The Dating Dare (2021)

by Jayci Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250621122
Publication: August 3, 2021
Series: A Sweet Mess #2

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

The Dating Dare is the second installment of Lee’s A Sweet Mess series, this time with Seth, Landon’s younger brother, and Tara, Aubrey’s best friend, in a variation of a dating contract. Seth and Tara are wary of relationships and, after a hefty amount of drinking, embark on a 4-date only dare with promises to not fall in love with each other. It makes a lot of sense because neither is particularly looking for anything long-term, and Seth is moving to Paris at the end of the month.

There’s a reason why the adage “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is a familiar one. This isn’t to say that an opinion can never change–just think about Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth and vice versa–but that first meeting can surely set the tone and mood for what’s to come.  I never overcame my first impression of Tara and Seth and how forced their first interaction appeared. The confrontation happened then jumped to the dare so quickly that I didn’t find it believable. Eventually, lust and the sexual chemistry are established–Lee infuses it well into their dates and nondates–and spices up the pages, but I couldn’t get over that first impression that something was missing from their relationship. I was never fully convinced they could fall in love with each other.

It was difficult to fully grasp what kind of individuals Tara and Seth were because most of their interactions were with each other and them thinking of each other. At first, it seemed like Tara would be outspoken and stick up for herself but beyond what happens at the beginning when Tara confronts Seth, there isn’t much follow-through. The limited conversations with her brothers try to showcase what kind of person Tara is, but it would have been more meaningful if it was action and descriptions, not just dialogue. Pieces of Tara’s and Seth’s pasts are also divulged throughout the book, explaining why they are both averse to relationships, and used to create some mystery, but I think it would have worked better to be provided the information earlier. Trying to work through one another’s past relationships would have brought more depth to their relationship, helping to illustrate why they would work well together.

The book lacks a sense of place, jumping from one scene of them together to the next scene of them together without much detail into their surroundings. I’ve never been to Weldon and would like to “see” what it’s like there, but I couldn’t envision the town through the book. For instance, Tara’s family owns Weldon Brewery, and she’s in there from time to time but I don’t learn much about it. Similarly, I don’t know much about Tara’s family or the other people residing there. I wanted to meet the residents and be an audience to conversations and interactions outside of Tara and Seth together, but people only popped in and out occasionally to serve as backboards and props as if life did not exist outside of the leads. My suspicion is the town might have a better introduction in the first book, which I haven’t read. Even if that is the case, it doesn’t negate that there should be descriptions in this second installment as well, especially when it’s written very much as a standalone.

I expected a bit more from the book, but it wasn’t a letdown.  Although Lee doesn’t include much detail about the town, there are beautiful descriptions when Seth captures images on his camera. I felt Seth’s love for his art and how important photography was to him. These moments were likely some of my favorites because there was so much detail; I could see and feel what was happening. I wish more of the book included descriptions like this. While my initial impressions of their relationship set the tone for my first reading of the book, it’s certainly possible I might have the urge to pick it up again. A second reading could make a better impression, but I’m not exactly ready to give it another go just yet.

Daring and the Duke (2020)

by Sarah MacLean
ASN/ISBN: 9780062691996
Publication: June 30, 2020
Series: The Bareknuckle Bastards #3

I haven’t read the other books in the series, but it’s not necessary to read the prior books to understand Grace and Ewan’s friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romance. MacLean provides enough background to understand the events that lead up to Grace and Ewan meeting again. Grace is also known as Dahlia, but I’ll just refer to her by Grace here.

Grace created a kingdom with her brothers in Covent Garden, but she sits alone on her throne while her brothers have found love. While several men would willingly stand beside her, she’s never gotten over the boy who broke her heart. When he reappears, she attempts to get her revenge so she can finally move on and remove him from her life. Unfortunately for Grace, Ewan isn’t going to let her go so easily. 

This book was everything I needed and more to get me back to reading romance novels. I reverted to rereading old and new favorites because I was unsuccessful in finding something new that I liked. Then, I read a mini-review at A Fox’s Wanderings that mentioned lots of groveling, and I said, “Yup! I need it in my life.” (I stand with Alienor at A Fox’s Wanderings as a lover of books with groveling heroes.) I read the review on March 30th, started it on the 31st, and finished reading it on April 1st.  It was flipping fantastic! I smiled, I swooned, I had to set it down for a few minutes to breathe and settle my aching heart, and then I smiled some more, and I swooned some more.

I liked Grace. She was smart, kind, and a real badass. But even love will make fools of the most intelligent people. Despite multiple attempts by Grace to remove Ewan from her life, he continues to maintain a hold on her. He never pushes her more than she is willing to give. I appreciated his non-alpha character and the respect he had for her. Although Grace tries to stay away from Ewan, their connection is electric. When they’re together, there is always an undercurrent of passion sizzling beneath the glances they throw one another. The groveling was near perfection. It made the butterflies swarm, and my heart beat erratically.

The pull between Grace and Ewan and their constant longing for one another wouldn’t have been so fever-inducing had it not been for MacLean’s gift with the written word. MacLean skillfully seduced my emotions–I was in love, vengeful, hopeful, outraged…filled with regret. It was an aching wave of so many feelings in such a short amount of time. It was wonderful! (The evidence: here, here, and below)

However, as much as I enjoyed Daring and the DukeI kept expecting just a bit more. A bit more revenge. A bit more plot. A bit more than just the romance. There were multiple opportunities to expand on interesting points, but they don’t pan out to very much. The book mentions parliamentary votes, conspiratorial women, and even raids, but it doesn’t really go beyond this. The description promises revenge, but I didn’t get the revenge I was hoping for. The only real revenge from Grace is at the beginning, while the rest of the book is more about their struggle to control their feelings and define what they might still be to each other. Also, I just really wanted Ewan to experience more pain for all the heartache he caused. 

Fans of historical romance will enjoy Daring and the Duke, especially if a groveling lovelorn hero is sought after. There isn’t much outside of the romance, which doesn’t necessarily take anything away from it being an oh-so-satisfying read. If you’re looking for romance, this is certainly a book that will sweep you off your feet. 

One last quote from The Duke…
(Photo: Manohar Manu on Unsplash)

Down Comes the Night (2021)

by Allison Saft
ASN/ISBN: 9781250623638
Publication: March 2, 2021
Series: N/A

**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

After messing up, yet again, Wren is suspended from the Queen’s Guard and forced to head back to the abbey. After receiving a request from Lord Lowry of Colwick Hall to help heal one of his servants, Wren decides to head to the estate to put her magic to better use and to use her presence there as a diplomatic opportunity to return to the Queen’s Guard. Once there, she realizes that all is not as it seems when she recognizes the servant she is to heal is Hal Cavendish, an enemy to the Crown.

Down Comes the Night is one of my most anticipated reads this year. A YA fantasy with gothic vibes? Who wouldn’t want to read it? While there were elements I would have liked more of, overall, it generally does what it sets out to do–capture our hearts and leave us captivated–but you have to get past the beginning to get there. The beginning of the book attempts to immerse readers in the world Saft’s created and to familiarize us with Wren’s current predicament. Like in any fantasy novel, establishing the world is crucial. While interesting with its ongoing political conflicts and magic system, I was a bit turned off at the beginning largely due to a lovelorn Wren constantly lamenting over her love for best friend Una and not having those feelings reciprocated. It’s not until Wren arrives at the manor that she seems finally in her element and turns into the character I hoped she would be–compassionate and competent, less caught up in a tortuous, somewhat unrequited love. It is also at the manor that the writing itself takes on the tone I was hoping for–mysterious and slightly eerie. Had the book begun and ended at Colwick Hall and been able to retain the air of mystery cultivated at the manor, I likely would have enjoyed it a lot more–not that the other parts weren’t well written; it was just better there.

Once I got to the manor, where the gothic atmosphere settles in, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. The general plot is predictable, but Saft’s writing is engaging; I had to continue reading to confirm my suspicions. The mystery that forces Wren and Hal to work together is fairly straightforward. Saft drops enough clues throughout that, when paired with my suspicions, the reveals didn’t come as a complete surprise. I didn’t mind but what I did want was more blood and gore (I know. I know. For someone who stays away from thrillers, mysteries, and horror I sure do want more of what I don’t normally read in here accompanied with all the fixings, which might be a byproduct of not reading them but wanting a lot when I finally do.) The characters are well developed, with Wren and Hal fleshed out and the side characters also receiving backstories of their own. I felt like I knew them all well and understood their motivations. I think the Queen has the potential to be a more complex character and would love more on her. There’s still much to Wren’s background that remains a mystery whereas we learn a lot about Hal. The romance is a slow-burn (and I cheered when there was just a single bed…heh) and cultivated well.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. It works as a standalone, but there’s a lot present that lends itself to the possibility of additional books. Individuals expecting a fully immersive gothic novel may come away a bit disappointed because, above all, it is a YA fantasy that contains elements of the gothic genre. (And I know it sounds a bit silly to explain it as such, but the novel isn’t as dark and creepy as what I would normally deem a gothic novel. It’s certainly atmospheric in parts, so it could still be a gothic YA fantasy. Semantics? Probably…Maybe my mind overly emphasized the gothic part prior to reading it.) Readers who head into the novel with this understanding will appreciate the book much more.