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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-12-24 03:33
Vampire Holiday Novel Strikes Out
Christmas with a Bite (Entangled Covet) (House of Elysian) - Patricia A. Wolf

I don't read a lot of vampire fiction, but when I do, I guess I'm a purist. You can play around with the traditional mythology of vamps all you like -- I don't care about garlic, crucifixes, wooden stakes, or whether or not they can see their reflection in mirrors -- but at the very least, your vampire characters have to avoid sunlight. I don't hold truck with all these newfangled vampires who can walk around at any time, day or night, just like the rest of us. To me, that's a crucial part of the deal of becoming immortal: you can live forever, be fabulously wealthy and unearthly gorgeous, have superhuman speed and senses, and maybe even the ability to read minds or "glamour" mortals into doing your bidding... but you have to give up your summer home in the tropics. Otherwise, what's the real cost of the trade?


Connor is one of these New Age-y vamps who can walk around in daylight and eat human food (though it doesn't satisfy, nutritionally). Where's the drama in that? That's Strike One


Strike Two: This story was very predictable. If you've ever read a paranormal romance, you know exactly where this story is going from the very first chapter. Vamp meets mortal. Overwhelming sexual attraction convinces vamp that mortal is his Fated Mate. But, vamps can't be with mortals; it's too perilous! Oh, no! Yet this is TRUE LOVE, and not even mortality (or lack of it) can stop TRUE LOVE.


Strike Three: This book is unbelievably anticlimactic. It keeps setting up conflicts only to have them resolve with no drama at all. Examples (and here there be spoilers. Though not really, since like I said, the plot's too predictable to really "spoil"): 


  • In the first chapter, Mara gets in a car accident in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere and gets chased by a pack of wolves. Just as she's about to be eaten by the wolves, Connor rescues her. (You there! I see you rolling your eyes at me!) You might think that maybe these wolves will matter to the story, like maybe they'll turn out to be shapeshifters and Connor's mortal enemies or something... but no. They're just hungry wolves. In a snowstorm. In Texas. Whatevs. 


  • Connor's all, "I can't possibly have sex with this woman. No mortals for me." -And then he does. Of course. -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 


  • Connor's vampire parents (Dad's uber-grumpy, Mom's uber-sweet; both are kind of creepy in their uber-ness) are all, "No mortals for you, Connor!" -And then they invite Mara to dinner and are perfectly nice to her. -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 


  • Connor's all, "But the laws of our people say my mate must be an immortal, and here I'm in love with a human, oh! Woe is me!" - And then his best friend is like, "Chill out, Dude, I happen to have this magical amulet that makes people immortal in my back pocket, and you can have it for free since we're such good buddies." -And NOTHING HAPPENS. 


If this were baseball, this book would already be out of strikes, but there were more. Connor reveals his Dangerous Secret to Mara, and she (reasonably) decides she needs some time to think about it. He gives her about ten minutes, and then shows up at her house on Christmas morning bearing insanely expensive gifts not only for her but also for everyone in her family -- like, jewelry for Mara's mom, and an all-expenses paid trip to Aruba without the kids for Mara's sister and husband, and rather than saying, "Buddy, you can't buy your way into this family, and by the way it's kind of stalkery to buy my family members the exact perfect gifts that you know are perfect because of vampire-y mind reading, especially since we've only been dating for a week", Mara and her folks are all, "Oooh, shiny!" 


Connor doesn't glitter. But this book couldn't have been any worse if he did. 


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review 2014-12-21 20:14
Short, sexy holiday novella
Her Christmas Earl: A Regency Novella - Anna Campbell

I've never read Anna Campbell, but I enjoyed this holiday novella well enough that I intend to check out some of her longer works (even though historical romance hasn't been working well for me lately). 


Philippa's beautiful, flirtatious, scatterbrained sister Amelia has just become engaged, but her reputation could be ruined if anyone learns of the love letter Amelia sent to the rakish Earl of Erskine (who is not her fiancé). Philippa breaks into the Earl's chamber in an effort to recover the damaging letter, but her own reputation is destroyed when she and the Earl get trapped in the chamber together. When they are discovered in the morning, only a hasty marriage can repair the damage -- but Philippa doesn't want to be tied forever to a man who doesn't want her. However, having lived so long in her sister's shadow, Philippa underestimates her own charms. The Earl wasn't looking for marriage, but he's not at all sorry about his lot. 


Short, but well-written, sexy, and satisfying. As I said, I'll be checking out some of Anna Campbell's longer work!

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review 2014-12-19 20:32
Free Hanukkah Novella From the Smartest Bitch in Romance
Lighting the Flames: A Hanukkah Story - Sarah Wendell

Sarah Wendell, of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, has a philosophy I really admire: any time she complains about something more than twice, she feels the need to personally do something to fix the problem. In this case, the third time she found herself lamenting the lack of Hanukkah-themed romance, she sat down and wrote this novella. 


I'm not Jewish, and the idea of a religious camp for families sort of went over my head, so I think there are a lot of readers who will get a lot more out of this story than I did. That said, I still enjoyed the read. Genevieve and Jeremy have been friends forever, first as campers at Meira, then as counselors, but both the camp and their friendship are threatened. The camp is in financial straits, and in an attempt to earn money and drum up summer business, Meira has a special winter session during Hanukkah. Genevieve and Jeremy are counselors together, but this will be the last time: even if the camp manages to stay open, they are adults now, and Jeremy especially can't get the time off from his real job (in his family's Jewish mortuary) to work summers any more. 


That's right: the hero of this novella is a mortician. A daring choice, no? 


There are some dark and twisty themes in this story -- Jeremy's career, Genevieve's grief over the recent death of her parents, the loss of childhood innocence and the onset of adult responsibility -- but as Smart Bitches readers will expect, the story zips along, propelled by Wendell's snarky dialogue, and there were a few points where I laughed out loud. 


Bonus: I'm pretty sure this is FREE right now at most e-booksellers. 

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review 2014-12-16 14:12
Amid the Holiday Glitz and Glitter, Here's a Lovely, Uplifting Dose of Blue Collar Realism
Her Holiday Man - Shannon Stacey

This is my favorite of the holiday-themed romances I've read this year so far. I'm a big fan of the blue-collar realism of Shannon Stacey's contemporary romances: she writes about ordinary people with ordinary jobs living in an ordinary town and searching for (and finding) ordinary solutions to ordinary problems. In a genre glutted with sexually-traumatized heroines falling in love with ex-Navy Seals struggling with PTSD as they work together to track down serial killers, child-molesters, or evil shape-shifting were-beasties, Shannon Stacey's writing is refreshingly free of angst, melodrama, and violence.


That said, the main characters in Her Holiday Man are less "ordinary" than Stacey's usual fare. Sure, they're solidly blue collar -- Will is a car mechanic and Christina clerks at a gas station -- but their backstories are more over-the-top than is typical for Stacey. Will's wife and unborn baby were killed by a drunk driver a few weeks before Christmas, five years prior to the start of the story. He's spent the intervening time wandering, avoiding home and the life they'd shared, but the recent death of his father has brought him home to care for his widowed mom. Christina is the new neighbor across the street, a single mom raising her young son alone after her ex-husband was imprisoned for a massive financial fraud that bankrupted Christina and lost her the wealthy, privileged lifestyle she'd always known.


Another writer might have put the focus on all that these characters have lost, maximizing the angst and tragedy of their situation. Not Stacey. Even with their unusually-wretched histories, Will and Christina are both really genuine, down-to-earth people. Some little examples of what I mean:


When Will arrives in town, upon learning his mother has been doing so much to help out this new neighbor lady -- watching her son, inviting them for meals, etc -- he initially worries that Christina might be some scammer trying to take advantage of his lonely, widowed mom. A lot of writers would have milked that mistrust for conflict, and had the hero just assume (based on the innate mistrust born of his tragic past) that the heroine was up to no good. Instead, Will keeps an open mind, gives Christina the benefit of the doubt, and quickly notices all the things she does to keep her relationship with Gail (Will's mom) reciprocal: Gail watches Christina's son, but Christina helps Gail with the housework, and so on.


Christina was a pampered only child raised by extremely wealthy parents, and then she married an even wealthier man. Her whole life, she has had a household staff to cater to her every whim, but now she's lost everything. She is extremely, painfully sheltered -- she's never even put up her own Christmas decorations; her servants always did the decorating the Monday after Thanksgiving -- but rather than knuckling under and breaking under the sudden pressure of financial and personal ruin, Christina just does what needs doing. Her smoke detectors start to beep and she doesn't know why -- so she googles it, and watches online videos about how to change the batteries. She's independent and resourceful, but not so pigheaded that she won't accept a helping hand when it's offered by Gail or Will.


The conflict between them is real -- having loved and lost (in Will's case) and trusted and been betrayed (in Christina's), neither is eager for a new relationship. There's also the issue of collateral damage to loved ones if the relationship goes badly -- Will's mother is eager to see her son settled and happy, and Christina's young son looks up to Will like the father he's lost. None of these problems have easy solutions, and Stacey doesn't offer a grand gesture or deus ex machina to deliver her happy ending: Will and Christina just talk through their fears and hopes like rational adults, and eventually decide to brave the future together, risks and rewards and all.

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review 2014-12-12 15:54
Slow Burning Christmas Contemporary
Maybe This Christmas - Sarah Morgan

This a slow-burning, secret-crush, friends-to-lovers, contemporary romance with a holiday theme. I read the first in the series, Sleigh Bells in the Snow, last Christmas, and I didn't love it because I really didn't like the heroine. This book is better, and certainly works as a stand alone if you haven't read the previous books in the series (there's a second book that I haven't read). 


Brenna and Tyler have been best friends since childhood, but Brenna has always been in love with him, but kept her feelings to herself, believing Tyler would never love her back. Tyler is a commitment-phobe who keeps all of his relationships superficial after accidentally getting a high school classmate pregnant. He's attracted to Brenna, but would never act on it out of fear of jeopardizing their friendship. Both live and work at Snow Crystal Spa and Resort, a ski area in Vermont, but when the resort gets overbooked at the holidays, Brenna has to move in with Tyler, and their mutual attraction suddenly threatens their friendship the way they both always feared it would. 


I found the first half of this book kind of slow, but I know there are people who really enjoy slow-burning, tension-building romances, and this definitely fits that bill: the couple don't share their first kiss until page 269. The last third of the book moved a lot faster and I found it emotionally cathartic (it made me cry twice) without being too angsty. 


I had a few quibbles with some of the subplots -- Brenna's tense relationship with her parents resolves just too easily, for example, and Tyler's ex is just too shrewish to be believed -- but nothing that ruined the story for me. 

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