Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

Secondary Romances

January 19, 2009
Since Lori Foster is publishing her latest SBC Fighters, My Man Michael, I decided to pick up my copy of Causing Havoc to get in the mood for the January 27 release date. When I was reading Causing Havoc, I got to thinking about secondary romances.

In Causing Havoc, the main couple is Dean and Eve but there is a secondary romance that occurs between Dean’s fellow fighter, Gregor, and Dean’s youngest sister, Jacki. Jacki was a character that was rife with body image. Tall and not particularly well endowed up above, she’s a character that doesn’t know her own appeal and doubts Gregor’s attraction to her. So while their courtship is layered in miscommunication with Gregor ultimately letting her know that he loved her and her body for just the way it was, I found their romance to be sweet but ultimately too short to feel satisfied. 
In best case scenarios for secondary romances, that’s how I feel: Like the romance was too short. However, more often than not, that’s not how I feel. I finish the book and feel like the author didn’t have enough plot to write an entire novel about one couple and threw in the second couple to pad the book. Plus, I’ll feel cheated out of the main couple by having to suffer through pages of another couple’s course to a happy ending.
In my readings, I’ve found that Susan Elizabeth Phillips is particularly fond of this secondary romance device. The second couple is usually a family member or close friend of either the hero or heroine and they go through quite an elaborate courtship. In Causing Havoc, Gregor and Jacki’s romance was short, maybe less than twenty pages all together. However, for Phillips, her secondary couple will go through an entire courtship and sometimes I find myself flipping ahead to see when I’ll get back to the main couple again. 
I basically don’t like secondary romances for reasons I’ve stated above. I’ve heard from some readers that they like them because it’s like getting a novella within the larger book. Those who like secondary romances feel like they’re getting a two for one deal. But for me…eh, it’s not my thing. I feel gypped that either 1) the main couple’s courtship is getting pared down because there’s not enough content to write about or 2) the secondary couple is better than the main couple and they’re not getting enough page space.
Personally, when I read a romance, the couple described on the back cover is the only story I want to read about. Do I want a good supporting cast to round out the book? Yes. But do I want to have a part of the book cut out to make room for another couple that could best serve their purpose in their own book or a novella? No. Just give me the story I signed up for when I bought the book, thank you very much.
P.S. I am very much looking forward to My Man Michael. Especially since it appears that she’s added in a paranormal twist with the heroine…
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Twin Version 2.0

January 14, 2009
I had a previous post in which I covered erotica and mentioned Lora Leigh’s Bound Hearts series, Wicked Pleasures. I had also mentioned that I was looking forward to the story of Chase Falladay, the twin brother of Cameron who was the hero in Wicked Pleasures.
But when I finished I was disappointed. However, I wonder if I did Chase’s book an injustice by rereading Cam’s first. I had originally picked up Wicked Pleasures the night before to get in the mood for that story line. But when I started reading Chase’s book, I found myself doing too much comparison of the two stories. Which, by the way, isn’t hard to do since they are twin brothers and pop in and out of each other’s stories. 
I will say that when I originally read Cam’s book, I wasn’t all that fond of it. I liked it, sure, but I wasn’t closing the book on the last page wishing that there was more. I originally felt that Cam’s story was fine. However, a year(ish) later, I came to pick up Cam again and enjoy him much more. So I wonder if this is the same case with Chase’s story. But I still have some critiques about his book, Only Pleasure.

The plot is thin in my opinion. The heroine, Kia, was mentioned in previous Bound Hearts books as being a minor threat in the exposure of The Club’s secrets. Kia’s ex-husband brought in a third into their relationship without telling or asking his wife and subsequently led to the attempted rape of Kia. Okay, I was pretty excited about how this would play out. I thought it would be interested in seeing how Chase would protect Kia from her ex-husband and steal her heart in the process.
I liked Chase from Cam’s book. I thought that the more easy going Falladay brother would be a fun read, his slightly lighter personality making for a different tone and feel than his brother Cam. But I didn’t find that was the case. 
Though it was obvious from the get-go of Cam’s book that the presence of Chase wouldn’t be permanent, I still thought Chase was a good character. He had been puzzled and hurt about the broken bond between him and his brother and he did provide for a few fun moments in which he teased Cam about falling in love. I expected that Chase would be dominant, protective, and possessive, but slightly lighter hearted than the dark Cam. It worked for their twin dynamic. One darker, one lighter.
But when it came for Chase’s book, it was like Cam all over again with one exception: There wasn’t much of a reasoning for Chase’s darkness. With Cam, it was understood that he kept the sharing lifestyle with Jaci because he was afraid of what loving his woman would mean to his heart. Cam kept his past sexual abuse a secret and the presence of his brother as the third in the relationship helped Cam keep his emotional distance from Jaci. 
But what bugged me about Chase’s book was that I felt the explanation for his darkness wasn’t all that plotted through. Even though there was a thin excuse that because he was the one who killed Moriah, the “villain” from the previous book, Chase made it sound that the darkness was always in him. And yes, those who read Cam’s book will see that the Brockheims feature in Chase’s book as well. Though I could see the logical progression plot-wise, as a reader, I thought it was too predictable and not original. I felt like Chase just got the leftovers of Cam’s story and that the plot just continued through one brother to the next. 
All in all, I just didn’t feel that there was sufficient explanation on why Chase had such demons in him. The details of Chase’s past was glossed over on and if his previous occupation was supposed to be a factor in his present personality, that wasn’t ever really fleshed out. I was disappointed because when I read the small glimpse into Chase’s past, I was intrigued but it never got explained.
I also found Kia to be lacking as a well rounded character. Yes, she suffered a traumatic experience with her ex and withdrew into herself to lick her wounds. But other than that, I didn’t see a lot of character development. She was a little flat to me. I didn’t feel too much for her even though I tried. I was able to relate more to Jaci’s longing and hurt in Cam’s rejection than I did for Kia. Kia was also almost like a Jaci version 2 like Chase is for Cam. Kia feels hurt that Chase doesn’t spend the night with her, hold her, etc…blah, blah, just like Jaci worried about Cameron. There was too much mirrored in the previous book in terms of how the characters were written for me to feel like Only Pleasure stood out on its own.
I think a big problem with me really loving this book was the timeline of Chase and Kia’s sexual relationship. In the beginning of the story, they meet (again) and suddenly Kia’s agreeing to a no strings pleasure session with Chase and Khalid. And then the story just took off like that. With both Kia and Chase refusing to accept what they have together and though Kia vows she won’t succumb again, Chase always coaxes her back into bed. It was boring, in all honesty. There wasn’t the spark there for me.
There was one big difference between Chase and Cam though. It was made obvious that for Chase and Kia, the addition of a third in their relationship would continue well after their happy ending, unlike Cam and Jaci’s monogamous relationship. I think that worked for the two characters. It was obvious that Cam needed the sharing for the distance while Chase enjoyed it for the pleasure. So, I did like that distinction between the brothers. 
What did I enjoy? The appearance of Cam and Jaci throughout the story. Chase and Cam still have their shared warehouse converted into a large apartment with Chase’s part sectioned off upstairs. And since Cam and Chase works for Ian Sinclair, there were appearances while they worked as well. It was really a great payoff to see Cam settle down, smile, and really enjoy his time with his now fiancee, Jaci. Those who read the previous book will be happy to see slight mentions of Cam and Jaci’s life that would otherwise be overlooked by the newcomer. For example, there are mentions of Cam having purchased a new bed and sofa and sweet moments such as the two of them decorating their Christmas tree. In addition, those who read Cam’s story will like seeing how Cam treasures Jaci and how he enjoys the little things in life now, such as cuddling with Jaci and sharing his bathroom space with her. 
What also made me really happy to read in Only Pleasure? Khalid. Those who have followed the Trojans since they were with Ellora’s Cave will love to see a strong presence of Khalid. As Chase’s third and a heavy secondary character, we see a new side the to the man who’s normally described as the bastard son of a Middle Eastern prince who is a playboy and lives for a good time. Here, as a set up for his own story, we are given a glimpse at what makes Khalid tick and what might bring in his future. Oh, and the connection of Kia and Khalid isn’t anything out of the blue, anyone reading the story can easily predict what had occurred between the characters in the past. 
For me, unfortunately, I was much more excited about the secondary characters and future stories than I was about Chase and Kia. I felt that their characters were not fleshed out. Basically, I thought the story was a skeleton plot told between pages upon pages of sex with under developed characters. Of course the sex is to be expected, but I just felt like the sex was the driving force of the book, not the characters. For a story like this to work for me, the sex needs to serve a purpose. And for Chase and Kia, I felt like the sex was steering the story and everything else took a backseat. Between Chase and Cam…my choice is still Cam.
I felt that the cover was sexy and I liked the bright orange color that really catches the eye. However, I have seen the identical cover art used in another book and that always makes me disappointed when covers are repeated. 
So, Only Pleasure…it’s an okay read for those who are used to the series and the characters but not for those who are new because there are a lot of connected facts that makes things easier to understand if one has read the previous book.
Last thing…Kia to me is a car, not a woman’s name. I can appreciate authors using different and unique names to make their characters stand out but I just didn’t like her name. And for me, unfortunately, if I don’t like the name of a character, I have a hard time getting past that. A name is really important for me, especially how the name looks on the page of the book. And while I love the name Chase, Kia is for something on four wheels, not a great heroine. 
2.5 out of 5: So-so read but plot was thin and characters under developed. Those who are fans to the series will enjoy the secondary characters and the hints of the next book.

He Said, She Said

June 8, 2008
Here and there, on and off, I’ve picked up Jennifer Crusie through BookMooch. I started out with one of her novels with great disappointment. Hailed in her reviews as somewhat of the premiere of romantic comedies, I had originally been really excited to read her. I love a fun comedic-romantic romp especially lying under the lazy sun on weekends with nothing to do but breeze through a book with a bottle of sunscreen on the side and something cold to drink close at hand. But my first Crusie was such a disappointment. The chemistry was lacking, the characters were too many, and I found myself utterly confused and I gave up trying to work out who was related to whom, which couple was interested in each other, what their backgrounds were, etc. 

But times went by and as usual, I ran out of things to read so Crusie was once again making my reading list. And it got better. Marginally. I found Anyone But You mildly entertaining even though I’m not always a fan of the older woman-younger man plot simply because I feel that many authors simply concentrate on the age and it feels like they’re beating a dead horse. But the characters were fun and the dog in the story provided some interesting moments and I closed the book with a shrug and a decision to give Crusie another try. Next was Getting Rid of Bradley. It sounded fun and uncomplicated and though I thought a lot of the Bradley mixups were a bit eye-rolling-worthy, I went with it and enjoyed it on the most part.
When I found a copy of Manhunting on BookMooch as well as a downloadable version of it as an audiobook via the online library catalog, I thought Crusie would provide another brief respite between my bouts of reading heavier books. As this was now my fourth Crusie, I was able to pinpoint what I enjoyed and what I found disappointing with her books. 
While her books do provide some fun characters and the tension is adequate, I find that she would serve as a ‘lite’ sort of romance read. The kind where the tension slowly builds, but not a frenzy fever-pitch kind of tension, just a slow pressure cooker that boils up to a quick simmer. The sexual chemistry is enough but doesn’t melt the reader and the sex scenes are more vanilla and tame in terms of not being graphic. There’s usually one single sex scene, the first, and the others are not as explicit and evoke more of a ‘lead the reader up to the moment where they hit the bed and the scene closes.’ While it’s not the lack of sex that doesn’t hit the spot with me as a reader, it’s the simmer-type of tension that leaves me feeling that something is lacking. The tension and connection between the hero and heroine seem to be just enough but not quite enough to make me truly care for them and be totally involved in the story. The tension, or lack thereof, makes me just want to read to the end for the sake of finishing the book because I know they’ll end up together. 

Back to Manhunting. Specifically, what I just mentioned above about the tension applies to Jake and Kate. Yes, the reader can see the underlying attraction between the two even though they each respectively think that the other doesn’t fit the bill for their idea of a perfect mate. Obviously, as the reader, we can see the currents when they’re out together every morning ‘fishing.’ But when they got that jolt touching while playing pool, I wasn’t surprised. And when they had that moment where Kate was giving Jake his beer and he flirted, I was only thinking, “Geez, finally.” The tension between the two of them just simmered.

But the purpose of this post and its connection to Manhunting is the audiobook version. First off, I have to concede to the point that I did enjoy the narrator voicing Jake. There was a slight southern drawl that was just enough and not over the top. Plus, her ‘man voice’ was low enough to convey a male character without seeming outrageous as I’ve complained before. However, I do have some complaints about this one. The narrator does not allow enough time between sentences and characters to give the listener a true distinction between narration, dialogue, and switching of characters. It seems that the sentences flow together too quickly, as if I was just reading the book out loud instead of hearing it acted out on audiobook. And while the first complaint is dependent solely on the narrator, the second one isn’t. I just noticed it more because I was listening to it.

Crusie uses a lot of ‘he said,’ ‘she saids.’ Take a look. At first I really didn’t notice. But then it became really apparent. Especially when the narrator rushed through the ‘Kate said’ and ‘Jake said.’ The lack of adequate pause exasperated the problem because right after the dialogue, I would be hearing, “Kate said.” It got to a point where I could just speak along with the narrator while I’m driving even though I’m just guessing when the next ‘Kate/Jake said’ will appear. Come on, Crusie, vary it please. And perhaps other descriptions would work just as well without having to use the words, ‘he/she said.’

Funny how a book can take on a whole new face when listened to in an audio format. Some authors are just not meant to be converted into audiobooks. My favorite author in audiobook format? Though it’s not in the romance genre, the honor would hands down have to go to Orson Scott Card. Quoted as saying that the ideal way to enjoy his books is through an audio platform, the cast of characters are properly voiced with amazing talents, the characters are acted out for the listener without being overdone, and overall, it adds a new dimension to enjoy Card’s books. That’s the ultimate audiobook achievement: being able to give the reader a new and higher level of appreciation of the book. If the audiobook gives the reader new insight on top of what the print version provided, then the audiobook is a success. 

Understandably, it’s much harder to make an audiobook a success even if the book is a raving hit.

Props to the Art Department

May 3, 2008
Who hasn’t read Lori Foster? Truly? If you like romances, or more specifically, contemporary romances, it’s a pretty safe guess to say that you’ve come across at least one of Foster’s books. She’s quite the heavy hitter. Penning mostly light hearted contemporaries (not counting her new foray into darker urban fantasies), Foster has consistently turned out books that I have thoroughly enjoyed. 

However, I must note as an aside that I never become too emotionally embroiled in a Foster book. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’re just a dime a dozen, she gives me just enough to whet my appetite, satisfy it for the moment, but never really pull at my heartstrings. When I say that, I mean that I’m not teetering on the emotional ledge like I would for some other books. But, I will say that they are very enjoyable and it’s a rare instance for me to come across a Foster that I really didn’t like. If I happen to favor one book over another, it’s just because of character traits of the hero/heroine and nothing to do with Foster’s writing. 

Foster’s heroes have a bit of an old world feel to me. That is, the men are men. Big, protective, possessive, and I can’t help but notice that all her men are usually described as hairy. That always makes me laugh. Apparently, in Foster world, hair on a man makes him manly. But the descriptions are always followed by something along the lines of: But not too hairy to turn her off. No, it was just enough to make her feel that pang of delicious heat deep inside… I’m guessing that for Foster, manscaping is nothing a real man would do. Heh, heh…

In continuing with Foster’s men, they don’t waver much from her (so called) formula. If you like reading male characters that are manly, capable, and generally good-looking, Foster will please. She does for me. Personally, when I’m in the mood for reading Foster, it means that I’m in the mood for a male who feels that his one reason for living is to protect the innocent and that, without a doubt, includes the heroine. No matter if she wants him to or whether she’s attractive or not, she’s going to get that protection.

So, why was I so hesitant to read Unexpected? The gender roles seem to be reversed. Since Ray was the merc who is hired to help retrieve Eli Connors’s missing brother, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read a Foster in which the heroine gave off more traditional masculine vibes than the hero did. Glad I was wrong!

Yes, Ray Vereker is quite the tomboy. She can break up a bar fight or participate in it herself with a smile on her face. Able to handle whatever her job throws at her, she is not the girly girl. However, it was with a very deft pen in which Foster was still able to endear such a character to me. I liked how Foster did not beat me over the head with the fact that Ray wasn’t all that feminine. It helped that Eli noted all the innate feminine qualities in Ray that was obvious Ray didn’t see herself. Foster also didn’t constantly have Eli confused about Ray in terms of her not being ‘typical.’ If he constantly thought of her as too manish, it would have turned me off immediately. 

Of course Eli would need to be a strong character himself to match up with Ray. That was a given. But his masculinity wasn’t in question and it was nice to see that there was no competition in terms of “who’s going to wear the pants in the relationship.” I think sometimes, when authors reverse gender roles, the heroine is too concerned about the hero usurping her role such as driving the car, opening doors, paying the check, etc. There wasn’t much of that in Unexpected.

However, it was the plot itself that made this book much more enjoyable. The plot about rescuing Eli’s brother just too the reader up to half way of the book. The rest, was really the unexpected news of Ray ending up pregnant. I liked it. It certainly did its job of softening Ray’s character and gave her more of a traditional feminine edge that was needed for a reader to see that she does indeed, need Eli in her life. I have to admit, that the plot wasn’t all that exciting nor was it the best I’ve ever read. It did its job in balancing everything in terms of the characters. Totally character driven as a whole, it makes it a more traditional Foster in my point of view. Her books are more about the character connection and that’s what makes me love them.

But what tied the whole package together for me was the very nice cover decisions made by the art department. Choosing the bright, almost neon pink, was a very nice touch. Ironic, yes. The pop art feel of the cut out picture of the woman and the stork pulls at the eye while serving its purpose of showcasing the author’s name first, and then the yellow color of the title. Font choice was also very appropriate in accordance to the clip-art feel of the pictures. 

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3 out of 5: Overall, Unexpected delivered on its name. I was pleasantly surprised at how I was softened in reading a plot I would normally not choose. Personally, the characters did not connect all that much with me emotionally and I read with a dispassion that showed I wasn’t all that involved into the ending. The chemistry between the characters was all right, but it didn’t sizzle for me and definitely didn’t singe the pages during the sex scenes. I appreciated the uniqueness of the story and while it will not be a re-read for me, it’s something I would recommend for a fun day at the beach.
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Unexpected

Formulas, Both Good and Bad

March 13, 2008
After reading several hundred of these books that are labeled romance in just under six months or so, I’ve come to realize (as every avid reader will inevitably see as well) the formula of authors. And yes, of course I realize that every author has their own formula that applies to the way they write their characters, the writing style, and the timing of their plot. It’s unavoidable. Not everyone can be totally original in every book, especially in a genre like this. On the other hand, that so called formula is what makes that author recognizable. 

But what I’ve come to realize is that the authors who have their formula but are able to disguise it to appear new in each successive book are the ones that are the ones who earn a higher place in my proverbial, and literal, bookshelf.

It’s such a delicate balance to play. When the formula is way too apparent, as a reader, it totally turns me off. I’ve actually turned down a lot of authors that I’ve come across simply because I knew how the book would turn out even when I hadn’t read it yet. At the same time, when the author tries something new and totally turns a 180 with a new formula, it’s hard to get into a new groove and can sometimes feel like you’re reading a foreign author instead of one that you’ve known for years. Like I mentioned, the authors who are able to disguise their formula are the ones to keep an eye out for.

Let’s examine some of the formulas…
First up: Sabrina Jeffries. Jeffries was really my first romance. Not the literal first, but One Night with a Prince was my first self-chosen one. The literal first romance was one that was borrowed and read as a joke. But Jeffries’ last Royal Brotherhood book was the one that I choose for myself. With Jeffries, it’s a standard formula. Her hero and heroine meet and usually there’s a bit of deception going on on behalf of the hero. The deception seems to be standard Jeffries and it’s not a totally original formula. She pretty much sticks to a classic form: Meet, Attraction, Deception, Sex, Climax/Downfall, Resolve. From what I’ve read of Jeffries, and I’ve read them all, it feels that she doesn’t stray from her formula. Now, what makes some of her books better than others simply lie in character developments, plot strength, and time constraints as a writer. With Jeffries, after you’re familiar with the formula, you can actually just eyeball the pages that have past and gauge how close you are to the big blowup of the plot and the climax of the story.

Another author who sticks with a formula religiously is Jill Shalvis. She is strictly a whodunit author. There is no deviation from the formula. At first, I enjoyed Get a Clue and then Strong and Sexy, but by the time I got to the end of my third Shalvis novel, I knew that I would never get anything but a story straight out of the game Clue sprinkled with some mediocre sex that was fitted between the pages of the bad guy chasing the hero/heroine with a gun, a knife, or dead bodies popping up unexpectedly. Though the settings change, the overall trend of the plot does not. Somehow, I always end up feeling that the characters are sacrificed in order to develop the mystery and for me, the characters of a romance must be the most important. Even a lousy plot is easily rescued by strong characters, but a plot with no character development 
will never make the reader care about the outcome and therefore the plot becomes a moot point. Shalvis is a ‘stop reading’ author for me now. The formula is just too predictable. 

One author who comes to mind when I think of formula is Deirdre Martin. I had high hopes for her books initially. I was looking for something fun and nothing too adrenaline rush in terms of action, nor was I in the mood for real emotional pull, so I thought Martin would be a fast and satisfactory read. My first Martin was fine. I thought the plot was mediocre and the idea was okay but the characters had their funny moments and so I decided to give her another shot. It only got worse. I really did want to like the books, and some had their potential but it got too redundant. Her characters meet, attract, date, encounter a problem, break up, mope, and get back together. 

An author who changed their formula recently is that of Lisa Kleypas with her venture into contemporary fiction with Sugar Daddy. I couldn’t finish the book. And that’s really saying something. Of all the hundreds I’ve read, there’s only been maybe three at the most where I just stopped reading all together. While I can admire (but not appreciate) Kleypas’ trying a new formula, I cannot say that it worked. She introduced her heroine and one hero that we read for a large chunk of the novel. However, it’s at least half-way if not more into the novel when we finally meet the second hero who ultimately gets the girl. Switching from one hero to the other is too hard when the readers are way too engaged with the first hero that we’ve read. It’s especially hard to switch to the ‘other guy’ when readers see the characters as children or young adults who have experienced a large part of their growth together. I really was appalled at the outcome of the pairing. 

Off the top of my head, two authors who stick to a certain formula but are able to disguise it are J.R. Ward and Sherrilyn Kenyon. With Ward, her plots are continual and I think that makes all the difference. The stories are so intertwined that some secondary characters will appear in books and not be resolved until future books. Case in point: the character of John Matthew. We see the introduction of John Matthew in the second book, Rhage and Mary’s story in Lover Eternal. To this day, John Matthew’s story is still going on and Ward will be releasing the sixth book come June. Even with that, it’s not even John Matthew’s novel yet. His story is really a constant thread in the Brotherhood fabric. In Ward’s writing, though there is a formula, it’s harder to really guess as a reader when events will come. For example, with some authors, readers can gauge when bad news is about to occur. Not so with Ward. It can happen for the main hero/heroine at anytime and for secondary characters, it’s true as well. As readers of Ward can attest, those secondary characters can hit just as hard as the main couple of the book. For instance, in Z and Bella’s Lover Awakened, the shock of Wellsie and Tohr really caught me off guard. With Ward, it’s not easy to point out a formula, which makes for a good book and a happy reader. 

In the case of Kenyon, she has an ongoing plot but I wouldn’t categorize it as extensively as Ward’s. With Kenyon, it’s more of the feeling of an ongoing mystery. The mystery of Acheron and other various characters. But still, while I wasn’t an immediate Kenyon fan, I have grown to be a loyal one and I’m glad that I stuck with the books. Kenyon is now one of my favorites, right after Ward. Kenyon has a formula, though it’s not as easily categorized as other authors I’ve mentioned. For me personally, I feel that with each kind of Dark Hunter, whether it’s the originals, the Weres, or the Dreams, they each have their own timeline formula within Kenyon’s subcategories of DH’s. In some sense, it was smart of Kenyon to sprinkle a Were-Hunter in the midst of reading normal Dark Hunters. Right when I got into the groove of reading Dark Hunters, she throws in that first Were-Hunter and it shakes up the formula. Quite inventive to shroud her formula so that readers don’t get bored. 

Overall, while I’ve come to see many (if not all) of the formulas from authors I’ve read, I think that characters really make or break the book, formula be damned. Though Jeffries follows a formula I’ve come to expect, she has characters who can bring out the best in her stories. But someone like Shalvis where I feel that the characters are chopped down in favor of the formulaic plot…well, that’s no good for this reader. But the authors who keep me guessing…those are easily everyone’s favorites. It’s no wonder why legions of loyal readers flock to Kenyon or Ward. 

By the way, I saw my first Kenyon Dark Hunter license plate the other day on the 5 freeway. A plate that read DRKHNTR on a truck. I’m pretty sure that was what it read. Either way, no matter the spelling, I knew with almost complete certainty that it was a Dark Hunter salute. 

The Stork has a Sense of Humor

March 2, 2008
Personally, and this is really just a personal taste, I generally don’t gravitate towards pregnancy stories. Though the stories always end up with the hero and heroine totally in love and into the idea of their family, I’m sometimes hesitant to read the story in which the baby is used as a plot device to move the two characters together. And I’ve given them a chance. I really have. I’ve read different scenarios too. I’ve read about the accidental pregnancy, the one where the heroine strictly wants the baby and doesn’t let the hero know, and the ‘other man’s baby’ angle. But for some reason, I’ve never really warmed up to any of them, despite reading familiar authors. I always get the feeling that the baby was used too much as the pushing factor for the couple to get together. And I never really like it.

With that said, let’s talk about Erin McCarthy’s The Pregnancy Test.

Having discovered McCarthy early on when I forged into this genre, I had read everything of hers except for The Pregnancy Test for reasons I’ve explained above. I was content to never pick it up. The story didn’t even seem all that interesting. But I was once again in that predicament in which I had nothing to read and nothing on the shelves of Borders seemed interesting. So, I decided to go with a fallback author (McCarthy) and bought the one that I hadn’t read yet. Wary, I didn’t expect much. Well, I certainly didn’t expect to laugh out loud.

Mandy Keeling is not having the best time. She’s recently unemployed, lost the guy she was with, and found out that she’s pregnant. She needs a job. Fast. With the baby on the way, she needs the health insurance. On the way to the interview, she gets morning sickness in the elevator and almost throws up on the shoes of a guy. And as fate would have it, the guy ends up to be her new boss. Damien Sharpton isn’t nicknamed ‘Demon’ for no reason. Prickly and demanding, the guy has no life but his business. He likes it that way. He’s faced his own horrors in the past and now has no drive to focus on anything but his work. Having Mandy has his assistant is an interesting set up. He never sees her, but she’s so good at the job, she’s able to anticipate his every need. If only she wasn’t avoiding him like the plague. When Damien tells Mandy that she’s required to accompany him on a trip, sparks fly…

The plot is mediocre. Really nothing special. The ‘demons’ of Damien’s past is a bit soap opera-y for me, but I can suspend my disbelief and understand the character’s pain and lingering anger. Mandy’s story is all about the pregnancy. Nothing else.

But what really made this book stand out for me was the humor. Damien, who’s the surly, no joking type of hero ended up to have hilarious moments. When he reads Mandy’s Everything Guide to Pregnancy and discovers the chapter on sexual intercourse made me laugh out loud. His horror at learning that oral sex could lead to an embolism for the baby, the fact that people have the fear of the baby ‘watching’, his competitive bingo skills, and everything in between really was laugh out loud. I was surprised how McCarthy was able to write the super serious guy into one that was so caring you just want to hug him. I liked how he was really into the baby: learning the developing stages, showing up for the sonogram, and reading every baby book he can get his hands on. The fact that Damien was so involved with the baby was a nice read. Not once was he feeling, “This isn’t my baby and therefore not my problem.” In fact, he got depressed when thinking that the baby wasn’t his and him wanting to be able to refer to Mandy’s baby as their baby. 

All in all, the book is peppered with funny conversations. The characters and plot might not be the strongest out there, but this is the fun kind of book to bring to the beach or to lay out under the warm sun for a tan where you just want some light reading and a couple of chuckles, nothing too serious or action gripping. 

—–
3.5 out of 5: Funny moments. Plot and characters not really strong but I like the way the hero was written. Straight forward story, not too many dimensions to the characters, but a fun read if you’re looking for some light laughs. 
—–

The Pregnancy Test

Lost In Time: Historical or Contemporary?

February 28, 2008

Reading all the praises for Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books on Amazon from those who claimed that reading the genre would not be complete without her novels, I was excited to try for myself. And I was looking forward to read what was considered to be the ‘leading voice.’ But what I found was both enjoyable and disappointing. 

While I know it’s impossible to like every single book written by an author, I’ve yet come to one where I’m split halfway between liking her and hating her. Usually with authors that I continually read from, even the books that I don’t like, there’s an obvious reason for my dislike. Perhaps it’s evident that the author didn’t have sufficient time to plot out their book before their deadline. Or maybe it’s because something about the characters just didn’t appeal to my personal tastes. 

But that is not the case for Phillips. It’s not the characters. It’s not an obvious time rush. It’s just the book itself.

While they are not all winners, not even close, the one that surprised me the most was Kiss An Angel. I remember reading it, about forty or so pages in, and flipping the cover around to check that I was actually reading the correct genre. I had to look for the ‘contemporary’ label on the spine of the book just to make sure. I was so surprised. And not in a good way at first. 


Kiss An Angel has a plot straight out of a historical novel. Daisy Devreaux, the rich socialite, is arranged into a marriage by her father. She’s never laid eyes on this guy and doesn’t even know his name when she recites her vows. Alex Markov doesn’t want Daisy. He doesn’t want a wife. But he agrees for personal reasons and makes it clear to Daisy that they will stay married only long enough to satisfy her father and after that, they part ways. No engaging of feelings, just a business agreement, through and through.

As if that plot isn’t taken right out of a Regency novel, did I mention that Alex comes from a circus family and has taken Daisy to live, work, and breathe in the Ringling Bros-esque environment? Let’s not forget the fact that Daisy’s afraid of animals…

I thought that this book was a joke. A total waste of paper. And not to mention, a waste of my time. My only consolation was that I didn’t actually purchase it for retail price. But even after reading hundred pages, I thought that the library bookstore overcharged me by pricing the book at fifty cents. 

Good thing I was stuck with a large block of time in which I had nothing to do but read the only book I had on hand. Good thing I stuck it out. Once I got over the feeling that I was reading a historical novel where the characters just so happened to have contemporary jargon and wore jeans and t-shirts instead of corsets and knee-high riding boots, I did find that there was something unique, if not misplaced, in this book. 

There are the typical misunderstandings in the book. Alex has pulled Daisy along, letting her think that the circus is actually his profession and life. He has brought her along because he has his own agenda, but also because he knows that the rich girl won’t stand for doing manual labor. And he’s right. At first. Daisy balks at having to wake up at the crack of dawn to tend to the animals and living on the constant go. Alex is relentless. He wants Daisy to work and he doesn’t take no for an answer. 

It’s terribly hard not to feel for Daisy’s character. She’s vulnerable and definitely not the spoiled rich girl that Alex thinks she is. When Daisy realizes that she has no choice but to accept her surroundings, she constantly tries and fails. She tries harder and fails greater. Phillips definitely pulls heart strings when Daisy takes hit after hit from Alex, the animals, and the other circus members. But at the same time, the reader doesn’t hate Alex. It’s apparent from the beginning that Alex is the type of hero that has a hard exterior. It’s in the quiet moments between him and Daisy, when they’re not fighting, that readers see his tender side. When Daisy is injured time after time, it’s Alex who comes to her aid, though he does so reluctantly mostly. But there are plenty of behind the scenes moments where Alex shows that even though he’s trying to maintain his distance from Daisy, he can’t help but slowly admire her inner strength. The circumstances in which the reader comes to feel for both characters must be read to fully understand. Sometimes I think Phillips went a bit overboard with gathering sympathy, but I’ve come to realize that it’s an almost standard with her writing. 

It’s all in the characters. Especially towards the end, when the final blow is given, the way that the characters are in a sense, reversed, just breaks the reader’s heart. I for one, no matter how many times I’ve picked it up, cannot help but be immensely moved by Daisy and Alex. 

The equal growth of the characters and their very slow evolution of trust and admiration of each other made for a good read. Once I got over the feeling that it was more suited as a historical novel, I found that the little things really did make this one of my top Phillips. 

—–
3.5 out of 5: A general feeling of a plot anachronism, but if that can be overlooked in the eyes of the reader, there is genuine feelings to be experienced with the characters. The larger plot itself is not that fantastic. It’s the characters that move the story instead. Keeper copy. Reread when in the mood for emotional character trials.
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Kiss An Angel

Sneaking One Past the Goalie

February 24, 2008
Wallflowers are so misunderstood. Yes, they’re usually shy, but they’re not always doormats. Bad boys are misunderstood too. Yes, they’re usually arrogant and fiercely good looking, but they’re not always as tough as the armor they wear. 

Jane lives a quiet life. She writes a column about living the single life. What no one else knows is that Jane also writes erotic stories for men’s magazines where her heroine serves her own brand of delicious justice. Luc is looking for a comeback. The goalie is deemed the bad boy of hockey but this bad boy just might have to hang up his skates if he doesn’t prove that his past injury isn’t going to affect his game. 

When Jane is given the chance to cover the newspaper’s sports column, she has to travel with the Chinooks. Too bad she doesn’t know a thing about hockey. No matter, she can survive with her Dummy’s Guide to Hockey. Only things aren’t going to be easy. Hard enough she has to write about something she doesn’t know, but the team is convinced that she’s bad luck. As if being the only woman with a traveling team of hockey players wasn’t enough, she has to contend with crank phone calls and dead animals in front of her hotel room. Oh, and don’t forget about Luc.

Luc does not like reporters. And he doesn’t like this one traveling with them. He doesn’t need some small woman digging around his past and pestering him for an interview. 

—–

See Jane Score by Rachel Gibson is my all time favorite Gibson. It even ranks in the top five of my contemporary novels. While Gibson is not always a win for me, she does “score” with this one. 

The plot is not all that original. The plain Jane mixed up with the bad boy. But the little things make it special. Jane is not the typical wallflower. Sure, she can’t dress herself and is constantly wearing black because the color matches itself, but she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Oh, she might blush violently as she interviews the players in their locker room, but she toughs it out. 

This book is just sprinkled with delightful comedy. It’s the characters and their conversation that makes it great. The conflict, however, isn’t all that strong. But let’s start with the characters.

Jane Alcott: Everyone can relate to at least something about Jane. She’s not painfully shy, but she’s not the life of the party either. She has internal strength and isn’t afraid to speak up when something bothers her. For example, when she questions Luc about his old drug habit, he sees her cup of coffee and sarcastically asks if she would like a urine sample. Jane replies, “No thanks, I like my coffee black.” It was wonderfully refreshing to read the typical wallflower character twisted with a sense of witty humor. Jane might be shy and considered not really attractive, but there’s a bite to her bark, and it’s hilarious when she lands in some embarrassing antics with the Chinooks. For example, when she finds out that the team maneuvered to have her fired, Luc especially, her speech in the locker room that results is really laugh out loud material. 

“Lucky” Luc Martineau: The typical bad boy. The one who’s attractive, sarcastic humor, with a history of ‘love ’em and leave them’ relationships. Oh, let’s not forget the sinfully sexy lucky horseshoe tattoo that sits dangerously close on his lower abs. Luc has a lot on his plate. He needs to make it known that he might be thirty-two, but he can still stop the pucks from between the pipes. He’s not too old and his injuries are not a problem. He also needs to take care of his young half-sister now that he’s her only family. It doesn’t help that she’s a teenager who’s finding her way in life and that he’s the bachelor that knows nothing about how to take care of a young girl. But once you add Jane, the mousy reporter who’s constantly getting in the way, well…Luc just can’t seem to catch a break.

When it comes to the main conflict of the story, I can see how there are differing opinions. Some don’t like it because they claim that it’s not fully resolved. I, on the other hand, like it because it’s quite reflective of real life. There isn’t really an explanation on the reason why other than, “I was just upset and my emotions got the best of me.” Sure, it’s not entirely satisfying, but sometimes in life, things just happen. Critics are disapproving of how Luc just overlooks it, but I think the reason behind it is lovely. He loves her and he knows that people make mistakes. No matter how much it might have hurt him, he doesn’t want to loose Jane.

It’s the little moments that make See Jane Score a good read. I found the conversation delightful. But the main reason that I liked it is because of the slow but steady evolution of Jane and Luc’s relationship. Unlike some other wallflower/bad boy stories where though the heroine might not be attractive, the hero still finds something interesting about her. Not here. Luc really doesn’t find anything attractive about Jane at all in the beginning. There is very very little sexual chemistry besides Luc wondering for a brief moment what the hell Jane was trying to cover up with her ugly clothing. Until the ugly duckling transformation scene, the relationship really does begin with genuine dislike for one another. Luc is rude to Jane in the beginning, in hopes of getting rid of her by scaring her off. Their relationship builds slowly and it feels so natural when they finally do spark things up. 

—–
5 out of 5: One of my first contemporaries, it has a special place on my bookshelf. It also has a nice ability to be one of those comfort stories where I can just pick up and read when I want to. I don’t have to be in the mood for a certain kind of read when I open this book. The conversation really has the ability to make a reader laugh out loud and the characters are a wonderful match in temper and humor. Definitely a keeper and a reread. 
—–

See Jane Score

High School Never Ends

February 21, 2008
Getting What You Want, Wanting What You Get, Wanting Something More.

The brainiac, the ‘chubby’ one, the supermodel.
The dyslexic, the alcoholic, the amnesiac.

Kathy Love’s Stepp series has its own spin on what would be considered a rather overdone plot line. As Love’s debut series, the Stepp sisters’ stories center around high school pains and the guys who eventually make up for it.

—–
I remember coming across Kathy Love’s books as Amazon recommended them based on my other purchases. The reviews were good and so I ordered them. Somehow, the order was mixed up and I ended up reading them out of order. The second one first, then the first, and the last. Though connected through the sisters, the stories are easily read out of order. But it wasn’t the ordering that bothered me when I put the books down, it was something intangible, but I knew something was off. I couldn’t say that I didn’t like them, but there was something there that made me hesitant to read more of Love’s work.

Then after I completed all three, I realized what it was. It was Love’s writing. Specifically, it was the way she wrote her men. It’s not uncommon for the hero to have some sort of barrier that keeps him from love, and ultimately, the heroine until the very end. It’s usually a fear of commitment, perhaps he was burned in the past, or maybe there’s some sort of deceit that serves as the undercurrent for the plot. It’s kind of the case with Love, only I found it more interesting.

Her men have problems. Relatable, yet not always seen problems in romance novels. Or perhaps, not written in a way that’s always seen. The men’s problems quite easily overshadow the main love plot of the book. Especially for the second book, Wanting What You Get, it’s the male’s problem and not the relationship, that takes center stage.

Let’s take a look at each novel…

—–
Getting What You Want: Abby, the oldest, has come home to work at a research lab. She’s the brainy Stepp. The quintessential geek. After high school, she bolts for bigger and better things, working as a scientist and dating the safe guy. Chase Jordan, the high school bad boy, has stayed in his hometown and now works as a successful carpenter and his work leans more towards architecture. When Abby comes home, she runs into Chase. He’s still the same bad boy who she saw as a wounded individual back in high school that has the uncanny ability to make her tongue tied and freeze up.

Misunderstandings run amuck…Abby sees Chase as still the guy who’s still so cool. Rumors run rampant about Chase and his old high school girlfriend, Summer. And Abby can’t help but wonder what happened between the two when Summer obviously wants Chase again. Chase sees Abby and is blown away. The nerdy girl has come back and she’s obviously grown into herself. But when he approaches conversation, Abby is too shy but comes off as aloof. Chase thinks that Abby still feels that she’s too good for everyone in the small town and he can’t help but feel that she’s behaving snobby.

And Abby’s behavior is her largest stumbling block. She comes off cold and distant and the reader feels for her because you know she’s just shy and unsure of herself. She’s surrounded by Chase and his friends, the same people who wouldn’t give her a second look in high school. When she finally realizes how her misunderstandings and clinging onto the past is hurting her present, it’s a good resolution.

So, the plot is farirly typical. The geeky brain is thrown together with the bad boy from high school. But there are differences that Love makes for herself. First, there’s the secret of Summer’s son and the rumors that surround Chase being the father. But the thing that makes Chase weary of letting Abby too close is the fact that he’s hiding something. He’s dyslexic. So much so that when readers find out in the end, they can see how Love wove that into the beginning that made their misunderstandings worst. For example, when Chase takes Abby out to dinner, she points to her menu and asks Chase if it’s good. Chase can’t read it and just takes a shot in the dark. While Abby gently corrects him with the correct dish, Chase brushes it off because he’s already embarrassed. But, for Abby, she fears that Chase is irritated by her actions. She misunderstands him and thinks that reading the menu is not the thing to do because she noticed that Chase didn’t even glance at his.

The fact that Chase is so embarrassed by his dyslexia is endearing and heartbreaking. He hides the truth because he feels that when Abby finds out, there’s no way in hell the super smart girl will stay with the guy who can’t even read his own name. That alone, makes his novel my favorite of the three. There are also many cute scenes that pepper the book. The scene where Chase teaches Abby to swim, the funny antics of his dog’s perchance of stealing his clothes and ultimately bringing Abby boxers that belong to Chase…all, very sweet.

The combination of Chase and Abby was a good choice in characters. Plus, I have a soft spot for the brainy girl/bad boy combo. Who doesn’t?

—–
Wanting What You Get: Ellie, the chubby one, is the one Stepp sister who has stayed home. As the town librarian, she keeps the company of books and the other library employees. And that’s it. She definitely does not have the social life of the town mayor, Mason Sweet. When Mason starts to notice Ellie, he proposes an affair. Too little, too late does he realize that Ellie is not the kind of woman that he should be having a casual relationship with. But Ellie is determined to do it because of Mason, no matter the cost to her heart. When Mason sees that he wants Ellie more seriously, it’s Ellie to put on the brakes because she realizes that there’s more to Mason than meets the eye. But without Mason’s acceptance of his problem, no one can win in a loosing battle.

Here, in the second book, Love takes a bit of a turn. In Abby and Chase’s story, they each had their own insecurities that contributed to misunderstandings and therefore, they each had something to apologize for. In the case of Mason and Ellie, the story is definitely all about Mason. That is what made this series stand out for me. Love choose to make her story focus not really about the budding relationship, but on Mason and his problems. Ironically, though Ellie is the ‘chubby’ sister, her weight is on the back burner of topics as Mason takes the stage.

Mason, the town mayor, is an alcoholic. It’s not really that apparent at first. A drink here, a drink there. Then it escalates. When Ellie and Mason have problems, Mason drowns his anger in the bottle. When they go away for the weekend to reconcile, Ellie notices that Mason has practically polished off the entire bottle of wine himself before their dinner arrives. When Ellie confronts him, Mason denies it. And as Ellie bravely leaves him even because she can’t stand to see him hurt himself, Mason continues to delude himself into think that Ellie simply can’t accept him and love him the way he is. When Mason finally realizes that he’s gone over the deep end, he also finds out that Ellie is pregnant and while she’s happy for him, she doesn’t want to take him back. She wants him to get sober for the right reasons, not to pin them on her or the baby.

As mentioned, the entire story centers around the growing evidence that Mason is an alcoholic. It’s not really about Ellie and her embarrassment over her weight, though we do see a few scenes about her insecurities. It’s all about Mason. And that stood out for me. I still like Abby and Chase’s story better because there’s a balance of problems between the leads, but I can respect Love’s decision to spotlight Mason and his problem in the second novel.

—–
Wanting Something More: The third, in my opinion, is a poor way to end the series. It’s almost good enough to read the first two and leave it at that. Marty, the girl who was too skinny and too tall is now a supermodel. The guy who used her as a practical joke is now the Chief of Police. Oh, and let’s not forget that Nathaniel was attacked and can’t remember his past with Marty, therefore he doesn’t recall ever being so mean to her.

This was Love’s weak attempt of continuing the Stepp story but it turned out too contrived. It was stretching not enough plot to last the length of the novel. Marty’s insecurities were not handled well and the little sub-plot of action and the threat of another attack on Nathaniel was pithy. When I finished, I could hardly believe that this was the same author who wrote the previous two.

——
Getting What You Want: 4 out of 5: A good balance of problems, tenderness, and sexiness from both characters.

Wanting What You Get: 3 out of 5: Brave departure from the norm by focusing solely on the hero instead of the couple as a whole. However, the imbalance left much to be desired in terms of seeing Ellie really grow throughout the story.

Wanting Something More: 1.5 out of 5: Nice try, but obviously ran out of steam by the end. Characters were not engaging enough to truly care for them like the previous two.

Good contemporary covers. Bright colors. No cringe-worthy models that make you embarrassed to be caught reading them in public.

As Unpredictable as the Characters

February 19, 2008
For me, there is one known fact whenever I go to pick up a Shannon McKenna novel: I can never tell whether or not I’ll like it even though I know her writing.

Why? It’s all in her male characters. Writing in a similar vein as Lora Leigh minus the paranormal shroud, McKenna both hits and misses on her male leads. And in my opinion, it’s her males that make or break her entire story. Without the protective covering of the sub-genre of ‘paranormal’ writing such super alpha males is hard to achieve without turning off the reader. 

So why do some of her males work and not the others? Her males’ characteristics don’t waver too much. They are all very dominant, protective, possessive, and powerful. To the extreme. Hard language matches their hard bodies and wounded backgrounds. Then, what makes it a hit instead of a miss?

It’s all in the moments between the dodging of the bullets, the sweaty sex, and the plot of deception. It’s in the tender moments that makes that alpha male work instead of coming off like a jerk. Soft moments are hard to come by in McKenna novels. It seems that she’s way too caught up in making the bad guy bad that those little moments between the couple, the glimpses of a slice of life, is cut out in favor of the gritty gruesome scenes. And her bad guys are gruesome. Underage sex slavery, graphic torture, and organ harvesting are story lines that are not uncommon for McKenna books. 

But between the scenes that makes the reader want to grimace and turn the page, when the little moments crop up, it makes it all worth it. For instance, in Standing in the Shadows we have a tender scene between Connor and Erin in her childhood bedroom right before the shit hits the fan. Though Connor can be insanely brash and pushing the boundaries of his relationship with Erin, the thought of him loving her for so long makes his behavior a bit more excusable. The scene with them in her old bedroom, just the hint of tenderness between them makes up for all the harder scenes in the motel and at her apartment. But take McKenna’s Hot Night. There is no real tender scene between the hero/heroine. It’s all about the set up of the leads meeting, the danger, the deceit, and the downfall. There was no small scene, even for a moment before the very very end that we see tenderness between the two. The hero was way too hard all the way through and there even seemed to be a lack of internal softening of the character.

Of all McKenna’s books, specifically the McCloud series beginning with Seth and Raine, it’s Connor that takes the lead for me. Why? Because though he’s just as rough as his friend and his brothers, there’s not only an internal softening of his painful past, but outwardly as well. And not just the ‘childhood bedroom’ scene mentioned above. Even the little moments served its purpose. Just having Connor admit so early on that he was falling hard and quick for real this time was enough to belly the coarse language and motivations for Connor. The closest to come to Connor would be Sean, but the cliche plot of bitter lost loves was just too overplayed to make it really work. 

All in all, while McKenna is a definite must read for me, the mood of reading such alpha males must be correct to even begin picking up one of her books. A reader must be looking for some gory scenes, arrogant heroes, and heroines that both need the protection of the men but still hold onto their internal strength to fight. While it’s the male leads that make or break the entire story, their females must be written with a strong hand to make it all work. For Erin to be partnered with Connor was the perfect match. She was innocent yet strong. When he was a jerk, she told him. But, and most importantly, when it was needed, she showed Connor gentleness even when he didn’t know he needed it. Though plot heavy, McKenna’s characters easily swing her books either way.