At the Back Fence Issue #249

December 18, 2006

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Best, the Worst, and the E-Book Erotic

This year will go down in my personal history as a first: as a romance reader I awarded no DIK’s (Desert Isle Keeper status) to current-year books (romances or otherwise). Whether this drought stems from the reading block I experienced during the first five months of the year is something I don’t know, but an informal survey of my AAR colleagues indicates that some of them also were DIK-less in terms of current year reading.

That said, I end the year with a whopping five DIK’s to my credit – and four are romances. I can’t remember the last time I loved so many romances in a single year. For the past decade or so, I’ve been happy enough with two or three per year, so even though I’m bothered that in voting in our annual reader poll next month none of my choices will be DIK reads, I really can’t complain.

I try and do this annual column somewhat differently each year, so this year, in addition to talking about the best in my reading, I’m going to talk about the worst in my reading as well. And, as I did last year, I’ll offer up my favorite Erotic Romances too.

The Best: DIK Reads

Sweetgrass by Mary Alice Monroe (2005)

Sweetgrass was a 2006 RITA finalist in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category. Barbara SamuelsLady Luck’s Map of Vegas must have been a phenomenal read indeed to have beat out Monroe, whose book not only earned DIK status from me, it also earned a straight A rather than an A-, something that hadn’t happened since 1997. If, like me, you are a fan of Southern Fiction (particularly Southern Fiction set in the Low Country), I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

This is my second Monroe DIK; I also loved her 2002 release, The Beach House. Sweetgrass is not a romance per se, but it does tell a marvelously different sort of love story between Mama June Blakely and her husband Preston, who suffers a massive stroke early on in the story. The couple live at Sweetgrass, a plantation owned by Preston’s family for generations. But the once large estate – 1,300 acres – is down to 100, and because the surrounding area is such a prime one for developers, the tax assessment on Sweetgrass is more than the Blakelys can afford. After the couple fight bitterly, leaving the reader with with the vague knowledge that their estrangement with their son and partial estrangement with their daughter is related to the property, June retires to her bedroom and Preston decides to call his prodigal son, Morgan, who’s lived for years in Montana. But Morgan isn’t home, and after Preston leaves an odd message, he is felled by his stroke.

Morgan returns to Sweetgrass to help his mother care for his father, and soon a whole group of caretakers join them, including Nona, the black woman who was once their housekeeper – and Morgan’s nanny. Nona now weaves the beautiful sweetgrass baskets sold locally, and her daughter Maize is dead set against Nona once again working for the Blakelys. Nona and June’s relationship has spanned nearly fifty years, and it moves from the peculiar bond shared between Southern white women and their black “help” into a true friendship throughout the course of the story. Nona’s grace shines through every scene she inhabits, and her relationship with June is but one of those that grows as the history of the Blakely family is slowly revealed during Preston’s recovery. Old secrets and hurts are shared, helped most of all by Nona and Kristina, the young woman hired to lead Preston’s team of caretakers.

It is Nona whose harsh but necessary words help Mama June and Morgan work through their common pain, suffered when Morgan was a child and his older brother died in the boating accident he survived. And Kristina’s low-key but not so gentle prodding convinces June that even if Preston can’t speak, she can communicate with him through touch. Given that they had slept in separate bedrooms for years, this push opens the past between the two spouses, and their lengthy relationship slowly heals and grows stronger.

A relationship develops between Morgan and Kristina, and while it’s sweet, and helpful in putting his demons to rest, it’s truly ancillary to his reconciliation with his family and his work in trying to save Sweetgrass in such a way that it not only honors his family, but honors Nona’s heritage as well. Each of the characters in Sweetgrass is inexectricably intertwined with others, and while none are strictly catalysts, Kristina interested me more in how she nudged June along in her reconciliation with Preston than as a character in her own right.

This is a masterfully told story; if you had told me before-hand that I’d love reading about a rekindled love between two old people, I’d probably have looked at you funny, or laughed in your face. If you haven’t read this one, I urge you to do so, but be sure to keep a supply of Kleenex nearby…you’ll need them.

The Music of the Night by Lydia Joyce (2005)

This is the second “annual favorites” column in a row to feature a Lydia Joyce title. She debuted in 2005 with The Veil of Night, which earned a B+ from me. Her follow up, The Music of the Night, was even better; my grade for it was an A-. In my column from last year, I compared Joyce to Anne Stuart – and this book cemented my belief that, like Stuart, Joyce’s ability to torture her heroes and torment her heroines is stunningly brilliant.

In The Music of the Night, Sebastian Grimsthorpe, Earl of Wortham, goes to Venice to take his revenge on a former friend, Bertrand de Lint, whose rape of the earl’s twelve-year-old illegitimate daughter went unpunished. When he sees a pock-faced young woman in the company of de Lint, his mother, and half-sister, he concludes she is the same young woman who worked with de Lint to despoil his daughter, and so determines to include her in his revenge.

While Sebastian sets himself up as a wicked Spaniard in residence, he begins to court the young woman in the shadows, believing that she is also de Lint’s mistress. de Lint would love to sleep with Sarah, but she is neither his mistress nor his partner in crime; she actually despises and fears him. After being forced to become a dress lodger (a prostitute who “rents” an expensive gown to attract a better clientele) at a young age, she managed to work her way through a proper education, making a friend who eventually married well, and offered her a life of leisure. Sarah is a strong woman who refused this charity, but she knows her position is a precarious one as de Lint continually tries to ruin her.

Sebastian’s seduction of Sarah is delicious and dark, as are Joyce’s descriptions of Venice and its use as the backdrop for her story. Sarah’s seedy backstory is never glossed over, and her history juxtaposes beautifully against Sebastian’s debauched past. As for the book’s love scenes, I thought they were exquisitely earthy.

Joyce’s books remind me of the richer sort of romance written ten or twelve years ago. I applaud her willingness to do that in today’s market, and though her third release seemed more of a miss than a hit to those I know who read it, I hope she returns to form with her next release. After all, revenge romances, which by necessity are filled with duplicity and betrayal, too often they fall flat for me. Not so with The Music of the Night. In fact, the only other revenge romance to earn its way onto my keeper shelf was written by none other than Anne Stuart.


Naked in Death, J.D. Robb (1995)
Rapture in Death by J.D. Robb (1996)
Ceremony in Death by J.D. Robb (1997)

 Of all the books I read this year, the one that most excited me when I finished it was J.D. Robb’s Naked in Death. There were a number of books I looked forward to reading, and while a few nearly lived up to my expectations, the first in Robb’s long-running futuristic romantic suspense In Death series simply blew me away – and set me off on a major glom. Like Rapture in Death and Ceremony in Death, it earned an A- grade from me, and while I’ve not continued my glom much further than when I discussed it in an October ATBF, I will return to the series after the first of the year, after I’ve had enough time away from the series so that I don’t ruin it for myself by reading the titles too close together.

I spent a significant amount of time in that October column detailing why I’ve so enjoyed the series to date that I’ll try not to regurgitate what I’ve already written about it. Instead I’ll provide a very short synopsis of each of the books. Here’s some detail about Naked in Death:

It is the mid-21st century. The world as we know it is somewhat changed, but it’s not so far off into the future that anything reads as wholly alien, even if cars can fly and food is prepared by Star Trek-type replicators. But prostitution is legal and regulated to prevent against disease, and Eve Dallas, a police lieutenant with the New York Police and Security Department, is assigned to investigate the murder of a prostitute who just so happens to be the rebellious granddaughter of a conservative U.S. senator with presidential ambitions. Her number one suspect is Roarke, a gorgeous bazillionaire with a shady history who knew the victim. When their eyes meet across the proverbial crowded room, they experience the “thunderbolt” Mario Puzo wrote of in The Godfather.

Throughout the course of her investigation, Eve must question Roarke, whose answers are cryptic. Although Eve’s gut tells her he is not guilty of the murder, the evidence against him is circumstantial, but damning. The arrogant Roarke is fascinated by Eve and “allows” the interrogations, but warns her that he plans to have her in his bed, and by the time they succumb to their passion, it’s explosive and unlike anything either has experienced.

All the while Eve works herself into exhaustion trying to find the murderer before he kills again (already three are dead). Political pressure about the investigation, nightmares about the abuse she suffered as a child, and the violence of her last case put Eve on the brink, and while Roarke is arrogant, he is also out for Eve’s welfare and is single-minded in his efforts to protect her. Roarke’s arrogance and compassion make for a heady combination – particularly when his anger over her lack of trust in him kicks in – and eventually Eve allows him into her life.

Because Eve is a police officer, her investigation is a natural part of the story, so the mystery has a strong but organic basis. I’ve never been a fan of violence in romance, or romantic suspense, but this book – and the ones that follow in the series – seamlessly integrates the suspense with the romance, and the violence, while gory and descriptive, is so inventive that I never felt the need to skim.

I can say the same for Rapture in Death and Ceremony in Death, which were equally terrific reads, not only for the romance and suspense, but for the secondary relationships that develop and are further explored throughout the series. There’s a surprising amount of humor in this series, much of it grows out of these relationships, and it works so well because the humor is character-based.

At the start of Rapture, Eve and Roarke are honeymooning at a nearly-finished “off-planet” resort he owns when one of his employees is found dead, presumably by suicide. Later Eve is assigned to investigate the death of a prominent lawyer, who also seems to have killed himself. Then, a third “suicide”, and Eve’s realization that each of the victims had small burns in their brains. Were these brain bombs genetic defects…or murder? Other than that the victims died with smiles on their faces, none had anything in common with the others – other than a connection, however tenuous, to Roarke through a virtual reality device developed by one of his companies.

What worked particularly well in this story was the involvement, through Eve’s friend Mavis, of a brilliant producer who is able to manipulate those around him in a subliminal fashion. He is a major suspect in the book, and Robb’s talent in creating his storyline was brilliant. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as Eve discovers his abilities and later interrogates him. And through it all, Roarke and Eve’s relationship continues to evolve, their sex gets hotter and hotter, and each is able to save the other.

In Ceremony in Death, Eve is assigned to secretly investigate the death of a fellow police officer who by all appearances died of a heart attack. Eve must keep the investigation hidden from Feeney, her mentor, because there’s a chance the officer was dirty, and Feeney knew it…and tried to cover it up. As I pointed out in another October ATBF, there’s a love scene in Ceremony that knocked my socks off, but it’s the rift between Feeney and Eve that develops when he discovers her secret investigation that makes the book. Roarke, who never allows himself to sleep before Eve, seems to do so one night, and after she falls asleep, he goes for a little chat with Feeney that opens the older man’s eyes. It’s a great scene that is never alluded to again, but it’s responsible for the two officers’ reconciliation, and I loved Roarke for making that midnight visit.

Eve and Roarke are orphans, so the familial connections in this story were particularly poignant, as was the continued exploration of the secondary characters who grow ever-prominent throughout the series. Given the word “ceremony” in the title, it’s not hard to guess that religion plays a part on the story, but it’s religion of the occult. I read this one in one sitting late into the night, but I don’t recommend reading it that way as I was too creeped out to sleep afterward. Somehow this one manages to be romantic, suspenseful, funny, and creepy all at once. I honestly don’t know how she does it.

The Rest of the Best:

Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas (2006)

Not many authors can successfully transform a villain into a hero, but Kleypas did so brilliantly in Devil in Winter, which earned a B+ from me. And now that I’ve read both of her books involving heroes and gaming hells, I’m going to admit something radical: Derek Craven’s got nothing on Sebastian, Viscount St. Vincent!

Although third in Kleypas’ Wallflower series, attentive readers will recognize that heroine Evie Jenner’s father Ivo was a bane in Derk Craven’s existence in Dreaming of You. The shy and stuttering Evie is desperate to avoid marriage to her cousin, and proposes a marriage of convenience to the equally desperate (he’s badly in need of funds) and rakish Sebastian even though she knows he’s not the best husband material. Although he can’t help but taunt her, he realizes her offer is too good to turn down, and the two head off to Gretna.

What follows is a romantic story of two people who bring out the best in each other. Sebastian becomes a caring and loving husband and Evie transforms into a brave, clever, and sexual woman who is Sebastian’s equal. As I wrote in an April column, “Kleypas provides enough information about Sebastian’s past hurts and suffering that we can understand the demons that drove him to kidnap Evie’s sister Wallflower in It Happened One Autumn. And she gives us plenty of insight into why not only Evie falls in love with this devil, she also gives the reader a bird’s eye view into the goodness locked within him, and the struggle the two go through to help it surface, be recognized, and nurtured.”

Cold as Ice, Anne Stuart (2006)

The moment Anne Stuart described Peter Jensen to me at RWA this past summer, I knew I simply had to read Cold as Ice. Though so many readers seemed to focus on whether or not he was going to be a bi-sexual hero, I didn’t. All I wanted to know was if she could actually pull of a hero so totally in control of his body and mind that he could have sex with women – or men – if a mission (he was a spy) called for it. Last year, after the release of Black Ice, I coined the phrase “hero on the edge” for the type of hero Stuart does better than any other author. Peter Jensen cemented this view, and earned the book a B+ grade.

Jensen is charged with taking out Harry Van Dorn, a millionaire psychopath who plans to carry out seven diabolical plots to enlarge his already over-flowing coffers. Jensen is undercover as Van Dorn’s personal assistant when Genevieve Spenser, a junior partner at the law firm handling Van Dorn’s business affairs, is brought aboard her client’s yacht so that he can sign some documents. She’s not happy to be there when she’d rather be on her vacation already, but she’s willing to do what needs to be done to further her career, even if it means spending time with a handsome but kind of creepy guy for a few hours.

Genevieve’s unexpected arrival messes up Jensen’s plan because while he’s not averse to collateral damage, for some reason he can’t quite determine, he’d rather she lived. And so begins one of the most fascinating romances of the year, between a man so cold he can bring a frigid woman to orgasm without raising his heart rate, and a woman so single-minded that she is the only one who could possibly be his match. In my coda to Ellen’s review, I wrote: “I loved the book’s love scenes, and loved the ending. The author’s spare style seems to get better with each book in this series…and for those who didn’t quite get enough of Chloe and Bastian, you’re in for a real treat here.”

Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl (2005)

My husband is a foodie and loves to cook, so I bought him Garlic and Sapphires, a memoir written by a Ruth Reichl, formerly a New York Times food critic, and now the editor of Gourmet magazine. One day I felt in need of the book equivalent of a palate cleanser, so I stole the book from his tbr pile and devoured it in one sitting. It’s a delicious book with food at its center, and yet it’s not altogether about food, but also about personal growth and relationships.

Most striking about the book is its language. Reichl’s command of the English language – in relation to food – is amazing to read. Though my experiences while eating don’t come close to matching how she feels when she eats a fabulous dish, I delighted in the rich language she used to describe those feelings, tastes, and smells.

The book’s other most appetizing aspect was the colorful people she introduced while searching out hidden spots in the New York area. Even more of the book focused on the experiences surrounding some of her most famous reviews, when she concocted elaborate backstories to correspond with the disguises she created so as to avoid being recognized and given special treatment. She inhabited these characters as surely as any Method actor, and her experiences as these alter-egos provided some of the best moments of the book…and resulted in some brilliant reviews, which are included. Overall this is a heart-warming and witty read, with some surprisingly poignant moments, particularly near the end. It too earned a B+ grade from me.

She’s No Faerie Princess, Christine Warren (2006)

Urban Fantasy has provided some of my favorite reading this year, and Christine Warren, heretofore unknown to me, combined werewolves and the fey into the sexy and exciting She’s No Faerie Princess.

Princess Fiona needs a break from life at the court of her aunt, Queen Mab, and defiantly sneaks out of the fey realm and into New York City. But she’s in for more excitement than she bargained for and is attacked by a demon in Central Park after taking the “doorway” between worlds. She is saved by Tobias Walker, a werewolf patrolling the park to help keep the city safe during negotiations so that the Others may become known to the human world. Tobias believes the demon’s presence may stall or derail the peace talks. Since the doorway that divides the human and fae realm has been locked and Fiona can’t go home, she decides to use her innate skills as a demon-hunter to help figure out what’s going on, even though Tobias isn’t at all happy about it – nor is he pleased that Fiona can rev up her magic as a result of intimacy with him. Even alphas, it seems, don’t like to feel used for sex.

Fiona and Tobias make a great couple, even though she was occasionally too feisty for my tastes. Tobias’ reluctance to become intimate with her was a clever about-face from the usual. Apparently this is the second in a series by the author, and I’m on the look-out for its predecessor. She’s No Faerie Princess was another B+ read for me.

Drop Dead Gorgeous, Linda Howard (2006)

The two books I most looked forward to this year were Anne Stuart’s Cold as Ice and Linda Howard’s Drop Dead Gorgeous. 2005’s To Die For was my favorite book from last year, and for the most part, Howard delivered a worthy successor. The plot, such as it is, involves Blair Mallory trying to meet Wyatt Bloodsworth’s 30-day deadline for planning their wedding. If she can’t get it done in time, they’re eloping…his way.

Though she didn’t find the dress of her dreams while shopping, she did find some killer shoes. But on her way back to her car at the mall, she is nearly run over, and she’s sure it was purposeful. Wyatt takes the incident seriously enough, but – and this is my main quibble with the book and why it rated a B+ from me rather than DIK status – he seems to forget about it when, later on, Blair is sure somebody is following her, and that same somebody is also responsible for dozens of threatening phone calls. This seeming disconnect results in a rift between the two for part of the book’s second half. It was propelled by plot rather than character, a problem in a very character-driven book. Without it much of the book’s internal conflict would not have occurred, nor some very clever scenes. But Wyatt lost a couple of points as a result in my estimation, and never made them up.

This one problem aside, I enjoyed this book so much I inhaled it. If you loved Blair before, you’ll still love her. If you loved the couple that is Blair and Wyatt, you will still love them. If you loved Wyatt, you’ll love him slightly less, but I blame Howard for this, not him. After all, the disconnect was plot-driven, not character-driven, and yes, I know Wyatt’s fictional. This is a fabulously funny and sexy read; far sexier than To Die For, and aside from Howard’s misstep, her pitch was otherwise perfect.

Love Is Blind, Lynsay Sands (2006)

Lynsay Sands is not a consistent writer; some of her books are fun, some are okay, and some are simply too silly to bother with. Love Is Blind is, I think, her best to date, and brought to mind Julie Garwood, a comparison I don’t make lightly. The idiosyncratic heroine has an adorable flaw, the love scenes are yummy, there’s really no internal conflict to speak of, and the writing and storyline are just plain fun.

Lady Clarissa Crambray’s nasty step-mother’s plan to marry her off has backfired. Removing Clarissa’s spectacles may have made her all the more lovely, but it rendered her clumsy and graceless; now she is known as “Clumsy Clarissa” throughout the ton, and without suitors. After Adrian Montfort, the Earl of Mowbray, was wounded and scarred on the Peninsula, his once-handsome face frightened some gently bred young women so badly they fainted upon seeing him. He hied himself off to the country to rusticate, but now he’s in town with his mother to do his duty, marry, and beget an heir. Once he and Clarissa meet, the fun begins, spurred on by a wonderful secondary character – Adrian’s cousin – who at one point plays a foppish gay man to trick Clarissa’s step-mother, who has decided Adrian would not make a suitable match for her step-daughter.

Adrian and Clarissa cannot stay away from each other, and other members of his family help them meet clandestinely…until Clarissa is quite deliciously compromised and the two marry. Both the hero and heroine are thoroughly lovable, in love with each other but unable to risk their hearts by openly communicating that love, and it turns out that Clarissa isn’t quite as clumsy without her glasses as it seems…somebody actually caused some of her more dangerous accidents. There’s never a real sense of peril, though, and all in all reading this book – like eating an ice-cream sundae – may not be nutritious, it sure tastes good. This was another B+ read for me.

My final two B+ reads for the year were two more from J.D. Robb’s In Death series – Glory in Death, the second book in the series (1995), and Midnight in Death, originally a novella published in the Silent Night anthology (1998), and more recently reissued as an inexpensive stand-alone. In the former, Eve Dallas is assigned to solve the murders of two successful, high-profile women, and in order to ferret out the murderer, sets herself up as his next victim. At the same time, Roarke, who as usual is a suspect, forces Eve to confront her feelings for him, and when she can’t, he leaves her, forcing her to go to him and fess up.

Midnight in Death is so good for such a short work! It’s December 25th, the first Christmas for Eve and Roarke, and just two days after the close of her last case. Eve learns that a violent and crazy murderer escaped from a penal planet with plans to kill all those who had a role in his incarceration, including the primary cop on the case, one Eve Dallas. Robb has no trouble painting a strong picture of the dangerous murderer, capturing the personalities of the existing players in the lives of Eve and Roarke, maintains the chemistry between Roarke and Eve, and also manages to fit in the same sly wit she does in the full length books. At one point after Roarke has helped Eve in her work, Eve “hisses out a breath [and says] ‘It’s ridiculous'”, to which Roarke asks, “What?” Eve answers, “How good a cop you’d make.” Roarke’s response is a classic and cracked me up: “I don’t think insulting me is appropriate under the circumstances.”

The Worst:

While I read quite a few terrific books in 2006, I read quite a few clunkers as well. I won’t detail them as deeply as I did my favorites, but the worst of the worst do deserve some dishonorable mention.

Until the Knight Comes, Sue-Ellen Welfonder (2006) – Though this book earned a B+ from one of our newer reviewers, I thought it was horrible. This Scottish-set Medieval with a hint of the paranormal is built upon lies, albeit “necessary” ones, and a near-constant inner-lust-speak that sounds even worse given the author’s melodramatic prose style.The book’s uneven pacing and clumsy transitions (lots of plot build up, and then nothing as it’s off to something else) mean that the reader is left totally unsatisfied…sort of like foreplay without the orgasm.

The Trapper, Jenna Kernan (2005) – The back cover blurb is why I bought the book. Alas, it was the most exciting three paragraphs of my experience reading the book. I’m not exactly sure how the author rendered a road romance on the frontier between a “half-breed” and a socialite dull, but she did. The cover promises a “battle of wills”, but doesn’t deliver. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, this might be cheaper than prescription of Ambien.

Minion, L.A. Banks (2003) – After hearing so many superlatives about the Vampire Huntress series, I was shocked to find this, the first book, such a slog. So much emphasis is devoted to world-building that there’s a whole lot of “tell” and not much “show”. Even worse, I found the narrative confusing and hard to follow. The copy I read was an “enhanced” version with a new beginning and added scenes – because director’s cuts can be self-indulgent, it’s hard to say whether the original might have been a better choice. And perhaps the series improves, but I’ll never know.

Mona Lisa Three, Sunny, part of the Over the Moon anthology (Feb. 2007) – It wasn’t the threesome with double penetration that bothered me the most about this Urban Fantasy. My main concern was that it was such a blatant rip-off of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series. There are a couple of stories worth reading in this anthology, but Sunny’s isn’t one of them.

Dead Sexy, Amanda Ashley (Feb. 2007) – This was so disappointing after having liked the author’s old-fashioned vampire romance Desire After Dark. I wish that instead of trying for a more modern sensibility by utilizing multiple paranormal elements – vampires, werewolves, the future, Indian shamans, oh my! – she’d simply stuck with her more old-school romantic voice. The result is a dissonant read that satisfies nobody.

Blood Fires: The Turning, Jennifer Armintrout (2006) – This debut by a fairly young author (she’s 26) of the first in a violent vampire fiction series isn’t a major disappointment, and it isn’t boring. It’s downright awful. My conclusion is that this is post-9/11 fiction for nihilists. Though the author created a couple of interesting characters and a difficult and intriguing tentative relationship for them, any interest I had was destroyed by one intimate scene that is the stuff of a true sadist’s dream. I’ve no problem with gore in general; indeed, an oddly favorite moment in one of Anne Rice’s vampire books features a couple of vampires literally breaking people’s bones and devouring their bodies, yet a similar moment in this book nearly brought up my lunch. This was, for me, the worst book of the year.

I continued to read on my e-Bookwise throughout much of 2006, and just as last year, many of the books I read were e-book versions of regularly published books. But I did also fit in several Erotic Romance titles, and these were my favorites (if you don’t like the idea of reading electronically, some are also available in print):

Stranded, Victoria Michaels aka Angela Knight (2004 short story…reissued in the 2005 trade anthology In Other Worlds) – A different e-book by Knight made it onto my list for last year, and like Bound by the Dream, this one has a seriously kinky sensibility (can Knight write without one?). Alexandria Kenyon is mysteriously plucked out of her life and finds herself stranded on an alien island with John Hawke, a Marine who forces her out of her vanilla existence. He’ll keep her safe, but only if she follows his instructions to a T, and wouldn’t you know it? Most of them involve her in a sexually submissive role.

Bridefight, MaryJanice Davidson (2002 short story…reissued in the 2005 trade anthology Really Unusual Bad Boys) – This is the first of three short stories involving feline shape-shifting princes from another planet, and a land known as SandLands. Pill-popping Detective Lois Commoner discovers herself in a strange land with the “magically delicious” – and naked – Crown Prince Damon, who transforms before her eyes and has her ride him back to the palace. It’s true that Lois reminded me more than once of the sarcastic Christina from the author’s The Royal Treatment, but she’s a marvelous heroine whose biting wit helps her fit into this strange new world where flowers blossom into soap, a woman’s battle scars are viewed as beautiful, footlockers wished for drop from the sky, and women are married to men without their knowledge. Oh…and the sex is terrific, too.

Spontaneous Combustion, Nicole Austin (part of the 2006 anthology Dreams of the Oasis I) – Firefighter Jake Cruise plans a night of naughtiness for his best friend Maddie. Both secretly love the other, but after this night, she’ll know how he feels about her. As far as the kink factor, gentle readers beware: Jake invites a couple of his friends to join in on the fun (so it’s triple penetration, not just double), but just this once. FYI, none of the other stories in the anthology really did it for me; of the five remaining novellas, three earned C level grades, and the other two, D’s.

Erotic Stranger, Cheyenne McCray (2006 short story) – When Josh Williams walks into a bar and spies corporate lawyer Teri Carter, he knows without a doubt that she’s a born submissive. This Dominant man offers her the night of her darkest dreams, and the result is a smokin’ hot story that somehow doesn’t seem quite as kinky as it actually is. I liked it. Other McCray recommendations include Erotic Invitation, and for the very, very, ultra-adventuresome, King of Spades and King of Diamonds, where just about anything – and everything – goes.

Hot for Santa, Lacey Alexander (2003 short story) – Amy Finnegan’s been lusting after Cole Bradshaw for weeks, ever since they started volunteering their time as Santa and elf for charity at a local mall. Though she’s worries he doesn’t see her as anything more than a friend, it all changes on Christmas Eve when she drops by his house and finds him waiting for her, wearing nothing but his Santa hat. Both Amy and Cole hope that she’s been a bad enough girl to deserve some punishment from Santa before she earns her way into his present for her. This one’s really quite playful, and good, clean/dirty fun in comparison to the author’s more darkly erotic Brides of Carolon series, which in some ways reminded me of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy.

It’s a Wrap:

This is our last scheduled column for 2006, a year in which we published 35 columns. When we return in January, look for Robin’s annual Buried Treasures column, which kicks off voting in our annual reader poll. And, right after the polls close, look for Blythe’s annual Reviewer’s Choice column. Since today’s column is the first of three scheduled over the next couple of months that relate to your reading year – and by extension our annual reader poll – let’s use it to get your brain ready. Feel free not only to comment about the specific books I’ve mentioned, but talk about your reading year in general (how much you read, how well – in general – you liked of what you read, and how your reading spread out among categories) and how well you think Romance did for its readers this year. It’s also the time for you to talk about the best of the books you read that were published prior to 2006 since none would be eligible in our annual reader poll. But please, avoid specific discussion of your favorite 2006-published books.

As for me, I read 81 books in 2006 (as well as a number of short stories), far fewer books than the last two years, but given that I didn’t read between January and May, I’m satisfied, although I hope never to experience a similar reading slump again. Of all the books I read (in addition to those five DIK’s), an equal number earned B’s or C’s (41% each). Nine out of ten were romances of some form or another, and of those romances, the largest grouping were contemporaries. The oldest book I read was published in 1994, with only a smattering published prior to 2003. Seven won’t be published until 2007, and twice as many were published in 2006 (46%) as in 2005, which apparently was the second most popular year for my reading. And while I didn’t grant DIK status to any books published this year, five 2006 releases earned B+’s, which isn’t at all bad.

How about you?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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