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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve been reading lately – books by people named Penny

You know how humans are apt to generalize out of the particular? Well, I recently read books by two people named Penny (Penny Reid and Penny Watson, to be specific), and now my brain thinks that all books by people named Penny are likely to be awesome. I try to remind my brain that an author’s name does not have direct bearing on a given book’s chances of being awesome, but my brain does not listen.

First up is Penny Watson’s Apples Should be Red. 

Recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Start with sixty-two year old politically incorrect, chain-smoking, hard-cussing curmudgeon.
Add fifty-nine year old sexually-repressed know-it-all in pearls.
Throw in a beer can-turkey, a battle for horticultural supremacy, and nudist next-door neighbor.
Serve on paper plates, garnished with garden gnome.
Tastes like happily ever after.

The romance genre has a diversity problem, and it isn’t just one of race and class. While there has definitely been a shift over the past fifteen years or so to allow a wider age range of heroines (used to be they were all 17-21, give or take, and now they’re closer to 24-34, give or take), it would be easy, looking exclusively at romance fiction, to assume that heroes need to be in their 30s and that there’s no such thing as romance after 40. That really is a pile of malarkey, and I’m thrilled that Penny Watson decided to tell the story of these two characters in their golden years.

Apples Should Be Red is the story of a Martha Stewartesque woman thrown together with a grumpy, garden-savvy Jeff Bridgesish guy, except that the story is way more wonderful than that sounds. For starters, Tom and Bev are more well-rounded than their summaries might imply. Bev is not just a post-menopausal widow who can decorate the hell out of anything; she’s also a woman healing from several decades of bad marriage, a woman whose motherhood and wifehood has eclipsed her sense of self for so long that she’s a little lost. Tom is not just an antisocial old coot with a flourishing vegetable garden and a disdain for the trappings of femininity; he’s also an incredibly smart dude who prefers making things with his hands to theorizing, an independent man who is able to learn the value of flowers and neighbors. These two characters come alive through strong writing, snappy dialogue, and masterful plotting. The result is both laugh out loud funny and poignant; and it’s sexy as hell. I highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read more books by Penny Watson (especially Lumberjack in Love, which sounds right up my alley.)

I participated in DABWAHA this year, and was intrigued by a number of the books included in the original 64, including Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human (Knitting in the City #1). 

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without
volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn’t know how to knit.


After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can’t help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can’t afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn — the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies — to make her an offer she can’t refuse.

I fucking loved this book, you guys. There’s a pretty good chance that Penny Reid actually wrote it for me. I mean, she hasn’t met me (yet), but… whatever, it’s possible. Neanderthal Seeks Human had me from page one (which takes place in a bathroom stall without toilet paper, by the way). It is a delightfully quirky romance novel that takes full advantage of its slightly unreliable narrator and manages to be a little bit mysterious and a lot funny without downplaying any of the romantic elements. Oh, and it’s a nerd romance.

I may have mentioned from time to time that I am in favor of accurate depictions of friendship in books, so it’s kind of a given that my favorite thing about the book is the knitting group, this group of women who get together weekly to knit, drink, and tell stories about their lives. In Neanderthal Seeks Human, the group sort of plays the role of Janie’s inner monologue, interpreting the events in Janie’s life and suggesting appropriate actions. And the knitting group brings a lot of the comedy to the book’s party (including one very nearly ridiculous scene wherein the knitters take down a couple of gunmen with knitting needles, skeins of outrageously expensive yarn, and sheer moxie).

I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are some random editing issues in the edition I purchased, and I could have handled a little bit less external drama (the gangsters were a trifle OTT), and, while those elements were incredibly entertaining, they distracted just a little bit from the Janie/Sir Handsome McHotpants story. But a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfectly enjoyable. I have been recommending Neanderthal Seeks Human left and right, to strangers, to friends, to readers of romance, to people who would rather not ever read a romance novel. Honestly, I think anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy this book.

I wanted to move right on and read the second book in the series, but — so far — it’s available only on Kindle, and I’m pretty much a Nook girl. So I skipped to the third book, Love Hacked. Unsurprisingly, I loved it, too.

There are three things you need to know about Sandra Fielding: 1) She makes all her first dates cry, 2) She hasn’t been kissed in over two years, and 3) She knows how to knit. 

Sandra has difficulty removing her psychotherapist hat. Of her last 30 dates, 29 have ended the same way: the man sobbing uncontrollably. After one such disaster, Sandra–near desperation and maybe a little tipsy–gives in to a seemingly harmless encounter with her hot waiter, Alex. Argumentative, secretive, and hostile Alex may be the opposite of everything Sandra knows is right for her. But now, the girl who has spent all her life helping others change for the better, must find a way to cope with falling for someone who refuses to change at all. 

So I was a little worried when I picked up Love Hacked that it wouldn’t live up to the hype my brain built. I needn’t have worried. This book is, like Janie’s book before it, told in the first person past narrative from Sandra’s perspective, and it is awesome. And Alex? OM NOM NOM NOM. (Wait, is that creepy?) Further, it’s just as funny as Neanderthal, but it’s utterly distinct. And it makes me want to have occasion t-shirts (except I don’t like wearing t-shirts).

Love Hacked is slightly less recommendable to non-romance readers because it’s got significantly more sexy sexy times, but I still want to recommend it to all the people (all of them). It’s funny and touching and enjoyable and interesting. (And, again — I’m not saying that it’s perfect… editing errors and external sources of drama annoy me.)  But let’s just put this into perspective for those of you who know me well: this book has editing errors and I loved it anyway, and I want you to read it. I don’t know that there’s a better way to communicate how very much I liked it.

So there you have it: books by people named Penny are fucking awesome.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of Apples Should Be Red from the author in exchange for an honest review. I purchased the other two books.*

What I’ve been reading lately — a little historical romance fiction

I’m not really a goal-oriented person.  Goals — and I’m using a fairly broad definition that comprises resolutions of the New Year’s and less formal variety, vague life goals, reading goals, dreams I used to have when I was a kid, etc. — often seem like a waste of time and emotional energy.  The thing is, I’m terrible at goal setting.  Either I pick a goal so easy to achieve that attaining it means nothing or I pick a difficult goal and it becomes just another way for me to fail. That is such an Eeyore sentence, right?

This year when setting my arbitrary reading challenge ‘goal’ on Goodreads, I decided to try to be intentional about it rather than just guessing how many books I might read in 2014. I set a low goal — 100 books — because I want to slow down and think about all the books I read — even the ones that don’t seem to deserve it — and live out the purpose of this blog.  I want to analyze, and I can’t do that when I start a new book the instant I finish one. So far, I don’t think this is a goal I will achieve this year, but I have plenty of time left to surprise myself.

I shared all of this as an introduction to a series of mini-review posts and as a public declaration both of my goal to think more (and perhaps think better, but that’s less certain) and of my less-than-stellar track record with goals.  Because I know you care. Obviously.

First up on the mini-review train is A Kiss of Lies by Bronwen Evans.

Desperate to escape her abusive past, Sarah Cooper disguises herself as a governess in the employ of Christian Trent, Earl of Markham, the man who, long ago, she fantasized about marrying. Despite the battle scars that mar his face, Sarah finds being near Christian rekindles her infatuation. A governess, however, has no business in the arms of an earl, and as she accompanies Christian on his voyage home, Sarah must resist her intense desires—or risk revealing her dangerous secrets.

One of the renowned Libertine Scholars, Christian Trent once enjoyed the company of any woman he chose. But that was before the horrors of Waterloo, his wrongful conviction of a hideous crime, and his forcible removal from England. Far from home and the resources he once had, Christian believes the life he knew—and any chance of happiness—is over . . . until his ward’s governess sparks his heart back to life, and makes him remember the man he used to be. Now Christian is determined to return to England, regain his honor, and win the heart of the woman he has come to love.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and you’re enjoying it, but these niggling little thoughts keep intruding on your enjoyment, poking you and causing you to doubt whether you really should be enjoying yourself, all things considered?  Well, I felt that way when I read A Kiss of Lies. The story is sweeping, covers a lot of geography (York, Canada to Kingston, Jamaica, to London), uses some of my favorite tropes (injured/damaged hero, governess heroine, characters with issues, and secret childhood infatuation), and is well-paced and emotionally satisfying.  So what was the problem?

A Kiss of Lies is pretty damn bold (not a bad thing), and part of its story involves a plantation, an abusive slave owner, and the white woman who’s caught in the crossfire. And part of me wants to praise the book for not shying away from such a loaded topic. But another part of me wonders what is the point of bringing up slavery if the story is going to be told from the perspective of the white woman who’s harmed by it.  Maybe my reading approach was too nervous (or too American, maybe), but it felt like this giant, festering, definitely not resolved issue was used — was appropriated, perhaps — as a narrative crutch to demonstrate just how much the heroine suffered in her marriage. There are other ways to achieve that end without marginalizing people whose experiences were fifty thousand times worse than the heroine’s because she was, eventually, able to escape and hide because she’s white.  I dunno… I liked so many things about the book, but all the parts that related to Sarah’s back story made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

Then there is Portrait of a Scandal by Annie Burrows.

HE HAS TAKEN HER TO HEAVEN, HELL AND BACK AGAIN… 

Her heart and hope long since shattered, Amethyst Dalby is content with her life as an independent woman. With wealth of her own, and no one to answer to, she is free to live as she pleases.

Until a trip to Paris throws her into contact with the one man who still has a hold over her—the bitter but still devastatingly sensual Nathan Harcourt! Living as an artist, this highborn gentleman has been brought low by scandal—and he is determined to show Amethyst that life is much more fun if you walk on the dark side….

I read this book in January, and I just didn’t know what to say about it. There were quite a few things that I liked about it, particularly that the heroine (sort of) recovers from a difficult family situation and achieves a (sort of) independence and that the hero escapes from the stifling expectations of his family to live out his passions (art) on his own terms.  But there were also a lot of things I didn’t like, particularly that the heroine’s recovery from her difficult family situation involves an extreme pendulum swing from naively trusting young lady to hardened and crotchety pensioner in the body of a young woman.  Further, I wanted a lot more sucking up from the hero, who was the cause of all the heroine’s difficulties.  Portrait of a Scandal is pretty typical for its genre, which will be comforting to some readers and frustrating to others.  You know who you are.

Finally, I want to talk about Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill.  Nearly a year ago, I reviewed The Greatest of Sinsand anticipated the continuation of The Sinner and the Saint story line.

Honorable—and handsome to boot! — Michael Poole, Duke of St. Aldric, has earned his nickname “The Saint.” But the ton would shudder if they knew the truth. Because, thrust into a world of debauchery, this saint has turned sinner!

With the appearance of fallen governess Madeline Cranston—carrying his heir—St. Aldric looks for redemption through a marriage of convenience. But the intriguing Madeline is far from a dutiful duchess, and soon this saint is indulging in the most sinful of thoughts…while his new wife vows to make him pay for his past.

I cannot believe I liked this book, you guys. In fact, I think there might be something wrong with me. You see, it goes against one of my hardest of hard limits: it gives an HEA to a hero who raped the heroine. I know. I KNOW! But here’s the thing… it was interesting because it stayed resolutely mired in the gray area that is real life; it was believable because it allowed the hero and heroine each to feel a whole range of emotions, regrets, hopes, and fears; and it was subversive as hell because it took a number of tropes — the rapey hero, the victimized heroine, the marriage of convenience, the secret baby… — twisted them around, and hinted at a dialogue I just never expected to find in a Harlequin Historical.

There are some things about rape that you just know, right? (And if you don’t… well, I don’t want to hear about it.)  For example, in a scenario wherein an intoxicated man stumbles upon a sleeping woman and proceeds to have sex with her, is it rape? You probably answered, YES.  And you’re right, because the sleeping woman did not give consent.  Here’s a harder question, though: take that same intoxicated man and tell me if he’s an evil person, a person who deserves to be punished forever for what he did.  Tell me what that punishment looks like. These questions do not have simple answers. To get near the neighborhood of those answers, you have to answer a whole slew of other questions: what is good, and what is evil? what is right, and what is wrong? what is justice? what do we mean when we say “deserve,” and who could decide such a thing?

I am certain — indeed, there is proof in the Goodreads reviews — that not everyone will agree with me that the HEA in The Fall of a Saint is just. I liked it because it pushed the envelope and made me think beyond the failed logic of my oversimplified views vis-à-vis rape and rapists.  I know you want to see my diagram.

Diagram 032614

The truth is, it’s just not that simple, and I liked The Fall of a Saint because it didn’t try to keep things simple. Merrill allowed her hero to feel devastation and condemnation and hopelessness and self-hatred; she allowed him to act with contrition; but she also allowed him to develop hope and to find happiness.  If it were just about him, maybe that would be problematic, but she also allowed her heroine to feel anger and grief and shame and righteousness; she allowed her to act out her anger; but she also allowed her to develop strength and forgiveness. And together they found love, and I thought that was pretty cool, all things considered.

Kiss of Lies was released on January 14, 2014 as an e-book by Loveswept. Portrait of a Scandal was released on January 21, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical. The Fall of a Saint was released on February 18, 2014 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin Historical.  For more information about any of these books, click on the cover images above to visit their page on Goodreads.  Check out the authors’ websites: Bronwen Evans, Annie Burrows, Christine Merrill.

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

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.*