Friday, October 31, 2008

Letters from Home by Jo Barrett

TITLE: Letters from Home
AUTHOR: Jo Barrett
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 57k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

When Phoebe writes to her deceased friend’s grandson stationed overseas, she doesn’t expect to start a correspondence with the man that lasts over a year. John Caldwell doesn’t have any family left, so he’s eager for the friendship she offers. There’s only one problem. He thinks she’s a grandmother-type, not the twenty-five year old beauty he meets when he finally gets to come home…

I knew buying this story I would probably get something wholesome. It’s got a soldier holding a little boy’s hand on the cover; if that doesn’t scream Harlequin, I’m not sure what does. But I was okay with that. I’ve read this author before, and she’s done some wonderful work. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fall into that realm for me.

Wholesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. The best word to describe Phoebe is old-fashioned. She is a master baker. She knits. She crochets. She sews. Children flock to her and call her Aunt Bee. She spends some of her free time at the assisted living facility where her aunt lives, socializing with and helping the senior citizen residents. In the beginning, I was willing to accept it. I decided I had to look at the story as kind of a throwback, and as long as I looked at it in that light, I enjoyed it. Even when she put a shawl on over her sundress because having bare shoulders might imply she wasn’t a “good girl.” But then it went a step too far. For me, anyway.

See, John and Phoebe are attracted to each other but agree to be just friends. He’s planning on re-upping again and won’t stick around, and he sees Phoebe as the girl you marry, not the girl you have fun with. Phoebe, for her part, is determined never to get involved again, and at first I thought it was just because this other guy had broken her heart too badly. But it’s more than that. Phoebe can’t have children. Ever. So when things start steaming up between Phoebe and John, the issue that she can never give him children holds her back in more ways than one. She rates herself solely on her ability to reproduce, which in all fairness, matches the mindset of the old-fashioned girl introduced at the top of the story. But that’s just too much for me. In a lot of ways, Phoebe is smart and eloquent. I don’t want to see her demeaning her worth as a woman, simply because of a biological fact she had no control over. And that’s when the story lost it for me. From that point, everything just became too saccharine, all the way down to the issue of Tommy, the little boy she watches occasionally for a friend.

So if you like your sugar with a side of sugar, then this might work for you. The prose is still as readable as ever, and the characters mostly likeable. I haven’t given up on this author. I just don’t think I’m the audience for this book.

Readability

8/10 – Other than minor editing misses, and the infrequent headhopping, I still find her prose always manages to suck me in, even when I have issues with the story

Hero

6/10 – A throwback to gentler times

Heroine

4/10 – I liked her – in spite of how old-fashioned she is – until her womb issues got out of control

Entertainment value

5/10 – I was enjoying the old-fashionedness of the entire story until Phoebe turned on the “I’m worthless as a woman because I can’t have kids” tears

World building

8/10 – Within the construct of the story, the world works. Just don’t expect it to look like anything wholly modern.

TOTAL:

31/50

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Voodoo Bones by Melanie Atkins

TITLE: Voodoo Bones
AUTHOR: Melanie Atkins
PUBLISHER: Cobblestone Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 26k)
GENRE: Romantic suspense
COST: $4.99

Detective Matt Bergeron thinks he arrested the Bayou Ripper – until a new body shows up two days later in an apartment over the shop, Vous Deux. The owner, Noel Galliano, is shaken by the horrifying crime scene, but takes strength from Matt, in a connection that surprises both of them. It’s up to Matt to figure out what’s going on, whether he arrested the right man or not, before another body shows up. Especially since that body just might be Noel’s…

There’s some gorgeous writing at the top of this story, moody and evocative as we are drawn into Matt’s first crime scene of the night. It’s enough to thrust me into the setting with both hands, and stands guard to refuse to let me go. I was really excited by this as the beginning unfolded. The author isn’t afraid to hold back on detail on a gruesome crime, yet doesn’t go so far to be pure titillation. But the vivid opening fades with the introduction of the hero, and within a chapter or two, the novella settles down in a too predictable romantic suspense story that I’ve read too many times before.

It took me a long time to warm to Noel, and I’m not sure I ever really did. Her shock at the crime scene in her building translates into belligerence with everyone who isn’t Matt. She’s even rude and unwelcoming to her best friend the next day. It doesn’t help that Matt is painted as a cowboy in the police department, with few friends and far more enemies. People just don’t like these two, and for the first half of the story, I understand why because I’m right there with them. Gradually, Matt manages to show me that he’s just misunderstood, but my opinion was set for far too long to make me warm to any kind of romance between them.

As far as the plot goes, there’s little surprise in the supposed surprise ending. The action is built nicely as it progresses, but the entire climax of the story is rushed, leaving little sense of satisfaction in the end. Same goes for the romance. I didn’t buy it for a second.

However, I wonder if some of the problems in this stem from the story’s brevity. There’s real promise in the descriptive passages here. I think I might have to check out her backlist and see if she’s written anything longer.

Readability

8/10 – Some very evocative writing gets marred by predictability and rushed plotting

Hero

6/10 – Borders on obnoxious know-it-all in the beginning, though smoothes out as the story progresses

Heroine

5/10 – Belligerent without really knowing why, it’s hard to like her

Entertainment value

5/10 – Nice prose can’t save a predictable plot and an unbelievable romance

World building

7/10 – There’s shades of real beauty here, but it gets overwhelmed by the flaws in the story

TOTAL:

31/50

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Nameless God by Emily Veinglory

TITLE: The Nameless God
AUTHOR: Emily Veinglory
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 52k)
GENRE: Gay fantasy romance
COST: $6.99

As a menial hoghand, Fisk has few expectations. All that changes when he’s struck down by a vision from an unknown god. He attempts to do what the god requests, but he’s branded as cursed and banished from the keep, the only home he has. Fisk only has the clothes on his back, until Levin, the kind knight he’d warned of his master’s demise, finds him and announces he’s been called by his goddess to protect Fisk. He calls Fisk “prophet,” a label Fisk abhors, and together, they struggle to obey his nameless god’s orders. But with each vision leaving him weaker and weaker, they can’t even be sure Fisk will live long enough to try…

NOTE: This is a review originally written for Uniquely Pleasurable.

Though I rarely get influenced by cover art, the moment I saw this one – coupled with the title and the fact that it was written by Emily Veinglory – I was intrigued. Veinglory has a way of surprising me. Sometimes it’s her voice. Sometimes it’s her characters. In this, it was a combination of both, with some genuine thought-provoking ideas thrown in for good measure.

As a lowly serf, reliant on his job for his very existence, the last thing Fisk needs is to receive a debilitating vision from a god that doesn’t even identify itself. He doesn’t know quite what to think of it, especially since he’s too fatalistic to really put too much stock in gods. His confusion grows worse when he discovers that his little vision has knocked him out for nearly a day, and he wakes temporarily unable to move his legs. Much of Fisk’s attitude regarding his early visions rings familiar, mirroring the skepticism so prevalent in modern society. He feels like they’re true, but of what use are visions when he gets kicked out of the job he needs just to survive because of them? His initial ambivalence is palpable, and later, when Levin shows up with the announcement that now he’s Fisk’s protector, his reluctance to accept what seems like something too good to be true resonates deeply. This attitude colors most of their early interactions.

Compared to Fisk’s complexities, Levin seems almost too simple to be believed. He’s steadfast and honorable, dedicated to his calling. His unshakeable belief in both Fisk and his duty makes it a little tiring to listen to him as the story goes on. Fisk whines. Levin remains calm. Fisk argues. Levin barely snaps. Fisk does a lot of things that would drive many people around the bend, and yet, the vast majority of the time, Levin smiles and accepts it, or counters with a calm and uninjured manner. Just as Fisk’s new position in life seems a little too good to be true, so does Levin. In fact, it’s not until nearer the conclusion, as events around Fisk grow tighter and tighter, that he starts to get interesting. But then, the story ends, and I’m left wishing there was another one immediately so I could continue these characters’ journeys.

The romance in this plays second to the larger story. While Levin and Fisk share their more intimate moments, they’re more grounds for developing Fisk as a character and propelling the grander scheme of his visions and their effects than normal romance expectations. Part of me is even reluctant to label it a romance, but in the end, the fact that his relationship with Levin is critical to Fisk’s personal growth sways me back. Levin provides an anchor in a chaotic world. Through him, Fisk learns what he must in order to survive. The path they both take is a fascinating one.

In the end, the book and its characters fascinate me. The quiet desolation that permeates from start to finish creates an irresistible atmosphere, sucking me into the story’s events and the characters’ lives with frightening ease. While I’m left with questions about where things go from the end, and hesitations regarding Levin’s well-roundedness compared to other characters (I really don’t want to think of Levin as purely a foil simply because I want more from all of them, though it’s obvious he does play that role here), the story remains eloquent and engrossing. I can only hope the author hopes to continue the saga. There is so much to be explored.

Readability

9/10 – Rich with detail and personality

Hero #1

8/10 – Fisk has a fatalistic desolation to him that makes it easy to empathize with everything that is going on to him

Hero #2

6/10 – Too agreeable for much of the story to be very realistic; just as he starts to get interesting, the story ends

Entertainment value

8/10 – A fascinating world, with believable characters…I can only hope there’s a sequel planned

World building

9/10 – A wonderful balance of detail and atmosphere

TOTAL:

40/50

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Rogue's Reward by Jennifer Colgan

TITLE: A Rogue’s Reward
AUTHOR: Jennifer Colgan
PUBLISHER: Amber Quill
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 34k)
GENRE: Historical erotic romance
COST: $6.00

When Sheppard York wakes up in the brig of the infamous lady pirate, Fallon Robard, he wishes only to escape, regardless of whether or not his father pays the demanded ransom or not. His caretaker, Rhea, doesn’t seem like any sort of pirate he’s ever heard of, and when he discovers she was taken from an abbey, he’s convinced she’s his ticket out of there. Except…she’s like no other woman he’s known, either…

I wanted to love this story. There’s an old-fashioned charm to the way it all starts out that reminded me of romances I read when I was a teenager, though the roles are reversed with all female pirates and the captive as male. I liked how it all started, rolling simply along with the is-he-a-cad hero and the virginal wannabe pirate. The prose is sweet, the conflict familiar, and the initial charm engaging. It actually rolls along like that for a good part of the story, though Rhea never really takes on much of a personality past her innocence.

But the more the story unfolds, the more questions get raised, and the more I realize the blurb really didn’t do this story any favors. The events of the blurb don’t occur until very late in the story. Don’t be fooled. The vast bulk of the conflict occurs before Shep ever tries to escape, and it’s during that time the charm holds. The story takes on an entirely different tenor afterward, and though it’s far more complex – and in some ways, more interesting – than the first half, it also introduces a lot more questions, questions that don’t get answered by story’s end. The website labels this as a series, but the fact that I can’t find another one suggests this is the first one. Perhaps the author is going to answer a lot of these questions in subsequent stories. For the purposes of enjoying this story, though, the lack of those answers taints my enjoyment. I want to know why Rhea is important to the captain. I want to know how on earth there could be an HEA. I didn’t get any of that, and it ended up being very frustrating rather than satisfying.

Readability

8/10 – Simple and sweet

Hero

6/10 – Nice enough, with a realistic introduction, but I never bought the shift in feelings for the heroine

Heroine

5/10 – Sweet but bland, ultimately forgettable

Entertainment value

7/10 – Raises more questions than it answers, though it has a certain old-fashioned sweetness to the overall story

World building

7/10 – The pirate world is nicely realized, but Sheppard’s lacks details

TOTAL:

33/50

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Winning Bess by Marissa Alwin

TITLE: Winning Bess
AUTHOR: Marissa Alwin
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 22k)
GENRE: Historical erotic romance
COST: $4.45

In 1847 New York City, Irish immigrants are second class citizens. That doesn’t stop Colm Devaney from having a dream, though, or from protecting Bess McGinty and her father when they need him to. He gives them a place to stay, but what he’s mostly interested in is finally winning Bess’ heart. But with her father ailing and refusing to give Colm his permission to woo her, Colm knows he has to take drastic measures. He agrees to participate in a fight where the prize is a gorgeous sapphire. With it, he’s sure he can give Bess the future she deserves…and fulfill the dreams they both have.

This is probably one of the sweetest stories I have ever bought from Ellora’s Cave. I bought it because it seemed to vary from most of the other gemstone stories EC has been featuring this year, with a genuine plot idea that didn’t revolve around sex. Thankfully, that notion wasn’t misleading. There is a layer of genuine emotion through the whole thing, with an underlying innocence that harkens to more simplistic times. The fact that Colm and Bess don’t even kiss for over 5k tells you something. The development of their romance matches the rhythm of the period, as well as the sweetness of the entire story. That’s not to say there isn’t sex in this. It’s an EC story, after all. But it’s contained to three small scenes that, honestly, play second fiddle to their feelings.

Colm was a darling. He’s big and slightly brutish, but when it comes to Bess, he’s fiercely protective and tender. All he wants is to escape the city and find a future for them. Everything he does in the story leads him on that path. Bess wants the same thing, but her behavior annoyed me a good part of the time. She is fearful of Colm getting hurt in the fight and takes steps to try and protect him. Except the steps she takes are borderline idiotic. I almost gave up on her. If it wasn’t for how much she loved Colm and the genuineness of the relationship, I probably would have.

The prose itself is very simple. There’s nothing memorable about it, and it has a tendency to suffer from some of the lazy editing EC can be guilty of (then for than, for instance). Details are spare but well-placed in creating the world of 1847 NYC for these immigrants, but in the end, it’s the romance of Colm and Bess that swept me off my feet. They’re wonderfully charming.

Readability

7/10 – Not the most sophisticated prose, with some minor editing issues

Hero

8/10 – Ah, I’m a sucker for the big, protective guys with an even bigger heart

Heroine

6/10 – At one point, she teeters precariously on the TSTL ledge, but she always manages to bring herself back from it.

Entertainment value

7/10 – Its sweetness and genuine emotion make it satisfying when other aspects might not.

World building

8/10 – A solid job placing us in time and place

TOTAL:

36/50

Monday, October 20, 2008

Handyman by Claire Thompson

TITLE: Handyman
AUTHOR: Claire Thompson
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 61k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $5.50

Will Spencer has taken a six-month sabbatical from his high pressure life in Manhattan, retreating to the quiet world of Scarsdale and a new home in desperate need of a makeover. Enter Jack Crawford, handyman. Will hires Jack to gut and redo his kitchen, but he’s taken aback at his attraction to the older man. Jack just doesn’t seem to be his type, not to mention that he’s most likely straight. The best he can hope for is friendship. Considering how lonely Jack has been since his wife died two years earlier, that friendship finds deeper roots than either man expects. So does the desire…

NOTE: This is a review originally written for Uniquely Pleasurable.

The fantasy is a common one in romance. The sexy handyman showing up to fix whatever needs to be done, addressing the lonely homeowner – usually a woman – in such a way to fuel desires for more than a little bit of stolen conversation. There’s a safety in this fantasy, because who hasn’t experienced that moment of loneliness for themselves? In Handyman, author Claire Thompson has transposed it into a gay romance, and sometimes, it actually works. Both men are nice guys, though at different ends of the spectrum. Will has long embraced his sexuality, but he’s never had a committed relationship, sticking with sex buddies and casual flings. Jack married young and is Mr. Faithful, even after his wife’s death. When the men get to simply act, they’re not only believable, they’re likeable, too. This is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Where it falters is the author’s propensity for speechifying. Both men have a tendency to talk and talk for multiple paragraphs, as they expound on their feelings and history and then their feelings again. If it was internal monologue, it would be a lot more believable. Placing it in the dialogue gives the story an artificial air and pulled me out of it, because frankly, people don’t talk like that. I could probably buy it if it happened once, or twice, or was restricted to one of the men. But both Jack and Will do it. Repeatedly. And more than once I had the thought, I don’t even know women who talk this much.

That type of overtelling mars the first quarter of the story, too. Backstory for both men is told while they’re alone and in their POV, but then, when they’re getting to know each other, it all gets told again. Without much change. It’s repetitive and redundant, and frankly, a little boring. It eventually smoothes over, but it’s a sluggish start, and it holds the story back from what ultimately turns out to be a quite sweet romance.

I was impressed for quite a while at how realistic the author made Jack’s responses. True to his lifetime rooted in his heterosexuality, he was slow to come around, and reluctant to pursue the more intimate aspects of a sexual relationship. But after all the set-up, it gets sacrificed for expediency. It takes only a couple of days for him to give it up all the way, which felt like a cheat after all the careful work that had been done setting up his characterization. I didn’t believe it, which makes it hard to believe as strongly in the romance, too.

All that being said, when the men are simply allowed to be, it’s a quiet, safe romance with more than a little charm. It just could have been so much more.

Readability

7/10 – Nice prose gets bogged down with long speechifying in the dialogue

Hero #1

6/10 – The speeches replace character development, though he’s a nice enough guy.

Hero #2

6/10 – I thought the turnaround was a little too swift to be believable, but again, a nice guy.

Entertainment value

6/10 – This would have been higher if I hadn’t been jerked out of the story by long, unrealistic speeches.

World building

8/10 – Solid and indicative of the writer’s capabilities outside of dialogue

TOTAL:

33/50

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Professor's Spring Fling by Annick Claire

TITLE: The Professor’s Spring Fling
AUTHOR: Annick Claire
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 13k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $3.00

Professor Amelia Bradley has the hots for one of her students, the gorgeous, enigmatic Nick Creston. He is the perfect specimen, except for the fact that their positions make it ethically impossible for her to agree to his advance. But Nick isn’t the type of man to take no for an answer, even if he has to tie her down to get her to agree…

This story is pure escapist fantasy. The heroine is twenty-six and already a literary wunderkind, merely teaching for the year to prove she can do it. The hero is gorgeous, so rich nobody can figure out who he really is, liked by all, and brilliant. These characters don’t have flaws or in any way resemble real people. Same goes for the situation. 100% wish fulfillment in almost every way possible.

With all that in mind, the sex is hot. There’s a little bit of role-playing, some mild bondage, lots of foreplay…enough to keep the bulk of the story clipping along, doing exactly what it’s meant to. Both Amelia and Nick are appealing within the roles they’ve been cast. Any reader with that sort of fantasy will be more than satisfied. However, when the story attempts to wrap it all up in a little romance package at the end, the fantasy gets shattered a tiny bit for me. I won’t spoil what the deal is with Nick, but there is absolutely no way his identity could not have been discovered with a simple Google search. Expecting him to retain his anonymity for so long just isn’t realistic, even within the framework of the fantasy. I suppose, though, for the purposes of making it as unrealistic as possible, it could happen. It just spoiled the ending for me, since I expected it to be a little bit smarter than that.

Readability

8/10 – Clean and erotic

Hero

6/10 – Too good to be true, but hey, it’s a fantasy all the way anyway

Heroine

6/10 – Nice, but again, too good to be true.

Entertainment value

7/10 – Hot, hot, and more hot as pure fantasy, which gets sullied at the end by an incompletely plausible detail

World building

5/10 – this isn’t about the world. This is about the sex.

TOTAL:

32/50

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Greater Art by Ainsley Davidson

TITLE: A Greater Art
AUTHOR: Ainsley Davidson
PUBLISHER: Amira Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 84k)
GENRE: Science fiction romance
COST: $6.00

Fearful for her three daughters’ safety and well-being, widowed Merianne flees her home planet for Vuetha, a planet where outcasts hide and try to build new lives. There, she thinks she can finally find peace, but her daughters’ friendship with a scientist where she works threatens everything she has built. Thorne looks like a Trueblood, the aristocratic race that rules her home planet, but his claims that he’s not ring true. His presence, however, provokes latent Talents in her daughters – unique sensory skills coveted amongst the Trueblood, and when Merianne’s old enemy kidnaps them, she has no choice but to join forces with Thorne to get them back…

Dense, complicated, and thoroughly absorbing, A Greater Art sucked me in and refused to let me go until I had finished it in a single sitting. What appealed to me most about it was that, though it was obvious from the first paragraphs it would be romance, the overlying plot with its extraordinary world building plays the significant role here. The romance happens as an organic offshoot of the completely separate conflict which, frankly, doesn’t happen a lot in sci-fi romantic e-books. I would have been just as satisfied if there hadn’t been a romance between Merianne and Thorne; that’s how much I enjoyed the rest of it.

But…there is a romance, and it’s wonderfully realistic. The characters don't start out in love or lust, though Thorne is attracted to Merianne. Merianne, for her part, has no inclination of anything romantic toward Thorne until well after she's past her paranoia about what he is, which lends even more credence to its authenticity. Then there are the actual characterizations. Thorne isn’t perfect. He’s a freesearcher, which means he hires out his unique research on a contractual basis, moving from one planet to another. He doesn’t have long-term relationships with anything but his work, even if he’s a good guy at heart. Merianne isn’t perfect, either. She’s slow to trust, often obsessive, and when the two are separated for a long period in the latter third of the book, becomes increasingly human by developing feelings – albeit not nearly as strong – for another man. Together, however, Merianne and Thorne bring out the best in each other. Their warmth radiates off the page, and in the end, there is nothing I want more than to see two people who obviously need each other so much, get their happy ending.

Overlying all of this is the kidnapping/rescue plot of Merianne’s children. Thorne has his own reasons for needing to be involved that are just as important as the fact that he’s grown to care for the girls and their mother, and every step they take toward leaving Vuetha in pursuit is rich in detail and mood. The only time in the story that it starts to flag for me is once they reach the other planet. There, they are separated, because Merianne is born to the serf class and the two don’t mix. The first part of their separation is written well, but there are a few chapters where quite a bit of time elapses, and the author resorts to vague summary in order to move the story forward. Granted, not a whole lot happens in that time period, but ultimately, it weakens the climax. For all the build-up and all the painstaking detail, I honestly expected more and was mildly let down by what actually happened.

Regardless of that, though, my investment in the characters and involvement in the plot compensate to make this a more than worthwhile read. Special kudos, too, to the author for creating such vivid worlds. This was a fabulous and absorbing read.

Readability

8/10 – Dense prose and sometimes awkward phrasing, but the characterization and a compelling plot compensate

Hero

8/10 – Driven and compelling

Heroine

8/10 – Warm and relatable

Entertainment value

9/10 – The only thing that mars this was the rushed through last quarter

World building

10/10 – Fully realized and believable, I was completely immersed

TOTAL:

43/50

Monday, October 13, 2008

Snagged by Jet Mykles

TITLE: Snagged
AUTHOR: Jet Mykles
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 19k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $3.99

Kyle wants out of the life of thieving, but when he attempts to steal the papers that will free him, he is dismayed to find them already gone. Taken by the one man he wishes he didn’t have to deal with. Seth is gorgeous, enigmatic, and entirely too distracting for Kyle’s good. He isn’t prepared for Seth to offer him a deal, however, so when it comes, he’s left shaken, scared, and more than a little seduced…

NOTE: This is a review originally written for Uniquely Pleasurable.

The ideas behind Snagged have a definite fanbase of appeal among some gay erotic romance readers. The notion of the guy who thinks he’s straight being attracted to another guy. The older, more experienced guy introducing the younger to a new lifestyle. The bad guys gone good. Unfortunately, while this story introduces the possibility of those notions, it doesn’t flesh any of them out to make them worthwhile reading.

Kyle is nineteen and in the service of a powerful man named Quince. We’re never really told why Quince is so powerful, or what he does, or what he really has Kyle do except work as a thief, but at the start of the story, we’re expected to feel panicked for Kyle when papers he wants to steal to gain his freedom from this man aren’t in the safe they’re supposed to be. In fact, Mykles doesn’t give any detail at all about what the papers might be or what they might contain until nearly the end of the story. They get referred to in oblique references that feel coy, and when the explanation finally does come out, it’s so anticlimactic and clich├ęd it has zero impact.

Kyle gets caught by Seth, a man we’re told puts him off his game for the sheer reason that he’s gorgeous. Kyle is adamant he’s straight – complete with multiple exclamation points – and his complete and utter fear of being attracted to Seth is more than a tad stifling. Yet, there is no real backstory there, either. There isn’t much in Seth’s demeanor to justify Kyle’s extreme reaction. We have no idea how they really know each other, how many interactions they might have had beforehand, or what Seth actually does. Without any sort of context, the characters end up in a bubble that completely cuts the reader off from the experience.

The prose, for what’s there, is clean and simple, but like the plot, it lacks any depth. The only scenes that have any detail at all are the erotic scenes, so it’s little wonder that those stand out. They are richer in both atmosphere and emotion, but they aren’t nearly enough to carry the rest of it. The story comes in at less than 20k, and while I’ve found the author’s style smooth in other works, the terseness holds this one back. Suspense doesn’t work for me without know why something or someone is dangerous. The threat Quince presents is never palpable, and I don’t know what the hold he has over Kyle is until far too late. Even the epilogue raises more questions than it answers. In the end, the story as a whole feels like an outline for a much longer work.

Readability

6/10 – Simplistic and clean, but no depth

Hero #1

4/10 – His incessant need to think in exclamation points and lack of any real personality makes him a body not a person

Hero #2

4/10 – Another body with shades of characterization but not enough to give him any substance.

Entertainment value

4/10 – It feels like an outline for a story, rather than a story itself.

World building

3/10 – There is very little done to give this any sense of atmosphere or backstory

TOTAL:

21/50

Friday, October 10, 2008

On Wings, Rising by Ann Somerville

TITLE: On Wings, Rising
AUTHOR: Ann Somerville
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 41k)
GENRE: Gay fantasy erotic romance
COST: $4.50

An outcast among his own kind, Dinun spends much of his time hunting and mining for treasures to support himself and his family. When he discovers an injured Angel – a creature that’s almost a myth amongst Dinun’s people – he does the only thing he can and tends to its wounds. He’s surprised to discover the Angel communicates telepathically, and even more so when Moon claims humans have stolen his child, but he agrees to help without pause. Together, they race to save the Angel baby, but Dinun’s feelings for the beautiful Moon might end up complicating things…

For a short novel, there is an impressive amount of world building contained within these pages. The author creates not one world, but two, both original, both incredibly realized with detail that goes far beyond what I normally find in short fantasy. Dinun’s futuristic world blends elements of technology, mythology, and social history to create something new, while the Angel society creates something entirely different than that. There’s extensive vocabulary and social mores as well.

Unfortunately, it’s the vocabulary that trips me up in the beginning. The entire first chapter is densely packed with new terminology, and while some of the meanings are easily extrapolated from context, others are not. It slowed me down dramatically, as I’m not a reader who can skim over words she doesn’t recognize. It took the first couple chapters for that to smooth out for me, but then, something else happened that slowed me back down again. Moon started communicating with Dinun. He does so telepathically, and it’s noted in italics within the text with emotions set off by double colons. Because he is struggling to communicate with Dinun – and true to most cultures’ differences in speech syntax – he thinks in fragments, like this: “We. Sing. Bodies. Birds. Give. When. Child relative. Retrieve. Time of grieving.” ::Sad:: Generally speaking, it’s comprehensible once you get used to the inverted syntax. What tripped me up was the use of periods to separate the words. I think I understand why the author chose this method of communication, but I fear that my method of reading made this more difficult for me than it might be for others. For me, periods are a full stop, so every time I hit Moon’s communications, my reading lost its flow. The stuttering that came in its place kept me from getting immersed into the emotions of the story until I had grown used to the patterns, which took until well over halfway through.

That being said, the writing is tightly written and plotted everywhere else, and characterizations are sharp and realistic. I especially fell in love with Dinun. He’s presented as an outcast in Quarn society, and yet, he’s found a way to deal with it. He’s become a loner, but his status makes him both sensitive to others and strong in character. He’s hugely sympathetic, and while I felt he attached to Moon a little too soon, it was more than understandable considering his lack of contact prior to meeting the Angel. Moon was more enigmatic, probably partially due to my disconnect for half the story, but the other character that leapt off the screen was Jenke. He’s another resident from Dinun’s town, and comes into play the last fourth of the story. I won’t spoil readers by saying why he got to me, but if there was a character I’d follow from this – other than Dinun – he would easily fit the bill.

For fantasy readers, there’s a lot to love in this packed short novel – a plot you can care about, characters to adore, and an introduction to some fascinating cultures.

Readability

8/10 – I found the angels’ speech – specifically Moon, since he does the bulk of it – difficult to adjust to, but otherwise tight prose

Hero #1

8/10 – Tender yet strong, befitting his inner character finding a way to coexist with being an outcast

Hero #2

7/10 – More of a mystery until later in the story, though generally likeable

Entertainment value

7/10 – My slow start and slight disjoint from Moon kept me from getting immersed into the story.

World building

9/10 – Thorough beyond belief, the only reason this isn’t perfect is because all the new terminology took me a while to grasp.

TOTAL:

39/50

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Forever Kind of Thing by Sharon Cullen

TITLE: A Forever Kind of Thing
AUTHOR: Sharon Cullen
PUBLISHER: The Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 70k)
GENRE: Paranormal romance
COST: $6.00

Cursed with immortality, Mikael Giovanni forsakes his leadership of his gypsy clan to wander the world, remaking himself into Mikael Butler. He grows tired of watching women he loves die, so he foregoes love and relationships completely, until a chance meeting with a perky librarian in Patience, Maine. Allie knows she should run far, far away from the gorgeous biker who just happened to buy the biggest property in town, but an attraction she doesn’t understand binds them together…even though she has no future, not even with him.

Even after having finished this, I can’t help but think that all the elements were there for a great romance. The hero cursed for all eternity? Classic. The strong heroine battling her own demons? Often a winner. Yet something in the execution of this novel fell short for me. Much of it stems from the characterization of the two leads, but after that, I’m kind of at a loss.

Mikael is alpha to the core, so the fact that he’s uncommunicative with the heroine – for her own good, of course – and bosses her around by telling her what she can and can’t do – also for her own good – shouldn’t come as a surprise. And it doesn’t, not really. But this type of boorish behavior, combined with the fact that he has a tendency to disappear on her without a clue or explanation simply because it’s for her own good, grates at an early place within the story. I kept wondering why Allie was bothering with this guy she barely knew in the first place. Then I would get reminded why by the author. Because he’s gorgeous and they have a connection, though I’m never allowed to actually see it in play. I just end up seeing him jerk her around unnecessarily.

Frankly, putting up with all this behavior makes Allie a doormat if there ever was one. Supposedly, she’s spunky. Translation? She’s stubborn and as irrational about communication as Mikael is. I guess that makes them ideal for each other after all.

It doesn't help that the entire romance angle hinges on a detail regarding Allie’s name that makes it difficult not to roll my eyes. I’m not sure why I’m expected to believe that Mikael would go weeks without learning Allie’s last name, especially when they are meeting every day and she works at the library. It felt far too coincidental, which didn’t help when I was already mildly annoyed with the leads.

The romance picks up in the last third of the book, with some nicely paced action and what felt like genuine emotion for the first time in the story. But it’s a little too late to save this from being more than a mediocre read. So much potential, so little to show for it.

Readability

8/10 – Technically solid, though nothing inspiring

Hero

4/10 – The fact that he runs out on her when she needs him? Sucks at communication? Bosses her around? Doesn’t really endear him to me.

Heroine

4/10 – I think she’s kind of a doormat for putting up with Mikael’s bad behavior and justifying it as being in love with him.

Entertainment value

6/10 – I love the concept of the story if not all of the execution

World building

8/10 – I like the coziness the author creates in both her portrayal of Maine and gypsy life

TOTAL:

30/50

Friday, October 3, 2008

Life Begins in Arizona by Lee Morrison

TITLE: Life Begins in Arizona
AUTHOR: Lee Morrison
PUBLISHER: The Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 57k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

Dr. Claire Stevens has one fatal flaw – her abusive ex-husband. When he attacks her in her new home after getting released from the last time she had him arrested, Claire is only rescued through the intervention of her hunky neighbor, a man who turns out to be her new boss. Jake Cooper has a soft spot for saving people, especially women, and when he’s put on the spot after taking Claire to the hospital, the only way he can figure out how to protect her is to pretend to be her husband. Now they just have to find a way to live with their lie.

Stories about abuse usually have to walk a very thin line. Stray too far to either side, and you either get maudlin or uber-inspirational. Many authors also oversimplify what can be very difficult emotions. Though this particular author doesn’t fall in the latter trap, the story she's written still lacks the wallop such strong feelings demand.

The primary reason for this rests on the broad, perfect shoulders of her all-too-perfect hero. Jake Cooper is a successful ER doctor, now made the Medical Director, gorgeous, divorced because his wife was a tramp, understanding, and often sounds like poetry when he speaks. Don’t believe me?

“We are all a canvas waiting for life to paint itself on us, Claire. And once it begins, you can’t go back and erase it. You can blend to soften, add thinner to the mistakes to take attention away from them, layer the lessons to make the most of them, and in doing so the life on the canvas constantly evolves into a beautiful work of art, but you can never start with a blank canvas once you’ve already started to live. You can’t crawl under a rock and let life pass you by. It will find you in the aging, adding hues to your life that are dull and cracked. But you can enhance what you’ve been given by embracing the palette, understanding how the colors work together, learning where to blend, where to thin, and even where to breathe life into the mistakes.”

And he’s not an artist. Claire paints to relax, though, so it’s the perfect metaphor for her, one only Jake could provide. Oh, and did I mention? He reads her mind. Constantly. There is nothing he doesn’t do absolutely right, even giving her the space she wants. It’s entirely wish fulfillment writing, and completely unrelatable. He’s too perfect. And it’s annoying to say the least.

There is a chance he does have flaws. After Claire goes home from the hospital, in the period of time when she and Jake are getting to know each other for real, the story shifts from action to page after page of telling what is going on, so it’s entirely possible Jake’s flaws could have come out then. The problem is, I didn’t get to see any of it. All of the relationship development gets told to me, rather than getting to see it unfold for myself. Then, boom! They’re in love, and Jake’s even more perfect than he started out.

It doesn’t help that the story is hindered by writing like this: They kissed a slow burning kiss that transcended the universe in erotic pleasure. The phrasing is awkward, the imagery is trite, and the culminating effect of hitting that after chapters of boredom was for me to walk away from the story and almost not return.

I will say this to the author’s credit. She knows her medical stuff, and she doesn’t treat abuse as a simple subject. Claire’s thought processes, while boring to read, show complex flow and deeper understanding of some of the issues at hand. It was refreshing to see it handled like that. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough to save the story.

Readability

7/10 – Technically okay, but long chapters of telling not showing encompass too much of the actual growth within the story

Hero

3/10 – Real people have flaws.

Heroine

4/10 – Is there anything wrong about her? Not really. I just thought she was…boring.

Entertainment value

3/10 – I find it too difficult to invest in relationships with perfect people.

World building

7/10 – The author knows her medical stuff, and has clearly done her research on abuse victims.

TOTAL:

24/50

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sub for Hire by Claire Thompson

TITLE: Sub for Hire
AUTHOR: Claire Thompson
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 56k)
GENRE: Gay BDSM erotic romance
COST: $5.95

When his finances become precarious, aspiring writer Josh Hanson checks out an ad for a BDSM dungeon looking for submissives. The money is good, and since he’s not in a relationship, Josh thinks the arrangement is perfect. That is, until he has a scene with a man who shatters the barriers he’s put in place in order not to get hurt by his part-time job. Michael is gorgeous, arresting, and the most sensual Dom Josh has ever known. But Josh is still a sub for hire, and it’s going to take more than one session for either of them to believe otherwise…

The story starts out with a bang, as Josh auditions for a role as a submissive for hire at Dungeon Dreams. The owner, Sam, personally puts potential hires through the ropes with what would be a standard one-hour session, and the intensity and chemistry between the two leaps off the screen. The BDSM is hot and evocative, even though there is no actual sex involved, and the promise of what is to come tantalizing at the very least.

It maintains a level of smooth presentation for another chapter. Michael is introduced and he’s likeable enough, though there is a too good to be true vibe to him that never gets shaken. Unfortunately, I got jerked out of the story in chapter three by an editorial mistake that I probably would have overlooked if it wasn’t played as important later on in the next chapter. See, when Josh is in a scene, he’s known only as “slave j.” The first time he and Michael interact, it starts out with the same intensity that was present in the opening sequence with Sam, but then, Michael asks him, “Would you do that, Josh? Would you give of yourself so completely to your Master, to the one who owned your heart?” Completely innocuous, and absolutely 100% fits the tone of the scene. Except Michael called him by name, and it stopped me enough to go back and read to see if I’d missed the point where Josh told him. I couldn’t find it, so I just dismissed it as nothing and continued reading. I fell back into the gorgeous rhythm of the scene, letting it play out, but then, at the very end of it, after these two have had a very profound moment, Michael is leaving and we get this exchange:

“Sir—Michael…” Slave j’s voice was earnest, even pleading.

Half reluctant, half eager, Michael turned back. “Yes?”

“My name is Josh.”

Honestly, it’s not even a big editorial mistake. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if Josh hadn’t made a point to tell Michael. And then both of them spent the next chapter ruminating on the ramifications of such a detail getting shared in the first place. The only reason I bring it up at all is because it pulled me out of the story for a short while, and I became wary as I read, wondering what other inconsistencies might pop up.

None did. Within a few chapters, I was back into the flow of it. Mostly. I find the author’s voice for erotic scenes highly engaging. She makes BDSM seem accessible, even to those who don’t practice. She highlights the mental aspects of it rather than making it all about the pain, which makes a refreshing change. Where I don’t sink into her prose as much is in the dialogue. A good portion comes across as stilted. It might look good and be grammatically correct, but when I hear it in my head as I’m reading, it sounds artificial. It’s a personal peccadillo, though, and with this particular story, a minor one at that. Both men are likeable in their own way, and if they’re painted a little too romantic, it’s consistent with the tone of the entire story. Much like the overly romantic ending. It might be pain that brings them together, but it’s love that keeps them that way.

Readability

8/10 – An early editorial mistake made me wary, but as long as the characters aren’t talking, it’s a smooth read

Hero #1

6/10 – There’s a sweet sort of innocence about him that makes up a little for some of his stupid decisions

Hero #2

6/10 – Amiable, though the too good to be true vibe is hard to shake

Entertainment value

7/10 – The erotic scenes work best; some of the sappiness of the conclusion drags this down for me.

World building

9/10 – An excellent job in portraying varying degrees of BDSM

TOTAL:

36/50