Intersection: romance novels and Flight of the Conchords

I’ve been just a wee bit Flight of the Conchords obsessed, lately.  I’ve had some random health issues and busy times at work, and when I’m stressed out and worried, I just want something funny.  So I created a playlist for my ipod that is jam packed with Eddie Izzard clips, Conchords songs, terrible amazing 90s hip hop, and cartoon themes.  The result is that I now associate penne alla arrabiatta with Darth Vader… and, of course, certain romance novels now remind me of Flight of the Conchords songs.

Cover image, Love Letters by Lori Brighton

A few weeks ago, The Dashing Duchesses listed some books that were on sale or free from the major retailers as part of a summer reading feature.  I love me some cheap books (if they’re good… or very amusing), so I was all over that list.  Love Letters is one of the items I picked up, free, and I am so glad I did.  Love Letters features two distinct novellas, The Art of Seduction and Meant for Me, as well as a preview/excerpt of To Seduce an Earl, the first book of Brighton’s newest series.  I liked Meant for Me a little better than The Art of Seduction, but both were fairly good, if a little paint-by-numbers, novellas.

Undoubtedly, my favorite part of Love Letters is the excerpt of To Seduce an Earl, in which the hero is a male prostitute.  Novelty is rare in romance novels.  There are simply a bajillion books about rakish (but heart o’ gold) lords (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons), alpha-male heroes of all walks, gentlemen-scholars, etc.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about a man-ho, and I have to admit I’m very intrigued.  The excerpt I read was almost Shakespearean with mistaken identity and intrigue aplenty.  (I love mistaken identity stories… not sure what that says about me.)  Anyway, in honor of To Seduce an Earl, here’s a video of the song that ran through my head while I read that excerpt.

Lori Brighton is a completely new author to me.  I have absolutely no idea who she is or what she normally writes, but I am 100% more likely to buy one of her books now that I’ve read a lengthy (and free) sampling of her work.  To be fair, though, she totally had me at male prostitute.  This collection shows that Brighton is a good writer whose style I enjoy, for the most part.  (I did question a few things, such as how long clay residue would remain on one’s hands once one had rubbed said hands all over someone else’s body… at some point doesn’t one run out of clay residue to spread around? Just how gunky with clay were his hands?!)  There were some editing issues that caught my attention, but it’s difficult to muster a lot of irritation for such a thing when the item in question is free.

OH MY GOD!  I thought I should explain the Darth Vader/penne alla arrabiata combo… and I found this.  I think I just had a moment of squee…

Review – A Season for Sin by Vicky Dreiling

It’s the end of August.  When in the world did that happen (obviously during the rest of August…)?  Anyway, I have found myself a wee bit behind in posting reviews for books that will be released in September, so you’ll probably notice more straight-up review posts appearing than my normal quaintly meandering posts about books I bought with my own money.  Once I catch up, I’ll be back to being tangential me.

Cover image, A Season for Sin by Vicky Dreiling

I’ll start with the publisher’s blurb:

Introducing the Sinful Scoundrels…

The Earl of Bellingham is nothing is not a creature of habit:  money, meals, and mistresses must be strictly managed if a man is to have a moment’s peace.  It’s a system that works splendidly for him–until now.  With his oldest and dearest friends succumbing, one by one, to wedded bliss, Bell is now restless and a trifle lonely.  Enter the Sinful Scoundrels–Colin Brockhurst, Earl of Ravenshire, and Harry Norcliffe, Viscount Evermore–who drag him back into society and draw his rakish eye to the ton‘s new beautiful young widow.  Bell isn’t after a wife, but a challenge.  And Laura Davenport should fit the bill quite nicely…

A Season for Sin is an introductory novella for a new series coming out in spring 2013.  As a marketing tool, the introductory novella concept seems a fantastic idea.  What better way to get people invested in the stories of a new set of characters than to serve up an appetizer of sorts?  That’s what you get in A Season for Sin.  It is not a complete story; it’s more like the first four chapters of What a Wicked Earl Wants randomly snipped from the beginning of that story and sold separately.  I have seen an example of a novella introducing a new series that managed to tell an independent story while piquing the reader’s interest in a new set of characters/new setting.  In that instance, I did not mind spending $.99 for a marketing tool.  I might have been annoyed if I had paid $.99 for this novella/65 pages of backstory that could (and perhaps should) easily have been incorporated into the novel.

That said, I knew what I was getting myself into when I requested the e-ARC of this novella, so I wasn’t terribly disappointed when I read the story.  I assume that other readers why buy this story expecting it to actually go somewhere will be a trifle disappointed to discover that it’s a clever (and lovely) marketing tool enticing them to spend more money on the full-length novel.  I wonder if the novel will reference any of this material, or if it will begin abruptly where the novella ends. I suppose I will have to wait until spring 2013 to find out.

Now, despite my cynicism, this novella/chunk of disembodied story did its job.  I am curious.  I want to know what happens to Bellingham and Laura.  I want to know if Lord Chesfield, the schmucky teenager, grows up and becomes a worthwhile human being.  I’m intrigued by the other two sinful scoundrels (do we really have to call them that?) and look forward to reading more about their antics.  I’ll probably pre-order a copy of What a Wicked Earl Wants.  Is it ridiculous that I resent being manipulated by clever marketing even while I follow along like the consumerist sheep that I am?  Yeah, probably.  But I can’t help it… there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll find an interesting story in What a Wicked Earl Wants, and I’m a sucker (in general and for interesting stories).

If you’re interested in learning more about this novella, please click on the cover shown above, or avoid scrolling and click here.  You can also visit Vicky Dreiling’s website directly to find out about this and previous works.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a free e-copy of this story from Grand Central Publishing (Forever Yours imprint) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series (1 and 2)

A few weeks ago, my friend Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict suggested that we should read some books together–since we have outrageously similar taste in books, and all–and I suggested this series.  So far, there are 4 books released in this series, and we are now rabidly awaiting book # 5 (see here for an excerpt hosted on the author’s page), due out in February 2013.

I initially intended to write about all four books in one post, but I just want you to think for a moment about how unbelievably long that post would be (and boring to everyone, really…).  Right.  So I plan to discuss the first two books in this post, and the second two books in a later post.

Cover image, Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt

The only of Hoyt’s series that I’ve read in full was The Prince series, and that’s really just three independent stories that share a very casual link.  The Legend of the Four Soldiers series was much more connected, but I still haven’t read the first book (never got around to it…).  With Wicked Intentions, I felt that so much of it was setting up the world and characters for the other books in the series, and it isn’t as good as a stand alone story as a result.  That was kind of a disappointment to me, but maybe that’s how it always is with a series’ first book…

What I loved: Lazarus is delicious as the tormented-by-his-own-demons hero.  I loved his poetry translating and all that darkness.  You know how it is; sometimes you just want a good anti-hero to root for.  The book dabbles in some pretty heavy themes – love, infidelity, trust, shame, gender roles (specifically what happens when a prescribed role is not followed to a T), etc. – and it gives them due weight.  As I’ve come to expect from Hoyt’s writing, the characters are complex and develop over the course of the story, and their decisions always make sense in light of their motivations.  This story also has a neat little mystery (or two) that serves to bring Lazarus and Temperance together, and it helps to keep the plot moving along.

What I didn’t love so much: I really wanted to know what caused Lazarus’ touch issues, but it isn’t divulged either because Lazarus himself doesn’t know (fair) or because it’s not really important to the story (boo, but probably fair).  I adored the bit with Silence, but it was left unresolved.  I assume later books in the series will deal with it, but it left a slightly frayed edge to me.  The ending felt rushed (not quite Northanger Abbey rushed, to be fair – that book has an etch-a-sketch ending if ever I saw one).  For a book with so many heavy themes, the happily ever after was a tad slapdash.  Temperance and Lazarus each resolve their random issues, but the resolution seems almost magical and rather too convenient.

But, you know what?  It’s still worth it to read this story, because the books that follow are amazing and are made better by the world building that occurs in book 1.

Cover image, Notorious Pleasures by Elizabeth Hoyt

Notorious Pleasures benefits from all the world building that was accomplished in Wicked Intentions.  You might very well wonder, eh?  There’s world building a romance novel?  Isn’t it usually reserved for fantasy or science fiction novels that actually have a unique world to build?  The thing is that historical romance novels are actually kind of a subgenre of fantasy novels.  Tangent: in a way, all novels are fantasy novels /tangent.  Successful/good historical romance authors do lots and lots of research and then tweak the circumstances slightly to give their story and characters some plausibility.  Let’s face it: strong female characters who have some autonomy over their lives are a bit of an anachronism.  So are stories with young, handsome dukes that marry commoners or *gasp* Americans.

The Maiden Lane series is set in Georgian England (early-ish eighteenth century), and a lot of the action takes place in St. Giles, a gin-soaked slum.  The setting is remarkably atypical for the historical romance genre.  It is gritty, and although Notorious Pleasures features considerably more ballroom scenes than the other books, the focus of the book remains set on St. Giles.  I enjoyed that Hoyt was willing to ask a few moral questions about justice and leave them unanswered.  In Wicked Intentions, there were a few such questions–e.g. is it right or wrong for an orphanage to pay a procuress a hefty sum of money to save one child from a life of childhood prostitution, knowing that the procuress has a nearly endless supply of children to sell and the orphanage has a finite amount of money to use towards feeding and clothing the children it has already saved?–and Hoyt was right back to that gritty line between fantasy and reality in this book.  Is it right or wrong for a man to save his family by illegal means?

Of the four stories I’ve read in this series, I found the love story between Lady Hero and Griffin to be the least compelling (which, to be clear, is not to say that I didn’t find it compelling… it’s just that the other three stories had so much more to offer by way of characterization).  I think this might be a case of my holding Elizabeth Hoyt up to a far stricter standard than I use for everyone else (because she’s just that awesome).  My real issue with Lady Hero and Griffin is that it sticks too closely to the Perfect Lady paired with a Perfect Scoundrel trope.  You pretty much know how it will be in their first scene together when Griffin dubs Hero “Lady Perfect”…

To be honest, the strangest parts of this book were all the random We Interrupt This Novel for a Public Service Announcement about Silence Hollingbrook and How She’s Doing episodes.  They made sense in the first book because they directly tied into Temperance’s story – Silence and Temperance being sisters, after all – and helped fuel Temperance’s emotional journey.  In this story, the episodes behaved as interruptions, and I couldn’t figure out exactly why I was supposed to care so much about Silence’s woes within the context of Hero and Griffin’s story.  Silence gets her own story in book 3, and I was glad, while I read it, that it wasn’t weighted down with a butt-ton of back story, but that doesn’t mean that I completely enjoyed having all the necessary back story play out real-time as an interruption to another unrelated story.

Other than all that, the story is well-paced and gripping; there’s a bit of mystery and drama, and a rather evil villain was thrown in to keep things interesting.  The end, thank heavens, was satisfying, and I jumped right in to book 3 (Scandalous Desires).  But I’ll write more about that in another post.

Fairy tale romances

I’m a sucker for epic tales of our human experience.  Epic poetry, mythology, fairy tales–you name it–I love them all.  I’m also a sucker for romance novels, which, despite their bad rap, are often epic in their own way, so I’m even more blown away by the successful combination of epics, myths, legends, or fairy tales and romance novels.

You know my type.  I went nutso for Disney’s Enchanted.  Real life combined with fairy tale elements?  Heck to the yeah!

Romances (especially historical ones) are heavily steeped in fantasy, anyway, and the additional elements from fairy tales add a fun little twist on the genre.  Anyway, I’ve been on a fairy tale-influenced romance novel kick for the past few weeks, and it prompted me to buy this one:

Cover image, A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James

A Kiss at Midnight is a Cinderella story (no, not the Hillary Duff version).  It’s got all the classic elements: orphaned girl mistreated and forced into labor by her evil stepmother, a prince, a glass slipper, a fairy godmother, a happily ever after (eventually).  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it has some elements that, considered separately, I do not enjoy.  I hope I’ve piqued your interest, because I’m about to list those elements.

  1. We have the somewhat ubiquitous female character who does not recognize her own beauty but whom everyone else instantly accepts as gorgeous.  Don’t get me wrong: I go gaga for the admittedly overdone Darcy trope–at first the hero can’t see any beauty or bearing in the heroine, but, as he gets to know her, he slowly discovers that she’s the handsomest woman of his acquaintance.  But Kate has a form of stepmother-induced dysmorphia, and I tend to be easily annoyed by dysmorphic characters.  It’s like when your rich friends complain to you about how they don’t have enough money… it’s damn annoying.
  2. The entire time Gabriel (our hapless hero) is pursuing Kate (our heroine), he is on the cusp of announcing his betrothal to another woman.  That betrothal happens to be of the arranged marriage sort, and the two who are to marry have never actually met, but the important thing is that Kate considers Gabriel somewhat off-limits.  It is sometimes difficult for me to enjoy stories that embroil the characters in a ‘make the most of what limited time you have with each other’ sort of feeling.

OK, so I didn’t like those two things very much at all, but they count as nothing when the story and its characters are considered as a whole.  Kate is a wonderful character with all the can-do determination and wry humor I could ever want wrapped up in a package made complete by a dose of insecurity and familial loss.  I loved her fierce loyalty to her home and its retainers and to her ‘stepsister’ and the dogs.  And I LOVED the dogs.  Tangent: This is so bizarre, but I will almost certainly finish a book, even if it is terrible, if it has amusing pet antics.  Frisky cats and capering dogs (or horses… really, any fun animal will do) cover a multitude of story sins, as far as I’m concerned./tangent  Gabriel was also a lovely character with depth and motivations galore whose decisions made sense (even stringing along Kate in favor of the faceless soon-to-be betrothed made sense, in a way).  The secondary characters are fan-freaking-tastic from the somewhat dim Algie to the delightful fairy godmother-esque Henry (and her brilliant but perpetually drunk husband Leo).

The story follows the typical Cinderella arc–downtrodden girl gets to go to a ball (in this case, a house party), meets a prince, falls mutually in love with said prince, and has to run away into the night for some reason, after which the prince runs her to ground and brings on the happily ever after.  This particular version shakes things up a little with several moral questions that all follow the same basic line: should one follow one’s dreams or one’s duty, and can the two ever be the same thing?

All told, this story is a great example of fairy tale romances.  It is funny, charming, and very romantic.  If you’re interested in discovering more about the book, check it out on Goodreads here.

Review – Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

Cover image, Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

When I saw the description for this book, I was all over it.  Grieving Jane Austen scholar goes to an Austen-themed resort for a much-needed break from widowhood and gets it on in a variety of ways… what’s not to like?

Here’s the publisher’s blurb from Goodreads:

Louisa Connelly, a recently widowed Jane Austen scholar, needs some relief from her stifling world. When a friend calls to offer her a temporary escape from her Montana ranch, she is whisked into a dizzying world of sumptuous food, flowing wine…and endless temptation.She’s an honored guest at Paradise Hall, an English resort boasting the full experience of an authentic Georgian country-house weekend. Liveried servants tend to every need of houseguests clad in meticulous period costume: snug breeches, low-cut silken gowns and negligible undergarments.

It’s Mac Salazar, a journalist immersing himself fully, deeply, lustily in the naughty pleasures of upstairs-downstairs dalliances, who piques Louisa’s curiosity—and libido—most. He’s a dilettante straight out of a novel: uninhibited, unapologetic and nearly insatiable. But Lou’s not romantic about this much, at least: Paradise Hall is a gorgeous fantasy, nothing more. A lover like Mac is pure fiction. And the real world beckons….

That blurb doesn’t really do the book justice.  Yes, there’s a bit of crazy to be found in this book, but there is also a lot of wonderful.

The characters in this book and the problems they experience are real and are handled in an understated manner.  The story is told in a shifting-POV third person narrative that bounces between the two main characters (Lou and Mac) and two major secondary characters (Rob and Peter).  I appreciated that each section, headed by a character’s name, is told entirely in that character’s perspective.  The sections following Peter, one of the owners of Paradise Hall, were my favorites.

You’ve seen the cover of this book, so you can guess that it’s fairly steamy.  It is.  There are a lot of sexual encounters – including those of the M/F, M/M, M/F/M, and F/F/M variety, and a dose of voyeurism is thrown in for fun – but they fit within the framework of the characters’ stories and, for the most part, make sense.  Readers who prefer straightforward (pun intended) M/F scenes should probably skip this one, but I thought Mullany handled the wide menu of encounters very well.  The best erotica authors are not shocked by their subject matter; they tell it like they see it.  That’s what Mullany does with this story.  There was no moment when I felt that the author had geared herself up for writing these scenes by pouring a stiff drink and watching a bunch of Saved by the Bell.  She isn’t out to shock you, she’s just writing about a house party where the people dress up in Georgian attire and have a lot of sex with each other.

I know that sounds very strange (trust me, I just re-read that sentence, and it got a shocked chuckle out of me), but it’s true.  While I read the book, I felt that the characters’ decisions make perfect sense, considering the characters, and that really makes all the difference between a story like this and a story like that.

There was one thing about the book that was, to me, less than spectacular, but it’s possible that my imperfect understanding of the main character (Lou) is more at fault than any inconsistencies that may or may not exist.  Lou makes a discovery that is very disturbing to her, and I thought her reaction was handled extremely well, but then Lou goes and does pretty much the same thing to someone else that was done to her, and I was left feeling a whole lot less righteously indignant on her behalf.

Aside from that slightly irritating bit, I thought this book was pretty fantastic.  It is not a romance novel, so readers should not expect that kind of story.  Hidden Paradise provides emotionally-charged erotica full of all-too-human encounters.  Lou works out her grief at the relatively recent (and quite unexpected) passing of her husband, Chris and Peter work through aging and its indignities, Mac tries to find meaning in his life, and Rob deals with his difficult family and finally gets laid (and everyone else pretty much just has sex).

If you are interested in purchasing Hidden Paradise, you can either click on the cover image above or avoid scrolling and click here.  Update: This book will be released by Harlequin HQN on September 25, 2012.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a free e-galley of this book from Harlequin through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review*

Review – Consent to Love by Abby Wood

I was still a kid when I started reading romances (some might argue that I’m still a kid at heart/in my mind), and I used to bring my books in to school and giggle over the juicy bits with my little friends.  “He put his WHAT where?”  These days, I take most of the stuff that happens in romance novels or erotica with a “yep, that happens” attitude.  Some adjectives (turgid, tumescent, throbbing, flaccid, etc.) will always make me chuckle, but they are an expected element of most romantic or erotic fiction.  It takes a lot to shock me.

Well, color me shocked.

Cover image, Consent to Love by Abby Wood

Let’s start with the publisher’s blurb:

Twenty-four-year-old small-town girl Ana Reynold serves beer at the local bar, tries to keep her beater car running, and dreams of a better life as a painter. If she can learn to make a decent steak, she might get promoted to cook-and earn enough for her real heart’s desire. Right now, that doesn’t include romance.

But when she meets a tall, dark and sexy Native American man named Kane, Ana can’t take her eyes off him-or stop thinking about him. But she’d better. Everyone knows the proud Lakota who raises horses wants nothing to do with a townie barmaid who’ll bring shame to his people.

Except Kane can’t get Ana off his mind. He proposes a red-hot weekend in bed, a no-strings affair to end Monday morning. Yet once Kane brings the outsider onto Lakota land, everything changes…

44,000 words

By the time I was two chapters in, I was fairly certain I was not going to like the book (melodrama for DAYS), but I kept reading it because it was funny.  By the time I reached the second or third sex scene (there are a lot of them crammed into the short book), I had contracted a case of the horrified giggles.  You know the kind I mean: you’re giggling madly while reading the crazy nonsense, but you also have aftershock giggles hit you at unexpected moments during the days following.  Trying to go to sleep, are you?  Well, you can count that out once you remember this line: “He removed himself from her puckered hole…”

My top 3 dropped jaw moments:

  1. Ana, naked, rubbing her girly parts all over the saddle Kane made for her.  Ew.  How do you clean that up afterward?
  2. The sheer number of truly unhygienic moments.   Matters should always progress from front to back (and then wash your damn hands) where female anatomy is concerned.  Kane missed that day in sex-ed (so did Ana, apparently).
  3. This line: “How was she supposed to form an opinion when her dress and lack of panties allowed the hard ridge of his cock to boink her between her butt cheeks?”  Boink!!

If you leave the raunchy sex out of the picture–not an easy thing to do, by the way, as raunchy sex comprises most of the book–the remaining story swings between unreasonably emotional melodrama and implausibility.  When Ana and Kane first meet, they both acknowledge the strange attraction between them with much more emotional honesty that is typical for strangers sharing their first conversation.  Ana’s unschooled painting talent and the wide interest in her work–not to mention how instantly lucrative her hobby is–seem implausible.

Bottom line: Considering how less-than-stellar this book is, I really did have a blast reading it.  I don’t think the author intended it to be humorous, exactly, but there are some laugh-out-loud funny bits that kept me giggling for days.  Sometimes I do just want to read something silly that has a high entertainment value, and this book actually qualifies.  Boink!

*FTC disclaimer: I received a free e-galley of this book from Carina Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

Dream job title: Supreme Vice Chancellor

Job titles are pretty much always ridiculous, right?  They rarely have any bearing on the actual work that one does and are instead vanity pieces that we show off to one another.  Woe betide the humble Administrative Assistant, but if you take that same person in the same job and elevate her (because it’s nearly always a woman) to “coordinator” or, God help us all, “Special Assistant to the _____ and Communications Coordinator,” then she’ll be able to hold her head up high and feel some self-worth at long last.

She might even get business cards.

Anyway, I have a new job title, and it was meant to acknowledge some of the responsibilities that I accidentally took on when I could not help but notice all the misplaced commas, misspelled names, and unchecked ‘facts’ that made it to final publications at the place where I work, but it really doesn’t.  Instead, it makes me think of transvestites every time I see it on my email signature line.

I used to be an administrative assistant who performed the functions of an executive assistant, event planner, and editor… now I am, strangely, an Executive Coordinator.

Still waiting for the transvestite tie-in?  Wait no longer.

There are a few plain ol’ coordinators ’round these parts, and it’s so difficult not to refer to them (in my head or out loud) as ‘fuckin’ weirdo coordinators’… I manage (barely), but it’s an effort.  Anyway, I figured I would post this bit of news (after the fact… I started in the “new” job last month) to explain my slightly haphazard posting schedule.  We’ve a lot of publications coming out before the start of the academic year, and I’ve been very busy editing and ranting on Twitter about how annoying it is that no one seems to understand what is meant by the words “final draft” for a “final review.”  Oh, are you curious, too?  Well, let me tell you.  A final draft should be as free of errors as possible (having been through several review stages to remove all those errors, right?), and a final review should just be quick read-through to confirm a document’s final publication-worthy status.

Anyway, I’m hoping to get back to a more regular schedule in the next few weeks.

OK, there is simply no excuse for this, but I’m doing it anyway.  This video would be so much better if it were actually Kermit instead of a strangely good knock-off, but I can’t help myself: it’s about bacon! (sort of)