Recent Reads

A visual depiction of a single parent with two kids and two jobs at the end of a school year:

Looney Tunes gif - Sylvester sliding down stairs

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Let’s see, where were we? Ah, yes — books. I’ve…read a lot more than I thought. And nearly all of it was soul-satisfying. It’s not hyperbole to say books can keep us sane.

I’m dumping everything in one stupidly long post so I can clear out my NetGalley Wall of Shame.

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Only Beloved and Longing by Mary Balogh

Only Beloved by Mary Balogh  Longing by Mary Balogh

I was a little wary of the last of the Survivors’ Club books because I did not like Ralph and Chloe’s story (so distressingly repetitive, especially on audio, and it added nothing of value to the series), but I knew Balogh would pull out the Big Guns of Angst and Drama for Stanbrook’s Deep Dark Secret. It’s set on a cliff-top in Cornwall, for crying out loud. I loved Dora, but I really wish she had a different name.

Speaking of Big Guns of Angst and Drama…. Longing is chock full of both. This is a stand-alone title, more of a “historical with romantic elements” than a straight rom-dram. Widowed mine worker becomes governess for widowed mine owner’s lonely daughter, with Chartist labor intrigue and unrest keeping them apart. The setting in the depths of an isolated Welsh valley is my favorite character in this story; Balogh’s usually understated brilliance at world-building is front and center here — it’s atmospheric and vivid and  tactile and completely enveloping.

Someday I will write up my feelings about Balogh. But it will likely just be the word “effortless” over and over and over.

Only Beloved »  |  Longing »

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One-Quote Review: The Duke’s Match Girl by Lila DiPasqua

This one gets its own post because DUDE. The Duke's Match Girl by Lila DiPasqua

  • Title: The Duke’s Match Girl
  • Author: Lila DiPasqua
  • Genre(s): Historical, Holiday
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2013
  • Source: Purchased (99¢)
  • Length: 99 pages
  • Trope(s): Smartass Heroine, Arrogant Aristocrat, Forgiveness & Redemption, Angry Sex, Makeup Sex,
  • Quick blurb: Recently widowed duke goes on campaign to woo back his first and only love
  • Grade: A (maybe an A+, need to read it again, might be lacking a big slobbery dog)

Your Grace,

Your man has informed me of your offer. He was quite uncomfortable about relaying my response. It is for his ease that I put it to you here in writing. As to your offer — and say this with the utmost sincerity  you may take it, and insert it into your exalted posterior.

Sincerely,

Suzanne

Drop whatever you are reading and READ THIS INSTEAD. No, really. Yes, the description says it’s a retelling of the Danish fairy tale, but trust me. I would never recommend a romance where the titular character freezes to death in a doorway.

Instead, it’s hilarious (the excerpt above is a mere hint) and madly sexy (as in angry makeup sex in a carriage) and breathtakingly romantic (I almost used “speechlessly” as the adjective but it sounded weird, which is kind of ironic when you think about it) with just the right amount of holiday seasoning.

Let’s just put it this way: The hero is a SMARMY ALPHA-HOLE AND I LIKED HIM ANYWAY. Christmas miracles, indeed.

The Duchess War and A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan

The Duchess War

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

  • Title: The Duchess War
  • Author:  Courtney Milan
  • Series: Brothers Sinister, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Historical (Victorian)
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
  • Source: Amazon ($3.99 ebook)
  • Length: ??? pages (5068 Kindle locations)
  • Trope(s): Tragic Past, Parental Issues, In Disguise, Virgin Hero, Smartass Heroine, Blundering Hero
  • Quick blurb: Progressive but guilt-ridden duke brings unwanted attention to heroine who’s desperate to remain an overlooked wallflower.
  • Quick review: A lot I really liked and a few things that just didn’t work.
  • Grade: B-

Favorite quotes:

  1. “I’m winning,” he announced. “You can’t bore me into a surrender.”
  2. “Don’t tell me to look up. Don’t ask me to want. If I do, I’ll never survive.”
  3. “I’ve always found that the quickest way to make someone relent in his foolish edicts is to take every command literally and to perform it with flagrant obedience.”
  4. “A paste emergency!” she huffed. “A paste assault, that’s what we had.”
  5. It wasn’t fair that he could rob her heart of anger and her lungs of air with just one word.
  6. “The male of the human species has a fundamental flaw. At the moment when we most want to say something clever and impressive, all the blood rushes from our brains.”
  7. His voice was rough when he spoke again. “So beat me to flinders,” he said. “Win. Overmatch me, Minnie. And when we’re alone…” His fingers touched her chin lightly. “When we’re alone,” he whispered, “look up.”
  8. She was a shard of stained glass, casting colors about the room, and yet capable of slicing everything she touched.
  9. “No,” Minnie said bitterly. “I earned this, fair and square.” Well, maybe it hadn’t been fair. And maybe it hadn’t been precisely square. Still, she’d earned it legally. Legally and…rectangularly. That would have to do.
  10. It was messy and slippery and wrong, and it felt so, so damned right.

Stuff I liked:

  1. Heroine named Minerva. I am a complete sucker for this.
  2. Hero who’s an anti-Duke.
  3. Heroine who isn’t a TSTL doormat.
  4. Victorian NON-LONDON, NON-COUNTRY-HOUSE-PARTY setting.
  5. Relationship between Robert and his illegitimate half-brother Oliver (“…because he chose me first”).
  6. Robert struggling with his loyalties between Minnie and Oliver.
  7. Severe anxiety issue that doesn’t evaporate with a Magical Orgasm Cure.
  8. Awkward wedding night with Robert shutting his eyes and thinking of England and Minnie unashamedly taking matters into her own hands (literally).
  9. Dowager Duchess swooping in à la Lady Catherine de Bourgh and then acknowledging the literary reference herself.
  10. The non-threatening reason for the “Brothers Sinister” name of the series.

Stuff that didn’t work for me:

  1. Repetitive angstifying (on both sides) after the meet-cute and before the Paste Incident. I really struggled with the book until I got past the halfway point.
  2. Needlessly blatant telegraphing of yet another upcoming round of angst (“…a blood-red portent of things to come”).
  3. The over-the-topness of the Dowager Duchess (except for the incident mentioned above) with a complete personality overhaul in the schmaltzy epilogue as she turns into the perfect grandparent.
  4. The goat rampage. Yes, I was warned, but sheesh. Was that really necessary? I think NOT.
  5. On the whole, I found it surprisingly earnest and heavy-handed, without Milan’s trademark dark humor that sets her writing apart.

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A Kiss for Midwinter

A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan

  • Title: A Kiss for Midwinter
  • Author:  Courtney Milan
  • Series: Brothers Sinister, Book 1.5
  • Genre(s): Historical (Victorian)
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
  • Source: Amazon (99¢ ebook)
  • Length: 121 pages
  • Trope(s): Ruined by a Rake Predator, Parental Issues, Blundering Hero, Non-Euphemistic References to Naughty Bits
  • Quick blurb: Eleventh prettiest girl in Leicester rebuffs wooing of doctor who knows her secret.
  • Quick review: I loved this one almost as much as A Governess Affair.
  • Grade: A-

Favorite quotes:

  1. “Work your way on to number twelve,” she snapped. “Number eleven wants nothing more to do with you.”
  2. But it was too late. Miss Lydia Charingford wasn’t just on the list. She was the list, and he hoped God would have mercy on his soul.
  3. She leaned in and whispered. “Let me tell you a secret. I’m not stupid.”
  4. “Well,” she finally said, “you’re doing it wrong.”
  5. Even if she swooned at whatever poetic nonsense he managed to spout, she would only be disappointed once they grew comfortable with each other and he went back to making jokes about death and gonorrhea.
  6. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m thinking that the days are dark and long, that midwinter is approaching. Maybe, Miss Charingford, all I really want is a kiss.”
  7. “I believe,” he said, “that there is a special place in hell for those who steal truth. And that man—whoever he is—I hope he is burning there.”
  8. “Once you speak,” he said, “you have no equal.”
  9. “Sometimes,” she said, “it feels like there are some hurts that can only be cured by this. By warmth. And touch.”
  10. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you have a question about gonorrhea. Those questions are so much easier to answer.”
  11. There was the mistletoe piled on a market table, a poisonous, parasitic reminder that kisses could lie.
  12. Even the way he talked to her. It was outrageous. It was blunt. It was impossible. And it was…precisely what she needed, the truth boned and filleted without garnish or flourish, placed in front of her for her decision. He made her wants seem ordinary instead of dark and dangerous.
  13. “The truth isn’t a gift,” she told him. “It’s a terror. And every time I look at you, I feel it.
  14. He’d never noticed before how much a breath could say. It seemed more than the transportation of air to lungs. The act of breathing with another person—of accepting silence together, of simply living in tune with the rhythm of someone else’s existence—was deeply intimate. They said more to each other with quiet respiration than they’d managed in sixteen months of bickering. [*SWOON*]
  15. I only said I would stop talking to you, he’d written. I never promised to stop loving you. [O.M.G. *~*~*SWOON*~*~* <thud>]

(Yes, I know that was longer than the list for the longer novel. Just shut up and keep reading.)

Stuff I loved:

  1. Blundering hero who knows when to just shut up and listen.
  2. Troubled heroine who finally learns to start talking.
  3. Lydia’s quiet but loving-no-matter-what relationship with her parents, especially her father.
  4. Jonas struggling with love for and utter frustration with his aging father, and no Magic Grandchild Cure in the epilogue.
  5. Jokes about gonorrhea. This novella had all the dark humor the novel was missing.
  6. The sense of equality between Lydia and Jonas, as a romantic couple and as equally important characters who are never shoved to the sidelines for the sake of the plot.
  7. The achingly lovely intimate moments with no dialogue.
  8. Use of the word “ensorcellment.”
  9. Non-kissy references to mistletoe. Yes, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m bitter and cranky and I haven’t started drinking yet. Shut up.
  10. Fascinating history without gratuitous info-dumping. I love it when authors are bigger nerds than I am.

Stuff I didn’t love:

  1. The premise seemed a bit too similar to A Governess Affair, with a gruff but sensitive hero overcoming the fears of a ruined heroine.
  2. See item #1. Other than that, I got nothing.

The ‘Oh Crap It’s Only A Week Until Christmas’ Holiday Book Binge, Part 2

I did a LOT of reading last weekend. My house is a complete disaster and I DON’T CARE. Santa and his stupid Naughty List can just bite my big ol’ you-know-what.

Unless he’s bringing me stuff from my wish list. I might even actually fold all the laundry on the couch AND put it away for one of those books.

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Naughty and Nice: Three Holiday Treats (Anthology)

Naughty & Nice: Three Holiday Treats anthology

  • Title: Naughty and Nice: Three Holiday Treats
  • Authors: Ruthie Knox, Molly O’Keefe and Stefanie Sloane
  • Series: Crooked Creek Ranch, Book 2.5 (O’Keeffe)
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Historical
  • Publisher: Loveswept/Random House, November 2012
  • Source: NetGalley ($1.99 ebook)
  • Length: 210 pages
  • Trope(s): Grand Gesture, Family Drama, Small Town Guilt, Recalcitrant Farm Animals (thankfully not a goat this time)
  • Quick blurb: An homage to It’s a Wonderful Life, an HFN contemporary prequel, and a boring and silly historical.
  • Quick review: It’s all about Room at the Inn.
  • Grade: B

Room at the Inn by Ruthie Knox

Mother of God, he had great hands.

Carson Vance can put those hands on me anytime. I have a major Author Crush on Ruthie Knox because she knows exactly how to Push My Buttons. Including the Gloriously Groveling Grand Gesture. She makes me use Initial Caps.

All I Want for Christmas Is You by Molly O’Keeffe

“Any promise you make…half of the promise is commitment and the other half is faith. Faith that your commitment is enough.”

This was my first by O’Keefe — I was disappointed in the story as an happy-for-now prequel, but there was enough honest emotion and realistic angst to keep her Crooked Creek Ranch series in my TBR queue.

One Perfect Christmas by Stephanie Sloane

Blast that word, “if.” Two letters, without which there was no hope.

Also a first for Sloane — unfortunately, nothing about this impressed me. I’m a sucker for the friends-to-lovers trope and the MCs were likeable, but the story was oh-so-predictable and I found some of the smexing to be awkward instead of sexy.

Any Regency has to be very, very different to stand out among the hundreds of others out there, and this one was just too cookie-cutter to be memorable.

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Twelve Days by Ros Clarke

Twelve Days by Ros Clarke

  • Title: Twelve Days
  • Author: Ros Clarke
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
  • Source: Provided by the author (99¢ ebook)
  • Length: 35 pages
  • Trope(s): Big Misunderstanding (Big. HUGE.), Family Drama, Reunited, Flash Mob
  • Quick blurb: A public marriage proposal doesn’t go quite as planned.
  • Quick review: Sad-cry + happy-cry = *happysigh* (all in only 35 pages!)
  • Grade: B+

The singers had already reached the three French hens verse, and on cue a chicken ran across the road.

For anyone who cringed at the grand gesture in Room at the Inn, read this. Trust me.

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Wish List by Sylvia Day

Wish List by Sylvia Day

  • Title: Wish List
  • Author: Sylvia Day
  • Series: White Hot Holidays
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2005 (originally published January 2005 by Ellora’s Cave)
  • Source: Amazon, $2.51 ebook
  • Length: 40 pages
  • Trope(s): Lawyers, Secret Santa, Secret [NO SPOILERS!]
  • Quick blurb: Law firm Secret Santa gift exchange gives attorney the opportunity to fulfill his colleague’s no-longer-secret wish list.
  • Quick review: Hero goes from Alpha to Beta in only 40 pages. I love it when that happens.
  • Grade: B+

“This isn’t about getting laid,” he insisted hoarsely.

“I know.” Her hands clung to his straining, sweating back.

“This isn’t temporary.”

“I – I…”

This is another author first (I know, I know), but I shall remedy that soon.

One-Quote Review: Gnome on the Range by Jennifer Zane

Before you ask “WHY???” (because I know that’s what you’re thinking), I put the full blame for this on Jennifer at Romance Novel News. I dared her to read something called Moosed-Up, so this was my self-inflicted penance.

So actually, it’s my own fault. But then again, Jennifer definitely got the better end of the deal on this one.
Gnome on the Range by Jennifer Zane

  • Title: Gnome on the Range
  • Author(s): Jennifer Zane
  • Series:  Gnome Novel Series, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Suspense (*eye-roll*)
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2011
  • Source: Amazon, free promo ($4.99 ebook)
  • Length: 216 pages
  • Trope(s): Firefighter, Military Man, Single Mother, Widow, Wacko In-Laws, Sex Toys, Small Town
  • Quick blurb: Single mother and studly new neighbor join forces against evil villain.
  • Quick review:  If not for the noble firefighter neighbor, this book would have been completely OTT WTFery.
  • Grade: D

For the next fifteen minutes, we went over fire inspection paperwork with an elephant in the room the shape of a dildo.

This wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t good. A nearly-TSTL heroine, her way-OTT mother-in-law, a completely transparent “suspense” plot, inane and irrelevant details about houses, horses, sex toys, street names, etc., etc.

And…the Evil Villain. Oy. Uff da.

Are you ready for this? Because this is where the gnomes come into play.

Are you SURE? All righty, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

!!!SPOILER!!!

The Evil Villain is a ranch owner trying to retrieve stolen vials of valuable horse semen that were hidden in garden gnomes purchased by the heroine’s young sons at a yard sale.

But how does that make him villainous, you ask? It doesn’t.

He’s an evil villain because he’s — wait for it — a Pyscho Dom With Horse Tranquilizers.

I SHIT YOU NOT. On all counts.

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Epilogue….

While I was reading this, my kids decided to watch Gnomeo and Juliet on one of those mysterious cable movie channels I didn’t even know we had. It was actually tolerable because James McAvoy voiced the main character, and I could listen to him all day. Or night.

But then again, there was this:

Gnomeo and Juliet

World Series of Romance: Cutters vs. Jocks and Binding Arbitration by Elizabeth Marx

Cutters vs Jocks and Binding Arbitration by Elizabeth Marx

  • Title(s): Cutters vs. Jocks (prequel novella) and Binding Arbitration (full-length novel)
  • Author: Elizabeth Marx
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Self-Published (CreateSpace), December 2011
  • Source: Amazon ($2.99 novel, free novella)
  • Length: 396 pages (novel), 65 pages (novella)
  • Trope(s): Baseball, Single Mother, Big Misunderstanding(s), International Intrigue, Crime Lords (no, not TIME Lords, CRIME Lords), Secret Baby, Plot Moppet, Angstifyingly Angsty Angst (did I mention THE ANGST?), Celebutante with Purse Dog, Lawyers, Snotty Sibling, More Lawyers, Hummer (the automotive kind, you pervs), Love Handcuffs (the glittery kind), Visitations from the Beyond
  • Quick blurb: Libby and Aidan’s unexpected and intense college friendship ends abruptly after a drunken night of passion – but their relationship is reluctantly renewed seven years later when Libby is forced to reveal a long-kept secret.
  • Quick review: The novella was AMAZING. The novel started out REALLY, REALLY GOOD, but turned into Bad Lifetime Movie with a Side Order of Extra Cheezy Melodrama.
  • Grade (averaged): C

I’ll start with the good stuff, to better demonstrate my frustration with the bad. Also, my bitterness. My LINGERING, FESTERING BITTERNESS.

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Cutters vs. Jocks: A Prequel Novella

What I had done, I had chosen to do.  But expecting more than what it was would be fruitless, so I snaked off into the cold morning light, leaving him to his dreams that didn’t include me.

Cutters vs. Jocks by Elizabeth MarxThe set-up:

Aidan is, big surprise, the Jock – a college baseball star being scouted for the majors. He’s also a self-centered, rich-kid frat boy with all the usual bimbos flinging themselves into his bed.

Libby is the “Cutter” – a local girl who makes it across the big campus divide.  But Libby insists on keeping her academic and personal lives strictly separate, for reasons she refuses to share with anyone.

(NOTE: According to the author, “cutter” is the equivalent of “townie” in Bloomington, Indiana, where our heroine and hero attend Indiana University. “Cutter” derives from the local stone-cutting industry, NOT the emo kind.)

When Aidan and Libby meet up at a local bar over a game of pool, he assumes she’s free for the taking…

I would find a way to make her interested. I mean, I was a stud on campus. And yeah, she’s smoking hot, but she’s a cutter, a townie. They usually roll around at my feet like practice balls.

…but she shuts him down with a few choice multi-syllable words and some non-verbal communication…

I took hold of her hand and stroked her palm; it drove almost every girl I’d ever touched crazy. “You have the prettiest hands. You talk with them.” I’d learned that girls loved modest compliments and observations.

But not this snooty cutter. She flipped me off and strode away.

…but only to mask her terror at the brain-melting attraction between them:

Now that I’d met Aidan, I had a glimmer of understanding of what Jeanne felt for my father. Love is a kind of madness — and crazy runs in my family.

The hits:

The level of story-telling and world-building and emotional intensity in these 65 pages is unbelievable. The short chapters of alternating POV work perfectly as a narrative structure, and the chapter titles and epigraphs are spot-on.

The characterization is driven by equal parts dialogue (smartass banter, my *favorite*) and internal monologuing in which the characters actually reveal important things instead of rehashing what just happened. I know, right???

Libby and Aidan are anything but cardboard college clichés – “prickly” doesn’t even begin to describe Libby’s hands-off vibe, and we learn quickly that Aidan’s super-stud reputation is a pretty brittle façade.

Also, the chemistry. Did I mention THE CHEMISTRY? Holy. Shit. (*fans self*)

“What exactly are you trying to win?”

Your heart. I swear to God, I thought it, wondering where that was coming from. I’d never have the guts to say it. So I did what most guys would do. “Your body for a night.”

Her crestfallen expression lasted all of three seconds, before she came back with more confidence than I would have expected. “I assure you, just one night would not be enough.”

She stared directly at me, defying me to respond.

Now I was having a hard time swallowing. When I threw up my hands in mock defeat, she deftly changed the direction of the conversation to more neutral topics.

I never analyzed what happened that lazy afternoon until it was too late. Something between us changed. We had crossed some invisible barrier we built up brick by brick the semester before. She knew I wanted her, but she had known that from the first moment I met her. But now, I knew that she wasn’t as immune to my charms as I thought.

She had thrown down the gauntlet. It lay at my feet. If I had been wise, I would have left it there, but she had issued the challenge. I had no other choice than to pick it up and aim it right for her heart

I threw it at her with all my might, but I was the one bleeding, a drop at a time and ever since, because she had pierced me with those simple words. “Just one night.”

That was just the verbal foreplay, for crying out loud.

The misses:

A few minor editing glitches were a little distracting, but the story and characters sucked me in so much I chose to ignore the errors.

Yes, I actually just said “I IGNORED THE EDITING ERRORS.” Yes, I’m a hypocrite. Get over it.

But, ultimately, that story-telling trance also set my expectations for the full novel much too high.

The final score: A-

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One-Quote Review: One Naughty Girl by Alexx Andria

  • Title: One Naughty Girl
  • Author: Alexx Andria
  • Series: Landry James, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Erotica
  • Publisher: Self-Published, October 2011
  • Source: Amazon, free
  • Quick blurb: What. The. Hell.
  • Grade: F

The black buck noted her quickened breath and the way she reveled in the scene before her.

Yes, a character – a nameless hookup in a sex club – is described as a “black buck.” Since when is something like that considered acceptable??? I refuse to give any links to this insult to real erotica writers.