Thirty cards, to be exact, filled with thirty days of sex challenges, to be used when she’s ready. It’s a strange gift to leave for your widow, but clearly Rob had an interesting sense of humor.

He wrote me freaking sex cards. I fell in love with him all over again. My best friend and lover was giving me advice on how to hook up with other people from beyond the grave. The idea was a mix of weird and sweet, the perfect descriptor for him.

It’s two years after Rob’s death and Alyssa comes home to her condo one day to find that she has a new neighbor. A ridiculously hot new neighbor, in fact. It’s the first time she has felt something for anyone since Rob died and she’s not sure what to make of it. But the presence of Harrison Kemp, her new neighbor, gets Alyssa considering that maybe–possibly–she can attempt to start living again.

I could either continue to live a solitary life with my head and heart stuck in the past, or I could do what Rob wanted me to and take a step out into the big world on my own.

Despite the fact that she barely knows Harrison, Alyssa decides to enlist his help with completing her thirty days of sex. Harrison agrees, on the condition that the two of them understand that it’s just sex, not a relationship. Harrison is in town temporarily due to his work contract, so he’s leaving in three months. He’s also vague about his reasoning, only admitting that his last relationship ended badly. He and Alyssa agree that, with her history, she’s not ready for a serious relationship anyway. This will be purely physical and fun. No serious commitments.

(That’s what they all say in the beginning.)

This was totally about sex. Yup. No way I was going to let myself fall for the first guy I hook up with after Rob, because that had bad idea written all over it. Really bad. Super bad.

So begin the thirty days of sex. I don’t want to spoil the challenges because they are amazing and wonderful. They’re also sweet at times and simply dirty at others, and isn’t that the beauty of it? Alyssa finds herself actually having fun with Harrison, not just in bed with slowly getting to know him as well. Despite their initial agreement that it’s only sex, inevitably, they become friends. With that come all of the emotional entanglements that they swore they’d avoid by relegating their connection to the solely physical. That’s just the thing–it becomes clear that they’re falling for each other, despite their initial intentions.

This was what I’d been missing. It wasn’t so much about the sex as it was the connection.

With Harrison’s impending departure looming, there’s always a bittersweet feeling that surrounds him and Alyssa. That imminent separation creates a sense of urgency when they’re with each other because they know that their time together has an end date. But the deeper they go with their relationship (despite the fact that they don’t want to call it that), it’s obvious that emotions and hearts are becoming involved. Alyssa decides that she will try to win Harrison’s heart.

I knew that maybe, possibly, I was in love with Harrison.

Alyssa’s plans get a bit derailed along the way and because I loved this book so much, I will refrain from spoiling the ending. Suffice it to say that this book simply blew me away. It’s such an interesting mix, at times bittersweet and heart-wrenching, while at other times smoking hot and unbelievably sexy. The tone of the story reminded me of Anne Calhoun’s writing, but with much more levity. I loved getting to know Alyssa as a character; she’s someone you genuinely feel for and can cheer on. After living with so much grief and tragedy, you just want her to be happy.

For the majority of the book, I felt that Harrison is very much a mystery. I didn’t mind that at first, but as the plot went on, I wanted him to open up more to Alyssa. Eventually we do learn what he’s all about, but I would have liked more candor from him a little earlier on in the book. That’s really the only small complaint that I have.

Go forth and read this. It’s amazing and put me through a gamut of emotions: sadness, joy, frustration, elation, and finally, the lightness that comes after you’ve read something completely wonderful and unexpected. I love, love, loved this book and highly recommend it.

Love wasn’t an either-or situation. It was a limitless entity that grew in strength the more it was shared.

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

Book Review: Taking the Heat by Victoria Dahl

Taking the Heat by Victoria DahlTaking the Heat by Victoria Dahl
Rating: 5stars
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I’ve read all three books in Victoria Dahl’s Girls’ Night Out series and Taking the Heat is my favorite, hands down.

The hero is a super-hot librarian named Gabe. (I’m tempted to just stop there while you run off to buy the book right now, but I should probably elaborate.)

Veronica writes an advice column for the local newspaper in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She moved back to town when her dream of living in New York City didn’t turn out to be everything that she had hoped. When we first meet Veronica, she’s having a panic attack just before going onstage for a live “Dear Veronica” Q & A. She’s freaking out because she considers herself a fraud. Although she’s great at giving advice to help solve other people’s problems, especially about love and sex, Veronica is actually a virgin. It’s a secret she has kept from even her closest friends.

Gabe works with one of Veronica’s friends, who invites him to the Dear Veronica show. But when Gabe first meets Veronica, he gets the wrong impression of her. He mistakes her nervousness for being cold and aloof, so he intends to keep his distance from her. But when Veronica takes the stage and engages with the crowd, Gabe is charmed. He wonders if he rushed to judgment about her.

No, Veronica Chandler was nothing like he’d thought she’d be. And he was kind of…thrilled.

As a result of nerves combined with alcohol, Veronica ends up spilling her secret to Gabe: Dear Veronica is a virgin and a great pretender. But rather than being scared off, Gabe is further intrigued. In the light of day (and sobriety), Veronica is mortified when she realizes what she’s told Gabe, but he doesn’t let that stop him from wanting to get to know her better.

Maybe she was the perfect girl. Maybe he was in big trouble.

Veronica and Gabe strike up a friendship that quickly escalates into a physical relationship. Since he’s already aware of her secret, it takes some of the pressure off of Veronica. She’s still embarrassed, but Gabe does his best to put her at ease. In fact, on several occasions, Veronica attempts to enlist Gabe in losing her virginity, but Gabe actually tells her that they should wait, so they do. (For a little while.) When Veronica and Gabe finally have sex, their chemistry is explosive. Victoria Dahl sure knows how to write some amazing sex scenes. I loved the fact that even though Veronica was a virgin, she’s not clueless or naïve about sex in general.

He wanted to know, but he also liked her secrets. He liked the honesty of them and the glimpses of her that no one else saw.

But although they’re getting closer physically, there are still some secrets between Veronica and Gabe. When Veronica finds out what Gabe’s secrets are, it’s not pretty. There’s also the matter of Veronica’s family life. Her mother died when Veronica was young and her father briefly remarried. This time was awful for Veronica because her stepbrother treated her horribly. On top of all this, Veronica’s father, a powerful judge, has remained emotionally distant from Veronica her whole life.

So, while Veronica and Gabe are figuring out the parameters of their new relationship, they’re simultaneously juggling their separate family issues. But the main focus of the book is their relationship, which is one reason why I liked the book so much.

Something I also loved about the book is the strong message of sex positivity. When Veronica decides to have sex for the first time, it’s on her terms and Gabe is incredibly respectful of her. As she becomes more and more comfortable with her sexuality, it’s something that she explores freely with Gabe and that freedom, combined with trust, instills more confidence in Veronica. She knows what she wants and she goes after it.

She wasn’t weak and scared anymore. She was brave and real and confident.

There’s some conflict when Veronica discovers that Gabe is only in Wyoming temporarily, but the angst isn’t overwhelming, which I appreciated. Even though they’re dealing with separate family matters, Veronica and Gabe both have to reconcile their desires with their respective families’ expectations of them. Ultimately, they each have to make similar choices with regard to finding what they want in life and not just doing what others want them to do.

I really loved this book. The main characters are relatable and likable, so I rooted for them to figure things out and stay together. It was also nice to see characters from the previous books in the series again. As I mentioned, this is my favorite of the Girls’ Night Out books and I hope there are more planned for the future.

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

Book Review: Never Loved by Charlotte Stein

Never Loved by Charlotte SteinNever Loved by Charlotte Stein
Rating: 4stars
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If I sound like a broken record about Charlotte Stein’s books at this point, it’s because her writing is consistently good. I’ve realized that Stein has become one of my desert island authors, hands down.

There’s a theme in Never Loved that can be found elsewhere in Stein’s books–that of a heroine who has grown up with an abusive father. In Sheltered, the father is a religious zealot. In Never Loved, religion is not the motivator, but the abuse is no less regimented and sinister in nature.

Beatrix is a college student who has spent her life knowing what it means to fear. She has also spent that time trying to protect her younger brother, Tommy. Throughout their lives, following the death of their mother, their father regularly locked them in the basement as punishment, on top of inflicting physical and mental abuse every day.

When Tommy gets into trouble with the wrong people, Bea meets Serge, an imposing kind of guy who she probably should be afraid of. But when Serge offers to help Tommy with his troubles, Bea sees through Serge’s intimidating physical appearance into his goodness and kind heart.

Once, a guy helped me. He helped me without any expectations. Without demanding that I be grateful, or not frightened, or anything other than exactly what I was. He just did it, as though that is the way things are meant to be. People are meant to help people.

Bea has absolutely zero experience with men, but she is instinctively drawn to Serge. After an initial misunderstanding about Serge’s identity, she gets to know him better and finds herself intensely attracted to him, sexual inexperience be damned.

Even after Serge reveals how he makes a living–through underground fighting–Bea is not scared off. On the contrary, she only wants to know more. It’s through this curiosity that Bea learns about Serge’s past and discovers that the two of them have much more in common than she ever could have guessed.

Bea learns to trust her instincts about Serge even before their relationship becomes physical. Serge intentionally holds back in the beginning, especially since he’s aware of Bea’s inexperience. But the more she explores her desires, the greater her confidence grows, to the point where she becomes the initiator.

When I finally manage to speak, my voice is shaking. And they are not the words I ever imagined myself saying. They are the words of the person I am becoming.

Also present in Never Loved is Stein’s distinctive narrative voice. Serge and Bea fall for each other pretty early on in the story. I think I’ve said this before about Stein’s characters–even when they fall in love quickly, it’s written in such a way that, to me, doesn’t feel like insta-love. Because the writing is so deeply introspective, the emotions feel very credible. I know that first person, deep POV doesn’t work for all readers. However, I find it effective and genuine.

Something also worth mentioning is that this book probably falls into the New Adult category since Bea is in college (even though Serge is almost thirty). I’ve struggled with NA in the past, but honestly, while I was reading, the book didn’t strike me as a typical NA novel. I was too busy being emotionally invested in the relationship to slap labels on the book in general.

I loved seeing Bea’s transformation over the course of the story. Together with Serge, she discovers who she really is–and finds that she’s no longer a scared victim. She’s a survivor who welcomes risks in life, rather than running from them.

You have no idea how badly I want some kindness, and if you had never shown me any I would have stopped thinking about you the very day, the very minute, the very second, we met. But you know that isn’t true. You know that no one has ever been kinder to me than you.

Now that I’ve thoroughly gushed about what I liked, I think the only thing I didn’t like is that the resolution felt a bit rushed to me. On one hand, I was glad that the conflict wasn’t dragged out unnecessarily, but I think it could have been fleshed out a bit more. That’s probably the only complaint that I have and it’s a small one.

Ultimately, the writing here is a mix of brutal honesty about the characters’ traumatic pasts combined with wild hope for their future. I think that might be the thing that I love most: that although the characters have gone through their respective hells, they’ve found redemption through love. That’s a crazily optimistic and euphoric experience for me, as a reader.

In case it isn’t obvious at this point, I loved this book and highly recommend it.

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

Book Review: Priest by Sierra Simone

Priest by Sierra SimonePriest by Sierra Simone
Rating: 4stars
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This book is wildly inappropriate and sacrilegious and I absolutely loved it.

I should start by saying that if you’re easily offended by religious themes used in an erotic context, you probably shouldn’t read this. And if you’re an observant Catholic, you definitely shouldn’t read this.

The sex in this book is crazy super extra dirty filthy hot. So if you’re offended by extremely explicit sex scenes, you also should not read this. (Sidenote: I’ve seen this book categorized on Amazon and Goodreads as BDSM. While there are faint elements of this in the sex scenes and Tyler is certainly dominant, I personally didn’t consider it heavy on the BDSM.)

Now that I’ve told you why you potentially shouldn’t read this, let me explain why I loved it so, so much.

Father Tyler Bell is a 29-year-old Catholic priest who took his vows three years ago following the suicide of his sister. In many ways, her death was the catalyst for Tyler wanting to find meaning and purpose in his life. Tyler is certainly not a conventional priest. When not tending to his congregation, in his off-time he listens to Britney Spears and peruses The Walking Dead reddit. He sincerely loves his parish and throws himself into his ministry through various forms of community outreach to dull the grief left behind by his sister’s death. He also does this as a form of penance because he blames himself, in part, for her suicide.

So when a stranger enters his confessional one day, the last thing Tyler expects is to be drawn to this woman. Her confession is filled with sordid detail but also anguish, and as a priest, Tyler’s first instinct is to want to comfort her and help her find peace. But in another sense, Tyler finds himself drawn to her in far more inappropriate ways.

I was supposed to be a shepherd of the flock, not the wolf.

Poppy Danforth’s family life growing up is the definition of American blue blood. But immediately upon her graduation from Dartmouth with her MBA in hand, she walks away from her family’s privileged life. She knows what’s expected of her, but she wants more than marrying someone as a business transaction and ultimately becoming the requisite trophy wife.

So Poppy moves from city to city. She is a classically trained dancer but somehow finds herself working at an extremely high-class, exclusive strip club. She ends up in Weston, Missouri, where Tyler lives. She feels directionless and in an effort to find clarity, enters Tyler’s church and confessional.

Thus begins Tyler and Poppy’s relationship. She’s not Catholic, yet she finds comfort in the act of confession and Tyler is increasingly pulled in by Poppy’s magnetic personality. He also sees how hopeless she feels and wants to help her find her way. But from the beginning, their relationship is anything but appropriate. Tyler continues to hear her confessions, even though he knows he should step aside and refer her to someone else because he’s undeniably attracted to Poppy on a sexual level. Tyler has an interesting way of justifying his decisions. I’d say that he’s not a very good priest, but in some ways that doesn’t feel entirely accurate. In terms of his love for the community–and God Himself–Tyler actually is a very good priest.

The voice in my dreams that had comforted me, enlightened me, guided me. The voice that had told me what I needed to do with my life, where I needed to go to find peace. And the worst thing was that I knew He wasn’t angry with me. He’d forgiven me before it had even happened, and I didn’t deserve it.

Tyler is a good priest in many ways–he’s just not good at the celibacy part. Which, by the way, doesn’t last long. As you can imagine, Tyler breaks his vow of celibacy with Poppy early on and at times it’s almost comical how he splits hairs in efforts to justify his sins. Although he confesses them to God and prays for forgiveness, he also continues doing the same things over and over again, so obviously he’s not really interested in ending his sexual relationship with Poppy–despite the fact that they both know they should. In addition to this, by necessity they have to sneak around to spend time with each other, so there’s a constant shadow of secrecy and shame whenever they’re together.

However, although he spends a great deal of time justifying his actions, I don’t want to make light of Tyler’s struggles. He actually is tormented by his guilt, along with conflicted about his faith and his future as a priest. He not only has to reconcile who he is with who he wants to be, but also he has to figure out where Poppy fits into all of this as well. These issues become even more complicated when Tyler realizes that he’s not merely in lust with Poppy; he’s falling deeply in love with her.

Ultimately, Tyler has to make a choice. As a Catholic priest, he obviously can’t be with Poppy and remain in his spiritual position. However, he’s so conflicted by his feelings and how they just won’t reconcile with the vows he has made to God. As much as he tries to avoid making a choice, he has to decide whether he wants to follow what he thinks God wants, or what he knows his heart wants.

“Si vis amari, ama,” you tell me. If you wish to be loved, love.

One of the only things I didn’t like is Poppy’s ex, Sterling, and how prominent he is in the second half of the book. I wanted more of the focus to be on Poppy and Tyler, and the conflict necessarily involves Sterling, so unfortunately he’s in the book quite a bit. I also thought that the resolution is a little rushed, but the ending is satisfying.

For obvious reasons that I’ve already mentioned, this book is not for everyone–not even for every romance reader. But for me, it worked on pretty much every level and I loved it. There are passages throughout that are so beautifully written that I had to go back and reread them. There’s a poetic quality at times that’s so lyrical as to be Biblical in nature. The author did an amazing job of showing the dichotomy of Tyler the man of God versus Tyler the man in love. I just loved the author’s writing style and really want to read more from her.

Book Review: Forward Pass by Desiree Holt

Forward Pass by Desiree HoltForward Pass by Desiree Holt
Rating: 2stars
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So…I had issues with this book.

It started out okay. The writing style is not my favorite, but despite this I stuck with it. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had abandoned this midway because that’s when the story took a downward turn for me.

The story is about Joe Reilly, a retired NFL star who’s now a sports commentator and a low-key philanthropist. Shay Beckham is a graphic designer who’s the younger sister of Joe’s best friend. Shay has had a crush on Joe her whole life, but he has always treated her like his buddy’s bratty little sister and nothing more. When they meet again as adults, they have a strong physical attraction and it’s clear that things will turn romantic between them.

Going back to the writing, I found it very repetitive. Given the amount and variety of romance I read, it’s basically impossible to shock me at this point. Regardless, I had trouble with the fact that the hero of this book has a persistent erection whenever the heroine is around. Seriously. In private, in public, it doesn’t matter where. This book could have been called The Constant Boner because the hero talks about it ALL the time. I lost count of the total number of his erections but I feel like it was clearly past a dozen by the time the book was over.

Also, it’s obvious that Joe used to be quite a womanizer in previous years, but despite the fact that he has changed his ways, Shay is always reminding him of his past. Okay, so Joe used to party a lot, mess around, and not take his life very seriously. But even though he has changed, she keeps reminding him of what a screwup he used to be. It speaks to her low self-esteem that she is always harping on his “women” and “harem” that don’t actually exist in the present.

Even though the characters know each other from childhood, when they get together the relationship gets serious very quickly–complete with declarations of forever and a marriage proposal and all. I would have been content with a Happy for Now because the way events unfold seems quite rushed.

Lastly, I must mention a sex scene that struck me as super out of place because it seems so random in the context of this book. It involves a toe. I’ll just…leave that there.

I was hoping I’d like this book, but unfortunately I obviously didn’t enjoy it and would not recommend it.

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