Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Captain's Surrender by Alex Beecroft

TITLE: Captain’s Surrender
AUTHOR: Alex Beecroft
PUBLISHER: Linden Bay Romance
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 60k)
GENRE: Gay historical romance
COST: $6.99

Midshipman Joshua Andrews knows his lustful desires for other men will have him hanged should anyone discover the truth, but from the moment he lays eyes on First Lieutenant Peter Kenyon, his heart is lost. He maintains the utmost of professionalism, though the two become friends under a brutal captain many would like to see fed to the sharks. When tensions run high onboard the Nimrod, everything about their world changes. It’s up to them whether or not they can survive, and whether or not they wish to survive together.

As far as recreating a historical setting and putting you into the middle of the action, Captain’s Surrender is at the top of its class. There is no denying the author’s knowledge on her subject matter. The detail is dense and evocative, calling to mind some of the classics I studied in college. When she writes a battle between two ships, as a reader you are right in the thick of the action. You can hear the roar of men and cannons, and smell the blood and sulfur. This is, by far, the novel’s greatest strength. The author has created a world of honor and seamen, and submerged you within it, right from the very first page.

Curiously, one of the other novel’s strengths has left me divided emotionally. She incorporates multiple POVs throughout her storytelling – one chapter will be from Josh’s perspective, one from Peter’s, another from Summersgill, the Englishman riding aboard the Nimrod. On one hand, this helps to both make the world even more vivid and to flesh out what might otherwise be flat, background characters. On the other, it ended up giving me distance from the two male protagonists so that I couldn't better get involved with their romance. Of the first 10 chapters, only 3 are actually in the perspective of either Josh or Peter. In fact, we get 3 chapters alone in each of Summersgill’s head and his daughter Emily’s. While it engages me with the overall action and thrust of the story, it keeps me from really understanding either Josh or Peter, or gaining more than a passing sympathy for them. My feelings for Emily and her father are as strong, if not stronger, by that point, and that, inevitably, holds me back from investing more in the romance.

I have to admit, the other thing that held me back was Josh’s over-effusiveness when he first sees Peter in the first chapter. He has decided, by the end of the chapter, that he’s in love with the man, though he’s barely said a word to him. It’s difficult for me to take love at first sight seriously anyway, but this is hindered by the lack of insight into Josh’s thoughts (we don’t get his perspective again until chapter 7).

Overall, though, the book is a solid read. Though the romance in and of itself didn’t resonate emotionally for me as well as it probably could have, there was enough meat in the rest of the arc to keep me entertained, and to care about everyone, not just the two heroes.

Readability

9/10 – Dense, evocative prose.

Hero #1

6/10 – Proud and honorable, but a little too self-righteous for my tastes

Hero #2

6/10 – Competent and likeable though his highly emotional inner thoughts when we finally got them felt over the top for me

Entertainment value

7/10 – A solid read, I only wish I could have engaged with the romance more.

World building

10/10 – Superlative detail that makes you smell the salt.

TOTAL:

38/50

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sex and Love by Lauren Hawkeye

TITLE: Sex and Love
AUTHOR: Lauren Hawkeye
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $3.99

Four college friends, inseparable for life regardless of who is dating who. Two men, two women, too many relationships. When one of the men announces he’s a virgin at twenty-eight, boundaries get broken when the other three decide to help him out. Nothing after that is ever the same…

Though the publisher’s site has this marked as a ménage, it makes me wonder just how they define the word, if they consider the inclusion of a solitary menage scene enough to label the entire story as such when, at its core, the story is a het romance. Desi, the 1st person narrator, has had a thing for Jude, one of her best friends from college, for a long time. The arc follows her, and while the issue of Trevor’s virginity spurs a ménage between him and the two women, with Jude as a very odd fourth who only watches and helps orchestrate the whole thing, it also sparks the het romance between Desi and Jude. The ending is a het pairing, too. The emotions are complex and interwoven, but for me, it’s just not a ménage. The two women have sexual contact in the ménage scene, but it’s done more because it’s what the men want, to titillate them, than it is for their own desires. There is also some confusion on Jude’s part on what he might feel for Trevor, but even there, the ultimate answer doesn’t lead to a ménage.

Readers of m/m might not be as satisfied with this story, either. The sole m/m scene is fairly aborted, and since it’s in 1st person, we’re also subjected to Desi’s thought processes during the entire thing. She is the one emotionally entangled with Jude, and it’s her hurt and confusion that overlays it. Her entire reaction to the climax of the story is overwrought and not quite in character with the rest of her actions.

However, in spite of all that, I have to say I really, really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the story. Desi’s narrative voice has a quirky charm, and the sexual scenes are both sensual and erotic. I committed to the complexities of their interpersonal relationships, probably because they seemed completely and utterly familiar. I believed them. What started out as types took on genuine personalities very quickly, and I was rushed into the swell of their lives by the time Trevor made his grand announcement about being gay. It felt like getting invited into the lives of four very good friends, a trip I welcomed until the last third of the story. Even then, I’d think of them with a smile.

Readability

9/10 – Engaging first person voice, though long, convoluted sentence structures tend to weigh heavy after a while

Hero

5/10 – I never really understand what the big deal is about him, because the narrator is so much about the whole group than just him for so long.

Heroine

7/10 – If she hadn’t freaked out over the climactic emotional moment, this would be higher. I really enjoyed her voice for the first two-thirds of the story.

Entertainment value

7/10 – The pivotal event that sets the emotional climax of the story grated me, and ends up spoiling what would have been a higher score.

World building

8/10 – Some really great phrasing and details, though bigger picture tends to lapse.

TOTAL:

36/50

Friday, July 25, 2008

Survival by D.J. Manly

TITLE: Survival
AUTHOR: D.J. Manly
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 56k)
GENRE: Gay paranormal erotic romance
COST: $6.99

A bad break-up has completely derailed Russell Thompson’s life. For the past three years, he has mourned the loss of his ex, Gray Wiese, and the band they formed together, watching from the sidelines as the band skyrockets to fame without him. When Eddie, a high school acquaintance, shows up and offers to get him back into the band, Russ jumps at the opportunity. But the contract he signs promises more than his devotion to Eddie. It promises his very soul…

The publisher’s blurb for this story doesn’t do it any credit. At over 300 words, it’s a mishmash of too many names and too much backstory that forces a potential buyer to read more than once in order to get even a rudimentary understanding of who the players might be and what is actually going on. Ultimately, though, the story itself is very simple. Boy loses boy and band. Boy meets powerful demonic creature willing to give at least the band back to him for a price. Boy has to fight not to break the contract that will damn him forever. Much of the detail provided in the publisher’s blurb is extraneous and confusing, better left for readers to find out on their own as the story progresses.

That being said, what starts out as a promising horror erotic romance never quite reaches the potential of either the premise or the opening chapters. The author’s voice is simple and direct, with little challenging or exciting to differentiate it from other stories. Details that would have helped build the horror and suspense of what Russ is going through aren’t shared until far too late, and without those, the constant scene-cutting back and forth between POV – Russ, Gray, and Eddie – makes it harder to connect or respond to any of them. Russ is the easiest to connect with, and for me the most likeable character, while Gray’s emotional arc is all over the place, with melodramatic reactions that don’t endear him to me at all.

Because the thrust of the novel is keeping the two heroes apart, for the first two-thirds of the story, the eroticism is presented in other ways. Eddie has done this for Russ because he’s wanted him since high school, but Eddie’s sexual tastes have changed over the years, in accordance with what he’s become. These are the scenes the reader gets to witness, almost all of them BDSM scenes with bondage and pain. Russ only does it because he has to; saying no is not an option, so the level of consent in this dubious at best. We’re supposed to believe that Russ becomes addicted to the sexual release he gets from these types of scenes, but frankly, I didn’t get it. If they’re so pleasurable, why do his thoughts outside of those scenes never reflect that? They always seem to linger on how much he hates it all, how much he wants out of it, how much he’d rather be with Gray. I can’t buy that he gets much satisfaction at all from Eddie’s games, which ultimately keeps them from ever being arousing.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the last quarter, where the action and tone take a definitive shift away from the more contemporary ambience straight into paranormal. In a lot of ways, it felt like an entirely different book. These were characters far more interesting to me than the ones who had started out the story, with details painting a world that engaged and entertained me. Russ has far more depth, and I could even tolerate Gray’s drama queen tendencies better. I would have much preferred seeing this style of storytelling throughout the novel. It’s engaging and nuanced; unfortunately, it takes three-fourths of the book to get to that point.

Readability

7/10 – A crowded cast and odd pacing slow down otherwise simple reading

Hero #1

7/10 – Sympathetic, though it always felt like there was something I didn’t know about him.

Hero #2

5/10 – A drama queen, and hard for me to take seriously with all his melodramatic reactions

Entertainment value

6/10 – A lot of potential that never quite follows through

World building

7/10 – The paranormal aspects of the last quarter are hinted at throughout the book, but it’s sudden shift gives the story a schizophrenic feel

TOTAL:

32/50

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

39...and Still Holding by assorted authors

TITLE: 39…and Still Holding
AUTHOR: Donna George Storey, Barbara Foster, Melinda Carroll, Greg Boose, N.L. Belardes, chingpea, Carmel Lockyer, L.A. Mistral, Ansley Vaughan, Erin Gordon, Kate Burns, Santana Smith, Patricia Parkinson, Jennifer Mueller
PUBLISHER: Phaze
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 60k)
GENRE: Erotica
COST: $6.00

A collection of 14 stories, each telling a story about life after 39…

One of my requirements before I buy a book is I need to read an excerpt. The excerpt isn’t always a great indication of what the writing is going to be like – I’ve been caught out too many times for that to be always true – but it’s better than going into a story completely blind, especially if it’s a new author. I’ve gone back and forth with Phaze. When I first started buying books online, they didn’t have them, then they did, then the excerpts disappeared, and now it looks like they’re back again. I stumbled upon this quite by accident because I bought this Phaze title at Fictionwise on one of my weekly Monday haunts there. So I’m putting them back on my publishers to look at, but honestly, I really wish they’d do something about their editing.

This anthology suffers from the same lack of care I’ve found in other Phaze works when it comes to technical aspects. Half the stories are riddled with spelling mistakes, and one even manages to switch person – from 3rd to 1st and back to 3rd again – all within the same sentence. Then there are the non-technical things, like laughable dialogue – This tent reminds me of a womb and makes me feel safe. – and the unwieldy exposition – Juan was struck by her salt and pepper, auburn hair and her olive, almost milk-chocolate skin. Her eyes were so green, the jungle seemed rest there inside her irises and her complexion was like mint ice cream. Mercifully, not all the stories were like this, otherwise I very likely wouldn’t have finished it.

My favorite story of the bunch is a short offering called “Two Letters to Francine, the Cashier at Check-Out Counter Five at Jewel,” by Greg Boose. It’s exactly what the title says, two letters written by an enamored 43-year-old to the cashier at his grocery store he’s too nervous or shy to approach. The first letter is misleading. It describes what Brian is feeling and how he would like to be with her. The pay-off doesn’t come until the second letter, which I’ll admit had me chortling in embarrassed amusement for the narrator. Is the story perfect? No, but honestly, when I finished the anthology, this was the only one I could remember in detail with a positive response. While there were others I liked, this one was unique enough, and provoked the strongest, most genuine response, to stand out from the crowd. (As a small aside, when trying to find out more about the author, I happened across his site/blog that he writes with his now-wife. Just as funny if not more than the story.)

Other standouts include “A Rabbit Hole for Emily” by Melinda Carroll, a hot little romp about a divorced woman and the punk rocker musician on the rise she’s got a thing for, “Age Limits” by Kate Burns, a story about a woman trying to rediscover the man she married, and “What If” by Jennifer Mueller, a story of two young lovers reconnecting after forty years.

Readability

5/10 – Far too many stories in this needed some serious editing, like the one that switched from 3rd to 1st and back to 3rd person, all talking about the same character, in the same sentence.

Plot

6/10 – Some interesting ideas with a few of them, though execution almost always falls short.

Characterization

5/10 – I remember characters from only half of these, which doesn’t bode well when there are so many stories crammed into the anthology

Entertainment value

4/10 – A couple stand out as genuinely entertaining, while too many just make me wish I hadn’t bothered buying it in the first place

World building

6/10 – Better than other aspects in the book, even stories I hated had a sense of atmosphere

TOTAL:

26/50

Monday, July 21, 2008

Her Reluctant Rancher by Anne Marie Novark

TITLE: Her Reluctant Rancher
AUTHOR: Anne Marie Novark
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 64k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

When the grandfather who never thought he was good enough dies and leaves him the family ranch, Trevor Callahan has no choice but to return to Texas to settle affairs. All he wants is to put the past behind him, which in his book means selling the ranch and never coming back. He doesn’t expect to discover single mom Beth Evans living at the ranch with her five-year-old daughter, nor does he believe that the man she describes is the same grandfather he left behind twenty years earlier. But that’s not going to change his plans, even if Beth is the most surprising – and sexy – woman he’s met in a very long time…

Sometimes, sweet does the trick. I’m not usually a fan of will stories, the ones where the deceased puts a clause in the will that requires the hero and heroine to be together in some way (usually marriage), but this one looked different enough that it might work for it. Beth is a librarian, the local bookmobile driver, and she’s been promised a million dollars for her library fund – something the town sorely needs and frankly is her primary driving need to fulfill – if she can keep Trevor from selling the ranch. There’s nothing about marrying to keep the ranch in the family, or bearing a child in order to inherit, and yeah, I’ll admit, hooking the requirement to satisfy a need for books in town makes this booklover’s heart swell. It’s a refreshing change, and works very well in helping the story along.

The story is also well serviced by two likeable leads. I preferred Trevor’s solid, no-nonsense attitude to Beth’s must-help-everybody, beloved-by-all personality, though to her credit, Beth is never grating. The hardest one for me to actually stomach is Maggie, the five-year-old daughter. We’re told from the start she’s smart for her age, which is supposed to explain dialogue that never feels like it’s coming out of a child’s mouth. But between that and her precocious behavior, by the end of the story I found myself cringing whenever she entered the scene. She’s meant to be the key to softening the shell around Trevor’s heart, but I’d honestly wished the author had picked a different mechanism for that trick by the time I finished. The sweetness that prevails through most of the story goes saccharine for the final few chapters, and combining that with Maggie was too much for me.

Technically, there is very mild headhopping throughout the story, but it’s done sparingly and not at short, jarring levels. The sexual tension is stretched and paced very nicely; I completely believed Trevor and Beth breaking when they did. There might not be anything hugely original in the romance, but at the same time, there’s nothing really wrong with it either. In the end, it’s a sweet, simple story about two likeable people who discover that love doesn’t have to hurt after all. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Readability

8/10 – Minor headhopping, but there’s a sweet charm to this that prevails in spite of that.

Hero

7/10 – Solid with just enough angst to make me care

Heroine

6/10 – Borders on too good to be true most of the time

Entertainment value

7/10 – A sweet diversion, with characters just likeable enough to make me care

World building

6/10 – Nothing spectacular, though there’s just enough detail to keep me rooted in the story

TOTAL:

34/50

Friday, July 18, 2008

All Shook Up by J.M. Snyder

TITLE: All Shook Up
AUTHOR: J.M. Snyder
PUBLISHER: Amber Quill (Allure)
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 25k)
GENRE: Gay historical erotic romance
COST: $5.00

Eduard van De Lier runs a spice plantation on Java – or rather, his wife in name only runs it while he chases after the young native men surrounding him. Ever since being forced to leave Europe when his sexual preferences are discovered, he has indulged everywhere he can. To say he’s obsessed is an understatement. When his lover from the ship that brought him to Java arrives on his doorstep with a letter that could destroy everything Eduard has, he has to work desperately to get it back. But not even Krakatoa’s eruption is enough to keep his desire for Reza from burning out of control…

The setting and concept of this story intrigued me into buying, and I have to admit, the story is pretty much what the blurb describes. I got a taste of what the prose was going to be like in the excerpt, and for the most part, I’m okay with the highly romanticized style. You know the kind I mean. The sort that uses the term “weeping cock” and means for it not to be giggled at. There’s something remarkably easy about reading this particular author most of the time. In spite of the occasional error or cringeworthy phrase, I find myself done with a Snyder story in record time, regardless of what it’s about. This story was no exception to that.

I can’t say the romance necessarily worked for me, however. Eduard is obsessed with sex with all these young native men. Seriously. This is all he thinks about, and since his wife does most of the running of the plantation, the vast majority of his time is spent seducing servants or men he meets about town. He plans for it, he has it, and when he’s not getting it, he’s touching himself, wondering about when he’s going to get it next. When Reza shows up at the house, Eduard doesn’t even recognize him, though it’s only been two years since they’ve seen each other and they spent weeks upon weeks almost exclusively in each other’s company. Yet, later on, I’m expected to believe that Eduard has been looking for somebody to replace Reza this whole time? No, I just can’t. If that was the case, why wouldn’t he recognize Reza when he saw him? The fact that he doesn’t just tells me that he wasn’t nearly as wrapped up in the young man as the author wants us to believe. Subsequently, for as nicely paced and choreographed the rest of the story is, I just can’t buy into it emotionally.

The erotic scenes for what they are serve their purpose, though the fact that Reza has a thick cock whose base Eduard could barely encircle with both hands creeps me out a little bit. Because…that’s pretty big. Try it. Form a circle with your hands and then imagine what that might feel like. Some of the imagery is over the top, too, like When Reza came, filling Eduard with a fiery spurt that triggered his own orgasm, even the distant volcano mimicked their explosive climax. Again, though, that’s indicative of the author’s voice in this. I can’t really complain about it when I knew from the start that’s what I was getting into, and honestly, for the vast majority of the story, it didn’t bother me.

The entire section detailing Krakatoa’s eruption is choreographed with fine detail, and stands as the strongest section of the entire story. I think it’s more than just a credit to the nice pacing of it. For the first time, Eduard gets to react in ways that are not just sexual, and he becomes more human and sympathetic for me. If I’d had glimpses of this man before the catastrophe, I might have had a better time believing the romance. He and Reza – who until that point has proven elusive for the reader as well as Eduard – both finally gain personalities beyond being sexual creatures. I just wish it had happened sooner.

Readability

8/10 – Highly romanticized prose, but oddly enough, it reads in a flash.

Hero #1

4/10 – His obsession with sex overshadows any sense of personality he might have developed, and makes it hard to believe that he’d settle with this one man.

Hero #2

4/10 – An enigma, though thankfully a nice one

Entertainment value

6/10 – For being what it is, a mildly diverting tidbit.

World building

8/10 – The detail with the volcano’s eruption was done incredibly well, as were various pictures the author painted of the daily life.

TOTAL:

30/50

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Heart of the Bear by Cindy Spencer Pape

TITLE: Heart of the Bear
AUTHOR: Cindy Spencer Pape
PUBLISHER: Total-e-bound
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Shapeshifter erotic romance
COST: ₤2.49

Psychic Hannah Lightfoot only has a couple days left to decide whether or not she wants to return to her job with the San Diego Police Department. A traumatic event three months earlier has had her questioning her purpose, but when she still can’t reach a decision at home, she retreats to her grandfather’s cabin in hopes a different setting will make the choice clear. Everything conspires against her as her car goes off the road, a storm drenches her, and then a strange naked man surprises her at the cabin. But that’s just the start of what turns out to be the weekend that will change her entire life…

Novellas that try to set up paranormal series have a lot of work to do. The more complicated the world, the harder the job. The gorgeous cover on this particular story drew me in – April Martinez should be proud of another beautiful one – but ultimately, it failed to engage me into trying any more of this new series.

The world the author is setting up is a complex one. Hannah’s brother Will is part of a 5-man organization called Guardian; the hero in this story, Evan, is a member of it. It’s clear this is going to be at least a 5-book series, one for each of the men in the unit. Evan’s family are all shifters, and Will is a precog. There are hints throughout the book that the paranormal world is quite extensive, that Hannah's psychic ability isn't really that unusual, but very little of the world-building happens organically. Evan spends a lot of the time explaining things to Hannah, or we learn of it in exposition after the fact. We get most of Hannah’s backstory as statement after the fact, too, but it’s all indicative of a tell not show style that prevails throughout the story. This style of storytelling very rarely works for me. It drags down any chance this novella has to engage me.

Any other chance is taken away by both the hero and heroine’s swift “romance,” and Evan’s unrealistic dialogue. Evan and Hannah have sex almost immediately after he saves her from a bear attack in the woods – within minutes of seeing other for the first time. She barely knows his name and they’re doing it on the floor. And then in the shower. Within 12 hours, she’s melting just from the look in his eye, and all I can think, “Oh, brother.” By Evan's own admission, it's a mate recognition thing - Another thing you need to know about my family—we mate for life. When one of us finds the other half of our soul, it isn’t a long, drawn-out process. It’s almost always a case of love at first sight. - and I can't help but see that as shorthand for let's get to the sex and not worry about real relationship development. Toss in the fact that Evan says things like, Your hair is incredible and your eyes are like green velvet. You have the most luscious ass I’ve ever seen, and these incredibly feminine hips make me crazy, and You fit me like a glove, and I’m out of it. People don’t talk like that. Incredibly feminine hips? What exactly is that even supposed to mean?

The story does better when it slips into an unexpected kidnapping case for the couple, but while I don’t have to put up with unbelievable dialogue there, I do get subjected to more of the telling not showing. In the end, it’s just not going to work for me. I have another of this author’s stories in my TBR pile, and I’ve seriously wondered if I should bother reading it. I decided I still will. It’s novel-length, so hopefully it won’t fall into the same pitfalls as this novella, and it’s also not a paranormal. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Readability

6/10 – Minor editing issues, unrealistic dialogue, and telling not showing hinder what could be pretty smooth prose.

Hero

4/10 – Flat and not very interesting, especially with his unrealistic declarations

Heroine

5/10 – Only milder better than the hero, but at least she’s smart in a fight

Entertainment value

3/10 – Between information dumps to set up the series and a rush on the relationship, I’m almost surprised I finished it.

World building

5/10 – There is far too much telling in order to set up the series, and it makes for very boring reading.

TOTAL:

23/50

Monday, July 14, 2008

Charlie's Bargain by Evangeline Anderson

TITLE: Charlie’s Bargain
AUTHOR: Evangeline Anderson
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 63k)
GENRE: Futuristic sci-fi erotic romance
COST: $5.95

Without a credit to her name, Charlie Owens flees with her younger brother to the one place in the galaxy their creditors won’t find them, an appalling planet so devoid of anything pleasant it’s simply called Hole. She refuses to make a living on her back, and together, they take menial jobs just to survive. But someone has noticed Charlie, a creature from an alien species that makes Hole residents look positively civilized. Lynx terrifies Charlie, but when her baby brother manages to lose a large sum of money to the man, there is only one way to pay off the debt – strike a bargain to satisfy his loathsome needs…

I knew when I was buying this book, I was doing so because it hit a kink factor in me. There were red flags in the excerpt, but I chose deliberately to ignore them because, well, the blurb and idea wouldn’t let go. In fact, the first third of the book lives up to the pulp fiction vibe I was expecting. It’s futuristic sci-fi that’s over the top, sometimes ridiculous, with the erotica as an added bonus. The atmosphere is richly painted, and the settings leap off the page. I even absolutely adored Lynx then, the Xorn reviled by everyone including the heroine. He’s alpha to the extreme, who fights desperately against his baser instincts because he loves Charlie and doesn’t want to hurt her.

Things start to fall apart a little for me about a quarter of the way into the story. The bargain Charlie is forced to strike with Lynx is sexual in nature. The males in his species go through several periods in their lifetime called The Thirst, during which time they absolutely have to drink from their female partners. By drinking, I don’t mean blood. What they need to consume is a female’s arousal, straight from the source, so that means lots and lots of oral sex. Charlie is essentially a good girl. She doesn’t want to sell her body to get by, and she especially doesn’t want to have sex with an alien that disgusts and terrifies her. So she holds out for as long as she can, which means the author – since this is an EC title – finds other, creative ways to get the smut quotient in. Charlie works with a woman named Marlene who is more than happy to prostitute herself to customers at the bar they work at, so Charlie witnesses two different encounters with her, a threesome scene in the alley where both men take Marlene at the same time, and a gangbang in the middle of the bar. Rather than find it sexy, I found myself repulsed by them, the second scene especially. Much of the sex in this story borders on nonconsensual, and though Marlene gets paid for what she does, she keeps protesting for them to use protection or do it somewhere less public. Nobody listens. It makes for an incredibly uncomfortable scene, which unfortunately prevails when Lynx ends up doing some of the same to Charlie later on, albeit at a much gentler level.

But I’ll be honest. I knew that when I bought this book it would very likely border on some of the noncon for the hero and heroine. For the most part, they’re well written scenes. Lynx’s dismay at how it all transpires is palpable, and considering what we already know about him, it’s easy to believe how much he loves Charlie. But witnessing a scene with a character I’m not invested in spoils it for me. My head starts out the Charlie and Lynx sections in the wrong place, and I get increasingly distanced from the love story. The clincher was the emotional climax, which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say, it was far more over the top and ridiculous than much of the preceding story, even if it did fit in with the world’s logic.

The author knows how to construct erotic scenes, but there’s an odd juxtaposition of coarser terms with clinical throughout this. The author uses anus alongside words like cock and pussy, which for me, doesn’t fit. Clinical words in erotic romance have a tendency to throw me out of the story. That being said, I generally expect vernacular in erotic romance, and I actually don’t have issues with most words if it makes sense within the context of the story. But because I know quite a few female readers have problems with it, I think I need to warn about the excessive use of the word cunt throughout the story. It’s not a problem for me, but it could be for others.

Readability

7/10 – Minor editing issues and the juxtaposition of clinical with coarser terms slowed me up.

Hero

7/10 – Sympathetic and appealing even when I don’t think he should be.

Heroine

6/10 – Slightly histrionic and uneven, I didn’t buy the emotional turnaround

Entertainment value

6/10 – I was actually going along for the ride until the emotional climax, which was just too over the top and ridiculous for me to believe, even if it did fit in with the logic of the story.

World building

9/10 – Some great details, very vivid worlds.

TOTAL:

35/50

Friday, July 11, 2008

Whiskey Shots, Vol. 18 by Darrel Sparkman

TITLE: Whiskey Shots, Vol. 18
AUTHOR: Darrel Sparkman
PUBLISHER: Whiskey Creek Press
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 11k)
GENRE: Western romance
COST: $2.99

Two short stories about lawmen in the Old West, and the women who get in their hearts…

The first and longer story of the anthology is “Stage to Abilene.” Marshal Matt Bodine is on his way to Abilene to collect on a warrant when his horse gets hobbled and he’s forced to hitch a ride with a passing stagecoach. He runs into an old female acquaintance, amongst others, and when the stage is stopped by Kiowa, he gets out to negotiate passage through. The charm of this short story is not its plot, though it moves along at a fair clip. It rests in the anthology's strength as a whole – with its characters. They are colorful and distinctive, and if maybe one or two fit into stereotypes of the genre, it’s easy to forgive in light of sharp dialogue and vivid descriptions. There’s mild headhopping in this particular story, but on the whole, it’s not that disruptive. There’s enough dusty charm to keep me sailing through, all the way to smile of an ending.

The second story is called “Comanche Trail.” Marshal John Becker finds himself in a shootout with Indians, trying to protect the young woman he just rescued from them by accident. John is wry and appealing, as is Mandy, the woman he aids, and I particularly loved their banter, even in the midst of all their troubles. As people, I connected with these two a little bit more than the principles in the first, but the story itself didn’t flow quite as well. There’s an awkward flashback near the beginning that takes me out of the rhythm of their relationship, and it takes a little bit before I can settle back into it. Of course, the story is quite short, so that little bit is literal not an exaggeration. But it’s pleasant and funny, and when I get to the end, I’m more than happy with how everything turned out.

On the whole, the collection is a delightful morsel of Old West charm. I’m interested in reading some of this author’s other stories. With his attention to detail and sparkling characters, it would be fun to see how he works with longer formats.

Readability

8/10 – Mild headhopping disrupts the flow for me in the first story, while the second’s flashback jolted me.

Plot

6/10 – Not the most original stories, but solidly told.

Characterization

9/10 – Characters in both stories leap off the page, with often funny and almost always realistic dialogue

Entertainment value

8/10 – There’s a comfort with both of these stories that pulls me in and leaves me with a smile.

World building

9/10 – Colorful detail and exact knowledge paints vivid pictures in both short stories.

TOTAL:

40/50

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lady Sings the Blues by Mallery Malone

TITLE: Lady Sings the Blues
AUTHOR: Mallery Malone
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 14k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $2.50

Alina Gabriel, aka Miss Scarlet, has had a thing for Joshua Hanover, the blind guitarist in the band she currently has booked at her club, The Scarlet Lady, almost since he arrived. When he plays, she melts. Especially when he launches into “Red-Letter Woman,” the song he wrote especially for her. She tries to dance the sexual tension away, but one particularly erotic encounter – dancing alongside him onstage – leaves her so hot and bothered, she flees to her private office afterward in order to get off. It also leaves Joshua hot and bothered, and this time, he’s not letting her run away…

My expectation going into this short story was an emphasis on the erotic, since its length and the way it’s sold suggests that, and for the first couple chapters, that’s true. Alina and Joshua are both introduced in bold, hot prose, and the first chapter practically sizzles with their chemistry. So does the second, when things get consummated. It’s after that the story starts to fall apart a little for me, when the author attempts to move beyond the walls of the club.

Joshua is clearly after more than sex, so when he asks for a real dinner date, I was a little surprised when Alina was reluctant to accept. The author still had me at this point, though, so I accepted the seemingly flimsy excuse that if he saw her outside of the club, he’d see what a fake she was. But that excuse wore thin as the story progressed. Alina keeps playing the race card to push him away, and while it’s obvious at the end that it’s just as much a front for the real source of her insecurities, I had no sense of that throughout the story. Her constant objections and pulling away didn’t mesh with the woman I’d been introduced to at the top of the story. I needed to see why she was so insecure long before her explanations came out, because without that insight into her character, she simply looked like a whiny, shallow woman to me.

A very nice touch was the use of music as a language for their sexual explorations.; the prose in those sections worked the strongest for me. Joshua, too, is a nice hero, though some of his insecurities seem to come out of the blue at the end of the story as well. He and his skills made the story for me, much like – I imagine – they did for Alina.

Readability

9/10 – Easy prose with a smooth flow.

Hero

7/10 – More understanding and believable than the heroine

Heroine

5/10 – I never understood where the insecurities where coming from

Entertainment value

5/10 – Good for as long as it focused on the erotic aspects; it failed for me on any level of depth

World building

7/10 – Immediate sensory information is very good; it’s the larger picture I had problems with

TOTAL:

33/50

Monday, July 7, 2008

Egyptian Heart by Kathryn Meyer Griffith

TITLE: Egyptian Heart
AUTHOR: Kathryn Meyer Griffith
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 75k)
GENRE: Time travel romance
COST: $6.00

Egyptologist Maggie Owen is on the dig of her life, excavating for a new tomb when an amulet given to her sends her back to 1340 BC, and the company of Ramose Nahk-Min. Captured with a group of runaway slaves, she is immediately seen as different with her pale blonde hair and green eyes. Ramose, especially, is intrigued by her, but his favorite concubine Makere will do anything to keep from losing favor with him. Can Maggie return to her own time before it’s too late, or will she lose her heart to a man she can never have?

There’s an odd schizophrenia to this particular romance that almost prevented me from finishing it. For the first fifty or so pages, we learn about Maggie, about her life, why she’s in Egypt, and so on. We also get massive information dumps on Egypt itself, details that bog the story down into a history lesson that feels like a primer for the real story. While there are readers that enjoy this particular style, I’m unfortunately not one of them. I like to live the history, not be lectured it, and I found it very hard to slog through everything as we get ready for Maggie to go back in time.

Things improve when that happens, because finally, there’s some action. The world is very well realized and the characters believable, and the tension that is introduced when Maggie meets Ramose and Makere is palpable. It’s incredibly simple to get swept along while Maggie settles into her new life, and I enjoyed that particular aspect of the ride quite a bit. I even fell for Ramose, which always helps. However, as soon as Ramose returns from battle and announces he has to go and see the Pharoah, things start to derail again when Maggie goes with him. A lot of time has to pass, and this gets skimmed over. Normally this isn’t a bad thing, but this is the romance at its highest. I don’t want the author to tell me how they’re falling more and more in love. I want to see it. There’s just too much telling and not enough seeing in the entire last third of the story for my tastes, including the epilogue which was vastly disappointing.

My enjoyment of the romance got tempered by Maggie’s obsession with her virginity, too. I understand she’s Catholic. I understand she’s a good girl. But in all fairness, I just have difficulty relating to thoughts like, Anything won too easily was never valued highly, my mother used to say and Take it slow, I told myself. Slow. If you act like a whore, he’ll end up treating you as one. There are sections of the story that feel almost like inspirational romance, which I’ll say here and now, I don’t like to read and so choose not to. Maggie and Ramose literally spend weeks upon weeks together, sleeping in the same tent when they’re traveling, and not once do they consummate their love. I never understand why Ramose – a powerful man used to taking what he wants – doesn’t press the issue more than he does. I hardly want a forced seduction, but it didn’t make sense for this particular character to never even bring it up after Maggie’s initial protests.

There are a few technical issues that disrupted my reading flow as well, like the use of drug for dragged on numerous occasions, and even using millenniums instead of millennia. Since the story is told in 1st person and the narrator is a highly educated woman, there’s just no excuse for the errors.

Perhaps readers without the same biases I do will get more satisfaction from it. As it stands, only the middle third with the budding romance and danger from Makere truly entertained me.

Readability

6/10 – A tedious, information dump beginning and unfortunate errors like drug for dragged hold back a sweet romance in the middle third.

Hero

7/10 – Remarkably appealing

Heroine

5/10 – I have to admit to not understanding the virginity issue, but that’s a personal bias

Entertainment value

6/10 – The middle third is nicely paced and romantic, but the story suffers from a boring beginning and a dragged out end.

World building

8/10 – It’s clear the author knows her ancient Egypt, but that dissemination of detail only flows in the middle third.

TOTAL:

32/50

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mini-hiatus

I had hoped never to have a break in my updating schedule, but circumstances beyond my control are consuming my time for the next few days.

So in order to keep some sort of sanity, I'm taking a mini-hiatus this week. Friday is a holiday here in the US anyway, and I'm not even home that day, so this will help a little bit.

I'll be back on Monday with a review of Egyptian Heart by Kathryn Meyer Griffith.