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Willaful Review: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Sensuality Rating: Steamy

Peer pressure! SuperRomance isn’t my line, but all the cool kids are reading this one. I wasn’t sorry I jumped off the cliff with them.

This is a romance featuring a Chinese-American heroine and written by a Chinese-Canadian writer, both rare enough scenarios to catch the attention of the romance community. Thirty-two year old Tiffany has returned home in disgrace: unemployed, in debt, and feeling like she wasted the English degree she fought so hard for. Now she’s once again stuck in a small town, with a family that’s disappointed in her (as always) and no place to work except her family’s restaurant. Things look up a bit when the football player she once tutored (and madly crushed on) hires her to tutor his teenage son.

One of the things I liked about this story was that both Tiffany and her love interest Chris, who is white, turn out to have essentially the same issues: both are dealing with pressure and expectations from family, and both are struggling with their places in the world. That made Tiffany’s situation seem less based on cultural types. And realistically, their problems aren’t entirely the same: Tiffany also has to deal with the overt racism of Chris’s father, and to begin to understand how the discomfort of growing up in an otherwise entirely white community affected the way she relates to people.

The part of the story that most interested me was actually a subplot involving Tiffany’s brother, Daniel; although he has an MBA, he’s been working at the family restaurant and living with his parents while Tiffany was an assistant editor in New York. (He’s also the town driving instructor, an amusing thumb of the nose to the “bad drivers” stereotype.) Daniel’s in love with a white doctor he met online, but has been too worried about his family’s reaction to her to fully commit. When Tiffany points out how disparate their circumstances are — wealthy city doctor, small-town fry-cook — it creates a crisis of confidence for him.

I would have loved it if Daniel had been the central character of the book, and it would have made a more challenging story. A hunky blonde white guy and a petite, beautiful Asian woman fit so much more neatly into Western standards of appropriate attractiveness, to say nothing of the gender standards of appropriate success. But since romances with non-white characters seem to still be such a hard sell, I can’t really blame anyone for taking the easier route.

I also enjoyed Chris and Tiffany’s gentle romance, which has some plausible bumps in the road, many involving Chris’s difficult father and his different but equally difficult son. But their main conflict is Tiffany’s need to get back to the city and her editing work. I wasn’t entirely happy with how this resolved. The general message that the societal idea of success isn’t as important as doing what make you happy is a good one (again, this is a place where I preferred Daniel’s story to Tiffany’s.) But there was too much of a Small Town Good, Big City Bad message, especially in a genre that is overflowing with that already.

That aspect makes me a bit torn on my rating but I’m going with 4 stars, because of the good writing and the many things the book does right. You can buy it in paperback or for Kindle here. (Incidentally, while looking up the info, I saw that the paperback is almost out of stock, which I hope is a good sign of success!) Though January 21st, the secure epub format is also available with a 50% rebate at All Romance, with the code SBTBARE. (Keep in mind that the rebate process at All Romance is kind of complicated, though a good deal if you buy from them frequently.)

There are currently two online discussion of this book planned: if you’d like to join in, check out Something More on January 11th, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on January 31st.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy provided by netGalley

Willaful Review (and thoughts): Always in My Heart by Kayla Perrin



Sensuality rating: steamy

This is my first book from Harlequin’s “Kimani” line, and my primary thought reading it was that it’s really messed up that there needs to be an entire separate line for romances with black characters. By any standards I can think of, Always in My Heart is a category romance — it’s a secret baby story, for crying out loud, what could be more typical? — and could be published under a general line, which makes Kimani seem like a publishing ghetto.  Or is it valuable as a tool for people to easily find romances with black characters?  There’s no one definite answer, as the author points out in a Karen Knows Best interview from 2007:

KP: in many ways, I understand the publishers’ dilemma. They know there is a huge AA market. They want AA readers to be able to easily identify books they might relate to. The easiest way to do that is to make the covers ethnocentric.

Booksellers say the same thing—that having an AA section where there is a large AA readership helps readers know where to go to find the stories they’re looking for. It’s the kind of question for which there isn’t necessarily an easy answer.

KKB: What are your thoughts on niche marketing? What do you think the limitations are if any?

KP: I think there are lots of limitations, one of which is alienating the general reader. There really is a feeling, with the current marketing, that if the books are being marketed to the AA reader, then that’s the only demographic which will enjoy AA books. That’s a serious limitation.

I know there are category lines that do publish a few romances with black characters. This is what I’ve noticed in my (extremely limited) reading experience:

The Kimani romance: standard category, no major focus on race, but did include an issue particularly relevant to the characters as black people. The heroine and hero were both activists against racially motivated police violence; the original conflict between them was his joining the police force to try to improve the system from within, and her seeing this as a betrayal. Also, their son is given a West African name. I thought the story did a good job overall of having black characters without making everything be about the fact that they’re black; perhaps other readers might think there’s not enough about it.

The Silhouette Desire romance (name forgotten): This was an absolutely typical Texas tycoon story and nothing, except the cover and a very minor mention of the heroine’s skin tone, indicated in any way whatsover that the main characters were black and that the writer was black.

Of course this comparison is useless because you can’t make a judgement about entire lines based on two books. Still, it gave me food for thought. It’s as if the Desire characters were allowed to be black as long as readers don’t have to think about it; Kimani characters got a little more freedom within the basic formula, although only the most bigoted “general i.e white reader” would find anything in the story to alienate them. I’d love input and title recommendations from others who’ve read these lines more extensively.

As for the book itself: If I were rating solely on the writing, I’d give it 2 1/2 stars. The style is bland and there’s a lot of grating repetition; when every character uses the same phrase to describe a situation (“couldn’t be faithtful” is said about an offscreen character three times) it doesn’t feel real to me.

I’m rating it up a bit because I found the portrayal of Nigel so appealing. He’s very vulnerable, having loved Callie devotedly and been deeply wounded by her. Unlike many romance heroes, his pain doesn’t cause him to act out in hyper-masculinized ways; he’s a family man at heart and is still hoping to find the right woman to settle down with.  Although he’s wary of Callie, fearful she’ll run away from him again, he embraces his newfound son with complete commitment.

So as a pleasant story with an appealing hero, I’m giving it three stars; I’ll probably check out the next books in the series, which will be about Callie’s sisters. You can buy Always in My Heart from Amazon here or from B&N here.

A few more pertinent comments from the interview:

KKB: Have you been personally involved in trying to bring about changes within the publishing industry, with regards to how African American authors are treated? If so can you tell me about your efforts?

KP: I have voiced my opinion in support of having an AA category for the Rita Awards, since our books don’t final (or hardly ever) in the current categories. We have some fabulous books out there, but they’re not finaling. I’d love to know why.

KKB: Do you think this will still be a controversial subject in five years time, or do you think major changes would have been made by then?
KP: The cynic in me says that in 5 years, it will still be a controversial topic. The dreamer in me hopes there’ll be substantial changes. Only time will tell!

This interview took place in 2007 — five years ago. There’s no African American RITA category and in 2012 there were no African American winners. It looks like time hasn’t told us anything very encouraging.

Willaful Review: About Last Night by Ruthie Knox

 Sensuality rating: Delightfully Torrid

I wanted to read this because I’ve loved Ruthie Knox’s posts at “Wonk-O-Mance,” a blog about addictively offbeat romance novels. I wouldn’t call About Last Night wonky, though it does break a number of unwritten romance rules; I actually felt a tad… disappointed isn’t exactly the right word, but I was just a touch let down at first because the story seemed fairly conventional. But I was sucked in by the terrific characterizations and by the end, my mind was fairly well blown.

Cath, a people-watcher, has admired the man she thinks of as “City” from afar for months.

She’d given him the nickname as a nod to his profession, because everything about him announced he worked in the City of London, the square-mile financial district at the center of the metropolis: the dignified wool overcoat and scarf he’d worn all winter, the shined shoes, the ever-present newspaper. Aristocratically remote, he was Prince Charming in a suit.


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…)

Tycoon’s One-Night Revenge by Bronwyn Jameson

This Silhouette Desire novel was my introduction to Ms Jameson’s work. After reading the back blurb, I was a bit leery, since amnesia is one of those plot devices that tend to get on my nerves rather quick. After researching a bit (of the “reading reviews online” variety), I decided to give it a try. I’m happy to report that I don’t regret it at all.

Here’s the somewhat-accurate back cover blurb:

Revenge at last
Amnesia had stolen millionaire businessman Donovan Keane’s memory. But one look at treacherous beauty Susannah Horton, and Van could picture every delicious detail of the weekend they’d spent in his bed. She’d staged their affair to ruin an important deal—a deal about to go to her fiancé. Not that Van would let that happen. During one hot night, he’d destroy her engagement, take back the deal and walk away with all the memories he’d need. Good thing, because he’d never be able to get her out of his mind.
The tycoon was vengeance-bound… but the beauty in question was truly innocent.

As far as I can tell, this tycoon wasn’t looking for revenge, but then neither had he lost all his memory… Ah well, I really should stop looking at these things. Here’s the skinny according to moi:

Donovan Keane is the victim of a vicious attack by muggers, which results in injuries serious enough to land him in the hospital for months. After waking up from a short coma, he realizes that he also is missing most of his memories from the days before the attack. Not long after that, he is informed that a major deal he was working on during those missing days has fallen through, and in a rather puzzling manner. Around the same time, he learns something completely unexpected about his own past, which prompts him to try to recreate those missing days. (more…)

Baby, I’m yours, by Karen Templeton

After much prodding and pushing, nagging and cajoling (because a lot of that is needed to get me to read a book, obviously *ahem*) I finally caved in and got this novel. It is the third installment in Ms Templeton’s Guys and Daughters miniseries (Dear Santa and Yours, Mine… or Ours? being the first two), and also the first book by her that I’ve read.

May I say how glad I am to have friends who will keep piling great book recommendations on me?

Here’s the blurb:

Baby, be mine!
Kevin Vaccaro just found out he was a father… of a five-month-old! He’d put up a hell of a fight to overcome his troubled past. That was nothing compared to the battle he was about to wage for his child’s future.
Julianne McCabe had no intention of giving up her sister’s child—the child she loved as her own—without a fight. Yet that was before Kevin started bonding with his daughter. Before he awoke feelings that made the grieving widow long to share more than late-night feedings. But was she ready to risk her heart again to be the wife Kevin needed? To become the family they both wanted?
Guys and daughters—they’re the first men in their daughters’ lives—but they won’t be the last!

This is a Silhouette Special Edition romance novel; the story is much better than the blurb suggests (but then, what else is new?). Seriously though, while there are some widely used staples of the romance genre here, such as the grieving widow, the surprise baby, the was-good-for-nothing-turned-good hero, the meddling parent. The difference between other novels and this one is all in the execution, as is most often the case with good writing, regardless of genre.

This novel is barely 210 pages, with great pacing up until almost the very end. The plot is actually quite straightforward, with no major dramatic twists. There’s no chase, criminal conspiracy, blood, what have you—this book is about people finding themselves and each other, and as such, it’s completely character driven. (more…)

Beyond His Control, by Stephanie Tyler

(With major thanks to Beki, from TEAS’s BB—when I mentioned that I wanted to read it, she sent me her copy.)

Beyond His Control is one in a loosely connected series of books about members of a SEAL Team (previous books are Coming Undone and Risking It All). This one is a friends to first love and, eventually, friends to lovers story.

Back cover blurb:

She’s always been beyond his control…
Assistant District Attorney Ava Turkowski knows about leading a dangerous life—her father was a risk taker who died in the line of duty and her beloved brother is taking just as many chances. Now a high-profile case has landed Ava herself in the crosshairs—and the only man standing between her and certain death is the one she can’t forget.
Justin Brandt was Ava’s brother’s best friend, her protector during her wild-child teenage years… and the object of her hottest fantasies. Now he’s a highly trained Navy SEAL with a body to die for and he’s been tasked with keeping Ava alive. Which means keeping her close—the closer the better…

Ava’s brother, Leo, calls Justin out of the blue and asks him—not for the first time—to help him protect Ava. The difference is that, this time, it is a life and death situation. Leo is undercover and one of Ava’s cases is about to blow his cover up. Much against his wishes, yet with commendable alacrity, Justin drives to Ava’s house just in time to get her out of the way of a car full of hired thugs, and now both are on the run.

For her part, Ava has a secret. She is a successful, if young, ADA involved in one of the biggest cases of her career, and a member of an underground railroad for abused women whom the courts have let down. Ava got involved in this secret endeavor through Callie, one of the social workers with whom she’s worked on domestic abuse cases. On top of that, she’s been in love with Justin pretty much since she met him, back in high school, nine years ago. (more…)

Forgotten Marriage, by Paula Roe

Full disclosure: I won my copy of this book in an author hosted contest; it has two of my personal hot buttons (aka plot devices that tend to irritate me), amnesia and a secret pregnancy; and at under 200 pages, it’s quite a bit shorter than I usually like.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

Memories of marriage

A tragic accident has erased pieces of billionaire Finn Sørensen’s memory. Including all recollection of his wife. But what wife? The one he’d been told had married him for his money?

Ally McKnight’s image was burned into Finn’s memory from pictures that captured the passion between them. It was time she received a surprise visit from her long-lost husband—the one who wouldn’t let her forget just what she owed him.

Finn and Ally have known each other for a little over six months when they marry. This impulsive decision haunts them both when they return to Denmark, Finn’s homeland. There, he is one of the golden few—the son and heir apparent of Nikolai Sørensen, of the famed Sørensen Silver. Paparazzi and bodyguards follow him around, and his life and heart seem to revolve exclusively around the company.

Ally is already struggling to understand Finn’s omission to explain his circumstances in detail before their marriage; the overwhelming stress of trying to learn to cope with all the trappings, restrictions, and expectations of this life only complicates matters further. Eventually, things come to a head, and she leaves him to return to Australia. He sends her back all her letters, photographs, and other mementos of their time together.

A few weeks later, Finn and his father are in a car accident. Finn suffers a head injury that damages his memory, and eventually Nikolai dies—but not before telling Finn that he has changed his will, disinheriting his current wife, and leaving Ally controlling interest in the company instead. Upon his death, however, no one can put his hands on that codicil—which means that the gold-digging wife can still ruin the company and leave quite a few thousand people unemployed. (more…)

Louise Allen on the BBC, discussing Mills and Boon’s 100th Birthday. (third from left)

The Society Catch, by Louise Allen

I found this novel at my local library’s used book store last month, after reading another book by Ms Allen, and being the curious cat that I am, I bought it. With one thing and another (I still blame Lisabea, by the way), the poor thing ended lost in the TBR mountain until yesterday. But it was, I think, a good thing, because I ended up liking it quite a bit.

Here’s the (misleading, as always) back cover blurb:

Running away from Love

Miss Joanna Fulgrave has turned herself into the perfect society catch to be worthy of dashing Colonel Giles Gregory. But all her hard effort to improve herself comes to nothing when it looks as if Giles is about to propose—to someone else!

Deciding that bad behaviour is infinitely more attractive than perfection, Joanna flees her shocked family. Giles is hot on her trail, determined to catch her and bring her safely home. But will he be as determined to make her his bride?