Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Collision Course by Zoe Archer

Today's pick is an awesome Space Opera Romance that will have all you Firefly and Battlestar fans standing up and cheering. I debated whether or not to make this my pick of the week or my short pick as this is a little longer than some novellas at 150 pages, but shorter than most ST books. It's the length of most shorter category books, and I read it a single evening, so I went with "short." Regardless, it is made of awesome and highly recommended.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday Short Pick of the Week at Cloudy with a Chance of Books 4/30/20011

4.5 Stars. If you haven’t read Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, you are missing out on one of the most unique voices writing Romance today as she really defies genre classification. That particular series is a historical/fantasy/steam punk/paranormal/ultra-sexy blend of pure awesome. Collision Course is a category/long-novella length Sci-Fi Romance which channels the best of TV Space Operas. If you are a fan of Firefly, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, and the Star Wars Franchise, but really wish there was more focus on the relationship and some very NC-17 love scenes, then you will absolutely ADORE this book and wish it was three times as long.

Mara Skiren is a space scavenger, eeking out a solitary living on her beloved RV sized ship and trying to stay out of the conflict between the 8th Wing resistance fighters and the PRAXIS quasi-governmental forces. Kell Frayne is one of those pesky 8th Wing pilots who want to disturb Mara’s quiet black market living by drafting her to retrieve an 8th Wing pilot and her plane from the Smoke Quadrant—the hub of the blackmarket smugglers.

Now, one of the reasons why I love to watch Sci-Fi but rarely read it is because of all the vocabulary and strange terms—-it often feels like one needs to pick up a second language just to enjoy a story. A lot of Sci-fi writers seem to delight in giving everything a techy name and in extolling the gadgets and inventions of their imaginations while the story languishes and suffers. Archer avoids this pitfall by keeping a lot of details familiar enough to avoid confusion, using similar sounding names, and keeping the techy speak to a minimum. She’s definitely of the Ron Moore (Battlestar creator) school of Sci-Fi writing and focuses on creating a compelling drama that transcends the Sci-Fi setting.

Archer excels at creating kick-butt heroines of the self-rescuing variety who are skilled at what they do and supremely confident in those skills. Mara knows that she’s an ace pilot, and more importantly, Kell knows it too. His trust in her unique skills, goes against his usual MO, but he trusts his instincts where Mara is concerned, and she doesn’t let him down. She rescues him just as many times as he rescues her. They each get a turn being the hero of this particular tale, which makes the action sequences that much more fun and unpredictable. The two are trapped together on her tiny ship, and Kell also trusts his instincts where his attraction to Mara is concerned. Much hotness ensues. Like the majority of Archer’s heroines, Mara is unabashedly sexual and very much an equal partner in that arena. Both Kell and Mara, however, are blindsided by the emotions that go beyond lust. These emotions also color the action scenes, which are very well done with cinematic overtones. The penultimate fight scene played out like the best action movie climaxes.

If you haven’t read Archer, this quick but meaty tale is a great introduction to her talents, and if you are an Archer fan wondering if you should follow her into this genre, the answer is a resounding YES. The amount of action (not *that* kind, although there is plenty of that too) makes her writing appeal to men and those who don’t read a lot of romance. (I recommended both this and the Blades of the Rose to my father with a mumbled warning about the heat level.) I’m not sure if Archer plans on returning to the 8th Wing amid her other series obligations, but I’d love to see a story for Lieutenant Jur (the kidnapped pilot) and other stories set in this universe. It seems a darn shame to only visit it once.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two Umbrellas: Dear Sir, I'm Yours by Joely Sue Burkhart

I really wanted to love this author, and I think I still might. Perhaps this wasn't the best introduction to her. If you've read her, feel free to recommend a different title for me to try. Do you have a favorite author who failed to wow you on the first book you tried? When I like an author's voice and feel like their writing is otherwise strong, I usually try to give them 2 or 3 outings when I can. Admittedly, this is more true when I can try them through the library or used bookstore! But, still I like to try to be fair.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought this on the strength of an awesome excerpt in the back of another Samhain book and an awesome blurb. Burkhart has a great premise here: former student had a brief kinky encounter with her professor, reconnects several years later when both are (supposedly) more ready for a real relationship. She's also got a strong voice and great characterization, but where this read really came apart for me was heroine. It's been a long time since I encountered a heroine that I felt was simply too damaged for a HEA, but Rae falls into that category. She ran away from Conn five years ago because she was too scared by what he made her feel and was too scared to explore her kinky side. I get that, and at 21, it was probably the smartest thing she could do, but at 26, she's still all kinds of messed up and as fragile as a newborn colt, with an alarming tendency to bolt whenever she feels anything that makes her the least bit uncomfortable.

This isn't unheard of in romance, but Conn still wants to have a kinky relationship (and despite his protests, I don't think he would have been happy with anything less) and believes that this is what Rae needs. But, I ended up feeling that what Rae really needs is several months of intensive counseling. She has issues beyond what she can work out with Conn--why did she run away from him only to immediately end up with another dominating male? Why does she flee from uncomfortable situations? For this part, why did Conn wait five years to find her? They still both lived in the same medium sized town/area. He's been fixated on her the whole time--to the point of seeking out "lessons" on how to be a better dom and collecting items that he only intends to use with Rae. He seemed borderline stalker-ish, especially in light of Rae's issues.

It shouldn't feel like the characters are dancing across a frozen lake with no ice skates as they navigate what should be sexy scenes. A little reluctance is one thing, but Rae's issues seem far deeper. And perhaps, if the plot had focused a lot more on just Rae and Conn and their relationship with more encounters, we could have seen more of a change in her. But, there's a lot of other stuff happening in the plot, some of which is really funny like the haunted house, but it ends up detracting from the relationship. Burkhart does, however, seem to have a real gift for comedy and secondary characters, so I think I would probably appreciate the secondary plots more in a different book. She's also inventive and her engaging voice kept me reading whereas I otherwise would have put the book down. I'm going to give her another try as I *really* want to love her. Accepting recommendations of other titles of hers that I might like more!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Raising Kane by Lorelei James

Y'all knew I couldn't make the whole week without a Lorelei James review. Raising Kane is now out in paperback, and Lorelei James is busy giving away copies and celebrating its paper release. Click the link to find out more! We're also counting down to Chasin' Eight which is out June 30th!

Raising Kane (Rough Riders, #9)Raising Kane by Lorelei James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t sure I would like Raising Kane at all, and I actually read it after finishing the rest of the series. I didn’t like Kane’s twin brother’s story, and Kane himself is a bit of an abrasive lout the first four or five books of the series. But, I should have trusted James more—she redeems Kane quiet nicely, and I truly believed that he had repented for his earlier mistakes. In fact, he’s been doing a bit of penance for the last several years—living isolated in his trailer, doing the crap jobs around the ranch, and participating in the Little Buddies program to mentor boys. This is how he meets Ginger, a statuesque lawyer and her son. He’s attracted to her, but feels out of her league and also wants to stay within the ethical boundaries of the program. This all changes when he puts on his white knight suit after Ginger injures herself. I always love curvy heroines, and I really appreciate when authors craft heroines who reflect the diversity female body types. Ginger is tall and stacked, and Kane loves that about her—I liked that he was openly lusting after her rather than suddenly coming to appreciate her charms. Because Ginger is a bit of a control freak in her everyday life, Kane quickly figures out that she needs an avenue where she can surrender control—to him. And lots of five alarm fire love scenes follow, but this is also a really sweet story about a cowboy who finds a family of his own and realizes what he’s been missing. Headed straight for my keeper shelf! [This story is intended for mature readers and includes all sorts of graphic love scenes—wear your heat proof gloves while reading!]

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Five Umbrellas: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

Happy Release Day to Megan McCafferty! It's always exciting when one of my favorite authors begins a new series, and Bumped is an impressive departure from the Jessica Darling series. This diabolical satire is highly recommended, even for those who never venture into the YA section. (Note: This would easily be a pick-of-the-week for me, but I wanted to get the review up on release day. It's a monsoon-must for me as I can't wait for Book 2.)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bumped is going to make a lot of people very upset, and that is an AWESOME thing. Megan McCafferty has crafted a dystopian universe where teens are the only ones who can get pregnant and their babies are prized commodities. I don’t read a lot of dystopian fiction because it is often too dark and depressing for my tastes. There is nothing depressing about this tale as it is packed with McCafferty’s trademark snarky wit and sympathetic characters. Sure, the alternate-reality near-future in which the characters live is a bit bleak, but honestly, it’s only a more extreme version of our present society. This is part of the diabolical appeal of the book and the part that will surely lead to lots of controversy: amid all the humor and exaggeration is a bitingly honest commentary on modern society and our current values.

McCafferty states in the forward that she was inspired in part by 16 and Pregnant, but this book is about so much more than just teen pregnancy taken to the extreme. It’s also about the commercialization of absolutely everything from sex to religion and how a variety of different characters cope with this interconnected world surprisingly devoid of real connection. At the center of the book are twins separated at birth. Melody has been raised by the sort of high-achieving parents who typify the worst of this status-driven society. Harmony, in contrast, has been raised by a religious sect that sees themselves as residing in Goodside and everyone else as residing in Otherworld. Harmony and Melody share the narration duties with each displaying a unique first-person POV. (And I have to add that each is completely different from Jessica Darling, the first-person narrator of McCafferty's bestselling series. Some authors who work in first-person end up with protagonists who all sound the same. That's not the case for McCafferty who has two very different voices at work here.)

Harmony arrives on Melody’s doorstep, allegedly to save Melody from her decision to “go pro” and take advantage of her most valuable asset: her fertility. Melody's limited window of fertility has been sold to the highest bidder by a baby broker, but Melody has yet to actually “bump” with the intended sperm donor. Instead, she spends her days helping run the Pro-Am teen pregnancy alliance and waiting to get her own bump. In a society where pre-teen girls wear fake bumps and other girls have bumping parties, she feels a bit like an outsider. Harmony also feels like an outsider in Goodside as she’s an unmarried old maid at 16 who can’t seem to get with the program of arranged marriages and baby making. Both sides idolize teen fertility and center around how to maximize it—they just have radically different ideas as to how it should be utilized.

Harmony and Melody re-connect at a critical point in both of their lives and influence each other’s journeys in very unexpected ways. This is an incredibly readable book—I read it in a single sitting (staying up way too late!), and it’s also totally gripping for adult years as well as the target teen audience. McCafferty has always excelled in cross-over fiction that appeals both to older teens and to adult readers. This particular offering would make an awesome selection for a mother-daughter book club, teen book club, or a progressive book club looking for an unusual title sure to spark a lot of discussion. Due to the subject matter, I’m not sure if I would recommend it to younger teen readers—I know that my 7th or 8th grade self would have LOVED the book, but it might be best shared with a parent for a mini-book club discussion. Older teens will see their friends and celebrities reflected in the archetypes in the book and will “get” McCafferty’s biting satire and wit.

Very conservative families will probably not share McCafferty’s humor, and I can see it being on the “banned” book list. However, this would be a darned shame as this book NEEDS to make adults uncomfortable and NEEDS to make us question the values present in our current society. There are a lot of parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale which became a critic’s darling, book club classic, and is now a staple of feminist literature classes. It would be easy to dismiss Bumped as “just” YA comedy, but that would be marginalizing the hidden value of this book, which is way more accessible than The Handmaiden’s Tale but no less diabolical. Adults who loved Atwood’s tale should check this out as it shows a completely different outcome to a similar dystopian dilemma. And, as bonus, it is hysterically funny in places AND is the opener for what looks to be an awesome series. It ends on a cliffhanger that outdoes even McCafferty’s usual penchant for cliffhanger endings. Our characters are in hilarious peril! Quick! To the sequel! (Which I will be pre-ordering as soon as it becomes available.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Umbrellas: Perfect Murder by Brenda Novak

It's always tough to pick the perfect book to showcase a great author. I love Brenda Novak, love her writing, but just didn't connect with these characters as much. Stay tuned for June though, because her new release, Inside, blew my socks off, and I'll be reviewing that closer to her release date. Just for fun, pick a great author on your keeper shelf, and tell me the title you always recommend to new readers AND one that you don't love *quite* as much as the rest of that author's back list. If you happen to have read Perfect Murder, feel free to try to change my mind about Sebastian in the comments!

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brenda Novak is one of the finest Romantic Suspense authors writing today—she writes intense, character driven plots. I’m having a great time working my way through her backlist and found this title on Overdrive for my nook. Perfect Murder is almost more thriller than romance—the hero and heroine don’t meet for about the first 100 pages, and the murder is the central focus of the story. For this reason, this isn’t my favorite Novak title—I like it when the focus is more on the romance, and I like more interaction early on between the main characters.

Jane was once married to a serial killer, but now works as a rookie investigator for a non-profit. Sebastian’s ex-wife and son were killed by her psycho second husband, who then faked his own suicide. Sebastian is the only one who believes that the killer is still alive. The hunt for the killer has eaten up his considerable fortune and honed his desire for vengeance until it’s just this edge of sanity. He’s a compelling character, but early on he makes a decision that endangers an innocent person—and he continues to endanger this person. At this point, I stopped feeling much sympathy for Sebastian and his plan to “take care” of the killer without aid of law enforcement only added to my dislike of him. Others, however, might well feel more sympathy for him and see more chemistry between him and Jane, but I felt like Jane had more chemistry with the detective working the case—too bad he was married to her best friend! I was not convinced that Sebastian was the right choice for the damaged and vulnerable Jane.

However, Novak’s writing shines past my quibbles with Sebastian and her POV scenes of the killer and the secondary characters is simply superb. She’s required reading for all thiller and suspense readers—I’m just not sure that this is the perfect introduction to her talents. Starting with book 1 of the Perfect series (which introduces Jane’s story) might be a better choice—I wish I had done that as I think I would have been more invested in Jane.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Shorts: The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale by Christine Bell

Step right up and getting your single-serving helping of Steam Punk right here! My Saturday Short this week is a fun little read that should please all the Dr. Who and steam punk fans as well those just mildly curious about this new genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Steam Punk is hot, hot, hot right now, and I’m just starting to venture into this growing sub-genre. Stormy Gale is the perfect introduction to Steam Punk—at under 100 pages, it’s a short investment to test-drive both a talented new author and an emerging sub-genre. Stormy Gale was whisked from her Victorian existence as a street urchin into the 21st century by a benevolent time-traveler who raised her as a daughter and entrusted her with securing the secrets of time travel. She’s back in Victorian time, albeit in America this time, rescuing a time travel device from a Mad Duke. To accomplish this, she disguises herself as a fortune telling gypsy at a village fair. Much hilarity ensues –Bell uses physical comedy to tremendous affect here.

The book is first-person so we only get Stormy’s narration and POV, and despite her Victorian birth, Stormy is very much a 21st century woman with her speech and thoughts. I had to remind myself that the whole point of steam punk is the ability to insert anachronistic elements at whim and to craft believable alternate universes, which Bell does admirably, especially considering the short format. If you love Dr. Who and especially Torchwood, I think you will adore Stormy and her side-kick brother. About halfway through the story, Bell inserts a twist that I absolutely didn’t see coming AT ALL. And at first, I didn’t like the twist. But, upon further reflection, I think it was a very smart choice on Bell’s part as it really ramps up the emotional intensity and leads to a very nice, high stakes black moment and satisfying climax.

The door is certainly open to further adventures—perhaps the brother will get a story of his own? Are there others like Stormy and her brother? Do they communicate with each other? I’d love to revisit this universe, particularly in a full-length book. There was easily enough material here to support a full-length book, which is really my only quibble. Everything feels rushed, but it’s only a novella—that’s pretty much unavoidable. The whole novella is very light and fun and is a great substitute for a night of TV. I particularly loved Bell’s irreverent first person voice, a very unusual choice, but it really works to her advantage. If you enjoy Katie MacAlister, I think you will love Bell, and I can see her having particular appeal to older teens & early 20s readers (note: there is a love scene, and while it’s steamy, it’s not exceptionally graphic, and unlike some novellas, the love scene is a very small percentage of the total word count—the focus is on Stormy’s dilemma). I’m curious to see what Bell does with other POVs and genres, and I’m planning to look at her backlist (she also writes as Chloe Cole).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: The Outlaw Bride by Kelly Boyce

This week's pick is a debut from an immensely promising writer who will have fans of Western Historical Romance rejoicing. Welcome, Kelly Boyce, we've been waiting for you a LONG time. She's perfect reading for those of you traveling over Easter as well as those looking for an escape from the land of peeps and fake grass. Spend a little quality time with the good folks of Fatal Bluff.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was the 4/22/2011 Five Umbrella Friday Pick-of-the-Week at

Outlaw Bride is an impressive debut from an author who brings new life to the Western Historical Romance subgenre. Western Romance was my first love as a romance reader, and it remains a favorite of mine even as publishers and the market have followed other trends. For several years, it was almost impossible to find great new Western Romance authors. In recent years, offerings have improved somewhat, especially with smaller presses giving new opportunities for those who write and read Westerns. But, true Western Romance stills feels like a tiny prairie flower peeking out of a forest of Paranormal, Shape-shifting, Sexy, Contemporary Cowboy, Regency, Erotica, Serial Killer trees. And Boyce brings us Western Romance at its purest—Fans of Linda Lael Miller, Jodi Thomas, Susan Kay Law, Paty Jager, et al will love Boyce.

Outlaw Bride contains all of my favorite Western romance tropes—mistaken identity, mail-order bride gone awry, woman running from her abusive past, Gruff Sheriff Tortured Hero Deluxe and Sexy edition, orphaned child in need of mothering, and great secondary characters providing comic relief, emotional support, and a sense of community. Kate is on the run from her outlaw husband who tried to kill her. A western law man died saving her life, and she’s trying to repay him by seeking out his family. Connor Langston is that family BUT he’s also the Sherriff of Fatal Bluff.

Kate must tread carefully, especially since Connor believes her to be Hannah Stockdale, a wayward mail-order bride he hires to be his housekeeper and caretaker for his niece. It’s a convoluted set-up, but it totally works and contains a number of hilarious moments along the way. Kate finds herself first using the case of mistaken identity for Hannah Stockdale as means to escape her husband and make it to Fatal Bluff and then as a means of staying and getting close to the Langston family as she tries to figure out the best way to fulfill the legacy of the man who died saving her. Connor, however, is no idiot, and he gradually grows to suspect that she’s not who she says she is, and their delicate dance as they try to find a way to trust each other is beautiful.

I love, love, love books that gradually ratchet up the sexual tension by creating a palpable sense of longing that neither character believes they can act on. There’s only one full love-scene, but it’s a dozy with the emotional impact of a dozen more casual encounters. The sensuality through longing and sexual tension gives the book broad appeal and will win over readers who miss highly sensual, yet not explicit Western romances. Readers who need a little heat won’t be disappointed either as the wait for the characters to finally act on their attraction is more than worth it.

I loved how Boyce created very authentic feeling characters--Hannah reacted like a 1800s woman, not like a 2011 woman wearing petticoats. She takes a very long time to trust Connor because she knows what the consequences of her full disclosure will be and how few options she really has. Connor lives in a world of black and white and needs a serious wake-up call to accept the shades of grey around him. The secondary characters are wonderful and fully-fleshed. I love how bonded the community is to Connor and how much they all want him to be happy again. Fatal Bluff felt real, and I cared about its inhabitants almost as much as Connor and Kate.

I can’t wait to see what else Boyce has in store for us. I desperately hope she gives us the story of the REAL Hannah Stockdale and a HEA for a woman who seems every bit as complex as Kate. I hope Boyce continues writing Westerns for a long time to come—she’s a welcome addition to an under-represented subgenre. If this is her debut, she’s poised to become a powerhouse and deserves to be on the radar for readers and critics alike. I hope she writes fast because I want MORE!

WINNER!!! And The Joys of Re-reading

Sorry for not announcing the winner of the Lori Foster giveaway! Bdulin12 you are the winner! Please email me your address so that I can get the t-shirt out to you and set amazon to ship a book to you on the 26th. Don't forget to come back and tell us what you think about the book! Don't forget I'm giving away MORE books as I get more followers! We're getting close to another giveaway!

I apologize for the lack of posting--my day job is chief toddler wrangler to a 3 year old and 9 month old and as an adjunct professor of writing. Lately, both jobs have been kicking my behind. And I don't know about other readers, but the more stressed I get, the more I tend to re-read keeper shelf books. I just can't handle the disappointment of new reads that don't live up to expectations, and I feel that I'm a bit harsher than usual in my preferences. I do, however, have some great books in store for you. Tomorrow's Book of the Week is a debut that met all my picky expectations and then some and that you will LOVE. Next week, I'm continuing my status as the Lorelei James Fan Blog as well as bringing you a diverse selection of new releases.

What do you re-read when you are too stressed out to read anything new? In the last two weeks, I have re-read:
  • The Naked Edge by Pamela Clare. I needed to see a kickass heroine taking charge of her destiny. And also Gabe. Okay. Mainly Gabe.
  • Cowgirl Up and Ride by Lorelei James. This is probably my favorite of the Rough Riders, and I opened it up to find a random piece of McKay trivia and ended up re-reading from start to finish.
  • Hot Pursuit by Suzanne Brockmann. I'm still working on my Breaking the Rules review, and I went back to this one to revisit Dan and Jenn one more time. Love Jenn.
  • Raising Kane by Lorelei James. We shall not discuss the number of Lorelei James books I have devoured in the last month. Some day scientists will discover exactly how she manages to bottle happy endorphins and cowboy pheromones within the printed page. Pretty nifty trick for e-books especially.
I've still managed to read some new stuff too, so stay tuned. Feel free to share your favorite books to re-read!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Four Umbrellas: Covet by J.R. Ward

So vampires don't usually work for me, but Fallen Angels do . . . Any BDB fans want to convince me to try out that series too?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was quite possible the only person on the planet who viewed the Star Wars movies in order—the prequels and then the classics. My husband likes to introduce me to other geeks as a freak of nature. And, I’m also quite possible the only romance reader on the planet who has never read J.R. Ward and isn’t a Brothers of the Black Dagger groupie. However, vampires are so seldom my thing that I’ve put off trying the BDB books. Also I’m not sure I have the brainpower to keep all the no-vowel heroes and heroines and complex world building straight. But, Covet was available on Overdrive from my library, and I jumped at the chance to read this new series from Ward. While vampires = not so very sexy, I really like the fallen angel trope, especially when it’s not burdened with a lot of world-building and other paranormal activity. (If you love the fallen angel trope AND a lot of paranormal world building surrounding it, I really recommend Anne Marsh’s work). Covet didn’t disappoint me—I liked how instantly appealing Jim Heron is as a protagonist, and while the start of the books is rather slow as we focus on Jim’s new mission of saving seven souls in a demons vs. angels game to control earth. His first soul is Vin, a wealthy real estate mogul who long ago lost track of any soul he had. The unlikely friendship between Vin and Jim occupies most of the first third of the book, but eventually the love story between Vin and Marie-Therese, a mysterious woman with a dangerous past, heats up. The romance is almost secondary though to Jim’s journey and acceptance of his mission as a newly fallen angel and to Vin’s journey away from coveting material items towards coveting connection. Marie-Therese also has a journey of almost biblical import as she overcomes her self-imposed penance. The entire novel has a really unique tone—almost like a parable but imbued with Ward’s unique voice. I can see why Ward has so many fans—her voice is truly one of a kind. She immerses readers in the POV of her male characters with the kind of authenticity that most romance writers strive for but few achieve at this level. I will be really disappointed if Jim doesn’t get a HEA of his own in the final book as I felt the most connection to him. I’ve read some reviews for this book where readers who love the BDB series don’t care as much for this series—I can’t speak to them, but as a reader with no preconceptions or expectations going into this book, I thought it was a great introduction to Ward and really enjoyed the book. I will read the rest of the series. I might even finally read Dark Lover. Feel free to talk me into it :)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday & GIVEWAY: When You Dare by Lori Foster

The awesome Lori Foster has a new book on April 26th--go and pre-order When You Dare today--I dare you, and I guarantee you will LOVE this read. I have a DOUBLE giveaway today as Lori Foster has generously donated one of her t-shirts for a giveaway AND I'm giving away a copy of the book. To enter, comment and tell me about the most heroic man you know. What do you think makes men like Dare so irresistible? Comment by Monday at Midnight (PST) for a chance to win. I'll be sending the t-shirt next week to keep you warm while you wait for the 26th and then the book on release day!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dare Macintosh is a hero who spends his life rescuing people from dangerous situations, going where traditional organizations can't or won't. Thus, when he's rescuing his friend's sister from human traffickers, and he discovers Molly Alexander, he rescues her too, without regard to how complicated his life just became. Luckily for all of us, Lori Foster is an author who excels at resolving complications like Molly for men like Dare.

Foster has been one of my very favorite authors all the way back to Mr. November (which is still one of my all-time favorite books), so I was super excited to get a chance to read an ARC of this title from Netgalley. Her last two single title releases, Back in Black and My Man Michael, while enjoyable were not my favorites from her, so I was eager to see if When You Dare would push her back into auto-buy territory for me.

And, I couldn't be more thrilled--Foster is back in the groove that brought us Hard to Handle, Jude's Law, Say No to Joe, and Jamie. One of my favorite Foster titles is Unexpected, a Kensington Single Title Romantic Suspense, and I always hoped she'd return to more action and suspense as she has a real knack for light suspense. When You Dare is a great example of light suspense--it's got a great overarching mystery, but Foster's trademark humor shines through, and it's the relationship that drives the story.

Dare is my favorite kind of Foster hero--a sensitive Alpha male. He cooks, he has nice decorating tastes, and he has two adorable dogs--I love it when Foster works animals into her stories as like Linda Lael Miller, her love of animals and empathy really enhances her characterization--the animals become secondary characters in their own rights, but also reveal key details about their owners--sometimes, especially in the case of Dare, more than the owners might choose to reveal themselves.

Dare is also deadly, unapologetic about it, and take-charge. Once he decides to help Molly, he handles the situation with the same efficiency that he carries to all his missions--however, unlike most of his missions, Molly keeps getting under his skin. The chemistry between them sizzles, but Dare is very sensitive to the ordeal that she has just been through. This was a pleasant change from many books I have read lately where the heroine goes through a horrific experience and the hero's main response is hot lovin'. Not that there's not hot lovin' here--this is a Foster book, and the love scenes are smoking as usual, but the sensitivity of the build-up made them more believable and that much more sweet.

Molly is a romantic suspense writer, and I have such a love/hate relationship with writer heroines and heroes--done right they are one of my favorites, as what aspiring writer doesn't love peeking into the lives of other (even fictional) writers? But done wrong, it feels a bit like the real writer's alter ego is walking around the book, transforming a fictional story to something more akin to wish fulfillment. Luckily, Molly is far from Foster's alter ego, and her profession is very much tied to the plot. Molly seemed completely her own character, free from the author intrusion and pitfalls that often accompany characters who are writers.

If I have one small quibble with the book, it's that this sensitive-yet-funny focus on the relationship sometimes overshadows the suspense. Especially in the opening scenes, I kept waiting to find out exactly what had happened to Molly, and later on, I felt like they were taking a bit long to confront the danger and to go check up on her life. However, I think Foster was portraying Molly as shell-shocked and needing the gradual awareness of the real danger she was in and what had happened to her. In this she succeeds admirably, and the relationship focus didn't detract from the pacing--this was a fast, fun read.

This is a highly recommended contemporary romance read, and if you've never read Foster, this is a great place to start. There's a reason why Foster is one the most beloved and bestselling contemporary romance writers, and this book is a key illustration of that. This is going on my keeper shelf, and I'm considering getting a paper copy just to have the amazing cover to gaze at from time to time. Foster must have been exceptionally good to the cover gods to get a trio of three of the best covers I've seen in a very long time. Book Two's cover is absolutely delicious. But, an amazing cover is worthless (not mention disappointing!) without an equally compelling story to fulfill its promise of an A+ read. Luckily, this series seems poised to deliver exactly that!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon

Snowball in Hell (Doyle and Spain, #1)Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[This is a re-edited re-release from Carina] Simply one of the best pieces of Detective Noir fiction I have read. I took a course in college that included some classic Detective Noir pieces, and I have to say that I enjoyed this far more, mainly due to Lanyon's superb characterization skills and careful balance of plot and setting. He keeps the pace crisp while still managing to maintain an authentic atmosphere throughout the story. The police detective/reporter crime solving duo is one of mystery's most popular tropes, yet it doesn't feel cliche here as the backdrop of WWII and the LA setting contribute to the freshness. As does the fact that the reporter and the detective are both men. And you'll notice that it has taken me this long to get to that which is indicative of it being secondary to this being a great story--this isn't a M/M short as much as it's a detective noir short where the main characters happen to be gay men.

Which is another way of saying that I firmly believe that even those who don't read or seek out M/M romance will find a lot to like here. In fact, I recommended it to my mother, a die-hard mystery fan and seeker of the best of the genre. If she ends up reading the whole piece, I'll probably warn her (and other mystery fans) that the love scenes may be a bit more graphic than she typically reads, but there are only two, and while graphic, there is a gentle build-up that gives readers ample time to look away and skip to the scene break without missing out on the great story at work here. For me, the love scenes added tremendously to the emotional impact of the relationship and showed Matthew's gradual acceptance of his feelings for Nathan. Nathan already knows what he is, but is far from accepting of that fact--he's more experienced than Matthew in ways of the flesh, but much less so in ways of the heart. Each complements the other perfectly.

They also complement each other as a crime solving team. Matthew initially follows his gut and labels Nathan as a person of interest but is far from convinced that he is the killer. Matthew gives us a peek into 1940s police procedure--life before CSI and forensics when intuition counted for a lot more. Nathan brings street smarts to the case that open up new avenues. They have a natural balance and camaraderie that transcends their attraction to each other. If you enjoyed the new Sherlock & Holmes on PBS mystery this past fall, you will very much enjoy this story. The fact that Sherlock and Holmes were NOT a "couple" was a running point in the series, but imagine if the other characters' suspicions WERE true? You'd have the tenor of this story. This is part of a two novella series, but I really hope that Lanyon expands it to more "episodes." Had the sequel been available when I finished this story at 1 am, I would have purchased it. Immediately. Highly recommended read for open-minded mystery lovers.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 8, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

If you've been following along, you know how excited I was to get an ARC of One was a Soldier. The book releases on Tuesday, and here's your motivation to be first in line or to start this amazing series--I seriously recommended this series to every reader I know, and I can't say that about any other author. The broad appeal of this series is one of its finest features.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are only two authors for whom I will religiously preorder hardcover—without reading blurbs, regardless of reviews, and regardless of whether we’ll be dining on more beans that month. When I realized that Suzanne Brockmann and Julia Spencer-Fleming BOTH had releases within a month of each other this year, I felt a bit like I do every December—my birthday and Christmas also happen in the same month and what the heck am I supposed to look forward to the rest of the year? My anticipation for One Was a Soldier outshone even my usual pre-release fidgeting as fans have had a long wait for this addition to JSF’s acclaimed Millers Kill Series featuring unlikely sleuth, former Army helicopter pilot and Episcopal priest, Clare Fergusson. One of the cover quotes puts it best, “Welcome back to one of Mystery fiction’s finest writers.” There’s simply no other writer quite like Julia Spencer-Fleming—and I say that as a voracious reader of multiple genres.

This series boasts rabid fans from a diverse cross-section of readers. My mother, who mainly reads traditional mystery and historical fiction, awaited this release with the same fervor as me. My Aunt who reads mainly nonfiction and women’s fiction is reduced to teenage squeals when discussing the series. My friend’s husband whose usual fare runs to science-fiction and fantasy with the odd thriller listened to whole series in audio-book form. Tons of romance readers who never venture over to the mystery aisle love the series as well as mystery readers and literary fiction readers who avoid anything pink and fluffy. Spencer-Fleming’s writing is simply THAT good. Her characterization and innovative plays with narrative structure suck readers in and steamroll over preconceptions.

She doesn’t just try to create another Clare Fergusson mystery using a set formula—instead each book experiments with a structure appropriate for that plot. Some entries in the series take place over days, some over weeks, some over months, one over the course of a year, and one takes place entirely within 24 hours. Some entries feature Clare’s POV predominantly with Russ’s POV secondary. Others feature Russ more in the forefront, and others bring in secondary POVs, some just for that installment and some that will be revisited in later books. We get to visit the tiny town of Millers Kill in upstate New York in the dead of winter, in the mosquito infested days of summer, and as seasons change. Characters get older, relationships blossom, grow, and end, and nothing (other than the local economy) stagnates. It’s an immersive experience unlike any other.

Reader enjoyment is maximized when one reads the series as a whole, starting with In the Bleak Midwinter (available from numerous online venues for the bargain price of 2.99 in e-book form). While One was a Soldier can certainly stand on its own, I think readers who have at least read All Mortal Flesh and I Shall Not Want will feel the most connection to the characters. In fact, One Was a Soldier brings several minor secondary characters to the forefront, and I loved seeing their progression to POV characters and revisiting other characters who have grown over the course of the series. (The earlier books in the series are easily accessible in e-book, audio, paperback formats as well as from libraries and overdrive, making investing in the series less daunting than it might appear.) It is going to be impossible for me to review One was a Soldier without giving away a little of the plot from I Shall Not Want, so if you are all intrigued by the series, GO! Get caught up and then return and tell me what you think.

For everyone else, I am happy to report that One Was a Soldier is the book we have been waiting for. Quite often later installments in long running series fall short of reader expectations, but what sets JSF apart is her constant tinkering with the narrative structure and pacing. This installment takes place over the course of a summer and early Fall, with an interesting structure of sections rather than chapters and well-telegraphed flashbacks and POV changes to pace each section. It’s a series of risks that pays off for JSF as she continues to create her own subgenre—Literary Mystery Romantic Suspense Ensemble Drama. While there is a murder in One Was a Soldier as well as Clare/Russ relationship progression and both provide structure for the narrative, neither is the true focus of the novel. Instead the focus is on veterans returning home to Millers Kill and how that impacts the entire community. Russ’s friend beautifully justifies the book’s focus:
“Your little burg’s not a military town . . . but it’s the kind of town where the military comes from. Small, rural, not a lot of opportunity . . . There are a lot of Millers Kills all over this country. It’s where people like you and me come from, and sometimes it’s where we go back to.”
What happens when a sizable chunk of a struggling town’s citizenry goes off to a war that not enough people are talking about and come back wounded on multiple levels, yet still struggle to provide the community with what it needs? You end up with a support group of a doctor, a police deputy, a book keeper, a beloved son, and a priest, along with their floundering group leader (who is more unprepared for Millers Kill than Clare was at the start of the book). We get to see the POV of each of these group members (some very briefly, others more in-depth) along with Russ, Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox. It’s a wonderfully meaty, crowded tale of intersecting lives, and Spencer really works to show how one seemingly isolated action—leaving work late, watching a track meet, sharing barbeque, ripple across the community and affect multiple lives in unexpected ways.

One of the things that I love most about Suzanne Brockmann is her ability to juggle many character arcs and plot lines within a single story. In All Mortal Flesh and I Shall Not Want, JSF showed me that she could rival Brockmann’s talents. I have to confess, I think JSF is in a class of her own here as she deftly juggles all the balls she in play to create a cohesive plot and griping read out of almost a dozen subplots and character arcs.

Of course, the side affect of all this juggling is that I want the next book like NOW! NOW! And I spent a lot of the last third of the book begging and cajoling characters. I woke the sleeping baby more than once with my “No! No! Tell him! Now!” and my “Go after her! Don’t do this!” and “Your boss needs to know NOW! Go!” and “This is NOT going to end well for you!” And yeah, I cared about the murder, but I cared about the people more. The Veteran’s Support Group turned crime solving team was brilliant as it allowed the characters to work together in a much deeper way and forced more issues to the forefront. At times it was difficult to read because these issues—legs lost, severe PTSD, head injuries, infidelity, addiction, and destruction of relationships—are happening to GOOD people. People I’ve cared about for several books now, people for whom I want better, who I think deserve better, but that’s not how war works. And JSF captures that gut-wrenchingly beautifully.

I particularly didn’t want Clare to be struggling as much as she was. Heck, I was livid with Clare when she re-upped with the guard and spent a lot of time begging her to reconsider, yet it was already too late. Clare ran back to the military because it *was* something of a safe place for her—she understands helicopters and orders more easily than she does Episcopalian politics and messy relationships. It was, perhaps, inevitable from In the Bleak Midwinter that the priest would find herself at war. And the homecoming is not one of “Thank the lord for delivering me back safely, now I can put THAT behind me and get on with the business of the Lord and Russ.” Clare’s trauma isn’t something that even the most fervent of prayers can overcome—she needs serious help, but she’s the last person to willingly go in search of it. And when she finally, FINALLY does? It’s one of most beautiful moments EVER. EVER. All seven books made priceless by one single paragraph that I’ll resist the urge to quote—context is, in fact, everything.

My other favorite scene of the book deals with the ongoing saga of young deputy Kevin Flynn (who has grown up in all sorts of intriguing new ways in this installment) and his interest in Hadley Knox—Millers Kill’s only female police officer. I knew from Hadley’s first scene in I Shall Not Want that it was entirely possible that I would end up loving her even more than Clare. I have already re-read my favorite Flynn and Hadley scene from this volume probably eight times trying to dissect it as well as to have another chance to have another chance go “Oh, Flynn!” and “Oh Hadley. No. No.” and “HADLEY. You will listen to me. This is the voice of reason talking. DO NOT DRAG THIS OUT FOR FIVE MORE BOOKS. Let’s agree together on TWO. Two more books: One for you to relocate your head to your upper body and one for a HEA. That’s it. I like my hair. I like my sanity. You are sorely trying both right now. And yet, I still love you. And hurt for you. And wish you would figure out that bravery isn’t just a skill you need to work on for your job.” And “Oh, Flynn. I love you so much. It’s a darn shame I think I am done with having babies as Flynn would make an awesome name. You are one of the very best things about this series.”

And I mean it. It has taken Clare and Russ seven books to get to this point, and I’m ecstatic about where things end up in One Was a Soldier, but SEVEN BOOKS? If Flynn and Hadley take seven books, I will be bald, babbling, and bloated from my chocolate IV. And still first in line, but PLEASE. I don’t think my nerves can handle it. And if there ISN’T a HEA? I don’t even want to contemplate it. I don’t think JSF would be that cruel. If she found a way to get Russ and Clare to this place, she can find a lion heart for Hadley without destroying Flynn in the process. And it will be well worth the wait. Besides, this book is really Russ & Clare’s book relationship-wise, although their journey is far from done. And now, I want Book Eight. Yesterday would be nice. I want to re-read the whole series immediately. I want everyone I know to do the same so that we can pass the next year or so conversing about Millers Kill minutiae and counting down the minutes until we get to visit it again.

And if you read it? Please, please, please come back and tell me about it. I’ve tried to keep the review as spoiler-free as a possible, but I seriously need someone to discuss with.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three Umbrellas: Cold Sight by Leslie Parrish

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Leslie Parrish also writes as Leslie Kelly, and I was super impressed with her Blaze offering, "Slow Hands," so I decided to check out her RS offerings too. This is on Overdrive in e-book from my library which made it a win/win. She's a strong writer with great POV characterization--this novel features multiple secondary characters, each with a unique voice. Aidan is a psychic whose ESP abilities have allowed him to solve past crimes--but also led to one notable failure which has him living like a recluse. Lexie is a young reporter desperate to solve a string of missing teen cases and thinks that Aidan can help her. Parrish does a particularly excellent job capturing the voices of the teen characters--I almost wanted Vonnie and Taylor to be the stars of the book. Especially since Aidan & Lexie as a couple just did not click for me. I like a lot of sexual tension in my Romantic Suspense reads, and this reads more like a traditional suspense/thriller. If you enjoy suspense reads with a touch of the paranormal where the mystery takes center stage, this will probably be a four or five star read for you. The villain is cleverly disguised (I was shocked, and I often guess the bad guy), and he's particularly evil, making this read great for readers who like a really spooky villain. For me, however, I just couldn't connect with Aidan--he's emotionally unavailable, and I was reminded that I usually don't care for characters with ESP abilities. Psychic heroes just don't seem to work for me, but if they work for you, you will want to give this a try. This read would be great for readers who want an alternative to the uber-sexy Romantic Suspense reads crowding shelves, for readers who loved Heroes and who like characters with special abilities, and for readers who enjoy spooky conspiracy theory reads with high suspense. I really enjoy this writer's voice, so I'm planning to go back and read her "Black" RS triology to see if perhaps it's just my bias against psychic heroes affecting my enjoyment here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tuesdays Umbrellas of Intrigue

Today my co-blogger Red is discussing two medical dramas from PNW authors!

I recently read two well written new fiction books in the 'medical drama' category. (I may have made that genre up, but can't think how else to describe them. They aren't really thrillers or even mysteries, just have dramatic elements surrounding medical issue with some history thrown in.) The titles are A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, (2010) and Of Flesh and Blood (2010) by Daniel Kalla, a PNW writer. A word of warning – both books do involve a death of a child; not easy to contemplate but handled well and not the whole focus. The first one, A Fierce Radiance takes place mainly in New York City in the 1940s. It tells the previously un-explored (in fiction, to my knowledge) story of the development of penicillin. The author, Lauren Belfer, drew upon a great deal of research (the book was published over ten years after her previous work!**) into the circumstances of how the discovery of life-saving penicillin was finally produced and marketed to save a multitude of human lives. The author has stated that she was inspired by the family story of an uncle she never knew, who died as a child from some minor infection, during the long years when someone could be destroyed by a “cut on the knee.” She creates a likeable group of characters to surround the medical plot and even manages to get a mysterious death and a romance into the mix. Her main character is a feisty divorced woman with a son who is about 8, and who has a rising career as a photographer for Life magazine. Belfer does a nice job of mixing in real elements from that time period - popular culture, the Rockefeller Foundation where the research really took place, the outbreak of World War II and the effects on the home front, and details about the city. In the course of her job, Claire Shipley meets physician James Stanton and a relationship ensues. The murder of his sister, corporate intrigue involving her estranged father, and both of their involvements in national war efforts are among the complicated plot elements. I especially like her use of images that make the story memorable and unique, for example the frequent references to the early production of penicillin in the medical labs portrayed as glowing green substances in rows of bedpans and milk bottles (the cheapest most readily available vessels that would work.) There are of course some imperfections one could point out about this ambitious book but it is a darn good read, very engrossing and informative while reading. ** Lauren Belfer published City of Light in 1999 to much acclaim. Set in 1901 Buffalo NY, it also encompasses memorable characters set amongst a wide scope of historical details about Niagara Falls, electricity, and then Pres. McKinley. Of Flesh and Blood by Daniel Kalla is a similar book, yet there's a quite different tone or focus to it. It is more grounded in the present day, where a battle of ethics ensues at a Pacific Northwest privately funded medical center, similar to famous Children’s Hospitals that treat cancer and other serious diseases. This fictional facility is located near Seattle and draws the rich and famous, from all over, who require top-notch medical care. That’s also how they fund their policy of never refusing treatment to those who can’t pay. The novel has a lot of characters, and as one would expect when some of them are oncologists, a lot of death occurs. There’s also a subplot about one couple’s fertility and another about family intrigue and greed. This novel actually has two settings and sets of characters: the present day one and a historical one in alternating chapters. While certainly not an unusual plan for today's books, I did wish this book didn’t have quite so many characters to keep track of, especially since, other than the start of a new chapter, the reader has to adjust to an unnecessarily complicated leap to the historical plot of the hospital’s origins. Sorting out the relationships of the two clashing founding families became a bit tedious. However, this book is also an absorbing read and the narrative flows fairly well. The author is a real-life emergency room physician in Vancouver, so the medical details are quite – real— and maybe this book is not for the squeamish. He has written a number of other books with medical themes.

Waiting on Wednesday: A Night to Surrender

My waiting on Wednesday this week is A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare. I got totally spoiled last summer when she had three back-to-back releases. It has been a LONG wait for a new book! But isn't the cover just gorgeous? She released the cover and a website update this week which makes the wait easier. The blurb for the book reveals:

In recent years, Spindle Cove had become the seaside destination of choice for a certain type of well-bred young lady: the sort no one knew what to do with. They included the sickly, the scandalous, and the painfully shy; young wives disenchanted with matrimony and young girls too enchanted with the wrong men . . . All of them delivered here by the guardians to whom they presented problems, in hopes that the sea air would cure them of their ills.

As the only daughter of the only local gentleman, Susanna was the village hostess by default. These awkward young ladies no one knew what to do with . . . she knew what to do with them. Or rather, she knew what not to do with them. No “cures” were necessary. They didn’t need doctors pressing lancets to their veins, or finishing school matrons harping on their diction. They just needed a place to be themselves.

Spindle Cove was that place.

I can't wait for August! What are you waiting on?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Find a Better Trope: Secret Babies

When I was in high school, I adored Secret Baby books. In fact, I adored "baby" books of all kinds. If harlequin slapped a baby or seven on the cover, it was under my bed happily nestled with the rest of my stash. But yesterday, as I was cogitating more on why secret babies drive me to hurl books against walls, my three year-old came to me and thrust her doll in my lap. "It's your turn! Lisa Jones Olivia is your baby for a little while!" I looked down at poor Lisa Jones Olivia who was in dire need of a hair brushing and a visit from What Not to Wear. "What should I do with her?" But she was already stalking off and tossed off, "It's up to you! She's your baby now!"

She's modeling what she sees on a daily basis between my husband and I as we navigate having two kids, two careers, and two burnt-out parents. But what she's really seeing is that we trust each other to deal with the kids when it's our "turn" with a cranky toddler or teething baby. She gets that parenthood is a two person (or more!) job. My 8 month old boy is also obsessed with Lisa Jones Olivia and just holding her or one of her many, equally wackily named, friends calms him down. Several people have suggested that I put the dolls out of his reach or "get him some boy toys!" But, I'm delighted to see him love babies because I really think that preparing my kids for eventual parenthood is one of the core objectives of mothering.

And I want my kids to understand that each parent has to do his or her share and meet his or her obligations to their children. And I don't say this from a conservative viewpoint--whether my kids end up in same-sex partnerships, blended families, communal living, or creative multi-partner arrangements: each person creating or parenting a child needs to put that child first.

But secret baby books hinge on the idea that Strong and Proud Heroine fears Indifferent Hero's rejection so she goes off and has a baby on her own, only to return months/year/decades later wherein she is reunited with Hero, who it turns out isn't so indifferent after all. HEA for the whole family forthcoming. A variation on this trope features heroine who had a secret baby meeting hero who gallantly adopts her AND her baby, without much thought to the secret baby daddy. Interestingly, if the heroine ends up with someone other than the father of her child, the father is painted as the worst sort of cad for not stepping up (despite the fact that he doesn't know). And in both variations, it is the hero's willingness to step up that makes him so heroic, almost as if fatherhood is optional--a merit badge hero assumes to add more pieces of flair to his white knight suit.

And this is certainly true of the only secret baby book I've liked even a little since becoming a parent--Everday, Average Jones by Suzanne Brockmann. Jones is a Navy SEAL and his book is part of Brockmann's wildly success Tall, Dark and Dangerous series for Harlequin. Jones rescues the heroine from terrorists and gives her his shoes. His shoes. He doesn't need to do anything more to be worthy of his HEA, but then when he discovers heroine's secret pregnancy, he steps up and steamrolls over her plan to go it alone. And the only reason why I like this book is that heroine's secret baby plan is foiled when she's still pregnant. But the fact remains that she was perfectly happy to never inform Jones of his little rescue mission souvenir. Jones discover the pregnancy on his own, and she never really apologizes for cutting him out of the loop, but she does fall in love with Jones and all is forgiven.

And I tolerate this book because a)it's Brockmann and b)it wasn't a secret very long. One of my other favorite authors, wrote HER secret baby book with an 18 year old secret baby (every author with a sizable backlist has a secret baby book lurking somewhere!), and I just could not read beyond the first four chapters. I tried skimming, but it was useless. I wanted to light heroine's hair on fire and then refuse to call the fire department. I wanted to scream at hero "GET MAD! MADDER! and RUN! RUN AWAY FROM THIS HOT MESS!" Because how on earth do you forgive someone for keeping a child from you for the child's ENTIRE childhood?

And that's the crux of the problem with secret baby plots: Heroine embarks on a course of action based on her assumptions about hero and how he will react to the news or how he will behave as a parent. Short of "Ooops, I slept with a serial killer and saw him on the news last night," you don't get to make those kind of assumptions because IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. . Secret baby books treat the decision to not inform the father as a breakup with extra oomph. But it's not about waving the middle finger at a bad boyfriend. It's about the child and what he or she will need over the course of his or her childhood and what he or she deserves.

And 18 years? Keeping that secret beyond the statute of limitations for pissed off pique is just unconscionable. Even if hero was a bad boyfriend to assume that at no point over the next 18 years that he was able to be a good father, only to end up in a HEA with him because HEY! he actually IS a great dad is a tragedy. And it insults all the single mothers out there who have spent YEARS dealing with unsatisfactory baby daddies and decades putting their kids ahead of their own anger and trying to make those men take responsibility. It also insults all the single dads who pull their lives together, man up, and go to great efforts to be involved in their child's life.

I'd love to read more stories about heroines dealing with less than perfect baby daddies for the sake of their kids and heroes taking responsibility for an oops baby--the presence of a 3rd party shouldn't preclude a HEA for the new couple. Kids deserve to know their parents, even if those parents are far less than ideal. So what if your baby daddy is a Navy SEAL who's rarely stateside and who could die at any time? So what if he's a rodeo cowboy who sleeps in his horse trailer or a high school senior with a full-ride scholarship waiting for him? You don't get to decide what kind of father he *might* be--you only get to deal with what kind of father he IS. And if you don't want the hassle? TOUGH.

Modern secret baby books also fly in the face of child support laws that advocates spent DECADES fighting for--I have particular issue with secret baby books where heroine and her child spent years in poverty relying on the kindness of strangers and minimum wage jobs to scrape by. This is why we have laws mandating child support--because even if heroine would prefer to live on her pride and dine on her assumptions her child deserves better. And if hero (or relatives speaking on his behalf) flat out refuse support? That's why states have divisions of child support enforcement. And books that perpetuate the myth that support automatically equals joint custody or that obtaining support always requires the expensive services of a private attorney do a disservice to the REAL single mothers.

I care about this because I'm not the only high schooler who read adult romances as a teenager. I'm not the only young woman who made "baby" books a staple of my pre-child reading. And when books, movies, and TV shows keep blasting the notion that not telling a man about baby, not seeking his support, and not demanding that he take responsibility is somehow the bravest choice possible? Kid lose out. And we have legions of young women who accept crumbs from irresponsible baby daddies or who don't bother giving them the chance to do even that. Through my teaching I know many young single mothers impregnated by men with good paying jobs with health care. And they don't demand solutions that would provide them and their kids with health care, and they don't ask for child support because these myths are so pervasive. So yes, it matters. I'm not going so far as to advocate the return of the shotgun wedding (although it does have certain appeal), but I do think it's time to retire the secret baby trope.

Two Umbrellas: Tied Up, Tied Down by Lorelei James

I read to cope with the stress of having young kids, so it's doubly frustrating when my role as a mother interferes with my enjoyment of what is probably an otherwise great book! Does this happen to other people? I'm sure that if I had read this 5 years ago, this would have been a 5 star, keeper shelf read for me. But, I could not get past my Mama Brain.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the fifth rough riders book I have read, and all the others have been four and five star reads for me, so I think the fact that I didn't like this one says way more about *me* than about the book or the series (I still plan to read the rest as I love James' voice!). That said, if you are new to the series, I would start with Cowgirl Up and Ride as it's the most "mainstream" and is an easy book to fall in love with. A lot of readers apparently also find Tied Up, Tied Down a great introduction to the series, but the secret baby trope almost never works for me, even under the best of circumstances. Here, Skylar gets pregnant as a result of a one-night stand, calls to tell him (at least she tried!), and is told that he is gone (by his surly twin with whom Skylar doesn't get along with at all). That is the only effort she makes to tell him, despite living in an around populated 90% by people related to him, any one of whom would be happy to relay a message to him.
She goes along on her merry way, has a baby, and then when Kade's mother walks into Skylar's store and sees the baby, she immediately knows a) That it's a McKay baby, b) that it's HER McKay grandbaby as opposed to one of the 9 zillion fertile McKay cousins, and c) that it's Kade's (as opposed to the evil Kane). This despite the fact that the baby is a girl and McKay's don't have girls. Seriously did not like Kade's mama, even without her built-in Baby DNA tester ability. Kade goes to confront Skylar and somehow in the space of seriously less than FIVE MINUTES of talking, he totally assumes the father role and talks Skylar into letting him move in. And then mere hours later, when it's bedtime, she agrees to share a bed with Kade so that he can help with the baby overnight duties.
Um. No. The Rough Riders are supposed to be pure cowboy escapism fantasy, but I just couldn't turn off the Mama part of my brain. She lets a man whom she has had just a few dates with (and never wanted contact with again and intended to never let meet his kid) move into her house? And into her bed? When Walmart has a baby monitor for 10 bucks? Which they later get to allow them to have nookie while the baby sleeps. And as this is a Lorelei James book, they do have a lot of nookie--more than any other parents of a tiny baby I know of.
This is just my own pet peeve here, but Skylar, our vegetarian, hippy, all-natural body products business owner, who is so committed to earth motherhood that she has an onsite daycare, is bottle feeding. Which isn't the end of the world, but it just didn't fit the character at all, and as James has done an awesome job of showing other returning characters nursing, it struck me as a choice made to make it easier for the characters to have no-holds-barred love scenes, to get childcare, and to let Kade help in the night. All of which just reinforces a lot of myths of nursing, and just didn't sit right with me. (And sure, maybe she wasn't able to make it work for her, but a woman like her would have been sad enough about that fact to at least mention it). (Oh and it is possible to have love scenes with a woman who is still breastfeeding--Catherine Anderson's Baby Love is a great example.)
And Skylar is also just darned unlikable. And boring. And Kade, while being an awesome father, is also rather boring when he's not doing cute things like wearing the baby around the ranch and talking to her. His twin brother, Kane, suddenly decided to call himself "Buck" in this book, which while funny, added a whole another layer of confusion to the McKay family name game. This book just didn't click for me at all, but I'm still obsessed with this series, and I really want to read the Colt/Brandt/Kaylee books still. I may skip Kane or save him for last just because I'm not sure if I can love a guy who renames himself "Buck."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Saturday Shorts: Friendly Fire by Megan Hart

In the mood for a tasty truffle?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story is like a single, exquisite truffle in the middle of a large, glittering, crystal platter. It's delicious, and if you only wanted a small bite of decadent chocolate, it would be perfect. But, seeing as the platter would easily hold a large chocolate torte, if you wanted a bit *more,* you might feel a bit frustrated. At 50 pages, this is short, even for a Novella, but it's also Hart, and she's an amazing talent. . The first 25 pages are rich with character and backstory-- Kendall and Zane are two FBI agents forced by the bureau to take R&R on a tropical retreat with other agents recovering from various bad on-the-job injuries and events. Kendall's and Zane's injuries are of the soul-shattering psychic kind: Kendall's partner was killed as part of a raid when he ran out from cover, colliding with a warning shot Zane had fired. Both parties feel incredible guilt, and Kendall blames Zane. The tension practically crawls off the pages. As we hit page 25 though, I started wailing, "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" We can't be at the half-way point. The next 25 pages were a rush to cram in some hot lovin' and a HEA. All of which is well done. However, the characterization and conflict coupled with awesome writing would EASILY support a single title release that could burn up the Romantic Suspense charts. She released this story the first time in 2004, but she's re-edited it for Carina, and I dearly wish that she would have considered reworking this into a longer story. I suspect that she has different, but equally delicious treats baking for readers right now, and having fallen in love with her voice, I will happily consume whatever she delivers. If you are new to Hart, this would be an excellent introduction as it's spicy, but not as hot as some of her later works, and it shows off her writing chops in a nice little package. And if you're a fan of Hart, this is a nice way to bide time for her next ST release. However, I wonder if $2.99 for a 50 page story is a little high--this would be far more appetizing at .99 cents or 1.99--a more reasonable price for a tasty little truffle. If you see this offered for less than what B&N has it listed for, snatch it up!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: Fatal Justice by Marie Force

My pick of the week last week was for the first book in Marie Force's awesome Fatal series, Fatal Affair. This week I bring you Fatal Justice, and I highly recommend that you read the series in order for maximum enjoyment. Unlike many sequels, Fatal Justice is just as good as, if not better than Book 1 as it feels like Force is really hitting her stride here. And I know I'm probably breaking all sorts of blogging "rules" by making the same author my pick two weeks in a row, but I truly love this series!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you read Fatal Affair? No? Go do so right now. It's impossible to write a review of Fatal Justice that doesn't contain at least some spoilers for Fatal Affair. While Fatal Justice can stand on its own, it's best enjoyed as part of the Fatal series, and Fatal Affair really enhances reader enjoyment of this title. Marie Force is trying to do something really unique with this series as she showcases the evolution of a relationship over the course of a RS series. In my review of Fatal Affair, I compared her style to Julia Spencer-Fleming and Suzanne Brockmann, and she shares a number of features with the top RS authors, but what sets her apart is that she answers the question for reads, "What happens next?"

Like many RS novels, Fatal Affair takes place over less than week with our complex, independent heroine falling for rising-star politician Nick Cappauano and heading for what appears to be a standard HEA. And like with many RS HEA's readers are left going "Yes, but . . ." because the logistics of two strong individuals with complicated lives carving out a life together aren't easy. And this is where Forces differs from pretty much every other RS series because instead of glossing over all of that and giving us a "everything is all better and peachy and here's a baby to prove it" epilogue, she gives readers Book 2, Fatal Justice, where we see our committed couple trying to work out the details of that HEA.

As they navigate through media interest in their affair and trying to juggle two 24/7 careers, Sam lands another case that involves poor Nick--the Supreme Court nominee that they had dinner with the night before has been found dead. And like with Fatal Affair there are some really great twists and turns that I absolutely don't want to spoil for anyone. Brilliant foreshadowing and complex, complicated persons of interest in this go around make the murder mystery more than just window dressing for the relationship drama.

The relationship struggles are nicely woven into the progress with the case, and in keeping with the unique vibe of this series, Force manages to showcase just how hard it is to build a life with someone without making the reader doubt in the HEA. And I suppose there are some who would argue that a *true* HEA shouldn't be work at all, but I think there are a lot of married readers like myself out there who understand that no one hands you a HEA--you have to EARN it and work for it. True love doesn't resolve roommate issues like one person being a neatnik or schedule issues or different coping styles. Some people are simply harder to love and live with than others. That's the real work of relationships that we almost never see represented in the romance genre (we see it plenty in the literary fiction and women's fiction isles but there's often a depressing undercurrent of long-suffering issues that's missing here).

The secondary characters get a lot more play in this book, and that's what makes it a five star read for me. Force continues carving out her very own subgenre by shifting the series to more of an ensemble drama. If you love West Wing, Castle, Bones, et al, you will LOVE what she's doing here. Freddie, Sam's rookie partner, gets a nice romantic subplot and character arc here, and he's easily my favorite character of the series. Sam's father returns and the mystery surrounding the shooting that disabled him gets new developments. Other secondary characters step up and the book feels like the midpoint of an awesome season 1 of a future Emmy winning series. You know that point where you had a handle on who was who and just knew who should be with whom? Long before sharks were jumped and countless seasons wasted? That moment when you KNEW you were watching something special and started planning your week around the next episode? Fatal Justice is the literary equivalent of that moment, and it's one you won't want to miss. I recommend getting both Fatal Affair and Fatal Justice at the same time--reading them back to back was awesome--just like a marathon of my favorite shows.