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“Blue Bloods: After Life” by Melissa de la Cruz

I cannot overstate how disappointed I was by this book. I love Melissa de la Cruz! I’ve read a lot of her books, and enjoyed them! I particularly loved the Blue Bloods series, which was contemporaneous with a lot of supernatural romance emerging in YA. Schuyler is a compelling protagonist, and her adventures moved quickly from peril to peril, before ultimately she and her friends triumph over their devilish adversaries. This victory doesn’t come without loss, as Schuyler is forced to sacrifice her true love in order to defeat Lucifer.

Blue Bloods: After Life takes place in a totally different world, with the Schuyler we know suddenly inhabiting the life of a different Schuyler, in a different year, in a vastly different New York. The premise is promising, and then it’s completely unfulfilled.

First issue: world-building. This story takes place in pandemic-era New York, in 2020, and Schuyler is fifteen, in high school again. Some things are very different, she and Oliver have different last names and families, and some things are weirdly the same: Schuyler has the same father, for one thing. And she’s still a Blue Blood, despite not being Gabrielle’s daughter in this universe. What? That’s explained away pretty quickly, but not to my satisfaction. There are also some differences in the history of this world, but that doesn’t seem to affect the present day much? Like, Napoleon died a lot earlier, but that doesn’t change the modern world in a discernible way. The whole alternate worlds thing requires more panache to pull off and it just doesn’t happen in this book.

Kingsley Martin is also in this universe, but he arrived a year earlier, for some reason, and is running the underground resistance. Another thing that just happens! Why would Kingsley just fall out of the sky? No explanation. I will say just about the only compelling thing about this book was his chemistry with Max Force, and their relationship developing. Then, killing Kingsley off? Ugh, why? He’s already died once in this series, how much does he have to take?

I think if I was doctoring this book, it wouldn’t take much to fix the biggest problems. Firstly, the point of views were a great idea, I love seeing into Max’s head, so a good change would be that it’s only Jack who gets thrown into the body of his alternate self. He’s just died in the main Blue Bloods universe, I’d buy it that he would somehow bleed between the worlds or be thrust into another version of himself. Plus, let’s face it, Schuyler’s life in this alternate world is boring, she has little power and even less information. I did not want to read about her being in Zoom classes all day and then sneaking out at night. So, cut that Kingsley and Schuyler fall through, and just have it be Jack. He has this weird imposition of his old self, the one we know, and he becomes conflicted about his position as Lucifer’s golden boy. Meanwhile, you can still have Kingsley and Max fall in love, just the version of Kingsley from this universe, who can still be sabotaging Lucifer. Jack can fall in love with this universe’s Schuyler, and find the strength to turn against the devil. I also don’t like that this is setting up at least a sequel, and possibly a new series. I would just have this be a stand-alone book, and have Jack and Max work together with Schuyler to defeat Lucifer from the inside. Given their positions in his organization, it wouldn’t be that hard to get close to Lucifer and for Schuyler to shish-kebab him. These changes would weed out a lot of what doesn’t work about this book, and lean on the strengths: Max and Kingsley’s relationship, and that between the twins. I think this book actually did build a good bond between Max and Jack, and I think having the book from their perspectives alone would allow that relationship to take center stage in the development of the characters.

The primary thought I had while reading this book was that the author wanted to change some things about the way they told they story, without sacrificing the narrative already existing. It just was a frustrating, boring story with little to recommend it. You’re better off just rereading the original series.

Blue Bloods: After Life is available wherever books are sold, or at your local library. This reviewer was provided with a copy in exchange for an unbiased review.

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“The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes” by Cat Sebastian

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes is the sequel to The Queer Principals of Kit Webb, which follows Marian, the supposed Duchess of Clare, and Rob, the only legitimate offspring of the Duke of Clare who also happens to be a former highwayman. On the run after killing her not-quite-husband, Marian turns to Rob, who blackmailed her with the truth of the late Duke’s bigamy. She kidnapped him, so they’re mostly square, but Marian needs help to stay safe, and Rob finds it difficult to say no to her. For reasons neither of them really want to interrogate, both Rob and Marian start to enjoy each other. However, any relationship they might have is doomed by their disparate class statuses. How will the Dukedom be settled, and what does the future hold for the queer found family at the center of these books?

I’ll start with what I love- Marian is a darling. She’s deeply devoted to the people she loves without really letting people take care of her, or love her back. Marian is supremely competent, dashing and clever. Rob is also a dear, I love how open he is with his emotions and his desires. He basically personifies “be gay, do crimes,” in both the queer and happy contexts. I think both of them have really great internal conflict and their relationship is well-built. There aren’t a lot of present secondary characters in this book, but the ones there are fleshed out and have purpose. I also loved the conflict set up with the Dukedom and Rob, I think it really presented a difficult problem for all of the characters to work through. I also like that they don’t get married, I think that it makes sense for Marian’s previous struggles.

Unfortunately, there are considerable narrative problems. For starters, the central plot-point of this duology is the bigamy of the Duke of Clare and how that leaves his various children. The pre-existing marriage of Clare to Rob’s mother makes the heir, Percy; and Eliza, Marian’s daughter; illegitimate. We learn that Rob is the legitimate heir, but while a lot of the book sees him reckoning with that truth, the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. Rob has a few conversations with Percy, which were mostly good, but nothing is really decided. The big problem in his life, that made him disappear for a year and let his friends think he was dead, is basically resolved without really dealing with it. He says “I guess I’ll take it if I have to, but I won’t be the Duke.” It feels like a half-measure. I like the conversations that Rob and Marion have about the Dukedom, and its responsibilities, but because there isn’t really a solution that everyone would be happy with, the problem is kind of hand-waved away. I don’t think this really does it justice.

Another problem starts with something I really loved- Eliza. I think we don’t see enough depiction of heroines who have trouble with motherhood, or have difficult pregnancies, but it’s a very real experience for many. I think we saw a lot of Marion’s internal conflict about motherhood and parenting, but it never fully came around. At the end, we have a lovely scene where everyone is all together as a family, but I don’t think we got enough of Marian coming to terms with her feelings about being a mother, or how she plans to parent her daughter in her blended family. It’s just kind of a throwaway line, “Oh, she’ll be spoiled, everyone loves her.” But this story isn’t about everyone- we know Percy and Kit love Eliza, and Rob adores babies. I wanted to see Marian decide what kind of relationship she plans to have with her daughter, whatever that might be. I loved the scene where Marian talks with Rob’s mother, about how she was a good parent despite not conforming to common standards for a good mother. I think that could have been a great jumping-off point for Marian to evaluate her own needs and goals. She obviously has complicated feelings, but I think the story would have been a lot stronger with some closure there.

Of course, Marian’s secret that made her marry Clare is a dependent family member, her father. I loved the relationship between her and her father, and how Marian schemes to protect him, but dependent relative is the oldest trick in the book. I do buy that she would have kept it a secret, though, due to her aforementioned prickliness and difficulty opening up. I kind of wish there was more a resolution about her brother, and essentially giving him no choice but to let her be in charge. I like seeing Marian take her power back, and I think that could have been helpful.

There’s another huge issue with the book: we really get no clarity about the late Duke of Clare, at all. I assumed that there would be more about his motives and his plans in this book, but we barely got anything. Marian shows us that the Duke was a bad husband and a rapist, aside from being abusive generally speaking. But there are huge plot-holes here, which persist from the first book. Unfortunately, there are enough to make a list.

  1. What was the Duke’s plan for the bigamy? If the duke hated Percy and his former wife, why did he wait until she died to disinherit Percy and throw her out? The former Duchess was at war with the Duke for their entire marriage, so why didn’t he just pull the trump card and say “Ha, we’re not married, you’re a strumpet and your son is a bastard.” What was the point of keeping this secret if he hated his son and didn’t want him to inherit? And if he wanted to keep Rob a secret, he could have done some kind of dirty work to take care of the problem, like murder or bribery. Is he so foolish to think that no one would find out? We discover in this book that he knew about it, so how did he think it wouldn’t come out? Isn’t this why dukes have lawyers? The Duke has a ton of money and a scary amount of power, so it makes no sense that he doesn’t have a plan.
  2. How did the former Duchess not know? Percy’s mother was a conniving, clever woman who befriended Rob’s mother at one point, so how did she fail to discover that her own marriage was invalid and make a contingency plan? Why didn’t she ensure that Percy would get her money when she died? She can’t have really been that clever, can she?
  3. Why don’t they just stay quiet? The crown would have no interest in investigating the marriage of a dead duke to an unknown woman, and it’s not like the paper-trail is iron clad. Unless Percy shows them all of the paperwork, there’s no reason why they can’t just shut up and let one of Percy’s cousins inherit. Once a title is conferred, it can’t be taken away (except I think for treason.) So if they just keep mum for a few months, there’s no reason to uproot all of their lives and Rob can just not deal with Duke stuff.
  4. Why did the Duke marry Marian? The duke remarried pretty quickly after Percy’s mother dies, but why? Marion marries him for the reasons we see in the book, but we have no idea why he wants a new wife. If it’s for the succession, Eliza or another son would have been just as illegitimate as Percy. Marian doesn’t have any money, she isn’t interested in moving in society, so why did the Duke want to marry her? What is his motivation? He could have easily married an empty-headed eighteen year-old debutant, and maybe gotten some money out of the deal. There’s no real reasoning here, unless the reasoning is “The Duke is evil and likes to mess with people.”

I really did enjoy the book, but I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief. It’s not up to the quality of the first one when it comes to plot. The romance is great, it’s just that the plot doesn’t hold water. I think this book actually explores some darker, more complex themes, but they’re not unpacked very well and that detracts from it. I just found the ending to be a bit hollow. I love the idea of a found family of queer criminals out for justice, but it kind of felt like a plot beat that was outlined ahead of time but doesn’t really fit with the book we ended up with. We didn’t see Marian start to get along with Betty and Kit, and open up to them. It just jumps to a time when everyone gets along and takes care of each other, fitting into each other’s lives. Again, I found the book very enjoyable, but ultimately the plot is really lacking and a lot of questions are left unanswered.

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“Partner Track” by Cat Wynn

Partner Track by Cat Wynn is a contemporary workplace romance between two lawyers who can’t come to terms about their attachment.

Perdie is thirty-nine and hasn’t made partner at her law firm yet. Never mind that she worked her way up, she’s about to land a big fish that will finally get her the recognition she deserves. Too bad that instead of getting a promotion, she gets a new coworker- Carter Leplan. Carter, who she just destroyed in arbitration. Carter, who she had a fabulously hot encounter with that night. Carter, who is now a partner at her law firm. Eek.

I think this is a great book, and it’s amazing for a debut novel. I loved all of the characters- particularly Lucille and Perdie’s friendship. Because Perdie is a bit older than your average romance protagonist, she and Lucille have been friends for a few decades, and their relationship is more familial than anything else. All of the characters were really dynamic and interesting, and I hope that there will be a second book for Lucille and Noah.

Carter is an amazing love interest and I enjoyed him immensely. He follows the current trend of male love interests being all-in, which I love. I think he’s a bit of a flat character, but that’s because the story isn’t really about him needing to grow and change. His big arc is falling in love with Perdie, and also taking some of the risks he wouldn’t have normally. I think their relationship is written perfectly, the issues they face as a couple mostly stem from Perdie’s emotional problems. There are some external pressures, but for the most part, Perdie is her own greatest enemy. I like how emotionally complex Perdie is, and I do love that she pursues a healthier, happier life with therapy. We need more therapy in romance! I think Perdie’s arc is great, and I love how things work out, but I would have liked a bit more of a resolution. I love how much development Perdie gets, and she comes so far, but I wanted to see her thrive a bit more.

I do think that a lot of readers will be put off by this cover, which I do not like. The color scheme is fine, but the illustrated cover conveys a lightness this book really doesn’t have. This is a very steamy romance, and it starts out that way. Also, I know a lot of people were annoyed that the dog on the cover does not make it through the book. Though it didn’t bother me, I think he doesn’t belong on the cover. This book isn’t really a lighthearted romance, and I think a more down-to-earth cover would have conveyed that. It’s super funny, and I don’t think it’s a dark story, but it’s definitely not as light as it looks. I almost completely passed this one by, because the cover seemed kinda off to me, but I liked the blurb so I gave it a chance. I did love it, so I hope some folks can look past it.

Partner Track can be purchased wherever books are sold. A copy of this book was provided to this reviewer in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Spanish Love Deception” by Elena Armas

The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas has gotten a lot of attention in the romance community, and also became a NYT bestseller upon paperback release. I’d heard good things, although the book has also got some negative feedback, and I was excited to read it. I personally was middling on the book, I found it to be fairly average but enjoyable.

The premise is that Catalina Martín is returning to Spain, to attend her sister’s wedding, and needs a date. Her ex is engaged, and she cannot show up pathetically alone. To her great surprise, her coworker Aaron offers to go with her. They’re not friends- after getting off on the wrong foot, they’ve been barely civil. Still, as the date grows closer, Aaron starts surprising Lina, and she wonders if her taciturn coworker might be better company than first impressions indicated.

I really did enjoy this book, though it didn’t blow me away. Catalina is a very vivid depiction of a young woman in recovery from trauma, trying to succeed in her field. She feels very human and flawed, and she’s self-aware of the ways in which she can’t fully realize her hopes. She hasn’t had a romantic relationship recently because of her inability to trust, and she’s not able to consciously take that step without great trepidation. She still does have close friendships and positive working relationships, but Lina has mostly closed herself off to love. Aaron is a little flatter as a character then I would like, but he works as a love interest and his characterization is at least consistent.

I also liked the trip to Spain itself. Lina’s family was the perfect blend of loving and concerned, involved in her life but not too meddling. Lina standing up for herself, both in a work setting and with her ex, were some of my favorite parts of the story. I think the romance was pretty strong as well, with the central obstacles being a lack of communication and Lina’s trust issues.

I did think the book was a little bloated, it could have been trimmed down in some places and that would have made the story stronger. The pacing was a bit off because of the story being so front-loaded. I will say, the readers who talked about how often Aaron’s blue eyes were mentioned, and how big he was were not exaggerating. It did get a bit distracting at times how many different ways the author found to talk about his blue eyes. I also saw a lot of similarities to The Hating Game, which made a big splash a few years ago. Obviously, there are going to be some common threads in enemies-to-lovers workplace romances, and it didn’t feel too derivative. I do think that if you’re going to write a book where the love interest is already in love with the protagonist, you need to lay more ground. I think the book would have also benefited from dual points of view, to give the reader context for Aaron’s feelings for Lina. I think for a debut, it really is a great start. I look forward to seeing what comes next for Armas.

The Spanish Love Deception is available wherever books are sold. This reviewer was given a copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

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“When Sparks Fly” by Helena Hunting

I really enjoyed Helena Hunting’s 2019 release Meet Cute, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it’s a hot mess. The premise is strong, and it has a lot of fun tropes, but the book has so many problems that this review will mostly be a litany of my complaints. When Sparks Fly is pretty disappointing, especially if you get excited about a good friends-to-lovers slow burn.

The book starts out with Avery Sparks living with her best friend Declan platonically. They have been close since college, but their bond solidified after Declan took Avery’s side in a terrible breakup. Avery works for her family’s hotel and event space, and is very proud of her work. She’s also an avid sportswoman and super active. Declan is in finance, and also very into sports. They share a condo and a friend group, but they’ve never been romantically involved. While Avery certainly knows Declan is attractive, he’s a commitment-phobe and she’s seen him break a lot of hearts. Their relationship becomes a lot more intense when he takes care of her following a car accident that leaves Avery partially immobilized and in need of a lot of help. They give in to mutual attraction, but Declan’s baggage might scuttle their happily every after.

There are a lot of issues with this book, but I do love the premise. I love friends to lovers, sickbed, and forced proximity, and I think there are a lot of themes that really could have worked if they were given space to breathe. The problem is that this book wasn’t finished. Reading closely, there are a lot of dropped threads, and the story really needed to go through a few more drafts before reaching its final form. I really liked the ground laid for Avery being too into her work. Being such a driven person could have been tied to the loss of her parents, or a desire to make her grandma proud, or even just a need for stability. But we never see how or why she develops better work-life balance, nor is the problem really interrogated. There is a point at the end where it could have been addressed, but it just doesn’t happen. I also really enjoyed the vibe that was attempted with the mostly male friend group, but unfortunately this too was a victim of underdevelopment. The two male friends and Avery’s sisters are all basically interchangeable, with so few traits assigned to them you could have basically removed one of each.

Then, there are the points where one simply cannot suspend disbelief. Am I supposed to believe that 1) someone brought pot cookies to a gathering with an invalid and 2) she ate all of them soundlessly and quickly, without one of three other people seeing her? The whole “getting stoned and doing something regrettable” is such a cliche, and it’s not a good one. Frankly, this should have been cut in the first draft.

I also just don’t buy that no one else works at the damn hotel. Three people cannot run an entire hotel and event space, it is simply not possible. A small bed and breakfast? Sure. Not a fancy hotel that caters to large gatherings. Also, the manufactured money problems are a joke. If the venue has been open for three generations, I don’t buy that there’s no savings or slush fund to get them out of a small financial quagmire. If Hunting wanted to set up money troubles, we needed more context. Like, their grandmother had been struggling for a few years, or there was some kind of huge damage to the property that drained them. Also, where does their grandmother go? She is supposedly on a retirement trip to Italy, but it’s mentioned offhandedly that Avery wants to fix up a fountain for her return. And she’s just never mentioned again? This is something that could have been caught in another round of edits. If the grandmother just needed to be out of the way without having another tragic death, she could have just retired and moved to Florida for part of the year. Avery’s sisters are woefully underwritten, basically just serving as plot devices.

A huge component of the book is that both characters have a Tragic Backstory. Avery lost both of her parents as a teenager, and Declan’s parents had a toxic relationship that soured him on love and commitment. However, despite some mentions of Avery’s trauma, she never really talks to Declan about her parents, and we don’t see how their deaths drives her or changed her life too much, except in one or two small ways. If you’re going to have Dead Parents as a trope, you need to justify it. It just comes off that the parents needed to be out of the way, and that’s pretty lazy. If the effects of their deaths had been expanded upon, it could have been a great way to characterize and distinguish the two sisters, so this is a huge missed opportunity.

Declan’s trauma really drives the story, and it’s his issues that cause the third act breakup. Declan, in a moment of jealous rage fueled by his parental issues, treats Avery like trash, and doesn’t give her a moment to diffuse the situation. He’s clearly having a trauma trigger response, and neither of them have the tools to deal with it. I’m not mad about this plot twist, but the execution frustrated me. After, Avery is basically super understanding and Declan ices her out. Then, he eventually gets on his feet, and she wants to forgive him instantly and be together. Still, he keeps distance between them so that he doesn’t just use sex to resolve their relationship problems, and Avery just waits for him???? They carry on a long-distance friendship for a while, which seems needless, but okay. Then, he does a grand gesture and they get back together, and we get a proposal epilogue. Thanks, I hate it. Declan does off-page therapy and he just deserves her forgiveness? NO. Just because you understand why someone did something shitty doesn’t mean it never happened. This really rings false.

One of the main structural issues of this story was the dual points of view- if you’re going to have both, it needs to add something. We kept getting the same thing from both characters. “I shouldn’t want him, but this increased proximity is making me see him differently.” “She’s my best friend, and she needs me right now, but my hormones are taking over and I need to stop wanting her.” It adds nothing- if you took out the Declan chapters, I’m pretty sure you’d still have the same basic story. Plus, after the third act breakup, we get almost no Declan, I assume to keep the suspense alive and help smooth the happy ending, but it does the opposite. It feels so uneven. Declan does all of this growing off-page, and so it feels unearned and kind of rushed. The end is pretty lackluster overall, but this really contributed to the problem.

There are also just a few little things that annoyed me. In a better book, I would have let them roll off my back, but this was bad. Avery is Not Like Other Girls, being sporty and rejecting a lot of traditional femininity. I don’t like that Declan only really realizes he’s attracted to her when she wears revealing, feminine clothing- workout clothes can be very sexy! And being sexy and being feminine are not the same! There are also a lot of gendered assumptions in the book, like “men this, women that” which rubbed me the wrong way. I also rolled my eyes reading some of the traits assigned to Avery. She prefers male friends because they’re chill? Sure, Jan. I also hate the trope of the sporty girl who reluctantly takes on femininity to attract men. I don’t buy AT ALL that it took Declan seeing her in a dress to make him jealous. I’m just not a fan of female characters taking on affects that make them uncomfortable uncritically, I like seeing them empowered in their own skin, at least by the end of the book.

If you read the 75% of the book, you probably wouldn’t notice the plot holes as much, but after that point it deteriorates pretty quickly into just a plot swamp. Hunting is a strong writer, and I have no problem with her prose, this book is just a hot mess in terms of plot and character, which are kind of important.

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“Mr. Wrong Number” by Lynn Painter

Mr. Wrong Number is a contemporary romance about a woman everyone sees as a disaster, and a man everyone thinks is perfect, finding out if they’re any good for each other.

Olivia is either a victim of the world’s worst luck, or the idiot her family seems to think she is. Following a blowup of both her personal and professional life, Olivia moves back home, crashing with her brother and his roommate until she gets a job. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know that said roommate is one of her least favorite people: Colin Beck, her brother’s college roommate and consummate smug asshole. Colin isn’t too keen to have Olivia around either, but he’s agreed to let her stay for a month.

Things take a turn when Olivia receives a “what are you wearing” text that was certainly not meant for her, and starts corresponding with a witty stranger. She doesn’t know her mysterious texter is none other than Colin- with whom she’s shared some risqué banter. Colin, meanwhile, has started to notice Olivia in a way he never used to, making him wonder what he was missing about her all along.

I enjoyed a lot of the tropes at work in this book- enemies to lovers, forced proximity, best friend’s sibling. The chemistry between the main characters is great and believable, and it hits one of the important notes in an enemies to lovers: the characters need to have been in a bad place with each other, and realistically come to a different understanding in order to get together. I love how their perspective on each other changes from the start to the end of the story. I found the family issues on both sides pretty compelling initially, but I didn’t like how they were left hanging without resolution. I also thought that Olivia’s career problems needed more purchase in the story, it just seemed like a vehicle for the Big Misunderstanding between the characters rather than organic to the narrative.

Obviously, no book is perfect, but despite the structural problems I had with this one, I really enjoyed reading it! It’s a sexy, fun story about two people finding each other despite some internal obstacles.

Mr. Wrong Number is available wherever books are sold. This reviewer was provided with an advance reader’s copy in exchange for honest feedback.

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“The Most Eligible Bride in London” by Ella Quinn

I read the first book in this series, The Most Eligible Lord in London, because I really loved the first few books from The Worthington series. However, it has become clear that the series has dragged on for too long and Quinn needs to turn over a new leaf. My first indication that the books were declining in quality was Believe in Me, which I reviewed very negatively, and the first book in The Lords of London was not much better.

Miss Henrietta Stern, younger sister of the Marchioness of Merton, Dotty, is the last of her circle to be single. All of her friends are married, and either adding to their nurseries or traveling abroad. Henrietta is starting to feel a little left behind, and as she enters her second season she is determined to find her match.

Nate, the Viscount Fotherby, has also decided to find a spouse, and when he meets Henrietta by chance, both feel a spark. There are two main problems: 1) They haven’t been introduced, and 2) Nate is a persona non grata, having attempted to stop Dotty and Merton’s wedding years earlier. Since there have been like eight books since then, I’ll remind you that Fotherby kidnapped Dotty to try to stop the wedding. He did this because he had a very dubious lead that Merton didn’t desire the marriage. Still, wow.

It does occur to me that there is precedent for a rogue redeemed in this way- Romancelandia darling Devil in Winter comes to mind. Nate is exiled to the country where he must remain until his mother deems him to be reformed. I don’t really have an issue with Nate being reformed and introduced as a love interest. Frankly, his character is one of the strongest parts of the novel, and really the only thing I enjoyed. I just found it to be ridiculous that everyone came around to him so quickly, and expected everything to just work out. Dotty doesn’t react well, but what can you expect? People can change, but that doesn’t mean they have to marry your little sister.

The biggest problem with the book is a familiar one: too much self-referential back patting. Half of the book is wasted on going to visit other characters from previous books for no discernible reason, mostly just to remind you that these people exist in this universe. The constant flashing to different characters who really don’t matter to the story is just exhausting. I think the book would have been a lot stronger if the focus had been kept on the relationship between Dotty and Henrietta, but Dotty is basically written off as a crazy, exhausted pregnant woman and no one seems to be adequately supervising Henrietta. An other weakness lies in the characterization of Nate- we know that he esteems his mother and has older sisters, but we know next to nothing about his father except his political party, and we don’t know how his older brother died. His redemption could have hit a lot harder if there had been a deeper reason for his actions, which could have been explained through some backstory. I’m also just tired of the characters conspiring to throw people together. You would think that the gentry did nothing but match-make with their spare time.

It is also telling that basically none of the female characters have anything to discuss other than children, either kids they are saving from poverty or their own families. I’m not anti-child, and I think happily ever afters are sometimes more satisfying with kids, if that’s what the characters want. But the kids Henrietta and her sister advocate for in their charity aren’t actually characters, they’re just placeholders, cardboard cut-outs to show you that these are good people. Once the children are retrieved from danger, they are promptly sent away to Richmond, never to be seen again. Do they get adopted? Are they raised there by nursemaids? How are they provided for as adults? These details aren’t important, it’s just essential that we see how much integrity these women have, to want to rescue kids from mistreatment. Who cares what happens to them after? This is just a really shallow attempt to establish characterization, and it falls apart upon any analysis.

I thought I would give Ella Quinn one more chance to win me back, but I think I’m done for good. I’ll probably reread the first Worthington book sometime, but I won’t be picking up any of her new work.

This reviewer was provided a copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

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“Not the Witch You Wed” by April Asher

Not the Witch You Wed is a contemporary supernatural romance about a witch who isn’t magical and an alpha out of control of his fate as they both try to avoid the machinations of the supernatural elders over their lives. Together, they have to convincingly fake a courtship to avoid being forcibly tied to undesirable partners for life.

Violet Maxwell should be a lot of things- for one, as the first-born Maxwell triplet, she should be a powerful witch, but she doesn’t have enough magic to fill a thimble. She should, at least according to the elders, also be married, to protect others from her unwieldy magic. Despite the argument that Violet doesn’t have any magic, the council is not appeased, and tells Violet she’s going to have to witch-bond within a few short months. Lincoln Thorne is in a similar bind, being forced to find a mate or relinquish his position as alpha. Lincoln and Violet have a history, and while he might be looking for a second chance, she’s determined to have nothing to do with him. They both aspire to fool everyone into thinking they’re in love until they can get out of their predicaments, but old feelings and secrets might get in the way of this neat arrangement.

I loved a lot of the characters, in particular Violet’s grandmother and Lincoln’s best friend. I think the main characters are strong, and the story is very sexy, but this book has some considerable hiccups. There is a supporting character who is a succubus but continually reminds everyone that she is a virgin, which seems needlessly heteronormative when it comes to sex. Violet has a few friends who are shoved in, and they kind of clutter things up in a way we don’t need. I have two other big things, which is that the pacing of the book is a bit uneven, and that the beginning of the book reads as a bit of an exposition dump. I was at first under the assumption that I was reading the second book in a series, because there was so much that I needed to know, but I got it as the story went along. I did love a lot about this book: the world-building is good once you get past the first few chapters, Violet and Lincoln are charming and compelling, and I liked the ending. I am definitely interested in picking up the next one, as I assume all three of the Maxwell sisters will get their happily ever after.

Not the Witch You Wed is available wherever books are sold, or at your local library. This reviewer was provided with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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“Playing the Palace” by is weirdly familiar, but not in the way you think

Playing the Palace is a 2021 Berkley release from Paul Rudnick, which follows the love story of Carter Ogden, a perfectly ordinary American event planner, and Edgar, a prince. Their worlds are completely opposite, but their chemistry is undeniable. The only question is whether their relationship will stabilize, or explode.

This book has inevitably drawn comparisons to Red, White and Royal Blue, but honestly, that doesn’t really hold water. The love interest is the crown prince of England, but other than that, there is almost no overlap between the stories. In this book, the prince is out, he’s the heir to the throne, and he’s got emotional baggage and trust issues. Plus, the main character here is a Jersey-born New York event planner from a Jewish family. I loved Red, White and Royal Blue, but Jewish, it is not. This book also just reflects Rudnick’s voice in a way you’ll recognize if you’ve read anything else of his- lush descriptions, laugh-out-loud snark, fiery dialogue. I think that nothing in this book is all that derivative of RWaRB, but it does strike me as remarkably similar to another book, one of Rudnick’s own.

Gorgeous is a 2013 young adult fiction book from Scholastic Press. It follows Becky Randall, a perfectly ordinary American raised in a Missouri trailer park by a single mother. When her mom dies, Becky discovers Roberta Randall’s previous life, as the most beautiful woman in the world. Tom Kelly, a notorious designer, promises Becky that she can be beautiful too, with some conditions. This sends Becky on a breakneck journey to international stardom, which is how she meets her love interest, Prince Gregory.

Here’s the thing: the books could not be more different. Becky is an eighteen year-old girl dealing with the death of her mother and her own insecurities. Carter is a gay man approaching thirty surrounded by family and friends, but lonely for a companion. The tone is fairly similar- both are fish-out-of-water stories, though Playing the Palace is more a comedy of errors. Gorgeous features a magical realism element that is absent in PtP, and it does drive a lot of the plot, as Becky is made magically beautiful and develops a second identity as supermodel and actress Rebecca Randall.

Still, the similarities are hard to ignore if you’ve read both books. The royal families are a good start: The Queen in both books is a curmudgeon, eccentric and a little hostile, although she’s more outright verbose in PtP. There are two princes in both, and while both of the parents in PtP are dead, only the mother is dead in Gorgeous. It is notable that in both books the mother dies in a plane crash. Obviously, some similarities are to be expected in books with royal families based on the House of Windsor, but it wears a little thin here.

The structure of both books is fairly similar as well: love interests meet, there is a whirlwind courtship, followed by a trial by public opinion. There is a third-act breakup, followed by a televised declaration of love, and a wedding. Romance is often criticized for being formulaic, but it’s a little stunning to read essentially the same interactions between different characters, despite different context. There’s a moment in each book where the queen says she is going to ask each protagonist three questions. The prince makes a public speech declaring his love and asking to marry the other person, on live television. To be frank, it’s close to self-plagiarism. It initially just seemed self-referential, I was waiting for Becky to be introduced as the wife of the prince’s older brother, but that never happens.

Even some characters feel as though they inhabit both books: Rocher is Becky’s best friend, and a lot of her bleeds through to Carter’s sister, Abby. Abby is a great character, and I really enjoyed her in PtP, but she’s basically Rocher. She’s unwaveringly supportive, delightfully foul-mouthed, and Carter’s best friend. A lot of dialogue between them could have been taken from one book or the other and you’d never know. I think Abby is an improvement, if only because she has a vivid internal life and her backstory is more interesting.

One of my favorite things about Rudnick’s style is that it is unapologetically bonkers: I’m sorry, but there’s just no way the Queen of England befriends a retired CPA or flies across the world to speak to her son’s ex-boyfriend. But that’s what he writes, and he does it well. I like both books, I just wish they weren’t so clearly imprinted on each other. They are such fundamentally different stories, and the similarities feel lazy. There were two ways to go: the books could have taken place in the same world, as I initially suspected, with the second, younger prince as the love interest, and you can keep the similarities with the royal family. Door number two, the family could have been completely different, and thus the story would have changed along with them.

I like different things about Gorgeous and Playing the Palace, I loved the magic in the former and the Jewishness in the latter. I loved the characters in both, and the writing. But this isn’t a small thing, and it cheapens both books. I’m honestly surprised that this hasn’t been commented on before, given that Rudnick has a couple of books out, and these two are by far his most popular. I have no issue with authors exploring the same tropes in new ways, but it seems like this would have been an excellent opportunity to break some new ground. Both books have their flaws and strengths, but the biggest problem with both is the existence of the other. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.

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“Electric Idol” by Katee Robert

I read the first book in the Dark Olympus series and enjoyed it- I love Hades and Persephone retellings, and I also love the sunshine-grump dynamic. I also think Robert is excellent at setting up side characters, which made me anticipate this book with excitement. I was also hoping that Electric Idol would solve some of the issues I had with the first book.

I did love Electric Idol, it has a lot of great themes and strong central characters. One of the prevailing themes in this series is parental abuse, and that gets more intense in this book. I continue to hate Demeter with a passion, and I feel for her daughters. We get to see Psyche really playing the world and presenting a face for the cameras, and how good she is at it. Eros as his mother’s enforcer is equally interesting, and I just love a guy who immediately falls for the first woman who is nice to him. I equally love that Psyche sees a trained killer and feels compassion for him. The story is really about two damaged people finding themselves together, and I’m a sucker for that stuff.

In terms of things that disappointed me, there’s quite a bit. Electric Idol is a reminder to me that I can enjoy reading a book and think parts of it are really solid while having issues with other parts! One of the biggest problems with this book is one that we saw in Neon Gods, the issue of world-building. Most readers know that exposition dumps can take you out of the story, but a lack of context can be just as distracting. The biggest, most consistent problem I have with these books is that there is just so little explanation of the world of the story. We know that Olympus is a real place, and the Underworld is like another district, and the Olympians have dominion over the city. The titles of the gods pass to new people periodically, and the three elder gods, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus are passed from parent to child. Each Olympian rules over their own domain, but that’s pretty much all we get. That’s all she wrote, folks. There does appear to be an outside world, as Persephone has a plan to escape the city and go to the mundane world, but that’s pretty much all we know. One of the most fun parts of retellings is seeing how they are different, and how the author choses to interpret the original story. I would say this book continues the sort of mobster romance vibe the first book had, though it’s way less kinky than the first one. Neon Gods definitely has a more BDSM tone, and this one is just garden variety erotica. I wasn’t disappointed by that, I think it’s good for the story and works for the characters, but it is a change in tone between books.

I was also disappointed that the next book isn’t about the next of Demeter’s daughters. I’m excited to see what comes next in the story, but it is a little weird that the first two books are about two people from the same family, and at least the next book is unrelated to them. Still, the next book is about a big upset politically, so that might mean we get to understand a little more about how the world works. Personally, I think if you go into it just looking for romance and don’t think too much about the mythology, you can enjoy it as it is.

This reviewer was given an advanced readers’ copy in exchange for an honest review. Electric Idol can be purchased wherever books are sold, or borrowed from your local library.