31 August, 2010

Review: The Sevenfold Spell by Tia Nevitt

I am a complete sucker for fairy tales. (What is a romance novel but a tale of a disguised princess and her happily ever after?) Previously I would have said that there are two sides to every fairy tale, the Princess and the Witch. What I forget, of course, are all the people who line the lanes to cheer the happy couple on. Not every face in the crowd is a joyful one. Tanith Lee used to do some lovely off center fairy tales. So did Robin McKinley. Being able to take a familiar story and breathe new life into it without undermining the original is a rare talent. Tia Nevitt appears to have it in abundance.

The Sevenfold Spell opens shortly after the birth of Princess Aurora, the soon to be sleeping beauty. In their grief, the King and Queen have ordered all spinning wheels destroyed. But spinners still need to feed their families. People still require thread. The village economy is in a shambles because of the actions of those leading it. (Timely, no?) Talia is a girl of no great beauty  who has a comfortable life planned. Through her own labor she has learned to spin, saved a dowry, and befriended an equally common man.  But it is Aurora who must be protected, not Talia.

The spinners don't happily turn over their wheels. There is no subsidized job retraining program for the newly unemployed. With no beauty, no livelihood and no income, Talia finds life a lot less comfortable. Like many a woman before her, Talia has defined her own worth through the cruel comments of others.  So if Talia cannot have what she wants, she will want what she can get.  If no one will protect her, she will protect herself. Purity and perfection are for princesses, pragmatism and persistence are traits that serve peasants well. This is a fun novella with some unexpected depth. Definitely worth the money and further proof that Carina Press was a great idea.

26 August, 2010

Review: Passions of a Wicked Earl by Lorraine Heath

Since Lorraine Heath left westerns behind I've become a tremendous fan of hers. This double publishing event (Passions of a Wicked Earl is followed the next month by Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman) looked like the best thing to happen to October since Halloween. Then I got scared. The basic set up for Passions is that Morgan finds Claire in the arms of Morgan's brother (Stephen from Pleasures) and while threesomes may be popular in romance fiction right now, it's not what Morgan had in mind for his wedding night. Morgan, understandably upset, banishes Claire to the proverbial country estate, never to be thought of again while he sets about sleeping with any woman who is not Claire. Here's where the fear comes in. The advance ad copy reads "she... has returned to London with one goal in mind: the seduction of her notorious husband."

Really? That's her entire goal? I know from checking out the Amazon forums that I'm not the only reader who came to a full stop at that set up. There's a high ewwww factor in tearing a man who has been ignoring you from another woman's bed and begging Mr. Patriarch to condescend. Lorraine Heath has been delivering original reads packed full of emotional punch and deep character motivations. "He sleeps with everyone, everyone but her!" isn't what I want. Cracking the cover, I find the hero in bed with another woman. Great. It's not a treat, it's a trick. Like Morgan, I jumped to conclusions. Unlike Morgan, I stuck around for more than five minutes to find out what was really going on. Turns out Claire's goal is a wee bit more complicated than the cover let on. (I shouldn't judge books by their covers. Look at this cover - I'd assume Morgan runs about naked all day. Plus, there seems to be an extra leg in there. Either Claire has a hidden friend or it's a really long way to her knee.) Claire's arrival turns everything upside down. What we have here is a complex story of two young kids who caused themselves a decade of pain by failing to communicate. (Sound familiar? That's just me? Really? Um, ok.)

With a brief nod to the characters of her last series to let you know you're in the same world, Heath sets up a man who has trouble expressing his emotions and therefore failed to court the woman he wants. Morgan expects her to fulfill his needs without giving her any indication that her own are important to him. (Ok, that has to ring some bells. Anyone?) Refreshingly, Claire is willing to call him out on what he's done wrong without using it as an excuse for her own poor judgement. Morgan and Claire are at the end of their marriage, with Morgan considering Claire's replacement. (Is it too late for them to repair the hurt of the past and learn to live in the future?) Passions of a Wicked Earl is a fantastic tale of a marriage on the brink of ending. Lorraine Heath folds in a brilliant subplot with a smaller triangle between Morgan's mother, a painter several years her junior, and a lover lost to her forever.

(I did have a problem with the late appearance of a murderous figure. Did a memo go out that near death experiences bring the romance? Because I neither got that memo nor want it. Like Claire and Morgan, I can forgive. This is a super tasty book that more than makes up for a few pieces of licorice and a toothbrush in the candy bag.)

Passions of a Wicked Earl is a must buy for October. It's not just a great read in it's own right, it sets up  Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman which is one of my top five books for 2010. It's that good. Whether you look at Passions as a prequel, as a great read on it's own, or as a challenge to the rest of the field to step up their romance game, Lorraine Heath is delivering a major treat.

22 August, 2010

Review: The Sergeant's Lady by Susanna Fraser

Let's be honest. I bring some preconceived notions to The Sergeant's Lady. This is my first Carina Press book. My past experience with straight-to-digital publishing has been bleak. My opinion of Angela James is fairly high. I had serious issues with Susanna Fraser's website (I won't link it, if she's changed it that won't make sense, if she hasn't I'm doing her no favors) but I have complete sympathy for her excitement in her new career being stomped on by both the website and one Miles Hood Swarthout. (He thinks he's famous enough that his readers will buy her book by mistake. I could go on about the umbrage over originality from an author who apparently makes his living adapting his father's prior works but I... won't. Just in case you were confused, this one isn't a western.) Finally, while I adore Regencyland war tales I also grow impatient with books that gloss over social differences. (I feel rather sorry for The Sergeant's Lady. It's probably wondering why I cracked it's cover at all.)

All of that baggage out of the way, I quite liked The Sergeant's Lady. Since Signet killed off it's monthly regency imprint (let me pause to pour a bit of ratafia on the ground) there hasn't been a great source of short form regency novels. While authors like Carla Kelly have found new homes at Harlequin Historicals, it's still a niche market. Add the less popular war setting, and you're almost sunk for publication. There's a pretty big gap between "Across a crowded ballroom, amidst the silks and satins, two beautiful people of unmeasured wealth began a dance of desire!" and "While the stench of amputated flesh rose about them, two tired and filthy souls clung together against the certainty of death!" (Wait, I'm doing it again, aren't I?) ANYway - this book has a serious body count, which you'd expect from a novel that wraps it's war up at Badajoz. It's also a light and delicate romance that combines familiar elements (doesn't everyone have a first husband who uses 'whore' as a pet name?) with unfamiliar realities (children following the drum) into an engaging tale. The social difference between Anna and Will isn't brushed aside nor miraculously solved.  While I think the actual resolution of that difference might have had a bit more resistance than it finds here, it's a plausible enough solution free of implausible interventions. Anna is often a bit too intrepid but Will provides a good counterpoint as a man unsure of his place in her world but unable to easily leave it. Rather like Will, after reading The Sergeant's Lady I wanted to search the storage bay for my favorite half remembered Signet war regencies.

While it wasn't a perfect read for me, Susanna Fraser overcame a mountain of baggage to deliver an entertaining book that made me open to trying her next one. At the same time, Carina Press proved themselves to be a 'real' publisher worth my cash money. I've got to give some credit to their art department as well - ebook covers that don't look like ten minute photoshop afterthoughts? I'm all for that.

20 August, 2010

Review: All I Ever Wanted by Kristan Higgins

Here are a few things I absolutely hate in my romance heroines. 

1. Overly Cute Heroine Names 
2. Former Prom Queen
3. Weight Concerns, Non Medical
4. Wacky / Quirky Families. 
5. Unrealistic Emotional Expectations 
6. Marshmallow Backbones
7. Quirky Catchphrases
8. Plethora of Adorable Old & Cranky People
9. Fur Children
10. Spunk

Callie (Calliope) has all ten of those covered, and then some. So why is All I Ever Wanted one of my best books of the year? Because Kristan Higgins is apparently that awesome. Without this having been chosen as a book for the SBTB Sizzling Summer Book Club I never would have purchased it. This would have been my absolute loss. 

Callie has allowed two events to shape her life. Between her parent's divorce and her obsession with her former teen crush / ex boyfriend / boss Mark, Callie lives most of her life in her head. Every scrap she's thrown is torn apart for meaning until she's constructed a new room for her fairy castle in the air. Right there, I should want to slap her. But Callie is self aware enough to berate herself for having doormat tendencies. This is not only a great source of the book's humor, but stops the reader from having to berate Callie themselves. Her desire to see the good in anyone leads to her own repeated downfall as she ignores what's in front of her face. At home, with her widowed grandfather Noah, Callie drops the perfect princess act and allows her true self to emerge. Freed from the frantic love-me-please tap dance she performs across town (in red shoes if you believe the cover art) Callie is a more sympathetic soul. 

This is Pamela Morsi at her best good. This is Nora Roberts good. This is a great contemporary. While I wish there wasn't a career 180 performed at the end of the book, overall everything rings true and several cliches are turned on their heads. Callie gets a happy ending she can build on, Ian gets some resolution of his own issues, and Mark finds out where his heart belongs. Along the way, everything I dislike in a romantic heroine is rendered likeable.

(Don't think this means I'll be eating green eggs & ham, because I'm holding firm on that.)

15 August, 2010

Review: Insatiable by Meg Cabot

Insatiable is a perfectly inoffensive read that can't decide exactly what it wants to be. Is it a spoof? Is it homage? Is it book one of a vampire series? There are a lot of great concepts here but some mixed executions. By the end of the book aspects of it that seemed fun and original wear out their welcome. Thankfully, and I hope you won't consider this a spoiler, there isn't a single werewolf to be found. (Because really, if werewolves and vampires keep hanging out sharing chicks, people are going to talk.) For just over the first half of the book I was absolutely in love with it. Then a spoof character takes a sudden turn toward the path of serious male romantic lead and the book begins to fall apart. 

Initially, Meena appeared to be on my side. She loves handbags, she is completely annoyed with women in vampire lore falling for guys who are obviously abusive and she appreciates a good daytime drama. Meena and I were really getting along. Ok, so she can tell people when they're going to die, but that's just a twist on Sookie Stackhouse and this is a spoof story, right? Suddenly, Meena is perfectly ok with having a much, much, much older lover who talks her into things she had previously refused to consent to. She finds a man who has to fight the impulse to kill her charming, and discovers some of her best friends (well ok more like neighbors) are vampires. The love triangle kicks off, vampire nightclubs appear and vampire showdowns start rolling. Just when you think things can't go farther over the top (or become more conventional) they do. And to reveal how would be a serious spoiler. But it's a bit much, even for a book that leaves absolutely no vampire icon untouched. 

From Love at First Bite to Dead Until Dark: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel, and of course Dracula itself, Insatiable tips it's hat to all of them. Using Stoker's character names to set up the multi-generational star crossed soul mate concept, Meg Cabot takes what started as a promising spoof and ends up with the first chapter of more of the same. It doesn't help that one side of her triangle starts the book as comic relief nor that when Meena's brother begs her not to become one of those women who excuse their abuser you know Meena is already on that path. There is nothing wrong with Insatiable from the stand point of an easy chick lit vampire read, but it disappoints a reader looking for a send up of the vampire craze. (And I don't buy the triangle.)

10 August, 2010

Review: The Sugar King of Havana by John Paul Rathbone

After reading The Sugar King of Havana I felt empathy for Cuban exiles. That might seem a simple thing to feel, since these are a people who have lost their way of life and (the older generation) largely live in a shadow culture. My relationship with the concept of the exile community is a bit different. It's sort of like being angry at Holocaust survivors - no one is going to sympathize with you because your loss is nothing compared to theirs. There used to be a smaller, sleepier version of Miami. I liked that Miami.

Miami has always been a haven for whatever wave washed up on it's shores. Cuban exiles, Haitian refugees, New York snowbirds, Yankee victors, escaped slaves, mafia retirees, Spanish conquistadors - they all arrive and try to make it 'just like home.' The more recently assimilated invaders send them into the swamps hoping the gators are hungry. (Even the gators have to contend with new neighbors - anacondas have infiltrated the swamp.) Florida changes and changes again. Still, for me, the concept of Cuba is a knee jerk one of infighting and unreasonable expectations. Cuba was a paradise, nothing bad every happened there, Castro is evil and everyone hates him, nothing good ever happened from Revolution, everyone will go back when he dies and the streets will run with liquid gold. To hear some exiles tell it, probably five people live on the entire island and all of them focus their energy on evading the secret police. 

John Paul Rathbone has actually been to Cuba. This is a fantastic thought. People go to Cuba? Cuba is forbidden! It's the no man's land! To even venture near to Cuba's shores is to invite imprisonment or death! Except, it turns out, the Cuban exiles of Miami  represent a very small percentage of Cubans internationally. Most Cubans stayed in Cuba. Many initially supported Castro's revolution because something had to change, and even if they didn't know exactly what would happen it would certainly be better than what they had. Until it wasn't. I imagine if Castro died and the exile community returned home they would be greeted (again) the same way they were greeted here, as strangers with a strange culture bringing things the inhabitants aren't sure they want. 

Using Julio Lobo as the face of Cuba's upper classes Rathbone illustrates why their way of life was destined, by the history of their people, to end. Like many in Cuba, Lobo supported Castro and believed strongly in patriotism over self interest. Lobo was set on the road to exile when idealism and reality collided. The Sugar King of Havana is not only well researched and enjoyable to read, it explains so many things previously inexplicable about the relationship between Cuba and Miami. In doing so it doesn't quite justify a world with The Miami Sound Machine, but it certainly explains the religious fervor of Elian's custody fight. 

Now if someone could do something about hipsters wearing Che shirts, we'd be in good shape.

05 August, 2010

Review: Bespelling Jane Austen by Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard & Janet Mullany

I suppose, if Jane Austen had to choose between Will Shakespeare's posthumous life or her own, she'd be happy enough with zombies and vampires and sea serpents (oh my).  Shakespeare has to constantly contend with people doubting his authorship, sexuality and existence. Austen has largely enjoyed life on a pedestal as the mother of all things Regency. Much like Mary Balogh. So my reaction to Mary Balogh writing a paranormal was akin to an undiscovered Austen  revealing a sparkly vampire of it's very own. The problem is that while I adore Mary Balogh, I'm not a fan of current paranormal romance. I began Bespelling Jane Austen with some concern.

As it happens, Balogh didn't see herself writing a vampire story either. Her Almost Persuaded deals with reincarnation. It's an interesting experiment that steers clear of paranormal pitfalls other established Regencyland writers have fallen victim to. Instead of changing her style working with reincarnation allows Balogh to progress her characters past their initial discovery phase into a developed relationship. It is a love at first glance tale a bit more physical than Balogh usually tells. My quibbles are minor and rooted more in my opinion of reincarnation itself than the story as told. If certain aspects were developed further, Almost Persuaded could have become a full length novel. It is the second best story in the anthology. 

The best, perhaps most fittingly given it's creator was the most motivated, is Susan Krinard's Blood and Prejudice. Krinard is comfortable with paranormal romance and presents it without hitting any of my aversions. Embracing vampires, she creates a world where skeptical Liz Bennett is surrounded by vampires without a guide to telling the good from the evil. It is perhaps the closest to what we think of when we think of an Austen tale, and it is the most realized world in the anthology. Trying to save her father's company, her sister's heart, and her own equilibrium, Liz Bennett is a heroine worthy of a Mr. Darcy. For these two stories alone I'd read Bespelling Jane Austen.

Colleen Gleason's charming Northanger Castle would have been a fitting close for a shorter anthology. Her overly imaginative heroine sees vampires behind every door, gothic plots at every party, and holds a Nancy Drew disdain for her own safety. Her personal Ned emerges as a man who can use her vampire detection skills. The weight of what seems to be a mythology carried over from other books drags the story down for me. If I were an established fan of Gleason's books I would probably have adored Northanger Castle but without that grounding I simply liked it. 

All good times must come to an end. Unfortunately the book ends as well in Little to Hex Her by Janet Mullany. I am generally a fan of Mullany so it pains me to say that (for me) this tale is a complete miss. If you enjoy paranormal romance then Little to Hex Her will probably be the highlight of the book.  It encapsulated everything I dislike about paranormal romance. Our heroine is a witch babysitting her sister's business in the midst of vampires, warlocks, elves, werewolves, ogres and who knows what else. She has to navigate the social world of Washington D.C. while dealing with a college boyfriend, a saboteur, and a party hook up that left her a bit used. From the 'time of the month' werewolf jokes to the racial profiling (all elves are glamourous, all vampires are cutthroat, you can't trust a.... you get the idea) my buttons were firmly pressed. Without truly resolving the various threads of the plot, the story lurches to it's predestined conclusion leaving the non paranormal reader a bit worse for wear. Which makes this a collection with something for everyone.