Friday, November 18, 2011

Shapes in the Blood by Kim Knox

TITLE: Shapes in the Blood
AUTHOR: Kim Knox
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 27k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $4.99

Aila can’t believe how her luck has changed. The hottest guy at her new job has asked her out, and it looks like she’s actually going to get what she wants for a change. But when he shows up late, then drags her to a war memorial and starts talking about needing her, alarm bells begin to peal louder than her hormones. She tries to leave, but he won’t let her go easily. She has no choice but to accept the help of the strange man who suddenly shows up, telling her she’s just this demon’s latest intended victim…

I’d hoped choosing an author I’d enjoyed before would make this a good reading week for me, but unfortunately, this is probably the weakest story I’ve read by her yet.

It starts in a rush. Aila has been working for six weeks at her new job, and just that morning, garnered the attention of a gorgeous co-worker. He asked her out for that night, then ended up showing four hours late for their date. The lust she has for the man overrides her better sense, and she agrees to go out at that late hour, but when he directs her to a war memorial for some annual ritual he does, then proceeds to tell her he needs her help in doing what he’s come to do, she finally comes to her senses. She tries to leave, but he doesn’t want her to go, changing right before her eyes into something not quite human. A stranger then appears out of nowhere offering to help, and on instinct, she tosses him her car keys and lets him drive her away.

It only gets confusing from that point on. I could try explaining it all, but honestly, it took me so long to figure it out for myself—and even then, it took the bulk of the information that doesn’t get revealed until the very end—that it would be pointless for me to try. Because that’s this story’s greatest weakness. The ideas behind the world-building are ripe with potential, incredibly intriguing and different from the norm, but the way they’re conveyed is next to impossible to keep straight. Details get twisted around by dreams that might not actually be dreams, while facts about who Aila is and what the demons wants with her are vague and unnecessarily circuitous. The novella is only 27k, but it reads much longer, mostly because of the lack of clarity given to the world-building and what exactly is going on with everything.

Part of that likely stems from the thick tension that permeates the story from page one. The author excels at UST and making things steamy, but in this case, it ends up obscuring the actual story that’s being told. Too much focus is placed upon Aila’s raging hormones, all the way down to awkward dreams that play out her hidden thoughts about Matt, the stranger who helped her escape. It’s too hard to tell where manipulations end and genuine reactions begin, and while some of that is intentional, there’s just too much. It gets in the way of understanding who Matt and Aila really are, and if there is any kind of real future there outside of the too-convenient one we’re told they’ll have.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this author in the past, I can’t recommend this story at all except to romance readers who are mostly interested in hot tension rather than clear storytelling.


6/10 – Clarity gets sacrificed for oblique prose


4/10 – Hints that I should find him attractive, but the story is too muddled to give me any kind of idea of what he’s truly like


4/10 – Um, ditto

Entertainment value

3/10 – Though the sexual tension runs rampant, it’s not nearly enough to counter the muddy storytelling

World building

5/10 – Great ideas, poor execution



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Counterpunch by Aleksandr Voinov

TITLE: Counterpunch
AUTHOR: Aleksandr Voinov
PUBLISHER: Storm Moon Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 53k)
GENRE: Gay alternate reality erotic romance
COST: $5.99

As a free man, Brooklyn Marshall was a cop, just trying to do his job. As a slave, all he has is boxing and his fight to be the best. His crime condemned him to a life stripped of personal choice, but enduring it and accepting it are two entirely separate things. When one of his “fans” pays to spend the night with him, he puts up with it because that’s what he has to do. Nathaniel doesn’t make the same demands others have made on him, and when he starts to offer promises of hope, Brooklyn’s first instinct is not to believe him. What kind of hope does a slave have? Even one on the road to becoming the slave heavyweight champion…

NOTE: In the matter of full disclosure, I was offered a copy of this book for the purpose of a review.

As much as I love this author, I waffled on whether or not to read this book. I haven’t read either of the first two books in this series (written by another author), and I’m incredibly reluctant to enter a story after the beginning (as I often view series to be). I was willing to overlook this story based just on that, but when I was assured the book could be read as a standalone, I decided to take the chance. Lucky for me I did.

Brooklyn Marshall is on the rise to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the slave world. An ex-cop convicted of murder, he has no control over his life. He fights who his owners want him to fight. He goes on the “dates” that get arranged for him with those willing to pay for the privilege. He takes the punishment whenever the guards want to hand it out. That being said, he doesn’t like it. He remembers what it was like to be free. Regardless of how much he might think he deserves punishment for the crime he committed, he wants his freedom and self-respect more than anything else. One of those dates is with Nathaniel, a man less inclined to abuse Brooklyn than to appreciate him. One night leads to two, which leads to more. Nathaniel reveals his belief that Brooklyn should never have received the sentence he did, and Brooklyn begins to hope he just might be able to be free one day.

Voinov packs a wallop into this short novel, with story and characterization bursting at the seams. The pace is relentless, the detail graphic and brutal. He doesn’t hold back on portraying the dark underbelly of the world he’s playing in, a characteristic of his writing I adore though it might put others off. Brooklyn is whored out by his owners, as well as suffers under the hands of his guards. All of this is necessary to truly understanding the depths of Brooklyn’s world and character, but readers sensitive to dub-con and rape will likely find it difficult to accept a lot of what goes on in this. It’s not easy. Voinov’s stories rarely are. But it’s those shades of gray, even when they’re almost black, that make it all worth it.

I loved Brooklyn, from start to finish. His guilt manifests in rage he’s only allowed to unleash within the ring, but the boxing is surprisingly spare of unnecessary emotion. Between the way he approaches the fight and the fact that we’re in his perspective for the entire novel, we get a view of each match that’s more clinical and cutting than anything else. He lives in the moment, anticipating the next move and the move after that. There’s no room for anything but boxing, and here, he experiences the only freedom he can really have for himself. It doesn’t always work in his favor, though. He makes mistakes in the ring, just as people make mistakes in their everyday life, and those mistakes carry over to guide his next steps, even when he doesn’t get to take those steps of his own free will. But through it all, the layers in which he hides – for his own protection more than anything else, from the outside world and from himself – are stripped away, ultimately revealing the man Brooklyn truly is, heartbreaking in all his glory.

Because Brooklyn is such a powerful presence, other characters tend to diminish. Nathaniel is enigmatic through much of the story, and though I enjoyed his overall arc once it was eventually revealed, I questioned more than once what his appeal was to Brook outside of the obvious. His trainer at the start of the story, Les, suffers the same fate, especially when his personality seems to have a transplant when he comes back later on. While I understood intellectually what was going, it didn’t resonate emotionally. I had to remove myself from the story enough to analyze why he had such a turnaround, and that kind of distance is always damaging to a book’s overall effect.

Though this is set in a shared world, it’s not necessary at all to read the previous books to enjoy this one. It’s my understanding that it’s the slavery dynamic that binds the stories together, and that’s all. Not once did I feel like I was missing something. The world-building is rich and detailed enough to create a sense of here and now, without pandering to unnecessary explanation that often bogs down series stories. It’s superlative storytelling, but then again, that’s become what I expect from this author.


10/10 – Impossible to put down

Hero #1

9/10 – Brutal and heartbreaking

Hero #2

7/10 – A little too enigmatic to match Brook, but his arc was well done and intriguing

Entertainment value

9/10 – Bloody, bare, and bold

World building

8/10 – Brook’s sheltered POV makes too much exploration impossible, but what is there works well for a newcomer to the series



Friday, November 11, 2011

For Your Eyes Only by Melissa Hosack

TITLE: For Your Eyes Only
AUTHOR: Melissa Hosack
PUBLISHER: Silver Publishing
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $3.99

Dragged out on Halloween by her best friend, Lily finds herself a wallflower again until the most gorgeous guy she’s ever seen begins talking to her. She decides to take a chance when the attraction between them sparks, but when she wakes up the next morning and discovers he’s actually a ghost, she has to decide if the fact that only she can see and touch him is all that matters…

While I’ve had my eye on Silver Publishing for a while, this was the first story I was tempted enough to buy. The blurb on the publisher’s site hinted at something a little more complex than the usual ghost story, but unfortunately, that’s not what I got.

Lily is shy, but willing to live vicariously through her best friend. She agrees to get dressed up for Halloween and go out dancing, but finds herself alone at a table, watching from the sidelines yet again. That changes when a man begins talking to her. Nathan is the most gorgeous guy she’s ever seen, and his humorous charm, telling her he’s dressed up as a ghost when he’s wearing a T-shirt and faded jeans, relaxes her enough to enjoy his company. At her friend’s urging, she gets up the nerve to invite him back to her apartment, where they spend the night having sex. In the morning, however, she discovers that his ghost description wasn’t a cute joke. He actually is one, and as soon as he gets outside a yard from her presence, he becomes incorporeal again.

The reason I bought this story was because of this sentence from the publisher’s blurb: In a complex relationship between woman and ghost, the pair must wonder how long they'll be able to keep Lily's human friends from asking too many questions about the boyfriend they never see. That hinted that it might actually tackle the ghost issue in a new way, even though I knew from the pricepoint and novella length it wouldn’t be very long. Unfortunately that never happened. Lily and Nathan meet, they go back to her place, they have sex a few times, then it cuts to a year later. Any depth it might have had was wasted in the time jump, and instead, I got very mediocre sex that was just way too coy for my tastes (using life essence for come, for instance). It’s not helped at all by the rather pedantic writing, or the fact that Lily’s characterization remains flat for most of the story.

I’d almost written it off completely when it got to the resolution, but a turn in the plot I hadn’t quite expected helped bring it up a bit. It still ends too abruptly, however, just as the complications would be interesting to work through, so while the finish might have raised my overall enjoyment of it up a tad, it wasn’t nearly enough to convince me to try other works by this author. It felt too much like a wasted opportunity when it was done.


6/10 – Too simplistic for the most part, with the sex scenes too coy for me


5/10 – Mildly charming at first, but lacks depth


4/10 – Though I didn’t dislike her, I never really felt like she was a real character

Entertainment value

4/10 – The ending saved this from being a complete wash

World building

6/10 – Little is done to explain the paranormal aspects of this until a big information dump at the ending



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Serious Moonlight by Janet Halpin

TITLE: The Serious Moonlight
AUTHOR: Janet Halpin
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $3.00

Anna accepts the invitation to her 25th high school reunion, wondering if she’ll get to see her one regret from high school – the boy next door who was her best friend and then asked her out to prom only for her to turn him down…

Wild Rose Press has a series of unrelated books all about reunions of the class of ’85. I’ve refrained from purchasing most of them, but this one caught my eye.

When it comes to reunion stories, it’s hard to make them unique and this one is no different. Twenty-five years after the fact, divorced Anna regrets turning down her longtime friend Rick’s invitation to prom, and attends the reunion in hopes he’ll be there. She’s still friends with the same two girls who talked her out of accepting his offer in high school, but the only kiss that ever made her toes curl was his. She’s always wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t been scared of what it all meant. She gets her chance when he shows up, but his behavior isn’t clear. She can’t tell if he still harbors anger about what happened, or is willing to move on from it. Because he lives in San Diego, she’s only got reunion weekend to find out.

There aren’t many surprises here. Anna is nice enough, but fairly boring. The most interesting thing she does is have such a long childhood friendship with the scarred Rick. Rick, on the other hand, shows signs of being really interesting, though his first appearances in the story are marred by rather schizophrenic behavior as he flipflops between anger and attentive so quickly I got whiplash. Put them together, however, and there’s an easy sweetness to their story, and I found myself smiling when they finally got past their initial wariness of each other. The ending is appropriately saccharine, but it would’ve been better served by having secondary characters that didn’t make me bristle. I didn’t like either one of Anna’s friends, and couldn’t really see why they’d all continue being friends. They take up a lot of page time, too. Too much for me to really enjoy.

Still, for the romance reader looking for a taste of nostalgia and sweetness, this one isn’t that bad. The detail is a little more vivid than is usually found in these sort of short contemporaries, and the use of a slightly damaged (though still kind of stereotypical) hero lovely.


8/10 – Sweet and unassuming, with enough detail to make it real


7/10 – He seems a little too back-and-forth in the first half, but otherwise sweet


6/10 – Her initial motivations were weak, but I warmed up to her

Entertainment value

6/10 – I was in the mood for something easy and sweet, and that’s pretty much what I got

World building

6/10 – Not a ton, but more than I usually find short contemporaries



Monday, November 7, 2011

Blinded by Our Eyes by Clare London

TITLE: Blinded by Our Eyes
AUTHOR: Clare London
PUBLISHER: Carina Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 45k)
GENRE: Gay mystery erotic romance
COST: $3.59

Charles walks into his gallery to find one of his up-and-coming artists murdered with his ex-lover covered in the man’s blood. Joseph is shaken by the crime, but his alibi holds up, leaving Charles and the police wonder months later just who is responsible…

I’m going to be in a minority on this book. I know a lot of people loved it, and I went into it with high hopes, but in spite of adoring the first chapter, I was bored to tears by a third of the way through.

It’s the story of London gallery owner Charles as he attempts to try and find out who exactly is responsible for killing Paolo, a sculptor he was sponsoring he had high hopes of doing well. Paolo’s body is discovered in the gallery with Joseph, Charles’s ex-lover, and when Joseph is clearly shaken and traumatized by the whole event, Charles takes him in. Weeks pass and the police are nowhere closer to getting answers. Charles begins to discover that perhaps he didn’t know the people who surround him as well as he thought he did and begins trying to ferret out who might have been responsible for the murder on his own.

Told in 1st person from Charles’s perspective, this is a mystery first and a romance second. The love interest, Antony, doesn’t even get introduced until well into the story, leaving the feeling that the entire romantic angle was shoe-horned in so it wasn’t just a mystery. While he’s a nice foil for the oddly innocent Charles, by the time he came onto the scene, I was already struggling to stay engaged with the story. He didn’t really stand much of a chance with me at all.

That bothers me, actually. I loved the first chapter. It was vivid, gut-wrenching, and emotional. The second chapter faded a bit for me because of the odd jump at the start of it, but I still held out high hopes. The third chapter jumps to weeks later, and we discover much of what happened in the interim, as well as information that would have come out during the police interrogations in chapter two, in a long, dull conversation that had none of the sparkle and vibrancy of the author’s descriptive voice. I got increasingly annoyed by the surprise background information that was sprung on me at the end of the third chapter, and never really recovered from that.

Part of this stems from the fact that Charles is such an unreliable narrator, and while I’d like to blame the device for the reason the story doesn’t work for me, I can’t because I’ve enjoyed stories with other unreliable narrators before. It just comes down to the execution, because the descriptive prose and editing are excellent. Though it’s told in 1st person, I felt an awful disconnect with everything going on due to the methods chosen to convey the necessary information. I’m choosing to see my negative experience with this as an anomaly. The author has a great voice, and I’ve had other good reads with her work. Just not with this one.


6/10 – Lush voice didn’t end up helping to involve me in the story, bored to tears by a third of the way in

Hero #1

7/10 – Sweet and oddly innocent in spite of his age and experience

Hero #2

4/10 – A good foil for the narrator, but came too late in the story for me to care about

Entertainment value

3/10 – Love author’s voice, but the vast jumps and odd juxtaposition of recapping against sudden surprising background information annoyed me early, then bored me

World building

7/10 – A strong feel for the art world and moments



Friday, November 4, 2011

Intimate Whispers by Dee Carney

TITLE: Intimate Whispers
AUTHOR: Dee Carney
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 52k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $5.95

Sabrina Turner hears dead people, but it’s not a gift by any means. They bombard her at the worst times, driving her mad as she’s incapable of tuning them out. The only way for her to banish them for a while is by allowing another spirit to have his way with her, giving her body to him for hours until the world is silent again. Another attack leaves her in a fugue state at her local grocery store, where her neighbor Jason sees her and takes her home. When she says something to him only his dead brother would know, he’s driven to find out how and why. The truth will bring them together, but the reality of what she has to do just to survive the voice just might drive them apart…

I meant to get this done and reviewed before Halloween, but the holiday ran away from me. It would have been appropriate, given its slightly creepy tones.

Sabrina Turner hears dead people, and the only way she can get a temporary reprieve from the madness it creates in her is to have sex with one of those same spirits. She refers to it as Him, and considers him her savior. After she gives him what he wants, she gets some peace and quiet for a while. During her attacks, she loses time, forgetting where she is, who she is. It’s during one of these that her neighbor Jason finds her at the grocery store. He volunteers to take her home, but just before she shuts the door in his face, she says something only his dead brother would say. Unable to shake the questions it’s raised, he goes back to her apartment and demands answers. The only reason she gives him a hint of what she’s like is because he played the nice guy and helped her get home when he didn’t have to. They try another technique to make contact with his brother, but that doesn’t help much either. Jason is trying to forget about the whole incident when the ER contacts him and asks for his aid in getting Sabrina home. She’s had another attack. Thus sparks a series of events that will bring them closer together. The only problem is, both of them are holding back secrets, afraid of what the other might think.

I liked the premise of the book, the twist on the ghost whisperer theme with the heroine being plagued by the voices to the point of madness. The attacks are described well, coming to life even as Sabrina is driven mad by them. Much of that is helped by the author opting to occasionally show the attacks from Jason’s POV. He brings a poignancy to what is going on with Sabrina that her perspective lacks.

Sabrina’s perspective is where the book falters for me. Her characterization is solid enough, but the more I got to know her, the less I liked her. I found her attitude toward Jason bitchier than what was called for, and her behavior often callous in regards to his feelings. I understand her point about how she doesn’t have the space in her life to worry about anybody but herself, but that wasn’t enough for me to explain away how cold she was. In fact, even after she warmed up to Jason, I still found her personality a little off-putting. I didn’t start liking her more until very nearly the end.

On the other hand, Jason was a darling. He came across as caring and sincere, a little on the earnest side, and I found his self-honesty about how he’d never considered dating a black woman endearing. His chemistry with Sabrina was off the charts, too, a fact I could easily recognize even if I didn’t like her very much. He was more patient with her than I imagine most men would’ve been, and the fact that he sticks around through so much is testimony to his wonderful nature.

I did find the resolution easy and kind of obvious, but I appreciate the fact that the ending doesn’t sugarcoat other problems by giving them an easy out. Sabrina and Jason still have things to fight against when the story draws to a close, but then again, so do real life couples. This one might not be a definite keeper, but it does make me curious about the author’s other work. I like that she takes some risks and isn’t afraid of being true to human nature. It’s worth it to find out if that’s prevalent in other titles, too.


8/10 – The erotic elements work best in this, though the prose is solid throughout


8/10 – He was the heart of this, his caring nature sold me from the start


4/10 – I understood her but for the bulk of the story, I really didn’t like her for being so bitchy

Entertainment value

7/10 – I liked it for Jason and for where it dared to go, but would’ve liked it more if I cared about Sabrina a little

World building

7/10 – Aspects of her talent were handled really well, but I wanted more into her past and why/how she had this gift in order to better understand it



Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kindred Hearts by G.S. Wiley

TITLE: Kindred Hearts
AUTHOR: G.S. Wiley
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Gay historical romance
COST: $3.99

All Alfie loves is the theater, but when his mother arrives with his ward in tow, intent on seeing the girl married, he finds his social life thrust into new circles, with surprising results…

Taking a break over Halloween, I wanted something short and easy to come back to. Luckily, I picked one that charmed me, too.

Alfie has one love – the theater. He keeps boxes at all of London’s best, alternating between them throughout the week. He has his favorites, of course, but he has no illusions about his role as anything but loving spectator. The stutter he’s plagued with makes communicating difficult at the best of times, so he’s much more comfortable watching from the shadows. When his mother arrives unannounced with his ward in tow, he braces for her visit, only to learn she’s decided the girl needs to be married and Alfie is going to see that it happens. While on a walk with his ward, they meet two men, one of which declares interest in her, the other as avid a fan of theater as Alfie is. It seems as if Alfie’s search might be over before it even really begins.

Though this is a short novella, it reads even more swiftly than other stories its length, mostly due to the utterly readable and unassuming authorial voice. The prose is clean and crisp, with just enough detail to make the setting pop and lend an air of authority to its accuracy, without bogging it down in unnecessary minutiae and distracting from the characters themselves.

But while I zipped through with barely a blink of an eye, much of the credit for that goes to the protagonist Alfie, too. He’s endearing from the very first page, a man with no sense of needs for himself except to attend the theater that he adores so much. His stutter only heightens that, adding to my already rich empathy for the character, so I was more than willing to race along in the story to discover what kind of romance he was going to have. I sincerely wondered if it was ever going to happen, though. The story focuses on him and his family for a long time, with the other romantic interest not even introduced until a third of the way into the story, a veritable eternity when the telling is this short. Markham then suffers from a vagueness, primarily because Alfie just isn’t attuned to him for a long time. Gradually, Markham develops more of a personality, but even at the end, it felt like there was a lot more left for me to learn.

And therein lies the story’s greatest weakness. While Alfie is a wonderful central character, plotting is loose and then unfortunately tied up all too conveniently. What felt like they should have been genuine problems were resolved with little conflict, turning what could have been a truly romantic (and realistic) ending into one that seemed to come a little of nowhere. Some of that probably stems from how quickly this reads, but ultimately, the secondary characters and their issues seem like an annoying distraction rather than organic to the tale.

It was worth the time it took, however. And more.


9/10 – Unassuming and utterly readable, it zips by faster than it should

Hero #1

8/10 – Absolutely endearing

Hero #2

6/10 – Liked him, but kept feeling like there was more that I wasn’t getting to see

Entertainment value

7/10 – Charming for what it was, though the resolution of the subplots were too rushed to be truly satisfying

World building

9/10 – Crisp with the right balance of detail to thrust the reader into the setting without overpowering the characters