In our continuing quest to bring you the lowdown on even more books, here’s our latest batch of mini reviews. This time around, Em, Heather, Kristen, Lisa, Maria Rose and Mary share their thoughts on some of their recent reads.
Small Change by Roan Parrish
Ginger Holtzman owns and manages a tattoo shop in South Philly. As Small Change opens, the shop and an upcoming art show have left her overcommitted, overworked and understaffed. Fiercely independent, Ginger is prickly about accepting or asking for help – past relationships with men (she’s bi-sexual), and professional experience in the male dominated tattoo industry, have left her wary of appearing weak or vulnerable. Lonely and overwhelmed, she’s struggling to find balance when she meets Christopher Lucen, the handsome owner of the coffee and sandwich shop she sometimes frequents.
Christopher is LITERALLY Ginger’s opposite in every way – temperament, appearance, faith, family background – but almost from the moment he spots her in his deli, she’s frequently on his mind. Kind, hard working, and gorgeous, Christopher can’t quite understand what it is about Ginger he likes so much, but he’s smitten. Regular visits – hers to the deli, his to the tattoo shop – help them to know each other better and it isn’t long before their attraction gives way to straight up lust. He’s charming and adorable, she’s guarded but interested, and their meet cutes evolve into something.
Ms. Parrish does a wonderful job highlighting the contrasts between Christopher and Ginger, and of showing how well they balance each other’s strengths… and weaknesses. Unfortunately, they struggle to share what they want and need from each other. From the start, their relationship is fraught with miscommunication, mutual insecurity and personal/professional struggles – Christopher’s relationship with his brother is particularly fragile and delicate; Ginger, a female business owner, fights hard to overcome a chauvinistic and misogynist tattoo industry. They have terrific chemistry, and I particularly loved their wicked and witty banter, but the differences between them are profound and prove challenging.
Though I love all the things Ms. Parrish wants Ginger to represent – female empowerment, intelligence, strength, compassion, honesty – her relationship with Christopher is characterized by a marked absence of all of the above! Christopher is much easier to love, and though he’s an appealing leading man, I found myself resenting the contrast between the ‘sweet’ Christopher and ‘prickly’ Ginger. Though he had his faults, they’re few and far between, and I wasn’t crazy with his characterization as Ginger’s savior.
The road to happily ever after in Small Change is rocky, and though I do love the opposites attract trope, I’m not sure I fell as hard for this couple as they did for each other. I’m more comfortable believing this is a happy for now.
Grade: C+ Sensuality: Warm
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
I frequently impulse buy books because of the cover, and sometimes, after I’ve read the book, I’m left wanting more. When I saw the cover of Passing Strange, I had to have it, and this time, the story inside matched the cover brilliantly, and what I found was a unique little novella, combining magic, romance, and queer history into a delightful, immersive read.
The story begins in present day San Francisco with the sale of a painting by a well known pulp illustrator to a collector. Told in flashback, the reader learns how the illustration came to be and what happened to the artist. It’s the story of Haskel and Emily, two lesbians who cross paths in 1939 Chinatown and fall deeply, madly in love. The depictions of queer life and culture in that time and place are poignant, made all the more so by Haskel and Emily’s palpable attraction. There’s a tinge of magic and an HEA that surprised and delighted me. I wholeheartedly recommend this paranormal, historical, f/f tale.
Grade: A- Sensuality: Kisses
Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon
One of the questions I get asked the most when folks find out I’m a romance reviewer is about BDSM books. Usually asked in a whisper or with some reference to Christian Grey, these folks want to know about books I’d recommend. I’m usually hesitant with this subgenre, since sometimes the books I adore are not good entry points and the last thing I want to do is throw someone into an erotica deep end (all puns intended). As I was reading Haven, however, I knew that this would be my new immediate recommendation the next time I get the question.
This book is breathtaking. Not only in the care Ms. Weatherspoon takes with describing the boundaries and rules and realities of BDSM, but with the care she takes with her characters. There are trigger warnings galore in this one – for survivors of sexual abuse in particular – but at no moment did I feel unsafe in her hands. I knew she knew these people, knew what would be too far, knew what would be healing and what would be harmful. It was, to be frank, a stunning level of craftswomanship.
It’s also hella hot.
With the trigger warning caveat, if you’re looking for a primer into this world, or already are familiar and are just looking for a fabulous read, run and do not walk to your one-click button and pick this one up.
Grade: A Sensuality: Hot
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
What an unexpected, saucy and yet heartbreaking treat this one proves to be. Taking us into the seamy underbelly of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the plague-laden summer of 1876, the main focus of the story is Blanche Beunon, an ex circus performer who is now a burlesque attraction who occasionally hooks. Blanche and her husband Arthur, live in an open relationship with Ernest; both men suck her dry and knock around town while Blanche struggles to provide a sweeter life for her son with Arthur, P’tit. Blanche is eventually persuaded to take P’tit to a baby farm, an act she regrets once she learns how he’s being treated. Her life becomes a dichotomy as she tries to find proper care for a boy she has no idea how to love while committing to her life of show and hedonism. But then Blanche is nearly run over by the bicycling Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing frog catcher with a saucy sense of humor. They become extremely close friends, and she begins to reconsider her disreputable life – which is galvanized to change when she’s the only witness to Jenny’s murder.
Donoghue weaves a beautiful tale from an ancient, little-known murder trial, breathlessly recounting a long-gone and quite unsung part of California’s distant past with aplomb. None of her characters are easy to love but they weave their fingers through your hair and whisper a little siren song into your ear until you’re good and ready to love them back. The plot – based on a true crime – provides a good read for anyone who can stomach a bit of grit to go with their intense character studies and beautiful explorations of mother love.
Grade: A Sensuality: Hot
The Sisters by Nancy Jensen
I’ve found it. The most depressing novel I’ve ever read in my entire life. And yes, I’ve read Sophie’s Choice.
It’s a family saga about the Fischer clan, starting with Bertie and Mabel Fischer in 1920s Kentucky. The Fischer sisters are thick as thieves – they have to be to protect themselves from their abusive stepfather. Mabel has been sexually abused by him for years, and unbeknownst to Bertie, and has offered herself up like a sacrificial lamb to keep him from touching her younger sister. He declares his intention to move on to molesting Bertie after her eighth grade graduation, leading Mabel to act out of desperation and then to flee Juniper with her apparent boyfriend, (and Bertie’s crush) Wallace. Bertie looks at the evidence left behind – pornographic photos of Mabel and the stepfather, the stepfather’s apparent suicide, the fact that Wallace and Mabel absconded without her – and becomes bitter and insular, never receiving her sister’s message requesting she join them in the big city.
The sisters’ lives play out from there, with many more downs than ups in store for them. Bertie marries a kind man who adores her but she can never manage to emotionally commit to him,and bitterly resents her lot in life in a way that effects her daughter and even her granddaughter. Mabel, meanwhile, shoulders the guilt of the situation and becomes a rather famous War photographer but cannot forget the past.
A scenario like this demands emotional fulfillment, and that is something that the novel refuses to give us – and so it becomes a litany, chasing its own tail, piling misery on top of misery, anger on top of anger, secret atop secret, until we’re left to watch one of the women die in a bed from Alzeihmers, fantasizing about the past, revealing one more sad, ugly secret, living out a mobius strip of misery.
Grade: D- Sensuality: Warm (WARNING for rape and child abuse)
Midnight Rider by Colleen Shannon
I’ve been preparing to move, and in doing that I’ve been weeding through my once-upon-a-time DIK pile. It’s been an interesting journey – almost like visiting with my long-lost self. I don’t know, dear reader, what she was thinking lo so many years ago when she picked up a copy of Midnight Rider.
Magdalena, a tall, rich, blue-blooded ranchero living in pre-Goldrush California has suffered much in her young life; the confiscation of her land, the death of her beloved grandfather and brother and being accused of wrongly murdering both. Driven by a passionate desire for justice, she uses her childhood fencing expertise, athletic ability and general leadership skills to become the masked El Halcyon, defender of the people’s rights, and her best option for regaining her land and money back and revenging herself on the true murderer, her cousin.
In any other book, Magdalena would be a perfect foil for any man. Unfortunately, she’s stuck with Clint, who is obtuse, greedy and – yep, this was published in the 1980s – rapey. Forced to spy on the Mexican anti-Annexation Californios by the Mexican government, Clint gets his hands on a map that Magdalena needs to get gold that will allow her to buy back the ranchero.
Clint is, in a phrase, as dumb as a post. He first sees Magdalena dressed as a woman in a strawberry field, where she has headed to seduce him and get back her map. They share the requisite kiss, and he develops the requisite obsession with her. As Ines (her middle name), she is a poor peasant maid, but in her El Halcyon form, they spar and fight, and of course, he eventually her to be a woman and forced seduction ensues. Naturally in 80s romance vernacular, having orgasm-inclusive sex with another person clearly means that you are destined to be bonded to them for life, and Clint starts obsessively chasing Magdalena just as she has a breakthrough as to her enemy’s hideout. All the while, Clint is so thickheaded that he doesn’t manage to figure out that all three women are the same person until deep into the book.
The way Magdalena reacts to the rape is so visceral that it’s absolutely impossible to root for a HEA with these two. I would’ve rather she settled down with one of her men than Clint. The book tries to even things out by having him come to appreciate her as a mate and a bandito, but by the time he symbolically buys her a pair of pants to prove he loves All of Her I was ready to feed him some poisoned strawberries.
Grade: F Sensuality: Kisses
Confessions of a Former Puck Bunny by Cindi Madsen
Cindi Madsen’s new adult college hockey romance series Taking Shots has showcased a variety of characters, but this is the first one that takes a twist on the expected by featuring a hockey player in pursuit, instead of the other way around. Lindsay has ‘been there, done that’ – played the adoring hockey fan and gotten her heart crushed along the way. She’s sworn off hockey players for good, not ashamed of having had several hookups with different players in the past but turning over a new leaf and avoiding the game – and the players. But math is one thing she can’t avoid, and when handsome and attractive hockey player Ryder turns out to be a volunteer tutor at the local resource center, she reluctantly agrees to let him help her. Ryder’s payment plan is simple – let him take her out and they’ll call it even. Lindsay needs to get a B in math to graduate so she’s got no choice. But when the attraction between them threatens to spill over into something more serious, will she be able to resist temptation?
I really appreciate the sex positive heroine in this story, a young woman who has had her fun but also knows that playtime doesn’t last forever and that being a ‘puck bunny’ and a party-going gal isn’t going to get her a serious job after college. Hockey players are her kryptonite so avoiding them is her best bet until Ryder comes along and wreaks havoc on her plans. I love Lindsay’s ‘confessions’, spread throughout the story where she is honest with herself about her faults and her previous life choices. Ryder is the nice guy hero throughout, a man who sees Lindsay not as a conquest but as a smart, feisty and likable woman. When her previous reputation from the locker room rears its head, he’s quick to defend her and her choices – no slut shaming from him. It’s the last year of college for them both, and career opportunities mean tough choices as well as guarding their hearts. There are several sexy scenes with this couple, and the resolution to the main conflict gives them a happy ending suited to their romance. Friendships play a big part in the story, and several characters from earlier in the series make an appearance. As a hockey romance, it’s got the required on ice scenes, locker room chats and after game parties that make up the rest of the story. Confessions of a Former Puck Bunny is an entertaining and fun story, a fitting end to the series.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
The Thief’s Countess by Cecelia Mecca
The Thief’s Countess is a well-written and enjoyable medieval romance, and I am thankful I took a chance on new-to-me author, Cecelia Mecca. Sir Geoffrey was unjustly stripped of his birthright, and he is now an impoverished baron supporting himself and his younger siblings as a border reiver while he plans for revenge. He’s disgruntled when his uncle asks him to take time away from his duties and go with him to protect Lady Sara Caiser, a wealthy countess who recently lost her father.
Sara is waiting for her betrothed to arrive to marry her and protect her lands and dependents while her distant cousin plots to seize her castle and claim the earldom. She’s not fully convinced he’s an imminent threat and doesn’t think she needs protection, especially from a border outlaw. But Geoffrey is not like any reiver she’s ever imagined – he’s a handsome man with manners and doesn’t act like a thief.
Geoffrey is intrigued by and smitten with Sara from the moment they meet, and he finds himself wanting to protect her. He relentlessly sticks by her side, but she’s not used to having a shadow – much less a bossy, attractive one – and bristles under his watchful eye. She and Geoffrey have an amusing rapport as she teases him and tries to reclaim some of her freedom. She begins to appreciate his protectiveness when her cousin attempts in earnest to lay siege to her home.
Geoffrey and Sara find themselves developing feelings for each other, and wish their responsibilities and stations would allow them to consider a future together. Their developing relationship is built on mutual respect and admiration, and the sexual tension builds as they both try to fight the powerful attraction. The Thief’s Countess has a fairly predictable plot, but it’s entertaining, romantic and solidly written, and I look forward to more from Cecelia Mecca.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Have you read any of these? What did you think? Have you read anything lately you think we should know about? Let us know in the comments.
Please note that links are provided for ebook editions of these titles, and some may not be available from all retailers. Where no link is given, an ebook is not available from that retailer.