Monday, February 28, 2011

Three Umbrellas: Bond With Me by Anne Marsh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a freebie friday offer for the nook, and let me just say how awesome it is that B&N put this on offer as it is far outside what I would consider mainstream fiction. This is paranormal erotic romance set in a dystopian future of 2090 in post-apocalyptic Moscow (now M City). If you are looking for an unusual read, this is it. And if you love Kresley Cole, JR Ward, and paranormal fiction generally, you will love this book and undoubtedly rate it much higher than I. I only read a little paranormal fiction, so I'm not this book's target audience. The writing here is very strong with crisp, deep POV and characterization. She deftly manages six POV characters and two interwoven romances along with the overarching plot of finding out which fallen angel gone rogue is targeting other fallen angels and human women. Yes, angels: The Archangel Michael had thousands of angels banished to earth to live as goblins--half man half beast unless they could find their soul mate. No angel has found a soul mate in 3,000 years--instead they feed their hunger for their missing souls by offering human women the chance to have any favor they want granted in exchange for a little (or very big depending on the favor) chunk of their soul. Marsh did a very good job laying this backstory out and crafting a unique world. The things that limited my enjoyment are probably the same things that true paranormal lovers would love: I didn't like how the hero set out to seduce the heroine out of her soul rather ruthlessly, intending to succeed at all costs. I also felt like the heroine's feelings towards the hero shifted too abruptly. I also didn't like the strange exhibitionist nature of the bonding ritual which was sprung on the two women at the last minute--others would probably really love these scenes as it came down to taste. And finally, I don't really like love scenes where the paranormal "other" shifts into their beastly form for the love scene--just doesn't work for me personally. Again, very moving, well-written scenes, but my insides were all a quiver and not for a good reason! In sum, if you love sexy paranormals, be sure to check this out as I don't think you will be disappointed!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Five Umbrellas for Healing Hearts by Taryn Kincaid

Want a quick Saturday afternoon read? Taryn Kincaid's got just the thing, and this gothic novella is practically begging for a rainy day, crackling fire, and cup of strong English tea.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. It is darn near impossible to write a complex, emotionally satisfying love story with a real conflict in a mere 74 pages, but somehow Kincaid pulls it off, and for that alone, I have to salute her. If you enjoy slightly gothic regencies, like Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series or Samantha James's or Shirley Karr's work, you will enjoy this tale of a young woman confronting the man she spent most of her life idolizing, but now blames for the death of her twin brother. With vivid details of the sea swept landscape and impoverished manor house, I felt like I had slipped into a delicious Victorian tale. I can only hope that the Bronte fairy dust extends to Kincaid attempting a full-length historical. If I have a quibble with this tale, it's that it really deserved to be a full-length novel. With an angst-ridden conflict, Dickens-esque villain, tortured hero, and beautifully wrought prose, this had more than enough material to carry a book, and as such, it felt like heroine's rapid shift from hating hero to remembering why she once loved him to forgiving him was a bit rushed. Kincaid made it work, but I would have loved to see this play out on a larger scale. Heroine's anger was a force to be reckoned with, and the description of her emotional state was exceptionally well-done. If Kincaid continues to grow her craft, I predict that she will be formidable addition to the historical aisle with her unique gothic-tinged voice and vivid descriptive writing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: RiverTime by Rae Renzi

I'm so happy with today's Five Umbrella Friday read--it's Debut Author Rae Renzi (thank you Netgalley for the discovery!), and not only is she a fabulous new find for me, she's also a brain researcher when she's not penning fiction. I can't wait to see her work more science into future books--I love, love, love that heroine had a PhD in this one.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are fan of "desert isle" books and movies--think Castaway, Swiss Family Robinson, Survivor--you absolutely won't want to miss this. I love a good stranded story, and this is one of the best I have read. Debut Author Renzi takes a giant risk with RiverTime as she could have ended the story around the 110 page mark and had an excellent novella of Casey and Jack stranded together, quick conflict back in the real world, happy epilogue, but instead she crafts a story of enormous complexity that will have fans of Susan Wiggs, Patrica Rice, Susan Kay Law's contemporaries, and Catherine Anderson cheering this welcome addition to the contemporary women's fiction genre.

Make no mistake, this is absolutely a romance, but it is also really about Casey's journey--she's newly graduated with a PhD and is unsure about her career decisions and whether to marry her long-time boyfriend. She takes a river rafting trip to get some perspective, but ends up stranded with the mysterious Jack following a flash flood. I loved that Renzi chose to have them stranded a good long time and that she showed the passage of time and the gradual warming up to each other--I don't like it when characters go from "wow, I'm really unhappy to be stranded with YOU" to "wow, I really want to do you" to HEA in the space of a few hours or a day or two trapped together. No, instead, Casey and Jack have to figure out how to survive long-term together, and this leads to deep, undeniable bond.

Renzi captures the grand canyon imagery really nicely, and you get a sense of them being alone in this vast cavern together, contrasted with the urban, hectic lives hey lead when they are finally rescued. And once they are rescued, they have to spend the rest of the book figuring out how to mesh what happened with their "real" lives, and it's messy and fraught with false steps and wrong choices and complicated no-win scenarios. Casey makes a number of choices that I wouldn't, but it felt believable to her. Immediately upon return, she makes one decision that really impacts the rest of the book, and Renzi doesn't give her an easy way out.

We don't spend nearly as much time in Jack's head, so while I did want to shake some sense into him at points, it was really Casey's story to tell. In fact, one of my only quibbles is that I really enjoyed the characterization of Jack, and I would have liked to have spent more time in his head. I think Renzi limited our time with him to maintain his aura of mystery, but his few POV scenes had tremendous emotional impact. I also would have liked a bit more time with the secondary characters--Casey's best friend seemed to come out of nowhere 3/4 of the book. However, she was nice comic relief and I enjoyed her and Jack's friends as well.

The ending is just as complex as these characters, but all the sweeter for it with a very nice twist. If you like your romance heavy on the fairytale, this book may not be for you, but if you enjoy stories that really capture the complexity of modern love, then you will not want to miss this book. This book should have broad appeal--it's a fast read, and the few love scenes are more sweet than graphic and the complicated emotional plot should appeal to readers who don't like formula romance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Three Umbrellas: Overdue for Pleasure by

Vancouver resident Shelley Aikens debuts with an erotic romance featuring a librarian heroine. Super hot love scenes with a Northwest setting and a librarian? I had to pick it up! I look forward to future releases from Aikens as she has tons of promise!

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aikens brings a lovely,vibrant voice to Romantica (although I think this particular story would be best classified as erotic chick-lit with romantic elements), and if you love Sasha White, you will definitely want to check her out as she has a lot of the same elements going for her--Vancouver setting, first-person narrator, fast moving plot, and lots and lots of hot no-holds barred love scenes. I struggled with what to rate this because I loved all those elements, and I plan to look for Aikens' future releases as I do absolutely love her voice. However, I would have liked to have seen more plot tying together the love scenes, and more time spent on the slow development of Mandy's relationship with James. Love scenes work best for me when they are in the context of a greater plot and necessary for character growth and development. Super-hot is awesome, but even within erotica, plot makes all the difference. Also, I had major issues with a few of the love scenes as Mandy's consent seemed murky at best. And yes, I think that was part of the fantasy for Mandy, but it just doesn't work for me. If you have an independent, spunky, contemporary heroine, I, personally, want her to be fully on-board for what happens to her, and if she's voluntarily giving up control, that needs to be clearly consensual too. There were a few scenes here where the action kept coming despite Mandy saying no, and I wasn't cool with that. My other similar quibble is that even in erotic romance, I still like to see safe sex--I know there are plenty who disagree, but it really takes me out of a story to have to worry about the riskiness of characters' actions. As this is Aikens's debut, I'm really excited to watch her grow her considerable talent--if she adds more complex plots and characterization like Sasha White, Maya Banks, and Megan Hart, she will be a major force in erotic romance.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesdays Umbrellas of Comfort

Many people have puzzled over how to ‘categorize’ Jane Kirkpatrick’s works, and most conclude she has forged her own genre in a subtle way. Inspirational without any religious agenda, her books are more about women finding healing and strength in their lives, despite very difficult circumstances. When they face ethical dilemmas they must rely upon their backgrounds, as well as their instincts, to make choices for themselves. The author has written several series of historical novels. She does a good job of always weaving in a romantic storyline remembering that women are always searching for love and understanding, no matter what time period they lived in.

From her Change and Cherish series (3 books) - I read the third, A Mending at the Edge which completes the story of a woman founder of the Aurora Colony. We all can envision what a woman with several children and an abusive spouse COULD do nowadays to change her life - although of course, many still do not have the courage to break away. Perhaps what holds them back are some of the problems facing Emma Wagner Giesy, who had to defy her own family and deep religious convictions, to join a group of pioneers heading to the west coast for a better life. Sent by the Bethel Colony of Missouri to found a new community on the Pacific coast, Emma, her children, and fellow pioneers are based on real people. We might wish her story had different elements, that Emma acted in ways that make more sense to us, but she is a historical figure and must make her way within a set of restrictive parameters. She can’t change everything in her life, but she can fight for a better future. She longs to be loved and cherished but suffers a series of hurts and betrayals.

This is the beauty of Jane Kirkpatrick’s writing. She has a unique knack for identifying a set of circumstances a woman from the past is facing, and then following her choices and dilemmas that make perfect sense in the context of her times, not ours. Along the way, we get to see what inspires the women, what held them together, and what process they go through to find healing and self-knowledge. Personally, I found interest in the idea of a woman setting out from the midwest – from all that she had known before – and bravely taking the journey to start a new life on the western coast. The circumstances of my life are totally different from Emma’s, yet there is a universality of the struggles faced by every woman and especially those who must choose to relocate. In a sense, we all are taking Emma's journey in life.

There is also a lot to think about in the details of how the ordinary can bring comfort and perception to one's mind. Many of Jane Kirkpatrick books address the importance of needle crafts such as quilting to women in the past. A sister lover of all things quilting, I love how she incorporates details into all her writing. Her books often include inspirational moments that show how a person can interpret a bit of wisdom formed by someone else, and apply it to the circumstances they find themselves in. I enjoy her themes of courage, acceptance, and eventually finding your own happiness.

My favorites of the Kirkpatrick books are set in the midwest and might be suitable for a YA market but are also very enjoyable for adults who enjoy history and romance. These two books about the author’s grandmother are A Flickering Light (2009) about Jessie Ann Gaebele a young woman photographer. Jessie is shown as a 15 year old fascinated with photography who finds her life's calling to pursue what is considered a man’s profession in 1907 Midwest.
In An Absence So Great ( 2010) – age 18 now, Jessie is trying to get over her attraction to a married man, her mentor in the art of photography. The book explores the subject of the dangers of photography from the chemicals used and the prejudice against a young woman pursuing a business career as a professional photographer. It also is an examination of the way one woman dealt with the problem of her attraction for a married man at the turn of the twentieth century.

Jane Kirkpatrick -
After thirty years of homesteading with her husband in a remote area called Starvation Point, Oregon, Jane Kirkpatrick has moved back to the Bend area. A former mental health professional, she is the author of over 20 books, many based on real historical figures including family members. Jane’s new release is called “The Daughter’s Walk” (April 2011) and we will be reviewing it soon.

Jane Kirkpatrick will be speaking at a fund-raiser in Keizer where her speech “Of Quilts and Courage: Stitching Stories” will highlight her fascination with women Oregon Trail pioneers and quilting, and also introduce an exhibit of heritage quilts. Tickets are on sale (to benefit the Keizer Library) for the event featuring this local author to be held on April 8th, 2011, at the Keizer Heritage Center.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Four Umbrellas: Ranger by Monica McCarty

I want Red to look beyond the shirtless dude on the cover of this and instead see a really rich, impeccably researched historical portrait of a unique moment in time. This is a case where I think the beefcake cover isn't doing the story any favors, as I think McCarty's strong writing would appeal to readers of several different genres, not just those of us swayed by hot shirtless dudes in kilts. (But really, who doesn't love a hot man in a kilt?)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a quiet little history-driven romance that is a departure from the more common character driven historical romances where a Scottish setting is more like window dressing for a front-and-center relationship. Here, the real story is the Highland Guard--think Navy SEALS meets kilts and swords, and Ranger's double life. Arthur "Ranger" Campbell spends most of the book fighting very hard against any attraction to Anna, and it's not until the 2/3 mark that the relationship starts to really develop in complexity. While the first half of the book is dense and a bit slow, the last half of the book is really gripping as action picks up on all fronts and the stakes rise. The history incorporated into this book is really impressive. With only 1.5 love scenes, the relationship is very cerebral, with lots of soul searching-- I wouldn't have minded a bit more heat, but the development felt true to the characters. I'm looking forward to reading her backlist.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Four Umbrellas for The Bartered Virgin by Chevon Gael

I think Red needs to consider checking this out, because it's set in 1902 in New York City. How could she resist? True there's no mystery, and there's lots of romance happening, but it's 1902. In New York City. She needs to read this!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. If you loved Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater this winter, you will want to give this book a try. It's 1902, it's New York City, and several of my favorite tropes are all in play here: secret "pillow book" scandalizing our heroine, an engagement of inconvenience where neither party really wants to be there, and big secret regarding the origin of money. David Knightsbridge doesn't particularly want a bride, and he certainly doesn't want one forced on him, but he's an Earl and he needs to save his crumbling estate. Winnifred "Winn" Percy doesn't wish to be married at all, so she plans to shock David into calling off the arrangement. Gael does an excellent job capturing the mood of the time, and I particularly liked her description of the view from David's hotel room. She shows a city poised on the brink between old and new, being rapidly changed and shaped by all the new advances. Winn herself stands on the brink between old traditions and new--she's a proper young lady with gowns and debut balls, french lessons, needlework, and calling cards. But she's also a modern woman, using a telephone to call a friend, sneaking to Coney Island to gape at the bathers, eating forbidden street food, and trying her brother's cigarettes. David finds this duality in her very appealing, and swiftly (the novel is only 133 pages, so he needs to move fast!) decides that the marriage won't be such a burden for him.

And, if only David were not such a pompous arse, this would be a five star read. Poor Winn is surrounded by men who act very inconsistently (As does she, but she's 18, and it seems much more in character for her). David very deliberately sets out to seduce Winn in a way that I found very off-putting and grating (For Downton Abbey fans, he was definitely the Turkish dude creeping into bedrooms and not Cousin Matthew waiting patiently at all). David's actions really took away from the love scenes for me, and the somewhat-funny mentions of incredible shrinking-growing-shrinking members took me further out of those scenes. True heroes don't shrink! Ever. I think I'm spoiled by the Regency formula where hero either accidentally or deliberately seduces heroine, and immediately goes with her to face the consequences of a quick marriage to cover up any scandal. David's cavalier attitude, made worse by sending Heroine home far after curfew by herself in a taxi, made me really dislike him.

Left alone to face the consequences, Winn has to face the other two inconsistent men in her life--her father and brother. With no dueling pistols laying around and facing scandal, her father abruptly shifts to opposing the marriage he so wanted. I think this was necessary to add conflict, but probably not what would have happened--nothing would have hushed up the scandal and saved the family name faster than a fast elopement and quick departure for England.

David does eventually redeem himself, but his decision to leave heroine in the dark about something very vital to her tempered his redemption in my eyes. But, a happy epilogue is had by all, and I ended the book with a smile on my face.

However, it's the mark of a good writer to inspire such strong feelings about their characters, and Gael is certainly a strong writer, with a gift for crafting unusual historical novellas that really capture the time and place. I've said before how difficult the short length stories really are--it's hard to deliver a fully-fleshed story in 133 pages, but Gael really does try here. I plan to look at her backlist, and I will also read more set in this time period. I hope both Kitty and Tippy get stories! I also salute Carina for taking a risk on a historical set at the turn of the century, and I would love to see more set in this time period.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Free Mondays: Four Umbrellas for Slow Hands by Leslie Kelly

Quick! This is free right now! You can get it at Barnes and Noble for the Nook or through Harlequin directly for a variety of formats.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best things in life are often free. . . I wouldn't have read this without it being free for my nook as I've been disappointed by Blaze several times over the last few years. This book, however, is something special. Fans of Lori Foster's impressive backlist of short contemporaries and Jennifer Crusie's and Carly Phillips early shorter works will feel right at home here. I just finished ranting yesterday about the problems with too-perfect heroes, and Jake breaks my distinct preference for flawed heroes as he's pretty close to perfect, but not irritating so, and his perfection is exactly what Maddie needed--she needed someone from a happy family with a secure sense of self who truly wanted her just for her. The entire book hinges upon a misunderstanding but as it also involves one my favorite tropes, the Bachelor Auction, I was willing to forgive it. The love scenes occasionally stray towards the purple prose that can make Blaze reads a little . . less than blazing, but they are well-done and well-tied to the plot. Overall, this is about as good of a category or novella length read as I have found in years. I will read more by this author, and I would love to see her in Single Title, where she writes as Leslie Parrish.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Shorts: The Lady Most Likely To

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This gets extra points just for being the best anthology I've ever read, perhaps because it's not *precisely* an anthology--each story really builds upon the others and requires them to move the characters forward, which is awesome. This should be required reading for authors seeking to do linked anthologies. Each story was a little gem--with a short novella, conflict has to be very, very light, but each of the six characters is still deeply nuanced. I'm really, really, really hoping that they do another joint offering.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: Unforgivable by Laura Griffin

My Friday Five Umbrella Pick this week is Unforgivable by the amazing Laura Griffin. Griffin is one of my favorite finds of the last 6 months, and after reading her entire backlist, I haven't rated any less than 4 stars. She's a highly recommended read.

Why my fellow reviewer, Red, should be reading Griffin: The mystery elements of her books are tightly plotted, but strike an excellent middle ground of being realistic without being overly gory. She's more Castle than CSI, but she works in enough science and forensics to make her twists and turns that much more interesting. The whodunit aspect of the book is every bit as compelling as the romance!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Griffin reveals herself to be an absolute master of her craft with this latest offering in what is proving to be an addictive series. I consider myself a HUGE Suzanne Brockmann fan, and in her early books, Griffin showed real promise to equal Brockmann's intensity and multi-arc plots, and here she succeeds in proving that she deserves to compete with the NYT big dogs. I loved Mia, loved all the plot turns and twists, and yet again, loved Griffin's realism--the emotional realism that she achieves is what really sets her apart from other RS offerings.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Unveiled by Courtney Milan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Courtney Milan is the next superstar of historical romance, and this is her breakout book. Her first two books were innovative, intelligent, and deeply emotional and are also on my keeper shelf, but this book is something truly special. Milan offers a unique voice to the genre--deeply emotional writing that also stays true to deep POV with rich characterization and innovative plots. With the rise of the super-sexy historical, this book is a great middle ground with the intelligent plot and characters driving the plot, not contrived desire, but deeply satisfying love scenes that are the more potent because the characters truly earn each and every one. Ash and Margaret are so wonderfully portrayed that I truly felt immersed in their world. I don't want to give away spoilers, but there is a climatic scene where it would have been very easy to have Ash react one way for the sake of conflict and plot, the more conventional reaction if you will, and he doesn't--because that's not who he is. And that's really at the heart of this book--two people being exactly who they are and discovering who they are not and who they will be at the same time. An Absolute Must-Read, even for those who don't read much historicals. There's nary a season, simpering deb, or unrepentant rake in sight.

Five Umbrellas: Dreaming in English by Laura Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sequels are very tricky things, but Fitzgerald hits all the right notes with this follow-up to her acclaimed "Veil of Roses." Veil of Roses is one of my top five all-time favorite books from a lifetime of voracious reading. I love its writing and message so much that I use it as a supplemental text for one of the classes I teach. I've often imagined what a potential sequel might look like, as these are characters that just refuse to leave the reader's head. Dreaming in English lives up to all my hopes as we follow Tami from the happy ending of Veil of Roses to her REAL happily-ever-after once she navigates all the hurdles that still remained at the end of Veil of Roses--INS, Ike's parents, job/life direction issues, family problems, and her parents still remaining in Iran with their own stories left unfinished.

I chose Veil of Roses as a class text in large part because of the large number of themes touched on--it is perfect discussion group text and readers from older teens to retirees all find something to connect with and worth discussing. Dreaming in English is also an absolutely ideal discussion/book club group book. Ideally readers will have read Veil of Roses, , but Fitzgerald works in enough recapping that this isn't strictly necessary (in fact, if like me, a reader has read Veil of Roses often enough to have entire sections committed to memory or finished Veil of Roses immediately prior to starting this book, the recapping might feel a bit much, but Fitzgerald does a nice job of integrating into the narrative and avoiding info-dumping).

Tami, Ike, and all their family and friends feel like real people, and they are richly drawn so that readers are very invested in their lives and problems--this is one of the great strengths of Fitzgerald's writing. Even when the characters make choices or actions that we disagree with, they feel real and true for that character and open up new avenues for discussion and analysis.

This book is particularly relevant right now in light of all the discussion surrounding immigration, particularly in Arizona, where the book is set. With all the controversy surrounding immigrants from South of the Border, seeing immigration through Persian eyes allows readers to take a step back and really consider what freedom means. This is the great triumph of the book: giving readers a fresh take on Freedom. If Veil of Roses carried the message that one must never give up hope, then Dreaming in English carries a two-fold message: Freedom is Hard and One Must Believe Oneself Worthy of It. "I am Worthy" sums up Tami's journey here--from being happily surprised with her good fortune at the end of Veil of Roses to being willing and able to go forth and actively create and demand that good fortune. Sharing her journey was a privilege.

Four Umbrellas: To Love a Thief by Julie Anne Long

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This felt like I was re-reading a beloved favorite, rather than encountering this charmer for the first time. I'm pretty certain that this is the first Julie Ann Long that I have read, but it definitely won't be the last. Just like Julia Quinn, she has a remarkable gift for making inherently likable and approachable characters. Lily is a charming pickpocket, and I immediately was rooting for her to get away with her stealing. Of course, however, she is caught, and that is how she lands in debt to Gideon. I have a special place in my heart for lawyer heroes, particularly lawyer heroes who can't turn down good causes, and lawyer heroes who are trying very hard to overcome their riskier sides are simply irresistible. The secondary characters are all very well-fleshed out too which adds to the homey, light hearted feel of this book. A few warm and tingly love scenes keep this from being *too* sweet, making this a perfect don't-have-to-think-about-it-or-commit-extra-brainpower read.