Holiday Romance Binge, Part 3: More Contemporaries

A few anthologies, a few novellas, a novella from another anthology, and one I thought was a novella but was actually a novel which is probably why I got pissy with it.

I kinda forgot about the “Naughty & Nice List” theme, but I can’t think about that right now because I need to figure what to take to the office potluck tomorrow that won’t require cooking or baking. Or buying ingredients. I’m thinking Mint M&Ms. Unless I eat those for breakfast again.

ANYWAY….

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Tripleheader: Carina Press Historicals

A Dream Defiant by Susanna FraserA Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser

  • Title: A Dream Defiant
  • Author:  Susanna Fraser
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Historical (Regency)
  • Publisher: Carina Press, July 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: ~85 pages
  • Trope(s): Forbidden Love, War Heroes and Widows, Family Matters
  • Quick blurb: Black soldier delivers spoils of war to new widow and marries her for her protection
  • Quick review: Too much story for the short format.
  • Grade: B

He caught her hand. “Wait.” He slid his hands to the back of her neck, fumbling for the necklace’s clasp. He undid it and held the chain of rubies up, red and gold in the flickering candlelight. “No shackles for us,” he said, “no matter how rich.”

Loved the characters and premise, and Fraser managed to get a lot of emotion into less than 100 pages. But this story deserves more than a novella to avoid the rushed romance and resolution.

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World Series of Romance: Four Corners by Kate McMurray

  • Four Corners by Kate McMurrayTitle(s): Four Corners
  • Author: Kate McMurray
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ
  • Publisher: Dreamspinner, August 2012
  • Source: DreamspinnerPress.com ($4.89 ebook w/30% off discount)
  • Length: 220 pages
  • Trope(s): Reunited, I Hate You Except When We Kiss, Coming Out, Baseball, Big Misunderstanding, Friends-to-Lovers
  • Quick blurb: The Guy Who Left returns to the old neighborhood to attempt a reunion with The Guy Who Stayed.
  • Quick review: Another tired premise and unlikeable heroes.
  • Grade: C-

I didn’t want his words to make my heart soar. I didn’t want my skin to tingle where his palms rested. I didn’t want to get aroused by the way he smelled. I didn’t want the proximity of our bodies to make me shiver. All of those things happened anyway.

A no-go on this one too. The writing mechanics are good (sometimes really good), but I found the high school flashbacks to be really intrusive, the present-day interactions were repetitive, and Jake (The One Who Stayed) was a whiny, self-righteous wanker. He did get a bit of redemption in the end, but he needed a smackdown. The “four corners” baseball friendship theme could have been a great connecting thread, but I needed a lot more of it to hold this story together.

World Series of Romance: Squeeze Play by Kate Angell

Just so’s you know….

This started out as a One-Quote Review, and then four hours later I found myself in the throes of a Full Snark Bitchfest.

Shh! Mom's on the warpath!

You’re damn right I am. Also, if you give me
cake to relax, it better not be made of Ivory Soap.

If you read all the way to the end, you’ll see why.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*
Squeeze Play (Richmond Rogues Book 1) by Kate Angell

  • Title: Squeeze Play
  • Author: Kate Angell
  • Series: Richmond Rogues, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: First published June 2006 by Love Spell; re-released as self-pub ebook December 2011
  • Source: Amazon (99¢ ebook)
  • Length: 318 pages
  • Trope(s): Angsty Athlete, Flaky Heroine, Friends-to-Lovers, Big Misunderstanding(s), Dumped in Public, Rebound, Small Town, Plot Moppets, Weight-Shaming
  • Quick blurb: Big-league ballplayers return to hometown for charity bachelor auction.
  • Quick review: A lot of eye-rolling and some major ::HEADDESK::ing.
  • Grade: D

The first in a steamy new series of romances featuring a hunky baseball team and the sirens who challenge the players in the game of love.

I have two positive things to say about this book:

(1) It was only 99 cents.

(2) It wasn’t Sweet Jesus! Honey Dews! bad.

But it was close.

I know I shouldn’t judge an entire series by the first book, but since it had a multi-arc storyline, I figured one book was more than enough.

You don’t believe me, do you? DO YOU? Well, all I can say is READ THIS:

My nipples picked you out of the crowd.

Him: “Your first blow on my coffee turned me on.”
Her: “My nipples picked you out of the crowd.”

My first idea was to do this as a Rogues vs. McCoys box score, but I’m kind of charted-out for a while. So this is going to be a Heroines vs. Heroes play-by-play with color commentary instead.

The match-up:

  • Home: The Small-Town Girls — Jacy the Wacky Coffee Shop Owner, Stevie the Low-Self-Esteem Tomboy, and Natalie the Big City Slut Who Tries to Throw the Game.
  • Visitors: The Richmond Rogues — Pro baseball players, in town for a celebrity bachelor auction, known by their on-field nicknames of Risk, Zen/ Einstein, Shutout, Romeo, Chaser and Psycho. Collectively known as “The Bat Pack.” No, really.

The scouting report:

  • Small-Town Girls Jacy and Stevie have the home-field advantage, and they know the value of well-timed coffee-inspired innuendo-laden puns.
  • Richmond’s local-boys-done-good Risk and Shutout have history with and insider knowledge of their opponents, but mental trips down Memory Lane might weaken their defenses.
  • Natalie the Slut, unexpectedly called down from her big-city penthouse, may throw both teams off their game with her wild pitching and penchant for crowd-baiting.
  • Irrational jealousy resulting from big misunderstandings will dominate play, but players will also need to be prepared for numerous distractions from both sides of the bench in the form of cleavage- and/or ass-flashing and baseball-metaphor sexual propositions.

The pre-game show (aka the prologue):

Bottom of the ninth in Game Seven of the World Series – Rogues down one against Tampa Bay, two outs with a runner on third.

After whiffing a backdoor slider¹ and a curve, veteran hitter Risk Kincaid proves his nickname by — wait for it —  CALLING HIS SHOT (see image at right).

And of course he knocks it out of the park. But it’s not just any ol’ game-winning hit! It’s a homer to the left field bleachers aimed straight at the scantily-dressed and vividly-coiffed female fan who taunted him on the Jumbotron.

While the 80,000² Tampa Bay fans pout, cry and head out to riot in the streets, Risk makes nice with the reporters for his SportsCenter highlight reel:

“What about the girl with the pink hair?” someone asked.

“What about her?” he shot the question back.

“You nearly slammed the ball down her throat³.”

A corner of his mouth turned up slightly. “She needs to learn to duck.”

Classy, huh? But I suppose taking her head off with a line drive homer is better than yelling “TAG” in the middle of a rodeo bar.

¹ Yes, “backdoor slider.” Take a WILD guess where my dirty mind went with that one.

² Yes, EIGHTY THOUSAND fans. Which is very impressive, because the largest pro baseball venue (Dodgers Stadium) has a capacity of only 56,000. I thought maybe the anticipated crowds forced a cross-town move to the Ray-Jay, but that only seats 65,000. So it must have been a cross-country displacement to Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

³ Intentional or unintentional? You decide.

First inning (chapter one):

Oh, bloody HELL — I’m balking on the first pitch.

This stupid book has 13 chapters, and I don’t have the time or patience for extra innings. I have more angsty athletes to read about, dammit. I also have difficulty maintaining extended metaphors.

We’ll go with some obscure stats and random trivia instead.

Continue reading

World Series of Romance: Caught Running by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

Gay High School Baseball Coaches: A Doubleheader

In case you missed it, be sure to read the wrap-up of Game 1: Pine Tar & Sweet Tea by Kerry Freeman. Also, full disclosure on this one: I’ve read this approximately 17 times, so put on your squee-proof panties.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Game 2, featuring the veteran Gold Glove power hitters:

Caught Running by Urban and Roux

Caught Running by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

  •  Title: Caught Running
  • Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ
  • Publisher: Dreamspinner, December 2007
  • Source: Amazon ($5.38 ebook)
  • Length: 326 pages
  • Trope(s): Athletes, Beta Heroes (x2!), Teachers, Friends-to-Lovers, Lust in the Workplace
  • Quick blurb: Science teacher reluctantly accepts assignment as assistant baseball coach, putting him on the field with the all-star jock from his own high school days.
  • Quick review: Dear Jake and Brandon: You can coach my team ANYTIME. Love, Kelly.
  • Grade: A-

The soft words made Brandon’s insides clench, and the sentiment spurred him to clasp Jake’s face between both hands and kiss him with a hint of desperation, a tinge of hopefulness, and more than a little agreement. When he pulled back, he murmured, “Would have been more than kisses.”

The set-up:

Jake is the jock, former two-sport college standout now coaching at his high school alma mater after injuries put him permanently on the DL. He’s also permanently in the closet about his bisexuality — until his new assistant coach makes him re-think his lonely life.

Brandon is the nerd, with two master’s degrees and an acceptance to med school. He returned to his hometown when his parents were killed, and he’s learned to love his unexpected career as a science teacher — and his unexpected acceptance into a jock’s world.

Oh, as the authors say in their dedication:

“Caught Running” is for everyone who didn’t become what they thought they would, but still found happiness.

The hits:

Oh, lordy, where should I start? I believe this requires a list:

(1) Two – count ‘em, TWO (2) – beta heroes

They’re both flawed and conflicted and cautiously optimistic and really quite yummy.

(2) The relationship-building

Pacing is perfect, By the time the first kiss happens, it’s a huge rush of “oh, thank GOD.” And then it just gets better.

(3) The sexy times

The racing through the front door, shoving up against the wall sexy times.

And the post-practice locker-room workout…

He yanked at Brandon’s jersey, hearing a seam rip somewhere and not caring as he continued to pull at it and kiss the man messily. It still wasn’t enough, and he pushed Brandon toward the nearest hard surface, slamming him brutally against the empty bulletin board.

And the hood of the car….

There was no way Brandon was going to summon the strength to resist this. It was everything he wanted to be reassured. Wanted. Craved. Oh God.

Excuse me for a sec, I’ll be right back.

We now interrupt this blog post for a brief pictorial interlude:

*ahem*

All righty then, where were we?

(4) The extremely effective use of alternating POVs

Sometimes the head-hopping changed with every paragraph, and yet I never had any doubt whose head I was in.

The BRAIN kind of head, sheesh. Pervs.

(5) The funny bits

Like the very unwanted late-night run-in with the on-the-prowl cheerleading coach in the grocery store.

Also, the Flip-Flop Scene:

How could he have said something like that, anyway? Wanting to know what was happening next when they’d only kissed for the first time about ten hours ago?

Jake watched him go down the walk with a frown, but smiled slightly as he had an idea. He reached down, took off his flip-flop, and chucked it at Brandon as he walked away, hitting him right on the back of the head.

Brandon’s eyes bugged out, and he whipped around to look at Jake in amazement. “Did you just do what I think you did?” he exclaimed.

“Depends on what you think I did,” Jake shot back with a signature grin as he thumped down the front steps and strolled forward to retrieve his flip-flop. “That’s what we do. You think and I throw things,” he explained. “So I’ll make you a deal. You stop thinking,” he drawled, bending to pick up the shoe and wave it around threateningly, “and I’ll stop throwing things.”

(6) Completely believable teacher/coach world-building

Trust me on this. I know from which I speak.

(7) Great scene-setting and secondary characters

Jake and Brandon live and work in a small Southern town, but they aren’t surrounded by clichéd empty props. I know exactly what their school and houses look like, and their friends, co-workers and stalkers (well, just one, the horny cheerleading coach) are unpredictable and yet integral to the story. This is contemporary world-building done really, really well.

That’s probably enough squee for now.

The misses:

Only two items on this list:

(a) The too-convenient absence of family interference or anxiety

Caught Running was one of the first M/M romances I read, so I didn’t really notice it while I was reading it the first time(s).

But on second and third (and maybe fourth and fifth) reads — after inhaling Heidi Cullinan and L.A. Witt and K.A. Mitchell and Marie Sexton and others (a LOT of others) — it felt like an important source of external conflict was missing. But I wouldn’t want Roux/Urban to change anything, so, you know, there you go.

This is why I am terrible at writing squeeful reviews. I sound like a freaking idiot.

(b) The kinda sorta anti-climactic* HEA

I wasn’t expecting a Grand Gesture or anything schmaltzy, but it left me wanting more. As in, you know, like, maybe…A SEQUEL???

Pretty please, Ms. Roux and Ms. Urban? Ty and Zane have about 17 books each now. I think Jake and Brandon need some attention again. Or maybe I need attention from them. Either way, I’m asking nicely.

There’s that slobbering idiot thing again. I know you’re all grateful I don’t write romance novels.

* I almost typed that without giggling.

The final score: A-

World Series of Romance: Going for It by Elle Kennedy

Going For It by Elle Kennedy

  • Title: Going For It
  • Author:  Elle Kennedy
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Samhain Publishing, November 2008
  • Source: Amazon ($2.10 ebook)
  • Length: 62 pages
  • Trope(s): Athlete, Friends-to-Lovers
  • Quick blurb: Struggling bar owner seduces retired ballplayer before she’s forced to sell her business.
  • Quick review: Nothing to recommend about this predictable novella – and a few annoyances that almost ruined it.
  • Grade: C-

Starting new would be good for her. She hoped. But she had no intention of leaving town with regrets, and not jumping Riley’s bones would be the biggest regret of all.

The heroine has lost her family-legacy business and her apartment, forcing her impending move across the country to live in her sister’s basement. But no big deal — her most important priority is to get laid by a jock.

While I didn’t have much respect for the heroine or the hero (no spoilers!), the friends-to-lovers romance was realistic and kind of sweet, I loved that the heroine did the seducing, and the grand gesture HEA was really good.

This would have been a solid C, but a few “Oh, FFS” moments kicked me out of my reading trance:

  • No-condom sex with a self-admitted manwhore. Twice. But it’s OK, because she’s on the Pill.
  • The irrelevant and unnecessary inclusion of the heroine’s BFFs — their Sex and the City drunken tell-alls were pretty eye-rolling.
  • The hero mentally describes the heroine as “saucy.” I added that adjective to to my List of Patronizing Ways to Describe Your Heroine. I haven’t decided if “saucy” is better or worse than “sassy.”
  • The heroine feels “waves of pleasure in her womb.” Let’s review: Womb ≠ Vagina. Womb =  UTERUS.
  • The hero’s only defining traits as a former pro athlete are his swagger (he swaggers a LOT) and his preference for “the three B’s…blonde hair, blue eyes and big tits.”

This was one of Kennedy’s early efforts, and reviews of her recent books have been much more positive, so I’m not going to let this short “meh” scare me off this author yet.

One-Quote Review: Second Hand by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton

I have to do a One-Quote Review for this because anything longer would be nauseatingly sycophantic.

  • Second Hand by Heidi Cullinan and Marie SextonTitle: Second Hand
  • Author(s): Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton
  • Series: Tucker Springs, Book 2
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ (M/M)
  • Publisher: Riptide Publishing, September 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($6.99 ebook, available 9/10)
  • Length: 175 pages
  • Trope(s): Friends-to-Lovers, Rebound, Angst, Gay for You, Dysfunctional Families, Beta Heroes
  • Quick blurb: Lonely and jaded pawn shop owner falls for seemingly-straight customer.
  • Quick review: The dog’s name is MoJo. See his begging eyes and wistful expression? He wants you to read this book.
  • Grade: A

“I just want to be the first choice for someone for once. Just once.”

So, Heidi and Marie, just go ahead and push all my buttons, and THEN reach in and pull my guts out. You both seem to be good at that sort of thing.

ALSO: Hurry the hell up with your next books, so I can fling myself on the altar of your brilliance ALL OVER AGAIN.

I guess that last bit crossed the “sycophant” line, huh? Oh, well. I HAVE NO SHAME.

The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

If you’re an Eloisa James fangirl, walk backwards slowly with your eyes on the floor until you reach a safe zone. Then turn and run like hell, because this is going to be ugly. (See what I did there?)
The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

  • Title: The Ugly Duchess
  • Author: Eloisa James
  • Series: Fairy Tales, Book 4
  • Genre(s): Historical (Regency)
  • Publisher: Avon Books, August 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss ($6.99 ebook)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Plain Jane, Big Misunderstanding, Friends-to-Lovers, Reunited, Pirates
  • Quick blurb: “Hey, my wife of two days yelled at me because I married her for her money so I guess I’ll run away and become a pirate and shave my head and give myself a flowery facial tattoo and then show up out of the blue seven years later at the special session of Parliament called to declare me officially dead and then I’ll get all pissy when my bitter bride doesn’t immediately succumb to my piratical sexiness.”
  • Quick review: Hated it. It was awful. Dreadful. Did I mention I HATED IT?
  • Grade: F

In the weeks and years to come, when she looked back she identified that as the precise moment when her heart broke in two. The moment that separated Daisy from Theo, the time Before, from the time After.

In the time Before, she had faith. She had love.

In the time After…she had the truth.

What’s not to love about such lovely romantic angst like that, right? If only there was more of the angsty romance and a lot less piss-me-offery.

Theodora/Daisy is annoying, James/Jack is an idiot and the plot is all kinds of FUCKED UP. I don’t want to recap the whole mess of crap, so here’s what pissed me off the most:

After that the duke proceeded to demonstrate for his duchess almost all of the terms he knew for the sport of Venus. He was a pirate. He knew a lot.

THAT WAS THE HEA, FOR FUCK SAKE.

The happy ending was the “hero” showing off the boinking and boffing skillz he learned and earned while fucking prostitutes during his long absence at sea. I don’t consider that to be romantic AT ALL.

The opening scenes were promising — a plain but confident heroine and the childhood friend who realizes he loves her. But the Black Moment occurs way too early in the story, and then it was just more and more incarnations of “OH. FOR. FUCK. SAKE.”

An hour later, James had a shaved head and a small poppy tattooed beneath his right eye. He appropriated a name from Flibbery Jack, the pirate captain who would no longer be needing it, and gave it too himself.

Yes, FLIBBERY JACK. I mean, come on. Was that really necessary?

When Dread Pirate Emo Whiner made his Dramatic Reappearance precisely seven years later at the special session of Parliament just as he was about to be officially declared dead, I gave up and skimmed through to the repulsive conclusion and barf-worthy epilogue. Blech.

When her characters aren’t off randomly fucking around, Eloisa James is a really good writer. The quiet and introspective moments are lovely, her wit is wicked, and she’s brilliant at showing instead of telling.

James is not without a few quirks , though — she slathers on the similes and metaphors, but they’re just ordinary purplish prose, not full-on Simile Sex:

  • …like tradesmen’s wives seeing the queen.
  • …like a fox with a clutch of hen’s eggs.
  • …like tepid milk at bedtime.
  • …a tongue as sharp as a cracked mirror.
  • …as convincing as Marie Antoinette pretending to be a shepherdess.
  • …like a hollyhock that someone forgot to stake.
  • …as if she were a dog in a fight.
  • …like a drunken meringue.
  • …as if minutes turned into drops of honey.
  • …as tightly as puzzle pieces.
  • …as tightly pressed together as ha’pennies in the church box.
  • …like a marauding Visigoth.

And of course there’s the obligatory reference to a mythological goddess:

“Theo (the heroine) is like the huntress Diana…. Beautiful and yet slightly deadly, ready to whip out a bow and arrow, or turn a man into a squealing swine. Sensual, and yet with just a snowy touch of the virginal about her.”

I can easily ignore fluff like that, and I can even disregard the gratuitous inclusion of the Prince of Wales saying “what ho!” because no one calls him “Prinny.”

However, I most definitely cannot shrug off the casual acceptance and justification of infidelity.

I’m not new to this series – I really liked When Beauty Tamed the Beast, and I LOVED the novella Storming the Castle. In fact, I’ve read James’s entire backlist, which I attribute to Everyone Else Loves Her, I Must Be Missing Something Syndrome.

But I think I’m done with this author now. With very few exceptions, her books have left me with a vaguely squirmy feeling – a sort of lingering veneer of squickiness and disgust at her repeated reliance on no-consequences adultery as an amusing plot wrench. That’s a deal-breaker for me, and I just can’t give James another pass.