Thursday, April 22, 2021

Southern Sinner (North Carolina Highlands #3) by Jessica Peterson

* * * * *

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Until I brought my fake girlfriend home.

When I took a seat next to the gorgeous brunette at the blackjack table, I had no idea it would be the start of the hottest weekend of my life. By day, Stevie and I dominate the casinos of Sin City.

By night, I dominate her in my penthouse suite.

Then my brother Samuel ruins it by asking me to come home for his engagement party.

Because he’s not just getting married. This isn’t a normal celebration for me. His future bride is my "one who got away." The girl I may or may not still be in love with.

The catch? He wants me to prove I’m over his fiancée before they set a date. So I ask Stevie to double down on our chemistry and pretend to be my girlfriend.

We set our ground rules: lots of sex, plenty of pretend smiles, and no strings.

But we’re not only gambling with the truth. We’re gambling with our hearts.

They say every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. But Stevie’s past may force us to fold on our future before it’s even begun.

Source: ARC provided in exchange for an honest review

Southern Sinner is an absolute winner for me. I adore this story of Hank who's been on a travel bender looking to get past his heartbreak and humiliation after being rejected (by his brother's girlfriend, though he didn't know they were together at the time), and Stevie who's newly single and ready to live it up. Hank and Stevie walk a different path to what I think is a happily for now for them. To make it simple, I've just listed my favorite takeaways from the story.

The good:

✔️ Younger guy, older woman dynamic 
✔️ Independent woman who declares aloud what she does and doesn’t want . Stevie wants the fun but not the hassle of a committed relationship as she’s recently finalized her divorce.
✔️ She’s an bad ass and successful entrepreneur 
✔️ Hank’s not intimidated by her ambition or success
✔️ He’s totally supportive of her aspirations
✔️ So many lovely and swoon-worthy references to Bridgerton
✔️ Close-knit family
✔️ Music - It plays a big part in their story. Stevie is named after the Stevie Nicks, after all. But it's also one of the most significant ways in which Stevie and Hank bond. There's a scene where they're composing a song together that to me is far more intimate than any of their sex scenes because they're speaking straight from the heart. It's raw, honest, vulnerable and it gave me the chills.
✔️ Steamy moments - Speaking of bonding ... it's Jessica Peterson so we know what we're in for and plenty of it!

Not so great:

✖️ Stevie’s self-doubting moments. She was terrified to let her guard down and that kept her inert. She stood in her own way and I understood where it all came from but I was still so frustrated on her behalf.
✖️ Close-knit family: the flip side.  I love the Beauregards but they bulldozed their way into Hank and Stevie’s business. That type of behavior makes me cringe no matter the story or the author, and I tend to have a visceral reaction to that.


➕ Hello, cliffhanger! Just drop that bomb on us and walk away, why don’t you, Jessica Peterson? 😉😆

If you’re in to the fake dating but falling for each other for real, long distance that complicates things, and overcoming some serious trust issues to get to that HFN/HEA, this is it! Hank and Stevie make a great couple. Hank, in particular, is one of the best romantic heroes I've read. He's considerate, secure, loves his family. He aims to be an equal partner which is exactly what Stevie was missing from her former marriage. The concept of equal partnership being so alien to her that she doesn't even recognize what Hank has been offering all along. I don't think people realize that they deserve that so I took great heart in seeing it come to fruition for someone like Stevie who carried all the guilt about her marriage failing.  

Southern Sinner is my favorite in the series so far and now I CAN NOT wait for Rhett's book because it sounds like it's going to be a doozy!

~ Bel

Here are the links to my reviews of the previous two books in the North Carolina Highlands series:

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

* * * * 1/2

From the author of Ayesha at Last comes a sparkling new rom-com for fans of “You’ve Got Mail,” set in two competing halal restaurants

Sales are slow at Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, the only halal restaurant in the close-knit Golden Crescent neighbourhood. Hana waitresses there part time, but what she really wants is to tell stories on the radio. If she can just outshine her fellow intern at the city radio station, she may have a chance at landing a job. In the meantime, Hana pours her thoughts and dreams into a podcast, where she forms a lively relationship with one of her listeners. But soon she’ll need all the support she can get: a new competing restaurant, a more upscale halal place, is about to open in the Golden Crescent, threatening Three Sisters.

When her mysterious aunt and her teenage cousin arrive from India for a surprise visit, they draw Hana into a long-buried family secret. A hate-motivated attack on their neighbourhood complicates the situation further, as does Hana’s growing attraction for Aydin, the young owner of the rival restaurant—who might not be a complete stranger after all.

As life on the Golden Crescent unravels, Hana must learn to use her voice, draw on the strength of her community and decide what her future should be.

Source: NetGalley; ARC generously provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

I'd previously read Jalaluddin's, Ayesha At Last which was brilliant! Now with her follow up about a restaurant rivalry and an anonymous online friendship I knew I'd be in for a very interesting romance, indeed. 

Hana works at her family's restaurant while also working as an intern at a radio station. She has big dreams of developing her own show and discussing topics that are of interest to her. She has her own podcast that's been gaining traction and it's because of this podcast that she's struck up a friendship with a fan. As they remain anonymous in their communications they share personal dreams and goals with each other, oftentimes sharing advice and suggestions. In the meanwhile, problems arise when a new restaurant opens up that threatens to shut down Hana's family's restaurant which has already been struggling recently. Her family's livelihood becomes the center of her focus as she tries to save them, save her broadcast dreams and save herself from falling for her rival and recipient of all her ire, Aydin.

I easily fell into this story and I think mainly because it wasn't centered around finding a spouse. Instead it was firmly about Hana's desire to achieve her career goal of becoming a broadcaster which her parents fully supported. Admittedly, I took to this subplot because I worked in radio in my pre-kids days. A little detail that made me so happy and felt seen is that her fellow intern, Thomas is also South Asian, desi and Christian. Up until this I hadn't read of any desi character similar to me in that way and it felt great to see that representation even if he doesn't have a large role. Hana comes off as a wonderfully confident young woman who has a strong sense of self. Her rivalry and instant dislike of Aydin fuels a lot of the action in the story. And as much as she wants to all out dismiss him, learning of his backstory makes her sympathize with his situation. How he wears his face on the surface belies the turmoil he's reckoning with inside. After a horribly frightening and public racist encounter involving him, herself and her cousin, he shows a different side of himself to her which makes Hana stop to reconsider her actions towards him up until then. The racist incident is jarring and what results from it renews Hana's personal and professional missions.  

Even with the several subplots, I didn't think it was overwhelming nor did it feel like one was distracting from the other. They made sense and tied together, and I think Jalauddin struck a nice balance with all of them. I did think that Hana was a little naive sometimes like when she decided to sabotage Aydin's restaurant opening. It was childish and you could only shake your head at her. Come on Hana, you're smarter than this! With so many things coming to a head, she finds herself at an important juncture in her young adult life and we're witness to her character growth. The mysterious aunt who accompanies the cousin for a stateside visit provides well, the mystery. She's tight-lipped about the purpose of her visit but boy does she drop zingers on Hana. She really shakes up her thinking and gives Hana the inspiration at the very moment she's feeling lost. As for the cousin ... though he brings an outside-the-box kind of mentality, I personally would've preferred a dialed down personality. He was a little too much for me.

I liked Hana Khan Carries On tremendously even if it included heavier issues such as the scary racist encounter and the Islamaphobia that ensues. Hana's admirable journey to maturity during this wild duration of upending events is a big reason for my enjoyment of this book. She gets her happiness and fulfillment because she's determining what and who is important to her. This was a poignant read and I recommend that you add it to your list!

~ Bel


Monday, April 5, 2021

The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

* * * 3/4

Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won't hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city's hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they'll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems--until they discover a new one--their growing attraction to each other. They've built the syllabus for love's latest experiment, but neither of them expected they'd be the ones putting it to the test.

Source: NetGalley; ARC provided generously by publisher in exchange for an honest review

I enjoyed reading The Roommate last year (has it really been a year already?) and so was happy to jump into The Intimacy Experiment. One of the things I liked about The Roommate was I thought it presented a perspective on sex and sex workers that I hadn't considered before. The Intimacy Experiment continues to do that, but this time with added focus on how female sex workers are treated outside of the industry.

Naomi is now co-CEO of Shameless, the startup she runs with Clara from The Roommate. It's been wildly successful and now Naomi wants to take it to the next level by teaching in-person classes on sexuality. The problem is that no serious institution will hire her because of her "scandalous" past career. She is offered an opportunity at a networking event by the unlikeliest of people - a rabbi.

Rabbi Ethan needs to grow the size of his shul's congregation and he's thinking outside the box by asking Naomi to present a several weeks-long course of sexuality and dating. She thinks it's a ridiculous idea at first but then changes her mind. There's something so sincere about the rabbi's desire to appeal to a younger demographic and also address the matters that they care about. Ethan feels strongly that sex and religion can coexist spiritually.

Yes, this is all so weird and eyebrow-raising but Naomi has never been one to decline a challenge. She and Ethan are an unlikely pair and while tension builds up between them, it's a little slow burn before anything actually happens. Naomi might be tough as nails but she's not one to allow herself to be vulnerable. Ethan is just such a good guy, almost too good. He's so accepting and non-judgey about people in general, so he's not put off by Naomi's past. If anything, the more he's around her, the more he sees the uphill struggle she faces everyday to be taken seriously, or simply to be treated respectfully.

The more I think about it the more I realize that I was more attracted to the religious aspect than the romance. I know next to nothing about Judaism and so I naturally found Ethan's spirituality and philosophy interesting. There were a couple concepts that were referred to that made such perfect sense and hit me on a meaningful level. What I leaned in to most was that religion as Ethan was using it was not used to cast away or condemn but rather to include and uplift. Anyway, being that both the religion, and how it was being interpreted here were new  to me, I was drawn to it.

I questioned one detail in the plot. Naomi is such a resourceful, take action person that it's puzzling why she wanted to teach in traditional institutions instead of creating her own programming and presenting it at a venue of her choice. All I could guess at is that while she claims not to want people's approval, she probably does crave it just a little, and all her hard work and higher learning needs to have been worthwhile. 

Naomi, however, is impressive. Almost devastatingly so. Her tough exterior and approach to people and things can be abrasive to some but I liked how straightforward she is. One of the things she struggles with is an incident from her long ago past, back before she became an adult film star, that continues to affect her and drive her. Naomi does get to confront that somewhat by the end by stating things matter of factly. I thought it was a powerful moment for her and I think for a lot of women who'd want the bravery and opportunity to do the same. Danan has written an amazing female persona who's so complex, who's wiring is in knots from years of cynicism, self-preservation and punching out, and also shows her vulnerability and trust issues. This comes to the fore in one of the first intimate moments between her and Ethan. It's one of the most tender moments and a heart melter.

I loved The Intimacy Experiment in its parts. As a whole it's good. This is a complicated romance with so many factors inside and out affecting Naomi and Ethan's progress. They're an unlikely coupling but good together and for each other. This is a story that would please anyone looking for something a little unconventional, something that ruffles feathers and shakes things up.    

~ Bel

Content Warning: 

leaked nude pictures in high school resulting in harassment and slut-shaming (Naomi's memories); on page harassment in a bar when a random guy recognizes who Naomi is; Ethan's father's death (memory)