Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Harlequin Desire with a Harlequin Presents title!

Author: Merline Lovelace
 Harlequin Desire
Published: December 2013 
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: This is the first book I've ever read by Merline Lovelace, and I got completely distracted by her short biography. Very cool. But more to the point: this novel features a duchess' socialite-ish granddaughter and a Kennedy-dynasty-esque power-political-type diplomat. The atmosphere was almost more riveting than the romance.
 The Diplomat's Pregnant Bride
Actually I haven't read a Harlequin Desire in ages, so maybe this is the norm for their titles now. I suspect I bought this one by accident, when I was online-shopping for a stack of Harlequin Presents. But I'm glad I did; I enjoyed it.

So. The heroine was raised in genteel poverty by her exiled-duchess grandmother, who gave her (and her sister) an education befitting two members of the aristocracy of a now-defunct (imaginary) country. She had to sell her jewels to do this, and she reminded me of Anastasia for some reason.

The heroine, Gina (Eugenia), has never held a job for any length of time and has (we're told kind of vaguely) flitted from man to man and career-idea to career-idea.

But now she's PREGNANT, and motivated to make a living and become a responsible adult. Part of me wants to dismiss this as an idea straight out of Romancelandia, but honestly, pregnancy is a strangely sobering and motivating experience.

Speaking of which, early pregnancy is excellently drawn in this book. The heroine doesn't vomit within minutes of conception, and doesn't swoon away gracefully: she experiences an increase in appetite, needs to nap and go to bed early sometimes, is turned on easily and often, and wakes up desperate to pee. Which, yes: all of that.

The hero, meanwhile, is a career diplomat with a someday-maybe eventual shot at the presidency, and has a beloved dead wife. So the heroine sensibly doubts he really loves her, and is uninterested in marrying him just for the baby's sake (and even LESS interested in marrying him for the sake of preserving his image for political purposes--which, to be fair, isn't on his mind either, but it IS on his father's agenda).

Because of the hero's job there's more talk of national security than I'm used to in a romance, and also more kidnapping (of the hero, not the heroine). I enjoyed it immensely. I don't know if this is a feature of HDesires as opposed to HPresents, or its just a strength of this particular author, but there was none of the hand-waving "oh he's a billionaire in...business" I've seen a lot of lately, and both the hero and heroine actually GO TO WORK, instead of being assigned exciting job titles that we never see them living up to.

There are also suspicious foreign cousins from the now-defunct mother country, one of whom is male, gorgeous, and points out within moments of meeting the heroine that they're distant-enough cousins to legally marry. I kind of adored him.

Active Ingredients:
Dead Wife, Idealized Variety
Socialite Heroine
Imaginary Country
Elderly Duchess (heroine's grandmother)
Selling the Family Jewels (Genteel Poverty)
Unplanned Pregnancy
Kennedy-esque Dynasty
Sequel-Ready Siblings (in this case the heroine is one of the SRS, since her sister's romance happened in a previous book, but there are also two Exotic Foreign Cousins whom I suspect will get their own books, if they haven't already)

Friday, April 11, 2014

I'd have thought it lied fairly often, actually.

Author: Sara Craven
 Harlequin Presents
Published: January 2014  
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: I knew I was going to love this from the first line: "Octavia Denison fed the last newsletter through the final letter box in the row of cottages and, with a sigh of relief, remounted her bicycle and began the long hot ride back to the Vicarage." This book is so retro I feel like I've been time-travelling, and I loved every perfect minute of it.

I don't think I can adequately convey the tone of this book; it really needs to be read and savoured. But I'll try. Tavi, the heroine, is not only a vicar's daughter but is the kind of vicar's daughter who cooks (plain, delicious-sounding home-y meals) and does village errands. Also she works for a pittance for the most awful woman I've encountered in fiction in a long time, a kind of mean-spirited shrew who runs a private school.

And. AND. Tavi is secretly dating this woman's son, and initially I thought it was a secret because he was a spineless weasel and was hiding her from his mother. But it's so much more awful than that: he's banging the former rich girl of their village, who has spent the previous eighteen months married to someone else, and is hoping to divorce profitably, so she's instructed Patrick the Cad to pretend to date Tavi. 

So into this heartrending situation is plunged a former Rock God. Jago falls in love with Tavi at first sight and spends the whole book courting her, which she's too proud/dense to notice. She's got that peculiar kind of stiff-necked pride that causes her to undervalue herself and suspect people of feeling sorry for her, and I remember being precisely this sort of ass myself when I was a teenager. But she also suffers a bit from that romance-novel-heroine disorder that makes her put up with way too much crap from the wrong people (her boss, her supposed boyfriend) while bristling and snapping at the hero (who never once treats her badly). So aside from sympathizing with her, I also wanted to beat her over the head with something. 

Still. She's just pitiable enough that it's hard to hate her (too much like kicking a puppy), and the hero is wonderful; so is the vicar, and the hero's mysterious "Barbie" (not all that mysterious, I worked it out AGES before the heroine did and I suspect I was meant to).

Active Ingredients:
My Other Boyfriend is a Cad
My Boss is his Bitch of a Mother
Rock Star Invades Village
The Vicar's Virgin Daughter
Horrendous Rich Girl
Ghastly Divorce Complete with Photos
Village Church Needs Repairs

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Author: Phyllis Bourne
 Harlequin Kimani
Published: February 2014  
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: In spite of the set-up in which the hero blackmails the heroine into accompanying him on a road trip, the heroine has a lot of agency in this one. She doesn't end up going with him because of the threatened lawsuit; she goes with him because she is in cahoots with  his grandmother, and is thwarting his efforts to "protect" the old woman by interfering with her bucket-list exploits.

I've got to be honest here: Ethan's grandmother, Carol, may be my favourite person in this book. I would seriously read an entire romance about this woman. Even as a minor character, she shines.

But that's not to say there's anything wrong with the hero and heroine. Uptight Ethan Wright (OMG, I only just noticed that that makes him "Mr. Wright") and much-more-relaxed Tia Gray were great together.

My single favourite moment came immediately after Tia has confided in him about all the various stress coming at her from her family. I have read SO MANY romances in which the heroine learns to put up with/placate/win the hearts of insanely demanding family members (in Harlequin Presents it's frequently an insane mother-in-law), and it always drives me crazy. It's just such an unhealthy, please-step-on-me-again behaviour. So when Ethan tells Tia to stop enabling them, and let her adult family members deal with the consequences of their own actions, I practically cheered.

Active Ingredients:
Heroine is the Only Real Adult in her Family
Family Business
Impending Sequels?
Uptight Lawyer
Elders Gone Wild
Makeover-Induced Life Changes

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Night Games

Title: Night Games
Author: Lisa Marie Perry
Harlequin Kimani
Published: February 2014  
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: First sports-based romance I've read and enjoyed; fantastic, three-dimensional characters, even all the supporting cast. Also, the heroine wears something called "chocolate diamonds" which I had never even heard of before, but now I'm determined to own some, because I Googled them and those would be awesome on me.

Disclosure: I was given an advance copy of the ebook in return for a fair and honest review.

This is a Romeo-and-Juliet, families-that-hate-each-other romance. The heroine, Charlotte Blue, works for her parents, the new owners of Las Vegas Slayers; the hero, Nate Franco, is from the family that used to own the team. She's got a lot to prove, as a female trainer and as the daughter of the owners (who cut her NO slack, but the rest of the world doesn't see it that way). He's wary about losing his job, convinced the new owners forced his father to sell up, and fiercely loyal to his brother (a former football player, now injured), who feels done out his legacy by the sale of the team.

Got that? Good.

At its core, this is a book about loyalty: both Charlotte and Nate are loyal to their families to a degree that's interfered with their ability to be loyal to themselves and to their own desires. This is made particularly heart wrenching by the fact that the families, arguably, don't deserve that level of devotion: Nate's father has made his own problems (and sacrificed his elder son's career), and Charlotte's parents spend a lot more time worrying about how she affects the family "image" than they do about what the family image is doing to their daughters. The sexual attraction--and growing romance--between Nate and Charlotte is the catalyst for each of them to set aside a little of that family loyalty in favour of forging their own path.

I usually hate it when I can tell a book is setting itself up for sequels. Show me a romance with a heroine with sisters and I opt out more often than not. But in this case Charlotte's sisters--Martha, who hasn't quite grown up and is self-aware about how she never will while the family controls her, and Danica, who has already made the decision to try to be the "perfect daughter" even when it looks like that might mean throwing Charlotte under a bus--are compelling enough that I would actually read their stories.

But every line in this book packs a punch. One of the players, important only because Charlotte's professional interest in encouraging him (and keeping him drug-free) gets completely misinterpreted and causes a rage-inducing criticism session from her parents, gets introduced this way:
Granite-black with a wide body and custom rims, TreShawn's Chevy Suburban LTZ was designed for looks, strength and dominance. The vehicle was a complement to the image the man projected. So was the deep-bass, spirit-digging rap that vibrated throughout the SUV's interior. Like his ride, the almost painfully loud music spoke for him--angry, distant, a ruthless warning to be careful not to get too close. (Chapter 7; location 1320)
Even the villainess of the book, Nate's almost-stepmother, is sympathetic underneath the conniving and slinking. She's been cut off by her family, and is painfully, apprehensively aware that her physical assets have a limited shelf life, and so she'll do whatever she has to in order to survive and secure her engagement to Nate's father. I ended up feeling sorry for her, and almost admiring her (hey, at least she goes down fighting), and nearly cried during her last scene. She should get her own sequel, actually. I already know who I want her to end up with.

The only characters I couldn't warm to at ALL were Charlotte's parents. Holy Hell, they were cold (though they never turned into cartoon villains; success-driven, image-obsessed parents are all too believable). The final confrontation between them and Nate was a glorious moment. Charlotte's own showdown with them was even better.

It doesn't some entirely out of the blue, either. Back in chapter twelve, there's a scene where Charlotte is called on the carpet because a nearly-nude photo of her has been splashed all over the media. She isn't happy about it, but the book doesn't opt for the simple "a bad decision can ruin your life, especially now that the internet exists" message, either:
"I regret that a photo taken twelve years ago can start up a firestorm, but I'm also glad that I finally saw it. The woman in that photo is okay with herself. Fierce. Unafraid. I miss her." (Chapter Twelve, location 2481)
It's the first sign that she's getting ready to draw a line under the imposed blind dates and pressure and advice about her Image and walk away into her own future--and it's wonderful.

Active Ingredients:
Parental Pressure
Our Families Hate Each Other
Very Rich People
Sisters with their Own Issues (Impending Sequels)

Friday, February 7, 2014

If only it had stayed a secret.

Title: A Secret Until Now
Author: Kim Lawrence
Harlequin Presents
Published: February 2014  
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The head-hopping? The ditzy heroine? The baby in the epilogue? So many reasons to hate this.

I hate reviewing books I dislike. I mean, the author worked long and hard on it (I assume), and if it's not my cup of tea it's surely someone's. But this...did not work for me. 
Okay, so this is a secret baby book. I've read that other people object to those on principle, because a man should be told if he's a father, but frankly I can think of lots of situations where it really, really wouldn't bother me if the woman chose to just go away and raise the baby. But in this case, even if you generally objected, the heroine can't be blamed: she doesn't know the name of the guy she slept with, and has no way to contact him. 

Also he falsely let her believe he was married, because he felt guilty about having had sex so soon after his wife's death, and letting the heroine believe she'd slept with a married man was the quickest way to get rid of her the next morning. Harlequin Presents really outdo themselves sometimes with the jackass heroes. I seriously expect to see The Pick-Up Artist's Virgin Bride  or Captured and Bedded by the MRA on the shelves any day now.

But anyway. The heroine's problem was that she was a closet romantic, and had stayed a virgin in the hopes of meeting The One. So when the hero stopped her from walking into traffic (she's not bright, this one) she slept with him that night even though she didn't know who he was or anything about him. Then he disappeared, and she turned out to be pregnant.

Protip: the best way to live happily, if you're of a romantic disposition and want sex to be special for you, is to NOT sleep with handsome kind men on the same day you meet them. That is kind of almost guaranteed to end badly. I mean, the sex might be fun, but the odds of running into AND IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZING your soulmate are low-ish, so...

But getting back to the book: now it's six years later, and the hero's nephew wants to use the hero's private island as the setting for a photoshoot for a big new ad campaign. The hero is about to turn him down, but then recognizes the photo of the model: it's that girl, the one he slept with once six years ago! So he says yes in the hope of bedding her again.

The heroine has been chastely raising their daughter, because this is a romance novel and she is a perpetual near-virgin. Also, we find out that she had an emergency caesarian (with complications) and probably can't have any more children, ever. She bravely mourned that fact alone, then more sensibly decided to be thankful for the one child she has and got on with raising her. She wants to be a really good mother, because her own was a Bad Woman Who Slept Around.

He meets her and they have the most confusing, point-of-view switching, POINTLESS arguments ever. Meanwhile she dithers about whether or not to tell him he has a daughter--he eventually guesses--and gets hit by a boat while saving a small child. No, really, that happens. I guess she's still the impetuous ditz he fell for, or something. I don't know, I just found her bloody annoying, and the awkwardly worded sentences gave me a headache. Here she is going down a steep path, for instance:
This was no path, thought Angel, more a free climb, and the appeal of clinging to a rock face with nothing to harness you for pleasure passed Angel by.
There appears to be something about "harnessing you for pleasure" in that line, until you reread it and mentally translate it as "She didn't get why some people enjoyed climbing rocks for pleasure, especially without a harness." It was frankly a more interesting sentence when I thought there was a pleasure-harness in it.

I know "failure to communicate" is a thing, in novels as well as in real life, but I wanted to kill these two. They never communicate ANYTHING; the more important the conversation, the less likely they are to have it. He threatens to gain access to his child by legal means, using all the money and lawyers at his disposal and digging up any skeletons in her closet, and she's terrified, and then he relents:
He took a deep breath, a soft sibilant hiss escaping through his teeth before he said quietly, "No threats."
"I wasn't threatened." Not true--she had been.
Then WHAT IS THE POINT of lying to him about it? Why not say, "This will go better if you aren't an angry, scary dickhead about it"?The whole book is like that: scene after scene of them talking past each other and thinking Deep and Relevant Things which they never actually say.

One thing I did like is that the book matter-of-factly includes her Caesarian scars without it being a big, woe-I-am-imperfect deal. The actual scene, though, is lolzy and melodramatic:
"Complications during labour. I had an emergency C-section."
He felt as if a hand had reached into his chest. So much had happened to her that he was responsible for and he'd been totally oblivious.
"You could have died?" Guilt rose like bile in his throat. What had he been doing at the time? Driving a fast car? Signing off on a deal and congratulating himself? Enjoying technically perfect sex with a beautiful woman...?
There had been nothing technical about last night.
That section is even better if you read it out loud. Dramatically

So, blahblahblah, he proposes (after lots of internal monologue about wanting them to be a family, and how he should have been there during her delivery, and so on and so forth).
"You really are a stupid woman!" The insult was delivered in a voice that held so much love that her eyes filled. "You already have given me a family--you have given me Jasmine. You and jasmine are all the family I want or need, my bolshy, belligerent, beautiful Angelina, my very own Angel. I love you."
Okay then.

And as if I didn't hate this book enough already, there's an epilogue, where--wait for it--she's got a baby in her arms. Because she had a totally unexpected pregnancy! Yay! I bet you didn't see that coming right from the moment I mentioned her C-section-with-complications, right? 

Active Ingredients:
Secret Baby
Dead Wife
Perpetual Near-Virgin
Closet Romantic
Emergency C-Section (with complications)
She Can Never Have Children Again
Mommy Issues
Surprise Baby

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This would make a great title for shifter erotica.

In between other things I'm amusing myself with The Look of Love, and I just learned something fascinating.

THIS was the first Harlequin:

Saturday, February 1, 2014

J.S.Cook: Valley of the Dead

 Title: Valley of the Dead
Author: J. S. Cook
Dreamspinner Press
Published: 2013
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The sense of place in this is fantastic. Roughly half the book takes place in St. John's, Newfoundland, a city I've lived in. Granted I didn't live there in the 1940s, but the streets and buildings and atmosphere all ring true. The other half takes place in Egypt, and vividly conveys an almost dreamlike sense of how foreign the heat and people feel to the hero, and how sharply the local details stand out as he struggles to make sense of the alliances and lies that surround him.

I read this because I needed a break from sheikh-sheikh-sheikh romances, but I didn't want to stray too far afield. This is a m/m romance set during WWII, partly in Egypt and partly in Newfoundland, and the hero's love interest/crush/special friend is Sam Halim, a Cairo policeman up to his ears in international espionage.

I've classified this as a romance novel, but really it's noir, and I think possibly that's why there've been some criticisms of it on Goodreads regarding Jack Stoyles depth of attachment for Sam when they've (at the start of the book) only ever exchanged a kiss, and have known each other for a couple of weeks.

Looked at as a romance novel, that would be a flaw: insta-romance is a trope in some romance novels, but not one that works for everyone. But in noir, the instant-pure-love of the hero is a Thing; possibly it's meant to contrast with the unrelenting grimness and violence that surrounds him. Sam Spade knows Brigid O'Shaughnessy just as briefly when he offers to wait for her for TWENTY YEARS in The Maltese Falcon, after all.

Like any good hardboiled, two-fisted tale, this book has Jack being threatened, kidnapped, and pummeled at every turn, as his determination to find Sam puts him at the centre of a tangled web of shifting international alliances and plots.

Readers looking for a purely historical romance might be put off by the violence, and by the large percentage of plot-to-sex. But if you're familiar with pulp/noir, and want to see some well-written sex and endless longing against that backdrop, this is a fantastic read.