Archive | Anthology RSS feed for this section

December Read-a-Thon: Remind Yourself How Lucky You Are With the Military Anthology, A Soldier’s Christmas

28 Dec

A Soldier’s Christmas, featuring novellas by Leslie Kelly, Joanne Rock, and Karen Foley (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2013)

I’m a sucker for military romance any month out of the year, but come December, romances featuring members of our armed forces grab me by the throat as much as those damn Hallmark commercials or that Apple commercial with the kid who makes the video which induces the whole family to cry.

Fortunately the addition of hot sex and the promise of a happily ever after helps balance me out, and even luckier for me, the clever editors over at Harlequin’s Blaze line seem to know this, as based on their latest holiday anthology,  A Soldier’s Christmas.

Because it’s Blaze, readers get the perfect combination of sexy heat in these encounters balanced by the holiday “awwwww” each of them evokes. Luckily each of these three excellent writers have serious military romance chops, so you’ll be impressed by the tone and authenticity of each novella, I promise. Let’s get to the breakdown, okay?

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Leslie Kelly

Although it’s not yet listed on Leslie Kelly’s Santori series (featuring a very fun and feisty Italian American family from Chicago), this novella is actually part of that group. Ellie can’t believe that Rafe Santori has turned up at the New Year’s Eve party for a local pet rescue. This soldier broke up with her years ago after the best relationship (and sex) of her life, telling her that it was unfair to make her wait for him when he had several more years of service ahead of him in the Rangers. He seems shocked that she’s recently engaged to her good friend Dennis, but why would he be? He told her to move on and that’s exactly what this veterinary student has done. One slow dance and a New Year’s kiss that drags up old memories and he disappears. Again.

Flash forward a couple of years and Ellie is stranded in the airport in New York on Christmas Eve, desperate to get back to Chicago to be with Dennis and her family. While she didn’t marry him, he did marry her best friend – Rafe’s divebombing back in her life made Ellie realize that she didn’t have the necessary spark with Dennis (but he did with someone else). He’s a great partner with their small animal clinic and since it’s his baby’s first Christmas Ellie wants to be there. With a massive snowstorm burying the East Coast in snow, her only hope is to rent an SUV and chance the roads. Guess what soldier just got the last one?

Don’t Open Till Christmas (Santori Stories #3 – Mark and Noelle) by Leslie Kelly (Harlequin Blaze, 2005)

Yep, it’s Rafe, who seems startled to see her but hesitantly asks if Ellie wants to share his ride. She realizes that this is fate giving her the opportunity to see if the man she fell in love with seven years ago still exists under that uniform. For Rafe, he knows he’s torturing himself with a married woman but he can’t help it – the thought of Ellie is what gave him comfort during some lonely nights and if he has to live with the reminder that he was an idiot for letting her go then so be it. The news that she is not married – especially when combined with his revelation that he’s officially stateside for one more year in the Rangers and then he’s a civilian – puts a whole different tone on their trip home. A few sexy detours into questionable motels due to the weather and these two people are contemplating that a Christmas miracle may have occurred…if they can convince the other person to take a chance.

One of my favorite things about Leslie Kelly’s writing is her sense of humor and this novella is no exception, continuing the hilarious situational fun and banter that I found in another book of the series (also a Christmas themed one), Don’t Open Until Christmas, Rafe’s brother Mark and his wife Noelle’s full-length novel. The whole series is fantastic (this is one over the top Italian family I’d love to join) but both Mark Santori’s story and this novella featuring his war-weary brother, Rafe, will brighten your holiday season.

“Presents Under the Tree” by Joanne Rock

Las Vegas producer Arianna Demakis is nervous this Christmas Eve and it’s not because she’s juggling three shows tonight. No, the reason she’s on edge is because sexy Air Force Captain Dylan Rivera – a man who gave her one unforgettable night four months ago – has promised to spend the holiday with her. It’s almost midnight and Ari is worried that he’s a no show, and she’s disappointed (but not surprised) since Dylan went on a mission right after their tequila-fueled celebration. She hasn’t heard from him since and it’s not a huge shock except for the fact that they are…um…married.

Full Surrender by Joanne Rock (Harlequin Blaze, September 1, 2012)

Dylan makes it to Ari by the skin of his teeth in the parking lot outside one of her theaters and finds himself as lost in her beauty and fire as ever. He’s happy to see she’s still wearing the ring he put on her finger four months ago but he knows she’s bound to ask for a divorce. He’s loved Ari since they were friends in high school, and couldn’t believe his luck when she showed up for his thirtieth birthday celebration. They’d promised each other senior year that they’d consider getting married if they both hit the big 3-0 and weren’t hitched yet. But he knows she must be worried that their alcohol-filled night was a mistake and he’s got a limited amount of time to convince her.

Dylan was adorable in his geekiness and the fact that he’s been thinking about Ari for years. He finds her fierce independence not just sexy but also potentially exactly what they would need if she agrees to give this marriage a chance – his tech job is perfect for a former chess club leader but his work falls under the highly classified label and he’ll potentially be out of touch for weeks and months at a time. Rock does a great job sketching both characters and showing their shared history and common interests that make their sudden marriage actually believable. I did wish that there was a little more discussion for the final revelation of feelings – and a hint of exactly how their relationship would work. I also felt like I was missing if this excellent novella was connected to another story; Ari compares her marriage to her friend Krista, who is married to a Lt. Col. (Lars?) in the Air Force – is this another Uniformly Hot novel? I really wish that Blaze would make a point of just tucking in a reference for readers at the start or end of novellas when there is a connection to another story. I don’t want to miss out and I’m enough of a completionist to be irritated if there’s another book I should be reading, particularly by an an author whose work I enjoyed in another story.

This was my first Joanne Rock story and I’ll definitely be trying another. She seems to have written quite a few military romances and other Blaze novels, as well as has a few historicals under her belt and is clearly an author worth exploring!

“If Only In My Dreams” by Karen Foley

Hot-Blooded by Karen Foley (Harlequin Blaze, 2010)

Navy SEAL Aiden Cross cannot figure out why he feels so horrible or why he’s no longer with his team traipsing through the African jungle on their mission. The only silver lining about waking up in a hot tent in excruciating pain is seeing army medic, Sergeant Lily Munroe hovering over him. He’s been attracted to her since the first moment he saw her nine months ago at a joint operations center in Entebbe. Knowing that relationships in the field can be more like hook-ups and often disrespectful to the women involved, he ignored his attraction (and hers). Much to his chagrin, his team buddy Brad swooped in and got involved with her, so she’s doubly off limits now, even if Aiden wasn’t suffering from Dengue fever. The only silver lining in all this pain is the news that he’s being shipped stateside for recovery in time for Christmas with his family and that Lily is going with him since she’s rotating out.

Lily has been extremely worried about Aiden and is more than a little nervous about traveling with him. Christmas is a pretty unhappy time in her family since her mother died on Christmas Eve when Lily was still a child, so she’s in no rush to get home. Despite her being attracted to Aiden and letting him know it, he wasn’t interested, hence her childish flirting with his buddy which came to nothing. When Aiden mentions on the trip home that he only believes in serious relationships and Lily knows she only does casual – having seen how hurt people can be when someone they love dies – she thinks that’s the door closing officially on anything they might have. But a combination of getting snowed into a midwest town without hope of making it home for the holiday, and her dispelling Aiden’s misconceptions that she’s in a relationship, seems to make their dynamic take a drastic shift. Sharing the last room in town might help Lily get her Christmas wish of Aiden in her bed, but the question still remains if there can be any kind of future between them.

OMG – such a good novella. I enjoyed having a military story not set in the Middle East and especially liked the realistic feeling of the misunderstanding between Aiden and Lily regarding her “relationship” with Brad. The B&B scenes were heartwarming and did a great job demonstrating Aiden’s ability to truly understand Lily and her fears – this was one man who I bet was amazing on a mission considering how focused he was on his objective! I’ve enjoyed several of Foley’s other military romances but just went out and bought a few others based on how hot and sweet this one was. She bowled me over!

Because of the nature of a soldier’s life, it’s hard not to come away from A Soldier’s Christmas being both high on the bittersweet romance of each story as well as impressed by the writing. As a reader, you are naturally thankful both for the men and women of our armed forces but also for being at home with family during the holidays when so many other people aren’t. I think a lot of the emotion I experienced reading this anthology wasn’t just provoked by the outstanding stories told, but how fortunate I felt to have love and family this holiday season in my life after seeing each of these couples experience their emotional roller-coaster during a potentially difficult time.

This is a terrific addition by the Blaze line to both their quality holiday novellas as well as their military romance collection.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Snowbound Wedding Wishes Anthology Gives Us a Holiday Dose of Harlequin Historical

24 Dec

Snowbound Wedding Wishes by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford, and Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, November 1, 2012)

I’m really picky about my historical romance authors – REALLY picky – so much so that I often don’t try new authors until I’ve read every review on Amazon and Goodreads of a given book. The slightest whiff of something off – using language not yet invented in the time period, extremely unconventional behavior for the era or excessive dickishness of the hero – and I won’t even pick it up. I guess my paranoia stems from the fact that with a history/biology double major in college, I know enough about historical periods that it’s easy to jar me out of the story with the result that I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

With this caveat, you can imagine that I actually do like anthologies (and anyone who reads this blog knows I love them as a method of finding new authors). When I saw that Harlequin Historical had produced an anthology last year entitled Snowbound Wedding Wishes, containing stories by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford and Joanna Fulford – all Harlequin authors I have seen receive good reviews – it occurred to me that this volume was an excellent opportunity for me to perhaps highlight a great book for the December Read-a-Thon while also dipping a toe and seeing if I would like these authors as much as everyone else.

Mission accomplished. I was impressed with not only the writing but particularly the historical detail provided in each of these stories, which all possessed accuracy in the historical representation of the Regency period, lovely heroes and heroines, and a distinct voice.

“An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe” by Louise Allen

Major Hugo Burnham can’t believe he survived the Penisular Wars to be caught on a freezing cold night a few days before Christmas so he can die of exposure in the English countryside. On his way home to his ancestral manor, circumstances detoured him from his original route until he is more than a little lost. Both he and his horse are thrilled to see a light in the distance and even more astonished when a lovely widow answers the door to the alehouse he finds tucked away in a small hamlet. Her twin boys are bright as copper pennies and the more time he spends with them, the more Hugo realizes that Emilia and the boys have him wanting – wanting a real family. Despite her having a cultured accent, it’s clear they are not nobility (if they were, they wouldn’t be in an alehouse) and any protectiveness he feels toward her must just be a result of empathy for her circumstances.

In addition to numerous historical romances, Louise Allen is also the author of the well-rated nonfiction book, Walking Jane Austen’s London, a guide I hope to one day take to heart while exploring that city with an eye to a favorite author!

Emilia Weston realizes that the handsome serious major is definitely above her station, at least her station now. Having eloped with a poor younger son from a good family earned her family’s disinheritance, leaving Emilia with few options. Now she exists in limbo in the village, politely tolerated by the villagers and given the occasional head nod from the local gentry but belonging to neither. She wants to make sure that the boys have everything they need to at least enter the law and have a chance at financial success and happiness. She’s made the best of her circumstances and she wouldn’t have given up the time with her loving husband for anything, even with her hardships – Giles was a wonderful husband who did his best for her. Some of the side benefits of that relationship are foremost in her mind as the honorable Hugo can’t seem to keep his hands and mouth off Emilia despite his best intentions and she’s frightened to discover she doesn’t want him to. As the snow deepens and this officer stays under her roof for Christmas, Emilia can’t imagine that any Christmas miracle can be forthcoming regarding her growing feelings for someone she’s sure is an aristocrat.

I adored this story! Emilia is plucky and yet real, with frustrations that make her a three-dimensional character and one easy for the reader to fall for, to say nothing of Hugo (the poor man didn’t stand a chance). Allen’s details about Emilia’s daily work with the ale were fabulous and yet never crossed into “info dump” territory – very skillful. Hugo’s character is totally understandable and coming home from the war, taking up his role as the Earl of Burnham, and then falling in love with an alewife had to equal not just a hell of week but a tough adjustment for him. Hearing about Hugo’s childhood gave further insight into his immediate understanding of Emilia’s unique and loving mothering style, and this helps him begin the mental trek to thinking about what he wants in a wife and family. The resolution was plausible and extremely emotionally satisfying, causing me to turn the final page with a huge grin on my face. I’ll be checking out other Louise Allen books for sure!

“Twelfth Night Proposal” by Lucy Ashford

Theo, Lord Dalbury has experienced a strange series of events. A former officer in Wellington’s army, he returned to England after Waterloo and was happy with his friends and a minor barony to his name. Then an elderly woman he had only met once left him a property in Derbyshire with some strange instructions and his life has taken a strange turn. His immediate goal is to simply take a look at the property while conveniently avoiding all the matchmaking mothers of the ton, but the vicious country roads and uncooperative weather is making what should be straightforward all too difficult. An odd encounter with a group of children, led by a blond beauty dressed as a lad, ends in a fall from his horse and unconsciousness – a rather ignominious introduction to Northcote Hall, his new property.

The Captain’s Courtesan by Lucy Ashford (Harlequin Historical, September 1, 2012)

What he finds is at once horrifying and mysterious. Northcote Hall is in shambles with only a flighty housekeeper and corrupt steward at the helm. After witnessing the steward sexually threatening the young blond woman he met at the scene of his accident, Theo fires him and attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. The blond, Miss Jenna Bruchs, is no peasant but neither is she gentry and she and her mother are fiercely attached to the Hall. In fact, she and many of the locals appear overly eager to see him take up residence, an attitude undoubtedly linked to the former steward’s vicious rein of terror. Theo guesses that Jenna is the natural daughter of an aristocrat stemming from when her mother worked as a housekeeper, and the more time he spends with her the more he wants her. But what kind of future can they have together, even during the twelve days of Christmas?

This was a wonderfully written story with a compelling hero and a feisty young woman trapped in almost impossible circumstances. The villain is horrible and yet more than just a two-dimensional vehicle to move the plot along. Terrific conflict and a very satisfying resolution from the unconventional Theo made me love the ending. My only criticism is how disappointed I am to find that Lucy Ashford does not appear to have any social media presence to speak of, with just a basic (if lovely) website for readers. I worry her talent is not being as showcased as it could without this way of reaching the many fans she must have. Reading hundreds of romance novels a year, I’ve seen the correlation that authors with no social media presence always have fewer reviews and, I imagine, fewer sales. My fingers are crossed that she overcomes her reticence and embraces more of a digital footprint!

“Christmas at Oakhurst Manor” by Joanna Fulford

This is a reunion romance (which normally I’m not a huge fan of) but Ms. Fulford made this quite realistic and lovely. Ten years ago Max Calderwood told the woman he loved that he was leaving her to go to India and make his fortune. Vivien was high-born and Max felt he could not give her what she deserved or even keep her in the style she was used to. Setting her free was the hardest thing he had ever done, especially after hearing her plea to take her with him while he sought his fortune, but he knew he was doing the right thing, even when he told her not to wait for him. Working hard in India, Max realized he made a huge mistake based on how he was devastated by the news of her marriage, but it was the bed he made and he resolved to lie in it.

A decade later, Max is incredibly rich and has finally made his way back to England to purchase a property and enjoy that for which he labored all those years. Startled to see Vivien at a house party for Christmas, he’s astonished not only with the realization that she is even more beautiful than he remembered, but the news that she has been a widow for 18 months and has two children. Her sadness and vulnerability call to him, but he’s unsure if she would be willing to take a chance on the man who hurt her all those years ago.

The Viking’s Defiant Bride by Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, 2009)

Vivien actually knew Max was going to be at the Christmas party but she couldn’t disappoint her friend or her children and back out at the last minute. It’s unfair that he’s even more handsome than ever – and clearly the target of other women’s matrimonial designs – to say nothing of the fact that he’s wonderful with her children, something their father never was. Vivien married a much older man, convinced respect would make for a good marriage and she’s regretted the decision so much that even his death was a guilty relief. She’s glad to have her children, but with her husband a poor money manager, their future is extremely uncertain. Yet Vivien is strong enough to stand her ground and not make the mistake again of accepting marriage where there is no love. When Max attempts to convince her that his feelings are still strong even after all this time, Vivien is forced to face her demons to see if she is the still the brave woman she once was.

I enjoyed this novella very much and want to sample Joanna Fulford‘s other writing after reading it. With my recent interest in the surge of Viking romances, I was interested that Fulford, mostly a Regency historical author, has dabbled in the Viking genre to good reviews. I’m going to have to look at those and at some of her other Regency tales since this one had a sweetness to it (it was the only story of the three with no sex, just kissing) that was period appropriate and endearing. Perhaps because of that, it felt very accurate to me, with both the hero and heroine taking a while to work up to anything beyond polite pleasantries. That undercurrent of the unsaid subtext felt very Austen, which I liked. The characters are still extremely honest about their feelings to themselves which keeps the story moving.

New UK cover for the anthology

Snowbound Wedding Wishes is an anthology I can heartily recommend to historical romance authors who enjoy the Regency period, particularly when the holiday season is the focus. While I had held onto this book since last year, I’d like to point out that it’s recently been reissued by Harlequin UK with a different cover for their British audience, who I’m sure will also greatly enjoy it.

At less than $5 for almost 300 pages, the cost of this anthology feels like a good bargain to me (although you might also want to check your local library since it has been out for a year). I’m pleased to have found three authors who have published enough that I have a nice body of their work to explore and to gain further confidence in Harlequin’s Historical line to know that their editing and author choice is rock solid.

Happy reading (and Merry Christmas)!

December Read-a-Thon: For My Own Anthology Rounds Up Three Excellent Authors To Deliver Hot Romance Right Down Your Chimney

22 Dec

For My Own: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology by Shari Mikels, Kinley Cade, and Alison Packard (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

I’m going to honest – I got this anthology specifically for Alison Packard, whose work I adored in The Winning Season and Love in the Afternoon (so amazing!). Luckily for me, any anthology in the hands of Angela James of Carina Press is going to deliver on every page and For My Own: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology is no exception.

As with all Carina Press anthologies, you are given a tremendous amount of choice, with the anthology available at a great price of $5.38 or individual stories having a purchase price of about $2.50 if just one or two interest you. Under each book cover is a link to that specific story pictured, FYI.

Despite having three authors and no connection between the stories in terms of characters or setting, For My Own is unified by the common theme of one or more very lonely people for whom the holiday highlights all the insecurities and vulnerabilities in their life. In each case, fate decides to present them with the one person who might just give them the courage to face their demons head on in order to move forward and find happiness. Let’s take a closer look at them, shall we?

Christmas for Carrie by Alison Packard

A Christmas for Carrie by Alison Packard (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Packard has done a great job gently tying this novella to her other two outstanding works, Love in the Afternoon (the heroine of this novella mentions how she watches the soap featured in that story) and The Winning Season, since our hero is a sports agent who alludes to the hero of that novel and his remarkable journey.

That said, there is zero problem following along with this story as its a straightforward premise should you not have read Packard’s other work (and why haven’t you?). Carrie Jones is a hard-working paralegal laboring in the small town where she was raised. Unfortunately for her, the buildup to Christmas  is in full swing and it’s rough on this young woman who has no good memories of the season. Her childhood was pretty crappy with two parents constantly arguing, one a mean drunk and the other a sentimental drunk. The only highlight during her teenage years was being a math tutor for her crush Nick Johnson who just saw her as a buddy. Imagine her shock when she hears his voice greeting her in the Starbucks parking lot!

Despite the cold, Nick is thrilled to be able to relocate to be with his parents for four weeks around Christmastime. With his successful sports management agency having reached the big time, he just needs a laptop and a phone for most of his work, and one look at the curvy body and strawberry blond hair of Carrie Jones has Nick thanking a higher power that he arranged to be in town. He can’t believe how blind he was back in high school if he was busy lusting after unattainable cheerleaders with this woman by his side. He thinks Carrie’s aversion to the holidays is not just a tragedy but also a great opportunity to spend time with her while he “helps” her get over her Scrooge-like stance. But all the time in the world with Carrie doesn’t change the fact that Nick has a life back in San Francisco and she might not be interested in a long-distance relationship.

Catching Heat by Alison Packard (Carina Press, February 10, 2014)

Catching Heat by Alison Packard (Carina Press, February 10, 2014)

One the characteristics of Packard’s writing that I enjoy is that there is no insta-love, with the characters’ feelings unfolding naturally over a distinct period of time (not that I don’t adore insta-love stories, I do, but it’s nice to have a well-done, realistic love story, too). Nick was a geek back in high school and there are shades of that in his personality now – he’s sweet, sensitive, and honestly a little slow-moving and cautious with Carrie although he wants to help her love Christmas as much as he wants her in bed.

I adore when friends turn to lovers and their comfort level with each other starts off at a good level. That said, this is a gently moving romance with not a ton of conflict although Carrie has some baggage to overcome. A romantic lovely epilogue and I feel confident I’ll catch a peek at Nick and Carrie in future books by Packard (and I’m looking forward to it!). The author does a lovely job of introducing Nick’s sexy partner, Adam, as well as a problem player who I look forward to seeing as future heroes. It’s a lovely addition to her series and Packard’s fans need to trot over to their bookseller of choice and pre-order Catching Heat, the next book which is going to feature backup catcher J. T. Sawyer and the one-night stand who becomes much more to him. The publication date of February 10th can’t come too soon!

Christmas Curveball by Shari Mikels

Christmas Curveball by Shari Mikels (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

During the holiday season I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m grateful for, and this year, I’m incredibly grateful for Carina editor Angela James finding the fantastic talent that is Shari Mikels. While Christmas Curveball is the debut story of this hot new author, I feel like I’ve gotten a present that I’m going to be able to enjoy her work in the years to come. After all, anyone who says she learned to write via a Sarah Maclean workshop and lists Jill Shalvis and Lauren Dane as major influences, already has a leg up!

Rachel Tanner knows she’s in trouble when her brother informs her that Kevin Ganlin is back in town. Kevin, a successful professional baseball player has been in her life since he and her brother were best friends in grade school, and she’s had feelings for him just about as long. Truth be told, Rachel married her ex-husband because he reminded her of Kevin. She divorced him because of his philandering and, based on Kevin’s history of going through women like tissues, that’s yet another thing they have in common. Despite his attitude toward women, Rachel is worried that Kevin has secreted himself in his mountain home and isn’t telling anyone he’s back – her brother is keeping secrets and she wants to know what’s going on and if Kevin is all right.

Kevin is decidedly not all right. Not only has his shoulder injury caused the team to let him go, but he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Having Rachel appear on his doorstep is both a dream and a nightmare – he realized right before her breakup with her ex that his confusion around her stemmed from the fact that she was the woman for him. Yet her brother has made it quite clear that someone like Kevin shouldn’t be caught dead sniffing around her. Kevin stopped seeing any women the moment he made his life-altering realization because he wanted to be a man worthy of her and stand a chance. Figuring out how to pull off this delicate maneuver and determine if she’d be interested in him has been something he’s dwelled on as much as his aching shoulder.

How I picture the view from Kevin's mountain cabin (view of North Carolina mountains - public domain image via Pixabay)

How I picture the view from Kevin’s mountain cabin (view of North Carolina mountains – public domain image via Pixabay)

When the cruel gods not only put her in his home but then cause her to slip and fall on the way out (necessitating his taking care of her overnight), it’s more apparent to him that he’s got to make a move. But that move doesn’t go exactly as planned and it rapidly becomes clear to both of them that Rachel might not be able to get over her trust issues when it comes to men with a past, particularly when that past shows up ready to sabotage a new and fragile relationship.

Christmas Curveball has the mark of a great novella in that you do feel like you’ve read a regular length novel by the end of it. Rachel is hilarious and adorable in turn and it’s not shocking that Kevin has been in love with her for a long time. I loved the way Mikels wrote Kevin’s slow transformation from “Mr. Grumpypants” (as Rachel calls him) to a man who begins to realize that there is a place for him back home, even though it’s different from the one he pictured long ago. The conflict was excellent and the resolution extremely sweet (I adored the scene of Rachel’s final epiphany about Kevin), so I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be seeing these characters again.

With that desire in mind, I’m elated to see that Mikels lists on her website a possible tie-in novel to Christmas Curveball featuring Rachel’s brother and Kevin’s best friend who has an old college flame return to town during the lead up to his sister’s wedding – that has a lot of potential. I’ll also be ordering her current works in progress when they come out, entitled the Douglas Lake series, about a family with a construction company and some of the tensions that result.

Kissing Her Scrooge by Kinley Cade

Kissing Her Scrooge by Kinley Cade (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Kinley Cade is another brand, spankin’ new contemporary romance author for Carina and anyone with sisters is going to appreciate the zany sense of humor Cade brings to sibling interaction in this novella. Hannah Jones works her butt off to give her town a terrific Christmas pageant and in fact, she does as much for the town as humanly possible. The oldest of three triplets, this nice girl has made a profession out of doing for people, wanting to fill the shoes of her parents who believed strongly in giving back. Her polar opposite seems to be the town’s resident curmudgeon, Christmas tree farmer and environmentalist Griff Green. Despite his profession being tied to the holiday, Griff has zero interest in the holiday, but he does seem to turn up regularly where Hannah is, which has her thinking about him way too much.

There’s a reason Griff turns up wherever Hannah happens to be working – it’s because he’s more than a little obsessed with her. Whether it’s her elf costume or her sexy tight skirts, this woman makes him crazy and he has no idea what he’s going to do about it. Griff may be a tree farmer but he’s also a massive cynic having come from a wealthy family and a mother who only married his dad for his money. Used to women with mercenary designs on him due to his bank account, Griff thinks that Hannah is too good to be true and keeps waiting for her flaws to emerge. She’s got them, but they have nothing to do about money and everything to do about feeling in control of her situation. Unfortunately, Hannah’s quirks combined with Griff’s mistrust might just end up making their holiday anything but celebratory.

I’ve got to hand it to Cade, I’m not 100% sure that I necessarily liked either of these characters but I actually loved reading about them and their struggle! I know that sounds strange, but it was fascinating to see how the hero and heroine were absolutely meant for each other if they could just understand one another a little better. The only thing keeping them from perfect understanding was that they weren’t yet at a place where they shared very specific background information and feelings, and there is nothing more deadly to a relationship than two people with no clue about how to discuss what is going on in their head and heart.

I adored Hannah’s pragmatic and hilarious sisters as well as Griff’s friend, Steve (and would love to read a story where he ends up with one of the Jones’ women). Cade has the small-town feel down pat in her writing, so much so that I’m very interested to read her next story, whenever it comes out. She writes paranormal romance under the name Kinley Baker, so I may try one of those stories to see the similarities and differences.

Angela James and the staff at Carina Press have managed to put together three surprisingly different contemporary romance novellas in the For My Own anthology and in doing so have made my holiday a little brighter. Thanks, Carina!

Happy reading!

December Read-a-thon: All I’m Asking For Anthology Demonstrates How Taking Risks Equals the Best of Holiday Rewards

9 Dec

All I’m Asking For: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology by Brighton Walsh, Kat Latham, and Christi Barth (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

This is quite a personal motto of mine, actually. The best things in my life (my college education, my career and most importantly, my husband of 20 years) have happened because I took a huge risk – just stepped forward into the air like the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy has to trust that he can cross the chasm and get the chalice to save his dying father. It’s scary as hell while you are doing it, but it’s also exhilarating. Setting standards and making sure that you and others live up to them is hard but incredibly important, and I firmly believe that it’s one of the keys to happiness.

Imagine how thrilled I was to see this personal theme laced through one of Carina Press’ holiday anthologies, namely All I’m Asking For: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology. Let’s take a close up look at each of the stories in this anthology for further analysis, shall we?

Keep in mind that you can buy the entire anthology (see above links in the text or caption of the cover) but editor Angela James and Carina Press are nothing if not accommodating, so if you feel that it’s just one or two stories you desire, you can purchase them as stand-alones as well. The below links in each review and next to the individual book cover will take you right to that story on Amazon.

Tinsel My Heart by Christi Barth

Tinsel My Heart by Christi Barth (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Right off the bat, I’m wondering about the order of the authors on the cover of the anthology. If Christi Barth‘s story is first, which it is, why is she not listed first? It’s not alphabetical order either, so is it some kind of Carina Press “whoever was published first” seniority? I swear, these kind of questions keep me up at night. I remembered enjoying Barth’s Christmas story last year, and the premise of Tinsel My Heart was intriguing.

Becca Heglund gave up her dreams to leave Minneapolis and pursue a career in the theater in New York in order to stay home and care for her dying grandmother. She’s watched her two former best friends, Tyler Peterson and Jack Whittaker form a highly successful business partnership and even win an Oscar for Best Director and she’s happy for them. But Ty promised to film her theater company’s Christmas production and the pre-sales to the DVD could save the organization, but not if Ty doesn’t show. Considering he just entered a Malibu rehab facility for his drug problem, she’s up a creek and looking for a paddle.

Yet her secret high school crush, Jack Whittaker, appears on the theater’s doorstep looking none too pleased about being home in Minnesota but stating he’s here to fulfill Ty’s obligation. He’s a lifesaver even if he is being a total grouch and hearing that he hates Christmas means that taping the Christmas production is going to be no cakewalk with this particular Grinch. Yet amid the live goats and chopping down Christmas trees, hot, stolen kisses become something much more (the car scene at the tree farm, WOW!), yet they both know that Jack can’t wait to get out of Minnesota again and Becca is going to be left behind.

Rich in detail (I adored the fried cheese curds and “you betchas”), I instantly loved the competent, loyal Becca and her determination to embrace any opportunity to save the theater group and the production. Jack is afflicted with dickishness between his brusque manner and hating Christmas, but once you understand how he was treated growing up and also how betrayed he feels by his best friend screwing him and all their employees with his recurring drug problem, you understand where he is coming from. Tyler is revealed as always having been a user and while it’s not stated, you can easily see that a young Becca and Jack didn’t see the signs that their friend was already an addict before he even graduated.

I was startled by two pieces of this story. The first was how we had a fade out from the first dinner together to the following morning. Purportedly there was a pretty hot couch make out session, something that was repeated four or five times according to the text and I didn’t get to see one of them. That sat funny with me – not only did I want in on the chemistry, but these two people are hiding their long-standing attraction to one another. How did that play out in their initial physical intimacy? How and why did Jack call a halt to not going past 2nd base and why on earth did Becca not lay it all on the table and order him into her bed? I felt like I was being left out of the loop even while I was loving the rest of the story.

The second piece that took me aback was the very ending. Becca announces her plans and Jack steps up to declare himself. Big “awwwww” moment with the ornament (loved that!) but never once does Becca worry that a career move at the same time she’s becoming a couple with an Oscar-winning movie director might give the appearance of using him to climb the professional ladder. I know she’s not doing it for that reason, but I wondered that neither she nor Jack had the thought flit through their mind. And it seemed like a big decision – if they had been together before I think it would have felt a little more understandable, but while they knew one another as friends, they didn’t as lovers and I’m still sitting here worried that it’s going to be far from smooth sailing when they move to New York City. Jack’s a bigwig there with hordes of women he’s “dated” around every corner, he’ll be hugely busy for months on end with movie projects, blah, blah. Can it work? I’m freaking out a little. Good luck, Jack and Becca – I’m pulling for you!

Season of Second Chances by Brighton Walsh

Season of Second Chances by Brighton Walsh (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

I really hate second chance stories (I think it’s my firm belief that people rarely change that makes me not read them), but this story was part of the anthology and since I never read any Brighton Walsh before I figured I would gird my heart for emotional agony and simply try and get a sense of her writing. I was so impressed. I loved the story but plan on reading other Walsh novels as Season of Second Chances was excellent, combining believability with strong emotion.

Californian Claire Hanlin is stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport during a snowstorm. If that doesn’t suck enough, it’s also her birthday, the day before Christmas, and the city reminds her all too painfully that she left here two years ago when she broke up with her fiancee, Logan Dawes, the man who promised her forever and instead put work first. While desperately trying to find a hotel room, an all too familiar voice greets her. Yep. It’s Logan in the flesh with an all-too-intriguing offer.

Logan cannot believe that the woman he let get away is standing before him in the terminal, even more beautiful than he remembered. He’s had two years to wallow in the fact that he screwed up his chance at happiness. He’s tried to reform his work habits, making more room in his life for his little daughter Sophie who missed Claire being in her life as well, and this snowstorm might be just the chance he needs to show Claire that things could be different. When the two of them give into the heat between them, Logan knows that he desperately needs to get this right, yet a promise to Claire that he has to break again means that he’s never going to hold onto this incredible woman.

It’s always a good sign when a novella can put your heart in your throat praying that everything will work out, even when you believe it can’t. It’s hard not to understand and empathize with both Claire and Logan since we understand their choices even when it’s hard to agree with Logan’s. The writing is terrific, with truly three-dimensional characters, enough backstory to ground us beautifully yet not so much that it takes away from the action in the present, and a movie-worthy conclusion and epilogue. I know have a couple of Walsh’s books on my to-read list and I’m really looking forward to it!

Mine Under the Mistletoe by Kat Latham

Mine Under the Mistletoe by Kat Latham (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Ever since I raved about Kat Latham’s terrific book, Knowing the Score, I knew I’d pre-order anything she wrote, and that’s actually why I purchased this anthology (and in further support of her, the individual copy of Mine Under the Mistletoe as well!).

Ashley Turner is horrified to be jarred awake by a naked man climbing into her borrowed bed, having swapped her apartment in San Diego with a guy in London in order to have the storybook Christmas she’s always wanted. While her two roommates couldn’t make it, called away by holiday obligations, Ashley is determined to live her mother’s lifelong wish and she’s brought everything she needs to make this happen. The bonus of her absentee host appearing might be just the local touch she needed, particularly since he so handsome albeit a little Grinchy about the holiday.

Oliver Stansfield couldn’t wait to get out of London and away from his past. His recent loss of his disabled sister festers in him, especially since she adored the Christmas season and this is his first holiday without her. Finding a gorgeous Christmas angel in his bed comes as shock since his grueling day at Heathrow Airport ended with all flights cancelled due to the snow and ice descending on the city. He literally forgot he had swapped houses, but one look at the beautiful blond with her nightshirt slipping off her shoulder and he’s wondering if the holiday doesn’t have a silver lining.

Watching these two people not only acknowledge the incredible chemistry between them but also begin to find common ground despite their disparate approaches to the holiday is so sweet that I feel this novella is the best of the entire anthology. Latham writes the disconnect between Americans and the English incredibly well (each protagonist’s bafflement at certain turns of phrase or traditions is adorable) and her sex scenes are hot and delicious – believe me, you’ll be pricing flights to London after reading them!

For anyone with dreams of visiting England or giving themselves a magical European Christmas (and perhaps finding love along the way), this novella is a Christmas wish fulfilled. Laced with humor (Ashely’s astonishment that Ollie is so polite while naked and holding a pillow in front of himself after she nailed him between the legs is going to bring a smile to your face), the story is also understandably emotional. While these two people move quickly into love, it’s completely believable as they are two people who are already experts at loving – Ashley with her mother, students and friends and Ollie having loved his sister with all his might after their parents abandoned her to his care.

One of the best aspects of the story which builds your affection while reading it is the contrast between the two characters. While this strong contrast brings out the best in characters, with Ashley’s intrepid attitude and sheer joy in the context of her past forcing Ollie to face his demons, the similarity between them is that they both are lonely with the loss of a relative they loved binding them together in their particular brand of loneliness. These are two people truly destined for each other and I adored the epilogue!

All I’m Asking For is an excellent holiday anthology combining the efforts of three talented writers, and is one I would heartily recommend to any contemporary romance reader. At just over $5 the entire anthology is an excellent value, with individual stories (if that’s your preference) priced around $2.50. If you haven’t had an opportunity to sample these three authors, this is an outstanding introduction.

Happy reading! :-)

December Holiday Read-a-thon: Enjoy Holiday Sugar (With More Than a Little Spice) with The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap Anthology

3 Dec

The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap by Donna Kauffman, Kate Angell, and Kimberly Kincaid (Kensington, September 24, 2013)

I can’t help but remember that last December was the first time I’d read a Donna Kauffman story, and it was another one of her wonderful holiday novellas that first brought me to appreciate her as a romance author. It only seemed fitting to read some more of her work this holiday season, and The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap anthology will satisfy the sweet tooth of readers looking for that combination of holiday spirit and romance in a contemporary setting.

Sadly for me Kauffman’s story was one I didn’t get to read as my NetGalley ARC started on page 9 of the prologue and then skipped to page 76 of Kate Angell‘s story, cutting out the beginning of that novella as well. Considering that snafu, I think it a tremendous credit to Angell and Kimberly Kincaid that their stories were so lovely that I would still heartily endorse the purchase of this book, particularly since I know what a great writer Donna Kaufmann is (which is why I’m also disappointed I didn’t get a chance to read hers).

Where There’s Smoke by Donna Kauffman

With that detail in mind, I can’t write much about this particular story, but here’s the blurb:

When flames from a recipe gone disastrously wrong send hunky fire-fighter Will Mason to pretty Clara Parker’s rescue, the sparks really begin to fly! And once Will gets a taste of Clara, he aches for more than just a little sugar from the famously single food columnist…

It’s clear from the other stories and the epilogue that despite being food editor, Clara is a disaster in the kitchen, which I expect with Kaufmann’s trademark sense of humor at play! I also loved the indication that her love interest, Will, was someone she knew back in college, clearly before he…um…came into his present physique. A naughty firefighter’s calendar is involved, so fans of Jill Shalvis and other authors who feature this profession are definitely going to want to read this story!

The Gingerbread Man by Kate Angell

I actually think that the ARC I received of this anthology had an error in it, since this story began in my copy with Lander, a handsome man injured in a car accident on a rural mountain, and Abby Denton, the young baker who rescues him, nursing their injuries and decorating her tree in a cabin without power. That said, it was easy to catch up on what happened and it didn’t stop me from getting attached to the characters.

It seems Lander had purchased a unassuming box of cookies at the Pine Mountain Cookie Exchange only to open it while driving to be startled by anatomically correct gingerbread man staring back at him. Distracted, he gets into a car accident and is dangerously cold and sluggish when lovely Abby Denton discovers him in his ravaged Mercedes. She immediately feels horribly guilty as she is the one who baked the naughty gingerbread men for her online business. Bringing him back to her cabin where she has been keenly feeling the recent loss of her grandmother, Lander helps her not only appreciate her Christmas traditions but work through some of her feelings to embrace the holiday surrounded by the things she and her grandmother loved best.

In the process of doing so Lander and Abby discover they have quite a bit in common – while she is dealing with the loss of her grandmother, he recently lost his father – and the connection between them is very strong…as is the heat of sexual awareness. Luckily for both of them, Lander travels prepared and they have a few days of strong emotional connection and sex before he needs to return to his mother and sister in Philadelphia. Lander says he wants to see her again, but Abby is skeptical about a future between them.

Despite my copy’s challenges, this was a beautiful, sweet story. I adored Tennyson, Abby’s elderly cat with his friskiness and incessant snoring and the way that Lander helps fulfill one of Abby’s dreams (while making his own come true) at the end of the novella was magical.

Sugar And Spice by Kimberly Kincaid

Turn Up the Heat (Pine Mountain #1) by Kimberly Kincaid (Kensington, March 4, 2014)

Lily Callahan has worked hard to be a successful baker and the local resort’s prestigious televised cookie contest – with the prize of $10,000 – is exactly the break she needs. If she could win that kind of cash, she could finally open her own storefront and add daily customers to her catering work. Meticulous preparation and outlining are all part of her system, but one thing she didn’t count on in her preparations was her competition, sexy chef Pete Mancuso.

Pete moved to the mountain for his younger sister who decided to make a fresh start here after graduating college. Their home life was horrifying growing up and she’s the one person he’s always put first. So what if the 90 minute commute each way to Philadelphia is a bear for his pastry chef job at one of the cities finest restaurants? When he hears about both the resort’s contest and the fact that the French pastry chef at the restaurant in the city is opening up, he knows that he’s going to bring his unorthodox approach and win this contest to snag that job.

What throws him through a loop is when the sexy blond Lily Callahan literally runs into his arms the day before. They both feel that the kitchen isn’t the only thing heating up when they are both in the room, and when their two very different styles are thrown together in the kitchen as collaborators in the early rounds, they not only make it work but advance to the next level. With PR focusing on the hits their chemistry is getting online, a lot of attention is coming their way and they use that to forward local charities since they both know from experience how important that can be. As their similarities become apparent and they give in behind close doors to the heat between them, both Lily and Pete both know that only one person can win the competition – but can they both come out as winners in the personal arena or will one achieving his or her dream stifle the other?

I defy you to not adore both Lily and Pete (and have a snack handy because the food is AMAZING that they are making and you’re going to get hungry). They have off the charts chemistry but they also are terrific people with ambition but who don’t believe in trampling someone they care about it order to get what they want. With wonderful illustrations of the local community, this story was exactly the right ending to segue into the excellent epilogue which fully wraps up the happiness of each of the three friends and the men in their lives.

I loved sampling Kimberly Kincaid‘s writing with this novella and will definitely be reading her other work after enjoying this taste of her! She has taken the setting of Pine Mountain and has publication dates lined up for two related books to date, Turn Up The Heat (cover above) featuring the big mechanic Shane Griffin who we saw in Kate Angell’s novella and Gimme Some Sugar, about a chef fleeing a failed marriage and seeking solace in this wonderful community. Turn Up the Heat has an early March 2014 publication date with Gimme Some Sugar following it in June, so I expect Kincaid will be tantalizing my tastebuds then as well.

Since (even not having read the full prologue or what I’m sure is an outstanding story by Donna Kauffman) I heartily recommend any holiday romance lover go out and buy The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap, my only criticism of this anthology was the price point Kensington has placed it at. Even though it is slightly over 400 pages (and that’s wonderful as a reader since it makes each of the novellas a nice hefty size), over $9 for the Kindle version and over $11 for the trade paperback seems high for romance readers who are used to paying around $6 or $7 for big name authors. That said, it’s worthy splurge (and tell your friends and family to get you bookseller gift cards) so be sure to purchase this wonderful anthology to live under your tree this season.

Happy reading!

December Holiday Read-a-Thon: Gifts of Honor Duology Offers Heart-wrenching Heroes and the Holiday Season

1 Dec

Carina Press holiday anthologies are always a go-to for me during December – I’ve never read one that contained a saccharine story, and the credit goes to editor Angela James who always manages to find authors who combine great characters, heart-warming settings, and the true spirit of the holiday.

Gifts of Honor is no exception, except authors Stacy Gail and Rebecca Crowley add the twist of two military heroes so damaged by their service that they are unable to give the women they love the relationship she deserves. Or so they think.

I’ve loved Stacy Gail since last December when I devoured her steampunk holiday romance novella Crime Wave in a Corset, followed by her awesome science fiction novella How the Glitch Stole Christmas. Since then, I’ve read a bunch of her paranormal angels books as well as her contemporary Ugly Ducklings Finish First, and I can confidently say this author has chops since she seems to be able to excel in all genres and still keep a fresh voice and utilize truly unique story ideas. Rebecca Crowley is a newer author of contemporary romance, so it was great to sample a holiday story from her to see what she would bring to this theme. She did not disappoint!

Note that while both stories are offered in the duology Gifts of Honor for under $4.00, you can also get each one individually for around $2.50, if one sounds like it appeals and not the other. The individual links under their specific book cover will take you right to that story, if that’s your preference. But considering the quality of both of them, you’d be wasting your money to not by the duology. Just sayin’.

Starting From Scratch by Stacy Gail

Starting from Scratch by Stacy Gail (Carina Press, November 21, 2013)

Lucy Crabtree is busy at her job baking all the holiday treats for her small town’s Sweet Shoppe and is just managing to hold it together. Her ex-husband, Sullivan Jax, has finally moved home after his lengthy stay in military rehab where he’s been recovering from a head trauma, a trauma that had him waking up with no memory of Lucy or their marriage.

The only thing she’d prayed for was for Sully to come back alive.

She should have been more specific.

Their marriage had been rocky with his last deployment with the Rangers, a deployment he had barely told her about, leaving her with a lot of anger and once again crushing her dream of them finally making a home and family together. Now she had to look forward to the awkwardness and gossip surrounding the fact that they’d undoubtedly be bumping into one another.

Sullivan Jax would be the first to admit that his ex-wife is heart-stoppingly gorgeous but he also knows that a woman that beautiful deserves to have a life free of a man who can’t even remember her. It galls him to no end that he has begun remembering so many of the details of his childhood and time in the military, but this woman is a just a big, painful blank spot.

That he also has developed an insane craving for cookies – cookies that smell just like the scent that clings to Lucy whenever he sees her – must just be a weird side effect of the season. But one taste of Lucy’s mouth and all thought of cookies gets pushed aside. This is what he’s been craving all along. But while he thinks he might be falling in love with his wife all over again, Sullivan also realizes that he might be the one person she never wants to be with, as he’s already torn her heart to pieces.

This story had everything – great characters, mouth-watering food (always part of the holiday romance genre), and a small-town setting perfect for the backdrop of the holiday spirit. Yes, it’s utterly gut-wrenching to place yourself in Lucy’s shoes, but Gail does an outstanding job of outlining the pressures deployed soldiers and their spouses both face, specifically focusing on how this element eroded Lucy and Sullivan’s marriage. I loved it when Lucy’s good friend and mechanic, Coe read her the riot act of how she had always been the one giving and Sullivan the one taking. Lucy’s understanding of what she did and didn’t do in her marriage showed her growth as much as the pieces of his mistakes in his marriage coming back to Sullivan.

Sullivan’s instinctual response was the most fascinating, first from the standpoint of screaming every time he saw her in the hospital to his despair whenever she would run away from him in their town. Gail does not shy away from the heat in this story, and there were times I thought Lucy’s cookies were going to bake on the counter based on how hot it got in the kitchen with this couple! Most sigh-inducing was the final realization that Sullivan had always loved Lucy as much as she did him and that he wasn’t going to give up in winning her once again, which leads me to the quote that had me falling in love with this big former Ranger:

“I’ve learned the hard way that being careless with you, hurting you, is the quickest way into hell,” he grated, and self-condemnation edged the words in bitterness. “But I understand. It’s okay. You’re gun-shy with me now, so I won’t push you into anything you don’t want to do, or feel. And I don’t expect all the pain to magically vanish just because I remember you now. We both went to war, and we both have battle scars that are going to take time to heal.

“But I have so much hope for the future, Lucy,” he added as he pressed her hand to his mouth, and the passion that vibrated in his tone made her throat clench. “A year from now, I hope you’ll have agreed to be my wife and we’ll be trying for our first baby. I hope a month from now you’ll trust me enough to want to live with me so that you can get used to sharing your life with me again. I hope a week from now you’ll believe me when I say I love you, instead of looking like you suspect I’m playing some kind of cruel trick on you. And I hope that by tomorrow, you’ll be able to smile at me without sadness.”

Gail, Stacy; Crowley, Rebecca (2013-11-21). Gifts of Honor: Starting from Scratch\Hero’s Homecoming (Kindle Locations 1788-1796). Carina Press. Kindle Edition.

Starting from Scratch contains the sweetness and spice of the heroine’s Pfeffernusse cookies with enough heat to bake them, proving Stacy Gail is a romance writer who can encapsulate human emotions so well that readers feel like they’ve grown as people when the final page is turned. This is a must-buy!

Hero’s Homecoming by Rebecca Crowley

Hero’s Homecoming by Rebecca Crowley (Carina Press, November 21, 2013)

College professor Beth Tate always thought of herself as a sturdy Midwestern woman until she bumped into Captain Chris Walker when he filled in for an absent archivist at Fort Riley. He was a six foot stud in uniform and she was more than stunned when he looked at her like he wanted to eat her up.

For four days they had a hot affair and while she was willing to let it just be a fling, not wanting to burden him with expectation prior to shipping out to Afghanistan, Chris wanted more. They exchanged long, thoughtful emails and had sweet phone calls for four months and then…nothing. A terse email after a couple weeks of radio silence merely saying that things weren’t going to work out and the most powerful relationship of her life had ended.

Getting a call months later at Christmas from the same Captain who broke her heart, and Beth is literally rendered speechless. With a blizzard blowing in and his parents stuck at their ranch meant Chris needed a ride to a hotel from the airport and could Beth help? Saying yes just to get a good look at the man who would have the gall to behave like this, she’s stunned to see a scarred serviceman with clouded eyes and a cane. Much to the horror of the Christmas crowd at the airport, she promptly cracks him across the face with a slap that should have sent him back overseas.

When Chris realized that the suicide bomber who killed his friends had taken his sight, one of his first thoughts was breaking up with Beth. Not because he didn’t love her but because he knew that she would unflinchingly take on the burden of his disability and she deserved more. He wanted to just disappear from her life so she could find a good man to have a normal life with, but instead he ends up having to call upon her since he has no one to help him with finding a place to stay. Having been worried about her pity, her serious slap quickly dispels that notion. But as they are forced by circumstances to stay at her house, Chris gets a glimpse of what he might still actually be able to have. But his physical scars are nothing compared to the emotional ones he gave Beth, who might not be able to take a chance on him once more.

Wow, was I impressed with this story! Crowley not only gives us two complex characters but imbues both of them with a very understandable emotional evolution. Chris, when confronted with the reality of Beth and her honest reactions, realizes that the grey existence he has mapped out for himself might be completely opposite the one she feels him capable of and that helps him believe more in himself. Beth has to confront the fact that she is just as much in love with Chris as ever, while also trying to understand his physical injuries and PTSD and ponder if she can trust him enough in his state not to throw her to the curb again.

Both situations are so believable but the turning point is Chris’ epiphany about what Beth has gone through, and his acknowledgement offers the final linchpin in her decision to go forward. Hero’s Homecoming is an emotional read that kept me riveted, turning each page to discover if this man and woman could overcome the obstacles and embrace the happiness within their reach, if they are just brave enough to take a chance.

With the quality of both stories in Gifts of Honor, I think you’d be crazy to not buy both books in the duology for $4.00 rather than only one story. Stacy Gail and Rebecca Crowley have both penned contemporary military romances that bring home the idea that the holiday season is about hope and the renewal of life with love at the center.

Have a super holiday season!!

A Riveting Affair Anthology Features Three Page-Turning Steampunk Tales

25 Oct

A Riveting Affair by Patricia Eimer, Candace Havens, and Lily Lang (Entangled Ever After, March 2013)

I love anthologies. I know I’ve said it before and yet it’s amazing how many reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon complain about them. You have to wonder if these are the same people who loooovve novellas, not realizing that the anthology they crankified about online (yes, I invented that verb) happens to contain multiple tales of the same length. Sheesh.

Feeling in a Steampunk/Gaslight mood last night, I decided to read the anthology, A Riveting Affair, largely because it contained a story by Candace Havens, whose writing I uniformly love. I would have paid $2.99 for just her story, but the bonus is that I got two other outstanding novellas for that price, plus found additional authors whose writing I know enjoy. Bargain!

“Beauty and the Clockwork Beast” by Lily Lang

Rose Verney arrives in a steampunk Manhattan on Sebastian Cavendish’s doorstep and she’s sacrificed quite a bit to get there – running away from a controlling older sister, a pestering suitor, and having her pregnant best friend hide her before she could sell her last pieces of jewelry to buy a one-way train ticket from New Haven to the city. But it will all be worth it if her late father’s star pupil can help her finish his teleportation machine.

The Imposter by Lily Lang (Samhain, 2012)

She’s escorted through a dust-filled empty mansion to his bedchamber, shocked that the formerly handsome boy has come through the war with a disfigured face and pronounced limp. More shocking than his physical change is when he begins kissing and groping her, having mistaken her for the prostitute he ordered for the evening. When she instead explains that she is to deliver the blueprints for the teleportation device per her father’s will – and stay to help him finish it – he rejects her out of hand. Rose doesn’t realize that Sebastian has sworn not to build any more machines after watching his work take so many lives during the war.

When Rose not only refuses to leave the following morning, but begins to clean his mansion, revitalize his clockwork servants and rebuild his laboratory in his old nursery, Sebastian finds himself unable to cling to the bitterness and anger he’s nurtured since his time in a Confederate prison. His nightmares come less often when he wakes up to Rose holding his hand, he feels the thrill of inventing again with the best partner he’s ever had working next to him, and the light and comfort in his home reflects what he feels in his heart. But as these two people fall quietly in love with one another, Sebastian’s beliefs about what he truly deserves threaten to come between them and the happiness that lies within their grasp.

This story strongly resembles a gothic tale with a scarred and bitter hero, a dark, scary mansion, and a beautiful, innocent heroine who brings the hero back from the brink. I loved Lang’s character development, the steampunk angle of the recently concluded American Civil War, and the fact that she introduces the moral question of how responsible an inventor is when his creations are used to kill. The only piece I did not enjoy was that Lang is rather “closed door” in her sex scenes, making this story a little sweet for my tasteLily Lang has a small oeuvre (unsurprising as she lists her main occupation as a graduate student) but she’ll be an author I keep a close eye on. I may try one of her intriguingly blurbed historical romances just to see if she carries these strengths in her other works.

“The Clockwork Bride” by Patricia Eimer

Aida Mulvaney feels that her attendance at a Christmas ball is a waste of time when she could be at home with her family working in the lab, but her best friend Esther uses blackmail to get her there. Blackmail is exactly what it takes, considering that this Irish engineer is heading straight to a masquerade given by Lord Capshaw, the Empire’s leading anti-Irish, misogynistic leader of the Luddite party.

Luck of the Devil (Speak of the Devil #1) by Patricia Eimer (Entangled, 2011)

It’s also been three weeks since Aida’s friend Leopold walked out on their engagement, one undertaken to spare him from an arranged match. That he’s a prince and son of Queen Victoria (who is nothing short of enraged at Leopold’s temporary defiance and Aida’s Irish cheek) doesn’t put Aida in a great position, either from a business standpoint or as the butt of gossip throughout London. Still, she’s in disguise this night, so how bad can it be?

Being at the home of her greatest enemy is taking her mind off losing her friend, particularly when a mystery man helps her escape the arrival of Leopold and his insipid German fiancee. Her savior seems happy to take his payment by kissing the stuffing out of her in a dark alcove, but it’s a welcome development to the night. Welcome, that is, until he takes off his mask and she discovers the gorgeous son of her enemy, Julian Capshaw.

Aida also discovers that Julian is actually a talented scientist, a profession unheard of among the nobility, and he demonstrates the extent of his rebellion by whisking Aida away to a party on a dirigible. When he boldly suggests that she solve her current scandal by helping him free himself from his father via marriage, she’s startled but intrigued. She knows that as a scientist who respects her chosen profession, Julian will understand the time she needs for her engineering work so she capitulates to the idea. That there is plenty of steam being generated between them physically doesn’t exactly hurt either. But as this unlikely partnership grows into something more tender, Julian’s powerful father and a resentful Queen attempt to insure these two will never have a chance to explore the future they could have together.

My single criticism of the story was that it was told in the first person from Aida’s perspective; Julian was SUCH a gorgeous hunk of a hero I wanted to experience his point of view throughout the story, too. I loved the steampunk world Eimer created, particularly appreciating how Aida’s loving Irish family created an environment where she could thrive as a brilliant inventor despite political and social obstacles. Julian is the most unlikely match to an Irish commoner, yet from a personality standpoint he is her ideal partner and that comes through with both their heat and their banter. Even though Patricia Eimer seems to have her other books published under the umbrella of contemporary paranormal, I’d strongly encourage her to keep up the Steampunk since she does it damn well!

“Demon Express” by Candace Havens

Lions, Tigers, and Sexy Bears, Oh My! by Candace Havens (Entangled, July 2013)

Professor Maisey Clark has left her research to work as an assassin with a single target – her former fiancee, Julian Darvil. Following him from London to deep in the heart of Texas, she’s glad to capture three grave robbers for her client as his recent trouble – isolated attacks against cattle in the Forth Worth area, coincidentally happening around the same time as grave robbing – indicates Julian’s evil involvement. When the three men turn out to be investigators also hired by her client, she’s annoyed that they have gotten in her way, particularly the leader, Marshall Jake Calloway, fresh from helping the Texas Rangers. His long hair and facial scar do not detract from his overall appeal, but right now she sees this tall hunk of man as an obstacle rather than an ally.

Working and living in her private steam engine, the Iron Witch, Maisey spends her time analyzing blood samples in order to determine if the presence of Julian’s supernatural creatures is causing the phenomena in the area. Created by her father with enhanced abilities and raised from childhood as an assassin of supernatural creatures, Maisey wanted to pursue her intellectual interests but ended up using her natural born skills once Julian attempted to seduce her into creating Wollstonecraftian creatures mutated by viruses in order become the ideal warrior. Needless to say, Maisey hasn’t had an easy road with men, but luckily for her she is surrounded by people who love her, whether it’s her English mastiff Henry, her enhanced acerbic butler Barnes, or the ghost of her dead nanny who sticks around to clean and cook for her, while leveling judgement on Maisey’s choice of clothing.

This outstanding story will leave you wanting more, both from the fascinating world (more gaslight than steampunk since it includes the supernatural as well as clockwork elements) to the wonderful characters which inhabit it. While I was a little miffed at Patricia Eimer telling her story from the first person, Havens does the same and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because the tone of the story lands closer to Urban Fantasy. I’m really hoping that this story is a prequel to a full-length novel since Jake and Maisey do not get together (although there’s plenty of sexual attraction) and there is an abundance of conflict and plot developments to support a longer storyline. While Havens is a varied, talented writer able to pen seemingly any genre (her contemporary romance, nonfiction about popular culture, and her paranormal writing are all equally wonderful), I don’t think she’s done a tone of steampunk/gaslight, a fact I hope she rectifies considering how much I adore her writing.

A Riveting Affair is a fantastic steampunk anthology for lovers of the genre who enjoy strong female protagonists filled with intelligence and gumption. I strongly recommend this terrific bargain of a book for anyone wanting to be riveted for a few hours. Happy reading! :-)

A Great Addition to Lovers Unmasked Anthology Is Cari Quinn’s Tempted By His Best Friend

29 Sep

Lovers Unmasked (A Brazen Anthology) by Katee Robert, Cari Quinn, Samanthe Beck and Tessa Bailey (Entangled, September 23, 2013)

I have already reviewed three of the fantastic novellas contained in Entangled’s Lovers Unmasked anthology, but since mine was one of the copies which got delivered without Cari Quinn’s story, “Tempted By His Best Friend,” I felt that I needed to also give her due diligence, particularly considering my enjoyment of her other writing to be one of the reasons I bought the book in the first place!

Stephanie Price would not be recognized by her kindergarten students as she heads to the annual Halloween party she used to love. Anytime a woman dons a short skirt, crotchless tights and a fresh Brazilian bikini wax, well, the gauntlet has been thrown and someone is looking for sex, particularly with a fox tail and mask rounding out her ensemble.

Steff knows that she’s been in love with one of her best friends, Landon Grant, for a while, but because of the dynamic between them and their other best friend, Craig Connolly, she didn’t push too much in letting know Landon know how she felt. She’s had to watch him “date” other women since college, but over the last year, it’s been awful as he has deliberately pushed her away. She knows that he sees her as just a friend and firmly believes that seducing him as a sexy mystery woman is the only way to open his eyes to what they could have together.

No Flowers Required (Love Required #2 – Alexa and Dillon) by Cari Quinn (Entangled, August 2012)

Dressed as a cheesy pirate at the party with Craig, Landon is disappointed that Steff has texted she’s not coming but knows it’s for the best. He does have feelings for her and while he’s suspected that she might feel something for him, anything more than friendship would be disaster – he just doesn’t do long-term relationships and hurting Steff would kill him. Once he spots the sexy vixen over by the bar, the chase is on, including a hold-onto-your-stiletto-boots library sex scene that will require ice water while reading it. But his mystery fox runs away with no name or conversation exchange and Landon is back to where he started, only now he’s pining for Steff and wondering who his mystery lady is.

Craig reads both of them the riot act that he’s not going to stand any longer for the weird estrangement that’s come over them in the last year, deliberately engineering that Landon would have to help Steff for her annual father/daughter event for the school. Landon insists they go out to dinner to talk, yelling a time as Steff flounces off. She must not have heard him based on what he hears her doing in the shower, but she gets pretty convinced that he might actually want her – not the sexy fox whose costume is moldering in her closet as a reminder of a very bad idea. But how can something real grow out of the lie of omission regarding their previous identity?

Cari Quinn never, ever disappoints when it comes to layered, complex characters and plots filled with emotion. Steff actually reads Landon extremely well (with the exception of not realizing that he does want her) and while her actions are desperate, they are exactly what’s needed for the situation. Knowing that doesn’t stop your heart aching while you watch everything blow up in both their faces, but it’s important to hang in there since Cari Quinn believes in the happily ever after as much as the romance reader does!

Many thanks to the staff at Entangled for being so determined to make sure I got my Cari Quinn story and profuse gratitude to Cari Quinn herself for not only her incredible PR in reaching out when I complained on Goodreads, but also for writing yet another fantastic love story. :-) Go out and buy Lovers Unmasked for all four fantastic novellas – it’s a bargain at under $4.00 for so many incredible stories!

Despite a Major Production Gaffe, Entangled’s Unmasked Lovers Anthology Is Fantastic

25 Sep
Lovers Unmasked by Katee Robert, Cari Quinn, Samanthe Beck and Tessa Bailey (Entangled, September 23, 2013)

Lovers Unmasked by Katee Robert, Cari Quinn, Samanthe Beck and Tessa Bailey (Entangled, September 23, 2013)

Unlike the many cranky reviewers of the world who do not like anthologies, I adore them. Not only do great short stories and novellas pop up from my favorite authors and series, but I’ve noticed that great authors tend to gravitate to one another (or are brought together by good editors) so I invariably find new authors to sate my insatiable need for more good books.

Just in time for October, when we begin thinking of disguises, Entangled Publishing has come out with a doozy of an anthology entitled Lovers Unmasked, and they have not stinted on lining up some heavy-hitting authors for this collection. I was so psyched that I pre-ordered this puppy as soon as I heard it was available. I mean, Cari Quinn and Tessa Bailey? Color me there.

Except there is a pretty big problem with this anthology. Namely, Cari Quinn’s story is not in it.

I wish I was joking. Originally, the pre-order version also listed Lauren Blakely, but her story for whatever reason got cut from the final version of the anthology, leaving us with four terrific authors – Katee Robert, Cari Quinn, Samanthe Beck, and Tessa Bailey. Okay, fine. I’ve never read anything of Lauren Blakely, so I can forgo her story. But I was really looking forward to all four stories.

And I only got three.

This anthology possesses three fantastic, totally wonderful novellas which are without question worth the bargain price of $3.79, but I absolutely LOVE Cari Quinn and really wanted her story of a schoolteacher who decides to seduce her best friend (“Tempted by His Best Friend”). Just in case I somehow missed it (?) I went through the table of contents and then leafed through every single page on my ereader. Twice. No Cari Quinn. I was also super irritated that the future books blurbs came after EVERY novella and were the same ones. Overkill people? Did these take up the pages meant to go to Quinn’s story? This sucks Entangled, seriously. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Entangled can do that Amazon update thing and notify us that a new version of the book can be downloaded if you’ve purchased it already.

While I gave it a good rating on Goodreads, I nevertheless expressed my frustration and my hope that I’d be getting an updated version of the book so I could read Quinn’s work, and what do you know, but she posted a response to my venting review! Take a look:

Goodreads screenshot

OMG, isn’t that nice? I don’t know if Cari Quinn was busy lurking on the Goodreads page and surfing Twitter for dissatisfied fans, but I immediately sent an email to Entangled just as she suggested. Way to rock the terrific PR, Cari! Sadly, it’s been a couple of days and still no Cari Quinn file. There isn’t even a note on the Amazon page for the book, nor the Entangled page (or their blog). Cari is doing the yeoman’s work of the PR on this gaffe. I hope she’s being paid extra for it.

Anyway, the three novellas I was able to enjoy are forehead-smackingly amazing, so let me tell you about them so you can still be tempted to go out and get this anthology. Each of the novellas are clearly related to another book, yet these talented authors have managed to write stories that stand alone (and leave you wanting the other book, but not because you have to read it to understand the plot of this novella). I’ve got several new books on my to-read list now!

“Seducing Mr. Wright” by Katee Robert

Two Wrongs, One Right (Come Undone #3 – Nathan and Chelsea) by Katee Robert (Entangled, August 12, 2013)

Danielle has been chatting up the mail guy in her building for a couple of months over twice weekly coffee get-togethers, meetings that have made Tuesdays and Thursdays her favorite days of the week. While she is usually stand-offish and noncommittal around men, Grayson has a way of seeing through her, with the result that she’s opened up to him more than anyone but her best girlfriend, Chelsea. He knows about her night school ambitions, her rough relationship with her domineering military father, and that she’s historically shied away from anything smacking of a “relationship.” With their office building hosting a Halloween party for all the businesses, Danielle feels this could be her chance to make a move on Grayson, even if she’s horribly worried that sex would change the friendship she’s come to value.

Chasing Mrs. Right (Come Undone #2 – Roxanne and Ian) by Katee Robert (Entangled, March 2013)

One look at Danielle in a skin-tight leather Catwoman suit and Grayson is ready to throw his good intentions out the window. He’s actually Grayson Harper, CEO of the major corporation on the top floor of the building (which he owns), and he planned on revealing that information to Danielle tonight. He adores this gorgeous woman who has never recognized him and has no idea of his wealth. At first he was just heady at the thought someone was judging him for himself and not his black Amex card, but as they grew to know each other over the last couple of months, Grayson began to realize that Danielle equated wealthy, successful men with her distant, pushy father who was rarely around, and then only to criticize Danielle and her decisions. He knows that she will probably run in the opposite direction when he tells her, so his end game is to blind her with pleasure to the point where she recognizes what could be between them and then spring his real identity on her. To say this woman is a little gun-shy is like saying a Howitzer is a small gun.

Wrong Bed, Right Guy (Come Undone #1 – Elle and Gabe) by Katee Robert (Entangled, July 2012)

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right? Katee Robert is a FANTASTIC writer – just the kind of rich, emotional, H-O-T prose I love in a romance novel, and this novella (which feels longer based on how her writing is so tight that nothing feels left out) is fabulous. There are plenty of domination tones in the relationship but nothing super S&M; it’s more a matter of Grayson having a controlling personality sexually. He knows that Danielle is so feisty, her submission would be more about her trusting him enough to put herself and her pleasure in his hands which has has him utterly intoxicated. When he allows her to take the reins, it’s a real “aaawwww” moment that demonstrates how in love with her he really is. For Danielle, who has always been the one in control of her sexual encounters, it’s almost as if she doesn’t realize the depth of her feeling for Grayson as they are having a hot encounter in his office, but her body knows what’s going on. As her internal monologue states:

Who would have thought she’d feel most in control when submitting?

Probably one of the best parts of this novella is that it’s related to an extremely well-rated series, so when you are at the stage of feeling the sense of loss turning the final page of it, the good news is that you have the other books in Robert’s Come Undone series to turn to. If anything, having a few key references to Chelsea’s love story (she offers Danielle some much needed perspective) will have you ordering her book in the series, Two Wrongs, One Right (which is what I did!).

“Wicked Games” by Samanthe Beck

Lover Undercover (McCade Brothers #1 – Trevor and Kylie) by Samanthe Beck (Entangled, April 2013)

I had never read anything by Samanthe Beck before, but I was wowed by her ability to get me up to speed regarding characters and past events in this terrific novella. The heroine, Stacy Roberts, is the identical twin to Kylie, whose romance with hot cop Trevor McCade has been detailed in Lover Undercover, the first book in the McCade Brothers series. While Kylie is the “good twin,” Stacy has always been the bane of their hometown, a juvenile delinquent whose dreams of acting have come true, albeit with a stop along the way exotic dancing in a high-end gentlemen’s club for a couple of years.

While Kylie has found her happily-ever-after with her new fiancee, Stacy’s heart is broken. When she began getting letters threatening to out her stripper past to the press, she realized that she was endangering the reputation of her wonderful boyfriend, Ian Ford, Trevor’s partner. What is an upstanding cop and his nice middle-class family going to do with a stripper turned actress from the wrong side of the tracks? Since he had asked her to move in with him (not marry him) around that time, it seemed like a good excuse to cut and run before she changed her mind.

It’s been six weeks and Ian is pretty tired of playing the waiting game. Stacy is unbelievably sexy and he knows she loves him even if she can’t say the words. He understands her as well as her sister, realizing that everyone except her twin has always abandoned Stacy. He figured asking her to move in with him was a way of easing her into something more permanent. He’s only just realizing that his hands off approach while he lets her come to her senses could easily have been interpreted as backing off their relationship. When Trevor calls with the information that Stacy has gotten threatening letters and than she and Kylie are planning on going to their old strip club’s hot Halloween costume party (without bodyguards), Ian has got a makeshift costume as a cat burglar on before you can say “John Robie.”

This novella is super angsty and unbelievably hot (like habanero hot on the caliente scale) and the reader completely understands the pain both Ian and Stacy are going through. While it’s pretty easy to spot the villain, knowing who it is doesn’t make it any less scary as you wonder if Stacy is going to lose her chance to tell Ian that she loves him. May I compliment the talented Ms. Beck on a terrific epilogue? That was one of the most fun wedding scenes I’ve read it quite some time! Yes, I immediately went out and purchased Lover Undercover so I could get a close up of Kylie and Trevor’s journey to love. And Trevor has brothers? *fans self* Color me there!

“Protecting What’s Theirs” by Tessa Bailey

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

Business owner and girl from the rough side of the tracks Ginger Peet just got some startling news via pregnancy test. It’s not that she doesn’t understand how or when it happened – her boyfriend of nearly a year, Lt. Derek Tyler, has always made sure the mechanics of sex is at the forefront of both their minds in the most pleasurable way – and she remembers oh-so-well the moment in Florida that they went sans condom after she forgot her birth control pills back in Chicago. But this is a BIG life change, for both of them, and she’d only moved into his apartment a few months ago after Derek inched her gradually down the road to commitment. Having reservations about motherhood is pretty natural for a woman who had to raise herself and protect her younger sister from their prostitute and drug addict mother.

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

Derek loves and adores Ginger, so much that it overwhelms him at times, and while he wants nothing more than to go home and be with her (and in her) an informant just blew a case wide open. His department has a chance of nailing a criminal who not only is responsible for the death of some of his officers, but whose success in his next illegal business venture would mean countless lives lost if he took over more Chicago territory. When a fellow officer mentions that the kind of operation Derek is talking about is what in police parlance is called a “widow-maker”, Derek realizes that he must protect Ginger from the knowledge he’s doing this, and that means keeping his distance. That decision not only stops Ginger from sharing her news, but dredges up all the insecurity her love for him has kept at bay, with potentially disastrous results for them both.

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

Oh. My. God. I have been a gigantic fan of Tessa Bailey’s Line of Duty series from the get-go, ultimately impressed with her gritty, authentic voice and characters who are often smart, working class men and women who have defied the odds to make something of themselves. Derek and Ginger shocked me in the best possible way when I first read their story in Protecting What’s His.

Derek is a dominant with a capital D, not in the leather and chains way, but rather in the possessive, ordering, super-hot kind of way. While this could potentially make me as a reader run in the other direction, Bailey succeeds in making him empathetic as he communicates to Ginger how all the power rests in her hands. His almost relentless caring for Ginger and the way he accepts the ultimate responsibility for her happiness won me lock, stock and barrel, and that has not changed in the slightest with this gut-wrenchingly, wonderful novella. I had tears in my eyes at the end of it when they both realize what happened and contemplate what the loss of their relationship would have meant. So amazing. I cannot wait for the rest of this series!

I also cannot wait to read Cari Quinn’s story “Tempted by His Best Friend” and I’ll be happy to post a review when I finally get it. Until that time, do not let it’s absence prevent you from purchasing this amazing anthology. I was astonished at not only the quality of writing, but how each novella actually was well-developed to the point that it felt like a complete story – never rushed or ending abruptly as anthology stories can sometimes do.

Celebrate your putting up your Halloween decorations by running out and purchasing Lovers Unmasked for your ereader. You’ll be thankful you did!

Picking Out The Best Novella/Short Story from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Series

15 Aug

Night’s Edge, anthology containing “Dancers in the Dark” novella by Charlaine Harris (# 4.2 in the Sookie Stackhouse series) (Harlequin, 2009)

I haven’t done a series review of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, probably because they aren’t technically romance (but rather mystery or urban fantasy with strong romantic elements). Romance always has a happy ending, and Harris has made no bones about the fact that this is not her goal for the characters in this excellent paranormal series.

Even people who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this series have probably heard of the HBO companion series TrueBlood, which diverges from the books but keeps the spirit of Harris’ original work alive according to fans. The name of the series is clever considering that the entire premise of Harris’ world is built on the idea that, after Japanese researchers develop a synthetic blood substitute (one brand of which is named TrueBlood), vampires come “out of the coffin” and reveal themselves to humans so they can live alongside them. Major repercussions ensue from this announcement, particularly for small-town Louisiana barmaid and telepath, Sookie Stackhouse, who finds the stillness of vampire minds to be almost intoxicating.

Sookie, or rather the supernatural creatures drawn to her, attracts trouble like it’s going out of style and the thirteen full-length novels in this series chronicle her growth and romantic difficulties as she works alongside vampires, werecreatures, and fairies, often reluctantly. In addition to these stories, Harris has penned at least thirteen short stories and companion novellas, practically all of which star Sookie (and some of which you MUST read in order to understand the next full-length novel which follows it in the series).

The other day I discovered a novella I hadn’t read in the series and immediately set about rectifying my faux pas, only to discover that I had missed the best companion story out of all of them! Dancers in the Dark, published in the anthology Night’s Edge, stars Sean and Layla, the briefly glimpsed professional ballroom dancers seen in All Together Dead, the novel in which Sookie accompanies the Queen of Louisiana to the vampire summit so she can ferret out the undercurrents from the human minds standing alongside their vampire companions. Sookie along with everyone else is impressed and mesmerized by the two vampire dancers Sean and Layla who perform during the ball and I definitely felt that there was something extremely powerful about these two minor characters. When I heard that the novella I’d missed was the one fleshing out their story, it was a no brainer to snap it up.

All Together Dead (#7 Sookie Stackhouse series) by Charlaine Harris (Ace Books, 2008)

Layla, currently using the name Rue, is busy disguising herself in Rhome, Illinois, while she takes classes and desperately tries to find work as a dancer. When she sees the ad for Blue Moon, a known dance troupe specializing in vampire occasions, she heads off to audition. There she meets her new partner, the handsome, red-haired Irish vampire Sean. She not only admires his outstanding dancing but the fact that his almost expressionless demeanor offers her a safe, professional distance.

Rue/Layla knows that a few people see through her disguise, recognizing her as the Southern beauty queen raped and beaten almost to death by a favored son of her town, but most days she can fly under the radar and attempt to create a life for herself. At first she’s frightened when she realizes that Sean is secretly following her home each night after their nighttime practices and performances, but when she realizes there is no menace in his actions, she begins to relax and let a friendship develop. Soon there’s more than just a friendship at stake (no pun intended), but Layla has no idea if she’s capable of any relationship, particularly one which such a powerful creature.

Sean is intrigued by his stunning dance partner but he’s fallen in love a few times before in his long existence and it’s always ended badly. Yet he’s feeling things for Layla he’s never felt before and when he discovers on his own the hair-raising circumstances of not only her attack but her family’s callous treatment afterward, he knows his goal is to keep her safe and find her attacker, now released from the mental institution he talked his way into.

Unlike the Sookie Stackhouse novels which are written solely from Sookie’s perspective (common for urban fantasy), this novella thankfully switches between Layla and Sean’s POV, offering us insight into both wonderful characters. There is no way you can’t feel for Layla and find yourself gently falling in love with the stoic Sean as he coaxes her into trusting him by being so solid and dependable. I honestly found myself incredibly disappointed that Harris didn’t decide to make this a spin-off series since the dance troupe has so many fascinating characters (vampire and human) that it would be wonderful to develop each of their stories (romances preferred, naturally). Since the world is already well-established, I’m going to have to surf the web and see if any fan fiction exists (or maybe write it myself)!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 649 other followers

%d bloggers like this: