Today’s my birthday, which I’ve shamelessly used as a blanket excuse all month long to read whatever the f*ck I want. Of course, I’m a blogger with a day job who doesn’t even request ARCs anymore, so one would think my reading choices would always be completely up to me. And they are! I just keep *forgetting* that I’m beholden to no one when it comes to books. So here’s a whole bunch of books I’ve been reading and loving this month, with no unifying theme other than they get the much-coveted Taryn Seal of Approval. (Okay, it’s mostly romance. I do what I want.)

Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

First off, I hardly ever allow myself time for rereading due to my aforementioned issues, but this summer I was suddenly in the mood to get caught up with the Mercedes Thompson series, which I started reading back in 2013. Several books had come out in the intervening years, and due to my Swiss cheese memory I decided to start back at book #1 instead of just jumping in with the titles I hadn’t read. Unsurprisingly, I remembered very few of the major plot points! 

I have much enjoyed catching back up with coyote shapeshifter and VW mechanic Mercy and her friendly neighborhood werewolf pack, and the reread has shown me the ways I’ve grown as a reader in the past six years. I’ve read a lot more fantasy and paranormal romance now than I had back when I first picked these up, and I think they’re a good entry point to the genres because they’re pretty heavy on exposition (you don’t have to guess at how the magic works--Mercy will tell you everything you want to know). One of the hooks that I remember sucking me in when I first read the series was the romance, but having read a lot more romance now, I feel like these are on the cooler end of the heat scale (eh, you can’t win ‘em all). I’m a more critical reader now, too, when it comes to appropriation and white people writing characters from other cultures, and while my impression is that Briggs has done a fair amount of research into Native cultures, I’m not convinced she always writes with perfect sensitivity (one cringe-y example: Darryl, who is biracial, is always described as “exotic”). 

At this point I’ve got a few books still to go, and I’m looking forward to seeing what crazy shit Mercy gets into in the books that are brand-new to me.

The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz

I read the whole thing in a day because I couldn't put it down. This is a literary mystery set in Mississippi about a woman who returns to her father's hometown to find out the truth about his death. Officially it was ruled an accident, but the reaction of locals (including her own family members) as she investigates makes it clear there's more to the story. I was totally sucked in--so atmospheric, I could practically feel the sticky heat of the South as I read.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Historical lady romance with astronomy and embroidery! You can see why I pre-ordered this, yes? Lucy is an astronomer and mathematician whose heart is broken because her lover just abandoned her to marry a man. On impulse, she flees to London to meet Catherine, the widow of an explorer with whom she’s corresponded over the years. Catherine is looking to sponsor someone to translate an important new astronomy text from the French, a job Lucy wants and knows she’s qualified for despite the sexism and snobbery of the academic circles of the time. Catherine didn’t have a happy marriage, and while she’s secretly relieved to be rid of her husband, she’s not sure what widowhood holds for her or what she has to offer the world now that she’s not attached to a man. Catherine and Lucy don’t exactly hit it off at first, but their slow-growing connection is super sweet, and I loved the way they join forces to fight gatekeeping men. I especially loved the ending, as it shows how wonderfully positive LGBT stories can be even when set in times that weren’t kind to such folks.

The Chai Factor by Farah Heron

Romance between an engineer and a baritone from a barbershop quartet! Irresistible! Amira is finishing up the last few weeks of her graduate degree and has come home to her grandmother’s house for some peace and quiet, not realizing that her grandmother has rented out the spare rooms to a barbershop quartet with a singing competition to prepare for. It’s the perfect setup already, but in case that wasn’t enough, Amira also has a meet-cute on the train with the baritone from said quartet—a big, red-bearded lumberjack looking dude who saves her from a creepy guy’s advances. I loved how abrasive Amira is—she goes nuclear first and asks questions later—and how the narrative doesn’t require her to change to be worthy of love. (She still has to apologize sometimes, because that’s life, but Duncan likes her fiery personality.) I also loved the clash of cultures (Duncan is white, Amira is Indian-Canadian and Muslim) and how Amira refuses to be a vehicle for a white person’s enlightenment. There are a lot of supremely satisfying mic-drop moments.

American Fairytale by Adriana Herrera

I was all about the first book in the Dreamers series, and I loved this follow-up just as much. Milo, a social worker, has a sexy encounter with a stranger at a fancy fundraising gala. At work the next day, his boss introduces him to Tom, the new donor who’s bankrolling their latest project AND (you guessed it) the same guy Milo just got up close and personal with. Although they vow to keep things professional, sometimes chemistry is too strong to ignore (!!). I just love this series. The characters all feel so real, which is not a thing I expected to say about a billionaire romance. There's no manufactured drama here--the conflicts are genuine, and complicated, and not solvable with a single conversation. The side characters are always delightful, too, funny and warm and surrounding the main characters with perspective and support. There's just something deeply comforting about a social worker being provided funds to make people's lives better. Also, Sean Crisden is probably my favorite audio book narrator ever. I don’t think there’s an accent, age, or gender he can’t effortlessly convey.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

When I first heard the setup for this book, all that registered was “young widow” and it went immediately on my oh-no-no list. I don’t do books about people losing their spouses, especially if those people are anywhere close to my age. But after a recommendation from my sister-in-law Belinda, I took a closer look and learned that the setup isn’t quite that simple. Evvie has decided to leave her husband and is literally in the driveway packing the trunk when she gets a call that he’s been in a car accident. When he dies soon after, she doesn’t feel like she can tell anyone how she really felt about him, so everyone in her little Maine town assumes she’s grieving. When the opportunity arises for her to rent out part of her house, she goes for it, knowing she can use the extra cash. Her new roommate turns out to be Dean, a professional baseball player who’s been sidelined with the yips. They get to know and like each other but agree from the beginning that they won’t ask about each other’s issues—no dead husband or pitching talk allowed. But of course it’s only a matter of time before those barriers start coming down. I liked how messy and imperfect Evvie was—this was one where I really wasn’t sure how she and Dean were going to reach their happily ever after.