Archive | June, 2013

Hot New Author Tessa Bailey Wows With Her Line of Duty Series

12 Jun

Protecting What’s His (Line of Duty #1 – Derek and Ginger) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, February 2013)

I love being a voracious reader but the hobby comes with a hidden cost, namely that you end up reading some horrible books in between the good ones. With this week filled with more than my fair share of two star books (which to me means that they are written in English, mostly grammatically correct and had promise, albeit that went unfulfilled), it was a relief to read the latest installment of Tessa Bailey’s Line of Duty series. Her books are four star all the way (rich characters, strong plot and conflict, hot sex scenes, and deftly written) and I realized I couldn’t keep her to myself any longer.

I stumbled across the first in her series, Protecting What’s His, about a month ago and was blown away by her writing, so much so that I immediately purchased the second book in the series, His Risk to Take. Wow. Gobbling that one up had me pre-ordering the third in the series, Officer Off Limits, which just came out on June 10th. The third book clinched it – Tessa Bailey has moved into my “will buy anything she writes” category!

In Protecting What’s His, we meet exhausted Chicago cop Derek Tyler, who has recently lost a good friend in the field. Exhausted and guilt ridden, he finds himself annoyed at two young women who appear to be moving in next door. He goes to tell them to pipe down already when he gets a good look. One is just a teenage girl with a unique sense of style, but the other…WOW. The body is a 10 and the face an 11 but what strikes him most of all is the fire in her eye when she tells him off for yelling at new neighbors, and in a sexy Southern accent no less.

Ginger Peet feels the heat between her and her annoying but sexy neighbor, but nothing can come of it. She pegs him as a cop long before he tells her his occupation and that alone means he’s off limits. After all, Ginger has stolen $50,000 cash from her n’er-do-well mother in order for Ginger and her teenage sister to start over in a big city and leave the violence and sordidness of their childhood behind. The last thing Ginger wants is to become like her mother, falling into bed with any guy who expresses an interest only to watch them disappear afterward. Not going to happen – even if she does have hot make out sessions with Officer Tall, Dark, and Yowza.

What struck me when I read Protecting What’s His was Bailey’s strong voice, which stands out in a field saturated with mediocre points of view. Ginger and Derek are both damaged, flawed characters, yet are drawn so empathetically that you immediately fall in love with both of them. I liked the idea of the female protagonist being from very humble beginnings and her sexual experience, combined with Derek’s need for utter dominance in the bedroom, made for a surprisingly hot combination. Ginger is inexperienced yet extremely smart and it gives her a vulnerability while never having her venture into naive territory. Derek’s possessiveness and dominance are just an extension of his personality and (thankfully) don’t go into the BDSM territory that is becoming so common it’s practically a trope in erotic romance (and P.S. publishing industry, I’m tired of it). Rich secondary characters like Ginger’s sister and a pervasive sense of humor (the Dolly Parton mannequin?) make this book a winner in every respect.

His Risk to Take (Line of Duty #2 – Troy and Ruby) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, May 2013)

In Bailey’s second book, His Risk to Take, we see one of Derek’s coworkers, Troy Bennett, who has also been torn apart by the death of his partner, so much so that he decides to leave the Windy City for a position in the NYPD. He’s working on busting some organized crime players which is demanding work, all the while congratulating himself that he’s not attached to anyone. Troy never wants to feel that sense of loss again, so better to cultivate the lone wolf lifestyle.

Or at least that’s what he thinks until a stunning woman walks into the pub where Troy and his buddies are having a drink and all bets are off. Watching her successfully hustle a bunch of arrogant guys just makes him want to know more about her and it’s clear that she feels the heat between them as well. Now he just has to figure out how to get her home and into his bed.

Ruby Elliott personifies the lone wolf, so she has no expectations of Troy beyond her reckless decision to have a one night stand with him…and that one night just keeps going. She was taught to hustle pool from an obscenely early age and is used to danger, but Troy’s relentless pursuit is breaking down barriers she can’t afford to lower. When she finds out that there’s a connection between his investigation and some old friends of hers, she can’t help him without betraying the code she’s been raised with.

Troy and Ruby are fabulous characters and the vivid Brooklyn landscape well drawn by Bailey, who lives in the borough. I loved that Ruby’s real love was making custom pool cues; she hustled to survive but clearly had an artist’s heart for the love of her craft. Troy’s pursuit of her toward the end of the book, when Ruby doesn’t think she’s going to give him another chance, was so bittersweet and heartwarming, you can’t help but chant, “Let him, Ruby!”

Officer Off Limits (Line of Duty #3 – Daniel and Story) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, June 10, 2013)

Staying in NYC for the third book in the series, Officer Off Limits, Bailey focuses on Daniel Chase, a hostage negotiator taught by one of the best. His mentor, Jack Brooks, is lying in a hospital bed at the moment and Daniel realizes that he’s next in line in terms of experience. Going out to flirt with the nurse on duty, he spies an image that makes his heart stop – a gorgeous creature in a short skirt and tank top with curves to die for attempting to make a choice from a vending machine. He’s astonished and secretly delighted when she playfully shoots him down; he loves a challenge and getting this beauty into bed will be a great one. The rug is ripped out from under his feet however when she turns into Jack’s hospital room…because this is his estranged daughter from California, Story, someone who Jack makes clear is completely off limits.

Story has no desire to be another notch in this playboy’s belt and the truth is it was a relief to be called to her father’s bedside. Story’s fiancee had just broken off their engagement a mere two weeks before the wedding was to take place and this kindergarten teacher feels that some wound-licking is what the doctor ordered. That her best friend happens to be a highbrow socialite living in Manhattan makes the two weeks of staying in her dad’s apartment while visiting him in the hospital that much sweeter. Daniel proves more compelling than she could ever imagine, but how she can be experiencing real feelings for someone when she just broke up with man she supposedly loved enough to marry?

Officer Off Limits is a fantastic third book in this series. Daniel is someone who has drowned the demons of his rough childhood in both his work as a hostage negotiator and in women, but seeing how special Story is makes him want to be worthy of her. She brings out a nobility he didn’t know he had, while demonstrating to him how meaningless the sex he’s been having up to this point has been. Watching Daniel wrestle with his feelings for Story, while also watching her realize that she means more to him than just a fling, is funny and poignant, with the sex scenes out of this world hot (in the car at the end of the Mets game? OMG!!).

Tessa Bailey doesn’t have a lot on her bio page on her website, but it’s clear that she is a talent in the world of romance. That she emerged from the Entangled Publishing house is unsurprising considering their editors have a nose for finding outstanding writers. Kudos to both the author and publisher for putting out these books rapid fire within the space of a few months – it’s certainly clinched my loyalty. With hints dropped regarding sparks between Daniel’s cop friends and Story’s best friend, I for one look forward to the next book in the series!

[October 2013: check out the follow up novella to Protecting What's His in the Lovers Unmasked anthology for more Derek and Ginger!]

[November 2013: Asking for Trouble is the latest amazing addition to this series - check out the review and see if you don't agree.]

The Real Romance: Librarians and Readers Find More to Love on Public Library Shelves

11 Jun
Public Domain image via Pixabay

Public Domain image via Pixabay

If you’re a romance reader, chances are the first romance you picked up was in a library. It may have been in the children’s section (or Young Adult space if you’re under 30) or in the adult fiction area, but romance novels and libraries have had a great relationship for decades.

According to a recent article by Publishers Weekly, romance publishers heavily encourage this dynamic, knowing that romance readers – hooked by an author or subgenre – tend to be strong purchasers of romance and the best word of mouth proponents. Whether it’s Harlequin or Avon, publishers and editors make a point of being at library conventions (national ones like the American Library Association conference or regional groups), and run sessions touting the upcoming releases in the hope that librarians will push them to their patrons.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. How many people are going to go out and buy romance novels if they can get them for free at the library? But publishers know that cultivating readers means cultivating buyers. If you were given a piece of free chocolate, chances are that you would go out any buy more chocolate even if you knew you could occasionally find the exact flavor you wanted for free nearby. You’d eat both the free chocolate and the purchased candy, wouldn’t you? It’s the same with romance books.

How Your Library Buys Romance Novels

But how many people read romance from their public library? A Springfield, Massachusetts librarian, quoted at the beginning of the article, indicated that while romance makes up 35% of her branch’s 5000 item collection, it accounts for 43% of the circulation, a ratio that many librarians would agree with across the country. Dollars spent on romance go farther as well, with romance (which is usually in trade paperback form) costing less than other genres and getting more checkouts before falling apart.

Because libraries adhere to a collection development policy, it’s important to note how they choose books for their romance shelves. Romantic Times, PW (Publishers Weekly), Library Journal and Booklist are all professional journals employed when deciding how the budget will be spent. Most policies clearly state that before a book is purchased it needs to get a certain number of positive reviews in these professional resources, which is librarian speak for CYA (cover your ass). If a patron decides to challenge a book being on the shelf (and the sexual content of many romance novels makes this genre vulnerable to this type of complaint) the library is able to show that experts in that field of literature have listed it as being a well-written book.

Note where they don’t look. When I’m not being Tori MacAllister I work as a librarian in education, a job which requires me to be well-informed, not just from traditional professional sources but also all the great bloggers out there discussing young adult literature and services. Romance publishing is no different and we all have great blogs we follow. But when it comes to protecting a book’s right to be on a public library shelf, those blogs don’t count for diddly when you have a uptight patron. Public librarians probably do what I do, which is to find titles raved about on blogs and then search out the reviews from professional sources which allow them to adhere to the policy and put it on the shelf. It’s a pain in the butt (and take a look at PW sometime – there are very few romance reviews in there) but librarians will do anything to get a good book in the hands of someone who is going to read and enjoy it.

Erotic Romance vs. Erotica: Don’t Worry, You’ll Find Both at Your Library

Another theme that came through when reading this article was not just how many great public librarians are out there fulfilling patron needs but how so many of those librarians, like most romance readers, have an interesting idea of what “erotica” means. Prompted by the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Grey, librarians across the country touted the popularity of erotica when the article author asked them about the circulation of more explicit romances like this one.

Yet I was startled to see authors like Nalini Singh (known for her paranormal romances like the Psy-Changeling series as well as her amazing Guild Hunter books), Lori Foster, and Jaci Burton (author of the Play by Play series) compared to Fifty Shades.  Singh and Foster write what I would consider traditional romances with simply a high level of sensuality – what would usually be termed “scorcher” by most reviewing sources – but this doesn’t make them erotica writers by a long shot. Burton does write erotic romance, with more explicit language, longer sex scenes, and occasionally showing characters engaging in sexual behavior like anal sex or BDSM behavior, all of which would fall into more of an erotica category.

In actuality, because Fifty Shades contains a relationship between two people which results in a committed relationship and HEA (happily ever after) it actually falls under the category of erotic romance rather than erotica, which is better defined as a story chronicling an individual’s sexual journey and may or may not result in a committed relationship at the turn of the final page. It seems that librarians and maybe even publishers are still struggling with this terminology as romances get spicier and what was seen as being previously aberrant behavior is more mainstreamed in literature.

If you own an ereader, ask your library if they have an Overdrive subscription. You won’t be sorry!

It was fascinating to see the prevalence of ereaders a key medium for libraries delivering erotic romance to readers. With the advent of the database Overdrive providing libraries with an effortless way of supplying time stamped ebooks to patrons (use your library card to download books to your device and watch them expire on their due date), people who would have donned big sunglasses before checking out a spicy paperback will cheerfully download one erotic book after another from the privacy of their home. Ellora’s Cave, one of the premier publishers of erotica (and Romantica, which is what they call their erotic romance line), offers many of its titles through Overdrive and they like that partnership. A representative of their company clearly states in the article that many libraries, particularly those in the South, were hesitant to carry paper versions of the books knowing that some patrons would have objections. Since no one sees the racy ebooks unless they are specifically searching for them, Overdrive is the perfect way to provide the books people want to read with none of the controversy.

Reader Advocacy

kiss-63054_640Keep in mind if you are an enthusastic romance reader that almost all librarians will attempt to fulfill reader requests, so cultivating a relationship with your local library and letting them know of the authors and series you enjoy will make it far more likely to see those items on your shelves. Ask at the desk who is in charge of purchasing decisions and mention (after looking in the catalog, please!) the books you like that the library doesn’t have, dropping the idea that you have lots of friends who also use the library and would love the chance to check out the books you’re mentioning. Libraries often receive funding using metrics like how many library cards are issued and how many circulating items go through that branch, so your interest and that of others equal more dollars that go to that institution.

Consider donating your read romance novels (in good condition) to the library, knowing that if they don’t put them on the shelf, they’ll probably sell them, using the proceeds to buy more books (print and electronic) for you. Talk to the library about any advocacy you can do (going to a town meeting when they discuss appropriations for municipal institutions, writing a state representative, etc.) or let them know that you have an ereader and are looking for databases like Overdrive.

Every romance reader should cultivate a relationship with their library, not only because its an important local institutions but because they are literally growing more romance readers. That newbie reader might be checking out a YA romance or downloading a book to their iPhone, but they are standing in the place you were years ago – embarking on a relationship with romance that is just the beginning.

S. E. Gilchrist’s Darkon Warriors a Great Addition to Erotic SciFi Romance

8 Jun

Awakening the Warriors by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, May 1, 2013)

I love scifi romance (the hotter, the better) but it’s often of variable quality. The good news is that it appears that there is a growing market for it, particularly in e-book form, so I’m seeing more and more out there. When I received the NetGalley short story, Awakening the Warriors, I confess I was so intrigued with the premise and the author’s voice that I went out and purchased the author’s full-length novel and other short and devoured all of them!

First off, I need to be upfront and mention that the author, S. E. Gilchrist, doesn’t have an actual name for this series so, to make it easy on myself, I’m just calling it the Darkon Warriors series since that’s the obvious binding factor. Maybe she didn’t want to imply that there was an order to the books since they technically could be read independently with little confusion, but I think it helps the reader to have the books clearly labeled in an order, so I’d encourage her to at least add that information to her Goodreads account. :-)

The Darkons are a dying species who used to rule a large amount of territory but now are fighting the Elite Forces, a military controlled by a dictator who would enjoy seeing the Darkons completely extinguished from the galaxy. It may happen without his interference; the Darkons lost all of their women and children six years ago to a horrible virus and have been, um, “unawakened” ever since despite exposure to the females of other races.

Legend Beyond the Stars by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, January 1, 2013).

I think it’s to a reader’s advantage to begin with the full-length novel, Legend Beyond the Stars, to get a sense of the world and the Darkon backstory. Captain Alana Knight awakens from her space stasis to more than just the requisite stomach cramping. It’s quickly apparent to her and the other female colonists supposedly bound for a new world that something is wrong. They’re no longer with the other colonists – no older women or men – leaving only women in their late teens to thirties in the spaceship transporting them to an unknown system.

Alana takes charge, finding the other leaders among the women and beginning to pump the aliens caring for them for more information. They discover that the space traders transporting them are not just providing a travel service but rather trade in flesh, a situation brought home when a group of extremely large alien males, clad in black armor and wearing helmets obscuring their features, inform the women that they have been purchased and are now Darkon slaves.

All the women take tremendous exception at this, with Alana shoving to the forefront and informing the leader, identified as one Commander Tarak El Rajan, that he is sadly mistaken if he thinks they will be slaves to anyone considering that they’ve been duped. The hard feelings lessen a little after they are taken on board the more comfortable Darkon ship, The Ark, and the men take their armor off. That they are all gorgeous provides at least a distraction from the women’s fear, which is further lessened when it’s made clear that, in Darkon culture, no man would ever take an unwilling woman.

Much to her dismay, Alana finds she’s not unwilling, and that there is a powerful connection between her and Tarak. He doesn’t understand why she’s not elated to be his slave and is baffled by her information that, in her culture, women are equals who fight alongside men. Before they all died, Darkon culture sequestered their women who were quiet and caring. But Tarak finds, along with his men, that human women, unlike any they have previously found, are capable of “awakening” Darkon men, and it’s not long before all but the youngest (Elise is only seventeen or eighteen) are “claimed” by the men. Alana’s spunky sidekick Jess is actually tied to two hot warriors and she’s not letting it worry her too much (who would?).

milky-way-67504_640The relationship between Tarak and Alana is obviously the focus, even as the political and social piece unfolds. Tarak is an uber-Alpha, so if you don’t like a man who finds it hard to let go of the “you’re my slave” piece, you probably won’t enjoy this book. His redeeming characteristics come in the form of his POV which reveals that while he’s saying that over and over, in actuality he is experiencing a tremendous amount of attraction and affection for this woman who frustrates him with her insistence on being treated as an equal. Alana naturally vacillates between her overwhelming attraction for Tarak, who can really burn up the sheets, and her knowledge that nothing can come of a relationship between too people so unequal. It’s that inequality which leads to much of the mistrust on her part, compounded by the fact that Tarak is the heir to the Darkon throne, and she doesn’t buy into a fairy tale ending.

Great world-building and compelling characters can be found in this novel. Aside from the mention of Jess’s menage relationship, I actually thought this book could have easily been labeled “scorcher” as much as “erotic” with the level of explicitness and language choice for it’s smoking hot sex scenes. All of the sex was very appropriate to the storyline and the characters’ relationship, making it always steamy and often a little heartbreaking as these two people struggled to express their love for one another.

Gilchrist did an excellent job at seeding conflict beyond the interpersonal throughout the book as well. There is a lot of evil in this world between the forces opposing the Darkons as well as their own brand of villain (who will make you shudder at how horrible they are). I loved that the only unmated Darkon warrior was Tarak’s slightly older second-in-command who was clearly attracted to Elise, but too much of a gentleman to make a move on someone so young. I’m hoping a future book will be their story set a few years in the future!

The Portal by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, March 1, 2013)

Technically, the next book in the series is the short story (only 31 pages or so) The Portal, and people have expressed a lot of dissatisfaction about this one. It’s actually a very sweet tale of a Darkon warrior who had a brief interlude with a young salvager months before and has been looking for her since. I think that much of the complaining is due to its length (readers always want more) and the fact that it does jump back and forth in time. I wished for more heat, as the sex scene that bonded the two together was extremely brief. A little more of a tie-in to her having “awakened” him would have also helped, particularly if it had been made clearer that his experience was the cause of his pursuit.

The short story, Awakening the Warriors, has none of those problems, and even though its a mere 46 pages it packs quite a bit of heat between its e-covers. Fran is a geologist who signed on with a corporation to travel to a new world when her transport was intercepted by the Elite Forces. She’s being held in a cell with a group of other women of various species and they are becoming more horrified by the minute. Some of the females were taken away a few days ago and the remaining prisoners are beginning to think that it’s for experimentation. Word has gone out that a group of human women have succeeded in awakening the fierce Darkon race and clearly there is one government who would like to see them die out. The fact that their are Darkons in the next cell can’t be a coincidence.

prison-58320_640Because the only other human female is a sickly girl of 15, the other prisoners tell Fran it’s up to her to sneak into the nearby cell of the Darkons, who are regularly whipped and beaten, and use her sexual wiles to “awaken” them. Talk about pressure! By the time she breaks into their cell, she can tell one of the men is already dead and the other two are covered in blood. She washes away the blood and tends their wounds, all the while wondering at their beauty. While their encounter is out of necessity, Fran is astonished at the heat and tenderness with which they treat her. She’s attracted to both of them equally and it quickly becomes clear that Jerrell and Quain have no trouble with the idea of her being with both of them. Yet Fran knows that she plans on leaving for home at the first opportunity since there’s no future with two men with whom sex was a means of helping them literally break their chains and escape. Or is there?

This is a very tasteful and tender menage that is further understood after reading Legend Beyond the Stars. I would have liked to see a stronger tie to the overall story arc, namely with explaining why the warriors were being beaten – combined with the missing female prisoners, were the Elite Forces attempting to discover more about how or why the rumored Darkons were awakened?

Speaking of tiny discrepancies, in Awakening the Warriors, the point of Fran stealing into the adjoining cell with the Darkons is that if she “awakens” their lust, they will possess increased strength and fighting ability, enough to overcome their injuries and help the imprisoned. In Legend Beyond the Stars, while there was a LOT of awakening going on, this added piece was unaddressed. The warriors were certainly loyal and focused on the women with whom they bonded, but no one made reference to enhanced abilities. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this author’s style and the world-building in which she engaged in all her works. I would say that anyone who loved Evangeline Anderson’s erotic Brides of the Kindred series might also find fun in the pages of Gilchrist’s science fiction romance (although keep in mind the men are waaayyyy more alpha than Anderson’s Kindred men!).

Jill Shalvis Proves Lucky Harbor Is Once Again the Town for Romance in It Had To Be You

6 Jun

It Had To Be You (Lucky Harbor #7) by Jill Shalvis (Grand Central, May 28, 2013)

I think that the fictional town of Lucky Harbor needs to market their real estate differently. Imagine how many people would move there if they had any idea that this is the town where true love is bound to hit you, whether you want it to or not?

Jill Shalvis, who deserves a contemporary romance Energizer Bunny award for her ability to release one great novel after another, won my heart long ago with the Lucky Harbor series. Nine stories (seven full-length novels and two terrific novellas) has proven she has the ability in every damn one of them to make me fall in love with the hero and heroine, laugh at the antics of the eccentric residents of the town, and choke on emotion during the more painful scenes where someone invariably tries to resist the love right in front of them.

Her latest installment, It Had To Be You, satisfied my Shalvis-craving for a hot, heart-warming romance. Neither character has been introduced prior to this book in the series and there aren’t too many references to previous characters, so the book is a great introduction to the series for someone wanting to see if they want to take the Lucky Harbor plunge (and the water is lovely in this Pacific Northwest town – trust me!).

Ali Winters has just had a seriously crap day. She caught her handsome and altruistic boyfriend cheating on her in his office while she was attending his fundraiser for the local community center. She was so disgusted that she didn’t barge in to confront him, a decision she’s regretting when he breaks up with her via text message the next morning before she’s even had breakfast. While she’s leaving him a pretty explicit message about what a creep he is (clothed only in her underwear), a severely hunky intruder asks her what she’s doing in her own house, the house she shared with Teddy although all his stuff is missing now. Sexy Man informs her she’s standing in his house and that her cheater boyfriend let the lease run out. Oh, and she finds out her boss at the flower shop is probably going to close the doors since his heart isn’t in it and he wants to go live with his boyfriend in Vegas. Ouch.

Luke Hanover is a cop and one taking a semi-forced vacation after a young woman turned up dead, a death he thinks he should have prevented. The case involved some pretty important people and only the media storm has driven him back to Lucky Harbor and the house his grandmother left him. His estranged grandfather lives next door but he just wants time alone with his board and the waves. Naturally, the gorgeous hottie in her underwear is a little distracting and his gut is telling him that involving himself in her business would be counterproductive. Ali has trouble with a capital “T” written all over her, but he can’t seem to do anything but help her, while hopefully keeping her at arm’s length when he really wants to take her to bed. When she’s accused of stealing the $50,000 raised by her ex-boyfriend, his cop senses tell him she’s innocent while the rest of him finds her courage and desperate brand of independence even more alluring than her body. But he’s only back in town for two weeks, so nothing can come of the attraction. Right?

I love how Shalvis is never formulaic in her writing, but she can be counted on for a few key elements.

  1. Her heroes are usually hardened tough guys with some seriously hard knocks in their past who find themselves giving up the control they’ve exercised all their lives when faced with the woman meant for them.
  2. On the flip side, Shalvis heroines are usually delightfully quirky (even the more buttoned up, slightly stuffy ones) who have also been dealt the hard cards but have managed to retain a sense of wonder and gained the knowledge of who they are.
  3. Both parties rarely see love coming, so it hits with the subtlety of a freight train, with at least one of the couple so petrified they are ready to turn tail and flee or just pretend it didn’t happen.
  4. Sex scenes are always fiery with an element of sweet caring between the couple so I’m never disappointed on that front.
  5. Friends (or hilarious small town perma-characters) offer necessary perspective and help the couple realize that you can’t turn away from love when you are lucky enough to find it, often giving the hero/heroine the frame of reference they need to dig deep and find the courage to accept the gift they’ve been given.

And just in case you were doubting my analysis of this wonderful writer, keep in mind that my Goodreads account informs me that I’ve read 33 of her books!

Take a listen as this great writer discusses her books and approach to writing before accepting the Career Achievement Award in Contemporary Romance from RT Book Review magazine:

While I’m planning on enjoying my summer, after reading the description for her next Lucky Harbor book – the friends to lovers story between Jack the firefighter and his best friend Leah who runs the bakery – September can’t come soon enough with the late month release of Always on My Mind. Just a couple months later and we will finally get the next book in the Animal Magnetism series, Rumor Has It, which has the heroine I can’t want to see get an HEA, Kate Evans. Kate is the quirky schoolteacher who has had a crush on Holly’s brother Griff for a while and the teaser chapter in the last book, Rescue My Heart, had my pre-ordering Rumor Has It the minute it went on sale on Amazon.

Jill Shalvis is an astonishingly talented author who never disappoints her audience with each excellent release. That Career Achievement award couldn’t have been bestowed on a more worthy individual.

Candace Haven’s Take It Like a Vamp Brings Serious Fun to Paranormal Romance

5 Jun

I’m beginning to think that Candace Havens is some kind of romance Renaissance woman. Not only is she a prolific romance writer of many subgenres (contemporary, paranormal, Steampunk) but she also writes nonfiction (popular culture related), appears on a regular radio show, does numerous in person and online workshops, and was just appointed an editor at Entangled Publishing. Is there anything she can’t do?

After listening to her wonderful Fast Draft workshop via RWA conference recording, I was smitten with how delightfully funny she was. I’m a public speaker who strongly believes that if you get your audience to laugh and relax, they are going to retain much more of your message while enjoying the experience. While I’ve read other books by Havens (yay, Model Marine!), Take It Like a Vamp was the first book of hers I’ve read that seemed to incorporate her brash, sweet, Southern sense of humor and it added a great layer to what was already a good story.

Casey Meyers knows she’s a lucky woman. She gets to live in her former uncle/now aunt’s high end apartment next to her newfound best friend, Nick Christos, while working at being a successful graphic designer at an up-and-coming firm. Nick is kind, powerful, and is a great friend – that he’s serious eye candy is just icing on the cake. But it’s getting a little painful to see him go out with one supermodel after another when Casey knows that she’s never going to have that body or be his type. Still, she wouldn’t give up his friendship for the world and she gets the sense that this uber-rich powerful businessman doesn’t have too many really close friends, so she’s going to enjoy their relationship and only dwell on what she can give him (okay, except for when it’s just her and her vibrator, Mr. Nick, then all good intentions are put aside for fantasy land).

Nick thinks he might be going insane. He knows he can’t have Casey as anything more than a friend. She has no idea that he’s a vampire and one of the most powerful ones in the world, holding a major position on the council which has allowed him to keep peace between his kind and humans for a couple of centuries. But an outdated tradition decrees that he needs to select a wife in the first two hundred years of his job and the clock is running out. The other council members will select a wife for him if he doesn’t pick one, but all he wants is Casey. When his interest in her endangers her life, he knows this is the opportunity to make her his, but he has no idea how to have a real relationship and his ineptitude could botch the one thing that means the most to him.

This was a fun book. Nick’s hotness was only matched by his cousin Linc’s (please tell me his book will come out!) and it was nice to see a supernatural hero who was not the total brooding alpha male, but something a little softer and occasionally awkward. Nick takes more than a couple missteps in his relationship with Casey and, as doubting as she is that he really has feelings for her, she calls him on his behavior every time while still being understanding. My only wish was that he had a little less control around her – I wanted to see some more sexing to go with all that fun verbal byplay!

Take It Like a Vamp was a terrific reminder for me to go out and purchase more Candace Havens books. Any author who can have me grinning like a lunatic through most of a romance novel is someone I want to read more of!

Latest Shifters Unbound Book, Tiger Magic, Surpasses High Expectations

4 Jun

Tiger Magic (Shifters Unbound #5 – Tiger and Carly) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, June 4, 2013)

I would like to point out that I do not give out perfect ratings for books. Reading around 700 books last year, I gave ONE book a five star rating (Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – too bad the sequel was only a three). When I give a book four stars, it means I’m elated with it – it’s fantastic and I’d recommend it and the author to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen to me rave about it. A five star book means the book is so perfect I would not change one word. It also means that I love it so much, I would turn back to the first page and start it all over again.

Tiger Magic is a five star book.

Deep down, I’m not surprised. I adore Jennifer Ashley as a writer, have waxed ecstatic regarding her Shifters Unbound series (which I think are the best written shifter series out there, along with Nalini Singh‘s Psy-Changeling series), and recently read and adored Lone Wolf, the latest interim novella. I predicted that I would fall head over heels for Tiger, the mysterious shifter rescued from the horrible lab where he lived for decades in the book, Mate Claimed. Seeing him in Lone Wolf, protecting the “cubs” in Austin’s Shiftertown made me root that much harder for Tiger to find an amazing woman and his own happily every after.

It’s that feeling that had me waiting up for Amazon to deliver my pre-ordered copy of Tiger Magic to my Kindle app (and it didn’t come until 12:21 am Amazon – NOT COOL), finishing it a little after 3 am.

Tiger is wilder than all other shifters, who recognize his “otherness.” Male shifters are wary of him, with even Liam, the alpha of Austin Shiftertown, recognizing that Tiger obeys him because he feels like it, not because he is compelled to bow down to his alpha like other shifters. Females and children love Tiger, trusting him implicitly. His gentleness in handling them and his vigilance regarding their protection is obvious to everyone, even the people not his biggest fans. But Tiger is still damaged and hollow inside from the violent experimentation he suffered in the secret government lab where he was created.

tiger-60602_640Until he sees a gorgeous woman in a skintight white dress kicking the tires of the Corvette she’s driving, or rather, not driving. Carly Randal is late to the Austin art gallery in which she works and she’s annoyed that her fiancee didn’t bother to maintain his fancy car. Just when she’s thoroughly frustrated at not getting cell phone signal so she could call for assistance, a gorgeous man with golden eyes and black and orange striped hair appears out of the brush by the side of the deserted road. Rather than reliving all the horror movie flicks in her mind, she instantly trusts him. He fixes her car and she offers him a ride back to Austin, as long as he doesn’t mind stopping on the way at her fiancee’s house so she can switch cars to something more reliable.

Tiger doesn’t mind at all. One look and whiff of her and he knows Carly is his mate. While the other shifters keep telling him that mating doesn’t work that way, Tiger’s abilities go beyond his strength and ramped up healing ability. He can see the bond between Carly and him and literally scent her every emotion and feeling. She takes him to her fiancee’s mansion – and Tiger’s acute sense of smell tells him she doesn’t love this man when she speaks of him on the car ride – only to walk in on the man having sex with another woman on his kitchen counter. Ouch. The smell of Carly’s betrayal is superceded only by the pain Tiger feels inside him which he realizes is her pain. He goes ballistic destroying Ethan’s house and gets shot seven times for his efforts.

Carly, having run away upon viewing the now indelible image burned into her retinas, is alarmed when she realizes she left Tiger at the house and downright horrified when she discovers that he was hurt. Rushing to the hospital, she comes across a Tiger driven to almost madness by all the medical equipment and the armed guards surrounding him. She throws herself into the fray to try and get him to calm down and, to everyone’s astonishment, it totally works. An unorthodox courtship begins and no one is more surprised than Carly, who finds herself painlessly letting go of what she thought her life would be only to discover that the life Tiger offers her is one she wants to live. But danger faces them because of his origins and Tiger might have to go away from the one person who brings him peace in order to guarantee her safety.

My favorite hero is one who is so certain of the woman who grabs his attention that he relentlessly pursues her, that his affection isn’t ever questioned by him it just is. This ideal hero pursues his woman in a way that isn’t about being a stalker, but rather the fact that he knows himself so deeply he can recognize and accept that his life has changed in a moment. That’s what happens to Tiger, and seeing all the ways in which Carly – an independent but loving, gorgeous Texas girl with a sugared drawl coating her inner steel – heals him and brings him an inner sense of peace…Well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing my couch is microfiber because I melted into a puddle on top of it.

Lest you think this is just a great shifter romance, I’m here to tell you otherwise. Because Jennifer Ashley’s strength with this series is her crafting of a world of prejudice, some subtle some not, in which shifters are not only second class citizens but also targeted by those who would hate or exploit them. In Tiger Magic, we get introduced to the fact that government has a military branch devoted to shifters, and it’s not because they think they are awesome. Both good guys and bad guys come from this organization, and I have a feeling one of the good guys is going to have his own novella some day soon, based on his reaction to a certain bear. :-) Ashley also shows us the tensions Liam has to endure as alpha in trying to deal with other shiftertowns, and I was interested to see the addition of a North Carolina shiftertown to the mental list of locations. Maybe we will see more of these characters in future books? *fingers crossed*

Wild Wolf (Shifters Unbound #6 – Graham and Misty) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, January 7, 2014)

Because it’s impossible to finish a Jennifer Ashley book and not desperately want the next in the series, I should mention that we have two books in the series to look forward to. First a novella focusing on the Las Vegas shiftertown, specifically Eric’s hot son and third in command, Jace (Love Jace!), Feral Heat, which is due out later this year in November. The next full novel, a brief excerpt of which is included at the end of Tiger Magic, will tell the story of Eric’s Lupine co-alpha, the often irritating yet really quite sexy, Graham, and his human interest, Misty. Graham’s got a boatload of problems settling his wolves in the Las Vegas shiftertown and some personal prejudices to boot which are going to make that mating nothing short of fascinating. His book, Wild Wolf, won’t be out until January 2014 however, so I’m just going to have to content myself with rereading the whole series (which I do anyway) until that day.

It’s after 4 in the morning and while I’m tired, all I feel is immense gratitude that I live in a world in which Jennifer Ashley is writing terrific five-star books like this one. Thanks, Jennifer!

The Last Gladiatrix by Eva Scott Blends History and Fierce Romance

3 Jun

The Last Gladiatrix by Eva Scott (Harlequin Escape, April 2013)

I do enjoy novels of Ancient Rome, so I was intrigued by the premise of The Last Gladiatrix by Eva Scott when I saw it available as a novella from NetGalley.

Xanthe is a woman on a mission. Her younger brother went missing and it’s her duty as a warrior to her clan to bring him home. Set upon by a gang of Huns, she is brought before a Roman general as a tribute. Hearing that she slew seven of the men before being taken, he decides to put her in the arena where she can make money for him prior to being killed.

Centurion Titus takes one look into the fierce warrior woman’s eyes and feels the ground shift under his feet. Hearing the general’s plan, he offers to take care of the prisoner and train her for the arena during their march back to Rome. Close to leaving the army, he’s considering working as a gladiator trainer anyway, and this is a good chance to be close to the wild beauty.

Xanthe is frustrated that she doesn’t understand what’s being spoken around her, but luckily the handsome Roman speaks a dialect close enough to her own. He helps explain her situation and clearly wants to help her survive this “Colosseum” he refers to. She loves warming his bed but can’t stand other Romans or the city and counts the days until she can escape, hopefully with Titus by her side. Yet Titus cannot use the property of the general – in this case, Xanthe’s body – without putting them both in danger, and their secret is betrayed. When the price of her freedom might be that of her newfound love, Xanthe isn’t sure she can pay it.

I loved the characters of Xanthe and Titus. In only 97 pages, the reader gets a good picture painted of both characters and their background, rapidly understanding these are two people with similar warrior values who unsurprisingly come together. I felt that the sex scenes could have been more in depth (basically you get the sense they are really attracted to each other and BAM they are kissing and having sex in only a few paragraphs – I wanted more!) but the affection between them was substantial and real.

There were a few historical elements that I’m pretty sure were off (I don’t think gladiators – or anyone other than the Imperial family – could wear purple, for example) but they were very minor. I think Eva Scott actually made Rome a lot less sinister than it actually was, but I appreciated her executive decisions since it moved the plot along. Considering that gladiators were often pimped out to aristocrats, I have trouble believing a beautiful female fighter wouldn’t have met the same fate and continued to earn her owner plenty of money. Thank goodness it didn’t happen to Xanthe (although she would have gutted anyone who tried).

Never having heard of Escape Publishing, I discovered that they are an Australian publishing house devoted to romance (of all subgenres) and owned by Harlequin. Hmmm. I was sufficiently impressed enough by this novella and Escape’s website to keep a close eye on future offerings from this publisher!

Considering the open-ended final paragraph that left the writer capable of shifting to Xanthe’s missing brother’s story (with a glimpse at our happy couple, perhaps?) I’ll be purchasing this author’s future historical novellas. Great job, Eva Scott and Escape!

Writing Good Sex: Thinking About Steamy Sex Scenes from the Standpoint of a Reader and a Writer

1 Jun

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet by Stacia Kane (CreateSpace, January 13, 2011)

A writer who can pen hot, steamy, and emotional sex scenes – interactions that are a lot more than tab A going into slot B – always win my loyalty.

I know there are people who love sweet romance and don’t need to to see what happens in the bedroom, but for me, those bedroom scenes often say more about a relationship than the dialogue or character descriptions. Sex also strips people down (no pun intended) to their essential self with the result being that it’s often obvious that a couple is in love with one another before they get around to actually revealing that fact in words. As Stacia Kane puts it “… the fact is, the deepest truths of our characters can be found when they are naked, when they are at their most vulnerable both physically and emotionally, when they let their guards down and just interact.” (Kane, p. 125)

A sex scene – a good one – is the epitome of showing and not telling. “I’m so hot for you” is not as strong as “His hand trembled as he touched his thumb to the thudding pulse in her neck, a beat he had to taste under his tongue while he reminded himself, go slow, don’t rush this…” Just like any other writing skill, some writers are better at this than others and no matter how much of a natural you are, understanding the elements of a good sex scene that take it from “okay, they are having sex” to “my book just burst into flames and not from an ereader malfunction” is vital to success.

Why We Need Great Sex Scenes

Stacia Kane’s fantastic primer for writers is infinitely valuable to readers as well. We know that we love a certain author or a certain scene but can’t always put our finger on why. In her book, Be a Sex Writing Strumpet, Kane took a series of blog posts and organized them into densely packed book focused on understanding why sex scenes can be so vital to plot and character development, how to write them well, and exercises to help each writer understand his or her sex writing voice and comfort level. It’s pure gold for $2.99.

But your crotchety uncle and that nun who taught you in the second grade definitely don’t feel sex should be in books, which begs the question, do we really need sex scenes? Hell, yes! I think I’m going to let Stacia Kane answer:

If you can find another way to illuminate the most private acts of your characters, to demonstrate their connection, their trust, the depth of their feelings…, their desire for each other, the moment their relationship deepens and changes beyond anything they’ve been through before, while also strengthening the story, increasing tension, and adding complications, and also—let’s be honest here—giving the reader what they’ve been waiting for, and you can do all of that in one scene, then no, you don’t need the sex scene. (Kane, p. 6)

firework-79374_640That’s a lot of points in favor of the sex scene. Note she didn’t say titillation? One of the major criticisms of romance novels (and clearly plenty of books outside the genre have sex scenes but they are expected in romance) has always been the “pornographic” nature of the sex. This criticism has always seemed like total bull to me; I’ve never seen a crime or horror writer criticized for too gory a murder. Instead the critic just grimly mentions the level of violence to the reader, as if it’s a point in their favor about their writing style and that they don’t shy away from reality. But romance writers – and let’s face it, it’s because they are usually women writing for mainly other women – get the “mommy porn” thing because god forbid we should show anyone what two people engaged in a mutually satisfying, sexually healthy relationship looks like. Those soccer moms might get ideas or *gasp* expectations.

Some key points Kane touches upon for writers (and which are visible to readers) are vital for emotionally tying us to the characters. Her warning to make everyone wait (for example, the suggestion to write an amazing kissing scene that’s clearly headed you-know-where and interrupt it) builds anticipation. For writers blocked about writing sex scenes, she has the brilliant idea of writing a dialogue between your characters where they talk about their feelings – and then you turn it into a sex scene where they are showing all those emotions through their actions.

Because that’s the point, isn’t it? That our characters show their true selves via their actions (and okay, sometimes their words, when they are actually coherent having sex) and that everything – from first glance to foreplay to actual sex to the aftermath – is built around revealing their soul and their emotion for one another. Let’s take a look at my top love scenes that fit this bill.

Memorable Sex Scenes: The Mrrrrooowwww Worth Reading and Re-reading

If you’re a romance reader, there are memorable sex scenes that are so hot you can’t help but think of them as I’m writing about this topic. Naturally, the writers showcased are women who also happen to be incredibly talented at strong characterization and airtight plotting, but since I’ve seen those qualities in other writers who are terrible at writing sex scenes, I consider these ladies to be the total package. Here are my favorites and why, in no particular order.

Author: Jeaniene Frost
Book: This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress series #5)
Genre: Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
Couple: Cat & Bones
Why: I adore this series (Jeaniene Frost seems incapable of writing anything that’s not absolutely stellar) and I’m sure people familiar with it are surprised that I didn’t list the famous/infamous chapter from the second book in the series, One Foot in the Grave. I absolutely agree that half-vampire Cat Crawfield and her vampire lover/husband/former professional whore Bones is an unbearably hot combination, but that truly astonishing sex scene is brought about the presence of Bones’ former lover Annette and his need to prove to her that she’s truly the love of his heart after she lays down a challenge to him to make her blush the next morning (and she does).

But the sex scene in This Side of the Grave is one between two people who have weathered ups and downs in their relationship and are secure as a result, and it gets listed here because of one very specific reason. It’s not just the unbelieveably inventive combination of candle wax and fangs, but the fact that Cat consciously lets down her final barrier in her relationship with Bones – the fear of how devastated he would be if she lost him. That realization makes this sex scene one in which she demonstrates how she’s decided to hold nothing back by consciously constructing a night of total pleasure for him. It’s so hot and moving that I find myself alternately fanning my face and choking up whenever I reread it.

Author: Stephanie Laurens
Book: A Rogue’s Proposal (Cynster series #4)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Demon & Flick
Why: I am the first to admit that Stephanie Laurens drives me insane with her tendency for purple prose. But the earlier Cynster books, while peppered with the occasional “flotsam” reference (ocean debris = not sexy, Stephanie!), possess fewer of these references with the sex scenes  stronger as a result, none more so than Flick’s deflowering scene. It happens on a dresser in an inn. Harry, aka Demon, is the most sensual beast of all the Cynsters and – as frustrating as his inability to express his love for her is – the one place he can show her how he feels is when they are intimate with each other. It’s not surprising she feels smug looking at his ass in the mirror as he makes love to her. Who wouldn’t?

Author: Lisa Kleypas
Book: Devil in Winter (Wallflowers series #3)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Sebastian & Evie
Why: Another deflowering scene that’s a favorite and honestly one that probably didn’t stop the clock in terms of how long it took. Sexy Viscount Sebastian needs a fortune and heiress Evie is happy to give him hers in trade for letting her escape her abusive relatives but they both agree the marriage has to be legal. Not a problem for Sebastian who’s seemingly bedded all of London’s females over age 17. Exhausted from their trek to Gretna Green and quickie marriage, Evie awakes from a very sexy dream to Sebastian kissing his way all over her naked body. What makes this so unbelievably sexy? The fact that he talks to her – playful, sexy, Sebastian talk that is the essence of his charming, roguish self – until you’re a puddle listening to him bring her to ecstasy  That he has an orgasm so mind-blowing and long that he feels that he might have been the virgin? Icing on the cake.

Author: Jennifer Ashley
Book: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1)
Genre: Historical Romance
Couple: Ian & Beth
Why: If you have to ask, you haven’t read this book yet! Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of the more memorable and unique heroes I’ve ever read. Landing on the autism spectrum in the 19th century meant you were thought mad no matter how brilliant you are, and it’s not like the era was renowned for the tender care of people with psychological differences. When Lord Ian meets the young and beautiful widow Beth, brought up in poverty and the recent heir to a fortune, he immediately wants her while his honest candor and devastating sexuality proves more than she can resist. While I like all their sex scenes, the one that stands out is the one where Beth visits him at his brother’s art studio in Paris to apologize for being nosy (she really didn’t need to). Ian worried he would never see her again and talks her into baring herself to him. Feeling her freedom, she takes off her clothes and dances a little around the studio in happiness with a sheer scarf, which Ian uses to reel her in and proceeds to bring her to orgasm, while never removing a stitch of his clothing. That in itself is damn erotic, but it’s his utter focus on her pleasure, the sensual enjoyment he takes of every little detail of helping her reach ecstasy, that makes this scene one of my favorites.

Author: Laura Kaye
Book: Hearts in Darkness
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Makenna & Caden
Why: Laura Kaye can throw down the hot emotional sex scenes with veterans in the business and always land at the top of the pack. In this book, our two protagonists are trapped in an elevator together, in the dark, and they didn’t get a good look at each other when they got in. Getting to know one another when it’s hot and stuffy in an enclosed space doesn’t sound awesome, but it is when the two people in question have a lot to reveal and the dark makes for perfect cover. That they get hot and heavy in the elevator (and then take it to her apartment) has been done before, but not like this. The unbridled sensuality and emotion inherent in Makenna, in the pitch black, feeling the piercings and scars on Caden face and connecting them with what he’s revealed to her makes your heart beat faster.

Author: Shelly Laurenston
Book: The Mane Event (Pride #1)
Genre: Contemporary Paranormal Romance
Couple: Dez & Mace
Why: I adore Laurenston’s ability to bring her brand of earthy humor to this incredibly sexy paranormal series. Mace Llewellyn has left his elite military unit (one made up of shifters like himself) and has gone into the security business with his best friend. They’ve based themselves in New York, not just because Mace’s pride is located there, but because this lion has been head over heels in love with the husky-voiced, half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican (extremely busty) Desiree MacDermott since they began high school. He knows that she’s the one for him, and class issues and the pesky fact that he’s a shifter (and she has no idea about their existence) isn’t going to get in the way. This book makes the short list based on one particularly AMAZING scene – and let me tell you, there are plenty of sexy love scenes in this series! – where Dez handcuffs Mace to her bed and has her wicked way with him. The neighbors calling the police is a given since lions are extremely noisy while being tortured with sexual ecstasy. It’s off the hotness meter not just because of what Dez feels comfortable doing with herself in front of Mace but because he wants to prove himself to her so much that he lets her take control.

Author: Kele Moon
Book: Defying the Odds (Battered Hearts #1)
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Couple: Melody & Clay
Why: If you haven’t jumped on the Kele Moon bandwagon, I honestly don’t know what you are waiting for. This astonishingly good writer won my heart with her unlikely tale of a working class victim of domestic abuse slaving long hours as a diner waitress who finds love with a UFC fighter. I knew absolutely nothing about this kind of fighting but Kele Moon’s plotting and characterization moved her into my “must-buy the pre-order” category and she’s never let me down. Clay Powers is a disciplined athlete with a tough beginning but good friends and the way he sees through Melody Dylan’s stress and exhaustion to the beautiful woman underneath will have you sniffling. That Melody discovers she is a highly sensual being at Clay’s hands is wonderful, and the make-up sex which occurs when she travels to Las Vegas to cheer on Clay in his big bout will have you never looking at a picture window over Sin City the same way again. Yowza.

The Future of Sex Scenes in Romance

While many people are crediting the Fifty Shades phenomena or the decline of civilization, the fact remains that romance novels, unless of a specific genre (like inspirational or Amish) are becoming more explicit in their sensuality levels. What RT Book Reviews lists as a “Scorcher” now would very likely have been erotica over a decade ago and there are classic romances that were considered hair curling in their time that I flip the page back with a “that’s it?” comment, thinking I’ve missed something.

My hope is twofold. One, that the trend toward explicit sex between characters means that readers and writers are more comfortable with sex as a natural expression between people. Clearly we see more sex on television and in movies, but a lot of it is objectification, not a loving expression between individuals, so romance fits a vital need to remind us of what sex can be. Second, I believe that there are a lot of truly great authors (see my shortlist above) and publishers who want women to demand their due both as consumers of the romance genre (hell, we deserve hot sex scenes between those fictional people we’ve fallen for!) and as healthy sexual beings in the bedroom. In the end, writers who write hot, emotional sex scenes have not only demonstrated their facility as people who have mastered a craft, but as pioneers showing us all what really love can look like in its most elemental form. And I would like to say to all of them – Thank You.

What favorite sex scenes of yours fits the criteria here? I’d love to hear about them. Happy Reading! :-)

References

Kane, Stacia (2010-07-19). Be A Sex-Writing Strumpet. Kindle Edition.

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