Thursday, August 31, 2023

Blog Tour: Big Little Spells by Hazel Beck

ARC provided by Harper Collins
Links denoted with * are affiliates.


Today, as part of the Harlequin Trade Publishing Summer Blog Tour programme, I want to talk about a book called Big Little Spells - it's the second novel in Hazel Beck's Witchlore series, and the follow-up to Small Town, Big Magic

A smart, modern Rom-Com about a witch banished from her coven who seeks help from the only person who can prove she's not a threat to witchkind - her annoyingly immortal childhood crush.

Rebekah Wilde was eighteen when she left St. Cyprian, officially stripped of her magic and banished from her home. Ten years later she's forced to return to face the Joywood Coven, who preside over not just her hometown, but the whole magical world.

The Joywood are determined to prove Rebekah is a danger to witchkind, and she faces a death sentence if she can't prove otherwise. Rebekah must seek help from the only one who knows how to stop the Joywood - the ruthless immortal Nicholas Frost. Years ago, he was her secret tutor in magic, and her secret, impossible crush. But the icy and frustratingly handsome immortal is as remote and arrogant as ever, and if he feels anything for Rebekah - or witchkind - it's impossible to tell.

As I've mentioned already, this is the second in a series, which I was completely unaware of when I requested it. I haven't read the first book, and it soon became evident that that would be a slight issue.

The book picks up after a fairly big event, one that's not explained very well. We're thrown straight into the world and we're expected to know and understand several strange terms (like a test called a "Pubertatum" that just made me think of the baby from the Addams Family Values). Usually in a series, there's a little catch-up, and I felt that really would have helped here because it took me a while to figure out who was who and what was happening.

In saying that - the story romped along fairly quickly, and soon morphed into a solid tale of two witch sisters who had spent some time apart and were now working on repairing their relationship while also proving to their community that they had earned the right to use their magical powers. There's a romance subplot, it's a very early Buffy/Angel dynamic with some similar banter and some closed door scenes ("we tumbled this way and that" was about as explicit as it got).

There's a wider issue at play here - local witches are succumbing to some kind of illness that kills them, and the sisters and their coven are sure that the local equivalent of the town council are to blame. The same people they must impress if they're to be seen as true witches. The sisters failed the test once before, ten years ago, now they must take it again. This means revisiting some of the preparations and rituals they did as teenagers (think Never Been Kissed if Josie was a witch trying to prove herself). 

I didn't really take to the teenage elements of the story (like the Prom) - I imagine fans of the first book who enjoyed it will LOVE this one, especially the progression of the relationship between Rebekah and Nicholas. I couldn't put it down for the last quarter, but I did feel like the book overall could've lost 50 pages and been none the worse for wear. 

Will I read the rest of the series? Probably not, but I imagine fans of these authors and this series will be very happy with this latest instalment, which is hitting at the perfect time of year for some cosy witching. 

Thank you to Justine at Harper Collins for having me as part of the blog tour program. 

Big Little Spells is out now to buy (or you can request it at your local library!)

You can learn more about Hazel Beck below, and keep up with them on their website, or on social media via Instagram, Facebook and Goodreads

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Blog Tour: Even if the Sky is Falling [edited by Taj McCoy]

ARC provided for review 


I have another book from the Harlequin Trade Publishing Summer Blog Tour Program for you today - this time it's a compilation, edited by Taj McCoy.

For readers of Bolu Babalola's LOVE IN COLOR and Dhonielle Clayton's BLACKOUT, a collection of six stories filled with hope, humor, and heat that explore the chances a couple may take when they mistakenly believe the world is ending; for fans of Love Actually and all the best 90s disaster films that end in a triumphant kiss, with stories by Taj McCoy, Farah Heron, Lane Clarke, Charish Reid, Sarah Smith, and Denise Williams.

When the global threat of meteor showers - exacerbated by an increasing amount of space debris in our solar system - causes widespread panic, a world-wide siren system alerting people to significant threats is developed. The plan immediately hits a rocky start when the US accidentally launches the siren during a routine testing without being able to signal the all-clear, causing people to take immediate shelter.

Each of these 6 stories forces two people - strangers, colleagues, crushes, rivals - to take cover with one another, exploring what chances a person may take when they mistakenly believe the world is ending. Spoiler: it's a lot of confession making and kissing.

Filled with joy, heat, and emotion, this collection also seamlessly incorporates issues impacting people of color in an authentic and genuine way.

Editor Taj McCoy describes herself as "committed to championing stories that include Black & Multiracial women of colour, plus-size protagonists, Black love, Black joy, & senses of sisterhood & family bonds."

That aim really comes through in this collection of six romance stories, all set during a 12 hour emergency lockdown (of sorts). The opening story, "All The Stars" by Taj McCoy explains how the disaster happens, with a sweet tale about a NASA crew trial that goes awry.

In Keep Calm and Curry On by Farah Heron, two rival Pakistani chefs get stuck with each other in a flea market; My Lucky Stars by Lane Clarke sees law student Jones infuriated with her colleague Dianna, who she assumes is just a pretty face. Bunker Buddies by Charish Reid is that "do it for our country" scene from Grease 2 but with a professor and an indie bookstore owner; Interlude by Sarah Smith is a handyman fantasy come to life, and Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better by Denise Williams is a spicy tale of old rivals returning to their college for an awards ceremony when the alarm sounds.

It's SPICY - no slow burns here, no ma'am - but it's fun, and it's always nice to read stories featuring Black characters & characters of colour that don't have some kind of traumatic backstory to overcome. Joy and love reign supreme - and it's hot, fast, sweet, and charming. It has been described as "an ode to the disaster movies of the 1990s, but with more kissing" and that's a really accurate description.

Spicy, cute, well done. 

Thank you to Justine at Harper Collins for having me on the Blog Tour! 

Even if the Sky is Falling is available now.

Or you can request it from your local library!

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Blog Tour: The Boyfriend Candidate by Ashley Winstead (Review + Excerpt)

ARC provided by Harper Collins


I'm delighted to bring you a review & excerpt of "The Boyfriend Candidate" by Ashley Winstead as part of the Harlequin Trade Publishing Summer Blog Tour programme. 

I've loved taking part in these tours before, because they always have a great selection of books to choose from.

This time round, I picked a Grumpy/Sunshine, Fake Relationship rom-com about a quiet school librarian and a ballsy political candidate with somewhat of a reputation: 

A laugh-out-loud rom-com about learning to embrace living outside your comfort zone.

As a shy school librarian, Alexis Stone is comfortable keeping out of the spotlight. But when she's dumped for being too meek - in bed!- she decides she needs to change. And what better way to kick-start her new more adventurous life than with her first one-night stand?

Enter Logan, the gorgeous, foul-mouthed stranger she meets at a hotel bar. Audacious and filterless, Logan is Alexis's opposite - and boy, do opposites attract! Just as she's about to fulfill her hookup wish, the hotel catches fire in a freak lightning storm. In their rush to escape, Logan is discovered carrying her into the street, where people are waiting with cameras. Cameras Logan promptly - and shockingly - flees.

Alexis is bewildered until suddenly pictures of her and Logan escaping the fire are all over the internet. Turns out Logan is none other than Logan Arthur, the hotshot candidate challenging the Texas governor's seat. The salacious scandal is poised to sink his career - and jeopardize Alexis's job - until a solution is proposed: he and Alexis could pretend to be in a relationship until election day... in two months. What could possibly go wrong?

I loved this. I thought it was so sweet, sexy, funny - both Alexis and Logan made for really likeable lead characters, and I liked that although Alexis was quiet, she wasn't afraid to stand up for what she believed in or the people she cared about. It's a masterclass in the slow burn - the tension was almost unbearable at times. 

I loved the political parts too, some of the topics that the author touched upon were unfortunately incredibly topical - book banning at schools, libraries being defunded, protests by far-right groups about certain reading material. I liked that Alexis found a way to speak about these issues while also staying true to her own introverted nature. 

The only thing I didn't love about the book was the push from Alexis's sister Lee to date someone for real - surely as a politician herself she would know that were Alexis to deviate from the agreement with Logan, she'd be throwing herself to the wolves? I thought it was a weird thing for her to suggest, but it didn't take away from my enjoyment of the story. 

I loved the story, loved the plot, loved the characters, and I'm really thankful for the opportunity to read the book courtesy of the publisher. Thank you to Justine for having me on the Blog Tour.

The Boyfriend Candidate by Ashley Winstead is available to buy now (or you can request it from your local library!) 

You can learn more about Ashley Winstead's work below, and keep up with her on her website, Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.  Keep scrolling for a sneak peek at the first chapter!


Alexis Stone Is Not a Mouse

I’LL SAY ONE NICE THING ABOUT MY EX CHRIS TUTTLE: the man was the entire reason I was here, standing at the entrance to the sultry Fleur de Lis hotel bar, wearing a red dress so plunging I kept it in the back of my closet for fear of scandalizing visitors, on the verge of reinventing myself. The memory of Chris and the still-fresh psychic wounds he’d left me were like a marching drum line urging me forward as I’d left my apartment, Ubered downtown to the Fleur de Lis, and cut a determined path across the lobby to the bar, a place with a reputation as Austin’s Grand Central Station of hookups. Unfortunately, now that I was standing at the entrance, the sight of all the laughing, drinking, dazzling people—dressed to the nines like me, but looking much more at ease about it—had me momentarily cowed.

I thought back to what Chris said the day I discovered he was cheating on me (for the second time): “I do have needs you can’t satisfy. You should really learn to be more adventurous in bed, Lex. You’re like a timid little mouse. It can get really boring.” Remembering those words, I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. I was not a boring mouse—or at least I wouldn’t be one anymore. Starting tonight, I was going to be a new version of Alexis Stone: as bold and adventurous as my flaming-red dress.

I tried to soak in the beauty of the bar while beelining through the crowded tables, anxious to leave the peculiar spotlight of being the only person standing among a bunch of cozy, seated people. But then I realized new Alexis wouldn’t care if everyone’s eyes flitted to her as she walked across a room—in fact, new Alexis would welcome it, because she’d spent nearly an hour straightening and then recurling her hair into movie star ringlets, and maybe that effort should be appreciated. I forced myself to slow and look up at the bar’s gorgeous glass ceiling, shaded a twinkly blue thanks to the night sky. Real palm trees lined the circular perimeter, fronds reaching toward the stars. They made the bar look like a very urbane urban jungle, which actually wasn’t too far off the mark.

My older sister, Lee, and her friends liked to roll their eyes at the entire downtown bar scene, calling places like the Fleur de Lis “meat markets where you go to spend thirty-five bucks on a martini while beating back horny yuppies” (Lee’s words). They preferred the hipster bars on the east side of Austin, where the clientele was cooler yet dirtier (my words). I thought the Fleur de Lis was romantic, so it made sense to come here tonight for my critical but one hundred percent private mission: I, Alexis Rosalie Stone, was going to have my first one-night stand. I was going to sleep with a man with no strings attached, no stakes or expectations: just one night to do whatever felt right. Alexis the unadventurous bore? I’d killed her and buried the body.

The gleaming brass bar was crowded, but I managed to slip a shoulder between two men and catch the bartender’s attention. “Vodka martini,” I said, feeling a sudden rebellious compulsion to do anything that would raise my sister’s eyebrows. By the time my drink came, I’d completed a full three-sixty swivel in my barstool to survey the sea of men for potential candidates. How exactly did one negotiate a one-night stand? Did you lead with it in conversation so all your cards were on the table (“Hi, I’m Alexis; you might be interested to know I’m trolling for a stranger to ravish me”), or did you hold back, let your intention slip out at just the right moment (“I see you’re ordering an Uber home; could I interest you in going splitsies back to my place for a wild night of sex”)?

I braced a hand on the bar, taking a fortifying sip of my martini. Even if I made a complete fool of myself tonight—even if I was roundly rejected by every man I spoke to—coming here alone at least meant Lee and her crew couldn’t witness my flop, then use it to skewer me for all eternity like the jackals they were.

A whistle cut through the bar’s ambient noise, followed by a loud, “Now that’s a dress.” Out of nowhere, a man appeared and sidled up beside me. One look at him and my mind blurted forehead! Probably because his was shiny as a disco ball, framed by waggling eyebrows, and tilted all the way to the side. The next second, I realized his head was turned that way so he could get a clear view down my dress.

“Thanks.” I placed a protective hand over my chest and swiveled in the opposite direction. Hoping my body language would signal my disinterest, I took another sip of my martini and studied the empty corner of the room like it was fascinating.

No such luck. “I’m Carter Randall,” the man said, jutting out his hand. “What’s your name?”

My deep desire for him to go away warred with my silly lifelong compulsion to be nice. “Um…” I twisted back to shake his oddly moist hand and searched for inspiration. My gaze snagged, as his clearly had, on my dress. “Ruby…” The next word came unbidden. “Dangerfield. Ruby Dangerfield.” Curse my polite hardwiring that had me sitting here inventing a new name instead of dismissing him with something cool and clipped like, “Not interested.”

Carter gave my hand a little squeeze. He was twice my age, probably well into his fifties. Well-dressed, with a massive gold watch on his wrist, and—now that I squinted—a strangely sweaty face, like he’d just done a lap. Was he on party drugs? He used his sleeve to mop his forehead and I pulled my hand away, resisting the urge to wipe it on my dress. Carter’s eyes drifted down the length of my body yet again. “Well, Ms. Ruby. Can I buy you a drink? A stiff one?” He grinned.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s very nice. But—um—no thank you.” Inside, I burned with the fire of a thousand suns. Saying no to anyone, even a stranger, stretched the limits of my bravery.

“Aw, come on.” Carter leaned in closer and I scooted back so fast I nearly tipped over. “Look at you, sitting there in that dress. Clearly fishing for attention. Well, you caught me. Let’s get you drunk and see what happens.”

Apparently, I was going to get a lesson in how not to proposition someone tonight. But my cheeks were burning, because in a small way Carter was right—I had come here to put myself on display and find someone, just very much not him. Be the new Alexis, I urged myself. Stop prioritizing this stranger’s feelings and tell him to leave you alone. But I couldn’t—at the slightest provocation, old, sad, doormat Alexis had quickly jumped back in charge.

“I’m not trying to be rude,” I said carefully, feeling my heartbeat spike. “I would just like to be by myself tonight.” Well, shoot. Now that I’d committed to that, would I have to leave the bar so Carter didn’t catch me talking to anyone else later? My palms started sweating.

“One drink—” he started.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” came a voice, tinged with an accent I couldn’t place—British mixed with Texas panhandle? I nearly knocked over my martini. “She said no, mate. Get it through your thick skull and leave the poor woman alone.”

Carter spun to get a look at the man who’d interrupted us, and without his body blocking the view, I got a clear line, too. My stomach flipped over and released a conservatory’s worth of butterflies. Even wearing a look of contempt, the man on the other side of Carter was stop-in-your-tracks, tongue-tyingly handsome. He was around my age, maybe a little older—he certainly radiated an older person’s authority—with a head of dark curls cut close and tight, brown eyes that were currently blazing, and thick eyebrows arched, waiting to see how Carter would respond. He had on a dark suit like most of the other men in the room, but he’d taken off his jacket and hung it on the back of his seat. He was sitting hunched over his drink in a white dress shirt with the sleeves messily rolled back, wearing a dark slim watch that was the antithesis of Carter’s flashy gold one. The wrinkles in his suit, creases under his eyes, and day-old stubble gave the impression of a weary business executive after a long, hard day at work. His eyes flitted to mine for the briefest moment before returning to Carter, but the charge that ran down my spine was enough to root me to my chair.

Carter shifted his weight. Apparently, he was going to play the tough guy. “Why don’t you mind your business, pal?”

The beautiful, tired man rolled his eyes. “Oh, good. You’re one of those.” He got to his feet so fast his barstool made a screeching sound as it scraped across the floor. “Then let’s go ahead and get this over with, because I’ve had a shit day and I would like to kick your ass and get back home at a reasonable hour. So come on. You’re the one campaigning for Most Punchable Man in the Bar. Let’s have your prize.” The dark-haired man spoke calmly and quickly in his hard-to-place accent, like he invited people to get their asses kicked at least once a day. He made a little “come on” gesture that conveyed utter boredom.

People around us had stopped talking to watch. The extra attention only made me feel like I was going to melt into the floor at twice the speed. But if I had no idea how to respond to this turn of events—what to say or even where to put my hands—Carter was even more clueless. I could see his eyes dancing, doing quick calculations. On the one hand, Carter was thicker around the middle than the dark-haired man. On the other, the dark-haired man had revealed himself to be tall and well-built when he stood up.

“Nah, man.” Carter put his hands up. “We’ve got no problems. Just making new friends like you’re supposed to at a bar, for Christ’s sake.”

“Great,” said the dark-haired man. “Then kindly fuck off as suggested.”

Carter didn’t wait to be told a third time. As he hightailed away from the bar, a woman nearby muttered, “What a douche.” And with that judgment rendered, the room dialed back to a normal volume.

“Thank you,” I said to the dark-haired man. He waved me off with a grunt and settled back in his barstool, leaning comfortably over his drink, apparently hoping to resume his night like nothing had happened.

I stared at him. The adrenaline was draining out of my system, which left me feeling hollow. I should have been the one to tell Carter to fuck off. I should have had the guts, but instead I’d tiptoed around and this man had to step in and do it for me. How humiliating. It hit me like a ton of bricks: from the moment Carter arrived, I’d been unequivocally mousy. Exactly like Chris said.

Excerpted from THE BOYFRIEND CANDIDATE. Copyright © 2023 by Ashley Winstead. Published by Graydon House.