Wounded military code-breakers, artists, agony aunts and engineers

Oh my. The title of this post reminds me of…

Yeah… Anyway. Y’all know that I’m a fan of Marguerite Kaye’s books, right? I mean, I think it’s pretty obvious. I’ve written about her books here, here, here, here, and here. (And probably a few other places besides.) I choose to delude myself with the pretty lie that she’s actually writing these books for me. I’m totally her target audience, after all. I go nuts for heroine-centric historical romance that’s on the serious side, and Kaye’s releases over the last few years (from, say, 2012 on) have consistently delivered my reading catnip.

Kaye has a new release out this week, and it’s a little different from her recent books. [Update: turns out, I’m a trifle precipitous here… the book will be released on March 1. Three cheers for preorder?]

The truth behind the hero Officer Jack Trestain may have been one of Wellington’s most valued code-breakers, but since Waterloo, he’s hung up his uniform. If only he could just as easily put aside the tortured memories he carries deep within; Perhaps enchanting French artist Celeste Marmion might be the distraction he so desperately craves?

Except Celeste harbors secrets of her own, and questions that she needs Jack’s help to solve! With Celeste’s every touch an exquisite temptation, how close can Jack get without revealing his darkest secret of all?

Look, it’s not every day that I sympathize with Lydia Bennett, but can we talk for a second about that guy’s regimentals? And maybe his jaw, too. Damn!

Yum.

You can tell from the cover and title of The Soldier’s Dark Secret that it isn’t exactly my heroine-centric catnip. This book is very much the story of its hero. Don’t get me wrong: I still loved it, but that’s mostly because Celeste is a well-wrought character whose story gets you in all the feels even though it gets less page time overall and is much more subtle. But you should probably take me with a grain of salt, here. I suspect I’m an atypical reader in that it’s usually the way the heroine is handled that makes me love (or hate) a book. I’m all for great heroes, of course, but they’re not usually the focus of my attention. I’ve noticed, in conversation with other readers, that my perspective might be considered unusual.

Jack has returned from Waterloo with what modern readers will easily recognize is a nasty case of PTSD. Kaye does a remarkable job of blending this fraught issue (terribly fraught for its time — after all, it’s not as though Regency era England is known for its compassionate response to mental illness of any sort — and fraught for our current time, as well… let’s be honest: we just barely do better (if at all) at responding to these types of war injuries.) in the story without it becoming an issue book. It’s just part of Jack’s character, and he has to learn to live with it.

Celeste is a French landscape artist with a mysterious past, and most of the plot is devoted to uncovering that mystery, but it’s Celeste’s internal journey from complete emotional disconnect — her entire childhood lives in a memory box labeled “DO NOT OPEN” — to integrated emotional health that is (to me, of course) the most interesting thing about the book, especially because it so neatly balances Jack’s more outwardly dramatic journey. Let me see if I can explain what I mean… Jack’s journey is more obvious. He’s kind of a wreck at the beginning, falling apart all over the place, suffering nightmares and consequently not sleeping, losing time, utterly lost. His family is all up in desperate denial, and things don’t look good for the future. Then Celeste arrives and gives him a purpose — solve this mystery! — and he starts putting the pieces back together again. (As an aside, I think this book will resonate with a lot of readers, because the wounded hero who gets his shit together trope seems to be pretty dang popular.) By contrast, Celeste starts out contained and competent, happy in her little life and independence; as her mystery unravels and she explores her grief, readers and Celeste alike discover that she never was all that happy and, after a bit of emotional upheaval, she realizes that happiness does not lie in a life of emotional sterility but that, to live truly, she needs to love.

So, those of you who know me personally should be smirking right about now. (I’m not exactly known for my emotional connectivity.) And maybe that’s why Celeste’s story resonated so strongly with me… Who knows? Either way, I fell in love with The Soldier’s Dark Secret because it asks such interesting questions about emotional health, grief, guilt, shame, and — especially — love. But I think a slew of other readers will enjoy it because Jack is seriously swoony (also strong and hot).

So, yeah. OK, I know I already talked about this one a little bit (if rather obliquely) in my 2014 historical romance favorites post, but… I have more to say, and now that it’s been out a few months, I’m less concerned about dropping spoilers left and right. Sooo… you with me? Goody.

The secrets behind the wedding veil

For penniless widow Ainsley McBrayne, marriage is the only solution. She’s vulnerable yet fiercely independent, so shackling herself to another man seems horrifying! Until handsome stranger Innes Drummond tempts Ainsley to become his temporary wife.

Once married, Ainsley hardly recognizes the rugged Highlander Innes transforms into! He sets her long-dormant pulse racing, and she’s soon craving the enticing delights of their marriage bed. She has until Hogmanay to show Innes that their fake marriage could be for real.

I hate to say it, but I kinda hate that blurb. I think it’s the exclamation points (and the fragment… and the idea that her pulse has actually been long-dormant. That’s just unhealthy.) Also, what the hell is Hogmanay? I read the book, and I have no idea…. I feel better having gotten that out.

I tend to get excited about marriage of convenience (MOC) books, because.. well… OK, to be honest, it’s because they tend not to rely so much on instalust. They don’t need it to explain why these characters are suddenly spending so damn much time together. (I like friends-to-lovers and second-chance stories for the same reason.) But! Good MOC stories also show characters having to learn how to make it work, how to wiggle around in a relationship with the highest stakes possible (especially in a historical romance). And that can be a fertile ground for a lot of really interesting stuff.

Anyway, in Strangers at the Altar, Kaye brings together an agony aunt (that’s an advice columnist on this side of the pond) and an engineer, each opposed to marriage for compelling reasons yet compelled to marry nonetheless. And — you guys — the meet cute at the lawyer’s office is so fantastic. Innes and Ainsley start out strangers, to be sure, but friendship (and, through it, romance) develops between them. Innes helps Ainsley in writing her advice column. (Those scenes are some of my favorites in the book, along with the scenes between Ainsley and her friend (and publisher) Felicity.) And Ainsley helps Innes make progress with his estate and its people. (He’s reluctant to accept that help, of course, but her outsider’s eye and creative problem solving pretty much save the day. Go Ainsley!)

Together, Ainsley and Innes muddle through their issues and complicate their friendship and marriage with intimacy. As in all the best MOC stories, the scenes wherein the characters adjust to changes in their relationship and/or new things learned about each other carry such tension, such gravity from their married state. (Even among these characters, who plan to part ways after a year.) There is more than just attraction keeping the characters together, and the stakes are high. There’s some delicious drama in their relationship and conflict, and the denouement is just stellar (so, so much groveling. I loved it. LOVED. IT.).

Strangers at the Altar feels heroine-centric to me, mostly because Ainsely is awesomesauce. Innes is a great character — don’t get me wrong — but he can’t compete with Ainsley in my book. And that’s probably because I’m just much more sympathetic to heroines than heroes. Ainsley’s troubles seem more grounded in reality, and what ails her — her financial insecurity — is ubiquitous to almost all women at the time. She has had to deal with first her father then her husband making terrible financial decisions for her, and she has been left to pick up the tab and shift as well as she can. That’s an age-old story, and it feels powerful to me because there’s just so much truth there.

In comparison, Innes’s story seems almost contrived (I mean, it’s actually no more contrived than Ainsley’s story… it’s all fiction, after all, but it’s a much less universal story.). He’s reeling, 14 years later, from guilt and grief after the death of his twin and anger at his father for being such an asshat. Innes leaves (is exiled) the family home and goes out into the world to become an engineer with a penchant for bridge design. I’m pretty sure there’s a metaphor there.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is the book’s lack of a magic baby epilogue. For you genre romance readers out there, how many times have you read a book that features infertility as a plot point or conflict and is resolved by a magic baby epilogue? Countless times, amiright? Our cultural norms of relationship happiness, that 1 + 1 = 3 and that dating leads to marriage and marriage leads to babies, have a strong foothold in genre romance, and it’s a rare book that leaves the fertility question unresolved (or resolved in decided infertility). Strangers at the Altar is one of those rare books that implicitly argues that it’s still “happily ever after” even when not everything is lined up all perfectly right and tight. (That, perhaps, “happily ever after” doesn’t have to include lack of sleep, fighting over conflicting parenting styles, worrying constantly that your little human will turn out to be an asshole, and never having a moment to yourself. Come to think of it, much as I love my children — and I really do — a baby-free “happily ever after” seems much more romantic to me.)

*FTC disclosure – I received e-galleys of both books from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. My opinion is my own.* (Further disclosure — I think Marguerite Kaye is boss.)

To finish or not to finish…

I decided to take a page out of Miss B’s book and write a bit about the books that I’ve tried to read but just couldn’t finish. (And also the ones that I should have stopped reading.) I try not to pick up books that I’m not going to like, but no system of vetting books is perfect.  There’s often no way to know if a book will set me off or veer down a road that I really wish were less traveled. My habit is usually to keep reading, even when it becomes a chore to continue. But is that really the best use of my time and (somewhat) limited patience? I’m probably a much happier person overall because I stopped reading these books.

For perspective: In the last 15 months, there were 5 books that I tried to read and did not finish. (That’s about 2% of my total reading.) There was one book that made me so angry that I deleted it from my e-reader after shouting at the book for a while. (For reals.) Then I posted an angry review about it on Goodreads. I should note that my discussion below requires a trigger warning.

ALL HE NEEDS

Brilliant. Wealthy. Powerful. Dominic Knight is one of the hottest tech developers in the world–and the most demanding lover Kate Hart has ever known. Whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, he is always in charge. But there is one thing he cannot control: Kate’s fiery heart…

As a master in her field, talented Kate surpassed Dominic’s wildest expectations. As a woman of uncommon intelligence and beauty, she unlocked something deep within him. Yet since their professional relationship–and erotically charged affair–came to an end, the fire in him has only grown stronger.

Now, the man who has everything will do whatever it takes to reclaim the woman he lost. From Boston and Paris to Singapore and San Francisco, he will lure Kate back into his elite world of privilege and passion. Together, they will test the limits of desire and the boundaries of discipline. For both, this is uncharted territory–naked, reckless, and uninhibited. But when Dominic’s deadliest enemies target Kate, he must face his darkest fears…and admit to himself that she is all he needs.

I read book 1 of the All or Nothing trilogy. All told, I felt pretty meh about the book, but I liked the ending, and I was curious about where the story would go in the second book. It’s pathetic that this is so remarkable, but the first book won me over because the heroine really is an expert in her field, and readers actually get to see her being awesome at her job. That’s so damn unusual that I was willing to overlook the madness (instalust like you cannot believe; the hero purchasing a new wardrobe for the heroine — his employee; the absolutely insane sex scenes (clip-on earrings doing double duty as nipple clamps, mammogram-level breast play, and an orgasm so powerful the heroine actually blacks out, etc.).  I’m not saying I expected great things from book 2… If you read that blurb, you know what kind of book it is. Rich, powerful man who craves control in all things becomes obsessed with the one woman he needs, reckless passion and danger ensues.

So, you know, I calibrated my expectations. But book 2 was soooo much crazier than book 1. One of the sex scenes involved ben wa balls, a japanese eggplant and a cucumber, all used simultaneously. I don’t even know what to do with that level of OTT. But the worst excess of book 2 was the hero’s instability. The hero (who’s apparently been keeping tabs on his former girlfriend like Stalky McStalkerton) randomly inserts himself back in her life in a “we’re not finished” kind of way (which is a little surprising, considering he Dear Johned her at the end of book 1, but whatever.). Eventually, he flies her to the Bay Area and takes her to his childhood home. He shows her his childhood bedroom, and then he flips the fuck out that she’s seeing his private space (that private space that he decided to show her). He yells at her a bit and then — even though she is totally not into it — he initiates intercourse. Because reasons, probably. Eventually, he realizes that she’s crying beneath him. Horrified, he stops, at which point the heroine, whose tearful reluctance was evidently overcome begs him to continue because magic penis. And I stopped right there at 38%, yelled, deleted, and rage-reviewed.

Because it’s bad enough to have the hero rape the heroine. And, yes, that’s what he did. But for the heroine to acknowledge that the sex act was not consensual yet argue for it to continue because it felt so good…

And that’s all I have to say about that. Compared to that train wreck of a book, this next one was positively delightful, yet I could not finish it.

Every passion has its price . . .

Journalist Sophie Ryder has been following Emery Lockwood’s story since she was a little girl. There has always been something in his haunted eyes that she couldn’t resist and now, when she’s certain he holds the key to solving a string of kidnappings, she’ll do anything to speak to him. Even if it means venturing deep into the seductive world of the Gilded Cuff, a luxurious BDSM club on Long Island’s Gold Coast and Emery’s personal playground.

From the moment Sophie enters his shadowy, sensual domain, Emery Lockwood knows this tantalizing new little sub was meant to belong to him. However, Sophie wants more from Emery than just pleasure . . . she wants his past. And that is something he isn’t willing to give—no matter who is asking. But every moment he spends with Sophie, Emery feels his control slipping and he knows it’s only a matter of time before he surrenders to her heart, body, and soul.

I know, I know. Another multi-book BDSM series… And, you’re right: I probably should stop reading books that fit that description, because it’s such a rare thing when I actually like one. (It’s happened twice, actually. I loved the original Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz, and I really liked the first and third books of Cecilia Tan’s Struck by Lightning series–but book two can go fuck itself, as far as I’m concerned. Just saying.) This book has an interesting premise — investigative journalist heroine seeks out reclusive survivor of a childhood kidnapping and barters her sexual submission for an exclusive scoop on his story. That’s… bold. Turns out, though, that the heroine is motivated by the desire to save the hero from impending doom (which she can predict because… research?) because she has deep-seated emotional issues (of course). When the heroine was 7 or 8, her best friend was kidnapped, and she was unable to provide any useful information to the police.  Her friend was killed by her kidnapper, and adult Sophie still feels responsible. (I repeat: she was 7 or 8.) I stopped reading at 37% because everything was just so overwrought.

A few years ago, I performed with a singing group that did renaissance faires (true story). I met a lot of interesting people at faire. Never before (or since) had I encountered such a number of people who as a rule felt things deeply and vented their emotions openly. It was a giant vat of over-share. One guy developed such a habit of cataloging to me all of his “deep-seated emotional issues” that he contributed to one of my deep-seated emotional issues: I’m not well equipped to handle overwrought anything.

So maybe other readers would like this book. They might not be bothered by the heightened emotions the characters feel in response to every stimulus. They might not be bothered by the excessively flowery writing. (But they should be. Everyone should be bothered by wackadoodle figurative language.) They might not be bothered by the level of attachment these characters feel for each other at the meet cute. 

But I was… Anyway, I was debating whether or not to continue reading the book when I checked out Miss B’s awesome DNF post. I’m pretty sure I made the right choice (with apologies to anyone who read and loved the book).

And here’s a book I should have abandoned:

To her family, Olivia Middleton is a problem of the most vexing sort. With her older two sisters married off, Olivia is now the target of her mother’s matrimonial scheming. Shy and somewhat plain, Olivia prefers the thrill of a gothic novel to the hunt for a husband. And as far as her family is concerned, something must be done. But Olivia has no interest in the men paraded before her-except, perhaps, the sought-after bachelor William Cross. But she’s not about to inflate his already oversized ego by telling him so.

William has sworn never to wed, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy women. What he excels at most is flirtation… unless the woman is question is Olivia Middleton. She barely bats an eyelash at his most creative compliments. She laughs at his attempts to flatter her when other ladies would swoon. William is reluctantly intrigued by Olivia, particularly when he discovers the passion simmering beneath her wallflower facade. A passion that should be to his benefit…

Because he’s determined to impress her, by fair means or foul…

I didn’t think I was susceptible to beautiful book covers (especially because I read ebooks), but… I bought this book because the cover is beautiful and I want that dress. And, because I try to read every book that I buy, I read it.

Olivia’s character is interesting and rather charming, and — aside from the obligatory opposition to love for Important Reasons Hinting at a Tragic Past — so is William’s. The pacing of their story is a little too quick, however, and its speed doesn’t give a reader enough time to care how it’ll all shake out. (Plus, it stretches plausibility.)

My biggest issues with the book are (1) the ratio of negative female archetypes to positive ones and (2) how isolated the heroine is. I’ll start with the latter. The heroine has sisters, sure, but they’re married and, as older siblings, aren’t exactly Olivia’s peers. Also, they don’t show up in the story until everything’s all FUBAR, so it hardly counts. William is given a close friend, but Olivia has no one. Back to my first issue, Olivia’s mother is like Mrs. Bennett, except she doesn’t seem to love Olivia at all; William’s mother abandoned him (and his father) to run off with her lover; Lady Sarah (another house party attendee) is vain, self-centered, unkind and rather like Caroline Bingley. Olivia is the only female character (except her sisters, who were probably the only ‘good’ women in their stories) who isn’t a caricature of bad “female” traits (or a complete nonentity like the house party hostess).

That’s probably what I get for buying a book because I like the dress shown on the cover. I should have stopped reading it when it became clear that vain and awful Lady Sarah was being offered as a foil for Olivia’s kind perfection.

You know what? It really is cathartic to write about these books. (And I think it’s a smidge unhealthy that my DNF ratio is so low.) Thanks for letting me over-share. ;)

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of All He Needs and The Gilded Cuff from their respective publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. Somewhat obviously, my opinion is my own.*

2014 – a summary of my reading, contemporary and quirky romance edition

Ok, I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week, but then my kids got the flu. You know how it goes. Read on for my favorite reads in contemporary romance and the nonexistent subgenre “romance novels that are quirky, perhaps a little nerdy, and also don’t have a lot of sex.” Stay tuned in a couple of days for my final roundup post on erotic romance, erotica, and the two non-romance, non-erotica books I read (and liked) in 2014.

Contemporary romance:

Between the Sheets by Molly O’Keefe
The Chocolate Touch / The Chocolate Temptation by Laura Florand
Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Still Life with Strings by L.H. Cosway
Private Politics by Emma Barry
Truly by Ruthie Knox

Look at the list above. These ladies are my auto-buy list for contemporary romance (and, in Molly O’Keefe’s case, for historical as well). Between the Sheets is my favorite of all of O’Keefe’s contemporary romances (that I’ve read: I’ve been saving some of the backlist to savor later on) because its characters just sang to me, especially Shelby. She’s one of those difficult heroines I treasure — her choices may not be the ones “nice” women make, but they’re the ones that make sense for her, even when they’re unhealthy. Ty and Shelby’s story is not lighthearted, but O’Keefe gave me (because, yes, this book is all for me. Back it up, bitches.) a story that was believably gritty and intense without being depressing (despite its forays into elder care, school bullies, incarcerated parents, and the ramifications of abuse).

On a somewhat more lighthearted note, Florand’s The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Temptation (along with the other six Florand books I read last year) provided 100% of my hot, French, chocolatier hero needs. Kim and I went gaga for Touch and probably each read it three or four times in a few months (and we’ll probably read it at least once more, soon, because we still need to write our dueling discussion on it.), and Tasha and I discussed Temptation together. If you read the last roundup post, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a sucker for heroines, but it’s Florand’s heroes who always shine. Don’t get me wrong, her heroines are great, but Florand seems keenly aware that there is great power in a hot guy who smells strongly of chocolate, and she capitalizes on that power.

Kim and I reviewed Laugh, so I won’t add too much to my obscene word count here. I loved it for all of its details — the farming and Nina’s shorts, for instance — and for its portrayal of relationships in all their messy glory. Rivers’ characters, Sam grappling with his ADHD and Nina with her grief and fear for her friend, don’t have an easy time of it on their road to love, but sometimes the best things are hard-fought. Tasha said Still Life with Strings was good, so I read it and sent shouty texts to Kim that went like this: “KIM. KIM. KIM. KIM. Did you see Tasha’s post about Still Life with Strings? Have you read it yet? DOOOO IITTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” And she did. Lucky me, she loved it, too. (Would have been awkward, otherwise.) Ahem. This book is a tad unconventional (in all the best ways) matching a Stradivarius-wielding, slightly depressive, violinist hero and a bartending, street performing, avant-garde art enthusiast heroine. Mostly, I loved how fun it is and how it doesn’t shy away from class differences & the assumptions of the economically secure.

Private Politics is the second in Barry’s The Easy Part series (which is part The West Wing and part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – especially the first book in the series — and all romance gold). Private Politics concerns the masks we wear and the stereotypes that can define our lives and limit our chances, if we let them. So blond, perfect, socialite Alyse, used to using her looks and image to get things done (and to being undervalued), learns how to take herself seriously and to demand the same of others. Liam, a somewhat soft, nice Jewish boy, infatuated with Alyse, transitions from lovesick doormat to equal partner (demanding respect along the way). My favorite part was Liam’s mom, but that’s neither here nor there.

Finally, there’s Truly. Now, I’ll be honest. Technically, I read this book for the first time in 2013. (It was serialized on Wattpad), but I read it as a complete book when it was released in 2014, so… I’m counting it anyway. While I’m being honest, I’ve got to tell you that Truly has two of the most potent pieces of Kelly’s reading catnip imaginable: a tall heroine matched with a grumpy hero. For reals, I love those two things so much that my bias is out of this world. But wait, there’s more: Meg starts as an extreme case of mid-western politeness and learns how to be more difficult (and more true to herself) in the wilderness of New York City (and on the road back to Wisconsin); Ben, a grumpy, beekeeping, former chef, alone and adrift, makes what peace he can with his past and does some extraordinary groveling to make up for all the times he was a douchepony. Of course I loved it.

Books I keep trying to get people who don’t like romance to read (a.k.a. quirky romance):

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo / The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir
Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

So, here’s the thing. I’m a romance novel enthusiast: I read romance almost exclusively, and I think that most people, if they could get past the mental image of Fabio (oh that we could all get past that image) and the idea that romance fiction — in its entirety — is guilty pleasure reading (Don’t get me wrong… there are things I read that I feel deeply conflicted about enjoying. That just proves to me that I’m doing it right.), could find themselves actually liking a romance novel or two. Romance is frequently not the problem. After all, it’s what makes pretty much any story ever interesting and relevant to humans. Buuuuuuuut…. highly descriptive sex scenes? Now, those are definitely not everybody’s cup of tea.

For those of you bravely reading this blog, certain that you’ll never, ever want to read any of the books I’m talking about because velvet-covered steel and dewy petals (and every synonym for “thrust”), this section is for you.

Attachments is a largely epistolary novel that weaves a story around emails exchanged between Jennifer and Beth, two employees at a newspaper, and narrative about Lincoln, the guy who’s been hired to monitor workplace email and ensure compliance with the company’s email policy. It’s funny and strange and ever so slightly creepy (but the creepiness didn’t bother me so much because Lincoln felt so conflicted about it). I loved it because (1) it was set around Y2K, (2) Beth and Jennifer’s emails are such an accurate depiction of friendship, and (3) it managed to have a totally believable romance even though the characters don’t actually meet until the very end.

The Girl with the Cat Tattoo is a romance and (kind of) murder mystery mostly narrated by the coolest cat ever. I’m a thwarted cat lady (my husband is allergic, so no kitties for me; otherwise, I’d happily end up with a houseful of cats and litter boxes), so the cat narrator appealed to me. The instant I finished it, I purchased The Geek with the Cat Tattoo, which I liked even better (no murder mystery to distract the story from the characters; Geek has a painfully shy human matched with a cat who controls minds and helps bring the reluctant hero and heroine together.).

Neanderthal Seeks Human self-describes as a “smart romance.” It begins in a toilet stall and follows the exploits of its narrator, Janie, an awkward architect/accountant/mathemagician who is two steps shy of autism spectrum. Janie’s POV is incredibly fun to experience, even when she misses all the obvious clues. Three reasons I love Janie: Panty Dance Parties, the way she uses the knitting group as a focus group to determine appropriate emotional responses, and her use of the moniker Sir Handsome McHotpants to refer to Quinn, the hero.  Honestly, I loved all the Knitting Series books, especially Love Hacked, but Neanderthal Seeks Human has a closed bedroom door, so I’m recommending it here. The later books in the series have significantly more sexy times (because their narrators aren’t Janie).

I hope you enjoyed this installment of my 2014 roundup. If you didn’t…

2014 – a summary of my reading, historical romance edition

2014 was a busy year. My eldest started Kindergarten, my youngest hit her stride of the terrible, terrible threes (the twos have got nuthin’ on the threes. Yeesh. I’m a little surprised we all survived it.), things at work were consistently nuts, and I did a lot of things at that place where I volunteer a lot of my time (vague much, Kelly?). Oh, and I read a shit ton of books. Some of them were sooooooooo good, some of them were not.

I’m super disorganized; I don’t take notes when I read; and my memory (like anyone’s, if we’re being honest) tends to warp after a certain period of time, favoring the books I’ve loved recently to the ones I loved last January. All that to say, I’m not going to bother doing a formalized list of my favorite reads of the year. (Has anyone else noticed that, in my return to blogging, my voice is a bit more curmudgeonly? Damn kids get off my lawn! I just want to write about books over here *grumble grumble grumble* Ahem. I’ll try to be less ornery.)

Oh! And — because it’s already a week into January and most people in the book blogging world are much more timely than I — I’ve read a bunch of 2014 summary posts. So, if I’m copying your style (you know who you are), it’s because I think you’re awesome. And it’s late at night. Also, you do these things so much better than I do. Honestly. I applied some seriously half-assed organization and then alphabetized the books by title (because?). Then I wrote 1600 words about the first thirteen books on the list and realized I needed to split this shit up. Stay tuned for two more of these monster posts about all the books.

Right. So here are my favorite historical romances read in 2014. Not all of these books were published last year, but they’re all worth reading (again and again).

Historical romance – my first love:

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner
Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
The Secret Heart / The Lover’s Knot by Erin Satie
Seduced by Molly O’Keefe
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner
Untamed by Anna Cowan

Y’all knew I love historical romance, right? I could happily do a top ten for 2014 from this list alone. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was one of my last reads of 2014 (and part of one of my best reading weeks ever, when I read 5 of the books on the above list). It’s a misadventure that starts with an ill-advised falcon purchase and ends with love, via a broken carriage, a loving community, and a dried apple pie. It is a celebration of compassion, family, community and love (and pie). A Lily Among Thorns is scrumptious, you guys. It’s got a former-courtesan-turned-innkeeper heroine (who’s also kind of a crime boss) matched with a grieving chemist. There is quite a lot of plot (in a good way), but my favorite scenes were the quieter moments between the characters. Honestly, though, it had me at Serena. She’s amazeballs.

I got a little bit manic after I finished Almost a Scandal. After her brother skips town to avoid joining the navy (the family business) the heroine assumes his identity and joins the navy in his place. (I need to put in some exclamation points here. !!!!!) The writing is rich in metaphor and a perfect complement to this story about identity, integrity and how little your genitals have to do with your ability to use trigonometry to chart a course. Kim and I wrote about Romancing the Duke earlier in the year, but — nearly twelve months later — it’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a perfect balance of wild humor and poignant emotion. (You know what, while I’m on the subject of Tessa Dare’s books, I should give a shout-out to Say Yes to the Marquess because cake. A whole room of cake. I happen to like the heroine of RtD a bit better, which tips the scales for me, but SYttM has 500% more cake. So.)

I read The Secret Heart and The Lover’s Knot during that epic reading week. The Secret Heart brings together a duke’s heir who’d rather be prizefighting and a money-challenged heroine who’d rather be dancing ballet (and avoiding her mostly horrible family). Together they solve a crime, have angry sex and fight the status quo with the power of ‘I don’t even give a fuck.” I loved it. The Lover’s Knot continues the series in a new locale with a memory-challenged ink merchant (former heiress) and the newly-minted duke to whom she was engaged for one whopping night, ten years prior. I’m going to review both books in the next week (ish), so I’ll leave it at that. Seduced is straight up beautiful, set in the post-bellum American West (Colorado, I think), with characters whose lives have been ravaged by the war. Miss Bates recommends this one, and I really can’t improve on her thoughts about it.

Strangers at the Altar is (I think) one of Kaye’s best books (and y’all might have noticed that I’m kind of a fan of hers). It’s a marriage of convenience story involving an advice columnist heroine matched with an engineer laird. My favorite moments are the parts where the heroine attempts to pen bedroom advice that won’t overset her readers, but — really — the whole thing was great. The Suffragette Scandal makes the best use of the exclamation point EVER, and it has my favorite of all of Milan’s characters (and that’s saying something, because Jonas from A Kiss for Midwinter set the bar until now). Free is, like all of Milan’s recent heroines, a force to be reckoned with but one who exists in a world that silences and obscures her (for her own safety, of course). The difference with Free is she asserts that it is the system that is wrong, not her, and that she can (and will) change it, woman by woman, and man by man. And Edward is… well, just read it, and you’ll see.

Summer Chaparral is at once a sweeping epic of time and place and a deeply personal tale of family loyalties and individual needs. It is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet (but without the downer ending and meddling Friar), set in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California at the end of the nineteenth century, and it grapples with systemic racism, urbanization, and reconciliation in subtly beautiful prose. Untamed was the recipient of a lot of buzz (some positive, some negative) in 2013, and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t get around to reading it until the last week of December (in that epic reading week). I happened to love it, even though it does some taboo things. You can’t talk about the book without mentioning that the hero spends more than half of the book dressed as a woman, but I — true to my nature — thought the heroine was the more remarkable and interesting character. Love it or hate it (and, yeah, I’m late to the party), every reader of historical romance should check this one out just to see where they fall on the continuum. (And it has adorable pet pig antics. Just saying.)

Assuming you got through all that, you now know why I decided to split this recap into three posts. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for my thoughts on all my favorite contemporary romances (including a few quirky ones that I think might appeal to folk who find sex scenes uncomfortable to read). Finally, I’ll do a separate post talking about my favorite erotic romances, works of erotica, and “other” books (one nonfiction, one…. poetry anthology/humor??).

When books make you go hmmm

While I certainly do not possess Jane Bennett’s sweetness of temper, angelic goodness, or locally famous beauty, I do have her habit of thinking well of people, making excuses for their less-than-savory behavior. I worry sometimes that this habit spills over into my reading, making me — perhaps — a sympathetic and uncritical reader. It’s not that I turn off my brain or fail to notice a book’s issues, exactly, yet I struggle with a reticence to expound on the things that didn’t work in favor of the things that did. If you’ve read more than four or five posts on this blog you realize that this reticence does not altogether stop me from making critical remarks, but it is difficult for me to be critical.

Perhaps now you understand why there’s been so much silence around here. I had things going on elsewhere in my life, and I couldn’t spare the expense of energy required to push through my inclination to just love everything (and ignore the things I can’t love). Well, I had two weeks off work to rest (including a few days that were completely free of obligations. It was wonderful, and I should make it more of a habit to take self-care days off from time to time..

Anyway, a while back, I read He’s No Prince Charming by debut author Elle Daniels, and I wanted (so much) to love it, but… well, read on.

A wounded beast . . .

It took Marcus Bradley forever to find a suitable bride. And then he lost her—all because some meddling matchmaker with a crazy notion about “true love” helped her elope with another man. Now, to save his sister from a terrible marriage alliance, he needs a replacement—an heiress, to be exact . . . and he knows just the woman to help him find one.

A spirited beauty . . .

Danielle Strafford believes everyone deserves a fairytale ending—even the monstrously scarred and notoriously brooding Marquis of Fleetwood. Not that he’s left her a choice. If she doesn’t help him secure a wife—by any means necessary—he’ll reveal her scandalous secrets.

A passion that will consume them both

The more time Marcus spends with Danielle, the less interested he is in any other woman. But the Beast must do the impossible: keep from losing his heart to a Beauty he is destined to lose.

As a reader of genre fiction, I know what kinds of stories appeal to me (generally) and which do not. This reading approach isn’t limited to genre romance, of course. Some SFF readers will prefer books that highlight adventure, perhaps, or are set in space, or depict alternate realities. In my romance fiction reading, I find the following tropes are safe bets (or are particularly interesting, if not necessarily “safe”):

  1. Fairy tale-based stories, especially beauty and the beast stories;
  2. Mythology-based stories or ones that draw on elements from the classics;
  3. Marriage of convenience, secret baby, friends to lovers, or unrequited love plots;
  4. The following character tropes: wounded hero, bluestocking heroine (this one is frequently problematic, but I find it interesting), tall heroines (for reasons), virgin heroes and/or experienced heroines, heroines who run their own businesses; grumpy heroes; characters based on Austen characters;
  5. Cross-class romances and/or other types of imbalances.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a long enough list for now. Anyway, just from reading the blurb, I could see that He’s No Prince Charming is a beauty and the beast story with a wounded hero (who might also be grumpy). That was enough to prompt me to request the book on Netgalley. Within the first few pages, I learned the heroine runs her own business (a clandestine service aiding women seeking to escape from unwelcome betrothals by eloping with their true loves; she runs this business out of a bookstore operated by her first clients.). So, you know, the book has quite a few ticks in its favor as far as my reading biases are concerned. Also, it’s Daniels’ first book, and I harbor a soft spot for debut novels.

So what went wrong, you ask? Be warned, there be spoilers ahead.

  1. The premise, that Marcus needs to marry an heiress in order to protect his sister from her betrothal to a dangerous man, takes a strange turn after Marcus sees Danni help his betrothed elope with another man; Marcus figures the only solution is to blackmail Danni into helping him kidnap an heiress. Look, I get that beauty and the beast stories pretty much always involve some element of Stockholm Syndrome, but I have a hard time caring about characters (that’s right: both of ‘em) who break into a woman’s home, drug her, and carry her off to a waiting carriage. That Danni ends up knocked out and kidnapped herself doesn’t, ultimately, make that big a difference to me. She’s still a kidnapper.
  2. What happens next? All the things. On the road to Gretna Green, the villain hero and his victims are set upon by highwaymen (gypsy highwaymen, at that), their coachman is shot, and the true victim is kidnapped (again) by the highwaymen. Before the gypsies abscond with her, they threaten her with gang rape, but — you know — in a fun way. It’s all very lighthearted. The villains hero and heroine, take off on foot to kidnap her back rescue her, but they have no idea where they’re going and, after a storm blows up, they take shelter in an abandoned cabin, and the hero has an epic panic attack. Kissing happens, because reasons. The next day, the heroine is nearly trampled by a horse, but eventually they make their way to an inn. Over the next few days, they search for the gypsies while running from soldiers (who are trying to rescue the kidnap victim); the villain hero is shot (by the soldiers), but somehow they still manage to find the gypsy camp to re-kidnap rescue her. Eventually (of course), Marcus is arrested for kidnapping an Admiral’s daughter, but Danni convinces her MP father to reverse the charges against him (because love). It stretches plausibility that any all of those events would occur in one story. Kidnapping and highwaymen? and being shot?
  3. Danni makey no sensey. She believes in love matches so sincerely that she runs a business helping hapless women escape loveless marriages, yet she considers herself as good as betrothed to an earl she doesn’t love because she wants to please her depressive father. She goes along with Marcus’ blackmail and helps him kidnap the Admiral’s daughter, yet she thinks it’s wrong. At some point, Danni realizes that she loves Marcus (because?), but she’s reluctant to admit to him that she’s all the heiress he needs (because?). (What results is a dilemma for Marcus that the reader knows is bollocks: he thinks he has to fight his attraction to Danni in order to save his sister, but readers know that the only impediment is Danni’s dishonesty.) After Danni and Marcus’ awkward sex scene, she admits her heiress state, but he gets arrested almost immediately, so there’s no resolution.
  4. Oh, God, the ending. Danni manages to convince her father to have the charges against Marcus dropped (because love, but — really — the charges are absolutely just. He kidnapped that girl!). But then…. nothing. The ending peters off into anticlimax until the characters finally have the big I love you conversation. Of course, who cares?
  5. There’s a mystery fairy godmother (who may or may not be Marcus’ living — or even dead — mother). She provides a very strange deus ex machina via ballgowns but is otherwise completely unexplained.
  6. I  also had issues with voice (characters cracking unfunny jokes when they should be appalled by certain events).

Soooo, yeah. Why did I keep reading? I have no idea.

I was tempted just to ignore the book, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything nice to say about it (other than that I should have liked it, which isn’t all that positive, actually). But then I wondered, why does that matter? Do I need to be balanced? Do I need or want to be so stifled by my disinclination to give offense (unless I’m thoroughly pissed off by something) that I say nothing at all? And who would I be offending? What’s the point of blogging about books if I’m going to write only about the ones I loved, the ones I liked with some reservations, or the ones that made me Yosemite-Sam angry?

It’s all well and good to be a Jane Bennett in the world, to be easy-going and patient with others, but it’s not a rational way to read books. And, honestly, I don’t read books that way. Bad writing, strange plots, and questionable content stick out, and even though I finish nearly all the books I start, I do frequently regret my decision to keep reading. All of these things (and more) belong in book discussions. While I’m too tired right now to prove it, I think there must be a logical fallacy in assuming that kindness and honesty are mutually exclusive.

So, there it is. I’m really hoping that this is the end of my hiatus (and cowardice), because I read 200 books in 2014, and I think it’s time I started talking about (some of) them.

* FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley via NetGalley for review consideration. Somewhat obviously, my opinion is my own. *

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.