Friday, January 29, 2010

Smuggled Rose by Amy Corwin

TITLE: Smuggled Rose
AUTHOR: Amy Corwin
PUBLISHER: Cerridwen Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 74k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $5.95

Margaret Lane has spent the past seven years living in the shadow of her ruined reputation. It doesn’t matter that the affair never happened, but the results of the attack she fended off still haunt her. When a young man is hurt in the process of helping smugglers bringing goods to her from France, she has no choice but to take him in and nurse him back to health. She just doesn’t expect his brother, the cynical Michael, to show up as well…

In order for me to find virginal characters interesting, they need to have some sort of flaw, some quirk to make them stand out rather than remain the wallflower they inevitably are. Intelligence, a smart tongue, a strong will…there’s a whole plethora of possibilities to explore. In this particular novel, the heroine was promised to a rake as settlement for a lost bet, and in the process of fending off the unwanted attention, was whipped across the forearms to be scarred for life, in more ways than one. The man, named Bridgewater, then proceeded to spread a series of lies about his dalliances with her, ruining her reputation and forcing her into seclusion. She hates being touched by men and is resigned to being a spinster, supplementing her small income with some smuggling on the side. This latter touch is the detail that I believe is meant to make Margaret interesting, in addition to her damaged psyche, but truth be told, I haven’t been this bored by a whiny, weak heroine in a long time.

She isn’t thrilled at all by Michael’s arrival at her house, and though some deep part of her finds him fascinating, she keeps him at bay by being cold and distant. When he realizes his egregious error in believing Bridgewater’s lies, Michael attempts to make up for it by seeing that she gets a good match made anyway, all the while trying to stifle his own desire for her. I never believe it for a second. Margaret identifies him from the start as part of The Fancy, the group of young men that includes Bridgewater who gamble, cavort, and are more interested in satisfying their own hedonistic desires than anything else. Even Michael self-identifies as one of them. Yet, he turns on a dime – with the exception of his impulsive nature, which after his realization about Margaret never really manifests itself in anything much more dangerous than an angry walk, that he credits entirely to his genetics. There’s no smooth flow, no logical progression for me to see or believe it.

It’s not just me. Michael’s mother, the irrepressible Lady Ramsgate, bemoans Margaret’s lack of a spine more than once. Granted, she’s not quite as bad as Elizabeth, Michael’s very young fiancée, but she spends so much time keeping people outside of her little box, fearful of change, it grated. She does go along with a lot of events that ultimately help her, but it’s almost always against her will. She agrees, because, “There was no graceful way to refuse.” That doesn’t show hidden strength of character, or a desire to change. That shows a weak-willed woman who finds it next to impossible to make a decision for herself. Tell me it’s the period, and I’ll say it doesn’t matter. Not when she is surrounded by women who have no such qualms, who overshadow her every time they enter a room.

Simply put, the entire story lacks passion. Margaret shows next to none for Michael, Michael is surprisingly self-restrained since even getting touched by a man makes Margaret start trembling, and the romance becomes lackluster. The rich details that bring the background to life aren’t nearly enough to compensate for characters that fail to match it. I don’t read to fall in love with a society. I read to fall in love with characters, and in this case, it just didn’t happen.


7/10 – Slow paced, though rich in detail


5/10 – I never believed morphing between the so-called bad boy he is known to be in the beginning – and how he self-identifies for a while – with the man wanting to be good enough for Margaret


3/10 – Boring, sappy, and weak

Entertainment value

3/10 – As interesting as I found the premise, both primary leads bored me so much, I just couldn’t get into the book

World building

9/10 – Great details to create a rich world…but not nearly enough to save the book



Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spaceport: Incognito by Cat Marsters

TITLE: Spaceport: Incognito
AUTHOR: Cat Marsters
PUBLISHER: Changeling Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 32k)
GENRE: Futuristic sci-fi erotic romance
COST: $4.99

Kali is hiding out as a prostitute on Adana when a bounty hunter spies her and recognizes her as the quarry he’s been looking for. He hires her to spend a few hours with him on his ship, only to kidnap her when they’re done. But Kali has no desire to go back to the fiancé looking for her. After all, she’s pretty sure he wants her dead…

It’s obvious from the very first page that this will be a grittier erotic romance than the norm. The prologue thrusts the reader into Kali’s POV while she’s in the middle of a trick, using uncompromising language and little romanticism. There’s no doubt she does this with little love for the job, though she does use her skills to their utmost.

Then along comes Jal. He’s a bounty hunter, on the prowl for a woman to take the edge off his need, when he spots Kali in the middle of a blowjob. Something about her makes him stop, a sense of familiarity about the prostitute markings tattooing her skin, but he realizes quickly she’s not who he thought she was. However, when he peers closer, he sees that she’s not just posing as a prostitute. She also has distinctive coloring of someone he’s hoping to get a bounty on. So he convinces her to come back to his ship for a longer session, then proceeds to kidnap her once he’s sure who she is.

The story hurtles forward from there, but the pacing is awkward. It takes a full third of the story to get to the point of kidnapping, during which time a lot of sex happens. The sex is hot – actually surprisingly so, considering the coarseness of the beginning – and the potential romance developing interesting enough to keep me going. But then the story lurches sideways to start delving into Kali’s background with tinges of Jal thrown in, and it never really finds a smooth rhythm after that. Action gets aborted for sex, and the back and forth of their banter rarely feels organic to the original romance I thought I was getting. Just when I would get settled into the flow again, something else would jerk me to a halt – a moment of headhopping (of which there are more than a few), an out of nowhere piece of information, another sex scene. It never felt truly cohesive to me, in spite of liking individual scenes.

It’s not a bad read. Far from it. However, the awkward pacing and a world too dense for the explanations offered keep it from being anything more than mediocre.


7/10 – Mild headhopping, and a lot of terminology that took a while to get used to


6/10 – Distant in that alpha way, but with enough of a good side to keep me interested


6/10 – Strong, but ultimately forgettable

Entertainment value

6/10 – The disjoin between the smut and the action plot was never smooth enough for me to get into a reading groove, making this all right to pass the time but nothing I remembered a day later

World building

7/10 – There were some great details but not enough explanations to keep things understandable



Monday, January 25, 2010

Sins of the Father by Anna O'Neill

TITLE: Sins of the Father
AUTHOR: Anna O’Neill
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 13k)
GENRE: Historical gay romance
COST: $2.50

At nineteen, Sanada Sora is a new captain, learning firsthand that controlling his team doesn’t always work as he’s been taught. Takeda Kaname is ten years older, and as his partner, frustrates Sora from the start, not just because of his refusal to follow protocols but because of the attraction Sora doesn’t want to admit even exists…

I bought this book the day it was released for a whole host of reasons – one of the most gorgeous covers I’d seen in a long time, a setting I knew nothing about but still intrigued me, and an excerpt that followed through on the promise of action and intrigue suggested in the blurb. But when I was done, I found myself wondering what I’d been sold, and where along the path I’d gone astray. I very much feel that I’m missing something with this short story, whether it’s because it’s directed at an audience with some kind of prior knowledge I fail to possess or something else. As a result, it’s impossible for me to give it any sort of honest recommendation.

The intrigue hinted at in the publisher’s blurb and with the excerpt is resolved – rather annoyingly, actually – by the end of the first chapter. There’s then a time and space jump, in a world already not clearly defined, that feels like a brand new story all over again, one where I’m forced to be reintroduced to the characters and their motivations because they already feel so different from the first chapter. This never really stops. The story trips along, introducing characters out of nowhere like they have more significance than the story suggests – like Yuki, who comes on in chapter four like he’s been there the whole time, except he hasn’t been. Then, just as it seems as if I’m going to start getting some depth and answers to what is really going on between Sora and Kaname, the story takes an abrupt left turn and ends. I was literally left blinking at my screen, thinking, “That’s it?”

Is it because the story has influences – like yaoi – that I’m ignorant of and don’t understand? I don’t know. I don’t read yaoi, or books that look to be yaoi-inspired, mostly because the majority of them seem to have androgynous heroes, an archetype that has never really appealed to me all that much, so I can’t honestly answer that question. It begs the next one, though, and makes me wonder if there’s something about Japanese culture I’m missing that would explain the piecemeal nature of the story. But if that’s the case, isn’t it the author’s job to adequately depict the world in such a way so as not to exclude a portion of the audience? I don’t understand or enjoy stories that require outside information in order to fully appreciate (which is another reason I loathe coming into series halfway through, it’s like only having part of the story and watching from the outside as the insiders enjoy the joke).

So I don’t know what to say except I didn’t enjoy it.

Oh, and absolutely gorgeous cover.


6/10 – So much jumping around and so many holes in character motivations had me feeling lost for most of the story

Hero #1

5/10 – Innocent, but that’s really about it

Hero #2

5/10 – I wanted to like him more, but there are so many questions about who he is and what he does that I never felt like I knew him

Entertainment value

4/10 – The whole story felt like I was missing out on insider details

World building

6/10 – A lot of terminology but to someone who knows nothing about the place or period, nothing to give the story any kind of roots



Friday, January 22, 2010

Black Crossing by C.K. Crigger

TITLE: Black Crossing
AUTHOR: C.K. Crigger
PUBLISHER: Amber Quill
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 62k)
GENRE: Western
COST: $7.00

When Marshal TJ Osgood rides into Black Crossing for his first day on the job, he’s greeted by the swinging body of a seventeen-year-old boy arrested, tried, and sentenced just the day before. He’d been accused of timber jumping, but his friend – TJ’s new deputy – claims he was innocent. So does the dead boy’s mother, but the man they’re all pointing fingers at not only owns the town, but is the man who sought TJ out and gave him a job. Now, TJ needs to find out what really happened, and set the story straight…

Every time I read a western, I ask myself, “Why don’t I read more of these than I do?” And I don’t know the answer to that. Because I quite often walk away from a finished book in this genre with warm feelings and a smile on my face. This book was no different.

The plot itself is not anything wholly original. Osgood is the new marshal in a town controlled by someone corrupt, and ends up caught in the middle of freeing the town from his tyranny and the man with the power to destroy him. At forty, Osgood is almost past his prime as a lawman, and his body is rebelling. He was shot in the leg just prior to coming to Black Crossing, Idaho, and that hobbling in many ways acts as a metaphor for what holds him back throughout the story. He’s made mistakes, and is unwilling to make those kind of mistakes again, a trait that’s hugely admirable and makes it very easy to empathize with him. It also places him in the underdog position, so even though he’s the one with the badge, he’s the one the reader holds his breath for throughout the story, time and time again.

His characterization isn’t the only well-rounded one. By far, the majority of the cast becomes a realistic individual almost from the moment they’re introduced. There’s Benny Tompko, his naïve but moral deputy. There’s Ione Gilpatrick, the mother of the dead boy, who has a fierce spirit and sense of honor that shine off the page. Even the minor character of Magda, Benny’s mother and a feminine presence to counter so many of the men, is warm and inviting. If I have any complaints about the characters, it would only be that the evil guys lack the same sort of depths the good guys do. However, I fully recognize this is a western trope, and so I was far more forgiving of this during the course of my reading.

The prose itself has a quiet intensity that keeps the action focused and the forward momentum strong and even. I didn’t care for the author’s propensity to turn “whoa” into a verb, as in “He whoaed his horse…” but aside from that niggle, I breezed through this. There is rarely a lag in the pacing, and while there are some romantic elements introduced to the story, they are very minor. They add just enough interest for those readers who might want that kind of emotional depth, without becoming the focus for any one of the characters to distract the readers who might prefer this based on its genre. I wouldn’t mind revisiting the town of Black Crossing again, if the author ever chose to pick it up again. Some of its residents almost felt like family when I turned the last page.


9/10 – A quiet intensity to its pacing keeps this going along


8/10 – Some of the secondary characters aren’t quite as rich as the leads, but there’s a rustic realism to almost everyone that adds to the charm.


7/10 – While not wholly original, there’s enough action and likable characters to keep the forward momentum strong.

Entertainment value

8/10 – I cared enough about everyone to want to see this through to the end.

World building

9/10 – There’s grit in every scene.



Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Embracing Silence by N.J. Walters

TITLE: Embracing Silence
AUTHOR: N.J. Walters
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 40k)
GENRE: Futuristic sci-fi erotic romance
COST: $5.20

The Alpha Project has evolved to the point where genetically and computer enhanced humans bred as soldiers are no longer good enough. The last two Alphas have escaped termination, and now find themselves outside the Gate, trying to survive. Tienan’s only goal is to try and destroy the men who created him, but when he crosses paths with Silence, a tracker in the Resistance, he finds himself distracted from his mission for the first time in his existence…

I absolutely adore N.J. Walters. I find a lot of her stories completely addictive, even if they’re mostly brain candy. However, I’m slowly learning that I much prefer her contemporary work to anything else. This futuristic typifies a lot of what I have problems with in her non-contemporary material, and ultimately, becomes just a mild diversion rather than the grab-me-by-the-throat-and-other-body-parts I like to get from her.

The biggest flaw in the story is the length, frankly. The author has an incredible imagination, and comes up with other worlds that beg for a lot of detail and depth. While this starts to hint at some of what the world can offer, far too much time is spent on Tienan and Silence realizing how attracted they are too each other and having sex. Yes, I know it’s an Ellora’s Cave book. Yes, I know they view the erotic romance as about the sex with little regard to actual believability in the romance a good part of the time. But there’s only so much, “I love you because I just do,” romance I can take, and unfortunately, this falls into that trap. The sex is hot enough, I guess, but because of all the depth to the world and all the danger the two leads are constantly in, it actually gets in the way of any kind of satisfying story being told. I needed to have more told about Silence’s relationship with the man who saved her as a child, and I needed a lot more about Tienan’s life before the book started. This one is the first in a series about the Alphas, but the second book looks to be about the same length, and honestly, I don’t think it’s going to do a better job at explaining anything since it focuses on the Alpha that escaped with Tienan, rather than the other Alpha introduced in this novella.

For some reason, the mild headhopping that goes on in this bothered me more than it usually does, too. I’m guessing it’s because I was annoyed at the lack of background and other action. It distanced me from the story to make it easier to find the flaws. It got to the point toward the end where I just wanted to skim over the sex scenes and find the story. I think for now, I just have to stick with her contemporaries. She doesn’t seem to have the same issues in those, and I can enjoy them for the escapism they are.


8/10 – Sexy and swift, but with mild headhopping


6/10 – The promise of an alpha comes through, but not much more


6/10 – Resourceful but left a lot of questions unanswered

Entertainment value

6/10 – Diversionary, but the world/characters demanded more to the story than it got

World building

7/10 – So much potential, but I was left with far too many questions to make it truly pleasurable



Monday, January 18, 2010

TLC 101 by Janey Chapel

AUTHOR: Janey Chapel
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 19k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $3.99

A desperate phone call from a co-worker sends Kip Rigsbee to the Emergency Room at the crack of dawn. Coach Greg Browne has broken his ankle, and now, with an order of three days of no stairs, finds himself forced to accept Kip’s offer of help and a first floor apartment. He doesn’t want to. He’s been trying to ignore his desire for the man for ages. But proximity and need conspire against both of them until the outcome is inevitable…

If you’re looking for a short, hot, entirely masculine erotic story, this will more than fit the bill. Greg and Kip both work for a college football team, the former as a coach, the latter as a motivational psychologist. Kip has been lusting after Greg for a long time, while Greg has secretly been doing the same. Greg is deep in the closet, though, because the football world is not that forgiving of gay men. He never has sex with anybody local, but Kip tempts him to break his rule. Both men are very much men. There’s no hint of femininity in either of them, from the way they communicate to the way they react to situations. It gives the entire story a rough, fresh edge that only adds to its already considerable appeal.

The majority of the story is focused first on the UST between the two men, then the followthrough, so there is little room for much of anything else. It’s a good thing, then, that it satisfies more than well enough on that level. The sex is hot, and the exchanges between the pair realistic. I never harbored any expectations of a great romance, so anyone looking for that will likely be disappointed. The ending is much more of an HFN than an HEA, simply because any type of resolution is very rushed compared to the rest of the story. That doesn’t diminish it, though. You just need to remember what kind of story you’re reading and not try to label it as something else.


8/10 – Fast, funny, and hot

Hero #1

7/10 – Smart and independent

Hero #2

7/10 – His reluctance provides the real heat in this

Entertainment value

7/10 – A hot little morsel

World building

7/10 – I liked the glimpses into the football legacy world, but the focus really is on the two men



Friday, January 15, 2010

Ready for the Defense by Mike Langan

TITLE: Ready for the Defense
AUTHOR: Mike Langan
PUBLISHER: Treble Heart Books
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 77k)
GENRE: Mystery suspense
COST: $5.50

Hank Fisher became a lawyer when he realized he needed more than teaching high school English, but he’s still getting his feet wet in white collar criminal defense when his mentor and business partner gets them involved defending a senator in an impending tax investigation. Suddenly, somebody’s dead, somebody else is in a coma, and Hank is scrambling to find out why, learn how a new biowarfare virus on the other side of the planet is connected, and most importantly, stay alive…

While I don’t review much for this blog, the genre I read most in print is suspense/mystery. I love following the minutiae of puzzles to solve, and even more, exploring milieus I might not normally. I haven’t found as many small e-presses that offer stories to satisfy this need as I’d like, but Ready for the Defense is a strong entry into the genre.

Told in 1st person from Hank’s POV, the reader learns right away that Hank is very much an everyman kind of figure. He’s floating along in search of an identity, no long-term relationships, still a student in many ways though he’s graduated from law school and is now practicing in Washington D.C. His boss and mentor is a larger than life figure, one of the best examples of the author’s sharp characterizations. Though he’s only in the book in the beginning, Mac is so vivid, all of Hank’s motivations not only make complete and utter sense, I was right there with him, pushing him just as hard because I wanted the answers for Mac, too. Langan achieves this with a careful balance between realistic dialogue and tense action, never letting the energy flag while still keeping a forward momentum with the mystery.

The plot itself is straight out the headlines. Senator Victoria Serling has retained Mac to help her with what looks to be a tax code violation, but turns out to be something more. The cops think the case against the Senator has something to do with a terrorist attack in Asia, but there’s the whole angle of a mysterious campaign donation from what looks to be a terrorist group, malfeasance on the part of biopharm companies, and somebody determined to keep Hank from getting any closer to the truth. It clips along at a swift pace, with short chapters that inevitably end on cliffhangers, forcing the reader to turn page after page after page in a race to the end. There’s no skipping a paragraph here or a sentence there. Every detail is necessary, especially as it twists in a new direction practically with every chapter. Occasionally, it does get a little confusing, if only because some of the detail isn’t quite as clear as it could be, but it smoothes out soon enough and doesn’t detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Hank is a strong, empathetic protagonist. He’d rather investigate than practice law, something that more than one person comments on. He’s saved from being flaky by his sense of humor and dogged determination, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t experience moments of insecurity. He’s got more than one of those, but the situations demand it. They only added to his growth, and made it very easy for me to see him as the star of a series if the author wanted to go in that direction. I almost hope he does. The combination of topical suspense with skilled writing is a welcome addition to the genre.


9/10 – Fast-paced and intelligent


8/10 – The leads are crisp, though a few of the important secondary characters don’t have the same benefit


9/10 – Enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, though it did get a tad convoluted at times

Entertainment value

8/10 – I got a little lost in some of the convolutions, but the end result was worth it

World building

9/10 – The author clearly knows his milieu, with a plot straight out of the headlines



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tell Me Lies by Jessica Shin

TITLE: Tell Me Lies
AUTHOR: Jessica Shin
PUBLISHER: Cerridwen Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 64k)
GENRE: Suspense romance
COST: $5.95

As a mob assassin, Adrian Ennis is unparalleled. After all, she’s been trained for her current role in Ezra Drake’s organization since she was eight years old. But when she gets the command to kill her lover, the tight order of her world starts to unravel. Suddenly, the man she always viewed as more of a father than a boss is a stranger, and strangers – especially when they come in the form of Detective Damon Wyatt, Atlanta PD – are the only people she can trust…

For a long time, I didn’t even think this was a romance. I had to doublecheck more than once that it was published by Cerridwen, and even then I thought I’d managed to buy a book that fell into the suspense genre rather than the romance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I read a lot of mystery/suspense as well as romance. But the tone of this was far darker than the vast majority of romances out there, and the hero not even introduced until almost halfway through the story. Between that and the neverending action, it kept me on my toes.

The book starts out with Adrian in the middle of a job in Boston that’s gotten messy. She does what needs to be done, hops on a plane back home, and returns to her rather sterile existence. She doesn’t do much more than work for Ezra, because once you’re a part of the organization, there’s no getting out of it. She finds release with a casual affair with Tony, who works in Miami, but on this latest visit, he tells her things aren’t looking good for him. It’s even worse when she gets the order from Ezra to kill Tony. She doesn’t want to do it, but really, she has no other options, and keeps the date they had arranged.

From there, the story continues on a brutal, no holds barred track. The author makes no easy choices in this, which means it’s violent and intense, both physically and emotionally. It’s told in 1st person from Adrian’s POV, which means spending a lot of time in the head of a woman who has killed a lot of people and, until now, felt no remorse. Worse, she’s been in denial of everything that happened to her before she came to live with Ezra when she was eight, and now, it’s all starting to crack through her brittle, icy façade. Not everybody is going to like her. To be fair, she doesn’t really like herself for much of the book. But I found her fascinating, and as each new development happened in her life, and another layer of her was stripped away, I came to care about her more and more, until her ultimate survival was as important to me as it was to her.

The gradual deconstruction of this woman into someone more human really intrigued me. I was constantly surprised by the choices she made, but in a good way, not in a “Well, she wouldn’t do that” kind of way. The continuous action rarely gave me a chance to breathe, too, and even after she meets Wyatt, the cop who’s been trying to bring Ezra down for three years, it doesn’t slow. If I have any complaints about this at all, it’s that the romance feels rushed. Damon is never as fully explored as the rest of the story, and while I liked him, I never felt like I really knew him. In some ways, he was far too perfect for what Adrian needed at that moment in time. However, he does provide a good counterpoint to the chaos of the rest of her life, and I was fully invested in seeing things work out.

This book won’t be for everyone. It’s very violent (including near rape and violence toward women, so be warned), its heroine is more an anti-heroine than the norm, and the romantic arc is severely truncated in favor of the personal exploration and action happening around Adrian. All that being said, though, I loved it. I got thoroughly swept into the action. Plus, it’s a real treat to find something so unapologetically brutal in a genre known for its feel-good factor.


9/10 – Violent, intense, and brutal


5/10 – Not nearly as important or developed as the heroine


9/10 – With each new layer exposed on her, I needed her success even more

Entertainment value

9/10 – Constant forward momentum kept the focus on the action and the heroine rather than the romance

World building

7/10 – The mob world and action crackled; everything else required a leap of faith to believe



Monday, January 11, 2010

The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks by Josh Lanyon

TITLE: The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks
AUTHOR: Josh Lanyon
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 61k)
GENRE: Gay mystery erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Perry Foster comes home early from vacation to discover a dead body in his bathtub, a body that disappears as soon as he alerts everybody in the old house in which he rents his apartment. The only person who seems to believe him is the ex-Navy SEAL who lives across the hall, but stalwart Nick Reno can barely tolerate Perry, let alone provide an ally amongst the denizens of the Alston Estate…

It’s been two years since I first discovered Josh Lanyon. He quickly became one of my autobuy authors, and it’s safe to say that with the exception of one novella where one of the heroes hit a personal sore spot, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read. Not every book can be a winner, but in this particular case, it’s difficult to admit to actively disliking a story, especially when I see such universal praise for it elsewhere. But that’s the result here, as much as I hate to admit it.

The mystery is a simple take on the mysterious house staples of the genre, with a wide cast of eccentric characters. The mystery of the missing body and the subsequent events that rise from it, as Perry and Nick attempt to figure out what exactly happened, rely on odd behavior, the usual red herrings, and a need not to consider any sort of larger picture. I predicted the means of disposing the body early on, so that left little suspense. Even more regretfully, there seemed to be only one logical suspect/solution, something else I guessed far too early in the story. So without the lure of a mystery unsolved, I had to rely on the characters and the romance (since this is published by LI) to carry the rest of the story.

They did, but only up to a point. But that point ground me to such a screeching halt, and left me feeling so utterly manipulated, that any good will I had regarding Nick and Perry was lost. Both men are familiar Lanyon archetypes. Perry is slighter, prettier, seemingly delicate but with inner strength, and suffering from a physical ailment that puts him at risk (asthma), while Nick is strong, gruff, a man of action with obvious disdain for his orientation. I was okay with the obvious shades of Adrien and Jake (even the names fall in the same pattern), because over time, they both gained more personality to help differentiate them. In fact, I really liked the reluctant friendship that forged between the two men. It felt like such a departure from a lot of the m/m that I read where it’s about the sex and little else.

My problems started with the fact that it never felt like a romance for the first two-thirds of the book. That’s certainly okay with me – I read a lot of stuff that isn’t romance, and gay literature that doesn’t fall into romance – and was actually mildly intrigued that Lanyon was attempting to do a gay-for-you story. Except he wasn’t. At a point after their first sexual encounter, Perry is trying to get a better feel on Nick when Nick bluntly says, “Yes. I’m gay.” And that was the point it all ground to a halt for me. I’d had it in my head for nearly all of the book that Nick was straight, not just because of his failed marriage, but because of his constant derogatory mental attitude toward “the queer kid from across the hall.” He chastises himself for even noticing Perry’s ass, for starting to notice the kid’s looks, and so on. Maybe I missed something, but his whole attitude shouted at me, “Repressed!” Which he was, but not for the obvious reason. In hindsight, it makes sense (though I’m not going to spoil as to why), but honestly, because I’d already spent so much time in Nick’s head by that point, and witnessed both his physical and mental reactions to Perry (dismissive, paternal, contemptuous, not passionate at all and certainly not romantic), I felt incredibly manipulated. The entire reveal seemed coy to me, and ultimately ruined the rest of the story.

I know I’m in the minority on this. I actually debated writing a review at all. But in the end, I have to stand up for what works for me and what doesn’t, whether it conforms to the popular opinion or not. This certainly wouldn’t be the first thing I haven’t enjoyed that the rest of the world seems to love. I know it won’t be the last. It doesn’t put me off Lanyon in the slightest, either, because he’s still one of the most competent and consistent m/m writers out there.


7/10 – Not the usual sharpness I expect from this author, with looser POV issues and a certain coyness that bothered me

Hero #1

7/10 – Reminiscent of Adrien English, but likeable in his own right

Hero #2

7/10 – I would have liked him more if his sexuality hadn’t been treated so coyly

Entertainment value

3/10 – I guessed the mystery very early on, leaving only the romance to keep me going, but that failed me, too.

World building

9/10 – Some great atmospheric detail



Friday, January 8, 2010

Damned by Blood by Evie Byrne

TITLE: Damned by Blood
AUTHOR: Evie Byrne
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 45k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $4.50

The eldest brother of the Faustin clan, Mikhail is the vampire prince of New York, with a reputation as icy and unyielding as his personality. When he discovers his fated bride is the first love who broke his heart, he has no choice but to find a way to claim her, even though she has become a formidable power in her own right. Alya Adad has fought most of her life for the position she now has, and the last thing she is willing to do is give any of it up. Even for destiny…

It’s been obvious from the first story that Mikhail’s story would be different than his brothers’. Each vampire has his own distinct personality, dictating a different style and tone for his romance. In Mikhail’s case, he is the coldest, sternest of the bunch, with responsibilities the others do not have. He’s the master of control, the purest vampire, the one unwilling to compromise who he is to pander to humans.

It comes as no surprise then that his fated bride is also a vampire. What is a surprise is that he’s already known, loved, and lost her. Alya Adad is as ruthless and dangerous as Mikhail, a perfect counterpoint to his strength. She craves power, and she’s had to suffer a lot of what goes against her nature in order to reach the height she has. The dynamics between them are fascinating, because they are so equally matched. They are driven to destroy the other, while at the same time, incapable of doing so. That fight provides the undercurrent of the entire story, giving it a dark edge that removes this from the feel-good vampire stories that tend to dominate the genre.

Mikhail is a terrific alpha hero, suffering because of Alya’s loss so many years ago even if he didn’t know it until now. His intensity seethes from the page, and I found myself holding my breath every time he appeared. I can’t necessarily say the same for Alya. While her characterization is certainly well developed, and her personality a great foil for Mikhail’s, I just didn’t engage with her to the same depths as I have previous heroines by this author. She was just a little too brittle for me to like as much, and it ended up putting a distance between me and her need for dominance.

It also distanced me slightly from the erotic scenes, which, in all honesty, I find unusual for this author. I’ve always loved the sensuality of her sex scenes, and while these are written just as competently, my failure to completely commit to Alya’s needs made it harder to immerse in some of their later BDSM games. It’s still done well, make no mistakes there. The motivations all ring true, and the reasoning for how Mikhail can make this one change totally valid. In fact, I genuinely loved the lines, …she believed power resided in control. To him, it meant getting what he wanted. It encapsulates everything and explains it all. But without really investing in Alya, I found it difficult to invest in the resolution. I was glad for Mikhail, though. His happiness is what mattered to me. And in a world as rich as the one in which he lives, the solution seemed utterly perfect.


8/10 – Uncompromising and intense


8/10 – Unyielding and icy, terrific alpha


7/10 – A strong match for the hero, if not quite as engaging

Entertainment value

8/10 – For the power of the dynamics and the author’s voice

World building

9/10 – The vampire world she’s created has never been richer



Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Cotillion Country Christmas by assorted authors

TITLE: A Cotillion Country Christmas
AUTHORS: Carolynn Carey, Amy Corwin, Barbara Miller, Cynthia Moore
PUBLISHER: Cerridwen Press
LENGTH: Anthology (roughly 70k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $7.99

A collection of four romance novellas within the holiday period, set in the Regency English countryside…

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

I have to admit upfront, historicals are not my genre of choice. I’m not a history buff, and the periods that do intrigue me are very specific. The period of English history as specified in this anthology isn’t of any particular interest to me, but I was a fan of one of the authors and bought this specifically to read her work. It’s hard to admit, then, that the anthology as a whole, including the novella I was highly anticipating, is a rather disappointing presentation.

The anthology starts out with “A Christmas Surprise” by Cynthia Moore. When her father had a viscount indebted to him, Clara found herself married to the man she’d been in love with. Yet, two days after their wedding, Julian left for India, leaving her alone for nearly a year. When he returns just before Christmas, Clara finds herself wondering what kind of marriage she has entered into, and whether the coldness of their parting is going to typify the rest of her life. Of all the stories to start with, this was the worst possible choice to try and engage a reader. I almost put the whole thing down halfway through this story, even as much as I wanted to read a later novella. The author is all tell, no showing, explaining all the backstory in paragraph after excruciating paragraph. Her style does nothing to help flesh out the flat characterizations, and the plodding pace where nothing ever really happens is absolute drudgery to read.

Next comes “A Tradition of Love” by Carolynn Carey. Robert Maulton has married Thea, in an arrangement made when both were children. Robert is the sole head of his estate, and takes his role very seriously. That means he has little time for frivolity, especially Christmas. When Thea asks to go to the country for the holiday, he agrees, mostly because she’s never asked for anything in the three weeks they’ve been married. He fully intends to work, but his intentions are derailed once he’s swept up in her large, over-friendly family. This story, while not anything I’ll remember much past writing this review, still manages to be my second favorite of the bunch, partly because it improves on the style of the first one by not being nearly as tedious, and partly because of the really sparkling cast of characters. I found Robert to be a tad too dour, and Thea a bit predictable, but the supporting cast shines, bringing out the best of the two leads. This also has the benefit of having the best romantic arc of the four stories, smooth and relatively seamless from start to finish.

The third story in the collection is “Christmas Mishaps” by Amy Corwin. Caroline has spent the last two years being pitied by her family and society when her fiancé ran away with her younger sister on the day of her wedding. Determined to prove to everyone she has moved on, that she wants the good relationship she had with her sister back and she will support their union no matter what, she opts to go visit them on Christmas, ignoring the superstition that if a female is the first person to cross a threshold on the holiday, bad luck will follow. The man who does love her, Edward Masters, realizes what she is about to do and dashes off to pre-empt the confrontation. Of the four authors in the anthology, this is the only one I’d read before. I’ve read two of her other works, one of which was most definitely a keeper and bought in print as soon as it was available. I’ve always found her voice to be charming and her characters fun, and while there’s evidence of that here in this short novella, it suffers from a jerky rhythm of back and forth, of characters that never seem to have the same emotion from one moment to the next, that ended up leaving me feeling vaguely unsettled when I was done. I enjoyed the original set-up and the writing itself is the best of the book, but the awkward pace tempers whatever satisfaction I might have gained from it, leaving it a mediocre read rather than the sprightly tale I’d hoped for.

Rounding out the anthology is “Country House Christmas” by Barbara Miller. Richard Trent has returned from military service in Spain scarred and half-blind, but forced to face the fact that his younger brother has married the woman he was betrothed to, and to take his place as the upcoming head of the household. He doesn’t particularly want to be there, but the arrival of his sister-in-law’s younger sister, the precocious Diana, convinces him at least the holiday will be entertaining. While this story is better written than the first, it suffers from a lack of cohesion that does its vibrant characters no good. The romance is all over the place, and then gets resolved in a whirlwind fashion that seems rushed even for novella standards. It does present the best world-building and best characterizations of the entire anthology, but the hodgepodge way it feels like the story is cobbled together detracts from it too much to make it very memorable.

For a feel good Christmas anthology with a historical flair, it fails to make the grade as anything more than a passing fancy. I can’t say I would bother looking up any of these authors on their own, based on these offerings.


7/10 – The tedious first story slows down the entire collection


6/10 – Unfortunately, fairly mediocre across the scale


7/10 – More attention paid to characters and setting than any believability in romance or pace

Entertainment value

6/10 – Disappointing even from the author I really enjoy

World building

8/10 – By far, the focus of all the stories is on setting at the detriment of other elements



Monday, January 4, 2010

Warrior's Cross by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux

TITLE: Warrior’s Cross
AUTHOR: Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 102k)
GENRE: Gay suspense erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Tuesday nights are Cameron Jacobs’ favorites. That’s the night the tall, dark, mysterious stranger comes in, sits at one of his tables, and always orders the same thing. His crush seems a little silly until his customer expresses a little more interest. Then, on Christmas Eve, Cameron’s whole world gets turned upside down when said customer – one Julian Cross – asks him for a walk…

I wanted to like this book. I really did. Though I’d passed on other offerings by this author duo in the past (the excerpts were clearly headhopping, and I deliberately avoid buying those if I can help it), my recent exposure to Roux’s solo work, combined with both a premise that sounded intriguing and an excerpt that seemed to stay contained in one POV, convinced me to give this one a go. It was actually fairly engrossing for a while. But only for a while. Because ultimately, two things really let me down.

Cameron is a beta hero. No doubts about it. He’s average looking, in an average job, with self-admittedly nothing more exciting to do than work most of the time. When Julian first expresses an interest in him, Cameron is stunned. He seizes the opportunity, though, convinced Julian will get bored and move on eventually. When Julian doesn’t, Cameron is just as surprised as anybody else. Nearly everyone close to Julian questions him what he sees in Cameron. The same happens to Cameron. And honestly? So did I. Other than the fact that Cameron treated Julian like a normal person, I just couldn’t understand the appeal. Because I liked Julian for nearly all of the book. I thought he was incredibly hot. But I never bought them as a long-term couple because I just couldn’t see why Julian kept bothering. Cameron was flat, and boring, and maybe that’s what Julian wanted, but spending so much time in Cameron’s POV, listening to him go on and on and on about his insecurity…it got old. Very old. And painful to read.

The other aspect that really pulled me out of the story is, I think, a quirk of the authors’ style. They overuse dialogue tags. I don’t mean just going back and forth between two characters with a tag on each character’s line. I mean, multiple tags in the same speech by the same character within the same paragraph. Like this one:

"Do I look like I'm feeling better?" Julian demanded. "Do I seem to be in a better mood?" he asked sarcastically. "Preston!" he shouted suddenly. "Give me my fucking nuggets," he demanded as he turned, only to find Preston standing behind him with a box of chicken in his hand. "Goddammit," Julian offered before snatching the box and stalking out of the room with his food.

There are five different dialogue tags within the same paragraph. Two of them are even the same word. The adverbs are all over the place with the tags, as well. It’s not unique to this paragraph; it happens straight from the beginning of the book. It’s not quite as noticeable then, however, since Julian is very taciturn for the first third of the story. Less dialogue means it doesn’t stand out more. But as soon as the communication starts to open up…there you go.

I know it won’t bother a lot of people. I’ve seen this book come highly recommended all over the place, so clearly, a lot of people didn’t notice it or didn’t care. But I did, and I do, and I just can’t get past this stylistic thing enough to enjoy the work. It feels sloppy to me, and the repetition gets boring. Boring is the kiss of death for a story, especially a suspense-oriented one. No matter how mysterious the alpha hero might be.


6/10 – Though the action scenes were engrossing, any time dialogue got involved, my immersion disappeared

Hero #1

5/10 – Honestly? I was questioning why Julian liked him so much just like all the characters were

Hero #2

6/10 – This would have been higher if it weren’t for the last chapter

Entertainment value

6/10 – I wanted to like this so much more than I did

World building

6/10 – Except for the restaurants and the pets, there were more questions left unanswered than not



Friday, January 1, 2010

'Til Death Do We Part by Madison Layle and Anna Leigh Keaton

TITLE: ‘Til Death Do We Part
AUTHOR: Madison Layle and Anna Leigh Keaton
PUBLISHER: Cobblestone
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 42k)
GENRE: Contemporary menage erotic romance
COST: $5.99

Justin Blackwood survived twelve years as a POW in Iraq by focusing on the woman he left behind. Erica is the only family he has, next to the best friend he always considered a brother. What he doesn’t expect to discover, however, is that they married in his absence. Clint loved Erica his whole life, but when she chose Justin, he stepped back, unwilling to hurt the two people who meant the most to him. He’s glad to have Justin back, but there’s nothing easy about his return. Especially since Clint’s not even sure he’s going to live long enough to get to know his friend all over again…

I have no idea why this story worked at all for me. It should have failed. It certainly had enough elements that normally drive me insane. The authors headhopped through the whole story, sometimes paragraph to paragraph between all three characters. The melodrama screams soap opera, including Justin running out of the house when he finds out Clint and Erica are married, shouting “No!” as he runs, then staring up into the sky and asking “Why?” as tears run down his face. It’s incredibly emotionally manipulative. And yet, and yet…

I didn’t hate this. In fact, there were points where I got swept into the story. The detail about Justin’s military life and Clint’s ranching life are crisp and thorough, and the trio felt richly realized. Their reactions rang true. That goes a long way in helping to compensate for the other weaknesses. Erica feels genuinely torn between Clint and Justin. She loves them both. It’s not like she hopped into bed with Clint as soon as Justin was declared dead. They remained platonic friends for years until they finally took another step. As much as Justin wants her back, he feels morally obligated to get out of the way because of their wedding vows. It’s Clint, and his driving need to make both Justin and Erica as happy as possible, that brings the three together. It’s his secret, the truth about his headaches, that compels the action forward, and underlies every emotion. He’s the one who resonated for me the most.

While I recognize all of this intellectually, and I really did like the characters, I was never as emotionally involved as I’m sure the authors intended. The ending is written specifically for an emotional wallop, and it didn’t hit me like that. Probably because even while I liked the three, I felt manipulated into liking them the entire way. It was like, what else can they possibly throw into this emotional soup to make it even angstier? And then they did. Then they did it again. To give them credit, they never backed off on making hard choices. And like I said, I did like the story. Just maybe not as much as I was told I should.


7/10 – Headhopping proved to be a big barrier for me


7/10 – Regardless of how manipulative I found it, the trio still managed to strike a chord


8/10 – Surprisingly rich

Entertainment value

7/10 – I had difficulties with the headhopping and melodrama, so didn’t really immerse into the tough emotional ending

World building

8/10 – Believable detail abounds, from ranching to the war details