Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mister Trophy by Frank Tuttle

TITLE: The Mister Trophy
AUTHOR: Frank Tuttle
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 12k)
GENRE: Fantasy mystery
COST: $2.50

When a Troll hires Markhat the Finder to broker an exchange, he would much rather pass than accept the job. After all, the Troll wants him to go to the home of one of the most dangerous vampires in Rannit and take back a trophy from the War. But with three Trolls refusing to take no for an answer, he doesn’t really have a choice…even when he discovers not all is as it seems…

One of my weaknesses? Sarcastic detective types with a fatalistic view of the world. Especially when they’re funny. And even more especially when their overwhelming sense of right makes it impossible for them to stay out of the fire. Markhat grabbed my attention in Tuttle’s first story, Dead Man’s Rain, and he refused to let go in this one. Within the first 350 words, I was already laughing, and that level of entertainment never abated.

Tuttle’s sharp prose has a clarity that keeps all the details of his rich fantasy world distinguishable. There are no wasted words. Even with such economy, though, the story leaps off the page. Scenes aren’t drawn with protracted exposition; instead, he shares crucial facts – in fresh ways – as the reader might demand them. It keeps the story clipping along, and before you realize it, it’s over and you’re wishing there was more to come.

If the story has any weaknesses, it’s in the execution of the overall plot. There are one or two flashes of well, that’s convenient as Markhat deals with the vampires, so while it’s original and fun, it doesn’t have quite the same sharp edge as the rest of the story’s attributes. Granted, though, it’s a short story. There’s only so much room. But in a world this vivid, with characters this enjoyable, I’m greedy. I want more. A lot more. It’s not often stories as dynamic and fun as this one come along.


10/10 – Funny and crisp and absolutely wonderful


9/10 – The author makes three Trolls who need translators come alive; need I say more?


7/10 – Original, though the shorter format doesn’t do it any favors

Entertainment value

10/10 – Markhat is fast becoming one of my favorite sarcastic detectives.

World building

9/10 – Even for a short story, the world is vivid and well-fleshed.



Friday, September 26, 2008

The Consolation Prize by Barbara Elsborg

TITLE: The Consolation Prize
AUTHOR: Barbara Elsborg
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 62k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Chloe Lord has lost out on the recognition and promotion she deserves, but as a consolation prize, she is offered a four-day spa treatment at the Sunset Spa, which just so happens to be in the childhood home where she lost her entire family to a fire. She doesn’t want to go, but her sixth and a half sense, voices who have helped her throughout her life, refuses to let her ignore it. She doesn’t just find memories in Washburn Hall; she finds a naked man bound in chains. She can’t just leave him there, but little does she realize he’s a vampire and prey to a plot that will lead inevitably to his death…

The first book I read by Ms. Elsborg made me laugh out loud. Though this one looked like it might be darker, it was a treat to find rather quickly that the humor I appreciated in her Ellora’s Cave release was alive and kicking in this one. Or undead and kicking, at least. The author’s greatest strength for me is infusing her characters with a sense of humor, as well as her prose, that persists even when situations turn dire.

Where this book isn’t quite as strong as the first I read rests in the plot itself. Chloe’s sixth and a half sense are voices that compel her to do things against her will. Starting with the end of chapter three, there are mini-conversations among these voices that are probably meant to be cute, but the entire effect of them feels cloying. It strips Chloe of some of her power as they drive her through the plot. It’s not Chloe acting; it’s Chloe reacting to their commands, and more than once I wanted to shout at them to tell them to shut up. They start doing it with Luka, too, which only compounded the effect. It makes both of them look incapable of acting on their own.

It doesn’t help that when the plot gets stuck, something swoops in out of the blue to push it through the block. There’s at least two instances of deus ex machina in the action of the last quarter that just made me roll my eyes and think, “Well, that was convenient.” Again, it takes away any credibility Luka or Chloe might have that they can resolve their own issues. And I didn’t want that credibility taken away. I liked them. I just didn’t think they were altogether with it.

It makes the story uneven at best. It hurtles at a fun pace for a section, then gets yanked dead in its tracks by one of these moments. This sort of start and stop makes it difficult to engage in the romance, especially when the whole issues of mates gets introduced out of nowhere. The author’s voice does a lot to compensate for that, but in the end, it’s just not enough to make this anything but an average read for me.


8/10 – When the author lets her humorous voice shine, I’m in love.


7/10 – Likeable but more than a little thick


7/10 – She and Luka pretty much deserve each other.

Entertainment value

6/10 – The voices never worked for me, and the inclusion of at least two moments of deus ex machina in the last quarter weaken the entire story.

World building

7/10 – There’s a lot of vampire lore in this that’s specific to this world, and it’s not always disseminated in graceful ways.



Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hard Working Men by assorted authors

TITLE: Hard Working Men
AUTHOR: Victor J. Banis, J.P. Bowie, Jardonn Smith, & William Maltese
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 61k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotica
COST: $5.99

An anthology of four gay erotic stories, each one centering on blue collar men in some fashion.

I’m at a loss. Truly. I debated over writing this review. I wish I could slap a DNF on this anthology, but it was like a ten-car pile-up. You just can’t look away. Because as it went on, it got worse and worse and worse until I just couldn’t believe that I was supposed to take any of it seriously.

The exception to everything negative I have to say about this anthology is the first entry. It’s a short story by Victor J. Banis called “If Love Were All.” The prose has texture, the characters felt human, and best of all, it actually had a meaning. Sadly, I can’t say the same about the other stories.

Bowie’s story, “One Brick at a Time,” isn’t awful. It’s just forgettable. With a silly revenge plot that was transparent almost from the first page. His voice doesn’t work for me, either, with stuff like yet Tony innately intuited that wasn't a part of Steve's character indicative of problems throughout the text. Because, hello, can we say redundant? I just have to conclude Bowie isn’t for me, since this is the second of his stories I’ve had problems with.

The third story in the anthology, “The Thomas Coleman Full Nelson” by Jardonn Smith, is schizophrenic at best. As long as it’s not a sex scene, I actually enjoyed finding out about his two window installers. They’re lifelong buddies, separated by a bad marriage, then brought back together again as they always should have been. The relationship built – outside of the sex – is plausible and more than a little sympathetic. But the problem here lies in the numerous sex scenes. This is some of the purplest prose I have read in a long time. Stuff like He knew I was going nowhere until I got my second injection of the morning, so he gave it to me with the violence of a dominating beast, twisting and turning and rapid-firing his impaler mad-doggiestyle. And, Overflow of his manly syrup sugar-coated his ready-to-explode mushroom, its bulging sheen inviting my mouth to taste. And since there’s so many sex scenes, you can just imagine how hard it was for me to read.

But then there’s the real puzzler. The last story in the anthology. Now, I’ve heard of William Maltese before, though I have never read him. The only thing I knew about him was that he’d written a lot. I wasn’t even sure what it all was, though for some reason I assumed it was all gay fiction. (It wasn’t apparently. I went and checked out his backlist. He’s been writing for decades and spent a lot of years writing het romance under a female pseudonym.) But I just do not know what to make of this story. It’s told in first person, and the narrator is a high-priced prostitute who usually masquerades in blue collar/white collar scenarios. It starts out with him and a trick. Okay, I’m still fine there. Then on the fourth page in the story, the narrator pulls his trick into an alley and starts talking dirty. Describing everything that’s going on. There is absolutely no action. All there is for 14 pages is dialogue. Not even dialogue. Monologue. And it’s all like this:

“See how I lick my fingertip just flavored by the seepage strained through your trousers like deliciously salty curd strained through cheesecloth? Sexy as hell that taste. Making my dick harder ... harder....

“Go ahead and touch my prick, where it is, buddy. Feel it straining to get free of my jeans, and underpants, wanting you, needing you, anxious to have at you, excited by the prospect it of being belly-to-belly with your phallic truncheon and, then, deep-dived up your funky tight rich-man's asshole…

There’s more. Lots more. I mentioned 14 pages of this, right? It happens again in a later chapter of the story, only it’s a tow truck driver the narrator has found who does the talking this time.

Oh, and the narrator has the same name as the author. William Maltese. If this is an affectation of the author’s, it’s creepy as hell. If it’s meant to be autobiographical, it’s still creepy. And if it’s meant to be something else, like satirical or punny or amusing in some way…it’s still definitely creepy. I have no idea if he does this in all his work. Unless someone tells me, I’m never going to know because I’m not sure I can sit through another of his stories.

So…for being at a loss, I guess I wrote a lot. Am I supposed to take this anthology seriously? I just don’t know.


4/10 – I don’t even know where to begin on three of the stories in this


4/10 – Banis’ work is the only that felt complete


4/10 – I’m a broken record; Banis is the best here.

Entertainment value

3/10 – I just…can’t.

World building

3/10 – Do I really need to repeat Banis is the only one who works for me in this



Monday, September 22, 2008

Kitchen Matches by Marianne Arkins

TITLE: Kitchen Matches
AUTHOR: Marianne Arkins
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $3.50

Coerced by her family to take a cooking class in an effort to be more feminine, auto mechanic Cori turns out – unsurprisingly – to be completely inept in the kitchen. The fact that her teacher is snobby, arrogant, and gorgeous? Doesn’t help. But when Micah unexpectedly needs his van towed after class one night, the attraction she’s been fighting turns out to be not quite so one-sided…

When I read the excerpt for this short novella prior to buying it, I laughed. In a good way. So when I bought it, I had high hopes. Not every story can maintain a level of charm and wit from start to finish, but happily, this one does. Cori is sharp and intelligent, and if she’s a klutz in the kitchen, that just gives her an imperfection that’s relatable. The events of the class are played for laughs, but it’s not over the top, not unbelievable. Add in the fact that the dialogue sparkles when Cori and Micah are going at each other, or when Cori is with her family, and reading this was fast, fun, and furious.

Where Cori leaps from the page, Micah barely hops. Cori makes suppositions about him from the start – that he comes from wealth, that he’s pampered and led a sheltered life – that play out in their interactions. While Micah does take steps to attempt to get to know Cori as a person, it always carried with it the sense that he was slumming among the lower classes. Like the rebellious rich boy out to prove to his parents that he could do whatever he wants. It makes it hard to like him, when for Cori’s sake, I really wanted to.

One thing I really loved, though, was the portrayal of a large family. Cori is the youngest of seven, with six older brothers. They tease, they taunt, they torture, and they stick by each other through thick and thin. As one in a family of four children, I felt like I’d stepped into any number of my own family gatherings, every time Cori interacted with even one of her siblings or parents. The brothers had distinct personalities, and each coped with Cori in his own way. They provide Cori’s foundation, and it’s both easy and entertaining to see how it’s manifested in the way she deals with Micah. If I didn’t care for her romantic backstory as much, that’s okay. Her family more than makes up for those few clichés.

The humor and charm carries the novella a great distance, when the romance itself doesn’t. Cori is an adorable heroine. I was glad for the chance to get to know her, even if only briefly.


9/10 – While in the heroine’s POV, the story sparkles and zips along. In the hero’s…not so much.


5/10 – I honestly didn’t understand what the attraction was. While the gestures were nice, it felt too much like he was deliberately slumming it.


8/10 – Amusing and realistic

Entertainment value

7/10 – The good humor plays a long way in this, but the romance is hard to accept when Micah’s a little hard to believe.

World building

8/10 – I’ve seen families exactly like Cori’s. That part was wonderful. With the hero…not so much



Friday, September 19, 2008

Dante's Inferno by Evie Byrne

TITLE: Dante's Inferno
AUTHOR: Evie Byrne
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 39k)
GENRE: Historical erotic romance
COST: $4.50

Serena Alberenghi yearns for adventure. Widowed from a much older, gentle man, trapped in Venetian society, she escapes to the Carnival one night, just to be able to breathe. What she gets is the most exciting liaison of her life, with a mysterious masked man who steals the breath she wished to exhale. Neither are content with just that one night, however, and he returns in search of her, promising to fulfill only her needs this time if she’ll agree to spend time with him. Serena agrees, but on the condition they remain anonymous. Unfortunately, the truth always has a way of coming out…

The best word to describe this? A romp. It’s packed with invigorating detail, breathless sex scenes, and best of all, characters I like even when I want to throttle them. The story starts out with Serena throwing everything to the wind to experience the Carnival, and when her mysterious dance partner seduces her away to an alley, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the moment with her. There’s an intensity between them, as she experiences passion for the first time in her life and then after when he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake thinking she’s a whore. I loved it. Devoured it. Was actually thrilled when Dante, the hero, decided to seek her out again.

Their second meeting was as hot as the first. In fact, all of their interactions carried the same sparkling chemistry that tips them off from the first page as one of those couples that actually work. Where I got frustrated – but certainly not to the point of disliking either of them – was their tendency to overreact. Dante is a tad on the volatile side, while Serena’s lack of experience with the other sex has her taking offenses to greater heights than I think a lot of women would. When the truth of their identities comes out, they then act even more impulsively instead of talking it out. It never bothered me, though. There’s a sharp wit to the author’s voice, and even when these two were creating a scene, I found myself smiling and laughing, shaking my head and thinking, “Oh, these crazy kids…”

In fact, the story only gets held back for me in two small ways. First of all, the author has a tendency to switch POV’s without breaks. I wouldn’t call it headhopping, because honestly, the prose goes for huge long sections in each. I wondered, too, if it might have been a formatting error because in more than one spot, it felt like an entirely new scene. The effect was to create an occasional speed bump while I was reading, where I had to slow down and smooth over the transition in my head. The story’s second weakness rests in the dialogue. The period detail in the prose is exquisite; it’s rich without being heavy and paints a world that’s very easy to believe in. Yet, both Serena and Dante seem to talk in very modern language, using terminology in their speech that jars the sense of time. The story takes place in 1750, but some of the slang makes it feel much more contemporary.

In spite of the minor flaws, however, this was a delight to read, escapist and fun. Racing to the end to see a couple’s happy ending – a couple where I was equally invested in both the characters – hasn’t been this beguiling in a long time.


8/10 – An invigorating romp that only gets held back by my dislike for switching pov’s without breaks


8/10 – How can you not like a man who gets as swept away as this?


8/10 – Honest and bold, I only wished she’d maintained the same level of sensibility when they were both being boneheads

Entertainment value

9/10 – Hot and romantic

World building

8/10 – The expositional period detail is wonderful, but it gets let down by dialogue that sounds very out of place.



Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Death of a Pirate King by Josh Lanyon

TITLE: Death of a Pirate King
AUTHOR: Josh Lanyon
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 73k)
GENRE: Gay mystery romance
COST: $7.99

Adrien English is back, though it’s taken two years for another murder to distract him. The charismatic Hollywood star Paul Kane has optioned his first book for a film, but when the financial backer takes a nosedive into his soup at a dinner party right next to Adrien, everything Adrien has come to hope for in his life changes. Because the cop called in to lead the investigation is none other than Jake Riordan…

Reviewing an installment in an ongoing series is hard, but when you’re emotionally invested in the characters, it raises a lot of questions on whether or not you’re actually being objective. Am I overlooking flaws because I love the character so much? Am I more forgiving? I can’t tell you whether or not my opinion on the latest Adrien English story falls prey to these pitfalls. All I know is that I spent the entire time reading it alternately miserable because of the cascade of emotions it evoked, and exhilarated to rush through to the next chapter. I love Adrien to pieces, so when he’s a wreck, and angry, and worried, I am, too. That is the magic of these stories.

I’m not ashamed to say I loathed Jake at the end of the previous book. I thought – and still do – that his behavior toward Adrien bordered on condescending and abusive. Not that Adrien is perfect, but it’s hard to watch someone you care about being jerked around. Which is what Jake was doing. Yes, I know it was about his own fears, his own phobias, but that doesn’t mean I have to like that he was acting out on Adrien. So going into this book, straight away, I have anger issues toward Jake. Am I thrilled Adrien is with Guy? Eh. I was just happy Adrien wasn’t with Jake anymore. My anger issues compounded as the book progressed, too, as Adrien finds out – very early, so it’s not really a spoiler – that Jake has been involved with Paul Kane. I felt betrayed, much like Adrien did, and constant exposure to Jake exacerbates those feelings.

But here’s the thing, and this is indicative of Lanyon’s talent for alchemy. This book is as much about Jake as it is about Adrien, in ways I can’t explain without spoiling people (go back and think about the title when you’re done with it). By the time I finished reading, I had resolution. Reaching the end was like taking a long, shuddering breath. I was able to take everything I knew, and everything I learned, and create something new and manageable. Do I love Jake? No. I don’t think I’ll ever love Jake. But I don’t hate him, which for how strong my feelings were going into the story says a lot.

It’s a roller coaster. That’s all there is to it. For me, because the emotions are so tangled and often explosive, the mystery actually suffers. I wasn’t surprised by the outcome – it felt telegraphed quite early, actually – and certain sections felt sketchy, like racing through something that had to be done in order to get to the good stuff. But the impact of the book for me rested with Adrien, not with the murder. He has come so far since the first book – harder, less patient, and yet more fragile than he’s ever been. Like blown glass, deceptively strong only to shatter with one wrong touch. I’m dying to see where he goes to next. Lanyon’s prose is leaner than it’s ever been, his characters richer, and if maybe I didn’t laugh as much in this one as I have in others, that’s purely a reaction to the emotional tempest created here. I'm invested. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.


9/10 – Spare and tight prose makes for a compulsive read.

Hero #1

10/10 – Adrien breaks my heart.

Hero #2

7/10 – Last book, this would have been a 2. Maybe even a 1. The fact that Jake now gets a 7? Should tell you something.

Entertainment value

9/10 – A roller coaster of emotions

World building

9/10 – Lanyon’s leaner prose focuses on the intangible to the occasional exclusion of detail I might have wanted.



Monday, September 15, 2008

A Little Slice of Heaven by Gina Ardito

TITLE: A Little Slice of Heaven
AUTHOR: Gina Ardito
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 61k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

Gianna Randazzo has a soft heart, rescuing strays and helping anybody she can. The homeless man hanging around the dumpster of her family’s pizzeria, however, isn’t quite as destitute as she’s used to. Kyle Hayden has the looks and manners of the upper class, but when it comes down to it, he’s still a man in need. She offers him a job as a busboy, only to be thrown for a loop when he cleans up into one of the most gorgeous men she’s ever seen. In fact, he just might be the perfect guy to pose as her doting boyfriend at her ex’s approaching wedding. Too bad Kyle’s got secrets of his own…

There is something refreshing about finding an everyday heroine that not only I can relate to, but that I actually like. Gianna Randazzo is twenty-nine, a teacher, and single, with a soft heart and a strong work ethic that resembles many of the women I know. Her lack of attachment stems from a recent break-up, when the man she was dating – a teacher at the same elementary she worked at – walked into her kindergarten class, got down on one knee, and promptly proposed to her assistant. Gianna did the only thing she could in the face of the humiliation and gossip – she finished out the school year and then quit, deciding to pursue her dream to open her own daycare. I loved that she had the gumption and pride to stick it out, but that she was realistic enough to be so hurt that she had to quit in order not to face those two on a daily basis. In fact, throughout most of the story, she acts with this same sense of honor and smarts, and it doesn’t take long at all before I start thinking this is someone I’d easily be friends with.

Now, granted, her decision to give a homeless man a job is just a tad too altruistic for the real world, but then again, Kyle’s not your average homeless man. Even without having bathed in over a week and in clearly soiled clothing, he stands out. I actually liked him quite a lot until I got into his perspective. Though the details aren’t shared, enough is said early on for me to say he’s only temporarily destitute. There is a countdown to when he can return to Central Park West and his previous existence, which he uses more than once on himself to keep Gianna at arms’ length. The downside to learning these scanty details, however, is I was then exposed to his entire upper crust attitude. He comes across as very snide and superior in his internal monologues through the first half of the book. More than once, I wished Gianna would get over how good-looking and well-mannered he was. Kyle eventually makes up for that early snobbery – and honestly, I do realize this is done purely to show how Gianna has changed him – but I never love him the way I do her.

The supporting cast of characters is well-developed, and I have to admit, I liked the fact that Kyle’s honest reaction to Hayley, Gianna’s best friend, was annoyance and mild dislike instead of instant friendship. Considering the characterization, it was a real reaction, as were most of the reactions throughout the story. That’s where the story thrives. It created an environment that felt like someplace I’d hang out in real life, complete with people I would witness interacting. Gianna and Hayley could be any number of people I know, as could Claudio, Gianna’s godfather, or Bethany, the teenaged Goth girl who hangs out at the pizzeria. The story isn’t perfect – the prose has a tendency to be overwritten for my tastes, and the ending is rushed and not as believable as the rest of it – but then neither are these people. In the end, I want to spend time with them, regardless of their flaws, because the story is warm, humorous, and heartfelt.

On a completely separate note, I sincerely hope the publisher corrects the author’s name for future sales. According to the title page, bio, and website, the author’s last name is Ardito. However, in the header at the top of every single page in my PDF file, it says, by Gina Hardtop. I don’t know about the author, but I think Ardito sounds infinitely better.


8/10 – Occasionally over the top prose and very mild headhopping in the beginning are the only things that hold this back.


6/10 – His arrogance in the sections in his POV makes it very hard to like him, though thankfully his actions speak louder than words.


9/10 – Spunky and wonderful

Entertainment value

8/10 – The ending is too rushed, and Kyle leaves a little to be desired, but I zipped through this, hoping for a happy ending.

World building

7/10 – The lack of information regarding Kyle’s real life was frustrating, though I knew why I didn’t get it.



Friday, September 12, 2008

The Boys Back Home by Sierra Dafoe

TITLE: The Boys Back Home
AUTHOR: Sierra Dafoe
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 23k)
GENRE: Contemporary ménage erotic romance
COST: $3.50

Cassie Jordan is engaged. The only problem is, she’s never forgotten the two boys she grew up with, the two boys she loved, the two boys who chose each other instead of her. Returning to the small Idaho town where she grew up, Cassie hopes to finally get her feelings sorted out once and for all…

The opening of this fast-reading novella is thick with detail, describing the world which Cassie returns to with sparkling clarity. It’s swift to suck you in, and even more so as Cassie’s conflicted emotions tangle you up in knots as tight as hers. As she comes into contact with first Kyle and then Alan from her childhood, discovering that they’re still together, she’s buffeted by a maelstrom of feelings, and it’s very hard not to get as lost in them as she is. There is a quiet desperation throughout the entire first two-thirds of the story, in fact, as we learn that it isn’t just Cassie who’s been eaten up alive by her unrequited love for both these men. The nobility that’s at the core of both men, both convinced she wants the other, makes them sympathetic and heartwarming. It’s easy to see what Cassie loves about them. It’s even easier to fall for them, too.

The erotic scenes are simple but highly effective. There’s a combination of m/m, m/f/m, and m/f, so a little bit for everybody. Language tends to run the gamut from more technical terminology to very crude, but oddly enough, it all sounds so organic to the characters that it works in spite of its slight schizophrenia.

My one disappointment with this short novella was the ending. The melancholy and grief is palpable for much of the story, but it all turns on a dime with the resolution. Suddenly, Cassie is acting the sex kitten, and the characterization does nothing to match what we’ve already learned about her. It’s entirely possible there is this side to Cassie, but we never get to see or experience it, and the lack of a smooth segue between the two versions is disconcerting to say the least. It also felt, for as deep and genuine as the other emotions ran, the resolution came too easily. The author went to definite lengths to convince me of the trio’s grief; I needed more than, “Okay, it’s better, let’s live happily ever after now” in order to believe it was real.

In spite of the weak ending, this is one of the better short erotic romances I’ve read in a while. There’s a lot of strength in the author’s writing – passionate detail and honest emotions leading the way. I look forward to seeing what else she has to offer in the future.


9/10 – Tight attention to detail and believable dialogue makes it a swift read.


7/10 – Hot with believable emotions.


7/10 – Fairly solid, though it always felt like half the story was missing.

Entertainment value

8/10 – I completely engaged with the raw emotions of the first two-thirds of the story. It was only the sudden swing and too easy resolution that disappointed me.

World building

8/10 – Some excellent detail painting the modern day small town.



Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Virgin Widow by Lillith Payne

TITLE: The Virgin Widow
AUTHOR: Lillith Payne
PUBLISHER: Forbidden Publications
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 28k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $3.99

When she is forced to marry the Duke of Trahorn, thrice-widowed Serena settles herself into making the best of an awkward situation. Due to his physical limitations, he claims to only seek companionship and a wife to run his keep. What he gets is a loyal partner who refuses to show weakness, even when it’s obvious some people would prefer her gone…

From the very first sentence, there’s an odd disconnect with this story. The blurb and sales page note The Virgin Widow is a historical, and yet, this is the first taste of the world the author wants us to disappear into: “If a tree fell in the forest and there was nobody around to hear it, would you still bitch?” There is no date or place notation at the top of the chapter, and nothing for pages upon pages to suggest when or where this might be taking place. I was thrust immediately into a more contemporary mindset, especially since I can’t find any indication that the word “bitch” was used as a verb prior to the early 20th century (the OED's first indication is 1930). As a noun for a lewd or immoral woman? Sure, that goes back to 1400, possibly even before. But this sense of anachronistic writing prevails throughout the entire story. There are mentions of British places to finally give me a location of where everything is transpiring, but it wasn’t until mention of Henrietta Maria, nearly two-thirds of the way through, that gave me a sense of when. Since she’s married to King Charles, I have to assume the author means Charles I, which would place the events somewhere in the first half of the 1600s. But this lack of attention to period detail marks the prose from beginning to end.

It doesn’t help that the writing itself is weak. Headhopping is the norm, and there are multiple instances of incorrect word usage (apparently, Serena has a “taught nipple;” it makes me wonder what it knows). What really works against it is the author’s inclination to tell not show. Huge blocks of story are glossed over in vague exposition, sections that would be emotionally relevant to show. For instance, in a pivotal scene with Fiona, the woman furious at Serena’s attempts to actually be a real wife to Zane, instead of getting to see the crux of the scene for ourselves, we get this:

He made it clear to everyone in the room and anyone who might be within listening distance from the kitchen, he'd not tolerate her behavior any longer, and suggested it was time for her to be heading back to her own husband and keep. In fact, he'd made sure her carriage would be ready at first light and had Hilda send up several maids to pack for her. Her fair skin went still paler, then flushed a deep red, her anger welling up and spewing from her lips.

I didn’t want to hear that it happened. I wanted to see it. I needed to see it, after everything Fiona had done and said. Yet, that emotional satisfaction was denied me by the constant distant summaries.

It wouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did if this was a story I could completely write off. Because I can’t. As characters, Serena and Zane were both likeable and engaging, and their interactions with each other charming. I wanted more for them, more from them, and didn’t get it because of the way the rest of the story elements failed to work for me. Serena is smart and heartwarming, while Zane has a melancholy reticence that made me want to give him everything he wanted. Other characters are just as sharply drawn; the fact that I responded so strongly to Fiona is proof of that. They deserve to have the entire story told, not just the sporadic sections we’re offered. I would have even settled for simply fleshing out those scenes that got summarized instead of expounded.


4/10 – Headhopping, telling vs showing, incorrect word usage…there’s a lot of sloppy writing that holds back enjoyable characters


6/10 – Likeable though enigmatic, he needs more backstory in order to really have any sort of impact


7/10 – Smart without being too smart, spunky without being annoying

Entertainment value

4/10 – This has the potential of a really good story, if only all the technical stuff didn’t hold it back.

World building

3/10 – Until mention of Henrietta Maria came, this could have really been anywhere, anywhen



Monday, September 8, 2008

Practical Purposes by Yeva Wiest

TITLE: Practical Purposes
AUTHOR: Yeva Wiest
PUBLISHER: Lyrical Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 22k)
GENRE: Gay black comedy
COST: $3.50

The small town of Salem, Texas is not the place to be if you’re different. But when a death in the family forces Dr. James Cole to return, he decides he is not going to do it with his tail tucked between his legs. He’s going to have his partner there at his side for the funeral, even if his father warns him not to bring the “white boy” with him. Too bad his father doesn’t really want either of them around to embarrass him…

Not everyone enjoys black comedy. Some people take offense at serious issues being treated without the respect they deserve, which is fine. Personally, I love it when it’s done well. There is a lot that can be learned by looking at topics from different angles.

Practical Purposes easily falls into this category. It’s small-minded America at its worst, with colorful misfits struggling to fit in and others who have managed to escape. James' father, King Cole – and there are plenty of Ol’ King Cole jokes in this, most of which actually work – is as conservative as they come, and he has never approved of his son’s sexuality. He is bound and determined James is not going to disgrace the family by showing up at the funeral when there will be fourteen black Baptist preachers in attendance. His plan to sidetrack both James and his lover Zach is ill-conceived at best, acted out by a group of the epitome of the narrow-minded American – white, conservative, teenaged boys. The fact that they’re all clearly idiots adds to the absurdity of the entire situation, especially as it barrels at breakneck speed throughout the story.

The characters populating the story are colorful to say the least. Each has its own distinct personality, and even though there are a ton of them, it was easy to tell them apart. There is no single character that controls the lead, as several weave in and out of the telling. In fact, if anything, James and Zach – the two gay men who prompt all the action in the first place – are probably the sanest and most vanilla of the bunch. Considering they’re the outsiders in Salem, it makes perfect sense, and their sensibility offers a wonderful contrast to the likes of Tallulah the dollar store clerk/plumber/lesbian, Donnie the nerd in love with Tallulah, Petey-bird the high school boy with less sense than ears, and Odessa Collins the 84-year-old deceased whose presence hangs over the entire tale.

In spite of such vibrant storytelling, the story gets let down by its editorial mistakes. Headhopping isn’t a minor thing in this; it’s widespread enough to include a scene that starts out with James in a moving car, jumps to Tallulah and Donnie on the sidewalk, back into the car again, then ending hopping between James and his father – all without a scene break. It’s indicative of the style that plagues the whole story. To make matters worse, there are technical issues that really should have been caught – like loose for lose, and the one character who spends half the time with the last name Lawson and the other half as Lawton. It holds back what could have been some biting commentary on homophobia and small town America. For this reader, it ends up being entertaining, but only as a nibble.


6/10 – Headhopping and editorial issues distract from what could be sharp, funny prose


9/10 – Everything is over the top, like most comedy is, but the characters are crisp and distinct


7/10 – Could be offensive to some, and certain areas beg for further explanation, but I was willing to go along for the ride as long as it lasted.

Entertainment value

7/10 – Dark and bold, but the technical things hold it back.

World building

9/10 – I’m not sure how realistic the world is that’s been painted here in its extremes, but I am sure I believed it.



Friday, September 5, 2008

No Time to Hide by Karen Troxel

TITLE: No Time to Hide
AUTHOR: Karen Troxel
PUBLISHER: Amber Quill
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 62k)
GENRE: Romantic suspense
COST: $7.00

Kerry is tired of running, but the man she turned into the Feds – the one she’d thought she was going to marry – is bound and determined to make her pay, no matter what witness program she’s in. When US Marshal Cutter Snead is assigned to babysit her through her most recent relocation, he thinks his last job is just watching a mob daughter. But she’s more than that. And so is the trouble that’s following her…

No Time to Hide starts out strong, with tight action and tighter prose. The prologue introduces a bastard of a villain and the danger the heroine is facing by being in the WitSec program. It’s easy to get swept up into that as the story launches into the primary action, and our initial introduction to Cutter is charming as he pretends to be just a guy bumping into her at the mall. It doesn’t take long, however, before things start to derail for me. The danger is incessant, which is great considering this is a romantic suspense, but as soon as his true identity comes out, Cutter’s personality changes. His dialogue with Kerry becomes very caustic, and it felt not only very unprofessional but unlikeable as well. We’re told he’s learned about who she is through her file, and thus why he’s so hard on her, but frankly, it came across as just plain mean. The Kerry the reader knows is very different from what’s in Cutter’s head, and his interpretations of her seem foolish as well as unreasonable. The end result is it makes it very difficult to like him for a very long time. It wasn’t until halfway through the story that I started to see some hero potential, but for me, that was just too late.

Kerry suffers from the reverse problem. As a character, she starts out very strong, but as time progresses and the stress grows higher and higher, she breaks down. It’s indicative of the pressure the character is under, but when so much is made of how calm and collected she is in spite of her precarious situation, I expected more. She breaks down into a range of various tics and behaviors that got on my nerves. For instance, she’s suffered from panic attacks for over a decade, which only grow worse in the face of this encroaching threat. She rocks almost constantly in order to calm herself down, and – I’ll be honest – it’s annoying. Eventually, it just got too hard to see past it.

In spite of my issues with the characters, the action is continuous throughout the book, barely giving a reader a chance to breathe. What felt like pretty good pacing gets thrown off the tracks towards the big climax, though. My initial delighted surprise at being shocked by a fresh twist in the story turned into genuine confusion as everything halted into long speeches that came out of nowhere. There were so many personality changes in the last few chapters, I couldn’t keep track of them all. Worse, the sugarcoating of the epilogue had the effect of being creepy, not sweet as I’m sure the author intended.

I would have been much more tolerant of some of the issues in the last part of the story if I’d liked the characters more. It’s suspenseful and moves along at a brisk pace until the end, so perhaps someone else might have better luck with Kerry and Cutter.


8/10 – Pacing in the last quarter is the only real problem.


6/10 – His caustic commentary when he is first introduced made it very hard to get to like him.


5/10 – Her idiosyncrasies like the rocking got on my nerves.

Entertainment value

5/10 – This might have been higher if the whole climax of the story wasn’t one big huh when solutions and attitudes seemed to come out of the blue in order to provide twists.

World building

6/10 – I had a better time with the brief prison scenes than I did with any of the external stuff.



Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Into the Blue by Ann Cory

TITLE: Into the Blue
AUTHOR: Ann Cory
PUBLISHER: Total-e-bound
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 13k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: ₤1.69

Samantha Jensen accepts a surprise invitation to a pool party as a means to an escape her frantic workaholic life, but the guests turn out to be more interested in sex than swimming. One gorgeous man takes her eye, but she never expects that he’s as taken with her…

Fantasy fluff. That’s what I call these kind of stories. I don’t mean fantasy in the otherworldly sense of the word, but rather in the daydreaming, never going to happen sense. It’s very hard to take them seriously because they’re so devoted to creating an entirely over the top experience. They have their own niche, however, and I do enjoy them to break up my patterns. There’s absolutely zero thought required to reading them, and this one is no exception.

Any depth of characterization is abandoned in favor of the erotic. Samantha is painted as a workaholic, but in the confines of this particular story, we don’t get to experience it, just hear about it all secondhand. She is too wrapped up in the sensual experience of the party, and taking every ounce of pleasure she can from the man determined to give it, even when it means getting his buddy to help break down her defenses at one point. Cole, the hero, lacks any sort of personality, but honestly, if you’ve bought this story, you’re not reading it to find out what kind of a conversationalist the man is. He’s a hot body – a very hot body – used as a means to get the heroine off. And in that context, it works. It more than works. In spite of mild headhopping, I enjoyed the dip into the daydream pool.

Just don’t forget that’s all it is. Late attempts to add depth to the characters never really work; the description of Cole’s life outside of the pool party made me laugh at how ridiculous it sounded. The strength isn’t in the story; it’s in the sex.


7/10 – Mild headhopping and definitely a trip into fantasyland, but its erotic scenes more than work.


4/10 – This isn’t about personality; this is about a hot body giving a woman everything she wants.


5/10 – Some of her so-called flaws seemed painted on, rather than integral to her characterization

Entertainment value

6/10 – As long as I never forget this is just about a hot fantasy and nothing remotely real or romantic, it’s fun.

World building

5/10 – I don’t for a second believe any of the exterior set-up for these two, but then again, it’s a fantasy.



Monday, September 1, 2008

Love in Bloom by Jules Bennett

TITLE: Love in Bloom
AUTHOR: Jules Bennett
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 57k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

A car accident changes young photographer Claire Wilson’s life forever. Forced to recognize that a little boy was killed in the accident, she walks away from it a changed woman, including the fact that she can no longer see. She retreats from the world, punishing herself for what she thinks she has done wrong. Her best friend decides to help by hiring landscaper Jackson Akers to redo her yard and gardens, in hopes of luring her out of the house. What starts out as a job soon evolves into more…for both Jackson and Claire…

I have to admit that if the blurb and excerpt on the publisher’s site had mentioned either the dead child or the fact that Jackson has a five-year-old daughter, I probably would have passed on buying it. I find many contemporary romances – especially sweeter ones – that incorporate children are either too emotionally manipulative or too saccharine for my tastes. I’ve got my own small children; rarely do the children I read about resemble them or any of their friends in any way.

That being said, I didn’t hate this. In regards to the child aspect, Jackson’s daughter Emma isn’t too precocious and actually serves a vital role in the story’s development. She’s not merely inserted for a cute factor. There’s still a certain amount of emotional manipulation, but then again, I think that’s par for the course for these types of stories. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re getting yourself into, when you start reading them.

As a hero, Jackson is straight out of the mold. He’s polite, gorgeous, a great father. It’s hard to find fault in him, actually, because even his attempts at keeping distance between him and Claire reek of I’m a good guy. The author attempts to give him an edge late in the story, but it never really sits well in light of the character arc she’s already painted. I was more than glad when that got easily remedied, though that, too, is indicative of one of the story’s other weaknesses.

For all the heavyduty issues in this – Claire’s hysterical blindness, Jackson’s custody issues with his daughter – solving them seems to get sugarcoated. After only one therapy session, Claire is already taking steps to get out of her house, when she has spent months refusing even the therapy. The course of the custody battle seems realistic, but with the exception of one scene, everything about it takes place offstage, so the reader never really gets to feel the urgency of what’s involved. We’re just told, and then boom, it’s all fixed. It’s just one more example of what we’re denied experiencing throughout the course of the story.

It’s certainly not a bad story. Technically, the prose is clean and simple, and the author’s obvious knowledge of plants and gardening makes Jackson’s career come to life. But it never rises above the average for me. Its simplistic, saccharine presentation, while not grating like so many other similar offerings, kept me at an emotional distance. It might not for lovers of this particular genre, though. If you’re looking specifically for sweet, uncomplicated romance with kids on the side, this just might do the trick.


7/10 – Simple and clean, though it was very easy to put down.


6/10 – Practically perfect, though at least the saccharine doesn’t grate


6/10 – Many of her problems seem overcome rather easily, though she’s likeable anyway.

Entertainment value

6/10 – A little too saccharine for my tastes

World building

9/10 – The best part about this was I believed 100% that Jackson knew a lot about plants and gardening.