Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's Not The Winchester Mystery House! "The Mistress' House" by Leigh Michaels

First in a smart, sexy, Regency romance series intertwining three love stories from an awardwinning, bestselling author.

A rakish Earl buys a love nest and winds up falling madly in love with and marrying the lady he installs there. Because of its proximity to the Earl, and his rakish reputation, the next two ladies who move into the house after that can't avoid a scandal, but each one is on her way to true love...

He's a rake, alright. In fact, he is such a libertine that he is often referred to as a rakeshell. He has money, position, time, opportunity, and he has no plans to marry any time soon. Yes, he must do so eventually, but like so many in the English aristocracy, marriage is for the purpose of producing a legitimate heir, while before marriage a man could indulge all his urges freely without social restraint or condemnation (within certain boundaries, of course). It is to the Earl of Hawthorne that his "man of business" comes with the suggestion that a small but very proper house should be acquired close by the Earl's principle residence, so as to allow the Earl to flit back and forth between his home and that of his mistress with far greater ease and freedom from being witnessed by the London gossips. Capitol idea!! (as the British would say.)

Thus No. 5, Upper Seymour Street becomes the Earl's property and the future home of his mistresses. This story is, in my opinion, beautifully crafted to almost make The House the center of the novel because it is one of the most important factors binding all three of these women in this book. The novel is not really a single story. Rather it is the continuing story of the house, the three women who come to live there for varying reasons, and how their personal stories unfold. All are connected with the Earl in some fashion. And in stories 2 and 3, it is somewhat comical that the Earl is relatively unaware of what is going on right under his nose.

This story really highlights the inequity in Regency society between women and men, the loose interpretation of the social rules that is allowed for men, and the lengths to which some women must go in order to claim their right for a certain level of independence. Going behind the scenes, manipulating and conniving, all are the actions of a social group who is not given freedom to interpret the social rules--the psychologists call that illegitimate behavior. And Regency England was rife with it. In fact, it was considered humorous, those who practiced it best were congratulated, and it was expected by those (the men) who ruled society. They may refer to the old dowagers as "queens of the ballroom," but we know who was really in charge in that male-dominated society. Thus these three women were reduced to scheming and plotting in order to have some semblance of living according to their own dictates. Perhaps that is why, even though there is a part of me that deplores their need to do so, I was delighted to see the ways these three women went about setting up their "challenges" to society in order to gain a life they wanted, especially relationships that were based on love and not money or social ambition.

All social comment aside, this is a fun novel, one that will be a joy for lovers of historical romance, and written by an award-winning author who has an impressive writing and publishing history and who really knows how to tell a good story. I especially appreciate the good use of language, good editing, good grammar and sentence construction. I recently read a book that was a very good story, but what a pain to have such poor editing and publishing handling of that manuscript. Not so here, and Sourcebooks has done a wonderful job in producing a fine piece of romance fiction. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You Better Not Make Me Mad!! "Discovering Her Wolfen Heritage" By Missy Martine

Determined to make a new life for herself, Maddie Bowers travels to her late grandfather's cabin in Wyoming. When she was a little girl, she was first introduced to her grandfather's wolf and is delighted to find the wolf still living in the nearby woods, and that the wolf remembers her.

Remus has known Maddie was his mate since she was young. But a tragic accident and a cruel doctor kept them apart. Now that she is back, it's up to him to help her control her secret abilities and accept the truth about her heritage. The love between Maddie and Remus will be threatened by a jealous woman and Maddie's brother's partnership with the evil doctor that kept her confined for so many years. Can Maddie and Remus realize their destiny before it's too late.

I really love paranormal romance and I particularly like shifter novels. When I read the publisher's blurb for this book I was delighted because there are lots of shifter novels out there, but it seems to me--and I could really be off base with this opinion--that lots of shifter books are getting all mixed up with other stuff--demons, vampires, oddball "weres" of one sort or another.
This novel is a straight forward wolf shifter story and it turned out to be a really delightful book and a story that I enjoyed.

This is a story that is, in every sense of the word, a romance between a reticent, not-very-confident young woman and a kind, understanding, sort of patient Alpha. He has been waiting for Maddie for years and has been aware of the trials through which her family put her simply because they were freaked out by her telekinesis. Instead of celebrating her gift and supporting her efforts to learn how to control it--what ever happened to putting a child like this in touch with others who have the same gift--they turned to a doctor who filled their heads with negative information and promises to help Maddie learn control. Control? Drugs, you mean. Now she is on her own, thanks to the efforts of a conscientious attorney, but her brother is still listening to the doctor who wants Maddie back in his clinic and under his total control--because of her telekinetic abilities? Heck no! He wants to study her DNA as a possible shifter.

Remus Wind River is a wonderful man. Friend to her grandfather, caring and judicious Alpha to his pack, Remus has worked behind the scenes to make a safe place for Maddie so that he could claim her as his mate. He wants to claim her only after she chooses him, after she develops affection and connection to him, and not out of hand as his inner wolf is demanding. He is man who knows about her heritage--her grandmother was a shifter--and he understands her fears. He listens to her and he speaks carefully so that she is not frightened. Even though he and his brothers know that the dominant female of his pack has been trolling for Remus for quite some time and resents his assertion that the "little human" is his mate, this wiley female wolf is determined to get Maddie out of the way so she can be Alpha-Femm.

There's lots to like in this novel--deep sense of family and community, a beautiful and endearing love story between Maddie and Remus, the loyalty of the pack to Maddie, even though she is human as far as they know, and the sense of being special that they give her as Remus' brothers work together to keep her safe, the sense of empowerment that gradually become a reality for Maddie through Remus' love and because he manages to convey to her that she is special. Even in paranormal stories there are lessons to learn as we see this story unfold. There is always a reminder that even good people make serious mistakes, like Maddie's brother who would never let go of his over-protective stance, his fear that Maddie would be judged "weird" by society. In his inflated concern, he was used to hurt the person he was supposedly trying to protect. There is always the reminder that often the people we least expect to do so can help, can be allies in tough settings. A new member of Remus' pack was an important factor in helping Remus and his brothers to keep an eye on the jealous woman who was seeking to hurt Maddie. And don't forget that it is one's own inner sense of worth, of having a right to one's own place, to live as an equal, to express fully who we are will ultimately the difference in the way we live, in the choices we make, in the validity and fulfilling qualities of our relationships. Certainly Maddie found that out, even as she was able to be in touch with her "inner wolf" for the first time when her life was on the line.

This is one of those books that is fun to read the first time and it is equally enjoyable the next time through. Well-written, with characters who stand out, whose edgy qualities make them worth remembering, and with a story that is not so simplistic that it could have been told in 20 pages. This is a story that involves Maddie's past, her present, and her future. And at the center of all that is her relationship with Remus. Lovers of paranormal romance will find this to be a very good reading experience. It is a book that has been around for a few years, but it is still fresh and contemporary. I give it a rating of 4 out of 5.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Those Nice Words are Coming Out of The Mouth That Trashed Me? "Playing Dirty" by Susan Anderson

When old enemies are thrown together, all bets are off…

Way back in high school, golden boy Cade Gallari publicly revealed he'd slept with "fat girl" Ava Spencer to win a bet. Now a decade older and a head turner with her own concierge business, Ava isn't the gullible dreamer she once was— and she plans to prove it when Cade, hotter than ever, breezes back into town with an offer she can't refuse.

A documentary film producer, Cade is shooting a movie about the mysterious mansion Ava inherited. And he wants her as his personal concierge. She's certainly professional enough to be at his beck and call without giving him everything he wants. Like another shot at having her in his bed. But Ava doesn't count on Cade's determination. Because he's never gotten over her— and he's not above playing dirty to score a second chance at a red–hot future…

I can't even begin to innumerate the people to whom I have spoken over the years who have been deeply hurt or profoundly influenced by unkind words, pranks, hurtful actions that were directed at them during their high school years. We were so vulnerable and trying so hard to be "cool." We all wanted to be thought of as fashionable, acceptable as a person people wanted to like, popular, or at least have a few friends who would gather with us around our lockers or meet us in the lunch room. But the saddest of all, I think, are those individuals whose wounds have continued to fester and whose present-day lives are judged by those feelings and impressions from years ago.

Such was the case with Ava Spencer, Seattle's premier concierge, who made life easier for many people, who could have your new house primed, cleaned, and waiting for you when you moved, who could plan and execute a party in less time than it takes to tell about it, who knew all the right people and who could make things happen in a millisecond. Yet Ava's present life, as successful as it may seem, was still colored by the actions of an insensitive and unthinking young man who had been her "crush" in high school and who, for a few short weeks, had seemed to really like her--I mean, REALLY like her. He was her first--not a very memorable first, in truth, but she was happy to give him her virginity. Yet the next day, in the school cafeteria, Cade accepted payment of a winning bet that he would sleep with "the fat girl." Not to be outdone, Ava scored a verbal comeback that haunted Cade for years, but his betrayal and the deep disappointment that went with it never went away completely.

One of the joys of high school, however, was Ava's friendship with two other girls who became her sisters on so many levels. And it was out of that friendship, along with being taken under the wing of one of Seattle's legendary citizens, that Ava and her two friends inherited a historic mansion that was one of Seattle's showplaces. Now a film company wants to use the mansion to tell the story of that legendary lady, and guess what? Cade, Ava's old nemesis, is the director. He wants her as his concierge for the documentary along with some interviews with her and her two friends for the film. To put it mildly, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge of Ava's adult life so far.

Susan Anderson has brought us a novel that peels away the layers of these two people--who they were, who they have become, and how they are challenged to see one another within the stressful context of filming a documentary. Cade is shocked to find out that "the fat girl" has now become a strikingly beautiful woman, one who certainly has his attention and who reminds him that those few weeks he and Ava spent together as lab partners and as close friends in high school were, in reality, some of the best weeks in his school experience. Ava is interested to learn that Cade is a highly successful film director, that all his documentaries have won serious acclaim for him, that he is a man of purpose and organization, and one who has never stopped trying to apologize for his foolishness. Both are challenged to see each other with new eyes, but that isn't easy when the old impressions and opinions hold such sway. Add in Ava's mother with her constant criticism and Cade's belief that Ava will never forgive him, and you have a messy, witty, sparkling, constantly-on-the-move kind of novel that is next to impossible to put down.

I really liked the comraderie between the three friends, their involvement in each other's lives, just like sisters, their willingness to listen to one another, and their open and honest sharing about feelings, friendships, and their relationships with their significant others. Add in that sense that the friendship of this legendary lady was a factor in helping all these young girls grow into kind, generous, caring, strong young women and people worthy of being loved and giving love in return. Ava ultimately learns that Cade had some very distressing happenings in his life right about the time that he was so unkind to her. She also realizes that he has lots of holes in his life just as she has. I really also liked that not only were these two challenged to let bygones be bygones and move toward friendship, but they had to deal honestly with the attraction that had never gone away, that had persisted all the way back to high school days. Ava is sexy and gorgeous; Cade is sexy and gorgeous. How can these two ever get past the past? It is, in every sense, the core issue in the book.

This is a novel that can be classified as a "feel good" kind of book. It deals honestly with the messiness of human relationships, brings in the factor of parents and home and how that affects all of us, happily or otherwise, and how the strength and loyalty of friendships can endure and often be the single factor that keeps a person balanced. Of course, Ms Anderson is a writer whose books have captured the interest of readers for some time now, and with her wit and writing expertise, she crafts plot and story and characters that mesh flawlessly. I give this novel a rating of 4.25 out of 5.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Long & Short of It, Through Thick & Thin, Harlequin Thrives!

I LOVE to read! I love books and magazines, newspapers and journals. I just simply love to read. When I was a kid and knew that my mother wouldn't allow one of my books at the breakfast table--had to hurry so I wouldn't be late for school--I read the cereal boxes, often they were the same cereal boxes I had read the morning before. But I read them again anyway--I just loved to read. I can clearly remember the first book I brought home from school in first grade and the absolute sense of "over the top I felt when I could read and pronounce all those words flawlessly remains fixed in my memory. It was probably one of the "Dick & Jane" books. Of course, there were only about 20 words in the entire book, but when one is six and acquiring a new skill, who cares how many or how few words are in a particular book?

I was probably the school librarian's favorite student--I was in the library all the time, every night, turning in books, checking them out, straightening out the card catalogue, straightening out the bookshelves, and never, never keeping books beyond their due date. What a kid! In fact, my very first job was as a student helper (for fifty cents an hour) at the Public Library which happened to be right across the street from the high school and about six blocks from my house--on the same street, in fact. By this time I had consumed all the Sue Barton, R.N. books, the Nancy Drew books, books full of Greek mythology, novels like Quo Vadis, The Robe, Giant, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, A Many Splendored Thing, The Silver Chalice and Ivanhoe, along with the F. Scott Fitzgerald books. All this was, of course, in addition to literature assignments for book reports and English Literature which was a required course for all college prep seniors.

Then the years of early marriage and having kids hit. OMG, noise, diapers (cloth ones, mind you), and babies everywhere. My hubby and I had four kids in five years and by the time the last baby was born, I hadn't been in a bathing suit for five years, owned very few outfits that weren't maternity clothes, had two sets of shoes because some days my feet were swollen and some days they weren't, and was absolutely positive I was going to be pregnant forever. There were several years when I was never out of the house except to go grocery shopping (is it any wonder that I still think of grocery shopping as a personal time activity?). It was especially difficult when we were living in the Chicago area and the snows for several years were quite deep. But . . . the sanity of this woman was saved by Harlequin. Yes, Harlequin romances. . . you know, those short novels that came every month, four at a time, and which all started to read the same and filled with characters that had the most incredible names. In the midst of diaper washing and bottle fixing and wiping kid noses and rocking babies, I had my Harlequin romances--doors to other worlds, entree into other people's situations and circumstances, and a way of using personal time--the miniscule amount I had--that sometimes was even better than grocery shopping.

I've always wondered if the survival of Harlequin has been, in large part, because there were so many people like me, who were literally "tied to the mast" with family responsibilities and who found those little short novels a way of escape. When my kids got older, I scheduled a "Mother's Reading Day" every month. By this time I was teaching my girls to cook a bit, so I would give them all tasks for that day, prepare the main dish ahead of time with directions for getting it on the table, make sure they were all well and away at school, and then I would retreat to my bedroom, hunker down in my comfy bed with a stack of those short novels, and forget the world. Everyone in my family knew that no one came through my door unless it was a genuine emergency. I have to say that I was a much nicer person after that "day off." I firmly believe it was my salvation in more ways than one.

Now Harlequin has a number of imprints and a large number of authors writing for them. I know of several who have a separate pen name for their Harlequin writing contracts, and there are some authors who write lots of books for them. I have reviewed a number of books that are published under one of the imprints and most of them have been really good. I know there are reviewers who don't pay much attention to their Super Romances, but I have found them to be very good reads, not expensive, and written by some very good authors.

And so . . . Harlequin Thrives. I, for one, am thankful that during those lean years there were fictional books available to me for a very small price. Yes, I know, I love libraries and I use our Los Angeles County Library all the time. But in those years, when getting out of the house was like outfitting an army in snowsuits, having those books come to my door in the mail every month was a delight. I think I looked forward to them more than I ever did my membership packages from the cosmetic club. After all, why would I really need cosmetics? I never went anywhere. I still buy Harlequin short novels at the used book store near us, and I still am delighted when I can review one of their books. I hope that all of you can look back and see how good books have brought a lot of fun and joy into your life. Until next time . . .

Friday, July 22, 2011

Run, Run, As Fast As You Can: "Catch Me" by Lorelie Brown

Arizona Territory, 1882

Maggie Bullock's father needed expensive medical care and if that meant stealing from their friendly swindling banker, so be it. Once her father was on the path to recovery she would face the consequences. The whole thing was surprisingly easy until she's kidnapped by bounty hunter Dean Collier.

Collier is tired of tracking down worthless scum. He's afraid he'll lose his last scrap of humanity and become a stone-cold killer, just like the men he brings to justice. He jumps at the chance to become sheriff of Fresh Springs, Arizona. The one condition—capture Maggie.

He figured it'd be easy. Until beautiful, loyal Maggie breaks through defenses he'd thought cemented. His feelings for her run the range from fury to confusion to love, but if he doesn't bring her in someone else will. Can there be a future between a sheriff and a fugitive?

The presence of law enforcement in the Territories of America's West was spotty at best--depending on the town having a local sheriff or possible a U. S. Marshall who rode the trails from town to town. Often the local townspeople took it upon themselves to solve their crime problems with a poorly planned lynching or by getting up enough collective backbone to run a gang out of town. The use of bounty hunters was far more common in those days even though we know they exist today, usually to apprehend bail jumpers. In this story, there appears to be a simple case of a bank robber who must be caught and returned for trial. But don't kid yourself: there's lots more going on than that!

The main characters are both people who have experienced loss, who have had to learned to adapt to the harsh realities of living in the Western Territories and who have had to find a way to keep their humanity intact. The bounty hunter is hardened, not only by the revenge killing of his wife and son, but by the self-inflicted hurts of the past five years. His sense of failure at protecting his family from angry criminals has never left him, and as a result, he cares little for the quality of his life or the people around him. Now he has one last chance to redeem a life that has gone sour. By apprehending Maggie Bullock, Dean can be assured of being made sheriff, a position he feels is one that will prevent him from going over the edge into the darkness that threatens his soul.

Maggie, on the other hand, has simply done the only thing she could do: she has found a way to pay for expensive medical treatment for her dad by robbing the local bank. Owned and operated by a man who had always appeared to be a close friend of her father's, Maggie was astounded when her plea for a loan to pay medical expenses was turned down and done in such a way that Maggie thought she caught a glimpse of the bank owner having some fun at her's and her father's expense. Now she has taken that same man's gold and traveled to a special new clinic in Texas where her father is showing definite signs of improved health.

Obviously riding side by side on horseback for three weeks, camping out each night, occasional baths in flowing streams with little privacy--all served to break down the walls Dean had built against giving in to any sort of attraction to Maggie. Didn't work!! Before it was all over, they found that each had gotten "under the skin" of the other. The one overriding issue was, though, that Maggie faced a lengthy prison sentence in the Yuma Prison, a fact that put the kabosh on any kind of relationship.

But as I intimated at the beginning of this review, there is more here than meets the eye. Somehow there is the sense that all is not well in the friendship between Maggie's father and Mr. Masterson, the banker. This becomes even more evident when Masterson sends one of his "guards" to travel with Maggie & Dean, and turns out to be a man with little conscience, no respect for Maggie or any woman, and a man prone to solve all his problems with violence. It also appeared that Maggie would not be safe from Masterson's "personal attentions" (ahem! we know what that means, don't we?) until the circuit judge arrived for a trial.

This novel is full of twists and turns, keeping the reader wondering how this is all going to work out for Maggie, wondering if there was any hope at all for a romance and a future for Maggie & Dean, and that niggling suspicion that there was trouble afoot before it was all said and done. Even though Dean has been scarred by his loss, he is put back in touch with his humanity more than he realizes as he is exposed to Maggie's unwavering loyalty to her father, her open and honest expression of her attraction for him, and her acceptance of her fate. He shares parts of his personal history with her that he has never shared in five years. I found the account of their growing relationship to be compelling reading, flowing so well toward what appeared to be inevitable conclusion when they arrived in Maggie's hometown.

There are lots of surprises in this story, so much so that I never really figured it out ahead of time. The ending is a complete surprise, and the resolution of Dean & Maggie's story was totally unanticipated by me. Ms Brown captivated me with her storytelling ability, the way she kept the narrative moving forward, the clearly delineated characters, and dialogue that was so well done that it not only exposed the nature and personality of the characters to the reader but also intimated that something sinister was waiting just around the corner. This is a delightful historical romance filled with color, passion, a bit of mystery, and that sense of family and community that marked life in the Old West. Lovers of historical romance would do well to get this book. I give it a rating of 4.25 out of 5.

This novel is being released by Carina Press during July 2011.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Go West, Young Woman, Go West!! "Buckskins & Brocade" by Amber Carlton

Olivia Raines travels to Kansas in 1890, headed for her first assignment as an investigator for the federal government. Her mission is to solve the mystery of boys that have arrived on the Orphan Train and vanished. Out of her element in Kansas and thoroughly unprepared for an assignment of this nature, Livvie's horrified to discover two facts: Her cover is to play the new schoolmarm in town, and she's been assigned two bodyguards-a pair of devastatingly handsome twins.

Connor and Desmond McBride are perfectly suited for this mission and perfectly suited to win a girl's heart, but they hold secrets that will surface and threaten their success. Livvie's determined to solve the case and claim both of the McBride brothers for her own. She is, after all, Jessie McGee's daughter and takes after her mother in more ways than one.

The Orphan Train was a phenomenon that grew out of the Civil War where so many men died (over 1/2 million) and so many families were cast to the winds, so to speak. Literally hundreds of children were left homeless and parentless and in an effort to give them new caregivers, this project was begun. However, all good things of this kind seem to attract the greedy, cruel, and opportunists, and in this case, unscrupulous people were "adopting" children, especially boys, as indentured workers and some were then being secretly 'sold' to work in mining operations in Idaho and Montana. Such was the case when our heroine was given the "secret" mission of going undercover to seek out information and possibly identify those who were causing young boys to disappear.

Olivia Raines, daughter of the heroine of Kentucky Woman, the preceding novel in this series, is determined to follow in the footsteps of her two fathers, Cutter Raines and Billy Marlowe, both of whom were undercover agents for President Lincoln during the Civil War. It is now 1890, and while Cutter is retired, living in Kentucky and working as a country doctor, Billy Marlowe, unbeknownst to his kids, is still active as a government agent. He has now recommended Olivia as one who could successfully go undercover as a young teacher in Fort Cloud, Kansas. First Lady Caroline Harrison is in charge of this project and Olivia is given the support and protection of identical twins, the Brothers McBride. Because they are identical, they are to pose as her husband--one at a time in public--and alternate in that role, while the remaining brother will remain home on the ranch that has been purchased in their name.

Sounds like a good plan, eh? Well . . . it would if there weren't a few glitches in the thinking. First, Livvie (as she is called) is no more prepared to live in the frontier town of Fort Cloud than she is to be a circus clown. She has been raised in ease and knows absolutely no housekeeping skills. She can't cook or sew, clean or do chores . . . all these were taken care of by servants in her home. She has a moderate education but never attended public school. She knows nothing about the dynamic of a one-room school house or how to go about teaching 20 children with 10 different educational levels. Her wardrobe would be more than fine in any Eastern parlor, but in Kansas it will be hot, unwieldy, and useless against the harsh weather of the Plains. But Olivia is one of those wonderful women who may fear what she will find in Kansas, but she fears failure more. Her stubbornness and determination are off the charts.

The McBride Brothers are gorgeous, witty, at home on a ranch, and more than able to keep Olivia safe. But their childhood was full of loss and abuse, and Olivia doesn't have the slightest knowledge of what they have gone through--they were, themselves, passengers on an Orphan Train when they were 10 years old. Now they are back in Kansas and initially with no long-term interest in Olivia, are doing all they can to help her adjust, keep the ranch running, cook, clean, and make her initiation as a school teacher as smooth as possible. But their attraction to this beautiful woman, while physical and lustful at first, gradually grows into something more and even though they are involved in a bit of brotherly competition for her favors, they know that Olivia is the woman who has brought sunshine into their hearts for the first time since their mother died.

This is one fabulous historical romance set in the Old West, full of color and action, romance and suspense, the kind of novel that engages the mind and is what us serious readers look for when we open a book. There are references to Olivia's parents in this book but it is a stand alone novel. However, reading the first novel is also a wonderful reading experience and would fill in lots of blanks for the reader. Amber Carlton is a new author for me, but I am so impressed with her writing skill, her evident expertise in setting up the plot and fleshing out the story line. She is one of those authors--and I think of them as being in somewhat of an elite circle--who have an innate ability to craft characters in such a way that they simply come alive. The context of this novel is so historically "right on" and the flow of the narrative is absolutely seamless.

As the story unfolds, the lives and secrets of both Olivia and the McBrides are exposed and as they come to trust each other more, they begin to share information about their early years, some of which is shared with Olivia and some is even a surprise to the brothers themselves. In fact, the younger twin was so scarred by the abuse there are whole chunks of his childhood he can't remember, trusting that his brother has told him accurately. His deepest wound is that he can't even remember his mother. This is a story that is full of human feeling and experiencing, of friendship and community loyalty, depravity and greed by those who care little for these orphan boys, and the deep friendships these orphans form among themselves. As the danger for Olivia and her men increases and as they move ever closer to finding out who is involved and where the boys have been taken, Olivia's love for these kids and her deepening attachment to the McBrides bring lots of emotion into the story. There were a number of occasions when I found I was tearing up--a few ran down my cheeks, I'm afraid.

This novel is not a new publication by any means. It has been available for several years, but it is one that will continue to be one of my favorites and one that will keep on yielding delight as it is re-read. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tote That Barge . . . Lift That Bale: Murphy's Law by Sandy James

Seth Remington had a fortune at his fingertips, but something was missing in his life. Purpose.

Knowing he has one last chance to redeem his son, terminally ill Sterling Remington rewrites his will. To earn his inheritance, his son Seth must labor as a groom for a horse trainer.

Katie Murphy's orderly existence is turned upside down by Sterling Remington's will. Raised on hard work and dedicated to her harness racing stable, Katie agrees to take Seth on as a groom. How can she ever fulfill the challenge of instilling a work ethic in Seth and still keep her faltering stable running?

Kept at arm's length by the strict terms of Sterling's will, Seth and Katie are forced to struggle with their growing attraction until a devastating racing accident forces them to take a hard look at their relationship. How much is he willing to risk for her love?

Sterling Remington was a business genius and through hard work and careful oversight built a technology giant and accrued a massive personal fortune. He had been widowed for years and his business had taken most of his time and energy. His son, Seth, lived the gilded life of wealthy playboy complete with his circle of playmates, a fiancee who may have been the darling of society but was a woman who he really didn't love, and he was in possession of just about everything money could buy except a positive direction for his life. In a burst of tough love, Papa Remington decided to change his will. Reflecting his love of horses and harness racing in particular, Seth's dad put him at the bottom of the income ladder, directing him to empty his pockets of Remington money, credit cards, cars, and only retain two suitcases of clothes as he began his career as a stable boy for Kate Murphy, a trainer of harness racing horses.

Kate Murphy was really different from any woman Seth had been close to ever! Hard working, focused, goal-oriented, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of woman, glowing with health and determined to overcome any barrier to her making a name for herself in the harness racing world. At her direction, Seth had to muck out stalls, learn to care for the horses' needs, feed, water, harness, exercise, and protect her racing stock and that of her clients who had placed their horses with her for training. It was a whole new world of smells and dirt, having to care for something and someone outside himself, using his muscles for hard work and not just "putting the pedal to the medal" as he tore down highways. But Kate's innate honesty and genuine spirit of caring for her animals and her friends--one of whom had been Seth's dad--formed the basis for his initial attraction out of which slowly grew his emotional attachment to her.

This story chronicles this journey of a spoiled brat who needed some serious attitude adjustment and whose dad knew that by tying down his son Seth would have probably the first opportunity in his life to taste the sweet flavor of accomplishment through hard work and determination. Seth actually became quite accomplished as a harness racing driver and at the time when the bottom fell out of this new existence he was in much demand by several stables and owners. But when his true identity became known, his connection with Kate ended immediately, including any future contact between them for five years. Anything else would mean he would lose his fortune.

There are many layers in this stories and they put together so that it is almost as if a weaver has taken many threads and woven them into a complete story. The love story between Kate and Seth is at the heart, but there is also their love affair with the horses and for the sport, the relationships Seth develops with others in the racing world, and the negative presence of individuals who have nursed grudges against Kate for many years. It is about the value of hard work, the values that give life true meaning, the value of love versus the value of material wealth, and the important ingredients of a life worth living.

This is Ms James' first novel in the "Damaged Heroes" series and it has been available for a couple of years. Yet is was new to me and I am sure that there are many who have never read one of Ms James' novels, at least from this particular series. (The fourth novel in this series is a "free read" at Siren Publishing.) It could be said that Ms James brings the energy of real life into her romance fiction and with that comes the lessons all of us can learn from the experience of others. Perhaps that is one of the things I love most about romance fiction. And this book has it in spades. I have already downloaded the second novel, a book that continues the story of one of the important secondary characters in this book. This book will entertain while it energizes the mind and warms the heart. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And I Should Forgive You Why???? "Siren Beloved" by Sophie Oak

Aiden O'Malley left his fiancee, Lexi Moore, and their best friend, Lucas Cameron, after a night of passion left him shaken to his coresw. Years later, Aidan is back and he knows what he wants: he wants Lucas and Lexi forever.

Lucas has always been in love with Lexi, but he knows they need something more. They need the perfect Dom to complete their family. He never expected Aidan would be the Dom of their dreams. Lexi is hiding a secret. She knows she is drowning and the time has come to heal, but her anger at Aidan holds her back from moving on with Lucas. When Lexi's life is in danger, Aidan knows he will do anything to win them back--and keep them alive.

This is the fourth book in the "Texas Sirens" series and continues on with characters found in the preceeding novels. Alexis is the daughter of Jack & Abigail Barnes, who together with the "third" has their story told in books one and two. Lucas is Jack's half brother. Aidan is briefly mentioned but really doesn't come into his own as a main character until this book.

Lucas and Lexi have had an extremely close friendship/relationship for several years. Lucas knows all of Lexi's hurts and trials, has stood with her when Aidan walked away, brought Lexi into his world of BDSM at Julian Lodge's swanky "Club," Dallas' most infamous BDSM clubs and one where the membership fee would beggar most people. Because of their relationship to Jack Barnes, Lucas and Lexi have been experiencing this world weekly for quite some time but both know that they are only biding their time. Enter the mysterious Master A, a new and highly trained Dom who has agreed to work with Lexi and Lucas under contract and who is prepared to administer Lexi's "punishment" for her inappropriate behavior when she was drunk. But all does not go well, and just a little thing like noticing an old scar on the Master's face clues Lucas in to the fact that Master A is really Aidan.

Talk about the "spit hitting the fan!" All Lexi's old hurts, all her sense of rejection and betrayal because of Aidan's leaving her just three weeks before their wedding, all her subsequent years of feeling unworthy of love, of putting aside her dreams to be a novelist, of knowing that Aidan was probably the love of her life and wondering how she can go forward -- all come back to swamp her emotions and unleash her anger. Lucas isn't far behind. He, too, had loved Aidan as one of the two people he loved most in life. Aidan's rejection of them both hurt him as much as Lexi. Now what shall they do? It is only when someone begins to shoot at Lexi as she stomps out of her apartment that she reluctantly accepts Aidan's presence as he and Lucas take her away from Dallas to Aidan's ranch about several hours away.

This story is about three people who all share common hurts, who all love each other and are unwilling to acknowledge that love (with the exception of Aidan who is very up front in expressing his feelings), and who still struggle with the past. Aidan is scarred and broken in many ways because of his choice to go into the military and to come back home nearly dead. Yet now he will do whatever it takes to win his two loves back. He no longer cares what family or his small rural community might think of a polyamorous family. It's who he is and what he wants. Much to their collective surprise, the violence against them continues only now it is thought it is the work of a former girlfriend who seems intent on winning Aidan back, even though he has been very clear about not wanting her in his life any longer.

This novel is also about owning up to one's needs and being willing to seek the remedy that addresses those needs. Lucas is better at this than Lexi. There are some hurts in her past which Lucas has been trying to get her to acknowledge and address verbally, but she is like many of us when we think that stuff like that will go away if we just don't think about them or talk about them. Lexi was so 'stuck' but she just couldn't seem to face her fears and her pain. This story brings these people forward with all their wounds and brokenness and I think the author has used them to address some common kinds of problems many have, regardless of the kind of relationship may be in question. Obviously, not all individuals seek a remedy through the practice of the BDSM lifestyle , but for these three, the giving up of their closely-held personal power meant that they also opened themselves to one another at a level that was healing and restorative. And in whatever relationship one may find themselves, the bottom line is just that: being willing to be fully available in spirit, emotion, heart, mind, and soul. It means giving up the pain and sharing the joys; acknowledging one's need to submit or dominate, being honest and taking responsibility for mistakes, causing hurt, or failing to act wisely.

Human living and loving is messy, and in many ways this is a messy novel. When writing about life, the honest author acknowledges that fact and doesn't back away from the mess. Ms Oak is so many things as a writer, not the least of which is her innate honesty in addressing the realities of living and relating. All the characters in the novels in this series are connected with the BDSM lifestyle to some degree, but whatever the remedy people seek, being honest about the need and faithful in apply the remedy is ultimately the resolution.

I found all these books to be so very well written. The characters really come alive and in all Ms Oak's work that is a quality she brings to the writing task. This is most definitely a menage relationship and that may offend some. But any reader of romance fiction today has to realize that the menage is gaining in popularity in all sorts of romantic settings and genres. Not at all rare as it once was. But if one has difficulty with that family configuration, there is still the underlying message in this book: open and honest communication, loving one another to put the other's needs before one's own, being faithful in one's willingness to accept one another as they are, and always willing to take the risks of loving fully and deeply without regard to the future eventualities. When considering those qualities of relating, Ms Oak has "hit one out of the park" with this book. I highly recommend all the novels in this series. I give this book a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Busy Weekend, A Great Loss, and Two New Novellas

Yep . . . a really crazy busy weekend . . . one that kept me and my hubby hopping from morning 'til night! First, there were a ton of things going on in my church, many of which I had to be there to direct, so that sort of had my day planned out for me. Second, as hubby and I are "foster parents" for the National English Shepherd Rescue, we are called upon from time to time to visit our local Los Angeles County Animal Shelter to see possible English Shepherd that may have been turned in or found as strays.

So hubby and I drove out to see two dogs after we picked up my granddaughter (she's a junior in high school and absolutely determined to be a veterinarian), we got to the shelter in the middle of the afternoon. Since it's about 25 miles from our house it took a bit of time, and when we got there one of the dogs, a puppy about 9 months old, had been adopted (Yeah!!!), and the other dog, a female of about 3 years of age, turned out to be an Australian Shepherd mix. Nose too long, body too short--nope, not an English Shepherd. But it wasn't a total waste as we all love looking at the doggies and kitties and had a chance to spend the afternoon with our granddaug

Now for the Great Loss! As I am in a doctor-managed weight loss program (it seems that is
about the only way I manage to lose weight), I went for my twice-a-month visit/weigh-in. Great Googlie Wooglies!! I lost three--yes, three pounds of body fat which means that so far I have managed to lose 20 pounds. Now it has taken me some time to do that mainly because I HATE exercise. I did it for years--video exercise programs, walking programs, running two miles a day when I was younger, etc. I'm just weary of all of it, and so I push myself a bit, but I could do so much better. Just delighted that I have fewer pounds
to go to reach my goal.

Lastly, I encountered two newly published novellas that are by Karen Erickson, an author that many of us look to for very erotic reads and who never seems to fail. This historical is
indeed a quick read but it still tells a fascinating story of a woman who is now widowed and has again begun attending ton events. Only two weeks remain in the Season and Garrick, Earl of Bedingfield is quite taken with her and asks her to dance. She sees herself as a "plain Jane," a woman who has been out of the limelight of society and has very little to offer. She is not especially interested in re-marrying but she does fancy some interaction with a handsome man. When Garrick asks her to dance, she agrees. Now Garrick is one of those guys that is really OK with his life--money, sufficient time to pursue all his addictions and various entertainments, including brief liasons with feminine bits of fluff. Not the marrying kind, that's for sure. But Lady Julia catches his eye and somehow he perceives a woman of passion and beauty beneath her somewhat plain and uninspired dress. Not only does Lady Julia agree to dance, she proposes a fast and furious affair--just until the Season ends in two weeks. Whoopee!! This is right up Garrick's alley and he is more than happy to accept her proposal. This is a fun and romantic read and I was delighted to discover it. I am not usually one for novellas unless asked to read them, but willingly dived into this one because it sounded really fun. It was! It is a recent release by Samhain Publishing.

The second Karen Erickson novella is a contemporary romance that is the fourth in a series and completes the story of Eric, a man who has been in a menage relationship with another man and woman and who has now been effectively "kicked to the curb." His sense of loss has translated into a kind of hole in his soul, a kind of emptiness that he tries to fill with mindless and faceless sex with both men and women. It was during one of his many evenings spent trolling for partners that he met Stacey, a woman who found herself in a gay bar--for no reason that she can identify, ane it is here that she and Eric meet. No real connection, at least, not at first. But
something about her seems to catch his interest. It turns out that Stacey is best friends with Alexa--his Alexa, the woman with whom he was most recently involved with his friend Brandon. But he didn't know that at first, and the initial interest he had with Stacy, that tiny spark that wouldn't let him turn away, began to grow. This novella is another surprising piece of writing in that it tells the story in such a way that the reader is not really aware of its brevity. It is a story that seems to say that the holes within are never really filled until there is caring, affection, connection with another person who returns our love and who reaches out respectfully. This is a very nice story and while it is a quick read, it matches well with the other novella in spite of the fact that it is set in an altogether different time and place. It has been recently released by Carina Press.

So there you have it . . . a couple of days' worth of this and that. Hope your week is shaping up to be happy and productive. Stay well . . . stay cool . . . and keep those noses in those books!!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Where Have I Been Since July 1 AND . . . Love Is Better The Second Time Around: "Turning Thirty-Twelve" by Sandy James

Yes, the Independence Day rush is over and we are now well and truly putting away the flags, the fireworks, etc. and moving on into the summer heat. We always have a town parade in the small rural community outside Los Angeles where I live, and it is an absolute hoot. Lots of pick-up trucks decorated, "royal courts" of queens from various localities around--some with so few population that I am astounded that they can find enough teenage girls to even enter the Miss Wherever contest. But they are in our parade, for sure!! Lots of antique tractors, horses, hay wagons with local guitar bands, church groups advertising Vacation Bible School, community organizations, and the local dance studio brings all its students to do what is usually a very creative dance routine all the way down Crown Valley Road--about two and a half miles. By this time every years, the celestial thermostat has gone up and we are looking at some hefty temperatures--90-100 degrees by noon. This year we have the Southern California monsoons that come up from the Baja California area of Mexico, and we endured about a week of AWFUL humidity. We are used to
12-20% humidity throughout the months of June through November. Having the 70-80% humidity that we had this past week makes us all feel like we are carrying a bag of bricks on our chests. Needless to say, hubby and I sneaked home afterward, just in case anyone in our friend circle or our family circle saw us and suggested we come celebrate with them. No Way!! I went home to my cool house and put my feet up and that is how I celebrated July 4th. I was still tired on the 5th and the 6th, but that is not unusual either.

Later that day I began reading another wonderful Sandy James novel that turned out to be one of my favorites of those she has recently published. Turning Twenty-Twelve deals realistically with the experiences of two 40-plus individuals who have both suffered significant loss. Jackie has had her husband of 20 plus years declare that he has finally found his "soul-mate" who happened to be his nubile young secretary and who is now pregnant with his baby, so of course, he has to marry her. The marriage was probably in deep doo-doo anyway, as he was the kind of person who
really wasn't interested much in Jackie's level of satisfaction with any aspect of their marriage, and she was just about done. Mark was a widower whose wife had died recently of cancer and whose daughter is one of Jackie's high school students. Both Jackie and Mark have kids in college. They meet because some of Jackie's friends are insisting she have "one more" blind date--almost guaranteeing that this one will not be a total bust--before giving up on the dating thing. The spark is definitely there, and yet there are a truck-load of problems facing these two.

Ms James has written a novel that is very open about dealing with the issues that face individuals who are past society's best age and who, according to many, have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. They both know they are young enough to crave a real love relationship with all its expressions, but they also face the censure of their kids, the opinions of friends, the worries about getting old and losing looks and figure (men as well as women), and trying to also let go of the past. This was a significant problem for Mark--far more than for Jackie. In her case, it was the ex who found out that he had made one whopper of a mistake. After all, Jackie "took care of him" whereas the new spouse took care of herself. This is a novel that has, in my opinion, hit the ball "out of the park" in facing what may be the realities of second love relationships. It is also about trust--and in Jackie and Mark's case, their situation is made even more complicated when their two children meet at college and begin dating. That's a real shocker that comes into the story as do some other happenings that almost derail them, even after they end up married.

Far too many people live in the mythic hope that "love conquers all." It doesn't! Dealing with the difficulties--the emotional potholes, if you will of bringing two people together as they drag along their personal habits, being "set in their ways" as many are, their grown-up kids, their differing views on parenting, etc. can be challenging--that is the nicest word I can think of. And as one who must encounter these kinds of situations professionally in real life, I was particularly interested in reading how Ms James worked through these challenges and brought Jackie and Mark through some pretty deep waters.

This is a really great read. I hope that even though it has been around for a couple of years, you will go back and find this one. It is definitely "a keeper." It will challenge your mind, entertain, and in many ways, warm your heart. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Do You See Me Now? "Ty's Magic Fingers" by Jennifer Cole

Is it possible your fate and destiny can be found in a stranger's arms?

Two years after the end of a bad relationship, Ty is forced to confront his deep emotional hunger. Then a lovely dark-haired stranger turns his life upside down.

With her self-esteem battered, Charlee Bannister takes refuge in picturesque Silverton, Colorado. Vowing to never again allow a man to control her, she finds herself on a sexually stimulating guided tour of self-exploration and awareness with the helpful hands of a handsome artist.

A passionate weekend in Ty's creative hands only raises questions. When Charlee storms into Ty's life, will he remain an artist without a muse? Will his desire for more than her touch send Charlee fleeing?

With the emphasis in our culture on "the beautiful people" and our youth-centered culture, is it any wonder that women often feel that any kind of health-related surgery that alters one's appearance will diminish them in the eyes of others? Obviously breast cancer is a scourge and no woman desires to lose one or both breasts, but it is sometimes necessary and with that loss comes a loss a sense of worth and self-esteem. Admittedly, some men are no help, either. Looking like death warmed over themselves, they often dane to sit in judgment on women who have had to have mastectomies in order to preserve their lives. Not a nice aspect of the way our society responds to such losses.

Jennifer Cole addresses some of these feelings in the persona she creates in Charlee, a woman who is financially independent and who thought she had found her life partner two years ago when a lump in her breast proved to be far larger than originally thought, thus resulting in a mastectomy instead of the lumpectomy she had expected. Her fiance was more concerned about when she would have the reconstructive surgery than in whether or not she had a prognosis for the future that would mean she was disease free. When Charlee chose not to have the plastic surgery right away, said fiance took off and the engagement was over. I would imagine some not-nice words flowed out of the jerk's mouth before he took off, and the result was a woman who felt flawed, ugly, unworthy, not even close to allowing any other man to see her in the raw. That is, until she met Ty McGuire, a local artist in Silverton, Colorado, a town where Charlee has come to finally have the plastic surgery. She is tired of being alone and feeling that she could never have a love life. But Ty is cut from a different bolt of cloth, and as their sexual attraction grows, and Charlee goes against her better judgment and comes home with Ty for the weekend, she discovers that in his eyes she is perfect. They share an intense weekend together and when the day for surgery arrives, Ty attempts to talk Charlee out of having the surgery. She leaves for her appointment, declaring that no man will ever again tell her what to do with her body, her future, her life as did her erstwhile fiance.

This is an erotic novella in the hottest sense of that word, but the issue at the heart of the story goes far deeper than the telling of a summer weekend affair. Truly it is about the way women see themselves, especially when so often women's acceptance in social circles and by potential lovers rests on our society's insistence that only the perfect are beautiful. We can argue otherwise, but there is too much anecdotal evidence to prove that deformed adults and children--either by birth or because of injury or surgical/medical intervention--are relegated to the outer eschelons of society's boundaries. Even if mastectomy scars and the resultant loss of a breast or two can be hidden from the public at large, such changes in one's body cannot be hidden from those closest to us. And they are the individuals who are often the ones we depend on to keep us balanced and feeling good about ourselves.

This novella is far more weighty than its size would indicate. And the love story is a heart-warming, libido massaging one that is a joy to read and experience, often feeling like one is a fly on the wall--and I don't mean in a bad sense. Ms Cole has created characters that may resemble people we know and certainly after reading this novella who wouldn't want to know Charlee and Ty? Both of them live by a set of personal values that have helped them navigate through a difficult set of circumstances and the emotional rapids caused by others who really aren't worthy of them. It's one of those reads that surprised me, but then I have come to like just about everything Jennifer Cole writes with one criticism: I just wish she would give us a real whiz banger of a full length novel that would not only introduce us to some great characters but would have sufficient length to tell us more about them and their story. That being said, I think this is an entertaining and instructive read, and one I think is well worth the time and effort to experience. I give it a rating of 4.25 out of 5.