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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One-Quote Review: Never Too Late by Amara Royce

Never Too Late by Amara Royce

  • Title: Never Too Late
  • Author: Amara Royce
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Kensington, May 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 226 pages
  • Trope(s): Bookselling Widow, Angsty Nobleman, Age Gap, Blackmail, Deep Dark Secrets
  • Quick blurb: Young viscount falls in love with the older widow he’s been blackmailed into ruining.
  • Quick review: A bit uneven, but I’m really looking forward to this debut author’s next title.
  • Grade: B-

“I will never be done with you,” he said, low and fierce.

While I had issues with the rather melodramatic plot and the heroine’s Deep Dark Secret, I loved Royce’s voice and storytelling. The hero and heroine were equally compelling, the relationship-building was spot-on, and the sexy times were hot.

Book Anxiety, Part 1: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

  • Title: A Spear of Summer Grass
  • Author: Deanna Raybourn
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Harlequin (MIRA), April 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold and Hidden Depths, Enigmatic Loner Hero, Colorful Cast of Supporting Characters, Very Convenient Coincidences
  • Quick blurb: Disgraced socialite exiled to stepfather’s crumbling estate in 1920s colonial Kenya
  • Quick review: After much pre-reading anxiety and post-reading obsessing, it didn’t work for me — but for more reasons than I expected.
  • Grade: D+

“For Christ’s sake, woman. Don’t stand there mooning about. This is Africa. Go inside before something eats you.”

I’m a huge fan of Raybourn’s Julia Grey mystery series (countless re-reads, book trance every single time), so when I saw the cover and blurb for A Spear of Summer Grass, I sighed happily and thought, “Ohhhhh, she wrote a new one just for me.”

So why the Book Anxiety? It started with the usual “She’s one of my favorite authors, what if I don’t like it???” I sucked it up and made it through the two chapters with an initial dislike for the heroine, but no major red flags – so far, so good.

But then a quick glance at a few reviews – “horrible” and “DNF” from The Book Smugglers and the enlightening discussion at Dear Author – sent me flailing into the worst-case scenario of “What if I like it – but I shouldn’t???” So I moved it from currently-reading back to the to-read shelf and let the anxiety fester. For weeks.

I started reading again last night, and finished this morning around 3 a.m. It was a one-sitting read, but not a full-on blissful book trance. Instead of wallowing in the language and characters, I could not stop myself from focusing on all the elements that were so problematic for other reviewers.

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Backlist Binge: Sophia James

This took me longer than I thought, because I wound up doing a full re-read of one, and I had to buy and read the newest because it finished off a series.

So… Here are the highs and lows of Harlequin Historical author Sophia James, presented in chronological order (minus the anthologies). Cover images link to Goodreads.

In summary: James is on the dark and angsty edge of Harlequin Historicals — her characters are complex and conflicted, and when she stays away from rakes and pirates, her storytelling skills are memorable. But it’s hit or miss whether all the pieces and parts coalesce enough to suck me into a full-on book trance.

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One-Quote Review: Lady with the Devil’s Scar by Sophia James

Yes, I’m still here. I have a boatload of reviews in the backlog, so be prepared for a influx of One-Quote Wonders.

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  • Lady with the Devil's Scar by Sophia JamesTitle: Lady with the Devil’s Scar
  • Author: Sophia James
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Harlequin, August 2012
  • Source: Amazon ($4.61 ebook)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • Trope(s): Scarred Heroine, Illegitimate Loner Hero, Vengeful King
  • Quick blurb: Daughter of infamous Highland rebel fights and flirts with French mercenary sent to destroy her castle.
  • Quick review: Strong characters and good historical world-building, but not something I’ll read again.
  • Grade: B-

He kissed like a warrior would, taking what he needed without discourse to the properness of society, her timid answer pushed away into sheer and blazing want.

Sophia James, along with Julia Justiss and Elizabeth Rolls, was one of my “gateway” Harlequin Historical authors – I glommed her entire backlist when I first got my Kindle.

James is one of those authors that I enjoy, but not enough to rave about, and Lady With the Devil’s Scar fits right in that middle territory – I liked it, but not enough to displace any of my favorites.

Coming up next: The Sophia James Backlist Binge….

Naughty Norsemen: Going a-Viking in Romancelandia – Part 1

We’ll subtitle this post….

The maiden voyage

As part of my Haul of Half-Off Harlequins, I wound up with two Viking romances, chosen primarily for the snark value. Unfortunately, both were actually pretty good.

But, of course, these books kicked off a Viking-theme book binge, which dredged up one ridiculously fun PNR mashup, several “meh” examples, and one so-called “classic” that left me cringing.

Cute Viking

Before we set sail, I must admit I know fuck-all about actual Vikings or Norse mythology. I did learn that the proper homage to Thor for a successful pillage was a goat sacrifice, and you know how I feel about goats.

ANYWAY, it’s time to put on our pointy-horned hats and go raiding.

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Backlist Binge: Julia Justiss

As promised, the highs and lows of Harlequin Historical author Julia Justiss, presented in chronological order (minus the anthologies). Cover images link to Goodreads.

In summary: Justiss does widows, courtesans and angsty heroes really, really well. Her debutantes and rakes, however, are generally just wallpaper.

A word of warning: You can’t have Hal Waterman. He’s MINE.

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One-Quote Review(s): The Wild Quartet by Miranda Neville

The Second Seduction of Lady by Miranda Neville

  • Title: The Second Seduction of a Lady
  • Author:  Miranda Neville
  • Series: The Wild Quartet, Book 0.5
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Avon, October 2012
  • Source: Edelweiss ($1.99 ebook)
  • Length: 100 pages
  • Trope(s): Ruined by a Rake, Big Misunderstanding, Wicked Wager
  • Quick blurb: Five years after a torrid encounter, a repentant gentleman gets a second chance with the stubborn woman he still loves.
  • Quick review: Nothing heart-stopping, but everything a prequel novella should be.
  • Grade: B

It wasn’t a deep kiss but a slow investigation of taste and texture, a scouting trip with the promise of a full exploration.

This novella wasn’t  an all-out swoon, but I loved how the quiet moments between Max and Eleanor showed a more mature and hard-earned romance in contrast to the ill-fated insta-love of their impulsive wards.

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The Importance of Being Wicked by Miranda Neville

  • Title: The Importance of Being Wicked
  • Author:  Miranda Neville
  • Series: The Wild Quartet, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Avon, November 2012
  • Source: Edelweiss ($7.99 ebook)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Gambling Fever, Widow, Beta Hero, Big Misunderstandings
  • Quick blurb: Staid duke in need of an heiress is enthralled by his intended’s impetuous but impoverished chaperone.
  • Quick review: A bit iffy in the middle, but a full-swoon ending makes it worth the read.
  • Grade: B

The Duke of Castleton had been delightfully stuffy and teasable, and she’d managed not to make a fool of herself by leaping on him and ripping off his clothes.

Loved the relationship-building in the first half (especially the slug-fest at the masked ball), then got really annoyed with both of them, but they finally got their heads out of their asses and I got all swoony at the end.

One-Quote Review: A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

  • Title: A Notorious Countess Confesses
  • Author:  Julie Anne Long
  • Series: Pennyroyal Green, Book 7
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Avon, October 2012
  • Source: Edelweiss ($5.99 ebook)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Hot Vicar, Soiled Dove, Widow, Small Town, Beta Hero, Smartass Heroine
  • Quick blurb: A newly widowed former courtesan asks a handsome village vicar to help her make friends.
  • Quick review: A worthy addition to the series, but not one of Long’s best.
  • Grade: B

Yes…yes! He felt a twinge of something! It was coming now!

He scrawled:

I kissed her I kissed her I kissed her

Well.

As a sermon, it was a failure, but his parishioners would doubtless find it edifying.

Notorious Countess worked much better for me than the previous book in the series. (Where in the hell did those people come from and why should I care? And I didn’t care, because I don’t remember anything about it beyond the cheesy title). This one is a bit more fairy tale-ish than her other books, but Long still manages to pull off the tricky balance of broad humor and intimate yearning.

Another romance novel art that Long consistently does really, really well is showing, not telling, how her hero and heroine fall in love. It might be insta-lust or even insta-love, but by the time the first kiss happens, we know why her characters are drawn to each other.

I also appreciated that both the vicar and the courtesan did a lot of self-reflection and said some very hurtful but honest things to each other. HOWEVER…I was disappointed in how their interactions with the rest of the village were perfectly scripted to make them always come out on top of the uncomfortable situations.

And despite my recently admitted weakness for Grand Gestures, this ending was WAY too Love, Actually, with shamefaced parisioners standing up and spouting Magical Bible Verses like the LA wedding guests with hidden trumpets and trombones.

The Summoning of the Siblings bit was good, though — enough to make up for the goats and bring this up from a B- to a solid B.

[NOTE: I read an ARC, so I forced myself to ignore the dreadful editing fails. If that kind of WTFery had shown up in a published version I paid for, the grade would have been much, MUCH lower. Even so, my respect for Avon Books is diminished once again.]

The ‘Oh Crap It’s Only A Week Until Christmas’ Holiday Book Binge, Part 1

I was going to call these “lightning” reviews, but I’m going with “magical reindeer fly-by” reviews because they’re more ephemeral than electrocution-inducing.

Yes, I’m an Alliteration Whore.

In no particular order….

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‘Twas the Night After Christmas by Sabrina Jeffries

'Twas the Night After Christmas by Sabrina Jeffries

  • Title: ‘Twas the Night After Christmas
  • Author: Sabrina Jeffries
  • Series: Hellions of Halstead Hall, Book 6
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Gallery Books, October 2012
  • Source: Edelweiss ($7.99 ebook)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • Trope(s): Angst, Big Misunderstandings, Parental Issues, Smartass Heroine, Alpha Hero Who’s Secretly a Beta Hero, Plot Moppet
  • Quick blurb: A widowed hired companion tries to reunited her unseen rakish employer with his long-estranged mother.
  • Quick review: Angsty and gooey and predictable, and I LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT.
  • Grade: A-

She kissed like a woman who didn’t know her own sensual power. Most women did – even the virginal ones. The fact that she didn’t made him want to show it to her. Graphically. Thoroughly. Over and over, until she realized what he’d known since the moment she first stood up to him – that she was one of those rare women who understood how the game was played…and then played it by her own rules.

This might be my favorite of the Hellions of Halstead Hall series. Yes, the setup is standard formula romance, but Jeffries really pulls it off by making this a very intimate and emotional and oozingly romantic story.

The minus in the A- minus is for the price — I know it’s a full novel and not just a novella, but it’s Christmas, for crying out loud. And don’t try to use “But we released it in October!” as an excuse.

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Red Hot Holiday (Anthology)

Red Hot Holiday anthology from Carina Press

  • Title: Red Hot Holiday
  • Author(s): Anne Calhoun, K.A. Mitchell and Leah Braemel
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Erotica
  • Publisher: Carina Press, December 2012
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 262 pages
  • Trope(s): Angst, Big Misunderstandings, BDSM, Menage, Beta Heroes, Widow
  • Quick blurb: A unique and unexpected mix of holiday-themed erotic stories
  • Quick review: A bit uneven, but definitely not the usual gooey Christmas schmaltz
  • Grade: B-

Wish List by K.A. Mitchell

“Feel small, like I could crawl inside you, but big too, like all of you would fit inside me.”

I have read and will continue to read anything and everything by K.A. Mitchell, and I *love* that a non-Christmas, non-het story was included in this anthology.

I Need You for Christmas by Leah Braemel

“I wasn’t the only one who pulled Kevin out of the water. It was a team effort.”

“I know. But I’m not in love with any of them.”

I’m generally not a big fan of Gift of the Magi takeoffs, because the conflict and resolution are always so blatantly telegraphed, and this was no exception. The fact that the heroine was a kick-ass Mountie and the hero was a believable Sensitive Artist almost made up for some of the external melodrama — but not enough for the gratuitous sex swing.

Breath on Embers by Annie Calhoun

Ronan the Rescuer loomed over her, big and tough and willing to throw himself at whatever fire appeared, literal or metaphorical, but this wasn’t hot flames. This was the cold fire of hell no one could rescue her from, because nothing was wrong, except her husband was dead.

Like nearly every other reader, I was blown away by Calhoun’s gorgeous writing — the balance of characters and setting and holiday angst was perfect. HOWEVER… I know I’m in the minority on this… I felt the resolution of the conflict was a cop-out to make this story more “erotic” and fulfill a “Stop the presses! We need a menage!” trope quota — even more than the gratuitous sex swing. I just didn’t buy it.

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A Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift by Jennifer Ashley

A MacKenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift by Jennifer Ashley

  • Title: A Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift
  • Author: Jennifer Ashley
  • Series: Highland Pleasures, Book 4.5
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
  • Source: Amazon, 99¢
  • Length: 240 pages
  • Trope(s): Family Reunion, Big Misunderstanding(s), Plot Moppets (a LOT of them), Pregnant Ladies (a LOT of them), Testosterone in Kilts (a LOT of it)
  • Quick blurb: The Boys of Scotland and their Lovely Lassies and all their children and pets and servants and horses and in-laws.
  • Quick review: If you love the MacKenzies, you’ll probably read this book and like it. Just like me.
  • Grade: B

Hart looked like someone had kicked him repeatedly.

Every single character from all four previous books was crammed into this book, along with their numerous spawn. Those who weren’t the main characters of their own book all got smoochy cameos in this one, including Crabby Old Fart-Muffin (my son’s favorite epithet) half-brother Lloyd Fellows AND Bellamy the Boxing Butler (oh, fine then, he’s a valet, but that’s not alliterative).

The subtitle of “The Perfect Gift” was the often obscured yet charming plot thread, but it really wasn’t the point. It did, however, remind me how much I looove Ian and Beth and then I had to go and read their book again. And then I had to double-check to make sure I had Elliot’s book AND Daniel’s book on my “Coming Soon But Not Soon Enough Hurry the Hell Up” list.