Anna M. reviews Ready or Not by Melissa Brayden

ready or not cover

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


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.

Anna M reviews For the Love of Cake by Erin Dutton


Erin Dutton’s latest book, For the Love of Cake, is set in a reality show competition that pits pastry chefs against one another for the ultimate prize: sweet victory. I confess, I would have read it for the title alone: my love for cake is just that powerful. I read an advance copy of the novel, which was published in February, through Netgalley.

For the Love of Cake features Shannon Hayes, a talented second-career pastry chef who is trying to earn a big break playing the reality show game. She’s also had a longstanding crush on one of the competition’s judges, Maya Vaughn. Maya was the winner of the show’s inaugural season, and has been brought back this year to revive interest in the show. She’s also a well-known bisexual playgirl who has recently gotten tabloid attention for her presumed abortion.

Shannon, an adoptive mother and expectant grandmother, isn’t quite sure what to make of Maya in person, other than confirming that she is, in fact, incredibly attractive. As Maya and Shannon get to know each other, it’s clear the attraction is mutual, although there are very clear rules about judges fraternizing with contestants that prevent them from doing much more than moonstruck looking and exchanging flirtatious comments for the bulk of the novel. Will they ever have a chance at a real relationship? Will Shannon win the competition? What about the abortion hullabaloo and the prying paparazzi? And what about the cake?

The difficulties I had getting in to this book had more to do with the subplot, which follows up on characters from Dutton’s earlier food-based romance, A Place to Rest. Not having read the previous book, I found myself irritated each time I was pulled away from Shannon and Maya’s developing romance to check in with Sawyer and Jori and see how they were dealing with their relationship stresses. I would have preferred a separate book with their after happily ever after report, and more focus on the progression of Shannon and Maya’s relationship and perhaps some of their own aftermath. The structure of the reality show competition also made it so that the physical intimacy between the leads was long delayed (not necessarily a bad thing!)–however, having no emotional investment in Sawyer and Jori, I didn’t care whether or not they were having a good time.

I think I’ve read at least one other book by Dutton (it may have been Fully Involved?), but my reaction to it is lost to the mists of time. I enjoyed the reality show aspects and romantic tension of For the Love of Cake, but not the secondary characters, so would advise readers to pick up A Place to Rest before slicing in to For the Love of Cake, for the sake of continuity if nothing else.

Anna M can most often be found on Twitter: @helgagrace.

Anna M. reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


Sarah Waters, having brought us classics of lesbian historical fiction like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, has done it again with her new release The Paying Guests, which has the blend of romance, suspense, mystery, and historical detail that you’ve been missing in your life.

The year is 1922. Frances Wray is a genteel woman in London who, during the course of the first world war, found an activist calling (and a lady friend). After the war, however, she’s down two brothers and one father, her relationship is over, and she’s chosen to keep house for her aging mother rather than pursue her own dreams. At 26, she’s resigned to spinsterhood. As the house is expensive and her father managed to lose most of the family’s money, Frances and her mother decide to acquire some lodgers (the “paying guests” of the title) to help with debts.

Lilian Barber, a young woman with bohemian tastes, moves into the house with her husband Leonard. Their marriage is not an entirely happy one, and Leonard spends long hours away at work as an insurance clerk. If you’ve read a Sarah Waters book before, you have a good idea of where this might be going. I hesitate to say too much about the developing intimacy between Frances and Lilian and the twist that leaves them in crisis, but I will say that this is a solid choice for anyone who likes historical fiction.

Waters hones in on minute and intriguing details of period life in the postwar London of the early 20s in a way that leaves the reader feeling fully immersed. The book is told entirely from Frances’s point of view, leaving Lilian’s motivations clouded until the bittersweet end. If you’ve read Sarah Waters before, you’ll know it’s not going to be an easy road for Frances and Lilian–but that’s what makes her books great. A must-read for all Waters fans, and a great entry point for those who have never read her work before.



Anna M reviews “Air Planes” by Anna Macdougal


“Air Planes” is a work of short fiction, the first in a series by Anna Macdougal called The Lock and The Key: Butch/Femme Erotic Romance. It’s the story of marketing consultant Stephanie, fresh from the triumph of closing a deal, and her erotic encounter with the chivalrous butch woman she meets at the airport. Their chance meeting leads to high-flying intimacy, and–perhaps–love.

As you might expect from the collection’s title, this story relies heavily on the mystique and appeal of the butch/femme dynamic:

A butch lesbian stood near the exit, browsing the New Titles display. Something happens to me every time there’s a butch woman in my vicinity. Each cell in my body instantaneously comes alive and urgent messages from my femme brain race through my entire nervous system.

If butch/femme dynamics are your cup of tea, you will be quite happy with this promising debut. I found that mentions of “the butch” and “the femme” as objects–stepping back from the interplay between interesting, relatable characters to delve more deeply into that archetypal aspect of lesbian desire–distracted me from the otherwise excellent writing. However, I enjoyed the story immensely and will definitely read anything else that Macdougal produces.


Anna M. reviews Never Too Late by Julie Blair

Never Too Late is the first book from Bold Strokes Books author Julie Blair.

After they attend a Melissa Etheridge concert together, a one-night stand in Atlanta between Jamie Hammond and a woman named Carly leaves both women profoundly affected. However, Jamie wakes up the next morning to find her companion gone with only a note of thanks. She returns to California to join her father’s business and become a full-fledged chiropractor, a fate she somewhat unwillingly embraces.

Twenty years later, Jamie’s business is in financial trouble because of an employee’s embezzlement and its consequences. She needs a new office manager, and Carly (now Carla Grant, soon-to-be divorced mother of one) walks through her door. Carla and Jamie recognize each other immediately, but each pretend not to, since this is a romance novel. Jamie has a closeted partner, Sheryl, who turns out to be the principal who tried to prevent Carla’s lesbian daughter from holding hands with her girlfriend at school. Jamie decides not to tell Carla or Sheryl about the other’s existence.

Carla fell in love with Jamie all those years ago in Atlanta, but chose duty and responsibility over self-discovery–she was pregnant when they had their one-night stand, and returned to marry her boyfriend. Now, her husband has discovered he’s also gay, and they’re separating amicably. Carla has the opportunity to start life over again as an out and proud lesbian, and she’s suddenly been confronted by the woman who made her realize what love could be. Carla and Jamie must negotiate their work and personal relationship through the difficulties presented by Jamie’s money troubles, her villainous partner, and her workaholism. Is it too late for them to have a second chance?

Never Too Late felt unbalanced as a romance: the focus was so much on Jamie and her problems that it sacrificed some intimacy between her and Carla in favor of exploring her character growth. Which is fine, unless you were expecting a romance that gave equal weight to each main character; the obstacles in the book were almost all created by Jamie. The obstacle of Jamie’s preexisting relationship was handled through the vilification of Sheryl, who [spoiler alert]:

  • is closeted
  • is obsessed with her potential work promotion
  • shops all the time and spends Jamie’s money
  • is unsympathetic
  • wears perfume Jamie hates
  • is totally cheating on Jamie WITH A MAN (*gasp* how could she!)

Sheryl is almost cartoonishly terrible, but Jamie doggedly stays with her anyway, far past the point where any reader would want her to. Despite these flaws, I was rooting for Carla and Jamie to cut through the tangled mess of Jamie’s life and get together. There are the seeds of a solid romance here, they just needed to be fertilized properly. There’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters to manage, and the romance ended up getting lost in the shuffle. Fans of Melissa Etheridge will enjoy frequent references to her work. For another tale of casual-to-serious lovers, try All the Wrong Places by Karin Kallmaker.

Anna M. reviews Courtship by Carsen Taite


Courtship is a forthcoming novel from criminal defense attorney and author Carsen Taite.  It’s the story of law school dean Addison Riley and Julia Scott, a campaign manager with a very successful track record.

When Chief Justice Weir of the United States Supreme court dies suddenly, Julia Scott–fresh from a successful presidential campaign–is put in charge of getting a replacement on the fast track to confirmation. The president wants a quick and easy choice, pushing for a moderate rather than a choice that will make waves in the legislature, and Julia is accustomed to doing whatever her employer wants. But there’s another name that keeps appearing on the Democratic shortlists, despite Julia’s wishes and everyone’s expectations: Addison Riley.

Addison, a former law clerk and solicitor general who had a close relationship with the deceased chief justice, is not a safe choice for confirmation. But she’s got the liberal values that Julia, if she allowed herself to have a personal opinion, would endorse herself. And whenever they meet, there’s a definite spark between them. As circumstances continue to throw Addison and Julia together, attraction–and dilemmas–abound. When it becomes clear that the former chief justice’s death might not have been accidental, things heat up even more. Will Julia be able to get Addison’s nomination confirmed without compromising her professional integrity? Will Addison become the nation’s first female supreme court chief? Who is responsible for Justice Weir’s death?

The addition of the conspiracy/thriller angle to Courtship made it a bit more than the will-they-or-won’t-they workplace romance I was expecting, and the details about campaign management, White House politics, and Supreme Court confirmations were something I hadn’t encountered before. This is not a book for readers who want their heroines to spend a great deal of time together; the road to happiness for Addison and Julia is fraught, but ultimately comes to a satisfactory conclusion. For me, it was tempting to say “get on with it!” at the end, but if it had been a movie I would have watched raptly. For those interested in other political romances, try Madam President by Blayne Cooper and T. Novan or Tracey Richardson’s The Candidate.

Courtship will be coming out in November 2014 from Bold Strokes Books. Advanced copy courtesy of Netgalley.

Anna M reviews Jolt by Kris Bryant


Jolt is the first novel by Kris Bryant and will be published in September by Bold Strokes Books. I read a review copy courtesy of Netgalley.

Mystery author Bethany Lange hasn’t recovered from a bad breakup three years ago, when her closeted partner abruptly left her to be with someone else. Since then, Bethany has lived a solitary existence, kept company by the dead poets (Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Shakespeare) that she talks to in her mind. Bethany spends the summers volunteering at a camp for children of lesbian and gay families, which is where she meets the beautiful–and out–musician Ali Hart.

Ali is a popular folk singer taking a break from her tour to help out at the camp. For Bethany, the chemistry between them is instantaneous and intriguing, especially after she’s felt nothing for so long. However, a little injudicious googling leads Bethany to understand that Ali has a girlfriend and is therefore unavailable. After they straighten out that misunderstanding, the pair has one day with which to get to know each other and figure out if they want to embark on a long-distance relationship.

After their first date, the road to happiness is not particularly easy for Bethany and Ali; Bethany is plagued by doubt and finds it difficult to open herself up to love. Ali is on the road for long stretches of time, and has strong ties to her Massachusetts family. After another misunderstanding between them leads to separation and angst, it’s not clear if the topic of love will ever be broached, or if the two are doomed to remain estranged forever. However, it is a romance, so everything is resolved in the end.

Jolt is written entirely from Bethany’s perspective, which means that the reader gets the benefit(?) of understanding her every hesitant and self-doubting foray toward Ali. Bethany spends a great deal of time in her head, some of it conversing with her imaginary friends in a strangely intimate way. The book might have benefited from a balanced number of scenes from Ali’s perspective, or from more well-rounded secondary characters, or perhaps from a more condensed denouement as Ali and Bethany struggled to define their relationship. These flaws were somewhat redeemed by the well-written sex scenes, but by the end I found it difficult to care whether Bethany got it together or not. For a great story of long distance romance, try Emma Donoghue’s Landing instead.

Anna M reviews Kiss the Girl by Melissa Brayden


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 All In by Nell Stark


Nell Stark’s All In, published this month by Bold Strokes Books, is a sweet romance that involves high-stakes poker and Las Vegas. Annie Novarro, the self-styled “Nova” of online poker-playing, has a dilemma. When she loses almost all of her substantial winnings due to a federal crackdown on online gambling, she must either face facts and give up her career, or learn to hack it with live poker players. Unfortunately, playing poker with opponents who are in the same room requires a poker face, something that math whiz Nova hasn’t had to worry about in the past.

When Nova travels to Vegas to prep for and play in the World Series of Poker, she ends up staying at the Valhalla resort. Valhalla is also the workplace of Vesper Blake, a casino host who doesn’t plan to let her attraction to a laid-back poker player get in the way of her career advancement. Vesper has worked hard to get as far as she has as a host, and she’s eyeing the next level when a sexually aggressive client interferes–and brings the two women closer together. Will Vesper be able to put aside her ambition and realize that it’s not worth sacrificing everything for her career? Will Nova figure out how to put her skills to work when she’s playing against live opponents?

I found All In, like Stark’s The Princess Affair, to be a nice change of pace from a lot of the romances I read, in terms of setting. They both feature a very slowly developing romance and, in the case of All In, an interesting look behind the scenes of a Vegas casino. I’m not sure how much of the information about poker playing and casino hosting was factually accurate, but I was enjoying myself too much to care. The only part that troubled me was Vesper’s lack of contact with her family after the traumatic events of her teenage years.


I’d recommend All In to anyone looking for a sporty little romance with a good grip on character motivations. Do not read if descriptions of sexual assault are upsetting to you.


I am headed to Vegas for my first visit at the end of the month–we’ll see if it matches the picture Stark painted.