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Review: Hot Under the Collar by Jackie Barbosa

Readers: This review was written some time ago, but I’m participating in an effort to promote Jackie Barbosa’s books while she is unable to do so herself.  If you would like to help Jackie in a difficult time, please consider contributing to her son’s memorial fund.


collarSensuality rating: Steamy

What a fresh, memorable novella! I was a little disappointed at first to realize that the hero is not a starchy vicar with a calling but one by default — as a viscount’s son with an unfortunate army experience, there’s no other respectable profession open to him. Then I decided it could be interesting to read about such a situation, which presumably happened fairly often. It was indeed.

When Walter sees Artemisia Finch waiting to collect a member of his congregation, he feels both desire and a strange sense of recognition. In fact, he has seen her before — when she was known just by her first name, as one of society’s most sought after courtesans. Now she’s home looking after her ailing father, and staying correctly away from condemning society. Being an unapologetically flawed human instead of a properly pious vicar, Walter feels no compunction about pursuing Artemisia — and since she’s passionate, lonely and has nothing to lose, she feels no compunction about pursuing him right back.

This story doesn’t go the way you’d expect, because it’s not Artemisia’s journey; the focus is on Walter’s growth as his conscientious efforts to be a good vicar become more. Faced with such interesting issues as pre-marital sex, post-partum depression, and death with dignity (in appropriate Regency terminology, of course,) it turns out that his worldly attitude and experience may be more valuable than “the qualities he’d thought a good vicar should possess — piety, religious conviction, and a strong sense of  ‘vocation’.” Indeed, it seems that “people didn’t need help negotiating the spiritual world; they needed help negotiating this one.”

As Walter’s sympathy and live-and-let-live attitude help his parishioners, he begins to have a revolutionary thought: perhaps he can convince them to forgive and accept their resident outcast sinner, Artemisia.

This is a really charming story of a leader finding his calling on the job. I found the romance a little bit less satisfying, because the two don’t spend that much non-sexual time together, but it’s nicely mature, straightforward, and guilt-free. The happy ending may not seem plausible to all readers, but I thought Barbosa set it up so well, I could believe it could happen. I give the book 4 stars; you can buy it here.

Review: Live by Mary Ann Rivers

liveSensuality Rating: Tenderly Torrid

There are some romance novels in which the conflict feels forced, like the characters are just making trouble for themselves. Live isn’t one of those: from almost the first meeting of Destiny and Hefin, they — and we — know that there’s a serious obstacle in the way of them having more than an ephemeral relationship. It gave the story quite a different feel from usual, because there’s no anticipation of an upcoming dark moment — their conflict is how to appreciate the moment they have.

And of course, as a reader, I’m dying to figure out how this issue can possibly be satisfactorily resolved, because it seems so impossible. (I kept thinking of Bob Newhart as Superman, with his suit lost at the dry cleaners: “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get you out of this one, Lois.”) But gradually, beautifully, it comes to the perfect ending.

Des is firmly rooted in her Lakefield, Ohio community. (This is a small town novel without the small town, believably set in a city neighborhood.) Having recently lost her job, her family home, and her one remaining parent, she clings to pieces of the past. Helping her siblings and neighbors is one way she tries to fill what seems like an emptiness inside her:

After she got laid off six months ago, when Des looked down inside herself, she mostly saw time. Empty time.

But not how to live.

Not a life.

The people most closely related to her saw their entire lives inside themselves.

Hefin, the quietly sexy woodcarver she’s been noticing restoring the atrium of the library, is on the verge of beginning a new future. A vacation romance that turned into marriage brought him to the United States; now divorced, he plans to reconnect with his family in Wales and then move on to the work he was meant to be doing. He doesn’t particularly want to start something with no future — as Des correctly points out, he is a “goose” person, the kind who prefers to mate for life — but the attraction between them is very strong. As the attraction becomes love and they begin to truly know each other, the conflict between their needs becomes less rigidly obvious… if they can see it.

The story is written very carefully and deliberately, especially during the sex scenes. Lots of noticing, lots of descriptions of small details — a lavish depiction of sexual attraction that fits well with their personalities, since they’re both people who love to lavish care on others. As is often the case when authors are trying hard to write about sex in fresh language, it occasionally hit a wrong note for me, but I think it pays off in the end.

As any city-set story should be, Live is filled with casual diversity. Hefin, who was adopted from England as a baby, is an undefined racial mix. Destiny’s landlady made an interracial marriage in a far more difficult time. Destiny’s mother was Jewish, her father Irish Catholic. None of this is particularly important to the story, though the last two have some personal meaning to offer Destiny — it’s just part of the random weave of life.

This is a rich, tender story, not at all the usual contemporary family series fare. I’m looking forward to seeing where life takes the Burnside siblings next; you can buy this first book here. 4 stars.

Reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley

Review: Glitterland by Alexis Hall


glitterlandNote: I wrote this review several months ago, when the book originally came out. I would now call the author an online friend.

Sensuality Rating: Uh… I’ve kind of forgotten. I guess Torrid.

It’s a little discombobulating reading a book written in the first person by someone you’ve interacted with online.  I had trouble at first separating Ash, the bipolar and severely anxious narrator of the story, from Alexis Hall, the friendly Internet voice. Then the character of Darian is introduced and Ash immediately begins mocking his clothes, his hair and (relentlessly) his Essex accent. I was intensely uncomfortable until I realized — oh! Ash is an asshole.

For Ash, feeling attracted to “a man who was practically orange and wearing beneath his jacket a shirt that read ‘Sexy and I know it,’ could only have been the sick joke of a universe that despised me.” Ash is an intellectual, a successful writer, wealthy and “posh.” He’s also just barely on the other side of a psychotic break, and even navigating a conversation with a stranger is often beyond him.  But Darian notices his interest, and climbs up to him, “like the world’s most ill-suited Romeo in pursuit of the world’s least convincing Juliet.” And Ash finds himself falling into a one-night stand.

“What did any of it matter? I’d never see him again. Nobody would ever know. All sense, all judgment, overthrown by an h-dropping, glottal-stopping glitter pirate, and I didn’t have to care.”

Then Darian shows up at Ash’s book signing, inconveniently revealing himself to be an actual person with feelings that were hurt when Ash disappeared in the night.  And still intensely attracted, Ash winds up in the difficult position of trying to relate to someone who really wants to get to know him. “…what was I supposed to say? That I enjoyed long walks on the beach and occasionally trying to kill myself?”

Darian is a sweetheart. He’s so comfortable in his own skin that he can appreciate the differences between them that confound Ash.  “I like it when you say fings, cos it sounds posh and filthy at the same time.” But he’s sensitive enough to call Ash on his snobbery, and even pokes a little fun himself:

He cleared his throat. “I say,” he said, in an outrageous RP [received pronunciation ] accent, “suck me off at once. Rar.”

I glared at him in outrage. “I do not sound like that! I’ve never said ‘I say.’ Or ‘rar.’”

“Get on wif it, peasant.”

I fell in love with Darian and Ash as a couple during their game of “Nabble,” in which you put down words that aren’t in the dictionary. (Darian easily admits that he doesn’t feel up to Scrabble against the erudite Ash.)

He was uncertain at first but soon he was nabbling like an old hand. First came glink (‘that like look what happens when two people are fancying each other from across the dance floor’), then gloffle (‘like when you put too much toffee in your mouf at once”)… And then, somehow, I got silly and offered up svlenky to describe the motion of his hips while dancing, to which he responded with flinkling, which was apparently what my brow did when I was coming up with something sarcastic to say. From there we moved through a few variations too ridiculous to be recorded. I foolishly formulated glimstruck as a representation of how it felt to be around him, and then we graduated to kissing, still fully clothed like a pair of teenagers on the wreckage of the Scrabble board.

Since this is a romance, naturally there’s a dark moment, and it’s kind of a classic. Ash does something so excruciatingly dreadful, I literally couldn’t bear to turn the page for several minutes to see the inevitable aftermath.

But Glitterland isn’t only a romance, it’s also a deeply resonant depiction of depression and anxiety. Ash is seriously mentally ill — and no, true love doesn’t mean he’s cured — and his descriptions are painfully authentic:

Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.

The things I cared about were the hooks I’d driven into the rock face. Depression snapped them, one by one, one by one. My only certainty was the fall.

Ash is terrified by how happy he is with Darian.  “…happiness was merely something else to lose.”  But later, when he’s gut-wrenchingly screwed things up between them, he has a stunning realization: “…I wasn’t depressed. I was sad. This little piece of hurt was all my own.”

I loved almost everything about this book. The writing just… melted in my mouth, it’s so smooth and rich and sweetly tart. But I did have some discomfort with the portrayal of Darian. I doubt if, as an American, I could fully grasp all the nuances of class and culture clash that were going on here, but I felt that Darian was almost too wise and perfect in his easygoing simplicity. Part of the point of the book, of course, is that the way Darian sounds and dresses has nothing to do with his value as a person, and obviously he needs to have an attractive personality, so they can fall in love. But there was a touch of “noble savage” about him that nagged at me. It might have helped if we’d gotten to see more of his inner life.

It’s still a marvelous story. I have to quote just one more passage, because it’s such a charming comment on an opposite attracts relationship:

The cottage pie was about as wholesome and straightforward as you could get. It was food for winter evenings and happy days. And the salad was rich, complicated, a little bit sweet, a little bit sharp, and seemed to be trying way too hard to be impressive. We’d both served each other a metaphor.

I give this 4 1/2 stars. You can buy it here.

Published by Riptide. Reviewed from e-arc provided by NetGalley.

TBR Challenge: Outcast Woman by Lucy Gordon

outcastThe theme: A Western. I screwed the pooch on this one — I thought it was a western historical and then discovered it was actually a contemporary set in Dartmoor! But as things turned out, the plot shared so many commonalities with classic Americana stories, I decided to let it stand.

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

Kirsty Trennon’s husband died in prison, proclaiming himself innocent with his last breath. Considered to be a sinful adulterer who drove him to murder, she’s been a local pariah ever since, living as a hermit on her isolated farm.

When Kirsty finds an escaped and ailing prisoner hiding in her barn, deliriously proclaiming his innocence, the parallel touches her heart and she helps him. As Mike gets well, Kirsty finds herself feeling desire for the first time, but her painful history, Mike’s issues, and their vastly divergent lifestyles make their relationship a tumultuous one.

You can see why I originally mistook this was an historical; it’s quite an old-fashioned plot, and the first mention of a phone was startling. (One of the villagers even calls Kirsty a witch!) The emphasis on Kirsty’s love of the land and of all living things, as well as subplots about evil developers trying to buy her out and so on, increased the resemblance.

Gordon is one of my favorite category authors, but this really wasn’t my style. It’s another very episodic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink book — I kept wishing Gordon had chosen one plotline and developed it (and the characters) instead of branching out into a dozen different directions. It also has one of my most despised pet peeves — infertility healed by the power of twu wuv — and I was bothered by the emphasis on Kirsty’s innocence, as if the way people had treated her would have been just fine otherwise. It’s certainly readable, and the lonely beauty of the unusual setting may extend its appeal for some readers, but for me it was just 2 stars. It’s not in print or in digital format, but cheap copies are available here.

(Published by Silhouette. Review copy owned by me.)

Review: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

heiress What a fascinating, brilliant, challenging historical romance; it features the nicest hero I ever wanted to punch in the snoot.

In order to keep an eye on the safety of her younger sister, Jane Fairfield has to get through more than a year without getting married — harder than that might seem, when you’re the heiress to 100,000 pounds. She’s promised her uncle she’ll marry anyone eligible who asks, so she has to make good and sure no one asks; her method is to take her natural difficulties in conforming and exaggerate them as far as humanly possible. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it works — she’s offensive and ridiculous and everyone mocks her.

Everyone but Oliver Marshall. “It didn’t matter how irritating Miss Fairfield was. Oliver had been on the receiving end of those snide comments one too many times to rejoice in making them.” Oliver and Jane have something in common: neither is the biological child of their official father, and both are accepted into society with reluctance, Oliver only because he’s a duke’s son and Jane because she’s so wealthy. Belligerent and blunt as a child, Oliver has smoothed over his natural inclinations in order to fit in with those who are determined to maintain the status quo, hoping to change the system from within. But he draws the line at laughing at others.

Or does he? Oliver is given a “test” by someone whose political clout he desperately needs, to make sure that “he’ll know his place, and expect everyone to be in theirs.” And to prove that, he’ll have to put Jane Fairfield in her place: “Humiliate her. Hurt her. Teach her her lesson. You know how it’s done; it took you long enough to learn yours.” (Ouch!) Even after guessing Jane’s secret and beginning to admire her intelligence and courage (and genuine attractiveness underneath the hideous gowns she wears), it’s a serious temptation for Oliver. Perhaps not even entirely for the reward — Jane brings back so many bad memories of when he was a victim of bullies:

“She had already been burned. She was afire now. She smiled and laughed and she didn’t care what they thought of her. Oliver wanted to tell himself that he wouldn’t hurt her, that he wasn’t that kind of man. But right now, all he wanted to do was push her so far from him that he never had to see this, never had to hear that low, mocking laughter again.”

This is a hard hero’s journey to read about. Oliver and Jane are actually on the same journey, to their authentic selves, but hers comes more naturally, and without hurting anyone along the way. Oliver’s resistance to letting Jane in his life, even with the most sympathetic reasons, is kind of a romance squelcher. I believed that Oliver appreciated Jane and cared for her, and I loved it when he did some crazy things for her sake, but the book never reached a level of passion for me that would bring it up to 5 stars, despite how much I admired it.

Which was considerably. Although the themes about bullying and nonconformity are similar to Milan’s wonderful Unlocked, it’s not a retread. It would take forever to talk about all the ways I think it’s clever and interesting — I bookmarked about every other page — so I’ll just touch on some:

— Although this story would stand alone just fine, elements from the previous stories are incorporated very well. We can really see how the Oliver of The Governess Affair became this Oliver.

— Jane’s horrible uncle is not a hands-rubbing villain, just a sloppy thinker who means well. (Is there anything more dangerous?)

— Milan uses the time period to great effect. There are fantastic advances in thinking, science, and politics while simultaneously there’s a ferocious old guard clinging to the status quo. (Hmmm… wonder if Milan will ever write a contemporary?)

— Oliver’s situation, though not always perfectly heroic, is very real and relatable. Who hasn’t felt sorry for someone being picked on while simultaneously wanting to get as far away from them as possible? Who hasn’t swallowed something for the sake of a greater goal? Oliver is generally a kind, honorable, decent person, and he has the face the fact that he isn’t being the man he wants to be.

So the book is excellent and the characterizations are wonderful. But I still wanted to punch Oliver in the snoot. 🙂

4 1/2 stars.  Incidentally, I was surprised to find several minor editing errors in this; usually Milan’s self-published books are pristine. You can buy it in ebook or paperback here.  (And btw, The Governess Affair is still free for Kindle, and probably at other sites as well.)


TBR Challenge: River's End by Nora Roberts

endThe Challenge: Some form of “classic” book. I thought a big fat ole Nora Roberts fit the bill nicely.

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

As I read River’s End, I kept being reminded of Roberts’ later book The Witness. It’s not that I think Roberts plagiarised herself — more like she decided to rework her basic heroine and make her stronger and more interesting.  That seemed especially pertinent towards the end of this story, when Olivia starts behaving like a total ninny.

Livvy was only four when she saw her blood-covered father standing over the body of her brutalized mother. Her father was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 20 years, and her grandparents decided it would be better to wipe out the memory of her parents and the murder. So Olivia, trying to respect the loving people who raised her, has never really had a chance to process what happened.

The murder also made a deep impression on Noah, son of the police officer who first found and comforted the terrified Livvy. Now a true crime writer, Noah wants to reveal the emotional truth behind the murder — but he may be getting too close to some other truths. And he’s definitely getting too close to Livvy, who equates romantic love with pain and loss.

Although for much of the book, River’s End was well paced, tense, emotional and generally very enjoyable romantic suspense, I had a serious problem with it. I guessed almost immediately how the story was going to turn out, and as I read on, it became clear that the ending was going to make me very, very unhappy.  I wasn’t wrong.  That, plus Olivia’s descent into TSTL, cost the book the 4 star rating it might have earned from me; if you love romantic suspense, you may well feel differently.  3 stars. It’s available in multiple formats and you can buy it here.

Willaful Review: A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

womanSensuality Rating: Surreptitiously Steamy

Grant is known for her challenging heroines and here she stacks the deck against Kate by making her — gasp! — the anti-Elizabeth. Like her favorite literary heroine, Kate is often mortified by “a family that did not know the meaning of discretion.” However, she has no intention of following in Elizabeth’s footsteps:

“If Mr. Darcy, for example, had come to her with that first grudging proposal openly acknowledging his abhorrence at so lowering herself, she would have swallowed her pride long enough to choice out a yes. Affection and understanding could come afterward — or if they never came at all, she would have a good name and the grounds at Pemberley on which to build all the facility she required.”

Cut off from her father’s high ranking family because he married an actress, Kate’s goal is to help her sisters (and herself) by marrying her way back up the social ladder. Her exceptional beauty, charm, and perfect manners make her ambition fairly reasonable. If only she could find a way to attract the notice of eligible gentlemen. And if only she could stop noticing barrister Nicholas Blackshear.

The fortune hunting heroine is not all that new, but Grant gives it an interesting twist here by pairing her with someone just as snobbish and difficult in his way. Nick also has an “irregularity” in his family that he’s trying to live down — his brother married a former Cyprian. (See A Gentleman Undone – review here.) And though Nick quite properly cut his brother off, the scandal has still cost him success in his career. His only comfort is the sour grapes of convincing himself that the beautiful Kate Westbrook would be a terrible wife for him.

A plot summary makes both Nick and Kate sound appalling, but actually both are warmhearted, thoughtful people trying to do the right things in a society that has very warped ideas about what the right things are. I liked the genuineness of the situation here: Nick’s brother’s marriage really does cause him problems, and those aren’t easily wiped away, as they so often are in Regency romances. Part of what he has to learn is that giving up your family to please others isn’t worth it. And part of what Kate has to learn is that she can direct her talents and ambitions in a different direction.

This is the most smoothly written and gracefully plotted of Grant’s books so far. Referencing both Pride and Prejudice and Emma (there are parallels in Nick and Kate’s long-term friendship), it is somewhat Austen-ish in feel — insightful, intimate, and centered around a world in which behaving appropriately is all important. The downside of that is somewhat less emotional intensity — which perhaps is the right choice for these particular characters. Though not as astonishingly delightful as A Lady Awakened or as wrenching as A Gentleman Undone, it was very enjoyable, and I give it four stars. It’s available in several formats here.

Published by Bantam. Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Willaful Review: Silent Scream by Karen Rose (TBR challenge)

screamSensuality Rating: Steamy

The TBR challenge theme this month is a book in an unfinished series. I DNF’d this a few years ago, and honestly was just going to move on, but it turned out that the next Rose book I have to read follow-ups the events in this one. (Or so I thought. Paige actually doesn’t play that large a role here. Oh well, it’s read now.)

Silent Scream is romantic suspense, and the romance aspect has an interesting premise. In previous books, firefighter David Hunter has always seemed like the world’s most perfect man: giving, compassionate, heroic, as well as pretty as all get out. Here we discover why he’s so conspicuously awesome: he’s been doing penance for half his life, trying to make up for one night’s tragic, careless selfishness. The guilt he feels, along with that from another painful (though less tragic) mistake, has kept him from following up on a night spent with homicide detective Olivia Sutherland two years previously.  Olivia believes she means nothing to him, and because of painful events in her past, she’s disinclined to give him another shot.  But a complicated case involving arson and multiple murder gives them a new opportunity to find each other.

I’m sorry to say that just like I did on my first attempt, I felt very impatient with this story.  There are too many darn demons from the past hanging around – each main character has several and the information about them is dealt out bit by bit. A little of this goes a long way for me, and it seemed like they spend most of the first half of the book bewailing different top secret parts of the past. There are also way too many characters from their history mentioned. Even having read all the previous books and knowing who most of them were, I got overloaded.

Once the secrets are out, the romance is good. David and Olivia are well matched, both protective and competent people.  I’m one of those readers who wasn’t very big on Dana, the former unrequited love of David’s life, so I was rather pleased when David’s thinks, “That’s how Olivia’s different. She had the same need to protect without the drama Dana had always had swirling around her. Olivia got the job done. Efficiently and quietly. She’d do what needed to be done, the right way.” Including helping David heal his wounded heart.

The suspense parts of this romantic suspense were decently plotted, with some good twists. Violence-wise, this is one of Rose’s tamer books; there’s still a high body count, but no graphic scenes involving fixated serial killers who adore torturing people.  I was less relieved than it seemed like I should be, because the plot was incredibly creepy and seemed more like something that could actually happen. And there were so many unpleasant characters!

I think this may be one of those cases where since I started out annoyed, I just kept being annoyed. Even a highly emotional plot point didn’t work for me;  it was telegraphed a mile away and I found it manipulative rather than sad. I’m also getting tired of Rose’s tricks in regards to villains.

I’m giving this 2 1/2 stars, a rating I almost never give. I just can’t bring myself to give it 3, but 2 seems too low for a generally good book. You can buy it here.

Published by Grand Central. Review copy purchased by me.


Willaful Review: Fair Game by Diane Farr (TBR Challenge)

gameThe Challenge: pick a recommended read

Why this one?: I’d heard it was one of Farr’s best books

sensuality rating: sweet but spicy candyfloss

It’s interesting to compare this book to An Offer from A Gentleman by Julia Quinn, which was published just two years later. Both have the same basic plot: a successful/high ranking man tries to convince an illegitimate woman to become his mistress. Despite being in desperate straits and very attracted to him, she refuses.  (I love historical reluctant mistress romances  — there’s a whole GoodReads listopia of them and I’ve read almost every one.) But as you could tell just from the difference in titles — one a modern cultural reference, the other a witty pun — Fair Game is a traditional Regency, which means that when she refuses she really refuses — that is, they don’t wind up in bed anyway. And the hero’s reasons for pursuing the heroine aren’t prettied up as they are in Quinn’s book — here, he thinks she has no chance at a respectable life and will inevitably wind up a prostitute anyway, so why shouldn’t he be the one to get her started?

Wealthy businessman Trevor Whitlach is very susceptible to a pretty face, and when a notorious courtesan offers him her exquisite daughter to pay off a debt, he impulsively agrees — only to discover he was had. The beautiful Clarissa was raised by her father to be a lady, and she has no intention of discarding her values, useless though they may seem to be. Trevor wouldn’t dream of trying to seduce a virtuous lady, but with no name, family, or fortune, Clarissa is truly fair game. But she’s also the most delightful woman he’s ever met, and if he can’t convince her, he’s not sure how he’ll be able to live without her.

I’m giving this four stars because it’s such an excellent traditional Regency, with an appropriate period tone and sizzling sexual tension — not to mention having one of the very best last lines I’ve ever read.  (It’s also a rare trad. that doesn’t take place amongst the ton — no nobles, no Almacks.) But I didn’t connect emotionally with the characters as much as I have in other similar books — Foley’s The Duke or Layton’s The Duke’s Wager, for example. Trevor never seemed that attractive to me, and Clarissa is more a pattern card of perfection than a real person; Farr’s characterizations are much more interesting in The Fortune Hunter. Still, the emotion of this situation never fails to get to me. This was my favorite scene, in which Trevor makes a last ditch effort to buy Clarissa, still unable to see what that would mean to her:

“Five hundred a year,” she said, in that same colorless tone. Then she seemed to recover. A muscle jumped in her jaw. “But my fortunes would be forever linked to yours,” she uttered cooly. “What if you suffer loses in the future? What if your businesses fail?”

Anger licked through him. Damn her bluntness. He had never had to spell matters out like this before, but leave it to Clarissa to dispense with delicacy.

“I will set aside money now, Clarissa, while I am still relatively plump of pocket!” he said sarcastically. “Sufficient funds will be safely invested in the three-per-cents. They will be held in trust for you during your lifetime, and the income will be paid to you quarterly.”

“During my lifetime,” she repeated, her head tilted consideringly. “But nothing to leave to my children.”

“Perhaps you could bring yourself to set a little of your income aside from time to time!” he suggested through his teeth. “No, Clarissa, I am afraid I must reserve the principal to revert to my own estate.”

Her eyes lifted again to his, fathomless, fathomless depths of blue. “What if,” she inquired softly, “the children are yours?”

For a moment, Trevor forgot to breathe. “

This is why I read historicals, for those breathtaking moments when the stakes are high.

Fair Game is once again in print and available digitally under the title Playing to Win; you can buy it from Amazon here.

Michelle Reviews: I'll Catch You by Farrah Rochon

Heat Level: Steamy

African American female; African American male

Like pretty much everyone in the known universe I read and enjoyed Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series. However, as a lifelong fan of the game of American football I was all too conscious that her football team looked nothing like any football team in existence since the 1970s. The lack of diversity was glaring, and the scenes where she did include minorities were so painfully self-conscious, I always skipped them. However, I dearly love football, and when this book came across my desk,  I jumped on it.

Note, this is the second book in what is a four-book series. I started with this one because I found the title of the first one, Huddle With Me Tonight, just unbearable. I don’t think I missed anything by starting the way I did, this book can definitely stand alone.

The book starts with the heroine, Payton (named for the legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter “Sweetness” Payton), essentially stalking Cedric, a “bad boy” professional football player. Cedric has had a run of bad luck. His behavior off the field has resulted in his agent dropping him and no other agent will touch him. He also fears that his team won’t sign him to a new contract. He is particularly concerned about changing teams as he doesn’t want to leave New York. This is a weak area of the book. I’ve followed football forever, and the so-called bad behavior mentioned wouldn’t even get a rise out of the most stringent agent. Certainly it wouldn’t result in a franchise dropping a running back with the kind of stats this guy has. That failing aside, I found the rest of the football-related aspects of this story to be believable and in line with what I know of the game and its players.

Payton is a major football fan and more than anything she wants to be a sports agent. To that end she has quit her job at a law firm in Texas and relocated to New York City in an effort to fulfill her dream. Unfortunately, none of the players are willing to take a risk with an unknown quantity, especially a female one. So she has gone all out in an effort to get Cedric as a client. Given her dogged determination and the fact that he literally has no one else, he decides to take her on.

Payton quickly shows that she has what it takes and negotiates endorsement deals for him while also working to clean up his image. Their professional relationship sets up the central conflict of the story; Payton doesn’t want to give in to the strong physical attraction between them because she fears the damage it could do to her reputation as a sports agent. This conflict read as very realistic to me and I enjoyed watching these two characters navigate the treacherous waters of professional sports.

Another strong area of the book is the relationship between Cedric and his friends, who are his fellow teammates. They are, of course, the heroes of books of their own but their presence in this book isn’t overpowering.

I really like Rochon’s narrative style and occasional touches of humor. The character development was stellar and I loved the way she delved into the source of Payton’s passion for football. I found it very relatable because my own love of the game comes from very similar origins. It would’ve been very easy make these people into caricatures, but she takes us past that. We see that Payton really is starting out in a business in the way you would expect. One of her meetings with Cedric occurs in a laundromat, and yes, she’s folding clothes. Lacking an office of her own, she also meets clients in a coffee shop. Payton is really a great heroine. I love her grit and determination and Cedric was a great match for her. This was a solid four-star read and I intend to go back and read …ugh…Huddle With Me Tonight.

I’ll Catch You can be purchased here.


Michelle Reviews: Stranded and One-Two Punch


Stranded by Eve Vaughn

Heat Level: Blistering

MFM black female, white male, Latino male

Note: As I’m reviewing multicultural books, I think it would be remiss of me not to list the character’s ethnicity. Sometimes covers can be deceptive, and though that’s becoming less of an issue, I still think it would be a disservice to leave that out. So I’ll be doing that going forward.

Until I sat down to write this review I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed this book. Eve Vaughn is a writer I’d read before, so when I decided to try a triad, I picked up one of hers. Vaughn in some ways reminds me of Linda Howard; when she’s on nobody’s better, but when she’s off, God help you. Fortunately with this book she was awesomely on.

The story is fairly basic, India, the heroine, decides to take off on vacation after breaking up with her fiancé. Rafe and Grant are best friends who are vacationing together to recover from Rafe’s bad marriage and subsequent divorce. During said marriage they discovered that they enjoy sharing a woman, and are actively looking to form a triad. They meet en route and are immediately attracted to one another.

As the title would suggest, they’re stranded on a desert island as the only survivors of a horrific plane crash. And this island is no paradise, for one thing they suffer from a lack of food, and as none of them are survivalists, the situation quickly becomes acute. The scenes on the island are where Vaughn really shines. I liked the way she showed the relationship between the three developing. They’re walking wounded, battered by difficult lives. Rafe and Grant both come from broken, abusive homes. India is from a home that should’ve been broken. Because of this, it’s easy to understand why they would choose an unconventional relationship.

Of course, they’re eventually rescued and returned to civilization. And this is when the real conflict of the story occurs. For one thing, they’re a media sensation, and India, in particular, begins to doubt the legitimacy of their relationship.

India, the heroine, is probably the weakest note of this story. Though within the context of her home life and the battering her self-esteem had to have taken in that atmosphere her choices make sense, I still found myself screaming at her at times. Other than that, this is a very deftly told story. Stranded is available here.

One-Two Punch by Katie Allen

One-Two Punch by Katie Allen

Heat Level: Blistering

MMF white female, white male, biracial (black/Japanese) male

Katie Allen is a new to me author, though she has quite an extensive backlist. After I read Stranded, which is a MFM story, with absolutely no sexual contact between the two men, I wanted to try a MMF story. Much to my surprise I discovered that I like the sex scenes in the MMF story better. Male-to-female anal sex squicks me out, and DP just sounds painful. However, male-to-male anal sex doesn’t bother me at all. Yes, I know that’s crazy, but hey, I never said my reviews would make sense. In the MMF stories the men have more than one avenue to sexual pleasure and frankly anything that leads to less DP is full of win for me.

My overall sense of this book is that it’s just cute. The story has some humorous scenes, and an overall sense of fun that I really enjoyed. That’s not to say that there aren’t any dark issues; Ky, one of the heroes just left the military with a case of PTSD. There is also an issue with a stalker and that’s never a good thing.

At the beginning of the story Beth sees Harry through the window of the gym he owns and thinks he’s uber-hot, so she feigns an interest in learning to box, and he becomes her trainer. The two of them become lovers very quickly. In a bit of foreshadowing Beth asks Harry if he’s ever been with a man, and he tells her about being attracted to one in the Army, but never acting on it. (This whole scene just rang false with me, I can’t imagine ever asking a man whether he’s been with a man. And Harry’s low-key response just doesn’t sound like any hetero male I’ve ever met.)

I like Beth, and I like Harry, but until Ky shows up this is a rather generic romance: Sassy blonde meets rugged ex-GI ho-hum. Ky and Harry served in the combat together and there was sexual tension between the two, but given the close quarters it never came to anything. Now, back in the States with a Mental Health discharge Ky comes looking for Harry after having an ugly dust-up with his father over his sexuality. Beth is instantly attracted to Ky, who is apparently so beautiful he can literally stop traffic. (I pictured Ky looking somewhat like Tyson Beckford who I think has the same heritage as this character, so I could understand her reaction.) Beth is already living with Harry and Ky moves in.

I like the way the story slows down at this point and the relationship evolves. If all three had just jumped in bed together this probably would’ve been a wallbanger. And frankly, given the speed at which Beth and Harry got together that’s what I expected. Instead, we see three characters with fairly realistic responses: Beth is thinking she’s a bit of a slut for lusting after two men. Harry is questioning just what his sexuality is. Ky already knows he’s just wild about Harry (sorry!) but is somewhat surprised by his attraction to Beth. I do have to point out that this is definitely a “gay for you” story. When Beth quite reasonably questions Ky’s attraction to her despite his sexual orientation he tells her, “If wanting to fuck you means I’m not gay, then I’m not gay.” Actually I guess that’s a case of “straight for you.” Or is it? Hell if I know. Just thought I’d point that out.

There is a bit of paternalism as well, though it’s not racial. Harry is nearly a decade older than both Ky and Beth and feels somewhat protective of them. This is incorporated into a couple of sex scenes and it’s very effective.

And for the record, the scene where Ky explains their relationship to his father, the cop, is worth the price of the book. Maybe it’s because I have a black father of my own, but I laughed out loud at that scene. One-Two Punch is available here.

Hello, My Name is Michelle...

…and I love multicultural books. Apparently I bitched at Karen one time too many about multicultural reviews because as often happens she told me to either write them myself, or shut the hell up about it. So, here I am. I’ve been a romance reader for a very long time, and my taste is eclectic. I really enjoy unusual, offbeat stories. I prefer books with a black heroine, but I read other ethnicities and will be reviewing those too. Historicals are my favorite, but it’s hard to find those in multicultural. I also like all manner of contemporaries including paranormals and romantic suspense. I don’t care for inspys, and while I have liked some menage books, and my next review will be one, I won’t be reviewing any M/M, though I might review F/F if I come across any I like. Why? Because I want to promote books that don’t receive much airtime, so to speak, in Romancelandia. So, if you know of any books you’d like to recommend hit me up at 1blackwomansopinion@gmail.com. Thank you very much.

Michelle Review: Buttercup by Sienna Mynx

Buttercup by Sienna Mynx. Self-published, 2010. Erotic Romance very steamy.

Let me start by saying that I was immediately drawn to this book because the cover is absolutely gorgeous. The 1930s setting makes it unusual for a romance, and it’s a time period I really like. Gangsters, bank robbers, and carnival hooch dancers definitely are the ingredients for my kind of book. Back in the day carnivals were definitely not entertainment for the kids. Men paid money to come in, drink liquor, or “hooch” and watch women get naked. For a little extra money sometimes the dancer would grant sexual favors. This is the line of work in which Buttercup is employed when she meets Silvio the leader of a band of bank robbers. Their first encounter results in him being wrongfully incarcerated for rape. So when he returns everyone, including Buttercup, believe he wants revenge, what he’s actually come for leaves the entire carnival in an uproar.

The author does an excellent job of capturing the time period and her descriptions of the carnival lifestyle are vivid and engaging. I could all but smell the aromas and see the cheap, tawdry costumes. The sense of urgency and hard lives lived fast and furiously leap from the page.

 The warm fragrance of sweet kettle corn and roasted apples blew in from the midway through the loosened flap at the front of the tent. Carnies taunted townies to test their luck, get their fortunes read, or become one of the chosen few to bear witness to the never seen before oddities of man. However, here under the cover of a patchwork carnival tent, it was just Buttercup and him–alone. Silvio swallowed. His nerves, a ball of conflicting emotions had lodged in his throat as he stared on, riveted. He had found her. Beyond a stage curtain made from tattered wash-worn sheets strung up by fishing wire, she called for him, seduced him, damned him.

These characters are true-to-life, rough edges and all. Buttercup has had sex for money. Silvio is a bank robber and gangster. People have died as a result of his actions. The author doesn’t make the mistake of trying to soften the rough edges for us. These were tough times and she shows them for what they were. This is 1930s America, so racism is definitely an issue, but it’s not the central focus of the book. It’s simply shown as a fact of life that doesn’t slow them down one bit. The gritty realism of the characters make their love story all the more believable.

For me there were only two flaws to this story; it was two short, and the villain’s motivations were a bit confusing.  By my account, Buttercup and Silvio only had two days together. They were two action-packed days, and the author does such a good job of drawing the reader in that I didn’t realize that they were together so briefly until after I sat down to write the review. But I think the story would have been well-served by more scenes of the two of them together. At one point I thought the villain wanted Buttercup for himself, but by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure what his deal was. That could’ve been fleshed out more. All in all, I absolutely loved this book.

You can download Buttercup for Kindle at Amazon.com here.

I recently read her newest  Harmony, which is another interracial story set in the same time period, but with the Cotton Club and Italian mafioso. I’ll review it later.

Azteclady reviews, Nalini Singh's Bonds of Justice

A couple of years ago I started reviewing every book in Ms Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, in order of publication. What with one thing and another, the last such review I posted was of Blaze of Memory1 Now that I’m awaiting the imminent release of the latest book, A Tangle of Need, I embarked on a re-read of the whole series. (Yes, I know I’m a bit obsessive, thanks.) Since I’m reading them, why not review them? And here we are.

Bonds of Justice, by Nalini Singh

Sensuality rating: Steamy.

The eight installment in Ms Singh’s successful Psy/Changeling series, this is the first one where a changeling—or even a human member of a changeling pack—isn’t a protagonist. With this novel, Ms Singh shifts the focus to humans in a very different manner than she did with the secondary plot in Branded by Fire.

But first a disclaimer: if you haven’t read any of these novels, you will probably be lost. Not only are a number of characters from as far back as Slave to Sensation mentioned, several have key (if minor, page count-wise) rôles in this novel. Beyond that, there is an overarching plot thread noted in a number of passages (some of them one paragraph chapters) that will make a new-to-the-series reader go, “Huh?” repeatedly. So, if I were you, I would just start at the beginning.

With that out of the way, here is the back cover blurb: (more…)

Azteclady reviews Cheryl St. John's, Heaven Can Wait

The pressure of commitment!

Being almost too late for this month’s TBR Challenge, I quickly checked the mountains and piles and shelves of unread books for something appropriate—a book published before 2000. After a few frantic moments—have I really read all my old skool books already???—I found the perfect tome. I give you:

Heaven Can Wait, by Cheryl St. John

Sensuality rating: Steamy

This is Ms St John’s second published novel, prequel to Rain Shadow¹. Both novels were published by Harlequin Historical back in the dark ages (1994).

 Please be warned that there’s a lot of religion as part of the story, though not in the way that usually annoys the bejesus out of me.

The novel is set in 1888 Pennsylvania. The heroine, Lydia Beker, is a member of the historical religious commune known as the Harmony Society. The hero, Jakob Neubauer, is also of German descent, but a farmer, one of the Outsiders whose heathenish ways the Colonists abhor.

This premise would be conflict enough for me, to be honest—how do you reconcile such different views of the world? It’s all good and well to long for freedom from drudgery, but the cultural shock would still be there, even if Jakob is not rich and life on a farm is no ride on the park with grooms and maids in attendance.

Ms St. John, however, added extraneous conflict in the form of a mentally unstable sister-in-law who is obsessed with Jakob.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is the back cover blurb: (more…)

Azteclady reviews, Sarah M. Anderson's A Man of His Word

A Man of His Word, by Sarah M. Anderson

A category length romance (scarcely 187 pages) published under Harlequin’s Desire imprint, A Man of His Word is Ms Anderson’s print debut and (from what I gather) the first in the Lawyers in Love trilogy, with the next two titles released in July and September.

My copy comes directly from the author, via a giveaway at Novel Thoughts right around the release date. Life being what it is and reading/reviewing mojo in the state is was, I only read this book a couple of weeks ago—and just now am I writing the review.¹

Confession number one: I can’t read the heroine’s name without giggling. Yes, I know, I suck and I’m mean, but there you have it: an acquaintance has a 14 year old teacup Yorkie named Rosebud. So, after giggling a few times in a row where laughter really wasn’t warranted, I mentally changed her name to Rose—and the book flowed so much better for me!

Here is what the blurb² tells us about the story: (more…)

Azteclady reviews, The Heart of Christmas Anthology

The Heart of Christmas Anthology

After reading and enjoying Courtney Milan’s work, I have been keeping my eye out for a copy of this anthology, which contains her print debut, the novella “This Wicked Gift.” I am very, very happy to report that it didn’t disappoint—to the contrary, I enjoyed it soooo much!

But hold on, let me get this review back on track.

The anthology consists of three Christmas themed stories by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Ms Milan. Here is the back cover blurb:

‘Tis the Season for Falling in Love…

“A Handful of Gold”

Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he’s the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.

“The Season for Suitors”

After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heires Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn’t go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

“This Wicked Gift”

Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family’s future?

Starting in reverse order: (more…)

Azteclady reviews, Maya Banks' Colters' Woman

Colters’ Woman, by Maya Banks

So it has taken me years but I finally got around to grabbing a copy of this earlier title of Ms Banks’ (the version in my hands is the extended version, published in 2010—the original publication date is October 2006).

Before the review—or indeed, the blurb—a warning: this is an erotic novel, with very graphic sex scenes. Not only that, but it involves a ménage à quatre. If you are a minor or have problems with sex and unconventional relationships, do everyone a favor and read no further.

So, on to the review. (more…)

Azteclady reviews Zoë Archer's, Warrior

Apparently I’ve managed to keep up with SLWendy’s TBR Challenge for the third month in a row! (given how crazy my work schedule is, and how little reviewing mojo I seem to have these days, I am honestly amazed by this). This month’s theme, a new to me author. Drumroll and welcome to…

Warrior, by Zoë Archer

Despite having read many positive reviews of Ms Archer’s Blades of the Rose, to the point where the lot of them exist physically in the humongous, ever growing, mountain range of a TBR pile, I had been resistant to, you know, actually read them. What if I didn’t like them?

Well, I should have trusted the instinct that made me grab them in the first place, for I enjoyed Warrior very much indeed.

From the back cover:

To most people, the realm of magic is the stuff of nursery rhymes and dusty libraries. But for the Blades of the Rose, it’s quite real, and in danger of being misused by a powerful enemy…

In hot pursuit…

The vicious attack Capt. Gabriel Huntley witnesses in a dark alley sparks a chain of events that will take him to the ends of the Earth and beyond—where what is real and what is imagined become terribly confused. Intrigue, danger, and a beautiful woman in distress—just what he needs.

In hotter water…

Raised thousand of miles from England, Thalia Burgess is no typial Victorian lady. A good thing, since as a Blade, she’s trying to protect a priceless magical artifact. Huntley’s assistance might come in handy, though she has to keep him in the dark. But this distractingly handsome soldier isn’t easy to deceive…

Despite the wonderful covers, there is not much steampunk in this series (or perhaps it’s more evident in later installments). The premise of the series is this: (more…)

What a fun friends-to-lovers story.

Alice and Gabriel have been friends for years, and one night when one of Alice’s romantic entanglements ends in disaster (AGAIN), she ends up in Gabriel’s house, in Gabriel’s bedroom at stupid o’clock, lamenting the state of her love life.

Gabriel’s used to Alice bending his ear about what sluts men are, but he could really do with a coffee. Especially if Alice is about to cry. Gabriel really hates seeing women cry, and Alice is a regular walking sob-fest.

Alice has had a crush on her big brother’s best friend for ages, and the attraction keeps getting stronger. He of course sees her as just his best friend’s sister, something that frustrates Alice no end.

Whilst she’s crying on his shoulder, Alice detects a look of lust in Gabriel’s eyes – perhaps there’s something she can do to finally get Gabe to notice her as a woman? She wants him, and he seems to want her, so what’s the problem?

The rest of the book sees Alice doing her best to seduce Gabriel, despite his best intentions, with mixed, but amusing results.

I liked that the heroine was the aggressor in this relationship. Poor Gabriel, he didn’t really stand a chance at escaping Alice’s devious machinations. His protective instincts especially come to the fore when Alice informs him that she’s decided to date as many men as possible, in an effort to find Mr Perfect.

A hugely likable heroine, and a hard-done-by hero, who has no idea how to do DIY. Definitely a recipe for a good, fun book. Although I got this book free, I’d definitely read this author again.

One thing though, as with any heroine called Alice, I couldn’t help but continuously think to myself, “Alice, Alice, who the f*ck is Alice?”

You can buy this book from Amazon.com here. (It may still be free)