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Recent read: The Reluctant Wag

The Reluctant Wag - cover artTitle:  The Reluctant Wag (or WAG? – it’s in all caps on the cover art but not elsewhere…)

Author:  Mary Costello

Publisher:  Destiny Romance – I’d never heard of this imprint but given the little penguin, I’m guessing it’s an Australian imprint of Penguin Publishing.

Copyright:  2013

Copy courtesy of Net Galley.

Why this book?  Because I was looking for something a little different from what I’ve been reading lately, which has been mystery-heavy.  I didn’t recognize the publisher but the title indicated sports romance of some sort.  And then the book blurb sold me — I’m a sucker for any fiction, romance or other, set in Australia’s AFL thanks for Sean Kennedy’s Tigers & Devils.

The blurb:

When model Merise Merrick is asked to star in a campaign for the Yarraside Football Club, she couldn’t be less interested. As far as she’s concerned, football players are all overpaid jocks with zero intelligence. AFL captain Cal McCoy is completely dedicated to the game. With a premiership firmly in his sights, he has no time for romantic distractions.The last thing he needs is an inconvenient attraction to the new ‘face’ of the club. But Cal soon discovers that staying focused is easier said than done, while Merise finds herself falling for the excitement and power of footy – and its biggest star. Glamour, sport and fame combine in this irresistible contemporary romance.

What did I like about the book?  The set up — non-sporty person getting over preconceptions about professional sport and professional athletes.  And the setting — visiting Australia is on my bucket list and spending time in Melbourne is high on the subset of things to do in Australia.  The secondary characters were interesting, too, if a little vague since they weren’t POV characters.

The characters:  Merise is actually not an experienced model, despite the blurb:  she’s a journalism student “discovered” at her cafe job.  Which is a fine set up for a fairytale or a category romance, which this very much felt like.  (Is Destiny a category-type imprint?)  But the way she jumps to conclusions and judges people (Cal mostly) without knowing the facts is repetitive and disappointing as a character and makes me wonder how she’ll fair as a journalist.  Otherwise, she reads as young for her age (21?) and pretty immature, I thought, but maybe everyone is like that at 21.

Cal is…a typical Presents-ish hero.  He’s got a pretty cynical and judgmental view of women generally, and I found him difficult to warm to.  At one point he tells Merise that if she’d dressed differently she wouldn’t have been harassed at a  party, then claims not be victim-blaming (I call bullshit on that).  And later, when he sees an advertisement of Merise posing with another athlete, he thinks “How could she sell herself like that?”  Which made me roll my eyes and then irritated me; how is it any different than posing in an ad with him?  And also: it’s her job.  At various other points, he thinks of her as a possible provider of “cheap thrills”.  Perhaps the only things I liked about him were his concentration on his sport and his devotion to his family.  The sport part was clear, but the family piece was pretty awkwardly introduced and handled.

What did I like not so much?  The integration of various characters and plot points was pretty awkward.  For example, family, which is supposed to drive both Merise and Cal, is absent for the most part, then inserted as deus ex machina of sorts.  Merise isn’t just a poor student, we learn:  she’s paying back loans to her poor farmer parents…who are only mentioned twice that I noticed and didn’t even have a cameo.  Cal’s parent’s are injected into the story in order to save him from a PR disaster.

The copyediting seemed okay — although I’ve got some notes on my Kindle, I didn’t highlight any egregious typos or punctuation abuse.  The writing was very much of the telling rather than showing sort.

Overall opinion:  I  loved the setting and sense of place in the book, but I didn’t really care about the main characters.  I think that readers of Harlequin Presents categories might enjoy the book.

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Review: One Real Thing by Anah Crow & Dianne Fox

Since I missed last week, this is the first SBD of 2011 for me 🙂  My goal (not a resolution, since I never keep them, being a not very resolute person) is to do at least 26 SBD posts this year…assuming Beth keeps doing them.

Title:  One Real Thing
Authors:  Anah Crow and Dianne Fox
Publisher: Carina Press (excerpt available)
Release date: January 3, 2011
Format/Source: eARC from Net Galley

Nick Addison has taken care of Hollister Welles since college. Though the responsible grad student and the uninhibited partier were total opposites, they had always shared an inexplicable bond. Nick knows he should stop saving the out-of-control Holly, but when Holly hits rock-bottom hard—and publicly—he can’t resist coming to his rescue one last time. Can’t resist the feeling of having Holly need him again.

Bringing Holly back to New York City, Nick gives Holly the chance to face his demons and break his dangerous habits—while keeping Holly’s presence a secret from Nick’s wife. He doesn’t want to face Caroline’s hatred of Holly…or the reasons she might have to resent him.

Then the tables are turned. Just as Holly pulls himself together, Nick’s life falls apart. Now it’s up to Holly to bring Nick back from the brink—and to make Nick finally face the desires he’s long denied.

There’s no polite way to put it: Hollister is a complete fuck-up. He’ll screw anything that moves, drinks, drugs and parties to excess, and has essentially blown his career, friendships and family off and or away. And yet Nick, his college friend/mentor, can’t let him go and won’t let him utterly ruin himself. Nick is living the perfect life: married to Caroline, his college sweetheart, a successful investigative journalist, wealthy but not too much so. But when Holly self-destructs in an extremely public way, Nick rides (flies) to the rescue, despite the fact that he has to lie to his wife to do so. Holly doesn’t really want to be rescued at first: he’s a bundle of insecurities and addictions, and he likes it that way. The sex and drugs keep him from missing his estranged and/or ill family and Nick, whom he has adored since college. Nick’s intervention changes things for both of them: he’s Holly’s bedrock, the support Holly uses to begin to wean himself from destructive behavior, while Holly eventually becomes the crack in the foundation of Nick’s safe, yuppie life.

Why this book?  A while back I read Anah Crow’s Uneven, a S/M romance; while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly, it was an extremely thought-provoking read for me. Later I read the Crow/Fox collaboration, Becoming Us, the coming out tale of a young man in college, a sort of gay-for-you love story that managed to be very sweet while also including copious amounts of very hot sex.  Although GFY is not my favorite gay romance trope, I enjoyed the story.  So when I saw this among the eARCs available at Net Galley, I clicked the "request" button.

What did I think of it? Spent the first half of the book really uncomfortable with the dynamics of any kind of sexual relationship between Nick & Holly, BDSM or otherwise, because Holly is so vulnerable and ill — mentally ill, addicted and broken — and they are so clearly NOT equal at that point, in terms of ability to make decisions and give informed consent.  I wasn’t sure Crow & Fox would be able to move their relationship past that vulnerability.  But then as the plot progresses, Holly manages to clean up his life; he is able to function independently (and does so successfully) without Nick’s intervention or guidance. The role reversal that follows outlines that growth or change in Holly, so that when their M/s relationship resumes, or really begins anew and moves in a sexual direction, they are on a level footing. The BDSM or M/s aspect of their relationship reminds me in some ways of the relationship of the characters in Laney Cairo’s A Bad Case of Loving You, in that they never label what they are doing or engage in any stylized or scene play; it just is what it is, and that’s how they work best together. It’s just who they were.

What else?  Nick came across as a bit of a Gary Stu.  I liked that the story was not overwhelmed by sex. Loved the secondary characters Jules & Danner. Perhaps the only knock I have is that I was disappointed by the use of the cold/snooty/snotty wife as excuse for Nick’s poor choices rather than having him own his path to disaster, and especially the emphasis on physical infidelity vs. emotional infidelity as the fulcrum for Nick’s meltdown.  Frankly, he checks out of their marriage long before his wife even if he pretends otherwise to himself, and I felt kind of sorry for her, which I don’t think the authors intended.  

Grade from me: solid B.

Would read more from Crow & Fox.

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The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell

Title:  The Vespertine
Author:  Saundra Mitchell
Publication Date:  March 7, 2011
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source:  eARC via Net Galley

It’s the summer of 1889, and Amelia van den Broek is new to Baltimore and eager to take in all the pleasures the city has to offer. But her gaiety is interrupted by disturbing, dreamlike visions she has only at sunset—visions that offer glimpses of the future. Soon, friends and strangers alike call on Amelia to hear her prophecies. However, a forbidden romance with Nathaniel, an artist, threatens the new life Amelia is building in Baltimore. This enigmatic young man is keeping secrets of his own—still, Amelia finds herself irrepressibly drawn to him.

When one of her darkest visions comes to pass, Amelia’s world is thrown into chaos. And those around her begin to wonder if she’s not the seer of dark portents, but the cause.

Why this book?  The setting caught my attention:  late 19th century Baltimore?  I’m in.

Amelia is sent to Baltimore to stay with cousins, essentially to find a husband.  After living under the thumb of her brother, August, she relishes the freedom to be had in the Stewarts’ household, and the companionship of her cousin, Zora.  At dinner one evening, Amelia "sees" the future — her cousin in a dress not yet made, dancing with a young man.  When she first mentions it to Zora, they both treat it as a joke:  Zora has a dress being made, but her young man never dances.  But eventually the vision comes true.  And then another.  And soon Amelia is receiving calls from many people who want to know their futures.  

In addition to popularity via prediction, Amelia meets a mysterious young man, Nathaniel Witherspoon.  Poor and working class, he’s inappropriate as a suitor by her family’s standards, but she doesn’t care about that.  She does care and is fascinated to learn that he has a paranormal gift, one quite different from hers:  he can travel by wind and be called when she whispers his name to the wind.

Sadly, some of Amelia’s predictions rebound upon her, ending with her exile.  (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given the information revealed in the first paragraph of the book.)

What did I think of the book?  I enjoyed it, and I think anyone who likes YA paranormals or Anna Godberson’s The Luxe series would probably appreciate the book.  The narrator is impulsive and self-indulgent, which is to say she is a teenager and acts like it.  She sees things, dreamlike, in the twilight, hence the name of the book.  The book had a sort of frothy gothic feel to it.  

Liked the use of the Baltimore "hon", arabbers, and the mention of different neighborhoods, although I do wonder if the Inner Harbor was called that back in 1889 — at that time, it was still a light freight and passenger port, not a location a young lady would expect to inquire about or visit unless in the company of her family for some business purpose.  

Random editing comment:  Mademoiselle Thierry would be abbreviated Mlle. Thierry, not Mme. Thierry, which is short for Madame.

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His for the Holidays anthology from Carina Press

His for the Holidays anthology from Carina Press

Pre-order and other information here.

Source: Net Galley eARC

Release date: December 6, 2010

Josh Lanyon is the anchor author of this anthology, followed by Z.A. Maxfield and LB Gregg, who are established authors, plus relative new-comer Harper Fox. Each story is available individually, or bundled as the anthology.

Spicing Up the Season
Hope brightens a bleak Edinburgh December. A man gets a second chance with his high school crush. A decade-long game of cat and mouse comes to a passionate conclusion. And Santa Claus drives a red muscle car. Heat up your holidays with this collection of four festive tales from some of the top talent in the male/male genre.

The cover art is generic but also accurate: the guys kissing on the cover signal gay romance, and the snow flakes are a signal for the winter settings.

Mistletoe at Midnight by LB Gregg
Owen McKenzie has traveled to Vermont to spend an old-fashioned Christmas with his family when he finds himself staying at the same inn as his first love. Owen is disconcerted to realize he’s still attracted to Caleb Black but refuses to pursue him. Caleb left him once, and Owen’s not going down that road again.

Caleb is ready for a second chance when Owen and gets it when fate and the matchmaking McKenzies conspire to strand the two men in a rustic cabin during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. Can Caleb convince Owen to rekindle their romance so they can stop spending their holidays apart?

What did I think? I think this blurb is not very accurate. Owen has moved to Vermont, is not just visiting for the holiday; readers have no idea what Caleb wants since we don’t get his POV; the stranding was due to weather not the family; etc.  Beyond that, I found the extended separation to be a little silly in the age of facebook and google to find long lost friends and lovers.

Having said that, I really enjoyed Owen’s interactions with his family and the secondary characters, and the story worked well within its format constraints. (B)

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh by Harper Fox
Detective Inspector James McBride is riding high on the belief that he’s about to bust a human-trafficking ring. But just five days before Christmas, his unorthodox methods catch up with him and his world comes crashing down.

McBride tries to concentrate on his new day job as security for the visiting Israeli ambassador. He even starts to feel a renewed sense of self-worth when the leader of the Israeli team, the aristocratic Tobias Leitner, takes a bullet for him in the lien of duty. But he can’t forget the trafficking case, especially when his investigations result in the kidnapping of his own daughter! McBride has no one to turn to for help – no one, except Toby.

Can these two very different men work together to bring about a holiday miracle – and heal one another’s heart in the process?

What did I think? I think Harper Fox loves to pour on the angst, which is not my favorite seasoning for romance. Human trafficking, alcoholism, grief, loss of lover, loss of family, closeted homosexuality, all of them are wedged into this short story. I wanted to like the story, which is well-written, but it just felt over-wrought to me. So much time was spent on the outside conflict and on showing how damaged McBride and Toby are that I didn’t really trust their rapid HEA/HFN. (C)

I Heard Him Exclaim by Z.A. Maxfield
Who likes a skinny Santa?

Steve Adam’s heart hasn’t been in the Christmas spriti ever since doctors put a stent in it and order him to clean up his act. No longer filling out his Santa suit or allowed to make merry, he’s forgoing the holidays this year and heading to Vegas to indulge in the few vices left to him: gambling and anonymous sex.

His road trip takes a detour when he encounters Chandler Tracy, who’s just inherited guardianship of his five-year-old niece. Overwhelmed, Chandler’s on his way to deliver Poppy to his parents. But fate has other plans and, after car trouble, Chandler and Poppy accept a ride home with Steve. Though the heat between the two men is obvious, they put it on simmer while they band together to make Poppy’s Christmas as perfect as possible.

Steve soon comes to believe that while Chandler is the right person to look after Poppy, someone needs to look after Chandler. Fortunately, Steve knows just the man for the job.

What did I think? My perspective of Santa is now permanently skewed: forget the jolly old man, he’s now a burly bear who’s got an eye out for twinkish elves. No, really, I enjoyed this story – it is a fairy tale in the Calgon-take-me-away sense. Chandler’s at the end of his rope, suddenly a parent and unprepared to be so, broken down on the way to Christmas with his parents, when his Santa/savior arrives on the scene. Steve is very much a Prince Charming in a Santa suit: he fixes the car temporarily and then gives them a ride when the fix doesn’t hold; he invites them into his home and his family; he’s basically perfect, with a perfect extended family who welcome Chandler and Poppy into the fold without question or hesitation. The holiday theme is integrated into the story pretty well, too; I loved the family obsession and decoration detail. (B)

Icecapade by Josh Lanyon
On the eve of the new millennium, diamond thief Noel Snow seduced FBI special agent Robert Cuffe, then fled into the dawn.  Now a successful novelist, Noel uses his capers as fodder for his books, and has modeled his hero’s nemesis (and potential love interest) on Cuffe.  Though he leaves Robert a drunken phone message every New Year’s Eve, Noel hasn’t seen or heard from him in a decade.

So he’s thrilled when his former lover shows up at his upstate farm one Christmas Eve.  Elation quickly turns to alarm when Robert acuses Novel of being responsible for a recent rash of diamond heists.  Robert is all business and as cold as ice: it seems his only interest in Noel is to put him behind bars.

Innocent of the crimes, and still as attracted as ever to the oh-so-serious lawman, Noel plans a second seduction — providing he can stay out of jail long enough!

What did I think? Josh Lanyon is the author I’m most familiar with in this anthology, and as a general rule, I enjoy his style. This story is an INYIM (TM to KristieJ) story: it did not work for me for reasons unrelated to the writing quality or style. Thieves as romance heroes are a very hard sell, and Lanyon didn’t close the sale for me. The unrepentant ex-thief narrator whined about the unintended consequences of his actions, which got old. A cast of secondary characters assured me that the narrator really was reformed and a nice guy despite his chosen profession, and Lanyon chose to have him suffer from a physical injury that was probably intended to garner more sympathy. Eh, no, especially when the narrator excuses himself since he was never violent and hadn’t carried a weapon when he was out and about burgling people but apparently not harming or victimizing them. Potential suspect and cop relationships are a staple in genre romance, but this one just didn’t work for me. (DNF)

Overall, I enjoyed the anthology. Two of the stories worked extremely well for me, while the other two were less successful because of my tastes as a reader and through no fault of the authors.

Edited for typos.

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The Duke and the Pirate Queen – review

The Duke and the Pirate Queen
Victoria Janssen
Harlequin Spice
Release date: December 1, 2010

Why this book? Found it while paging through upcoming releases at Net Galley, and the blurb piqued my interest. It’s all Johnny Depp’s fault: until Captain Jack Sparrow’s metrosexual swishing about the deck of the Black Pearl, pirates didn’t interest me much in romance. Also, I’ve read relatively few Hqn Spice books; the first few put me off a bit and I hadn’t been back to try more. This seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

What about the cover art? Content-wise, it was nice to see that the woman on the cover was tattoo’d, since Imena was described as being tattoo’d. The red velvet/brocade and food are supposed to be sensual, I’m sure, even if they don’t really fit any particular scene of the book.

The title? *sigh* Pirates sell, obviously. And The Duke and the Privateer Queen likely wouldn’t sell as many books. But within the world of this book, there is a clear social and legal distinction between pirates and privateers, and the heroine is VERY anti-pirate. So while the title will sell to readers, it is a little inconsistent with the content of the book.

Aboard her privateering ship, The Seaflower, Captain Imena Leung is the law. Ashore she answers only to her liege, Duke Maxime. They are a powerful couple, with an intense attraction neither can disguise nor deny. As a nobleman, Maxime is destined to wed strategically, so his seductive advances must be purely for pleasure. And what self-respecting pirate denies herself any pleasure?

Their delicious dalliance is prolonged when Imena is forced to abduct Maxime to thwart a political plot against him. At sea, with a stunningly virile man bound and held in her private quarters, Imena can imagine—and enact—any number of intoxicating scenarios.

The heat between captain and captive is matched only by the perils that beset The Seaflower and her crew. Violent storms, marauding corsairs and life-or-death sex games on a desert island— how fortunate for the seemingly insatiable lovers that danger and desire go hand-in-hand.

As usual, the blurb is sort of accurate and also inaccurate. Imena is NOT a pirate. Privateer and pirate are not interchangeable. Also, Maxime is not her liege, she’s not a citizen of his duchy or oath-sworn to him; he is instead her employer. But lots of sexual tension and adventuring, so the blurb is accurate on those fronts.

What did I like about the book?

I loved the gender role reversals: the “pirate” being the woman and the duke/titled person who was rescued being the man.

I also liked the world building; didn’t realize at the beginning that this book is loosely related to other books set in the same world.

Really enjoyed the adventuring of Imena and Maxime: pursued by the royal navy and pirates, kipnapped by natives while on what they thought was a deserted island, navigating through a storm at sea, sword fighting in port, etc.

What didn’t I like?

The mystery needed better development. First, kidnapping Maxime rather than reporting the threat to his life seems drastic and rather foolish. Yes, it sets up the entire plot, initiating their travels and enforced intimacy, but carrying him out of the palace naked and wrapped in a rug without telling him why seems a little abrupt; keeping him tied up in her cabin for a while without telling him still just seems petty. Second, the resolution of the mystery was told rather than shown for the most part. To be honest, I’m not sure how Janssen could have done so without lengthening the book considerably and also spending much more time away from Imena and Maxime and their adventures at sea, but the mystery component just felt poorly integrated with the other parts of the story being told.

The romance/relationship

More traditional romance gender role swapping here. Maxime knows he wants to marry Imena, while Imena is attracted but doesn’t take him seriously. Imena’s discounting of Maxime’s ability to gauge his own emotions and make his own choices was a little frustrating at times, especially her “you don’t really mean it” and “I’m not good enough and won’t let you sacrifice your standing” attitude. She came across as kind of patronizing and self-sacrificing in not a good way. But objectively, her behavior matches the gender role reversal, in that romance heroes are often emotionally constipated, and the traditional heroine says the Three Words first. [Hmm, that behavior in heroes drives me crazy; does having a heroine do the same thing and irritate me equally mean true gender equality has been achieved?]

Overall

I enjoyed the book, and would read more by Janssen. B-

Tech/editing issue: I downloaded a copy of this as a PDF to read in Adobe Digital Editions, and it was fine. It also read fine in the BlueFire app on my iPhone. But the version that Net Galley emailed to my Kindle had the F-L typesetting problem again, previously seen when I bought a copy of Kinsale’s Lessons in French. F-L doesn’t seem like a very common letter combination, but I highlighted most instances of “stif led” and “f lexing” and “far-f lung” and “f lowers” and “f lesh”, and it approached 200. Oddly, the ship title, The Seaflower, which was always italicized, never had that problem. I wonder if it is something in the font type and whatever script or style sheet is used to convert the file to mobi for Kindle.

Next NetGalley book: Island of Icarus, a November Carina Press release.

Next book generally: still reading The Annotated Persuasion.

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The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

Title: The Girl in the Green Raincoat
Author: Laura Lippman
Series: Tess Monaghan mysteries #11
Publication date: January, 2011
Length: 171 pages
Format: I read an eARC, but it appears that this novella will be released as a trade paperback, according to HarperCollins’ page for the book.

I mentioned last week, I think, that I have succumbed to the lure of Net Galley. While poking around among the genre lists, this cover caught my eye, followed by the author’s name. When I saw the name Tess Monaghan in small print? Sold.

Background information: Tess Monaghan is a private investigator in Baltimore, Maryland. She began as a reporter for the Baltimore Star, a failed local daily, and did freelance writing and bookstore clerking to make ends meet. Eventually, she put her journalism skills to use in a different way: as a private investigator. I don’t recall her age at the beginning of the series, but by this ninth book, she’s thirty five. She’s Baltimore born and bred, which is a good thing for her business, since the city and its close-knit neighborhoods tend to play roles in each mystery (see especially The Sugar House IMO). For more background on Tess, check out Lippman’s bio of her.

The book opens with Tess confined to bed rest during during the last two months of a high-risk pregnancy. Like her relationship with Crow, the baby’s father, the pregnancy was unplanned and a bit of a surprise, and she’s ambivalent about how her life has changed already and the changes coming after the birth. Bored spending all day on a chaise lounge in her sun room, Tess takes to watching the neighborhood park through binoculars. One park regular in particular catches her eye — a woman in a green raincoat who walks her dog, a greyhound dressed to match, while talking on her cellphone. One day, though, the dog dashes through the park unattended, no owner in sight. Concerned and then obsessed, Tess badgers her friends and family into doing the legwork that she cannot, finding out who the woman was, and questioning her disappearance, especially when Tess learns that her husband has a history of suspiciously-dying wives.

Essentially, Lippman has written an homage to Rear Window and The Daughter of Time. In addition to the whodunit, the mystery of relationships is a key theme. As in, relationships observed from the outside are seldom exactly what you think they are, and the things that glue people together can be surprising. Tess is confronted with relationship conundrums for the missing woman, for herself, and for different members of her family circle.

I enjoyed the unfolding of the mystery and did not see the twist at the end until it was almost upon me. Even as I began to suspect the actual culprit, I was nowhere near the motive. This particular episode has less of a sense of place than the other Tess Monaghan mysteries, probably because Tess was so physically confined. I’m also curious about Tess’s future and this series’ future, since the book ends with Tess at a crossroads in her life.

The mystery is independent and contained within the novella, so a reader could pick up this book without having read the books that came before. Having said that, I do think that for context, subtext and character background, it’s best to read the series in order.

There were some typos in the eARC, which I hope will be caught before the book goes to print, things like using contact for contract, etc. The only one that really concerned me was the changing spelling of the missing girl’s last name.

Would I recommend this book? Yes.

Would I buy a copy? Yes, I’m planning on it, although I’ll probably buy an ebook or wait for the mass market paperback rather than the trade paperback.

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