Monday, August 13, 2012

What I Read Before My Summer Vacation

I would be writing, but I'm doing research... yeah, that's it! Research.

Seriously, I am, though. All these books are giving me great ideas and help for my own stuff.

Sleeping with Paris - Juliette Sobanet (chick lit, romance)

Paris. Hot neighbor who feeds you chocolate in bed after amazing sex. What's not to love?

Charlotte, the lead character, is supposed to be broke and bitter - her fiance, with whom she was supposed to move to Paris, has been cheating. She decides instead to take a page from his book, and sleep her way around Paris, blogging all the way.

She's hurt, she's wary, but she's not heartbroken; rather, resilient. I really liked the character's voice - she may make dumb mistakes, sometimes, but she's no dummy. Although she almost blows it when she returns to the States and runs into her ex at her best friend's wedding.

This was a light, fun read. If, like me, you can't get to Paris and score your own Half-Naked Hottie to feed you chocolate in bed, experiencing it vicariously through this book is the next best thing. Right now it is only available as an e-book, but the author tells me it'll be available as a paperback this fall.

Cover for Christine Ashworth's Blood Dreams Short StoryBlood Dreams - Christine Ashworth (paranormal romance novella)

This is a lead-in story to a novel being released in August, so it doesn't have its own satisfying ending, just a whisper and a tease for what's coming next.

I really loved Demon Soul, the first book in this Caine brothers series, and enjoyed getting to know Gregor a bit better.

When Christine was here on Writing in Flow in June, she explained why demons/daemons aren't necessarily a bad thing, so this time, the idea of demons didn't freak me out.

Especially tri-bred demons who are part human and part fae and all the way sexy, like the Caine brothers. (Gotta love a paranormal guy like Justin who wears long dreadlocks, Hawaiian shirts and loves to surf.)

The Church RetreatThe Church Retreat - Joel Tuggle (thriller)

Don't let the title fool you. This novel has almost nothing to do with a church retreat, except as a spooky setting for the novel. So, if you are one of those put off by the word church, don't be - and if you are looking for something nice and spiritual, you will be disappointed.

Disclaimer #1 - This is not the kind of material I normally read for pleasure, research, or entertainment, so my view may be a bit off as compared to others who do. #2 - I was contacted by the author via GoodReads and received a free copy in return for a review; I did not promise a  favorable review.

The first four chapters are set in 1971; the remainder of the book in 2001. I think the author was trying to go for a Stephen King thriller vibe - and there are sections where the tension is portrayed quite well. But there are many problems with this novel. First - we don't know who the story is about.  It starts out about five boys, kind of like Stand By Me - who then all disappear in various ways, and only appear as legends later on. (Some are dead, some are not. It would be stronger if some were involved now, as their now-adult selves, à la Mystic River, but they're not.) The first few chapters after the ones about the boys are about a single, divorced dad; there are chapters from the POV of a Mexican drug lord, a local sheriff, and many other characters. Whose story is it? Who are we rooting for? I couldn't tell.  Because I couldn't tell, it was hard for me to invest myself emotionally in the novel.

The author makes some distracting rookie writing mistakes. The word "leer" is used 31 times (according to my Kindle), almost never correctly, but as a synonym for the word "look." "They turned and leered down the dark tractor path..." "He took another quick draw from his cigarette and leered again at the camp." "...leering into the woods for any sign of movement." There's abundant adverb use, rather than more powerful action verbs: "suddenly" is used 80 times, "quickly" 122. We spend part of the novel inside the head of "the short Mexican" and "the tall Mexican;" IMO, when the reader has to spend a chapter or two sharing a character's thoughts, we deserve at least to know his/her name.

In the end, it's something of a monster story - what kind of monster, I won't reveal. That part I found rather interesting and almost plausible. I think, in order for it to be more believable, there needed to be more mysterious incidents between 1971 and the current/2001 events, which sightings or incidents are at least referred to, if not shown. I did find myself wrapped up in the emotions of the father looking for his lost daughter.

Is it worth the price the author is asking ($.99)? Sure. It's my hope that this debut author finds himself a good crit group and/or skilled editor before he releases his next novel, because I think he has a lot of potential, but for now, Stephen King need not worry.

The Lantern  - Deborah Lawrenson (Gothic romance, thriller)

This was the most amazingly sensual novel I have ever read. Sometimes purple prose has its place:
It was one of those days so intensely alive and aromatic, you could hear as well as smell the fig tree in the courtyard. Wasps hummed in the leaves as the fruit ripened and split; globes of warm, dark purple were dropping, ripping open as they landed with sodden gasps.
There are two concurrent storylines: that of Bénédicte Lincel and her sister Marthe, former owners of Les Genévriers, from the past, and the current owner, Dom and his girlfriend, dubbed Eve by him. Similar in tone, feeling, and even storyline to Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca, Eve is haunted by whispers about Dom's first wife, Rachel. Divorced? Dead? Murdered?

More than this, is the rundown Provençal hamlet of Les Genévriers itself haunted? Or are the mysterious goings on simply part of what happens to any ancient set of buildings that have lacked love, attention and care for many years?

The switches in narrator are sometimes hard to follow, to determine if we are listening to Bénédicte or Eve. Eve is rather aimless and directionless in the beginning, making her hard to connect with. Bénédicte's stories, especially those of working in the lavender fields, are sensually intoxicating. Her older sister Marthe becomes blind, and she is charged with "seeing" for her sister, who has become a parfumiere:
"I want you to look really hard, just like we used to, look right into the heart of the flowers and the spiny leaves and the earth and describe it to me. Use all your senses to make the pictures come alive for me...."
The sense of smell is expressed in this book more powerfully than I have read in any other novel, but sights, sounds, textures, temperatures, tastes are not neglected, either. This is not a book suited to zipping through fast, but one to savor.  In the end, the mysteries are solved, and if a ghost or two lingers, it's probably a benevolent one.

Holly Wood Dream
Holly Would Dream - Karen Quinn (chick lit)

Want to read a classic Hollywood movie while at the beach (or anywhere else)? This book's for you.

It's kind of a mash-up of classic 50's RomComs - a bit like Sabrina, a bit like Breakfast at Tiffany's, a bit like all the wonderful Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant movies. Light. Funny. We get to sample the world of high-fashion and Serious Money the way Holly does, as a poor girl with her nose pressed against the Tiffany's window, looking wistfully in. Couture. Cruises. Crime.

Gotta love Holly's father, Pops: panhandler by day, dogsitter by night, who cleans up to be quite the ladies' man. I even learned things, like in the post 9-11 times, going into the bathroom of an airplane in flight with a partner to join the Mile High Club will get the Department of Homeland Security to take a close and personal interest in your horny self. How vintage couture clothing is maintained to preserve its value. That cruise ships have their own morgues.

Holly's orthodontic headgear, and meeting the man destined to be Very Important, while wearing it, coke bottle glasses, and garbage bags on her feet. Penis King. The three-legged cat. Magda the big butted bride and the wedding in the funeral parlor. I think I laughed on almost every page of this book, it was so much fun.

Confessions of an Improper Bride - Jennifer Haymore (historical romance)

What would you do if your beloved twin sister was swept overboard, while you returned home in disgrace? If the only way to provide for your vulnerable younger sisters was to assume your lost sister's identity, and marry her fiance, even though you were actually in love with another man? Who had behaved like a complete jackhole to you, in the past, who fully disgraced you in the eyes of society, and yet... you still yearned for him?

Been there, done that.  (As far as yearned for a man who had been a jackhole to me in the past, AND publicly disgraced me. The being a twin part, not so much - but I wanted a twin.)  So I could both relate to Serena Donovan, AND wanted to scream at her, "Run, run, and don't look back."

Despite my personal feelings, this story sucked me in, and got me rooting for Serena and her flawed but hot (is there any other kind?) hero. I loved the high stakes, the emotional connection between the hero/heroine, the hot sex scenes, and the very satisfactory ending when I was sure there was NO WAY Serena and Jonathan could work it out. Now I want to read ALL the Donovan sister novels.

Just Like That  (SweetSpots Contemporary Romance)
Just Like That  - Margo Candela (contemporary romance)

 Sassy and sweet little novella. Something of a Cinderella story - the besieged stylist whose manager won't give her any good clients, but then she hits the jackpot with Mr. Big, er, Mr. Tate.

It's a quick, fun little romantic fantasy, and I really liked the author's voice, not to mention the pampering she gets from Mr. Tate. Looking forward to reading more of this author's work.

Fancy Pants - Susan Elizabeth Phillips (chick lit, romance)
This was a very interesting read for my chick lit reading group, because it was published in 1989. The first part takes place in the 1970's, the second part in the 1980's. So, from our perspective, today - the characters and the environment are a little dated; from another perspective, it's like taking a time capsule voyage back to those years.

It's very weird to read about pro golfing without any mention of Tiger Woods. The heroine is SO bratty and unlikeable in the beginning I was tempted to put the book down (okay, I was tempted to throw it across the room, but it's a library book, so I reined myself in). Francesca actually undergoes such a sea change after winding up in the middle of nowhere, with the clothes on her back, preggers, and with a quarter in her pocket, that I was able to root for her after all.

There are things in this books that wouldn't "work" in today's market. A hero, (technically) married to another woman? Over all, I liked it, and I found it especially interesting as a look back in time. The romance publishing industry has changed greatly in the last decade; grown more Puritanical in some respects, IMO, and in others... the "rapey" romances of Johanna Lindsey and Rosemary Rogers would be hard, if not impossible to sell to a modern audience.

The Mermaid Chair - Sue Monk Kidd (women's fiction)

I admit, I'm a longtime fan of SMK. Loved her Dance of the Dissident Daughter, loved The Secret Life of Bees, and I love mermaids, yet this book... a little harder to get into. She has a beautiful, lyrical way of expressing life's deeper questions, and yet... I found Jessie, her heroine, a bit whiny and self-indulgent. I "get" the whole idea of a woman discovering she must reinvent herself, in her forties, but... I was not surprised by her extramarital adventure, and thought the object of her fling, and her husband, were a bit too convenient and accommodating.

I did fall in love with the Mermaid Chair, itself (I want one!); and was surprised at its connection with Jessie's beloved father. I love the way SMK integrates all the senses - I could feel the pluff mud on my feet, smell it, see the egrets flying through the air. The little details and secondary characters are wonderful, from Max the Island Dog, to Kat and Hepzibah. And what do you do with your elderly mother who has deliberately hacked off her finger yet seems perfectly sane?  All in all, a very worthwhile read, especially if you are a woman in your forties or fifties.

Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish - Grace Burrowes (Regency romance)

She had me at dirty nappies (diapers). A hot hero coming to the rescue of a somewhat plain Jane heroine who has been left with an abandoned baby belonging to her maidservant.

I've never read a book before where the device that brought the lovers together was an abandoned baby, but it worked for me. While Sophie has a habit of picking up strays, she knows nothing about caring for babies. Vim actually has much experience with babies, and since he's in no hurry to get to where he should be going, he stays longer than he should to coach Sophie in changing nappies, feeding an infant, and other babycare.

What Vim doesn't know is Sophie's actually the daughter of a duke, with a plethora of brothers and sisters, who maneuvered to be "forgotten" in London with only a few servants, so she can get a much-needed break. Vim assumes she is a servant of some kind, and therefore while this does not interfere with a nice, juicy romp, given his own station in life he can't marry her - though he begins to want to.  My only quibble is Vim's big traumatic event that has created an aversion to Kent and to Sophie's father in particular seemed a little overdone.

Of course, now I will have to read the preceding books about Sophie's very interesting brothers, who bumble into the story near the end, making things worse and better, but this works well as a standalone. I really liked this book even though regencies aren't my usual read.

Distraction - J. L. Campbell (women's fiction)

If you can't travel to Jamaica with a suitcase, traveling in your imagination is the next best thing.  Hot and sexy lovers Justine and Xavier steam up the pages, but they happen to be married to other people. Justine's husband Milton is keeping more than a few secrets of his own, some of which involve Kyra's loser boyfriend that she just can't seem to cut loose. Then there's Dionne, who's willing do whatever it takes to get ahead.

These are not "nice" women, these are interesting women, women with complicated lives and children (yes, women can have children and an interesting life!) and I became fully wrapped up in these women and their stories. J.L. Campbell (who'll be interviewed here on Aug 24) does a great job of including Jamaican proverbs, meals, and other touches that give a taste of the island culture. Yet the friendship dynamic among women seems universal.

And because I had to catch up with the buzz, of course...

Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James (romantic erotica)

I actually liked much of this novel - but not the parts everyone else got off on (pun intended). I thought Anastasia was a spunky, clever little character. I loved her e-mails, her attraction but resistance to Christian Grey, her geeky clumsiness. Christian, of course, was almost every woman's cream-your-panties-dream: 27 years old, physically gorgeous, rich, accomplished, powerful, able to leap tall buildings fly helicopters and run multi-billion dollar corps while still having endless time available for kinky sex play. What's not to like? (Besides his Red Room of Pain, that is.)

I loved the details of the BDSM contract and her reaction to it. (Much like mine would be, I admit. Caning? Branding? Anal fisting? Oh, hell no!) But in the end, the sex scenes left me neither shaken nor stirred. Just kind of shades of meh. Which is not what good erotica is supposed to do.

Here's two examples of what good erotica is supposed to do: boy howdy, does it ever!

Still Into You and Melt Into You - Roni Loren

Still Into You (100 pages, BDSM erotic romance, menage) is a good way to get a taste of Roni Loren's work. When Seth and Leila fell in love, they couldn't wait to rip each others' clothes off. Now, eight years and two kids later, they'll watch Letterman rather than make love.

Some say that it's not really a romance if the couple is already married (except for mail-order brides and the like) - stories like this prove "them" wrong.  As it turns out, both Seth and Leila have been longing for something more than "vanilla sex," but didn't want to bring it up, lest they shock their partner. I love the way this couple fights to stay together, from Leila calling a radio love doc for advice, to Seth unearthing her stash of battered romance novels and reading them to discover what her hottest fantasies might be.  The sex is hot, the romance is sweet, and being on the journey as this couple battles to find each other again - or perhaps, really, for the first time - is definitely worth the price of admission.

Melt Into You (BDSM, menage, M/M erotic romance)

Evan's got a smart, loving, protective fiance, and a strong emotional bond with him that goes back to when she was a teen runaway in serious trouble.  Unfortunately, he's just not that into her, being gay and closeted for the sake of his career. But he wants her to be happy, so he sets her up with a three month membership at The Ranch, a place she can discreetly play without blowing his cover.

What none of them count on is that Evan's first love Jace is also a member of The Ranch, and so's his hot buddy Andre. Despite, or perhaps because of their past hurts, it's simply not possible for this trio to make it only about the sex, though they try. Love's got a lot to do with it; love between Evan and Jace, between Evan and Andre, and between Jace and Andre, though there is something extra special when all three are together. The obstacles keeping these people apart are not easily surmountable, and it doesn't all wrap up in a bow (or padded handcuffs, if you prefer) over the course of a long weekend. The sex is incredibly hot (I've had a mad crush on Jace since he first appeared in Roni's Crash Into You); adding hot cop Andre just turned it up a notch.

I've never been into the whips-and-chains-and-floggers thing, but Roni makes me like it despite myself. I just hope she doesn't start writing erotica involving circus monkeys or houseplants, because I would prolly discover that in her skillful hands, those "did it" for me, too.

The Inner Game of Stress: Outsmart Life's Challenges and Fulfill Your Potential  - W. Timothy Gallwey with Edd Hanzelik M.D. and John Horton M.D.

I admit, as I prepared to go to Anaheim for my first ever RWA conference, I was really feelin' the stress. Had been for some months ahead of time. So I called on this book to help me sort that out, and you know what, it truly helped.

"The outer game is played in the public arenas of daily life, overcoming obstacles in work, family, relationships, and health. The inner game is played simultaneously against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, frustration, pain, and worry, which produce stress and stifle fulfillment. When we master the inner game, we can handle the obstacles of the outer game without stress."

The Inner Game of Stress offers all kinds of tools to reset our perception of something being stressful - or not.  To shut down that horrible Self 1, aka the Stress Maker, the voice that can (if we let it) keep up a constant barrage of negative, stress-inducing inner dialogue.

This book is one I am going to periodically reread. I was so nervous about RWA, certain that a single misstep would forever ruin any possible writing career. By re-envisioning it as one of many conferences I am sure to attend, and a tremendous opportunity, I actually had fun and a successful pitch. It won't be the first, nor the last time I will need to put the Stress Maker in her place, I am sure.

Left on my TBR list from December:
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Daisy Miller - Henry James
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Confessions of an Improper Bride - Jennifer Haymore

Added to my TBR list, already on my Kindle or bookshelf:

A Heart to Mend - Myne Whitman
The Doctor's Lady - Jody Hedlund
Dev Dreams - Ruth Madison
My Cheeky Angel - Mimi Barbour
Katie's Hellion - Lizzy Ford
The Inner Game of Stress - W. Timothy Gallwey
Romance Novel - PJ Jones
Living in Gratitude - Angeles Arrien
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Train Your Mind, Change Your Life - Sharon Begley
Water - Terra Harmony
The Cowboy's Pride - Charlene Sands
The Bird Sisters - Rebecca Rasmussen
Mercury Rising - Daisy Harris
The Brenda Diaries - Margo Candela
Hollywood Ending - Lucie Simone
Are You There, Vodka?  It's Me, Chelsea - Chelsea Handler
Melt - Natalie Anderson
Beauty and the Werewolf (A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms)  - Mercedes Lackey
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Awakening - Kate Chopin
His Strength - Kiru Taye
Just The Way You Are - Barbara Freethy
Bloodchild and Other Stories - Octavia E. Butler
Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo
Just Like That - Margo Candela
Twelve Times Blessed - Jacqueline Mitchard
The Lantern - Deborah Lawrenson
Danger Zone - Dee J. Adams
The Possibility of You - Pamela Redmond
Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende
Alpha Wolf - Linda O. Johnston
Asphodel (The Underworld Trilogy) - Lauren Hammond
Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand
Witches of East End - Melissa de la Cruz
The Comic Toolbox - John Vorhaus
A Week to  Be Wicked - Tessa Dare
The Belly Dancer - DeAnna Cameron
Caught in the Act - Jill Sorenson
Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James
Elizabeth I - Margaret George
How to Knit A Wild Bikini - Christie Ridgway
Somewhere in Time - Richard Matheson
Flirt - Laurell K. Hamilton
Fired Up - Jayne Ann Krentz
Fragrance of Violets - Paula Martin
Can't Buy Me Love - Maggie Marr
Colters' Wife - Maya Banks
The Jungle - Upton Sinclair
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
The Prince - Niccolo Machiavelli
Common Sense - Thomas Paine
Lady Susan - Jane Austen

And then I went to RWA National Conference and returned home with DOZENS more paperback books and downloads.

Are there any books you're moved off your TBR pile so far this year?  
Have you read any of the books I read?  
What did you think?