Friday, February 29, 2008

Samurai Captive by Barbara Sheridan

TITLE: Samurai Captive
AUTHOR: Barbara Sheridan
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 30k)
GENRE: Historical erotic romance
COST: $4.99

When circumstances find an English maid thrust into the window of a Japanese brothel, she does what she can to make the best of a bad situation. Hannah Connolly puts on a show for the men who consider her a barbarian, but when samurai Sanada Katsuhiro actually purchases her, an attempt to escape just means he has to tie her to the bed when he gets her home. Hannah is torn between being the samurai’s whore and her independent nature, especially since his lover and best friend, samurai Sato Masato, makes it clear she’s not welcome…

I should make an admission upfront. I am not well-versed in Asian culture, whether it's pop culture, political history, or sociological development. I don't read yaoi, or watch anime. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate a gorgeous or charismatic Asian actor, but I’m only familiar with those who’ve crossed into American culture (like Chow Yun Fat, oh holy moly, he can come to my house any day). That being said, I’ve always found myself intrigued with historical Asian stories. Not enough to call myself a fangirl, but certainly enough to interest me when I saw this title at Loose Id.

First of all, the cover is absolutely gorgeous. You know what I think? I think April Martinez and Anne Cain should get together and do a coffee table book of all their best covers. Something I can curl up with and flip through so that I can pet all the pretty. And include this one. I’d buy that book so fast, my credit card would catch on fire.

That being said, the story fell a little short in reaching the high standards of the cover. While the plot itself is fine enough on its own, the characterizations and underlying relationships were what gave me pause.

Hannah is meant to be a strong woman, but her characterization is scattershot at best. The daughter of a whore, she was raised to be better than that and is now a maidservant. She has a strong temperament, and does what she can to survive, so when she’s put on display at the brothel, she is determined not to have to survive on her back. So what does she do? She puts on a show that specifically titillates her male audience, including going down on one of the older women in the house. This is supposed to turn them off from wanting her? Um…no. It succeeds in catching Katsu’s interest, so he buys her, but the first thing she does is try and escape. He catches her, but her struggles are mostly lipservice because she’s attracted to him. All her protestations about not being a whore go right out the window as far as he is concerned, which doesn’t really lend any credence to believing her earlier protests. That kind of back and forth is fairly typical of the rest of the story as well, but I think we’re supposed to buy it because, oh yeah, she’s the heroine.

Then there’s the relationship between Katsu and Masato. Both samurai, they have been lovers and best friends since they were teenagers, through Katsu’s first marriage, all the way to the night Katsu brings Hannah home. By Katsu’s own admission, Masato has been the one to be there for him through everything, both sexually and emotionally. He’s been indoctrinated to believe that women are not to be trusted because their loyalties will always be divided between their families and their husbands. All that holds true until he brings Hannah home. Then, all he seems able to think about is her, though I have no idea why because all they do is have sex, then she snaps at him, he shuts her out, and then they have sex again. Oh, but she’s the heroine, so he has to all of a sudden shut out the one person who’s been there from the beginning for him. It’s really no wonder at all that Masato doesn’t like Hannah. I’d be pissed, too. This isn’t a romance. This is lust, and Katsu can’t see that.

Ultimately, the root of the problem is Katsu, I think. There are moments when he’s wonderful – noble and admirable and most importantly, likable. Then there are moments when he’s such a complete ass, both to Masato and Hannah. He completely turns his back on all the years he’s had with Masato for this woman, without any real good reason except he wants her. He has sex with Masato while thinking of her, too. It didn’t make me like him at all. What it did was make me feel sorry for Masato for being in love with such a shit.

When the story concentrates on Katsu and Masato (before Katsu turns his back on him) or the overlying plot of Katsu trying to catch the people smuggling opium into Japan, it works. What doesn’t work for me is believing the romance between Katsu and Hannah. If Masato hadn’t been around, maybe it might have worked. But his presence clouds the emotional issues enough to divert sympathy for either of the principles.

Readability

7/10 – The heroine’s voice never engaged me, which means plodding along in several sections of the story.

Hero

6/10 – At times, very arresting. At others, such an asshole.

Heroine

5/10 – Inconsistent at best, but at least she’s not a simp.

Entertainment value

5/10 – Glimmers of a darker, more interesting story peek through, but the misplacement of the romance kept me detached.

World building

7/10 – Some nice details, but to a newbie, it lacks clarity that a glossary at the end can’t compensate for.

TOTAL:

30/50

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Highlander's Challenge by Jo Barrett

TITLE: Highlander’s Challenge
AUTHOR: Jo Barrett
PUBLISHER: The Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 88k)
GENRE: Time travel romance
COST: $6.00

Professional bodyguard Amelia Tucker – or Tuck, as she insists on being called – is protecting genius/heiress Jenny Maxwell from a potential kidnapping threat when something goes horribly, horribly wrong. A fall into a fountain lands her over four hundred years in the past, where one of the first people she runs into is Colin MacLean. The next leader of his clan, he mistakes her for a boy because of the way she dresses and fights. It’s not until he’s taken her back to Arreyder Castle that the truth comes out. Tuck finds herself under suspicion of being a spy, mistrusted in spite of all the good she keeps doing for MacLean, and far too attracted to a man who drives her crazy. All she wants to do is get back to her own time, but every time she manages to escape, Colin goes after her and drags her back. One would almost think…he doesn’t want her to leave…

I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to read this book. Teddypig recommended this last year, in several places online, and I put it on my TBR list to read at some point in the future. I’m not entirely sure why I waited, to be honest. Considering how much I adore Diana Gabaldon, a time traveling story with a Scotsman alpha hero should have been right up my alley.

Colin is as alpha as they come. A product of his times, he is constantly barking at Tuck to put on proper clothes, act like a woman, etc. He’s never bothered to learn how to court a woman because he’s had a woman from a neighboring clan promised to him since childhood. His duty is to protect everybody within his care, and his own happiness takes a backseat to that. When he finds himself face to face with a woman who can not only best him in a fight but does things he’s seen no other woman do, he’s at a loss. His temper gets shorter and shorter, and meanwhile, the attraction between them gets higher and higher.

Tuck makes a very welcome change to most time travel heroines. She can do more than hold her own; she can do everything any of the men can do and better. No simpering for this one. She’s strong and smart, mouthy and capable. I loved her contrary nature, how she ignored Colin’s directives to follow her own head, even when it got her into trouble. There was a point where she ran off – again – that I started to wish the author would find something else to do with Tuck, but ultimately, that’s a minor complaint in the face of her characterization. Tuck and Colin are perfect for each other, and the tension that builds between them really detonates their first kiss.

The story excels with its characters and romance. Though the neighboring clan isn’t given the chance to gain any depth, many of those within the MacLean keep are fleshed out enough to make the entire castle pulse with life. This helps to counter the threadbare worldbuilding. Outside of the dialogue, I never really got the full sense that this was a Scottish story. It really could have been almost anywhere, which is a shame. The other major problem to note was the headhopping without scene breaks. This isn’t a dealbreaker for some people, and if the story hadn’t been as engaging, or if there had been other technical issues, it might have been a dealbreaker for me. But as it is, the author’s style drags me back into the story after the jumps. Once I got used to the headhopping – though I never liked it – those transitions smoothed out some, so I engaged more quickly afterward.

All in all, the story is rich with romance, laughter, and characters to root for. I enjoyed it so much, the first thing I did after finishing it was go out and order the print version.

Readability

8/10 – Headhopping is the biggest obstacle for me in this story, but it so quickly sucks me back in that I read this in one sitting.

Hero

9/10 – Okay, I have a fondness for Highlander alphas, I’ll admit it.

Heroine

9/10 – Tough and capable and more feminine than she gives herself credit for.

Entertainment value

9/10 – Loved it enough to scamper off and order it in print as soon as I was done.

World building

7/10 – There are a few nice details, but the story’s appeal comes from the forceful characters, not the historical atmosphere

TOTAL:

42/50

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mahape a ale Wala'au by Paul G. Bens, Jr.

TITLE: Mahape a ale Wala'au
AUTHOR: Paul G. Bens, Jr.
PUBLISHER: Torquere Press
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 10k)
GENRE: Contemporary gay erotica
COST: $2.49

Toshi is going to Hawaii for his winter holiday, and while he dreams of a fantastic escape, the reality of the young Kristopher leaves him even more…

This story is a gem. Toshi is an everyman, unremarkable in his hometown of Tokyo. He hears wondrous things about the men of Waikiki, so he decides to go off and experience them for himself. The only problem is, he’s still an everyman as he’s wandering around, appreciating the pretty, getting his bearings. When he meets a group of older men, he starts to come a little out of his shell as they appreciate his youth and differences, but it’s the young, beautiful Kristopher who has captivated Toshi. He saw Kristopher as a living statue, doing Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and watched him for hours. When Kristopher shows up at their beach, Toshi finally decides to shed his everyman status and go for it.

The prose in this is absolutely beautiful. Fluid and evocative, there’s a melancholy to the entire work that paints emotional pictures as well as visual ones. We don’t know a lot about Toshi, but by the end, you feel like you do. You understand his romantic soul – partly because the story is told in first person, but partly because of the careful description Bens uses throughout the story. There are moments when you wonder if it’s going to slip into travelogue-speak, but then Bens pulls back, offering just that right amount of detail to place you right there in Hawaii without inundating you with too many facts.

I’m not categorizing this as a romance. In my mind, this is erotica at its best. There is no HEA, which is totally me not spoiling anything because you know that in the first paragraph of the story. But it retains a romantic spirit, and for the lovers in all of us, we can just pretend that somewhere in Toshi’s world, Kristopher sees what he has done. Then you have an HEA. In the very best sense of the phrase.

Readability

9/10 – Lyrical, almost musical prose, that does more in 10k than most stories do in 80.

Hero #1

8/10 – My only complaint about this otherwise lovely everyman is that I don’t completely understand the transition after he spots Kristopher on the beach.

Hero #2

6/10 – Lovely, but ultimately we know little about him, even if that is much of the emotional appeal of this story

Entertainment value

9/10 – Everything a short story should be.

World building

10/10 – I dare anyone to say they don’t feel as if they’re right there.

TOTAL:

42/50

Friday, February 22, 2008

Tango's Edge by Carole Bellacera

TITLE: Tango’s Edge
AUTHOR: Carole Bellacera
PUBLISHER: Cerridwen Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 128k)
GENRE: Contemporary romantic suspense
COST: $7.99

Russian ice dancer Mikhail Kozlof wants to defect, and he thinks American rival, Kerry Niles, is his best bet. While both are competing at the Olympics, the attraction between them catches alight, threatening both of their respective partners. Ready to retire anyway, Kerry takes a risk and agrees to the crazy plan of driving Mikhail across the country to her stepbrother in Virginia. What she doesn’t know is that the Russian Mafia and the IRA have a personal stake in Mikhail’s defection. Neither group is going to let it happen, and the lovers find themselves hunted almost from the moment they hit the road…

When it comes to target markets for this book, I think I’m pretty much it. Figure skating is must-see television in my house during the Olympics, I own White Nights, and I can quote a good part of The Cutting Edge. It didn’t take much to convince me to buy this at all. It took even less for me to really enjoy it.

I fell hook, line, and skate blade for Mikhail. He’s blond and beautiful, with one dangerous-looking scar on his face just to make him more beautiful. He speaks broken English that charms me to my core, he skates like an angel, and, oh yeah, he’s got a conscience. The reason he wants to defect? He wants to expose the slaughter of a village, the one that took the life of his real father. He also wants to avenge his mother’s murder, and for as much as he loves and is wonderful at skating, he’s willing to sacrifice a gold medal at the Olympics to do it. His partner, Elena, is a real ice bitch, which makes it all that much easier to like him, and root for his attraction to Kerry. Getting me to fall for Mikhail almost from the beginning was the smartest thing the author did in this story.

Kerry isn’t quite as well developed as Mikhail is, but there is an irrepressibility about her that’s hard to resist. She knows her limitations, recognizes her faults, and strives anyway. How can I not like that? I even bought her walking away in order to help Mikhail defect.

Not all the characters get the same respect when it comes to even characterization. The villain of the piece, Elena’s bodyguard Sean, is all over the place. His entire motivation for going to the lengths he does is his love for Elena and his desire to have her as the mother of his children. It felt a little too Harlequin for me to buy, especially since the rest of the characters don’t seem to wear the same shade of rose-colored glasses. Elena isn’t very well-rounded either, which doesn’t pose a problem until the last third of the book when she comes into greater play.

While I loved the romance and runaway aspect of the first two-thirds of the book, the last third almost felt like a different story. Kerry takes a backseat, while Mikhail drives the thrust of the action. This wouldn’t be a bad thing – and in actuality, is a minor complaint – but after spending so much time with Kerry, it felt very odd that she becomes almost superfluous. This was a woman who held her own, including disabling a Russian attacker at one point. To have her spending her time shopping and moping around didn’t sit well.

In the end, however, the romance in the story was incredibly charming and just a little bit magical. It moves along at a steady, engaging pace, and if it gets a little bogged down with politics (which requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, due to the changing political climate in Russia) in the last third, the chemistry between Mikhail and Kerry more than makes up for it.

Readability

8/10 – Though the length works against it in the latter half of the story, it’s mostly smooth and engaging.

Hero

9/10 – Romantic and adorable

Heroine

7/10 – Not as well fleshed out as Mikhail, but irrepressible enough to make me adore her

Entertainment value

8/10 – The last third of the book feels like a different story, but it didn’t stop me from reading straight through

World building

9/10 – I would have preferred more backstory, but I can live with what I got.

TOTAL:

41/50

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Arresting Developments by James Buchanan, Josh Lanyon, L. Picaro

TITLE: Arresting Developments
AUTHOR: James Buchanan, Josh Lanyon, L. Picaro
PUBLISHER: Aspen Mountain Press
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 37k)
GENRE: Gay erotic romance
COST: $5.99

A collection of three gay erotic romances, each one featuring a cop as part of the romance.

“Coyote Crossing” by James Buchanan starts with border patrol officer Rick Franco about to have his first big bust in a new post in New Mexico. He doesn’t expect to end up busting the baby brother of his best friend growing up, but he covers for Augi in hopes of landing a bigger fish. There might be the beginnings of a nice romance in this story, but they’re lost in all the technical errors that completely pulled me out of it. In the first two pages alone, the author misuses “loose” for “lose,” “waiving” for “waving,” and “gate” for “gait.” I have no idea how I’m supposed to take a story seriously when it’s edited this poorly. It didn’t improve very much, either, which makes it next to impossible to recommend it.

The second story in the anthology is “In a Dark Wood” by Josh Lanyon. Travel writer Tim is on a first date with cop Luke, a camping weekend that has turned unpleasant as they get lost. The night they met, Tim told a story about a house that terrified him at thirteen, and as the date progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced that Luke just asked him out in order to find the house again. Reality, however, is much scarier than that. What I love about Lanyon is here in spades – sympathetic characters and sharp storytelling. Both men are flawed, and there is no easy answer for the romance, making it feel that much more genuine. If I have any complaints, it’s that it doesn’t have the usual tight editing I’ve found in other Lanyon stories. There are some funny tense shifts in an early section of the story that – thankfully – aren’t nearly as jarring to read as some of the technical issues in the other stories.

The last story is “Gamble Everything” by L. Picaro. Officer Adam Coventry is called to help a car that’s crashed into a snowbank, where he meets Marc Doane. He figures out quickly that Marc is retired porn actor Rod Shaftem, but what he doesn’t know is why somebody would shoot at Marc to drive him off the road. It’s up to him to figure out, but a one-night stand with the man might complicate things. In a lot of ways, I have the same difficulty with this story as I did with the first. On the third page of the story, a reference is made to a bar called the Lyon’s Lair. Three sentences later, it’s called the Lyon’s Layer, then later on, it reverts to the original spelling. There are continuity errors as well, like when a condom magically appears later on after Marc says he doesn’t have any. It’s hard to treat a story like a professional publication when it has such glaring errors. It’s bad enough that the development of the relationship is stilted and unbelievable, but it stands even less of a chance for me enjoy it when I have to struggle with the prose itself.

Unless you’re a fan of one or more of the authors, I’m not sure I can recommend the anthology as a whole. Only Lanyon’s story engaged me. This wasn’t the example I needed to make myself a fan of either of the other authors.

Readability

6/10 – Sloppy editing drags down two-thirds of this anthology.

Romance

5/10 – Only one of them presented a romance that was remotely believable.

Characterization

6/10 – Shallow characterizations made it very hard to connect to two of the stories.

Entertainment value

5/10 – With two of the stories hard to take seriously, this leaves Lanyon leading the pack.

World building

7/10 – The best overall aspect, though the third story left a little to be desired.

TOTAL:

29/50

Monday, February 18, 2008

Redemption: Incubus by Brynn Paulin

TITLE: Redemption: Incubus
AUTHOR: Brynn Paulin
PUBLISHER: Total-e-bound
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 17k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: ₤2.49

Reclusive Valentine Jones seeks out sexual partners online, but one has finally gotten to her. A man who calls himself Master Noah finds her, no matter where she hides. What she doesn’t know is that he is an incubus, and he won’t stop until she’s dead. At least, that’s what the demon inside him wants. The human Noah used to be wants something else…

Sometimes I wonder what gets into me with some of the books I choose. After I was done with this, I went back and re-read the blurb, curious about what it was that drew me to the story in the first place. And…I don’t know. It remains a mystery.

Why did I bother? Because I finished the story with a headache.

I knew when I purchased it that it was the second in this particular series from this author. A quick scan of the first book, though, didn’t make it seem like I needed to have read that in order to enjoy this one. I was wrong. Dead wrong. The story jumps feet first into sex, with Noah fighting against the incubus inside him to keep from killing Val. There is an entire backstory there that is never really explained very well, and when some explanation finally does come – at the end of the book – it’s far, far, far too late. It makes me believe that there is story told in the first book that explains just how this whole thing works with Noah, but there is no way I’m buying it to find out.

In essence, Noah is a walking penis. Seriously. His sole purpose in the book is to have sex with Val. They do nothing else. There is no break for the reader, just as there’s no break for Val, and it’s exhausting to read. Add in the confusion about what exactly is going on with Noah, and really, there’s no wonder why I had a headache in the end.

I can’t even root for or like Val too much. In the very first scene, Noah makes it clear that he’s spying on her by telling her via chat exactly what she’s wearing. What’s her reaction?

Maybe it was a lucky guess. He’d never done this before. She’d never felt threatened. She paused at the wild fluttering in her belly. Her arms crossed her middle as she realised she didn’t feel terribly threatened now. What kind of idiot are you? You’re excited.

She continues to chat with him. Not for long, granted, but that single reaction was enough to completely destroy her credibility for me.

I’m getting a headache just from writing up this review of the story. Enough said, then. A waste of my time.

Readability

6/10 – Minor technical issues, including misused words and headhopping, hold the story back

Hero

4/10 – A vessel more than anything else, no personality except for sexual need

Heroine

3/10 – Inconsistent and idiotic

Entertainment value

2/10 – I had a throbbing headache by the time I was done. Ick.

World building

4/10 – While the suggestions to the backstory were interesting, there wasn’t nearly enough detail or efficient execution to make it comprehensible.

TOTAL:

19/50

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Gift of Chocolate by Lyric James

TITLE: A Gift of Chocolate
AUTHOR: Lyric James
PUBLISHER: Cobblestone Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 23k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $4.99

When six-year-old Kennadi Miller decides to get her mother a Valentine’s Day gift, she introduces the recently divorced Sabrina to the cop who escorts her back to the art center she walked away from without permission. Officer Allen Hughes gets one look at the beautiful Sabrina and he’s hooked. All he has to do now is convince Sabrina that not every man is like her drug addict ex-husband. Before it’s too late.

Released just in time for Valentine’s Day, A Gift of Chocolate looked to be a sweet, normal easygoing contemporary romance, something I could read to counter some of the angstier, edgier, or paranormal stuff I often get sucked into buying. For the most part, that’s exactly what it is. The most part. See, it doesn’t start with Kennadi, or Sabrina, or Allen. It has a prologue about a candy shop owner named Krista, 2k of a 23k book. It sets a scene and a mood with Krista, establishing the neighborhood and her circumstances, and then finishes with Krista saving a homeless man from being bullied by some local kids. The homeless man insists on giving her this vial of an elixir, an ingredient to put into her chocolate that promises the heart’s desire. Then, lo and behold, Krista uses it. What’s the problem with this? Nothing, if the story was about Krista. But it’s not. Krista makes a brief appearance in the first chapter and then disappears after Kennadi buys some of the special chocolate. I have to go through the whole process of introductions and setting again with Allen and Sabrina, and frankly, I was a little miffed. The prologue did absolutely nothing but a) distract me from the focus of the book, b) tell me that this wasn’t as “normal” as I thought it was, and c) show that the hero and heroine don’t even really fall in love on their own, but with the aid of a love potion. It was tempting to give up right then. But I didn’t. I stuck with it. In the end, I’m kind of glad I did.

Once I got past the paranormal prologue – or actually, deliberately chose to forget it was there at all – I found myself warming a lot to Allen and Sabrina. They are simple, nice people. Real, for me. Some of Kennadi’s dialogue sounded too mature for her age, but she’s not in a lot of scenes after the beginning, so that never got the chance to grate too much. Instead, I had the opportunity to discover good people can have love, too. Sometimes, that’s all this reader needs.

The story was sweet and romantic, not overly hot though the sex scene was graphic enough, I suppose. It started to fall apart a little in the sex scene, actually, when all of a sudden, the author started to headhop when she hadn’t before. Why do authors do that? It happens a lot. They’re fine for all of the book, but for some inexplicable reason, sex scenes will jump POVs from paragraph to paragraph. It’s very jarring for me, and ends up tainting my reading experience. But really, that marked a decline in the quality of the story. Allen remained solid, but Sabrina made a TSTL choice that lost her a lot of points. To top it all off, the attempts to add conflict in the final third didn’t work. Part of it is because of Sabrina’s idiotic decision, but part of it is that the writing itself isn’t as fleshed out as the rest of the story. It felt very much like, “Oh, I just want to get through this so I can get to my HEA.” Which I did, too, but not like that.

In the end, I still enjoyed it. It fulfilled a need for me this week. It’s sweet and real. As long as I forget about that annoying prologue.

Readability

7/10 – Smooth until the sex scene at which point the author starts headhopping, and things go down from there.

Hero

8/10 – A character that proves that sometimes a nice guy is exactly what you need

Heroine

7/10 – Her behavior turns disappointing in the latter half of the story as the author tries to introduce more conflict.

Entertainment value

7/10 – Cliched turns in the last third drag down what could have been a nice, sweet story.

World building

8/10 – I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I didn’t think I was right there with them.

TOTAL:

37/50

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dreams & Desires 2 by various authors

TITLE: Dreams & Desires 2
AUTHOR: C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, Jenna Bayley-Burke, Amanda Brice, Shannon Canard, Sela Carsen, Rachelle Chase, M.E. Ellis, Jenny Gardiner, Gemma Halliday, Candace Havens, Zinnia Hope, Babe King, Susan Lyons, Sarah Salway, Rhonda Stapleton, Bebe Thomas, Emily Veinglory, Lois Winston, Shaunna Wolf
PUBLISHER: Freya’s Bower
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 65k)
GENRE: Romance
COST: $5.95

A collection of nineteen stories, some romance, some chick lit, some just simple women’s tales, brought together to raise money for battered women’s shelters.

Because of the sheer number of stories in this anthology – 19 of them! – I’m foregoing my usual method of showing the breakdown of scores and just giving an overall total. I kept a running tally on each individual story and then added them all up, but honestly, to give you the breakdown on 19 stories would be too long and boring, and to show you each of the category total breakdowns will tell you nothing. They’ll look like averages with pretty much the same comment – some of these stories are really good, and some are just truly awful.

The ones I like? Three of them truly stood out for me. Adams’ and Clamp’s story, Regrets, is a nice little paranormal tale about a woman getting stuck in a small nowhere town. The ending is a little predictable, but there’s an emotionally satisfying conclusion to this that most of the stories lack. The First Date by Candace Havens is a very real, romantic short about a widow getting back into the swing of things with her hunky Scottish neighbor. For something on the gay side of the fence, Emily Veinglory’s Maze Bright takes another of her offbeat characters and makes him utterly human without losing focus on the romance.

A couple others that bear mentioning – Mark of a Bond Girl by Gemma Halliday is fun and sparkly, while Free by Bebe Thomas is the shortest and most heartbreaking of the bunch. Less than 500 words, it packs an emotional wallop that stories much, much longer never attain.

While my score for this might not reflect just how much I really enjoyed the above-mentioned stories, the fact that all proceeds on sales for this anthology go to battered women’s shelters should weigh in its favor. I don’t regret buying this in the slightest. I discovered a few new authors for me, learned that several that showed promise are paying off, and found out a few who just aren’t my style. Add in the charity angle, and really, you can’t go wrong.

29/50

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pyromancer by Amanda Young

TITLE: Pyromancer
AUTHOR: Amanda Young
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 53k)
GENRE: Paranormal gay erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Christian Ryder has the ability to control fire, both to create it and to hold it back. He thinks of it as a curse, especially since he has difficulty controlling it when his emotions runs high. A one-night stand leaves him wishing for more, but when he learns that the young man is the son of a colleague Christian could have saved, guilt plagues him into trying to help Tyler. Tyler wants to be his own man, but with debt collectors breathing down his neck, selling his body seems like the only solution, even if it’s killing him. There was one good thing to come of it, though. It brought the two men together…

The first couple chapters of this promise some interesting dynamics. Christian is strong and lonely, and Tanner is young and desperate. The scene where they come together for their one-night stand is quite sweet and hot at the same time, so when it segues into the rest of the story, I’m of the mind to be forgiving of some of the minor technical issues and the coincidences that drive the story. This is a romance, after all. Suspension of the disbelief. It feels like a bit much when Christian just happens to run into Tanner on the one night he goes out with firefighting buddies, and when it just happens to turn out that Tanner is the son of a colleague whose death Christian has been blaming himself for months. But I’m okay with that mostly. Because in spite of the minor editing things, it’s relatively smooth reading, the characters are sympathetic, and I’m enjoying myself.

Then I hit the first real sex scene. Tanner has been attacked and, with nowhere else to go, ends up staying at Christian’s house. There is an undeniable attraction between the two men but nothing has happened, until Tanner witnesses Christian jerking off and decides enough is enough. Christian comes into Tanner’s room, and when Tanner looks like he’s in pain, Christian expresses concern. Tanner then proceeds with this, Grabbing Christian’s other hand, he brought it to his groin. “Here. This is where I hurt. Where you make me ache.” It goes on, and on, but the entire melodrama of the situation just yanked me out of the story. All of a sudden, what had felt like a pretty contemporary story feels like old-style romance. Both men start getting even soppier in their scenes, with wider extremes of emotion and odd leaps of logic in their characterizations, enough so that my enjoyment dwindles. Tanner’s need to leave is never thoroughly explained until it’s too late, so it’s more than understandable when Christian reacts the way he does, because as a reader, I was left wondering the same thing about Tanner – what the hell is wrong with you, dude?

There are glimmers in the second half of some of the really good stuff I liked in the first half. Like the well-written climax of the story. It’s action-packed and tightly choreographed, which is a huge credit to the author. Unfortunately, by that point, I didn’t care as much about the two guys to really feel the emotion and angst of the scene. It’s a shame. There are real glimmers there. Maybe I’ll find them in the next book I read by this author.

Readability

8/10 – Minor technical issues distract from some otherwise smooth reading.

Hero #1

7/10 - Strong and sympathetic for the first half, though once the relationship turns intimate, his characterization goes all over the place

Hero #2

7/10 – A little more consistent than Christian, but every once in a while didn’t really feel like a guy to me.

Entertainment value

7/10 – A very strong beginning fell apart for me in the second half

World building

7/10 – I ended up with a lot of questions on what Christian does, his abilities, Tanner’s debts…

TOTAL:

36/50

Friday, February 8, 2008

Skin by Bernadette Gardner

TITLE: Skin
AUTHOR: Bernadette Gardner
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 30k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $5.20

Makena Brady is finally getting the tattoo she’s always wanted – no more boyfriend to tell her no, no more parents to stop her from doing it. When she walks into SkIntense Body Art, however, she’s completely unprepared for the visceral reaction to its co-owner, Darq Stone. Suddenly, she’s taking risks she never would have before, including nearly stripping down for Darq. How far can he actually take her?

The appeal of Skin isn’t the plot, or the characters, or the paranormal elements that get introduced halfway through the story. It’s not the gorgeous cover – though that’s appealing in its own right – and it’s not the fact that it’s short so you’ll have it done in a single sitting. This one is all about the tattoos, and how body art can evolve into an erotic experience. For the first half of the story, when Darq (and I’m sorry, but a hero with the name of Darq Stone is one of the most eye-rolling names I’ve ever been sucked into reading) and Makena are working through their attraction, the story is electric, charged with so much sensuality that it scorches off the screen. There is an extreme sense of indulgence in reading it, too, like you’ve been granted firsthand permission to watch these incredibly intimate moments. They leap into life, and by the time the next morning comes rolling around, the reader is almost breathless.

Unfortunately, it starts to fall apart a little after that. In an attempt to make this about the romance, there’s a whole business of finding “the one” as the story tries to segue into a love story. Darq is given this entire paranormal existence that never really contributes anything to the story, and Makena gets a moment of hesitation when the truth of it comes out, but it never really gelled for me. It also loses some of the sensuality that characterized the first erotic scenes. I found myself skimming at points then, because in a romantic light, Darq and Makena just weren’t as interesting to me.

But the hot…oh my yes.

Readability

9/10 – Hot, hot, and more hot, which helps ease some of the plottier section that don’t work as well

Hero

7/10 – Enigmatic and ultimately not hugely memorable

Heroine

7/10 – Likable enough, though again, not very memorable

Entertainment value

8/10 – This one’s all about the hot for me, with the romance and other details falling a very distant second

World building

6/10 – The paranormal details feel tacked on and too much like the author setting up additional stories rather than an integral part of this one

TOTAL:

37/50

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My Valentine by Annie Dean

TITLE: My Valentine
AUTHOR: Annie Dean
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 82k)
GENRE: Reincarnation erotic romance
COST: $ 7.99

Two couples, separated by time, bound by destiny. In England, 1821, Lady Beatrice gives a hunted man shelter, only to discover that the heart she thought incapable of passion simply needed the right touch to ignite. For his part, Ren finds a woman capable of seeing past the fa├žade, for the man he dares not be. But circumstances are not kind, even after love blossoms.

Almost two hundred years later, strong and independent Maya Hanoush is about to lose the best friend she ever had, the only man to make it past her brittle front. Darnell doesn’t remember not loving the beautiful Maya, but he’s tired of being second best.

Things are about to change.

Technically, this story works in conjunction with Dean's The Average Girl's Guide to Getting Laid, taking two secondary characters and giving them their own romance. However, it's given a very different treatment than I usually read, and doesn't actually require reading the first book to understand (though your appreciation of the second part will definitely vary, I think, if you haven't).

The story starts out in England, early 19th century, at a young man's sixteenth birthday party where darker tendencies and a morose personality are hinted at. In walks a slightly older, plain jane young woman and a drinking binge turns into groping, turns into more, and her virtue is taken. The characters are sharply drawn, each fascinating in their own right. The story then jumps fifteen years, raising the questions that drive the rest of the first part: Where is the fallout? What happened?

It doesn’t take long to find the story's rhythm again, which is actually the novel’s greatest strength. Life breathes in the minutiae of Beatrice’s life, and when the hunted man she shelters enters the picture, I’m enthralled again.

I can’t, however, say I’m surprised from that point out. It’s very clear to me from the get-go just who this man is, what exactly is haunting him, how it all intertwines with Beatrice. I almost feel that I would have enjoyed the shock of it more if the prologue never existed. As it stands, it pretty much tells the reader the facts she needs to fill in the blanks when the characters refuse to.

But that’s not why I devoured Beatrice and Ren’s love story. I fell for their pain, for their very real need for each other. I loved how we saw glimmers of just how dark Ren could be, and how Beatrice both tempered and drew that out. It was a punch in the gut when part one ended, and I was more than a little furious with Beatrice for doing what seemed rash, even by her new standards. But it was done. And I still had part two to read.

I have to confess that I didn’t remember a lot about Darnell and Maya from The Average Girl’s Guide to Getting Laid except that Darnell had a huge thing for Maya, she was beautiful and unattainable, and that Ash (the hero in the first book) had slept with her. Once I realized they were the couple in part two, I pulled out my copy of Guide and skimmed over their parts, refreshing my memory. And you know what? I’m still not convinced Darnell is a big enough character for this particular story. Of the four principles, I think he’s the weakest drawn, and while he’s likable, he doesn’t elicit the same intense feelings the other three do. He’s the nice guy. That’s not a bad thing, but in this case, being the nice guy just isn’t enough.

The other disadvantage the second part has to the first is its length. The relationship between Darnell and Maya isn’t as richly explored as Beatrice and Ren’s. In fact, the entire ending felt very rushed to me. After everything I had invested, after needing so desperately to have a happy ending for the lovers I thought deserved it, it got truncated to a few pages that skimped on what seemed like very pivotal details. I don't remember any indication of Valentine's Day being significant in the first part of the story, so when Darnell and Maya are having flashes of it being very important that something happen by then, I got confused. It never really got explained for me.

Does it mar my satisfaction with the story? A little bit, yeah. Does it keep me from recommending the story? Absolutely not. Dean’s skillful writing and her provocative characterizations make her one of the most consistent e-authors I’ve found.

And Ren will haunt me for a long time to come.

Readability

9/10 – Completely sucks me in, regardless of time period.

Heroes

8/10 – Darnell never interested me as much, but Ren’s dark side and masochistic behavior hooked into my gut and never let go.

Heroines

8/10 – Both strong women, though Maya’s exploration gets a little short-changed by the shorter second part of the story

Entertainment value

8/10 – The first story broke my heart, but I never completely bought the seams stitching it to the second half, though it was enjoyable enough.

World building

9/10 – Dean works like a pro, committing 100% to whatever world she is attempting to create.

TOTAL:

42/50

Monday, February 4, 2008

Like a Thief in the Night by Bettie Sharpe

TITLE: Like a Thief in the Night
AUTHOR: Bettie Sharpe
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 28k)
GENRE: Sci-fi futuristic erotic romance
COST: $3.50

Arden Black is an assassin – cold-hearted, relentless, one of the best. Her latest assignment looks like cake, until he comes back from the dead and takes her hostage. A professional thief who cannot be killed, Aniketos has his own reasons for needing Arden, but the desire to possess her is just as strong. Three days. That’s how long they have. In three days, Aniketos has to convince Arden to give herself to him, or Arden goes back to the life she had a wanted woman.

Even if you don’t hang out on the blogosphere, I dare you to look at the cover of this book and not fall in love. It is one of the most starkly sensual covers I’ve seen in awhile, and I am absolutely in love with it. I love even more that the story is worthy of the cover.

Sharpe has created a stark, violent world and tossed in a pair of characters that exemplify that world to a tee. Her prose is sharp and original, without unnecessary flourishes to detract from her plot or characterization. In fact, the first half of the book sucked me in and refused to let me go. Arden is kinky and corrupt, while Aniketos watches on, bemused and aroused. Watching her try to kill him over and over again, in between bouts of indulging in their attraction, was pure, unadulterated fun.

Arden is a product of a corporation called Darkriver, an organization that creates killers by taking children and molding them into new images, while Anitekos comes from a more mythological realm. This juxtaposition – which I think is purposeful, to highlight the differences between the hero and heroine – isn’t always as smooth as it could be. More attention is paid earlier on to creating Arden’s world, so that by the time Anitekos’ starts getting fleshed out, it feels a little tacked on and pat. More and more detail is piled on to work through the story’s resolution, and the entire thing feels too big for the novella containing it.

That being said, anybody who likes their stories dark, violent, and on the edge, will likely love this. The author’s voice is unique enough to separate her from the pack, and her anti-heroine will be one you remember, long after the story ends.

Readability

9/10 – Evocative, original phrasing combined with super-tight writing.

Hero

8/10 – As much as I love the idea of him, there’s always a slight disconnect for me with him until the very end.

Heroine

9/10 – Loved her so much I kept going back to re-read some of the scenes from her POV.

Entertainment value

8/10 – The first half was amazing, but the second half faltered a little for me as the world exploded but the story itself narrowed to the end.

World building

9/10 – A fascinating glimpse into a captivating future, though there’s almost too much of it to be contained at this length.

TOTAL:

43/50

Friday, February 1, 2008

Partners in Crime by Josh Lanyon & Sarah Black

TITLE: Partners in Crime
AUTHOR: Josh Lanyon & Sarah Black
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 67k)
GENRE: Gay erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Murder and love are the themes of these two novellas, from the glamour of Hollywood to the arctic wilderness of Alaska.

“Cards on the Table” by Josh Lanyon revisits familiar territory for Lanyon fans. Told in 1st person, the story starts with our hero, Tim North, an ex-reporter now writer, getting a threatening tarot card stuck to his doorway. It would seem that somebody doesn’t like the fact that he’s writing a book on the fifty-year-old murder of a Hollywood starlet. Tim goes to the one person he thinks might be able to tell him whether or not he’s overreacting – the cop in his apartment complex he slept with once who dumped Tim the next morning. A cast of fifties glamour marches across the page, while Tim and Jack the cop settle into an odd friendship again as they work to solve the cold crime.

I think it’s pretty obvious I adore Lanyon’s writing, but I have to admit, this one probably isn’t one of my favorites. For once, I didn’t connect as strongly with the narrator, in this case, Tim. While Tim is definitely likeable, I found his slightly contrary nature – deliberately opting to go against Jack’s advice out of his hurt about their break-up – veering toward the TSTL category. Tim is epileptic, a result of a major car accident eighteen months earlier, but he does a lot of things that are a danger to him unnecessarily, a fact Jack ends up having to point out to him. It’s a side effect to progressing the murder mystery along, unfortunately, and I think Lanyon has handled it with better aplomb in other stories.

All of this is countered by a colorful cast of supporting characters and a romantic interest that felt wonderfully human to me. Jack is at varying times hard as a rock or so vulnerable I wanted to give him a hug. He reacts in realistic ways – which means he doesn’t always make the nice guy choice – but he’s probably one of the nicest guys I’ve read by Lanyon so far. He’s secure in his sexuality, and any failings he might have are a result of being human, not because he happens to be gay. I love that. It’s a shame the HEA gets short-changed, then, which is really my biggest criticism of the story. Oh, it’s there, don’t worry about that. But it’s literally less than 1k, and them actually being happy? About 300 words. After everything I’d gone through with them throughout the story – and how badly I wanted them to work things out – I needed more.

“Murder at the Heartbreak Hotel” by Sarah Black is the second story in this story. Peter Moon runs a hotel in a remote part of Alaska that caters to the gay community. When the story opens, he’s in the throes of a one-night love affair with a guest – something he says he never does. Less than 24 hours later, the young man is dead, and with a hotel full of guests and a lover who has come back to claim Peter for his own, Peter wants nothing more than to find the killer.

I find myself in a quandary when it comes to this story. When it’s good, it’s very good. But when it’s bad, skimming is all I can manage.

Let’s start with the good. The author has some exquisite detail in this. The wilderness of Alaska is vivid, so vivid that I felt like I was there. Easily. She enriches with just enough real knowledge to make me as a reader believe 100% that these people are exactly who and where they say they are. I also adore Sebastian, Peter’s Athabascan lover of twenty years. I thought he was gruff and wonderful without being obnoxious. There was just enough vulnerability in him to take the edges off, and I loved that about him.

Part of the problem lies in just how much detail the author provides. There are times when she feels far more interested in the food Peter is preparing than the characters surrounding them. The characters divert into odd tangents sometimes in conversations, which normally wouldn’t be a bad thing because that's how people are, but in a story of this length, with a murder to solve and other stuff going on, there isn’t time for it. It gives me a feeling of odd disjointedness, and there were large sections I found it difficult to get into a flow.

That flow is also disrupted by unrealistic dialogue. Most of these people don’t sound a thing like anybody I know. They talk in very pretty prose, which looks good on paper but doesn’t make the character feel alive to me. The dialogue is also hindered by the fact that everybody nearly always addresses the person they’re talking to by name. People don’t do that in real life. They especially don’t do it twice in a two-sentence chunk of dialogue where the other character doesn’t speak or react.

As for the overlying murder…I’m not convinced this is the genre for the author. Her victim is put on such a high pedestal that I disliked him from the start. Our brief interaction with him has him painted practically perfect, most likely to create an atmosphere of, “Who would possibly want to kill such a wonderful man?” That’s not what it did for me. It made me roll my eyes every time somebody else started crying about a man they’d known for less than two days, because it was all just too, too much. He wasn’t real to me. He was a paragon. And I just can’t connect emotionally with that.

All that being said, the author shows tremendous potential. Her love scenes for the most part are wonderfully sweet and hot. I think if I’m going to try her again, it would be on something outside of mystery or suspense. That’s not where her strengths lie.

Readability

7/10 – Too much unnatural dialogue and over-detailing in the second story drag this score down.

Romance

6/10 – An abrupt resolution in the first and a hero in the second I’m ambivalent about mar some wonderful moments.

Characterization

8/10 – Lanyon’s characters are sharply etched, while Black’s are quirky if uneven.

Entertainment value

7/10 – Though there’s potential in the second, I’ll only ever re-read the first of them.

World building

9/10 – Both authors excel at placing readers in the time and place.

TOTAL:

37/50