Breathless by Beverly Jenkins (Old West #2)

30166205As manager of one of the finest hotels in Arizona Territory, Portia Carmichael has respect and stability—qualities sorely missing from her harsh childhood. She refuses to jeopardize that by hitching herself to the wrong man. Suitors are plentiful, but none of them has ever looked quite as tempting as the family friend who just rode into town…and none has looked at her with such intensity and heat.

Duchess. That’s the nickname Kent Randolph gave Portia when she was a young girl. Now she’s a stunning, intelligent woman—and Kent has learned his share of hard lessons. After drifting through the West, he’s learned the value of a place to settle down, and in Portia’s arms he’s found that and more. But convincing her to trust him with her heart, not just her passion, will be the greatest challenge he’s known—and one he intends to win…

Review:

After reading five of her books I’m realizing that Beverly Jenkins is a hit or meh author for me.  I don’t think I’ve rated anything below three stars but some leave me disappointed.  Sadly, this is one of them.  But first,

The good:

  • Historical romance with protagonists of color (here African American) is always always a good thing.  Love.
  • Portia doesn’t need a man.  In fact, due to her rough childhood, she thinks she’d be better without.  Ken respects her past and proves that he’s the right person for her.
  • Jenkins is well known for her history chops and she’s true to form here.  And how many books set in the Arizona territory can you name?  It’s interesting stuff.

The not-so-good:

  • Like in Night Hawk there isn’t a big bad or an overarching plot.  Events happen but don’t feel exciting as they should – this book has a body count, for goodness sake!  There should be some kind of tension.  But…
  • Problems are wrapped up quickly so incidents feel self-contained.  Okay, that’s over, next.  Wow, that was a problem for five pages, but it’s fixed now.  Next.  There’s not much of a middle or building anything to the narrative.
  • The characters aren’t nuanced and many are typecast.  Oh hey, the guy that sounds and dresses like an arse?  Turns out he’s an arse!  And the perfect lady that keeps things running like clockwork?  Well she knows exactly what she’s doing and her only imperfection is being so perfect. ~sigh~
  • Checkered pasts are put forth as faults and character development but they’re not, not really.  ‘He had sex with a married woman!’ Yes, but we learn that her husband was cheating on her and she was actually better off after the affair.  ‘He’s had sex with lots of women, gasp!’  And now he has mad skillz to pleasure the heroine, my dear.  ‘She is way too forward!’  So she may get exactly what she wants, what a shock.
  • I feel like Jenkins doesn’t trust the reader to remember what happened a few chapters before so she retells it laboriously.

    Kent told him what he thought to be Parnell’s motive. “When Rhine introduced me as the new foreman, Parnell said Mr. Blanchard had promised him the job.  Rhine told him his mind was made up, so Parnell spit tobacco juice at Rhine’s boots.  I had to teach some manners, then made him pack up and leave.”

    All that hearsay for an event I remember as clear as day.  It makes for tedious reading.

  • Similarly,

    He kissed Eddy on her forehead, which Portia found endearing, and they left.

    I find it endearing too, even if it’s not pointed out to me. Gah.

  • Finally, I never really believed in the romance.  Kent is nice, Portia is nice, and they have a couple of nice times together.  Lust is there, for sure, but love?  I don’t buy it.

That’s a lot of griping, I know, but Breathless is still a decent read. I like the heroine for the next book of the series so I’ll be looking forward to that despite ~waves hand around~ this.

Idol by Kristen Callihan (VIP #1)

30288788I found Killian drunk and sprawled out on my lawn like some lost prince. With the face of a god and the arrogance to match, the pest won’t leave. Sexy, charming, and just a little bit dirty, he’s slowly wearing me down, making me crave more.

He could be mine if I dare to claim him. Problem is, the world thinks he’s theirs. How do you keep an idol when everyone is intent on taking him away?

As lead singer for the biggest rock band in the world, I lived a life of dreams. It all fell apart with one fateful decision. Now everything is in shambles.

Until Liberty. She’s grouchy, a recluse —and kind of cute. Scratch that. When I get my hands on her, she is scorching hot and more addictive than all the fans who’ve screamed my name.

The world is clamoring for me to get back on stage, but I’m not willing to leave her. I’ve got to find a way to coax the hermit from her shell and keep her with me. Because, with Libby, everything has changed. Everything.

Review:

Just what I needed, right when I needed it.

The good:

  • This novel is comforting, which I wasn’t expecting from a rock star novel.  Both leads are getting over something that happened earlier in the novel and they help each other through it with friendship and a healthy dose of comfort food.
  • I love the characters as people.  The cast list is small so we really get to know the minor characters, and every now and then a nugget of casually dropped information hints at awesomeness in future books.

    Suddenly I remember that the press has called Jax a devil in an angel’s body, and Killian an angel disguised as the devil.

  • There are some nice insights, too.

    I’m comfortable, but I don’t feel sexy.  That’s the thing no one ever tells you.  Sexy can be both a weapon and a wall of defense.

  • Liberty is unabashedly feminist and calls people on their bullshit – it’s glorious.
  • The sexual tension starts right away but is kept in check for a long time.  Feel the slow burn.  Love the slow burn.
  • We see what Killian’s celebrity means to Liberty, and how it could totally derail the relationship if they let it.  It may be a “fantasy” romance but reality still checks in.
  • The band is getting back together and the changes this time around are explored and embraced.
  • …which is a long-winded way to say awesome characterization all around.

The not-so-good:

  • The plot is highly predictable. There’s also some time jumps in the last quarter that feel too short for all the stuff that happens.
  • The sense of place is lacking, with Callihan leaning on famous locales so we fill in the details ourselves.

Idol is a big, warm hug of a romance when I needed exactly that.  Brava.

Twilight Phantasies by Maggie Shayne (Wings in the Night #1)

25582667In two centuries of living death, vampire Eric Marquand had learned to live with the cruel fate that had condemned him to walk forever in shadow, forever alone. Then he found the woman he knew was meant for him—and understood that to possess her was to destroy her.

Against all reason, Tamara Dey saw clearly that her destiny was eternally entwined with Eric’s and that she must not only accept but welcome the terror and splendor of the vampire’s kiss. She trembled at the thought of spending eternity in his arms, but was her trembling born of desire…or fear?

This book was originally published in 1993 so I was ready to give it all kids of leeway.  In the first 60% the heroine lacks agency but other lovely things are going on.  The vampire hero is the protective sort and is looking out for her.  His best vampire friend is an interesting character in his own right.  There’s an “I knew you before I met you” thing.  I’m in need of a comfort read, I was able to forgive.

But then my brain got scrambled.  Tamara gets a flat while driving home and the car doesn’t have a spare.  She is assaulted while walking to the nearest gas station, but Eric arrives in time to save her.  He then piles her into the car and drives home.

…on three tires?! I reread the scene to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and I have no idea how it worked.  Ditto her being able to put on a fancy vintage dress that laces up the back all by herself even though she needed help the first time.  Brain. Broken.

Then there’s general wtf-ery.  Tamara is 26 years old, a grown ass woman, and still lives her legal guardian.   She even says it like that.  “I can appreciate why you’re so angry with my guardian… he may be an ass, Marquand, but I love him dearly.”  Oh, and trigger warnings for assault, attempted rape, and heaps of gaslighting.  Gaaaaah.

I’m obviously not a fan… but would try another book by the author, no problem.  The first half of the book was enjoyable, even with the Old Skool issues, and I’d like to see if her more recent stuff is less objectionable.  Have you read any Maggie Shayne?  Are all of her books like this?

For Real by Alexis Hall

25376011Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

Gaaaaah this book is wonderful and I’m thrilled to see it won a RITA for its awesomeness.

The good:

  • I love flipped tropes and this one is particularly delicious.  While most BDSM romances have a hunky alpha dom here Laurie, the sub, is the one with age and muscles on his side.  Toby is young, scrawny, and inexperienced so no one takes him seriously as a dominant but he convinces Laurie to give him a shot.
  • Similarly, it’s refreshing to have being penetrated separated from being the sub.  Universe – more of this, please!
  • The characters are masterfully drawn and realized.  They are flawed but it’s subtle, no unnecessary “oooo I wonder what his awful secret is!” angst.  We learn more about the heroes as the story goes on and each detail reinforces what we already know.
  • The large age difference is addressed and dealt with well.  It ends up being the largest sticking point of the relationship which rings true for me.
  • Chapters are told from each hero’s perspective and they could not be more different.  Laurie sound like the older, educated gentleman that he is, and Toby’s point of view is more casual and slang-filled.  The difference carries over into their speech so the whole book feels more unified than I was expecting with different POVs.
  • Laurie is a doctor and my (partially trained) eye didn’t find any medical weirdness or errors.  This is more rare than you would think.
  • The story is plain ol’ good.  I loved watching the couple fall in love and swallowed chapters in greedy gulps.

The only not-so-good things I can think of are nitpicks and not even worth mentioning.  If you like BDSM romance, or gay romance, or just plain ol’ romance For Real is a wonderful read.

The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield

24444922Fiery young “Nell” Belden went to Thorndene Castle to escape a lover, not to find one. She was bound by the strict conventions of England’s Regency to a man she could never love, then bound by the ties of passion to a man she could never marry! For at Thorndene, she discovered a new and startling love, a love that was as intense as it was doomed…

“You must leave Thorndene!” said the ghost. Then he added, more gently, “I come to warn you, not to harm you. I may never touch you, any more than a shadow may..”

“What does that signify?” Nell asked. “Since you are dead, you can have no need or inclination to touch me anyway.”

“You can’t know much about men-or ghosts-or how delightful you look in that nightdress, if you believe that,” he said with disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes over her. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ghostly figure was gone…

Review:

After seeing the 1979 publication date I was afraid this book would be full of literal bodice ripping and alpha-holes and old skool awfulness.  But in fact it’s a lovely Regency romance with a feminist heroine and a good share of laughs.

The good:

  • Nell is a strong character that has her head on straight.  She calls people out on their bullshit and is determined to only marry for love.
  • The hero appearing as a “ghost” is fun device that is executed well.  There’s nothing domineering about Henry, a genuinely nice guy.
  • While there’s a ballroom scene most of the action takes place away from society, allowing for a comfortingly small cast of characters.  Everyone is fleshed out, from the housekeeper’s family to the suitor from hell.
  • The whole book is just silly in a good way.  Great aunt (or is it grandma?) Amelia is always good for a laugh and the action never gets too heavy or dour.  Escapist romance for the win!

The not-so-good:

  • The relationship between the hero and heroine’s families is a little convoluted and I’m still not sure I can explain it.
  • The ending is rushed and only half-earned.

All in all a welcome diversion that reads quickly and leaves you smiling.

Wicked Beat by Olivia Cunning (Sinners on Tour #4)

Synopsis:

12710096From the moment he lays eyes on Sinners’ new front of house soundboard operator, drummer Eric Sticks knows he has to make Rebekah his. Unfortunately, she’s too busy trying to seduce guitarist Trey Mills to pay him much attention.

Rebekah never planned to fall for the tall, goofy drummer with the weird sense of humor and a heart the size of the galaxy. But Eric makes her laugh and his constant attention makes her feel sexy and irresistible–exactly what she needs after the things her last lover said to her.

A woman who gives as much as she takes, Rebekah makes Eric feel like a total stud–exactly what he needs after surviving a decade of watching the incredibly talented members of Sinners from the wings.

Review:

Opening this book I knew what I was getting into – lots of sex with some plot to hold things together. So that instalove in the beginning? Mostly forgiven. The predictable monkey business? Overlooked.

Like in the other book in this series I’ve read a woman finds a way to get close to the band via a tour-related gig, she drools, he’s cool, and they get it on.  Okay.  Eric has an… issue… that they need to get over as a couple that adds some interest and conflict.

But in the middle there’s heaps of angst, piled on in layers. Someone’s in the closet, someone else is dealing with mental illness, somebody else has family issues, yet someone else is recovering from nearly dying… hmmm, I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh, the arranged marriage neither party wants! It was way too much for me, and almost convenient in its utter wrongness.  That situation that looks like it’s going to go badly?  It’s even worse than you feared. Grah.

Recurring characters have several books’ worth of characterization behind them but the secondary characters were unsatisfying and poorly developed, almost caricatures of archetypes – the kind dad, the coworker looking for revenge, the overbearing mother.  There’s a description of a medical condition that I’m not happy with but don’t know enough about to rail at properly. Grah.

There is also a hint of a menage that never really happens. It looks like it got put in book five instead so I’ll give that one a go, but Wicked Beat was too ARGH to be enjoyable.

The Viscount and the Vixen by Lorraine Heath (The Hellions of Havisham #3)

28523597Love begets madness. Viscount Locksley watched it happen to his father after his cherished wife’s death. But when his sire arranges to marry flame-haired fortune hunter Portia Gadstone, Locke is compelled to take drastic measures to stop the stunning beauty from taking advantage of the marquess. A marriage of mutual pleasure could be convenient, indeed… as long as inconvenient feelings don’t interfere.

Now the sedate—and, more importantly, secure—union Portia planned has been tossed in favor of one simmering with wicked temptation and potential heartbreak. Because as she begins to fall for her devilishly seductive husband, her dark secrets surface and threaten to ruin them both—unless Locke is willing to risk all and open his heart to love.

Review:

I love Lorraine Heath.  She is masterful at capturing period detail and keeping things historically accurate.  Her heroes and heroines fall in love on the page and follow believable emotional journeys.  While Heath’s last book, The Earl Takes All, had a daring plot device The Viscount and the Vixen sticks closer to Regency orthodoxy.

Huzzah marriages of convenience!  In real life it would suck but this is a romance.  Of course it works out.  The compatibility of our couple is obvious from the start – they have a magnets-attract-I-must-kiss-you-now thing going on.  Instalust isn’t my jam, but their love grows slowly and naturally over time so I can almost forgive it.

Heath is masterful at keeping your mind in the period.  Check out this scene where Locke takes out Portia’s wedding ring and she freezes up:

Locksley squeezed her hand. “Unfurl your fingers.”
“You can’t want to do this.”
“Neither did I wish to get married today, yet here I am.  Open your hand and let’s get this done.”
Reluctantly she did as he bade…

“Unfurl”, “bade” – no modern narration clunking around here!

Portia is strong and goes after the things she needs, the most important of which is security.  The reason she’s concerned about her welfare is…. a secret!  Grah.  We’re kept in the dark for a while, which is nice, but it’s still a secret.  The hero finds out, he storms like a normal person would, and they figure out a solution.  Ta-da!  Wrap it up with a nice epilogue (so rare) and we’re done.

All in all The Viscount and the Vixen is a solid and enjoyable read. Recommended for those who like strong heroes and heroines, a healthy dose of not-ballroom scenes, and have have a stronger stomach for secrets than me. ;)

Her Halloween Treat by Tiffany Reisz (Men at Work #1)

29095423It was a devastating dirty trick—Joey Silvia just found out her boyfriend of two years is married. What. A. Dick. Joey knows her best chance to get over one guy is to get under another. Of course, heading home to her family’s remote cabin in Oregon poses some challenges in the “available men” department…until she discovers this cabin comes with its own hot handyman!

Holy crap, Chris Steffensen. When did her brother’s best friend turn into a hard-bodied pile of blond-bearded hotness? He’s the perfect Halloween treat—and a surprisingly dirty rebound guy. For a couple of weeks, anyway. Except that Chris has other ideas…like proving to Joey that this blast from the past is a whole lot more than a naughty Halloween hookup.

Review:

Reisz is one of my go-to authors and she delivers again with this category romance. Categories are shorter romances that are part of a line, a niche that is dominated by Harlequin.  They tend to be shorter, rarely topping 250 pages, and the lack of real estate means the story is concentrated on the couple and their developing love story.  Wendy the Super Librarian does a great job explaining the appeal over at Heroes and Heartbreakers.  Personally I like that they’re conveniently packaged, perfect for when my brain has scattered to the winds. (2016 – good riddance.)

Shorter books are a natural fit for Reisz, who has a habit of breaking up anything over 300 pages into smaller chunks.  The plot is tight, the characters are fully realized, and the sex is oh-so-hot.  I love that there are LGBT characters whose past struggles and current joys ring true.  Sometimes categories give me emotional whiplash when a character’s development is cut short but Reisz has all the beats covered.  Joey acts more rashly than I would at times, but given her circumstances it’s completely understandable.

I also like that Joey’s best friend is real-world wise, not parent-y or moral authority-y wise.  Here’s Kira when Joey laments that the last two years of her life have gone “down the toilet”.

“Look, I know breakups are hard.  And they’re ten times harder when somebody lies or cheats.  I know.  I’ve been there.  But Ben was not your whole life. You have a job you love that you kick ass at… You have friends – me, for example – and what more do you need than me?  And you live in fucking Honolulu, Hawaii, so close to the beach you can see actual whales from your apartment window.  Can you really tell me that’s all down the toilet?  Really?  Go look.  Go look in the toilet and tell me if you see any whales in it.”

“Kira…”

“Go. Look. For. Whales. In. Your. Toilet. Right. Now.”

All in all a hot, satisfying, quick hit of romance from the incomparable Reisz.

A Date at the Altar by Cathy Maxwell (Marrying the Duke #3)

Synopsis:

28819991A duke can’t marry just anyone. His wife must be of good family, be fertile, be young. Struggling playwright Sarah Pettijohn is absolutely the last woman Gavin Whitridge, Duke of Baynton, would ever fall in love with. She is an actress, born on the wrong side of the blanket, and always challenges his ducal authority. She never hesitates to tell him what she thinks.

However, there is something about her that stirs his blood… which makes her perfect for a bargain he has in mind: In exchange for backing her play, he wants Sarah to teach him about love.

And he, in turn, has a few things to teach her about men…

Review:

A fun read that did some things really, really well.

The good:

  • Our heroine Sarah is strong and confident and happy in her own skin. She’s doing what she wants with her life and it’s refreshing and wonderful to watch. Some people may doubt the likelihood of the plot so Maxwell shares some of her research in an afterward.
  • Many Regencies talk about mistresses, often in the context of “oh no you don’t” or “I can’t believe he/she did”. Here we get to see that experience from the other side and how the transaction often worked.
  • The plot moves at a nice clip with some effective external conflict. I like how it stayed just this side of romantic suspense, with realistic but not overly done angst.
  • Some prickly situations come up where I thought, there is only one way this can end well. If the character does one of these ten other things I would be so mad… but it always ended that one way, well. Phew.
  • Virgin hero, yea!
  • Not being able to have children, and what it would have meant at this time in history, is thoughtfully and compassionately considered. I was afraid it would be a “barren until you” storyline but the issue is handled realistically and well. Kudos to Maxwell.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book qualifies as a Regency-not-in-a-ballroom, which is kind of amazing considering nearly all of the action is set in London.

The not-so-good:

  • The first chapter is pure info dump, and even so I didn’t realize that I had already read the second book of this series. Oops. Partly because…
  • In book two of this series the Duke comes off as a boor, while here he seems like a totally different person. If you read this as a standalone you won’t notice, though.
  • The hero, who we are told has zero experience “knowing” a woman, still manages to give the heroine an orgasm effortlessly on the first try. Sigh.
  • The plot is telegraphed, sometimes chapters in advance. The suspense factor is low so it wasn’t a deal breaker, but I don’t think the twists had the effect the author intended.

Overall I enjoyed A Date at the Altar as a quick, satisfying read despite the nitpicks.

Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole (Off the Grid #1)

Synopsis:

23500162Arden Highmore was living your average postgrad life in Rochester, New York, when someone flipped the “off” switch on the world. No cell phones, no power, no running water—and no one knows why. All she and her roommate, John, know for sure is that they have to get out, stat. His family’s cabin near the Canadian border seemed like the safest choice.

When scavengers attack, it’s John’s ridiculously handsome brother, Gabriel, who comes to the rescue. He saves Arden’s life, so he can’t be all bad…but he’s also a controlling jerk who treats her like an idiot. Now their parents are missing and it seems John, Gabriel, their kid sister, Maggie, and Arden are the only people left alive who aren’t bloodthirsty maniacs.

No one knows when—or if—the lights will come back on and, in the midst of all that, Arden and Gabriel are finding that there’s a fine line indeed between love and hate. How long can they expect to last in this terrifying new world, be it together or apart?

Review:

Mixed feelings about this one – it’s alright but not what it says on the tin.

I like how the first chapter hits the ground running.  Our apocalypse is introduced (cause unknown) and Arden and roommate John have to make their way to safety.  They get ambushed and there’s a fight scene that pulled me into the story immediately.  We meet the hero Gabriel, John’s brother. They make their way to the cabin and hang out.

For a loooooong time.

Food stocks are secure, there’s a generator if they really need it, boards are on the windows.  All they need to do is wait for… something?… to happen.  The apocalypse/romantic suspense vibe is replaced with a snowbound romance plot, with the unwelcome addition of Gabriel’s siblings thrown in. So we go from “fight all.the.things the world is ending, ahh!” to “let’s talk about our family relationship issues, shall we? It seems the world might be ending.”

Which would be fine, normally.  Cole shows the friction between characters to great effect and their relationships are thought out.  But the plot evolves in such a way that the mysterious Big Bad turns out to be not much at all, and the questions I had on page one were left unanswered.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great stuff in here.  A romance that is both interracial and intercultural, believable inner lives for the characters, and that great first chapter.  I was hoping the action-plus-romance would continue, but no luck there. Ah, well. I’m interested in reading Cole again – I see she has a civil rights era romance, ooo – but I’ll pass on the rest of this series.