Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An announcement, and a review.


The announcement first: this blog will be taking a break from reviewing books until at least Nov. 1, and possibly beyond then. I need to rethink what I'll be reviewing, and it's possible I won't be doing any new releases. I won't be accepting ARCs in the future. 

But before I walk away for a rest and reassessment, I really wanted to get my review of Just for Christmas Night up. It's a great book, the third in a series I've been enjoying, and it deserves some love.

Harlequin Kimani Romance
Published: 01 December 2014
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One:The complete lack of slut-shaming. The heroine is no virgin, and she's not ashamed of her choices, in spite of her own mother's harshness on the subject.

Disclosure: I received an ARC in return for a fair and honest review. 

And about that disclosure: I just want to say in passing that while I don't know Lisa Marie Perry personally, as an author she has always been pure class. She's polite and friendly and for what my opinion is worth, she's someone I feel safe accepting ARCs from and reviewing books for. 
 That all makes me sound a little crazy, right? Like, WHY WOULD I EVEN NEED TO SAY THAT? Well, in the light of another author's spectacularly bad life choices and scary behaviour, it just seems worth specifying.'ve been waiting for this book, because Martha Blue was my favourite of the Blue sisters even when she was just appearing as a background character in her sisters' stories. Raised by powerful determined parents (the mother is downright manipulative), she was the most rebellious, unconcerned with the family brand and with "image" and bent on having a good time.

Including, and ths is one of my reasons for loving this book, a good time with men. Martha doesn't do "dating" but she does do "sex," and I love non-virgin heroines who own who they are. The author doesn't do any cop-outs, either: Martha isn't secretly a virgin, or a virgin-to-one-particular-sex-act. When sex with the hero is special, it's special because of Martha's emotions about Joaquin, not because of any "this is the first time I've ever done X" thing.

Also, party-girl Martha has been keeping a few secrets from her family, and they're in the opposite direction from her mother's expectations. She's been building her education and is more determined to manage her family's brand--and more capable of doing so--than anyone has given her credit for. I loved it.

The only aspect I didn't love is that she rescues a foster child, and I have an aversion to children popping up in romances when I'm not braced for them. But to be fair, her foster daughter isn't an ordinary plot moppet, so there was no overdose of sweetness, just some reasonable compassion. So it worked better than most "suddenly, a child appears" subplots for me.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Author: Lisa Marie Perry
Harlequin Kimani Romance
Published: 01 July 2014
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The nightmarish parents, who are never reduced to caricatures but who are genuinely awful in their inability to see how their pursuit of success has harmed their daughters. They're so well-written you actually get mad at them at several points (and yet there's almost room for a glimmer of sympathy when you wonder what lies beneath that obsessive drive).

Disclosure: I received an author's review copy in return for a fair and honest review.

I was expecting huge things from the second entry in the Blue Dynasty series, and Midnight Play delivered.

This isn't just a romance series: it's an exploration of the fall-out when well meaning, success-seeking parents demand "perfection" from their children. All three of the wealthy, gorgeous Blue daughters have issues, and Midnight Play is Danica's story.

As in any romance novel, this is also about the power of love to correct and complete life, but in these books it's never presented as an easy answer or something tacked-on. Instead, the process of falling in love with bad-boy football player Dex Harper is the impetus for Danica to re-examine her life and priorities. She has to wrestle with the pain of giving up her role within the family as the good, rule-obeying daughter as a step to finding out what she really wants. Being in love doesn't make any of that easy, but it does make it worthwhile.

A couple of personal (and spoiler-y) notes: I wasn't expecting to like Danica as much as I did, because of the way she failed to have her sister's back in book one. But this book rapidly brought home how lonely it can be to be the "good" daughter and try so hard to live up to other people's standards.

Also Martha, the youngest sister, has become my favourite person in the Blue family. She's awesome, and I look forward to seeing more of her.

Monday, May 12, 2014

In Days of Yore, Anal was Evil. (Thea Devine: Beyond Desire)

Author: Thea Devine
Zebra Historical Romance
Published: 1993
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The evil cult her archeologist father devoted his life to uncovering, because that's what archeologists do? The psychic-when-the-plot-requires-it Irish hero, with his mysterious "knowing"? No, it's probably the anal sex harem that's going to stick with me longest.

Well, that was amazing. I'm having the hardest time assigning "stars" to it on Goodreads. It's written in the purplest of prose, by the end I hated the hero, the sister the heroine spends the entire book trying to rescue ends up DEAD, and the version of archeology presented is so nonsensical I have to go read some Barbara Michaels now, as a palate cleanser.

On the other hand the sex scenes are AMAZING, and the issues surrounding sex and power are infuriating but fascinating. It's like a trainwreck where all the boxcars contain appalling beliefs about women's sexuality: she'll be addicted to sex! Sex renders her powerless! It would take ten men to satisfy her! If she flirts with men other than the hero, she's putting herself in danger of rape!

Also this is an Old School Romance, so the sex is lush and baffling.
She swelled, suspended, and then it spilled, crackling like lightning all over her body, incandescent, glittering, a long silver slide of sensation up and down, white-hot, sizzling, blinding...exquisite and so all-enveloping that his thrust of flesh against flesh and his long low groan of repletion was lost in the hot aftermath of her ecstasy. (pp. 143-144)
"Flesh against flesh" reminds me of "plastic on plastic" now.

I also love how this is, according to the back cover anyway, set in set in Victorian London (and later on in Tehrin and Khartoum and The Desert Generally), yet the hero dragging an unmarried woman along with him all over the place, including the British Legation House, is just fine with everyone.

Also the hero, Ryder Culhane (seriously) mysteriously "knows" things, but still won't believe that the heroine (Alexandra deLisle. Seriously.) didn't have sex while she was imprisoned in Evil Guy's Harem. So he can read the mind of the guy who kidnapped her and threatened her with rape, and read her mind all through the book, but we still have to suffer through several pages of this once she's rescued:
"It seems my odalisque loved her taste of the harem," he murmured as he entered the room.
"Your odalisque loved her taste of you," she whispered, her blood thrumming with excitement.
But he couldn't let it go; he felt like a bulldog  about to gnaw on a meaty bone. "Tell me the lessons of the harem, odalisque. Tell me what you loved." (p. 418)
And so on for several pages, and he refuses to have sex with her because...her kidnapper might have raped her? Really? (Weirdly, he's fine with her again later, after both her sister and two extra Surprise Bad Guys have been killed. It reads as though killing the sister who enjoyed the anal-harem somehow...cleared things up between Ryder and Alexandra. IDEK.)

I'm not making it up about the anal harem. There's a lot of weird anti-anal stuff in this book. Like the scene  where the heroine chokes another harem inmate almost to death:
"So he admired your beauty did he? I wish I could have heard those lies," she growled. "But your body is much like that of a boy, isn't it, Biju? And that is why he keeps you by his side and uses my sister so badly. He trained you both to do his will, and now neither of you can withstand his power. But can you withstand mine? Can you? Can you?" she raged, pressing harder and harder into Biju's throat. (p. 411)
Okay, okay, we get it: YOU DON'T LIKE BUTT STUFF. Simmer down, lady. There's no need to choke a bitch.

Also, Bad Guy Who Kidnaps Her Sister* seems to be bad chiefly because he 1) has a harem and 2) prefers anal sex (once with--the horror!!!--another man). I mean, he's also the head of an ancient religion devoted to the worship of evil. But the only form that takes is training the sister for anal sex, maintaining a harem for anal sex, and kidnapping the heroine and threatening her with--wait for it--anal sex.
Allegra looked at her triumphantly and kneeled down on the bed.
He needed no surrogate tonight to possess her. His was the way of the ancients of Rome, and she felt disgusted by his fervor and the eagerness of her sister to yield to it.
But she knew no different; this was the way he had trained her; this was how he had visited himself on her, on the slender weightless body of a young girl -- boyish at best, culminating in curves later, when her tastes had been formed and the way had been set. No wonder she had been his favorite: who would surrender everything to this? (p.388)

Whereas the HERO makes the heroine agree to be his "odalisque" in return for accompanying him on the mission to rescue her sister, and at one point is said to be off getting laid elsewhere (I can't tell if he really was, or this was misinformation), and by the end has killed as many people on his rescue mission as the Bad Guy did. Possibly more people, since he burnt down an entire harem. An entire ANAL harem.

So in the end (...ow) good and evil in this book are largely a matter of...Choice of Hole?

I can't say it wasn't entertaining, though.

* The Bad Guy is named Dzmura. Someone needs to buy that man a vowel.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Problem with Harlequin titles.

I get that current Harlequin titles are designed to shove in certain keywords to raise sales. I do. But aside from sounding same-y and somewhat silly, the real problem is that it makes it nearly impossible to remember which title went with what story.
Which, I know: Harlequin's business model has historically been built around BIG SALES NOW and then the books disappear from the shelves and are replaced by the next crop. You aren't SUPPOSED to remember the titles and go looking for old ones you remember fondly. that you can backorder them for months from Amazon or the Book Depository, or download out-of-date ones onto kindle, wouldn't it make more sense to make the titles a little more memorable?

All of which is a long lead-in to my point: I loved A Not-So-Innocent Seduction, but boy, I do not love that title. If I'm not actually looking at the cover I cannot even remember what it is called, and I finished it five minutes ago. Christ.

Author: Janice Maynard
 Harlequin Desire
Published: April 2014
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The heroine was a secretly-rich flower child who travels around in a vintage volkswagon van named Bessie, and the hero was a boringly responsible hotel owner-manager who was kind of a jerk but in an understandable (because of his past) way. HOW COULD I NOT REMEMBER THIS ONE? Although I may have to make up a private nickname for it. 
So the hero is uptight and reliable, having once fallen in love (back when he was sixteen) with a woman who turned out to be 1) sleeping with his father and 2) a gold-digger. His father went looking for the family's old silver mine and disappeared, and has since been declared dead. Liam, as the eldest child, was left to help his mother run the family's very exclusive hotel. There are a bunch of grown-up siblings (seven in total, I think) but they've all moved on and had, you know, lives. Liam's 36 and in kind of a holding pattern.

So obviously he needs someone like Zoe, who enters the scene in a flower-painted vintage volkswagon van which promptly breaks down, stranding her in Silver Glen. She has a limitless platinum credit card, which she uses to check into Liam's hotel for a six week stay. She tells herself that since she's recently been sick she needs to recuperate, but throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that she's reached the point where she needs to break out of her restless wandering and move on to the next stage of her life.

So both of them bump up against each other abrasively, pointing out things they're ready to see but not eager to be presented with, and it makes for some realistic fights. Not just arguments for the sake of making the heroine seem feisty, but real confrontations about the things that are so obvious from outside, but which they've been unable or unwilling to verbalize for themselves. IT WAS AWESOME.

Also, they have romance-novel sex. I don't mean that in the obvious "since they are in a romance novel" way: I mean he pretends to be a viking marauder and she pretends to be his helpless captive. No, really.
"You are determined that I will obey you, so you stretch out on your back and force me to service you." (p. 96)
That goes on for several pages, and I love it, because it reads exactly as though Zoe has read way too many bodice-rippers. They do it again near the end of the novel, too. It's hilarious both times.

But  aside from the hot sex, they keep clashing because she has secrets and he has...a stick up his arse.

He's immediately suspicious when she checks in, because she doesn't look like the platinum-visa type, what with her flowing hippie-ish skirts and battered VW van and guitar and all that. See what I mean about him being kind of a jerk? Liam apparently has never seen a conclusion he wouldn't leap to. It's understandable that he'd be suspicious of people keeping secrets, what with his father's affair and all, so I don't actually hate him. But seriously, people get to keep secrets. 

He's also snide about her rootless, mobile lifestyle in a way that would have made me leave...and, to her credit, Zoe doesn't put up with it either. She's been avoiding her abusive, controlling father, which she's able to do since her grandmother left her millions of dollars. But Liam manages to sound as if he's siding with her father when he criticizes her lifestyle, and because there are wads of cash concealed in her van he ALSO believes she's stolen money from her father. Which is lousy of him, but to be fair, most people lining their vehicles with cash aren't going to turn out to be secret millionaires, you know?
"Wait," Liam said, lurching to his feet and grabbing her by the shoulders. "I told you I love you. Doesn't that warrant a response of some sort?"
She smiled at him politely, as she would a stranger. "Of course, it does....Go to hell, Liam." (p. 175)
Her father shows up and she confronts him, and she can finally see that he really can't control her anymore, and the threats (to have her arrested, to keep her away from her mother) are just the blusterings of a bully. She leaves Liam behind (since he basically just called her a thief) and returns home, able to visit her mother now that her father's been defanged.

 And then Liam shows up in her repaired van and grovels, and they ride off for an extended road trip, because he's finally realized he can take time off without the world collapsing. Yay!

Active Ingredients:
Vintage Volkswagon Van (Bessie)
Guitar-Playing Flower Child
Limitless Platinum Credit Card
Lavish Hotel Setting
Responsible Head of his Family/Business Empire
Opposites Attract
The Odd Couple
Romance Novel Sex (Viking Variety)
Controlling Bastard Businessman (the heroine's father)
Huge Oirish Family (the hero's siblings and mother)
Secretly Wealthy Heroine

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" 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