Sunday, March 31, 2013

Beautiful Bastard

Beautiful Bastard
by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books
320 pages
Genre: erotica
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3 / 5

What must it be like for Chloe Mills, forced to work for the titular beautiful bastard Bennett Ryan? He's gorgeous, no doubt, and immensely sexually alluring. But he's a bastard. Not in the literal sense, mind you, but more of the "he's an a-hole to work for" variety. With her MBA smarts, Chloe is determined to outlast Bennett, if not outsmart him as well.

But ... there is the matter of him being so hot and all. He might just turn out to be irresistible if, say, he presses her up against the wall, inserts his fingers into her vagina, kisses her breasts, and makes her orgasm on his hands.

Just sayin'.

Bennett and Chloe cannot stand each other. Let's make this perfectly clear: they loathe each other. They may have a modicum of professional respect for one another, but their feelings are not of like or even tolerate. They HATE EACH OTHER. And so we are treated to all manner of hated-fueled sex.

They fight, they have sex. They argue, they have sex. They belittle each other, they have sex. They look at each other with hateful fuming, they have sex. In Bennett's office and elsewhere. They are insatiable for each other, even if they hate themselves afterwards.

There is some corporate intrigue type stuff going on, but that is inconsequential. What we are supposed to care about is Bennett's self-growth. He realizes that he has less than hateful feelings for Chloe, and we're supposed to be impressed by that. We're supposed to think it's lovely that he grows up. For her sake, Chloe is fairly oblivious, convinced that the two merrily continue their hate sex.

I'll be honest: I read the whole thing, and if I was never quite bored, I also was never fully invested. I really could not have cared less if Bennett and Chloe wound up together. In fact, I wanted the two to be torn asunder. I also could not have cared less if they were happy.

Having said that, I must give props for some hot sexy times. There is a lot of sex in this book, and all of it is really, really hot. Hateful, but hot.

So here is what I would do: read it, skimming the "plot" and "character development" (I can't even type that without laughing) and go straight for the sex.

The Fetish Box Part III: What Remains

The Fetish Box Part III: What Remains
by Nicole Camden
Published by Pocket Star
81 pages
Genre: erotica, mystery
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3 / 5 

The three Fetish Box books are only about 75 pages each, which makes you wonder why they were split up into a trilogy of novellas. That question becomes even more confounding because of the third and (mercifully) last book in the series.

Mary and John continue their relationship, each having fallen in love with the other. Max still circles around, and Mary is still attracted to him. The sex shop remains under siege, and Mary continues to learn about the woman who was her mother.

Our merry trio needs to discover who is behind the attacks on the shop, as John and Mary's feelings for each other continues to grow.

The problem with these three books is that independently, they are so slight as to be dull. You can't find a rhythm reading just one, and the plot is so insignificant as to render it worthless. Together, though, they do make for a more interesting reading experience. That isn't to say that they are all that good; they aren't, really. The sex scenes are nicely written, but the characters don't hold up. There are too many questions, beginning with why Mary is so quick to have sex when she comes to town. Nor do we really get a full picture of Mary's mother.

There are better books out there. Read one of those.

The Fetish Box Part II: What Escapes

The Fetish Box Part II: What Escapes
by Nicole Camden
Published by Pocket Star
75 pages
Genre: erotica
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3 / 5

So in Part I, Mary headed to Florida after the death of her mother, whose presence in Mary's life was nonexistent, to take over Mom's sex shop business. Within a matter of hours, virginal Mary rocks the headboard with scarred veteran John (and those scars aren't just on the surface, you know ...) and finds herself wildly attracted to man whore Max.

Part II of the saga picks up moments after Part I ends, and our Mary has unleashed her inner sex tigress. She craves John - and he her. They have some rockin' sex together, but as much as she cares for him, she can't quell her attraction to Max. Given the opportunity to bed him, Mary finds herself powerless to say no. How does this go over with John? You might be surprised.

As Mary discovers her sexuality, she continues to learn tidbits about her mother, and the sex shop continues to be the object of vandalism and violence. Mary falls deeper into an emotional (certainly sexual) relationship with John, yet she fights fear over her business.

Again, we have a mildly entertaining premise peppered with some hot sex. You can finish each of these books in about an hour, so if you have a hankering for juicy sex scenes, these are a decent choice. Just don't look for much more than that.

The Fetish Box Part I: Open All Night

The Fetish Box Part I: Open All Night
by Nicole Camden
Published by Pocket Star
74 pages
Genre: erotica
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3 / 5

This is a case of a good premise done dully.

Mary, a virginal twenty-two-year-old, discovers that her long-estranged mother has died and left Mary her business, which happens to be a sex toy shop in Florida. Mary heads down, moving into her mother's - now Mary's - home.

Before you can say, "Id like a flogger, please," Mary has bedded one man, kissed another, and soon beds two in one day.

Let's backtrack for a moment. She SHOWED UP A VIRGIN, y'all. That Florida sun can work a number on you, no doubt.

There is a plot in here, somewhere. Some sort of intrigue about the sex toy store as the object of vandalism. But the "plot" is really just a ploy to get Mary in bed with, first, John, a war vet with sexy scars, and, two, Max, a tattooed bad boy who is in it for the sex. John enjoys sexual domination, so there is a bit of BDSM here, but not much. Certainly not anything graphic.

This is the first of a three-part series of books, although given their brief size, they operate more as novellas. Give it a whirl if you want to read some decent sex scenes. Otherwise, this one is pretty unmemorable.

The Best Man

The Best Man
by Kristan Higgins
Published by Harlequin
432 pages
Genre: romance, chick lit
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview.
4 / 5

I have a well documented girl crush on Kristan Higgins. Her books always seem to cure what ails me, showing me happy, quirky families, flawed heroines, hot heroes, and true love conquering all. Fairy tales, yes, but believable fairy tales, the sort that might come true. I regularly loan her books to my high school students, and when the girls do not return the books, I replace them. Between Kristan Higgins and Megan McCafferty, I have spent a fortune raising their sales numbers.

And now we have the latest Higgins book, The Best Man. Her books follow a general formula: girl from a boisterous, nosy, noisy family falls for a boy who loves her, but there are complications, usually on his side. They come together, get broken apart, come together, rinse, repeat. What makes the books so enjoyable, though, is Higgins' writing style. She respects her characters, but with a wink and a smile. They are not perfect, their tales occasionally break your heart, but you will always enjoy a laugh (or several) as they go through their ups and downs.

For this one, the first in a series of sorts set in the same whimsical New England town, our heroine is Faith Holland, a landscape architect who bolted to San Francisco when her wedding was called off at the altar. By the groom. Who announced he was gay. And for which Faith holds local sheriff Levi Cooper somewhat responsible. Not for making Jeremy gay, but for failing to tell Faith his suspicions. Yet as we get to know Faith, we also can see that Jeremy left clues, even if he himself apparently had no idea.

Her career thriving in California, Faith returns home to help her family, who own a winery. The very first person she runs into is Levi, and Faith immediately feels herself propelled backwards to that fateful wedding day. She never got the sense that Levi cared much for her, and that sentiment seems to continue to hold true. Faith has trust issues - not surprising, given how the most important romance of her life worked out - and Levi has problems of his own.

As the two come together, their relationship is beset with various conundrums and problems. Typical of a Higgins book, most of the problems are Levi's, and we feel Faith's frustration in dealing with him. Somewhat atypical of a Higgins book, this is told in the third person. We spend most of our time in Faith's head, but we do get into Levi's every now and then. It helps us understand where each is coming from and what motivates them. Too often in Higgins' novels, the book ends without giving us much clarity or insight into the hero (and I'm looking at you, Malone, in Catch of the Day). Here, we do have a greater understanding of Levi, which makes us care about him even stronger, which makes us cheer for him and Faith even harder.

This is not my favorite Higgins book - that slot is reserved for My One and Only - but I enjoyed the heck out of reading it. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love a little with the characters. And my girl crush on Kristan Higgins remains unabated.

Just One Night: Exposed

Exposed: Just One Night, Part II
by Kyra Davis
Published by Pocket Star
136 pages
Genre: erotica
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5

Poor Kasie Fitzgerald. She goes to Vegas, has a night of rocking hot sex with a stranger, only to return home and realize that said stranger is about to be her client. Teensy problem, because she's living with Dave, to whom she expects to be engaged. Not-so-teensy problem: Dave will not be happy to find out about Kasie's affair. This was the story in Part I of the Just One Night series, The Stranger.

As Part II begins, Dave is on the warpath, and Kasie is terrified. It isn't so much a fear of losing Robert as a fear of losing herself. In The Stranger, Kasie discovered her sexuality. She realized that she enjoys sex, she enjoys the intimacy of connecting with someone sexually, and her needs are important. Dave never made her feel that way. So when he shows up, guns blazing, Kasie feels herself slowly start to die.

And that is the focus of this book. Is there sex? Sure, there is. But the point of Part II isn't whether Kasie can sneak off and rock the headboard with Robert; it's whether she is strong enough to fight for herself. Robert has a habit of showing up to rescue her, but it becomes clear that Kasie needs to rescue herself.

Whereas Part I was a fun, hot read, this one gets more serious and more intense. We pick sides, and occasionally we change our allegiance. Dave? Robert? Is either all that he appears to be? Perhaps Kasie is better off picking up her toys and moving to a new sandbox entirely.

As with its predecessor, Exposed ends with questions. Part III is due out in May (and not a moment too soon, Kyra Davis ... I am not amused that I have to wait), and I hope we will get some answers. By this point, you will be fully invested in Kasie's story. Will she be true to herself and her needs? Will she sacrifice them for a man? Will it be Dave, Robert, or someone else? And will there be more hot sex?

Just One Night: The Stranger

The Stranger: Just One Night, Part I
by Kyra Davis
136 pages
Published by Pocket Star
Genre: erotica
Thanks to NetGalley and edelweiss for the previews
3.5 / 5

You know what they say, right? What happens in Vegas and all that? Kasie might wish that was the case, but it turns out that what happens in Vegas might just follow you back home.

She's there for a weekend of fun with one of her girlfriends, a friend who urges her to have sex with a stranger. This is largely because Kasie's boyfriend Dave is - let's just say - boring. Predictable, unexciting, unfulfilling. But dependable, solid, and loving, so he has that going for him. Even with her friend's encouragement, Kasie isn't so sure ...

But then she meets Robert. They share a drink at the bar, and before you can say, "Check, please!" they are in his swanky hotel suite, rocking that headboard with all the fierceness of a chorus line of Vegas show girls. When Kasie leaves, she believes she has said goodbye to Robert.

Ah, but not quite. It turns out that a tasty of Kasie was enough to intrigue Robert, and he wants more. It also turns out that they live in the same city.

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

Kyra Davis knows how to weave an entertaining - albeit brief - tale. This is a quick read, and although we don't spend much time with these characters, they are keep us interested and invested. The sex scenes? Hot. Very hot. Robert is ... let's just say yummy. If Kasie's attraction to him isn't as fully believable as it needs to be, we certainly can understand his for her. Dave? That's a whole other problem, one that will be addressed in Part II ...

And thank goodness their story continues.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The History of Us

The History of Us
by Leah Stewart
Published by Touchstone 
386 pages
Genre: literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4.5 / 5

A few years ago, I read The Myth of You and Me, and I immediately was captivated by Leah Stewart's storytelling. She is not a writer who feels it necessary to give us likable characters, nor does she back off from creating people who are deeply, almost painfully flawed.

And so it is with The History of Us, which tells the story of three adults and the aunt who raised them.

It's been about twenty years since Eloise Hempel received the phone call that changed everything. An ambitious professor at Harvard, Eloise is about to teach a class when she learns that her sister and brother-in-law died in an auto accident. Eloise is the children's guardian, and she must return home to Cincinnati to raise her two nieces and nephew, something that terrifies Eloise. She tries to enlist her mother, absent even from her life, much less the woman's grandchildren, but to no avail. Her mother allows Eloise to move into her home, but as far as parenting her wards, Eloise is on her own.

The story largely takes place in the present, with occasional flashbacks to how Eloise adapted to motherhood. Theodora and Josh were old enough to know their parents, but Claire was a toddler at the time of their death. Her memories are hazy, undetermined. She considers Eloise her mother, something that occasionally rankles not just Theodora, but occasionally even Eloise herself. Although Eloise considers herself the children's mother, and although she is wounded thinking that they consider her anything but, there is still part of her that yearns for her pre-motherhood existence.

Such ambivalence is one reason why Eloise is so believable - and also why she is so unlikable at times. She wants to get rid of her mother's house, and when Claire moves to New York to pursue a career as a ballerina, Eloise believes she has her chance. Theodora, however, resists. Now, there is a character we alternately love and cringe over. As the one child with the clearest memories of her parents, we understand Theo's need to cling to anything that represents their memory. In many ways, she thinks of herself as her siblings' mother, more so than Eloise. And with reason; she shepherded Eloise through those first few years as a mother figure.

Josh is a typical middle child, only son of three children. He's somewhat flighty, having ditched a career as a successful musician. Whereas he could be crafted as a stereotypical screw up and slacker, Leah Stewart instead presents him as far more complex. When he begins a new relationship, we want him to succeed, even if his paralyzing self-doubt makes us want to slap him.

And then there is Claire. SHE is the character we want to slap. Claire has a secret, you see, and her secret inadvertently binds the rest of the family together. Well, sort of. Leah Stewart won't take the quick and easy path; instead, she continues to give us complexity. Like her aunt and siblings, Claire is not so easy to categorize.

This family will fascinate you, and you will find yourself wondering if it's possible for any of them to be happy. Stewart pulls you in to their story, making you feel fully invested in who Eloise, Theo, Josh, and Claire are, what motivates them, frightens them, frees them. Their mistakes are believable, their story told as if it could happen to one of us.

Read this. Read it for the four fascinating characters at its center, as well as for its equally fascinating supporting cast. Read it to lose yourself in good storytelling and solid writing.

All In: The Blackstone Affair, II

All In: The Blackstone Affair, II
by Raine Miller
Published by Atria
256 pages
Thanks to NetGalley and edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5 cupcakes

When we left off with Brynne and Ethan, our happy couple was left torn asunder, Brynne having run off due to Ethan's "lies." But were they lies? Really? Or just certain omissions? See, Ethan was hired by Brynne's father, an American politician,  to protect her, only Ethan wound up "protecting her" with his penis.

If you know what I mean.

So, anyway. Ethan, Brynne, broken up. But do we think that will last? Seriously? How can you have a series if they stay broken up?

The lovebirds reunite, as we could predict, only love does not present an easy path. Naturally, there are complications a plenty. And, naturally, Ethan screws up as much as he possibly can.

The first book in the series, Naked, was told from Brynne's point of view, which perhaps is what made it feel so hackneyed. This one is told from Ethan's, and Ethan - well, in addition to being seriously smokin' hot - brings an element of freshness to could be a trite, predictable plot.

Brynne is at risk, or continues to be at risk, because I'm not sure that situation has changed much from the first book. Having a politician for a father undoubtedly makes her safety unstable, at best, and Ethan is determined to protect her.

There is some plot advancement in this one, but in terms of action, you'll find that most of that occurs between the sheets. Or up against walls. Or in other locations.

The one place where Brynne and Ethan connect, free from any outside stress or worries, is in the metaphorical bedroom. When they have sex, they open themselves to each other, and their mutual trust is clarified. Ethan is a Dominant, and he enjoys having Brynne as his submissive. Brynne happily acquiesces, which is a smart move on her part, because Ethan is HOT. He's intelligent, successful, protective, loving, and he knows how to please a woman. You will find yourself searching for real-life Ethans. (If you find one, please let me know. I'm convinced that none exist.)

As with its predecessor, this one ends with a cliffhanger. We now know more about Brynne's Issues, and a little more about Ethan's. Even though the story is told through Ethan's eyes, however, the focus here is squarely on Brynne: what has happened to get her in these precarious straits and what has happened that makes her trust waver as far as Ethan is concerned.

This is a better, stronger book than Naked. Like I said, perhaps that is due to it being told through Ethan's eyes. Or perhaps it's due to Raine Miller settling in with her characters. Either way, I look forward to the third book. I want Ethan to be happy, and if happiness is with Brynne, then so be it.

And I'd also, uh, like more of that headboard rockin'.

Naked: The Blackstone Affair, Part I

Naked:  The Blackstone Affair - Book 1
by Raine Miller
Published by Atria
192 pages
Genre: erotica, mild BDSM
Thanks to NetGalley and edelweiss for the preview
3 / 5 cupcakes

Do you ever read a book that you know, deep down, is not all that good, but yet you can't put it down? What does that say about us? I know when I read Twilight and Fifty Shades, I felt dirty and ashamed. But I couldn't stop reading either, which made me feel even more ashamed.

Enter Naked, the first in The Blackstone Affair series. While not as awful as either of the aforementioned literary train wrecks, this book certainly is nothing you'd be proud to be seen reading.

Yet again, we have our sweet damsel, Brynne, a part-time lingerie model with a Scandal in her Past. Bless her heart. Our hero, Ethan, is one of those corporate titan-types who buys one of Brynne's portraits and becomes obsessed. He must have her, dammit. HE MUST.

And of course he does.

And it takes him less than a week to do so.

Brynne doesn't put up much of a fight. Her handwringing would be precious if it wasn't so far-fetched. Yes, she's running from some horrible secret that makes her fragile and scared. Unlike others in its family tree, however, this book does not have a scarred hero, at least not a terribly scarred one. Ethan has it reasonably together, insofar as he's a romantic hero in an erotica novel. I mean, he has issues, but more attention is given to hers. He falls completely for Brynne; he's all in, and he wants her all in too, even if it means dragging her in with him.

In Shades of Christian Grey, Ethan fancies himself a bit of a Dominant, although his practice doesn't seem to get as heavy as Christian's. Not yet, anyway. There are more books to come in this series. These two do have some good, hot, sticky sex, and those scenes are pretty well written. Nothing out of the ordinary, especially BDSM-wise. Nothing we haven't seen before.

And yet ... heaven help me, I couldn't put the damn book down. I think it's Ethan. Yeah, he's imperfect, and yeah, he's somewhat predictable, but he's also so freaking likable that I can't help but be drawn to him. I can see why Brynne agrees so readily to be his. I would too, Brynne.

Sadly, the book ends on a predictable note, but it's enough of one that you will pick up the next one.

Release Me

Release Me
J. Kenner
Published by Bantam
352 pages
Genre: erotica, some BDSM
4 / 5 cupcakes

I guess we can thank E. L. James for mainstreaming BDSM-laced erotica, because it seems as if a new series crops up (no pun ... okay, pun intended) as often as vampires sprung from Stephenie Meyer.

Stop me if you've heard this before: a young, career-oriented woman meets an older, searingly attractive multimillionaire as drawn to her lush innocence as she is to his sexual (and entrepreneurial) allure. They embark on a relationship, made a bit more challenging due to the battles he wages with his demons. But she is convinced she can "cure" him, even if doing so means allowing him to dominate her sexually.

Sound familiar?

Sure, it does.

A recent entry is Release Me, which is the first of what appears to be a trilogy. (Yes, a trilogy. I'm sure you're shocked.) Young Nikki is fresh off the plane from Texas, trying to use her corporate ambition to help her succeed in business in Los Angeles. She attends a cocktail party and meets Damien Stark and immediately feels a pull toward him. He's hot, no doubt about it, and he makes his interest in her known. The pursuit begins, and, over the course of about four days, the two embark on a romance.

Unlike the Fifty Shades heroine, Nikki actually has something of a backbone. She's feisty, and her reluctance to give into Damien has less to do with moral superiority than with a need to be independent and prove herself. She also has her share of Issues, namely her not-so-loving mother. As for Damien's struggles, you need to keep reading. We get hints, and we get bits of information, but clearly his go much deeper than hers.

What you really want to know about is the sex, though, right? OF COURSE YOU DO. We don't read stories like Release Me because we crave literature or Pulitzer-prize winning writing. We read them for the sexy times, and in that respect J. Kenner does not disappoint. These two scorch up those sheets and rock that headboard straight into the stratosphere. The sex scenes are HOT, people. If for no other reason than that, I look forward to Capture Me.

So here's where we are with this book: it's hot, fun, and has a hot hero. Kenner seems to embrace what she's got on her hands, even if Damien's turmoil seems a bit forced at times. (Just like Christian Grey's, but I need to stop comparing everything to him.) If nothing else, Nikki is a LOT more enjoyable than Ana Steele ever was.

Like I said, the sex scenes are hot. Bring on Capture Me.

Love Unscripted: Love Series, Book 1

Love Unscripted: Book 1 in the Love Series
by Tina Reber
Published by Atria Books
592 pages
Genre: young adult; romance; chicklit
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5 cupcakes

A picturesque hamlet on the Rhode Island shore provides a quaint setting for this book, perhaps because you can imagine a film crew rolling into this bucolic burb and laying waste to it.

Taryn is barely out of high school and already owns a bar. She has a nice, steady existence, but one not free from heartache. Her parents are dead, and a recent relationship ended. She has a close assortment of friends and coworkers, but she has trust issues. The ex-boyfriend left her unwilling - if not entirely unable - to trust her heart to another. The last thing she has time for is a movie set, much less a popular heartthrob whom girls chase from one end of the world to another.

Famous, good looking, and the object of many a girl's (and woman's) desire, Ryan Christensen bursts through the door of Taryn's club, in desperate need to escape a horde of fans. When Taryn provides him safe refuge, they share a few drinks and some conversation. Despite every intention to be unimpressed, Taryn finds herself drawn to Ryan, and he is as drawn to her as she is to him.

Yes, this is a romance, and yes, there will be many rocky moments. In many ways, this is a familiar story: quiet, gorgeous girl who is unlucky in love lands the popular, gorgeous boy who heals her heart. Even Taryn's friends sound familiar, as if we've read their stories before in other books.

Yet you will want to read this book because it's fun, interesting, and allows the romance to slowly unfold. Nothing feels rushed between Taryn and Ryan, almost to a fault. This is a long book, with several endings. The length isn't a problem, necessarily, because it does give Tina Reber time to tell a fairy tale that nonetheless feels realistic. Romance does not come easily for these two; there are issues on both their parts. Ryan is a famous actor and the subject of paparazzi, hungry fans, and distorted tabloid stories. Taryn has only known loss, and she lives as if she expects nothing but loss to come her way.

There are a few extremely tame sex scenes, so don't read this one thinking you're in for some hot headboard rocking. The kissing is nicely told, although you might find yourself left wanting more. Yeah, I know. "More" within the context of a book this long sounds wrong, but you might want more sexy times.

This is a sweet book that allows its story to evolve steadily and realistically. If it is occasionally predictable, and if it occasionally feels too long, we can forgive it. Tina Reber tells a good story with likable characters, and in the end, that's what matters most.

Part II in the series came out earlier this year; I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I do look forward to the continuing adventures of Ryan and Taryn.