January

Sticky MoonSticky Moon by Lily Java

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sticky Moon is as good a mystery-suspense novel as any I’ve ever read. I believe it’s the first published work by this author, and I’m quite honestly blown away. In fact, it helped revive my interest in the genre and sent me in search of other mystery-suspense novels, though sadly, no others by Lily Java at the moment.

Myra Lambert’s grandmother has been murdered. For her, and her brother, it is a shock not only because their grandmother was formidable and seemed to them at least indestructible, but because they have a long history of family tragedy, having lost both parents when they were quite young. Like her grandmother, Myra is also somewhat of a force–her wealth, beauty and aloof manner make her unapproachable, and she has has very few relationships of substance. But there’s another reason for that–since she was younger, Myra has had a stalker. And now it appears, from a cryptic message left at the scene of the crime, that he has graduated from stalking to murder. Lt. Max Harper enlists the help of his best friend Glenn to protect Myra while Max goes about trying to solve the crime.

I hardly know where to begin. Not a single character did NOT fascinate me. Max Harper, Glenn, Myra and even her undoubtedly mentally-deranged pursuer were all such textured and complicated characters that I rooted for them all in different ways. The backstory of Max and Glenn’s friendship was pitch-perfect; Glenn’s complicated relationship with his father and stepmother, also perfect. And the developing romance between Myra and Glenn? Yeah, that too was perfect. Somehow, Lily Java managed to maintain a balance that did not have the love-story overshadow the suspense; nor did the suspense overshadow the love-story.

And the voice of Cosmo, the psychopath? I can’t recall the last time I wanted the bad guy to survive and simply “get some help”. I was seriously torn, despite the wreckage he caused. The author managed to show him as a product of a seriously effed-up childhood so you couldn’t help but sympathize, even as you knew that his end had to come, and that it would likely not be pretty.

Finally, I have to say that this novel, a robust 300-some pages long, did an excellent job of introducing a compelling and fascinating hero in Max Harper. A detective who comes from money, wears clothes that betray his wealth while working gritty homicide cases, and who has a tense and distant relationship with his father? Oh c’mon, if that’s not fodder for a dozen books I don’t know what is. In Max Harper, Lily Java created a character that makes you ask a million questions. And I can’t wait to read the books in which she answers them.

I highly recommend this book.

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March

The REEDUCATION of ARIA JACKSONThe REEDUCATION of ARIA JACKSON by Angelia Menchan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title was enough to grab me. Who hasn’t been Aria Jackson at one time or another, thinking we know it all and have the trajectory of our lives “figured out”. Well, Aria knows that her degree and high-powered job are the step-ladders that will take her out of her neighborhood and into a much better life, and they have. The fact that she’s back, managing the local bank doesn’t mean she’ll succumb to the clutches of the ‘old neighborhood’, threatening to pull her back down.

Now, succumbing to the clutches of the handsome and very persuasive Saul? That’s another matter entirely.

I loved Aria in all her complicated, class-consciousness. She was flawed and foolish and narrow-minded, but a completely understandable and sympathetic character. After all, who can fault a woman who wanted better and worked hard to get it. But the thing about Aria is, she’s a little bit of a black-and-white thinker. Because there are some things that are bad about the old neighborhood, she’s cast it as all bad, and she’s for a time blind to the good.

Saul sees this limitation in Aria’s thinking and for that reason tries for awhile to convince himself that Aria could not be the woman for him. But she’s already under his skin and another man’s interest gets him so riled up, he gives in, abandoning idle flirtation in favor of all-out pursuit. I loved his certainty and resolve once he decided Aria was the woman for him, and I loved her eventual surrender. And almost as much as that, I loved Aria’s subtle reeducation, as she realized not only through Saul, but through her mother, that there was more than one way to rise about your humble beginnings.

Angelia Vernon Menchan is not a writer like most others. There’s a certain jazz-like cadence to her writing, where you’ve gotta just let go and enjoy the flow without imposing your own sense of rhyme or rhythm. But once you do, the music is sweet. Her characters are deep, but you’re not going to get several pages of backstory. Her plots are layered, but you don’t get many, many chapters developing them. But somehow, some way, you get the complete story. For those who prefer shorter reads, her books will hit the spot. You get the sense that more could be said, but at the same time, nothing’s really missing.

I recommend this one.

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April

Don't Stop Till You Get Enough (The Stafford Brothers Book 3)Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough by Chicki Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the very first chapter of ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’(The Stafford Brothers Book 3), you learn what Greg Stafford’s secret is, and it’s a doozie. I suppose I could tell you, but I won’t because I want you to read the book. But suffice it to say that it’s the kind of thing that creates a significant hurdle for Chicki Brown to surmount. For a romance novel hero to have this particular issue takes some guts on the part of the author. And more than that, he’s falling in love with his therapist, and she with him. Even lay-people know that relationships between therapists and their patients are taboo. So, yet another significant hurdle. From the very beginning of the book, you know what the conflict will be, and its sufficient to keep you turning the pages to see how it will be resolved.

Greg Stafford is a public figure who has everything to lose when his secret comes to light in the most humiliating and public manner; and Rhani Drake is the woman who is tasked with helping him address his demons. Embarking on a relationship could threaten both their futures and yet they feel compelled to go on the journey anyway. Along the way, Greg and Rhani will deal with the ensuing fallout and have their new bond tested just as it begins to comes together.

I’ve read a lot of relationship dramas and romance novels, and I have to say, this issue, this conflict, and the challenge this author presents her main characters is one I have never seen before.

All of the characters in this book were clearly well thought through and had dimension. Greg Stafford comes from a large family of overachievers. His father and eldest brother Vic are prominent surgeons, and his other brothers are, or were, all themselves at one time or another in the medical profession, or on its outskirts. Greg is the outlier and the middle child, often lost in the shuffle of his siblings. But despite all that, his life has been one of privilege, and he knows it. Greg’s large family were his supporting cast of characters, and though numerous, Chicki Brown managed to give each and every one of them distinct personalities, even in their relatively brief appearances. I also loved that she was able to give the entire family a “culture” just as every other family has it own culture. The Staffords–a family of six sons–are not only high-achievers, they are men who, once they find a mate, are relentless in their pursuit. And once the woman they want is caught, they don’t let them go, and take excellent care of them, no matter the cost. Rhani Drake however, is a woman who is accustomed to taking care of herself.

Rhani Drake’s background is the polar opposite of Greg’s. She comes from a life of under-privilege and has had to work hard to rise above her humble beginnings. And because she’s worked hard to get where she is, the threat Greg represents may be too great–to pursue a relationship with him is to risk losing it all. And losing it all is something that Rhani fears because her parents still live in the life she escaped. Her life is dedicated to her career, her charity work, and ensuring that her younger brother escapes the fate of their parents. While I understood Rhani’s story and her dilemma with Greg, I was surprised by how easily she was convinced to risk it for Greg, who by any measure, was not a good bet.

But this is what the best conflicts are made of–characters acting against their best interests and facing the fallout. There is plenty of that in this book.

The parts of this book that evoked the most emotion for me were those that I’m not sure the author intended. The Stafford family (‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ is Book Three in the Stafford Brothers series) is a family of men, and one strong-willed matriarch, who welcomes into her life all the women her sons choose to spend their lives with. I could feel the writer’s heart in those scenes where the Stafford Family gathered together. Her writing just seemed much more fluid in those places than elsewhere.

I also loved watching as Greg Stafford reached his own personal realizations about his life, and began to acknowledge that he wanted what many of his brothers had–a meaningful long-term relationship with a woman he could share his life with. Rhani’s determination to leave her past behind was one that many people should relate to as well. The relationship between the two was at turns tender and heartwarming, then hot and steamy. And I enjoyed the author’s portrayal of Greg as a man who would not take ‘no’ for an answer once he realized that Rhani was what he wanted and needed in his life. But I still think this is foremost a book about family–Greg’s love for his family, and Rhani’s rising above hers.

I’ve read the other two books in the Stafford Brothers Series and enjoyed them both. This one is a great addition to the series for a number of reasons. Apart from how enjoyable it is to read about a family like the Staffords, I was impressed in this book, as I was in the others by the obvious depth of the author’s research. In ‘A Woman’s Worth’ (The Stafford Brothers Book 1), Marc Stafford’s story, Chicki Brown clearly immersed herself in the naturopathic and vegan lifestyle. In ‘Till I Come Back to You’ (The Stafford Brothers Book 2), you felt as though you were in Nigeria, not just reading about it. And in ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ (The Stafford Brothers Book 3), you get insight into the life of someone facing their demons in the public eye. Because Chicki Brown is a writer who so obviously respects her craft, as a reader, you can’t help but do the same. I have all three Stafford Brothers books, and though its not absolutely necessary that you read the first and second books to enjoy this one, I strongly recommend it, so that you get the full experience of the Stafford family.

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When Clouds TouchWhen Clouds Touch by Ey Wade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I begin a book–whether I know the genre or not–I am tempted to categorize it. You know how that goes: you read a few paragraphs or a chapter, and you go, ‘Oh, I see. This is supposed to be a thriller!’ or whatever the case may be. Even after reading the blurb for Ey Wade’s ‘When Clouds Touch’, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I loosely categorized it in my mind as a romance. Then almost immediately as I began reading, I realized that this wasn’t going to be the same ol’-same ol’.

The premise, of soul-mates flitting about the outskirts of each other’s lives until the time of their predestined meeting, is novel but not unprecedented. What made it intriguing was the complete ‘otherness’ of the main characters. Paisley is a young woman grappling with what it means to be on her own for the first time in her life, struggling with overbearing parents and a desire to become her own person. So far not particularly remarkable, right? But Paisley is Japanese-American and her parents are very traditional, very protective. And added to that, Paisley has albinism which renders her legally blind. She also has congenital heart disease, a condition which–her parents often remind her–once killed her as a baby before she was revived.

Paisley’s “condition” is the tether that binds her to her parents in a way that she has always felt was stifling. But the path of least resistance for her has always been to … not resist. Except now, attending school and living on her own, she is finally on the cusp of independence, as long as she can convince her parents that she is being attentive to her health.

Enter Malachi.

He is a handsome East Asian man whom Paisley has known literally all her life, earthly and before. Though they have never actually met, nor spoken to each other, Paisley and Malachi’s souls were bound before their birth and they have been ever-present in each other’s lives from the time they were infants; always on the cusp, but never quite meeting.

When finally they do meet, in a minor mishap as she enters the building where he works, Paisley and Malachi quickly dispense with coy mating rituals and pour themselves into each other, recognizing their other half almost immediately. But there is still the pesky issue of Paisley’s health and her oppressively over-protective parents who in an effort to save her life have denied her the pleasures of living. This includes things as extreme as confiscating her phone to prevent her from contacting Malachi, and keeping her a virtual prisoner in their home when they grow concerned about this new attachment she’s formed.

Malachi‘When Clouds Touch’ is a love story, but also struck me as being a fairy tale in the best sense. Paisley has an otherworldly quality in appearance that cause people to stop and stare; and a princess-like isolation from the real world, that is similar to Rapunzel locked in the tower. Because of her isolation, and because she recognizes Malachi as her meant-to-be, she wastes no time in letting him know that she is devoted to him. Malachi is her prince, seeking to rescue her from the tower, using first his charm and eventually his smarts to overcome Paisley’s parents’ resistance. All the things that Paisley hasn’t seen, he is determined to show her; and if she asks, he can’t say ‘no’ even when saying ‘yes’ puts her health and life at risk. No time is wasted in this book with the sometimes tedious ‘love-me, love-me-not’ stuff. Paisley and Malachi’s conflicts come from the limitations she has because of her health, and from her parents’ well-intentioned but damaging hovering and intervention.

At first, as I read, I was waiting for ‘When Clouds Touch’ to show its romance-novel chops and become the kind of book one expects from that genre. But it never did. And the story was better off for it. When I let go of my preconceptions, the story and its characters settled in for me. I stopped expecting Paisley and Malachi to relate to each other as traditional romance novel heroes and heroines do, and I came to accept it as it was.

Ey Wade’s writing is worthy of note as well, because it gave the story an almost mythical quality which I believe was fully intended. The imagery had a wistful, dreamlike feel, particularly in the scenes that played out in a field of bluebonnets, and at a festival that left the pale-as-a-ghost Paisley covered in all the colors of the rainbow. The color in those scenes for me symbolized the color and depth that Malachi brought to Paisley’s previously monochromatic life, and added to the overall mystical feel of the story. Although at times I found the dialogue a little ‘romantic’ or sentimental, at other times it fit perfectly the theme of a love and bond that transcended time and space. And there was also something brave about the sentimentality when most writers these days (myself included) seem to be striving for the opposite by writing stories with gritty realism (but with a billionaire or two thrown in). So I applaud Ey Wade for going where so few writers dare to tread–not only in her style but in the unexpected, though not unsatisfactory climax to her book.

‘When Clouds Touch’ left me curious about what I may be missing by not having read other work by this author. But I suspect that when I do, those stories will–like this book–be somewhat magical, somewhat unexpected.

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More Than Always (Love Always #2)

More Than Always by Jacinta Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered Jacinta Howard’s work late last year when she was recommended to me by a reader. I started with ‘Better Than Okay’ and early on in that book was lulled into a false sense of security that it would be lighthearted new adult romance, sprinkled with the occasional moment of angst, but ending with a contented sigh and an HEA.

Well, it wasn’t that. 

That story—the start of Brian and Destiny’s story—made it clear that this author likes to make it tough on herself, in the best possible way. The conflicts were real-life conflicts that most couples would not survive. But I won’t say any more about that book. You can read the review here.

In ‘More Than Always’ Brian and Destiny, are happily coupled-up. Their love for each other is clear and unquestionable. Destiny has rebounded somewhat from the trauma she experienced, and is in a new job, working in the industry she loves, as a music journalist. And Brian is settling into Miami. Having moved there to be with Destiny, he has definitely ‘gotten his girl’. But it turns out, Brian’s move wasn’t precipitated only by his feelings for Destiny. In fact, his mother’s struggle with addiction caused him to do something that was otherwise out of character, and it was that incident that made the move to Miami much more timely.

Still, across the country turns out to be not far enough because Brian hasn’t out-run his demons. Not completely.

While ‘Better Than Okay’ was Destiny’s story, ‘More Than Always’ is Brian’s. He is the typical child of an addict, prematurely forced into adulthood by a parent who is not equipped to be one, always holding up the sky, being the solid one, the responsible one, the one who must compensate for what his parent lacks. In this case, Brian is forced to step into the role of surrogate parent to his fifteen-year old sister who has just begun to do the things that fifteen-year olds do—experiment with their sexuality, with drinking, with partying. The weight of this new responsibility is only increased by his mother’s reappearance—now clean and sober, she is looking for the redemption that Brian is reluctant to grant her. It is against this backdrop that Brian and Destiny must figure out their new life together, and as expected, it isn’t an easy road.

Complicated by the appearance of a young woman named Egypt (whose ditsy, easygoing nature stands in sharp contrast to Destiny’s intensity and occasional insecurity) and a co-worker named Jason (who is clearly moving in on Brian’s woman though she seems clueless of that fact), the couple’s blissful new relationship takes a serious downturn.

I liked the push and pull between Brian and Destiny, even as I found her insecurity sometimes exhausting. But then, at precisely the right time, the author reminded me of her characters’ age, or of the difficult period they had been through, skillfully explaining away things that might have grated on me otherwise. And what’s more, she did that through the ‘voices of reason’ in her secondary characters, Dorian and Raven, who moved the plot along and asked questions that the reader might be asking at that particular moment. Dorian and Raven, who I believe we will hear from in Jacinta Howard’s next book, were portrayed exactly as secondary characters should be—giving enough detail to make us curious about them, and acting as true supporting characters without overshadowing the main ones.

The romances that work best for me are the ones where the main characters have lots of ‘stuff’ and their relationship becomes the conduit for them to work through that ‘stuff’. At the end of the day, they are more whole people, whether together or apart, but you want them together. And in ‘More Than Always’, I definitely wanted Brian and Destiny together, though I had moments—much like Destiny did herself—when I wondered whether they might not be better off apart.

To that end, Jacinta Howard weaved in details of Brian’s reaction to his mother’s new sobriety that struck me as incredibly astute. Rather than embrace it, Brian’s anger and disappointment, which had for years taken the backseat to his fear for his mother’s life and safety, suddenly surface. Now, knowing that she was safe he has room for anger. But, being the ‘solid guy’ that he is, there is no outlet for that anger, no way for him to express his disappointment, particularly now that she is actually doing the right thing. And Destiny sensing this, waits for him to tell her, but he does not.  The portrayal of that relationship, between Brian and his mother, was one of the best parts of this book for me, and jumped off the pages even though there were relatively little direct interaction between the two.

The love story between Brian and Destiny was also refreshing in that it definitely showed how love can be messy, and how falling in love and staying in love can be challenging when real life intervenes. If I had to sum up Jacinta’s Howard’s work in a nutshell, that would be it.

Though she has just three published novels under her belt, I think I can see a niche emerging: Brian and Destiny and their close-knit circle of friends are young, upwardly-mobile, hip and living in pretty cool cities. But they’re also just trying to figure it all out. I liked that there was nothing contrived or self-conscious about their lives, and that the author didn’t resort to wealth and labels (devices I use myself, and which, let’s face it, are fun to read about) to stoke the readers’ interest. Apart from their good-looks, there is quite frankly nothing about Brian and Destiny’s backgrounds that would make reading their story some kind of wish-fulfillment exercise. But even without that, the author makes you want to go along for the ride anyway.

Finally, a word about the writing. The best way to put it is this: Jacinta Howard does not let her writing get in the way of her story. Even more so than her earlier work, there is clear, refreshing simplicity and restraint in the way she writes, which I think shows confidence not only in her story but in her skill at conveying all that needs to be conveyed without unnecessary flourishes. I felt the heat of Miami and Phoenix, and heard the music in the clubs, because the descriptiveness was just enough to accomplish the task and no more.

I think I said it in my last review, but I’ll say it again: Jacinta Howard is definitely a writer to watch.

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May

Keep Me Safe (Slow Burn, #1)

Keep Me Safe by Maya Banks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wasn’t for me. I’d heard a lot about this author and have several of her books, but this did not do it for me. Willing to try another, and will certainly read all of her other books that I bought. Fingers crossed they’re better than this one.

The characters were paper-thin, and the romance a little difficult to believe. One minute they were acquaintances who had met under the most difficult of circumstances, and the next, they couldn’t live without each other.

The most interesting thing about the book was the central conflict, which involved a serial killer pursuing the main female protagonist. He was able to find her because he could tap into her consciousness. Okay … so that involved a little suspension of disbelief, which was required for this book since it was romantic suspense/paranormal. But then he “tapped into” the consciousness of the male protagonist as well and basically exercised mind control over him, making him do things he might not otherwise have done. I found that aspect laughable, honestly; particularly the descriptions of his robotic motions as he was being controlled. I literally rolled my eyes.

What can I say? I desperately wanted to like this book, but just did not. However, like I said, I’m willing to give it another shot, though not with this series.

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Tempting FateTempting Fate by Jane Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A happily-married woman of forty-three, Gabby thinks her days of being noticed by men are over. Until one night, during a Girls’ Night Out, a very handsome thirty-four year old mogul, Matt, takes an interest in her. Flattered by his attention, and intoxicated by the feeling of being desired, Gabby gradually pushes the line of what’s appropriate, embarking on an emotional affair with Matt. Soon, the line moves even further away from what Gabby knows is acceptable and the consequences for herself, her family and some of her closest friends, are far greater than she could have imagined.

I like Jane Green, because she takes stories that are unremarkable, and people that are entirely recognizable in our own lives, and opens a window on the bad decisions they make. I felt compassion for Gabby, and for her husband Elliot, and found every single one of their emotions relatable. I know there are some who will say the ending is idealized, but Jane Green did such a good job with each step to get us there, that I was not only convinced, but satisfied. A nice, light read, without being too light, or too trite. I recommend it.

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June

Substitute Me

Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The situation was intriguing, the characters interesting on an individual basis, and the relationship between Kate and Zora fascinating, given the issues of race, class, feminism, and definitions of femininity. And the idea of the modern Black woman raising the White woman’s family, taking care of her home, child and eventually her husband? The possibilities were endless for rich character development and thoughtful situations. But ultimately, the delivery left much to be desired for me at least.

***SPOILER AHEAD***

The first 75% of the book belabored the minutiae of Zora’s days as a nanny, her relationship with other nannies and with a man she never quite seemed to fully connect with, and then in the last 25% there was an accelerated romance with the man of the house and a mutual conviction that they could not live without each other. The idea of that happening was entirely plausible, but the depth of the relationship was told to the reader rather than shown to us. I also never felt I ‘knew’ Zora, the main character as much as I knew Kate, the woman whose child she was taking care of. I liked the book, but wanted so much more.

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