Tag Archives: San Francisco

Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennet Channels the 20s While Delivering Outstanding Romance (With a Dash of Paranormal)

29 Jan

Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties #1 – Winter and Aida) by Jenn Bennett (Berkley, January 7, 2014)

Holy WOW. I felt like I had been hit by the awesome reading truck after finishing Jenn Bennett‘s new addition to historical/paranormal romance. Bitter Spirits is probably one of the best historical romances I’ve read in the last couple of years and it has taken me a while to determine if this is due to her writing chops (which are prodigious), the unbelievable detail of a period often neglected in historicals, or because of her kick butt characterization.

The answer is d) all of the above.

It’s prohibition in San Francisco and Aida Palmer has enjoyed her time at the upscale Gris-Gris speakeasy where her medium act is a huge hit. This is assuredly because it’s totally real – Aida can summon, and dispel, the dead.

Since her employer is a voodoo practioner, Aida is surprised when she is summoned to help an important person get rid of a haunting, and even more shocked to discover that the person in question is the handsome, premier bootlegger of San Francisco, Winter Magnusson. This huge man oozing masculinity has been hexed and he needs help ASAP before he succumbs to both the poison and the ghost he can’t shake. Aida helps with the ghost and her boss with the poisoning, but not before it comes clear that Winter has made an enemy of someone in Chinatown.

Winter is utterly fascinated with the diminutive, freckled medium with the gorgeous figure and rich dark hair. She’s also the real deal, and he is intrigued that she has no reaction to the scar he retains from the car accident that killed his wife and parents. She’s also refreshingly honest, so when the opportunity presents itself to hire her to help him with a haunting in his mansion as well as his ongoing mystery enemy he does it. Proximity only makes their intense attraction more formidable, but obstacles – both paranormal and all too in the flesh – exist to keep these two apart despite the fact they are falling fast and hard for each other.

It's amazing to think of a time San Francisco's iconic landmarks were new. (Public Domain image via Pixabay)

It’s amazing to think of a time San Francisco’s iconic landmarks were new. (Public Domain image via Pixabay)

Before I get into the time period, let’s take a moment to discuss how utterly blown away I was by Bennett’s writing. A lot of historical romance writers are like Laurence Olivier, the famous film and stage actor who was known for his brilliance but who always declared he wanted the audience to see the effort it took to bring his characters to life. I’ve read excellent authors who seem to want you to appreciate all the work they put into their accurate underclothes research or the mind-numbing social constructs (which may or may not be necessary to understand their plot).

With Bennett, her plot moves effortlessly along, with an emotional intensity that makes me desperate to turn the page. The tone is alternately dark and sinister but with increasing flashes of hope for our couple, even as their time together draws to a close and things get more desperate. Bennett is, hands down, one of the best writers of sexual tension – a tension born of a realistic sexual attraction between two people who are falling in lust and in love at a real pace, albeit perhaps one propelled a little faster by the urgent circumstances of attempting to discover Winter’s enemy. The scene in the taxi? Holy cow!!

Jenn Bennett brings both Prohibition San Francisco and this era to life (take a look at her great RT Times article on the history of the speakeasy during this time), so much so that it’s jarring to return to modern life. Her attention to the very last detail – the clothing, the birth control, the tenuous racial coexistence between groups – demonstrates a familiarity that never, ever ventures into the world of the info dump. Bennett effortlessly transmits the tone, feeling and data we need to understand a world that is both familiar and yet totally foreign to us, and kudos to her for managing to do what so few historical writers can manage, even when we are loving their characters.

Grim Shadows (Roaring Twenties #2 – Lowe and Hadley) by Jenn Bennett (Berkley, June 3, 2014)

And you WILL love her characters, and there are so many to love!! Not only do we have Winter who is the best hunk of tortured hero I’ve seen in a while, but Aida is a modern spitfire who has carved a place in the world for herself that almost defies explanation. The secondary characters – Winter’s biracial sidekick who clearly is a possible love interest for Winter’s younger, impetuous sister, the family servants in the mansion, Aida’s landlady in Chinatown – are so well-drawn that you find yourself spinning possible backstories about them in your head. I’m sure I’ll see their reappearance in the next book of the series, starring Winter’s world-traveling archeologist brother, Lowe, and the curator who gets herself involved with an Egyptian artifact harboring some powerful effects. Their book, Grim Shadows, is due out on June 3rd, so happy birthday to me!

I had literally reached a point where I couldn’t bear one more “meh” Regency romance, but really wanted a historical that would satisfy me. What I got in Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits was a book that haunted me for weeks afterward, reaffirming my belief in this subgenre of romance and rejoicing in the fact that such a talented author exists on this planet. For anyone who loves historical romance and this time period, run out this second and go buy this book.

Happy reading!

You’ll Want to Flirt with Wendy Sparrow’s Latest Novella, On His List

23 Nov

On His List by Wendy Sparrow (Entangled Flirt, November 11, 2013)

When Entangled Publishing – who, next to Avon, is the romance publisher I feel I can trust to have a terrific level of quality and editing – announced they were launching their new Entangled Flirts line, I was intrigued. Anyone reading about the proliferation of ebooks has seen the articles indicating that shorter novellas and episodic books are the hot new item since people want a satisfying story they can read in one sitting amidst all the other activities happening in their lives. Entangled Flirts are designed to be 10K to 40K (think 40 to 80 pages) and cover the areas of contemporary romance, thrillers, and even historical romance fiction.

Huh. This is a fascinating trend, and I definitely wanted to sample the wares to see if the same level of quality that I enjoy in the Brazen (and Covet and Scandalous) line could be present in a shorter package. So I bought a few of them (at $.99, not hard on the wallet) and sat back to test the waters.

My first one was Wendy Sparrow’s On His List and I was WOWED by how such a short novella can back an emotional punch. It’s always a credit to the author’s writing when you finish the last page feeling the emotional satisfaction associated with a longer work, and the story of Remy and Owen definitely fit the bill.

Remy Maison lives in a dive apartment in San Francisco with her brother Denny and while the two of them work their butts off (she as a massage therapist and Denny as a driver) they can’t easily come back from someone stealing their rent money from their coffee can stash. Luckily Denny has an all day driving job with a regular who is a heavy tipper, but when Denny wakes up with one of his migraines, Remy has to sacrifice her day off to meet the guy at the airport and drive him around. Denny has cautioned her ad nauseum how this client is REALLY particular – he loves order, doesn’t want his things touched, and needs silence. This is going to be a challenge for chatty, button pusher Remy, but if the choice is tow the line or get kicked out of their apartment, she’ll somehow manage.

San Francisco (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Until she gets one look at Owen walking off the concourse, that is. Denny neglected to mention that the “client” was a gorgeous, younger guy here to look after his many businesses. While he’s definitely super particular, it’s also obvious that there is some serious heat between them. But Remy knows she needs to keep it professional, yet the urge is there to help Owen push his boundaries, just a little. With Owen living in Miami and Remy not a one-night stand kind of woman, this particular substitution might end up causing more heartache than if they got evicted.

In 60+ pages, Sparrow made the smart choice to keep this story entirely from Remy’s perspective and yet she steered clear of the first person (THANK YOU, WENDY) which keeps the tone of the novella similar to other well-written contemporary romances. The setting of San Francisco is outstandingly written and Remy’s dilemma of wanting to be professional yet at the same time unable to deny her playful personality is well depicted. While there is no consummation of their relationship (the novella is basically the first two days they know each other), there is still so much heat and yearning that I felt very satisfied in the sexy times department. An afterword in the book from the author explains her gratitude to the doctor who has helped treat her OCD, so Owen’s wrestling with Remy throwing him off schedule and marking up his itinerary feels very authentic as a result of Sparrow’s personal experiences.

If this novella is typical of what Entangled new Flirts line is going to offer, I plan on reading many more of these excellent stories. Many thanks to Wendy Sparrow for On His List – Owen would definitely get put in the “to-do” column of my planner!

New Author Alison Packard Packs Emotion Between the Covers of Her Two New Novels

25 Jul

It’s always exciting to find a new author, particularly one who offers the promise of consistently publishing one emotion-packed book after another. When I saw all the rave reviews for The Winning Season and realized it was the second book in an unnamed series, my completionist tendencies had me purchasing both books and sitting down to see if this author lived up to her press.

Wow, did she! Alison Packard writes rich characters who change and grow throughout the books, facing down internal demons while trying to brave enough to accept love for the gift it is. The best part of her writing is that it’s damn smart – where other authors gloss over professions or details and focus on romance, the really good ones actually research in order to produce a world so rich in detail, you believe their characters truly are talented in what they do. This world-building (it’s not just for fantasy, people!) gives a veracity to the novels that makes the reader feel she could reach out and touch the characters.

Her debut novel, Love in the Afternoon, tackles the world of soap operas with such skill I was reminded of Sarah Mayberry’s trilogy, Secret Lives of Daytime Divas, my standard for romance involving this television genre. Kayla Maxwell is an up-and-coming actor on a soap opera who is getting hints that her character will soon be partnered with one of the hottest actors in the business, Sean Barrett. Even the preliminary photo shoot puts her in a twist, but she’s determined to be a professional and work through her slasher-girl past. After a particularly bad breakup with her ex-boyfriend, she’s sworn off men for a while, but Sean is quite the temptation but she’s determined to put 100% into her career. With her character beginning to rise, she’s even getting fan mail, although not all of it is positive.

hollywood-116225_640Sean Barrett is concerned about his character being partnered with an actress who might be second rate. His previous “wife” was killed off to move onto bigger and better things, but she was a consummate professional. Kayla is certainly one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen and he’s shocked to discover his body reacting during their photo shoot. More astonishing is their first rehearsal together – she’s absolutely amazing and everyone on the set appear to admire her. Sean suspects she might be a genuinely nice person, but with an incredibly famous father in the industry, he’s been used by seemingly good people before.

Both of them make a good effort to ignore the heat between them until it becomes apparent that Kayla is being threatened by a crazed fan. With one incident after another, Sean finds himself consumed with the need to protect Kayla – and just as drawn into her spell. Kayla is overwhelmed by the strong feelings she has for Sean but with her stalker pinpointing her moves on every side, Sean’s behavior reminds her too much like that of her controlling ex-boyfriend. When she realizes that, despite what they’ve shared, Sean doesn’t trust her, it’s more painful than the reality of a stranger wanting to take her life.

While the plot moves along in a fairly predictable fashion, the writing is so fantastic that there is a true freshness about this novel. Both Sean and Kayla’s characters are well-drawn and the heat between them goes from simmering to boiling quickly. Great secondary characters not only flesh out the hero and heroine, but – in the case of Sean’s tortured best friend, baseball star Matt Scanlon and Kayla’s sister, Kelly – also set up the next book extremely well. I adored this couple and their love story and fell for Packard’s writing.

The Winning Series by Alison Packard (Carina Press, July 15, 2013)

If the first book was great, the second book was amazing. Nothing was predictable about The Winning Season, which has been garnering rave reviews all over the blogosphere and it’s obvious why after reading it. Matt Scanlon has gone from all-star catcher for the Dodgers to hot mess, released from his contract and picked up by the San Francisco Blaze when their catcher broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. Matt suffered a tragedy a year ago, one that he’s kept a secret while drowning his emotions in women and brawling.

Kelly Maxwell, PR official for the Blaze, is not only horrified to get such a baseball nightmare handed to her but also has to deal with some nasty personal history with Matt. When they both went out to dinner with her sister and her boyfriend, Matt’s best friend and soap star Sean Barrett, Matt managed to make some pretty horrendous comments to Kelly, mostly about the fact that she’s tall and athletic rather than petite and gorgeous like her actor sister. Considering that Kelly had severe eating disorder when she was younger, this was even more hurtful and seeing his attitude upon arrival in San Francisco, he doesn’t seem much better.

golden-gate-bridge-59612_640Matt really is trying to pull himself together, but it’s not easy. One run in after another with Kelly Maxwell and he’s annoyed that he can’t stop thinking about her. A few encounters with her family and he begins to see the woman behind the hard ass, and even Matt has to agree that he’s been a total douche to her. He’s slow to come out of his shell but it’s time with Kelly and the heat between them that has him slowly coming back to himself, paralleling the Blaze’s rise in the standings. He and Kelly both know Matt’s only there until their regular catcher returns, and they decide to give into their desire for one another. Feeling closer to Kelly than any woman in his life, Matt reveals the depth of his loss and only to suffer the ultimate betrayal and the loss of his new relationship.

There was so much damn emotion in this novel that there is no way for a reader not to be utterly gripped by the characters and the plot. Once you discover why Matt has been such a prize-winning ass it’s impossible not to empathize with him and Kelly is a strong, wonderful character who doesn’t take any crap while never being cold. Her family is awesome and the secondary characters of her softball team, co-workers, and the charity the team runs lend further depth to both the hero and heroine. I don’t even like San Francisco as a city and yet the setting was a terrific backdrop to this love story. I can’t wait for Matt’s friend and fellow player J. T. to be the hero of the next story with Kelly’s friend from accounting.

The sole criticism I can level on these two books is – why no series name? There is no way for someone on Amazon or Goodreads to tell these two books are related to one another and considering their intertwined characters and story lines, that’s a disservice. Both books can obviously be read as stand-alones, but with writing like this, who on earth would want to? Since the books are put out by Carina Press, they have the Harlequin empire’s trademark affordability, with the price for each hovering around the three dollar mark. That is a steal considering the quality of both these books.

If you enjoy contemporary romance, do yourself a huge favor and add these books by Alison Packard into your ereader as soon as possible. You will not want to delay enjoying this new author!

Plenty of Suspense and a Little Romance: Guarding Jess by Shannon Curtis

29 Apr

I love romantic suspense as a sub-genre, particularly when the women are strong and the men are a little West of alpha. Guarding Jess by Shannon Curtis has a solid premise – a stalker has targeted Jessica Pennington, etiquette consultant and author, and McCormack Security, a relatively new firm made up of (surprise!) ex-special forces men (I’ll be honest, this never gets tired for me) has been contracted to protect her.

Noah Samuels, recovering from an injury and chaffing to get back in the saddle, gets the assignment and he is less than thrilled.  He thinks he knows Jessica’s type, born with a silver spoon in her mouth and concerned solely with appearances, since his estranged father was in the diplomatic corps and later a high-level businessman.  But Jessica is more than meets the eye (Noah nicknames her Miss Prissy before he begins to understand her better) and her stalker is very, very serious about taking her down.  As Noah must be by her side constantly, the two of them quickly realize the depth of one another’s personalities and how well they mesh together, despite their apparently disperate approaches to life.

I have to confess that I while I enjoyed this book, I’m glad I got a ereader version of it because the cover pisses me off so much that I might not have read it. The author makes careful reference several times to Jessica’s “neat blond bob” so what is up with the cover model’s coloring!?! The male cover model seems like a closer match to Noah, but the tone of the cover isn’t as suspense-y as the content of the book.

Curtis does a terrific job of building up the suspense and horror surrounding Jessica’s stalker. The constant vigilance and suspicion, the invasion of her privacy and the very real threats to her safety all had my adrenaline running. I was a little confused regarding how the person who ended up being the stalker could have had access to Jessica’s personal notes about her clients, but other than that, the plotting and continuity was extremely tight.

Author Shannon Curtis is Australian, but the book is set in San Francisco and there were a few indications that this work was originally destined for a down under or British audience.  I was jerked out of the narrative when they had their terrific kiss in the “car park” and a few other phrases hit a wrong note for an American setting (but nothing a Mills & Boon reader couldn’t handle). I enjoy and expect British or Australian slang in books where the characters or setting are clearly from those countries, but it was a little startling in this instance.

For those fans who enjoy a lot of sensuality throughout the romantic suspense, be aware that you need to be patient and wait for the H/h to come together in Guarding Jess.  There’s plenty of sexual tension (I’m thinking of that car park kissing scene again), and the culmination of that sizzling undercurrent happens at the end of the book during Jessica’s book launch after they think the stalker has been caught (and yowza, when you finally consummate your relationship against a door at a party, it’s bound to be amazing).

The good news is that with plenty of other hot security guys on the job in this book helping Noah eliminate Jessica’s stalker, I feel safe in saying Shannon Curtis has other books about them in the queue for readers eager for more of her take on romantic suspense. I know I’m looking forward to reading them!

Series Review: The Sullivan Series by Bella Andre

13 Mar

I stumbled across Bella Andre last year purely by accident.  I was reading an article last June about successful self-published romance authors and her name popped up.  Coincidentally it was right after she had released her first book of the Sullivan series, The Look of Love.  Be warned, these books are only available as ebooks, so print only romance readers are bound to go unsatisfied.  Maybe this is the push you need to get one of those cheapy Kindles finally?

With over 3600 Twitter followers, Bella Andre is someone who clearly understands the digital world, hence her success.  Already an established print romance novelist, she had books that weren’t being picked up that she wanted to get out there.  Starting with Amazon’s platform she got them up in ebook format, but realized if she marketed to the other ebook websites like Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc., she’d reach a larger audience.  Finding the interface accessible, she forged ahead, selling a thousand titles a day, and retaining a much larger chunk of the proceeds than with a traditional publisher.  Sounds like a savvy, experienced author knew just how to play the self-publishing game!

Bella confesses that she feels one of the key features of her success was the introduction of the Nook Color since it showcases her beautiful covers (and my Kindle iPad app agrees with that).  We know that everyone judges a book by a cover and I was no exception.  I was looking for a romance novel for under $5 that I could download that instant, and when I read all the great reviews for Bella and her books on my Goodreads account, I made the plunge.  She is, hands down, one of the best values in the romance novel world.  I can honestly say that I would pay a lot more for these books (but please don’t raise the price!) but I’m intensely grateful to never have to budget for them.

The first book begins on a rainy night on a road near the Napa Valley vineyard owned by Marcus Sullivan.  His brother, world renowned photographer Chase Sullivan, is driving back to the vineyard when he spots a broken down car driven by a despondent Chloe Peterson.  Spotting the bruise she’s sporting, he realizes this ravishing beauty not only outshines the models which surround him but she is also in serious trouble.

Chloe takes one look at gorgeous Chase and knows she’s in trouble.  Her abusive ex had caught up with her and she’s beginning to despair of ever being free of him.  Yet this handsome man looming over her in the night inspires trust rather than fear.  When he brings her back to the beautiful vineyard where he is having a fashion shoot, she finds herself opening up her body and her heart.  Oh, and the balcony and bathtub scenes. *Mrrrrrooowwww*

Chase is determined to have both those things and Andre’s talented writing breathes life into these two characters from the very first page.  The Sullivans are a family of eight children and their lovely mother who lost their father at an early age.  Each of the kids are distinct individuals and intensely devoted to family.  We’ve got a nice selection of upscale glamour (Smith is a movie star, Chase the noted photographer, Lori the renowned choreographer), a workaholic (Marcus the oldest and the vineyard owner), and the sexy professions (Gabe is a firefighter, Zach a mechanic, and Sophie the librarian).  [Okay, I know that’s seven, and I’m pretty sure there’s a younger sister I’m not thinking of right now, but she hasn’t been the in the stories so much. So sue me!  I’m sure her story will be great, too.]

You end up wanting to just BE a Sullivan!  In the first book, Marcus comes across as a little uptight, mostly due to the references to his cranky, be-yotch girlfriend in San Francisco, but you realize he’s wrestling with something bigger.  The second book, From This Moment On, picks up with Marcus finding out about said girlfriend cheating on him.  He realizes he hasn’t had feelings for her, well, forever, but is wrestling with the fact that he’s so remote and can’t open up to someone.  Is it because of his dad dying so young and leaving Marcus as the male head of the family with all the responsibility?  He decides to blow off steam and head to the nearest club to see if he can indulge in some casual sex and get his mind off his troubles.

Enter Nicola, one of the hottest performers, who is running from a relationship that should carry a scorched earth warning.  Her ex got her name in the tabloids by releasing a video with the two of them…well, you can imagine.  She decides to leave her penthouse hotel suite and head out to a club to see if she can get a little of her self-esteem back.  When she and Marcus catch sight of each other, they quickly leave the club and adjourn to his brother’s empty apartment where…she falls asleep, dead on her feet from her grueling work schedule.

And so begins an incredibly hot, tender romance.  Marcus and Nicola see something in each other, recognizing that they have a deep connection and can see beyond the surface – what everyone else sees – to each person’s real self.  The part at the end of the book where Marcus follows her concerts. *Sigh*  So romantic.

The third book, Can’t Help Falling in Love, leaves the wealthier Sullivans behind and focuses on sexy firefighter, Gabe, who is literally in the middle of battling an apartment fire, to make his way to a woman and child trapped behind a wall of flame.  It’s Megan Harris, who is busy shielding her young daughter in their bathtub, praying help comes in time. Gabe injures himself in the process, but manages to save both their lives and when she and her adorable little daughter go to thank their savior, the sparks that fly could easily cause another inferno.

But rather than elation, Megan and Gabe both feel a kind of panic.  Megan is a widow whose husband was an adrenaline junkie so she’s had her fill of men who have potentially fatal jobs and now she has a little girl to worry about hurting with a relationship that doesn’t last.  Gabe is beside himself – he falls for Megan’s daughter as hard as for her stunning mother, but he had a previous hook-up/relationship with a woman he had saved and she went Swimfan on him in a big way.  Watching the two of them work through their issues and recognize how important they are to each other is a sensual, occasionally painful joy.

Which brings us to the most recent Sullivan novel, I Only Have Eyes for You, just released February 21st.  Librarian Sophie is twin to choreographer Lori, and their respective nicknames Nice and Naughty, describe how the family sees their personalities.  In previous novels, we’ve gotten the sense of how Sophie has feelings for Jake McCann, her brother Zach’s good friend and someone the family calls “the ninth Sullivan”.

This story opens at Chase and Chloe’s wedding, which Sophie has organized.  She’s decided that no matter what (including the warnings from her twin, Lori) she is going to make Jake notice her, and her clingy pink bridesmaid’s gown and movie star hair and makeup have him picking his jaw off the floor.

Jake has actually loved Sophie from a distance since they were both little, but his crappy home life (abandoned by his mother and raised by an abusive alcoholic father) and academic shortcomings have him believing he’s not good enough for her.  Yet seeing her at the wedding and thinking of her with someone else make him mental.  Even though he knows he’s wrong for her, when she throws herself at him, he catches her with open arms, only to have the best night of both of their lives.

But the following morning, he steers clear of her like she has the plague, despite knowing that he’s hurting her, thinking it’s for the best.  Until two and a half months later when Sophie has an announcement which will change both their lives – if they let it.

Jake and Sophie are both fabulous characters and I love the way Bella Andre weaves in the previous characters seamlessly but not intrusively.  The focus is always on the couple involved but the enthusiastic reader still finds themselves wrapped in Sullivan love and affection while not feeling like the other characters are living some kind of epilogue in the middle of the current novel.  It’s a skill I wish other authors would master.

Consider the value in these books.  At $4.99 for each book, $20 for the series, you get four terrific novels about a family you simply can’t get enough of.  No editing errors, fabulous characters, and fresh, sensual plots with heart-wrenching love – this is undoubtedly one of the best values for the money.  If you have an ereader of any kind, I would strongly encourage you to give this series a chance.  You’ll be happy you did!

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