Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Synthetic Dreams by Kim Knox

TITLE: Synthetic Dreams
AUTHOR: Kim Knox
PUBLISHER: Carina
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 34k)
GENRE: Cyberpunk romance
COST: $3.59

In the world of creating illegal glamour, Vyn is one of the best. She has to be. Scarred as a child, she was forced to wear glamours in order to fit in with her upper crust surroundings. All of that changed when she was caught selling her illegal wares and shipped off to a district known for its hackers and threats. But now, she’s created the most valuable piece of tech there is. Everybody will want a piece of her if they ever find out, including the high-level security guy who almost catches her when she’s testing it…

If there’s one thing this author loves to do, it’s create dense new worlds for a reader to explore. The problem is, her stories aren’t always long enough to really take full advantage of them.

This one is no exception. The reader is thrown headlong into a world where the virtual is as real as reality. Vyn is testing her newest tech, something called a simulacrum, to see whether it can pass inspection. She runs into a security guy who introduces himself as Paul, but when it becomes obvious he’s starting to see through her mask, she decides to leave. She needs a diversion, and thinking quickly, kisses the guy. She never expects him to kiss her back, but she manages to get out with her mask intact. Back in the real world, she ventures out at dusk for some coffee, but after surviving the dangerous trip back to her apartment, she finds Paul in her apartment, announcing he knows full well who and what she is. Seconds later, he tells her the only way she’s going to survive the night is by trusting him. She has no choice but to do so when security storms her apartment and destroys everything non-organic.

Thus begins a night of harrowing action, as Paul sucks Vyn into a world more complex than she’d ever imagined. I can’t explain it. By the time I was comfortable enough with the societal constructs and technology the author had created, the story was two-thirds done, and I’m pretty sure that if I tried to explain it now, I’d just make a mess of it. It’s cyberpunk, though, which should give the reader a starting point. From the start, Paul is practically perfect in a lethal kind of way, which turns out to be his major failing as an interesting character. By the time he starts showing chinks in his armor, most of the story is gone. He’s enigmatic to a flaw, and because of that, I never really bought into his feelings in the last couple chapters.

Vyn is a little bit better, but her characterization suffers in a different way. She’s thrust into the action so early, and the pace is so unrelenting, there’s no real chance to discover what she might be like on a normal basis. I certainly didn’t get a lot of what Paul claimed to know. I had to take his word for it rather than see or experience it for myself. This, too, worked to distance me from the romance.

But there’s enough fascinating action going on that I was okay with not being that invested in the romance. I needed to see it play out, especially once I was really clued into how it all worked. The story hurtles along at a breathtaking speed, leaving little room for anything but strapping in. As a reader, I just had to find a way to survive (much like Vyn with Paul’s driving). And even with my reservations about the romantic angle, I’m likely to be there the next time this author has a new title. She’s one of the few I’ve read who consistently come up with complex, interesting worlds. That’s worth it.

Readability

8/10 – Dense world building really holds this back because there’s just so much going on that it forces the reader to slow down and sometimes even backtrack to catch it all

Hero

6/10 – Too enigmatic to be truly sympathetic

Heroine

7/10 – So much action goes on, there’s little opportunity to learn of these qualities Paul is intrigued by

Entertainment value

7/10 – Getting a firm handle of the world beneath my belt slowed down getting into the tight action of this

World building

8/10 – It needed better descriptions earlier in the story to make it easier to get sucked into, but still love the nihilism of it all

TOTAL:

36/50

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Locker Room by Amy Lane

TITLE: The Locker Room
AUTHOR: Amy Lane
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 85k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $6.99

Xander Karcek loves two things in this world – basketball and Chris Edwards. Both saved him from a neglectful home and a potential life on the skids. But being gay and being a prominent athlete don’t seem to go hand in hand. Chris and Xander are forced to keep their relationship under wraps, even though it’s slowly killing both of them…

This was one of those books that hooked me from the start, but increasing problems as it progressed ended up making me wish I hadn’t spent the time on it.

With a druggie, neglectful mother, Xander is literally starving to death when he meets Chris Edwards on a local basketball court. When Chris’s mother allows the new friend to come home for dinner, the start of a deep, lasting relationship takes root. Chris and Xander are inseparable, and as their athletic careers progress, so do their feelings for each other. They realize they’re in love before they graduate from high school, but their positions as popular sports figures, especially in light of their desires to go pro, keep them private, through college and then on to the pros when they beat the odds and get signed by the same team.

I loved Xander at the start of the story. He’s fighting horrific odds and somehow has the humility and strength to not realize just how hard he’s fighting. Chris literally saves his life by reaching out to him on that basketball court, a connection both Xander and I as a reader recognize. Since the story is told in Xander’s perspective, it’s very easy to get sucked into his pain.

However, those feelings started to ebb about a third into the story, for two very different reasons. First of all, the author is far too much in love with parentheticals for me. One or two are interesting, but more than that and I find the whole stylistic device too contrived and cutesy to stay immersed within the text. They do dwindle down as the story progresses, but there were whole sections where there were multiple parentheticals within single paragraphs. It’s disruptive to my reading experience because contrary to how I’m sure the author intends, it feels like the author has pulled me aside to whisper this little aside in my ear rather than the character doing it. That constant reminder, that sense of over-friendly “let me tell you this little bit,” was enough to destroy how deeply rooted I was within the story.

The second issue stems from the story itself. While I was initially enraptured by how much in love these two guys were, the heavy, heavy melodrama surrounding them grew too unreal to believe. All the conflict is external to these two, which is more than fine as long as that conflict is organic. But there is no middle ground with these two. They’re either flying higher than a kite, or they’re vomiting over the choices they have to make. It’s too extreme for me, and by halfway through, I felt like I had an ulcer, too. Toss in the fact that all the women surrounding them lack nuances, all worshiping at the altar of Xander, and I realized I just couldn’t relate to any of these people as believable enough to get past the other shortcomings.

I’ve heard so many readers exclaim how much they love this author, so I wanted to give her a try, but I can see now that her style is not going to be one I’ll be able to enjoy. The angst levels are too extreme, and the heroes too idealized. But at least now I know.

Readability

7/10 – The overuse of parentheticals and italics exacerbate the story’s over-the-topness

Hero #1

7/10 – His anguished, insecure strength was appealing, but it becomes increasingly unrealistic as the story progresses

Hero #2

5/10 – Too idealized to ever really believe

Entertainment value

6/10 – I was actually really enjoying this, but the constant over-the-top melodrama proved too much

World building

8/10 – The sports element is well incorporated and feels mostly authentic, while the rest of it suffers from extremes

TOTAL:

33/50

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Last Night by Nico Rosso

TITLE: The Last Night
AUTHOR: Nico Rosso
PUBLISHER: Carina
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 40k)
GENRE: Horror erotic romance
COST: $3.59

The world is not like it was. Earthquakes have torn apart the earth’s center, releasing toxins into the air that have changed some people to monsters of stone who eat ash. Those who survived hide away, trying not to become the next victims, but resources are scarce and the monsters can’t be killed. Erica has banded together with a group of others, hiding away in a ruined hotel, determined to fight as long as possible. The despair that takes over so many seems like it might have a reprieve when a man on a motorcycle shows up in the middle of a fight, with weapons that actually leave the monsters for dead. Erica wants to learn how he does it, but Jake isn’t willing to give up his only bargaining chip for free. At least, until he realizes that maybe he doesn’t have to fight alone anymore…

This is not your typical romance. No flowery language, no prolonged dwelling on emotions. It might not be to everybody’s taste, but man, it sure was to mine.

The story starts out with Erica on the cusp of another fight. Night is beginning to fall, and the ashers, the name they’ve given the ash-eating stone-fleshed monsters that some humans mutated to, are attacking. Nothing kills them, but they do what they can to hold them back until they get tired or look for easier prey. In the middle of yet another night of this, an unknown man on a motorcycle drives into the scene, swinging blows left and right that take down the monsters. His name is Jake, and he’s discovered a way to kill them. He offers the information at a trade – he needs supplies just as much as the next person – and his mercenary ways really turn Erica off. There’s a connection between them, though, a recognition of fighter to fighter, and eventually Jake shows Erica the trick anyway. He decides to spend the night, but his bike has opened up a possibility for her that she’s desperate to realize.

The first thing the reader will notice is the author’s terse style. Sentences are short, usually simple, and dwell on the visceral rather than the cerebral. That doesn’t work for every kind of story – it certainly didn't for the first story I read by this author a year ago – but it does for this post-apocalyptic horror one. It creates an urgency both in the action and the emotions, and it worked to suck me into each moment as it played out within the plot.

It also helped to put me straight into Erica and Jake’s shoes. They are the fighting spirit of this, those that don’t want to dwell on what they’ve lost but instead find a way to survive in this new world order. These are the doers, the ones that legends are created about, and together, they form the core of what turns the tide for this small band of humans. I loved how the basis of Jake’s feelings for Erica stems from how brilliant she is fighting. He saw straight to the heart of her, more than anybody else ever did. Erica, on the other hand, was far more guarded about her emotions and trusting Jake as explicitly as he did her. The give and take of this brief acquaintance as it blazed into something hotter was a treat to watch.

My only quibbles come toward the end where I found it a little predictable as to what would happen. I won’t spoil, but there was one moment of discord between Jake and Erica that had me thinking, “Oh, please don’t have him…” and then he went and did the predictable thing I wished he hadn’t (not because it didn’t make sense or was a bad move but that it felt a little trite considering how unpredictable it had been up to that point). I wondered last year if the author’s voice would come across better with a better editor, and I think this proves it will. It still won't work well for less action-oriented stuff, but for this particular story, it was more than enough.

Readability

8/10 – A terse, no-nonsense voice seems atypical for the genre, but works in this context

Hero

8/10 – Love that what he loves about her is her fight not just her looks

Heroine

8/10 – Honorable when she doesn’t even know it, a real fighter

Entertainment value

8/10 – Honestly, got so wrapped up in it all that it gave me nightmares

World building

9/10 – Dark, visceral, and horrifying

TOTAL:

41/50

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gridlock by Nathalie Gray

TITLE: Gridlock
AUTHOR: Nathalie Gray
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 27k)
GENRE: Cyberpunk romance
COST: $3.50

In a world where machines are in charge, Steel does what she can to survive. On what should be her last job to earn the money she needs to escape for good, a dangerous ex gets in the way. She tries to fight her way out, but she’s outnumbered…at least until the man known only as The Cardinal shows up and promptly kills all but one of them. Steel tries to get away, too, but when she accidentally sees his face, he makes it clear that he doesn’t leave loose ends…

I love Nathalie Gray. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Which is exactly how I started my review of the last title I read by her, but since there aren’t that many authors who fall under this category, I’m letting my repetition slide.

This novella is another example of her gritty, action-paced style. Steel is a pierced, tattooed, fierce young woman, living on her own, watching her back, existing outside the Grid’s influence because she never got one of the implants that most humans now have. She’s trying to save enough money to escape the hellhole she grew up in, and this last job running drugs should be it. Then her psychotic ex Six shows up with his gang. He’s dangerous and unpredictable, and as soon as he spots her, she knows there’s going to be trouble. Though she tries to get away, getting in more than a few hard blows herself, she gets pinned and is on the brink of being raped when a stranger appears on the train. The men recognize him as the Cardinal, a lethal vigilante. The Cardinal proceeds to kill almost all of them, two without ever touching them. Steel tries to escape at the end, but when she inadvertently sees his face, he tells her he can’t leave a witness.

The ride explodes from there, vaulting the reader into one action scene after another, as Steel learns more about this enigmatic man. I could describe more of him, but that would spoil much of the surprise. This novella is too short for me to risk that. I will say that I loved the dichotomy he presents, the soft-spoken, courtly manners in contrast to the killing machine he really is, and that I was rooting for him even before we got into his perspective. Steel fares even better. She has Gray’s typical iron core, reacting in purely human ways without ever looking weak (I can't even begin to describe how much I loved her ultimate confrontation with Six), but through it is this thread of vulnerability that had me hoping for her happy ending as well.

The pace and writing are exemplary, fight scenes well choreographed, the editing clean. But hidden with the action are gems like this, "Her life was a garden of broken little moments." It's lyrical without sacrificing the story's style, and completely encapsulates Steel's character in less than ten words. It's something else to love about this author.

My sole complaint seems to be my typical one when it comes to Gray’s work. It’s too short. She’s so busy creating characters I love in worlds that fascinate me, the story is over just as it feels like it’s beginning. I want more, damn it. There aren’t enough authors out there who write these kind of down-and-dirty heroines or tougher-than-nails heroes in such action-tight sequences. When it comes to Gray, I’m just greedy.

Readability

9/10 – Combines relentless action with some fantastic turns of phrase

Hero

8/10 – An enigma in all the best ways

Heroine

9/10 – Smart, determined, and still heartbreakingly vulnerable

Entertainment value

9/10 – Tense with a streak of innocence straight through the middle of all the nihilism

World building

8/10 – Crisp, sharp details that would’ve been perfect if we’d only had a novel to explore them all in

TOTAL:

43/50

Monday, February 20, 2012

Out on the Net by Rick R. Reed

TITLE: Out on the Net
AUTHOR: Rick R. Reed
PUBLISHER: Amber Allure
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 18k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary romance
COST: $5.00

Ray Tolliver realizes on the day he’s supposed to get married that he’s gay, so he calls off the wedding…at which point, he begins blogging about his experiences in hopes someone else might be able to learn from his choices…

This short novella is comprised of a series of blogs written by recently out Ray Tolliver. It starts with his wedding day, where he finally admits to himself that he’s gay. His best friend Doug agrees to cover for him when he wants to call it off, at which point, Ray sets out recording his new life. He’s a virgin to gay sex, so his first entries are about the local rest stop notorious for gay hook-ups and his adjustment to being single again. They progress from there to his first date and beyond.

The appeal here is in the chatty nature of the author’s voice. It reads much faster than 18k, which works both for and against it. In the case of the former, it meant getting sucked in and finishing it before I knew it. For the latter, however, I got done and wondered, “That seemed a little easy.” I liked Ray, and I liked the window I got into his life, but without getting more depth into the resolution, I didn’t really buy it. I also wondered why Doug, the best friend who took the brunt of an angry bride and wedding party, never even got a mention after the first chapter. For someone who was so supportive and helpful, I would’ve thought Ray would look to him to for moral support at the very least. But no, Doug is just gone after that.

There are fourteen blog entries, but they lack dates to know just how much time has passed between each one. It’s sometimes easy to pick up on it, but not always. However, in spite of these flaws, the peeks we get into Ray’s life are entertaining and authentic. Reed proves his finesse with multiple genres here, ensuring I’ll keep coming back to his titles, regardless of what he decides to tackle next.

Readability

8/10 – Chatty and breezy, though sometimes the dialogue felt unnatural

Hero #1

8/10 – Believable and sweet

Hero #2

4/10 – This is where I had problems with the dialogue, I never really believed him

Entertainment value

7/10 – Liked the format and the freshness of the protagonist

World building

7/10 – A strong balance of details within the blogs

TOTAL:

34/50

Friday, February 17, 2012

Raw Heat by Charlotte Stein

TITLE: Raw Heat
AUTHOR: Charlotte Stein
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 21k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $4.45

In a world where the werewolves have won and the humans have been driven underground, Serena Kent is a nurse assigned to watch over one of their captive wolves. She’s been enamored with his size and calm nature ever since he was brought in, but consorting with them is grounds for the incinerator. It doesn’t help that he becomes her friend, but when she makes the bold move to touch him when he’s obviously aroused one day, everything changes…

This is going to go down as one of my guilty pleasure books. Because it’s a quickie, erotic read that might not deconstruct well upon finishing, but damn, did it have me going as I was reading it.

There is no foreplay. The very beginning of the book thrusts the reader into Serena’s perspective as she realizes the werewolf she’s been tending to for the past year is aroused as she’s washing him down. She’s been fighting her own attraction to him, and in the heat of the moment, helps him get off. It changes the dynamic between them, breaking down a wall that had been there. Connor is unlike most of the other werewolves the humans have captured, surviving longer, never going feral. He’s also in love with Serena, but the last thing he wants is to hurt her. She’s having none of that, though. Now that the barriers between them are down, she wants everything she can get.

I got sucked into this almost from the start. The prose has a sultry, breathless quality to it, and the heroine’s perspective is tense and hungry right out of the gate. Since she’s also obviously someone a reader can sympathize with – a nurse who doesn’t necessarily see all the bad in the werewolves, unlike her best friend Tara who takes glee in torturing them – I abandoned reservations and threw myself into the moment with her, anticipating my questions about the world they inhabit and the characters they are to be answered afterward.

Those didn’t really come. Connor is an archetype, the strong yet honorable savage trapped in circumstances beyond his control, while Serena never really fleshes out beyond her feelings for Connor and her disdain for what is going on among her co-workers. The world is left somewhat unexplored as well. I learned the basics of what is going on – wolves above ground, humans below – with a few details thrown in for good measure, but I never really felt immersed into the setting to feel like I was completely there.

But here’s the thing. Mostly, I didn’t care. Connor’s a type, sure, but, well, that one tends to be one of my bulletproof kinks. I adored him, regardless of the fact that I don’t think I ever really knew him, and when things go dark in the latter third of the story, I cheered him on. The prose and story length go a long way in compensating for these other shortcomings, as well. I wonder if it had been longer, with the same relative lack of explanations, if I would have been less enamored with it. I honestly don’t know.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. This worked to entrance me for its short duration, and I cheered at the ending. I can’t really ask for more.

Readability

8/10 – Sultry and breathless

Hero

8/10 – Do I think he’s that realistic? No. Did I fall for his strong but silent & honorable type anyway? Oh yeah.

Heroine

6/10 – Wanted more depth to her since it was her POV, but she served her function well

Entertainment value

8/10 – In spite of its simplicity, I got sucked into the sensuality, forbidden nature of this novella

World building

7/10 – Fascinating details, but a lot gets unexplored in favor of the erotica

TOTAL:

37/50

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Boot Hill Bride by Lauri Robinson

TITLE: Boot Hill Bride
AUTHOR: Lauri Robinson
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 76k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $5.50

Desperate to escape her politician father and stepmother, Randi Fulton runs to her aunt, only to have to run yet again when her presence risks discovery. She takes refuge in a tent outside the construction of a new hotel in Dodge City, but its owner, Howard Quinter, comes home in the middle of the night. They’re discovered in bed together the next morning by both sets of parents, at which point Ma Skeeter demands a wedding. The two are wed, and Howard vows to protect Randi from her terrible father and his schemes to be the next governor…

I don’t end up following a lot of series. I can’t come into a series in the middle, so if I miss the first book, unless I end up discovering the author with a different title, I just won’t go back and get it. Frankly, there are too many books out there to try. This Quinter Brides series has been an odd duck for me, but I’m not quite ready to give upon it yet.

Howard Quinter is the third brother to get forced into a shotgun wedding at the hands of his strong-willed mother. His bride is runaway Randi Fulton, the daughter of the man running for governor representing the Populist party. She tried to escape being sold off to marry a much older man by going to her aunt in Dodge City, but her aunt works in a whorehouse, and when her presence is in risk of discovery, she takes refuge in Howard’s tent. Neither wants to be married, but when Howard sees how awful her father is, he lets his argument go. Besides, there’s no saying no to Ma when she gets a bee in her bonnet. She vows to do anything she can to help Howard get his hotel up and running, and when it turns out she loves to cook as much as he does, it looks like a match made in heaven.

This book had one of the stronger starts of this series yet. I’ve had issues in the past with poor editing, but this didn’t suffer from it. Randi was taking charge of her future, Howard was appropriately honorable, and Ma and the rest of the gang were as entertaining as ever. I was charmed and reading with a huge smile on my face. The prose is never very sophisticated and the plotting was simplistic, but that’s not the appeal in this series. It’s the characters, and I was rather enamored with who I was meeting/getting reacquainted with.

But then I realized Randi wasn’t living up to the strong introduction she’d gotten. The woman who’d taken charge of her destiny became this crying mess, breaking down in every other scene. She had zero self-esteem and it showed. I grew very weary of her constant soppy attitude, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Howard remained a strong, noble presence, I would’ve stopped.

On top of that, the cleaner editing of the beginning disappeared halfway through. It started with verb tenses slipping, present coming in where everything has been and should have remained past. Then came the misspellings, more and more the closer I got to the ending. Combine that with Randi who remained a wet rag until the last few pages of the book (and no, one last scene of strength isn’t enough to counter nearly 70k of wimpiness/crying), as well as the sweetness morphing into chapter upon chapter of sappiness, and my enjoyment diminished.

Will I read the next book? Probably. Am I in a hurry to pick it up? No. I want to love these stories, and I do with parts of them, but the weaknesses keep cropping up. If the Quinter boys weren’t so entertaining, it would be a lot easier to quit. But I kind of still love them, so…yeah, I’ll pick the next one up. At some point.

Readability

6/10 – What started out promising gradually deteriorated in regards to simple mistakes, which, combined with the added sap, dragged it down even more

Hero

8/10 – The saving grace, strong and heroic

Heroine

4/10 – Too damsel in distress for me, her constant crying got to be a joke by the end of the story

Entertainment value

6/10 – I was enamored with this for the first third, but as soon as the editorial issues and Randi’s crying tendencies set in, became much less so

World building

8/10 – The one thing about the Quinter books is that I always feel like I’m there

TOTAL:

32/50

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bust #2

I can't say I'm surprised it happened again that I'd try two stories and not have a review to show for it. So many menages are mislabeled, it's statistically logical it'll happen often enough on Mondays.

This week, I tried The Highest Bidder by Kimberly Hunter, but when Renji, the dominant hero, a successful business worth millions, is calling the young man he's known less than a day and spoken to mostly while the man was under the influence of drugs his soulmate, I knew it wasn't going to work for me. Maybe I should've suspended my disbelief enough not to care that someone so intelligent and capable would be so over-the-top romantic and unrealistic, but...yeah, I couldn't. This one was a big DNF.

So next I tried a menage, Sinful by Raina James. It's marketed as a menage from Siren, but in reality, it's a het erotic romance with the hero and heroine partaking in a menage right at the very end. Yes, it includes m/m contact, but it's a token curiosity on the part of the hero. He loves her, they get an HEA without the third anywhere in sight, and I'm sorry, but that doesn't constitute a menage romance. Not to me, anyway.

Hopefully, I'll only have one bust day a month. That wouldn't be asking too much, would it? Well. Maybe it would.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lying Eyes by Amy Atwell

TITLE: Lying Eyes
AUTHOR: Amy Atwell
PUBLISHER: Carina
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 103k)
GENRE: Contemporary romantic suspense
COST: $5.39

Jewelry designer/store owner Iris Fortune is trying to lead a normal, stable life, but her magician father keeps finding ways of disrupting it. His latest scheme involves mythological Russian gems, a thief named Mickey who makes her heart pound more than her lawyer fiancĂ©, a strong-willed rabbit named Edgar, and oh yeah, two half sisters she never knew she had…

There is so much going on in this romantic suspense, it’s almost tough to know where to start. The premise at the beginning is simple enough. Mickey, a hired thug, snatches Cosmo, an aging magician, because he hasn’t followed through on his end of a corrupt business deal. It’s up to Mickey to find the gems Cosmo was supposed to turn over, except Cosmo manages to get away. Mickey then goes to Cosmos’s daughter Iris, the owner of a jewelry store at the Bellagio, to see if she knows anything. Iris is engaged to a lawyer with political aspirations, a boring, safe choice to counter the less than predictable life she had growing up. Iris gets a call from her security company about an unauthorized entry, and when she realizes it has to be Cosmo, lies to protect him. Thus starts a long, convoluted race to find the gems Cosmo is withholding.

The problem isn’t that the plot isn’t interesting. It certainly is. The problem rests in just how many people get involved in it. Right away, we’re thrown into the thick of things, because in addition to Mickey and Iris, there’s Hunter the cop, Allie and Cory (Iris’s half-sisters), the other thugs Mickey works with, Turner the hitman, and the Boss who’s behind it at all. By the story’s end, we get even more characters. It’s not just trying to keep them all straight. There are scenes in so many different POVs (only one per scene most of the time, thank god), that it’s often hard to make emotional connections to any of them.

Thankfully, enough time is spent with Mickey and Iris to recognize them as the central pairing. Mickey is charmingly roguish and capable of pulling Iris out of her safe little shell. She’s intelligent and just wary enough to be believable, but I did feel that she got lost in the shuffle quite often. They have strong chemistry, and I loved how he was able to get her to relax.

Between all this, however, are scenes that often drag on too long (seriously, losing Edgar in the gardens lasted forever), and some that seemed completely extraneous altogether. I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it had been more tightly focused, rather than allowed to ramble on where it did. It worked to keep me guessing as to what would happen next, but beyond that, I was left fairly unsatisfied.

Readability

7/10 – Clean editorially, but some scenes drag on for far too long and the huge cast does little but muddy the waters

Hero

7/10 – Charming and roguish

Heroine

7/10 – Has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle of more colorful characters, but nothing awful about her

Entertainment value

7/10 – This would’ve ranked higher if certain parts had dragged it down

World building

9/10 – Extensive and fully realized

TOTAL:

37/50

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

And to All a Good Night by Kaje Harper

TITLE: And to All a Good Night
AUTHOR: Kaje Harper
PUBLISHER: Amazon
LENGTH: Short story
GENRE: Gay holiday romance
COST: Free

It’s Tony and Mac’s first Christmas, but they don’t get to spend it together…

When the het story I’d picked to review for today turned out be less than engaging, I decided to hell with my usual schedule and picked up this free short that follows up to the novel I reviewed yesterday. It’s currently free on Amazon, and follows a few months after the end of Life Lessons. Tony and Mac are still meeting in secret, though Mac spends every night at Tony’s apartment. Tony has to go home to Florida for Christmas, while Mac is hip-deep in police work, including a rather gruesome unsolved about an elderly man who died alone.

In a lot of ways, this is the anti-holiday story, melancholy in tone, separated heroes. Mac knows this is the way it has to be, but that doesn’t stop him from wishing otherwise. The same goes for Tony. Their relationship is fraught with all the tensions of something new, as well as the added issues of having to hide away. It’s real and gutsy, and therein lies the appeal here. This is all about loving these two guys and wanting to see how they’re handling their lives, the things they say to each other when the need is high. There’s a few info dumps about what has been going on that don’t read very smoothly, as well as some editorial glitches that hiccupped along the way, but I didn’t expect a whole lot from this self-published short. I wanted to spend time with Tony and Mac, and know they were going to be all right. That’s exactly what I got, with more than a few lovely moments to remember it by.

Readability

7/10 – Minor mistakes holds this back, though I love the guys enough not to mind too much

Hero #1

8/10 – His frustration bleeds through

Hero #2

8/10 – Caught in the prison of his creation, his angst is palpable

Entertainment value

7/10 – Though I loved this melancholy glimpse into their lives, it didn’t have quite the flow to get me deep into the story

World building

7/10 – It fills in holes, but I’m not convinced someone coming in cold would be able to understand the entire cast

TOTAL:

37/50

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Life Lessons by Kaje Harper

TITLE: Life Lessons
AUTHOR: Kaje Harper
PUBLISHER: MLR
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 88k)
GENRE: Gay mystery erotic romance
COST: $7.99

High school teacher Tony Hart stays late one night and ends up in the middle of a murder investigation when a stabbed co-worker literally falls against him. Detective MacLean begins keeping an eye on him, at first for the sake of the case, then because he can’t seem to stop thinking about the young teacher. When Tony’s life becomes endangered, the two men are thrust even closer together. They have to deal with the fact Mac is deeply closeted, as well as someone out there wants Tony dead…

Though closeted gay cops are plentiful in m/m romance, not all of them are worth reading about. Thankfully, this fell well onto the side of worth it.

English teacher Tony Hart has come back to the school late one Friday to pick up a box of books from his classroom. When the elevator doors open, a teacher he doesn’t really care for falls back into the car, and it takes Tony a moment to realize the man’s been stabbed. He calls 911, but the other teacher is dead before they arrive. Detective MacLean arrives as part of the investigation, and the two get off on the wrong foot since until they know better, Tony is their prime suspect. While Tony is out, Mac is deeply in the closet. Both of them fight their mutual attraction. When Tony is almost killed in a hit-and-run, their relationship escalates. But Mac has no desire to expose his sexuality, and there is still somebody out there who wants Tony dead.

While I love a good mystery, I almost gave up on this one in the first few chapters. Tony’s reaction to Mac at first is not a good one. He gets deliberately provocative in their initial scenes, and though he later laments that he’s acting like his friend Marty, it annoyed me to the point where I questioned how involved I could get if I disliked him so much already. I decided to stick it out, though, and am grateful I did. The belligerence Tony displayed at the start disappeared soon afterward, and I was able to fall into the slow evolution of their romance.

And slow it is. These two don’t fall into bed together. Mac is deeply in the closet, and Tony thinks he’s a straight widower. Both fight their attractions, and as they do so, it succeeds in tightening the tension. Much of the focus is actually on the crime and investigation, with romantic scenes ancillary to that. These are done with a deft hand, detailed and believable, and gradually build the suspense of just what exactly happened with the dead teacher. Mac is thorough and competent, without being perfect, while Tony makes enough mistakes to buy into his procedural ignorance. Even after the romance moves to another level, the murder isn’t forgotten. That noose only tightens further, leading into the explosive last fourth that hurtles the reader toward the end.

I don’t have many misgivings regarding this novel. By the story’s end, I loved both men, though I didn’t completely accept that Tony was as young as I was told he was. The story’s HFN worked for me, too, since it’s made abundantly clear throughout the story that Mac is never going to come out of the closet. It’s more realistic than I would find in a lot of m/m, and I appreciated that. It also succeeded in doing something a lot of stories don’t. It drove me to the publisher’s website to see what else the author has done. I will be reading the sequel to this, as well as the free short I picked up on Amazon. I’m looking forward to what life has in store for these two guys.

Readability

9/10 – Tight action, strong balance of plot and characters, I couldn’t stop

Hero #1

7/10 – I didn’t care for him at the start, and didn’t completely buy his youth

Hero #2

8/10 – I loved the dark conflict within him

Entertainment value

9/10 – The first thing I did when I was done was go looking for more, always an excellent sign

World building

9/10 – Excellent detail on the cop end, highly believable

TOTAL:

42/50

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dark Revenge by Jennifer Leeland

TITLE: Dark Revenge
AUTHOR: Jennifer Leeland
PUBLISHER: Ellora’s Cave
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 86k)
GENRE: Sci-fi BDSM erotic romance
COST: $6.99

When Commander Alex Zeerah gets intercepted on her latest mission, she’s ready to self-destruct rather than be taken prisoner by the captain, the only man she ever had feelings for, the one man she can’t have because of his exile from her home planet. Tory Ingle fought at Alex’s side for years, but he’s spent the last five planning out his revenge on how to clear his name from the treason he was convicted of. Part of that plan includes claiming Alex as his mate, but he’s entirely unprepared for how strong the attraction still is between them. They barely have time to rediscover each other before the threat of civil war looms over their home planet. It’ll take both of them to save the universe…

Yes, I know it’s an EC book so that means a lot of sex. But is it so much to ask that it work with the rest of the story?

It starts off very quickly. Alex is transporting important but unknown cargo for her king when she is intercepted by Tory, her ex-partner in the military and the man she saw exiled from their home planet five years ago. Rather than kill him or let her cargo be taken, she sets the self-destruct, an act he is somehow capable of overriding. He takes her prisoner and demands the rite to claim her as his Saria, an act of claiming a sole member of an offending bloodline to settle revenge. Once this is completed, he chooses her as his mate and restrains her to a rack in his quarters. The sex that follows reminds Alex of everything she could have had if she’d left with him as he’d begged her to do five years ago, but there’s little time to consider the what ifs when the political environment she left behind becomes even more charged. She was never intended to survive her mission, and the cargo she’d been transporting had a far deadlier purpose than she’d ever known. Tory knows much of the truth, however, and he’s determined to put a halt to the wars that are on the horizon.

From there, the book tangles into a complicated blend of interplanetary politics and action, ultimately offering a fresh and fascinating take on zombies. The problem with that is that I had to muddle through the first half to get to the much more interesting second. The success of their attempts to stop everything hinges on the relationship between Alex and Tory, though that’s not made clear while all the sex is going on. Instead, I had to sit through chapters of stop and start pacing as I’d learn an interesting tidbit about the world then have to sit through yet another sex session. Tory is into control and pain, and Alex finds out the first time he touches her she likes it, but I’m told all this at the start rather than learning it from the characters, and with so little time to get to really know them and feel comfortable in the environment, I read their scenes far more detached than I should have been. They’re not badly written – for an EC book, it’s remarkably clean editorially – but without caring a little bit more for them, they just felt like they were getting in the way of the real story.

Because there’s a lot of story to tell here. The author has taken great pains to create a layered, complex universe, with a broad spectrum of characters in varying Machiavellian roles, and it takes too long to be comfortable in their skins for this to be as effective as it should be. Once Tory and Alex stop having sex as their primary function, the novel hurtles forward into the action plot, engaging me far more as I tried to figure that out than any of the sex did. It gave me a different, fresh perspective on zombies – which I admit are not my thing, as I tend to automatically give zombie books a pass when I’m looking at new releases – and I ended up wishing that more of the book had paid attention to that so I could have enjoyed it more. That’s not to say it doesn’t try. It just happens too late in the story for it to really work well.

The two leads are appropriately strong, though I do have reservations about both. Alex, in particular, lost some of her appeal when various twists toward the end only happen by undermining her strength (by being things she has never seen, which I found highly implausible considering her military career). Much of that is mitigated by a strong secondary cast, however. Jezar in particular fascinates me, so complex, and though I might not have enjoyed this book as much as I wanted to, if there’s a sequel with him (which it really reads like there will be more to follow this), I’ll be all over it.

In the end, this was a book of missed opportunities, because really, I should have loved this from the start. It just needed a better balance between the romance/sex and the plot to work. If Jezar gets his own story, I hope that balance is found.

Readability

7/10 – Dense political maneuvering gets eclipsed too early by copious sex scenes, muddying the plot and ease of reading for too long

Hero

6/10 – While I liked him, I never really felt his baser, more dominant tendencies were fully fleshed

Heroine

7/10 – For the most part, smart and resourceful, it was just her blindness to so much towards the end that got annoying

Entertainment value

6/10 – This could’ve been so much higher if the first half hadn’t been so poorly paced

World building

8/10 – A lot of thought went into creating the worlds, but not quite enough to make sure it was conveyed cleanly

TOTAL:

34/50

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sexual Persuasion by Maryn Sinclair

TITLE: Sexual Persuasion
AUTHOR: Maryn Sinclair
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 62k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $6.99

When Charlotte Stone first spotted Alex Andros, she didn’t know he was the lawyer for one of the most dangerous men in Boston or rumored to be his lover. She only knew the reaction she had to him – instant, chemical, dangerous. She’s prepared to take her friend’s advice and avoid him, but when her ex corners outside of the party, Alex is the one who rides in for the rescue. He wants her to come to her own conclusion about him, outside of what she’d heard, but Charlotte is reluctant, at least until her ex decides to try blackmailing her into coming back to him…

I had such high expectations for this book after the first sizzling chapter. But this is one example of things going steadily downhill.

Charlotte owns an upscale furnishing store and attends an auction with hopes of winning some art work to sell. There, she runs into her ex, a man who did various BDSM things to her while she slept the last night they were together. She tries to get away, but ends up getting rescued by the gorgeous stranger who’d been watching her since her arrival. His name is Alex Andros, and he’s the attorney to one of Boston’s top racketeers. He’s also rumored to be the man’s lover, but Charlotte finds it very hard to believe he’s gay after the way he looks at her. She brushes him off, but when her friend has to leave her to get a ride home by herself, Alex comes to the rescue again. They spend a pleasant evening having drinks, only to have Charlotte come face to face with her ex again once Alex drops her off. Charlotte barely escapes being raped, and calls Alex for help. Drawn to Charlotte already, Alex knows he has to do whatever he can to get the ex off her back.

The sexual tension in this story crackles from the very start. My first reaction was that it was too intense too soon, and I almost gave up on it, but I got too sucked in by Alex’s charisma and the chemistry between the pair to stop. I read avidly, drinking it all in even through the near-rape. It all started to fall apart for me, however, once Alex and Charlotte consummated their attraction. The sex scenes didn’t work for me nearly as well as the tension and plottier scenes, and gradually, my interest dwindled. I grew tired of hearing just how terrific Charlotte’s breasts are (they’re very large, very natural, and apparently worshiped by all men who see them), as well as the over the top dialogue and certain terminology (the author has a propensity for using the word “hole” too much during sex scenes). It would ebb when they’d return to their tense, non-sexual scenes, but not for long.

It’s also not helped at all that the big conflict in this is Alex’s absolute refusal to share anything personal about himself. Well, that’s not entirely true. I can understand that kind of reaction if what he’s refusing to share is so truly awful. But he’s ultimately hiding an affair that he had in college with a man. He already neither confirms nor denies his bisexuality to the public or Charlotte. I just never understood why it was such a big deal that this one relationship remain such a mystery except to create artificial drama.

This spiral downwards accelerates at the end, with an added twist (that wasn’t really a twist) that came out of nowhere to give Charlotte something to misunderstand and both of them something to hash out. It turned the entire last scene into something completely unbelievable, and there, the chemistry that had saved much of the story for me already, was gone completely. The last few paragraphs are unexpectedly abrupt and crass considering what’s been going on (I mean, really, she calls it making love to Alex’s face but then turns around and in the big romantic moment tells her employees she’s going upstairs to fuck?!? Um, no.), and I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth. It’s such a shame, too, because there was such genuine heat and allure in the first third of the book. It just fizzled when they actually came together.

Readability

7/10 – I had a much easier time with the tension than the sex scenes or later dialogue

Hero

6/10 – The longer it took for him to discuss what happened, the less I liked him

Heroine

5/10 – Other than her physical attributes, I never understood what the appeal was

Entertainment value

5/10 – The tension that crackled at the beginning wasn’t followed through in the sex scenes or overplayed ending

World building

6/10 – More was needed to give the villain any kind of depth or believe Alex’s reputation

TOTAL:

29/50