Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Four Umbrellas: Pride Mates by Jennifer Ashley

Is there a subgenre that you keep trying and failing to love? What was the last really GOOD book that you read that just wasn't for you? That's what I'm thinking about today!

Pride Mates (Shifters Unbound, #1)Pride Mates by Jennifer Ashley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. I need to learn my lesson where Shifters are concerned--I barely tolerate them, even from my favorite authors. I ADORE Jennifer Ashley's historical McKenzie series, but her paranormal alter-egos are a huge part of her backlist. Overdrive had the e-book for this, and I jumped at the chance to see if perhaps the series would work for me. Alas, it does not. However, I have to say that this is tremendously well-done and unusual. This isn't the usual "Oh, Shifter, you so sexy, you blow my mind" world where paranormal heroes are the upper echelons of society or exist hidden, but revered, within current society, or occupy an alternative world of their own making. Instead, Ashley is doing something really unique with her dystopian world where Paranormal shifters are marginalized, corralled, and legally discriminated against. There's tons of parallels both to Jim Crow laws of the first half of the 20th Century and to current attitudes towards Muslims and religious intolerance in other countries. This part of the book sparkles with deep commentary cleverly disguised as light fiction. The legal battle at the center of the book is fascinating However, the feline shifters just weren't my cup of tea AT ALL. I kept thinking absurdly of the cat-man hybrid from Red Dwarf (horrid British Sci-Fi that DH made me sit through). But, if you love shifters, you suspend disbelief and will immediately be drawn into the feline sub-culture. Myself though, I just could not invest in the relationship at all. If you enjoy Sherrilyn Kennyon, Gena Showalter et al, you will LOVE it, and you will want to read more of the series. I'll return to counting the days for more McKenzies while giving Ashley enormous credit for succeeding in so many different subgenres.

View all my reviews

4 Umbrellas: To Taste Temptation by Elizabeth Hoyt

To Taste Temptation (Legend of the Four Soldiers, #1)To Taste Temptation by Elizabeth Hoyt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. After finishing this novel, I had the kind of deep, dark depression that occurs when one finishes a beloved author's entire backlist. I've now read everything up through Notorious Pleasures and I can honestly say that Hoyt simply can't write a bad book. In some ways this is perhaps one of the better introductions to Hoyt for a new reader--it opens the Four Soldiers quartet (but I read and loved the others without reading it), and it's not nearly as heavy on the sexy as most of her other books, which makes it a good chance for wary readers to acquaint themselves with her wonderful voice and characterization. Unfortunately, I really like the amped-up sexy that she brings to her historicals, and I spent the first half of the book wondering where in the heck it was hiding. It's hiding because Lady Emmeline and Exotic Colonial Samuel spend most of the book actively disliking and being horrid to each other. It's a time honored trope, and Hoyt puts it to good use, giving Emmeline more authenticity as she simply can't understand life beyond her social circle, let alone Samuel's strange American ways. For his part, Samuel makes absolutely no attempt to fit into proper Boston society let alone London ballrooms--he wears leather pants and moccasins and runs for stress relief. Emmeline fights hard against her attraction to Samuel, revealing herself to be a bit petty. But she's a very real character--I felt like I know women like her, and they are also deserving of their HEA, even if they are just a bit more . . . shallow than some people. When Emmeline and Samuel finally get their sexy on, Emmeline fights so hard against enjoying herself that I didn't connect with the love scenes the way I usually do. Fans of the "I hate you, but I also kinda love you" trope will love this--a number of Eloisa James's novels seem to contain this trope, so her fans may feel right at home here. Readers who prefer to wait for love scenes will also appreciate the more subtle build here. Fans of Hoyt's trademark fast-paced sensuality, however, may prefer Books 2 & 3 in this series which are among her best work.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Three Umbrellas: Stealing Time by Elisa Paige

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great book by an author with loads of talent and tremendous potential, but I only do vampires in very small doses, so I'm just not the target audience for this book. I was drawn to its awesome cover, and at first glance of the blurb, I thought that it was a time-travel paranormal. Ooops. However, I try to read everything that I request on netgalley, so even after I realized that this was a Vampire novel, I kept reading. If you love well-done, sassy Vampire novels with touches of humor like those by Lyndsay Sands, Kerrelyn Sparks, Angie Fox, Mary Janice Davidson, Erin McCarthy et al, you will LOVE this book, and I bet this will be a four or five star read for you. The book features a first-person narrator who has been "rescued" from a cancer death sentence by a well-meaning Vampire. I found heroine most interesting prior to being "turned," and I would have loved to have spent more time with her as she dealt with her terminal illness so that I became more invested in her being saved. But, hero swoops in just as we are getting to know her. One of the reasons why I don't read more vampire books is that I just don't like slightly-stalkerish "we were meant to be together" vampire heroes who steamroller over potential obstacles and objections. However, MILLIONS of readers disagree with me and love suave, assertive heroes like this, and those readers will love the relationship here. Paige has a fun, fresh voice that will win her loads of fans, especially from younger romance readers who are vampire crazy. I'll keep an eye out for her, especially if she ventures outside of vampire-landia.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Shorts: A Rock and a Hard Place

My Saturday Short this week is a two-for-one deal--99 cents for two great short stories that can easily fit into a busy Spring weekend. I read both on a hectic day where NOTHING went right, and I will testify to their 1 hour or less restorative powers! Snatch this up while it's still such a great deal!

A Rock and A Hard Place (Neuri/Psychic Hunters)A Rock and A Hard Place by Charlene Teglia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 2-for-1 Short Story set is 99 cents right now for Nook/Kindle, and it's a great way to sample the voices and flavors of two different erotic paranormal series. Intriguingly, I am a total Sasha White fan girl--but I've stuck to her contemporary stuff. I don't read very much in the paranormal genre, and pre-nook, I didn't have an easy way to make sure that I would like it as much as I like her contemporary work. I started with her tale (and in a very cute tie-in to the title, there is indeed a Rock in Teglia's story and a hard place in White's). Both stories as super-short (around 30-40 pages each) and center around couples from earlier books. However, having not read anything in either series, I think they stand well alone.

If you've read White's paranormals, you'll see the return of all her previous characters as they make cameo appearances to help when Gina and Caleb's romantic weekend takes a turn for the paranormal when they discover a strange artifact. Keeping all the secondary character names and couples straight did get a bit confusing for me as a newbie to the series, but I enjoyed the chance to meet the different couples and to see which of the previous books I might want to purchase. (Note to self: Hero named Devil? Must purchase.) She also introduced a few new characters, including one story-stealing 6 and a half foot Scotsman who had me shouting MORE PLEASE! And of course, she manages to work in some super hot love scenes. These were sweeter and more loving than her contemporary ones, perhaps because this story featured a committed couple, and I enjoyed seeing this side of her writing. White's paranormal voice is very close to her contemporary voice--upbeat, sassy, with hints of comedy thrown in.

Charlene Teglia is a new-to-me author who has an impressive back list. I read her tale second without many expectations, and I was blown away. Seriously. I don't read much paranormal. I don't really like shifters. But, Teglia managed to suck me into her Neuri universe in less than 30 pages. Unlike with so many paranormal novellas (including many three times as long), I didn't feel lost at all--I understood who everyone was and what their roles and powers were without a lot of unfamiliar terms or series jargon. She also managed to inject a suspense element that added urgency to the story and gave a cohesive narrative. Like in White's tale, a committed couple having a getaway is interrupted, but unlike in White's tale, the couple is actually a M/F/M trio. This is one of the more believable menages I have encountered (which since I don't read much menage fiction isn't many), and I'm desperate to read their original book now as I really enjoyed their dynamic. She waits until the end of the story to bring the sexy, but her love scenes are every bit as powerful as White's. Teglia's going at the top of my to-buy-very-soon list as I loved her Emma Holly-esque voice and crisp plotting.

It's always hard rating anthologies--I gave White's tale 4 stars, Teglia's 5 stars, and averaged the two for 4.5 stars. I don't think you can ask for more from a 99 cent read, especially TWO reads for 99 cents, so if erotic paranormal is (or might be!) your cup of tea, scoop this up!

View all my reviews

Friday, March 25, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: Fatal Affair by Marie Force

My Friday pick of the week should appeal to romance fans as well as mystery, suspense, and political intrigue fans. Marie Force is trying to do something unique with this series and succeeds admirably! I'll be reviewing the sequel, Fatal Justice, next week.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a Friday Pick of the Week at Cloudy With a Chance of Books--

If authors ever doubt the power of giveaways and ARCs, let me assure you that a huge percentage of my book buying comes after reading something free. Or as in this case, getting book 2 from netgalley led to my purchasing this book as I have series OCD and have a terrible time starting at book 2. This was absolutely the right call here as Marie Force is trying something very new here--Romantic Suspense with the same hero and heroine and a revolving cast of secondary characters. Her series doesn't fit most comparisons as it's not a husband/wife cozy mystery series (AT. All.), it's not the let's-drag-the-faux-relationship-out-for-16-books standard suspense offering (At. All.), and it's not the standard RS series with a new couple each book with minor revisiting of past characters. The closest comparisons I have are to my two goddesses--Suzanne Brockmann and Julia Spencer-Fleming. Like Brockmann and Spencer-Fleming, Force has multi-book relationship arcs for different characters and multiple POV characters per book with certain storylines remaining unresolved even as that book's mystery is solved. Most importantly, like both of these authors, Force delivers the literary equivalent of dove chocolate--each is a splendid little treat, but you can't possibly eat just one, and you spend way too much time obsessing about when you can get more.

However, unlike Brockmann, there's not a new HEA each book, and unlike Spencer-Fleming, there's not a continuing will-they-or-won't-they factor. In fact, the best comparison for this series isn't literary at all--this the book equivalent of well-done TV drama as we watch relationships evolve and change over time. Think Castle or Bones with lots of nookie and a higher likelihood of people getting HEA endings sometime soon. Like Castle and Bones, Fatal Affair features a strong female protagonist, Police Detective Sam Holland, who drives the series and who only needs rescuing from herself. Sam is quick-thinking, assertive, and one of Washington DC's best detectives. However, she's recently landed in hot water due to a bad judgment call that resulted in the death of a child, and she's trying to move beyond this, both professionally and personally.

Being assigned to the case of a murdered Senator looks like it will help on both fronts, but she encounters Nick Cappauno, the Senator's chief of staff AND her one-night stand from six years ago, at the murder scene. The sensual tension between the two immediately sizzles, but past history as well as the pesky might-be-a-murderer thing stand in their way. One thing that I really enjoyed about this book was that unlike most reunion stories it wasn't hero or heroine's stupidity that kept them apart. Instead, something external intervened, and this weaves an additional element of suspense through the book.

The other thing that I really liked was how darn hard Sam works at being ethical. So many RS law enforcement heroes and heroines end up in bed with potential suspects and persons of interest without much thought to the consequences. Here, however, acting ethically is big theme of the series, and all of the characters struggle with making the right choices. Of course, eventually Sam DOES end up in bed with Nick and has to deal with the fallout from that, including her own self-recriminations. The love scenes are sizzling and fairly plentiful without being graphic or gratuitous which should appeal both to readers who little a little left to the imagination and to those who like a lot of sexy.

The murder investigation twists and turns throughout the book and gets equal billing with the relationship. There were plenty of reveals that I didn't see coming at all, but in hindsight were beautifully, cleverly foreshadowed. The secondary characters are unique and interesting--Sam's disabled father and her straight-laced rookie partner both have character arcs that continue into the next book. If you pick this book up, do yourself a favor and DON'T look at the blurb for book 2 yet--you will enjoy the reveals in this book more! I loved what Marie Force is trying to do here, and I immediately started Book 2 and added her entire backlist to my TBR pile as her cross-genre appeal and light-yet-sexy suspense is downright addictive. A must-read, especially for those tired of formula series and books.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Cowgirl Up and Ride by Lorelei James

I'm on a bit of a Lorelei James kick . . .

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. I'm trying to ration the rough riders series, but like with brownies, it seems impossible to have just one at a time. But like with sweet treats, I know that these are best in moderation! This is a sinful treat meant for mature readers, it's cowboy romantica at its absolute finest, but it's smoking hot, so if you prefer a milder treat, you may want to skip it. James keeps managing to hit my favorite tropes, and this is one my favorites--the May/December Romance with the inexperienced heroine, AJ, having had a crush on older guy, Cord her whole life. When both find themselves at loose ends for the summer, it's the perfect chance for AJ to finally make her move on Cord. She keeps her deeper feelings to herself, and they start a smokin' hot fling. The love scenes are off-the-charts hot, but they don't push the boundaries as much as some of the other rough riders books do. If you enjoy hot contemporaries and wouldn't mind a higher love scene to narrative ratio, this is a great introduction to James' great voice. Her real strength is a dialogue--she really captures the dialect of the west. I can totally picture her cowboys because their voices sound so real. And she does a great job with characterization as although all the McKay brothers are Alpha heroes to the max, they don't feel like carbon copies of each other. AJ feels like a mature 22 year old, which is significant because often times in May/December plot lines the age difference feels like just a number because heroine seems the same as women hero's own age. She's lively and spunky and reacts to things like a younger woman would, but has enough emotional maturity to make readers believe in a lasting HEA. The last few chapters show a lot of growth on Cord's behalf, and this is what makes James so special in the world of romantica--she brings a lot of emotion to the table and offers real plots, not just window dressing for love scenes. AJ and Cord are probably my favorite Rough Riders couple so far, and this is a winning read.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Collision Course by Zoe Archer

Zoe Archer was probably my #1 discovery of 2010, and since finishing her Blades of the Roses series, I've been seriously jonesing for another hit of her awesome steam punk-historical-uber sexy custom brew. I have to wait all the way until the Fall for *that* particular craving, but thank the goddess Archer has something new coming in April. Collision Course is a Sci-Fi romance, but she has one of those If-she-writes-a-grocery-list-I-will-buy-it voices, so I'm following her into unchartered space. The blurb makes it sound like Firefly meets Castle with extra sexy and a hint of Space Balls (Best. Movie. Ever) tossed in for added flavor:

Mara Skiren is a scavenger, a black-market dealer. Blackmailed into helping Commander Kell Frayne infiltrate a treacherous corner of the galaxy, Mara learns that her biggest danger is from her sexy, by-the-book partner. She’s a loner with more than a few battle scars on her heart, but something about Commander Frayne stirs up her long-buried need for an intimate connection.

An ace pilot for the elite Black Wraith Squadron, Kell’s mission is to rescue a lost pilot and ship. Unable to deny his attraction to the beautiful, rebellious woman , he decides bedding her would cool his ardor. But one taste is not nearly enough, and he finds himself sharing more of his real self with Mara than he has with anyone.

With deadly criminals on their heels and an increasingly dangerous assignment to complete, he’s starting to wonder…. If they survived, could he let her go? And will Mara want to stay?

I read Sci-Fi about as often as I iron, which is to say YEARS go by. The last real Sci-Fi Romance I read was My Man Michael by Lori Foster who also has one of those Write-whatever-I'm-still-buying voices. And I loved it. It didn't make me want to search out more of th genre because I was reading for Foster's unique voice which transcends genre boundaries. And I have a feeling Archer will be the same for me. Have you read Warrior yet? Is Collision Course on your radar screen? What authors will you follow into other genres?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Two Umbrellas: Of Dukes and Deceptions by Wendy Soliman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. I really, really did. I'm always on the lookout for British-set historicals written by actual British writers. It has long struck me as strange that the vast, vast majority of Regencies are written by Americans. I think Soliman shows tremendous potential, but this book just didn't work for me mainly because I just don't like the "Arrogant Duke sets out to Ruthlessly Seduce and Ruin Poor, Defenseless Heroine For the Sake of Random Bet" trope. I do, however, like Bets as plot devices (I'm fickle, I know), so I decided to give this a try, hoping that it wouldn't fall into the above category for me. But, the hero here was just too arrogant and abrasive to hold my interest. I think readers who LOVED this particular trope in all its guises when it was a regency staple of the late 80s/90s would enjoy this far more than me--think Early Catherine Coulter, Amanda Quick, Woodwiss, etc. If you love arrogant, unrepentant Rake heroes, give this a try as well. I look forward to seeing what future offerings Soliman brings as I have a feeling that I would love her writing if I connected more with the hero.

Winner! And More Chances to WIN!

The Winner of Paty Jager's Spirit of the Mountain is . . . VONNIE DAVIS. Vonnie please email me your snail mail address. If you would prefer a digital copy, let me know that too. (I used a random number generator to pick the winner.)

Want more chances to win free books? The first three months of the year are among my favorite as a reader as all the year-end book lists come down and the awards get handed out. Friday the RITA nods come out, and I'm so excited. However, I see that some of my favorite books published in 2010 aren't getting as much love as I think they deserve.

So, in a bit of shameless self-promotion as I try to grow the blog and my presence as a reviewer, I'm going to give away copies of Five books that I think should have received more accolades in 2010. To enter, simply follow me on here with the google "follow me" button (And follow me on twitter! If you follow me in both places, you will get double the chances to win.) And yes, this is blatant bribery. However, if like me, you love free books, especially ones that are guaranteed great reads, you won't mind a bit. (And if you've already read the book you win, I'll let you substitute a different book on the list!)

When I get 30 blog followers (I have this on twitter already! Yay!) I will give away a copy of Zoe Archer's Warrior, my personal book of the year.

When I get 45 blog followers, I will give away a copy of Tessa Dare's One Dance with the Duke, my favorite Regency from last year.

When I get 60 blog followers, I will give away a copy of Laura Griffin's Unforgivable. Unspeakable has been getting some notice, but I think this one also deserves recognition. Everything she writes is golden, and she deserves a huge following.

When I get 75 blog followers, I will give away a copy of Jennifer Ashley's Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage--I have been shocked to not see this on more year-end lists.

When I get 90 blog followers, I will give away a copy of Suzanne Brockmann's Infamous--her stand alone contemporary with light paranormal elements that hit the NYT list, but hasn't made many awards lists, which is darn shame as it's an awesome read.

Spread the word! What were YOUR five favorite books last year?

Two Umbrellas: Laird of Darkness by Nicole North

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The short novella form is just so difficult to get right in the best of circumstances, and it's almost impossible for a steamy- historical-paranormal with a unique world/mythology structure. North has only a few pages to hook us into the story, which is the main problem here because she also needs to 1) introduce Duncan, his curse, his abilities, and the possible cure, 2)have a meet-cute with the heroine, 3) introduce heroine and her unique backstory, 3) set up the conflict, and 4) build a believable magical world. It's just too-tall of an order for 85 pages, and the first 20 pages tried to do too much and just didn't suck me into the story which left me feeling detached for the remainder. The basic premise is strong: Duncan is a half-fae cursed with horrible dreams that leave him scarred both physically and emotionally. His evil half-brother has the cure, so Duncan kidnaps his brother's intended bride to barter. Had this been a 300 page novel, North could have allowed the conflict to develop more slowly, built up Duncan's character a lot more, and made Alana's character more fully-fleshed. North has a lot of talent, and I think she can be a great addition to the historical paranormal market, but I wonder if she might not be most successful with a few longer books to set up this world. Also, I love a good Scottish kidnapping story, but Alana went from captive to bedmate way too fast--it may be that this plotline simply needs a longer time frame to be believable, even when heroine is not a virgin and not at all ashamed of that fact. In this compressed format, Alana ended up coming off like a shameless hussy, instead of the complex character she had the potential to be. All the right elements were here, and I think it is entirely possible that other readers would rate this higher. If you read a lot of paranormal and love historical paranormal, particularly with Fae creatures, you will probably feel more at home in this world to begin with, and if you are looking for a fast, sexy, kidnapping story you may be willing to suspend some disbelief. I plan to check out longer releases from North as I think she may have just been too hampered by the length requirements. The best part of North's writing is the little details like Alana's work as a healer, and I'd love see her have room for them to really shine.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Travels with My ARC: One was a Soldier

I'm pretty sure I got . . . something for my birthday this year, and I vaguely recall some kitchen items arriving for Christmas, but winning an ARC of One was a Soldier from Julia Spencer Fleming was a bit like getting Christmas, my Birthday, and a small lottery win at the same time. It's shiny! It's SIGNED! There was a note with it! Commence fangirl swooning.

And, after waiting THREE YEARS for this book, I could hardly bear to start it because I know that as soon as I finish, I will need to a)re-read the whole series to have any hope of retaining my sanity and b)when that fails, start counting the days until the NEXT book. So, while resisting temptation as long as possible, I didn't want my ARC to get lonely. So I took it around with me. DH joked that perhaps I should let it ride in one of the baby carriers. At least I *think* he was joking.

Who needs coffee when you can have an ARC for breakfast?


Later, the ARC took tea with my Nook wherein they discussed the relative merits of Shiny! Paper! New Book Smell! versus Digital! Highlight every "Oh, Clare!" or "Oh, Flynn!" scene! Search functions! (BTW, the first book in the series, "In the Bleak Midwinter" is on sale for Nook at only $2.99, and a free preview of One Was a Soldier is up now, called "Letters to a Soldier" with bonus letters and an excerpt!)


Next, it visited with the Queen, who was a little sad that it doesn't have pictures (I told her that Mama wouldn't have minded some pictures too ;):


The Queen was, however, suitably impressed with the "many, many pages of ABC's. Da typer must have worked Bery Bery hard to do dat! How many chapters dat have?"


From visiting with a queen, the ARC went on to brighten the spirits of the jail house book club:


The resident tough guy examined all the critical acclaim the book has received (while contemplating whether or not it could be traded for shinier contrabrand!):


Then with the ARC of one was a soldier winking at me from the nightstand, I downloaded the "Letters to a Soldier" preview that's up now for free at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and I think Borders too. And I defy anyone to read a Julia Spencer Fleming excerpt without immediately, IMMEDIATELY needing to read the book. Luckily, unlike when I read the "I Shall Not Want" excerpt at the end of "All Mortal Flesh" and nearly required tranquilizers to survive months and months of waiting, I had One Was a Solider sitting right there. And so, I gave into temptation . . .

Review forthcoming. Have you ever waited for a book so long that you were almost scared to start it? What series has you wishing for the next book before you even finish the current one?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Road Signs by MJ Fredricks

I'm thrilled to bring you a Saturday Short with truly broad appeal. If you love Romantic Comedies, this is the perfect Spring Break reading for you!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of late, novellas seem to come in only three flavors: super hot, paranormal, and superhot swirled with paranormal. For fans of classic screwball romantic comedy shorts, this has to be beyond frustrating. Luckily, MJ Fredricks steps into the void and offers up a cute tale that will remind readers of early Lori Foster, Jennifer Crusie, Erin McCarthy, and Vicky Lewis Thompson. Back when the Grand Dames of Romantic Comedy were just getting started, they wrote a lot of really cute, funny shorts for Harlequin. Road Signs would fit right into that group.

Cam and Willow have been best friends since high school, but neither has acted on their feelings, in large part due to the fact that Willow is an honorary member of his large, loving family. Having only a distant, self-occupied single mother, Willow needs Cam and his family a lot more than she needs a boyfriend. Or so she thinks. Cam has been carrying his one-sided torch for her quietly since high school, but has recently decided to move on--literally. He's got a job interview in Seattle that would take him far away from his Midwest home. His big interview is scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, but he doesn't tell Willow about it. Thus, when Willow gets trapped in the Thanksgiving visit from hell, she calls Cam, who drops everything, including his his train ride to Seattle, to rescue her. And thus, one of my very favorite tropes is deployed: The Roadtrip with No Money and a Tight Deadline.

Like with all screwball romantic comedies, you have to check your disbelief at the door. Crazy things happen. One right after the other. Every possible roadtrip disaster befalls our hapless duo. However, having done the midwest-to-west coast road trip a half a dozen times, I can testify that all of these things are totally possible, especially for an unprepared duo. In one single road trip? Perhaps not, but it's the thank-the-goddess-that's-not-me factor that makes Romantic Comedy so much fun.

And in classic Romantic Comedy formula, Cam is a lovable Beta hero and the sexual tension slowly builds through subtle cues, rather than lots of X-rated speculating about body parts and blatant innuendo. If you need a lot of Alpha Man hoo-rah-rah, this probably isn't the story for you. But if you miss the sweet-yet-subtly sexy novellas and short romances from the late 90s/early 2000s, you will love the slow build and Cam's I-know-a-great-guy-like-that factor. He reminds me of a young Tom Hanks or Matthew Perry--cute, sexy, goofy, and endearingly self-effacing. Willow shares her mother's tendency towards self-absorption--she's the Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Anniston type heroine who must slowly come to see what has been right in front of her and take a risk to get it. And when she finally takes that risk, the payoff is all the much sweeter.

MJ Fredricks is perfect Spring Break reading for Romantic Comedy readers, and with its Chick-flick premise and sweet rather than graphic love scenes, it should have very broad appeal. Since I have long ago exhausted the backlists of my favorite Romantic Comedy authors, I'll be eagerly anticipating her next release. This is one road trip with a very happy ending!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday & GIVEAWAY: Spirit of the Mountain by Paty Jager

My Friday pick of the week is a monsoon-must (my version of a desert isle keeper) that I'm thrilled to share. In fact, I loved it so much that I'm going to give away a copy. My first (but not last!) giveaway! I've loaded up my cart, and if you comment to this post by Monday at Midnight PST and tell me your favorite monsoon-must keeper, yours could be the lucky address it ships to. I'll announce the winner Tuesday morning.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been waiting for a book like this for two decades. Back in the early 90s when I began my lifelong love affair with Romance novels, I had a bit of an obsession with Native American romances. I checked Susan Donell’s Pocahontas out from our town library so many times that it became dog eared from my use alone. (And I’m sure that our straight-laced librarian thought that I was checking it out just for the lurid parts, which were pretty darn explicit for the time period). When Pocahontas was visiting other users, I checked out our library’s limited selection of other western romances. There was an explosion of category romances in the 90s that dealt with white/Native romance from both a historical standpoint as well as modern day contemporaries, usually exploiting the exotic “other” trope with a Native hero who didn’t fit into either world and a Caucasian female who filled the missing pieces of his soul. Even at the time I recognized that many of these offerings were rather ethnocentric, but they were my guilty pleasure, although I did really want to see a Native/Native romance. In my head, I always ended Pocahontas much happier with her staying with her tribe and a man who loved her there. I longed for Clan of the Cave Bear to be a real romance rather than a Saga. I daydreamed about how awesome a Lonesome Dove or Dances with Wolves would be if the white folk would just stop their darn meddling. And then suddenly ALL Native American romances dried up in the mid to late 90s. Completely. And then nearly all Western historicals dried up. Gone was my favorite genre. Linda Lael Miller went off to spend a decade writing suspense and contemporaries that were only vaguely western before finally returning to her roots. Many great writers disappeared completely. And I never did get the Native American romance I really hungered for. Until now. Spirit of the Mountain is the historical I’ve been hoping for since reading Pocahontas.

Earlier this year, I found Pamela Clare’s amazing Naked Edge, which delivered a sensitive Native American/Caucasian interracial romance that eliminated all the ethnocentric elements of those 90s category romances, but I still longed for a historical that would center around a Native American romance. Then I had a chance to review Jager’s Spirit of the Mountain, the first of her Spirit Trilogy from Wild Rose Press, and from the first chapter, I realized that I was reading something truly special. Not just a well-written romance (Eppie Winner Jager has proven her chops in that arena), but a truly original portrait of Native culture before it was Native American, before White men arrived. It’s slightly reminiscent of Clan of the Cave Bear, but more lyrical and with all the boring parts removed to showcase the love story.

Wren is a Niimiipu maiden, the daughter of the chief, and her father has just promised her to Hawk, a Blackleg Warrior, in an effort to bring peace to warring tribes. But the reputation of the Blackleg* as ruthless raiders repulses Wren. Her heart loudly rebels against her father’s actions, but her sense of duty makes the outcome seem inevitable to her. Long ago, her spirit quest revealed that she would save the tribe, so she feels she has no choice but to carry out her father’s wishes. She spends more time roaming her beloved mountain, seeking the solace only it can provide. She encounters a mysterious white wolf who reminds her of her spirit guide. She gradually realizes that it isn’t her spirit guide, and the wolf seems oddly sentient. Not surprisingly, the wolf IS sentient because he’s actually a man, Hiimin, cursed to live as the Spirit of the Mountain, watching over the people. He assumes the guise of the Wolf, although he has the ability to take other forms, including man. Hiimin is drawn to Wren. An acute sense of longing permeates the novel from their first encounter. He knows he’s not supposed to place the needs of one human over the others in the tribe, but he can’t help himself. Wren’s despair at her impending marriage eventually leads to him revealing his human form to her. Passion sizzles between the two, but it’s initially one of longing for that which can never be, and both try valiantly to distance themselves from their attraction.

This proves impossible even as Wren prepares for her inevitable marriage. In a desperate bid to have something of each other, they give into their passion on the eve of Wren’s marriage. Jager takes some big risks with what transpires next as she pushes the boundaries of some plot “taboos” that tend to pigeonhole authors, particularly historical authors, into following a formula rather than letting a certain amount of historical accuracy drive the plot. These risks pay off big time for the plot, however, as the reader is drawn into an emotional maelstrom that had me tearing up at more than one point. There are multiple black moments as hope appears lost over and over again. The lengths Hiimin goes to give Wren even a glimmer of hope is beautiful, and Wren’s resulting sacrifices and risks are poignant as she draws ever closer to taking the largest leap of all—putting herself first and fighting for a future with Hiimin. There were plenty of moments when I truly wasn’t sure if there would be a happy ending, but rest assured that I was weeping tears of a different sort in the final pages. Every last drop of emotion is wrung from the pages. The characters bleed for each other, both physically and emotionally, and it’s gut wrenching to watch, yet looking away is not an option.

Historical fans are a natural audience for this tale, but it will also resound with paranormal and contemporary fans who crave deeply emotionally stories. Fans of tear jerkers look no further, this is a must read for you. And the emotion is not gratuitous—I didn’t feel jerked around like I do with *certain* contemporary authors who play with my emotions. Each event in the plot is necessary, and the longing realistic. If you loved the Man From Stone Creek, this will resonate with you as this longing is also born of two people determined to do the right thing. Readers who enjoyed Bonnie Dee’s Captive Bride, a previous pick of the week for me and true keeper, will love this unusual historical. The paranormal elements here are subtle—this isn’t a werewolf tale and magic super powers aren’t what saves the day. I’m not a huge paranormal reader, and I felt right at home. Hiimin’s existence as a spirit is so tied to the Native culture that surrounds him that it feels almost . . . normal. I loved him even when he was a wolf because I immediately saw the missing pieces of Wren come to life.

I enjoyed Jager’s Petticoat western historical series, but this is clearly the book of her heart, and like with Dee’s Captive Bride, this only enhances the reader experience. Jager raises her craft to a new level here. With true keeper shelf novels, I *have* to re-read. Immediately. And so I did, and on the second read, I noticed more of the historical details that I missed when my heart was in my throat for Wren and Hiimin. My interest in Native culture led me to take a few anthropology courses in college, but I think I may have learned more about the Native experience pre-white man here. Readers who prefer historical heavy on the research will really love this. This book has broad appeal and deserves a wide audience. I absolutely can’t wait to read books 2 and 3 and be transported back to this unique place and moment in time.

*Jager includes a historical note that the Niimiipu, which is part of the Nez Perce tribe today, and the Blackleg, which is part of the Blackfeet tribe, had a deep seated distrust at the time of the story (1770), but that that is not the case today.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Still a Five Umbrella Read: These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

What was the very first Romance you read? How old were you? For me, I was ten or eleven, and I had long since read all the Little House Books except for this one, but my mother made me wait for this one (which considering the number of ten year olds reading all four Twilight books today, seems like a rather quaint notion). Anyhoo, I was home sick with nothing new to read, which for me was a plight worse than whatever yuck I was battling, and she brought These Happy Golden Years upstairs and read me the first few chapters aloud. It was to the be the first of dozens of re-reads for me. Even long after I won the right to peruse the adult stacks in the library, I returned to our dog-eared, pink copy copy of These Happy Golden Years again and again. It took up permanent residence on my bookshelf headboard. It sparked my lifelong love affair with Western Romances, and it led to my discovering the wide world of other Romance subgenres as I sought the same heady rush I felt witnessing the courtship of Laura and Almanzo develop.

My bookshelf headboard is long gone, as is my childhood room, but my mother's collection of Little House books remains. I was at her house earlier this week with a fussy baby and nothing to read while nursing, so I grabbed my old friend. It's been 15 years since I last read it, but unlike many books I read in my teens, it hasn't lost a bit of its charm. It has all the classic elements of a great romance: An older man. A young, spunky heroine who isn't at all certain that she likes him *that* way. A rival for his affections--the original Mean Girl Nellie Olsen. A harsh and unforgiving landscape. The subtle prose of Laura Ingalls Wilder infuses each glance and each greeting with layers of meaning. Those around Laura realize what is happening long before she allows herself to realize it.

The juxtaposition between her crippling homesickness as she begins her teaching career at the claim school, boarding with the terminally unhappy Brewster family, and her joy when she sees Almanzo's cutter emerge from the woods, sleigh bells ringing is one of the best moments of the book. From that moment on, readers root for "Young Mr. Wilder" to succeed in his slow courtship of the reluctant schoolteacher. I love the scene a few chapters later where Laura has to return to the school and wonders why Pa is not rushing to saddle the horses. He, and the readers, already know how Laura will getting back to school long before she hears the sleigh bells again. In all great Romances, the reader sees what the characters are blind to, and the wait for the characters to discover the inevitable is the best part of Romance reading.

Everything builds to what remains one of the best proposal scenes ever, when Almanzo finally, FINALLY touches her hand after dozens of buggy rides, and subtly asks if she might like an engagement ring. She cheekily replies, "It would depend on the man." Undeterred, he asks what if *he* were to offer one, and she says, "It would depend on the ring." The next week, he again takes her hand, and slips a ring on it, and even after all these years, my breathe still catches as we await her reply. The moment where she tells him, "You may kiss me goodnight," is just as fulfilling as love scenes spanning pages and pages. It's romance at its purest.

It is also comfort reading at its finest: the book that can never disappoint and that sucks me in even when I intended to only re-read a few paragraphs. Reading its yellowed pages, I will always be on the cusp of womanhood wondering about and longing for that magical first kiss.

What was the first Romance you read? What is your ultimate comfort read? Is These Happy Golden Years on YOUR keeper shelf?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Shoulda Been a Cowboy by Lorelei James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First up, this is a smoking hot, off the charts romantica offering--if you prefer something a little more mild, Charlotte Douglas has an awesome Harlequin American by the same title from 2006. But, if you are looking for a walk on the wild, wild west side, you can't get any better than this. Cam is my absolute favorite kind of hero--the wounded warrior with a giant chip on his shoulder because he's coming to terms with an life altering injury. I swear I'm not one of the weird disabled vet groupies that Cam complains about in the story, but there is something really sweet about seeing love blossom when one of the parties is far different from the normal hero model. Cam lost his leg in Iraq, and while he's found a satisfying new career as a deputy sheriff, he's held himself back from romantic relationships. Domini also holds herself back from romantic relationships for her own reasons, and like Cam, she is no stranger to war as she's from the Ukraine originally. The two have danced around each other for several years as friendly acquaintances, but Domini finally finds the courage to tell Cam what she *really* wants. Which turns out to be exactly what Cam wants and what he thought he wouldn't get again--the chance to be the one in control and in charge. And what follows is incredibly hot and sweet at the same time as both find ways to open up to more of their real selves.

This reads like two excellent books in one as the first half of the book is packed with smoking hot love scenes that push the boundaries, both for the characters and for the reader. Then, the second half of the book is much sweeter with far fewer love scenes as it explores what it means for these characters to move beyond a casual fling. This is where James really shines, and if the first half of the book is a bit too hot for you, you will really appreciate the way James slows things down and deals with the deeper issues confronting both characters. Unlike so many Romantica offerings that try convince readers that a lasting HEA can come from a weekend or two of hot lovin', James acknowledges that a real relationship requires more than sexual compatibility and that character growth requires time for both the H/h to be worthy of their HEA. I got a little misty at the epilogue as I really, truly believed in the changes shown for both and in the HEA. Smoking hot + emotional = Big Win.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Branded as Trouble by Lorelei James

I just can't quit this series . . .

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series is so addictive that even after not liking Tied Up, Tied Down I still could not take a break. This is one of the best romantica examples of the friends to lovers trope because it was so darned believable as to why they hadn't acted on their feelings yet. They have only known each other 3 years, and she has been his AA sponsor. But now he's well established in his sobriety, and their feelings just can't be denied. The love scenes are off-the charts smokin' as usual, but the over-the-top Alpha Man domination is tempered her by the emotions on both sides. I love Colt, and I don't usually love ex-addict and ex-man-whore heroes this much. However, I really believed that he had changed his ways. This is a really powerful read because both parties know going in that this more than casual, and the tension is in whether or not they can succeed in making it work. This read also works so well because we have both a tortured hero and tortured heroine--darkness abounds, yet the end message is one of resounding hope and love. Another awesome James read.

Four Umbrellas: Dream a Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm having a good time reading SEP's backlist via overdrive as her ebooks don't have a monster waitlist, and I'm guaranteed a great read (versus waiting for months for a book that ends up being a dud!) It's probable that I read this in the past as it felt comfortingly familiar, yet I was still surprised at some of the twists and turns. For a 15 year-old book, this story has held up remarkably well. The story of Rachel, the penniless widow of TV evangelist who bilked thousands of people out of millions of dollars, still feels relevant today. (Of course, if SEP were writing this today, Rachel would probably be the widow of a disgraced stock broker with a ponzi scheme . . .). SEP captured Rachel's desperation and willingness to do anything to help her child really well. Rachel's son Edward isn't the usual cute comic relief kid endemic to Romantic Comedy--instead he's a prickly, shy, difficult-to-love kid, which is perfect because he makes life that much more difficult for Gabe, Rachel's reluctant boss. Gabe is a grieving widow who lost his wife and young son in a tragic car accident. I love second-chance at love stories, and what I loved about this story is that SEP didn't marginalize or minimize Gabe's love for Cherry. Had she lived, he absolutely would have been happy in a once-in-a-lifetime way, but she didn't and now Gabe has to figure out how to go forward. So often in second-chance at love stories characters realize partway through the book that they didn't *really* love the previous spouse or that they were unfulfilled or unsatisfied in some really important way. That's not the case here, and I really appreciated that--Gabe's journey is more difficult as he has to decide if it's possible to have two loves-of-a-lifetime with two vastly different women. Gabe's brothers are the most annoying thing about the book, but they add needed conflict. His brother Ethan does get a really cute secondary love story that in true SEP fashion is just as enjoyable as the main plotline. A great romance classic by a legendary author!

Monday, March 14, 2011

5 Umbrellas: Notorious Pleasures by Elizabeth Hoyt

This week I'm talking about a slate of unusual books--books that don't fit easily into designated sub-genres. At first glance, Elizabeth Hoyt's books look like other British-set historical romances, but unlike the vast majority of them, her novels are Georgian rather than Victorian or Regency--set in the 1730s, complete with wigs and opulent decadence that would take several more monarchs to rein in. Prior to Hoyt, I never would have guessed that a Hero in a wig could be remotely sexy, but she makes the removal of the wig a symbolic unmasking and intimate act.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. The problem with finishing an Elizabeth Hoyt novel is that I immediately want 10 more, so I try to ration them out. However, I had just finished a deeply depressing read, and I needed the kind of guaranteed great read that I only trust a select few authors to deliver. In Notorious Pleasures, Hoyt takes a break from the dark and tortured heroes of her last few release to give us her spin on the Rake-and-Virgin plot that is as common as tea drinking in British historicals. Under Hoyt's deft handling however, this tired device perks up--perhaps simply a better brand of tea leaves or perhaps something subtle she adds to the brew.

For starters, Lady Hero is a Duke's daughter with every expectation of marrying to further rank and politics. She is simply too practical to fall in love. Lord Griffin Reading is brother to a Marquess and no stranger to duty either. He's my favorite kind of Rake--the Rake who really isn't. Of course, he also, kind of is, which is why Hero discovers him doing the horizontal waltz with someone else's wife at a Ball. She calls him "Lord Shameless." He calls her "Lady Perfect." And it's on.

And it's an awesome, merry chase that departs from many of the conventions and standbys of the Rake-and-Virgin trope. Most notably, there's no quickie marriage by unwilling parties found in a compromising position. No instead, what occurs is far messier, but also far more emotionally satisfying as Hoyt really makes these two bleed for their HEA. There's a scene towards the end of the book where Griffin just killed me with his raw emotions--I've re-read a half-dozen times just reveling in its impact. He begs, knowing it's futile, and lordy, I love a man willing to open up a vein for Heroine if that's what it takes--especially when he does it even knowing it's probably not going to work. It's a powerhouse love scene, possibly one of Hoyt's best ever, and this is the Queen of Powerhouse Love Scenes with incredible emotional impact.

What sets Hoyt apart is how she imbues her heroines with an innate sensuality--even the virgins like Hero acknowledge their curiosity and desires with more than just simpering and giggles. There's something very empowering about that, and it also adds an element of realism that's so often missing in Regencies (as I have long argued that very few women were *that* clueless). No, Hero owns her desires--she just knows that acting on them is pointless as she's not in control of her destiny.

This book would be an awesome introduction for readers new to Hoyt--the plot will feel familiar and comforting to fans of Liz Carlyle and Sabrina Jefferies et al, but it shows off Hoyt's unique voice well too. The book is only very loosely tied to the previous book, and that's probably my only quibble--we see the Makepeace siblings and the foundling home introduced in Wicked Intentions, and Silence continues the arc she began in that book, but her arc and the goings on of the home aren't really tied to the main plot. I would have liked to have seen the two arcs intersecting and requiring each other a bit more. The only other thing that bugged me a little was that Hero's brother, The Duke, seemed to do a very abrupt reversal at the end, which didn't seem in keeping with his character. However, I loved the Duke and all the secondary characters--I want to see a book for the Duke (because how can a Duke named Maximus NOT get his own book?), Phoebe, and Mags. There's a secondary love story as well, which Hoyt doesn't always include, but I love it when she does.

I don't like wishing away time, but I can't wait for November and the next installment. Hoyt is one of the brightest lights in the crowded historical genre, and she continues to be an auto-buy for me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Saving Battle Los Angeles with a Single Kiss

I went to see Battle Los Angeles on Saturday for my sixth Wedding Anniversary and first movie out since delivering a baby in July. Back in July we saw Knight and Day which also had a very high quotient of things blowing up and bad guys with guns. However, according to my husband, Knight and Day is a Chick Flick because there's a guy and girl and some kissing in addition to all the bad guys. Battle Los Angeles is not a Chick Flick at all. No, it is a Man Movie with a capital M. My previous standard for bad Man Movies I never want to sit through again is Master and Commander with Alamo close behind. These are well-made, gripping movies that make it hard to look away (read: not easy to knit through!), but they lack the underlying message of hope I require from my fiction. However, all is not lost! Battle Los Angeles actually had a lot of potential, and Hollywood can easily save movies like Battle Los Angles and ensure that more female viewers actually enjoy their date night movies by taking a cue from leading Romantic Suspense authors.

Allow me to start by summarizing Battle Los Angles for you: "Gee I'm getting old and should think of--" Holy crap! Explode! Machine Guns! Grunt! Grunt! More Explode! Never ending machine gun fire! Oh no! A Very Sad Thing! Grunt! Lots of Grunting! Rally the Troops With 30 seconds of Real Speech! Explode! Explode! Grunt! Grunt! "Back to war men!" There is about 4 minutes of movie where there is not gunfire.

There's very little real dialogue as it's all grunt-boom-grunt-shoot-grunt, but there is a very hunky aging marine who has dark and tortured potential as he's facing retirement and carrying the burden of loosing a whole team of men on a previous mission. He's surrounded by a group of wise-cracking younger marines, a number of whom seem to have interesting backstories that we catch a glimpse of in the 2 minutes before things start exploding. And we have two potential heroines, Sexy Civilian Lady, a veterinarian who shares a little spark with Hero Man when they dismember an alien. I think she's supposed to be the token love interest, but we also have stock sassy female military officer who has access to some key intelligence and while new to field work, she has the potential to save the day.

The easiest way to fix this movie is with a single kiss. Or just a truly smoldering look. I'll call this the Julia Spencer Fleming treatment. The camera could linger on Sexy Vet and our hero as she volunteers to help him figure out how to kill the nasty baddies. He's impressed with her gumption, and all we need are a few more intense looks to amp this up. A lingering touch as he helps her evacuate. There's an awkward scene in the movie where she tells him he's injured--a RS writer would make this scene more than just a transition to more bad-ass explosion. She could patch him up with her basic medical skills, allowing more smoldering glances and rising tension. Lots of this-isn't-the-time-or-place looks and another meaningful touch or two, especially when A Very Sad Thing Happens, would be all it would take to add sexual tension and a genuine romance without loosing a single explosion or grunted order. Then, at the very end, the hero and heroine's eyes could meet in blatant acknowledgement of what could be. This would be an awesome ending with sequel potential, but we could also have the classic ending of heroine sees Big Dirty and Alive Marine Man still alive. She catches his eyes, he pauses, she pauses, then suddenly she's in his arms with a long emotional kiss. Camera pans out. Roll the credits with the way the movie currently ends. Lots more people would leave the theater happy, guaranteed. Because going out to kick more alien butt isn't as satisfying without something new worth fighting for. (Julia Spencer Fleming's next book, One Was a Soldier is coming out soon, and it promises to have a lot fewer explosions, and a lot more emotional impact, as do the rest of her awesome Miller's Kill series.)

A bit more complex fix would be to address the pacing issue of the movie and give it the Cindy Gerad/Suzanne Brockmann treatment. In the Suzanne Brockmann treatment, Sexy Hero Man gets more backstory with a flashback or flashforward that shows him at his most heroic, and his relationship with the men is explored a little more as the action slows down--they find a safe place to regroup and instead of grunting, they come up with a new strategy. Sexy Vet Lady is a distraction, and hero knows he's far too broken for her, but still he admires her gumption. Explode. Action. Lots of Gunfire. The world is ending, but there's a tiny sliver of hope. Oh no hope is snatched away! Plan B! We'll have to hole up here for X number of hours. The explode-and-shoot fans grunt off in search of more popcorn, but now we have a chance for a little relationship development. She tends to his wounds, offers an idea that at first appears crazy, then seems like it might work. He fights with his men. She goes after him. We have something more than language and blood to justify that PG-13 rating, then it's back to the explode and shoot that the manly men paid for. Because we're doing this Brockmann style, we have some nice subplots among the grunts as they work together to save everyone's butts and some subplot romantic tension between the Spunky Airforce Girl and the Marine Who Doesn't Want To Die a Virgin. Lots more explosions, then the movie can have its current ending with an added "why don't you find me later, Big Daddy" glance between Hero and Sexy Vet Lady. Everyone goes home happy. (We're days away from Suzanne Brockmann's new book, Breaking the Rules, where things will almost certainly explode, guns will be fired, and everyone will indeed go home happy. )

If we handed the script to Cindy Gerard, she would follow Brockmann's lead and keep all the band-of-brothers male bonding, but she'd have our intrepid warriors even more cut-off from the rest of the military as they realize that all that patriotic music doesn't mean a thing if the USMC isn't getting the job done. It's time to go rogue against the baddies from outer space, and Hero is just the man to do it. Too bad he's got hot young spunky Air Force Girl in his face telling him otherwise. We get a nice little romantic triangle tension with Lt. Red Shirt in the mix and the Lady Vet, but as the clock winds down, Hero needs Air Force Girl to help him save the world--and himself. They end up holed up again. This is really key. Constant explosions are not conducive to anything other than hearing loss and indigestion. But, since the Man Movie ticket payers need some Boom Boom, we'll send a team of men out to create some havoc while we give Hero and Air Force Girl a chance to work together. They fight. More things explode. He has a moment with Lady Vet, but realizes that no one that soft will ever get him. Spunky Girl gets in his face. They have a longer moment, and she gives him a little top secret intel. Lots more explosions. Lots of shooting. Air Force Girl and Marine Man going rogue save the day. Movie can end as it currently does with the addition of one sexy look between the two, maybe a butt slap that's a little more than go-team-go. (Cindy Gerard's latest heroine who kicks as much butt as her hero is out now with Risk No Secrets, with another book coming in July, and she too promises to send everyone home happy.)

Hollywood could make life much easier (and profitable!) by simply consulting more romance authors who know what audiences REALLY want. Note that with ticket prices now around $10, rather than sitting through Battle Los Angles, you can easily justify stopping by the bookstore on the way home with something *just* for you.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Strong, Silent Type by Lorelei James

It's my sixth wedding anniversary today, so I have to share a beautiful (and super sexy!) reunion story that underscores that even the best HEA requires both parties to keep working at it, something my wonderful husband really gets.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars. This is pretty much the perfect short-and-sexy novella, an incredibly hard sub-genre to do well. Libby and Quinn have been together for 14 years, and there's no doubting their love for each other. This is important because one of the big problems with the short form is believing that characters can really reach HEA in less than 100 pages and in just a few days. But, since Quinn and Libby have such a rich backstory, their reconciliation makes perfect sense, and their past gives everything much more emotional intensity than you usually see in a novella. Their future together is on the line because they've grown apart in recent years, due in large part to a lengthy battle with infertility.

Quinn is also one of the most believable heroes as like millions of men, he struggles mightily to open up and really talk with his wife. He kept hoping that their problems would solve themselves or blow over, and he was dumbfounded when they got worse, not better. However, he's finally decided to do what it takes to win back his wife, and in the process he figures out how to be more comfortable with his true self. Of course, this is Lorelei James who turns the sexy up to 12 and amps her heroes several notches above Alpha, so in addition to being one of the sweetest reunion stories, it's also one of the hottest.

My only quibble with the whole story was the scene where Libby gets busy with Quinn while he's driving. The road-sex scene seems to be popping up in loads of sexy books, and I have a problem every time I encounter it. It's just not sexy for me when the hero later confesses, "I almost wrecked the truck twice!" Pull over. They're on a country road at night, so pulling over shouldn't be a big hassle. However, this seems to be a big fantasy for lots of people, and James does write this scene really well.

This is romantica, intended for mature audiences, and it's full of smoking hot love scenes that don't hold anything back. If that's not your cup of tea, you may want to look for a sweeter and tamer cowboy love story (Can I suggest Paty Jager who does that kind of story remarkably well?). However, if you are in the mood for a sexy story that packs an emotional wallop, this is absolutely perfect. I don't encounter many stories that I want to share with my husband, but this is one I'll be loading on his android in the hopes that he too enjoys James's underlying message that marriage IS a ton of work, even when it's your once-in-a-lifetime HEA, but the payoff is well worth it. Which we already knew!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mad Hero Pick of the Week: Sweet as Sin by Inez Kelley

It's Five Umbrella Friday, and I have a very special pick to finish off Mad Heroes week. Murphy is now one of my all-time favorite "Mad" heroes, and he's brought to us by author who's not afraid to go super-dark with him to chase down all his demons. Like the Serpent Prince and other "mad" hero tales, Murphy tries to cast Livvy as his "angel," but Livvy refuses to serve as his ideal, settling for nothing less than true partnership. This book is a monsoon-must keeper for me.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kelley delivers what so many contemporaries fall far short of. One of the reasons why I have preferred historicals in recent years is the inability of many contemporaries to sustain believable conflict and to achieve deep emotional impact. Romantic suspense has the advantage of serial killers and baddies running around, but straight up contemporaries often end up relying on misunderstandings and secrets in place of real barriers keeping hero and heroine apart. Kelley deftly avoids these common traps, and Sweet as Sin is a rare gem--a sexy, weepy, funny, gut wrenching, intense read. If it were a baked good, it would be front and center in heroine Livvy's bakery, The Sugar Shack. Readers of Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve who usually stick to deep women's fiction will find plenty to enjoy here, as well as Contemporary fans starving for something a little meatier.

At first glance, Sweet as Sin is your basic oil-and-water Neighbors-to-lovers story. Sunny, upbeat, bakery owner Livvy meets her new neighbor, the dark and broodingly handsome, "Master of Monsters," YA author, John Murphy, in one of the best meet-cute and opening hooks ever. However, thanks to a deeply tortured hero, it transcends the basic neighbors trope to achieve something far deeper. Like another great neighbor story, Susan Kay Law's incredible The Paper Marriage, a seemingly insurmountable barrier to HEA suffuses the novel with a near-palpable sense of longing.

The first half of the novel slowly builds this up as we peel away the layers of mystery surrounding Murphy. Even if, like me, you generally prefer a faster pace, stick with it as Kelley makes sure that every single scene has a reason and purpose that is revealed in the second half of the book--even quiet little scenes have huge impact later on, leading up to one of the most devastating black moments ever.

The "villains" of the story are Murphy's considerable personal demons. Murphy doesn't just write about Monsters--he lives with them in his head, and Kelley navigates a delicate path between mental illness and deeply tortured eccentric with creative coping skills. Without giving away any spoilers, I love that Kelley never gives him an easy way out, even in the end--there's no magic bullet solution for Murphy and his problems don't miraculously disappear just because he gets some ridiculously hot lovin' from Livvy.

As is common for heroes this tortured and slightly "mad," Murphy casts Livvy as his angel, someone too good for his dark soul. For her part, however, Livvy refuses to be reduced to an ideal. She's not without her own issues (and has a nice character growth arc), but this is really Murphy's book. The excerpts from the book that Murphy is working on add something really special to the novel. The book-within-the-book ply doesn't always work as well as it does here, but Kelley manages to achieve a unique voice for the monsters that truly seems to come from Murphy, not her.

There are probably some readers who might tire of the food metaphors and imagery that Kelley carries through the novel, but I felt that really added to the lyrical feel of the book and very much fit Livvy's personality--her identity as a Baker is her whole life until Murphy shows up, and she makes sense of him and what she feels using the language she is most comfortable with.

Kelley manages to lighten up what could be an even darker tale with little touches of humor. The secondary characters help balance out Murphy and Livvy and several interesting subplots. Several smoking hot love scenes are also lightened with a little humor, and the emotions infusing these scenes tremendously added to their impact (and also give them broader appeal as nothing is gratuitous).

This book represents everything that's been missing from the contemporary genre, and Kelley is a remarkable talent, one who is certainly on my auto-buy list now. Kelley seems to write from deep in her heart, and this will resonate with a broad spectrum of readers. I simply could not let go of this story--I immediately read it cover to cover a second time, and Murphy is going to stick with me for a very long time.

P.S. SMALL SPOILER--Sticking this at the end so that the spoiler-phobic can avoid it all together, but I have to give Kelley a HUGE round of applause for mentioning the tools Murphy has available to help him with his demons. Very few authors would take the risk of mentioning medication and therapy, but acknowledging the possible benefits of these tools makes the story more believable and adds to Murphy's strength rather than detracting from it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mad Hero Week: The MacKenzie Brothers

Jennifer Ashley does "mad" heroes so well that she's given readers a whole family of mad men. The Mackenzie brothers are each mad in their own special ways. Lord Ian MacKenzie from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is the most obviously "mad," and one of the most unusual historical heroes as he clearly suffers from something that today would be labeled aspberger's syndrome. His brothers have protected him and helped him cope with living in a harsh world, one where his own father had him committed to an asylum. However, he's not the only one in his family struggling with "madness." His brother "Mac" Mackenzie from Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage has his own demons. When we meet Mac, he's newly sober after a long battle with alcoholism that's cost him his marriage. Victorian England neither understood addiction nor appreciated the struggles of sobriety, making Mac's recovery all that more remarkable. In addition, like Ned in Trial by Desire, Mac seems to have elements of what today would be labeled bipolar disorder. Luckily, Ashley gives each of these brothers the perfect heroine to help them cope. Both heroines expect more from their Mackenzie man, forcing each to grow beyond previous limitations. The depth of their affections for their ladies is what sets these heroes apart and makes them both keeper shelf winners.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage first and absolutely loved that book, so I started in on Ashley's backlist. While this book didn't disappoint, I did like Lady Isabella's story a bit more. However, it is absolutely wonderful to discover an author who grows with each subsequent book--the writing in Lady Isabella is much crisper, the POV's more delineated, the emotions and stakes higher. I love watching good authors get even better instead of just resting on their laurels. Lord Ian was almost too complex for me, but Ashley does a great job of making us believe that Beth is the perfect woman for him. I think her life post-HEA may be a little harder than most HEA's, it's also much more realistic. In the end, we all have to love the partner we have, not the partner we might wish he was.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely loved this, and I'm hoping that her backlist lives up to the tremendous potential here as this is the first work by her that I have read. I didn't feel like I needed to read the first book to understand the characters which is always a plus as I usually hate reading things out of order.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mad Hero Week: Trial by Desire

Mad Hero week continues with one of my favorite heroes, Ned from Courtney Milan's Trial by Desire. Ned stands out from other "Mad" heroes because he both knows that there's something "off" about him and actively fights against him. When we meet Ned in Milan's first book, Proof by Seduction, he already knows that he battles both lengthy dark moods and periods of impulsivity. In a world without modern pharmaceuticals, Ned turns to a fortune teller, in part because he is desperate to know that things will get better for him. By Trial by Desire, he's grabbed the reins of his own destiny and learned coping mechanisms for dealing with the two sides of his nature. Ned is different from other "mad" heroes in that he doesn't see his heroine as his salvation--instead, he sees her as temptation back into instability. His determination to master his demons is what makes him a great hero.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just can't recommend this rising star enough. Milan has such a gift for POV and banter that she's an excellent choice for those who don't typically read Regency/historical. What I love about both this book and Proof by Seduction (which is helpful to read first as Ned and Kate first appear in that book) is that there is Milan deftly avoids "magic wand syndrome" as she deals with complex characters and issues. Ned deals with serious depression which is almost unheard of for heroes in the entire romance genre, and especially so for regency heroes. It would be easy to cast Kate as the magical cure for his illness, but the reality and resolution are so much complex than that. And ultimately more satisfying. Also unique is the fact that Ned is afraid of his own desires--not because he's afraid of terrifying the typical virginal heroine, but because of what that means for him. Such a unique spin and so deftly handled. Milan reaches deep to wring every last drop of emotion from her characters ala Julia Quinn, which I just love.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mad Hero Week: The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

I've encountered all sorts of heroes over the years: Keeper Shelf Heroes--the ones I would like to marry myself, along with the ones who, while not being someone I'd want to go grocery shopping with, are just perfect for their particular heroine. Then there's your average likable hero and his counter-part average tortured hero, both of whom make for good reading. Average heroes also have sexy cousins, Good for a Long Weekend Alpha Heroes. Of course, there are stacks of Did Not Finish Heroes, the ones so unsympathetic, unlikeable, or just poorly drawn that books hit walls long before HEA. And then are heroes who are quite simply . . . crazy. Insane. Mad. A hare beyond unstable. A modern psychologist's mortgage payment worth of DSM-IV diagnoses waiting to happen. And most of these heroes end up hitting my wall, but there are the rare few crazy heroes who are also absolutely, 100% keeper shelf heroes. And I'm going to spend this week looking at some of my favorites, ending with my pick of the week, a new hero who will never leave my keeper shelf. Do you have a favorite "mad" hero?

Let's start with The Serpent Prince which exemplifies many of the themes common to successful Mad Heroes.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simon, Viscount Iddesleigh is little bit . . .crazy. Unstable. In the 1760s, he gets the luxury of being labeled an eccentric Rakehell, but if you transplanted him to 2011, he'd make a team of psychologists (and lawyers!) very happy. But this is an Elizabeth Hoyt book, so instead of being insufferable and a recipe for a DNF wall-banging mess, this ends up being a haunting character study underscored derby the joining of two soul mates.

Simon kept reminding me of Prince Poppycock from America's Got Talent (Fall 2010)--dripping Georgian splendor with an assumed character serving as a facade for a deeply insecure young man. Simon hides behind his wigs and lavishly embroidered coats and frivolous shoes, all the while nursing a deep hurt that he simply won't (or can't) allow to heal. However, luckily for Simon, Lucy meets him when he is without a shred of his usual armor--in fact he is naked, unconscious, and in a country village far from his London existence. Here, he is free to be Simon, just Simon, a fact that both makes him extremely uncomfortable and also frees him to connect with Lucy.

Lucy is also having trouble being herself, but for her it lies in being confined to a village too small for her dreams. With Simon, she can be herself, freed from the role of near-spinster being courted by a too-dull-for-words vicar. Beyond her dissatisfaction with what appears to be her fate, Lucy is a blessedly normal soul with deep loyalty and intrinsic inner strength. This seems to be a common thread among heroines who must find a believable HEA with a slightly-off-kilter hero--she is strong enough to deal with his issues and isn't saddled with many of her own.

In a nice twist for the usual reformed Rakehell plot, Simon falls in love with Lucy very quickly. He doesn't fight his emotions (after all, this is man ruled by his strong emotions), but he does fight against acting upon them as he doesn't want to burden Lucy with his blackened soul. Simon believes that his actions in seeking revenge for his brother's murder have damned him, yet he feels powerless to alter his course. His revenge is tearing him apart, and is indeed endangering his soul, if not his chances of eternal salvation.

Luckily, this dark soul casts Lucy as his angel--another theme common to mad heroes. He falls in love with an idealized version of Lucy, one who is pure and perfect. She makes him strive to be a better man, even though he must struggle against his demons to do so. At times Simon revels in his identity as a tainted Rakehell seducing an innocent angel, and at others, he takes Lucy's forgiveness for granted, because, of course, his angel will always forgive him. What happens when his angel reveals herself to be a woman with a stricter moral code than his own, one who refuses to believe that Simon has no choice but to follow his demons to hell, now that is the real story and one more than worth reading.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Four Umbrellas for Tessa's Pride by Olivia Brynn

In the mood for a quick cowboy read with a self-rescuing cowgirl heroine? Saddle up for a short, steamy, and sweet read!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely have to hand it to Carina--they are turning out some top notch novellas. Novellas are such tricky things to get right, and I've been disappointed by many a big-name novella anthology in the past. I like Carina's strategy of marketing novellas by themselves so that readers can pick and choose and not end up paying for an anthology with only one good story. However, if I found Olivia Brynn's novella here in a full-priced anthology, I would still feel like I got a good deal, as it's an excellent example of what a great novella can be: short, sweet, sexy, with a bit of intrigue to keep the pace fast and to balance out the sexy, and believable conflict between the characters that lends itself to a fairly quick resolution in 100 pages.

If you like Harlequin American romances, but wish they were a wee bit steamier, or enjoy Linda Lael Miller's contemporary westerns, you will enjoy this story very much. Tessa currently owns the ranch that has been in Josh's family for generations, but a mysterious illness has ravaged her stock of horses, leaving her bankrupt and facing sale. She previously shared a single steamy afternoon with Josh, but he left town shortly thereafter, and she's not too happy to see him back, even if he seems to be the only hope of saving the ranch.

This backdrop of the conflict of the fate of the ranch, redeeming Tessa's reputation (and her lost pride), and finding out what happened to the horses was very well done and elevated what could have been a ho-hum reunion story to a real page turner. However, Tessa and Josh's past ensured that their quick progression from animosity to lovers was believable and added emotion. The loves scenes were very well done, steamy but sweet. I particularly liked how the usually-alpha Josh let Tessa be in charge because he understood that that was what she needed then.

My only small quibble was with the ending--I felt like Josh should have stepped up to the plate more, and the epilogue didn't quite fit with Tessa's personality throughout the story. However, Tessa's empowered choices fit with the theme of the story, and the epilogue was unusually steamy, which is always nice to see. Brynn does a wonderful job of keeping Tessa strong and allowing her to solve her own problems--even though Josh has come to help, it's really Tessa who saves the day. She needs her White Knight for moral support and good advice, but she's the heroine of her own tale, which is the best kind of fairytale. I look forward to reading more from Brynn!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: Captive Bride by Bonnie Dee

Red absolutely, positively must read this book. Despite telling me she's "over San Fransisco," she will love how well done the historical details are in this compelling tale. I'm so happy to share it with her (and all of you!).

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are times when I think that I might be a *bit* too generous with five star reviews, but then there are other times when five stars doesn't seem nearly enough to express just how much a particular work moved me. I know that AAR uses "desert isle keepers" and as I'm in the Pacific Northwest, I think I'll call it a monsoon-must. Bonnie Dee earned every point of this five star review with an emotional tale of forbidden longing and loneliness. It's 1870 and Huiann has come to San Fransisco from China marry a wealthy businessman only to learn that she's been deceived: her wealthy businessman is, in fact, a brothel owner and intends to sell Huiann to the highest bidder. Huiann manages to get free and runs away, right into Alan's general store. Alan owns a General Store in San Fransisco because it was the last stop on the train west, and after the Civil War, he just kept heading west in an effort to outrun his inner demons. He immediately does the right thing when Huiann appears and hides her--and I loved this about him. There was no second-guessing, no "are you sure you're really in trouble," no convincing needed--he grasped that she was in trouble, believed her, and hid her.

Alan is attracted to her from the beginning, but he fights very hard against this, because he knows what she's escaped from, and he's well-aware that there's no future for them. But he keeps her on as his housekeeper, and what follows is one the most unlikely and beautiful friendship-to-love stories. Early on, there is a scene where they have a conversation--each one speaking in his/her native tongue, completely unable to understand each other's words, yet revealing deep, painful secrets precisely because there is no chance of censor. And, actually, they understand each other perfectly. Dee manages to convey more emotion with a single glance or bowl of soup than many authors wring out of multi-page love scenes. When Alan and Huiann finally give into their passion, it is a beautiful union--these are some of the most loving, emotional love scenes I have read. Which is strange really, because love scenes should be filled with love, but oftentimes they serve a different purpose to the story. But, here it is all about unspoken love.

Dee captures 1870 San Fransisco remarkably well, but what I loved were all the day-to-day living details. I could easily picture the general store and the attached quarters that become Huiann's whole world for most of the novel. So often historical fiction gloss over unpleasant details, but Dee understands that the smell of the streets, the crowdedness of the courtyard which is anything but picturesque, the crumbly walls, and impossibility of doing laundry in a tiny space, all add immeasurably to the impact of this tale. I loved too that she didn't feel the need to give us a history lesson on San Fransisco--each detail included was relevant. So many late 1800s books set in SF feel the need to mention the opium trade even if it has no relevance to the plot. It's not relevant here, so Dee focuses on what is--small-time city politics, the Chinese sex-trade industry (which all things considered plays a very, very small role), general store operations, dress making, and food.

The realism continues with the character arcs. The language barrier persists throughout the book, which made everything feel more authentic. I have read many inter-cultural love stories where about 1/4 of the way through the book, suddenly one of the parties seems to locate a star trek transponder or decoder ring, and the parties are conversing as if they've always spoken each other's language. That's not the case here, and by keeping Huiann's acquisition of language gradual, Dee has to deliver through gestures and inner-thoughts. With such a hurdle, it would be easy to let the pacing suffer, but this was a fast read, with the backdrop of the risk to Huiann if she is discovered keeping the tension high. Dee moves us through several months seamlessly, which also felt authentic--these are two very shy, very lonely, very scarred individuals, and even though the attraction is there, they aren't going to act on it overnight.

She also managed to make them feel very true to their time period--Alan totally felt like an 1870's man, not a 2011 Alpha Male deluxe archetype inserted into a historical. Huiann doesn't suddenly become westernized, but she's also not a stereotypical Chinese woman of the time period. Her belief system doesn't change just because she loves Alan--it expands to incorporate him and vice versa. This was just beautifully handled. If you love Susan Wiggs's early historicals set in this time period, you will adore this book as she captures a similar tone and feel. If you love unusual love stories of any genre, you are in for a treat with this lovely tale. This is one of those books that I want to chase down my friends and MAKE them read it because I want more people to talk about it with.