A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose

A Hidden Hope

I received a free copy of A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose directly from the author in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. A Hidden Hope is a queer romance novella, self-published by the author in October 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Natalie and El used to be writing critique partners, sharing their work chapter by chapter. Falling in love off-page was like the next part of the story. But after a huge falling out, three years have passed in bitter silence.

When they both appear at a science fiction convention in London, Natalie, a struggling writer, wants nothing to do with El, the hot debut novelist who sold her book at auction under a male pseudonym. But over the weekend, ignoring each other–and their attraction–proves impossible, not least because they have several panels together. Can El hope to atone for the mistakes of their past, and is Natalie willing to let hope fly?

Firstly, if you’re interested in this book, I would highly recommend checking out A Frozen Night as well; A Frozen Night is a prequel to A Hidden Hope, exploring the first time that Natalie and El meet IRL after becoming critique partners online. All the backstory you need for A Hidden Hope is within the novella itself, but it’s a great story in and of itself, and lovely to see how the characters have changed from the first to the second story.

Although it’s short, A Hidden Hope really packs a punch in the feelings department. Moving back and forth between Natalie and El’s perspectives, we learn about their lives now, the argument that brought their relationship to its current status, and follow them as they explore the possibility of a second chance. I felt truly engaged with both characters, and particularly Natalie in her aggrieved, somewhat bitter state at the start of the book. There’s a good balance of tension and relief, and the conflicts within the story feel realistic and organic. There’s great chemistry between the two characters, and it sizzles throughout the story, whether they’re angry at one another, or something else entirely.

As someone who’s attended a few conventions in her time, I absolutely loved the setting, at a London-based SFF convention. It’s a great backdrop to a story such as this, with all the gossip and the interconnected webs of people, and the spectre of people watching Natalie and El all the time. It’s also great to have a story following people who are so passionate about what they do, and who are surrounded by people who share those passions.

The other important storyline within A Hidden Hope is that of writing, and what it means to be a writer in a contemporary setting. We see the struggles of the mid-list author worried about getting her next book published, and the author whose debut has snagged them a huge advance, but that comes with its own problems too. For anyone hoping to get published, this book has great lessons about the industry, and about what it means to be a writer, in whatever form that takes for you.

If you’re looking for a quick read that’s full of romance, fun, and geekery, A Hidden Hope is definitely worth picking up, and I would also recommend checking out the prequel as well. I for one hope to read more of Natalie and El’s adventures in the future!

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Love Like This by Melissa Brayden

Love Like This

I received a free e-ARC of Love Like This by Melissa Brayden from NetGalley in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. Love Like This is a lesbian romance novel, due to be published by Bold Strokes Books in the UK on 16th October 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Sometimes the most imperfect match is the most perfect surprise. 

Hadley Cooper believes in happily-ever-afters with her whole heart. Described by her friends as a wide-eyed, eternal optimist, she looks for the bright side in most any situation. However, when her job as the assistant manager of Silhouette, a posh boutique on Rodeo Drive, is on the line, she realizes it’s time to pull her head out of the clouds and find a way to turn business around, and that just might mean partnering with the most stubborn up-and-coming fashion designer she’s ever encountered. 

Spencer Adair has a passion for fashion, but hates the fact that it rhymes. She’s serious about her designs, fiercely protective of her work, and is waiting patiently for her big break. What she didn’t plan on, however, was the unsolicited opinions of that overly friendly blond boutique manager. Or the way her heart beats faster every time she’s around.

Though I somehow still haven’t read the first of Brayden’s Seven Shores books, I have read the two which came before this one (Hearts Like Hers and Sparks Like Ours) and now, with Love Like This, the series is over 😦

Love Like This follows the last of the Seven Shores friends, Hadley. Working at an upscale boutique on Rodeo Drive, Hadley is kind, generous, and almost constantly happy. As a character, she’s a delight to read about. Her happiness isn’t a front for anything; it’s just who she genuinely is. Spencer, on the other hand, is more reserved. She’s focused and determined, and provides a great counter to Hadley. Coming together over fashion and clothing, we see them start to truly consider the world from another person’s perspective, and it leads to growth and change on both sides. I found their relationship in general very enjoyable to read about, and was rooting for them, and particularly Hadley, throughout the book.

Friends and family are another important element of the story. Readers of the other Seven Shores books will be familiar with Hadley’s friends, and they provide a grounding for Hadley, people who understand and can support her when the world around her is becoming confusing. We also see her two dads, and it’s great to see gay parents in books, particularly of a grown-up gay child. Spencer is close to her parents – divorced, but still good friends – and childhood friend Kendra, who lives next door to Spencer’s mother. Through them, we learn more about Spencer herself, and they challenge her to look inward and see what of her long-held beliefs might need re-evaluating.

With Hadley and Spencer, we have an interracial relationship. This is discussed briefly within the story, but not in great depth. I would have liked to see more about this, as particularly given the current political climate in the US, there are issues affecting people of colour which would not only impact Spencer, but Hadley as well, if they were in a relationship. I would also have liked to see more about Spencer as a black woman working in high fashion, particularly as a designer coming into her own through online sales and marketing. The fashion industry is definitely less white than it used to be, but it’s not exactly a bastion of diversity, and I think there was something very interesting there that didn’t get discussed.

Throughout the book however, as much as I enjoyed Hadley’s POV, I found the book somewhat lacking compared to some of Brayden’s other books. For me, the plot was just too predictable and I felt like the plot’s climax was destined from the start, rather than it being something that developed organically. I ended up enjoying some of the secondary plots – Autumn and Kate and their babies, Taylor and Isabel – more than the main plot. Having said that, it was still an enjoyable read, and lovely to have the focus on Hadley and get to explore her character after seeing her as a secondary in the rest of the series.

Love Like This brings the Seven Shores series to a close. Although though the plot itself isn’t particularly new, Hadley is a completely delightful main character, and her joy will carry you through the book. If you’re looking for a lesbian romance novel with wonderfully warm main character, this is definitely one to consider.

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Two For One: Food for Love by C Fonseca and Contract for Love by Alison Grey

I received free e-ARCs of Food For Love by C Fonseca and Contract for Love by Alison Grey directly from the publisher in return for review consideration; my opinion and the content of this review have not been affected by this. Food for Love and Contract for Love are lesbian romance novels published by Ylva Publishing in the UK on 5th September 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of Food for Love:

When Jessica Harris flies home to Australia to sort out her late brother’s estate, the last thing she wants to face is his altruistic investment—an eatery on the rural Bellarine Peninsula.
The injured British/Indian elite cyclist just wants to settle up, move on, get rehab, and certainly not have to deal with the restaurant’s beautiful owner and artisan foodie, Lillian McAllister, or her sweet, four-year-old daughter.
In order to win, Jessica’s disciplined life is dedicated to controlling her emotions, and she isn’t sure she’d survive letting her walls down now.
A lesbian romance about how nourishment is so much more than the food we eat.

And the Goodreads synopsis for Contract for Love:

Single mom Sherry lives in a trailer park with her six-year-old son Jake, trying to make ends meet as a waitress.
Madison’s life couldn’t be more different. She’s been raised by her rich grandmother, and her only goals are partying and bedding women.
When her grandmother threatens to disinherit her if she doesn’t clean up her act, Madison has to find a way to convince her she’s changed.
After a chance encounter with Sherry, Madison comes up with a crazy idea that will rock both of their worlds: she wants to hire Sherry to play her fake girlfriend.

First off, Food for Love. This is a quiet book, but one that’s full of heart. Set largely in Australia, this is a book all about family in all forms, and about how what you do affects who you are. I really enjoyed both of the main characters. Jessica, with her difficult family relationships and the ongoing physical problems caused by her crash, is quiet and self-contained. Lillian, who’s surrounded by family and close friends, is more outgoing, but struggles with the sudden appearance of a new person in her life. They compliment each other well, and the development of their relationship feels organic and realistic.

There are great secondary characters in this book as well, and they help to give a feeling of two very human people with support networks, trying to do the best they can for themselves and the people around them. The conflict within the story is well handled, again feeling very realistic, and I found myself truly rooting for Jessica and Lillian, but also believing that there was the potential for them not to be able to work through their issues, and to go their separate ways. For me, even with a romance novel where a HEA is usually a given, I want to believe that the characters genuinely have to work through their problems to find the HEA, rather than it just being given to them.

The Australian setting is wonderful. Fonseca really brings the restaurant and the surrounding countryside to life, making the reader feel like they’re there experiencing everything with the characters. And I would definitely suggest having snacks alongside when you start on this book, as there are plenty of gorgeous food descriptions which, if you’re anything like me, will make you hungry!! Overall, this was a book that I really enjoyed, with realistic characters and relationships, and a great setting.

***

Moving onto Contract for Love, this was sadly a less enjoyable book for me. Fake dating is a trope I love, but I think it has to be handled carefully to really make it work. For me, I felt like the power dynamic between the two characters wasn’t addressed carefully enough, and I ended up feeling uncomfortable for much of the book.

Sherry and Madison felt, to me, like very ‘paint by numbers’ characters. Sherry’s poor and uneducated, but rich in heart and with a few close friends and family members she can rely on. Madison’s the privileged rich girl, swanning her way through life with little responsibility and not feeling bad about it, convinced money will get her anything she wants. For me, there wasn’t anything to make these characters seem like anything other than a collection of characteristics culled from similar storylines.

Grey tries to tackle a number of difficult issues in this book – privilege, poverty, family relationships, homophobia – but with there being so many, I felt like none of them was truly covered in enough depth. Problems are uncovered and acknowledged, but characters seem to move past them with relative ease. And with the main characters being so stereotypical, the changes they went through seemed rote to me and inevitable, rather than truly developing from their relationships and the events of the book.

Despite the similar titles, these are two very different books. Food for Love is one that I would recommend, and particularly to any romance lovers looking for a book not set in the US. Contract for Love, on the other hand, is not one that I would recommend, due to its uncomfortable and unexamined power dynamics, and paint-by-numbers characterisation.

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If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less.jpg

I received a free copy of If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker directly from the author in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. If I Loved You Less is a self-published lesbian romance novel, due to be published in the UK on 20th September 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Sunny, striking, and satisfied with her life in paradise, Theodosia Sullivan sees no need for marriage. She does, however, relish serving as matchmaker for everyone who crosses her path. As the manager of her family’s surf shop in Hanalei Bay, that includes locals and tourists alike. 

One person she won’t be playing Cupid for is the equally happy bachelorette down the street. Baker Kini ʻŌpūnui has been the owner of Queen’s Sweet Shop since her parents passed away and her younger brother married Theo’s older sister and moved to Oahu. Kini’s ready smile, haupia shortbread, and lilikoi malasadas are staples of Hanalei’s main street. 

However, Theo’s matchmaking machinations and social scheming soon become less charming—even hazardous—to everyone involved. And when she fails to heed Kini’s warnings about her meddling, she may be more successful than she ever intended. Theo has to face the prospect of Kini ending up with someone else, just as she realizes she’s loved Kini all along.

Though this is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, most of my familiarity with that story comes from that nineties masterpiece, Clueless. Also, a warning for Hamilton fans that Theodosia has popped up again, so prepare to get singing!

The action has moved to Hanalei, Hawai’i. I really enjoyed the setting and think that it worked well here, providing that ‘small town’ feel where everyone knows everyone, and where new people invite a lot of interest, which is vital to this story. It’s not a place I know anything about so I couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of Parker’s description, but I definitely was able to paint a picture in my head of where Theo lived and all the places she spent her time.

As a main character, I did struggle somewhat with Theo. She’s flighty, not always considerate of people around her, and one hell of a meddler. With the story being from her perspective, this does help somewhat, as we understand why she does what she does and that she’s usually trying her best, even if things don’t always turn out how she expected. However, I did like the fluid approach she took towards her own sexuality, being open to being attracted to a man she meets, though her previous interest has largely been in women.

The plot of the story will be familiar to anyone who knows either Emma or Clueless, and so there’s nothing there that should really come as a surprise. However, I did find myself getting lost at some points, as the characterisation of many of the characters, Theo included, didn’t always feel very consistent. Although some of those inconsistencies were explained later in the story, it didn’t much help my confusion at the time. Also, having not read the synopsis in detail before I started reading, I didn’t know which character Theo was going to end up with and for me, that relationship didn’t seem particularly believable. I recognise that that’s part of the point of the original, that Emma suddenly realises her attraction to Mr Knightley despite their long acquaintance, but here, it didn’t feel realistic or well-developed, but more like it was just happening because the plot required it.

Overall, this was a light, entertaining read, but one which left me ultimately unsatisfied. I’m always up for queer retellings of well-known stories, but for me, the inconsistent characterisation and undeveloped romantic relationship meant the story felt flat. However, I think I would be interested in reading others of Parker’s books, to see what she can do when she’s not sticking to an existing script.

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Two-In-One: Love’s Verdict and The Shape of You

It’s time for another Two-In-One, with two more of Bold Strokes Books‘ upcoming releases. I received free e-ARCs of both Love’s Verdict by Carsen Taite and The Shape of You by Georgia Beers from NetGalley in return for review consideration. Both are due to be published in the UK on 14th August 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of Love’s Verdict:

Attorneys Landon Holt and Carly Pachett want the exact same thing: the only open partnership spot at their prestigious criminal defense firm. When Landon and Carly are forced to collaborate on the defense of one of the firms A-list celebrity clients in a high-profile murder case, theres no question the assignment is a test to see which one of them will get the promotion. Fierce determination to stand out fuels the already heated rivalry between them, but all those late nights working on legal strategy also fan the flames of attraction. When it comes to the verdict, will they compromise their careers for love?

And the synopsis for The Shape of You:

Personal trainer Rebecca McCall is furious when her coworker is sidelined and she’s forced to teach the “Be Your Best Bride” class. As if being a size two for your wedding photos is all exercise is good for. Could the whole thing get more vain and sexist? The class is full of preening, giggling Bridezillas, but one woman stands out. The one who confesses she’s only there because her fiancée signed her up. Who does that to someone they care about? And why can’t Rebecca take her eyes off her?

Spencer Thompson is a second-guesser. After making the worst mistake of her life, she’s happy to abdicate responsibility and let other people make her decisions for her. She’s always felt a little bit too soft, a little bit too curvy in all the wrong places. Her fiancée apparently agrees because she signed Spencer up for a class at the gym. Terrified by the online profile of the instructor, the epitome of Zero Body Fat, Spencer is relieved to find someone new, and realistic looking, leading the class. Except the instructor seems to hate her and Spencer has no idea why.

When a perfectly innocent post workout smoothie leads to an earth shattering kiss, Rebecca wonders if she’s been wrong all along, and Spencer is challenged to make another decision that could change her life forever.

Review

I’m going to talk first about Love’s Verdict. I’d not read any of Taite’s books before, but I do love a good queer lawyers story, so I was excited to jump into this one. And I was happy with how central the legal elements of the story were. Landon and Carly are working a case together, and they are genuinely working on that case. Oftentimes, I’ve found that romance novels with a workplace premise downplay the work side of things, but Love’s Verdict puts it front and centre, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. The case was genuinely interesting, with a bit of a crime-solving element as well as the characters tried to solve the murder their client was accused of.

In terms of the characters, Landon and Carly were a little too ‘paint by numbers’ for my liking. Landon’s the free-spirited one who’s naturally brilliant at everything, and Carly’s the uptight, workaholic one, and somewhere in the middle, they fall in love. I enjoyed reading about them, but found that they didn’t really stick in my mind once I’d finished reading the book.

I did enjoy the sense of place Taite has imbued her book with thought. I’m not familiar with Austin or Dallas, but I felt like Taite had a good level of description and I finished the book feeling like I would definitely want to visit both cities.

***

Moving onto The Shape of You, this was a different kettle of fish. I love weddings (love them!), so this book seemed right up my street, and there were aspects of it that I really enjoyed. In taking on the thorny issue of weight and fitness, Beers generally portrays a positive message through Rebecca – she wants people to come to the gym where she works for themselves, to improve their strength and stamina, and often mentions her frustration with the idea that women need to be a certain size and shape to be attractive and socially acceptable. And following Spencer’s journey was enjoyable, seeing how she gained in confidence as got physically stronger.

However, there were elements of this story which deeply frustrated me. Trying to limit spoilers, a character who’s described as overweight and unfit experiences a health issue. This felt like it was in direct opposition to the main message, saying you can be healthy at any size, as long as you’re not overweight. I don’t imagine that was Beers’ intention, but that was how it came across to me.

I also struggled with the character of Rebecca. As mentioned in the synopsis, Rebecca gives the impression that she hates Spencer for their first few classes. Whilst her behaviour is explained and does change, I found it difficult to ever get past how unprofessionally she acted at the start. I then found it difficult to really get behind the relationship between Rebecca and Spencer because of this.

Summary

If you’re into queer lawyers, I would definitely give Love’s Verdict a go. I found it entertaining, even if it didn’t really bring much new to the genre. The Shape of You, on the other hand, really didn’t work for me, as intriguing as I found the premise. If you enjoy the ‘enemies-to-lovers’ trope though, and aren’t likely to be so frustrated with the way weight and size are dealt with, it might be more up your street.

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Code of Conduct by Cheyenne Blue

Code of Conduct

I received a free copy of Code of Conduct by Cheyenne Blue directly from the publisher in return for review consideration. Code of Conduct is a lesbian romance novel, published by Ylva Publishing in the UK on 20th June 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Viva Jones was great once. A top ten tennis player with a grand slam trophy to her name, she had the world at her feet. Then an overzealous lineswoman’s bad call knocked her out of the US Open, and a persistent injury crushed her career. While battling to return to the game she loves, a chance meeting with the lineswoman, Gabriela, forces Viva to rethink the past…and the present.
Away from the court, Gabriela is sexy, athletic, and lives for her career as an umpire. She seems to be falling for Viva as hard and fast as Viva is for her. There’s just one problem: players and officials can’t date.
A lesbian romance about breaking all the rules.

Review

When Ylva sent out their email with upcoming ARCs, I knew I had to request this book – lesbians plus tennis? Sign me up! And the book did not disappoint. Even if you know nothing about tennis, this is a great read.

Of the two main characters, I think Gabriela was my favourite. I could definitely empathise with her concerns about breaking rules, particularly when her job was clearly so important to her. Her determination to do the right thing and dedication to her job, even when it wasn’t seen as being as important, is a great thing to read about. Viva’s a more forceful, outgoing character, struggling with injury and the sense that the career she’s spent so long developing might be coming to an end. There were times when she came across as a little self-centred, but not in an irritating way – more in the way that someone who’s been the centre of everything around them for so long might be.

The secondary characters feel well-drawn and vital to the story. Viva has family with whom she doesn’t always agree, but is very close, as well as her friends and rivals in the tennis world. They help Viva make sense of the way her world is changing, and understand that she’s the only person who can decide what changes she’s happy with and which ones she’s not. Gabriela lives a more isolated existence, and it’s lovely to see her interactions with people around her change as she starts to emerge from her shell .

I really enjoyed how organic the conflict in the story was. There’s none of this ‘oh, if they just talked, it would all be fine’ – this relationship could have serious consequences for Gabriela, and as the story progresses, it seems that Viva isn’t immune to problems resulting from the relationship, though from a different aspect. And the conflict also allows the two characters to grow and develop, both individually and in terms of their relationship. It feels like a realistic situation, and means that as the relationship between the two women develops, that too feels realistic and you feel like you can really root for them.

Summary

Code of Conduct is a hugely enjoyable romance novel with appealing, realistic characters, and a storyline that really pulls you in. It’s the perfect summer read with a sporting storyline, and it gets a big thumbs up from me.

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Two-In-One: Wildrose and Rabbit by Max Ellendale

It’s time for another Two-In-One, as I review two books by Max Ellendale. I received free copies of Wildrose and Rabbit directly from the author in return for review consideration. Both are lesbian romance/crime novels, set in the same universe. Wildrose was published in November 2017 and Rabbit was published in April 2018.

Synopsis

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of Wildrose:

Homicide Detective, Evelyn Grant, has her life wrapped up in a tidy bundle. As long as you don’t look too closely. When a child disappears from an end of summer party, Evelyn and her team set out to solve the case. With little to go on and a heavy need for forensic evidence, Evelyn is forced to rely on the genius medical examiner, Ainsley Monson, for information. As the two grow closer, Ainsley’s unusual behavior throws up red flags, confounding their working relationship and growing friendship. Can Eve successfully navigate the case, her social life, and copious amounts of wine or will she trip over her own feet and find herself in a less than tactful pickle?

And the Goodreads synopsis of Rabbit:

Bias Crimes Detective, Alice Lange, has spent most of her adult life building a sarcophagus around her heart. When a targeted hate crime hits close to home and lands Alice in the emergency room, the last thing she expects is to fall for the kind doctor who softens her inhibitions while she’s on the mend. Doctor Corwin isn’t without her own shadows, however, as she battles the grief and guilt that’s captured her for so long. Can two women, scarred by both love and their professions, submit to the budding desire between them? Or will they continue to trip through their old cycles and hide away from love’s starry light?

Review

As Wildrose was published first, and comes before Rabbit chronologically, I’m going to take that one first. In the book, we follow Evelyn Grant as she takes on a harrowing case, and has her personal life shaken up by a potential love interest. Eve is a really entertaining character to follow – she’s awkward, she’s dedicated to her job but knows she still has a lot to learn, and she cares deeply about the people she’s trying to help. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between her and her colleagues, and the fact that she’s not shown as being perfect at her job already and that she sees the skills and knowledge they have and wants to learn from them.

The romantic storyline in Wildrose takes on the topic of consensually and respectfully dating multiple people at once. It’s not something I’ve come across much in romance novels, unless they’re specifically looking at polyamorous relationships. I thought it was dealt with really well in the book, and reflects a realistic situation, particularly in the early days of dating. The story also looks at what it means to realise your sexuality as an adult. I think this is a topic that needs careful handling, but Ellendale uses it well in the book, and this character’s realisation of what they actually want from their relationships seems honest and heartfelt, and with a slightly surprising ending, which I also enjoyed a lot.

Review

Moving onto Rabbit, we follow Alice, or ‘Rabbit’ to her family, who works in Bias Crimes (investigating hate crimes) and walled herself and her heart away from everyone else. As she works on a case which ends up hitting close to home, she meets Doctor Corwin – Stella – and starts to consider how her life is still being impacted by past traumatic experiences. Through both her responses to the case she’s working on, and her burgeoning relationship with Stella, Alice shows real personal growth as a character, and I think Ellendale handles her coming to terms with her past traumas well, without it becoming melodramatic.

Outside of the case element and the romantic storyline, Rabbit also looks at what family means. Alice has parents and siblings, and whilst their relationships may not be perfect, it’s clear they’ll always be there for each other. Stella, on the other hand, has a very troubled past, and the family she does have aren’t in a position to help and support her. The contrast between their two situations is an important aspect of the book, and one which brings a lot of depth and heart to the story.

I will point out that Rabbit has some biphobic elements to it – Alice, and friends of hers, make remarks about Alice’s previous girlfriend having cheated on her with both women and, gasp, men, and these remarks are not called out within the book. I reached out to Ellendale to raise this with her, as it made me quite uncomfortable. She kindly responded, and explained that this was the point she was making – that some people within the LGBTQIA community hold opinions like this and if no-one calls them out, then they’re not likely to change. Through events later in the book, her intention was to show Alice realising no-one in the LGBTQIA community is safe from prejudice, and that the community needs to support each other. Though things like this can be uncomfortable to read, characters believing these kinds of negative stereotypes reflects people in the real world, which brings additional depth and realism to the story.

Summary

Overall, Wildrose and Rabbit are two novels which look at imperfect characters making their ways through the world, trying to find people they can trust, learn from, and grow with. If you’re looking for a romance novel with a crime storyline and a good cast of characters, definitely consider picking up one of these books.

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