Emily reviews The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an epic fantasy standalone that features characters across the world struggling with the re-emergence of a thousand-year-old threat. At the beginning of the story, Ead is a lady in waiting in the court of Sabran the Ninth, hiding forbidden magic and a secret mission to keep the Queen safe. Loth, the Queen’s best friend, has been sent on a deadly mission by the Queen’s spymaster. On the other side of the world, Tané is in training to become a dragon rider, but her life is altered by a chance encounter with a foreigner on a beach. Niclays is living his life in exile, but Tané’s decision will pull him out of obscurity. From there, Shannon weaves a truly fantastic plot, taking the reader on a wonderful journey before bringing the threads from all over her world together for the conclusion.

There is a lot to love in this book. Any book with pirates, magic and dragons is something I will love, but this one included so much more. Shannon roots her world in real world history, as well as a number of myths and legends, which gives the book a really solid grounding and makes the whole thing seem real. Having characters from different parts of the world really adds to this realism, because we get to see different cultures in detail, as well as how they overlap. The characters all have different viewpoints on the world, but they are all engaging and interesting to read about. I particularly loved Ead and Tané’s journeys. I will say that I found different viewpoints less interesting than others at certain points in the story, but that’s a problem I have with most books that balance so many perspectives.

Ead’s plotline involves a slow burning sapphic romance and it was absolutely delightful! It developed slowly, but in a way that left it feeling inevitable, and I rooted for the characters to be together so much. I also really appreciated that the barriers to lgbtq+ characters being together in this book were rooted in class, duty and circumstance, rather than in homophobia.

The pacing was a little off in places: the first half of this book was quite slow, with Shannon taking her time to build up the intrigue in Sabran’s court and to introduce you to the world. I had no problem with the pace picking up as the book went on, but it sped up so much that it felt like there wasn’t quite enough time to do justice to the big finale at the end. It perhaps suffered slightly from trying to balance so many characters and such an epic plot in a single book. That said, the conclusion was still very satisfying, and the work felt complete as a standalone.

This wasn’t a particularly new or inventive fantasy–if you’ve read much of the genre, you’ll probably find this book feels familiar to you. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I’ve never seen this kind of story with a sapphic relationship taking centre stage before, and I absolutely loved it. It was so nice to see myself represented in the kind of fantasy story I loved growing up. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and accessible fantasy, and I’d really recommend it!

JB reviews Something To Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Hello everybody! My name is JB and I’m so excited to be here.

Who doesn’t love a good slow burn romance? The slow burn romance trope is literally my favorite trope in existence. All my favorite ships go through some sort of slow burn/mutual pining stage. Something to Talk About has a slow burn romance AND a fake dating. It feels like it was made for me, and I can tell Meryl Wilsner knows what the lesbians want. And yet this novel did not fully satisfy my itch for slow burn romance.

Something to Talk About features Jo, a mega-successful showrunner, and her assistant, Emma, and their journey from coworkers to friends to lovers. Jo is photographed making Emma laugh on a red carpet and rumors start a-going. Though the gossip threatens to interfere with both their personal and professional lives, Jo decides to not comment; she’s never before, so why start now? The novel is told from both of their perspectives, which I enjoyed because we got to see that sweet, sweet mutual pining. I enjoyed seeing both of them get flustered about each other or giving meaning to small interactions. I love how much unspoken care was already in their relationship, even before they realized they could be more than coworkers and friends. Emma and Jo know each other’s favorite foods, how they way sleep on the plane during business trips, and more.

While I enjoyed reading from their perspectives, there was not a lot of difference in their voices. I had to turn back to the beginning of a chapter more than once to remember who I was supposed to be. A major conflict happens in the middle of the novel that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me, and I almost put the book down because of it. I also thought that there were one too many real world issues trying to be addressed between the romance. Racism and sexism against Jo, sexual harassment in Hollywood, and nepotism (somehow) were either mentioned or part of the plot. It’s completely possible to experience all of these at once, but, to me, it felt out of place in a novel that markets itself as a fluffy romance.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. I realized I enjoyed and related to these characters more than those in YA WLW romances. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a WLW romance featuring adult women, mutual pining, and yeah, of course, slow burn romance.

Trigger warnings: racism, sexual harassment

JB (she/her) teaches junior high history by day and reads lesbian fiction by night. Her favorite genres are fantasy, speculative fiction, historical non-fiction, and memoirs. She loves all things history, RPG podcasts, and watching longform video essays with her gf. You can find her on Instagram at @readingrhythms.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perspective by Monica McCallan

Perspective by Monica McCallan

Campbell St. Claire is a best-selling author whose novel is being produced for a film led by Sloane Murphy, a former friend from college. But the two haven’t spoken since an incident one night that left Campbell brokenhearted. Reunited, Campbell learns what happened that night with Sloane and the two reconcile. But misunderstandings ensue, and the two are once more at odds. It’s an uphill battle to get to their happily ever after.

For readers seeking a fun yet angst-filled romance novel, this is one to pick up. The character dynamic between Sloane and Campbell sizzles and burns as they orbit around one another, constantly coming together and pulling away. Miscommunications and mishaps cause their tug of war love affair as they decide what they mean to each other.

Both women suffer from insecurities that lead to their miscommunications. Campbell’s writing slump gives her a bout of impostor syndrome as she wonders if she’ll have another hit novel after her current gig. That impostor syndrome extends to how she sees herself and her worth. She considers Sloane totally out of her league and thinks the glamorous actress made her feelings clear long ago in college.

Sloane has a natural distrust of everyone as she created a career in the film industry. But her rough upbringing, which is kept vague, also influences how she views others. She believes the worst in people without knowing the full story. She guards her heart, but it’s a lonely life living in constant distrust.

The romance between Sloane and Campbell is built with care and compassion. While Campbell has been out and proud since college, Sloane did not come to peace with her sexuality until Campbell returned into her life. It’s a sweet relationship where Sloane wants to explore her feelings and Campbell helps her, but never pushes her. Their flirting is teasing, but never mean. It’s clear that although they have a great deal of sexual tension and physical fun, their relationship has always been based in friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so of course there are hot and steamy scenes throughout. But unlike many other romances, the sex doesn’t happen every other page. As Campbell guides Sloane through her journey of coming out as a lesbian, there’s more moments of tension than sex on the page. McCallan is adept at describing the sensuality of intimacy, especially in a budding romance between two women who take great care with their hearts.

When they do have sex, McCallan pulls all the stops. From start to finish, Sloane and Campbell’s intimate moments leave the readers and characters alike breathless. As they engage in their first time together, and Sloane’s first time with a woman, Campbell is incredibly careful about consent and boundaries.

Campbell always made sure to check in, but it never ruined the moment. The details in the scene depicted a positive experience for both women as they finally brought their burgeoning romance to its inevitable next level.

The one characterization that felt lacking was Sloane’s past with her mother. Details were dropped here and there indicating that the relationship was strained and that her childhood was traumatic. But it was all kept vague, making it hard to understand Sloane’s distrust in others. However, it can be argued that the point of leaving out Sloane’s difficult past and childhood was purposeful so as not to be voyeuristic.

One of the defining moments between Sloane and Campbell is when Campbell reaches out to Sloane after the actress’s mother gives the tabloids a tell-all. But Campbell never reads the story, because she knows that’s not what Sloane wants. Campbell is so considerate and respectful of Sloane’s boundaries that it’s what makes the actress drop her guard and give in to the love she has for the author.

There are a few supporting characters that round out the story and create a connection between the protagonists when they are circling each other. Riley the screenwriter befriends Campbell on set as the author stayed on as a consultant for the movie adaptation of her book. She also took a liking to Sloane, who had no choice but to keep her on as a friend. Riley is the kind of personality that doesn’t give others much choice in accepting her friendship.

Campbell’s younger sister Val plays a fleeting role. She acts more like a tool for the development of Campbell’s communication skills. She isn’t really given a chance to be her own character. Still, the love between the sisters is clear and sweet. In a story that’s mostly about Sloane and Campbell, it’s hard to add more of Val without digressing.

As with any good romance, the characters get their HEA. For any readers like myself who don’t usually gravitate toward the genre, this is a great book to give romance a chance. It keeps you turning the page and hoping for the best for everyone.

Mallory Lass reviews One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers, narrated by Lori Prince

One Walk in Winter by Georgia Beers

One Walk in Winter is a workplace romance set in the fictional mountain town of Evergreen spanning three US winter holidays: Thanksgiving through New Years. There is something about a book set in a place where it snows that really gets me into that cozy winter mindset. Light on the angst and high on the heat, Beers’ latest spin on a timeless trope left me smiling for days.

Hayley Boyd Markham is a New York City girl who has been working out her grief over her mother’s passing by setting the city on fire. After a particularly expensive night out, her father informs her he’s cutting off her credit cards. In order for Hayley to earn her allowance back, she’ll need to go manage one of the Markham family resorts, the slowly declining Evergreen Resort and Spa, through the winter. The problem is, Hayley is an artist like her mother and not very interested in the family business like her father and step brothers.

Olivia Santini has worked as the Assistant Manager of the Evergreen Resort and Spa for seven years; she thinks she’s a shoo-in for the open Manager position, only to be crushed when she doesn’t get the job. More ego bruising, the new Manager doesn’t seem to have any resort management experience, and Olivia isn’t sure where she went wrong. It doesn’t help that she’s finding it really hard to maintain her grudge against Hayley, who, aside from her penchant to be late, is extremely attractive and likeable.

Olivia and Hayley have a picturesque meet cute about 3 hours before finding out Hayley is Olivia’s new boss. After the rocky second meeting, despite their obvious attraction, Hayley and Olivia take it slow, working hard to earn each others favor. Sometimes, two people just need a good push in the right direction, and that is where Angela Santini, Olivia’s mom comes into the picture. Angela is a supportive mom, and she pushes Olivia to give Hayley the benefit of the doubt. It’s just the encouragement she needs to get out of her own way.

The supporting cast and the hidden gems of the town of Evergreen are slowly revealed throughout the story. Beers’ created a town I would love to be able to go visit and friends I wish I could call my own.

Hayley has been ordered by her father to conceal her Markham identity and prove she can help turn the Evergreen around. As Hayley and Olivia become closer, Hayley’s concealed identity is no doubt going to become an issue. I was pleasantly surprised with how Beers resolved their conflict, but will it be too late for Olivia to forgive Hayley? You’ll have to give this one a read (or a listen) to find out.

Speaking of, I listened to this book on audio, and Lori Prince does a wonderful job bringing Hayley and Olivia to life. I can’t wait to listen to other books she’s narrated.

Mallory Lass reviews Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Falling Into Her by Erin Zak

Note: This review contains spoilers. I don’t think they are major spoilers, but integral to discussing the identity politics (or lack there of) in the book.

If you liked Just Jorie by Robin Alexander, you will probably also like this book. In my opinion, Just Jorie is a romantic comedy and this is a contemporary romance, so while they have similar themes and threads (age gap, first time wlw relationship), it is not an apples to apples comparison.

Kathryn Hawthorne has a penchant for older women, particularly unavailable “straight” ones. She works as Chicago’s hottest movie critic and is a minor celebrity. She comes from a wealthy family, but has a strained relationship with her mother and

Pam Phillips is newly a widow and is trying to find herself again after being under her husband’s thumb. She works at a high end boutique, Skin, and has a dog named Dorothy. Her best friend, Judy has been there through thick and thin for the last 12 years. When Kathryn comes into Skin looking for a present, everything in Pam’s life seems to change, especially the relationships she holds dear.

I enjoyed this romance because both Kathryn and Pam are likable, and I was rooting for both of them the whole way. They navigate their relationships with family and best friends, dealing with how their new romantic entanglement fits into their existing lives, which was very relatable to me. They deal with their conflicts primarily by having actual discussions about them with each other which is a big plus (artificially created drama which would normally be resolved by having a conversation with each other is one of my biggest romance genre pet peeves).

I want to take a moment to talk about the age gap and then the sex, especially as it relates to the age gap. The debate over “how many years does there have to be between the two love interests to count as an age gap?” rages on, and there is no bright line rule. This one is only eight years. As a lover of big age gaps, I prefer 10+ years. However, the two characters are in very different life stages, so I think the book still falls solidly into the age gap trope.

The sex is really hot. Zak is great with nuanced, sensual moments, and the interactions between the two love interests were a joy to read. Pam is older, but has zero experience making love to a woman. Frankly, Pam hasn’t enjoyed her sex life to this point. My favorite flavor of age gap trope is when the younger one is able to teach the older one something important. In this case, Zak delivers a really hot night where Kathryn gets to teach Pam some of the things she knows about pleasing women, and Pam gets to show off what a good student she is. Zak did a great job of conveying Pam’s nerves and allowing her to express those nerves and be supported. Kathryn met her where she was and the most intimate parts of their relationship are really beautifully done.

There were a few things that I found problematic and those took me out of the book. There are a few women in Kathryn’s romantic past that are described as straight women. According to Kathryn’s best friend Stephanie, she can’t help herself around straight women. Pam, having lost her husband, the only person she has ever had a relationship with, also initially identifies herself as straight. The problem I have is there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Pam says bisexual one time, but it doesn’t stick. Further Pam doesn’t really deal with her changing identity, which is okay, it’s not the story Zak wanted to tell, but it felt breezed over. Her sister accuses her of being a lesbian, as do other characters in the book, and this piece of the story just feels like it was written in the 80s and not in 2017. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to make it seem like lesbians are trolling the world to try and convert women to being into other women. And, it is unfair to women who are struggling to find their identity (in this case late in life) to be boxed into being either straight or a lesbian. It erases their past experience and is cliche.

The main conflict is primarily an external situational conflict, and I would have liked more internal conflict from both Kathryn and Pam. Neither seemed bothered by or really addressed their age difference at all, they gloss over the fact that Kathryn has had many lovers in her life, and Pam only her ex-husband. Pam isn’t poor, but Kathryn is ultra rich, and that isn’t an issue either. Ultimately, Falling Into Her was an enjoyable read, but Zak set the characters up for more layers and complexity and then failed to deliver on those deeper emotional beats.

Mallory Lass reviews Homecoming by Celeste Castro

Homecoming by Celeste Castro

CW: family trauma, homophobia, minor character deaths (remembered), alcoholism

Homecoming is like a fireworks show: it starts with a boom, but everything leads to the grand finale. This slow burn romance is full of unexpected adventure and forced self reflection for the main character, Dusty and love interest Morgan.

Destiny “Dusty” del Carmen is a successful author and activist who has made a habit of avoiding her own emotions and relationships in favor of one night stands. She has spent 15 years trying to avoid her hurtful past. When Dusty is forced by her agent to return to her home state of Idaho, an unexpected situation presents her with an opportunity for self reflection and healing.

Morgan West is self proclaimed workaholic and actual over achiever. Department Chair at Boise State, she has her hands full with work commitments and ensuring her students success. She spends her time taking care of everyone but herself, and her on again off again relationship with a colleague is hardly the relationship of her dreams.

Dusty and Morgan meet unexpectedly and then are thrust together in a high stakes crisis. This might be just the thing they need to get out of their own way.

Castro’s storytelling style offers the reader intrigue and anticipation. Dusty’s life and family history unravel slowly as the story goes along, allowing the reader to put the puzzle pieces together in a meaningful way alongside Morgan. Additionally, the reader is privy to some information before the characters themselves know it and that creates a wonderful sense of excitement. These style elements and shorter chapter structure make Homecoming a page turner.

Castro has spun together a romance full of situational tension and excitement on top of the sparking sexual chemistry. She expertly weaves in location based details that really bring the story to life and capture that small town feel.

Mary Springer reviews Backwards to Oregon by Jae

Backwards to Oregon by Jae

This book was every trope and every plot device I ever wanted all rolled into one. This is one of those books that you put down and it stays with you for days afterward. I immediately purchased the sequel and the short story collection that is in this same series.

Nora works in a brothel to survive and provide for her child, Amy. One day her friend that brothel’s madam, Tess, has her take a special customer, Luke. He won’t touch her though, won’t do anything with her, and there’s something strange about him. A few days later she meets him again when he saves Amy from the anger of the man running the stables. He offers her marriage and a journey on the Oregon trail–a chance at a better life not only for herself but also for Amy.

Luke has disguised herself as a man since she was 12 not only in order to survive but in order to have the life she would not otherwise be able to have. When she meets Nora and Amy, she can’t help but offer them a chance at a better life–an arrangement that will also help her better conceal her identity in the close proximity to other people in their wagon train.

Luke and Nora agree that this will marriage will be a business agreement and there doesn’t need to be anything else to it. However, when dangerous challenges befall them on the Oregon trail, they can’t help but grow close and sparks fly.

The characters really made this story come alive. In some romances it can be hard to imagine the characters outside their relationship, but here I could easily see Luke and Nora with their own stories. There was also a good amount of side characters that felt equally real and interesting to the main characters, which I always appreciate. Tess was really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading one of her stories in the short story collection. Other families on the Oregon trail were also really engaging. There was Nora’s friend Bernice who helped her learn how to be a pioneer woman and her husband who becomes a good friend of Luke’s. There was Emmeline, who’s husband is abusive.

This is also a serious slow-burn romance, and it’s done so achingly well. Both Luke and Nora have baggage and issues that need to be worked before they can begin to open up to each other. They take their sweet time with it, but it’s so satisfying in the end. This also made it much more believable and engaging as their relationship progressed.

Another thing I really appreciated was how clearly well researched this was. The setting and historical time period really felt like it came alive.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about hidden identities, westerns, or just a good old slow-burn romance.

Mallory Lass reviews Blurred Lines by KD Williamson

Blurred Lines by KD Williamson cover

Blurred Lines is a slow burn, cops and docs contemporary romance that simmers just below the surface until you can’t stand it anymore. I found it very much worth the wait. The dialogue is funny, the plot is engaging and well thought out, and the cast of supporting male characters are highly likable.

Detective Kelli McCabe is a strong, reliable, resilient detective that was recently injured on the job. She is the glue that keeps her family together after her father died and the found family for her partner on the force when his own family wasn’t there for him. She makes you want to hold some of the water for her. At times she can be vulgar and headstrong and also stubborn, much like her love interest.

Dr. Nora Whitmore is a self assured, self protecting, thawing bisexual ice queen and I just wanted to give her a good shake and then a big hug through the entire book. She comes from a wealthy family and enjoys organic food and fine wine, but isn’t pretentious. She cares about her craft and judges people on their intellect and competency on the job and in life. She has her quirks, like keeping a Kunekune (domesticated pig) for a pet, and eating the same breakfast everyday—but in my opinion it just makes her more likable as the story unfolds.

Kelli and Nora meet at the hospital where Kelli is being treated and Nora works as the Chief of Surgery. Sparks fly, and not of the love at first site variety. Their initial barbs turn into a mutual respect and understanding. While both women’s pasts have made them emotionally stunted and commitment phobic, they can recognize their own positive qualities in one another: dedication to a job well done, intelligence, and strength under pressure. They realize they can lean on each other, and that opens up a complicated world of opportunities and fears for both of them.

The main plot revolves around a sexual harassment allegation levied against Nora, and some complicated family situations Kelli is trying to get her arms around. It was pleasantly surprising to me that the mostly male supporting cast is lovable, complex, and helps move the story along in meaningful ways. Kelli’s cadre of cops: her partner on the force Travis, her ex partner Williams, and her brother Sean, are all fleshed out in meaningful ways and I ended up rooting for all of them.

Blurred Lines features some of the most emotionally charged and revealing interactions between two characters that I can recall reading in a long time. As Kelli and Nora try to untangle their own lives and their own shit, they peel themselves back like onions and expose their most intimate thoughts. They ultimately have to decide if they want to do the work to move past their shortcomings, away from their past and toward a future together.

Mallory Lass reviews Broken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Broken Trails by D Jordan Redhawk cover

Trigger Warnings: Suicide of a minor character (occurs in the past and is recounted), and alcoholism.

Spoilers marked separately at the end.

A gripping adventure romance, set in “Big Sky Country” Alaska at the famous Iditarod dog sledding race, features a swoon worthy protagonist and a driven but out of control (at times) love interest.

Scotch Fuller is the eldest of 4 kids and winning the Iditarod is not only her dream, but her family’s life work. The Fuller family runs and operates a dog racing kennel and dog sledding tourism company. Scotch is hard working, independent, disciplined young woman. Her family is everything to her and they are her biggest cheerleaders. She has a great head on her shoulders and soft butch vibe that will make you weak in the knees.

Laney is a successful nature photographer who just finished a long assignment in Africa. She reluctantly agrees to go on a quick assignment to Alaska as a favor to her friend Ben, a magazine editor. She is physically ill equipped for the Alaskan elements and emotionally blindsided by an up and coming Iditarod star who catches her eye. Laney is dealing with personal baggage that has manifested into a drinking problem.

Scotch has an amazing rookie run to set the stage but the real adventure starts when Laney convinces the magazine (against her own better judgement) to do a series of stories about Scotch’s training for her sophomore run at the Iditarod. Ben agrees, as long as Laney trains to run the race as a rookie. Laney isn’t sure if she wants to go back to Alaska, and Scotch isn’t sure she wants the distraction of training someone. Despite Laney being a decade or so older than Scotch, they both have a lot to teach each other about life and love. The age-gap is mentioned but is not a big part of the story, nor is it a source of consternation.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am definitely not a dog person! Ever since I saw a documentary series on the Iditarod via the discovery channel over a decade ago, the sport has fascinated me. Add a lesbian romance and I was immediately drawn to it. This is a great story for someone who likes long, slow burn romances. At nearly 400 pages you really get the complete Iditarod experience from couch to finish line. Redhawk really makes you feel like you are on the sled with Scotch and Laney, sleep deprived, bitter cold hitting your face, danger at every turn.

Ultimately, I think this story is about laying yourself bare. About finding out that another person can still love you, despite scars, secrets, or shortcomings of character. That is really how Scotch and Laney stole my heart.

***Spoilers***

I am a sucker for letters, and was excited when Don gave the letter to Laney from Scotch when the race started. I was kind of disappointed it took to nearly the end to discover the contents, and given the structure of Scotch being ahead, they were only one sided.

The Tonya storyline was important to Scotch’s growth, but I felt could have been developed a little more before the reveal. It felt like she needed something to be going through, some scar to match Laney’s but it kinda felt dropped in rather than lived in.

The sex scene, the long awaited sex scene, was too short for how late in the book it came. And to fade to black when it was Scotch’s turn to be pleasured just blew the wind out of my sails. Their exchange was emotional, and their speeches at the end nearly made up for it…nearly.