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Returning from a Reviewing Hiatus

My last review for my blog was May 10, when I hit a stress bubble in my offline life and had to let something go for my sanity.  I kept on reading and writing 140 character reviews on twitter but I didn't have any time to just think and write.  I am on vacation right now in Maunabo, and for the first time in months actually felt like I could coherently write something again.

I have a  review for the fantastic Gambled Away anthology  almost ready to go but I am waiting to finish one last novella in it before I hit publish.

I'm  stilling writing my reviews for RT so I am planning on linking to those in my next review.  RT is going through some major changes so I have drastically cut down the number of books I read for them as I wait through the transition to see if it still works for me to review for them.  

Although the blog has been hiatus and I've been turning down ARCs for most of the last month  I have been reading a ton.

I indulged in Kindle Unlimited subscription and  have read dozens of books on KU, mostly bikers, shifters and aliens and have dug through my TBR to read books I had forgotten I bought.  I have been playing around on a bookish app called Litsy ( a cross between Instagram and Goodreads for booklovers)

D1GwYJosOcS._SL250_FMpng_I read all the Ice Planet Barbarians books by Ruby Dixon, which had been repeatedly recommended to me by Michelle Mills and Elisabeth Lane (their book choices rarely overlap so for both of them to recommend them, meant I had to try them eventually).

 My favorite of them all was Barbarian Alien.  A traumatized Ice Barbarians kidnaps one of the human women he resonates with (they have a symbiote that alter their body to survive the harsh environment of the planet and it that identifies their mate, and amps up the mating drive) to ensure no one takes her from him.  Despite the whole alien abduction, symbiote driven mating drive the books are really good about consent.  The tension in the books is about having the character's feelings for each other catch up to their bodies ramped up lust, while overcoming language and cultural barriers.  Over all the heroes tend to be very protective and possessive but what I loved about Raahosh comes to understand Liz's need to be independent and learn to provide for herself in this new planet.  Ruby Dixon's worldbuilding was pretty great, and I was amused by how subtlety she tweeked our understanding of how resonance and mating work in the books to provide different conflicts and tensions for later couples.

After reading all the Ice Planet Books I read Ruby Dixon's Shift that collect five bear shifter novellas. These novellas were very cute and fun.  Bear shifters find their inconveniently human mates and respond in a variety of ways. 

I also tried Ruby Dixon's Bedlam Butcher series. I enjoyed Off Limits about the unlucky-sister of the Biker club's president, Lucky and Solo, the one partner-less biker in a band of bikers who are somewhat obsessed with the buddy system. When Lucky is targeted by a gang of white supremacists, Solo rescues her and together they bait the other gang into exposing themselves.  I enjoyed the suspense plot in the later books, but ended up skimming them because I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to sink into the later books that are all menage. 

No KU binge can be complete without trying Alexa Riley again.  I had read and hated Mechanic and Coach, but I discovered that I very much enjoyed their Fairy Tale Shifter books.  All the elements that make me recoil from their contemporaries, work for me in their paranormals.  They write over-the-top uncomplicated books full of insta-love, possessive mates and mating urges, and I find I can only enjoy that when reading about shifters or aliens. B1qu-MZLx7S._SL250_FMpng_

I quite enjoyed Suzanne Wright's Phoenix Pack and Mercury Pack shifter books. The books had very interesting political pack dynamics and I enjoyed how blood thirsty and powerful the women in the series were. The romances were fun, with a lot emotional push and pull but I laughed and laughed when I realized that all the books had anal sex scenes because although almost all the characters had previous sexual partners they had saved anal sex for their true mate.  What I didn't enjoy was the high-mortality rate for the female exes and how often sexual rivalry drove the suspense conflict.

I'll be back to ARC reviewing in the next few weeks!

 


Wolf's Ascension by Lauren Dane

Kari is cutting through a back alley when she is viciously attacked by large dog-like creature.  She miraculously survives only to be kidnapped by the Cherchez pack of wolf-shifters. Andreas, the pack alpha is hugely conflicted as he never meant for Kari, who he feels is his mate,  to be turned against her will but is compelled to protect her and help her through her first transition. I really liked Kari, who reacts sensibly to this whole situation until she sees proof and even then consistently stands up to herself, never hesitating to call out sexist crap behaviors, despite finding Andreas physically yummy.

Wolf's Ascension is extensively revised and re-edited version of Ascension (Cherchez Pack 1) originally published by Ellora's Cave. I know and love Dane for her later contemporary and urban fantasy series.  This book  has much in common with later Dane novels, dominating alpha-male hero and smart and independent heroine but story is structured differently than most of Dane's later novels.  I loved the first 1/3 of the book when story was focused on the romance. I have real weakness for the fated mates trope,I love when the protagonists have to try to sort out their feelings against the unrelenting pressure of their attraction. I love it when the characters understand that despite their bodies wanting something, and it seeming inevitability, a romantic relationship needs to be more than frantic coupling.

The last two-thirds of the book were action packed but less engaging for me. The  storytelling tension shifts away from the romance, towards Kari's ascension as the true alpha of the clan, Kari must negotiate a new life for herself while dealing with several assassination attempts, and relationship and family conflict.  Kari confronts jealous ambitious exes, unfamiliar and somewhat confusing sexual mores. while sorting out who she can trust or not in this new family.  Andreas lost serious hero points for me at points during this part of the book when he his avoidance & reticence to share uncomfortable truths endangers Kari. I loved the heroine and that carried me through to her hard-fought HEA but it will not be series I return to. 

I received a review copy of Wolf's Ascension by Lauren Dane from Carina Press.


One Love with stories by Roxie Rivera, Farrah Rochon, Liliana Lee, Jill Sorenson, Genevieve Turner & Audra North

CYrh_04WYAEMNqxOne Love collects a lot of great previously released multi-cultural romances along with one new story by Audra North. The stories are great introductions to some wonderful authors and are well worth the .99 price tag.

In Roxie Rivera's Her Cowboy Protector, Cruz Montes, a heavily pregnant Doctoral student in Math, must go into hiding when her undercover DEA agent brother, Carlos discovers that her rapist and wanted assassin is looking back in town and looking for Cruz. 

When his old army buddy calls him, Niall Campbell doesn't hesitate to step up and help.  He will do his best to keep Carlos's sister safe even if he doesn't have much more than a desolate farm and war-honed instincts to offer.

If that seems like a lot of plot, it is only a fraction of what goes on in this book.  Rivera's action packed plots are always intense, complicated and over-the-top. Somehow her books are fun to read despite the many hard topics she tackles.  While I rolled my eyes at points, I enjoyed the ride. 

All You Can Handle by Farrah Rochon 

Madison "Sonny" White left the behind medical school, a social climbing fiancee and the ever-present pressure of her parents' expectations to pursue a life of her own choosing.  Flirting outrageously with the wickedly handsome stranger in a suit on her first night in a new town is a risk she would have never dared before but hopes never to regret.

Ian Landry almost always has grease under his fingernails from the engines he repairs on his off-days.  His life is dedicated to caring for his younger sister and making a better life for both of them, so he rarely ever has an opportunity to share drinks with his friends at his old bar but he has cause to celebrate.  Madison is alluring and a temptation he doesn't want to walk away from after one night, especially when they both awkwardly discover he is her new landlord the next morning.

All You Can Handle is the sixth book in Rochon's Moments in Maplesville novella series and is the kind of story I am always asking for:  a small town romance that is sexy and fun, has a great sense of place and has POC leads. As soon as I finished it I picked up the rest of the series. If you are fan of small-town contemporary romances similar to Shannon Stacey's Kowalski series, pick these up. The first two are available as a free bundle.

The second-to-last story in the collection was Audra North's Cabin Fever, a second-chance-at-love story. The last time Rico Cardenas and Becca Neubaum saw each other their friendship fell apart with harsh words and a misunderstanding. It has been five years polite distance, punctuated by awkward avoidance, regret and unexpected challenges. 

Rico and Becca's reunion is not easy. They have both grown up a lot in 5 years, their lives changing in directions they never anticipated and as much as they are familiar with each other, they need to get to know each other in a different way and learn lessons from how they hurt each other before.

I had previously read Liliana Lee's Obsession, Jill Sorenson's Wild for Him and Genevieve Turner's Summer Chaparral, so I didn't re-read them this time around even though I enjoyed them all when they were first released.  Liliana Lee is the another name for Jeannie Lin, whose Tang Dynasty historical romances I adore.  Obsession is first of a historical erotica series.  

The events in Jill Sorenson's story Wild for Him, happen concurrently with her full-length novel Wild but can be read as stand-alone.  Gwen Tagaloa is a tattoo artist who finds herself falling for her best-friend's long-distance-not-quite-ex-boyfriend Mitch when they work together to try to rescue Helen in the aftermath of massive earthquake.  

Summer Chaparral is the first of Turner's historical romance Las Morenas series about three sisters from an Old Spanish family in a rapidly changing California.  Jace and Catarina are both flawed people carrying heavy family burdens.  They have to overcome a lot to turn their shot-gun marriage into a love match.

One Love provides a great mix of multi-cultural romances across genre and time-periods showcasing the amazing variety of multi-cultural romances available.

 

 


Guilty Pleasure & The Pleasure Principle by Jane O'Reilly

Cover58621-mediumI read these two novellas last month. I didn't review them right away because I needed to think about how I felt about them. I liked a lot of what Ms. O’Reilly was doing in these novellas, and I found them undeniably hot but I struggled a bit with some of the choices made by the characters. Both the novellas center on women rebounding and reclaiming their sexuality in the face of misogyny, and unexpectedly falling in love not just in lust with their sexual partners.

In Guilty Pleasure, Tasha is the lone female architect her company. She has a sexist boss and sexually harassing clients. Always a hard worker, she is spurred into ridiculous levels of work-alcoholism when a new male architect, Ethan Hall is hired. She finds emotional release by masturbating at her desk long after everyone else has gone home. She knows it is dangerous for to her career if she were caught, but the fear doesn't stop her, and instead drives her on, till the night that Ethan walks in on her.

Ethan it turns out it is not the repressed workaholic automaton she has imagined him to be. Ethan becomes her sexual partner-in-crime. They drive each other into greater and greater risks in the office and more exploration outside the office.

I wanted to reach in the book and shake Tasha, and say “honey no!” to her self-destructive short-sighted choices. I have a hard time with books with lots of workplace conflict and I just wanted to get her out of that situation. Her sexual explorations with Ethan were certainly pleasurable, but so ill-timed I seriously worried for her. But in the end she gets herself out of her work conflict herself in completely satisfactory way.

I felt that Ethan and Tasha’s relationship was one dimensional. They are clearly sexually compatible, but little else was developed on the page, and I wished we could have seen them not just be told that they related to each other in other ways.

 

Cover58622-mediumThe Pleasure Principle:

When Verity discovers that her ex-boyfriend has negatively rated her sexual performance on a website, Verity breaks down at work. In response her boss & secret crush, Cal Bailey, an unapologetic playboy and rumored host of sex parties, invites her to his house for one of those fabled parties. At the party Cal takes a special interest in her but she is quickly overwhelmed by all the public sexuality only to run into her ex on the way out. Cal steps in, deflects her ex and walks Verity home where he confronts her. Cal is distressed to discover that Verity has internalized her ex’s ugly and hateful assertions that she is frigid, and decides it is his responsibility to show her that she is not bad at sex and that she can enjoy it. Cal has to work very hard to build up her confidence, earn her trust and help her feel less exposed.

When I read it, I enjoyed Pleasure Principle more than I did Guilty Pleasure, because I wasn't nearly as stressed for Verity as I was for Tasha. The trajectory of the story was comforting as Cal is essentially a jaded Rake who find meaning and intimacy while mentoring an in experience woman about the joys of sex, and I know how those kind of stories turn out. Verity however almost upsets the plan, because she is determined not get attached to Cal, it is only after she realizes how and why Cal has become invested in this project that she can see his hurts and needs. In the end the more they interact, the more they have sex, the more private they get. They move away from Cal’s voyeurism & exhibitionism withdrawing to private spaces, where they don’t need or want anyone else. Verity comes accept that this isn't a sacrifice for Cal, because what they have together means more to him. In this novella I felt we had more development of the relationship outside the bedroom but it still was not robust.

There were moments in these stories that I really loved, so I am open to reading more from Ms. O’Reilly, as I found her voice was very compelling and immediate.

 I was invited to consider these books for review by Ms.O'Reilly and received review copies from UK Carina via NetGalley


Clergy and Church-going in Contemporary Romance.

Last month a listener to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books/Dear Author podcast wrote in asking about depictions of Clergy and church-going in contemporary romance.  I wrote to Sarah Wendell with my thoughts after listening a few weeks ago. I am not sure they will get around to using my letter as I am sure they get lots of responses, so I figured I would share what I wrote here, as this is the last Sunday of the year.  This is not a comprehensive list, but rather recommendations and thoughts on some of pastoral/clergy depictions I've read in the past year.

I had to stop listening to this week's podcast after you finished talking about this question, because my brain was bubbling with thoughts on contemporary romance's depictions of faith and church-going and the lack thereof.

My husband is ordained minister and has either been in seminary or serving as lead pastor for the whole of our marriage (going on 17 years). As result I always perk up a little when I see Pastors, clergy or church-life are depicted in Romance novels.

I don't generally read Inspies, because the theology in them tends to drive me a bit crazy, but I grew up reading and loving Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly series, an inspirational family saga, that followed a family of American Pioneers, staring with a romance that develops on a covered wagon train journey across the prairie. It was all petticoats, bonnets, hard-work and faith. That series is a staple in Church Library collections everywhere and I think the popularity of that series must in some ways have led to the current fascination with Amish romance. The Amish are the modern stand-in for those early pioneers, farming, courting along with conservative sexual values.

This year I read two Erotic Contemporary romances that had wonderfully nuanced portrayals of pastor and pastor's families.

The first was Molly O'Keefe's "Between the Sheets", the third in her Boys of Bishop series. It is an enemies to lovers story with a great emotional punch. The heroine is Shelby, the daughter of complete scoundrel of revivalist preacher.  He had abused his wife and terrorized her. Although he is long dead, he left deep scars.  Shelby had grown up repressed, feels trapped by a good-girl persona that doesn't reflect her desires, and is completely conflicted about her faith. She is still a regular church-goer however, accompanying her ailing mother to a different church than the one founded by her father out of duty and habit.  One of the most interesting encounters between
Shelby and Ty early in the novel occurs when Ty unexpectedly shows up at her church.  Ty is a former Biker & mechanic struggling to raise his troubled new-found son.  Turns out that ever since he straightened out his life, he has been a regular church attender.  While not deeply religious, he looks for churches that "don't preach hate", attending church because he finds them great places to find community and support.   O'Keefe did a great job portraying the legacy of a bad pastor/father who used faith as a weapon without condemning all clergy or believers.

The second book was Shiloh Walker's Deeper than Need.  The novel is the first of her Secrets and Shadows series. The series is set in a picturesque Indiana small town, whose most upstanding citizens might be linked to (trigger warning) a ritualized sex abuse ring going back decades.  The hero Noah is a recovering alcoholic ex-youth pastor contractor who unearths evidence of a long-ago crime while restoring the home of his love interest Trinity.  Walker did a great job portraying Noah as someone who entered ministry looking for redemption after a turbulent time in his late teens and twenties but left it once he realized it was it not his true vocation. He is still a believer, retains the respect of the community, who lovingly still call him 'Preach' and has a strong pastoral heart.   The novel is far from perfect as I thought the romance suffered in comparison to the romantic suspense and mystery elements, as Walker spent considerable time on the extremely dark sex-abuse ring/missing person plot that links the series together.

One of the most interesting portrayals of clergy in recent years however has to be Tiffany Reisz's Original Sinners Erotica series.  One of the leads in this kinky, polyamorus series is Soren. a Catholic
priest, who is also a sadist dom.  One of his loves is Nora, an erotic novel writer, and member of his congregation.  When I first ran across this series, my eyebrows nearly popped off my face.  But Reisz is deeply versed in Catholic theology, imagery and ritual (she is a former seminarian and practicing Catholic). Her characters' faith journeys and reasons for believing and behaving the way they do are
complex, conflicted but consistent. The church is often being both a refuge and oppressor but Soren is devoted to his calling as Priest even if he isn't celibate. Reisz doesn't ignore the conflicts she raises and I have a lot of respect for what she is doing with religion in her books.

My friend Emily (@emilyjanehubb) another pastor's wife and fellow romance fan, really liked Noelle Adams' marriage of convenience story, "Married for Christmas", where all that seems to be standing in the way of Daniel a widower, being named pastor of the congregation he
grew up in is his lack of a wife.  I haven't finished it yet because I really struggle with Marriage of Convenience stories in general and as someone intimately familiar with how hard it is to maintain a loving healthy marriage in the semi-public sphere of ministry, a marriage of convenience seemed like a horrible idea, but the initial chapters I read did a very good job portraying small-town ministry life.

Robyn Carr has novel in her Virgin River series, reissued this year, "Forbidden Falls" where the hero is a pastor.  Virgin River is one of those strange romance novel towns that is seemingly populated only with giant former military men. While the denominational politics that allow Noah to buy a church on e-bay seem really odd, and the theology is sort of vague, I did like the romance between the widowed pastor and his pastor's assistant, a former stripper, who is desperately
trying to regain custody of her kids. The conflicts and believable were nicely developed.  I also
appreciated how many of the the other former heroes and heroines starting attending church now that they had kids, because that actually happens.

One writer in whose work I consistently find evidence of faith life/church going is Ruthie Knox.  While her main characters are rarely personally religious, many have grown up in the church or have family members who are active church goers.  In the Camelot series, Amber, Caleb and Katie's mom is church-lady.  Mrs. Clark we discover through the series converted to Christianity and Catholicism when she married Mr. Clark. She is far from a perfect mother and wife, but her
faith is not something that vilifies her, just one more element that makes up her character.  Amber from How to Misbehave and Making it Last attended a Bible college, were she was slightly traumatized when her boyfriend started crying out of guilt and shame after their first sexual encounter. Roman from Roman Holiday has a powerful moment of personal insight while confronting another character in a  Miami area Catholic church with a large Cuban Virgin Mary mural. I feel that her characters are often trying to sort of big faith issues around, belonging, acceptance and love in secular ways, but they do so while acknowledging the existence of church going folk is part of what makes her books feel genuine to me.  While I know less and less people are regular church-goers especially among millennials, many of them should still have friends or family who do, even if it is just on Christmas or Easter.

I know there are more contemporary romances with pastors out there, but these are just a few that I have enjoyed.

Who is your favorite romance novel pastor or clergy member (Historical or Contemporary)? Any depictions you hated?  Personally I really enjoy Austen's vicars even or maybe because they are often pompus, vain and human but not Evil just very human, as flawed and mock-able anyone else in her book.

 


Iron & Velvet, Five Weeks in December and Misbehaving: Surreal, Kinky and Fun

Cover35699-smallIron & Velvet by Alexis Hall

I chose to read Iron & Velvet because I loved Hall's  debut Glitterland. Superficially Iron & Velvet have very little in common beyond both being romances set in England. Iron & Velvet is the first of new Paranormal romance series following Kate Kane (Batwoman reference?) a hard-boiled half-fairy P.I., who is bullied into investigating the death of Werewolf at Vampire club. The investigation leads her to her tangling with blood witches, face-sucking tentacle monsters, spectral deer and pissing off her mom, The Wild Hunt, all while getting involved with a centuries-old-former-ninja-nun Vampire Prince. 

What both Glitterland and Iron & Velvet have in common is that they are deeply funny, sometime surreal  books with self-loathing main characters that are a joy to read. I am curious what sort of mayhem Kate will set in to motion in the next book, but most of all I can't wait to see what Alexis Hall does writes next.

4.5 out of 5
Publication Date Dec 16, 2013
Digital ARC provided via NetGalley for review purposes by Riptide Publishing

Cover41667-smallFive Weeks in December by Blue Kincaid

Harry is Dom that was hasn't been dominating anyone recently, not since the day he lost both his confidence and his fiancee when she died while on her way to cheat on him with another Dom. Through a friend of a friend he hears about December a professional submissive, who might be able to help him work out his issues and figure himself out again. December is superficially free spirited young woman, controlled and determined, but silently carrying emotional scars of her own. 

The first half of this book really worked for me. Harry coming out his grief, rediscovering himself a changed man with different tastes and needs, while December get to know him and what makes him tick.  The second half of the book when we finally start confronting December's issues was markedly less interesting.  December as free-agent submissive has never had to confront her trust issues, instead choosing relationships where she can fix other people and be free to move on as soon as things get to personal. She ends withdrawing  and running away too many times to sustain my interest.  

3.5 out 5 stars

Publication Date Jan 31, 2014
Digital ARC provided via NetGalley for review purposes by Painted Sky Press

Cover41742-smallMisbehaving by Tiffany Reisz

Tiffany Reisz is best know for her "Original Sinners" series of novels that love to push boundaries and taboos. Misbehaving is departure from that deeply emotional, transgressive and  sometime traumatic series. Misbehaving a is modern-day Shakespearean romp, loosely based on "Much Ado about Nothing", that keeps all Reisz sense of humor and good deal of naughtiness.

Beatriz is on about to leave her  foster sister's wedding when she is given a last minute assignment by her editor to review a sex-position manual.  As sex-education blogger and adult toy reviewer she isn't terrible put out by this except for the fact that she is heading to this wedding without a boyfriend or even date. So Beatriz needs a wedding weekend sex-partner, and luckily for her college crush Ben is also flying solo.  Ben is the best-man and her sister's Claudia's fiance Henry's best friend since their college days. He has also been fascinated with Beatriz since they first met, but never made a move on her because Henry did want him to endanger his then new relationship with Claudia.  Sexy-times and nearly wedding derailing misunderstanding over a box of sex-toys ensue.

This was a fun, funny light romance about second chances at love, that was not light in character building and development.  I loved how real the characters felt, and how well developed their relationships and backgrounds were, something rarely found in a romp. For example Bea was born in El Salvador, but fled the political upheaval in that country as child and while she longs to return knows that is unlikely and that experience shapes her and her work as does Ben's back-story.

4.5 out 5 stars 

Publication Date Feb 11, 2014 Digital ARC provided via NetGalley for review purposes by Harlequin