The very first Charlotte Stein novel I read was Curveball, recommended by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches/Trashy Books. Curveball completely charmed me with its self-conscious, completely incredulous heroine who is baffled, astounded and even a bit frightened by the unexpected advances of her brother’s best-friend and long-time crush when they are thrust together during Mediterranean sailing vacation. Charlotte’s voice is incredibly distinctive, urgent and insistent. I absolutely loved it. I ran to check out her other stories via the NYPL and end up reading Deep Desires, a story of voyeurism, risk and connection, which was jaw-droopingly different in tone than Curveball, while remaining completely recognizable as a Charlotte Stein story.
I was honestly hooked, she blew my little mind with her tales. Since then I have started collecting her stories, and have about a half-dozen in my TBR, waiting like little treasures. The stories I have read just make me so happy because however dark, unloved and undesired her characters feel, there is always this transforming hope that breaks through the darkness, when they make a serendipitous connection. The sex in these stories is often frantic, messy, clumsy and awe-inspiring, but no one is magically fixed simply by sex.
A couple of weeks ago Charlotte Stein who I frequently interact with on twitter (she is incredibly funny and wacky, and just a great deal of fun to chat with) made available the final version of her newest novel to those willing to review. I jumped at the chance. I have always wanted to review one of her stories here.
Beyond Repair is a New Adult romance about a reclusive young woman who finds movie star, sprawled out and unconscious in the living room of her beachfront home. Alice recognizes that he isn’t simply drunk but quite possibly suffering from an intentional overdose because she has gone through it. Alice is anything but alright with this intrusion but she awkwardly and nervously sets out save the movie star, Holden Stark. She ends up offering him the oddest of refuges, letting him stay, accepting him, comforting him, and most all just trying ever so hard not creep on him, even though she has a massive crush on him.
“She was trying to revive Holden Stark.
Holden Stark, who she would now have to speak to using her actual words and her real mouth.”
Alice is not daunted simply because he is gorgeous movie star, she is daunted because she is lame, scarred, agoraphobic and more than a little rusty at interacting with people. The novel is just fantastic, filled with hilarious slightly surreal conversations, where Alice is working so incredibly hard not to embarrass herself, push any wrong buttons, or reveal too much of her own past and pain.
“Don’t be sorry about anything in this conversation. It’s probably the most amazing one I’ve ever had”
I just loved Alice, her vulnerability, doubt, sense of inadequacy, her lust and embarrassment.
“She was just starting to smile when he suddenly swerved the conversation into oncoming traffic.”
Holden Stark, outwardly an impressive movie star, but really a sad lonely geek inside, was wonderful. I loved his hurt, tentativeness, and his utter appreciation of Alice. I only had the briefest of frustration with him allowing Alice to so obviously distract him from noticing her pain and secrets, when he is only just starting to recover. But I loved how hard he worked at respecting her boundaries, and understanding her as she evaded and distracted. If she brought him into her home to give him refuge, he gave her a refuge from her insecurities in his admiration.
“Just ignore my voice. There’s a frightened nun living in my throat.”
He went to answer and had to stop to make room for the most awesome laugh. It was all surprised and full of joy, and it followed through into his words.
“Who are you? I must be dreaming you. Did I die, and this is my reward?”
“If your idea of being rewarded after death is a five-foot-five-inch hermit who makes you run right off a bed, you probably need to rethink your priorities.”
I loved Beyond Repair, and I continue to love the manifesto (to steal Ruthie Knox’s term) in so many of Charlotte’s novels: You don’t have to perfect or whole to be worthy of love. I love her broken people reaching for love despite, their haunting senses of unworthiness.
“One of the biggest lies out there is the one that says you have to be whole to be loved — that if you’re not it’s a miracle anyone would. But my love for you is not some flimsy miracle based on whether you’re okay or not. Love is something you deserve. You deserve it so much I sometimes ache to give it to you.”
I recommend Beyond Repair, and prepare yourself to snort-laugh at the outrageous embarrassments and mortification Alice and Holden endure as they flail, cry, surprise and fall for each other.
A copy of Beyond Repair was provided by the author Charlotte Stein for review purposes.
Meljean Brook and Nalini Singh were my gateway drugs into Romance. Back in early 2012, I started watching Felicia Day’s Vaginal Fantasy Book Club. One of the early bookclub selections was the Iron Duke, which I was lucky enough to get from my local library. I was sucked into the her Steampunk/alternate history world, The Iron Seas, where the Horde (Genghis Khan’s mighty empire) had overrun Asia and Europe and had enslaved great swaths of the world through nanobots hidden in sugar.
Meljean Brook hooked me with her fantastic world-building and in every book, novella and short since she has expanded the world a little further. We have traveled to the zombie infested European interior, infiltrated the New World settlements, discovered hidden Scandinavian villages, traveled to remote African trading posts, and met colorful characters from up-tight New Worlders, rebel sultans, imposing blacksmiths, pirate queens and outlandish archaeologists. From the most powerful of English Dukes to orphan gutter rats, Meljean Brook has populated the world with fascinatingly diverse characters.
In the Kraken King, the focus shifts from the west to Australia and the eastern fringes of the Golden Empire. Zenobia Fox is a writer used observing and never participating in the adventures she chronicles, even though she is also the daughter of notorious traitor and brother to trouble-making adventurer. Her connection to Archimedes Fox, the star of her serials and brother is no longer a secret and she can no longer hide out in her quiet North Sea village. Too many ransom seeking kidnappers have come bursting through her door, so she decides it is time stop being a sitting duck and to venture forth and see the world for herself. When her friend Helene needs a companion for a urgent trip to the Red City, she leaps at the opportunity. However she is soon leaping from the wreckage of her airship when it come under attack by marauders off the coast of Australia. She leaps right into the arms of one of the most dangerous men in the world, the former rebel Ariq the Kraken King.
The first two parts of this serial were fantastic. Great character development and tension as Arriq and Zenobia try to figure each other while trying to keep their own secrets and those of the one they love. I don’t usually sign up for serials usually waiting for the collected edition to come out as I did with Ruthie Knox’s Roman Holiday but this is one I would happily recommend. Each part has it own arc within the larger Kraken King story arc and are long enough to be satisfying. Zenobia, Ariq and the Eastern fringes of the empire hold lots of surprises for the reader and I can’t wait to learn more about them all.
The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster published April 15, 2014
The Kraken King and the Abominable Worm will be published April 22, 2014
The Kraken King and the Fox’s Den will be published April 29, 2014
The Kraken King and the Inevitable Abduction will published May 6, 2014
The Kraken King and the Iron Hear will be published May 13, 2014
The Kraken King and the Crumbling Walls will be published May 20, 2014
The Kraken King and the Empress’s Eyes will be published May 27, 2014
The Kraken King and the Greatest Adventure will be published June 3, 2014
The serial will be republished in a collected edition sometime after Aug 2014.
A review copy of The Kraken King, Part 1 & 2 were provided by Penguin/Intermix for review purposes
Cara McKenna has earned her way into my list of auto-buy authors after consistently taking characters and situations that should turn me off and turning them into magnetic emotional stories worth the time to read. A surly bossy orderly and inexperienced nurse at Mental health-facility in a dying depressing town in Michigan (After Hours), an alcoholic rope-fetishist hermit and an American tourist on a walkabout in the moors of Scotland (Unbound), don’t scream romantic or even feasible to me, yet they are among my favorite romance novels in recent years. So when I heard her next book was going to be a prison librarian/convict romance, I shouldn’t have blinked, but I did, especially when I heard it was also an epistolatory romance.
Anne Goodhouse is a newly minted librarian happy for a job even if takes her into the Cousins Correctional facility in Darren, Michigan (a return to the town After Hours was set in) once a week to as the Darren Public Library Outreach librarian. Anne is smart, observant and most of all wary. She left her boyfriend and her home state of South Carolina five years earlier after he ruptured her eardrum with a blow to her jaw, after months of creeping abuse.
“And I probably held some record for having achieved spinsterhood by twenty-seven but I’d rather sport that badge than another bruise.
Not ever again.” (Kindle Loc 42)
Her old boyfriend stole her trust, and most of all, her desire to be close to another man again.
“The nicest, most upstanding, most handsome man you ever saw probably couldn’t seduce me, so no worries there. The only action I might care to get went down between me and my right hand, and even we’d grown estranged.” (Loc 93)
But the day she enters Cousins for the first time, as she walks escorted through the common areas past the racially segragated clusters convicts, stiff and expressionless, she notices him:
“He watched me.
But not the way the others did.
If he was trying to picture me naked, his poker face was strong, though his attention anything but subtle. His entire head moved as I passed through his domain, but his eyes were languorous. Lazy and half-lidded, yet intense. A hundred look in one. I didn’t like it. Couldn’t read it. At least with the horny jerk-offs, I knew where I stood.” ( Loc 199)
His attention is unnerving and undeniable. She does her best to keep her composure around him at all times, to behave professionally, refusing to let it show, while finding her feet as a prison librarian.
“Why was I even so freaked out? 802267 looked no more or less threatening than any of the other men, so it had to be intuition…Except he put me on alert one level deeper than mere fear. Made me feel warm and unnerved and restless in a way I didn’t trust at all. A way I wasn’t used to. A hunger I hadn’t been dogged by in years.” (Loc 339)
She is an excellent librarian, selecting books for the Book Discussion group with care, treating the prisoners with respect and dignity during their Basic Literacy sessions and helping them find the information and materials they need during Resources hours. I loved how Mckenna depicted the different aspects of outreach/public/prison librarianship, honestly depicting both the challenges and rewards.
As professional she can’t avoid him forever, eventually learning his last name, Collier, not just his prisoner number when he patiently waits for her during one of those Resources hours to explain to her his struggle to write. He shuts up an inmate that tries to hassle her and interrupt their time together and ends up stealing a little conversation from her. Eventually one of the prison guards interrupts them after he notices how their whispered conversation was drawing them too close.
“His voice was deep and resonant, and it required no volume to command my attention. He spoke with a tone that was threat, coercion, seduction, lament. All at once. I never met anybody from South Carolina. The way he said it, anything could have come next.” (Loc 374)
After he leaves she is woozy, shocked to have let him so close to her. She tries to shake it off but can’t help but think about it for the whole coming week. She turns the interaction over and over in her head, trying to figure out why she would let him close, why she is fascinated and affected by him, when she really shouldn’t. While she comes to the conclusion that this is proof of her susceptibility to bad men, and that her re-awakened desire is simply a result of the very impossibility; he is after all unattainable and she is still not ready to feel desire for anyone in a real way.
“And he’s a prisoner — that’s the other reason. That was why I wanted him. Because he was untouchable, the very urge impossible. Because he’s dangerous, but this crush — if that’s what it was — is safe.” (Loc 416)
And it is safe in a way. She can admire his body when he works out in the exercise yard during her lunch hour unobserved, she can let her mind fill with the questions she would love to ask him if they were free to speak to each other that way, but still interact with him in a purely professional capacity. She obtains for him a word-processor that he can use to help him work around his dysgraphia, she gives him advice and direction, handouts and worksheets for him to do. But then he asks her to help him write a personal letter, so personal that it shakes her to write it for him.
That letter is the start of many, incredibly romantic intimate letters, that expose their desires and develop a personal relationship. A personal relationship that is both a safe fantasy and all too important reality in both their lives. But how fragile and how real a relationship is the question and choice when Collier belatedly reveals that he will soon be paroled. How real are the feelings, impressions, knowledge and promises they made known to each other in those letters when he is no longer behind bars?
I highly recommend Cara Mckenna’s Hard Time. The letters, the time in prison, are only the beginning, and she does a fantastic job developing both Eric and Annie’s history and character and I was mesmerized and completely invested in them as they try to sort out what they feel for each other, what brought them together and whether they can move forward with each other and overcome their pasts. I loved how Eric in so many ways is not what he appears to be. He is tall, cut, strong, man with a dark past, and in romance-land that is often permission for being alpha-hole, and instead he is humble, and tentative, gentle , romantic and in the end the most vulnerable one in the relationship, even if he isn't a pushover in anyway.
5 out 5 Stars!
A digital ARC of Hard Time was provided by Penguin/Intermix via NetGalley for review purposes
I spent time a lot time in the past few months thinking about Motorcycle Club Romances which I thought I was resisting for a long time, but as I thought about this post I realized that I have read way more MC romances than I thought and enjoyed more than expected. Despite my conflicted feeling about Tack in Motorcycle Man, I ended up reading and enjoying Ashley's follow up Chaos series books. I devoured the Kit Rocha's incredibly filthy Beyond series, with its gang of post-apocalyptic whiskey producing, cage-fighting, orgy-having tattooed outlaws. So while I have not watched a single episode of Sons of Anarchy, or long own a set of leathers, and I would never describe my ideal romance hero to be raw, vulgar, tattooed Harley rider, I certainly read a lot of them in the last six months but I am by no means a expert on this Romance niche.
After reading Kaetrin's review of Reaper's Legacy by Joanna Wylde at Dear Author, I decided to invest in both Reaper's Property and Reaper's Legacy. The series follows members of the Reapers Motorcycle club. The Reapers unlike Tack's Chaos MC are not simply involved in grayish-area enterprises but are unapologetically involved in actual criminal enterprises.
In Reaper's Property Marie has left her unfaithful husband after he got violent with her. She is crashing with her brother Jeff in his run-down trailer while she gets back on her feet again. It is soon obvious that her brother is involved in some sketchy stuff, and associating with some dangerous individuals. Horse is not just sketchy but out-right dangerous. Horse is one of the financial officers and top men in the Reaper's organization, born and raised in the biker lifestyle.
“Do you have to be so crude?” I snapped. “Have you met me?”
When Horse takes an interest in Marie is not sure what it entails but a series of miscommunications about intentions ends their relationship almost before it gets started. When Jeff, a computer hacker who is supposed to be helping launder the club's sizable drug profits but instead steals and gambles away the money, the club needs to send a message, they have to choose between killing Jeff or ensuring he makes restitution. Horse claims her to ensure her brother's good behavior and return of the missing funds. But not everything is what it seems. Why does Horse want Marie? How much say does Marie have? The story centers on the status and autonomy within a MC, and what means to belong to a biker.
“I want you to be my old lady, babe. That’s all I have to offer. I’m a Reaper, and this is my world. You wear my patch, you be my woman, and I’ll be your man. We take the good times together and fight through the bad times. No games.
Reaper's Legacy, stars Ruger the promiscuous enforcer for the Reapers and Sophie a hard working, struggling single-mom. Sophie used to be married to Ruger's loser step-brother. When Sophie's son Noah ends up in a dangerous situation while being babysat by neighbor, Ruger storms back into Sophie's life. Like an angry wave, Ruger sweeps in, takes vengeance on those who tried to hurt Noah, and take Sophie and Noah back into his home. As the book unfolds we learn just how horrible Sophie's ex-husband Zach was, and how long Sophie's and Ruger's lives have intersected. The story is one of combustible attraction, unrequited longing, trust-seeking and demanding what you need.
“ But I’ll tell you one thing, Ruger — I deserve to be with someone who gives a shit about me, as a person. Someone who values me enough not to fuck other women. I’d rather be alone the rest of my life, than settle for what you’re offering.”
One thing that appealed to me in both Wylde's Reaper's and Rocha's Beyond series is the world-building. While Rocha’s books are set in a futuristic dystopia, Wylde’s biker Idaho is just as alternate/fantasy world to me as Rocha’s Eden and its sectors. In order to enjoy these books I had to enjoy getting to know their norms, customs, & language. The culture and sexual mores of Wylde’s Reapers seemed to share some of the same commonalities to those common in medieval historical romances. The Reapers live by their own code, modern day knight errants, macho warriors, that thrive on conquest, geographical, sexual and metaphorical.
Reaper’s Property and Reaper's Legacy are engrossing reads and underneath the gruff and raw sexuality of the books there was a solid romantic core. The people in these books while making life choices radically different from my own, sounded and acted like real people. And the closet anthropologist in me enjoyed seeing her heroines navigate the complicated sexual politics of her Biker world , where women are objectified, commodified but surprisingly empowered.
I impulsively decided to buy a MC-themed boxed set called "Ride or Die Kind of Love" that was anchored by Kit Rocha's fantastic Beyond Shame, which I had previously read. I gambled that the romances included would be similar in quality and philosophy. I was however sadly disappointed. After a unexpectedly smooth ride into MC-land, I hit some major bumps with the books included in the boxed set.
The first book, One Ride by Chelsea Camaron hit several of my triggers, not only does the hero have sex with other women after meeting the heroine, he has sex with other women after hooking up the heroine. The hero slut-shames the women he has sex with including the heroine, and the heroine has some serious daddy issues. The romantic suspense element of the book is what kept me interested but in the end the threats were handled off-the-page which made it so anti-climatic I barely finished it. If you like controlling Alpha-holes this a book for you. 2 out 5 stars
I failed to finish Deadly Seduction by Selene Chardou, due to the exposition, name-dropping heavy initial chapters. I felt I was going to need giant graph to keep track of the various family/gang relationships casually referenced in the first 20 pages. I was soon bored and skipped ahead to see if it got better but it didn't so I stopped reading. DNF -- no stars
Craving Constellations by Nicole Jacquelyn, I actually enjoyed this one more than most in this boxed-set. This is a secret baby biker story. The college co-ed daughter of the President of the Biker club comes home for a weekend, and end us hooking up with one the new bikers, who didn’t realize who she is. Rather than risk getting him in trouble, she sneaks out and back to college. When she discovers she pregnant, she marries a guy she knew from school and basically ignores her Dad and her biker upbringing for five years. But College Husband is abusive dirt-bag and when she can’t take it anymore, she runs away to take refuge. The rest is a secret baby story with a biker twist. I just don’t care for secret baby stories. 3 out 5 stars
Hell’s Knights by Bella Jewel I struggled to get through this book because the heroine established herself early on as TSTL. Long-estranged daughter of a club president tracks him down after her mother dies. She has a huge chip on her shoulder and her mother’s pimp and her ex-molester and rapist on her tail, a fact she fails to mention to anyone, and after they find out and try to keep her safe, she sneaks out just to spite them, to prove that no one can tell her what to do. I did like how Biker Dad and Daughter eventually untangle dead-mom’s lies and come to terms with their complicated history together. 2 out 5 stars
Saving Dallas by Kim Jones Dallas Knox a real-estate mogul goes slumming at honky-tonk bar looking for a one-night stand to help her get over a past relationship. She is jerked around by some guys and hot biker Luke steps in. They end up going home together and they have a great time, but she can’t deal with Biker culture when he brings her to an event with him. There is a romantic suspense subplot that draws them back together, complicated by the fact that Luke failed to mention that he had been hired to protect her. 3 out 5 stars
Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha: ALL THE STARS Seriously these books are great. Filthy, Filthy but just fantastic emotional stories. In Beyond Shame Noelle, daughter of powerful councilman in Eden has been cast out. She finds herself alone in Sector 4, O’Kane territory, and comes under the protection of Jasper, Dallas O’Kane’s right-hand man. Noelle has to learn about herself, her wants, her needs before she can commit to Jas.
Undeniable by Madeline Sheehan The set-up for this story made me deeply uncomfortable. Little girl in prison visiting room befriends adult biker, recognizing him as hers in some way. Both are there to visit their biker dad’s. Biker hero is there to curse out his dad and let him know he is going to call a hit on him. The story then fast-forward up in time to various points in their lives where they meet up and have at first tender if still inappropriate encounters till they are banging each into walls despite the fact that he is very married and she knows it. The story honestly just got unreadable for me at that point. I skipped ahead to see if it got better, but instead it just seemed worst. I know ugly stuff happens, but the characters ends up in enmeshed in a big drama-filled saga of non-stop adultery, jealousy, obsession and extortion and it was just too grim for me to continue. DNF -- no stars
Mirage by Ashley Suzanne. Mira and Danny are young couple in love when their life together is cut tragically short when Danny dies in a motorcycle accident that almost costs Mira her life. After months of depression Mira’s friends Skylar and Kylee conspire to get her to attend grief counseling. Mira there realizes that Skylar misses his best-friend as much as Mira misses her fiancee. When she ends up needing a roomate, Skylar (who has been secretly in love with Mira all along) volunteers, and they end up falling into bed together, but when Mira calls him Danny, Skylar lashes out and their friendship is broken. Flash-forward to months later where Skylar had dropped everything to become a biker but neither one is over the other. A series of eye-rolling events later, the story culminates with Mira waking back in the hospital and is completely unsatisfactory and out of left field. 2 out 5 stars
So this boxed set failed to connect with me. It won’t stop me from reading the rest of Joanna Wylde’s and Kit Rocha’s books, and it didn’t even stop me from purchasing another .99 cent boxed set anchored by a Kit Rocha story as I just purchased Alphas After Dark. This box set seems much more promising as I already fell in love with Vivian Arend’s Copper King and I loved Kit Rocha’s Beyond Solitude novella. I also can’t wait for Cara Mckenna’s biker series coming out later this year.
What I have learned out of this experience is that for a Biker/Motorcycle Club Romance to work for me the tough, ultra macho hero needs falls hard for the heroine. He can fight it, deny it, mess it up, even be a royal-jerk about it, but he can’t be wishy washy about it. I’ll accept uneven power relationships and skewed sexual politics, as long as I see the heroine as honestly choosing to accept those dynamics in part of her life because she has power in some other way. If I can’t see choice or alternatives, it is not going to work for me. This is where the old-lady posses, or girlfriend network needs to be well established in the book. The heroine might feel trapped at times in a situation as long as at some point it is clear that she can actually get out this if she truly wanted to. If I am going to embrace this as fantasy, this non-negotiable for me. And honestly I have a very low tolerance cheating, I don’t care if actually happens in real life. That stuff has repercussions and just because the characters is biker, I am not giving the character a pass on that.
So if anyone has recommendations of Biker Romances I might enjoy, I would love to hear them.