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review 2014-11-24 14:56
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
The Temp - Part 1 (The Temp Series) - Lacey Wolfe

I won this in a Booklikes Giveaway last month, and so panning it feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth, but oh, boy, did this book not work for me. It's a boss/secretary trope, which is usually bad news*--I have real issues with the skewed power dynamic (not to mention the sheer unoriginality) of the notion of a male boss screwing his secretary. Here, the trope is even more cliched because the boss is some kind of billionaire and the secretary is a much younger, penniless, just-out-of-school-and-too-green-to-be-interesting neophyte.


As if that weren't bad enough, the writing itself is just ... not for me. So much passive voice! Run on sentences, some of which had more than one cliche! Purple prose!

If this were a spoof or satire that aimed to poke fun at some of the tired and overdone conventions of this subgenre of erotic romance, that might have been different, but alas, I'm pretty sure Lacey Wolfe intended this in all seriousness. Oh, dear.


This is the first entry in a three part series. Needless to say, I will not be continuing on.


*The only books I can think of that rose above my dislike of the boss-secretary trope are Charlotte Stein's Power Play (where 1. the boss is a woman and the secretary is male, and 2. it's Charlotte Stein, bitches!) and Jennifer Crusie's Fast Women (where 1. the secretary is in her 40s and isn't anyone's pushover, 2. she quits when her boss takes her for granted, and 3. I mentioned this is Jennifer Crusie, right?).

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review 2014-09-17 14:20
So Tired of Rape Trauma Used as a Plot Device
It's in His Kiss - Jill Shalvis

Jill Shalvis's Lucky Harbor series is like the literary equivalent of comfort food. Sure, it's not that good for you; you probably won't learn anything. No, it's not original: the familiarity is the point. Yes, it's formulaic: it happens to be a formula I generally like. This is the tenth book in the series, but they all stand alone.  The series is roughly organized into sub-trilogies: the first three books were about three sisters opening a bed and breakfast, books four through six were about three female friends who get together for gossip and sinful desserts at the cafe where one of them works, books seven through nine were about three women who own businesses in the same building, and this tenth book kicks off a new trilogy that will presumably feature three guys who are partners in a fishing charter company.


One of the things I don't love about the Shalvis formula is that her heroes tend to be emotionally-constipated alpha males who for one reason or another can't bring themselves to face or admit their feelings when they fall for a woman. It's in His Kiss falls into that same vein: Sam's unreliable father has let him down again and again, and he tosses around, "Love you, Sam" so casually that for Sam, the words have lost meaning. He doesn't plan to fall in love, because in his experience, love only leads to disappointment. It's not that I don't feel for the guy, but I'd rather a man be brave and honest about his feelings, and communicate like a grown-up, than that he be burly and tough physically but have (in the immortal words of J.K. Rowling d/b/a Hermione Granger) "the emotional range of a teaspoon."


The heroine, Becca, is likeable but very private. She keeps her personal history a secret for reasons I have frankly totally forgotten in the five days since I finished this book. I suspect those reasons, whatever they were, didn't make all that much sense to start with because I remember being annoyed as I read that much of the petty conflict in the story stemmed from bad communication between the characters -- Becca's unnecessary secrecy and Sam's emotional constipation. Becca has spent her whole life being a good girl, supporting her uber-talented little brother's musical career even as his prescription addiction turned him into a jackass. She suffers extreme personal trauma for her brother's benefit, and her family doesn't even really notice. Finally having reached her limit, she flees to Lucky Harbor and starts building a new life for herself, working for Sam's boat charter company. I liked Becca, but I was irritated by her tragic backstory: I think writers sometimes give female protagonists rape trauma just to fill them out as characters and play on readers' sympathy, a trend I find both unoriginal and opportunistic. There are enough people in this world actually suffering from these issues, and I wish writers would be more sensitive before using this very common and very real trauma as a plot device: "Ah, this gal's kind of boring... Hey, I know! Let's have her be recovering from rape, and afraid of small spaces, because I could write some great Claustrophobia Scenes!"


These quibbles aside, though, Sam and Becca have good chemistry and Shalvis's writing and dialogue are reliably snappy and fun, and while It's in His Kiss is far from my favorite of the series, it's still a solid entry.

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review 2014-08-12 13:51
A Beta Hero in Kit Rocha's Beyond Series? Will Wonders Never Cease!
Beyond Solitude: Beyond #4.5 - Kit Rocha

As I've said before, Kit Rocha's Beyond series is my kind of catnip. By all rational accounts, I shouldn't like these books nearly as much as I do: I'm not a fan of dystopias, motorcycle gangs, liquor smuggling, cage fighting, or patriarchy -- all of which feature prominently in the Beyond series plot. However, while these books are set in a violent, patriarchal dystopia, they explore feminist themes like consent, gender politics, and power dynamics in relationships and in other settings. Oh, yeah, and they're also wicked sexy.


The novella Beyond Solitude focuses mainly on Mia and Derek, and it's a bit of a change of pace from the prior books in the series because Derek is more of a beta hero than most of the O'Kane men. Sure, he's got the O'Kane ink and he rides a motorcycle, but Derek mostly eschews the cage fighting and street fighting that O'Kane men seem to favor. He's not an enforcer or a military-trained assassin like Jas or Bren or Cruz (prior Beyond alpha-heroes); instead, Derek supports the clan by working behind the scenes, putting his skills as an economist/accountant to work maximizing profits from various O'Kane business ventures. He's a loner and a misanthrope, his disposition not improved by the fact that he lives with significant physical pain, a result of slow-healing injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash.


Mia, like the O'Kane matriarch Lex, is a refugee from Sector Two, where they train women as companions (read "prostitutes") for wealthy and influential men. Mia has been raised from childhood to see life as a balance sheet and herself as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded like property. She's escaped from her Patron and longs for freedom in Sector Four, but old habits die hard, and she can't stop thinking of every gift and every gesture from Derek as debts that she'll eventually be called to repay, whether willing or no.


I liked this story a lot, though the abbreviated novella form made the couple's speedy courtship feel a little insta-lovey, and the conclusion also felt hasty... again, probably because this is a novella and not a full-length novel. If you've already read the Beyond books, don't miss this one, because it's a nice change of pace from the alpha-hero/submissive female dynamic of most of the previous books, plus it gives some great insight into series-wide world-building (like how the O'Kane clan's finances work, and the politics of Sector Two), but if you're just dipping your toe into the series, don't start here: I'm not sure this novella would stand alone without the complex background already established in the previous four novels.

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review 2014-03-10 12:41
Entertaining Treatment of Annoying Tropes
Neanderthal Seeks Human: A Smart Romance - Penny Reid

This is the first book in the Knitting in the City series, but I read the second, Friends Without Benefits, first. It's funny: Friends Without Benefits employed some of my favorite tropes -- second chance romance, friends to lovers -- but I found the book pretty uneven and only rated it three stars. By contrast, this one employs several tropes I generally can't stand -- boss/employee, big misunderstanding/mistaken identity, heroine with self-esteem issues -- but I liked the book better. (Granted, it's still a bit uneven and I'm not sure it deserves a full four stars -- maybe more like three and a half -- but it was funny and I enjoyed it.) 


Neanderthal Seeks Human starts on the worst day of Janie's life: she's caught her boyfriend cheating on her, moved out of their shared place, lost her job,  broken the heel of one of her favorite shoes, and there's no toilet paper in the bathroom stall when she needs it. The only silver lining is that the security guard who escorts her out of the building after she's been fired is the hottie she's been admiring from afar for weeks, and he kindly calls her a car to take her home so she doesn't have to tote her Box of Shame across Chicago on a broken pair of heels. 


Janie didn't fully work for me as a heroine. She's very, very smart (she can look at an account balance sheet for a few seconds and spot the errors as quickly as if they were printed in bright red ink, and she is a fount of random trivia, which she regurgitates when she gets nervous), and there were things about her I admired (she loves comic books and hates cell phones), but she's always putting herself down (she's the neanderthal referred to in the title) and she's very judgmental. She explains: "I liked labels; I liked putting people and things into categories. It helped me calibrate my expectations of people and relationships." (Page 101) She believes there are four kinds of people, based on their actions and their intentions: good (good actions + good intentions), bad (bad actions + bad intentions), lazy (good intentions + bad actions), and stupid (bad intentions + good actions). It's not a very nuanced worldview, and it made it hard for me to relate to Janie. 


Quinn (the Hottie security guard) isn't actually a security guard at all: he's the millionaire CEO of his own security company, which seems to provide security both in the traditional burly-guys-in-uniform-patrolling-your-building sense and in the cyber-security-so-secret-I-could-tell-you-but-then-I'd-have-to-kill-you sense. He's got company cars, company jets, company high rise buildings, but when he's not jetsetting around meeting with top secret corporate clients, he likes to hang out in the security desk of Janie's office building pretending to be a rent-a-cop, which is how Janie mistakes him for a blue collar guy. 


Janie's mistake was initially understandable: she makes lightning fast judgments about people, he, in that moment, looked and behaved like a Regular Guy. However, rather than clearing up the mistake early, the story milks it for conflict: Janie ignores mounting evidence that Quinn's a Big Deal, even after he gets her a sweet new job with his company. Quinn knows Janie is missing the obvious, and he doesn't correct her. Both characters are diminished in the process: Janie's obliviousness doesn't ring true for a lady as smart as she's supposed to be, and in order to let the confusion persist so long, Quinn must be either dishonest or meanspirited, or both, and I know the author does not intend for him to be either. 


I was also troubled by the fact that all of the things that bothered Janie about her relationship with the cheating ex she's just dumped at the start of the story persist in her relationship with Quinn: Jon had tons of money, she didn't; she was financially dependant upon Jon because she had a job in his father's company, now she is financially dependant upon Quinn because she has a job in his company; Jon always wanted her to get a cell phone so he could contact her whenever he wanted, Quinn makes her get a cell phone as a condition of her employment. Really, the only tangible differences between the two men are that Quinn seems better in bed and isn't cheating on Janie (yet). 


So now that I've written all that annoyed me about this book (and I haven't even written all that annoyed me: there were distracting proofreading errors, some gratuitous slut-shaming, and a subplot involving Janie's sister and Quinn's shadowy past that didn't add much to the story) you may be wondering, "Why give it four stars?" The truth is, I don't know, except that I enjoy Penny Reid's writing style even as her characters and plots sometimes set my teeth on edge. One thing that this series does well (in fact it's the theme that holds the Knitting in the City series together) is its treatment of female friendships: Janie is a member of a knitting club that gets together every Tuesday, and the relationships between the women of that club are deeper and more interesting than even the romances the stories focus on. 

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review 2014-02-01 21:11
Entertaining Until the Plot Went off the Rails
Romancing the Duke - Tessa Dare

Tessa Dare is one of my favorite authors, but I'm not sure what to make of this first book in her new Castles Ever After series. I couldn't tell while reading it if Dare meant for this to be a gothic romance. It certainly has gothic elements -- penniless ingenue in desperate straits at the mercy of bitter, scarred, misanthropic (but tall, dark, and handsome) man, set in a creepy, crumbling, isolated old castle that might well be haunted -- but if Dare was aiming for gothic, she missed her mark. Despite the creepy ambience, this book doesn't have the dark, spooky, suspenseful tone of a gothic novel. Instead, I think (hope?) Dare was spoofing the old gothics, and if that was her intent, she hit the nail on the head, because the gothic tropes seem not so much eerie as entertaining (example: the story is set at Gostley Castle, and the heroine's solicitor asks whether that rhymes with "ghostly" or "ghastly.") 


The heroine, Izzy Goodnight, finds herself destitute after her father fails to provide for her in his will. She's down to her last shillings when she learns she's inherited a crumbling castle in Northumberland. Unfortunately, the castle isn't empty: Ransom, the Duke of Rothbury, has been convalescing (read: hiding) there since being gravely injured in a duel with his ex-fiancee's lover. Rothbury contests Izzy's inheritance, since he owns the castle and didn't authorize its sale to the guy who bequeathed it to Izzy. However, he's ignored his correspondence for the months since his injury, and both agree that there might be some clue to the dilemma amid the pile of letters awaiting Rothbury's attention. Since Rothbury's condition still doesn't allow him to read his mail without assistance, Izzy agrees to act as his secretary while they sort out the mess. 


The reader has to be willing to approach this story with an open mind, because much of it is just absurd. That a gently-bred, unmarried woman would be willing to stay, unchaperoned, in a ghost- and pest-infested old pile with a cranky, unmarried duke (and said duke would be willing to let her) is the first of many disbeliefs the reader must willingly suspend. (It helps that Izzy is penniless: she hasn't really got any alternative; it also helps that Ransom's injuries are significant enough that, duke or not, he's not a hot commodity on the marriage mart anymore.) 


Izzy is penniless, but she's not alone in the world. Before his death, her father published a serial novel which is so popular it inspired LARPers to tour the countryside, re-enacting the scenes. To this band of misfits, Izzy is a celebrity -- though they don't know, and don't want to know, the real Izzy; they just want to know the timid, innocent little girl immortalized in the novel. 


Though Romancing the Duke is undeniably entertaining, and there were several points where I laughed out loud (Izzy has a pet weasel, and come on, how often do you find LARPers in romance?), much of the plot didn't really work for me. Ransom is attracted to Izzy, and eventually his number one priority is to see to her well-being, but he's really slow in getting there: in the first scene, she is literally fainting because she hasn't eaten in days, and when Ransom learns that, he doesn't try to feed her or even seem worried that she's gone hungry. Later on, Ransom uncomfortably close to a bodice-ripper-style angry-sex seduction scene, and while I should have trusted Dare to avoid a dubious consent love scene (as she eventually does when Izzy calls halt), it was a close call and turned me off to Ransom as a romantic lead.


Worse, there's a huge hole in the plot. Ransom and Izzy come together to try and sort out his correspondence and who owns Gostley Castle, and it's rapidly clear that someone has been taking advantage of Ransom's inattention to his business affairs to rip him off. Figuring out the scheme and unmasking the thief should have been the climax of the novel, but instead it was barely touched upon, only glancingly mentioned as an afterthought in a final scene that was a chaotic shitstorm of badly-plotted WTFery. 




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