Archive | April, 2013

The Mystery of Laurie McBain, Author of the Classic Historical Romance, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky

24 Apr

One of the best things about living in the age of the ebook is seeing classic romance authors find a new audience with rediscovered backlists, usually with modernized covers. When I was on the Sourcebooks website shopping around the other day, I was thrilled to see some books of Laurie McBain featured (Devil’s Desire and Moonstruck Madness, both classics), although not the one I would love to get in ebook form, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky.

I loved Wild Bells to the Wild Sky ever since I snuck it off my mother’s romance novel shelf and the book holds up extremely well even with a modern light shining upon it (I wish I could say as much for some other authors). The book takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and focuses on some very sexy privateers scoring points against disgruntled Spanish sea captains and getting rich in the bargain.

The book has the flavor of a 1980s historical in that it houses a sweeping plot covering decades with plenty of famous historical figures popping up throughout the pages.

Wild Bells opens with the sea voyage of her majesty’s privateer Geoffrey Christian, who is sailing his stunning Spanish wife and adorable little girl, Lily Francisca, to Hispaniola in the Caribbean in order to reunite his wife with her estranged family. Flashbacks illustrate that Geoffrey Christian stole his biggest prize when he boarded the Spanish ship carrying his wife and her family to Spain to conclude an arranged marriage for the beautiful spitfire. She was more than happy to run away with him and, despite her father disowning her, she has been happy in her marriage and loves her little red-headed daughter and sexy husband.

The original cover of Devil’s Desire from 1975.

Queen Elizabeth, realizing the opportunity as her lady-in-waiting fulfills a familial duty in visiting a dying mother in Spanish territory, decides to send along Sir Basil Whitelaw, an intellectual and court advisor who also happens to be Geoffrey Christian’s best friend. While Basil doesn’t enjoy leaving his wife and son behind, he reluctantly takes on this duty, with this cerebral man finding himself quite talented at the spy business. While on the island, he and little Lily both spot English traitors and Basil realizes they must return to England in order to alert the Queen to treachery.

But Geoffrey Christian has made enemies among his wife’s relatives, particularly the ones he’s stolen from while on the high seas, and their ship is set upon while still in the Caribbean. In an effort to save his family, Geoffrey sends one of his sailors to carry Basil (who needs to be kept safe to give his message to the Queen) and Geoffrey’s wife and daughter to a nearby island, with the express instruction to row them out to one of the Spanish ships when the battle is over. The sailor, hearing his captain’s boat sinking, goes to check for survivors and is never seen again. Basil and the women are stranded on the island.

Flash forward to a young Lily, her brother Tristram and little sister Dulcie all living alone on the island. Lily is beginning to get curves and become a woman (she’s around 12 or 13) and she and her siblings are savvy about living well in the wild. Tristram is Geoffrey’s son since his mother was pregnant with him when she was shipwrecked, but little Dulcie is Basil’s illegitimate daughter. To the children, it was understandable that these two wonderful people would have loved each other and created a family after Geoffrey Christian was killed, but things are about to change.

The change comes in the form of Valentine Whitelaw, Basil’s younger brother and also a privateer trained by none other than Geoffrey Christian who considered him a friend and promising sailor. Valentine is a captain now, also in favor with the queen and the lover of the fair (and slutty) Cordelia Howard. A sailor has been liberated from enforced slavery with the Spanish and carries the tale of bringing passengers safely off Christian’s boat. Before he dies, he manages to get this information to Valentine, who goes off in search of his brother and ends up finding the children. Through deception, he captures them and brings them on board, and all the children eventually begin to love and trust him.

When the Splendor Falls, the final novel of Laurie McBain, published in 1985, after which she retired at the young age of only 36.

The love goes rather far with Lily, who first resents Valentine and later develops a huge crush on him. The children are all fish out of water back in England where it’s cold and they can’t swim every day. None of them know how to live like the gentry they are, Tristram is not considered Geoffrey Christian’s son and heir since there’s no proof, and little Dulcie is almost taken away from her siblings by Basil and Valentine’s sister who sees the little girl as the last bit of Basil left on earth. Basil’s wife and son handle the situation with a tremendous amount of class (she’s remarried in the meantime, so it’s kind of a relief that Basil is dead, as much as she loved him). Lily is presented with the evidence that Valentine is in love with Cordelia, who is a humongous bitch to everyone but men, and realizes that he will always see her as a little girl, never returning her love for him.

Flash forward again and Lily is eighteen. The children are in a sucky living situation with an exploitative relative who is technically the heir and their guardian and who disgustingly has the hots for Lily. A series of events has the children and their trusted retainers believing they killed their guardian, so they flee into the night with the help of a sexy part-gypsy. He helps them become entertainers so they can hide under the radar and make their way to help. Valentine happens to be home from a voyage, goes looking for the missing children and ends up finding Lily, who he doesn’t recognize since it’s been years since he last saw her. One look at this stunning redhead and he falls head over heels in lust with her. She’s crushed he doesn’t recognize her and is planning on cluing him in, but not before some pretty passionate kissing and groping is exchanged. The remainder of the novel is about going back to the island to discover evidence Basil left behind and uncovering the traitor to the Queen who has lived all this time thinking he got off scot-free. Oh, and Valentine realizes that Lily is exactly the woman for him, falling in love with not only her beauty but her intelligence, loyalty, and pluck. Her streak of wildness left over from the island is the perfect compliment to this privateer, although it takes a little while for him to convince her fully to that effect.

I cannot tell you how much this book kicks butt! McBain’s writing is pitch perfect – her main characters are gorgeous but flawed human beings you root for, her secondary characters are so three dimensional you end up thinking you know them in real life, and her historical sense of time and place clearly has a ton of research to back it up. Her plot is intricate and tight, with all subplots sewn up and just the right amount of conflict. She’s an amazing writer who, back in the bodice ripper days, wrote sassy heroines who were not too stupid to live (just a little naive) and heroes who were not complete alpha dicks like so many of the 1970s and 80s male leads. Her love scenes are plenty hot, even by today’s standards, and highly emotional.

So who on earth is Laurie McBain and where did she go?

Laurie McBain’s official author photo from the 1970s. She looks like she’s about to burn her bra but instead wrote some of the hottest selling romance novels of her day.

Most of the blog posts I’ve read use Laurie McBain’s official wikipedia page to indicate her oeuvre of seven historical romances, all of whom were New York Times Best-Sellers. In the “Paperbacks” article in the New York Times Book Review article from February 1977, Moonstruck Madness was outperforming Stephen King’s Carrie and Children of Dune by Frank Herbert.

The first mention of her in the context of her success occurs in a 1975 NYT article on the latest paperbacks. Under the top ten ranking (Devil’s Desire is under Jaws by Peter Benchley and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong to give you a sense of what other books were being published at the time), a gossipy on-dits column mentions Laurie as a newly arrived wunderkind from the San Bernardino Valley who spotted a notice in Writer’s Digest magazine that Avon publishers were accepting manuscripts from unagented writers. She had read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and couldn’t find anything else quite like it, so she decided to write her own book along those lines (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

The real genius was the Avon publishing house, still a powerhouse in the world of romance, who was trying something new for the time. “Avon, it seems, has been having extraordinary success with original romantic novels written by quiet homebodies, promoting them with the vigor usually reserved for big-name authors. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, have each published two novels for an average of more than 1 million copies” (“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy” 295). Avon’s visionary editor was Nancy Coffey, who was credited with setting the trend of publishing “epic historical romances” the size of doorstops from unknown authors (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

Dark Before the Rising Sun (Dominick Series #3) by Laurie McBain (Avon, 1982)

They were obviously clever to snag McBain who, according to the article, did months of research into the time period and sent her manuscript to Avon a year after seeing the Writer’s Digest blurb (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29). Six months after that she received the notice that the book was accepted for publication with only minor revisions and then received one copy of the 510,000 books Avon placed in bookstores all over the country. By 1977 what some male chauvinist pigs were calling “the hysterical romance” was an entire subgenre taking the best-seller list by storm. Its graphic sexual content often caused it to receive the moniker, “erotic historical romance” which sounds strangely familiar today (Walters 206). By 1980, the New York Times reported McBain had bought a beach front home in Carmel, California and was busy outlining her next novel (which was probably Dark Before the Rising Sun) (Walters BR7).

Wild Bells to the Wild Sky would follow (1983) and finally When the Splendor Falls (1985) with McBain showing her facility in a variety of historical time periods (British regency and the American Civil War were popular in the 1980s). But then her writing came to a screeching halt. Her Wikipedia page says that after only seven years of writing, her father’s death caused McBain to end her career and no more novels were published.

If this is the case (and I can’t find any evidence one way or the other, although there are still a few databases unmined), it’s incredibly sad, as she was a fresh, talented voice who stood out in her field. The good news is that many of her books have withstood the test of time (and are available used inexpensively) so you can still make sure you have McBain’s work on your bookshelf.

Take a walk back in time and enjoy the writing of Laurie McBain. It’s my hope she is living a happy life at that beach house in Carmel, and fully understands what a gift she gave romance readers with her excellent novels. Thanks, Laurie!

Works Cited

“Ah, Romance! It Sets Hearts Aflutter, Cash Registers Too.” Chicago Tribune 13 Nov. 1977: 29.    ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Article No. 9 – No Title.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1977, New York Times Book Review: 239. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy.” New York Times 27 Apr. 1975: 295. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Walters, Ray. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 3 Aug. 1980: BR7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

– – -. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 19 June 1977: 206. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Cynster Sisters Duo Proves an Upswing in Recent Cynster Books with And Then She Fell by Stephanie Laurens

21 Apr

And Then She Fell (Cynster Sisters Duo #1, Cynster Series #19 – Henrietta Cynster and James Glossup) by Stephanie Laurens (Avon, March 26, 2012)

If anyone remembers the first time they read Devil’s Bride, the book one in the now legendary Cynster series by Stephanie Laurens, I’m sure they can picture the sweet scene where the children of the family go to say goodbye at the graveside of their brother and cousin Tolly, the littlest ones struggling with the walk in the night as Devil and Honoria look on, restraining themselves from helping lest it ruin the ceremony. I don’t know how old this makes you feel (Devil’s Bride was originally published in 1998), but I end up with the impression that the Cynsters are somehow an extension of my own family, particularly with the realization that these youngest members are all grown up and ready for their own romance novels.

And Then She Fell is the first in the spin-off series the Cynster Sisters Duo (two books still attached to the Cynster series – this is the nineteenth book) focusing on the two youngest daughters of Arthur and Louise – Henrietta and Mary – sisters to twins Amanda and Amelia (On a Wild Night and On a Wicked Dawn) and Simon (The Perfect Lover). Of all these books, Simon’s story in The Perfect Lover is probably the most crucial to read prior to this one, as the hero to Henrietta Cynster is none other than James Glossup, the younger son of the house and murder suspect in the country house party mystery that provides the setting for Simon and Portia to fall in love with one another. (Anyone needing a series overview should take a look at my post on the entire Cynster series for a refresher.)

Henrietta is in her late twenties having never quite found her hero and to be honest, she’s not looking that hard, a fact immensely frustrating to her younger sister Mary. Mary’s rising blood pressure relates to the belief that she thinks she has possibly found her hero but can’t verify the fact until the amethyst necklace blessed by the Lady and given to the girls by Catriona Cynster (wife to Scandal Cynster and a Scottish pagan whose story is told in Scandal’s Bride). This necklace has been used to good effect by their cousins in the Cynster Sister’s Trilogy and Mary knows that Henrietta must use it first since she’s older. The necklace heats up in the presence of the man destined to be the fated mate of the Cynster woman, thus directing her efforts. At Mary’s insistence, Henrietta dons the necklace and the games begin.

Fashion plate of riding attire from 1837 (the year And Then She Fell is set) from La Mode

Known as the “Matchbreaker”, Henrietta has garnered quite a reputation for using her vast network of contacts within the ton to research a young man upon request of a young lady considering his suit, often discovering sordid habits, shifting finances or simply conformation of it not being a love match. That final point seems to be a common request as it has become more fashionable for well-born young women to want to marry for love. When a good friend of hers asks Henrietta to check on James Glossup, a suitor who has been making his preference for her known, Henrietta is forced to come back with the information that James has some kind of financial imperative to marry and doesn’t seem to be factoring love into the equation. A bit wistful, the friend and her parents are nevertheless grateful for averting a mismatch and James is nicely sent packing.

Naturally, he’s livid at getting his conge and angrily approaches Henrietta in a crowded ballroom. What Henrietta didn’t know was that James has unexpectedly received an inheritance from a great-aunt who wanted to ensure that the bachelor would knuckle down and get married, so he must marry within the month in order to release the funds which would allow him to support the estate and everyone on it. His noblesse oblige has him frantic to follow the stipulations of the will so as not to put hundreds of people out of work and Henrietta’s interference has botched everything. He doesn’t seem to hear too well Henrietta’s empathetic explanation that, since her friend wanted to marry for love and James clearly didn’t love her, it wouldn’t have worked anyway, but in the end, the soft-hearted Henrietta makes James a compelling offer. She will use her contacts to help him find a bride within the allotted time period.

Spending time with Henrietta pointing out the eligible young woman who fit his criteria and who she knows of are good character and temperament allows James to decide fairly quickly that his perfect match is actually standing right next to him. The emotion for this decision is ratcheted up by a series of what seem like accidents befalling Henrietta, accidents which are quickly revealed to be a pattern of attacks by an unknown foe. Every Cynster relation and Cynster friend come out of the woodwork to help (so reread the series and the Bastion Club books if you want to not be scratching your head remembering who’s who) constituting a type of Old Home Week for fans of Stephanie Laurens. Naturally the bad guy doesn’t have a chance, and James and Henrietta get their happily ever after, with Mary the happy recipient of the necklace and the next book in the series.

The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh (Cynster Sisters Duo #2, Cynster Series #20) by Stephanie Laurens (Avon, June 25, 2013)

And let me make clear how much I am looking forward to the next book, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh. And Then She Fell is solid Stephanie Laurens fare, but like many of her recent publications, she veers away from her strength, namely the utterly wicked rake ensnared completely and utterly by the spunky heroine. Laurens’ ability to write honorable rakes nevertheless well-schooled in the arts of debauchery seemed to lessen after The Perfect Lover, highlighting her weaknesses (plodding mystery plots and ridiculous prose for the sex scenes that could easily win a purple prose award).

In the Cynster Sisters Trilogy, I was so excited as Viscount Breckenridge, no slouch in the rake department (as realized in the book about his young widowed stepmother, The Ideal Bride) fit this hero mold, but the setting of the book being on the road as he runs down Heather Cynster’s kidnappers, failed to highlight his rakish tendencies in Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue. Instead it took the utterly alpha male villain-turned-hero on his home turf in Scotland to give us a little taste of the old Stephanie Laurens in The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae.

Based on the teaser chapter, Ryder Cavanaugh fits the mold of our original Bar Cynster (the virile and deliciously naughty males comprising the first six books of the series). He’s fascinated by the headstrong Mary Cynster who seems to think that Ryder’s half-brother is her intended hero. Ryder is taken not just by Mary’s beauty but her spunk, a quality not well-appreciated by the ton and an attribute that actually renders her a complete mismatch for Ryder’s younger brother, who would let a strong woman ride roughshod over him. That he clearly sees her as a prize – she is the last unwed Cynster female of her generation and therefore the last opportunity for any family to make a connection to this powerful family – is apparent, but we know Laurens’ tried and true method of falling “in lust” first and love second will prevail. Since this rake’s “prowling grace” and naughty past was alluded to in the teaser, and since it hints at the majority of the book happening on his home turf in the ballrooms of the ton, I’m hoping that Laurens will play to her strengths and give us an alpha hero of yore.

Let me be clear – I think Stephanie Laurens is an immensely talented writer who has given the romance world one of the best Regency series ever, but I worry that over the course of now twenty years of her career, she has lacked editors or agents encouraging her to evolve as a writer. I recently listened to a few RWA conference sessions and was struck by the number of highly successful New York Times best-selling authors who mention that they continue to take classes and read professional books to evolve as writers, forcing themselves to read all the recent award winners in order to understand what the market wants.

When I read Laurens’ books, I am often struck by how outdated they can seem, particularly in the area of sex scenes which I felt were such a strength in her early works. I would encourage her to consider playing on her prodigious abilities (well-drawn characters, strong historical settings, and an unbelievable sense of family) while shoring up her weaknesses in order to make sure that she doesn’t get left behind with all the great historical romance writers emerging on the market. Don’t get left behind, Stephanie. We love you and these characters way too much to watch that happen.

Creatures of Habit: Mapping Out Writing Routines

20 Apr

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Growing up, I was a horrifying child of habit with my mother despairing of getting me to try anything different. Peanut butter and jelly every day from grammar school to high school graduation; my books alphabetical by author on the shelves; and when I wasn’t wearing a Catholic school uniform on the weekends and vacations, I had multiple pairs of the same jeans which I would wear with multiples of the same shirts in different colors. At school, I needed my pens in a certain way on the desk and my textbook always in the left-hand upper corner of the desk, otherwise I had trouble focusing. Looking back on it, I’m glad few people knew about OCD back in the 80s otherwise I would have been taken to a therapist post-haste for evaluation.

I’m sure there was a lot of psychological stuff going on since at the time I felt there was plenty in my life not in my control and these were things I could control. Add to it that I was heavily influenced by being in Catholic school each day – a world in which ritual dominated literally every hour of my schoolday – so how could I not think about adding it rituals in other areas of my life?

Nowadays, I read a lot of nonfiction (yes, I read books other than romance, really!) and while I love history and biography books, I also enjoy social psychology books for the insight they offer on the world we construct for ourselves. As I try and carve out habits of writing, one book that has an application in so many areas is the The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Scouring various forms of behavioral research, Duhigg examines our approach to life, interpreting how and why we create habits. Businesses use social psychology to construct environments which play upon these desires and the health care industry is equally attempting to harness this knowledge to help us combat unhealthy behavior. (i.e., Need to fight your family propensity toward diabetes? Here’s how to map out a 30 day plan to exercise your way to good health.) One of the main points which stood out to me as someone trying to write regularly while also being a full-time (and sometimes more) worker, is that you have to approach any habit creation with steadfast determination, particularly because it takes easily 30 days to rewire the neurotransmitters in your brain so that the new behavior sinks in enough to be a less effort-laden routine.

For me a habit is very much a pseudo-ritual done a similar time of day each day and delivered with the same parameters. When I come home each day, I sit on the same place on the couch and usually eat one of around 12 possible dinners (I eat other stuff, too, but have a set of go-to foods). I read for a certain number of minutes, go upstairs around a certain time, wash up in the exact same order, and have recently trained myself to go to sleep by getting in bed and not reading or looking at a screen since that helps me fall asleep a lot quicker. There’s certain amount of wiggle room in this routine, but I’ll admit to getting a little pissed or at least out of temper if a wrench gets thrown in the works.

So with this revelatory piece of self-knowledge (please don’t judge me), I readily admit that for me to have any hope as a writer, it’s non-negotiable that I figure out some kind of routine or habit around writing. Part of my problem is that I have two routines: the school day routine and the vacation routine. For most people who have two weeks of vacation a year and a smattering of long weekends, a vacation routine is probably less of an issue, but, as an educator in a private school, I’m blessed to have off from early June to mid-August with a couple chunky times around the holidays and in early March where I have another two week block to myself. As a result, I need two writing routines in my life – one for when I am working and have significantly less time and one for when I have off and I have a lot of time.

Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone (Adams Media, January 2008)

Until I read Time to Write: More Than 100 Professional Writers Reveal How to Fit Writing into Your Busy Life by Kelly L. Stone, I honestly thought that there were only a couple types of writing routines and I worried that I didn’t fit any of them. Most recommendations geared toward working slobs centered on training yourself to get up a few hours before work and writing until you need to get ready.

Uh, I know you don’t know me, but 1) I am not a morning person and 2) I am almost Golem-esque in my worship of sleep. If there was a Sleeping Olympics, I’d be a gold medalist in both the Nighttime and Napping events, so writing has to be part of my normal waking hours. Stone’s explanation of the weekend writer, the after work writer, the during breaks at work writer, came as a huge relief for me as I realized there were available routines I could try to help me focus on writing.

But truly the best recommendation she had for me was her chapter on the “Writing Action Plan”. Relying on an individual’s vision of success as a writer and some practical ideas from established successful authors (one of the strengths of the book is the tidbits from name authors inserted throughout the text), Stone recommends applying the SMART acronym to your writing goals: they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited. Long-term goals should also have the subset of short term goals fueled by mini-objectives. Take a look:

Long term goal: Write a 60,000 word category romance novel geared toward Harlequin’s Blaze line by August 20th.

Short term goal: Write 1000 words a day (4 pages)/5000 words a week (20 pages).

Mini-objective 1: Purchase new Blaze books each month and read them to determine pacing, characterization and writing style preferences.

Mini objective 2: Read editor recommendations and preferences on Harlequin Writer’s Community forums to get a sense of key decision makers and their preferences and pet peeves regarding submissions (by May 1st).

Previously my long term goal would have been “Publish a romance novel” but that’s hardly helpful when I’m looking at laundry piles and professional reading obligations. Another terrific perspective with tons of practical advice added was the Kindle book Write Every Day by Michael Haynes. In under 70 pages, Haynes manages to cut right to the chase of writer anxiety, giving excellent suggestions on how to ramp up your writing into a viable habit through various types of accountability, both to yourself and to others. I loved, loved, loved his suggestion that deciding on a word count every day – no matter what kind of writing – so your brain and fingers get used to generating ideas and articulately put them somewhere was genius. Per his suggestion, I set a goal of 500 words per day and have been keeping a spreadsheet to see if I’ve been meeting it (and most days, I do). Haynes also walks the walk on his blog where he regularly discusses his monthly writing goals and fearlessly lets you know whether he’s met them or not in that time period. This is a writer who deserves an award for not only providing a great model but also for being so open as to share his process, warts and all. I know it makes me feel better and inspires me, all at the same time.

My biggest obstacle toward regularly writing is the elusive danger of “procrastiwork,” a term usually defined as important work you do but it’s not the work you should actually be doing at that time. While I didn’t know the name for it, this model was my default setting all through college and graduate school when I had any kind of reading or writing assignments (mostly for writing) and I would decide that my house desperately needed cleaning and why didn’t we have anything made in the fridge? After I got married, my husband adored my graduate school career simply because he came home every day to a pristine house and homemade meals cooking in the oven.

Procrastiwork doesn’t have to be a negative – many creative types think it actually helps them unleash new ideas – but is important to keep a handle on it. I find that while I’m cleaning and doing the laundry, I often am going through ideas in my mind for my writing project so I am more ready to sit down and crank out the word count when the final swipe is made on the kitchen counter. As long as procrastiwork doesn’t morph into a genuine avoidance, its power can be harnessed for good, and I’m hoping that my new series of goals in my writing plan helps me stay on track and keep it to a minimum.

In the end, creating habits isn’t easy work but it can be productive work that hopefully pays off with each writer finding herself closer to the original vision of success which had her begin writing in the first place. I’m certainly going to try some of these proven strategies to make writing the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my adulthood.

Lone Wolf Proves a Powerful Addition to Jennifer Ashley’s Shifters Unbound Series

17 Apr

Lone Wolf (Shifters Unbound #4.6 Ellison & Maria’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Intermix, April 16, 2013)

It’s been hard to watch a wolf as charming and fun as Ellison not even have a chance at the girl, so I was thrilled to hear that Ashley was coming out with his story in an e-novella this year. There is no such thing as a bad book in this series – Ashley manages to wow the reader with outstanding writing and characters rich and complex, even in a story the length of the novella. I think the best compliment I can give her is that her novellas, like Lone Wolf, are so well-fleshed out in character and plot that they give me a similar experience to one of her full-length novels. It just goes quicker!

Ellison has never been fast enough on the draw in nabbing the girl, and as lead wolf in Austin’s Shiftertown he now knows why. The Goddess has clearly been saving him for the feisty human, Maria, now living with Guardian Sean Morrissey and his wife, Andrea. Maria has lived through hell in the form of being kidnapped and terrorized by feral shifters in Mexico. She and many others found themselves liberated by the members of the Las Vegas shifter clan, but the scars remain. After her traditional family rejected her as dirty after her experience, she decided to go to Austin and start a new life.

What she didn’t consider was that her unmated status is a problem in a town filled with unmated males. Under the protection of the Morrisseys, no one is going to try anything too drastic, but the attention of some of them can be uncomfortable. Interestingly the most deadly wolf of her acquaintance, Ellison, does not engender the same fear in Maria as the others. He’s made her smile from the first and is so clearly different from the shifters in her past she can’t help but be drawn to him even while intellectually rejecting the thought of tying herself to a wolf.

How I Think of Ellison!

Ellison has been oh-so-patient with this lush beauty whose intellect and spirit set him alight as much as her curvy body, but the wolf in him chafes at the perceived threat from other males. When Shiftertown realizes there is a plot to steal cubs and sell them to wealthy humans who want illegal pets, Maria’s status as frequent cub babysitter puts her and the young in danger.

The romance between Ellison and Maria is absolutely perfect. Ellison is fierce, tender, and funny – the perfect match to help Maria reclaim her love of life after the heartbreak she’s been through. I adore how Ashley always weaves in previous characters in such a seamless way. Series lovers get a dose of their favorites continuing to live their lives but it never feels intrusive or like a cameo appearance.

An amazing strength of this series is not only that Jennifer Ashley writes fantastic romance, but her shifter world is crisp and brilliantly developed in a market inundated with good to mediocre offerings. Add to it that she has hit upon the key feature of any paranormal romance – parallels to modern issues of the reader’s society – and she has an unending supply of villains prepared to exploit the hate, fear and second class status of shifters. Compelling suspense and real threats follow in its wake.

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

While an idiot reviewer on Amazon felt  this book was merely a set up for the next full-length book in the series, Tiger Magic, I wholeheartedly disagree and encourage them to remove their head from their butt. Tiger is an amazing character rescued from the lab in which he spent his entire life back in Mate Claimed. He is ferocious and wild with instincts in all the right places and I am starting a countdown until his book comes out on June 4th of this year! I thought his character was fantastic in Lone Wolf and I enjoyed the chance to see him in action and know him better prior to his own novel coming out. Yes, it made me want his book more but it did not make the novella a vehicle to set up Tiger’s story by a long shot. Sheesh.

I would encourage anyone interested in reading the series from first to last book to not skip ahead. Ashley’s overarching plots and characters run through the series and understanding them will add to your enjoyment. You will not be disappointed – ever – by this talented and prolific writer.

Thrown by a Curve by Jaci Burton Delivers a Solid Sports Romance

16 Apr

Thrown by a Curve (Play by Play #5 – Garrett and Alicia’s story) by Jaci Burton (Berkley, March 5, 2013)

Having greatly enjoyed the previous installments of Jaci Burton’s Play by Play series as excellent representations of the athletic-centered romance, I was looking forward to Thrown by a Curve. Starring Alicia, the hard working sports therapist working for the Rivers baseball team where her cousin Gavin is a player (and whose smoking hot romance with his agent, Liz, comprised the focus of the second book in the series, Changing the Game), this woman trying to make it a man’s world is assigned to rehabilitate the incredibly difficult pitcher, Garrett.

Burton has an incredible strength in the world of romance stories focusing on sports, namely, she clearly does her research. Her sports content is outstandingly accurate and you can tell that she has a host of notes about sports therapists and their actual job description in addition to her baseball knowledge. Combine this with strong plotting and the ability to weave secondary characters who have already had (or will have) their day in the sun, and you end up with a enjoyable read.

Unlike some readers who have reviewed the book’s tropes as a bit “tired”, I’m still okay with the formula of previously commitment-phobic characters who are committed to their profession and worried about the toll a relationship might bring. What I struggled with was that, unlike the first three books in the series, this one and the previous book appear to have less emotional description, particularly surrounding the sex scenes. They are still smoking hot, do not doubt that for a moment, but a really good sex scene shows the characters truly connecting and advances the plot to a bigger degree than I saw in this book.

One Sweet Ride (Play by Play #6) by Jaci Burton (Berkley, June 4, 2013)

Since I didn’t notice it in the previous books, this choice feels almost like an editing decision, as does the glaring mistake in one of the final chapters where there is a misprint and “Gavin” is requesting a trade (Gavin is Alicia’s cousin, not her love interest, Garrett, who is the one actually making the request in an effort to not violate their non-fraternization clause in the contracts which would endanger Alicia’s job).

This lack of emotional content bleeds into the reader having less of a connection to the characters, particularly after Garrett retreats into his pitcher head space (seriously, NEVER get involved with a pitcher) and ditches Alicia professionally for the head trainer who claims to be able to get him on the mound faster. Yes, Garrett apologizes and informs Alicia that he has in fact fallen in love with her – after about a week or more just working alongside her and not saying anything. She understandably believes that their “fling” is over and he’s broken up with her. WTF? I’m not saying I don’t understand where he’s coming from but it makes his character far less appealing.

In the realm of statistical improbabilty, Garrett meets up in the course of the novel with several roommates from his university in Oklahoma where he had a baseball scholarship and they all are professional athletes in various sports. (I know, right?) This is clearly Burton’s way of giving us some athletic fresh meat for future novels and it seems like Garrett’s good friend, Gray, a baseball player who switched to NASCAR racing will be the next protagonist in her upcoming book, One Sweet Ride, coming out on June 4th. Since the complication and conflict stems from Gray’s father being a prominent Senator running for the presidency, I’m interested to see if Burton’s facile handling of athletics (in this case car racing, which I know very little about) will extend to the political arena. I still have enough faith in her to try it, but I’m hoping for some stronger emotion and better editing.

Meljean Brook Proves You’ll Never Tire of Her Characters with Her Novella, Tethered

14 Apr

I’m usually very cautious when an author decides to revisit a couple who have had their romance established and pretty much resolved in a previous book. Especially in a novella, it can feel rehashed or the plot can be weak and I end up feeling taken. But when I heard that Meljean Brook had decided to revisit her amazing couple, Archimedes and Yasmeen, from Heart of Steel, my first thought was “If anyone can make me love this, it’s going to be Meljean Brook.”

Because she is just one of those authors who I trust implicitly as her Iron Seas series is undoubtedly one of the best series on the market, so much so that I cheerfully order the Kindle editions of her books ten months prior to their publication date.

Meljean Brook simply never disappoints. Archimedes, the intrepid adventurer, and Yasmeen, his stunning captain also known as Lady Corsair, travel in her new airship after the heart-wrenching demise of her previous ship, an event in which she also lost much of her crew and personal belongings. While Yasmeen mourns them, she is above all a survivor, and she is doing her best to rebuild a top notch team to man her vessel while reveling in the love she and Archimedes have for one another, a love so strong that this independent free spirit actually married him.

Heart of Steel (Iron Seas Series #2) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, July 3, 2012)

But a blast from Archimedes past comes in the form of a previous colleague and fellow smuggler, Miles Bilson, a man Archimedes’ sister Zenobia (the actual author of the famous Archimedes Fox adventure tales), trusted until Bilson abandoned Archimedes while he was ill. Archimedes didn’t hold it against him, so Yasmeen decides to take her husband’s lead and sit back to judge this new acquaintance who has decided to travel on her ship.

What ensues is a betrayal so profound that Archimedes’ mental health almost shatters and Yasmeen is confronted with the fact that she would cheerfully pay any price to keep her husband safe and healthy. Bilson’s treachery takes the couple and crew into the heart of an elusive community from which few ever escape but while he means to threaten this couple, he ends up bringing them even closer as they put their intellect and daring to the ultimate test.

If you haven’t read the precursor to this book, Heart of Steel, you really need to (and it’s amazing so it will be no hardship) in order to understand the couple’s background and what they’ve previously overcome to get where they are in their relationship. The looming aftermath of the Horde’s ability to control (and stifle) emotion is at the heart of this tale, so the mechanically enhanced individuals have to deal with threat of being manipulated on a physical and mental plane. That horror is easy to imagine and adds a chilling psychological layer onto what is also a terrific adventure tale.

Can I just give a Lord Scarsdale shout out? A brief appearance of one of my favorite secondary characters to date is the dilemma of Lord Scarsdale, Rhys Trahaern’s good friend who we first meet in The Iron Duke, the first in the series. Having served on Trahaern’s ship and having also escaped with him from the so-called Eden in the clouds (a community featuring prominently in this tale), Scarsdale is a heavy drinker but reliable friend to the Iron Duke and to Yasmeen, both of whom know that Scarsdale is gay and lost the man he loved back when he was enslaved. In Tethered, the drunken lord not only helps Yasmeen and Archimedes but is dealing with the reality of his engagement to a young woman in order to satisfy the societal pressure to deliver an heir to his title. Our couple of the hour make a few references to kidnapping him to save him from making a mistake, and I have to say that I cannot wait to see an adventure like that unfold, or at the very least to see Scarsdale find someone he can love and spend his life with. He deserves a happily ever after, too!

Enthralled (containing Iron Seas #2.4) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, July 2, 2013)

With the last full novel having been the stand alone book, Riveted – which did not require a knowledge of the characters of the above works to enjoy it – I’m interested to see if the next novella, which will be published in the upcoming anthology, Enthralled, will introduce new characters or tie in to the people we already know and love. The brief description bills the story as: “Meljean Brook delivers a new story in her steampunk world of the Iron Seas…as a man who’s lost everything returns home to find that not only is his marriage in jeopardy, but he must now fight air pirates who intend to steal his one remaining treasure—his wife.” Since I can’t picture off hand someone who fits this description, I’m going to book looking forward July so I can find out the answer!

Major kudos to Meljean Brook for being such a productive author that she can satisfy her fan’s craving for new installments in the series a few times a year AND keep the quality so unbelieveably high. I also appreciate that she has chosen to skip around her timeline (even though Tethered came after Riveted, which was the third book in the series, Tethered is listed as the #2.5 in the series and the novella in Enthralled will be #2.4, happening even before Tethered). Her decision doesn’t hurt the series or the reader’s understanding in the slightest, so we can just lay back and enjoy her quality writing.

An outstanding addition to the world of Steampunk and just another confirmation that Meljean Brook deserves tremendous recognition for her talent as a writer. Many thanks, Meljean!

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