Anna M. reviews Ready or Not by Melissa Brayden

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Ready or Not is the third and final book in Melissa Brayden’s Soho Loft series of romances (previous titles: Kiss the Girl and Just Three Words) about a group of four women who run an advertising agency named Savvy. Having successfully paired off everyone but the firm’s go-getting leader, Mallory Spencer, Brayden turns to her remaining task with zeal, pairing Mallory with the equally driven Hope Sanders.

As Savvy’s public face, Mallory draws upon her upper-crust background, killer instincts, and impeccable taste to make the business successful. Lately, she’s been feeling a little left out, given that all her friends have found romantic partners. Brooklyn and Jessica, who were featured in Kiss the Girl, are even relying on her to help plan their wedding. She is definitely not interested in the hot bartender, Hope, who always sends her free drinks at her favorite bar.

Hope Sanders is an entrepreneur whose bar, Showplace, has been a regular setting throughout Brayden’s series. She’s always been attracted to Mallory, despite the fact that she considers her a snob. She’s got an identical twin sister who’s been in her fair share of trouble but is trying to start her life over. After Mallory’s friends engineer an encounter between her and Hope during one of Mallory’s Hamptons house parties, the pair realize they have amazing chemistry despite the difference in their financial backgrounds. When Hope’s sister and business end up in trouble, will their chemistry and fledgling bond be enough to keep them together?

I enjoyed the emphasis on real problems–moneylending between partners is always a thorny question–but I was never quite clear on why Mallory resisted Hope for so long. Mallory is really made of stern stuff, which probably contributes to her appeal. I also appreciated the way Brayden continued plotlines from the first two books, wrapping up neatly with a wedding for her first pair. The trilogy was enjoyable and definitely worth a read if you’re looking for solid romance or interconnected stories about a group of friends.

Anna M. reviews Just Three Words by Melissa Brayden

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Melissa Brayden’s follow-up to Kiss the Girl is Just Three Words, the second in Brayden’s Soho Loft Romance series about four lesbian/bisexual friends who met in college and started an advertising business called Savvy.

This time out, the plot focuses on structure-craving accountant Samantha Ennis and easygoing graphic designer Hunter Blair. The rent is raised in the Soho building where Savvy is located and Samantha also lives, and Samantha’s roommate Brooklyn (the heroine of Kiss the Girl) leaves their apartment to move in with Jessica. Hunter’s sublet has expired and she’s procrastinated too long on finding another place to live, so she agrees to move in with Samantha. Hunter is a bit of a player with a reputation for having fun with the ladies, although she doesn’t go home with women nearly as often as everyone thinks she does. She’s estranged from her father but still communicates regularly with her mother, who wants her to come home for visits far more often than she’s willing to.

After Brooklyn moves out, Samantha suffers from the loss of their friendly intimacy; she’s also recovering from a recent breakup with a woman who has her questioning everything she thought she wanted in a partner. When Hunter moves in, she confesses to Samantha that she had a crush on the other woman back in college. With attraction on the table, it’s not long before Samantha and Hunter move their relationship from friends to friends with benefits, despite the differences between their approaches to life and the fact that a failed relationship between them might be disastrous for their shared business.

A health crisis in Hunter’s family puts everything in perspective after Hunter and Samantha find themselves struggling with their feelings and the need for secrecy. Will they risk everything to be together, or will they end up going back to their comfort zones?

I enjoyed Brayden’s callbacks to Kiss the Girl and her forecasting of Mallory’s romance in the next book. She does a good job of making the obstacles to relationships seem realistic rather than contrived, which is always such a pleasure to find in a romance novel. Samantha and Hunter’s ability to communicate, even about difficult topics, was especially on point. Also, Samantha identifies as bisexual, and Brayden incorporates it rather than paying only lip service. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Soho Loft series.

Elinor reviews How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

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Molly O’Brien runs a bakeshop, Flour Child, in her impossibly charming hometown of Applewood. She’s never left Applewood, and why would she? Applewood is the sort of small town that exists in fiction, a real community where people all know and care about each other, where nothing terrible really ever happens. Plus, it’s only several hours’ drive from Chicago, conveniently close other adorable towns with delightful little restaurants, and you can get to a twenty-four Walmart in less than twenty minutes. Molly has spent her adult life with her high school sweetheart, Cassie Tuscana, whose parents are both local doctors. As young women, Molly took over her father’s bakeshop, Cassie went to work in administration in her parents’ medical practice, and the couple bought a darling old house and planned to live happily ever after. Then Cassie was killed in a plane crash.

The book opens four years after Cassie’s death, with Molly still running the bakeshop, still living in the darling house (that needs repair), and definitely not moving on romantically. Her in-laws, the Tuscanas, remain an important part of her life. When Cassie’s younger sister Jordan, a hotshot L.A. film producer, returns to Applewood for the first time since Cassie’s death, it makes sense that Jordan and Molly would reconnect. After all, they’ve known each other since Molly was a teenager and Jordan was a tween. But Molly’s surprised when spending time with Jordan awakens feelings she thought died with her late partner. Molly dips her toes into the world of dating again by being set up by friends, yet can’t stop feeling a spark with Jordan. Jordan feels it too, but neither woman is sure how to navigate this very unexpected mutual attraction.

How Sweet It Is is a pretty fluffy romance, despite the grief that everyone feels for Cassie. Each character has their own relationship with Cassie, and I liked that their feelings about her were not easily pushed aside. She was Molly’s only romantic relationship. It’s understandable why Molly is hesitant to start dating for the first time as an adult, particularly as she worries that doing so might upset her close relationship with her in-laws. Jordan loved and admired her sister, even though she spent most of her life in Cassie’s shadow–even Jordan coming out was brushed off by people as “Jordan trying to be like Cassie.”  While the grief about Cassie was still present for the characters, it in no way overwhelmed the sweetness of the romance or the cuteness of the town. At first I wasn’t sure about the whole falling-for-your-late-partner’s-sister thing, but it was done very respectfully and organically. Setting the story a few years after Cassie’s death helped with this, I think.

The other thing that helped was Brayden’s writing. The characters talked and bantered in a way that was genuinely fun to read. Even some of the things in this book that I initially side-eyed ended up working pretty nicely. For example, I found Molly’s business model unworkable. Her bakeshop has three employees besides Molly–one just doing deliveries–but no money to buy an espresso machine and therefore retain customers who wanted a latte with their cinnamon roll. Pretty early in the book, it’s revealed that Flour Child is actually in a terrible position financially and is on the verge of closing. Molly doesn’t tell her employees (or, it’s implied, consider laying any of them off) because Molly’s nice and wants to make people happy. She also runs away from conflict, which is shown as a part of Molly’s character consistently in many aspects of her life. It was well-done and the secondary plot of Molly trying to figure out how to save her bakeshop ended up being emotionally engaging and one of the best parts of the book.

Unfortunately, Jordan wasn’t a well-developed a character as Molly. She was still a complete character, but she wasn’t as rounded out. We’re told she’s stunning and her looks and clothes are described pretty frequently, but I wanted to know more about Jordan’s inner world than her outer appearance. Her career as a producer didn’t get as much attention as Molly’s profession, even though it could be incredibly interesting. I once dated somebody whose parents were television producers and it’s a weird job! I got an iPod from Drew Carey because of it, and heard occasional celebrity gossip, and that was just television production. Film production could add so much flavor. The demands of Molly’s career as a baker and owner of a small business are so different from the demands of Jordan’s career. What would Jordan’s late and irregular hours mean for Molly, who has to get up early? Jordan’s job either forces her to be away on location regularly or to be where there’s a market for film producers, which is probably not small town Illinois where Molly’s tied to a business. This could have been a rich source of tension, but Jordan’s non-Applewood past and her career seemed like an afterthought. Jordan returned to Applewood in part because she’d just lost her job because she was being sexually harassed, something that’s mentioned early and then never brought up again or resolved. Jordan also comes home to start a production company with a L.A. friend willing to relocate, with a business model I found even more unlikely than Molly’s, but doesn’t seem to encounter any difficulty at all. Early on, it’s implied that Jordan has never wanted to settle down and maybe had a lot of flings with women in the past, but this isn’t explored much either.

However, Jordan is much more a real person than many lesbian romance leads. She has quirks and charm, and so does Molly. Applewood is pleasantly free of homophobia, both the main characters are out, and the impediments to the romance make sense without being out of insurmountable. Those things alone make it worth the read for lesbian romance fans. I’m going to check out some of Brayden’s other books. Her writing is fun, which is something I always want more of when I’m reading romance.

Anna M reviews Kiss the Girl by Melissa Brayden

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Kiss the Girl is Melissa Brayden’s fourth book, after How Sweet It Is, and contains similar strands of enduring friendship and sweetness mixed with serious themes.

Brooklyn Campbell co-founded a small but successful advertising agency with her three lesbian best friends from college. She’s a fast-driving, energetic whirlwind who follows one rule: never get too involved. Jessica Lennox is a quintessential high-powered advertising executive who spends all her time thinking about work. The two women meet by chance and feel an immediate spark of attraction, then discover that their companies are rivals for a coveted account and will be forced to work on the same campaign until one is chosen.

Initially, both women agree that any potential relationship between them is impossible considering the potential breach of professionalism it would entail. Brooklyn, who grew up in and aged out of the foster system, also battles confusion after she’s told that her birth mother wants to get in touch for the first time. Events conspire to throw Brooklyn and Jessica together several times, forcing them to realize that it might just be worthwhile to take a chance on a real relationship. Brayden supports their story with a full cast of supporting characters.

Overall, I recommend this book for fans of initially adversarial romantic relationships and corporate intrigue. Brooklyn’s reasons for not committing to Jessica felt valid, given her emotional background. A side plot with Jessica and a neighbor’s daughter ended up feeling a little unresolved, and I was left wanting to know more about the lives of Brooklyn’s friends. Maybe Brayden will write a book for each of them? I can only hope that’s true, given the “A Soho Loft Romance” tagline.

I received an advance copy of Kiss the Girl, which comes out this month, through Netgalley. For another tale featuring a corporate lesbian powerhouse, try The Blush Factor by Gun Brooke.

Anna M. reviews How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

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How Sweet It Is is the third novel by Bold Strokes author Melissa Brayden. It has been more than four years since chef Molly O’Brien’s wife Cassie died in a tragic plane crash, and she’s recently been thinking about testing the dating waters. She’s also struggling to keep her family business, a small town bakery/coffee shop, afloat in the Starbucks era. While her in-laws have always been incredibly supportive, it’s her sister-in-law Jordan with whom Molly always felt a particular kinship. Jordan was also wounded by the death of the older sister she could never quite live up to, and has been dealing with Cassie’s loss by avoiding their small Illinois town.

Jordan returns to town at a moment when she’s reevaluating her filmmaking career and the direction of her life. At the same time, Molly returns to the dating world and her shop’s financial woes approach a crisis point. Nothing can completely distract the two women, however, from the spark of attraction they feel when they’re together. Brayden does a good job of portraying the complicated dance between Molly and Jordan (and Cassie’s ghost) as they progress from denial to relationship.

Molly is understandably nonplussed by her attraction to someone she’s always thought of as a kid sister, and struggles with what feels like a betrayal of Cassie’s memory–especially since her attraction to Jordan is stronger than what she felt for her dead wife. Her resistance is neither short-lived nor too drawn out, but ebbs and flows as she and Jordan work things out. For her part, Jordan is willing to pursue a relationship with Molly, despite the disapproval they might face from her family. But she’s also worried that she will never live up to her sister, and that Cassie’s ghost will always be there between them. There are also subplots involving Jordan’s gay best friend, Molly’s sassy best friend/employee, and the quest for the perfect truffle. There is plenty here to like, and Brayden takes her time filling in the details of their small-town life.

I picked up How Sweet It Is in advance of publication through NetGalley, and it was just as sweet as advertised. In fact, I subsequently bought a paper copy for my collection at home. It’s not flawless, but it has an admirable heart and I recommend it, especially for fans of chocolate. For other food-related lesbian romances, see Karin Kallmaker’s Roller Coaster and Starting from Scratch by Georgia Beers.