Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 8 edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

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Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 8 edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Bussel, Rachel Kramer, editor. Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 8. Cleigh Press, 2022. 284 pp. ISBN 978-1627783156. $18.95

*****

Just in time to sexily stuff a holiday stocking, this eighth book in a popular series of erotic stories is the best collection to date in that I found something to love in every one of the 21 play-themed stories. There is a wide range of play, from play-fighting to running around in the woods while cosplaying to watching a literal play to playing with consent, group sex, and BSDM.

Situations run the gamut of some light ordering around in a curtained theatre box in the mid-eighteenth century, to a futuristic tale of an expert in mating habits of intergalactic species meeting her match and mate in a dynamic alien lover. Characters are musicians, LARPers, vampires, swingers, parents, queer, straight, new lovers and long married and everything in-between.

It is an art to write about sex well. The writing in these stories is uniformly excellent: strongly voiced, exquisitely and lushly detailed, and edited to the essentials to hold the story and the sex together.

I read a lot of romance novels, and have been happy to see a evolution in the last thirty years from virgins who come from penetration to sex encompassing conversations about past partners, preferences, and safety; destigmatizing of experience, and normalization of non-penetrative sex. All are true in this collection as well.

What makes this a collection for women? The primary focus is women’s consent and pleasure, but only a handful of the stories are sapphic; and I think the appeal is unlimited. The authors identify as she or they, and the brief bios at the end of the volume are the launching off point for going down (ha!) a rabbit hole of more stories of love, lust and desire. I’ll be in my bunk.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TheBestWomen’sEroticaoftheYearVolume8 from #NetGalley.

Just My Type by Falon Ballard

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Just My Type by Falon Ballard

Ballard, Falon. Just My Type. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2023. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0593419939 $17.00

***

Serial monogamist and relationship columnist Lana Parker was expecting a proposal when her boyfriend of four years tells her it’s just not working, and even though she agrees, she’s still low-key devastated, exacerbated by an out-of-the-blue text from Seth Carson, The One That Got Away (and Broke Her Heart) when their high school relationship ended abruptly. The morning after she drowns her break up sorrows in alcohol with her bestie May, she gets an alert on her phone about a mandatory on-site work meeting, and drags her hungover ass in… only to learn her ex is joining their team as part of a publishing merger. Her boss smells the unfinished business vibes between Seth and Lana, and sets up a competition between them: Seth, the player, has to embark on a long term relationship and NOT have sex, while and Lana, the afraid to be alone heroine, has to remain single and have a one-night stand (a challenge she issues for herself). They must detail their experiences in weekly columns, tallying likes and comments weekly, and then the public will vote for a fan favorite to get a promotion to their own serious journalism column.

Pop culture and LA references abound, and Lana is a self-professed sci-fi geek who dreams of moving to an entertainment features column instead of giving dating advice. She’s a great friend and a decent writer but too easily manipulated, and her behavior towards Seth is not completely unwarranted, but I have trouble with women that are too mean and too immature and too inconsistent, and she occasionally veers into pretty unattractive behavior to someone she supposedly is still in love with. On the other hand, I loved the fake date setups and their boss trying to throw them together, but didn’t love that it was for hits and sales, rather than for its own merit and their happiness. The therapy sessions, group chat (Get a Room!) with the other journalists, and the great chapter headings that excerpt former and new columns are a nice touch.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #JustMyType from #NetGalley.

The American Roommate Experiment by Elena Armas

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The American Roommate Experiment by Elena Armas

Armas, Elena. The American Roommate Experiment. Atria, 2022. 400 pp. ISBN 978-1668002773 $18.00

***

This is a sweet, sultry international flavored romance that I liked a little better that it’s prequel. While Lina is on her belated honeymoon, her apartment is a natural refuge for her best friend when Rosie’s apartment is uninhabitable. But Lina’s cousin Lucas is in town as a tourist on the last weeks of his visa, and Lina promised him a place to crash. Rosie, a closet romance writer, has been harboring a secret crush on Lucas ever since she started following his Instagram after they failed to meet at the Lina’s wedding due to his barely disclosed surfing accident that has taken him off the national circuit. Lucas must be feeling some vibes too, because he suggests Rosie crash with him, and offers to help Rosie through her writer’s block through a series of dates designed to take them from acquaintances to lovers.

Not so much an enemies to lovers romance, there is an initial meet not-cute when Rosie thinks Lucas is breaking into Lina’s apartment. Frankly, there might be more deception here than in the Spanish Love Deception: Rosie with her crush and new career, both with their feelings and pasts, Lucas with his injury, and hiding their relationship from Lina.

Still, the romance novel plot while not unique is well-done, the writing is good, and the tension palpable. Spanish culture and the New York setting round out the details through language, food, familial expectations and geography. This is a solid spin-off.

A tiny quibble: the last book by this author was The Spanish Love Deception… why isn’t this called The Spanish Roommate Experiment, since it is a Spaniard encroaching on an American’s territory? Why isn’t the Spoiler Alert series called Guardians of the Gates? Why I am not making a lot of money working in publishing instead of moonlighting as an unpaid review? The world will never know.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #WitchaGonnaDo from #NetGalley

Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

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Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

Cochrun, Alison. Kiss Her Once for Me. 368 pp. Atria Books, 2022. ISBN 978-1982191139 $17.99

*****

I feel the same about LGBTQIA+ romance as I do about science fiction novels: as long as the plot is engaging, the setting is strong, the characters compelling (and their names pronounceable), I’m in, even though I don’t self-identify as a science fiction fanatic or queer. I selected this from NetGalley’s offerings months ago, tugged in by the twisty premise of demisexual girl gets fake engaged for money to her ex’s brother. I felt like I just wasn’t in the mood for a queer romance, or a holiday story, and avoiding cracking open my ARC until there were only about three days left on the ticking clock of the review window. I could not put this one down and finished it just in time.

Told in flashbacks that describe a webcomic series based on a perfect romantic snow day with a mysterious Jack one a year ago, and Ellie’s present day dilemma (should she confess the terms of the engagement to Jack? Disclose to Andrew Jack is the manic pixie dream butch from last Christmas?), the only thing that could make this more perfect is if the described comic sections were actual panels…or if the entire book was a graphic novel, hint, hint, @SimonAndSchuster, get on it already!

Ellie is an empathetic character. An animation school grad who got her dream job and then got let go for not being able to cut it, she landed at a coffee-shop with a terrible boss where Instagramming foam creations on lattes is her artistic outlet. Denied a promotion and facing eviction because her terrible! mother is exhorting her as payback for RAISING her, a wealthy investment banker/hedge fund type overhears her plight, takes her on a date, and suggests they catch two birds with one stone and get engaged to solve her financial troubles and allow him access to his inheritance that will only be unlocked if he marries. Ellie drunkenly agrees, and Andrew whisks her off to spend the holidays at his family’s cabin (read: mansion) to introduce her to his relatives and solidify the relationship. His sister Jacqueline/Jack turns out to be the beautiful butch baker from last year’s Powell’s excursion. In a side plot, her best friend–trans tattooed kindergarten teacher Dylan–was Andrew’s super-sekrit hookup last year when Jack was skipping the family festivities and hooking up with Ellie.

The characters are three-dimensional and pop off the page, and they are also delightfully messy and unexpected. Andrew and Jack’s Korean-Americanism is a subtle undercurrent. The rich widowed grandmothers are best buds with an it’s five o’clock somewhere attitude, and in spite of their imbibing, are more astute than they initially let on. Only Andrew and Jack’s father is stereotypical, with a piece on the side and outdated, unsupportive, critical attitudes. Pop culture is a strong secondary character in the novel, with Alexa playlists popping up to provide the perfect pop music soundtrack. Cochrun pays homage to Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, Fun Home, and While You Were Sleeping. Portland has a life of its, with its lack of snow planning, coffee culture, and queer pride.

It’s difficult not to contrast Kiss Her Once for Me with Not The Plan, which I read in the same week. Both couples have a keyword that means time to tell the truth; “honesty game?” works for Jack and Ellie in a way “blunt, honest?” does not for Isa and Karim. The slow burn and careful respect is hot with Jack and Ellie, and plodding and wooden with Isa and Karim. The detailed sex scenes in Kiss Her Once For Me incorporate sensory detail and delicacy, emotion and acceptance, and make unsexy parts sexy, instead of focusing just on erogenous zones. Bodies in Not The Plan are described in gym-honed terms, firm and perfect, while in Kiss Her Once for Me the imperfections are adualated: stretch marks and soft bellies and hairy legs are celebrated as “so fucking perfect.”

Ironically, what makes Kiss Her Once for Me a 5 star (perfect!) book is how it celebrates messy, looking at failures as falls you can pick yourself back up after. “It’s not a failure to let people see you imperfections, it’s vulnerability,” says the best friend who seems to have her shit together but failed her bar exam. Words to take to heart.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #KissHerOnceForMe from #NetGalley

Not the Plan by Gia de Cadenet

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Not the Plan by Gia de Cadenet

de Cadenet, Gia. Not the Plan. Dell, 2023. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0593356647. $17.00

**

I really wanted to love this novel. I thought it might be straight read-a-like for Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue–a romance about less than perfect people of color in a political setting. When Isadora, chief of staff to a state rep, accidentally spills coffee on a hot stranger at the airport, things escalate a bit to typical travel stress… but when they are seated next to one another, she decides to drop any instinctual snarkiness and be kind. Their meet cute doesn’t evolve to an exchange of contact information… and no one is more surprised than Isa when Karim turns out to be the new intern at the rival representative’s office. Although from the same party, the interoffice politics are likened to the drama of the Montagues and Capulets (another Shakespeare allusion, this publishing season is full of them) and she can’t be seen fraternizing with the enemy.

Trust is difficult for both Karim and Isadora; he’s struggling to extricate himself from a toxic marriage to a person with poorly managed bipolar disorder, and as he slowly lets down his guard and reveals his past abusive relationship, the symptoms and behaviors he describes very closely mirror those of Isadora’s manipulative, emotionally stunted and demanding mother. The portraits of and compassion for the mental health of others rings true, even as Karim and Isa struggle to set healthy and reasonable boundaries with difficult personalities. Adding to Isa’s stress are her career goals in a men’s world; her reputation is impeccable and political dealings on the level, but she knows just one perceived slip will lead to scandal and being accused of sleeping her way to the top. All she wants is to see her majority leader make it from the state to federal playing field.

The relationship progresses at a believable pace based on their mutual attraction, interests, and values. Supportive roles played by Karim’s brother and Isa’s (gay) best friend and co-worked provide space to vent and add to character development. The political setting gives a glimpse into how the sausage is made, and even the sordid scandal that comes at the denouement rings true. In an ugly scene, Karim and Isadora encounter and deal with sexualization (her) and racial slurs (him) and cope with it well.

As a reader who favors humor, a clever turn of phrase, painterly descriptions and sensory detail, I found the writing straight-forward but too monotonous and pedestrian for my taste–even through the multiple sex scenes, which were blow-by-blow detail and went on for 20+ ebook pages. The repetitive “blunt, honest?” before laying down a truth was overused, as were their pet names (the creative “beautiful” and “gorgeous”). While de Cadenet avoids the pitfalls of telling instead of showing and intersperses dialogue with action with success, there are long passages of exposition, and the vocabulary and actions were not varied like those of a seasoned storyteller. I plodded through, picked up Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun as a palate cleanser, and bingo: stellar writing, carefully chosen details, neuroses on full display, quirky characters. Better writing and better editing could have Not the Plan a four-star story.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #NotThePlan from #NetGalley.

Well Traveled by Jen DeLuca

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Well Traveled by Jen DeLuca

DeLuca, Jen. Well Traveled. Well Met #4. Berkley, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9780593200469 $17.00

****

Attorney Louisa, Mitch’s cousin who had a cameo in Well Matched, is at the heart of this fourth book in the warm, sweet renaissance faire themed series by DeLuca. While on a business trip in North Carolina and stalled by lack of case discovery from her sources, she slips out to the local renaissance fair for a break, hoping to recover some of the magic from her time with her grandparents at the Willow Creek faire. She runs into Stacey and tries to focus on hard cider, men in kilts, and a lovely Saturday afternoon, but her cell phone never ceases it’s incoming messages and calls. Frustrated with a waste of five years chasing partner without promotion, her demanding boss, and her family’s expectation, she quits her job and skips her cell phone into a laundry tub prop, and kind Stacey takes Lulu into the motorhome she and Daniel McLean have been traveling in with the band he manages… the Dueling Kilts.

As Lulu tries to find her place in the faire, helping with merch and deep frying turkey legs, her cousin Mitch kindly advises her to stay off the grid, enjoy this time to rediscover herself and her wants and needs. He even promises to fend off the family. Pragmatic Lulu eventually setting herself up as the receptionist for a trio of spiritual advisors hawking their tarot reading, rune interpreting and palmistry skills, and slowly succumbs to the possibility of another lens to view life through.

Of course, there is a love interest: Dex, whose reputation for a different girl in every city precedes him. Fans of the series will remember him as Stacey’s ex, easy on the eyes, magnetic, charming, but a little tone deaf and superficial. He wastes no time turns his tiger’s eye gaze on Lulu but she scoffs at him. Unable to flirt with her, he starts to talk to her, and they forge a real connection, but while she definitely thinks he’s hot, she’s oblivious to the fact he’d rather spend a night in with her, chatting, then hooking up with a very flexible member of an acrobatics troupe, a fact her discloses while they have an argument in a thunderstorm that leads to consummating their relationship in the camper.

Seemingly at odds career-wise, with Lulu intending to return to a law practice of some kind in spite of her new-found interest in tarot, and Dex feeling like he has no skills beyond making up verses to Drunken Sailor and shredding on Whiskey in the Jar, even though he’s a darn good planner and problem-solver, they seem doomed until he finds a way to make a grand gesture and admit he’s in love with her. Given how distasteful Dex is throughout the series and even at the beginning of this book, I did find his change of heart difficult to believe; slower pacing and more demonstrations of his changing would have worked a little better for me as a reader willing to suspend my disbelief that people can pivot so quickly. Other things I appreciated: Lulu is no spring chicken at 37; she tells Stacey that her body isn’t too big, the clothes are just too small when she catches her being critical of her plus-size; a secondary character is gay and no one bats an eye (I’d LOVE to read that tale!); Caitlyn makes an appearance (when is she getting her own book?).

I loved Lulu’s journey in this book; her personality, her openness and challenging of her long-held habits and beliefs. I loved how every faire had its own personality and cast, and I loved the distinct personalities and subtle nod to maiden/mother/crone (or is it MacBeth’s witches?) who bond with Lulu while she attracts clients and books spa sessions. As in other volumes, the writing is artful and often funny; allusions abound, and the setting makes me want to lace up my bodice and hit King Richard’s Faire.

Glimpses of Simon and Emily’s wedded bliss, Mitch and April’s domesticity, and Stacey and Daniel’s steadfast partnership pay fan service to loyal readers, and the return to Willow Creek to see April on the field as a pawn in the chess match is priceless.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #WellTraveled from #NetGalley.

Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

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Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

DeLuca, Jen. Well Matched. Well Met #3. Berkley, 2021. ISBN 978-0593200445 336 pp. $

I pre-ordered a copy of this third book in a series I love–and then BOUGHT THE EBOOK THE DAY IT CAME OUT–because I couldn’t wait another three days to read it. Jen DeLuca, you’re welcome for the double purchase; Target, take a lesson from Amazon and deliver, not ship, preorders on the date they debut. Anyway, reader, it was WORTH IT.

April, the winsome Emily’s elder sister who in Well Met supplied the “help recovering from a broken leg” premise that brought Emily to Willow Creek, Ren Faire and her Simon, is faced with seeing her ex at their daughter’s high school graduation festivities. While mourning this fate and getting hit on at a local watering hole, her friend Mitch (remember Mitch? The One in the Kilt?) comes to her rescue, pretending to be her #fakeboyfriend and date.

As payback Mitch ends up helping April make some small renovations to the home she intends to put on the market when her daughter Caitlin graduates, and then April returns that favor by posing as Mitch’s girlfriend at a family event over a long weekend where there is #OnlyOneBed and #OneThingLeadsToAnother and of course their mutual attraction, friendly sparring and friendship is the #RealDeal. And then Mitch kindly steps up again at graduation to support April with grace and solidarity in front of the ex. Because he’s Mitch, and noble, and true.

Independent April has to go and ruin it by dismissing her own desires because Mitch is younger and she’s done with raising kids, and he is (just?) the local gym teacher… but even April sees the dishonesty in reducing him when he is, in fact, an excellent educator who has real impact on the lives of his charges. She claims to be happy with keeping it casual–after all, Mitch has a bit of a reputation–but he boldly refuses to be her secret paramour.

This third book in the Well Met series delivers a strong voice that is unique from Emily and Stacey, the Ren Faire details that make this series stand out, humor and pathos and fully developed characters. You don’t have to buy two copies, but it’s a 2021 must-read for modern romance fans who enjoy full settings and attention to detail.

Go back to Well Met for Emily and Simon’s story, and don’t miss book two, Well Played, which features Emily’s wedding and her best friend Stacey’s romance. I’m so excited a fourth book, Well Traveled, featuring Mitch’s favorite cousin, is in the works.

Well Played by Jen DeLuca

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Well Played by Jen DeLuca

DeLuca, Jen. Well Played. Well Met #2. Berkley, 2020. 324 pp. ISBN 978-1-9848-0540-9 $16

****

Stacey gets her man in this sequel to Well Met. In the tenth and eleventh years of the Willow Creek Renaissance Faire, serving wench Beatrice (her alter ego) has been casually hooking up with Dex McLean, the hot guitarist of Dueling Kilts, a pub band on the fair circuit. Dex has a girl in every port and she’s the lucky one in Willow Creek… or maybe not. Thinking they might be more than just a four week fling, Stacey sends a drunken DM inviting Dex to get to know her better after his band departs… and in the harsh light of morning is relieved to find a response to her message that is warm and sweet, instead of a brush off. DMs lead to emails lead to texts over the next year. The feeling of distance and anonymity results in insights and honesty, sharing of hopes and dreams, and an exchange of sweet messages through the off-season that reveals an unexpected depth to seemingly shallow pretty boy manwhore Dex.

As Stacey is on the verge of meeting Dex again, she makes an unexpected discovery to the real identity of the man she’s been messaging with and catches him in his lie. After some deliberation, and realization that she does have strong feelings, she decides to give the relationship a real chance, knowing it could all come to a halt at the end of the Willow Creek tour spot. But, he’s sweet, kind and her cat Benedick approves, so…

This mistaken identity tale is reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, with the exchange of messages modernized in emails and texts. Stacey is going through a bit a quarter-life crisis, tethered to home due to concerns for her mother’s health. Like Emily, her college dreams got cut short, and her eye for style serves her well and helps her come into her own.

Recurring characters pop up: April becomes a friend, Emily and Simon have their wedding on the fairgrounds, Caitlyn is now part of a roving and performing madrigal group that Stacey was once a part of. Female friendship and family are prominent, and Stacey’s voice is distinct from Emily’s. Simon has loosened up a bit about the Faire, and new details (vendors, lyrics and bits from performances, new costumes) further develop and refresh the familiar setting.

Don’t miss the other books in the series, Well Met, Well Matched, and the anticipated Well Traveled (December 2022)!

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

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Well Met by Jen DeLuca

DeLuca, Jen. Well Met. Berkley, 2019. 336 pp. ISBN 978-1984805386 $16.00

*****

A new-to-Ren-Faire girl falls for the pirate alter-ego of Faire-obsessed local English teacher when Emily relocates to cozy small town Willow Creek to care for her niece and older sister. Chores unexpectedly extend from chauffeuring and housework to shadowing fourteen-year-old Caitlin through the tenth season of the high school’s summer fundraiser, a renaissance faire. Emily gets roped in as a volunteer because minors under age sixteen have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. She is met with disdain right away for not filling out her application correctly by an uptight man who turns out to be in charge of the whole shebang. Emily isn’t quite sure why she rubs Simon the wrong way, and sets her sights instead on buff Mitch, lured by his sunny attitude and the promise of glimpsing him in a kilt. Before she knows it, Emily is deep in Elizabethan boot camp learning drinking songs, chest squeezed into a bodacious bodiced bosom, as she develops her persona of serving wench Emma.

The cosplay allows her to get to know a tight knit group of friends, including friendly and bubbly Ren Faire veteran Stacey, and Emily begins to set down roots, getting a job at a local used bookstore. Family, both by blood and by interest and proximity, is a strong theme; her stay with her sister allows them to bond in a way they never have, as April is twelve years older. Emily’s grappling with a lot of loss as she grows into her new role: a recent breakup with her long-term boyfriend lead to a subsequent loss of her apartment, so the timing for moving in with April and Caitlyn couldn’t have come at a better time.

The character development is wonderful, the writing funny, insightful and hot. I don’t generally like enemies to lovers romances but the characters are so clearly misunderstanding one another, versus simply being mean. The Ren Faire culture is vibrant and authentic with deep fried turkey legs, battle chess, madrigals, vendors, and dust. Literary allusions abound, as Emily was an English major and shares a love of Shakespeare with Simon–even as she cannot resist needling him about the multiple authors theory (conspiracy?)

Don’t miss book two, Well Played, which features Emily’s wedding and her best friend Stacey’s romance, and book three, Well Matched, which focuses on Emily’s sister April and Mitch. The fourth book, Well Traveled, featuring Mitch’s favorite cousin, comes out in December 2023.

A Very Merry Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

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A Very Merry Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

Lyssa Kay Adams, A Very Merry Bromance. (Bromance Book Club #5). Berkley, 2022. pp. ISBN 978-0593332795 $17.00

***
More shenanigans and love from the usual cast of characters in this next in the series about a group of wealthy Chicagoians and their elite circle. Country music superstar Colton needs to find his muse for his next album or lose his contract, and chases after Gretchen, a wedding hookup and one-night stand that happens to be his buddy Mack’s ex-girlfriend that Colton thinks might be the One. Gretchen wants nothing to do with Colton…until she’s tasked by her family with bringing him on as the face of one of their artensial whiskies. While she tries to keep it professional, he resorts to calling on his book club buddies for help. Or do they just meddle whether he wants their help or not?

As with other books in the series, there is plenty of humor and quick pacing, a strong culture of brotherhood, and almost unimaginable wealth in this elite circle of friends. Set during the Christmas holidays, the use of Hallmark movie tropes to tell this seasonal story is playful and well-executed, if predictable, and satisfying.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #AVeryMerryBromance from #NetGalley.