Tag Archives: contemporary

Glitterland by Alexis Hall – quick thoughts

Glitterland cover art

The universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand.

Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.

Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.

But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?

This is a book that I could appreciate, in terms of writing and construction, but I didn’t love it. For technical merit, I give it a 4.5/5; for my personal enjoyment factor, 3/5.

1. Sometimes the prose in this book is lovely and striking. (I loved the game of Nabble, and dinner being prepared, and other scenes.) While other times it edges past lovely and veers into purple.

2. I really hate when pronunciation is spelled out to match dialect/accent, and the spelling of Darian’s Essex accent was extremely distracting.

3. The narrator was a pretentious twit and not a very sympathetic character. Writer struggling with mental illness — should generate sympathy, right? But I spent most of the book wanting to smack him for being a snobbish jerk. Is it ableist to think that being ill doesn’t excuse him from common courtesy?

4. The blurb tells me that the narrator was the golden boy of the literary scene but nothing in the text showed me that. It just showed me a writer with some commercial success.

5. Another personal taste quirk: the bubble graphics used to accompany the time shift markers were twee.

6. Dear editors: the country in South America is spelled Colombia. People who come from there are Colombian. That famous Spanish-language mystical realism writer is not Columbian but Colombian. That’s not a UK vs. US spelling difference but correct usage in both BrE and AmE, and it was missed here. (And, yes, it’s another pet peeve of mine. Even though I appreciate the shout out to Gabo.)


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Review: But My Boyfriend Is

Title:  But My Boyfriend Is

Author:  K.A. Mitchell

(c) 2012, Samhain Publishing

Source:  eARC

Excerpt here.

Available for purchase August 21, 2012 at the usual electronic outlets.

Part of Mitchell’s Jacksonville-set series…even though it’s set in Austin, Texas.  A reader could pick up this book and understand all the action without reading the earlier books of the series.

Dylan Williams is not gay. Sometimes he gets off with other guys, but so what? He plans to get married someday—really married, like with a wife and kids. And he’s determined that his future family’s life will be the normal one he and his brothers never had.

Mike Aurietta is gay, but his job keeps him in the closet. He doesn’t usually risk frequenting infamous cruising places like Webber Park. But when he’s cutting through one night, he finds himself defending a victim from gay bashers.

It’s all Dylan can do to process the shock that anyone would want to hurt his quiet twin brother. At first he needs Mike’s eyewitness report to satisfy the gut-wrenching desire for revenge. Then he finds himself needing Mike’s solid, comforting presence…and the heat that unexpectedly flares between them.

 In the aftermath, Mike quickly learns not to expect too much from his conflicted lover. Though he never thought his good deed would come back to bite him in the ass. Or that hanging on to the possibility of love could force too many secrets out of the closet—and cost them both everything.

This book in PDF is 270 pages, including all the usual book contents – cover page, copyright page, author info, etc.  And there is a lot of action and heavy stuff packaged into the pages:  inter-racial dating…when you’re bisexual and not even out to yourself, becoming an adult abruptly, and separation anxiety, all mixed up with a healthy dollop of guilt.

The book opens with Dylan rushing into the ER, having learned that his identical twin, Darryl, was jumped as he walked through Webber Park, an area known for its cruising.  Except Darryl isn’t gay, Dylan is certain.  Dylan, on the other hand, is not unfamiliar with the park, which has provided him with string-free orgasms that don’t impinge on his fantasy future.  So what was Darryl doing in the park?  And who is this Mike dude who rescued him?  This sets up the external conflict for the book, catching the gay-bashers who bashed a straight guy by mistake, and the internal conflict in which Dylan is attracted to Mike but utterly resistant to the idea that he’s gay or bisexual, because that would mess up the perfect life he has planned.  Both characters have their lives set up the way they like them, with certain people and activities in separate boxes, and Daryl’s assault ultimately makes them dismantle the boxes or at least blur the lines separating the different areas of their lives.  What’s different from a lot of other m/m romances  in the internal conflict is that Mike, for all that he calls Dylan on his I’m not gay bullshit, isn’t an advocate for him to come out, just for him to accept himself as he is.

Dylan is twenty-two, a line chef at The Cheesecake Factory, living with his twin while he finishes up an engineering degree at UT.  Mike is an assistant athletic trainer for the Longhorns.  UT alumni and football fans are fanatical in their loyalty, so his devotion to his job and living on the DL to keep it seem pretty consistent to me:  Austin is a pretty laid-back place and is relatively liberal, but it’s still Texas and collegiate and professional sports remain one of the biggest bastions of homophobia.

In addition to the Dylan/Mike push-me-pull-you, there’s Dylan’s relationship with his twin.  This part of the story is very interesting to me (disclosure: I am a twin).  Because Darryl is absent for most of the book, readers don’t get to see the two interact much.  He isn’t a POV character so their relationship is viewed only through Dylan’s perspective and the snippets of information provided by other characters.  Darryl is a huge part of who Dylan is, and Dylan is clinging to that even as they are reaching a point when their contemporaries are going their separate ways, starting new careers, etc.

Given their ages and the content of the book, the New Adult label might be appropriate.  (Also, the fact that I wanted to give Dylan a sharp smack to the head, much the same way I want to deal with some of the 20-22 y.o. interns I work with. Technically adults under the law but really not so much.)

Recommendation:  very much enjoyed this book, would recommend it especially to readers looking for younger heroes.

I’m a fan of K.A. Mitchell’s work:  her voice and humor suit my taste.  There are a couple of books in her backlist that I have not *loved*, but as a rule her books are auto-buys and comfort re-reads for me.  Top three favorites:  No Souvenirs, Bad Boyfriend, Collision CourseBut My Boyfriend Is would come next on the list:  good stuff, not my favorite of Mitchell’s work but close to it.

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How hardcore are you if you keep getting rescued?


I finished Greg Rucka’s The Last Run the other night.  It’s the third Tara Chace thriller novel; there’s also a graphic novel series that fills in her backstory and some of her adventures as a covert agent for Britain’s SIS.  Overall, I have really enjoyed the three books and the scattered graphic novels I’ve managed to find, the books more so than the graphic novels mostly because I prefer word to drawing but that’s just a matter of taste.

Tara Chase is an expert; at this point, five years have passed since A Gentleman’s Game, and she is Minder One, agent in charge of the team of three in her Ops group, and apparently fairly well-known within the espionage and intelligence community.  She gets the job done, even if in the end the outcome isn’t exactly as planned; she’s always moving, planning, thinking, reacting to changes in the situation.  And yet in both the second and third books, she’s caught and either tortured or in a very bad position, and has to be rescued.  She does a good job of evading capture for a while, and maneuvers to the point that she can be extracted or exfiltrated by her service (rather than be abandoned)…and yet she’s still being rescued.

On one hand, Rucka does a great job of demonstrating how operations never go as planned, and the outcome is often not what was anticipated, resulting in possibly horrendous blowback.  And Chace is a great character, if a little underdrawn outside of professional accomplishments.  On the other hand, are there male spy protagonists who have to be rescued in the end?  I haven’t read a lot of espionage thrillers, not since back before Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan jumped the shark, so I can’t really compare.  And the ending of The Last Run makes sense in terms of the larger plot for the book and the story arc, assuming this is either the last book or a transition book.  But hovering in my mind is the question:  how often to badass spy heroes have to be rescued in the end, and would the story be different if Tara were Tim or Tom instead?

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What I’ve read lately

I meant to write full reviews for these two books, but the further I get from reading them, the less likely that becomes.  Instead, here are quick thoughts.

Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson

Borrowed this via Kindle Lending after it was reviewed by Sunita & Jayne at DearAuthor.  The first chapter didn’t immediately draw me in, so it wound up just sitting on my Kindle for a few weeks; when I was clearing out samples, I found it and decided to read it before returning.

There’s no romance on the page, although there are marital machinations, so the blurb about waiting for Prince Charming is misleading and not great marketing IMO.  Pretty standard for chick lit, even with the Indian aspect.  The pacing was a little wonky:  it could’ve used some editing or trimming; as the end of the book approached, it felt like a string of slapstick moments strung together.   Despite very slow pacing through the middle, the end arrived very quickly and wrapped everything up a little too neatly.  Over all, an enjoyable read by an author I would try again, but not a keeper.

Lessons for Survivors by Charlie Cochrane

This is another Cambridge Fellows Mystery, set post WW1.  It’s published by Cheyenne Publishing; the series had been with Samhain for the last several books, so I’m kind of curious about what prompted the publisher change.  Price-wise, it was a little expensive ($6.99) for the length (185 pages) compared to earlier editions.  I enjoyed the book as I read, because I like The Adventures of Orlando and Jonty, and yet in some ways it felt needlessly convoluted and also as if some opportunities were wasted.  The blurb mentions the huge threat of the sleuths being outed by a rival, yet that aspect of the story didn’t get much attention.  Not bad but not the best installment of the series IMO.

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SBD: Bared to You by Sylvia Day

Beth has declared the SBD!  I must post!  Must!  Also, the further I get from reading Bared to You, the less likely it is that I’ll write about it, so here goes.

Short version:  derivative work with unsympathetic MCs

Long version:

Title: Bared to You

Author:  Sylvia Day

(c) 2012, published in paperback by Berkley, although I believe the ebook was originally self-published.

Cover art:  blandly reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey‘s coloring & positioning of masculine accessories.

POV:  first person from the perspective of Eva Trammell, recent college grad who has just moved to NYC to be an administrative assistant in a PR/ad firm.  Her roommate:  Cary, bisexual model with issues of his own.

Love (or just hot sex) interest:  Gideon Cross, ridiculously young bazillionaire entrepreneur who knows what’s best for Eva, is a controlling, domineering, emotionally stunted jerk.  AKA a Roarke knock-off.  Or an escapee from a Harlequin Presents…except he’s not really ethnic enough for that — those billionaire magnates are usually Italian or Greek or sheikhs.

The writing:  not terrible.  Not lyrical or memorable, but not awful.  Except when it came to the sex, which was repetitive and somewhat boring.  How many times did Eva need to describe how large Gideon’s penis was?  Apparently many times.  And each time she also described how it split/spread/pounded her.  Blech.  Quite purple IMO.

What was good about the book:  the NYC atmosphere.

What was bad:  pretty much everything about the relationship, which struck me as being profoundly unhealthy and dysfunctional.  The creep factor of Gideon cannot be over-emphasized:  he took pictures of Eva while she was asleep.  Without her consent.  And he also recreated her bedroom in his apartment so she would have her own space there and not want to go home.  That screams control freak to me.

Okay, now, if you’ve read Glory in Death, you’re probably asking how this is any different from what Roarke did.  And I guess for me it comes down to character and execution and the stage in the relationship.   Roarke came across as being romantic, while Gideon just comes across to me like a stalker.

And Eva isn’t any better.  She whines about her mother and stepfather being too controlling and involved in her life, but is being supported by them.  Bitch, please: if you are living under their roof and wearing their clothes and using their cellphone, etc., then you aren’t independent.  Ovary up and pay your own way or get over your complaints about their over-involvement in your life.  (No, I don’t think Eva’s history gives her or her parents an out or a pass in this area.)  She also seems profoundly isolated — where are her other friends and/or acquaintances or colleagues?

They spend a lot of time talking over each other and at each other, yet at the same time Eva seems to always be running away from Gideon rather than talk to him.  And then buckling under to whatever he wants despite her stated relationship requirements.  Gideon seems to just say whatever is necessary in order to get what he wants.  Plus, after a week or two of dating, they are already in need of couples counseling.  That’s just…strange.

What else?

There’s a frightful lack of subtlety in the foreshadowing of plot points.

Is anal the new oral?

The atmosphere felt sort of soap opera-ish, or like a Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins novel for the young and hip of the 21st century.

The BDSM pronouncement by Gideon as the end approached felt forced and out of left field.

As I understand it, at least one more book (or two) is planned, but I’ve wasted enough time and money on the series.   If this is what Fifty Shades is like, then I find its success all the more perplexing.

Not recommended.


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Frog by Mary Calmes

Title:  Frog (a tired prince/frog allusion)

Author:  Mary Calmes (new to me)

Publisher:  Dreamspinner (against my better judgment)

Why this book?  I liked the cover art and the idea of a modern day cowboy hero.

Frog by Mary Calmes eBookWeber Yates’s dreams of stardom are about to be reduced to a ranch hand’s job in Texas, and his one relationship is with a guy so far out of his league he might as well be on the moon. Or at least in San Francisco, where Weber stops to see him one last time before settling down to the humble, lonely life he figures a frog like him has coming.

 Cyrus Benning is a successful neurosurgeon, so details are never lost on him. He spotted the prince in a broken-down bull rider’s clothing from day one. But watching Weber walk out on him keeps getting harder, and he’s not sure how much more his heart can take. Now Cyrus has one last chance to prove to Weber that it’s not Weber’s job that makes him Cyrus’s perfect man, it’s Weber himself. With the help of his sister’s newly broken family, he’s ready to show Weber that the home the man’s been searching for has always been right there, with him. Cyrus might have laid down an ultimatum once, but now it’s turned into a vow—he’s never going to let Weber out of his life again. 

The long and short of it:  tell tell tell with very little show, and all told by a Gary Stu.  Includes the insta-family trope along with unprotected sex as demonstration of true love.

More specifically:

The book is narrated by Weber, an over-the-hill cowboy — he’s not old, relatively speaking, except for his chosen profession, in which he has not been successful.  He’s broke and on his way to a possible job in Alaska (not Texas) when he looks up his ex.  Cyrus, readers are told, is a very successful neurosurgeon who gave Weber an ultimatum the last time he drifted into town, but who still desperately loves Weber.   Cyrus is wealthy and handsome and at the top of his profession — he’s very much like a category hero, although unlike most categories, which have the wealthy, handsome hero be the one who does the leaving and steering of the relationship, he’s the needier, more passive partner, taking whatever time Weber has been willing to give him in the past.  Cyrus’s profession really isn’t relevant to the book, except as a reason in Weber’s mind for them not to be together — it affords him a nice lifestyle but otherwise doesn’t impinge on the plot in any way; he could have been any name-a-high-profile-and-pay profession.

At the same time as Weber’s return, Cyrus’s brother-in-law, the villain of the piece, runs off with the nanny, leaving his sister without child care.  And of course she immediately entrusts her three children to a random stranger because he’s dating her brother and therefore must be trustworthy.  Forget looking for someone whose qualifications run beyond ranching and rodeoing.  But of course Weber has the magic touch when it comes to children, getting the mute to talk and  instilling manners effortlessly.  (There’s one exchange in the book that I think was supposed to highlight Web’s courtly, cowboy manners (standard good manners to this reader), but which came across to me as backhanded criticism of Carolyn’s parenting.)

Since Weber is the narrator, his reliability is key.  I found his judgment to be less than reliable and verging on TSTL when it comes to the relationship, with his hesitation and wibbling about how Cyrus only loves him for his cowboy persona despite the fact that Cyrus says outright that isn’t what he wants/loves about Weber.  [It was never really clear to me what they loved about each other beyond the sex.]  As an extension of this, the lack of a sense of place or setting contributes to the disconnect:  Cyrus is willing to relocate and nothing about the plot seemed fixed in San Francisco, yet Weber is hung up on the distance between Texas (apparently the only place in the US where he can get a ranch hand job?) and San Francisco.  Aren’t there jobs for neurosurgeons in Texas?  Surely there are ranches near Dallas and other large cities in the Lone Star state.  That excuse just seemed weak to me.

The difference between Weber’s “cowboy” grammar and speaking style is jarringly different from his POV/narration style and vocabulary, which seems more sophisticated.  Also, the use of “loving on” to describe affection between adults and children seriously squicked me, even though I confirmed via Twitter that it is normal, colloquial usage in rural, eastern Texas.

The vast majority of the information about Cyrus and their relationship is told rather than shown.   Readers learn that Cyrus is a completely different person when Weber is around…because Cyrus’s dad says so.  Readers learn about Web’s history and family through, “As you know, Bob,” conversations.  Even Weber’s realizations about “what-made-a-man-a-man” happen off stage and are just described as having occurred rather than shown, which is disappointing since his is the only POV readers get.

The insta-family is problematic for me on a couple of levels.  First, it makes me uncomfortable, the way the children’s mother is relegated to a secondary parental role in favor of a near-stranger.  You could argue that her role is similar to the more traditional male/father role, in that she remains employed and leaves the child-rearing to someone else, even if that someone else is a sort-of-paid caretaker.  (Except, wait! Weber doesn’t take money for being a nanny.  He’s basically a SAHD for his nephews.)  Second, the immediacy of three children plus a sibling living in the same home as the new couple seems awkward for that early stage of their relationship.

Other quibbles:  Weber’s age and the age of his brother when he died don’t really quite work out right.  The use of direct address commas is intermittent, which is more irritating than not using them at all because it’s just sloppy.  There are also several instances of commas being used instead of periods — based on context and the paragraph breaks, a comma could not possibly be the appropriate punctuation there.  Also, “giving up” child support — a giant pet peeve of mine, because authors seem to use this as shorthand for post-marriage independence, but it makes me question their grasp of the economic realities of single parenting and also equates all parental responsibility with treats economic responsibility — the two are not identical.

In the end:  there is some awkward phrasing and punctuation abuse that should have been fixed at the editing stage, but the larger problem for me is the tell rather than show style and the waste of an opportunity to explore gender role expectations (if you can get over the unlikelihood of a rodeo rider turned nanny).  Ultimately, it all comes down to taste:  other readers have enjoyed this book, but the irritations overrode the enjoyment as I read.

Would I try this author again?  Maybe if I found one of her books on sale or as a Kindle giveaway, but not at DSP’s standard prices.  Otherwise, no.


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SBD: romance for a book club?

Today’s mission for SBD, if you choose to accept it:  recommend a romance novel, erotic romance, or erotica for a book club.  Contemporary or urban fantasy, please.

The recommendations aren’t for me personally but for TheBiochemist.  Here’s a summary of my email to her when she asked for suggestions.

LGBT, which is the bulk of my contemporary reading (other than categories, which are not eligible, okay?):  Josh Lanyon (ex: Fair Game, Come Unto These Yellow Sands in ebooks; the Adrien English series which is available in print).  James Buchanan writes good BDSM that isn’t formal or stylized.   KA Mitchell.  JL Merrow’s books (all ebooks, no print) are relatively short but have a great sense of place (England), and Muscling Through made me think of Flowers for Algernon, because it had heroes who had vastly different IQs and backgrounds.  Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series is more paranormal/procedural than romance although there is a relationship involved in the series.  

Possible UF:  Meljean Brook’s The Guardian series, which has a lot of dense world building and kind of needs to be read in order.  The series begins with a novella prequel that isn’t really necessary to understand and the first book is Demon Angel.   Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax futuristic series is well-reviewed, but I happen to like her Corine Solomon series (first book Blue Diablo) better.  Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten (keeper).  Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson series (beginning with Moon Called) has a thin romance thread but really isn’t romance.  JR Ward has a huge following for her Black Dagger Brotherhood series but I would not recommend them except to demonstrate rabid fans, a cracked out author who believes in her persona too much, cultural appropriation, and a series that needs to be seriously edited.  JD Robb’s Naked in Death, which I probably should have listed first.
Possible Steampunk:  Brook also has begun a steampunk series that has been fairly well reviewed.  The first book being The Iron Duke
Possible contemporary authors:  Louisa Edwards — cooking/chef series; Julie James, Chicago, legal settings; Victoria Dahl, Colorado.  I’ve read something by each of them and didn’t LOVE them, but the conventional wisdom is that they are all good.  Dahl has one heroine who writes erotic romance for a living, and has published a short BDSM historical that purports to have been that fictional author’s work.  Other readers love Susan Elizabeth Philips, especially her football series, but I find the subtext to be way too preachy and conservative. Kristan Higgins’ books are widely loved (but I loathe them). Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You is a little dated but good, and her Welcome to Temptation and Bet Me are very, very good.  Rachel Gibson’s See Jane Score maybe. Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire or Montana Sky.  Brockmann’s Over the Edge.  Linda Howard’s older stuff but nothing more recently published than 2000 (Now You See Her, maybe, which has a paranormalish thread).  
If YA is a possibility:  Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever.  All I’ll say is “sa-woon”.
Romance related nonfiction:  Beyond Heaving Bosoms

Which authors or titles have I missed?




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The Next Always?

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m a fan of Nora Roberts as an author, both of her work and her support of romance genre fiction. A fair number of authors who got their start in romance, using it as a stepping stone to “bigger” and “better” careers in mainstream fictions or in genres that get more respect, essentially burying their romance roots or disavowing them. While Roberts has written and sold in the police procedural/mystery/suspense arena, she did so under another name and first and had continued to publish romance, which I appreciate. Having said that, her single titles have been my favorites moreso than the connected mass market releases, although I can’t exactly articulate why. Still, her new releases are generally autobuys.

Title: The Next Always

Release Date: November 1, 2011
Format: trade paperback
Publisher: Berkeley

The historic hotel in Boonsboro has endured war and peace, the changing of hands, and even rumored hauntings. Now ti’s getting a major face-lift from the Montgomery brothers and their eccentricmother. As the architect in the family, Beckett’s social life consists mostly of talking shop over pizza dn beer. But there’s another project he’s got his eye on: the girl he’s been waiting to kiss since he was sixteen.

After losing her husband and returning to her hometown, Clare Brewster soon settles in to her life as the mother of three young sons while running the town’s bookstore. Though busy and with little time for romance, Clare is drawn across the street by Beckett’s transformation of the old inn, wanting to take a closer look . . . at both the building and the man behind it.

As an object, the book is beautiful…and I say that as someone who is reluctant to buy trade paperbacks generally. The cover art, the title font, the paper quality and cut, even the author photo. (And may I say that Nora Roberts looks better in her author photos now than she did 20 years ago? Not too many people can say that.)

Things I liked

  • The interaction of the Montgomery brothers — they liked each other and complemented each other in their business, but also got on each others’ nerves and heckled each other, just like all the brothers and cousins I know.
  • Surprisingly, I liked Clare’s kids, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of kids in romance. They felt real without being treacly sweet, but also pains at times. It was lovely to read about Beckett falling in love with them as much as their mother.
  • The core of the love story between Clare and Beckett was good.

Things I could’ve done without

  • Clare’s stalker — this plot point was both underdeveloped and exaggerated, and ending up feeling wedged into the story. It didn’t really contribute much other than an exaggerated opportunity for Beckett to be a hero. Meh.
  • The subtext that small towns are the only places with vibrant communities, and that small towns are better than big cities (see Hope and Ryder’s dislike of her).

Read on its own, this is a fairly good romance novel. A reader unfamiliar with Roberts’ extensive backlist might give it an A grade. But as I read, I kept picking out themes or bits that have been used earlier by Roberts to better effect. Brothers renovating an inn in Western Maryland? The MacKades. A house haunted by a female ghost? The MacKades again, and also Midnight Bayou. Single mother struggling to raise small children after losing her husband? Too many to name. As a result, some of The Next Always felt stale so I would probably grade it as a C+/B-.

When I turned off the reader part of me and let in the pop culture aware part of me, I was somewhat squicked. It’s pretty well known (written about in USAToday) that Roberts owns an inn in Boonsboro that she and her family renovated, which sounds quite like this one, down even to the rooms. Her family also owns the local bookshop, named Turn the Page, just like the one in the book. I’m guessing that someone in the family also owns/runs a pizza place named Vesta in Boonsboro as well. To the extent that the book read like an infomercial or travel guide, I was somewhat irritated. But not enough to stop reading or set the book aside. So, C grade from me. Not sorry to read the book or pay 50% of the cover price, but perhaps not enthused about the next book of the series.

On the other hand, one of my doctors loved the book. When she came into my room and saw me reading it, she said, “Oh, I loved that book! It’s awesome!” So other readers’ mileage will vary. (Also, romance readers are everywhere. Resistance is futile.)


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Bear, Otter and the Kid

Bear, Otter and the Kid by T.J. Klune

© 2011, published by Dreamspinner Press

Three years ago, Bear McKenna’s mother took off for parts unknown with her new boyfriend, leaving Bear to raise his six-year-old brother Tyson, aka the Kid. Somehow they’ve muddled through, but since he’s totally devoted to the Kid, Bear isn’t actually doing much living—with a few exceptions, he’s retreated from the world, and he’s mostly okay with that. Until Otter comes home.

Otter is Bear’s best friend’s older brother, and as they’ve done for their whole lives, Bear and Otter crash and collide in ways neither expect. This time, though, there’s nowhere to run from the depth of emotion between them. Bear still believes his place is as the Kid’s guardian, but he can’t help thinking there could be something more for him in the world… something or someone.

I’m not entirely certain how this book came to my attention.  Maybe a give away, or a review online somewhere?  The blurb reminded me a great deal of the plot of the movie Shelter, and it prompted me to see how a novel might treat the same general plot.

As the blurb indicates, Derrick (aka Bear) is acting in loco parentis for his mother, who abandoned his young half-brother, Tyson (aka the Kid) to him just as Bear finished high school, putting the kibosh on any plans Bear had for a college education or escaping her white trash ethos.  He’s lucky, though, in that he has a strong support network made up of his childhood friends and their families, who stick with him for emotional and financial support as he raises the Kid, a “vegetarian eco-terrorist-in-training”.  In addition to Creed, his BFF, and Anna, his girlfriend and other BFF,  who have been physically present for the last three years, there is Oliver (aka Otter), Creed’s older brother  who was an original part of the support network but who disappeared abruptly for reasons that are made clear very early – there’s huge tension between Bear and Otter because Bear, ostensibly straight, kissed Otter, out and gay, while upset and drunk.  Otter disappeared, more or less, for three years because of his guilt over Bear kissing him and feeling he took advantage.  Until the beginning of the book, when he returns and all the tension comes to a head.  And that is just the set up of the book and the first couple of chapters!

With Otter’s return, the two of them have to negotiate some sort of truce or ruin their extended family unit.  Creed and Anna both notice the tension, and bug them to figure things out while not really understanding what the problem is.  The vast majority of what follows is Bear realizing he loves Otter, despite the fact that he is not gay and is not attracted to any other men.  In fact, he dismisses the idea of being “gay for you” as being impossible but for the fact that he does love and physically want Otter.  Otter is kind of a doormat, indulging Bear in whatever he wants relationship-wise and keeping everything on the down low in front of his brother and Anna.  Just as the two of them have begun to figure that out and are ready for the big reveal to Creed and Anna (who have a surprise of their own), potential disaster strikes, pushing them and their relationship back to square one.

There are the bones of a potentially good book buried here.  But the bones are buried deep.   The book read like a rough first draft, one that had not yet been betaed or reviewed by a crit group, let alone a content editor. Pacing, narration, and some language usage need tightening or review in the book.

Vacuous Minx, SarahFrantz, and I, among others, have noted on Twitter and elsewhere that many of Dreamspinner’s works need better content editing.  Even one of our mutual favorites, Sean Kennedy’s Tigers & Devils, could have been just a little bit better (from A- to A) with some words trimmed and the pacing tightened up.  And that is very much the case here.  BOatK was a Kindle book for me, and it had more than 9,000 “locations”; in comparison, an average mass market paperback usually has between 4,000 and 6,000.  Parts of the book dragged incredibly, and there was a great deal of repetitive angst that served no larger purpose.  Cutting a good third of the book would have been a mercy.

The Kid as a narrative device is both original and unoriginal.  He’s the center that Bear rotates around, and he’s essential to the plot.  And yet he’s conveniently absent or able to entertain himself through large chunks of the book, reappearing to give sage relationship advice to his older brother and to take care of him.  He’s quirky and different in his fascination with eco-terrorism, and his abandonment issues are realistic and very well done.  And yet his emotional intelligence is unrealistic for a child his age – having an eight year old give romantic advice to a twenty-one year old is just plain weird and kind of creepy.

The narration is by Bear in first person for the entire book, but for an epilogue narrated by Otter.  And in many places, the narrative style is extremely awkward and self-conscious.  Parts of the book scream for the POV of the other characters, but instead of changing POV, those passages are narrated by Bear in a “tell tell tell” fashion, filtered entirely through him and retold by him, even when dialogue or other stylistic devices could be used to better convey the events or speech/opinions/actions of the other characters.

The Gay4U trope and the relationship dynamic between Bear and Otter left me feeling uncomfortable, and I’m struggling to identify and articulate why.  I noted in a comment over at Vacuous Minx’s that a couple of the issues were: 1) failure to address the Gay4U issue other than to dismiss it out of hand completely while acknowledging that is exactly what Bear is for Otter – what a waste of an opportunity to actually explore the trope; and 2) the history of the relationship between Bear and Otter and the hints of very early attraction told via flashback, which seems a little squicky to me as it falls a little too closely into the gay=pedo smear.

The nicknames?   Cute for a minute and then irritating.

Bear comes perilously close to being a self-sacrificing Mary Sue.  And he spends large chunks of the book being an asshat, too.

Some words were used oddly.  For example, machismo for macho, tact for tack or tactic, etc.  At one point, Bear describes his eyes as being “tacky and crass” after crying himself to sleep; while I grasp what he meant, there is no usage of “crass” that makes sense in that context.

The ending is simultaneously delayed, in the sense that it should have come at least 10,000 words earlier, and abrupt in the sense that the HEA feels manufactured and way too soon for where Bear and Otter are in their relationship.

Someone on Twitter mentioned that the author is planning a sequel to this book, where some of the lingering questions and issues may be resolved, and that better pacing would come with practice and experience.  That’s a charitable position to take, but as a reader and consumer, I don’t appreciate being the testing or practice run for an author; if I’m paying full price for a book, I expect it to be polished and produced appropriately by the publisher, with the best efforts of both the author and the publisher.  The time for learning your craft is before you start asking people to pay for your work IMO.  (Yes, writers learn continuously and continue to hone their craft, but readers should be able to have minimum expectations of the books they buy, in terms of what the authors and publisher bring to the table and charge them for.)

As I read the book, I enjoyed it even as I noted all the things that were awkward or clunky or should have been fixed by a good editor.  But ultimately, I can’t really recommend this book to other readers without a huge caveat or warning.


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Passion’s Bright Fury by Radclyffe

I bought a copy of Radclyffe’s Passion’s Bright Fury after the IASPR conference, because it was mentioned during the “Queering the Heroine” panel, which included presentations on the history of lesbians in romance or romantic fiction, the undomesticated or alpha heroine, and the queer heroine* in paranormal romance.  PBF was one of the books mentioned by Ruth Sternglantz in her presentation, “Where the Wild Things Are: Contemporary Lesbian Romance and the Undomesticated Queer Hero”, in which she asked if in lesbian romance a dangerous woman is tamed? Or is she analogous to the dangerous man in het romance?  Sternglantz gave some examples medieval, Elizabethan, and 19th century heroines and their negotiation of or for power within matrimony (or how they were deprived of power), and then talked about how in modern lesbian romance, there are books in which loving an undomesticated queer heroine leads the other heroine to be more herself, another alpha, undomesticated.  (Of course, I could have misunderstood the entire presentation; any error in what I’ve written above or in my conference summary is my own and should not be blamed on Sternglantz.)

Saxon Sinclair, the broodingly secretive Chief of Trauma at a busy Manhattan hospital is less than pleased to learn that her new resident is going to be the subject of a documentary film. The arrival of Jude Castle, a fiery independent filmmaker, soon sets sparks flying as the two driven women clash both personally and professionally. Both have secrets they have spent a lifetime guarding, and both have chosen careers over love. Forced together on the battleground between life and death, passion strikes without warning, and they find themselves struggling with both desire and destiny.

Now that I’ve read it, I would agree that PBF  fits perfectly into Sternglantz’s description of the liberation of the heroine to alphaness or undomestication that is more possible and seems more likely than in straight romance.  Both heroines are independent, achievers in their fields, and uber-alpha; the difference being that Castle as a documentary filmmaker seems more able to subdue herself in order to get what she wants or needs for her film, while Sinclair is more like a bulldozer (not in a bad way, just extremely focused and in charge).  When they are coupled and HEA’d at the end of the book, it is clear that Sinclair has not been in any way domesticated or softened by their romance, and Castle seems to have been liberated even moreso than she was at the outset, in terms of her worldview and willingness to reach out for what she wants.

PBF works for me as a medical drama, like a narrative edition of e.r. (back when Carol Hathaway and Doug Ross were still on the show).  The medical bits are interesting, and felt right — although I wouldn’t know wrong from right, the author is or was a surgeon, so…  The pacing is good, nothing drags.  But still, I didn’t love this book as a romance, primarily because it lacks an external plot and tension.  The internal plot is the two of them negotiating their professional interaction as Castle wants everything on film while Sinclair resists because she is a very private person who is hiding a Big Secret** in her past.  Eventually, after a disaster, they succumb to their attraction and pair up, with revelations and explanations to follow.   In a lot of ways, this book is like a category romance in its story arc, which is fine…just not what I was expecting.

Still, I would be willing to pick up other books by Radclyffe.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have at least one other in the TBR, purchased at RWA a couple of years ago.  Time to dig it out of the pile maybe.

Amazon buy link

(c) 2006, Bold Strokes Books


* ‘Hero’ and ‘heroine’ were both used as the noun for the lesbian protagonist in modern lesbian romance fiction.  I’m accustomed to heroine for the female without regard to sexual orientation, so will use it primarily and apologize for any offense or misuse.

** Eh, really not so big IMO.

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