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Heidi Hart

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

Currently reading

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)
Patrick O'Brian, Patrick Tull
Progress: 305/801 minutes
The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent And Teacher Needs to Know (Early Childhood Education Series (Teachers College Pr)) (Early Childhood Education (Teacher's College Pr))
Diane E. Levin, Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Progress: 3/115 pages

Fans of Blue Collar Romance, Take Note!

Animal Magnetism - Jill Shalvis

I really enjoyed this first book in Jill Shalvis' Animal Magnetism series. Like her better known Lucky Harbor series, these are small town contemporary romances full of appealing characters, snappy dialogue, fast-paced plots. Animal Magnetism is set in Sunshine, Idaho, which is a less touristy, white-picket-fency kind of place than Lucky Harbor, Washington (a good change, in my opinion).

 

Lilah runs an animal kennel and shelter. She's alone in the world after the death of the grandmother that raised her, but she has very good friends, including her ex-boyfriend and business partner, Cruz, and Adam and Dell, the veterinarians who run the animal center next door. Adam and Dell are brothers who invite Brady, who was their foster brother when they were teens, back to town to help them fix up an old helicopter which they intend to use for search and rescue calls and veterinary visits to Idaho's remote mountain ranches.

 

Brady and Lilah have instant, and believable, chemistry, but for the first part of the book they're at cross purposes because Brady doesn't plan to stick around once the helicopter is ready, and even though Lilah says she knows that and is only looking for a fling, he sees her life in the house where she grew up, working in the town where she grew up, still good friends with her few exes, and thinks that whatever she may say, nothing about Lilah is temporary. Plus, there's the fact that Adam and Dell consider Lilah an honorary little sister, and much as they love Brady, they don't take kindly to the idea that he'd mess around with her.

 

As time goes on, however, Brady comes to find that maybe putting down roots and making a home somewhere is not such a bad idea. It's not only his growing feelings for Lilah that change his mind, but also his brotherly affection for Dell and Adam, his respect for their business and the fact that there's a place for him in it. Also, he takes in a stray dog, an arrangement that was also supposed to be temporary, but soon comes to realize he doesn't want to give the puppy up. From there, it's only a short leap to realize he doesn't want to give Lilah and his foster brothers up, either, which paves the way for Happily Ever After.

 

I love blue collar heroes and heroines, and books that handle class issues in a way that is believable and empathetic without exploiting a character's poverty for tragic effect, and I really enjoyed that aspect of this book. Lilah, Dell, Brady, and Adam all grew up poor, and Lilah still struggles every month to juggle her bills and keep her house in reasonably good repair, but that's just a fact of life. It's not a source of sympathy or plot conflict, and there's no billionaire here to bail her out. Instead, she's using her smarts and her own hard work to build a successful business, with the help of friends, and maybe she'll succeed and maybe she won't -- and that, too, is just a fact of life.

Cinderella Story Triggered My Infidelity Squick

A Kiss at Midnight - Eloisa James

This is a retelling of the Cinderella story, and is on sale for $2.99 (kindle), so I picked it up. I'm always entertained by fairy-tale trope romances, so I'm glad I read this, but it wasn't enough to get me out of my historical romance slump.

 

Kate is the granddaughter of an Earl, but when her mother died, her father waited a whole fortnight before marrying again, and then he promptly died himself. His widow, the wicked stepmother, had relegated Kate to a glorified servant while heaping all of the wealth on herself and her daughter, the (not-so) evil stepsister, and allowing the estate to be badly mismanaged. When the stepsister suffers an accident, the stepmother forces Kate to impersonate her (the sister) by going to meet a prince whose approval is necessary for the stepsister's marriage to her beloved.

 

Kate meets the Prince, who is awaiting the arrival of his betrothed, a Russian princess whose dowry will fund his lavish lifestyle and, more importantly, his scholarly pursuits. He and Kate clash initially, but this is one of those books that employs what Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books likes to call the "I don't wanna like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair DAMMIT" trope. Tempers clash, sparks fly.

 

My problem with the book is that much as I love angsty romance where there's some good, nearly insurmountable reason why the lovers can't be together, I'm majorly squicked out in historical romance when heroes seduce a lady to whom they're not able to commit. Contemporary girls can sleep around all they like, and that's fine with me, but in a historical setting, it's just dishonorable to risk a woman's reputation that way. So, much as I enjoyed the chemistry and the bantering between Kate and Gabriel, I couldn't root for them to get together because Gabriel was promised to a perfectly nice girl who'd come all the way to England to marry him and give him all her money, and it's just wrong of Gabriel to be sniffing around Kate's skirts in those circumstances.

 

I couldn't get over that squick enough to enjoy the story, but a lot of readers will find much to love about this book.

 

Not My Kink, Not My Cuppa

Looking for Trouble - Victoria Dahl

Victoria Dahl has written several contemporaries that I've really enjoyed, but generally I think her books try too hard to be sexy and edgy when it doesn't really fit with the plot. I'd probably have rated this at least another star if the sex scenes hadn't turned me off.

 

Sophie and Alex are complete opposites. She's a good girl librarian, he's a bad boy biker. She takes care of people -- her dad, her brother, her friends -- and he runs from responsibility. She's never left Wyoming; he left and never came home again. They have only two things in common: insane sexual chemistry, and a shared childhood tragedy that happened with Alex's dad disappeared with Sophie's mother.

 

Sophie has grown up in the shadow of this mystery, dealing not only with her mother's abandonment, but the silent (and not so silent) judgment of the townspeople, who she feels are just waiting for her to show her true colors and turn out to be just as much a fallen woman as her mother. Consequently, she keeps her sex life very much on the down low.

 

Alex returns to town for the first time in ages at the urging of his brother, who needs help taking care of their mentally ill mother. He's home only reluctantly, and his presence becomes only slightly less grudging when he and Sophie discover the aforementioned sexual chemistry. 

 

I really like small town contemporaries (since I live in a small town myself), and I liked how this book understood how gossip really never dies in a small town and how judgey people can be. I liked the idea of Sophie and Alex sharing almost nothing except this twenty-year-old mystery. I liked Sophie's appetite for and liberated approach to sex, even as I understood why she felt the need to keep it quiet.

 

I didn't like Alex, and I didn't like the sex scenes. Alex has several opportunities to do the right thing -- help his mom, help his brother, stick up for Sophie -- and over and over again, he doesn't. He doesn't get a clue until the very end of the story, by which point I'd given up on him.

 

I didn't like the sex because I don't have a humiliation kink. I get that some people maybe like being called a slut and a whore during sex. I'm not one of them. I love a heroine who can enjoy sex, but those labels just turn me right the hell off.

 

Hmm, How Many Tropes Can We Fit in One Crazy-Sauce Romp?

I Married the Duke - Katharine Ashe

I really need to get better about writing reviews as soon as I finish a book, but I've been crazy busy lately. If I wait, I'm left with only vague impressions, no matter how many quotes I highlight or notes I make as I read.

 

I Married the Duke was my first book by Katherine Ashe, and I will read on in the series because I liked this fairly well even though I've been kind of "meh" on the whole historical romance subgenre lately. I also liked it despite the fact that the hero was actively misrepresenting his identity to the heroine for the first half of the book, and since dishonesty is a major turn off for me, the fact that I like this as well as I did speaks well of Ms. Ashe's skill as a writer.

 

The funniest thing about this book is that it hits so many of the tropes of historical romance, it's almost as if someone dared Katharine Ashe to write a book with as many stereotypical tropes as she could manage. Gypsy fortuneteller? Check. Penniless orphans? Check. Scarred hero? Check. Love affair between a lord and a governess? Yup. Mistaken identity? Marriage of Convenience? Big Misunderstanding? Sudden Blindness? Check, check, check, and check.

 

The plot was very, very complicated. I was able to follow it, but I think a lot of the layers and plot twists were only necessary to continue the hero's deception about his identity, which (as I've said) I could have done without.

 

Anabella is the middle child in a trio of sisters orphaned as children. They know very little of their past, except that it involved a shipwreck, and they have a very expensive ruby ring which a gypsy told them holds the key to learning their roots. That same gypsy foretold that one of the sisters would marry a prince, so Anabella has made that her life's ambition.

 

Fast forward a few decades; the girls have grown up and are in service. Anabella is on her way to France to be a finishing governess for a princess; she hopes to meet and marry the princess's brother, the prince, to fulfill the prophecy. Unfortunately, through a series of unfortunate events, she misses the ship that is supposed to take her to France and ends up hitching a ride with the hero, Luc, instead. Luc is a former naval captain with a Tortured Past who retired because he's in line to become a Duke when his uncle passes on, and he can't risk being killed in action (though he's still sailing, obviously).

 

During the story, Luc's uncle dies, but Luc's ascendency to the title is uncertain because the uncle's wife is preggers, and if she has a boy, the child will inherit. The wife is the sister of the story's bad guy, a priest who molested Luc and his brother when they were kids.

 

When Luc takes Anabella to France, he doesn't tell her who he is, even though her destination is (through one of the crazy coincidences that would never work outside of Romancelandia) a castle he owns, and the home of his brother.

 

During their journey, Luc finds himself in Mortal Peril and marries Anabella because he might be a Duke and she might be carrying his heir... and, oh, yeah, also because he might possibly be in love with her just a little bit. Then he dies, but not really, and Anabella is heartbroken, but maybe she'll get to marry the prince after all, so there's always a bright side. 

 

Yeah, this is the sort of crazy sauce plot you can't really explain... but I liked it anyway. I Married a Duke hits enough familiar tropes that most readers of historical romance will find something about it appealing -- catnippy, if you will -- but it can come across as chaotic and crazy, which isn't to everyone's taste.

Funny, Frothy, Soapy, Satisfying

Say Yes to the Marquess - Tessa Dare

I've been in a slump when it comes to historical romance lately, so I was pleased enough to like this, even if it didn't knock my socks off. Say Yes to the Marquess is a solid effort by Tessa Dare, significantly better than Romancing the Duke (the first book in the Castles Ever After series). Clio Whitmore has spent eight years waiting for her betrothed, Piers Brandon, the Marquess of Something, to return from helling around on the continent and make an honest woman of her. Their marriage has been delayed so long that Clio has become a laughing stock within the ton, earning the nickname "Miss Wait-More." Speculation runs rampant that Piers no longer desires the union, and the truth is that Clio herself has had second thoughts.

 

Eight years of training to be the perfect wife to a lord has given Clio the skills to be independent, and when she inherits a castle, she has the means as well. She visits Piers' brother Rafe, the Marquess' agent in England during his absence, in hopes that Rafe will sign paperwork to dissolve the betrothal. Although Rafe has desired Clio since childhood and would personally love for her to be a free woman, his loyalty to his brother prevents him from signing the papers and stealing his brother's bride. He is already wracked with guilt over the death of their father, who never approved of Rafe and his rebellious ways (most notably boxing, which at that time was not only disreputable but actually illegal). Rafe doesn't intend to be responsible for the loss of Piers' bride as well, so he sets off to Clio's castle to try to plan the perfect wedding, thinking that if he tempts her with all the luxuries of a society wedding, she'll be so caught up in the fantasy that she'll forget her desire to cancel the betrothal.

 

The best part of this story is how funny it is: Clio and Rafe have terrific chemistry, witty banter, and Rafe's trainer, Bruiser, is posing as a posh wedding planner to great comic effect. There is a scene involving tasting wedding cakes which is laugh out loud funny. Balanced with the humor is just the right amount of angst: Clio and Rafe have in common the fact that they've been rejected by those who should have loved them best -- Clio by her mother (and her would-be husband), Rafe by his father. Additionally, the tension between Rafe's sincere loyalty to his absent brother and his increasingly-inescapable attraction to Clio provides a satisfying and believable emotional conflict.

 

The parts of this book that annoyed me were actually supposed to: Clio's sister, in the guise of helping her have the perfect wedding day, fat-shames Clio relentlessly. Clio stood up for herself (and Rafe as well), and the sister got an appropriately satisfying set-down, but still these scenes set my teeth on edge. I found the conclusion a little too convenient, but not so much so that I couldn't willingly suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.

Ignore the cover and the blurb; this book is better than that.

The Party Girl - Tamara Morgan

This is a pretty good book with a truly dreadful cover and an even worse blurb. I took a chance on it anyway because I really loved the second book in this series, The Derby Girl, though I hated the first, The Rebound Girl. I bought The Party Girl figuring it was a crapshoot, and I ended up getting lucky. I didn't love this book, but I liked it quite a bit. (Each book stands alone: if you want to learn from my mistakes, you can totally skip the toxic heroine in The Rebound Girl and not miss anything important.) 

 

Kendra is not the sort of heroine I usually connect with. She's an aesthetician at an upscale spa, and her obsession with beauty is anathema to me. (I'm a low maintenance girl. I've never had a manicure. Twice, people have given me gift certificates for a massage, and I let both coupons expire unused. I rarely wear makeup and I get my hair cut two or three times a year.) The only part of her character that I could relate to is Kendra's tendency to organize everything around her. She's the person who dots the i's and crosses the t's at the spa. She's the one her youngest sister comes to when a relationship goes sour. She's the girl her ex comes to when he's been stabbed in a bar fight. Kendra is calm, cool, and totally collected, in any situation. 

 

Noah is a backwoodsman who dropped out of society after his ex-girlfriend cheated him--and a lot of other people--out of a lot of money. He quit his job and moved off the grid, in to a no-frills cabin where he milks his own goat, raises his own chickens, grows his own vegetables, hunts or fishes for his own meat, showers with solar-heated rainwater, and builds his own furniture. The only thing he and Kendra have in common is Lincoln, Kendra's ex who got stabbed in the bar fight. Well, Lincoln and a raging case of Hornypants for one another, that is.  

 

I liked that Kendra and Noah were both strong willed characters who know their own minds and aren't willing to change to please a lover. I liked the honesty and humor of their conversations. I liked that the conflict between them was not one I'd encountered in romance novels before, especially in a contemporary setting, where authentic conflict can be hard to come by. I liked that even though Kendra makes no sense to me as a person--her values and priorities are so different from mine--I was able to like and root for her anyway. 

 

This is a slow burn book by design, but even so, I thought the pacing could have been tighter. I didn't mind that it took Noah and Kendra a long time to get together, and I thought the buildup was fairly well done, but then there was a significant stretch in the middle where they were together but there was all this other stuff going on, and the plot seemed to drag a bit. 

 

Mostly, I liked how different this book was from anything else I'd read. And in light of that, maybe it makes sense that the cover and blurb are so bad -- perhaps Carina Press is just trying too hard to find a marketing niche for a book that doesn't fall easily into any established category. 

 

Refreshingly Authentic Twist to the Billionaire Trope

Trade Me -  Courtney Milan

Like so many other people, I love love love Courtney Milan and her historical romance (even as my patience with historicals has waned in the past year), and so when I heard she was writing a contemporary New Adult with, of all things, a billionaire hero, I gave Trade Me the Skeptical Side Eye even as I added it to my preorder auto buy queue. Billionaire? Really? Why would a woman as awesome as Milan -- she clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before giving up the law to write romance, which makes her pretty much my idol -- want to jump on that tired bandwagon? 

 

But Trade Me isn't your typical billionaire trope story, in which the billionaire lives a fantasy life and the heroine is a tragic Cinderella figure. Courtney Milan doesn't use class as a plot device: she really gets it. Tina Chen, the heroine, knows a million ways to cook rice (because she can't afford much else), and she knows that if she goes out with pizza and beer with friends instead of sending that $30 home this week, her little sister won't get her ADHD medicine. Tina works harder than everyone else, juggling a challenging double major (chemistry and computer science), an almost full-time job, and a long commute (because she can't afford to live near school), but she's no Cinderella. She loves her family and they love her, and she toils to serve her own ambitions rather than anyone else's. 

 

Blake Reynolds, the hero, is the son and heir apparent of the founder and CEO of a company that looks a lot like Apple. He's a billionaire (1.4 billion, to be precise, though true precision is impossible due to moment-by-moment stock fluctuations), but not in the impress-girls-by-taking-them-to-Napa-in-my-private-jet sense. Blake has a problems. One particular "problem" -- mild spoiler

(he has an eating/exercise disorder)

(show spoiler)

-- I had not encountered in a romance hero before, and I thought that aspect of the story was both original and skillfully told (though the resolution was a little too tidy). 

 

When you learn in the early chapters that the story, and the title, stems from Blake's scheme to trade places with Tina to avoid some of the stress in his life, you expect that Milan will play the poor-billionaire,-you-don't-know-the-meaning-of-'stress' card for laughs, but Trade Me subverts expectations at every turn. Very little of the book is actually devoted to Blake figuring out how to adjust to Tina's financial straits, nor to Tina reveling in the luxuries of Blake's lavish lifestyle. Though each learns valuable lessons about "how the other half lives", throughout their experiment both Tina and Blake remain true to themselves, both smart, sensitive, caring people paralyzed by their own fears. 

 

There was much of this story that I loved, starting with Milan's unflinchingly honest handling of class issues that we so often ignore in society. I loved Blake, who is all that I love about beta heroes without being stereotypical at all. I loved Tina's and Blake's parents, who are not just stock characters here but fully drawn, complicated, messy, interesting, funny, maddening people who love their children (the feeling's mutual) even as they are partly to blame for the fears that hold Tina and Blake back. I loved Maria, Tina's best friend and roommate, who is frank, honest, funny, and strong. I loved that transgendered is only one of many facets of Maria's identity (just as the fact that Tina is Chinese is only one of many facets of her identity), and I really, really love the news that Maria will get her own book by the end of the year (where do I sign up?). 

 

I didn't love everything, though. Throughout the book, I was bothered that Tina and Blake didn't ring true as college students. I know their above-average intelligence and life experiences would give both maturity beyond their years, but even so, they come across as thirty-somethings who just happen to be in college. I also didn't love the ending of the book, which was chaotic and fast and full of melodrama. Everything that happened fit with the plot, so it wasn't like the end came out of nowhere, but it was a shift in tone and pacing that I found disconcerting. 

 

This is not the best Courtney Milan I've ever read, but it's still very, very good. And if you're worried about the Billionaire Trope, like I was, don't be: one of the very best things about Trade Me is that Milan takes that ridiculous, overdone plot device and recasts it into something that is simultaneously entirely unique and refreshingly authentic. 

Reading progress update: I've listened 55 out of 801 minutes.

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1) - Patrick O'Brian, Patrick Tull

I picked this up as part of Audible's 2-for-1-credit sale a few weeks ago. I'm such a sucker for Tall Ships!

Quite Possibly the Worst Sequel EVER

The Rosie Effect - Graeme Simsion

Last year when I read The Rosie Project, it blew me away. (My review here.) 5 stars, funniest book I'd read in ages, I bought copies for friends and family, I sang its praises to all who would listen. So I had high hopes for The Rosie Effect, but as is so often the case with sequels, I should have quit while I was ahead.

 

The Rosie Project was a joy to read. I devoured it in an afternoon. The Rosie Effect was the opposite: I had to keep taking breaks and thinking about other things because the reading experience was literally traumatizing. This is not a fun read. It's an engaging read, because I enjoyed Rosie and Don so much from the previous book that I pulled for them and wanted to know what would happen, but it's painful, frustrating, vicariously embarrassing, anxiety-provoking, anger-making, and sad.

 

And worst of all? It isn't funny.

 

For those not familiar with the Rosie phenomenon, Don Tillman is a genetics professor whose Asperger's Syndrome (on the autism spectrum) is obvious to everyone but him. Rosie is his medical student wife. She's working on her MD and her PhD at the same time, and as if she were not busy enough with her thesis and her clinical studies, she's now pregnant.

 

In Rosie Project, Rosie was able to use her admirable frankness and open communication to cut through and compensate for Don's social obliviousness. She was willing to be totally blunt and straight-forward in communicating her needs and expectations, because Don does not appreciate subtlety or nuance. In Rosie Effect, she has completely lost that gift, or perhaps she's just stretched too thin and lacks patience. At any rate, Rosie and Don are no longer communicating. His social cluelessness gets him into seriously hot water -- a near arrest at a playground has him facing mandatory mental health evaluation and potential deportation -- but he doesn't tell Rosie about it (or about the snowballing consequences of that initial secret) for fear of causing her stress, which he worries might hurt the baby. Rosie assumes (perhaps because of Don's secretiveness re: the playground incident, or perhaps because of his unorthodox reaction to the news that she was pregnant) that he's not interested in or equipped for parenthood, and she starts preparing to go it alone.

 

See? The entire premise is not funny. In The Rosie Project, it was amusing to watch Don's clueless bumbling and wonder if he'd pull it together enough to make a relationship work. Here, the stakes were much higher, and it's not at all amusing to watch an imperiled marriage get dashed upon the rocks, especially where there's a baby involved. It was heartbreaking and anxiety-provoking to read about Don working so hard to prepare himself for fatherhood, with the best of intentions but due to his disorder making the wrong decision at every turn, and Rosie somehow completely blind to both his efforts and his struggles. 

 

It was doubly frustrating because the Rosie I knew and loved from the first book would never have let this happen. She would never have gotten pregnant without discussing it with Don ahead of time. She would never have expected him to show up at her doctor's appointments without explicitly telling him she wanted him there. She would have told him what she needed and expected at every step in the process, rather than pulling away and letting the chasm between them grow. Her ability to communicate clearly was the key to their relationship--we always knew that things wouldn't be easy for them because Don is so different, but at the end of The Rosie Project the reader could root for them and have faith in their Happy Ever After because Rosie alone knew how to speak to Don on his level. She got him in a way no one else could. And, here, suddenly she doesn't anymore.

 

There's no recovery from that. Even though The Rosie Effect pulls off another Happy Ever After, I no longer believe in Rosie and Don, because I no longer believe in Rosie.

 

The Rosie Problem is exacerbated by the fact that in this second book, Rosie's actions and motivations are not explained until the very end. At that point, finally, the reader can understand and to a certain extent relate to her, but for 80% of the book she was distant and withdrawn and unsympathetic, and not at all the character I remembered so fondly. The explanation, when it came, was enough to make the plot make sense but not enough to restore my shaken faith in Rosie as a character.

 

In The Rosie Project, Don's failure to pick up on social cues and follow social conventions often got him into trouble, to great comedic effect. In the sequel, Don's obliviousness continues to land him in hot water, but these incidents are not funny any more. In fact, most of them are downright terrifying: Don nearly assaults a neighbor and chases him down the street, resulting in Don and Rosie being evicted. Don nearly assaults a cop who quite reasonably suspects Don of being a child molester, resulting in Don being mandated into mental health treatment and nearly being deported. Don's unorthodox behavior makes an federal marshal reasonably suspect Don of being a terrorist, resulting in their flight turning around in mid-air. Don may be too clueless to consider how his behavior impacts the people around him, but the reader isn't, and these incidents just absolutely are not funny.

 

So, my advice: if you haven't already, read The Rosie Project. It's wonderful -- funny, heartwarming, original, thought-provoking, sweet, entertaining. It's entirely delightful.

 

Then stop. Do not read this book. Just Stop. I wish Graeme Simsion had.

 

One Long Cheesy, Clich├ęd Epilogue

Last Call - Alice Clayton

I am pathologically unable to leave a series unfinished. Thank goodness, Alice Clayton's Cocktail series is now finished, and I'm glad to see the end of it. I liked the first book, Wallbanger, which was funny and irreverent and original, despite some flaws -- like a tendency to ramble, a sometimes juvenile tone, and a predictable plot. Unfortunately, as the series went on, the flaws got worse -- more rambly, more juvenile, more predictable -- and the rest of the books were less funny and less original.

 

That said, Clayton's fans will enjoy this little novella, which ties up all of the loose ends in Caroline and Simon's romance (and revisits the HEAs of their friends, who starred in other books in the series) with a neat if unbe-fucking-lievably clichéd little bow. If you are the kind of reader who likes the cheesy epilogues so common in romance novels wherein the hero and heroine either have a fairy-tale wedding or a baby, or both, this book is for you: Last Call is just one long cheesy epilogue. If you're the type who, like me, would rather skip the epilogue and leave the details of the Happy-Ever-After to the imagination, learn from my mistakes, and skip this.

The Douchey Duke: A Redemption Story

The Duke of Dark Desires (The Wild Quartet) - Miranda Neville

I picked this up because of this rave review at SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.com, but I didn't love it. I hadn't read the prior books in the series, which may have helped me warm up to the hero faster than I did, but I didn't have any trouble understanding the plot.

 

As you can tell from the publisher's blurb, the plot here is driven by the ultimate angsty conflict: the heroine's parents and sisters went to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and she has sworn to avenge their deaths by killing the Englishman who betrayed them to authorities... and of course, the hero is that man. At the start of the book, all Jane/Jeanne knows is the man's last name, Fortescue, so she poses as a governess to the sisters of the Duke of Denford, the head of the Fortescue family, in hopes of learning which of his relatives is the betrayer.

 

Julian, the Duke, comes across as a real douchenozzle at first. (Again, if I'd read the previous books in the series, in which he makes several appearances, I might have had a better initial impression of him.) He resents and ignores his three half-sisters, who have been abandoned by their mother into his care. He asks his neighbor (a married woman he apparently attempted to seduce in a prior book) to hire someone to look after them, and when she refuses, he advertises the position himself. However, he cares not at all about the suitability of the candidate; in fact, when he hires Jane, he cares nothing of her qualifications as a governess and only about her qualifications as his mistress. When she takes up the position, he blackmails her for kisses, refusing to keep promises to his sisters unless Jane submits to his advances.

 

That blackmail is even more skeevy and disturbing given Jane's history (which of course Julian, in his defense, doesn't know): Jane is no stranger to sexual coercion. When her family was captured when she was just 15, she escaped the guillotine only because the military official who arrested them took a shine to her, and offered her the opportunity to become his lover in order to save her skin.

 

However, for all of his douchey machinations and manipulations, Jane is the one to ultimately seduce Julian into bed. At that point in the story I still didn't really see the appeal, but she's French and enjoys sex (and okay, I do enjoy sexually-liberated heroines in historical romance, even if they're not very historically accurate), so whatever.

 

As their relationship develops, Julian does begin to be a better man. He takes more interest in his sisters and starts to consider their needs and feelings. He adores Jane (the suddenness and fervor of his feelings felt a little Insta-Lovey), though he doesn't trust her. Even without knowing that Jane was the person most impacted by his youthful mistakes as a young man in Paris--mistakes which culminated in the deaths of an entire aristocratic family--he seeks to expiate his conscience by turning the art collection he bought from that doomed family into a national treasure that can be enjoyed by the public instead of a privileged few.

 

With the sort of poetic irony often found in romance novels, both Jane and Julian individually decide they are each ready to share their secrets with the other, but before they have the chance, the exhibition of Julian's art collection (which of course Jane recognizes) brings the plot's conflict from a rolling boil to a dangerous conflagration. It is a testament to Julian's redemption that by that point I liked him enough to root for him to find a way to unravel the mess he'd made in order to have a happy ending with Jane, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last third of the book much, much more than I liked the first two thirds.

 

If you like a good redemption story, this one is worth checking out.

 

Clever Mouse Detective

Hermelin: The Detective Mouse - Mini Grey

This was a Christmas gift to my boys (4 and 1) from my dad. The 4-year-old and I enjoyed it; it didn't hold the baby's (still very limited) attention. Hermelin is a literate mouse who communicates by means of the old typewriter stored in the attic where she lives. She (actually, I'm only assuming she's a girl; I have no real basis for that) solves mysteries for her human neighbors--mostly finding lost objects, but once engineering the dramatic rescue of a baby from a garbage truck--but when the neighbors realize their benefactor is a mouse instead of a man, Hermelin's help suddenly becomes less welcome. 

 

The illustrations are whimsical and busy (in the sense of highly detailed, not busy as in unpleasantly cluttered), and the story is fun for the pre-k to early elementary child. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Vampire Holiday Novel Strikes Out

Christmas with a Bite (Entangled Covet) (House of Elysian) - Patricia A. Wolf

I don't read a lot of vampire fiction, but when I do, I guess I'm a purist. You can play around with the traditional mythology of vamps all you like -- I don't care about garlic, crucifixes, wooden stakes, or whether or not they can see their reflection in mirrors -- but at the very least, your vampire characters have to avoid sunlight. I don't hold truck with all these newfangled vampires who can walk around at any time, day or night, just like the rest of us. To me, that's a crucial part of the deal of becoming immortal: you can live forever, be fabulously wealthy and unearthly gorgeous, have superhuman speed and senses, and maybe even the ability to read minds or "glamour" mortals into doing your bidding... but you have to give up your summer home in the tropics. Otherwise, what's the real cost of the trade?

 

Connor is one of these New Age-y vamps who can walk around in daylight and eat human food (though it doesn't satisfy, nutritionally). Where's the drama in that? That's Strike One

 

Strike Two: This story was very predictable. If you've ever read a paranormal romance, you know exactly where this story is going from the very first chapter. Vamp meets mortal. Overwhelming sexual attraction convinces vamp that mortal is his Fated Mate. But, vamps can't be with mortals; it's too perilous! Oh, no! Yet this is TRUE LOVE, and not even mortality (or lack of it) can stop TRUE LOVE.

 

Strike Three: This book is unbelievably anticlimactic. It keeps setting up conflicts only to have them resolve with no drama at all. Examples (and here there be spoilers. Though not really, since like I said, the plot's too predictable to really "spoil"): 

 

  • In the first chapter, Mara gets in a car accident in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere and gets chased by a pack of wolves. Just as she's about to be eaten by the wolves, Connor rescues her. (You there! I see you rolling your eyes at me!) You might think that maybe these wolves will matter to the story, like maybe they'll turn out to be shapeshifters and Connor's mortal enemies or something... but no. They're just hungry wolves. In a snowstorm. In Texas. Whatevs. 

 

  • Connor's all, "I can't possibly have sex with this woman. No mortals for me." -And then he does. Of course. -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 

 

  • Connor's vampire parents (Dad's uber-grumpy, Mom's uber-sweet; both are kind of creepy in their uber-ness) are all, "No mortals for you, Connor!" -And then they invite Mara to dinner and are perfectly nice to her. -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 

 

  • Connor's all, "But the laws of our people say my mate must be an immortal, and here I'm in love with a human, oh! Woe is me!" - And then his best friend is like, "Chill out, Dude, I happen to have this magical amulet that makes people immortal in my back pocket, and you can have it for free since we're such good buddies." -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 

 

If this were baseball, this book would already be out of strikes, but there were more. Connor reveals his Dangerous Secret to Mara, and she (reasonably) decides she needs some time to think about it. He gives her about ten minutes, and then shows up at her house on Christmas morning bearing insanely expensive gifts not only for her but also for everyone in her family -- like, jewelry for Mara's mom, and an all-expenses paid trip to Aruba without the kids for Mara's sister and husband, and rather than saying, "Buddy, you can't buy your way into this family, and by the way it's kind of stalkery to buy my family members the exact perfect gifts that you know are perfect because of vampire-y mind reading, especially since we've only been dating for a week", Mara and her folks are all, "Oooh, shiny!" 

 

Connor doesn't glitter. But this book couldn't have been any worse if he did. 

 

Short, sexy holiday novella

Her Christmas Earl: A Regency Novella - Anna Campbell

I've never read Anna Campbell, but I enjoyed this holiday novella well enough that I intend to check out some of her longer works (even though historical romance hasn't been working well for me lately). 

 

Philippa's beautiful, flirtatious, scatterbrained sister Amelia has just become engaged, but her reputation could be ruined if anyone learns of the love letter Amelia sent to the rakish Earl of Erskine (who is not her fiancé). Philippa breaks into the Earl's chamber in an effort to recover the damaging letter, but her own reputation is destroyed when she and the Earl get trapped in the chamber together. When they are discovered in the morning, only a hasty marriage can repair the damage -- but Philippa doesn't want to be tied forever to a man who doesn't want her. However, having lived so long in her sister's shadow, Philippa underestimates her own charms. The Earl wasn't looking for marriage, but he's not at all sorry about his lot. 

 

Short, but well-written, sexy, and satisfying. As I said, I'll be checking out some of Anna Campbell's longer work!

Free Hanukkah Novella From the Smartest Bitch in Romance

Lighting the Flames: A Hanukkah Story - Sarah Wendell

Sarah Wendell, of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, has a philosophy I really admire: any time she complains about something more than twice, she feels the need to personally do something to fix the problem. In this case, the third time she found herself lamenting the lack of Hanukkah-themed romance, she sat down and wrote this novella. 

 

I'm not Jewish, and the idea of a religious camp for families sort of went over my head, so I think there are a lot of readers who will get a lot more out of this story than I did. That said, I still enjoyed the read. Genevieve and Jeremy have been friends forever, first as campers at Meira, then as counselors, but both the camp and their friendship are threatened. The camp is in financial straits, and in an attempt to earn money and drum up summer business, Meira has a special winter session during Hanukkah. Genevieve and Jeremy are counselors together, but this will be the last time: even if the camp manages to stay open, they are adults now, and Jeremy especially can't get the time off from his real job (in his family's Jewish mortuary) to work summers any more. 

 

That's right: the hero of this novella is a mortician. A daring choice, no? 

 

There are some dark and twisty themes in this story -- Jeremy's career, Genevieve's grief over the recent death of her parents, the loss of childhood innocence and the onset of adult responsibility -- but as Smart Bitches readers will expect, the story zips along, propelled by Wendell's snarky dialogue, and there were a few points where I laughed out loud. 

 

Bonus: I'm pretty sure this is FREE right now at most e-booksellers. 

Can't Leave a Series Unfinished

Suddenly Last Summer - Sarah Morgan

I am almost pathologically unable to leave a series unfinished. If I hate the first book, I can walk away, but once I've read two or more, I feel compelled to close out the series even when I'm just not that in to it. That's why I read Sarah Morgan's Suddenly Last Summer, a summertime contemporary sandwiched between the Christmas-themed Sleigh Bells in the Snow, which I read last December and rated 2.5 stars, and Maybe This Christmas, which I read last week and rated 3.5 stars. In reading Maybe This Christmas, I discovered that I'd missed this book, and had to go back and close out the trilogy even though none of the three books really stood out from the crowd.

 

Suddenly Last Summer is the story of Sean O'Neil, an orthopedic surgeon whose love of career leaves no time for relationships, and Elise Somebody, the chef at the O'Neil family resort. Elise is also a workaholic, but her resistance to relationships has more to do with her abusive ex-husband than with her work schedule. Sean and Elise have steamy chemistry, but neither wants anything more than sex. When each starts to develop Feelings, they both get uncomfortable and things get messy.

 

I'm not a fan of I-don't-want-to-love-you-because-REASONS stories. You know what I mean: where the conflict between the lovers is entirely in the characters' heads and not based on any real obstacle. This is such a story. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. I finished the series.

 

That is all.