Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TBR Challenge 2014: Digital Review: A Dream Defiant

The Book: A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser

The Particulars: Historical romance novella, digital only, Carina Press, 2013

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  It's a Regency with an interracial couple.  Not something you see everyday.  Also I *know* Susanna online (she's participated in the TBR Challenge in the past) and I wanted to try one of her books.  I purchased this at an RWA Literacy Signing - pretty sure Atlanta 2013.

The Review: Let's get this out of the way up front: this is a novella.  Skimming through other reviews for this book, most of the quibbles arise from the fact that it's short.  I'm not necessarily going to say that these other readers are wrong.  It is short, and this story has the bones to have been a full-length novel.  I can see that side of the coin, but this story mostly worked for me in novella form.  It also helped tremendously that after DNF'ing my first choice for this month's challenge, and therefore picking up a novella out of desperation to meet my own deadline, that I fell right into this story.  That magical, indefinable something when a author's "voice" just clicks for you as a reader.

Elijah Cameron is the son of former slaves, his parents having been set free by British forces during the American Revolution.  Raised in London, Elijah joins the army working his way up to rank of corporal and stalling out.  Frankly it's amazing he made it that far.  Yes he's British, but he's still a black man.  He's now working his way through France, the British forces having Napoleon on the run.  They've just won a battle and now it's time for the looting to begin!  It's during this looting that one of the men has an altercation with a French soldier over a ruby necklace.  As Sam lays dying in Elijah's arms, he makes the man swear to take the ruby necklace to his wife, Rose.

Rose has been following Sam's unit since they were dispatched to the Continent.  Their son (plot moppet ahoy!) also travels with them.  It's a hard life, but Rose isn't one for whining.  Her dream is to somehow save enough money to buy the local inn back home.  Rose loves to cook.  If only this blasted war would be over!  Elijah is a friend, having shared dinner with Sam and Rose on many occasions.  And now here he is to tell her her husband is dead, and that he wanted her to have this opulent ruby necklace.  Oh if only it were that simple!  Rose is now effectively single.  A widow in a camp full of men.  Certainly it's expected that she will have to remarry quickly - if only for her own safety and protection.  But the ruby necklace complicates the issue.  She not only needs a man to protect her physical person, but her new found monetary assets as well.

We all know what happens next, right?  Before you can say "marriage of convenience" - Elijah and Rose are hitched.  The fly in the ointment?  It's the early 19th century and they're an interracial couple - isn't that enough?

This story moves very quickly, and I can see it giving some readers whiplash.  Rose literally goes from married, to widowed, to remarried within the span of 48 hours.  She cared about her husband, and probably even loved him, although there naturally wasn't the all-consuming passion with him that she now shares with our hero.  I was able to roll with this extremely quick turnaround, mostly because of the historical factor.  That said, it's still awful fast.  If this had been a novel, it probably wouldn't be an issue for most readers.  They could still be married within 48 hours, but consummation and declarations of true feelings could be strung out over a few hundred pages.  With a novella?  You've got, like, a chapter.  Maybe two.

The crux of the conflict, I thought, was handled well.  That said, this is a novella - so once again, it's fast.  Especially once the war is over and our happy couple has to settle back to life in England.  Elijah and Sam are literally living in an area where people have never seen a black man.  Like, ever.  As in never ever.  And when he does encounter prejudice it's resolved in quick heart-to-heart explained away by grief.  This was actually the one misstep in the story for me.  In a novel it would have been fleshed out more, but there is no such luxury with a novella and it does come off as a bit too pat.

Which makes it sound like I didn't enjoy this story.  No, I really did.  Like I said, there was something about the authorial voice here that just zinged me the right way.  I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately, with a few DNF's and more than a few "meh, it was OK" reads.  This novella hit me in all the sweet spots.  And now I'm off to snap up more books by Fraser.  Once again proving how counter-productive the TBR Challenge can sometimes be.

Final Grade = B

Monday, November 17, 2014

Falling For Her Captor

Falling for Her Captor is Elisabeth Hobbes' debut novel, and helped her garner a two book contract with Harlequin Historical after it placed third in last year's So You Think You Can Write contest.  Harlequin Historical is probably my absolute favorite line in the category universe - having seen me through some pretty lean years when one mere mention of Almack's was enough to make my head explode.  So I was all on board to give this debut medieval a whirl.  I wasn't entirely in love with it, but there's enough meat on the bone to have me looking forward to the author's next book.

Her father and brother both dead, Lady Aline is technically next in line for the throne.  Technically because her grandfather has stipulated she must marry.  A single woman running the show doesn't exactly instill strength.  However the man has been indulging her, and so far Aline has turned away a number of suitors.  Unfortunately her time has run out.  She's been kidnapped and is to be taken to the Duke of Roxholm, a man who has designs on her family's land and kingdom.  The fly in the ointment?  Her kidnapper, Sir Hugh or Eardham.  The duke's cousin, he is bound by a deathbed promise (of course!) and a loyalty oath - which means taking Aline to Stephen.  A task that becomes much harder as Hugh finds his head getting turned by her fighting spirit, general feisty-ness, and the small matter that she ends up saving his life.

This was a second half read for me.  The kidnapping and "road romance" portion of the story is for about a third of the novel, and was for me the novel's weakest point.  As far as kidnappings go, Aline does try to escape, is a general pain in the butt, but quickly realizes that she's got no reasonable choice but to stay with Hugh if she wants to live.  And, you know, to give her grandfather's army time to rescue her.  Plus, Hugh, despite kidnapping her, is a nice enough sort and treats her well after they come to a truce.  Saving his life eventually brings them closer together.  By this point however, as close as they may have become, as much as they may be developing feelings for each other, Hugh is bound by his family ties and is unable, and unwilling, to throw that over just because he's smitten with Aline.

Complications ensue in the form of Stephen, who as far as villains go is one of the more memorable ones.  This guy is nasty and vile without being over-the-top.  Kidnapping Aline is all about a power and land grab - and if he can toy with his cousin at the same time?  All the better.

Where this novel didn't quite work for me was with the history.  Or lack thereof.  This is a generalization, but when I pick up a Harlequin Historical I "expect" a certain amount of history.  No, I'm not expecting a dry, dull info-dump.  But I do expect some seamless weaving of historical fabric in with the romance.  Harlequin Historical, generally speaking, is not a line where you find wallpaper.  Not that this book is wallpaper it's just not quite as detail oriented as I've come to expect from the HH line.  This is a medieval, but more so in tone than in time and place.  In fact, there's no discernible year and setting.  Europe - uh, sometime during the medieval period.  The feel is there, but not that extra oomph to carry it over the edge.  It's a nice romance and I enjoyed it - but compare it to some of the other medievals in the HH universe (Blythe Gifford's come to mind) - and they're operating on totally different levels.

Where the story makes a name for itself is in the second half, when Aline has to ascend to her rightful place of power.  This is something we don't see in historical romance all that often.  A woman who is in a position of power (as in, sitting on a throne), albeit things being a little uncertain.  This was rather refreshing, especially when Aline has to make the hard decisions - as in, someone is going to have to die.  War might be the only answer.  Tell me the last time you read that in a historical romance?  Yeah, me too.

I thought this was a pretty strong debut.  I had my quibbles, but the voice was engaging, the story interesting, and it kept me humming along all the way to end.  I also appreciated that the author didn't steep her story in a bunch of Sexy Times, which would have felt out of place.  Yes, sex happens - but towards the end of the novel, where it felt appropriate for the story.  I'm always happy to see new authors come to the HH line, and this debut is certainly worth a look.

Final Grade = B-

Note: This book is available in print - but, as far as I can tell, only through the Harlequin web site.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Reminder: TBR Challenge for November

For those of you participating in the 2014 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, November 19.  This month's theme is Historical Romance.  How's that for totally wide open?  This should be an easy month to find something in your TBR that fits - unless, of course, you don't read historicals.  In which case, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe you don't like historicals or maybe you're just not in the mood.  It's not important what you read, just that you pull something (anything!) out of the TBR pile.

To learn more about the challenge and see a list of participants, please see the information page.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Digital Reviews: A Tale Of Two Cosmos

In a bid to fool myself into thinking I'm making progress on the ARC Pile Of Doom currently living on my Kindle I thought I'd knock out two quick novellas - both by authors who have consistently worked well for me over the years.  Turns out I was in for a few surprises.

Burned by Sarah Morgan is a sequel to the well-received Ripped and this time the younger sister is in the driver's seat.  Rosie Miller is hardcore into martial arts and is a personal trainer at a London gym.  She shares an apartment with her sister and loves her job.  Her personal life however?  Yeah, she's out to dinner with her latest boyfriend who is unceremoniously dumping her prior to dessert.
I stared at him, wondering whether to kill him now or wait until after dessert.  It was chocolate brownie, my favourite, so I decided to wait.  I wasn't hungry, but no woman ate chocolate because she was hungry.
As if the dumping weren't humiliating enough, sitting behind her at the next table is none other than Hunter Black.  Sexy as sin, the guy who broke her heart to the point of obliteration, Hunter Black.  And now he's there to witness her getting dumped.  Grand.  But wait, there's more!  Turns out Hunter has just purchased the gym where she works.  You know, the job that she loves.  He's her new boss.  Seriously, shoot her now.

Much like Ripped this was "fun erotic romance."  The perfect afternoon pick-me-up.  The perfect antidote when you're tired of wallowing in angst.  That being said?  Without getting into too much pyschobabble and spilling my personal history all over this blog - there were aspects of this story that hit a little close to an "emotional home" for me.  Hunter decimated Rosie and for that reason I wanted more of his blood on the page.  As in I wanted a grovel that was the equivalent of what he put her through years before.  She was young, she was desperately in love, and she was emotionally vulnerable.  I wanted Hunter to pay for that.  And he does - um, somewhat.  I just wanted more.  Still, it's a good solid read and I liked it a lot.  I just have, you know, baggage.

Grade = B-

Let me count the ways I love Megan Hart's books.  So it breaks my heart that Crossing the Line didn't work for me at all.  And I mean, really - at all.

Caite Fox works for a PR firm and one of her bosses is Jamison Wolfe.  Uptight, seriously wound, Jamison Wolfe.  Normally she works with the other partner, but said other partner has had complications arise with her pregnancy and is now out of the office indefinitely on bed rest.  Which means Caite and Jamison working together.  A tricky business since she's hot to trot for him and he doesn't seem to think much of her.  He doesn't seem to trust her very much, or find her capable in handling their new clients, a roster of reality show stars that find more trouble than the Jersey Shore kids ever did.

My problems with this story arise immediately with Caite and don't let up.  It's the way she talks to her Jamison.  The way she acts around him.  HE. IS. HER. BOSS.  She's all flirty and smart-alecky and.....


Given the cut-throat, high stress atmosphere that PR work can entail, her behavior towards him smacked of unprofessional to say the least.  If this had been the real world she would have been reprimanded.  Or, you know, fired.  I suspect the author was going for "light" and "fun" - and it is that.....I guess.  But something about the interactions between the two main characters rubbed me wrong.  I didn't like her and I just didn't care about him one way or the other.

Now at only 80 pages, I should have probably just finished this.  But see first paragraph about ARC Pile Of Doom.  When I hit the 50% mark and I realized that I just didn't care what happened next?  Yeah, I was done.  Hart is capable of delivering shorter works that I enjoy (see this year's Every Part of You serial) but this one was a miss for me.

Grade = DNF

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Beginnings Of A Saga

Whenever I go to RWA I always attend the luncheons.  Not because I necessarily need a steady diet of "conference chicken" - but I figure, heck I paid for the meal as part of the registration, I'm going to eat it.  For those of you who have met me in person?  Yeah, I don't look like someone who ever turns down a meal.  Anyway, it also gives me a chance to meet new people and this year I sat next to Dorothy Wiley, who was getting ready to self-publish her colonial American wilderness series.  I happen to like westerns, and really love frontier stories when "the wild west" was - you know - Kentucky and Ohio.  So I was all on board to try her first two books.  They're not quite what I expected, and to that end I'm going to chalk them up as "not my thing."  But they might be your thing - so here we are.

The story starts with Wilderness Trail of Love, which I have a hard time classifying as a romance.  If I were trying to sell it to a publisher I'd probably call it "romantic historical fiction."  Stephen and Jane are married at the start of the book and have four children together.  They're in love, farming in New England, and Stephen's family is close by.  But Stephen has itchy feet, and hearing about Daniel Boone's adventures in Kentucky have filled his head.  He's trying to convince his brothers that moving the family west is the way to go - never mind he hasn't told his own wife yet.  Then Jane catches the eye of an odious Indian slave trader.  Now, with his wife in danger, Stephen sees his chance to realize his dream of a land grab out west.

This story was OK for large portions, although Stephen is one of those heroes who is prone to "magical thinking."  How he thinks Kentucky, an untamed wilderness, is going to be "safer" for his wife and kids then New Hampshire is a mystery - but countless people went out west without truly knowing what they were in for, so it's not impossible to roll with.  I also felt like the danger his wife was in was almost like a convenience for him to get what he wants.  He's too big of a wuss to tell her of his ambitions, but her nearly being killed is all it takes for him to be all like, "Oh well - off to Kentucky we go!"  I just didn't really care for him.  Jane is better, but then towards the end she's all apologetic to Stephen and I'm left thinking, "Oh honey, no.  He should be apologizing to you!"

So it didn't really work for me, and adding to the historical fiction vibe?  Bad stuff happens in this story.  As in SPOILER Two of their kids die END SPOILER.  So yeah.  If you're looking for Sunshine Happy Land?  Not so much.  That being said however.....

New Frontier of Love is the second book in the series and picks up immediately where Wilderness Trail of Love left off.  This book was much more of a traditional romance and was a stronger story than the first.  This is the story of Sam (Stephen's brother) and Catherine, a new widow whose husband was murdered by bandits.  She's mightily attracted to Sam, who is one of those heroes who has loved once, it ended poorly, so naturally he shall never love again!  Except, minor detail, he can't seem to get Catherine out of his mind.  And there she is, every day, traveling with his family.

Catherine is headstrong and resilient while Sam, a Revolutionary War veteran, is wounded with secrets.  By this time in the saga the family has made it to Kentucky, and complications ensue in their desire to secure a land grant.  The land is beautiful, but danger is all around them, and soon Catherine and Sam are fighting for their lives.

I found Catherine and Sam to be a more interesting couple and a good fit for each other.  I also found the pacing of this story to be improved over the first, and while there are plenty of secondary characters around vying for face time, I do think the author spent an adequate amount of time on the romance.  All this being said, what these first two books illustrate quite clearly is that the author is, most definitely, giving us a family saga - but instead of a 1000 page book, she's moving it through several books as part of one series.  And while this story was more romance than historical fiction?  It's still a book where Bad Stuff Happens.  If you're a reader who wants everything to be Unicorns Pooping Rainbows?  These books might have a little too much grit underneath the fingernails for you.

I read these two books back-to-back, which fit well considering the respective time lines.  My grade for both would be somewhere in my C range.  They were OK, I had some issues, but I see elements at play here that I think for the right reader these could really hit the spot.  Frontier colonial stories are extremely rare (outside of Pamela Clare's historicals - seriously, can you name one?) and for an audience hungry for these types of stories, these may be just the ticket.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Digital Review: Siren of Gaul

Unlike some romance readers I've never really been offended by the term "bodice ripper."  Why?  Because I truly believe that "bodice rippers" do exist as a genre.  That being said?  I do get massively annoyed when ignorant folks throw the term around free and easy.  Oh, like use the term to describe the romance genre as we know it today.  There may be very, very faint echoes, but the vast majority of the genre today has moved on from that earlier era (for good or ill depending on your point of view).

Which is probably why I'm enjoying Lisa Cach's 1001 Erotic Nights serial as much as I am.  No, it's not perfect.  And, oh yes, I've had my issues with it.  But it's such a throwback, gleefully so, to a bygone era of ripping bodices, heroines overcome with lust, barely housebroken heroes, and general over-the-topness - well, how can I be expected to not have fun with any of this?

Siren of Gaul is the third part of the serial and finds our former sex slave Nimia giving birth to a son.  The fly in the ointment?  She's not quite sure who the Baby Daddy is.  Gah, don't you hate it when that happens?  Even though she came very close to dying in childbirth, and even though she's got a newborn to fret over, Nimia isn't allowed to rest of her laurels.  Clovis, now a king, is worried about Nimia's former master, Sygarius, who managed to escape capture in the last installment and is now taking refuge with the Visigoth king, Alaric.  Clovis devises a plan to send Nimia - thinking that the wrongs done to her by Sygarius will sway the pious-minded Alaric.  And if that doesn't work?  Alaric, now widowed, and sexually repressed thanks to his religious beliefs has no prayer of withstanding Nimia - whose lady parts are, essentially, the most magical of ho-has.

So, once again, Nimia is being used by Clovis who, for reasons that escape me, she fancies herself in love with.  What going to Alaric does for her is to show her another side of men.  Clovis is all ambition, war, and screwing her brains out hoping for one of her "visions."  Alaric, while sexually repressed to the point where I want to pat him on the head and murmur "Oh, you poor lad," is a kind man.  And like most men, once he gets a taste of Nimia and the freedom of her sensuality, our boy is all in (in more ways than one).

What's getting troublesome here is that Nimia seems to be a very slow learner.  I would think that her experiences in the first two installments would have helped her catch somewhat of a clue, but she seems a bit thick at times.  Also, she's easily overruled by her lady parts.  One of those heroines who can't seem to control herself.  I don't know, maybe it's just me, but if Sygarius treated me the way he treated her in the last installment?  I would not get turned on when I saw him again.  Maybe that's just me though.

But, it does get better towards the end.  Mostly because I finally feel  like Nimia is waking up.  Making a choice that will better herself, and not being enslaved by her passion for Clovis.
I was no longer a slave, but neither was I free and in control of my own fate.  Perhaps no one was.  But surely some were more free than this.
That said, it's an ending I don't see everybody being wild about - mostly because that choice Nimia makes doesn't paint her in the best light as a maternal figure.  But, bother that.  I know that Pocket has agreed to publish the next three installments of this serial after the first of the year.  Which means Nimia's saga is not yet finished, and is possibly just beginning.  Because like any halfway decent bodice-ripping yarn?  There are more travels, and presumably more men, in her future.

Final Grade = C

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Contest Judging Round-Up

For the second year in a row, the Orange County chapter of Romance Writers of America asked me to be their "Top Pick" judge for the annual Book Buyers Best contest.  This is a published authors contest with nine categories.  Entered books go through a first round of judging and score sheets are filled out.  My job as "Top Pick" judge is to read the 1st Place winners in each of the nine categories and pick the best one.  It's a ton of reading, but as far as contest judging goes it's fairly easy.  I mean, I don't have to fill out any score sheets.  Just pick the best book, in my ever so humble opinion.

Like all contest reading it was a mixed bag.  There were books I really didn't think were all that great.  Then there were the nothing memorable either way, merely OK books.  And then there were the books that featured something that "stuck" with me.  For the sake of this round-up I'm going to talk about those books; the Wendy Graded B and C books (alas, no A reads this year in contest judging!).  And, of course, I'm including the book I selected as Top Pick!
Here's a perfect example of why I like to contest judge even though it can be a time suck.  Gentle on My Mind by Susan Fox is a book I had never even heard of, and the author does some really interesting things with this story.  On the surface it looks and smells like your typical small town contemporary, but it's got some grit underneath the surface.  The heroine is in her 40s, single, and trying to put her life back together after climbing out of a bottle.  She turned to alcohol to self-medicate, and she's finally been properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  She's managed to patch together a relationship with her formerly estranged, now married (she was a teen mom) son and is living a quiet life.  Until the (younger) hero, an undercover cop, crashes his motorcycle into her white picket fence.

So the issues I had with the story were mostly the hero (he's an undercover cop and yet the heroine suggests to him he might want to alter his appearance to "fit in" in town. Really dude?) and some back-story, info-dump in the first chapters.  It's the heroine here who is interesting.  The self-medicating issue with her alcoholism is not one you see every day in romance.  Also she's very aware of her bipolar disorder, monitors her medication, sees her doctor regularly etc.  These "interesting issues" you don't see in romance novels every day continue toward the end.  [SPOILER] Heroine gets pregnant.  She's older, has a mental illness, and is just repairing the damage she's done to herself and her relationships. Abortion is actually thought about and discussed. The heroine isn't necessarily "overjoyed" with this news.  She's, naturally, worried.  Was kind of refreshing to read a book where the heroine didn't spout off any "I'll always have a piece of him" BS. [END SPOILER].
The Plus One Chronicles by Jennifer Lyon is a self-published, erotic romance novella trilogy - now available in a box-set.  The heroine is a former scientist pigeon-holed into that career thanks to the family business.  She's always felt like a fraud compared to her genius parents and older brother.  Then she survives a brutal attack.  She now runs her own bakery and is trying (and mostly failing) to get back to normal.  To not be so scared all the time.  And then she meets the hero, a former MMA fighter turned gazillionaire, who is very interested in making her his "plus one."  Because, you know, he doesn't do relationships.

So the hero is, frankly, pretty standard here for stories of this ilk.  There's nothing particularly memorable about him, in my opinion.  But again, it's the heroine who makes this trilogy.  She's got an ex-fiance she's broken things off with, a strained relationship with her parents, and she's tired of feeling helpless.  Sure, she'll be the hero's "plus one" for however long it lasts - but in exchange she wants self-defense lessons.  Yes, the hero does "save her" to some extent, but she's actively working to save herself - and that's what I liked about this series.
Let me count the ways I am totally burnt-out on paranormal romance.  So it's pretty remarkable really that I enjoyed Prodigal Son by Debra Mullins as much as I did.  It's highly readable (even for those of us with burn-out!) and I thought it was an extremely strong showing for an author whose entire backlist, up until this point, was in historicals. 

The hero is a bounty hunter and a "seer" - descended from a survivor of Atlantis (yes, that Atlantis).  His ability to "see" people across time and space makes him darn good at his job - until he's hired to find a car thief who jumped bail and he can't "see" him.  What the heck?  The heroine is that car thief's stepsister and since she put her condo up for bail she has a vested interest in finding him.  She eventually runs into the hero and they join forces.  What neither of them know?  Wayward stepbrother stole something other than a car and there are some Very Bad Men gunning for him.

The world-building here is in line with urban fantasy.  It's a world we recognize as an everyday world, it's just inhabited by people with "powers."  The Atlantis angle was interesting, there's a nice chemistry between the main couple, and the series-itis (this is the first book in a trilogy folks) is there, but not too annoying (the hero's siblings are on tap for other books).  If you're looking for a new paranormal, Burn-Out Girl thought this was very solid.  It's pricier as a trade paperback, but it got very good reviews in the trade journals (including a starred review in Publisher's Weekly), so your local library may be an option.
And now ::drumroll:: we have the Top Pick Winner!  Sweet Madness by Heather Snow and the third book in a trilogy.  The heroine's husband committed suicide.  This tragedy, coupled with survivor's guilt, lead to her work helping to treat veterans returning from the Napoleonic War.  The hero is a veteran from that war, and is suffering from what we now know as PTSD.  He's in such a bad way that he as been committed, although given his title and family he's hardly in a "snake pit."  He's also her cousin by her first marriage and when his mother asks her to help, she agrees to go visit him.  She sees him for the first time since her wedding at the hospital, stark raving mad, naked, and being subdued by orderlies.  Ahhhhh, romance!

This is likely a book that would drive historical purists up one wall and down the other.  However I appreciated it for how the author plays with her history without completely running off the rails.  Yes, a heroine in the early 19th century running around as amateur shrink would be unlikely - but the survivor's guilt angle worked for me.  Also her idea for helping soldiers is "talk therapy," which hardly strains at the seams.  I also liked the window into mental illness treatment during this time period.  Let's face it - the hero has money and power, even if he is believed to be totally mad.  That affords him a certain lifestyle, even if he is institutionalized.  My only real quibble is a bit of a throwaway line, where I felt that the heroine's husband (obviously "not well") is demonized a bit for the way he treated her.  I could see that rankling some readers, and while it rankled me a bit - it didn't detract overall from the story which I felt was very interesting and a different take on what we typically see in a Regency.

And that's it!  The four books that stuck with me in various, positive ways, during the course of my contest reading.  While I didn't find an "A" read this year, I did run up against some interesting books that I may not have read otherwise.  Which really, is why I keep signing up to judge contests every year even with my TBR Pile of Doom.  There's nothing quite like stumbling across a good book that you otherwise may have never found.