What I’ve been reading lately — the books that surprised me edition

I’m back!  (Did you miss me?)  I’ve got some nifty things lined up for this month, but right now I want to talk about the books I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been reading some random stuff, and I’ve been really surprised by how much I liked some of it.

I’m starting with the one that surprised me the most.  Actually, it’s a trilogy, and I simply cannot believe that I liked these books: they’re by Maya Banks.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m not a fan of her books.  (I hated Rush, and I was alternately Whaa?? LOLZ!! and meh about books 1-3 of the Sweet Series. Then I finally stopped buying and reading her books — for a few months.  Then my buddy Kim emailed me and told me that In Bed with a Highlander was actually pretty good. So I bought all three books and hoped she was right.)

You know what?  Banks’ brand of crazy actually works set in medieval Scotland, and these books are a fun, wild ride.  They also involved some unexpected feminist elements (that women and men are not monolithic; that sometimes the assiduous desire to “protect” a woman places her in greater danger than allowing her to protect herself; that healthy relationships are based on a sense of partnership) that pleased me.  The basic plot of each of the three books is the love story between their respective heroes and heroines, but spanning over all three books is an intrigue plot involving revenge, treason and impending war. My favorite book is the second one, Seduction of a Highland Lass, because it was full of forbidden love and because Alaric, the hero of that book, was the least alphahole of the bunch.

I had to include that video, because I watched it before I read the books, so I thought of the video every time “trews” were mentioned in the books (every time the male characters undress).  Anyway, I just had to share the love.

So. Choose-your-own-adventure erotica exists.  I read Charlotte: Prowling for Enchantment, and I shocked the hell out of myself when I realized I liked it.  A lot.

You need the blurb.  Here’s the version from Goodreads:

Sail away on a moonlit adventure! It’s the readers who guide Charlotte’s romantic fate in the Dare to Decide series’ next interactive erotic ebook. From the mermaid beach to the fairy ball, you steer Charlotte’s passions with the click of a link.

Finally, it’s Charlotte’s time for a sexy single’s cruise, the kind of trip Gram would have loved. Umbrella drink in hand, she finds herself with a choice…a tawny Viking of a man beckons from across the bar, while a leather-clad rocker gets tossed at her feet. Neither man is as human as he seems…but then again, neither is Charlotte.

Before she knows it, Charlotte’s dodging curses and negotiating extraordinary pleasure. The elder tales warned us against trusting a pretty face…do you dare to decide where Charlotte goes next? Find your way through the eleven mysterious, magical endings.

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure stories when I was a kid.  There’s something so thrilling about being able to make choices for the characters and reading about the consequences.  About a month ago, I got an email from NetGalley highlighting the Dare to Decide series, and — despite my worry that CYOA erotica would focus on sexual rather than story choices (dare to decide: a tepid backrub or hawt anilingus?) — I rushed to request the series.  I’m glad I did, because my worries were unfounded.  There is so much story here, and there’s a huge amount of variation between the different story tracks.  And, you know what? This book is just damn fun to read (and very cleverly edited).  It provided exactly the experience that I so loved about CYOA stories 25 years ago but with more eroticism.  I can’t wait to read more.

Surprising, right?

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of Charlotte: Prowling for Enchantment from Pocket Star via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I purchased the other books mentioned in this post.*

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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 – The Chieftain by Margaret Mallory

I really dug Margaret Mallory’s last release, The Warrior, so I jumped at the chance to read The Chieftain, the final book in the Return of the Highlanders series.

Cover image, The Chieftain by Margaret Mallory

The blurb, courtesy of the publisher:

Connor, chieftain of the MacDonalds of Sleat, holds the fate of his people in his hands. Rival clans are plotting to take over his lands, and duty determines whom he will fight, trust . . . even marry. Seeking guidance, Connor turns to Ilysa, a young lass with the gift of foresight, who reveals an approaching danger — and a passion that burns only for him. But the warrior must make a powerful marriage alliance, and Ilysa’s bloodline is far too humble.

With her powers to heal and see evil where others cannot, beautiful Ilysa dresses plainly, speaks softly, and loves her chieftain from afar. Yet when Connor finally stokes the embers of desire that have so long burned within her, Ilysa feels bliss unlike any she’s ever known. Now as he is forced to place duty before happiness, Ilysa senses Connor is in grave peril. Can she find a way to prove she is the woman he needs by his side?

So, here’s the thing. I’m not usually into stories that skeeter anywhere near the wallflower-who-gets-a-makeover-and-then-everyone-discovers-that-she-was-totally-hot-all-along trope. Those stories always seem to reinforce classic stereotypes (you must be pretty to get an HEA) while smugly pretending to reinforce the idea that there’s beauty in everyone. I mean, come on:

Also, Freddie Prinze, Jr. is in two of my top-5 Most Terrible Movies I Have Ever Seen. (Anyone else remember Head Over Heels?)

There are hints of that makeover trope at work in The Chieftain, but the overall story was compelling enough to make me overlook that detail.  It pretty much comes down to Ilysa.  She’s a strong, hardworking, capable, loyal character who trusts her own judgment and isn’t afraid to go up against Connor when he’s being pigheaded (which, let’s face it, is almost all the time).  She saves the day, several times over, and eventually (perhaps a little too eventually) Connor learns to value her as much as she rightly values herself.

I loved pretty much everything about Ilysa, but Connor was a little more difficult to like, mostly because Ilysa was so obviously awesome, and it seemed to take him FOR-EV-ER to notice.  Also, Connor suffered a bit — as far as I was concerned — in comparison to the moody, broody Lachlan and his deeply conflicted self.  I have my fingers crossed that he’ll get to star in an upcoming book.

That said, this book is a delight to read because of its plot and pacing.  The story is chock full of plot development, but the plot is perfectly balanced with enough character development to keep a reader like me happy, and it’s all perfectly paced.  The result is a fun, quick read that is utterly entertaining.  I highly recommend this book, Freddie Prinze, Jr. notwithstanding.

The Chieftain was released on February 26, 2013 as a mass-market and e-book by Forever.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Margaret Mallory, visit her website.

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

Review – Seduction of a Highland Warrior by Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Real men wear kilts.  It’s true, unless the kilt-wearing man is also wearing a t-shirt that says “real men wear kilts.”  Just saying.

Cover image, Seduction of a Highland Warrior by Sue-Ellen Welfonder

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

At the King’s request, chieftain Alasdair MacDonald has sworn to preserve the peace in the Glen of Many Legends. Though he’s handsome and fearless, his warrior’s heart belongs only to his beloved land-until the fair sister of his oldest enemy shatters his defenses, branding his skin with a single touch, and sealing his fate with one stolen kiss . . .

Lady Marjory Mackintosh will do anything to unite the warring clans, even seduce Alasdair MacDonald. She has loved the rugged Highlander since she first saw him and now, as temptation leads to surrender, Marjory dares to possess him, body and soul. But a dangerous new menace enters the Glen, and he will stop at nothing to strip Alasdair of his honor-and the only woman who can claim his heart.

This book has magic, faeries, and a ghost romance (!!!), so my review is 100% biased.  I just want to get that out there.  I can’t dislike a book that has a ghost romance.  This book also has puppies (and y’all know that I go nutty for animal antics in romance novels), so… yeah.  My reading idiosyncrasies made me predisposed to forgive this book any of its errors (because love covers a multitude of sins).

On the whole, I think the book is actually pretty good.  I loved the tension between Alasdair and Marjory, and I was thrilled that Marjory was such a strong character (taking her life into her own hands, initiating each step of her relationship with Alasdair, etc.) without being obnoxious.  Alasdair is a well-drawn mix of duty and longing, and I enjoyed his journey from self-sacrifice to self-acceptance.  Of course, the story could have been completely awful and I still would have been on board with creepy amounts of glee and squee.

Did I mention that there are puppies?  Well, not only are there dogs of the young and the old variety, but there are also mentions of faerie dogs.  Faerie dogs!!!  Also, there is a big strapping man character named Grim who has as much enthusiasm for puppies and faerie dogs as I do.  I loved Grim.  He is a relatively minor secondary character, but he adds a lovely seasoning to the whole.  (I think it’s the gender role reversal bit that I liked best.)

Anyway, while I loved all the elements of magic, from a magical amber necklace to a gloriously creepy dream sequence, and how they provided a lovely and evocative backdrop against which Marjory and Alasdair’s romance is set, my favorite thing about the book was actually the way it is crafted.  There are all these little tendrils of story that seem, at first, a tad disjointed, but they draw you in nonetheless until you are ensnared in a story that is full of wonder, longing, hope, urgency, and fear.  The middle eighty percent of the novel is simply marvelous.

The beginning and ending of the book aren’t quite so strong.  I don’t think the beginning will bother anyone who has read the other books in this series, but I found it difficult at first to (1) figure out what was going on and (2) figure out who the characters are and why I should care about them.  In fact, I put the book down after about forty pages and read three other books before I picked it back up again.  I’m really glad I went back to the book: if I had endured just another ten pages, I would have read the book in one sitting.

With the ending, the trouble seems to be a strange case of anti-climax.  Welfonder does such an excellent job throughout the book introducing a menace both to the peace of the Glen and to the bodily safety of Marjory, but the resolution of those dangers takes place mostly off-screen (to mix my metaphors, a bit).

Take “The Prisoner,” for example.  If you smoke enough crack before you watch that show, Rover seems terrifying, largely because everyone on-screen reacts to it with fear.  Anyway, the show does a good job (ish) of making a giant balloon seem super menacing.  But what if all the characters onscreen were like, “Dude, this is a super scary moment in the show, because Rover could appear at any moment!” and another character from off-screen walked on and said, “Dude, don’t worry about Rover.  Turns out he was just a balloon, and I totally popped him with a sharp stick.  No worries!”  That’s kind of how I felt at the end of this book, except I liked it a hell of a lot more than “The Prisoner.”  After all, “The Prisoner” doesn’t have sexy Highlanders or faerie dogs.

Seduction of a Highland Warrior was released on January 29, 2013 as a paperback and e-book by Forever.  If you are interested in learning more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Sue-Ellen Welfonder, check out her website.

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

Review – The Laird’s Choice by Amanda Scott

So, it’s been a while since my last post.  This season is always a bit busier at work and home, and I found myself in a bit of a time crunch.  I’ve also been reeling a bit after the horrific events of this past Friday in Newtown, CT.  My heart breaks for that community, for all those families, for the world.  When pondering those events, I found it easiest and most healing to come to no conclusions, to attempt no analysis.  I have no idea what would prompt an individual to act in such a manner, and I cannot want ever to understand such a thing.  Anyway, that’s where I’ve been.  I hope to be mostly back on schedule now, but we’ll see how things go.

Cover image, The Laird’s Choice by Amanda Scott

While I found nothing truly objectionable about this book, I also didn’t really enjoy reading it, but I suspect that lack of enjoyment has more to do with my personal pet peeves as a reader than with any real flaw in the book. The fact is, I’m just not a fan of historical fiction that has more history than fiction. I had a difficult time connecting to the characters, caring about their story, and that disconnect made it difficult for me to want to read the book. There were numerous occasions when conversation between characters would be derailed (I thought) by info dumps about history and/or events occurring beyond the scope of the story, and this hijacking of the story by the truly remarkable historical research just irked me.  Amanda Scott obviously did a heck of a lot of research, and her world-building of 15th century Scotland was lovely (if only I cared about that sort of thing), but there was not an equal amount of energy spent developing the characters.

I never was able to figure out who all the villains were–although that may derive from a combination of my terrible memory and the amount of time I spent reading this book (it’s easier to keep these details straight when one reads a book over a day or two rather than over two weeks)–there were so many Stewarts and Walters and some dude named Murdoch who had some sons(??), that I just couldn’t keep track of them, and they become one muddled group of “bad guys” without any sort of personal character.  Part of the trouble with this book is that the reader is never actually introduced to any of the bad guys. They are all just a menace lurking over some mountain or beyond a river.  As difficult as I found it to connect to the characters, I might have felt a very human response to their being in danger, but they didn’t really seem to be in any danger, not personally.  Since I was never given the opportunity to get to know the one character who was in some danger from that faceless mass of menace, I didn’t really care whether or not he met with an untimely end.

The ending was very etch-a-sketch (à la Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, if you will allow the comparison).  There’s this huge intrigue plot that drives nearly all of the action in the book, and it all gets resolved in a throwaway epilogue (!!).  Since I wanted to stop reading the book about thirty pages in and kept it up through sheer force of will, it was more than a little disappointing to have the story end in such a slapdash, anti-climatic way.  This book is the first in a series, and it’s possible that the story will get taken up by subsequent books, but the ending was still annoying.

Now, that all sounds quite negative, but I’m certain that some readers will enjoy this book. Die-hard fans of historical fiction set in the Scottish Highlands will probably enjoy this one, as will any reader who likes a hearty helping of history with her historical fiction and does not mind if there is not so much romance.

The Laird’s Choice was released on December 18, 2012 as a mass-market paperback and e-book by Forever.  If you are interested in finding more information about this book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  You can also visit the author’s website at http://www.amandascottauthor.com/.

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

Review and Giveaway – The Warrior by Margaret Mallory

Cover image, The Warrior by Margaret Mallory

What’s better than a shirtless Highlander wielding a giant sword?  Not a whole lot, though cookies do come close.  I was a little worried about accepting this book for review.  I usually try to avoid romances that feature warrior-type hero characters.  All that swaggering testosterone is lost on me.  But the first two books in this series were so well regarded that I opted not to judge the book by its cover and marketing blurb.  I’m glad I made that decision and read this book, because it’s a lot of fun.

Speaking of the blurb (from Goodreads):

Four fearless warriors return to the Highlands to claim their lands and legacies. But all their trials on the battlefield can’t prepare them for their greatest challenge yet: winning the hearts of four willful Scottish beauties.

Star-Crossed

From the Isle of Skye to the battlefields of France, Duncan MacDonald has never escaped the memory of the true love he left behind. Deemed unworthy of a chieftain’s daughter, Duncan abandoned the lovely Moira to prove his worth in battle. Now, when called upon to rescue her from a rival clan, one thing is certain: Moira’s pull on his heart is stronger than ever.

Bartered away in marriage to a violent man, Moira will do anything to ensure she and her son survive. When a rugged warrior arrives to save her, the desperate beauty thinks her prayers have been answered—until she realizes it’s Duncan. The man who once broke her heart is now her only hope. Moira vows never again to give herself—or reveal her secrets—to the fierce warrior, but as they race across the sea, danger and desire draw them ever closer.

From page one, I was able to connect to Duncan’s character (but I had a difficult time connecting with Moira) and felt invested in his story.  Because I felt emotionally vested in the story, it was easy for me to feel immersed in the world – sixteenth century Scotland – and to get caught up in all the adventure of the very active plot.  This story gives Duncan many opportunities to strap on his warrior blade and go out to do manly things, and that’s fun, but Duncan’s a classic warrior-poet with a powerful soft side.  Here’s a man who will write a song for you, pick wildflowers and weave them into a wreath for you, massage your feet, spoon with you without complaint, etc.  So, yeah, Duncan’s got a lot of love to give, and I’m enough of a sap that I loved reading about him giving all that love to Moira.

I got a little bit annoyed at some of the repetitious fights between Moira and Duncan.

Moira: “You treat me like a child!”
Duncan: “I just want to love you and take care of you!”
Moira: “I can take care of myself!”
Duncan: “Really?  You fell into a ravine!”
“Moira: “So?! I can still do it, and you’re stifling me!”
Duncan: “But I love you!” (not actual quotes from the book, by the way)

There were pages and pages of that, and it might be a realistic depiction of the fights many couples have, but that doesn’t mean it was pleasant for me to read.  Other readers might find the spats entertaining–I happen to be easily annoyed by bickering in novels–especially because these fights show Moira to be a strong heroine who is not about to sit around waiting to be saved.  At any rate, I was relieved that the story picked back up fairly quickly, and Moira grew up a little bit, and Duncan realized that Moira was more important than his masculine pride, and I went back to being a seriously happy reader with an emotionally fulfilling tale.

Aside from the lovers’ spats, the pacing of this book is very good.  I don’t usually enjoy when villain scenes are intercut into the main heroic action of a book, but I liked it here, probably because those scenes were very short and took the place of the lengthy exposition scenes that would have been required in their stead.  It helped that the villains in this piece are relatives of the major characters and shared a connection with those characters beyond the “meanwhile in the demon lair, evil is brewing…” interruptions.  I was a little bit thrown by the Scots Gaelic references (actually, more accurate to say I was thrown by the interrupting English translations), but I appreciated how they added to the highland ambiance of the piece.

Although it took me a while to develop a connection with Moira, once I did, I really liked her.  Moira is the daughter of a chieftain, and she’s very spoiled, confident, and carefree in the beginning.  After her marriage, she has time to repent her youth a bit and to wish that she had been taught some basic survival skills.  Throughout the second half of the book, Moira learns a lot and is able to support her argument that she is not a helpless waif.

Bottom line: lovers of highland romances should go nutty for this one, as should anyone who desires an emotional love story featuring a fantastic hero and a flawed but ultimately redeemed (and very strong) heroine.  Although this book is the third book in a series, it works very well as a stand-alone novel (and I would know: I haven’t read the first two books of this series).  Of course, you may not even need a reason to read this story beyond the shirtless, kilted Highlander shown on the cover (I don’t judge).

Giveaway!

That’s right!  The publisher (Forever) has generously agreed to host this giveaway and will send one print copy of The Warrior to two lucky commenters, chosen at random (thank you, random.org).  There are, of course, some rules:

  1. This giveaway is limited to US residents only (sorry!).
  2. You must be 13 years of age or older to enter.
  3. You must comment on this post in order to qualify.  Don’t worry, I’ll give you a topic.
  4. You must be willing to provide your mailing address in order to receive your copy of the book.
  5. The giveaway will run through 11:59 PM pacific time on Monday, November 12.  I will announce the winners on Tuesday, November 13.

Please leave a comment about your favorite kinds of characters (or your favorite specific characters), regardless of what genre you normally read.  So much of one’s enjoyment from a book derives from the connection one is able to make with a book’s characters.  As always, please feel free to ignore my arbitrarily chosen topic in favor of one that is more interesting to you. :)

The Warrior was released on October 30, 2012 as a mass market paperback and eBook from Forever/Grand Central Publishing.  If you are interested in the book, please visit its page on Goodreads here.  Margaret Mallory is on Twitter (@MargaretMallory), so feel free to follow if you’re into that whole Twitter thing.

* FTC Disclaimer – I received an e-galley of this book from Forever/Grand Central Publishing through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. *