This post includes reviews of books in the Vino & Veritas series:
- Featherbed (#1) by Annabeth Albert
- Heartscape (#2) by Garrett Leigh
- Headstrong (#3) by Eden Finley
- Aftermath (#5) by L. A. Witt
- Turnabout (#9) by Laurel Greer
- Daybreak (#12) by Kate Hawthorne
- Heartsong (#13) by A. E. Wasp
- Stronghold (#14) by Ana Ashley
- Limelight (#15) by E. Davies
- Unforgettable (#16) by Marley Valentine
- Undone (#18) by Leslie McAdam
Featherbed (Book 1) by Annabeth Albert
If Vino and Veritas was a real bookstore/wine bar in my town, I’d probably never leave. Alas, it exists in this fictional version of Burlington, Vermont, which is good, because that means this indy bookstore will be successful forever and never close. Harrison has given up the lifestyle of a New York City lawyer to help his mother live her dream retirement, even if that means embarking on a new adventure in an unfamiliar town and way more encounters with chickens than he ever planned on. He also doesn’t plan on the sparks to fly between him and local farmer Finn.
For different reasons, both men are sure they aren’t relationship material. Luckily for readers, they agree to a low-key arrangement, which also happens to include sweet dates and interactions with each other’s lovely family members. Seriously, the massive denial both men manage is almost as fascinating as all the random tidbits about chickens, other feathered fowl, and general farm life Albert sneaks into this book without ever being an info-dump or coming across as preachy about the benefits of farm-to-table living.
I geared myself up for a massive dark moment in which either Harrison’s or Finn’s life is at stake. However, this book is relatively low-angst, and though the dark moment certainly exists, Albert balances it nicely with the sweetness of the romance and with a deft touch. It’s more appropriate than any of the scenarios I feared and gives me hope that these men will be in it for the long haul. I look forward to getting glimpses of them throughout this series, especially since it centers on Harrison’s bookshop.
Heartscape (Book 2) by Garrett Leigh
I’ve read some darker romances recently, so I thought I was in for a low-angst, relaxing treat by returning to the world of Vino & Veritas. How dramatic can Vermont be, after all? Unfortunately, I forgot that the next book in this series was written by the phenomenal Leigh, which meant instead of sweet, I got repeatedly stabbed in the feels by this incredible story.
Tanner and Jax both have fascinating backstories with which Leigh teases readers in tiny details. So much time could have been spent on rehashing their pasts, but instead, this book focuses on where the two men are in the present and how they connect. This is not quite a friends-to-lovers story in that the chemistry between them is immediately apparent, but I found that I loved how they quietly became friends before crossing that last line.
Both men also experience various forms of mental illness (especially depression and post-traumatic stress disorder) that they do their best to deal with individually. As usual, I’m incredibly picky about authors using romance to “heal” characters, but in this case, Tanner and Jax allow their relationship to strengthen them individually so that the road together becomes easier. Even the angstiest moments of this book were threaded with a note of positivity as I enjoyed how the love between the men grew.
So, this wasn’t necessarily an “easy” book to read, but it was still incredibly enjoyable, even with the tears I shed along the way.
Headstrong (Book 3) by Eden Finley
I only read romance novels that feature college-age characters under pretty specific circumstances; a continuing shared-world series that I’m wholeheartedly enjoying happens to be one of them. Rainn is no longer in college when he meets Whit, who is in his senior year but finally ready to explore life as his authentic self. Initially, Rainn wants nothing to do with what Whit represents. Not because Whit is gay, but because Whit is a hockey player. Alas, Whit is pretty freaking adorable, and they end up in an unlikely friendship. It starts with Rainn playing wingman and turns into…well, happily ever after.
Finley walks a fine line here in playing with the “gay for you” trope. I found it humorous that Rainn would spend so much time doing actual research about a relatively sensitive topic for Whit but never really applies that to himself. Instead, he spends a lot of time in his own head, considering whether he might be bisexual. The term “demisexual” is never brought up or applied, but one of my favorite moments of the book occurs later when Rainn realizes what (who) he’s actually attracted to and how that applies to Whit. The actual attraction between Rainn and Whit never feels forced, and the physical exploration between them is both sweet and incredibly sexy.
I’m glad I broke my “no college boys” rule for this book because it was a much-needed dose of sweetness after the intensity of the previous book in this series. It still had its share of darker moments, but I never feared for the happy ending that was sure to occur. I especially appreciated that Whit and Rainn get their individual dreams as well as finding happiness together.
Aftermath (Book 5) by L. A. Witt
At first, I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy this book. Well, to a certain extent, because I already knew I’d appreciate anything written by Witt. But another book in this series about an injured former hockey player? Would this be too much like Headstrong, only featuring older characters? Once I started, I knew my apprehension was completely unwarranted. Everything about this book, from the meet-cute, to the characters, to the arc of their relationship, is different from the previous books in this series, and I loved every moment of it.
I won’t spoil the reason why, but I especially appreciated that the evolution of Brent and Jon’s physical relationship is much different from that of a typical romance novel. This is for various reasons, both physical and emotional, but it worked for these characters and their situation. I’m also generally hesitant about single-parent heroes, but often the children are completely annoying and/or a weird external conflict. In this case, Jon’s son is merely an element of his life, that of a single parent dealing with shared custody and a failed marriage he didn’t choose.
The external and primary conflicts of this book are intertwined in that everything boils down to how previous experiences have Brent and Jon convinced they don’t deserve the best for themselves. Witt deals with mental health delicately but without implying that her characters should get a pass for their actions due to it. Once both men realize they work much better together than apart, the resulting happily ever after is incredibly satisfying.
Turnabout (Book 9) by Laurel Greer
This book balanced a bunch of elements that might have fallen apart under the weight of itself but instead managed to be a delicious bundle of internal and external plots I couldn’t quite get enough of (or perhaps that was me imagining Auden in a kilt). I can’t fathom having a long-term relationship falling apart and then still having my ex very much a part of my life, which is the case for Carter and Auden. Carter may have run away to Montreal, but Auden still works for Carter’s father and regularly hangs out with his family. These men may have grown up and grown apart, but it’s not like they broke up because they hated each other—so, on the surface, this book’s second-chance romance arc is fairly obvious. The tension that grows between Carter and Auden as they spend time together is less of a slow burn and more two idiots standing around in a fire.
However, Greer takes the obvious and enhances it with both personality and plenty of strong secondary characters. Carter and Auden both have to reconcile some hard facts about themselves before acknowledging the truth about what lies between them. On top of that, there’s also the drama of handling the print shop and how Carter’s father has mucked up more than just his small business. So much happens in the space of mere weeks, but every element of conflict sucked me in until all I wanted was to hug everyone.
On top of that, Greer infuses the novel with plenty of moments of poignancy in the form of excellent internal narrative that I’d have no problem seeing printed on fancy paper. The underlying theme of this story is balancing the old with the new, and the lovely, hopeful ending shows that it can be done. I hope I catch glimpses of Auden and Carter later in this series.
Daybreak (Book 12) by Kate Hawthorne
I’ve already given five stars to some of the excellent books in this shared-world romance series. Which means I wish I could give this book six stars. I actually started reading this series because I knew this author would have a book included in it, so I’m extra pleased that her book not only lived up to the hype but pretty much blew me away. Hawthorne has a way with language that immediately sucks you into her characters’ lives from the first page, and the feels for this one hit within the book’s first chapters.
Hawthorne warned her readers via social media that this book wouldn’t be like her other projects, but that is only true to a certain extent. She still delivers on her excellent storytelling and character creation ability. Though this is billed as an “opposites attract” romance, Jasper and Liam have more in common than they realize. This elevates the story from a physical attraction insta-love fling to a deeper connection between two men searching for more in life. They just have to be ready to take it, and perhaps being thrown together during a snowstorm is the shock they needed to jumpstart that process.
I hope that fans of this author take a chance on this novel, even if it’s not as spicy as some of Hawthorne’s other works. Equally, readers of the full Vino and Veritas series should make sure not to miss out on this amazing addition to the world.
Heartsong (Book 13) by A. E. Wasp
I figured I knew what I was getting into with the two main characters of this book. They would bond over their trauma, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Maybe some angst about their age gap would get thrown in. I’ve never been so happy to be proved wrong in my assumptions.
I adored Cooper, despite his initial grumpiness, right from the start. I love that he’s a disabled veteran who did not get injured in combat, nor was he a combatant to begin with. He has the standard residual mental issues due to his amputation, but he’s not a walking cliché of service-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In contrast, Sean is too adorable for words, and despite some accidental word vomit during their first few days together, he and Cooper are obviously meant for friendship at the very least. The mental issues he faces are the underlying “external” conflict of this story. His case of PTSD is fairly clear-cut, even though the author does not do more than brush against the specific memories of what Sean experienced during conversion therapy. Sean was due to hit against a wall at some point, and Wasp does an excellent job of balancing how Sean’s happiness with Cooper is not the cause of the dramatic “dark moment” of this book, but rather what allowed Sean to begin the process of understanding his problems and finding a solution.
All that sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it? In another excellent use of balance, Wasp also had me laughing out loud at multiple points during this book. I appreciate the friendship that develops between Sean and Cooper as much as the romance (and accompanying sexy bits). This book is one not to be missed in the Vino & Veritas world.
Stronghold (Book 14) by Ana Ashley
I’ve previously started books by this author, but her writing style never grabbed me. However, my interest in this series meant that I wasn’t about to skip this installment just because of the author, and the mystery about why Judson ran away from Skylar 10 years ago grabbed me instantly. This story is the perfect “second chance” romance that draws from the best friends-to-lovers and not quite enemies-to-lovers tropes. On the one hand, Jud and Sky were fated to be together. However, I don’t think their relationship would have ever been as successful as their final happily ever after if they hadn’t had that time apart.
Ashley could have drawn from plenty of opportunities for conflict from how she designs these characters’ lives. I assumed that the plot would involve more of Skylar’s ongoing home drama or the remnants of Judson’s life in Paris. Instead, Ashley hits readers with a completely unexpected twist that absolutely works as intended. Through it all, Sky and Jud grow closer together while still attempting to protect their hearts from a repeat of the previous hurt. But this time, Judson is more comfortable in his skin and finally knows where his home is.
The story and characters in this book tugged me along for a lovely ride, even through the moments when the writing itself gave me a few hiccups. (This is not a commentary on anything related to editing or proofing, but simply that nebulous “style” thing that is difficult to quantify and not applicable for all readers.) Also, I have a craving for maple syrup this morning while I write this review.
Limelight (Book 15) by E. Davies
This story had the opportunity to absolutely drip with angst, but Davies struck the perfect chord of poignancy instead. A certain amount of fate and insta-love is at play in the connection between Tag and Caleb, but insta-love is a trope for a reason. If the events of this story had played out over months instead of weeks, it would not have been as interesting a read. There’s a lot to be said for chemistry between characters that goes beyond the physical, and these heroes have that in spades. It makes the eventual steamy scenes even more perfect.
The dark moment of this plot is obvious from a mile away since it lives rent-free in Tag’s brain for most of the book. However, Tag has more than enough cause to worry about the fallout of his secret coming to life. Davies handles the reveal in a way that is unexpected but still set up from the beginning of the book. Caleb’s response is heartbreaking but true to the character; in fact, his reaction is a testament to the character development he undergoes as a result of his emerging relationship with Tag. Ultimately, I also appreciated that their eventual reconciliation (that’s not a spoiler—it’s a romance novel) led to closure on issues in Tag’s history as well.
I waffled about whether to give this installment to the Vino & Veritas series a try, but I’m pleased that I did. The characters are a welcome addition to the expansive cast of this world, and the story pairs perfectly with a glass of mead.
Unforgettable (Book 16) by Marley Valentine
As much as the spouse likes to mock my romance reading as “porn,” the difference between romance and pure erotica is often such pesky elements as “plot” and “character development.” That being said, it takes true talent for an author to drop two characters at the beginning of an intentional one-night stand and then make the reader care enough about them by the end of a few drinks that they stick with it through the steamy bits. I thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic that developed between Reeve and Oz because it was perfect for a semi-anonymous hookup but then also easily transformed into legitimate character development as the novel continued (even if the “suddenly, they were coworkers!” is a little tropey).
However, one of my actual favorite tropes is “fake relationship,” so I was along for the ride as Oz and Reeve continued to succumb to their chemistry for a summer-long con. Oz assumes that a relationship will get his parents off his back about “settling down.” Reeve thinks he’ll enjoy a final summer of freedom before going to work for his parents in a career he has no interest in. Together, they…cause each other a decent amount of angst, actually. The story packed a decent emotional wallop even when pretty much every “twist” was obvious from the get-go.
Because, assumptions aside, Oz and Reeve are self-aware enough to recognize that the feelings aren’t pretend anymore. I appreciated the realism of them making and discarding rules as the mood struck them, which meant that Reeve making a last-ditch effort to protect his heart was all the more poignant.
Overall, this was a lovely medium-angst book with expressive main characters and multiple dynamic secondary characters. The supporting roles of family and friends (especially the sheer number of sisters) might have overwhelmed another story, but Valentine’s prose is solid enough to support the variety of voices while ensuring that the two heroes shone through.
Undone (Book 18) by Leslie McAdam
I’m not quite ready to be done with Vino & Veritas yet, but I suppose the awesome thing about books is that you can revisit them time and again. A series of stand-alone novels set in the same world doesn’t quite need a “tie-up” story, but McAdam indulges readers with cameos by many of my favorites from previous books. Of course, none of them outshine her two heroes, who I fell in love with from page 1.
McAdam brings a lovely vibrancy to the voices of both main characters, which dragged me into the narrative and immersed me into the story. On the outside, this book features a pretty typical set of tropes: a straight-laced insurance agent who has previously only been with women falls for exuberant twink. Plus, they were roommates. However, this is far from a cookie-cutter “friends to lovers” narrative specifically because the friendship that develops between Murph and Jason is a significant focus, even while Murph angsts about his crush and Jason angsts about his upbringing. Again, McAdam brings depth to these circumstances by giving both men a decent sense of self-awareness.
Of course, this self-awareness also causes the perfect storm of Murph and Jason falling in bed together, followed by how hard Murph runs and how hard Jason wants to chase him. McAdam upends another trope here, with a surprise twist on the expected “gay for you” element that is often at play in this sort of story development.
I might be bummed that there are no more books in this series for me to get a peek into Jason and Murph’s happily ever after. But that’s okay because the relationship between them developed by the author is solid and I have no worries. Since this is a “new-to-me” author, I look forward to checking out other stories by them.