What I’ve been reading lately – books about librarians and trouble

It’s true. I mean, I’ve been pretty much on hiatus for two months (I started writing this post on Sept. 5), so you can safely assume that I’ve been reading lots of books about lots of things, but isn’t it more interesting to focus on just the books about librarians and trouble? (And isn’t it interesting that there has been more than one such book published in the last few months?)

I like to believe that there’s a collective consciousness that binds all creation (read into that statement what you will). A number of years ago, I read Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, my introduction to this concept. Pardon the paraphrase — my memory is not fantastic, and it’s been about a decade since my last read. In Piedra, one of the characters talks about simultaneous leaps that occur in human and animal populations (I’m fairly certain the book mentions monkey populations — possibly on different islands of Papua New Guinea (or some other place with islands) — that spontaneously and simultaneously began a new practice of washing bananas and that those populations did not have any contact with each other to share the idea). I like to believe that this collective consciousness is the reason that Deep Impact and Armageddon were developed and released within months of each other (and also Volcano and Dante’s Peak.)

And, now, it’s brought us two books about librarians who are involved in some kind of trouble. It seems reasonable to me to discuss these books in the order of their release, so first up is Victoria Dahl’s Looking for Trouble.

A good reason to be bad…

Librarian Sophie Heyer has walked the straight and narrow her entire life to avoid paying for her mother’s mistakes. But in tiny Jackson Hole, Wyoming, juicy gossip just doesn’t go away, so the last thing she needs is for history to repeat itself. Falling hard for the sexiest biker who’s ever rode into town would undo everything she’s worked for. And to add insult to injury, the sexy stranger is none other than Alex Bishop–the son of the man her mother abandoned Sophie’s family for. He may be temptation on wheels, but Sophie’s not looking for trouble!

Maybe Sophie’s buttoned-up facade fools some, but Alex knows a naughty smile when he sees one. Despite their parents’ checkered pasts, he’s willing to take some risks to find out the truth about the town librarian. He figures a little fling might be just the ticket to get his mind off of family drama. But what he finds underneath Sophie’s prim demeanor might change his world in ways he never expected.

This book brings together secondary characters from two of Dahl’s previous books, Alex, the missing brother who is mentioned but does not appear in Too Hot to Handleand Sophie, the sassy and awesome friend in Fanning the Flames. I loved so many things about Looking for Trouble, and I’m just going to throw them in a list:

  1. Sophie has such a wonderful blend of vulnerability and strength. She is confident in her sexuality, despite the complications of her back story, yet she is (understandably) cautious and reserved in sharing her sexuality with anyone who might know the story of her past. This reserve causes some dissonance between her outward appearance and her inner life, and Dahl does amazing things with it. Sophie owns her sensuality — she wears beautiful lingerie because she loves it, because it makes her feel sexy, not because some dude is going to see it — and she shares it, a gift, when she wants. I loved how sex-positive the narrative is, that Sophie accepts and delights in her own sexuality even as she keeps it hidden from her neighbors, that she recognizes that the problem is not that she possesses any sexuality but rather that those who know the story of her family can’t seem to resist judging her and finding her amoral.
  2. One of my favorite things about Dahl’s writing is that I can always count on her to give her heroines awesome lady friends. There is a tendency in romance fiction, probably for no nefarious reason and just in the interest of tight plotting, to isolate heroines — and sometimes heroes, too — and focus exclusively on the central love story. (Tangent: the result is that if heroines are shown to have friends, their conversation revolves exclusively around the love interest. It bothers me when I read books wherein the heroes have a group of friends who discuss all kinds of things — business interests, perhaps, or recreational plans — but the heroines are either completely isolated or only shown talking to their girlfriend(s) about the hot guy./tangent) Looking for Trouble (and the super awesome novella that sets it up, Fanning the Flames, which has a librarian heroine and a firefighter hero, you guys) is a spin-off on Dahl’s Jackson [Hole] series and focuses on a group of lady friends and their romantic hijinks. These lady friends have a regular girls’ night out, so they can catch up with each other, talk about work and family frustrations, tell stories, support each other, and make questionable decisions due to alcohol consumption.
  3. Dahl writes some of the dirtiest love scenes you can find outside of erotica/erotic romance. (I’m comfortable with all levels of heat in books, from smoldering glances to surprise AP (and beyond), but I prefer when the heat level reflects the characters and fits within the rest of the book. There’s nothing more jarring than reading a sweet, small-town romance that suddenly feels as though it took a sharp left to Pornville.) The love scenes in Looking for Trouble are intense because the characters are, because their motivations and desires are complicated and go way beyond hand holding and gentle embraces. I know the lines between genre romance and erotic romance are sort of blurry, but I think one could make an argument that this book is borderline erom because the sex scenes are crucial to the story and one of the key ways the characters relate to and discover each other.
  4. There’s also some great discussion about shaming within communities.

But my favorite thing about the book is the way it handles compromise. This is one of those stories where the characters seem to be on divergent paths. Alex seems pretty much like this guy (except, you know, in a good way.)

And Sophie seems tied to her community, unwilling or unable to consider leaving it. For a while, I wasn’t sure how things could work out for these two, and that made it all the sweeter when they decided to work together, to be partners in finding a solution to their geography problem. Characters working together as partners? What a novel concept.

About a month after I read Dahl’s book, I picked up Lauren Dane’s The Best Kind of Trouble. I follow Dane on Twitter, and I’ve been curious about her books for a while (but I thought she was a PNR/UF author, and I don’t read much of that. Turns out I was wrong, anyway, and she’s a versatile author of all the things.) I mostly liked this book and am planning on reading the next book in the series (out later this month). Plenty of other folks have absolutely loved this book, but there were a few things about it that kind of annoyed me. It’s possible that it just ran into some of my pet peeves. Whatever. Overall, I liked it.

She has complete control… and he’s determined to take it away

A librarian in the small town of Hood River, Natalie Clayton’s world is very nearly perfect. After a turbulent childhood and her once-wild ways, life is now under control. But trouble has a way of turning up unexpectedly—especially in the tall, charismatically sexy form of Paddy Hurley….

And Paddy is the kind of trouble that Natalie has a taste for.

Even after years of the rock and roll lifestyle, Paddy never forgot the two wickedly hot weeks he once shared with Natalie. Now he wants more… even if it means tempting Natalie and her iron-grip control. But there’s a fine line between well-behaved and misbehaved—and the only compromise is between the sheets!

The Best Kind of Trouble has wonderful secondary characters (I absolutely loved Paddy’s family, and Natalie’s group of friends reminded me of the friends other people seemed to make in college. <– I made all my friends in junior high and made a whopping 2 friends in college because… wait for it… I spent all my time with my nose in a book — or headphones on my ears.) that, to me, really made the book. I had a few issues with the romance between Natalie and Paddy, but I still managed to enjoy the reading experience because there were so many fantastic characters (building so much promise for future books in the series).

This book reminded me a little bit of a Harlequin Superromance (to be clear: that’s my favorite kind of category romance. I love those books; they are my reading catnip.). Dane builds a world around this group of brother musicians, their extended families, and their home town, and she weaves in the heroine (who has settled down in that town after a tumultuous past) and her friends. When they’re not recording new music or going on tour, the brothers are working the family ranch (to earn their rugged physiques, perhaps), so they’re kind of a lethal combo: rock stars and cowboys.

I really liked Natalie. She’s fought for the life she loves. Her family sucks, so she formed a friend family and relies on them for support. She’s got issues, but she’s remarkably well-adjusted. She’s a grown up, and she’s someone I’d want to hang out with. (And I related to her coffee and sweets fixation.) I liked Paddy before he and Natalie got together; he’s charming, funny, a little bit intense, and I loved that he pursued Natalie without being creepy about it, respecting her boundaries even while pushing his suit.

To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed just about every aspect of The Best Kind of Trouble except Paddy and Natalie’s relationship. And I’m a little surprised that I didn’t like it. I mentioned that I go nuts for Superromance titles… one of the things I like about those books is that they show relationships set within the context of life — all the messy work and family issues that can make it hard for a relationship to thrive. This book shows exactly that sort of thing — Paddy and Natalie struggling to make it work, to work past their issues, to find time for each other in their busy (and full) adult lives — and I should have gone absolutely apeshit for it. But I didn’t. For me, it all came down to Paddy: I just didn’t think he was a good boyfriend. He’s fantastic in the sack, sure, but every time an issue or misunderstanding comes up, Paddy responds with this line, “This is my first real relationship, you know, and I’m doing the best I can!” And that got kind of old to me. Paddy does a whole bunch of unbelievably stupid and/or hurtful things, and all he can say is that he’s new at this whole relationship thing, so we shouldn’t judge him? It makes him seem so childish and whiny, which is ridiculous! I can’t remember how old he actually is, but I’ll tell you what — it’s old enough to behave like a fucking adult.

By the time the end rolled around, I was just done with him, and I’m not sure that any amount of groveling would have won me over. I wanted Natalie to end up with someone who wasn’t (or — to be more fair — didn’t act like) a self-obsessed asshole. I wanted to believe in the happily ever after, but…

Maybe I’m being too hard on Paddy. Maybe this is just my issue. I know a lot of readers who have a hard time with difficult heroines, and maybe I’m just a reader who has a hard time with difficult heroes. (tangent: I do tend to have an expectation of lots and lots of groveling — not just showing up in a limo with a cheap bouquet of flowers — whenever the hero’s douchebaggery has been the cause of conflict in a book, and I tend to be incredibly disappointed when the dude just rides in with his limo and flowers as though just showing up, just publicly (if lamely) professing his love for the heroine, or even just professing “Hey, I’m here!” or “I’m back!” is enough. It’s not enough./tangent)

Let’s talk! Have you ever read a book that, by all rights, you should have loved (but didn’t)? Do you have a reading bias? Have you read any other books about librarians and trouble? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter! I love to talk about books.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of these books courtesy of Harlequin via NetGalley for review consideration.*

Kelly and Kim’s discussion of Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly

So one day my buddy Kim sent me a text asking me if I’d be interested in reading Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly, which some readers said reminded them of Charlotte Stein’s writing style. I love me some Stein, so I was all over it. Read on, and Kim and I will tell you all about our thoughts.

Setting up the money shot…

Quiet, sensible Ellie Smithson is a highly respectable photographer by day – but there are only so many wedding photo-shoots you can take without your mind wandering to what happens when the blissfully happy bride is swept off her feet and straight to the honeymoon suite’s sumptuous four-poster bed…

So after dark, Ellie takes pictures of a more…intimate nature – a dirty little secret she’s kept from her accountant Tom. Until now. It seems Tom is the subject of her next racy shoot!

It isn’t just the blurring of work and personal boundaries that’s the problem; secretly Ellie has always had fantasies of a most unprofessional nature about the almost illegally gorgeous Tom. With such temptation on display, how will she ever stay behind the camera?!

The first book in the Indecent… trilogy.

Kim: Kelly had always told me how much I would love reading Charlotte Stein. I love me some dirty, filthy reads from time to time and Stein fills that box. When I heard that Jane O’Reilly could also fill that box I was indeed intrigued.

Ellie, our heroine, is what got me hooked into the story. I loved her double life so much! On one hand we have a photographer who does fantastic portraits, weddings, babies….you know the typical things a professional photographer photographs. (Say that ten times fast!)

And on the other is the Ellie who photographs deeply sexual and erotic images.  She lives vicariously through her clients and their shoots.

Kelly: I enjoyed Ellie’s double life, too. It’s kind of a parallel to the double life any erotica reader has, right? We’re probably not reading this stuff all the time. Our lives are full of standard fare: work, family, friends, weddings, funerals, etc. Sometimes we read nonfiction, mainstream fiction, romance, sci-fi.  And some of us have e-readers or bookshelves full of dirty, filthy stories that we probably don’t talk about at our book club meetings. (Unless we belong to the best kind of book club.) Anyway, I loved Ellie, because she’s totally neurotic and relatable.

Kim: And how about Tom? And his wonderful, deliciously dirty mouth? He seems all prim and proper from Ellie’s descriptions of him, but when he’s allowed to speak for himself, boy can he turn up the heat. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable at times, and I seriously wanted to cut it with a knife. But he isn’t just a dirty mouth. We learn that he needs to sometimes do outrageous things and get tattoos.

Kelly: Sometimes accountants have to, you know? It can be a boring job… unless you’re SUPER into spreadsheets and numbers…

Kim: HA! He does enjoy his spreadsheets and numbers, but also enjoys voyeurism, boxing, and Ellie’s erotic photography.

Kelly: Tom and Ellie serve as interesting foils for the other. Both are somewhat buttoned up, hidden, and repressed in their professional lives, and both fight against that repression (albeit in very different ways). Tom is much more accepting of himself and his needs; Ellie feels shame over hers. In a way, they seem to be a fairly decent example of how modern culture accepts (even assumes) the desires of men but shames those of women.

Kim: I want to delve more into what Kelly said about Tom and Ellie. Their foil-ish qualities help each other realize that what they repress doesn’t need to be considered shameful. There is nothing wrong with Tom enjoying erotic photography or adrenaline pumping activities. Look at all the people in the world who go skydiving or base jumping. His past makes his feelings of shame understandable, but thankfully Ellie helps him bring that side out. Shows him it’s ok to be himself.

Ellie meanwhile (with Tom’s help) undergoes a personal sexual awakening that makes her find beauty in the erotic photographs she takes. And Kelly’s right about society shaming women for their desires. Ellie thinks she should have to keep her business (and her enjoyment of sex) a secret. She’s unable to ask for what she wants sexually due to embarrassment over her desires. I’m glad O’Reilly added this little dig at our social norms and chose to let Ellie discover herself, effectively overcoming this stigma.

Kelly:  So Tom and Ellie are wonderful, and their scenes are interesting (and filthy), but… let’s talk about the setup for a bit. Because the plot and conflict in this story are a little strange. So Ellie’s best friend Amber has discovered that her boyfriend has not only been cheating on her, he’s gone and proposed to the other woman. So she’s like, I’ll show him! So she tells the guy in line behind her at the bank — that’s Tom, Ellie’s accountant — that Ellie takes erotic photos, and would he like a blow job (that Ellie will photograph). And he says yes, of course. (Of course.) Amber asks Ellie for this super special photo of the event, and Ellie doesn’t quite get the shot, because she’s distracted by Tom, how much she likes him, and how jealous she feels in the moment. That super special photo (more accurately the lack of it) ends up being one of the major pieces of conflict driving the story, which makes no sense to me.

Kim: Much is made about the friendship between Ellie and Amber, like how much Ellie owes Amber for keeping her “together.” I’m not really sure what she went through that Amber kept her from breaking apart, but I truly never understand their friendship.

Ellie tells nobody about her side business. Nobody but Amber. And here we have Amber taking advantage of it, telling Ellie’s accountant about it, just so she can get back at a cheating boyfriend. Which, not for nothing honey, but if he chose another woman over you chances are a picture of you blowing some other dude isn’t going to piss him off.

Kelly: Yeah, no kidding. But Amber’s obsessed with showing this money shot image to her Cheaty Mccheater boyfriend, convinced that it’ll make her feel better (how?). And Ellie — the narrator of this piece — pretty much just goes along with it (and you get the idea that that’s how their friendship goes: Amber behaves in incredibly selfish and destructive ways and Ellie just goes with it because she has few friends, anyway, and she feels a debt of gratitude to Amber, because Amber helped Ellie get through her difficult school years. Also, I suspect that Ellie is a bit of an unreliable narrator at times.). The more Amber rages about the cheater, the more Ellie capitulates. And even when Ellie and Tom act on their mutual attraction, Ellie still isn’t able to separate herself from Amber’s will. It’s very strange how Ellie sees herself as Amber’s necessary pawn. Fortunately for us readers, Tom doesn’t, and he spares us what would otherwise be a very awkward scene.

Kim: What really pissed me off was when Amber yelled at Ellie for not being honest with her about her feelings for Tom. As if she could with Amber hollering all the time about “why didn’t you get the money shot?!!?!”

AND THEN Amber’s ending (in this story at least). KGJKLGJ:KSGJLKDJKDFK

I’m so angry I can’t produce words. All that drama was for nothing!!! Amber’s selfishness knows no bounds. She truly cares for herself and her pleasure only.

Kelly: yeah.. It might have been better if the actual conflict of the story had stayed focused on Ellie and Tom and their respective drama. Of course, how would they ever have discovered the other’s inner pervert if they’d remained ever accountant and client? (I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure a lot of folks could come up with plenty of scenarios that didn’t involve revenge BJs. Just saying.) Anyway, so much page time was given to Amber and her stupid drama that the actual conflict of the story — Ellie and her issues and Tom and his and their budding romance (and boinking) — got shifted to the side a bit, and it sort of falls flat, in the end. (I thought.) I also thought they stumbled toward love — in the forever way — a little too quick.

Kim: Agreed! It was a bit magic penis if you will.

Kelly: Yeah, just a bit.

Kim’s final thoughts: Even with Amber and the magic penis bit, I still genuinely enjoyed the novella. I enjoyed seeing two people cast off the shame society made them feel and come into their own. By the end of the book Ellie and Tom know who they are and, as such, are able to bask in the newness of their relationship and (too fast) love for each other.

Kelly’s final thoughts: I liked it, too.  It’s funny, because I’d already read a bunch of Charlotte Stein’s books, and — at first — the similar style and voice threw me off. But I just re-read this novella today, and it seemed a lot more distinct and original (and un-Stein, if that makes sense) than when I first read it several months ago. It’s possible that on my first read, I paid attention to the things that seemed familiar. On the surface it seems just like it’s using a Stein trope, as though neurotic characters + dirty sex = “in the style of Charlotte Stein”.  But on a second read, that similarity seemed incidental. Or maybe I just want all erotica to be written in the style of Charlotte Stein. Whatever. I’ll be keeping an eye out in future for Jane O’Reilly.

Kim and Kelly’s discussion of Salvation by Noelle Adams

Kim and I finally found some time to write together! It’s the most amazing thing ever. Anyway, this book (and maybe the review?) should come with a big ol’ trigger warning. So consider yourself warned.

You get to the point where you can just say it. There was never anything special about me, except my father is rich and important. That’s why it happened.

It was just a normal Tuesday afternoon. I was twenty-three and thinking about my new designer boots. They kidnapped me for ransom. They raped me before I was rescued. My therapist says that talking about it means I’m starting to heal.

I don’t really think I am.

It’s even harder to talk about Gideon. He couldn’t save me when it really mattered, so he keeps trying to save me now. He refuses to give up on me, and I can’t make him understand. There are some things you just can’t be saved from.

Kelly: I have a terrible memory, so Kim had to remind me why I read this book. Not kidding. It went like this: a few months ago, I got into this EPIC Twitter convo with a bunch of awesome ladies about books (and by books, I mean romance novels. You knew that, right?) that deal with taboo subjects: rape between the H/h with eventual HEA, older woman, domestic violence between the H/h with eventual HEA, etc. Our list of taboos was lengthy, but I (predictably) can’t remember all of them. Kim saw part of our convo and was like, hey, there’s this Noelle Adams book that’s about the heroine dealing with surviving a gang rape. And I thought, well. I guess I have to read that book. So I did. Once I finished it, I texted Kim and was like “KIM. KIMMMMMM. KIM. KIM!!! YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK.” So she did. Because that’s how we roll.

Kim: I knew Salvation was going to be a tough read and was hesitant to read it until Kelly gave me the green light. I was hesitant because I wasn’t interested in reading a book about a taboo subject that ended up being a story of fathomless despair. Reading taboo subjects is already hard enough on a reader’s emotions and I really wanted to know that getting through this book (and its rough subject matter) was worthwhile and offered hope. (Hope is my favorite emotion – more on that later)

Kelly: This book does deal with taboo subject matter (not necessarily a formalized taboo within the romance genre, but it’s definitely a cultural taboo), but I want to reassure you that it’s not one of the types I mentioned above. I mean, if you read the blurb, you know that, but I just wanted to make it perfectly clear that we’re not suggesting you read a book that brings an HEA to a gang-raping hero. We have some standards over here. Anyway.

Kim: We definitely have standards. I’ve DNF’d a book for having a heroine fall in love with her kidnapping hero. NOPE. Not ok to drug someone and kidnap them for your own pleasure. ANYWAY – I’m off on a tangent here. I’ll throw it back to Kelly :)

Kelly: Salvation opens with the kidnapping and resulting trauma and then follows the incremental, often difficult, recovery for both characters. It’s not quite a day-by-day retelling, however; in fact, it’s possible that there was actually an editor on this book.

Kim: I agree with Kelly 100%. Adams’ books can become way overzealous in the attention to monotonous details. Thankfully the details that were included in Salvation were specifically chosen (IMO) to help us understand Diana’s mindset after the rape. As someone who has never gone through what Diana has, the sparser details made me look for the importance of the details we were given.

Kelly: Well, and honestly… Adams is telling a story in this book. There is character and story development along the way, an actual narrative arc (a plot!!), and an eventual HEA that is satisfying. In some of her earlier stories, it sometimes feels as though she’s just regurgitating carefully taken notes from her research — some of it conducted through interviews, I’d guess — and it pretty much reads like that, too. (Hmm.. I didn’t intend to seem so harsh, but… there it is. I apparently get upset when I read an entire book hoping for a story and don’t end up getting one.) ANYWAY, Adams fixes all that, here, editing out all the nonsense and giving us a clear story about these characters, their recovery from trauma, and the development of their romance.

Kim: I’m thinking that maybe because rape is such a sensitive topic, she spent way more time on this book than her previous ones. I think also, this book is way more about Diana’s journey, than about her journey with Gideon. Also something that differs from her other books – the focus on an individual journey instead of the couple’s. Even though the romance wasn’t front and center it still seemed very organic.

Kelly: I think you’re right that the focus is on her story, and — though I’m a romance reader who wants her romance front and center, damn it! — it didn’t bother me during my first read of this book that the romance storyline was occasionally sidelined. But later, when I read the book a second time, I felt a bit more conflicted about it. One of the (two) hallmarks of genre romance is that the romance storyline be the central focus of the story; and that’s just not the case, here. It’s still a damn interesting book, and one that I don’t hesitate to recommend to readers who can stomach its difficult elements, but dyed-in-the-wool genre romance readers need to know that the focus of the story is on Diana’s recovery — it’s her story — and their relationship’s development (and Gideon’s story) gets much less page time.

Kim: I agree that dyed-in-the-wool genre readers might be bothered by the fact that the romance is not the central storyline, but I think Diana and her recovery journey may win them over.

Kelly: It’s true. I wonder if it’s just because the book is a first-person narration and Diana’s issues are legion. Like, of course everything else is going to take a backseat to all that in Diana’s POV.

Kim: That’s a good point. We only ever get Diana’s perspective and as such of course her journey is the most important focal point.

Kelly:OK, before we talk about anything that bothered either of us about the book (I have a few bones to pick), let’s talk about what we liked.

Kim: I absolutely loved that this book was not afraid to go to dark places. Diana’s recovery process goes through tons of ups and downs. She begins to harm herself by running on her treadmill for hours. Her feet are blistered and bloody, she sprains her ankle and continues running on it, her muscles are way overused, etc etc. Her mindset as she runs is to just run until the pain of the rape and life goes away. She also attempts suicide at one point. When she tries to go back out into society she is petrified of anyone being behind her, or of being in loud and crowded spaces.

I won’t say that I enjoyed reading about how dark of a place Diana’s mind goes, but I like that this book didn’t shy away from the tough. Recovering from being raped….I can’t even imagine how difficult of a process that is.

Kelly: Exactly; if the book hadn’t gotten that dark, it wouldn’t have felt authentic at all. One thing I worried about when I read the blurb (and when it first became clear just what horrors await our heroine) is that the romance between these survivors — the woman whose body was violated and the man who couldn’t prevent it from happening — would seem like it came from nowhere, or — to say it better — as though Gideon’s feelings developed exclusively from his case of survivor’s guilt. Although that’s a huge part of his initial impulse to reach out to Diana, the feelings he ends up developing for her come about because he genuinely enjoys spending time in her company (even though she’s all fucked up).

Kim: Authentic was the exact word I was looking for! I was also worried we’d have a case of “magic penis.”

Kelly: I know, right? Like: Gideon: hey Diana, I get that you’ve been gang raped and that you’re all traumatized about it, but… say hello to my little friend! Diana: Oh, wow! I’m all better now! That’s a beautiful penis!

Kim: Way too often everything is suddenly solved by the “magic penis.” I give Adams a lot of credit for making sex a problem between Diana and Gideon and not the solution to their issues. WAY more realistic than “We had sex, now we’re in love, I was raped, but your penis saved me!” HOORAY HEA!!!!!!

Kelly: Exactly, especially because this book could be triggering to some, and the magic solution via a penis would be… well, problematic. Instead, Diana battles through her issues, goes to therapy, creates problems for herself with all the self-harm (and the self-imposed notion that she should just be OVER it already), gets back on the wagon, and keeps healing. When the friendship with Gideon deepens into a relationship, they take it very slow. It might not sound like the most fun book in the world to read, but I actually found it very interesting as a piece on recovery from trauma and the role that love can play in all that. Honestly, it was just neat that the narrative took the whole healing process very seriously. It is a process, it takes time, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing that works for everyone. Diana went into her trauma with her own issues, and her recovery reflects those pre-existing issues.

Kim: I loved the slowness of her recovery and how respectful Gideon was of the time she needed to heal. I LOVED Gideon. LOVEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDD

Gideon was just…..wonderful. He knows when to push Diana and when to let her move at her own pace. He is constantly reinforcing that she is a good person, with a good heart. That she has the ability to love and to be ok again. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make her see that his feelings for her aren’t out of a misplaced sense of guilt, but because of the person he sees inside of her. He gets the tattoos that he had on him (for the undercover part of his job) removed knowing they might trigger bad memories for Diana.

Kelly: I’m with you — Gideon is great, and I genuinely enjoyed Diana too, even though we’re seeing her at rather a low point. These characters are both great, and they’re great once they finally get together. One thing that bothered me about the book was how long it took to get there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Adams didn’t push Diana’s recovery or make everything pat ‘n’ perfect, but there was a little too much back and forth on how Diana wanted Gideon around but didn’t want him to ruin his life for her because she was never going to recover. Maybe one or two mentions of that would have been enough, but my memories of the first half of the book are pretty much like this:

Diana: Gideon, I love you being around, and I want to spend time with you, but I’m holding you back from living your life.
Gideon: No, you’re not. I’ve got nothing better to be doing.
Diana: Yes, I am.
Gideon: No, you’re not.
Diana: You must date other people! I demand it!
Gideon: *sigh* OK.

— time passes —

Diana, to herself: Gideon’s never around anymore. I guess he’s moved on. *weeping*
Gideon, to himself: I really wish I could go spend time with Diana, but I guess she doesn’t want me around. *manly near-weeping*

— time passes —

Diana: Gideon, I’m glad you’re spending more time with me, and I really do want to spend time with you, but I’m holding you back from living your life.
Gideon: No, you’re not. I want to be here. I don’t want to date anyone else.
Diana: Yes, I am, because I’m never going to get better.
Gideon: No, you’re not (and yes, you are!)
Diana: *weeping*
Gideon: *sigh*

I’d have been happier if the back-and-forth stuff had been edited down some because the angst of all those seemingly unrequited feelings on both sides overshadowed some of the genuine emotion of the actual story.

 Kim: The back-and-forth and back-and-forth did get a little tiresome. But set against how slowly (not judging her here) the rest of her recovery moves I get her “I’m never going to get better” mentality. And considering she withdrew from everybody she knew and nobody but Gideon made an effort to really see her and gauge her healing, I get why she thought she was ruining his life. Nobody else really found time for her struggle. Her friends try to see her, she says no, and they’re like ok! See you later. Gideon is the only one who forces his presence on her.

 Kelly: Oh, I totally get that there were those issues, but I just wish they’d taken up less space in the book. The story was moving forward, I was invested in the characters, in Diana’s journey, and then… it lost momentum for a bit while Diana and Gideon had the same conversation several times over, with no resolution in sight until one day — DING — Diana gets her hope back. I think the story managed to regain its momentum, but, for a while there, I struggled to remain in the story. It’s an example of the thing Adams struggles with in her writing (or seems to), balancing her storytelling with her obvious inclination to tell the whole truth about her characters. Sometimes her writing lacks focus.

 Kim: I think I understand where you’re going. And the only thing I can think to say is that we were both impatient for Diana to have SOME goodness and happiness in her life. The back-and-forth of her emotions was difficult to take at times, especially when it seemed like Diana had finally gotten to a good place only to spiral downward in her feelings again. It does at times feel like a lack of focus on Adams’ part.

 At the same time, I’m not sure what I would have taken out or edited down. For Diana to grow and heal she needed to go through the process she did and part of that was pushing Gideon away the way she did everyone else. I wish we didn’t have to watch it happen so many times, but somewhere in her head she rationalized pushing him away to see if he would come back.

 Kelly: Well, you’ve got a good point there. And the bottom line is that I enjoyed reading the book, and I think it’s the best edited of all the Noelle Adams books I’ve read.

 Kim: Definitely. Props to your editor Ms. Adams! (And you!)

 Kelly’s Final Thoughts: While it’s a difficult book to read in many ways, it’s also powerful and well worth the effort. After I read Salvation, I wanted to read other books that depict characters in recovery, preferably within genre romance. A few days ago, I finished Maya Rodale’s What a Wallflower Wants, the final book in her Wallflower series, and I was impressed by how Rodale handled the subject of recovery while keeping the romance (a swoony one, at that) decidedly front and center.

 Kim’s Final Thoughts: Thank you Ms. Adams for writing a book about a subject not oft discussed and illustrating that while rape is a difficult subject to read about, it doesn’t need to be a taboo one.

 If interested in reading journeys of other rape victims Kelly and Kim suggest:

  • Summer Rain - an anthology featuring Ruthie Knox, Mary Ann Rivers, Cecilia Tan, Molly O’Keefe, and others
  •  What A Wallflower Wants by Maya Rodale
  • The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • What an Earl Wants by Kasey Michaels
  • One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl
  • The Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill (with a big ol’ caveat: the hero is the rapist. I still liked it and recommend it, but…. be warned. Be very warned.)

 Hey, you at home! Are there any more books you can suggest to add to our list (or recs for me to check out? I’m a sucker for books that deal with sexual assault. 

So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.

Review – The Beautiful Ashes by Jeaniene Frost

I was planning to have this post up first thing this morning, but an evil migraine intervened. And then once I could see again, I got kind of caught up in a book that I just had to finish, no matter how much it hurt to read. Anyway. My buddy Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) got me to read Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series (VLAD. ‘Nuff said.), and I surprised the holy hell out of myself by liking it. A lot. So when I was given a chance to read the first book in Frost’s new series, I jumped on it with hand-clapping glee. I guess this post is part of a blog tour (maybe?), so there’s a tour-wide giveaway of some sort. I wasn’t really paying attention to the details… I’m just here to talk about the book.

In a world of shadows, anything is possible. Except escaping your fate.

Ever since she was a child, Ivy has been gripped by visions of strange realms just beyond her own. But when her sister goes missing, Ivy discovers the truth is far worse—her hallucinations are real, and her sister is trapped in a parallel realm. And the one person who believes her is the dangerously attractive guy who’s bound by an ancient legacy to betray her.

Adrian might have turned his back on those who raised him, but that doesn’t mean he can change his fate…no matter how strong a pull he feels toward Ivy. Together they search for the powerful relic that can save her sister, but Adrian knows what Ivy doesn’t: that every step brings Ivy closer to the truth about her own destiny, and a war that could doom the world. Sooner or later, it will be Ivy on one side and Adrian on the other. And nothing but ashes in between…

I don’t foray much into paranormal/urban fantasy stuff, so you’ll have to take my thoughts with a giant bucket of salt. The thing is, I tend to set a fairly low bar for PNR/UF stuff, not because I think the genre unworthy but because I read it so infrequently that I haven’t yet learned how to set adequately high expectations of it. So this is what I expect from the PNR/UF books that I end up reading: 1. that they have words; 2. that they have fast-moving plots to distract me from all the elements that require me to suspend disbelief. The Beautiful Ashes had both those things, a dash of humor, a swoony, somewhat misunderstood quasi-antihero, and a morally ambiguous underlying theme. In other words, I liked it. A lot.

In many ways, The Beautiful Ashes reminds me of the New Adult lovechild of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The demon realms that our intrepid protagonists explore bear some resemblance to the grey town of Lewis’s allegory (though Frost’s version is quite a bit more horrifying); these realms are hackneyed imitations of human life, attempting the grandeur of some of humanity’s more inspired architecture but missing all the light, warmth, and inspiration. I’m a sucker for architecture as character or world development (one of the reasons I love Jane Austen), and I enjoyed that touch. As in American Gods, the characters in this story travel around the continental U.S. (and Mexico) searching for thin spaces (in this case thin spaces of the demonic variety), and, as in AG, the fictional vortexes and portals to demon worlds exist in our world and are completely believable as vortexes and portals. These places include the Oregon desert (I live one state south of Oregon, and I had no idea that state had any areas that aren’t green and perpetually rainy), a B&B somewhere in New England, a section of boardwalk somewhere on the east coast, etc. I hold out hope that in future books in the series the characters will visit the world’s largest thermometer, the Winchester house, and that giant ball of twine.

I don’t mean to imply that The Beautiful Ashes is a knock-off of American Gods. It’s not, mainly because it has a much more positive outlook and because its protagonist is a young woman whose goodness you never really question (rather than a gritty, down-on-his-luck, cuckolded, convict widower who also happens to be the son of Odin). If AG is a trickster mythology celebrating goodness alongside moral relativity and refusing to take a stance on which is preferable, The Beautiful Ashes is a good vs. evil mythology that dabbles in relativity but eventually concludes that things happen for a reason, that there is a divine scheme, that this scheme might suck occasionally, but that it is still important for “good” to keep its eye on the end game.

Much of the conflict in the book derives from the growing bond between Ivy, a genetically predestined savior-type, and Adrian, a genetically predestined betrayer-type. They feel drawn to each other; they learn to admire the other; but they know (Adrian more than Ivy) that there can be no true trust between them. Ivy and Adrian are united by their hatred of demons and their distrust of angels, but that unity is tenuous. I had a few issues with their relationship. For starters, Ivy is about 20 years old, and Adrian is well over 100. In nearly every conceivable way, Ivy is disadvantaged: she’s younger, both in actual years and in exposure to the whole angels vs. demons thing; she has almost no experience with relationships; she has almost no experience of physical relationships; she is naive; and — of course — Adrian, his demon-fighting cohorts, and the angelic host keep her at a disadvantage by feeding her the truth bit by bit, essentially manipulating her with incomplete information. That’s… annoying. (I also wondered if the conflict between Ivy and Adrian, their conflicting destinies, would be as compelling if it were not mentioned so often… and I thought their special bond looked an awful lot like celestial instalust from here.)

Oh, and I just have to tack this bit on here… I wasn’t real keen on the ending. Don’t get me wrong: I was all about Ivy breaking off on her own, sullying her goodness a little bit with some badassery, and journeying into some moral gray area, but… once a character embarks on that path, she doesn’t get to stand on a soapbox of self-righteousness. She hops off that soapbox pretty quick, but I was annoyed that she ever hopped on it.

Bottom line: I liked The Beautiful Ashes and I want more of it, but the romance in this first installment was the weakest element (and I love me some romance…). I hold out hope that the story’s continuation includes more character development, less insane chemistry, and a more even playing field for the protagonists. (I also hope that bit about Adrian being more than 100 years older than Ivy doesn’t come up again. It’s seriously creepy.)

The Beautiful Ashes was released on August 26, 2014 as a paperback and e-book by Harlequin. For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. You can find out more about Jeaniene Frost on her website, Twitter, or Facebook.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC from Rock Star PR and Harlequin for review consideration.*

What I’ve been reading lately – books with wounded military heroes

I’ve been doing these “what I’ve been reading lately” posts lately because (1) I’m lazy and can’t seem to write more than one post in a given 10-day period; (2) I read waaaaayyyyyy too much, and if I tried to write about every book, you’d be like — Whoa. Stop it with all the posts about these books I’m never going to read. Just stop it, Kelly; and (3) I tend to get into reading moods, and sometimes it’s more interesting to discuss the themes that occur across multiple books. So, in June and July, I read a bunch of books that had military heroes, and I just realized (because I’m slow on the uptake sometimes), that all those heroes were wounded in combat. In some cases, the hero’s military status is a huge part of the book (i.e. it really does fall in the military romance subgenre), and in other cases the hero retired or was medically discharged, and his service is just part of his back story (and identity).

One theme that unites the books that I’ll be discussing in this post is that a large portion of each story focuses on the wounded hero’s search for identity and vocation in light of his injury. All three books are new releases, and (it seems to me) it’s yet another indication of how the romance genre responds to modern culture and current events and remains relevant. In the U.S., at least, war is everywhere. Do you know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it in some way? Do you know anyone who doesn’t mourn a classmate or friend, who hasn’t seen a loved one change and struggle after too many too-long deployments? Do you know anyone who isn’t heartsick to think of the welcome we offer the veterans who are lucky enough to return: poor health care, few career options, and the continuing stigma of mental health issues? I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that (more than) 3 new romance novels deal with this subject. (To be clear: I picked these three books to write about, but I could have expanded this post to talk about six books that I read in June/July that feature a wounded military hero, and I’m not really a reader of military romance novels. I’m guessing there are a lot more books out now that deal with the wounded hero trope.)

He’s in for the fight of his life . . .

Army captain Trent Davila loved his wife, Laura, and their two beautiful children. But when he almost lost his life in combat, something inside him died. He couldn’t explain the emptiness he felt or bridge the growing distance between him and his family—so he deployed again. And again. And again . . . until his marriage reached its breaking point. Now, with everything on the line, Trent has one last chance to prove to his wife that he can be the man she needs . . . if she’ll have him

. . . to win back his only love.

Laura is blindsided when Trent returns home. Time and again, he chose his men over his family, and she’s just beginning to put the pieces of her shattered heart back together. But when Trent faces a court martial on false charges, only Laura can save him. What begins as an act of kindness to protect his career inflames a desire she thought long buried—and a love that won’t be denied. But can she trust that this time he’s back to stay?

Back to You is definitely a military romance novel — and I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t read very many of those — but its story stays fairly focused on Trent, Laura, and their chance for reconciliation. I love reconciliation stories (mostly because I hate instalust), and this one was right up my alley. I loved quite a few things about this book.

  1. This book has fantastic primary characters who are very nicely fleshed out.
  2. The emotional narrative of Trent and Laura’s story is so well wrought. There is a weight to their encounters early in the book, and that weight lightens with each new bit of trust forged (and earned). I particularly enjoyed how Laura’s anger is supported and validated by the narrative, yet her forgiveness is allowed to grow naturally.
  3. The interactions between Trent and the kids — who are pretty much strangers to him — are beautifully done. My favorite of these interactions involved Trent getting super-duper overwhelmed by his kids’ madness and then feeling like a failure for not being emotionally prepared for it. I just might love Jessica Scott forever for having Laura reassure Trent by telling him about the time that she absolutely lost her shit with the children. Parenting isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying. I loved that this book showed how messy parenting can be and gave Laura the chance to act with compassion, to share the story of her own failures, and to validate — for every parent — that those failures are not the whole story, that it’s the successes, added up, that tell the real story of a childhood and a family. That was neat.
  4. The women soldiers in this book are soldiers.

And, of course, there were a few things that I didn’t like so much. The secondary characters (two couples who are friends of Laura and Trent) were distracting, possibly because I read Back to You as a stand-alone and was not invested in the secondary characters from having read their books. Another character seemed to be introduced in the narrative only so readers could feel sympathy for Trent later on (and so Trent could learn to confide in Laura), and that was unfortunate. There’s a lot of military jargon that I just didn’t get. “Down stream” seems to mean a lot of things, but I could not identify them from the context. Finally, I wanted a little more closure from the ending. I’m not much for epilogues, but — since so much of the story dealt with Trent’s adjustment to a new normal and his search for identity in the wake of his injuries and experiences — I wanted a clearer idea of where he and Laura ended up.

But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book and am very glad that I read it.

Fighting for his country gave Jake Taylor’s life shape and meaning. Now as an injured war hero he struggles to find purpose, until he runs into the gorgeous woman he dated briefly—and disastrously—before being deployed eight years ago. Turns out Jake doesn’t just need to figure out how to be a civilian . . . he also needs to learn how to be a dad.

Eighteen, pregnant, and totally lost, Mira Shipley couldn’t track down the soldier who fathered her child, so she put college on hold and focused on making a good life for her son. Now she’s determined to be something more than Sam’s mom, her parents’ daughter, or Jake’s girl—as hot as she finds her old flame’s take-charge attitude in and out of bed. Soon Mira and Jake realize that their passion didn’t disappear when Sam was conceived—and that instead of running away, sometimes it’s better to hold on tight.

Yep, it’s a secret baby book. It’s one of my favorite tropes because it is so rarely done well (and yet so often done… I mean, I’m just going to make up some titles, here, but I bet some of them exist as actual books: The Rancher’s Secret Baby; His Baby, Her Secret; Triplets for the SEAL; The Firefighter’s Surprise Family. Yeah… I just looked those titles up… they totally exist.). Anyway. I’ve read a few of Serena Bell’s stories before, so I was really stoked to hear that she’d written a secret baby story. And do you know what? I loved it. Some of my favorite things:

  1. Mira. She’s gutsy, principled, intelligent, and she recognizes the value of finding and maintaining an identity separate from “mom” and “daughter” and “girlfriend.” An equal amount of narrative time was spent on Mira’s journey of self-discovery as on Jake’s, and I loved how interesting her journey was. Mira gets the best dialogue in the book, lines of acerbic wit and frank humor. Finally, Mira’s sexuality and self-confidence are so refreshing.
  2. Computer science gets a shout-out, and it’s not the typical nerd locked in a room writing code about how to get chicks variety. Instead, Mira discovers in computer science a language she can relate to, a framework through which she can develop and express her other interests (in this book, shoes.). Since that’s what computer science actually is but is so rarely shown to be, I was thrilled. (And I’m not a computer scientist…. just a CS enthusiast, I guess.)
  3. I found all the interactions between Sam and Mira and Sam and Jake to be heartwarming, at times poignant, and often very amusing.
  4. Jake’s angst. I am actually a sucker for a wounded hero story (so, you know, grain of salt and all that), but Bell’s handling of Jake’s internalization of his injury and his resulting identity crisis was powerful and felt authentic. So, too, was his journey towards healing, self-acceptance, and love. Jake’s angst about sex was really interesting (because usually romance novel heroes exhibit unassailable sexual confidence) and endearing.

And, of course, there were some things I didn’t like so much. While Jake and Mira have a past relationship that helps to explain some of the strength of their physical attraction for one another, it *almost* bordered on the insane chemistry of instalust. Maybe it’s just me, but it pissed me off that Jake, after he had his Aha! (Aha! I’ve been an asshole. OOPS.) moment, waited three weeks to make things up to Mira, because it was so important that he get himself sorted. It further annoyed me that he orchestrated this big production to surprise her. Nope. Love doesn’t need everything to be just so, and love doesn’t leave someone in suspense just for the sake of one’s pride. (As for the big production… those just annoy me in general.)

But the bottom line is that Hold on Tight is still one of the best secret baby stories I’ve ever read.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
 
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Some of my favorite wounded hero romance novels are historical romances. (My favorite, in case you’re wondering, is England’s Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch.) I was poised to love this book — it’s about a widow who intends to go her own way, eschewing propriety, even, and a wounded hero — but, sadly, The Escape isn’t on my list of favorites.  It was still an enjoyable read…eventually.

It’s just that the beginning is so awkward. Part of that awkwardness may be attributed to the book’s position as the third in a series of six Survivor’s Club novels about the romantic antics of five wounded veterans and one lady quasi-spy. (I haven’t read the first two books in the series.) The Escape opens with all six Survivors gathered at the estate where they all convalesced some years before. That opening chapter reads like a strange prologue that sets up the stories of all the Survivors but otherwise does not pertain to this story. And the introduction of all those characters who don’t feature in this story is kind of awkward… so much name dropping, so little happening.

The story actually begins in chapter 2 (so it’s not a long, strange prologue), but the awkwardness continues in some truly odd lines of dialogue. Consider this line, delivered by Ben’s sister:

“…But — you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered — I do not possess any, not being the vaporish short, though you could easily make a convert of me.”

Who talks like that? The infodumping dialogue got to be distracting, and it was really a shame, because I liked Ben, Samantha, and their respective stories. Honestly, the only reason I continued reading the book after the fourth or fifth chapter was that it has amusing animal antics (a dog named Tramp). At about the halfway point, though, I started to enjoy myself, because the book shifted locales and became much more focused on the heroine’s story. (And either the writing got less awkward or I simply got used to it.) By the end, I was happy I’d read the book. I guess that’s the bottom line.

As in Back to You and Hold on Tight, the injured hero in The Escape must find a new identity (or, more accurately, uncover the identity that is enmeshed with his military vocation and apply it to a new vocation). The first half of the book (the half I didn’t like so much) spends a lot of time discussing Ben’s listlessness, and while some time is spent on introducing and developing Samantha, it’s accurate to say that Ben is the star of the narrative. But once Ben and Samantha arrive in Wales, Samantha becomes an active participant in the story — the second half of the story is about her just as much as it is about Ben. Overall, I would have liked the book much better if there were not an abrupt turning point where Samantha ceased to be a figure in Ben’s landscape and became her own individual, worthy of having her own story. (To be clear: Ben’s story was not diminished in the second half of the book: he still struggles to find himself, to work towards a healthy identity.)

By the way… this is the first Mary Balogh book I’ve ever read. I hear that her back list contains some amazing books… What should I read?

What do you think about the wounded hero trope? (Or about bananas… I just want to have a conversation, and I don’t care what it’s about.)

If you’re interested in any of these books, click on the cover images to visit their pages on Goodreads. Back to You was released on January 7 (e-book) and July 29 (paperback) by Forever. Hold on Tight was released on June 17 as an e-book by Loveswept. The Escape was released on July 1 as an e-book and paperback by Dell. For more information about the authors, check out their websites: Jessica Scott, Serena Bell, and Mary Balogh.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys via NetGalley from Forever (Back to You) and Dell (The Escape) for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Hold on Tight.*

What I’ve been reading lately – books by Charlotte Stein

So do you remember back in March when I said I was on a bit of a Charlotte Stein kick? All told, I read ten of her books over the last few months, and today I’m going to talk about two of them.

Stein writes erotica with a distinctive voice, one I like (obviously). The thing is, erotica doesn’t come naturally to me. My neurosis and overactive sense of humor work against me, and my hyper-awareness of awkward details tends to pull me out of whatever mood an author is trying to create. Further, I’m always 100% aware that I’m reading erotica, that — at some point in the not too distant future — the characters are going to get nekkid and start doing things to one another. Whenever it becomes clear that the nekkid moment is approaching, my mind starts playing a porn soundtrack loop, and nervous giggling is not far off. There is an incompatibility between my brain and most erotica.

Stein’s erotica, on the other hand, doesn’t pose the same difficulty. Even when her characters are engaging in absolutely filthy acts of depravity (says the pearl-clutcher within me), they seem just as surprised by it as I am. By acknowledging the awkwardness of human sexuality and yet embracing (with both hands) the unfettered joy of fantasy, Stein crafts erotica that is funny, touching, poignant, and, finally, beautiful, even when she surprises her characters into a foursome with a side of rimming.

When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.

However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.

And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.

I read Beyond Repair in one sitting, pretty much, and I started reading it all over again the minute I finished it. After the third read, I had to force myself to move on to another book, because all I wanted to do was keep on reading this one until the end of time. Months later, I’m not sure that I can explain my reaction to the book. (Beyond Repair and I have insane chemistry together, maybe?) I mean, it has all my favorite things: neurotic heroine; story told from heroine’s POV; third-person past narrative (a narrative style that is — to me — as comfortable as cotton granny panties. Maybe it’s just me, but a first-person present narrative is about as comfortable as a cheap lace thong; you can’t ever forget it’s there, slightly abrasive, pressing up against your intimate areas. Just saying…); a mysterious back story; epic movie references; a smitten, supplicant hero; a spectacular ending. (Beyond Repair also managed to make butt-licking vaguely sexy — I didn’t think that was possible — and believable as something these characters would actually do and enjoy.) All told, the book is, to me, an exemplar of pitch-perfect erotica. And it made me cry (in a good way).

When Madison Morris decides to hire an assistant to help run her naughty bookshop, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. Aggressive Andy doesn’t quite make the grade, but continues to push her buttons in other areas, while uptight and utterly repressed Gabriel can’t quite take Madison’s training techniques. One makes her grasp control, while the other makes her lose it. But the lines are blurring and she’s no longer sure who’s leading and who’s following. In the midst of kinky threesomes and power plays, can Madison work out what she really wants?

Control is the second Stein book I read, after I begged folk on Twitter (thank you @mojitana, @LietoFine7 and @ruthieknox!!!) for recommendations. (I read Doubled first, which is awesome, hilarious, dirty as hell, surprising, and slightly disturbing, all rolled up in a glorious coming-of-age (ish) menage story involving a set of twins and their lady friend. Yeah. You read that right.) Control was completely unexpected — even though the blurb warned me — and wonderfully wrong. I mean, the book opens with a job interview/lurid encounter during which the heroine/narrator marvels — with impressive emotional distance — at its even happening. Later, Madison finds herself stumbling into a relationship with another guy, one whose issues are legion but who better suits her undefined, unexplored and mostly unacknowledged (but still accepted) wants and needs.  Actually, that’s an important point: Madison, like many of Stein’s heroines, “finds herself” doing all manner of things, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

Madison is a slightly unreliable narrator whose emotional disconnect is explained (her father was “controlling”) but perhaps never quite understood (by me, I mean). But, even though I didn’t fully understand why Madison was so reticent to acknowledge the emotional nature of her relationship(s), I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Control and have recommended it to a few people. I liked the way it discussed the power dynamics of a nontraditional workplace relationship (lady boss, man employee) and the way Gabe’s relationship with Madison freed him from some of his repression and fear. I wish it had been equally clear what Madison gained from the relationship (and all the nekkid shenanigans) — but perhaps that’s just part of a first-person narrative — and I wish that Andy had not been left swinging in the breeze. The things I loved about the book, however, more than made up for these slight reservations.

For more information on Beyond Repair and Control, click on the cover images above to visit the books’ pages on Goodreads. If you’re interested in Charlotte Stein (and you should be), check out her website and Twitter.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of Beyond Repair from the author in exchange for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Control. *