Monday, April 30, 2012

Convenient Strangers by Cara McKenna

AUTHOR: Cara McKenna
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 20k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotica
COST: $4.45

Stephen left England behind to follow his lover back to the States, but when it finally becomes clear his lover is not coming out of the closet for him, Stephen calls it quits. He goes out to drown his sorrows and runs into the handsome Adam, himself the product of a recent break-up. The two men hit it off, ending with an offer to crash the night on Adam’s couch. In spite of their intent to keep it simple, the chemistry between them is too hot to ignore…

I’ve been on a kick recently with this author, and this is hardly the last book I have of hers on my TBR pile. It succeeds where the previous erotica book I read by here didn’t quite, though, which just makes me more excited about getting to the rest of her backlist.

English Stephen followed his lover back to the States in hopes that this relationship was going to be the one. However, the in the closet tendencies his lover displayed never go away, frustrating Stephen more and more as time passes. Finally, he can’t take anymore and walks out. Heading out to the bar, he gets hit on by Adam, a physical therapist who is coming off his own recent break-up. After a rough start, they hit it off, and decide to take it elsewhere, especially since Stephen doesn’t want to go back home. They agree no anal on the first date, but as the tension between them rises, they both realize they need to renegotiate those boundaries.

This is not a romance. There’s no HEA, and it’s branded as part of the Exotika line at EC. I say this only because of reader expectations. My previous experiences with McKenna’s erotica have blurred the lines between erotica and romance, making it difficult to accept it as either. Thankfully, this one doesn’t fall into that trap.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have an emotional payout. It does, to a degree. Both Stephen and Adam are sharply drawn, and the sexual tension between the two ratcheted up so well, the sex is a relief when it finally occurs. Because they both feel very real, and their emotions are just as vital as their physical attraction, I became attached to both men, eager to see how their one-night stand was going to play out. While there isn’t an HEA, there’s a hint of an HFN, which in the case of erotica, is really all that’s needed (and anybody expecting otherwise isn’t paying attention to how this is being sold). It works. Surprisingly well. Because the sex is hot and satisfying, the characters solid and sympathetic, and the writing clean and concise.

9/10 – Hot and well-paced
8/10 – The chemistry between these two is delicious, which helps with the eventual sex
8/10 – I liked both these guys for their very different personalities
Entertainment value
8/10 – There’s nothing wholly original about the story, but it delivers what it promises
World building
5/10 – Takes a back seat to the characters and sex

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back to reviewing

Real life has been taking precedence the last month or so, so I put reviewing on a back burner. Now that everything is calming down, I'll be back to posting tomorrow.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Willing Victim by Cara McKenna

TITLE: Willing Victim
AUTHOR: Cara McKenna
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 41k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotica
COST: $5.20

An attraction to blue-collar Flynn seems simple until Laurel sees his rough-and-tumble attitude inside the ring of an underground fighting club. According to his friend with benefits, Flynn likes his sex rough. Very rough. An intrigued Laurel agrees to watch to see if it’s something that might interest her, but her reaction is far stronger than she anticipated…

I had some issues with the first erotica title I read by this author, and though this doesn't knock it out of the ballpark, it still manages to be hot escapism.

Laurel is twenty-nine and waitressing at a tourist trap, disenchanted with the opportunities her engineering degree has scrounged up. In an attempt to have a peaceful afternoon, she ends up witness to an argument between lovers, but they ignore her attempts to keep it civil. A stranger appears out of nowhere, manhandles the boyfriend into moving it elsewhere, and then walks away. Laurel is intrigued and chases him down. He takes up her offer to buy him lunch, but when she gathers the nerve to ask this man out, he turns her down, saying he’s not most women’s type. She presses, and he finally tells her to show up at a bar on Saturday night, tell them Flynn sent her, and then see if she’s still interested in a date. On Saturday night, she witnesses an underground boxing club, with the man – Flynn, she learns his name is – one of the most brutal in the ring. She also sees him kissing a woman, and discouraged that he’s got a girlfriend, confesses to her that Flynn invited her to watch. The woman laughs it off, saying they’re just friends with benefits, that Flynn likes his sex rough and is willing to take her to dark places most men won’t. She invites Laurel to come watch them after the fight, an offer Laurel eventually accepts. What she sees about Flynn intrigues her even more, and she and Flynn then arrange to hook up on their own.

There’s a warning on the publisher’s site, stating that though everything is purely consensual, the role-playing and rape fantasies that get acted out might prove too much of a trigger for some readers. While this warning is valid and probably necessary – it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to these sort of triggers – the story isn’t nearly as rough as I expected it to be. Sure, Flynn uses rough language, spanks and slaps, bosses women around as he wants, but in all honesty, it never feels overboard. That’s largely due to remaining in Laurel’s perspective throughout the entire book. Because she always feels safe, the reader does, too. Flynn is never as menacing as he could be.

That being said, most of the sex is hot. Very hot. Very, very hot. The base nature of their first encounters do smooth out as the story progresses, and honestly, I didn’t care for the final sex scenes nearly as much as the initial ones (nor the implication that developing feelings means kink preferences aren’t important anymore), but that’s likely due to a pacing and structural issue rather than the scenes themselves.

See, this is erotica. It’s sold as erotica. For three-fourths of the story, it is erotica. But suddenly, in the last quarter, a bunch of emotions are introduced that are likely meant to show the viable shift from hooking up to dating. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s all so rushed and out of the blue that it never feels genuine. Flynn doesn’t suffer from it; his casual comment that Laurel was supposed to ask him out for a date but instead they’ve only hooked up is proof he’s been thinking about her and dating prospects. Laurel is the one who suddenly spills secrets, and it just never makes sense.

Up until this point, though, I liked Flynn and Laurel for what they were. Flynn is blue-collar Boston, surprisingly articulate even with his often brusque manner, while Laurel is relatable in her insecurities and desires. The ending is meant to introduce a potential HFN (unnecessary in erotica, in my opinion), and I think I could be convinced these two have a future based on the characterizations I saw up until that jarring last chapter or two. But that’s not the point of erotica. This should have been all about the heat. In that respect, it worked, providing an intense exploration into less romantic fantasies. I’m in for more. Definitely.


8/10 – Until the last fourth that didn’t seem to fit, hot and heavy


8/10 – Though it devolves into more vanilla as the story progresses, it’s still pretty darn hot


7/10 – I liked them more for the first ¾’s but found the emotional dumps in the last bit unbelievable and out of place

Entertainment value

7/10 – If this had stayed firmly within the realm of erotica, this would’ve been higher. As a hybrid, it doesn’t work as well

World building

8/10 – I don’t know if the boxing is necessarily realistic, but damn if I couldn’t see and smell everything



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Family Business by Emma McKee

TITLE: Family Business
AUTHOR: Emma McKee
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 62k)
GENRE: Contemporary romantic suspense
COST: $3.99

Loan officer Nora Bainbridge’s great-aunt is as eccentric as they come, but then again, as an aging actress from Hollywood’s golden era, she’s expected to be. When she breaks her leg, she asks for Nora to move in and take care of her cat, a financial arrangement Nora can’t refuse right now. Little does she know that the TV producer poking his nose around, looking for information on her Aunt Elnora’s ancient connections with the mob, is really an FBI agent, or that he just might be the answer to her recent dry spell…

When an author’s humor works for me, I’m much more inclined to finish a book, even when I can see its flaws. This was one of those cases.

It opens with FBI agent Luke McKinnon staking out aging Hollywood actress, Elnora Bainbridge, in hopes he can determine whether or not his teenaged crush is involved in a stolen art scam. He witnesses her take a fall while chasing her cat and calls 911 anonymously. That same fall puts Elnora in the hospital, and prompts her to pay her great-niece, named after her, to housesit and take care of the over-indulged cat. Nora agrees only because she needs the money. She’s barely making ends meet as she struggles to regain her financial footing after her ex cleaned her out. Luke shows up and introduces himself as a television producer, interested in doing a show on Elnora. He’s struck by the physical similarities between the two women, and it becomes harder for him to separate his growing feelings for Nora with the pressing evidence that Elnora really is involved in something illegal. He should know, after all. His grandfather was one of the mobsters who fought over Elnora before she gave up her acting career for good.

I fell for this story very early on, mostly because I was laughing out loud in the first few pages at Luke’s spying antics. The humor in this worked for me, mostly because I got sucked in by Luke’s appalled thoughts that he would now be scarred with memories of his favorite teenaged crush running around naked in her eighties. It’s a little silly, but that farcical nature worked within the context of the story, keeping it light for most of its length. Not all of it was a success. I’m not a fan of puns at all, and having the nosy neighbor named Ima Payne was mostly just eyeroll-worthy. Still, I liked Nora and Luke’s self-deprecating humor enough to like them in conjunction, thus making it easier to invest in their potential romance.

The supporting cast is colorful as well, from her spirited Aunt Elnora with her illicit online businesses, to Elnora’s attorney Albert, all the way to the overweight, over-indulged cat, Mr. Witherby. Nora bounces around from person to animal with a refreshing aplomb, and if she sometimes seems a bit scattered as a result, it’s nice to be remembered that events are happening very quickly within the story (so quickly that at least once, the author messes up the timeline). More get introduced as the story progresses, and it’s the firm addition of the Mob (as opposed to the hints that they might be involved at the top of the story) that actually starts weakening the tale.

So much is made about what might have happened, the truth is very anticlimactic when it comes out. Then, it plays out so quickly, in a scene that’s far too talky even for a farce, that I was left with a vague sense of, “That’s it?” Add to that a time jump at the end that, while justified, watered down the response rather than heightened it, and I was a little disappointed by the time I got my HEA. If only the last third had lived up to the hype of the first two. This could’ve been truly remarkable then.


8/10 – Humor goes a long way in smoothing over rough transitions and an anticlimactic ending


7/10 – His perspective was what enticed me to make this a definite finish, funny and just deprecating enough to be charming


7/10 – Self-aware with just enough of an edge

Entertainment value

7/10 – I responded to humor in this, as well as the obvious love for old movies, though the ending didn’t live up to the promise of the first two-thirds

World building

7/10 – Enough hints to make it interesting, not enough to make it rich



Monday, April 2, 2012

One Good Year by Rowan McBride

TITLE: One Good Year
AUTHOR: Rowan McBride
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 824k)
GENRE: Gay paranormal romance
COST: $4.99

A year after Spade was on in a card game, he’s still devoted to his master Ace but wondering why he doesn’t feel more secure in the relationship. Ace does everything he can to convince him, but it takes another of Spade’s kind threatening to tear them apart forever for the lovers to face what it means to belong to each other…

Revisiting loved characters in subsequent books is often dangerous, especially when a lot of time has elapsed. Unfortunately, this short sequel to One Good Hand fails to deliver much of anything except a brief walk down memory lane.

Told in 1st person from Spade’s POV, this is a short revisit in Spade and Ace’s lives together, almost a year after Ace won Spade in a poker game. Spade is an alien species, designed to be the perfect match for whoever owns him, and in the first book, proved he was the right partner for Ace when their bond was solidified. Spade meets another of his kind who has been looking for them ever since they crashed fifteen years ago, but his intentions soon become evident. He thinks Ace will hurt Spade, so he’s determined to separate the two permanently by erasing their memories.

While I really enjoyed the first book, and often find this author very enjoyable, this story ultimately didn’t work for me. First of all, it relies too heavily on knowing its predecessor, with characterizations that tell more than show and too little attention breathing fresh life into them. Even recognizing it won’t work as a standalone, however, it becomes mired in its own over-romanticism and sentimentality. These guys are mushy from the very start, and it borders on nauseating because there’s just no ebb and flow to make their relationship feel real.

On top of that, we’re introduced to Ancel, another of Spade’s kind, who was defective and thus has other abilities that Spade doesn’t. He becomes this omnipotent force that threatens to come between Ace and Spade, but his conflict is introduced too late in the story for it to have much impact, not to mention I had very little opportunity to really get to know him as a character before the threats began. Maybe if he’d seemed more genuine or if I’d known him better, I wouldn’t have been as annoyed by what felt like manufactured conflict.

In all fairness, I think this short novella would do best with readers who were highly invested in the couple as based on their first story and really want to see something – anything – with them again. Otherwise, I’d pass.


7/10 – Overly romantic and too repetitive to be a quick read

Hero #1

5/10 – Even though we’re in his POV, I felt I knew him better in the first book than this one

Hero #2

6/10 – His constant indecision and fear were grating

Entertainment value

4/10 – Doesn’t work as a standalone at all

World building

5/10 – Too much is left unexplained, new readers won’t get it easily