I’m Reading: Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Andrew’s bond with his best friend Eddie was deeper than blood or friendship, rooted in deep magic and deeper secrets. When Andrew gets word of Eddie’s apparent suicide, it tears Andrew’s whole world apart. He’s drawn back to Nashville to piece together Eddie’s last days, certain that there’s more to the death than he’s been told.

I’m picky about gothics. Not because I’m somehow an expert in the genre, but specifically because I’m not. So my favorite gothics tend to be contemporary genre crossovers with accessible writing style, vivid characters, and a strong sense of place.

Summer Sons just clicked for me. It is a slow, dark, languid dive into the Appalachians. We walk the line of social tension between the elite and the back woods, old South generational wealth and generational curses, ivory towers and street racers, queer masculinity and violence.

What I love best about Summer Sons, besides the sheer craftsmanship, is the handling of ghosts. Andrew’s powers and affinity for the dead are woven tightly into the story, heavy with dread and metaphor. There is no friendly Casper guiding the MC gently to a life lesson. The ghosts are visceral, angry, and dangerous, seducing Andrew into a spiral of his own self-destruction.

But the craftsmanship! I simultaneously disliked every single character, yet wanted to really dive into in their head and rooted for their redemption. The author pulled me into scenes and hobbies I had no interest in and made me care. The characters made terrible, toxic, self-loathing, and self-pitying decisions, but made me understand and sympathize. It is the kind of story that lingers for hours once you close the book, like the taste of coffee after you drink. It’s not the kind of book you take to the beach for a light summer read.

It’s the kind of book that haunts you.

To find a copy of Summer Sons visit the author’s website at https://leemandelo.com/

Content warnings for suicide, alcoholism, drug use, graphic violence, supernatural horror, and homophobia.

I’m Reading: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Dev Deshpande makes happy-ever-afters happen. As a producer on the top reality dating show, his specialty is crafting a story of true love, even when his own love life crashes and burns.

But this season’s bachelor, tech genius Charlie Winshaw, is a disaster. Stiff, awkward, picky, and anxious, he’s as far from prince charming material as the show has ever seen. Worse, he doesn’t even believe in love—he’s only on the show to rehabiliate his image.

Dev’s mission is to get Charlie to open up, relax, and give love a chance with the women vying to be chosen as his princess. But the more Charlie opens up, the more they realize he has better chemistry with Dev than the 20 women he’s supposed to choose a wife from. The two men are faced with a high-stakes choice: Go along with the illusion and save both their careers, or challenge everyone’s assumptions of who deserves a happy-ever-after.

This is one of those rare and precious cinnamon-roll love stories that make my heart sing, because the author does not confuse cinnamon-roll with passive or feminine. Charlie is strong, loyal, physical, and willing to fight for what he wants. He’s just also soft, sweet, anxious, and wounded by a world that refuses to see him. With OCD and panic disorder, his biggest struggle is internal; he must take off the mask that he’s worked so hard to make, because he assumed he had to meet the expectations of others to deserve happiness.

Dev and Charlie’s dynamic is reminiscent of Alex and Henry in Red, White, and Royal Blue. Dev has the same frenetic energy and wild charm, balanced by Charlie’s wounded softness. It’s a dynamic that works well, lending itself to adorable squee moments and outrageous, witty banter. The writing craft is strong from the line-level on up, the pacing well-balanced, and the secondary characters are ones we want to see center-stage in their own stories. This one is definitely going in my re-read pile.

Look and ask for The Charm Offensive at your local library, or visit the author’s website at https://www.alisoncochrun.com/ for purchasing options and upcoming titles!

I’m Reading: Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Ari Abram’s dream is to be a meteorologist, and counts herself lucky to work with her childhood hero, the ever calm and cheerful Torrance Hale at KSEA 6 in Seattle. But instead of the close relationship with her mentor she’d craved, she spends most of her time trying to defuse shouting matches and petty fights between Torrance and her divorced husband, the news director.

Desperate, she teams up with cinnamon roll sports reporter Russell Barringer to play matchmaker. If they can make their bosses fall in love again, it will make everyone’s lives easier at KSEA 6. But Ari wasn’t planning to fall in love herself. It would mean letting someone see past the sunshine girl, into the darkness beneath.

My favorite romances have both elements of light, funny, wholesome squish and tackle darker themes of identity and self-growth to keep it real and grounded. Weather Girl is a great blend, with the refreshing bonus of a sexy-sweet fat male lead, Jewish characters, blending families, and a twist that is as surprising as it is satisfying. I love the exploration of generational trauma relieved by laugh-out-loud dialogue. The author is also a master of steam, putting more panting sexual tension into a casual brush of skin than some books pack into an entire sex scene. There are, of course, also a few sex scenes, so lovers of extra chili peppers will enjoy this book.

Please be aware that the book deals with depression and mental health, childhood emotional trauma, and inpatient mental health in a respectful, accurate way. It addresses issues that don’t get discussed often enough, like the effect of medication on sex drive, the reality of bad days even on well-managed symptoms, and processing forgiveness as an option instead of an obligation. It’s real, but so are the good moments, the vulnerability, and the happy-ever-after.

Visit the author’s website at http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/ to find a copy of Weather Girl, or request it at your local library.

I’m Reading: Gravity and Lies by C.G. Volars

I’m breaking my contemporary romance reading streak for a very good reason. Gravity and Lies, the first book in the Static Over Space series by C. G. Volars, is worth jumping genres. It’s quirky, queer sci-fi adventure with a tough, trash-talking, bisexual Latino MC and a big cast of lovable and hateable aliens.

Izo Lopez has not had an easy life, cycling through the foster system and surviving homeless. But he has a big goal and a bigger secret. He is scrambling to save enough money to save his best friend from the foster system and create a stable family life for them both.

Oh yeah, and he can fly.

But when he’s snatched up and transported across several galaxies by alien traffickers, he finds himself on a new world where his powers of flight make him a hot commodity, and his kidnappers are the only ones who know how to get him back to the obscure little uncharted planet he calls home.

Volars pulls the rug out from under the classic damsel in distress tropes of adventure novels with a delightful, gender-bending twist in the form of the tough, stubborn, sarcastic Izo. Then the author goes on to flip and twist every other stereotype, resulting in an aerial circus of sharply unexpected, delightfully wicked, and dynamically complex characters.

Above all, the story is fun! There are dark moments, and heartbreaking moments, and stand-up-and-cheer moments. But Izo’s indomitable spirit and sharp wit always lift us right back up again. We’re right there rooting for him as he fights a whole galaxy in a relatable search for home, family, and identity (and a sandwich!)

Visit the Static Over Space website at https://www.staticoverspace.com/ to get a copy, or request it 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: Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophie Cousens

Laura is a hopeless romantic and professional meet-cute reporter. Her own parents’ story of being brought together by a broken antique coin across the sea has set high standards for her love life, and she’s not about to settle for less than epic romance.

As she travels to the island of Jersey to trace her parents’ romantic footsteps for a story, her luggage gets switched at the airport. The contents of the mystery suitcase convinces her that the owner is the man of her dreams and she must find him to fulfill very own meet-cute. But as she tracks him down with the help of a surly cab driver and rediscovers her island roots, she uncovers family secrets that threaten to unravel her belief in happy ever after.

For me this romcom had the perfect balance of serious, funny, wholesome and whimsical to draw me right in. There are clever nods and twists to genre tropes and reader expectations that made the story fresh, and a light touch on the history of the island that captures the heart of the place without feeling that we’re being lectured on a school trip.

The plot threads get a little meandering at the end, but the dynamic characters carry it through with a well-constructed twist. The resolution is deeply satisfying all around, and the light touch makes this a great, cozy, curl up on the beach, escapist kind of read, with more laughter than tears, and all the warmth of a good cuppa with friends.

Visit the author’s page at https://www.sophiecousens.com/ to buy this book, or request it at your local library!

I’m Reading: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Finlay Donovan’s life is a complete mess. Her newly ex husband fired the nanny without telling her, she’s behind on the bills, the book she desperately needs to finish to cover the mortgage is past due (and barely started), and her kid chose this morning to cut her own hair before school, then insists on fixing it with duct tape.

But then a woman at Panera overhears Finlay and her agent discussing the overdue murder mystery, and mistakes the stressed-out single mom for a contract killer. Finlay finds a note in her purse with a name and an offer that would solve a large chunk of her problems: fifty thousand dollars.

What could go wrong?

Elle Cosimano brings us an unapologetically campy romp of a mystery novel. It’s real, refreshing, and hilarious, but with hidden sophisticated depths and empathy.

The writing craft is exceptional and the combination of feminist lens and sharp wit put this in an entirely different class of mystery. The hijinks and fast pacing give it a cinematic, summer blockbuster feel (and lets hope this catches Hollywood’s eye!)

I like that the platonic female friendships in the book overshadowed the romance threads. The latter were a little underdeveloped. Then again this is a woman who is working her butt off to figure out who she is and where she’s going professionally and personally, and the men just need to take a back seat until she figures it out. Character-wise, the women in this book really stand out as vivid, strong individuals with their own personalities, and their dialogue is particularly strong.

But I’m here for the weirdness of laugh-out-loud funny, surprise twists, and, of course, the murders. The sequel is already on my order list.

Check your local library, or find out more about the author’s work at https://www.ellecosimano.com/

I’m Reading: Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill web designer who wants to experience life away from the hovering and smothering care of her family. So she gets an apartment and makes a list: Do something bad, ride a motorcycle, go camping, enjoy a drunken night out, have meaningless but enjoyable sex, and travel the world with nothing but hand luggage. But being chronically ill makes it tough to make friends to do bad things with. Not friends she can trust to stick around on bad days, through broken plans and physical limitations. Leave it to the grumpy, impossibly sexy handyman, Red, who secretly paints beautiful art at night and resents Chloe’s wealthy upbringing, to be the one to help her get a life. He doesn’t know that Chloe has already done her “something bad,” by way of spying on him at night through the curtains. But as he sticks around through thick and thin and helps her check off more of her missed experiences, she must decide if she can take the biggest risk of all; adding him to her list.

“Keep Red.”

This is the first in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, and it pulled me in immediately with vivid characters, humor, a perfect balance of sweetness and steam, and beautiful writing craft. I immediately blew my entire monthly book budget on her back catalog and haven’t been able to stop reading since. This series marks her leap from Indie to traditional publishing, and you can see why she caught an agent’s eye. She balances witty hilarity with a rich, lyrical voice and captures beautiful scenes with a few evocative brushstrokes. Her men have emotional intelligence, her families are loving but imperfect, her characters are beautifully rounded, and her steam is so hot it should come with burn cautions. Overall, I would put Hibbert right up in my top 5 favorite re-readable authors and platonic author crushes.

I wholeheartedly recommend you check your local library for Talia Hibbert’s books, or visit the author’s website at https://www.taliahibbert.com/

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/