My best and worst reads in 2013

I read a lot of books this year (172 as of my writing this), and I thought it might be fun to identify the outliers at both ends of the spectrum.

The Best:

1.  The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – There is so much life in this novella, complete with joy and pain, disappointment and transcendence. It is, without doubt, the best book I read all year. (*)

2.  Big Boy by Ruthie Knox – Hands down my favorite Ruthie Knox book (which is really saying something, guys), Big Boy is remarkably atypical for the genre.  It features characters whose sole, necessary, act of selfishness in lives governed by sacrifice is the small amount of time they take from each other.  And when they shift to giving instead of taking? It’s magic. (<3)

3.  Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand – Infertility, grief, and a broken marriage, these are the subjects of this beautifully moving novella that explores the jagged edges of two people, long in love, who were blown apart by grief but who find a way back.   (<3)

4.  A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – I don’t know that I have ever been more surprised by a romance novel than I was by Cecilia Grant’s debut.  Thematically, the novel discusses trust, intimacy, and the slow development of love with humor so sly it’s easy to miss.  But it’s most remarkable (I think) for its complete lack of instalust and magical chemistry.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should. (<3)

5.  About Last Night by Ruthie Knox – I read this book in one sitting and, when I was done, I started it again immediately, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go. Through this book, Knox taught me how to be a better reader (and, by extension, a better woman, perhaps), to sit and savor the moments of truth that can be found in a book, to rediscover and embrace the reason I read.  (<3)

6 and 7.  The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan – My favorite thing about Courtney MIlan’s writing is that when you start reading her books, her characters always seem so damn mysterious, and that mystery never seems like a clever device to snag reader interest.  It’s just that her characters are so full, possess such depth, that it takes a few hundred pages to get to know them.  And then you do, and your heart just breaks, because their issues are real.  You’ve met women like Jane, and you know your history — and your current affairs — so you know her plight (and her sister’s) is not unusual.  You know that all the pieces of Violet’s character really existed, lived out by real women throughout the ages.  And it hurts so much to know it, so deeply, so viscerally, a punch.  But you also know men like Oliver and Sebastian.  And even though it hurts so much to read and experience all that reality, at the end you are gifted a triumph, and it gives you the strength to keep putting your back into it, to keep living your life. (<3)

8.  The Mistress by Tiffany Reisz – By the time I reached the end of The Mistress, I was crying a little, laughing a lot, pumping my fist in the air, feeling intellectually alive and overwhelmed by joy.  And I felt rather like I did after I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, like this story that had always existed behind a veil had been revealed, and I’d had the good fortune to witness that unveiling.   (*)

9.  Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl – This book is funny, but it isn’t lighthearted.  It’s like that moment when the seas of life have buffeted you about so much that you end up getting a mouthful of sea water, and you try to spit it out with some dignity, but it just comes out as warm, extra salty drool, and suddenly it’s fucking hilarious that — on top of everything else — you’ve just drooled, so instead of worrying about drowning, you just laugh.  Anyway, it’s kind of a coming of age story for people who waited until their thirties to figure themselves out, but it doesn’t have any of that angst because it just doesn’t have time for bullshit. (*)

10.  To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer – This one made the list because it is probably the most romantic story I read all year.  I mean, come on: Eden and Levi fall in love writing letters to each other about Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  It was a foregone conclusion that I would love this story, that it would stick with me all year. (<3)

 The Worst

Well, there are the obvious contenders for worst books read all year.  there’s even an obvious winner.  But there were also a slew of books that just disappointed me (or made me disappointed in myself).  Chief among these is:

Most disappointing book of 2013: And Then She Fell by Stephanie Laurens (<3 :~(…).  I cannot believe that I bought this, my 31st Laurens book.  I am deeply disappointed in myself.  On the other hand, it seems to have finally helped me break the cycle of addiction.  The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the next book in the series, has been out for six months, and I’ve had absolutely no desire to purchase it.

So there you have it.  Many of these books were published in 2013 but not all of them.  Some of these books were received as e-ARCs from publishers (marked with *) and some were purchased by me (marked with <3).

What are the best and worst books you read this year?

 

Ménage à review – Kim, Tasha, and I take on The Wicked Confessions of Lady Cecilia Stanton by Viveka Portman

Every now and then when trolling NetGalley for something to read, my buddies Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) and Tasha (from Truth, Freedom, Beauty & Books) find a book that we just have to read. Together.  Thus, we have The Wicked Confessions of Lady Cecilia Stanton to discuss today.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

When faced with a rakish, lusty husband, what is a proper English wife to do but educate herself in the art of bedplay?

“Marriages are strange things, none stranger perhaps than this betwixt me and my lord husband.”

Lady Cecelia is married to the dashing and philandering Lord William Stanton, a situation that would distress even the most composed and refined gently-born lady. However, Cecelia has a secret balm to her dissatisfaction: her maid, Bess Miller.

Cecelia’s inexperience and William’s insatiable appetites fuel her desire to learn, and Bess is a willing teacher. Then, when Cecelia blossoms into pregnancy and can no longer accommodate William’s needs, he distances himself, and Bess becomes her only solace and comfort — and the channel for her most intimate desires. As Cecelia struggles to understand her own feelings, gossip begins to spread. William starts asking questions, and wicked confessions must be made…

Tasha: First of all, let me say that the beginning of this novella intrigued me. It’s written in diary form and Cecelia’s like, “I’m pregnant AGAIN, dammit!” I wanted to find out why she was upset she was pregnant. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is really stupid. AND this is possibly the least-sexy erotica I’ve ever read. By the end I was simultaneously laffing my arse off and completely disgusted with the whole book.

Kelly: Yes to both of those, and also all the eye rolls.  Oh, and I shouted, “For reals?” at the book several times towards the end.

Kim: I’m at a complete loss with this novella. I knew it wouldn’t be amazing going in, but, like Tasha, I found the diary format intriguing. Upon completion of the novella, I’m at a loss as to why it was even written. In essence it’s a story about a woman who wants sex and greedily takes it from whomever she can with no regard to anyone else’s feelings.  I’m not sure any of the characters actually feel anything besides a hunger for sex.  Speaking of the characters, I never connected with any of them.

Cecelia, our heroine, doesn’t really care for much, besides sex. She’s a user through and through, using Bess, her maid, for physical and emotional comfort. She comes off as a rich, privileged woman used to having her own way in all situations.

Tasha: Cecelia’s not that well-drawn of a character, and the story is told completely from her viewpoint! She is very snooty and repressed (I’m guessing to give Lord Braying Donkey something to play off?), but she also seems like an over-the-top sex fiend, sooooo… I did like that she stood up for herself with William’s philandering, but for all the wrong reasons! Beyond that we don’t really know much about her. She rides horses and lies in bed all day waiting for people to stick something up her cootch, apparently.

Kim: Tasha’s right about William. He really is Lord Braying Donkey. They way Cecelia falls in love with him like instantly is utterly ridiculous. He’s lewd, crass, and a bonafide sex addict. While she’s pregnant he leaves her and head to London, where he promptly gambles himself into huge debts and the arms of many women.  Cecelia meanwhile is left at home to give birth to their child, alone. (Well, alone to his knowledge) Suddenly he comes back months after the child is born and expects to be forgiven. His first duty upon returning? Tupping his wife. What pissed me off the most about him is that he just expects her forgiveness. She makes a comment about being unhappy with his actions and he like gets all upset over it. Cecelia (wanting his dick) is like AW BABY I’M SORRY. IT’S NOT FAIR FOR ME TO BE UPSET ABOUT YOU CHEATING ON ME AND SPENDING ALL OUR MONEY. FORGIVE ME!

Tasha: Well, he HAS to cheat on her while she’s pregnant because the doctor told him he can’t “befoul your luscious womb” until she’s pushed the baby out. HOW CAN HE LIVE WITHOUT SEX??? And also: what good is Cecelia if can’t stick his dick in her? See? Completely understandable!

Kim: The whole “William and his fear of having sex with Cecelia while she was pregnant” was so so stupid. You mean to tell me that he has no married male friends? None who saw the disaster he was becoming and sought to talk to him about it? Very unrealistic.

Tasha: lol The idea that anyone would find him attractive, let alone fall in love with him and put up with his crap, was unrealistic. The guy was like a braying donkey. And then Cecelia turns around and is all like, “I love him!” OKAY CRAZY.

Kelly: Cecilia certainly does not paint William in the most flattering light, so it’s very jarring when she suddenly switches from talking about how disgusting he is to talking about how much she loves him.  It’s a little unclear why she loves him — although it’s probably that he has a magic penis — because it’s unclear what changes in their relationship from their inauspicious beginning (Cecilia has one of those rent asunder cherry-popping experiences) to the development of twu wuv.

Tasha: Cecelia and Bess’ relationship also seemed very random. They were friends for years and years—at least as much as one can be friends with someone who’s paid to do what you say—and then all of sudden Bess is like, “Here, let me help you with your orgasm problem.” Sure. Why not.

Kim: Bess was the only character I felt anything for. What I felt for her was sympathy. She’s really dealt the short end of the stick in this book.  She’s a servant and as such is already set up as a lower person, socially. It’s obvious that she cares greatly for Cecelia, but why…that’s never really fleshed out.

Tasha: That’s true of the whole book, really. There’s a lot of tell and not show going on—for example, Williams’ appeal to Cecelia. We’re TOLD he’s kind and considerate and blah blah, but what we’re shown doesn’t support that. Also, we’re told Cecelia enjoys sex—I guess??? I mean, it seems to be her number one motivator—but the sex scenes were so clinical and not sexy at all.

Kim: Good points, Tasha. LOTS of telling. My biggest issue with the book is the ending/treatment of Bess. It bothered me SO MUCH that Cecelia and William get everything they want while Bess is thrust into the situation whether she likes it or not. It’s like, oh hey – moral of the story – everyone gets a happy ending but the servant. Because servants are only good for serving the gentry.

Kelly: It might not have been so obvious that Bess was getting the short end of the stick if the narrative hadn’t emphasized that Bess thought William was a gross, stupid asshole.  So, at the end, without either Cecilia or William giving even a thought to what Bess might want, it’s just decided that they’ll be a happily ever after threesome, and Bess will just have to learn to recognize the power of William’s magic penis.

Tasha: I just wish they’d have moved to threesomes right away. Instead it’s just stuck at the end, and I agree that Bess and that other servant William was having sex with are treated like afterthoughts. Well, they are!

A few more afterthoughts are Cece’s and Will’s seven or eight or nine (who even knows) kids. Where are they? What happened to them? Are these parents even aware of their kids’ names? Once Cecelia pumps one out, she’s like, “Awesome, now I can move on to having sex again!” and the kid is assigned to nursery purgatory.

Kelly: That’s probably for the best.  If it weren’t for Nancy, the wet-nurse, those kids would probably succumb to infant mortality. Could I just mention for one second that it’s a little weird that Nancy is the wet-nurse for all of Cecilia’s children? By the time Cece’s on her fourth pregnancy, poor Nancy has been lactating for years.

Kim: Good point. Probably should get those kids some fresh milk. Especially since Nancy is also banging Will. Can we talk about that weird love square/pentagon/octagon? Nancy is having sex with Will, who “loves” Ceclia, who “loves” Bess, who does stable dudes, who are also probably banging Nancy, who feeds the children.

Tasha: LOL Probably. Just wait until the kids get older.

Kim: ::shudders::

Kelly: As long as someone is giving it to Cecilia, what does it matter? I think that might be the moral of this story (along with the one Kim mentioned earlier).

Kim: I basically think everyone in the estate is having sex with each other. Syphilis must be running RAMPANT. I also thought that when Cecelia brings up the idea of condoms that Will takes it as a personal affront. Like dude. You’re banging all of London and half of your estate. I’d want to wrap your tool too.

Kelly: But he has a magic penis! It’s impervious to social disease.

Tasha: Yeah, you can’t wrap that shit up. It has to be unleashed! I think that’s the moral of the story.

We thought we’d end this discussion with a gif parade demonstrating our reactions to the book.

Yeah.  So, there you have it. The Wicked Confessions of Lady Cecilia Stanton.

Kim, Tasha, and I want to thank the publisher for providing us e-galleys on NetGalley.  Believe it or not, we had a great time reading this book, but I think that says more about us than about the book…

Advent reads part two – three more holiday novellas

I know you were totally thinking to yourself, “Books are great, Kelly, but what I really want is another video of an Advent carol.”  I knew it!

So I have three more holiday novellas to spotlight this week.  I loved one of them, thought one was enjoyable if a tad unremarkable, and did not at all like the third.

First up is the best of the bunch, Nina Rowan’s ‘Twas the Night Before Mischief. 

Cover image, ‘Twas the Night Before Mischief by Nina Rowan

‘Twas the night before mischief and all through the house, a lady was plotting—it was time to break out!

When Penelope Darlington is persuaded to elope with a most unsuitable suitor, she wastes no time. With visions of passion and adventure dancing in her head, she steals away in the middle of the night, just before her father’s Christmas feast.

Fearing for his daughter’s reputation, Henry Darlington begs Darius Hall, the Earl of Rushton’s daring yet discreet son, to bring Penelope home. When Darius finally catches up to Penelope, he is shocked. She’s not the silly little girl he expected, but a beautiful woman with a sharp mind and an allure that cannot be ignored.

Now forced to kidnap Penelope in order to bring her home, Darius and his new charge spend the next several days—and nights—in very close quarters. Penelope wanted passion and adventure, but she never could have imagined the pleasures Darius can provide…

‘Twas the Night Before Mischief is simply marvelous.  The characters are very well developed — especially considering the novella length — the story is interesting and well paced, and, perhaps most importantly, the romance is compelling.  My favorite thing about it is that the characters communicate imperfectly — Darius does not always understand what Penelope is trying to say, and Penelope frequently misunderstands Darius as well — but it isn’t obnoxious; actually, it feels natural, like how you’d expect two people who are getting to know one another to be.  As they spend time together, they get better at understanding.  It’s a fun little dose of reality in the middle of a historical romance novella.  I also loved the little details about Darius’ inventions and the nuances of Penelope’s relationship with her family.  All told, this is a fantastic novella, and I highly recommend it.

Next up is Jennifer Haymore’s His for Christmas.  I totally should have read the blurb all the way through (not just the first paragraph) before I read it.  I don’t think my opinion of the book would have materially changed, but I would have stopped expecting something a lot more interesting (and less straightforward) than what it is.  (It’s not necessarily an excuse, but you’ve noticed that blurbs are frequently lame and rarely give you an accurate idea of a story’s merit, right?  Anyway… sometimes I sort of skim the blurb, and sometimes I suck at skimming…)  Based on the first paragraph of the blurb, I was sort of expecting Lady Esme to appear as a character in this story, and I was hoping it would be super meta, with sections of Lady Esme’s erotic stories appearing in Esme’s own story.  I totally should have continued on to the 2nd paragraph.  But, seriously, wouldn’t that have been interesting?

Cover image, His for Christmas by Jennifer Haymore

Jennifer Haymore introduced sweet, but shy Lady Esme in The Duchess Hunt, the first novel in her House of Trent Series. But what readers may not know is that proper young Lady Esme has a secret: the youngest sister of the Duke of Trent privately pens erotic stories!

Society would never allow Lady Esme to share her own work, so her friend Jennifer Haymore is here to help—and just in time for Christmas!

His for Christmas is the steamy story of two travelers who find themselves stranded in an inn when an unexpected snowstorm blankets the English countryside. As the temperature drops, desire rises and the two strangers share a night of passion unlike anything either has ever experienced. When dawn breaks and the storm clears, will they continue on their separate journeys, or will they begin a new path together?

(Aside: just for the sake of my own sanity, I edited the above blurb, which I copied and pasted directly from Goodreads, to remove 3 spelling errors… “upexpected” “seperate” and “thier.”  In all honesty, if I had read the entire blurb, I would never have bothered reading the book, and that’s sad.)

His for Christmas tells the story of two homeward bound travelers, stranded at an inn during a winter storm.  These two were (sort of) childhood sweethearts until a sort-of-but-not-entirely betrayal forced them apart.  Now, with one recently widowed and one recently returned from a continental sojourn, they are able to discover the truth about the past and indulge in the passionate promise of the future.  The story was sweet, if a bit angsty, and I did actually enjoy it, but it lacked character development, and the story felt a bit rushed.  I know — it’s a novella, so I should be expecting those things — but novellas don’t have to live up to their reputation; they can, in fact, be perfect.  This novella certainly isn’t, but it does tell a lovely little story about forgiveness, trust, and sweet loving in a tiny bed.

And, finally, there’s Mistletoe and Magic a novella about a wackadoodle debutante, her gift of seeing the future, and the hero who inexplicably loves her (at first sight).

Cover image, Mistletoe and Magic by Katie Rose

In Katie Rose’s delightful eBook original novella set in Victorian New York City, a remarkable woman with the gift of second sight must learn to trust her visions while following her heart.
 
Blond, angelic Penelope Appleton possesses breathtaking looks—and a troublesome secret. She and her two charming—and newly married—sisters have inspired quite a following posing as spiritualists. However, unlike her clever sisters, Penelope actually does glimpse the future. On the eve of her coming out at a Christmas ball, Penelope sees a vision of a rakishly handsome dark-haired man who she knows is her destiny. But her premonition comes with a terrible price: She also foretells his death.

Jared Marton takes one look at Penelope and his fate is sealed. He must possess her, heart and soul, even if his efforts to get close to this ethereal beauty are thwarted by her determination to deny the magic between them . . . until a perfect kiss dissolves all barriers to sweet surrender. But when Jared discovers the burden she carries, a perfect love is challenged by the cold winds of fate.

So Mistletoe and Magic goes like this: Penelope meets Jared and is all OMG, dreamy! but then she has a psychic vision of his death, and she’s like, OMG, Heartbreak? GTFO!, but, meanwhile, Jared’s like Whoa… I think I’m in love! I’d better buy her all the things! Penelope doesn’t actually want him to die, but she’s far more invested in preventing heartbreak, so she sends him an anonymous note: Be careful! You’re in danger! and then proceeds to act totally crazy around him, gazing longingly in his general direction one moment and telling him to GTFO the next.  Jared doesn’t care that she’s cray, though, because she’s got nice tits.

Eventually, Penelope realizes she needs to start telling people that she has The Gift, so she does, one by one, in a series of increasingly uncomfortable scenes.  Then Jared’s parents find out he’s courting the crazy girl, and they’re like Nope. Nope Nope Nope Nope!!! And Jared’s like Whatever, whatever, I do what I want. But his parents reach out to Penelope, and she’s like Love is all about self-sacrifice, and Jared could do way better than me. Ima go cry now. But then Penelope remembers a crucial detail about her original vision — a newspaper headline, complete with the date, announcing Jared’s death — and she knows she’s got to tell Jared, so she goes to his house, alone, at night, to warn him.  You totally know what happens next, right?  Yeah.  So then Jared’s like We’re totally getting married now! and Penelope’s like Babe, for reals, don’t go to the shops next to your office tomorrow. Like, for serious, some dude is going to shoot you! And Jared’s like, Aww, babe, it’s super cute how you’re all worried about me. I promise, I’ll be careful. But then the next day, he’s like Ima buy an engagement ring for Penelope at this shop conveniently located right around the corner from my office! And… yeah.  Have you heard enough?

It’s been a while (possibly since Secrets and Lords) since I read a book with such a squirrelly heroine.  Honestly, Penelope… you see a vision of this guy that you’re already convinced is your destiny getting killed, and all you can think to do is not get involved with him?  Really?  Like it’s going to be OK if he gets killed as long as you aren’t adversely impacted by it? Ugh.  And then, at the end, this other dude ends up getting killed in Jared’s stead (wrong place, wrong time, wrong coat) and everyone’s all LOLZ Jared’s not dead! but no one even spares a thought about the dead guy?  And readers are supposed to be satisfied when these two monumentally selfish (and stupid) people get their happy ending?!  Terrible.

‘Twas the Night Before Mischief was released on December 10, 2013 as an e-book by Forever Yours.  His for Christmas was released on October 1, 2013 as an e-book by Forever Yours.  Mistletoe and Magic was released on October 14, 2013 as an e-book by Loveswept.  If you’re interested about any of these books, just click on the cover images above to visit their pages on Goodreads.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of all three books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Spotlight – Mary Ann Rivers interviewed by Serena Bell

HeatingUptheHolidaysMaryAnnRiversBannerI may have mentioned a few times that I absolutely loved Mary Ann Rivers’ latest novella, Snowfall. I am, therefore, delighted to participate in this Christmas blog tour (*cough* It’s actually Advent *cough*) and share a video of Serena Bell interviewing Mary Ann Rivers.

This video was captured from a Shindig event (that I attended last month) hosted by Loveswept.  The event featured interviews and readings by all three Heating up the Holidays authors and gave participants an opportunity to ask questions and interact a little bit.  There seem always to be technical difficulties and a hearty dose of awkwardness with these events, but I really enjoy them (perhaps because of all the awkwardness… And, dude, I’m not exaggerating: some of the participants choose to participate fully by webcam, and one lady was putting on eye makeup — complete with that open mouth while concentrating on mascara thing — for all of us to see.  It was marvelous.).  Anyway, I hope you enjoy the interview and that you join me in attending the next Shindig event Loveswept hosts.

 Here’s some info about the novella, the author, and the anthology.

Heating Up the Holidays - CoverSNOWFALL by Mary Ann Rivers
Part of the HEATING UP THE HOLIDAYS anthology
Published by Loveswept
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7840-2

Jenny Wright can’t get enough of her erotic conversations with someone she knows only as “C.” Flirting online helps Jenny temporarily escape confronting the changes to her life as she slowly loses her vision. Jenny’s occupational therapist, Evan Carlisle-Ford, is helping her prepare for the challenges ahead, but the forthright, trustworthy man can no longer ignore his growing attraction to his fiercely intelligent client. Now Jenny must choose between the safe, anonymous “C”—or the flesh-and-blood Evan, whose heated kisses can melt snow faster than it can fall.

Mary Ann RiversAbout Mary Ann Rivers

Mary Ann Rivers was an English and music major and went on to earn her MFA in creative writing, publishing poetry in journals and leading creative-writing workshops for at-risk youth. While training for her day job as a nurse practitioner, she rediscovered romance on the bedside tables of her favorite patients. Now she writes smart and emotional contemporary romance, imagining stories featuring the heroes and heroines just ahead of her in the coffee line. Mary Ann Rivers lives in the Midwest with her handsome professor husband and their imaginative school-aged son.

Connect with Mary Ann Rivers

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About HEATING UP THE HOLIDAYS

As leftover turkey and stuffing give way to stockings and little black dresses, this tantalizingly sexy eBook bundle offers up holiday-themed novellas from a trio of beloved romance authors. Lisa Renee Jones gives a dedicated reporter and a powerful businessman a chance to count their Thanksgiving blessings in Play with Me; Mary Ann Rivers presents Snowfall, the story of a woman who confronts a life-changing event—hopefully with a special man by her side—just in time for Christmas; and in Serena Bell’s After Midnight, an explosive New Year’s kiss leaves two strangers wondering whether they’ll ever see each other again.

Advent reads part one – three holiday novellas

I love pretty much everything about Advent.  The kitschy calendars, the weather, the music, the expectation.  Let me be clear about the music, though.  I’m not keen on listening to Christmas music before Christmas (Eve).  Nope — it’s Advent music that I love.

Well, really, you can’t go wrong with the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, especially when they’re singing my favorite Advent anthem.

I have read (and am reading) a bunch of holiday-themed novellas so far this season, and I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Advent posts featuring these books and doing mini reviews.  I hope it’s fun for you, too.

Cover image, Heating up the Holidays novella anthology

When I heard that Mary Ann Rivers had a holiday novella coming out, I was all aflutter.  Heating up the Holidays is a 3-novella bundle featuring Play with Me by Lisa Renee Jones, Snowfall by Mary Ann Rivers, and After Midnight by Serena Bell.  My buddy Kim from Reflections of a Book Addict and I discussed all three novellas on her blog recently.  Check out our post.  While I wasn’t at all impressed by Play with Me (which I did finally finish after Kim and I wrote our review of it… and… wow. Underwhelming doesn’t even begin to describe it.), Snowfall and After Midnight are fantastic.  Snowfall is a Christmas novella about love, loss, fear, change, and stressed out E.coli bacteria.  After Midnight is a New Year’s novella about love, fresh starts, change, trust, and amazing first kisses.

Cover image, Matzoh and Mistletoe by Jodie Griffin

Matzoh and Mistletoe, a holiday novella with BDSM elements, grabbed my interest right from the blurb.  Every December twenty-fifth, Rebeccah Rickman volunteers through her synagogue so that others can celebrate Christmas. Her usual mitzvah, or good deed, is assisting police officer Jeremy Kohler. But this year is different: this year, Becca is free to act on the attraction that has long simmered between her and the sexy cop.  Jeremy couldn’t have asked for a better gift than discovering the woman he’s fantasized about for five long years is single. But when he learns about the violence that broke up Becca’s marriage, he’s hesitant to pursue her. He fears his desires will scare her away—but can’t deny his own need for control in the bedroom. Or his longing to instruct her in the fine art of submission… Becca is shocked to learn that Jeremy is a sexual dominant. And despite her past, she’s also aroused. But before she can explore what that means, she’s going to have to put her trust in Jeremy—and her own fledgling desires.  While Matzoh and Mistletoe was by no means perfect — the story line involving Becca’s ex didn’t quite resolve, and it felt a little bit as though Becca’s past abuse existed in the narrative only so the author could explore all the ways in which a D/s relationship is not abuse — it was still a charming read that I found very enjoyable, and it tells an interesting story.

Cover image, Once Upon a Highland Christmas by Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Earlier in the year, I read and enjoyed a book by Sue-Ellen Welfonder, so when I saw Once Upon a Highland Christmas (Scandalous Scots #0.5) come up on NetGalley, I wasted no time in requesting it.  I wish I had taken just a bit more time to think about it, because it turns out this story really was not up my alley.  Here’s my take on the blurb: This guy named Archie has decided that Christmas celebrations are for suckers, so he decrees that no one in his clan may be even remotely festive.  But this other guy named Grim and this lady named Breena are super festive, and they decide to invite all the neighbors to a Yuletide feast and thereby to rekindle the Christmas spirit in Archie. Along the way they fall in love.  Fans of Highland romance fiction or of Christmas stories that have a Scrooge-like character who finds redemption will probably enjoy this one, because it’s full of Highland charm and magic and definitely offers a strong theme of redemption and good cheer.  I felt that the romance elements were overshadowed by the festive themes and that there was not enough conflict in the romance story line to keep my interest as a reader.  That’s not to say that there isn’t any conflict at all, but it’s all external and seems to exist in the story more for the sake of there being some conflict than because there is any element that truly needs to be overcome in order for these characters to make a happy ending of it.

So there you go… three holiday novellas.  Stay tuned for more mini-reviews of holiday-themed novellas.  (I didn’t realize how many I had read until I started making a list… I read many!)  Have any of you been reading holiday-themed books this year?

Heating up the Holidays was released on October 28, 2013 as an e-book anthology by Loveswept.    Matzoh and Mistletoe was released on November 21, 2013 as an e-book by Carina Press.  Once Upon a Highland Christmas was released as an e-book on December 3, 2013 by Forever.  For more information about these books, please click on their cover images above to visit their Goodreads pages.

*FTC disclosure – I received e-galleys of all three books from their publishers via NetGalley in exchange for honest reviews.*

Review – Duke of Midnight by Elizabeth Hoyt

Oh boy did I fall behind in November, but I had some fantastic (and some mundane) adventures during all that radio silence, and I read a lot of books.  One of those books was Elizabeth Hoyt’s Duke of Midnight, which filled me with happy.

Cover image, Duke of Midnight by Elizabeth Hoyt

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads…

WHEN A MASKED MAN . . .

Twenty years ago Maximus Batten witnessed the brutal murders of his parents. Now the autocratic Duke of Wakefield, he spends his days ruling Parliament. But by night, disguised as the Ghost of St. Giles, he prowls the grim alleys of St. Giles, ever on the hunt for the murderer. One night he finds a fiery woman who meets him toe-to-toe—and won’t back down . . .

MEETS HIS MATCH . . .

Artemis Greaves toils as a lady’s companion, but hiding beneath the plain brown serge of her dress is the heart of a huntress. When the Ghost of St. Giles rescues her from footpads, she recognizes a kindred spirit-and is intrigued. She’s even more intrigued when she realizes who exactly the notorious Ghost is by day . . .

DESIRE IGNITES A DANGEROUS PASSION

Artemis makes a bold move: she demands that Maximus use his influence to free her imprisoned brother-or she will expose him as the Ghost. But blackmailing a powerful duke isn’t without risks. Now that she has the tiger by the tail, can she withstand his ire-or the temptation of his embrace?

Batman pretty much wins when it comes to vaguely creepy masked vigilante characters, right? I mean, he’s a complete package: traumatic yet humanizing back story, honestly-earned grit, determination, physical strength, *almost* super human agility, etc, as well as a dank man cave in which he stores his vigilante gear (hopefully sans nipples) and keeps his body well honed.  That’s loads more compelling than a humanoid alien whose body responds well to earth’s gravity or a scientist who gets bitten by a spider or some dude who finds a magic lantern.

Duke of Midnight is Elizabeth Hoyt’s historical romance nod to Batman canon, and it is equally compelling.

As the sixth (sixth!) book in her Maiden Lane series, I expected it to feel a bit tired, but it isn’t.  Actually, I got the feeling reading it that Hoyt has been looking forward to telling this story for quite a while, and her excitement in (finally) writing it translates well to the reader.  The characters are interesting and the story is as gripping as you’d expect a superhero story to be.

In fact, there were only a couple of things that I was a little bit bummed about (and one thing I was a lot bummed about):

  1. One of my favorite things about Hoyt’s novels is that she always weaves a legend throughout the story at the beginning of each chapter.  The legend in this one wasn’t quite as compelling (to me) as previous ones.
  2. The ending felt a bit deus ex machina to me.  One of the things that always happens to superheroes is that they’re forced to choose between saving a loved one and saving the masses. Seriously… it’s in like every superhero story.  This book made it just a wee bit too easy on our intrepid hero to win both counts (although I did like how he made his choice so unequivocally…).

Finally, I was a lot bummed about Penelope.  She’s a fairly awful secondary character who was quite unpleasant throughout the previous five books, but I always had a bit of a soft spot for her and held a hope that she’d find her redemption at some point.  After all, even silly, spoiled girls eventually grow up, right? (I’m one of those people who believes even Lydia Bennet, eventually, developed a sense of self-reflection.)  I was, therefore, rather heartbroken to see Penelope utterly outdo all her former awfulness in an epic display of poor character.

Maybe it’s not too late — maybe Penelope can still redeem herself — but it made me sad.  I hate how women in fiction (even fiction written by women) are so often cast as either good or evil, and I liked how Penelope was a blend… too selfish to be truly good but too good-hearted to be truly evil.  But after the way she behaves at the end of this book, her blend seems skewed towards the evil…

But, hey! That’s just me.  All told, I had a blast reading the book and, though I haven’t talked about it at all in this review, I loved the romance between Maximus and Artemis, loved that Artemis was his equal in more ways than one, and I loved that the narrative didn’t ignore the ways in which they were unequal.  Finally, I liked that they got to make a happy ending of it.  (If a man had written it, Artemis would have been blown to bits so that Maximus could be super sad and continue being a vigilante. Thank God for Elizabeth Hoyt!)

Duke of Midnight was released on October 15, 2013 as an e-book and paperback by Forever.  For more information about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads.  For information on Elizabeth Hoyt, please check out her website or Twitter.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Forever via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*