Tuesday, December 29, 2009

5 Releases I'm Looking Forward to in 2010

To finish out 2009, I'm looking forward, to 2010, to the stories that will make me laugh, make me cry, inspire or arouse me. It's highly likely that the stories that leave the strongest marks will not be ones I anticipate. Did I know last year at this time how moved I'd be by a JM Snyder short story about two elderly men? I'd never even read Kate Willoughby, and look at how much I loved her books.

But that doesn't mean there aren't titles that don't leave a small thrill of anticipation, every time I see them. So I've picked out five of those to share today, to look forward to in the dawn of a new year and a fresh decade. In no particular order:

1. Boot Hill Bride by Lauri Robinson: I don't find many series in e-books that inspire me to follow along, but the first Quinter Brides book was delightful, and the second sits in my TBR pile, waiting for me to get to it. I have no doubts I'll be picking up this third book, too.

2. Nothing to Commend Her by Jo Barrett: Wild Rose Press actually published this one a couple days early. When I last checked, it was supposed to come out on the 1st, but there you go. Anyway, I've had some hit or miss with this author since first falling in love with her Highlander's Challenge, but this is a novel-length historical, rather than her shorter contemporary work I had problems with, with a damaged hero and heroine. It looks so intriguing and will go straight in my TBR pile.

3. Board Resolution by Joey W. Hill: It's Joey Hill, do I really need to say more? I have no idea what it's about, other than I can assume it's het from the cover, but I don't need anything more. With the exception of Rough Canvas, I've really enjoyed everything I've read by her. I tend to buy her in print, but since this will likely be out in e-format first and it's EC, I'll likely have it on my reader very quickly after its release. Whenever that is.

4. From Afar by Ava March: I wasn't blown away by the second of her stories about Oliver and Vincent, but this is a gay regency with vampires. How am I not supposed to get excited about that, especially since I know this author can pour on the erotic?

5. The Dark Tide by Josh Lanyon: Okay, this one is cheating because it came out on the 22nd. But I've done very little reading for pleasure in the past ten days, and I've been waiting for this last Adrien English book for what feels like forever. So it completely counts as a book I'm anxious to read in 2010. Do you have any idea how hard it's been to stay unspoiled for this?!?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Favorite Authors of 2009

My second to last list for 2009, though it's the last list of favorites. These are my five author finds of the year, the ones that excited me the most. I've excluded my favorite authors from previous years, as well as anybody who made the list more than once. I think it goes without saying how much I adore them.

4th Runner Up
Rick R. Reed

I read three of Mr. Reed's stories this past year, and have more on my TBR pile. What I like about him is his fearless approach and the fact that he does so with visceral style.

3rd Runner Up
MK Mancos

While I had read some of this author's work under a different pseudonym, this year I discovered the humor in her work through this one. Always a solid writer, with enough hits out of the ball park to keep me on the hook.

2nd Runner Up
Evie Byrne

Getting teased by her talent in the first offering I read was enough to drive me to her other work, where I discovered her effervescent voice and erotic imagery wasn't just a fluke. I trust her in ways I don't trust many authors, and have long put her on my autobuy list.

1st Runner Up
Tamara Allen

This woman has too much talent not to be included on this list. Though I only read one book of hers this year, one was all it took to prove to me how good she really is.

And my favorite author of 2009 is...
Kate Willoughby

I don't think this will come as a surprise to anybody who follows my blog. I was blown away by the first novella I read by this author, and while later works might not have matched the sheer joy I got from that one, they have still proven her comedic and romantic talent. I adore her, and can only hope she finds the large audience she deserves.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Striking Covers, otherwise known as The Ones That Got Away

One thing I've finally learned doing these end of year lists - it's pointless to pick out my favorite erotic and non-erotic stories. Those two lists end up being repeats of entries from my favorites broken down by length, and who wants to hear me extol the virtues of a favorite book yet again? Well, maybe the author if they read the blog, lol. But rather than bore people with rehashes of commentary on books they've already heard about, I decided to do something different today.

I buy a lot of books every year. It's my biggest luxury item. But for every book I buy, there's dozens more that I don't. So I've decided to pick and post covers of books I didn't buy this year, but the cover art is just too striking not to share. At least, they're striking to me. I've chosen ten of the twenty-six e-publishers I visit every week, and selected one title from their 2009 releases that really spoke to me visually. Each one of these ten make me stop and stare, for one reason or another. Who knows? Maybe others will follow the links, read the blurbs, and discover a story they might have otherwise missed.


I like the simplicity of this, the starkness of the white with the sole color coming from the green. It's quite elegant, while still remaining within the expectations of this being romantic suspense.


I think this is just beautiful - the coloring, the softness, the pose. The juxtaposition of the chains with the wings is subtle, and its etherealness absolutely exquisite.


When Drollerie Press started, their covers looked like none others out there in e-publishing. This one is no different. Its multiple layers feel seamless, and while it's a tad busy for me, the coloring and symbols used always catch my eye, which is what a cover is supposed to do.


Yes, this is a purely superficial favorite. Gorgeous dark guy + heavy black chains + dungeon cell background = pure win. I don't read this series, and I don't really trust Ellora's Cave covers to have anything to do with the actual story, but sometimes I stare at this and wish I dared to buy it and try.


The play of light and dark in this is captivating. Truly. I love this cover so much, I've actually been tempted on three different occasions to go and buy the book.


I love April Martinez' work. I think she and Anne Cain are the two most consistently superior cover artists out there right now (though Kanaxa at Samhain is quickly becoming a favorite of mine). I find the texturing on this riveting, especially since it makes me want to buy a Carol Lynne book when I've never had any good luck reading her.


I obviously have a thing for moody, huh? This appeals the same way Southern Gothic appeals, creepy and evocative.


This is the cover that inspired this whole post. I saw this around the blogosphere as well as at the e-publisher when it was released, and always stopped to look at it. It's so gorgeous, from the delicate calligraphy, to the coloring, to a hero I wouldn't throw out of bed.


Another really superficial choice, but come on. Two gorgeous guys, in such a sensual, romantic pose? How am I supposed to not stare?


I find this incredibly elegant, and honestly, looks like something I might pick up in B&N. It's so professionally done, not too cluttered, easy to read, a great contrast of colors without spinning out of control. Just a classy, classy cover.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Favorite Heroes of 2009

I've decided that the reason my shortlist of favorite heroes is always my longest is because I read m/m, too, which offer twice as many men to choose from. Yep. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

4th Runner Up
Henry in Henry and Jim by JM Snyder


Henry is the emotional core of this wonderful short story. It's his pain that devastates the reader, and his love that permeates every word. Without believing in him, the ending wouldn't have hit me nearly as hard as it did, and made this a story to remember.

3rd Runner Up
Sutton Albright in Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen

While both young men in this novel are richly developed, Sutton was the one who got to me hardest. His innocence and subsequent growth mirror the tenor of the period, and it's his need and later strength that truly wrapped me up in knots. He brought out every protective instinct I possess.

2nd Runner Up
Jim Kinney in A Hearing Heart by Bonnie Dee


Another heartwrencher. Dee's deaf hero is testimony that beta characters do not have to be weak, that having a disability doesn't necessarily mean melodrama, that sometimes words aren't necessary to convey what someone truly feels. Of all her solo work, Jim stands heads and shoulders above the rest.

1st Runner Up
Brian Lapahie in Butterfly Unpinned by Bonnie Dee & Laura Bacchi

I predicted in my review that Brian would make it to this list, and sure enough, there he is. Brian is strong, gorgeous, and an all around decent guy. The kind who sees something wrong and wants to fix it. He was the true heart of the book for me, because for as damaged as Butterfly is, his plight was the one that I invested in.

And my favorite hero of 2009 is...
The Commander in The Commander's Desire by Jennette Green

I have no idea how many people read this book. I'll bet not many. It's not erotic, it's not something I see around a lot, and it's het in an e-market where it's obvious to anyone paying attention that the vast majority of books that sell well are either alternative lifestyle, come from Ellora's Cave, or offer shapeshifters. But I loved this book when I read it in e-format, enough that I turned around and bought a print copy for my keeper shelf, enough that it was one of my favorite novels of the year. The primary reason for that is the Commander, who hits one of my reading kinks so hard, he knocked it into 2010. He's an alpha hero who takes no prisoners, who has been viciously scarred both physically and mentally, and yet retains an unparalleled nobility and gentleness. Yes, he's a classic beast archetype. No, I really don't care. I absolutely adore him.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Favorite Heroines of 2009

One of the things I can count on? My shortlist of favorite heroines of the year always being my shortest. That doesn't diminish the characters that make it. If anything, that proves their worth all the more, because they stand that much higher above the rest.

4th Runner Up
Eleni Whitby in Texting Aphrodite by Amy Lake

Eleni is an excellent example of the type of heroine that gives me faith in the genre. She was fresh, vibrant, and delightfully intelligent. She proves a contemporary heroine doesn't have to be anything but real to be a joy to read. A character doesn't always need super powers or huge problems to make a reader care.

3rd Runner Up
Katya Ortaega in Lost Gods by Kim Knox

Of course, having super powers can still be a good thing. Katya had those and attitude to spare, and helped propel the taut action of this novel to its satisfying conclusion. Without her, it never would have worked.

2nd Runner Up
April Didrickson in Deja Vu Lover by Phoebe Matthews

April is the ditzy heart of this fascinating past-life romance. It's a delicately balanced characterization, one that could have become annoying and intolerable, but instead, April becomes the kind of character you can't take your eyes off, even when she's racing toward what seems like an awful crash.

1st Runner Up
Maddy de Victoria in Bound by Blood by Evie Byrne

Maddy. Maddy, Maddy, Maddy. To say I loved Maddy is an understatement. She's funny and strong, independent and yet somehow vulnerable. She's sexy, real, and absolutely amazing. I don't think I can say enough good things about her, or how much she really makes this book for me.

And my favorite heroine of 2009 is...
Morag in Selkie Island by Jorrie Spencer

Where Maddy made me laugh, Morag made me cry. Her loneliness was a physical thing, bleeding from every word. She made me believe in water shifters, and more, she made me care, where water shifters tend to leave me cold. The juxtaposition between her innocence of the world and her weariness of it gave this novella depths others could only hope for.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite Novels of 2009

To finish out my lists this week, I chose my five favorite novel length reads that I reviewed for this blog. There's an oddity to be found in this group this year. Three of the five titles are in a genre that I really don't buy a lot of, and in fact, would say it's a genre I don't really like. But a lot of my favorites this year are breaking my usual rules. Novels were no different.

4th Runner Up
The Commander's Desire by Jennette Green


Beauty and the Beast meets Medieval Times. I lost time in a family excursion because I got so sucked into this story of a battle-scarred Commander and the woman who's been promised as his bride. The setting was more original than most historicals, the hero wonderful, and the heroine, once she got over crying so much about her predicament, sympathetic.

3rd Runner Up
A Hearing Heart by Bonnie Dee

Look at that. Another historical. Wanna guess what the genre that took me by surprise this year was? Where my love for the previous book was about the alpha male, a big part of my affection for this gentle, tender romance is for its beta hero. Jim's deafness is never glamorized or used for melodramatic effect. It simply adds another layer to an already complex character, and provides direction for the sweet storyline. My favorite of all this author's work.

2nd Runner Up
Hold the Dark by Frank Tuttle

Considering Frank Tuttle was my favorite author last year, it shouldn't be a surprise that the latest Markhat book made my list. He went short novel length for this one, which gave him the luxury of introducing aspects of his world he didn't have the chance before. His rich, immersive writing puts him at a level above the vast majority of writers I've found via e-publishing, and his creation a must read for anyone who enjoys solid fantasy writing.

1st Runner Up
Scythe by MK Mancos

The best romances are the well-rounded ones, where I love the two protagonists (regardless of gender) equally, where I'm entertained both because of humor and emotion, where I'm as drawn into action as I am the quieter moments. This satisfies all of those. It was a fast-paced, original escapade that had me smiling throughout the whole thing, and when it was over, wishing for more. A lot more. I'd read this author under a different pseudonym before, and while I'd enjoyed her, this moved her to my list of authors to trust. Believe me. That's not a long list.

And my favorite novel of 2009 is...
Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen

The final historical of the bunch, and one of the highest all-around scoring stories I've reviewed here. The author created a world in this novel that stole me away, yanking me out of the present and depositing me lovingly in her carefully constructed, early 20th century New York. Her characters were warm and multi-faceted, the romance and friendship between them textured and - most importantly - real. There isn't a weak characterization in the bunch, and when it's combined with talented writing, skill that sucks you in and perfectly matches the mood of the moment, it's impossible not to consider this an absolutely outstanding read.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorite Novellas of 2009

For those people following my year end favorites, novellas are next. Last year, they were heavily weighted for Samhain, a testimony to the quality I often find over there. This year, the balance is more even, with four e-publishers represented as well as both het and m/m. There' s even a repeat of an author from last year's list, which goes to show how much a fan I'm turning out to be.

4th Runner Up
NEG UB2 by Rick R. Reed

This is one of those cases where the sequel is better than the original. While I enjoyed VGL Male Seeks Same, the emotion in this was so much more palpable that there's really no comparison. They engulfed me, even when I had slight issues with the protagonist's melodramatic ways.

3rd Runner Up
Bound by Blood by Evie Byrne

Evie Byrne is my repeat author on this list, with the second of her vampire series. While the first book was certainly solid, this one outshone it. Both her hero and heroine were strong individuals, the sex was hot, and it epitomizes what I consider her best strength - the sheer energy that flows through her work.

2nd Runner Up
Unrequited by Abigail Roux

For anybody who read my recent review of this novella, its presence on this list should not come as a surprise. Its dialogue is some of the best I've read all year, its relationships some of the most real. I loved that these men felt like they should have been sitting in my living room, and I adored that the author made simple kissing more erotic than a lot of the far more explicit work out there. An absolutely lovely little gem.

1st Runner Up
Selkie Island by Jorrie Spencer

There are a few things that almost always stop me from finishing a blurb. The fae. Mate talk. Weird shifters. Paranormal water elements. But because I like this author, and because I loved this cover so much - enough for it to be one of my favorites from the year - I gave this one a go when I might not have normally. What I discovered was one of the most tender stories I read all year. It's evocative and atmospheric, with a truly wonderful love story.

And my favorite novella of 2009 is...
Losing It by Kate Willoughby


Finding an author whose humor meshes with your own is always a joy. When they can actually write, too? Even better. I discovered this author with this wonderfully funny, cheerfully romantic story, and as much as I love her, I still consider it my favorite of her work. Just like the last story, it proves that in the hands of a talented author, it's possible for me to look past personal peccadillos and fall in love harder than I would have imagined possible.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Favorite Short Stories of 2009

Last year, I started presenting my favorites according to length, because I wanted to be able to recognize stories in anthologies. Good work should not go unnoticed. Just like last year, two of my favorites in short stories - for me, that's anything less than 15k - come from anthologies that otherwise wouldn't have gotten the recognition.

4th Runner Up
Painting from Life by Anne Brooke


For someone who reads as much as I do, finding a strong, original voice can make my whole week. Anne Brooke paints as effectively as her unnamed narrator, though words are her medium. In doing so, she created an indelible rendering of a complex relationship that lifts the brief telling to a masterful level.

3rd Runner Up
Angel's Tears by Bryn Colvin


At the heart of this haunting story is a sad sack of a Plain Joe that completely captured my heart. Charley is the reason this story succeeds as well as it does, turning what could have been a maudlin pity party into a tale about hope and love that transcends spirit and flesh.

2nd Runner Up
Henry and Jim by J.M. Snyder


You know it was a good year for short stories when my 2nd runner up title scored a 10 for entertainment. This is one of those stories that prove how masterful Snyder can sometimes be, a bittersweet love story that relates a romance we should all be so lucky to have.

1st Runner Up
Shock Radio by Gabriel Daemon


The common thread running through most of my favorite short stories of this past year is that they are not your traditional romance. This one, especially, is as far as you can get away from that. Daemon grabbed me by the throat with the opening story in this anthology and shook me until I was so rattled I could barely think straight. It's bold and brash, just like its main character, and manages to creep me out just thinking about it in the height of the cheeriest season of the year.

And my favorite short story of 2009 is...

South by Dalyn A. Miller


Though this anthology was one of the better collections - as a whole - that I read this past year, the best one in it by far was "South" by Dalyn A. Miller. The story of two men on the verge of separating, it skillfully weaves backstory and forward momentum in wrenching, realistic ways that put so many other stories to shame. I rooted for this couple with everything I had, and promptly went back to re-read it when I finished it the first time. I find it a little ironic that, like my favorite last year, it was released by a publisher I've had difficulty reading more often than not. But talent shines, no matter where it's published.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Favorite Covers of 2009

I'm starting out my 2009 Favorites lists with covers, but honestly, my shortlist of covers that I loved from books I actually read this year was ridiculously short. I was far more entranced with covers of books I didn't purchase more often than not, but I'm not a reader who buys books based on pretty packaging (well, 99% of the time I'm not). That's not to say I didn't love these 5 covers, because I did. I think they're gorgeous. I did find it curious that there's not a single m/m cover in the bunch, even though 1/3 of the books I read are gay or menage. Three were in my shortlist, but in the end, these were still my favorite of the year...

4th Runner Up
Face of the Maiden by Emma Wildes, Cover Art by Anne Cain


There's a delicate elegance to this cover that perfectly fits the genre, if not necessarily the mood of the story. The wistfulness of her expression, however, is a wonderful match, and I find the sheer level of its prettiness too much to resist.

3rd Runner Up
Lost Gods by Kim Knox, Cover Art by Anne Cain


The appeal of this cover rests in its rich coloring and texture. I love the gorgeous reds in contrast to the blonde, who also fits the image of Katya from the story. It works, very well.

2nd Runner Up
Selkie Island by Jorrie Spencer, Cover Art by Kanaxa


Samhain has recently acquired a new artist, one whose bold, vivid style is already standing out in the crowd. This cover hit me the second I saw it, and falls into that 1% where I go against my own usual rules and take a chance on something I wouldn't normally. I love the moody coloring, the texture, the absolutely gorgeous model who epitomizes Clay to a T. It takes my breath away.

1st Runner Up
Strands of Sunlight by Anya Bast, Cover Art by Syneca


This cover always makes me look twice. It plays with the concept of chiaroscuro with an elegance you don't usually find in EC covers, with the woman and scarf silhouette framing the almost kissing couple perfectly. My one quibble is with the title's placement, but it doesn't disrupt the flow of the rest of it, so I can understand why it's tucked away at the top.

And my pick for the favorite cover I reviewed this year is…
A Leap of Knowing by Dani Harper, Cover Art by Sable Grey


Last year, I went for dramatic simplicity. This year, it's about soft, muted layering. I'm not usually a fan of Cobblestone covers, but this one stands out from the crowd. The combination of the Celtic scrollwork with the near-kiss (a romance staple, yes, but it often works), makes it seem simple until you look at it closely. Nothing overwhelms anything else, keeping it balanced and almost gentle.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Unrequited by Abigail Roux

TITLE: Unrequited
AUTHOR: Abigail Roux
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 34k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $4.99

Attorney Vic Bronsen has been in love with Owen for the last five years, but settled for their casual sexual relationship and friendship instead. When one last straw proves to be too much, he takes up his best friend Shane’s invitation to take a month off and stay with Shane at the beach. It just remains to be seen if he can be strong enough to move on…

Good stories aren’t always about breathtaking plots, or incredible prose, or high drama. Sometimes, all it takes to make a story good – and even great – are characters that leap from the page and practically act out the story in front of me, they seem that real. This is one of those stories.

It’s not a high action story. It’s a character study more than anything else, with these three men slowly unfolding before my eyes. Vic has been in love with Owen, a cop in town he has a casual sexual relationship with, but Owen is oblivious to his affection. Owen is presented as very in the moment. I never saw him as mean-spirited in his disregard for Vic. Rather, he just doesn’t notice. There’s no malicious intent, which says it all for me. So when Vic decides enough is enough, and accepts Shane’s invitation, I supported his decision as the smart, mature thing to do, even if it’s hard as hell.

Where Vic came to life, however, was in all his interactions with Shane. Their dialogue just crackles. It’s funny, it’s real, and it felt like any number of male friendships I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It’s probably some of the best dialogue I’ve read all year, and won me over almost from the start. These two acted like friends, treated each other with the same kind of camaraderie I’d expect to see, and yet, as the time they spend together deepens, the growth they make feels perfectly natural. I was even forgiving of the rather manufactured drama that gets introduced towards the end, mostly because I recognized it as necessary to truly resolve the romance. I absolutely loved these two, and rooted for them nearly from their introductions.

Besides the wonderful dialogue, this has some of the most sensual kissing scenes I’ve read this year, too. I didn’t even miss the more explicit scenes, though those came later. I could very well have been satisfied with just the kissing. They were just that good. The whole thing…one of the most satisfying romances I’ve read all year, and it makes me enormously happy to end my 2009 reviews on such a high note.

Readability

9/10 – Sparkling dialogue, realistic characters, an easygoing atmosphere, it all sucked me in

Hero #1

9/10 – Funny, real, and smart

Hero #2

8/10 – Warm and real, though I knew what was coming, it didn’t ruin my reaction to him

Entertainment value

9/10 – I totally fell for the friendship they had, flowing so naturally into a romance

World building

8/10 – There’s an entire section of this that details their trip to the beach that brings it all to life

TOTAL:

43/50

Monday, December 7, 2009

Longfellow Seduced by Violet Summers

TITLE: Longfellow Seduced
AUTHOR: Violet Summers
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 42k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $5.99

When it looks like millions are disappearing from the books of their club, vampires Silas and Magnus call in an expert to help track down the missing money. Prudence Longfellow comes from a long line of warrior women, each possessed of a certain talent. Hers is to see how random puzzle pieces can be solved, but her presence at the Dungeon throws Magnus off-guard. As the lead singer of his band, he’s used to having any woman he wants, and taking what he desires. Pru is the antithesis of all of that, but just because she’s tiny, doesn’t mean she’s a mouse…

If there’s one thing this author team delivers, it’s heat. It was obvious in the story of theirs in Liquid Silver’s Hearts Afire series, too. When it comes to combustible sex scenes, they write them with gusto, without fear, and in great abundance. In the case of this particular short novel, perhaps too great an abundance.

The book starts out in the Dungeon, the club/bar Silas and Magnus own. Silas has discovered a discrepancy of millions in their books, but can’t pinpoint it, so he’s called in a specialist to track it down. Magnus doesn’t seem to really care too much about the business. For much of the first part of the book, he seems to be driven by his id, focusing on pleasure and satiation than anything else. When Pru arrives, she immediately gets in his face, furious that he isn’t giving her the respect she thinks she deserves, and when she calls him on his boorish behavior, there’s a split second where it seems like he’s going to actually let her get away with it. The animosity between them is sharp and caustic, setting a very interesting dynamic.

But then it all turns on a dime. Out of nowhere, it flipflops to sex. I guess I’m supposed to believe that the dislike that was so palpable when they met – and I mean excruciatingly palpable, I believed every second of it – was just misguided lust. I didn’t. It felt completely out of the blue and especially not in character for Pru. It jarred me enough out of the story to distance me completely from the first scene, and even through parts of the second. It wasn’t until several chapters later, once the heat of their connection became the only thing on the page and I was thrust into it headfirst, that I was able to abandon my misgivings from the start.

This focus on sex derails further development for both the characters and the story. Because so much of their time together is spent in one sexual position or another, I’m never really given much of a chance to see how these two connect outside of it. Then, there’s no chance at all because they’re already making declarations. The erotic attention also diverts any kind of depth from the plot about Silas and Magnus’ creator, Allessandra. Every time we start getting any kind of real plot information, it gets truncated for more sex with Pru and Magnus. Add in the fact that the exposition about what really the Longfellow women are and their relationship to anything supernatural doesn’t come until nearly the end of the story, and I’m left with a million questions and very few answers.

That doesn’t mean this wasn’t a good story. I like this author’s voice, and like I said at the top of the review, they write erotic scenes that sizzle without even trying too hard. I only wish the rest of the story was as fully fleshed. The characters are rich and inviting. I just wanted to love them more than I did.

Readability

8/10 – While hot, the preponderance of erotic scenes when exposition was necessary slowed this down

Hero

7/10 – Sexy and gruff

Heroine

7/10 – Intelligent without losing femininity

Entertainment value

7/10 – The switch in the beginning was too abrupt, and the lack of necessary exposition made it hard to stay focused on the plot, but sheer hotness and characters I didn’t hate helped

World building

6/10 – I needed more information about the Longfellows and general world than I got to make this fully rich

TOTAL:

35/50

Friday, December 4, 2009

Handcuffs and Lies by Bronwyn Green

TITLE: Handcuffs and Lies
AUTHOR: Bronwyn Green
PUBLISHER: Resplendence Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 17k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $3.50

Three years after her brother’s death, Dr. Tori Spinelli is still having nightmares about it, but she trudges on, day after day, until another kid dies in her ER from Ecstasy, provided by the same druglord who killed her cop brother. Desperation for justice drives her to her brother’s ex-partner, and the man she swore she would never see again…

It’s so hard to tell from blurbs sometimes, whether the focus is going to be on sex or plot. I don’t have a preference either way – both kinds of stories serve their purpose when I’m in the mood for them – but I often judge a book by how long it is, as well as by the excerpt, to try and determine which way it’s going to fall. I misjudged this one. The blurb leaned one way, the excerpt leaned another, and I guessed wrong. It doesn’t help that the length it professed to be – 19k – is inaccurate by over 2k. That came from padding at the end that was all advertising (much like Samhain does, and I’ll go on the record here for saying how much I hate that misleads me as to how long a story will be). I know enough not to trust page counts; there is no standard amongst publishers as to margins, spacing, etc., so it’s impossible to judge how long a story truly will be. I rely on word counts. Is it really that much to ask that they be accurate to the story?

Anyway, it’s hardly this author’s fault their publisher falls into the same trap Samhain does. However, that still doesn’t mean the story doesn’t suffer from skipping right over any depth to get to the happy ending.

The strong opening, with Tori trying to save a kid in her ER and then going to Michael to get his help, promises more than the rest of the story delivers. Just as I started getting wrapped up in the potential danger – she interrupts an undercover drug bust and risks the bad guys coming after her, forcing Michael to take her into protective custody – everything gets rushed into fast forward, throwing them into bed and lurching the action unconvincingly toward its anti-climactic resolution. I couldn’t even really get too invested in the romantic aspect. Tori and Michael had a single one-night stand the night before her brother’s funeral, a night neither one of them remember. Any real depth into what kind of chemistry or relationship they could have is never explored, culminating in a very flat romantic subplot.

I want to see this author write something long. Her prose is certainly clean enough to engage a reader for lengthy works, and she definitely knows how to write a taut, realistic scene (the hospital scenes are by far the best in the book, though the scene of Tori and Michael in the bedroom is a close second). Though I liked the first novella of hers that I read, the second didn’t work as well. I think she needs to put her talent to something longer to truly shine.

Readability

8/10 – Quick, clean, and unassuming

Hero

5/10 – Appealing but flat

Heroine

6/10 – More well rounded than the hero, though still not very rich

Entertainment value

5/10 – The suspense aspect of the plot is only a convenient device, and the dearth of background detail flattens the romance

World building

7/10 – The medical world felt crisp and real, the rest not so much

TOTAL:

31/50

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Hearing Heart by Bonnie Dee

TITLE: A Hearing Heart
AUTHOR: Bonnie Dee
PUBLISHER: Liquid Silver Books
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 94k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $6.10

Catherine Johnson is the new schoolteacher in the small town of Broughton, Nebraska. When she witnesses a man getting hauled from the saloon and tied to a horse to be dragged through the streets, she races forward to stop them, succeeding in slowing them down long enough to get other locals involved. Jim Kinney is deaf-mute, communicating in only the most rudimentary ways. Most of the town thinks he’s stupid, too, but Catherine sees intelligence in him, and takes it upon herself to try and teach him to read and sign after saving him from the attack. Their friendship quickly escalates, their attraction undeniable, but their difference in social status makes Catherine wonder if they could have any kind of future…

NOTE: This is a review originally written for The Electric Elephant.

When it comes to romance, beta heroes are not the norm. The genre has thrived on alpha males swooping in to protect the heroine, or in more recent years, to stand at the heroine’s side while they both fight off some unknown evil. Men who take back row positions in life, who get negated for some kind of supposed weakness or difference, who hate confrontation, aren’t usually seen as the type that can make women swoon, but when they are written as well as they are in this book, the label of what kind of hero he is becomes inconsequential.

Jim Kinney works two jobs, full time at the livery during the day, sweeping floors at the saloon in the evening. By his own admission, he does everything he can to stay physically fit and strong because that’s his only resource. He can’t communicate well, and he lives a life of solitude because nearly everybody in town looks right past him. Before Catherine comes along, nobody has really tried to get to know Jim. He’s lonely, but he’s determined to make things better for himself. He’s been saving his money for a long time, with hopes of presenting an offer to Rasmussen, the livery owner, of partnership in the business. Then, the incident happens with the new men in town, employees of Grant Karak, a wealthy Easterner who has been buying everything up in Broughton. With it, Catherine gets introduced into Jim’s life and nothing is the same again.

Catherine is an interesting mix of teacher, open thinker, and lonely woman. Raised in an upper class culture, she’s come to Broughton to escape her grief – she’s mourning the death of her fiancé three years previous – and is trying to do some good at the same time. She and Jim aren’t even really on each other’s radar until the inciting incident of the book. Just like the other townspeople, she’s accepted that he’s simple-minded without pursuing the truth. The reality when they finally came together was moving, two lonely souls recognizing a need in the other. Jim, in particular, wrenches at the heartstrings as he tries to be a man he thinks worthy of Catherine without putting himself in any more danger than he might already be.

This isn’t to say that either character is perfect. Catherine is caught in the web of her upbringing. For a long time, she denies her attraction and feelings for Jim because he just is not a suitable match for her. Jim, on the other hand, is stubborn and prone to act impulsively when stressed. These flaws enrich their characterizations, and make it even easier to fall for them. Jim, in particular, got to me. He’s sweet without being weak, strong without being overbearing, intelligent without being capable of making mistakes. He is by far my favorite Bonnie Dee hero, just as this is likely my favorite of her works. I sometimes find it difficult to engage with her voice, but not so here. This is gentle without lacking drive, emotion-filled without drifting into melodrama.

Its one weakness rests in its ending. While it’s to be expected for there to be an HEA, the last three chapters feel rushed and tacked on. She packs months worth of resolution into those three chapters, making time jumps to get to the ending she clearly has in mind for them. They lack the same flow as the rest of the story, sacrificing pace for plot expediency, and dilute the romance’s lasting effects. This might have been the sweetest romance I’d read all year but for those last three chapters. As it is, though, it still remains an excellent example of a beta hero’s charms, as well as a heartbreaking romance.

Readability

9/10 – Until the ending that feels rushed through and tacked on, gentle and thoroughly engaging

Hero

9/10 – Heartbreaking, strong, intelligent, and adorable

Heroine

8/10 – Flawed and realistic without losing her appeal

Entertainment value

9/10 – I loved this so very much…all the way until the last few chapters that rushed through everything and felt so out of tone with the rest of the book

World building

9/10 – Some really great historical details to this

TOTAL:

44/50

Monday, November 30, 2009

Henry and Jim by JM Snyder

TITLE: Henry and Jim
AUTHOR: JM Snyder
PUBLISHER: eXcessica
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 4.5k)
GENRE: Gay romance
COST: $2.99

Henry and Jim have been together for fifty years. As age sets in, though, Henry does everything he can to ensure their remaining years are just as rich…

Considering the age of the characters, it’s obvious from the start of the story that this is going to be a very bittersweet read. We wake up in Henry and Jim’s bed, learning right away that Jim is suffering from some sort of early dementia, where his memory is slow to return and sometimes nonexistent. Henry dreads the day when Jim wakes up and can’t recall Henry’s name, and is determined to enjoy every last moment he can with his partner of the last fifty years. Through his eyes – the story is told in 1st person from Henry’s POV – we learn how they met, with just enough detail to put their long relationship in perspective. It’s done with romantic, slightly idealized detail, but nonetheless, reaches straight to the gut of these two men’s emotions.

To say I loved this story feels like an understatement. It succeeds for so very many reasons, not the least of which is the subject matter. So many shorts forget they still need to encapsulate a tiny fragment of time, to have a beginning and an end without biting off more than they can chew. Henry and Jim at first seems to have a slight meandering feel to it, but it’s too short for that to damage its delicate arc. Instead, the author pulls it all together at the end in what seems like an inevitable conclusion, yet somehow still managed to surprise me by how gut-wrenchingly real it was. I felt more in these four thousand words than I have with most of the much longer works I read this year. It’s haunting and romantic, a love story in all the best senses of the phrase. My one and only regret is that I let it sit on my TBR pile for far too long. I’ve had mixed reactions to Snyder’s work, sometimes really enjoying it, sometimes not, which is why I didn’t jump on this right from the start. After this, I’m likely to trust her far more.

Readability

9/10 – Haunting and truly romantic

Hero #1

9/10 – His pain and feelings are devastatingly real

Hero #2

9/10 – Filtered through Henry’s eyes, though still real

Entertainment value

10/10 – This broke my heart with what a terrific love story it was

World building

8/10 – A tad idealized, but vital to the depth of emotion

TOTAL:

45/50

Friday, November 27, 2009

In Service by Mima

TITLE: In Service
AUTHOR: Mima
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 72k)
GENRE: Sci-fi menage erotic romance
COST: $7.99

In the current war-torn climate, Malla wants only one thing – to serve the soldiers who are fighting, feeding them her sexual energy as only a few chosen can. Instead of the exploration team she’d imagined, though, she finds herself offered a spot with an Elite team, four men with incredible abilities placed in some of the most dangerous situations. One look at their histories and needs convinces her this is the assignment for her, but it quickly becomes obvious someone doesn’t want her reaching them. Meanwhile, the team needs her. Without her, they could very well die…

Some blurbs really don’t do their stories justice. Other times, they convey too much. In the case of this particular novel, the blurb actually manages both. It’s four dense paragraphs that ends up being repetitive, packed too densely with extraneous information, and ultimately, lost me when this book was first released. I only ended up picking this up because a number of people highly recommended it to me. Still, it’s languished on my TBR pile, because every time I went and looked at that blurb (which you can see on the product page linked above), my eyes glazed over and I passed.

It’s a shame. The book is actually pretty good, though I didn’t think it was as amazing as it was pitched to me. But it reminded me how important the blurb can be, and how so many authors probably aren’t doing themselves any favors with the ones they come up with.

Through sexual energy, Malla is capable of refueling the energies of Luo soldiers, people with extraordinary powers. In the case of her team, there is Shon, a berzerker, Grady, a mindwiper, Vel, a phazer, and Kor, a telepathic networker. Grady and Vel are lifemates, Kor is the energetic newbie, while Shon keeps himself at a distance since he fears that one day, his rage will kill somebody he cares about. Malla doesn’t like the distance he keeps, insisting she deserves to have all of him, but Shon refuses. The team is one of the best in the field, and through Malla’s care, finds themselves united in ways they never had been before.

There’s a lot of intriguing political machinations buried within the dense, intelligent prose, and while there’s tremendous promise of it all from the sharp, take-no-prisoners beginning, it’s never truly followed through on. I don't mean it's all sex. It's not. They do actually take action regarding the conspiracy. The problem is, once Malla meets the team, all of that takes a back seat to the erotica, which is only natural considering her function is to heal/refuel them through sex. I just wish there had been a better balance. The sex itself is fine – though the bedtalk feels stilted and phony, examples like this, Give me that hot tongue, Kor. I want it deep. As soon as you send me over, I’ll gush cum and feed you good, occur far too often – but it overwhelms the political plot in too many spots. There are sections where it drags on, or happens in too long sequence, to keep me focused on what exactly Malla and the guys are doing outside of their decisions how to orgasm. This isn’t always a problem, but the author has created a dense, complicated world, and it required more attention than what I got to truly enthrall me.

It’s interesting, because this is a story that has parts greater than its sum. Taking a look at the individual aspects of a story I examine while reviewing, each is higher than my overall enjoyment. The characters are strong and distinctive, even when they’re all entwined. Shon, especially, appealed to me, which probably explains more of my frustration with the amount of time Malla spent with Vel and Grady. He provided the only real romantic conflict within the story, and like the plot, suffered because of distractions elsewhere. I even bought and cared about the overall ménage, because I believed the emotions of all five parties. That’s a lot more than I can say about most ménages. They were loving and romantic, and honestly, deserved more than what they got.

It’s not helped that the last chapter jumps forward six months and a lot of the developments I would have wanted to witness because they’re emotionally crucial occur off the page. We get told about them after the fact. It added to the frustration I already had in regards to the non-sexual aspects of the plot, because it felt like further proof the author cared more about the various sexual positions than the world she created. It would be interesting to read a non-erotic romance from this author. I’d love to see the intelligent and vivid storytelling she has outside of the sex showcased in its best possible light. Perhaps next time.

Readability

8/10 – The dense, intelligent prose is best when not in sex talk

Menage

8/10 – I bought the emotions between all five of the principles, even if the sex portion was weighted too heavy for my tastes

Characterization

8/10 – Vivid and distinctive, even considering all the naked body parts

Entertainment value

7/10 – The balance between sex and plot weighted too heavily on the sex side for this to be a real keeper for me

World building

9/10 – Some great details here, probably the strongest aspect of the book

TOTAL:

40/50

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Take Two by Danielle Bronson

TITLE: Take Two
AUTHOR: Danielle Bronson
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 89k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

Five years ago, Grace Ann Langley and Ty Hawthorne were the darlings of TV with their hit show, but her illness stopped production, and Grace and Ty went their separate ways. Now, the DVDs are about to hit the stores, and Grace and Ty are back together in a whirlwind press junket to promote it. The rumors about their real-life romance have never completely settled, but neither has forgotten the other. But will Ty’s money-hungry ex-wife and Grace’s overbearing father stand in their way of making it work the second time around?

I love being surprised by characters. The blurb on this seemed more like escapist fun, as show biz stories tend to be. Even the hint of the “potentially devastating secret” didn’t lead me to think it might be anything deep. The characters seemed too untouchable for that. I mean, TV stars (one of which is a Hollywood bad boy) and a Deacon (Grace’s father)? It felt like it should be glitterati fun.

But it turned out to be more than that, thanks in large part to the careful depths both lead characters display. Neither is perfect, and their flaws stem from very real problems, not just superficial Hollywood constructs. Even better, their flaws are never downplayed to pave the way to the happy ending. Grace is a recovering anorexic with severe control issues, borderline obsessive/compulsive with a lot of her behaviors. Ty has his own control problems, and deals with his – inappropriately – in as many self-destructive ways as he can find. Yet, when the two are together, those flaws seem to negate the other’s. They’re better people in each other’s company, bringing out the best in both of them, even though occasionally they also bring out the worst. It’s the basis for all the best real-life relationships I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing, and most likely is what lends such a sense of verisimilitude whenever they are on the page together. I warmed to both of them, and was hungry for them to work through all the problems that had beset them the first time around.

The problems arose with the introduction of the conflicts that are meant to keep them apart. Ty’s ex has hired a man to follow him around and get some dirt on him and Grace, in hopes of being able to extort more money from him. It underscores scenes almost from the beginning, but it’s not until things start to look good for the couple that it escalates to a point of discomfort. Layla, the ex, is painted so over the top in comparison to the rest of the characters to this point, that it’s very difficult to believe she could actually exist. There are no shades of gray to her villainy. She’s a bitch with a capital bitch, and the extent of her plans for Ty becomes so ludicrous that I hated every time she came on the scene. In fact, I can’t say that I enjoyed the last third of the book half as much as I enjoyed the first two, almost entirely because of her. The rest of my problems with the last third? Grace’s father. Throughout the story, he’s been the immovable force, one not to be crossed, putting the fear of God into everybody. The resolution to that conflict felt so easy compared to the strength of his convictions throughout the story, I couldn’t buy it. I kept waiting for him to say, “Gotcha!” and yank the rug out from beneath Grace and Ty.

Because of that problematic last third, this novel ends up scoring lower on my overall enjoyment than the characters deserve. It was a real pleasure to read such realistic people in such an unrealistic setting (because how many of us get called the First Couple of Television?). I guess I should just be happy that this is, after all, a romance.

Readability

8/10 – A couple of minor continuity issues snagged me along the way, but otherwise, a clean, surprisingly fast read

Hero

8/10 – Not cookie cutter, with real flaws in spite of his superstar status

Heroine

8/10 – Far more complex than I find most heroines

Entertainment value

7/10 – The almost cartoonish villains in this and a rather glossed over climax bring down my overall enjoyment

World building

8/10 – A lot of different elements felt very real

TOTAL:

39/50