I’m Reading: Kill Your Darlings by L.E. Harper

Sorry, but I need to gush about this one. Kill Your Darlings by L.E. Harper is an astounding piece of writing craft, as a self-aware story inside a subtly unfolding story, where all is not as we perceive. I received a free digital ARC copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

But first of all, make sure you read the forward of the book for trigger warnings. The triggers are there in a big way, so take them seriously if you are vulnerable to trauma.

Our MC is a fantasy author. We learn that she is on book 5 of her wildly successful YA fantasy series, and spiraling. Her editor hates her ending. Her revision deadline is days away. She hasn’t even started them. Depression and burnout have her in a chokehold. Her one escape is in her dreams, where she drops into her main character, Kyla, and spends time in the beautiful world of Solera that she’s created. But this time it feels different. This time, as she wakes up in her fictional lover’s arms, it might not be a dream.

When I first started Kill Your Darlings, I was a little meh on the standard fantasy world and creatures, and a few slightly shaky line edits. But I really loved the meta story. I loved how the MC lampshades the fantasy genre and tropes, playing with the meta narrative and fourth wall, and breaking all the rules. It felt like a Rian Johnson film, where the subtext, background, symbolism, and inside jokes took center stage over the actual plot. Then, as the book progressed and we learned all was not as it seemed, we discover the author was pulling off a master class in unreliable narrator. Just breathtakingly well-executed. And when dreams turned reality turned back into metaphor and the darkness falls, that last twist left me completely destroyed, and unable to put the book down.

I can see why Kill Your Darlings struggled in the query trenches. The real story, the thing that makes it unique and phenomenal, is a slow, subtle burn that takes time to develop. Querying, with the pitch plus ten pages approach, is going to bury a gem like this. It’s like trying to pitch a souffle to people looking for a candy bar. But if a slow-burn meta-narrative is your thing and you’re comfortable with darker themes, this is your dessert.

I picked this up excited for queer and Ace rep. I kept reading because it was a fun escapist fantasy. I loved the lampshading and the cleverness of an MC who knows what genre they’re in. But that last dark twist lets this book live rent-free in my head for the foreseeable future. Even now, days after reading, I look back and see how small pieces fit together into that final whole, and how perfectly unexpected yet inevitable the ending turned out to be.

*chef’s kiss*

Kill Your Darlings comes out on May 24, 2023 and is available for pre-order. Connect with this author on their TikTok at
https://www.tiktok.com/@selfpubdragon and make sure you request indie titles at your local library!

I’m Reading: Crunching Her Numbers by Mia Sivan

I had the pleasure of beta-reading this book, and I love the author’s vision for it. I also received an ARC copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly recommend it to any steamy contemporary romance reader.

The Tel Aviv financial world is a world of men. Kelly, an investment manager and Argentinian immigrant, must be twice as good and twice as tough to hold her position at the top. That’s fine with her. After all, she’s happy, rich, and really only needs a man for one thing. It seems like the ideal solution to take up an affair with her younger Russian masseur, Slava. Sweet, romantic Slava is head-over-heels for Kelly, but she’s clear at the beginning that there will be no happy-ever-after—no matter how good he looks kneeling at her feet.

Illan is a private investigator working for the Israeli Securities Agency to uncover a massive market manipulation scheme. He needs Kelly’s help, but her whistleblowing and cooperating with the ISA could risk everything she’d worked for. He asks that he trust her not just with her career, but with her pleasure, and her deepest vulnerabilities. When he asks her to give up Slava, though, she finds that no-strings doesn’t mean easy to let go.

This is a bit of a break from my recent Romcom streak, although the author does bring some lighthearted moments to balance the serious circumstances and stakes. Sivan brings the diverse city of Tel Aviv to life as a backdrop to this steamy romance about financial trading scandals, intrigue, and the global immigrant experience. With well-researched and realistic BDSM and polyamory rep, this story brings the heat in a big way. But it also makes the complex world of financial trading and investigation accessible and interesting to readers with no background in finance. The characters are beautifully developed, with unique voices that jump off the page. We see them all as real people in their different strengths and vulnerabilities, and root for all three right to the very end.

Follow Mia Sivan on her Amazon Author Page for Crunching Her Numbers and upcoming releases.

I’m Reading: Highland Games by Evie Alexander

Zoe uproots everything when her great-uncle leaves her a run-down cabin in the Scottish Highlands. The cabin is the scene of her happiest childhood memories, and she hopes it will be where she finds herself and her future away from the pressures of London life. But her rosy memories of a rustic summer are no match for the reality of a leaky, ramshackle hut in winter without plumbing, electricity, or a front door. Or for the massive, muscular estate manager for the Kinloch castle who seems determined to be rid of her.

Rory is under enormous pressure to make the Kinloch castle profitable in the face of enormous debt, or lose his job. All he really wants is to fix up the abandoned cabin on the estate and live out the solitary life he wants, away from the stress of work and memories. When a strange, magnetic London woman claims his cabin and turns his world upside down, he must find a way to scare her off, or lose his last hope of peace and quiet.

I was fortunate enough to be a beta reader for this book and received an ARC copy.

This debut romcom is a delicious, sexy delight. The characters bring sparks and wit to the enemies-to-lovers trope, with banter and shenanigans that made me laugh out loud. I love that Zoe gives as good as she gets, and meets Rory blow-for-blow in the battle of wits and pranks. I also love the found family and the town as a secondary character. For me, it had the mark of great immersive setting, in that I want to move to my own cabin in the Scottish Highlands and see if I can become part of their family, too.

But OH THE CHEMISTRY between the lead characters, here. It builds well, with the fire of animosity turning to physical attraction, then we peel back the layers of the characters to reach something deeper. It hits all the romance buttons for me, and I think we can look forward to a lot of great stories from this debut author.

For more on this and the author’s future works, visit Evie Alexander’s website at https://eviealexanderauthor.com/

I’m Reading: So Not My Thing by Melanie Jacobson

Elle Jones has learned the hard way that the Internet is forever. After a humiliating teenage rejection by her pop star crush went viral, it threatened to follow her forever. But she regrouped and rebuilt. She’s now on track to a wildly successful career in New Orleans real estate…until the man who wrecked her life walks through the door. Miles Crowe doesn’t recognize her when he asks her to help him find the perfect spot for his new jazz club. She plans to make him fire her as quickly as possible, before he learns the truth and makes her re-live her teenage humiliation all over again.

I’ll admit to being a sucker for enemies to lovers. There’s something about this classic romance trope that gets to me. Maybe it’s the idea of people actually growing and changing, or maybe it’s the best example of love conquering all. Or, you know, it could just be that the witty competitive banter is usually so dang sexy.

At any rate, Melanie Jacobson does it just right. So Not My Thing is smart romance. The conflict is real, as is the past hurt. The characters are deliciously competent at what they do. Both have actual, nuanced flaws, and have to do the work on themselves and grow as people to get what they want. The stakes are highly personal, which for me are the best kind of stakes. The world won’t end if they fail, but they’ll be better people if they succeed.

The city of New Orleans is itself a richly developed secondary character in the book, and one we fall in love with. Reading this makes me crave the place, but not just to visit. I want to belong to the place like Elle does, have her deep roots and connection to the community. It’s woven into both main characters’ identities as part of the story itself, not just a backdrop. You couldn’t transplant these people and conflicts to any other place and have it make sense. It has to be New Orleans.

If I have one complaint, it’s that I would have liked an epilogue. I know they’re not everybody’s jam, but I like to spend a little time with the characters after an emotionally tense ending, to wind down and transition back to real life. It’s like pillow talk for the soul. I particularly miss that transition when I’m invested in the people and their happiness.

But I am invested, which is why I can recommend this book. The people, the music, the lives and relationships all come together in a place I’m hungry to spend more time in. My preference for romance usually runs high-steam, but this author packs more sensual tension into a kiss than others do in entire on-page sex scenes. All that adds up to a place in my re-reads for this book. I suspect the same will be true for the rest of the author’s catalog.

For more information on So Not My Thing and Melanie Jacobson’s other works, visit the author’s website at https://www.melaniejacobson.net/

I’m Reading: The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas

Catalina Martín has a problem. When she discovered that her newly-engaged ex would be best man at her sister’s wedding in Spain, she may have accidently let slip that she would be bringing a date. Not just a date, though, a boyfriend. A handsome, charming, non-existent boyfriend. It was that or showing up single (again) and playing the poor pitiful sad girl (again.)

As W-Day draws near, Catalina must consider taking the offer of a date from the last man on earth she would willingly spend time with. Her fellow engineer Aaron is a humorless, soulless asshole who lives to make her miserable. It’s out of the question. She doesn’t even know why he offered, except maybe to mess with her. Why would a man who hates her guts want to fly to Spain to pretend to be her boyfriend?

And why, as the sparks fly and his touch lights up her body, does it feel less and less like pretend?

The Spanish Love Deception is everything I’m looking for in a feel-good, enemies-to-lovers romcom. It’s witty, quirky, and steamy. The characters are sharp, the secondary story meaningful, and the sexual tension is through the roof. The writing craft is solid, and while I would describe it as The Proposal meets The Hating Game meets telenovelas, the voice, the heart, and the nicely balanced classic romance tropes makes this book a phenomenon all its own.

(Minor spoiler alert)

My one complaint about this book is that Aaron joins the company after Lina, in the same role, yet he is being promoted ahead of her. The author isn’t shy about other elements of workplace discrimination, but this doesn’t even seem to show up on the characters’ radars. If she’s a highly competent engineer and team leader who has been there longer, why wasn’t she considered for the promotion? A company would normally post the position internally and interview applicants, not just pluck someone from the team arbitrarily to promote. Why would HR allow this, and why doesn’t Catalina fight it, or at least resent it? If Aaron is simply better for the job, I feel that the author needed to sell me on it more. I feel like this should have been caught by beta readers, at least.

***End Spoiler Alert***

But that is me being SUPER PICKY about an otherwise great book that I got very invested in reading. The rest of the story is solid. We get some of my absolute favorite romance tropes (Fake relationship feels all too real! Then grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one! and THERE’S ONLY ONE BED!). The romance is swoon-worthy, and the characters are real people you want to spend more time with.

This amazing debut goes on my re-read list, and I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to read more from Elena Armas!

Visit the author online at https://www.authorelenaarmas.com/

I’m Reading: Finding Joy by Adriana Herrera

Warning: Contains Spoilers

26-year-old American Desta Joy Walker begin his life in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The country was his father’s first love as well as the place of his death. When Desta tries to follow in his father’s footsteps as an aid worker, he finds the shoe doesn’t quite fit. He reconnects with his heritage and understands the love his father held for Addis Ababa, but feels the pull of a social work career back in the U.S. He must balance his own identity and calling against his parents’ dreams. The stakes for his decision skyrocket when he falls hard for the gentle, beautiful Elias Fikru. Both under the pressure of family legacy and in a place where gay relationships are illegal, they risk everything if they choose to be true to themselves.

This was a beautiful mix of steamy-hot sex and sweetly beautiful love of all kinds. We fall for the beauty of Ethiopia through the eyes of the character, and our hearts break for him and Elias for the intense pressure and danger they face together. The blend of Ethiopian and Dominican cultures and their fierce family loyalty is a rich tapestry to frame the story and the decisions the characters face.

The only downside for the story for me isn’t a downside for many: The story is low-angst. That means there’s some very real, plausible sources of conflict and danger the author chooses to leave on the table and not throw at the characters. They would greatly increase tension, but for some, tension is not always the goal. Some people want their happily-ever-after without putting their characters through hell and breaking them, first. I would chalk this up to simple differences in taste, rather than anything actually wrong with the story.

Similarly, some reviewers have mentioned the sex scenes being “out-of-tone” for the slow, sweet pacing of the story. They are indeed high-steam and graphically erotic, but I wonder if the same reviewers would complain if the main characters were M/F? This is a sensuous story, where the food, coffee, and other richly detailed textures of life in Ethiopia are an integral part of the story. I think the author brings the same sensual details to the love scenes.

You can find this and the author’s other books at https://adrianaherreraromance.com/

Content Notice: Contains LGBTQ discrimination and ethnic discrimination

I’m Reading: Suddenly Psychic by Elizabeth Hunter

While I love Paranormal Romance, the genre has been flooded with vampires, shapeshifters, and twenty-year-old ass-kicking women. A new genre has popped up for readers who like their magic a little more subtle and their relationships a little more varied. Paranormal Women’s Fiction features older women with magic, struggling through life changes, identity, and the existence of ghosts. There’s often an element of mystery to be solved, and family relationships take center stage along with a strong personal development arc. They seem to range from cozy to powerful, and I’m loving the genre as a reader.

Elizabeth Hunter was recommended to me as the best entry point, and I’m happy to second that recommendation. Suddenly Psychic features three women in their 40s, struggling with loss, changing family relationships, and a sense of purpose. A nearly tragic accident unlocks strange powers for them. Robin Brannon, the star of this first book in the series, finds that she can see ghosts. The strange man who saved them from the accident seems eerily familiar, and must be connected to the fifty-year-old chained bones found in the man-made lake. As the mystery develops, Elizabeth digs into her own family past, along with the history of their town, and the dark secrets she finds help her disrupt the generational echoes of abuse and trauma in her life.

If you’re one of those people who read a book like this for the mystery and feel cheated if the twist ending is too obvious, you probably won’t enjoy this book. The mystery is solid, but the ending isn’t a surprise. The way they get there is the fun part, for me, and this book worked for me just fine on that front.

If, like me, it’s all about sinking into a sympathetic character, laughing and crying with her and her friends as they struggle to dust off their lives and reclaim their happiness, then you’ll love this as much as I do. The banter among the friends is sharp and witty. The women are strong in a way that doesn’t require punching anyone, and their flawed expressions of love are sympathetic. The personal development arc is highly satisfying, and the romance is sweet. Best of all, the writing itself is tightly crafted and evocative.

Visit the author’s website at https://elizabethhunterwrites.com/ for purchasing options and info on her other books, or check your local library. Suddenly Psychic is also available on Kindle Unlimited.

Content Notice: This book contains references to a family history of abuse and stalking, as well as drownings and near-drownings, and mention of suicide. The heat level is sweet, with no on-screen explicit sex. Remember to check and add books to Does the Dog Die, where you can see details on many different forms of media for common trauma triggers and traumatic content.

Disclosure: I do not receive any compensation for reviews of books. Most reviews are of books I personally purchase and enjoy based on friend recommendations. If you’ve loved a recent popular book and think I might too, please contact me!

I’m Reading: A Cruel Kind of Beautiful by Michelle Hazen

Jera McKnight has sworn off men. Relationships will only end in heartache, since her last boyfriend convinced her she could never keep a man happy. Instead she pours her heart into her drums, making music and fighting towards the big time with her best friend Danny and lead singer, Jax.

When gorgeous Jacob accidently throws a newspaper through her window, her vow to remain single gets a new challenge. He’s sweet, considerate, and hot as hell. But he’s hiding a secret of his own, and trust comes hard to both of them.

Michelle Hazen is a recognized queen of steam. I usually begin with authors who offer at least one book free, either through the library, Kindle Unlimited, or a giveaway. If we click, I start buying up their whole catalog. Hazen is an exception to that rule. So many experienced romance authors recommended her as a master class on sexual tension that they convinced me to sprang for the first book. Then I devoured the series.

If you like things steamy, dark, and even kinky, this series is for you. Hazen deals with serious topics like addiction and sexual dysfunction that many writers won’t touch, but blends gritty realism with hope in a way that sucks you in and won’t let you go. Her characters are tortured, but not gratuitously so. The tension is excruciating, but delicious. Her prose is deep and dark, pulling you into sensuous details that make the music as rife with steamy tension as the sex. The wit is sharp, and the conflicts real, but there’s just enough light to balance the shadows, and we know that we won’t be left in despair at the end.

If you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend!

A Cruel Kind of Beautiful is the first in the Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll series. To learn more or find purchasing options, visit the author’s website at https://michellehazenbooks.com/

Content notice for gaslighting, women’s sexual dysfunction, drug and alcohol use/abuse, and light (in this book) BDSM. The books in the series get darker as they go, dealing with serious addiction, death, overdose, and heavier (but well-depicted and consensual) BDSM.

I’m Reading: The Match by Sarah Adams

Evie works for Southern Service Paws, helping clients with disabilities match with highly trained service dogs. When she gets an email to meet with the father of Sam, an eleven-year-old girl with epilepsy, Evie is especially eager to help someone with her own diagnosis find independence. The problem is that the email setting up the meeting didn’t come from Sam’s incredibly hot, incredibly rude father. It came from Sam.

Jake has been living in constant fear since his daughter’s epilepsy diagnosis. As a single dad, he’s terrified of getting the everyday parenting gig wrong, on top of keeping Sam safe during her seizures. There’s no room in his life for complications like love, especially after Sam’s mother walked out of their lives and never looked back. When a beautiful woman storms their table in a coffee shop insisting she has a meeting with him, Jake finds out his daughter conspired to bring them together. Evie is too vibrant, too attractive, and Jake needs to make sure she never wants to see him again.

The Match is a feel-good wholesome rom-com an abundance of heart. I’m personally a fan of heavy steam in my romance, and I was surprised to fall so deeply in love with a book that never goes further than make-out sessions on the couch. For me, the characters sell the book. We fall absolutely in love with Jake as parent of the year. He stresses adorably over single-dadhood and doing right by Sam. Evie is a messy, disorganized do-gooder with high competence and a strong uge to help others despite her upbringing among the self-centered elite. Sam is a well-written kid with devious smarts, relatable fears, and a giant heart that pulls the two main characters together. The secondary characters are smart, funny, and adorably bawdy, with strong voices of their own.

There are a few under-developed moments and threads (the antagonists in particular), but overall I found the plot highly satisfying and the characters endearing. It’s earned a high spot in my re-read pile. I’m glad I gave it a chance, despite its high ranking in the “clean and wholesome” category. It proves once again that a good story transcends categories, and we should never put our tastes in too narrow a box.

(I DESPISE the use of the term “clean” to describe books without sex, but that’s a rant for another day.)

Content notice: Book contains emotional abuse by the MC’s parents, including gaslighting and attempted emotional and financial coercion into a non-consensual relationship. Very brief on-page sexual assault (unwanted kiss).

I read The Match (book one of It Happened in Charleston) on Kindle Unlimited. Check with your local library, or visit Sarah Adam’s website to find this and her other work.

I’m Reading: Verity by Colleen Hoover

If you’re a fan of the classic gothic romance Rebecca, this modern Indie romantic suspense will give you all the steamy thrills and chills you’re looking for, with polished, sophisticated prose and sympathetically broken characters.

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling author who travels upstate to the gloomy home of Verity Crawford, a famous author who is unable to finish her bestselling series after a tragic car accident. Tragedy has followed the Crawfords, who lost two children in the years before the accident. A sympathetic Lowen must fight her attraction to Verity’s husband, Jeremy and do the job she came for, but the discovery of a secret manuscript of Verity’s life revealed that tragedy may not be all that it seems.

Hoover plays beautifully with the gothic tropes, but in a way that will appeal to the sensibilities of modern readers. The melodrama is brought with a light touch. The twists and turns are deeply satisfying, deliciously dark, and dripping with atmosphere. I did think the ending could have used some tightening, but the effect was there and left us questioning everything we thought we knew.

I thought I’d struggle with the darker themes, with so much darkness in the world right now. Instead, I found myself tearing through the book, riveted. I finished it in a single sitting. None of the darkness felt gratuitous to me, and the pacing helped sell it as an organic part of the story development. The writing itself is excellent, with small touches of imagery and symbolism that thrill the senses of readers who enjoy the play of language. The deep POV flirts hard with elements of unreliable narrator and gaslighting essential to the gothic atmosphere.

There’s a reason why this Indie book rides so high in category rankings. It deserves its place!

Available through Kindle Unlimited. Check your local library, or visit the author online for purchasing options at https://www.colleenhoover.com/portfolio/verity/

Content notices for child abuse, trauma, neglect, death, murder, and ableism. This is a dark book with dark themes. If you have questions about any potential trauma triggers in the book, please reach out to me here or via Twitter DM @JoGeekly and I’d be happy to give you more info to make an informed consent decision on whether or not to read.