Archive | May, 2012

Sweet Romantic Fairy Tale: Reissue of Thoroughly Kissed by Kristine Grayson

31 May

Thoroughly Kissed Book 2 in the Fates series by Kristine Grayson (June 1, 2012, Sourcebooks)

It’s an interesting phenomena in romance when publishers reissue books. As a reader, I think it generates a love/hate relationship – love, if the book was great to begin with and it’s hard to get a hold of or hate, if the author is so prolific that you end up buying a book you’ve already read because the cover looks so different and you’re desperate to read anything by that writer. With a lot of publishers purchasing author backlists, usually for ebook reissuing, this is becoming more of a landmine, but the good news for readers is that we benefit from more great books on the market.

Prior to getting a copy of this novel from NetGalley, I hadn’t read anything by Kristine Grayson, the penname for the prolific powerhouse of Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Rusch has published dozens of novels and short stories in various genres, particularly in the area of fantasy fiction, so paranormal romance definitely seems like a natural fit for her Kristine Grayson persona.

Thoroughly Kissed is the second in her Fates series, succeeding the story, Utterly Charming, but it’s totally feasible to read them independent of one another (a fact I was happy to discover a couple of chapters into this novel). Utterly Charming was the story of Prince Charming in the Sleeping Beauty tale, who is now a 1000 year old magician living in modern times as a cutting edge chef. He has guarded Sleeping Beauty’s glass coffin for all that time but when she awakes he has lots of problems, not the least of which is the fact that he is attracted to the lawyer he hired to help him with this situation. Moral of the story: really pay attention to prophesies since you’re not always interpreting them correctly.

In Thoroughly Kissed, Sleeping Beauty, who has taken the name Emma Lost, has managed to forge a life for herself in the last 10 years, including becoming a highly successful history professor whose expertise on the Middle Ages has landed her book deals and television interviews. She’s incredibly content with her life at the university in Madison, Wisconsin, with her lovely house and crazy cat and when men fall at her feet from her beauty she just ignores them – they never really see her, after all.

But in just one day, everything changes. Emma inherits her magic (which she is supposed to get in a few years, but it seems her 1,000 year sleep made it come a little faster) but she has no mage nearby to train her and things are getting a little out of control. Part of that loss of control is the arrival of her new department head, Michael Found, who thinks Emma is a shady academic who doesn’t know the first thing about the Middle Ages. She’s bowled over by his incredible good looks and simultaneously put off by his condescending attitude while he fights his attraction to her beauty and intelligence tooth and nail.

Original cover of Thoroughly Kissed (March 1, 2001, Zebra Contemporary Romance)

When her temper gets away from her and she zaps them both (temporarily) back to the Middle Ages, Michael confronts the idea that magic isn’t just a subject for intellectual speculation – it’s very real. Emma needs someone to accompany her to get to her mentor for training since tradition says she has to make the journey without magical assistance, but she’s kept everyone at a distance. After all, the last time she let someone close, she got kissed and fell into an enchanted sleep.  It’s enough to make anyone swear off relationships.

Michael realizes that his ordered existence has to be temporarily put on hold while he accompanies Emma from Wisconsin to the Pacific Northwest, with her (completely hilarious) cat. They face a series of adventures on this lengthy car trip, some magical and some not, but all revealing more about each of them as they fall for one another.

This is a sweet romance – lots of longing but no kissing until the end and a behind the bedroom door ending. In actuality, the original cover, while dated looking, is a better demonstration of the sensuality level of the novel. I love the new cover, particularly the castle in the background and the dreamy fairy tale quality, but I think bare chests indicate a much racier level of sensuality, so that’s a bit misleading. (The first book in the series also got a nice reissue and it’s much more accurate since the male figure has a shirt on.)

The best compliment I can give this romance is that I started off not really liking either character and experienced a complete turn around by the end. Michael was seriously uptight and quite frankly, really rude about not agreeing with Emma’s academic approach, and she flipped into a testy, stressed personality with the onset of her magic (this was a little more understandable). I usually don’t enjoy sweet romances that much but I felt Grayson did a great job of character development to the point that I really found myself unable to put down the book. I’m not sure I will read the other books in the series, but I will be adding these to my library as they are ideal for a young adult audience.

Better Than Your Town’s Fireworks Display: Her Forbidden Hero by Laura Kaye Is a Memorial Day Pleasure

28 May

I have not been shy in my admiration for Laura Kaye when I reviewed her fabulous paranormal romance North of Need. When I followed up with reading her hot e-novella, Hearts in Darkness  (a hefty novella that is a great value for its under $3 price tag) she convinced me she is more than just a paranormal princess – she can pull off hot, damaged heroes in a contemporary setting with total aplomb.

So after I saw her tweet this weekend encouraging people to take a chance on the soldier hero in her latest book, Her Forbidden Hero, I thought this might be a great way to celebrate the holiday and downloaded the book that minute onto my Kindle app.

Trust me, it’s better than your town’s fireworks display.

One of my favorite romance tropes is two people who are already good friends finding their path to love and Kaye has given readers a fresh take on this plot for her novel. Alyssa Scott grew up in an abusive home, trying to be invisible while avoiding the pain her alcoholic father could heap upon her. Her older brother Brady and his best friend, Marco Vieri where always there to help her, to the point of having her move in with them to finish high school after Brady turned 18 and could legally leave their father.

Once she headed off to college and was safe on her own, they both enlisted, ending up in Army Special Forces. Brady is still in the Middle East, but Marco ended up wounded in a situation gone very wrong, lucky to be alive but with enough scars and nightmares to make his current life a dark one. At least dark until Alyssa walks back into his life.

Alyssa has graduated college and needs a job, badly. Her background would have her ideally working in events and entertainment, but her limited cash has her turning away from the big city and back to her hometown where she knows the thriving town hotspot is a good place to work and save up. The fact that her brother’s best friend, Marco, is working there is just a bonus. She knows that her love and affection for him went beyond a schoolgirl crush and she can’t help hoping that he’ll see her as more than just the shy little girl she used to be.

Unfortunately for Marco he does see Alyssa for who she is right now – a beautiful, confident woman who can handle herself and charm everyone around her. Her newfound confidence doesn’t stop him from wanting to protect her, but what tears down the walls he’s built to resist her is her desire to protect and help him. He knows Brady, still deployed, will kill him when he finds out his friend is lusting after his sister. With all his nightmares and guilt, how does he have anything left to offer Alyssa?

Leave it to Laura Kaye to give us two such multidimensional characters. The reader quickly latches onto the idea that, while fresh out of college, Alyssa has had a life that puts her way beyond the usual 22-year-old in maturity. She’s unbelievably independent, so much so that Marco’s brusque initial attempts to help her come crashing around him.

Marco is super easy to fall for, and not just for his soulful guitar playing. Kaye has her facts fully researched regarding the symptoms and effects of brain injury and other physical ailments of veteran soldiers, making the reader’s heart ache for what Marco has to endure. Watching Alyssa awake a more carefree part of Marco is a joy, and one that has you flipping the pages, praying these two will make it to happily ever after.

A full-fledged book for only $2.99 at Amazon.com with one of Entangled Publishing‘s killer covers makes this contemporary romance a must-read on everyone’s list. So celebrate Memorial Day with the latest novel from Laura Kaye. You’ll be seeing fireworks on every page!

Zach Sullivan Gets Your Engine Running in Bella Andre’s Latest, If You Were Mine

26 May

If You Were Mine by Bella Andre (May 24, 2012)

My mother and I were chatting yesterday about our latest reads – actually having yet another “how does she do it?” discussion about Nora Roberts since we had both read and loved her latest, The Witness – when I hopped online to look at what the kindle edition would cost since I thought I’d be rereading it. That’s when I gasped and clutched my arm as if I were having a heart attack.

“Jesus, what’s wrong?” my mother asked, clearly alarmed at my Sarah Bernhardt response to looking at Amazon.com.

I pointed a finger at my MacBook screen. “Did you know that Bella Andre’s latest Sullivan book came out – YESTERDAY?!”

Cue both of us grabbing our iPads and ordering it, right then and there. My mother made some excuse to leave about two minutes later claiming she was “tired from gardening.” Uh-huh.

I was kicking myself that I had promised to attend a baseball playoff game, but sucked it up and made the trip (and actually had a great time). But baseball made me think of Ryan Sullivan (the Sullivan brother who is a major league baseball player), which made me think of Zach Sullivan, who we finally get to see fall, and fall hard, in Bella Andre’s latest installment of the Sullivan family series, If You Were Mine.

Now I haven’t been shy in my deep admiration and love for all things Bella Andre. Not long ago, I wrote a blog post on the first four books of the series, claiming that this series is one of the best values on the romance market and I stand by that statement today. When so many authors, pressured to produce multiple books per year, struggle with maintaining a consistent quality, Bella Andre channels her own inner Nora Roberts and gives us another heart-stoppingly amazing addition to this series, which is claiming the spot of favorite contemporary romance series for me.

Zach Sullivan loves working with cars and enjoys the benefits of having built his love into a chain of successful automotive stations, but he enjoys fast women as much as fast cars, sporting a serious “no commitment” policy with the opposite sex. When his firefighter brother Gabe drops off the puppy of his soon-to-be stepdaughter for Zach to dogsit, Zach figures a couple pounds of puppy can’t be too much for him handle. But it is. As he finds his life turned upside down by a Yorki named Cuddles, a friend sends him the best dog trainer in the San Francisco area, Heather Linsey.

How I picture Atlas and Cuddles (although I’m pretty sure this is a Chihuahua but you get the idea)

And that “no commitment” policy gets reevaluated. Heather is far from impressed with Zach’s yelling at the puppy but she quickly realizes that she’s the one who might be over her head. Zach is even more good looking than his movie star brother, Smith, and his sense of humor has her more worried than his chiseled features or killer body. Heather is fine with a no commitment physical relationship, but someone who makes her laugh could find their way into her heart. The fact her faithful Great Dane, Atlas, has a new best friend in Zach’s puppy charge is simply another red flag on the whole situation, one that has Heather saying, “No” firmly and repeatedly to Zach’s advances.

Zach hasn’t really heard “no” from women before and hearing it from Heather makes him realize that they time they spend together not having sex is actually more amazing than the time he has spent having sex with other women. He knows this is dangerous, but can’t stop himself from putting his heart on the line for her.

But Zach and Heather both have their own brand of damage. Heather had a terrible childhood with the discovery that her doting father, who she thought loved her mother, was a philanderer all his life – and her mother knew about it. Watching two people fake a marriage has put her off the idea that true love exists and actually led to a bout of cutting when she was younger. Working with animals, along with therapy, helped release her feelings in a more productive way, but her heart has some rather substantial walls around it and she’s unwilling to risk it, even with all the feelings Zach stirs in her.

I Only Have Eyes for You by Bella Andre (February 21, 2012) Sophie & Jake’s Story

Zach is a great tortured hero, simply because you don’t realize how damaged he is at first glance. I loved him in Sophie Sullivan’s story, when he beat the crap out of his best friend Jake for getting her pregnant, and he’s always been a great brother and good businessman. But in this book we discover that Zach’s strong resemblance to his father, who succumbed to a sudden aneurysm in his thirties leaving a wife and eight young children, has led Zach to avoid falling in love because he’s not convinced that he’ll be around for that long. The fast cars and faster women have been a natural outcome of this secret belief that his days are numbered, and he may not be able to let go of his pain to make a life with Heather.

Walk, don’t run, to your nearest ebook vendor to purchase this book. Andre has once again crafted deep characters you instantly root for, praying they will work through their emotional baggage and realize the love of lifetime is at their fingertips if they would just take a chance. The dogs are incredible minor characters and seeing our favorite Sullivans (the ones already partnered happy and healthy and the ones still single having their clock ticking) gives you the feeling that you are catching up with friends.

I’ve put an Amazon alert so I’ll be notified next time when Bella Andre publishes another book. I don’t want to miss an hour of reading when Ryan Sullivan’s book, Let Me Be the One, comes out in the fall!

Breaking the Regency Romance Mold: A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol

24 May

A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol (January 31, 2012, Avon)

I adore Regency romances because the time period is so fascinating. The early nineteenth century shaped a country in a state of flux, one that was either experiencing the Napoleonic Wars or recovering from them, and the whole nation was poised on the brink of an industrial revolution which would change the world, to say nothing of Great Britain itself. From a writing standpoint, social strictures were still a little looser, a hold-over from the more licentious period of the late 18th century, which has fortunately given authors more wiggle room for creating interesting scenarios that allow romance to flourish in a compressed period of time for our hero/heroine.

But as much as I love Regencies, I’m really picky about the writers I love. Not like – I like plenty of Regency authors – but really love. You know, love, love. The majority of novels in this sub-genre are kind of, well, “meh” for me. It’s writers like Stephanie Laurens and Sarah MacLean that have me forking over full price for both the ebook AND the print version of their books. Most other authors just don’t get my steam engine running on all cylinders even though I still enjoy the immersion into the time period.

Months ago, I saw a contest on Facebook for Avon Books about proving how enthusiastic an Avon reader you were by filling out this long survey. I purchase Avon books constantly and had enormous fun writing the little responses and talking about my favorites. I didn’t hear anything more and totally forgot about it, until I got a package in the mail about 8 weeks ago that held two Avon books. *doing happy dance*

One of them was A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol, a book I was so interested in reading that I had already purchased it in ebook form. With other reading more pressing, it made its way to my back burner, until the other day when I had the need of a marathon bubble bath. iPads and baths don’t go well together, so I perused my paper to-reads and my Avon freebie leapt into my hand.

I was riveted, to the point of shooing my husband away when he wanted to catch up on the latest Mad Men episode (which is usually a solemn occasion in our house). Never have I read a Regency romance which manages to convey the customs of its time period yet paint such an evocative sense of place (in this case, the Ottoman Empire). There isn’t a ton of reliable information about this time period from a Western perspective, but Randol has some lovely historical information that is so seamlessly interwoven through the plot that you just swallow it and say “yum” afterward. I think this is the mark of great historical fiction.

I worry when my female protagonist is described by other reviewers as “empowered” or “non-traditional” simply because my disbelief can only be suspended so much. In a desperate bid for a new slant on the Regency heroine, we get authors making women into pirates or bohemian artists who have slept with a bunch of lovers yet miraculously never gotten pregnant (but they have no fertility problems after marrying the hero). Really, people?

The Topkapi Palace, which actually plays a key part in the conclusion of the book

In the case of A Secret in Her Kiss, our heroine is unique and strong for her time period, but the reader buys it, hook, line and sinker. Strikingly beautiful Mari Sinclair is the daughter of a damaged archeologist father, who has raised her in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, leaving her to her own devices. A talented artist, Mari has become a naturalist painter with has strong personal ties to the local Pasha, but she has been coerced by the British into using her drawing to spy on local fortifications. The reason for this is not her loyalty to the British Empire – she has none for the country that she feels rejected her and her mother – but rather due to her imperative to keep resources near the Greek rebels trying to throw off the yoke of the Ottomans. Mari, you see, is the daughter of a Greek slave, a beautiful and intelligent woman who her father fell for and freed prior to marriage.

Major Bennett Prestwood, son of an Earl, is fresh off the battlefield where over the years he has both won honors and witnessed atrocities all in the name of the King. While admired for his golden good looks and military prowess, Bennett has a total focus on duty – to King, country and family, in that order. When he hears that his sister has returned to her abusive husband, he buys a ticket for England immediately to save her, but his plans are derailed when he receives urgent orders to head to Turkey to guard a female spy for England. Bennett is stuck with the job because his cousin is the British ambassador, offering him unobtrusive cover for his assignment.

Bennett promised to keep his sister Sophia’s secret when she left her husband last time, so he doesn’t feel alerting the rest of the family to the gravity of her situation is within the boundaries of his oath to her. He resolves to finish this assignment as quickly as possible so he can get home and save his sister further abuse. Always a soldier and an excellent spy himself, he rapidly assesses the political landscape in which Mari is at the center. Fascinated by her despite his feelings of urgency, they both experience attraction and the usual misunderstandings as they grow to understand each other’s character. Bennett helps Mari be a better spy, even though he wars with the desire to protect her from everything, and Mari helps Bennett understand that a blind sense of duty which fulfills oaths while ignoring the larger good might not really support the honor that makes up his core sense of self.

While this book would only fall about midrange on the sensuality scale in terms of content, Randol does an excellent job at letting the reader feel the incredible sexual tension and attraction between the couple. Mari, surrounded by Turks, is more than cognizant of the intimacies between men and women and has even read the Kama Sutra (in the original Hindustani). Rather than be offended by Mari’s innate sensuality and knowledge, Bennett accepts it as part of her exotic upbringing. It simply makes him even more attracted to her while she finally gets to see what a reliable and honorable Englishman looks like, and it’s an compelling sight.

Randol is to be applauded for her outstanding writing. It’s hard to believe that a novel with such three-dimensional characters is a debut author’s effort! Bennett, who secretly writes poetry, is a true heart-breaker of a damaged hero and any reader will be moved reading about Mari’s neglected childhood. I feel that the location of the Ottoman Empire is so well drawn that it is another protagonist, moving the plot along and lending depth of understanding to the hero/heroine’s actions.

A Most Naked Solution by Anna Randol (Avon Impulse, June 26, 2012)

I cannot wait for more from this author, and luckily, I won’t have to be patient for too long. Although not yet in the Amazon database despite a June 26th release date, the enovella, A Most Naked Solution, Bennett’s sister Sophia’s story, is in the works (why can’t I order this anywhere?). I’ve already preordered Randol’s next novel, Sins of a Virgin, even though I have no idea what it is about, simply based off Randol’s writing and the kick-ass cover – seriously, who is she giving a supply of chocolate to at Avon to get these amazing covers????

Sins of a Virgin by Anna Randol (Avon Impulse, August 28, 2012)

People looking to get more from Anna Randol can keep up with her on Facebook or on Twitter as well as periodically check her website. I was interested to discover the collaborative blog on which she posts, The Dashing Duchesses, comprised of other historical romance writers and have added this little gem into my Google Reader.

It’s thrilling that in a field of standard Regency romance writers I can find an author who can put a fresh spin on a favorite time period. Anna Randol has shattered the Regency mold with her debut book and the whole genre is a little better for it.

Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading

22 May

So much of the conversation about reading and technology is centered around the great ebooks versus print debate, and it’s easy to understand why that topic, with all it’s monetary repercussions for publishers and authors, has top billing. But there are other ways the web is impacting reading, lending depth of understanding for readers and Small Demons is one of them.

Let me start off by answering your obvious question. No, I do not understand why this site is called Small Demons, but I think the name is kind of edgy and cool! The name in the end doesn’t matter more than the mission of the company. In a nutshell, Small Demons seeks to help readers make the connections of understanding by mapping the web of knowledge and references contained in each work.

This is of vital importance. I’m sure I was not the only person who read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with art books and computers open around them to examine a specific work or track obscure Swedish politics. Frustrating! What if there was a one stop place on the web that had already gathered all those references together for me to enhance my understanding? Thank you, Small Demons, for doing just that.

Take the above screen shot of the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The top of the page looks rather standard, doesn’t it? Your established book cover shot with the synopsis and a link to sources to buy it seems rather blah.  But wait! Look down a little. Here’s where the Small Demons magic begins.

Next we have a visual catalog of all the people and places listed in the book, which you may remember happens in Washington, D. C. Our pictures show all the references (and it’s Dan Brown’s intellectual professor as a mystery solving protagonist, so there are a LOT of people and ideas mentioned), from Albert Einstein to Mickey Mouse to Zeus. Just having the picture isn’t sufficient – if you hover over it you can see the identification of who you are looking at and if you click on the picture, you get taken to a separate page dedicated to that individual with all literary references to them as found in the Small Demons database. The map indicates the places mentioned and the specific pictures below the map are actual images of those places, with a similar rollover experience where you can click to find out more information. The pages dedicated to a person or place are really cool and worth exploring. Take a gander at Issac Newton:

Clicking on any one of the many books listed will give you the specific quote in the window above of the mention. Enabling the “Like” button with the heart by the person’s image links your interest in this person to your account so you can know when other books mention Newton. (Check out that hair! Doesn’t it remind you of some of the vampire hair descriptions in paranormal romance? Just sayin’.)

Back at the ranch the main book page of Brown’s novel, we can see that the buck doesn’t stop with the cool people/places references. Small Demons also links to music, movies, and other books mentioned in the text. In this screenshot from The Lost Symbol page, we see the link to the classical pieces Brown’s characters allude to, as well as the movies and books in the text.

Any reference or item I favorite, whether it be an author, a book, a person or movie (ANYTHING) gets added to my account’s Storyboard (see below) where it tracks my interests for me. Based on the company’s “What’s Coming Next?” page, you can see they’ll be moving in a direction where they will offer recommendations based on my interests. Other cool features in the works – besides the obvious additions of lots more books and references – center on pages devoted to specific subtopics (like vampires), the ability to preview or purchase music and movies, and more lists of bestsellers and awards.  They only have a romance list linked to the RITA for Young Adult Romance, so with any luck they will continue to work on all the other categories of romance fiction for us!

Right now they have an interesting smattering of the genre (there’s a genre drop down menu for easy browsing) with most of the books having some rather skimpy references, but the company seems to be working hard to keep adding to their offerings, so I check back weekly. Seeing what your friends are reading by linking social networks is an obvious next upgrade as well as the ability to have Small Demons as a mobile app on your phone or iPad.

Maybe because I’m a librarian, my first question always is “where does this information come from?” – after all, if it’s not from a reliable source, then it doesn’t help the reader in the end. Small Demons makes very clear that their information comes from Freebase, with some information from Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of Freebase, but was really interested once I perused their wiki.

Freebase is a Creative Commons licensed database with over 22 million entries that charts entities (a person, place, thing, whatever), giving them unique identifiers but also tracking relationships and differences between them. The best example I can give is that of helpful metaengines, like yippy.com, which have taken your search terms and helped you figure out what you didn’t know. When someone searches on mercury, a search engine like yippy.com is able to separate out results into relationships, so it can have categories like Mercury (planet), mercury (element), Mercury (car), Mercury (god), etc. with the searcher able to click on whatever category fits their search.

The easiest way to get more content into Small Demons would be to let users help, but since I’m not a developer it’s hard to imagine how you could have account members access to the Freebase data in a user friendly manner. That said, I sent a note to them using their “Feedback and Suggestions” page with the thought of having a button next to each category on pages (whether or not there was any data there) that would allow readers to suggest material as they were reading. I got an incredibly prompt and friendly response saying they were already working on it, so I’m definitely feeling the warm fuzzies when it comes to the developers of this website.

Really, what I want are these features embedded in my ebook, so I could just hover over the reference and listen to the song or see a description of the book if I choose while reading, but with the proprietary nature of ebook formats, I can’t even begin to imagine how they could integrate this into the majority of readers’ experience.

A great way to keep up to date on books as they are added to the lexicon is to follow Small Demons on Twitter, where you can not only get a real-time update on items as they are added, but also enjoy the witty tone of the company as they promote new offerings and related material on the internet. Small Demons is a great website that has the potential to become as important to my reading experience as Goodreads, so I will eagerly await seeing how this great website grows and develops.

Series Review: Elite Force Series by Catherine Mann Is the Best Balance of Romance and Suspense

21 May

So often, the problem with romantic suspense is that it usually leans one way or the other – either the book is primarily romance with a token suspense plot thrown in to keep the conflict going (and you can see the resolution or villian a mile away) or it’s a killer suspense plot with only occasional smooching or a tossed in smoldering look. Either scenario, the reader is left feeling a little crankypants for the book not living up to her expectations.

Catherine Mann’s books will not leave you crankypants.

In fact, speaking as someone who has read (according to my Goodreads account) over 50 romantic suspense novels in the last couple of months, I think Catherine Mann is one of the few authors on the market who has the perfect balance of romance and suspense in her books, particularly those in her Elite Force series.

A major reason for the strength of her writing is Mann’s familiarity with her material. A military wife of many years, Mann’s husband is an airman, a detail which lends a great deal of veracity to her writing about pararescuemen. In a world of vague allusions to SEALs and special forces, it’s a pleasure to have the details of training, weaponry and large equipment sussed out with such authority. Based on how smoking hot the love scenes are in her books, I’m guessing her marriage is a pretty happy one, too!

Cover Me by Catherine Mann (July 2011, Sourcebooks)

In Cover Me, Pararescuemen Wade Rocha and his team are stationed in Alaska, ready to respond to just about anything. When they receive a call that some people are stranded in the wilderness, they head out to an Aleutian Island. While other team members rescue a couple of hikers, Wade spots another hiker in a different area and jumps down to help.

The only problem is, Sunny Foster really doesn’t need Wade’s assistance. In fact, she’s as competent in the wilderness as he is, a fact he quickly realizes with more than a little chagrin. But they are stuck with each other as Wade is stranded until his team can come back for him, and when he gets a good look at how beautiful Sunny is under all her gear, he’s willing to not have an immediate extraction.

Sunny fights her attraction for the great-looking pararescueman who seems as kind as he is competent, because she has a lot to hide. There’s a reason she is such a terrific wilderness guide – it’s her job to escort departing members of her off the grid ecological community from their sequestered existence to civilization. She knows, all too well, that there are people in her isolated town with good reason to not come to the attention of authorities and Wade constitutes an authority.

When the two of them stumble across a crevasse filled with the dead bodies of the people Sunny has previously helped and bullets start flying, Wade and Sunny realize that they have stumbled on something that endangers them both. Wade knows that there’s no way he’s leaving her alone and Sunny wants to stay with him, even harboring a secret that might make him leave.

What had me reaching for the next book in the series was not only Mann’s page-turning writing, but the fact that her female characters register pretty high on the badass scale. Sunny is amazingly competent and a strong match for Wade, despite her untraditional upbringing. The love scenes are outstandingly hot but emotionally intimate, and you’ll find yourself snapping at loved ones who attempt to interrupt your reading for such mundane topics as financial questions or “what’s for dinner?” inquiries.

Hot Zone by Catherine Mann (December 1, 2011, Sourcebooks)

Mann also deserves major kudos for her fully fleshed out minor characters. Not only does she lay the foundation for future books by focusing on a couple of other squad members who are bound to have  stories themselves, but she always includes a subplot (in Cover Me‘s case, Sunny’s sister and the man she’s been in love with for years) of a couple who are also brought together in the same timeline, having their own bumps along the road to happily ever after. The fact that she can do this and manage to not detract from the larger story is nothing short of tremendous.

In Hot Zone, our wonderful pararescuemen, now stationed in Florida, are coming to the aid of victims of a big earthquake in the Bahamas, but they don’t find an island paradise. Master Sergeant Hugh Franco is crawling through rubble to a trapped woman with a baby. Captivated in the dark and dust by a beautiful pair of eyes and brave soul, Hugh finds himself drawn to a woman in a way he hasn’t been since the loss of his wife and child years ago. He’s acquired a deserved reputation for being an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but suddenly there is something else, a lot more frightening, he’s running toward.

Lawyer Amelia Bailey is terrified and in a lot of pain but is managing to keep it together for her newly adopted thirteen month old nephew fitfully breathing alongside her. When the gorgeous pararescueman arrives to save her, she chalks her startling feelings of attraction up to the situation and his kindness. She’s sworn off relationships after her cheating ex and, right now, her focus is on the new baby and finding her brother and his wife. As Hugh and she find reasons to see each other in the disaster zone while searching for her new nephew’s parents, what’s between them grows rather than diminishes. When Amelia finds herself and her nephew in mortal danger from an unforeseen enemy, Hugh faces the knowledge that this is one woman who he will not let go without a fight.

When I say this book is heart-stopping, I mean it. The scenes of Amelia and Hugh trapped in the rubble with aftershocks happening around them as the toddler’s condition worsens had me stopping reading to go gulp a glass of water and control my nerves. While Amelia is not the survivalist Sunny is in the previous book, she has her own brand of bravery that is incredibly appealing. Our secondary couple is Amelia’s brother and sister-in-law who, despite being in the Bahamas to adopt their son, are going through some serious marital problems. We get to see their journey to resolution while also getting a peek at the burgeoning romance between Major Liam McCabe and the sassy canine search and rescue worker who intrigues him.

Under Fire by Catherine Mann (May 1, 2012, Sourcebooks)

Because of my love for Liam, I was ecstatic when I discovered that the third book in the series would focus on him. Liam and his overwhelming attraction to Rachel Flores, the canine search and rescue handler in Cover Me, was a subplot that I enjoyed as much as the main couple. In Under Fire, Liam is still smarting from six months of unreturned phone calls to Rachel, who has clearly decided that the thrice-married and divorced Liam is too much of a risk.

Liam has always known he falls in love too easily and for the wrong reasons, and right now he’s trying to get Rachel Flores out of his mind and heart and concentrate on his upcoming retirement. His 38-year-old body has taken way too much punishment and it’s beginning to put up a major protest. When he gets into his jeep after an exhausting training session, he’s astonished to find Rachel huddled in the back, her arm around one of her rescue dogs. Her terrified expression kicks him into protection mode and he hustles her back to his place to find out what’s going on.

Rachel knows she doesn’t resemble the confident rescue worker who attracted Liam months ago. The earthquake burned her out and she has since turned to using her animals to help former military personnel suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). One of them confessed to her that he had overheard treasonous information on his last assignment, but when she champions his cause and tries to get this shattered man’s information taken seriously, she finds herself under attack. With no one to turn to, she knows that Liam is the one person she can trust, if he can stand seeing her again after she’s ignored him all these months.

Liam is initially not sure if Rachel’s friend is telling the truth or deluded, but he knows that someone has it out for her. Turning to the authorities on his base has them put in a safe house, but Liam gets a tip that the danger is much closer than anyone realizes and is told to run. With the help of his team members, he takes Rachel into hiding where the attraction they’ve both denied for so long becomes an unstoppable force. But Rachel knows the three garters hanging from Liam’s rearview mirror is a reminder that he might not be a good romantic chance to take. Despite acknowledging that he’s previous experiences at falling in love didn’t feel anything like what he feels for Rachel, Liam believes he’s just going to stand in her way when she realizes she’s ready to go back to the search and rescue work that is her first love.

This was my favorite of the series so far, possibly because the dogs make such good minor characters! Liam is smokin’ hot and he and Rachel are perfect for each other, even when you do want to bash their heads together for being so damn difficult about it. Rachel’s friend with PTSD has the great minor romance plot with her dogsitter and we get a view of happily married Wade and Sunny that just makes your heart sing. Please, please let the next book be Cuervo!! He’s so dark and fabulous and want to see him find his happily ever after.

One of my criteria for an author I admire is that I insist they have some kind of presence on the web so I can indulge myself between books. As an author, Catherine Mann appears to have a strong platform, complete with an informative website, active Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you can usually find her giving a live interview in case you want to pepper her with questions about those green foot tattoos on her heroes. Her Goodreads page is a great place to get the order of the books in her various series.

Since her recent books have been published by Sourcebooks, I thought I’d mention the bargain I got in buying Under Fire. Sourcebooks has begun their own reader’s club, Discover a New Love, and while I usually don’t indulge in these types of offers, this publishing house has enough authors I read to make it worthwhile. For a $9.99 six month membership, I get one featured title free each month and a super discount off the list price of other books. I got Under Fire, the latest Kathryne Kennedy book and a new cowboy romance for something like three dollars! (They were ebooks, so no shipping.) I just downloaded them from the website in the Kindle format and sent them to my Kindle account. (Did you know you can do that? Anyone with a Kindle or Kindle app – I use my iPad – has a email address to send items to your Kindle. It’s your amazon username@kindle.com and just embed the pdf or mobi file in the email and wait a few minutes. Voila!)

So if you haven’t read her yet, check out Catherine Mann and this fabulous series in whatever format that floats your boat. You’ll find that the Elite Force series is definitely at the top of the romantic suspense genre.

Putting the Spicy in Spicy Short: Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy

19 May

Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy (Harlequin Spice Briefs, June 1, 2012)

I rarely support purchasing a true short story (not a novella) for anything above $.99, but in the case of the 35 page menage short story, Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy, I’ll make an exception. In fact, after I read a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review, I went and bought the actual copy from Amazon.com for it’s full $2.99 price, because I wanted the author and publisher to benefit from my enjoyment of the story!

A publication of the Harlequin Spice Briefs line (digital short stories 5,000 to 15,000 words of a highly erotic nature), this story lived up to the author’s tagline of writing “sexy, romantic, emotional fiction.”

Lord Charles Atwood didn’t expect to fall for the woman he would take as a wife, but Imogen’s combination of an open heart and wanton body brought him to his knees. Knowing her heartache from her previous husband, this widow recognizes that her husband harbors some dark hurt in his past.

When his estranged friend, Alexander Lambert, returns to town, she begins to realize that here is what is bothering her husband. But the closer she looks, the more she realizes that the feelings of these two men go beyond friendship and that whatever emotion they possess for each other is still there. Luckily for Imogen, she is just as attracted to Alex as her husband, and more than happy to welcome him into their marriage bed, providing she can convince the two of them to take the next step.

It’s hard not to be impressed when an author is able to suss out three very different characters, establish a strong sense of a historical time period, and infuse a story (particularly a menage story) with a tremendous amount of love and emotion, but Eva Clancy manages to do just that. Your heart aches for these three damaged people, who all share love for one another and together can manage to be a stronger whole.

If there was any complaint I could make about reading this, it’s that the author platform didn’t offer me any insight into her or her work. Her Goodreads account has virtually no information and there don’t seem to be any upcoming works. Start writing, Eva Clancy – I want to read more of your work!

Why I Hate Writing a Negative Review: Consent to Love by Abby Wood

17 May

Consent to Love by Abby Wood (April 2, 2012, Carina Press)

One of the drawbacks with asking for copies of just out or upcoming ebooks from NetGalley is the commitment to writing a review.  Not that I don’t enjoy writing reviews, I do, but you always have the sword hanging over your head that one of them might not be good, and then what do you say? You have to tell the truth to your readers, but hate the thought of possibly hurting the feelings of a writer who spent a lot of time and energy on a work of fiction that means something to them.

The best way to approach it is not to just trash the book, but to be very specific about what you didn’t like about it. Truth be told, there have been plenty of times I’ve read a very negative review on Goodreads and still decided to buy the book, because the points picked out by the reviewer were details that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, or even things that sounded great! Just because someone didn’t like it, doesn’t mean there isn’t a reader out there who might enjoy that specific work.

I like to say that I’m a picky eater, but an omnivorous reader in that I read and enjoy just about everything. Unfortunately, I could not swallow Consent to Love by Abby Wood. It takes a lot to have me put down a book, but I managed to get 75% of the way through this one and thought, “Oh my God, I just can’t read one more sentence of this.” I tried to pick it up two more times, but ended up putting it down yet again before finally giving up.

Let me be clear about what I didn’t like. Kane is a sexy construction worker known to the lovely barmaid Ana Reynold through mutual friends. He lives on the local Lakota reservation raising the horses he loves, but one look at Ana and he has to have her. Ana melts at one glance of Kane’s substantial physique and they soon strike up a very passionate physical relationship. She’s upfront about not having a ton of experience, and he is clear that he doesn’t think a relationship is a great idea, largely because of the tremendous local prejudice about interracial relationships, particularly with a Native American man and white woman.

This had SUCH great potential. I’m with the hordes of romance writers and industry enthusiasts who lament the dearth of great minority characters and at first glance Kane was everything he should be. His Lakota heritage wasn’t belabored but was rather simply part of who he is, lending a valuable dimension and insight into his character. The prejudice against him seemed out of control in this day and age, but I don’t live in the West and the author does, so she gets to make the call on that societal commentary.

Where I kept getting stuck was on Ana’s character. She was so hard to suss out, to the point where I began to wonder if she had a personality disorder that would explain her lack of predictability. She’s an artist, somehow a terrific one despite not much education, but she alternates between being okay with the casual nature of her relationship with Kane to crying about how much they are meant for each other. With people in her life, she vacillates between being assertive and clear about her personal goals or feelings, and painfully reticent. I guess, she came off as incredibly young in the end, and there is nothing appealing for me about an immature heroine. The dialogue was particularly awkward, to the point of it repeatedly jarring me out of the story, and that’s a flaw that has me always put down a book.

The love scenes were well-written and the narrative description of the setting of the small town, the reservation, and Kane’s sister’s home were outstanding, giving me a vivid visual image to place the characters. But sadly, it wasn’t enough in this case. Because of it, however, I would give Abby Wood a second try with a new novel, but this novella left me with more than a little indigestion.

Gritty Romantic Suspense with Cynthia Justlin’s Edge of Light

6 May

Edge of Light by Cynthia Justlin (May 14, 2012 Carina Press)

When I saw Edge of Light by Cynthia Justlin available as one of the Carina Press options on NetGalley, I felt a serious jonesing for a romantic suspense novel and immediately requested it. Look at the cover – neat colors, the haunted look of the person behind bars, the bleeding edge of the title – this is a prime romantic suspense book cover! I was getting little creepy chills examining the details.

Of course, before requesting it, I toodled over to Amazon and Goodreads to read the reviews and was more than a little baffled.  The reviews were rather mixed, with readers either in the “I love it” or “It was so graphic I hated it and didn’t finish.”

*minor rant about people who cannot interpret romance covers* Whenever I notice a schizophrenia happening in the reviews, I usually just read the book to see where I come out on the spectrum, but in this case, I could tell right off the bat that the people who didn’t like the book are NOT connoisseurs of romance covers. Every cranky comment had a “I wish there had been more romance” or “It was so graphic” angle.

People. LOOK AT THE COVER. Do you see two people making kissyface or even embracing? No, you do not.  This is a signal the emphasis will be more on suspense and not as much on the romance. Do you see the creepy prison bars and read the description about it being about a crappy Cambodian prison? This is a BIG signal that it will have lots of disturbing details because any prison, to say nothing of Cambodian prisons built around slave labor camps, are not known for their amenities and little Bliss shampoo giveaways. You need to use your experience to let your cover knowledge increase so you can make better choices in the future. *rant concluded*

Jocelyn Hewitt is a forensic anthropologist comfortable in the jungle. She finagles her way to Cambodia, helping on an assignment but really looking for evidence of her father, a scholar and adventurer who disappeared years ago. Her team massacred in front of her and taken hostage, Jocelyn ends up in a prison with a madman who believes she can lead him to a priceless treasure. And she’s not the only one behind bars.

Oliver Shaw can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t trapped in this horrible prison. Taken along with his CIA team two years ago, he has both physical scars and psychological ones from watching his team (including his girlfriend) massacred in front of him. Kept alive by virtue of the art he creates for the demented prison overseer, he hears Jocelyn’s voice and doesn’t want to care about another person who can be taken away. But he can’t help himself, as his interaction with her awakens memories and feelings of who he really is. Can they escape and if they do, will what they have still remain in the light of day?

Right off the bat, I was incredibly impressed with Oliver’s character.  He is a great tortured hero, who has mentally fought back by surviving when all odds are stacked against him. Knowing the CIA has written him off as dead, he gets his only energy from the artistic act of creating the numerous church scenes the villain requires, giving great dimension to his character and his point of view. Oliver’s memories and thoughts are heart wrenching, so much so that it provides a wonderful measure when you realize how Jocelyn is affecting him for the better.

Justlin also does an excellent job with the practically nonstop action. I loved that she started the reader right in the middle of the action and it just kept going. Even when the protagonists were at rest, mentally they were churning and moving the story along. It doesn’t hurt that the villain makes Hannibal Lecter look like your friendly town councilman. I think the only time I questioned the motivation of one of characters was when Jocelyn was making some decisions at the end of the book, but it was pretty minor.

Edge of Light would be a wonderful transition book for readers used to Tom Clancy-esque thrillers who are ready for a little more romance in their page-turning. Sadly, this book seems to be in e-book form only, so I’m not sure if the print release date is delayed or it’s only going to be digital. Either way, I’d encourage lovers of romantic suspense to check out Cynthia Justlin’s latest novel. Oh, and be sure to take a good look at the cover.

Technology Review: How ifttt Makes a Writer’s Life Easier

2 May

Since I teach technology all the time in my work as a librarian, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind how authors can use technology to make their lives easier. Especially after attending the last meeting of my fabulous Romance Writers of America chapter (shout out to fellow Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers!), it was especially interesting to hear the published authors in that group discuss how much of the marketing of their book falls on their shoulders. Particularly when you already have a full-time job, it’s hard to imagine putting in hours and hours being an active presence on multiple social networks, even though you know you have to be visible.

When I stumbled on a New York Times article about how to use a new program called ifttt to automate certain aspects of your life, I was intrigued and a little excited. Rhyming with “lift”, ifttt stands for “If This, Then That” and basically links your various social and online accounts using recipes to create tasks that it accomplishes for you.  With most of the major networks and platforms on there (I was happy to see Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Reader, Dropbox, the Weather Channel, Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, your cell phone – but where is Goodreads, people? Pinterest?), and the ability to link to your phone via text or voicemail, you have a powerful tool at your fingertips.

Look at all the accounts you can link together with ifttt!

As described in their blog post discussing the origins of the idea of ifttt, the whole concept revolves around triggers and actions. While you can create your own, there are hundreds if not thousands of preconfigured “recipes” that can read a specific trigger and initiate an action for you.

Let me give you an example.  I try and keep Twitter on in the background during my day, but I’m working at my day job, so watching and responding to my Tori MacAllister account isn’t usually feasible. If I’m retweeted or add a follower, Twitter etiquette would have me thank that person for either action, preferably as soon as possible.  Enter ifttt.

Sample recipe for responding automatically to a retweet with a thank you

All I have to do is activate my Twitter account in my ifttt account and then customize the message to say whatever I want. Nice, yes? When I check my tweets, I can see the automatic ones generated by this recipe and I get a feeling of smug satisfaction.  I’m working even when I’m not working! And my high school etiquette teacher would be proud (yes, I had one of those).

For me, another detail I wanted taken care of was having my WordPress posts automatically placed on my Facebook page.  Wordpress has a social networking feature that automatically does this (under the “Sharing” menu) and while I’m often happy to use that with my Twitter account, I don’t like the format it comes out with for Facebook.  Ifttt can just suck my new WordPress posts and put them up on Facebook in the format I prefer, with no fuss or muss from me. Since I usually write my blog posts late at night after work, any extra couple of minutes I can gain are always much appreciated.  Take a look at how I can customize the post:

Sample of the action window for customization

Do you notice the “Addins” drop down menu? All that crazy punctuation and code isn’t anything I have to worry about – I just need to chose the placement and what I want from the Addins menu (you can see I wanted the default image for the post, the post title and of course, the url for it), hone the text (which is what is outside of the punctuation, in this case “new entry on the blog”) and then add it to my tasks. Done!

There are a ton of useful tasks that you can use to help yourself, managing your Facebook, Twitter and other social networking accounts among them. A great task that would help writers would be the voicemail to email feature. I don’t know if you have ever had (like I have) a great idea for a character or plot and you have nothing to write it down with.  You know that as soon as people begin hocking you to do things, you’re going to forget your brainwave, so you get cranky and irritable (okay, now I’m thinking this could just be me). Don’t fear, there is a ifttt recipe that links your cell phone and email!

I can leave ifttt a voicemail (when you link your phone number, they call to leave you a confirmation number to make the task effective – just add the caller to your contacts and you have the number you need), and it sends you a transcription of your voicemail!  How is that for a help? I’m assuming they use a similar kind of software to Dragon Dictation to use the transcription and even includes a link to the mp3 file of the actual recording.

In terms of other recipes that you might helpful (or just cool), how about sending your favorite tweets to your Evernote account for archiving (Twitter deletes the old ones regularly)? Or having ifttt text you if it’s going to rain that day? This fabulous tool could just make your writing life a little easier.

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