Love in the Margins

Love in the Margins is a group romance blog trying to hit on the love stories that represent us all. We welcome discussion and criticism as we read through the stories of those whose lives don’t fit into the neat and tidy box labeled “default.”

Between The Devil And Ian Eversea by Julie Anne Long

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea - Julie Anne Long

Avon has got to get a grip on their titles. I don’t even know who The Devil is in this book. The heroine? Her incredibly patient guardian? Didn’t they just use this on a Sophia Nash title? Avon, please. Stop. It’s not cute. It’s The Billionaire’s Greek Baby ridiculous now. Between The Devil And Ian Eversea (hereafter referred to as Book Nine) is the latest entry in Julie Anne Long’s wallpaper historical series about rich warring families and a couple who allegedly show back up in book ten or eleven. (Put me down for Team No Reunion). I’ve read maybe five of these and as usual Long frustrates me. There’s so much she does well that the big failures fall even harder.


Book Nine is incredibly forgettable. Tansy, our briefly Americanized orphan, could have been a heartbreaking story. She’s lost her entire family to various strains of illness and violence. She’s returning to England intent on creating a life that matches her dreamy childhood memories. Tansy has self esteem issues that manifest in her desire to charm every man she meets. Tansy beguiles them for amusement then drops them gently to the floor. She’s a Hermetically Sealed Heroine playing at being a rake.


Ian is the true rake of the book, the Lothario begging for reformation. We meet him (of course) taking his leave of one unforgettable woman and planning to make his way to the next. Ultimately it’s Tansy who will open his eyes to the cruelty of his game, even as he opens his eyes to hers. It feels like a shallow realization. Tansy and Ian are a reality tv version of character redemption. Nothing truly tests them but their own selfishness. Tansy’s losses have neither grounded her nor deepened her. There’s no reason to believe either of them won’t balk at the first fence in their path and hie off across the field.


Despite Tansy’s guardian loathing Ian (for very solid reasons) Ian and Tansy end up in the bedrooms next door to each other. Because if I have a seducer in the family and a vulnerable wealthy ward I am absolutely going to put them together in the deserted section of the house where hijinks may ensue at will. Because why not? Who would even consider checking on that? Tansy makes friends with the kitchen staff, as you do, because the kitchen staff lives to humanize the inhuman aristocratic characters. Knowing your waiter’s name is way more important than being a decent person.


Neither Ian nor Tansy are very decent. They’re both selfish children. Ian learns that he needs Tansy to be happy, because she satisfies needs in him that aren’t being met by his endeavors. Tansy learns she needs Ian because he was harder to get than the other boys. Plus they had sex. So, you know. Predictable things happen predictably and the curtain closes. But wait – what about Olivia Eversea?


Olivia lives in the same house as Tansy. Tansy decides she’s an enemy because she is equally beautiful. Tansy barely speaks to Olivia, who barely speaks to her. Why would Olivia bother to befriend the anti social and obviously fake arrival? Tansy wants to play games and keep score. She wants to turn the head of other women’s love interests despite not wanting them herself. Where’s the upside for Olivia in that relationship? Since Long makes the bizarre choice to have Tansy interact almost solely with male characters (except the cook) despite living in a house full of women, Olivia goes about her day.


There’s a point in Book Nine meant to show Tansy’s growth. Men begin sending more floral offerings to Tansy than Olivia. One morning Tansy removes the cards from her daily bounty and tells the footmen to deceive Olivia. I wanted to slap her face off. Does she think Olivia is stupid? Does she think Olivia is so rude as to never send thank you notes for these gifts, notes that require cards? Does she think her pity will impress Olivia or that Olivia, whom she knows not at all, would appreciate such a gesture? She’s been trying to take Olivia’s man, sleeping with Olivia’s brother and she thinks giving Olivia cast off flowers is a good olive branch? Oh, Tansy. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out of Olivia’s life.


Final Assessment: Readable style can’t overcome shallow leads in a better than average mistorical. B-


Series: Book 9 of Pennyroyal Green


Source: Copy provided for review.

Breaking All The Rules by Rhonda McKnight

Breaking All the Rules (Second Chances Book 1) - Rhonda McKnight

This was a DNF by the end of the sample. I’m going to lay out my objections with the caveat that the premise itself was pretty much a deal breaker for me. Breaking all The Rules pushed a ton of Nope buttons from the first page forward. Rhonda McKnight writes in the first person. I’m finding this far more common in black romance than I’m used to. It’s something I personally dislike, as it demands I live inside the narrating character instead of having the freedom to choose my own focus.


Deniece is a wedding planner who has failed to escape from an extremely toxic family. What she narrates as her sister’s spoiled point of view reads to me as impossibly self involved. The book opens as her sister lands a number of body blows in rapid succession. She is marrying Deniece’s former lover. She is six months pregnant. She expects Deniece to take an immediate leave from her job and plan this wedding. She dreams of a lavish ceremony despite being broke and frequently depending on money from Deniece to make ends meet. Oh. Hell. No.

“I know you’re surprised and all, because who would have thought I’d be interested in your leftovers, but it’s a long story how we got to know each other and although I feel kind of bad that he’s kinda ex-ish for you, I can’t help but be happy because I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

The rest of the sample is dedicated to Deneice’s feelings of inadequacy as she struggles to put all of her emotions aside. I didn’t understand how anyone, even the most self deprecating person, would climb on this cross. Not only had her sister failed to inform her of her involvement with Deniece’s ex, she had done so long enough to be weeks away from delivering his child. There’s low self esteem and then there’s pathological self harm. Deniece definitely belongs in the latter category. According to the final pages of the sample Deniece will get her mojo back with a younger man who calls her Nectar. I wished her luck and gave up.


Final Assessment: Toxic family dynamics pushed me right out. DNF


Source: Kindle Sample


Series: Second Chance

The Trouble With Heroes by Jo Beverley

The Trouble With Heroes... - Jo Beverley

The Trouble With Heroes feels incomplete. Stepping outside of her customary genre has given Beverley the freedom to experiment more widely with a theme that often appears in her full length works. Unfortunately, she pulls her final punch. Set in one of earth’s future colonies on a host planet that appeared perfect for a utopian existence, humans who have known no other planet maintain a deceptively peaceful life. Early settlers discovered that some were born knowing how to harness the planet’s natural energy, giving them the honored career of a fixer.


Fixers spend their lives guarding against an invasion by poorly understood indigenous life forms who attack so rarely they seem almost mythical. The day to day responsibility of a fixer is to lay hands of healing on the population, repairing broken limbs and soothing unrest. Jenny feels the edges of the fixer energy. Dan, her childhood friend, is a fixer. He wants more from her than friendship, something he barely pursues while hinting at an ability to compel her compliance.


Early in the novella it was difficult for me to stay interested. An interesting tale of refugees lining the city walls warred with overly cute references to Monty Python films as historical artifacts. The Python bits fit neither the tone of the story nor the logic of the settlement’s timeline. Once past that DNF danger zone, The Trouble With Heroes opened up. Beverley plays with the subject of war, it’s culture and costs. From the streets named for the fallen to the populations discomfort with those who return, The Trouble With Heroes had a strong story to tell. In the end, this novella was too short.


The ending of Jenny’s story is neatly wrapped in an unearned bow. The resolution feels more like a prologue than a HFN. Jenny is inconsistent in her actions and desires without clear cause. The indigenous population of the settled planet is left unresolved. What the locusts are, if they will return, if the fixers have committed genocide – all of these points are left to the readers speculation. It isn’t done in a way that feels purposeful. While this is the strongest of the SF/F novellas I’ve read from Beverley, it didn’t really satisfy.


Final Assessment: Strong message about the costs of war but ultimately unsatisfying. C+


Source: Purchased copy

Island Peril by Jill Sorenson

Island Peril - Jill Sorenson

Everything I disliked about Island Peril can be summed up in one phrase “I grew up in South Florida in the 70′s and 80′s.” But we can get to that. Jill Sorenson tweeted a link to Island Peril as a free read so I decided to give it a shot. My expectations were low. I thought she wrote Navy Seal type stuff instead of Elizabeth Lowell type stuff. Overall I loved it. I’m going to read one of her full length books as a comparison.


Ella is a science nerd with extremely controversial thoughts on the Star Wars films. She’s also a physically active woman who has taken the place of her ex-brother-in-law on a family trip with her adult niece. Ella is the too busy to date type. Paul works for the outdoor adventure company running the trip. He looks good in very little, which catches Ella’s attention. When he turns out to be a teacher, she’s even more intrigued. Events conspire to leave them alone and in danger because this is a romantic suspense and that’s how we do it.

At the end of the session, he lowered his paddle and turned around to face them. “Any questions?” “Are there speleothems inside the caves?” Ella asked. His gaze sharpened in appraisal. She knew how nerdy she sounded; Abby was practically groaning beside her. Ella had tried to dial it down on the science terms, but they popped out whenever she was nervous. “Stalagmites, stalactites, that sort of thing,” she said, blushing. “Those are more common in limestone caves,” he said. “The ones we’re visiting are mostly volcanic.”


(show spoiler)


Anyway, once that went down I knew Paul and Ella were in for some difficult times. I liked the way their attraction was not based solely on proximity, but arose during peaceful discussions about their normal lives. Ella was a complex character (for a novella) with a full history. Paul had more nuance that he needed, which is a welcome change from And Then A Hot Guy Arrives. Overall it was a very enjoyable look at Sorenson’s style that made me interested in reading more.


Final Assessment: Fun action read with head desk moment. A -


Source: Purchased copy


Series: Aftershock

A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser

A Dream Defiant - Susanna Fraser

I picked this one up a while ago based on the unusual pairing for a regency, and then promptly forgot about it since my TBR is out of control. When I was ranting again on Twitter about how hard it is to find romance with POC characters, someone brought it up as a suggestion. I’ve been starting and discarding books for days, and this was only a novella, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It was a quick read but, unfortunately, not a very good one.


Like Fraser’s other books, A Dream Defiant takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. We meet our hero, Corporal Elijah Cameron, as he and his men are looting a French supply train after a victory. When one of his men is mortally wounded by a French straggler in a struggle over a ruby necklace, Elijah promises the dying man that he’ll give the jewelry to the man’s wife, Rose Merrifield, so that she can sell it and “be what she wants”. Of course, giving a now unprotected woman in a military camp a treasure like that makes Rose a target for schemers, so she and Elijah enter into a practical marriage of convenience.


And, that’s it, pretty much. The premise is basically a plot synopsis. Rose keeps saying she loved her husband, but three days after he dies she marries Elijah, and a week after that they’re knocking boots and exchanging I-love-yous. After that, the book jumps two years into the future, where Elijah solves racism with a clever pep talk. There’s an almost complete lack of internal conflict and very little went into developing the romance.


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Heavy Metal Heart by Nico Rosso

Heavy Metal Heart - Nico Rosso

Rock Star. Front man. Demon. A descendant of satyrs and the lead singer in a band that feeds on the energy of its audience, Trevor Sand is growing weary of the constant need to perform. He needs the legend of the Muse—a woman destined to be a demon’s eternal companion and only source of sustenance—to be true.


Misty Grant has never been bold, but when Trevor singles her out among hundreds at a concert, she takes him up on his explicit offer. During an erotic night in his hotel room, she learns that his touch is as electric as his lyrics. But when Trevor’s demon is aroused, her desire turns to horror and she runs.


Knowing that he’ll die if he loses her, Trevor must find Misty before his enemies do. But even if he can save her, he knows that regaining the trust of his fated Muse will be his greatest challenge


I should have finished this in one sitting, but the flu and my own writing kept getting in the way. Stupid life. Anywhoodle. I liked this action packed novella. And I mean action packed. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary romance lately and CR is surprising lacking in supernatural fight scenes.


Misty Grant is working a job she’s not wild about and living in a city she’s not to keen on. When she has the chance to catch her favorite band with her favorite leading man at a Hollywood club, she risks being late for work the next day to catch the band live. Trevor Sand is a Demon-Satyr who is has been sort of looking for his muse for a million some odd years. I say sort of, because he and his band mates(who are also demon dudes) are having some doubts as to whether these muses actually exist. Oh, but they are about to find out.


I won’t spoil the deets, but Misty manages to get close to the band and even closer to

Trevor, if you know what I mean. Trevor then realizes that Misty is the goddess he’s been sort of looking for all along. As with any good paranormal romance, they run into some paranormal danger and battle that danger to stay together.

So here’s what I liked.


Misty and Trevor were both likeable folks. Misty’s smart and realistic when it comes to her own safety, which some heroines like to suddenly forget once they meet their supernatural stud muffin. Though he’s a uber famous rock star/demon, Trevor is a nice guy. Rosso avoids all opportunities to turn Trevor into a jerk/monster just because he isn’t human. He checks in with Misty every step of the way which makes their fated mates connection easy to swallow.


I loved the descriptions of Trevor’s powers and how he draws energy from his fans. The descriptions are very vivid and I could see myself in the crowded club singing and dancing along with the madness.


The sex is plentiful and hot. The first sex scene is POW hot and creative and the subsequent sex scenes are all different, which I appreciate. I hate reading the same sex scene five times.


Rosso also wrote bits of five or so songs to work into the narrative. I thought the lyrics broke up the prose nicely and kept the reader grounded to the fact that Trevor is a rockstar at heart. His status isn’t used as a setup and then tossed to the wayside as soon as he meets Misty. There’s also a bit about their connection in the lyrics, but I don’t want to spoil that either.


Lastly, I loved the action. Misty and Trevor have to battle some supernatural baddies. Misty isn’t hanging with her local fight club, but she holds her own, tapping into her natural fight or flight response and kicking and punching as hard as she can to help save her own butt.


Here’s what didn’t work for me.


The whole story takes place in twenty-four hours. I think it would have worked a little better if it was stretched out over a few days. Misty has a lot of new info to sort through. Supernatural evil is after them and she and Trevor have to have some sex. There were moments where I wanted to shake them both and tell them to stop hooking up. THERE’S DANGER COMING FOR YOU, DAMN IT! A longer timeline would have smoothed out the transitions into the sex pit stops.


There was also this part with a Hispanic pizza delivery guy. He does the two a solid, but the whole time I kept thinking, wouldn’t he be worried about losing his job?. I’m just super aware of what people of color are and aren’t willing to do when they are on the clock, even for rock stars.


Overall, I enjoyed this novella. Rosso is working on a sequel which I will definitely check out. I want to see what’s in store for Trevor’s band-mates.


Final Assessment: Should you read it? Yeah. It’s fun and quick and sexy. Grade: B


Series: Demon Rock


The Best American Comics 2013

The Best American Comics 2013 - Jeff Smith, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden

Someday I’ll learn to stop looking at The Best American Comics series. As someone who loves comics but has exhausted her patience for violence against women as shorthand for meaningful commentary the series often exhausts me.


Beginning with an excerpt from what I would argue was Alison Bechdel’s weakest book and ending with pinups on the moon the 2013 TBAC was the first collection that didn’t make me seek out at least one full book. My view may have been colored by the inclusion of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, a work I absolutely loathed. Just seeing Habibi in the credits made me set the pre-release copy aside for weeks. (Typing the phrase Craig Thompson’s Habibi makes me want to stop writing this review.)


Whatever, we move on. There’s a ton of sexualized violence toward women on display. I’m sure it’s very profound to visualize the wife as something you can literally dismember to make full use of but haven’t we worn that tired song out yet? How many rape fantasies do we really need to commit to paper? I’m starting to think the easiest way to get into TBAC is to depict as much sexual violence as a PG-13 rating will permit. Or go farther, but give them a few milder pages to include.


With Kate Beaton as the cover artist TBAC is trying to have it all ways. Look girls! A book not solely concerned with rape and mutilation! It’s true that Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant is always welcome. In this context it seems even more unlike the rest of the field. Eleanor Davis offers a post apocalyptic setting for Nita Goes Home. It’s possibly the most interesting of the group as it pits a self indulgent artist against her family of origin. Even as she strives to relate to them she continues to condescend. Their paths have taken them to different realities. Nita, who has the easier existence, is the more mentally fragile. Derf Backderf is included for a few pages from My Friend Dahmer, a book I considered reading but skipped. An exploration of the young serial killer is probably of interest to many readers but I’m not one of them. Backderf uses a style suited to the 1970′s in his almost loving exploration of their shared childhood. Let’s just say Backderf isn’t the only person to grow up with a serial killer and leave it there.


I enjoy much of Laura Park’s work, but the included piece, George (about a man who treats terrorism as a hobby) isn’t my favorite. It’s slight and sometimes clever. It’s a moment in time without weight. However, Park is worth checking out as an artist. If you were going to take only one suggestion from this year’s TBAC she’d be my choice. I know there are better comics out there, Park is proof. I wish the series would lift it’s gaze from the exploitation of women’s bodies and produce a collection designed to trigger the mind instead of the traumatic past of a reader.


Final Assessment: If you must. Some interesting young voices but mostly familiar faces and sexualized violence. D


Source: Copy provided for review.


DNF Sample: Beast Behaving Badly by Shelly Laurenston

Beast Behaving Badly - Shelly Laurenston

During our conversation on Paranormal as the new Savage, Robin suggested I try Shelly Laurenston. I downloaded a sample of Beast Behaving Badly but found myself unable to commit. Whatever switch her books flip for people is one not found in my circuit panel. Rather than changing my mind about PNR’s place in the genre, Beast Behaving Badly reinforced it. Our first scene finds the hero engaged in a brutal fight. (He’s a hockey player. I don’t speak hockey so we will assume blood spatter is a good thing and move forward.) The heroine immediately treats us to her thoughts on the hero’s ethnic heritage.


“Of course, his saving grace had been that he wasn’t one of the more feared— and, to be quite honest, more unstable— canine hybrids like Blayne, but a rare by-product of species crossbreeding. Specifically a polar bear– lion. Or, as Blayne always secretly thought of him, a mighty bear-cat. A much cuter name in Blayne’s estimation than polar bear– lion. But bears breeding with felines was such a rare thing— and damn near nonexistent more than twenty-five years ago— that they didn’t have any cute nicknames like coydogs for coyote-dogs or ligers and tigons for lion and tiger mixes.” - Laurenston, Shelly. Beast Behaving Badly (The Pride Series) (Kindle Locations 66-70). Kensington. Kindle Edition.


Well then. There follows a dizzying assessment of ethnicities as each character is defined by how much of what heritage they hold. In the SR this would have been depicted as quadroon, mulatto, half breed and such. Here characters are Liger or Polar Cub. Humans are still apparently present but inferior. Our heroine’s father is described as such a sports fan that he’s willing to watch full humans play games. Is this the equivalent of college ball or Little League? It’s not immediately clear. What we do learn is that humans are weak. Bears and Foxes are dominant. Hyenas make good agents. Blood sports are the best sports. (Our heroine disagrees with that last point, but she’s kind of an idiot.)


A secondary female character is introduced and shunned for her desire to catch a profitable match. This tiering of “good” women and “bad” women continues with the inference that hockey players must fend off an endless sea of women hoping to breed (yes, breed) a dynasty. Pressure is placed on the heroine to date the hero for prestige and to punish the bad female character. (Did I mention the heroine is an idiot?) I can’t say the hero is a particularly deep thinker what with giving up millions so he can play for a team because a woman he saw once (ten years ago) is having dinner. Some people would walk up and introduce themselves. He signs a contract in case it leads to eventually finding out her name. Then he does nothing to further his goal except show up to work. But back to the heroine.


Ten years ago the guy looked at her and she decided (based on his glance) that he was a predatory serial killer. She ran screaming from the ice rink and barricaded herself inside her home. (Wait. I changed my mind. The hero is dumber.) Fast forward a decade and she still thinks he’s a killer because of his violence on the rink and her fascination with serial killers in general. (Karen Robards fan?) She hides in a bathroom while he asks to speak with her. Seconds later he’s ripping the door off the hinges. Her response is that a) she won’t pay for the door and b) won’t let him take her to a secondary location and c) forgot she had a cell phone in her pocket to call 911 but d) isn’t dead so maybe he’s not a serial killer after all. Like I said, she’s a rocket scientist.


Fast forward to the obligatory home scenes where we discover our viciously angry sports hero is really just a shy introvert with a gender bias who dislikes company. He surrounds himself with take them or leave them friends. He’s a big ol’ Polar Cat on the inside. (Awwww. Get your furry on, kids! Throw in a sad backstory and… What’s that Lassie? He has one? Good dog!) Meanwhile our heroine is treated to the shock and awe of her nearest and dearest at the revelation she might know this gladiator of the rink. Despite her protestations that he’s the antithesis of everything she values savvy readers know she’s all talk. She’ll be his latest buckle bunny before you can say Giddy Up!


Laurenston reminded me strongly of Jayne Ann Krentz in her early PNR days with a side of splatter-gore. Nothing in the Kindle sample urged me to read further. Everything begged me to stop.


Final Assessment – I’m sure it’s awesome if you like that sort of thing. DNF


Source – Kindle Sample


Curve Ball by Charlotte Stein

Curve Ball - Charlotte Stein

Life got in the way this week, and we didn’t have a review to run today, so please enjoy this repost from my basically defunct personal blog. I lovingly copied and pasted it just for you, because I care.


This is a short little novella so there’s not a ton to discuss. It’s a girl-carries-a-flame-for-her-older-brother’s-friend story featuring a curvy heroine and a muscular hero, but the story is almost inconsequential. The beauty of this book is in the telling.


It’s told in first-person present tense from the heroine’s point of view, which I typically loathe. Stein, however puts on a clinic for How It Should Be Done. The heroine’s personality is front and center, pouring from the little asides and stream of consciousness. You feel all of her emotions along with her as she puzzles them out with the reader. Occasionally she breaks out in Pratchett-like lists, at one point making me break out in hysterical laughter in the middle of some seriously hot sexual tension:


c) There is something pressing into the small of my back, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t a tube of Rolos. And if it is, he really needs to tell me where he bought such an enormous packet.

I love Rolos.


I will add a caveat or a content note to this, as it deals with fat in a way that some people might find problematic.


Early in the story, Steven, the hero, tells a story using a lot of fat-phobic and fat-shaming language:


‘So I picked up this cute little fat chick,’

‘And I mean, she was a big girl. I could hardly get my arms around her waist.’

‘And her arse … Man, her arse was the size of a small planet.’
‘But the best part was these thighs she had … These big, billowing thighs.’
‘It was like an avalanche of flesh, on top of me. At one point, I was genuinely afraid for my life – one false move and I could have been crushed.’

‘But then it turned out that she was a total maniac who liked to eat paint. Thank God she was heavy … I didn’t have to run all that fast to get away from her.’


The heroine, being fat (“Anything over a size two would likely make the grade, in his eyes, and I passed that stage around 12 levels ago. You could times his ideal size by seven and still not get where I’m at.”), naturally takes offense at his language and blows up, effectively telling him to go fuck himself. Now, he’s immediately sorry he’s hurt her feelings, and I think a later conversation gives his comments some context that make them more about the girl he’s disparaging than a dig at fatness, but YMMV.


I liked how body image was used in the story, for the most part. I thought Judy was insecure about her body without ever drifting into self-loathing. She frequently frets about Steven’s opinion of her body, but seems to also view his potential rejection as his own damn problem, and not a measure of her self-worth. The story also seems to avoid the common “a man loves your body, therefore you’re lovable” pitfall I often see in fat romance. It does a good job of showing that Steven’s attracted to Judy in particular, and that’s the source of his affinity for a curvy woman (‘I really like curvy girls.’ He pauses, right before the kicker. Then he delivers it, with all the punch he can muster. ‘Probably because of you.’)


I am, as many of you know, skinny as a toothpick, and really haven’t got any experience with “extra” weight, so if you read this differently, I’m all ears.


Final Assessment: If this were an HFN rather than an HEA, I’d give it five stars. The emotion and passion was just completely awesome and the narration was pitch-fucking-perfect. I just thought the ILYs at the end felt rushed and unnecessary. B+


The Sum of All Kisses by Julia Quinn

The Sum of All Kisses - Julia Quinn

Is there such a thing as Eloisa James disease? If there is, Julia Quinn caught a bad case of it. I'm so frustrated by The Sum of All Kisses. We begin in such a fantastic place that I start to think this is going to be my favorite Quinn book ever and we end in such a pile of melodrama that it makes Eloisa's chicken coop scene in When Beauty Tamed The Beast look restrained. Seriously, it's the late night infomercial of melodrama. (Now how much would you believe? Not that much.)


We start off with Hugh, the second son of the very crazy Ramsgate. Hugh was the other party in Daniel Smythe-Smith's duel, (in A Night Like This) leaving Hugh with a ton of baggage and a bad leg. For much of the book Quinn gets Hugh exactly right. He's intelligent, he's capable, he's ambulatory with practical adjustments for his physical stamina. There is the occasional insertion of nonsensical no-woman-will-want-me thoughts but it's initially kept to a minimum. Hugh has a fierce loyalty to those he loves, and he loves Daniel Smythe-Smith so circumstances require him to attend the marriages of Daniel and Daniel's sister Honoria. This obligation places him in close proximity to their cousin, Lady Sarah Pleinsworth. Sarah is equally fierce in loyalty to those she loves which puts Hugh on the wrong side of her before they've even met. Further alienating them is the duel itself causing Sarah to miss her first, and possibly best, chance at the marriage mart.


For much of the book I truly enjoyed Sarah and Hugh. The emotional, dramatic heroine and the arch, cerebral hero are the perfect pair for a dialogue driven novel. Quinn writes realistic sibling relationships and when she sticks to the interpersonal dynamics the book soars. (The only false note is a sharp scene where Sarah's cousin takes what appears to be a completely unfair shot. Quinn likes to write with interconnected timelines so I assume this will be explored in the next Smythe-Smith installment.) The exploration of divided and colliding loyalties in the lives of the Hugh, Sarah and the Smythe-Smiths is some of the finest genre work I've read this year. It was love. Until it wasn't.


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The Sinful Art of Revenge by Maya Blake

The Sinful Art of Revenge - Maya Blake

I have a complicated relationship with Harlequin Presents. On the one hand, they’re a seductive fantasy, like a contemporary fairy tale. They take place in a world where wealth and privilege have made it so the only challenges left to the characters are the interpersonal. Everything external drops away to focus on the hero and heroine and the angst and drama. There are French chateaus, designer gowns, gala events and elaborate secrets that threaten to destroy it all.


The secretive art dealer Reiko Kagawa wears the designer gowns in The Sinful Art of Revenge, and the French aristocrat and art collector Damion Fortier provides the French chateau. Like many of my favorite Presents, the couple has a shared past, and the book begins five years after a passionate weeks-long affair that ended with Damion bankrupting her grandfather and both feeling betrayed by the other. (Why Damion feels betrayed by Reiko seeing someone else a few weeks after he reveals that, surprise!, he’s given her a phony name and is actually the heir of the man her grandfather owes a fortune to escapes me, but this is HP land, so let’s roll with it.) Blake wastes no time placing the reader down in a tense scene of high drama and opens with Damion driving his expensive sports car to the back door of a run down English country home then climbing through the bushes to spy on the heroine through the windows.



Reiko of course feels a presence watching her and takes it in stride when Damion flings the door open and confronts her. He’s had his people trying to find her, you see, and how dare she not want to be found. He needs her to find some art that’s important to his dying grandfather. Reiko isn’t the same naive ingenue she was five years ago, and she tells him just where he can stick his stalking, trespassing and bossing around. After she does that, she agrees to fly to Paris with him the next day and do what he demanded.


Presents have an almost claustrophobic feel to them, and this book is no exception. Despite being set in England, Paris, Tokyo and the French countryside, the absence of important secondary characters or side-plots makes it so that you never look away from the main couple and their drama. The cameo-style cover for this line suits it well, because for all of the descriptions of far-off destinations and exclusive luxury, the action feels like it’s always filmed in closeup.


After the stage is set, each scene has the hero and heroine passing heated looks and words back and forth while either gripping each other passionately or trying desperately to resist gripping the other in a passionate embrace. Presents take that fine line between love and hate and take it down to a single pixel. Between the fighting over secrets and the punishing kisses, it’s like watching a soap opera, or a wicked hot mess of a date at the table next to you in a restaurant. For all it’s evident that this stuff is seven kinds of messed up, it’s highly entertaining.


As fun as all of this melodrama is, however, on the other hand the elements employed to achieve it are often SUPER problematic. This book has something for everyone in it. I will say up front that our half-Japanese heroine is never compared to a china doll or a geisha, and that was a relief. There’s a throwaway line about ninjas, because of course there is, but the fetishization and exotification was close to nil. Have a cookie, author. Instead, there’s some squicky gender essentialism where the heroine declares herself not a Real Woman, since she can’t have PIV sex or children.


How could she offer someone else hope when she herself had lost everything— even the ability to be a real woman?

There’s some amazing slut shaming when she tells the hero how many men she’s been with.(Don’t worry. Later on she says she didn’t sleep with any of them.)


She named the figure . Damion’s face turned ashen beneath his normally healthy tan. Before her very eyes she saw him recoil. His throat moved as he visibly swallowed.

And every second Reiko lived through the look in his eyes made her want to sink into the ground.

He surged to his feet. And without another word he walked out.


There is a metric fuck ton of ableist wangst over the scars and nightmares the heroine got from a terrible train accident where the heroine considers herself damaged and is grateful that the hero sees past it. The hero is jealous and possessive to the point that he angrily demands she not touch anyone else or dress in ways that invite male attention. Then, to top it all off, the author gives the infertile heroine a magical baby epilogue. Because of course she did.


To add insult to injury, the sex writing was worthy of The Twatspert.


A shudder raked his powerful frame. ‘Reiko, I need to make sure you’re ready. I can take this as slow as you want.’ His voice held a gently pleading quality that lit a triumphant flame in her heart.

Boldly, she raised one leg and slid it over his thigh. ‘I’m ready. Feel free to check it out for yourself.’


Final Assessment: Due to the fantasy nature of Presents, I’m willing to overlook a lot of of problematic elements, and Blake has a great handle on the over-the-top atmosphere that I read the line for. This was just one trope too many and I couldn’t suspend disbelief. C-


If The Shoe Fits by Megan Mulry

If the Shoe Fits - Megan Mulry

In the interest of disclosure, I follow Megan on Twitter and have done since before she was published. (Now that I'm reviewing her books she no doubt regrets that.) The beginning of If The Shoe Fits is brilliant. Then the clock strikes midnight. Well, at least for me. I think many of my issues with Sarah and Devon are unlikely to bother other readers.


Sarah James is a Hermetically Sealed Heroine. And yet, I didn't hate her. She was a believable twenty something virgin instead of an improbable one. Having decided she's ready for a fling, Sarah offers Devon a weekend of no strings sex while they both attend a wedding. The opening chapters are light and fun. Sarah joins the promiscuous world and Devon marvels at the freedom a plain speaking woman holds. I was thinking “I'm going to love, love, love this story” even as I was reading it. Sarah is neither plus size nor thin. She makes casual references to her size without being overly focused on it. As a woman working in fashion, her curvier figure could have been truly annoying (if mishandled) but Mulry wisely leaves it on the sidelines. As the wedding weekend ends, Sarah returns to her everyday life. This is where we start to unravel.


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The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody

The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin - Colette Moody

I love a good swashbuckler story. They’re like westerns, only wet. It’s all dashing tales of derring-do where wrongs are set right and scrappy loudmouths make their fortunes and look good doing it. I love the action and the attitude of swashbucklers, and The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin has both of these things in abundance.


When her father, the captain of the pirate ship Original Sin, is shot in the chest during an attack by the Royal Navy, Gayle Malvern desperately needs a surgeon. When she finds out that theirs was killed in the raid that injured her father, she has no choice but to send some men to shore to scare up a new one. Unfortunately for them, the town’s doctor was not available and Celia Pierce, his seamstress fiance, would have to do for now.


Celia is shocked at her abduction at first, but quickly adjusts to the situation. After helping the oddly attractive pirate sew up wounds, she wonders if maybe this is the grand adventure she’s always wished for. Lord knows she wasn’t looking forward to her impending marriage to the doctor who hid and left her for the pirates. Why not enjoy a last fling?



And what a fling it is! There's a gypsy's fortune, a daring rescue, a hurricane, a betrayal and, of course, plenty of romance. Couple the non-stop action with a playful and sometimes cocky attitude, and it's about all you can ask for from a pirate romance.

The book quite literally opens with a bang when a Royal Navy sailor squeezes the trigger on his gun shortly before a pirate runs him through with a cutlass, which tells you right away that this pirate story pulls few punches. These pirates may be the good guys, but they aren’t afraid to cut some throats when the situation arises.


“Don’t make a mistake you’ll regret, Captain,” Gayle warned. “It may prove fatal.”

Santiago laughed and continued toward her. “You have spirit,” he announced. “I will truly enjoy fucking it out of you.” Gayle’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t move. When Santiago reached her, he scrutinized her, scratching his patchy dark beard. “How long do you think it will take me to make you cry and beg for mercy, eh?”

Her chin came up defiantly. “Longer than you’ve got on this earth.”

He laughed again and captured her left wrist. “Would you like to wager on that, bribona?” he goaded her, his face very close to hers. He tilted his head to menacingly sniff her hair.

“Aye, I would,” she growled. Before Celia was even fully aware of what she was watching, Gayle had pulled out a dagger and jammed it hilt-deep through Santiago’s chin and up through the roof of his mouth. The Spaniard’s eyes grew glassy as Celia watched the life leave them. Gayle removed the blade from his head as his body fell away from her, and his blood seeped slowly onto the deck. “I win,” she whispered.


Anyone who isn't comfortable with violence and extrajudicial killing might want to give this one a pass. While most of the dead were indisputably bad seeds, the violence in the book is graphic and fairly frequent. I did flinch a few times at the cold-blooded killing, even though it generally made sense in context.


I did appreciate, however, that the narrative interrogated the use of violence somewhat.


Celia shook her head and stood without aid. Rigid and in shock, she wrung her hands nervously. “How could you have done this?” she whispered. “How could you have slaughtered all these men?”

“These men who were ready to take turns raping us?” Gayle snapped, panting.

“You didn’t know that before they boarded us.”

“Oh, I know Santiago. I’ve spoken to the survivors left in his murderous wake. I’ve seen the scars on the wenches he has helped himself to, and I’ve waited for the day I could kill him.”

Celia watched the dark expressions flash across Gayle’s face as she spoke. This was a new side of her, and Celia felt frightened—the most frightened she had been since she arrived on board.


Even if this doesn’t make the violence completely justified or less disturbing, I liked that it wasn’t completely celebrated either. So often in romance a hero’s violent acts are held up as evidence of his manliness and as evidence of the depth of his devotion to the heroine. To see Celia repulsed by and afraid of Gayle’s violent actions was refreshing and, I thought, more believable.


Despite all this, the tone of the book is light and fun for the most part. A few of the side characters like James the doctor, Molly the pirate and Anne the kidnapped “whore,” provide lots of comic relief as the Original Sin sails from adventure to adventure. 


Additionally, the romantic conflict is low on angst and high on playful banter.


“You are by far the most agreeable hostage I’ve ever taken.”

“And you are a very pleasant captor. This is hardly the sea trip I had dreamt of, but I do appreciate the fact that you’ve kept me safe. You hear such terrible stories about pirates.”

“Most aren’t true, but we are a despicable lot. Don’t be fooled into thinking we aren’t.”

Celia stopped and cocked her head to the side. “And do you ravish young women? Should I be on my guard with you?”

“That is one thing I will not steal, madam,” she said in a low, husky voice. “I only take what is freely offered.”


Celia and Gayle establish their attraction pretty early on, but they take a while to act on it. They flirt and they tease and they dare the other to make the first move. Gayle may be the hardened pirate with a reputation for wenching, but Celia is no ingenue. When they finally hook up, it's Celia who is the aggressor, and it was totally charming. However, for all the graphic violence, the sex is almost closed-door, which I found odd. Those who are tired of the trend of ever more erotic romance might find this a nice change of pace.


Finally, I have to salute the author for doing her research, even if she did info dump a time or two. Red-headed Gayle seems to be a nod to the real-life pirate Anne Bonny and so did the cross-dressing Molly seem to be a nod to Mary Read. It felt like this book came out of the author's genuine love for and interest in the period. The end result was a rich setting that felt like another character.


Final Assessment: A fun, action-filled pirate romance that hit all my buttons. B+


Who Ya Wit’ 3 by Brenda Hampton

Full Figured 5: Plus Size Divas - Brenda Hampton

Brenda Hampton’s Who Ya Wit’ 3 makes up the first half of Carl Weber Presents Full Figured Plus Size Divas 5. I have a lot to say about Who Ya Wit’ 3 so I’ll leave the second story of the anthology for a later review. After a number of Kindle samples that didn’t compel me to read more, it was almost a surprise when Brenda Hampton caught my attention. While Who Ya Wit’ 3 is part of an ongoing series, I had no difficulty following the storyline. Dez, a forty something single mother of two, is in and out of a difficult relationship with the younger Roc. The respectability politics at play between them seem to impact them more than the age difference.


Dez is very frank with her sexuality. (While the content is low overall, it’s very direct.) Dez is a woman who has sex when she pleases, with whom she pleases. She knows what she wants and asks for it bluntly. Dez also harshly judges the sexuality of others. Her first marriage ended when her husband was unfaithful, something she is still very damaged by. There is a married character who is serially unfaithful. Dez has an extremely low opinion of him and his lovers. When Dez thinks her son may be considering an affair she blames all three parties. Yet Roc has multiple sexual partners. Dez pursues Roc while he is living with his pregnant girlfriend. She does not consider herself to be trash nor Roc a cheat and neither does anyone around her. The dividing line appears to be marriage.


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The Bounty by Beth Williamson

The Bounty - Beth Williamson

Book 1 of the Malloy family series. What happens when a bounty hunter finds his prey only to discover she’s his mate? Nicky Malloy is on the run–from guilt, fear, and a murder charge. After three years, the notorious bounty hunter Tyler Calhoun catches up with the elusive lady outlaw. The intensity of their dislike for each other is only matched by the growing passion they cannot seem to control. A loner by nature, a cold hard hunter by choice, Tyler fights his feelings for his prisoner the only way he knows how–by denying them.


He’s not prepared for how deeply his feelings will run, or how hard it will be to hold her life in his hands. Pursued by two hapless cowboys bent on taking Nicky in themselves, Nicky and Tyler are forced to turn to each other for aid, trust, and comfort as their journey progresses on its rocky road. Caught in a web of lies and murder, they hold on to each other as they travel to Wyoming to confront the man that brought them together. Tyler has to decide if his love for her is worth more than the bounty he was sent to find.


I have a weird thing for Westerns. I like horses. I like farms. I like romances that involve heroes and heroines who do farm work. I like barn sex and inevitable monthly bath that turns a little kinky before the first sex scene. And now you know something a little off about me. The Bounty is the first in the Mallory Family series. I also like series. I’ll be honest and say I can’t exactly remember where I found this book. It may have been Twitter. Either way, it was on my kindle and after My Fair Concubine I was in the mood for another historical.


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Flirting With The Camera by Ros Clarke

Flirting With The Camera - Ros Clarke

A romance novella with a plus-size model and by plus-size we mean real life plus-size, not fashion world plus-size? I’m sold. When can I read the book? The second I win it from a BookLikes giveaway it appears. Writing the actual review is a bit harder, because I didn’t end up liking it very much.


Some spoilers ahead.


There were moments. There were good moments and scenes I liked. I liked that Tom and Hattie actually talked to each other—not when it mattered but they did get to know each other on the page. I liked Hattie’s attitude towards her own body even when she was faced with well meaning but undoubtably cruel remarks from her own mother. I liked the idea, but unfortunately the execution lacked finesse.


My biggest problem was that in her attempt to make clear that Tom the photographer was attracted to Hattie physically, the author over-emphasised it. Tom’s thoughts about her curves and full breasts made him sound more like a chubby chaser than a man turned on by Hattie’s personality and body. I get that it’s prudent to remind the readers they’re not dealing with a romance cardboard cutout heroine size extra small, but when it starts to hamper my ability to view the character as a functioning human being with dreams and aspirations, you’ve gone too far. Fat people don’t need to think about their weight all the time; we’re constantly reminded of it in our interactions with the rest of the world. Keeping it at that—at the jibes from Hattie’s mother, the random people looking through an overweight person, and the practical observations of living with a gut and a cupsize bigger than a DD—would’ve sufficed for the book too.


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