Book Review: Dearly, Departed by Lisa Habel

The only thing expected of Nora Dearly is that she comport herself as a proper young lady. As a New Victorian, she is expected to be quiet, sweet, and have impeccable manners. For sure, she has those qualities. But when the zombies come, her inner bad-ass comes out in a big way.

Because this book was amazing and there is much good to discuss, I will begin with the most obvious weakness: the multiple points of first-person POV were a little less than charming, and served to yank me out of the narrative. I also felt like Habel didn’t go full-throttle with the zombies. The first introduction of them was met with the appropriate terror and desire to kill them. But as the book wore on, they became almost wallpaper, they were experienced so casually.

That said, this book was a delight. I’ve not ventured into steampunk before, so this was a terrific introduction. I loved the idea of a modern Victorian society – Habel brought that vividly to life. Some of the descriptions were just balls-out amazing. The experience was fully immersive; I loved the war with the Punks, the specific details of the underground city, the parasols with the lights on them. These details really made the book come alive for me.

I adored Nora – but I especially liked to see her falling for Bram. Both were very distinct and fully formed characters. Even the minor characters were distinct. Pamela, for instance, was one of my favorites.

Nora and Bram’s relationship had some oddly touching moments (odd because…well… he’s a zombie and you know what happens to zombies.) Her relationship with Chas, a female zombie, was also quite touching.

I loved this book. It’s the first YA book I’ve read, and the first steampunk, and I’m sold. I eagerly await Lisa Habels subsequent books.

Book Review: Sparkles by Louise Bagshawe

I hardly know where to begin with this book. At 600 pages, which I devoured in four hours, it covered a lot of territory. And I’m still trying to recover from some of the crazysauce.

I loved this book. It was unabashedly crazy. I’ll use a summary from Goodreads to explain the thrust of the book:

Fabulously wealthy, internationally adored, the aristocratic Massot family owns one of the last great jewelry firms in Paris. But seven years have passed since the disappearance of the patriarch, Pierre Massot. With hope of his return all but extinguished, his beautiful young widow, Sophie, reluctantly declares her husband dead and takes control of the family business. But even as Sophie begins to look to the future, forces are conspiring to destroy the Massots—by unearthing the devastating secret from their past that Pierre may have died trying to protect.

Bagshawe’s sweeping story takes readers from the murky diamond mines of Soviet Russia to the cultural whirl of modern-day Paris, unraveling the mystery of Pierre Massot’s fate and the scandal and deceit that lies behind the Massot family fortune. Spanning continents and decades, Louise Bagshawe’s Sparkles is an addictive tale of ambition, betrayal, and romance.

But what really happens is:

1. A man fakes his own death.
2. Sophie is almost lured into a bad marriage.
3. Sophie is clueless that Judy, her husband’s former mistress, despises her.
4. Sophie’s son, Tom, attempts to run the company.
5. He’s 18 years old.
6. He dropped out of Oxford, convinced he could run an empire.
7. Tom’s grandmother conspires with him to take over the company.
8. Tom gets his father’s former mistress pregnant! (She’s 35; he is 18).
9. But she was really just faking a pregnancy in order to blackmail him!
10. Because she really loves his father, who has been dead for seven years. She thinks.
11. The father – Pierre – actually is a Russian.
12. He killed his father.
13. He ran away from Russia to Finland with a woman.
14. He convinces the woman, his lover, to pretend to be his mother.
15. Forever and ever.
16. So they go to France, and he kills the owners of a small jewelry shop.
17. And installs himself as the long lost nephew of the owners.
18. And his lover is his mom.
19. And so he builds this huge great jewelry empire.
20. When he returns, he kills some people.
21. He’s shocked to discover his wife has married someone new (more on this in a sec).
22. His son has learned from his disastrous attempt to run the empire and has matured.
23. Pierre’s “mother” – who has been in love with him all this time, finally goes crazy and kills him, then kills herself with the jewel-encrusted heel of a fabulous shoe.
24. Sophie, it turns out, is preggers.
25. The end.

How much did I love this? So much. It was just bursting at the seams with insanity – but it was so well written and juicy, I kept reading. Oh, and there were a few internal logic problems.

1. When the boy’s father disappears he is supposedly seven. Yet his mother is bathing him.
2. Though he’s seven when his father vanishes, when his father reappears seven years later, he’s eighteen.
3. Judy, the American woman who seduces both father and son, is described as being from Iowa in one chapter, and Oklahoma in another.

There was also something unique about this book in that the heroine, Sophie, was quietly religious. It was interesting to see a character be quietly – but seriously – Catholic.

The best part, for me, was the relationship between Hugh – a competitor – and Sophie. Hugh had been married once, and deeply loved his wife, but she and their unborn child died in a car crash. His feelings about it and women in general were actually beautifully rendered. His growing love for Sophie – and hers for him – was the bright point of the book. Though this wasn’t a romance, that part of the book was hands down the best part.

Add in a mention of Enron and it was almost the perfect book.

It was a lot of fun, well-written, and has a lot of heart. If you want a perfectly logical story, it’s probably not for you. But for those of us who don’t mind some well-cooked crazy, bring it on.

Book Review: Man of the West by Sadie Callahan

Man of the Westis a contemporary romance.

I am really conflicted about this book. I loved the writing, and the author did such a good job of world-building. However, the climax was anything but. And there were a few more problems, which I’ll address.

Jolie Jensen is twenty-seven years old, with a ten year old child, and she’s on the run from her drug-addicted loser of an ex-husband, Billy Jensen. Jolie’s cousin Amanda has set up a job and a place for her and the child to live Lockette, Texas, a tiny ranching town where Amanda lives.

After a truly terrific escape, Jolie and Danni arrive in the parched West Texas town. Her job on the ranch entails cooking every day, which she loves. She also loves the tiny cottage house she and Danni live in. All is well.

And it gets better when she catches the eye of the town sheriff, Jake Strayhorn, the black-sheep member of the richest family in town – upon whose ranch Jolie is working. Jake is thirty-eight and looking to settle down. He thinks Jolie might just be the one.

But I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Granted, in fiction anything goes. And I liked Jolie until she meets Jake. She is an idiot. I’m sorry – that’s my impression. Jake says something using the word “ambiguous” and she asks him what that word means, then writes it down in a notebook so she can look it up later. She does the same with “propensity”. I understand that with a tenth grade education, Jolie might not understand big words, but “ambiguous”? Really? And the fact that she would willingly show her ignorance over English to a man she likes seems painfully naive. Naiveté became an even bigger issue the first time they make love.

She is nervous and she asks him if she should get undressed, and how this is supposed to work, etc. This from a woman who has a ten year old child. I understand that this is supposed to convey her innocence, but by this point I was thinking she was just plain stupid. Stupid for getting caught up with Billy, stupid for getting knocked up, stupid for not bothering to know what “ambiguous” means.

I guess this is a classic case of not relating to the heroine. I don’t mind innocence – I rather like it – but I don’t like blatant stupidity. These days, authors have a huge mountain to climb when it comes to writing about abused women as romance heroines. You really have to explain how they were trapped and in this case, it seemed like Callahan just completely forgave her protagonist any responsibility whatsoever. This was especially egregious because Billy wasn’t physically abusive. He was just a loser who made her work all the time. That’s it. So why was she with him? Telling me she was pregnant and had to work is fine – I believe that – but give me a reason to think she’s not just a stupid teenage slut.

So while Jolie (who is obviously named after Angelina) is in Lockette, Billy comes looking for her. Even with the problems of Jolie’s character, this was an awesome set up. Loved it. Was really looking forward to a big showdown with the sheriff and the druggie. Callahan did an excellent job of setting up the tension, and made a special point of mentioning how vulnerable the child was while at school. Was Billy going to kidnap her? Was he going to kidnap Jolie?

Twas not to be.

He showed up in the back of her truck. She easily got out of the car, and then two other women ran over and beat him up. Then the sheriff was there and he was arrested. Not a big deal. I was irritated at this. It was a waste because it could have so easily been a big moment when the sheriff proves how special she is to him, or whatever, but no. Nada. No big whoop at all.

The end is rushed. She stops showing and starts telling. The last thirty pages read like someone else wrote them, and it’s an unpleasant surprise.

One good point is the relationship between two sub-characters, Pat and Suzanne. They were HOT and there was some very good tension there that I just ate up with a spoon. That was honestly some of the best sex I’ve read. It wasn’t terribly explicit, but wow, I felt the emotion. Too bad that didn’t translate into the main characters.

Two final things bothered me about this. The end of the last chapter ends with Jolie and Jake getting engaged.

“I love you, Jolie. You’re more than I ever expected to find.”
They kissed a long time, leaning back against the sofa back. When they parted, they looked into each other’s eyes.
“You are too, Jake. Until I met you, I didn’t know someone like you could ever want me.”

Dear God. This is grotesque. I think I know what Callahan was saying. That Jolie had been through the wringer, she was an uneducated girl who finds this sexy, educated, rich sheriff. But god, the cloying “oh my god, you like me,” feeling just doesn’t feel right.

Then the epilogue is even worse. The end says:

Three months ago, when she began the chaotic journey to change her life, she hadn’t dreamed she would find so much of everything. She was a real-life Cinderella and she would soon marry a prince.

Kill me now. Please, just shoot me. This fairytale reference condescends the reader, and it feels tonally wrong.

There were also distressing editorial problems through-out. There were misspelled words, bad punctuation, and at least once the hero’s name changed.

Thus, as I mentioned, I’m conflicted. I loved the first three-fourths of the book. I felt that Callahan had a great, lively style of writing, a good handle on her place, and she obviously loved her characters. But the last part was just… I would have called my editor and asked for another week and really just ironed that out.

If I were grading it, a C.

Book Review: Secrets of Sin by Chloe Harris

Secrets of Sin is erotic romance.

Emiline du Ronde is mistress of a great Caribbean plantation, a successful businesswoman and a very lonely wife. It seems Reinier Barhydt, her husband, departed four years ago on a ship and has not returned. Instead, he and his best friend, Connor have a reputation for wild menage a trois and they are happily circling the globe doing everyone from the noblewomen of Europe to a virgin whore in some undisclosed location — yes, a virgin in a whorehouse. And they were lucky enough to have her (though I wonder if a virgin in a whorehouse would feel the same). I fully expected the two men to actually do each other – since they almost kiss in the first chapter – but no, apparently their enjoyment of sex with other men is limited to watching the other with a woman.

Meanwhile, on her little island, Emiline du Ronde has had quite enough, and she has her attorney draw up divorce papers. Connor overhears this, and for reasons I’m not quite clear on, he tells Reinier that she has taken a lover. Reinier returns to the island and makes a bargain with her. If she succumbs to his every wish for three days, he will grant her divorce.

I’ll stop here to just say the motivations of this book are preposterous. Reinier actually yells to a maid that, “I’m the one that was a prize she could brag to her friends about, something to laud over them and check off her list of ingredients for the perfect marriage…. She never loved me. It was all about bragging rights to her.”

Bragging rights. Okay. Whatever. Like some guy who cats around with whores is some huge catch. Way to go Emiline. But of course, none of the motives are actually the point.

Gettin-it-on is the point.

And that they do quite well. In the three days that Emiline is to submit to him, he takes a liking to spanking her, whipping her, caning her, and plain old doing her like a math problem. It was absolutely thrilling.

The writing itself, with its sweet descriptions of Caribbean life, were lustrous and beautiful. The attraction between the two main characters was very well defined, and the sex was extremely good. The fact that it was all hinged on a ridiculous structure did not matter in the least. These books are escapist, and they’re allowed to veer from reality.

I do have a question about the two men, however. To my eye, it appeared that the two men were lovers, but that the editing process deleted it. I could be entirely wrong about that, but there is a gap in the plot where that fact would have fit quite well indeed. As it is, their close friendship full of hugs and, of course, sharing sex with a woman, just seems undone and a little odd. It’s an intriguing line of inquiry: if they were lovers and that was cut out, why was it cut? Did the editors not believe that women would enjoy man-sex?

In any case, the existing book is lovely. A very enjoyable, fast read that ends with a happily ever after. One note: you might not want to read it in public. If it didn’t have a giant warning label on it, you could probably read it in public, with this label, you’d look a little odd:

Book Review: Unleashed by Jami Alden

Unleashed is romantic suspense.

Unleashed was a pleasant surprise. It was hot and sexy, had a vaguely unlikely plot but it was also probably the most reasonable plot I’ve read in a romantic suspense. It is part of an overarching story of three brothers who have a private security company called Gemini Security. They’re a little cheesy at times – like the fact that they all wear GPS watches to show them where they are at all times. And there’s the typical strain of too much saccharine when the men find happiness with a woman. This is common in romantic suspense. Families all love each other and protect each other in this really over the top way. But okay, I accept that as part of the genre.

When Caroline, his high school love, comes to him asking him for help in solving her husband’s murder, he accepts because there is a link to his mother’s vanishing, some eighteen years before. If it sounds like a strained connection, it is. But it eventually ties up pretty nicely. Basically they discover that her husband was involved in an illegal adoption ring, getting young girls pregnant and then selling the babies. His mother had volunteered at the shelter, and Caroline’s husband – eighteen years ago – had killed her because she stumbled onto the conspiracy.

The relationship is written very well. Danny wants to fuck Caroline because he’s always found her hot – and he has fond memories of their high school sex. It starts as a sort of hate fuck – which is pretty hot – and then he just can’t handle it, and he becomes a surly jerk. The Surly Jerk is a sort of romantic suspense trope. They all have to be jerks so the woman can ‘tame’ him and make him civilized. But the sex is twinned with some genuine emotion, so the relationship works on all levels.

His moment of realization that he still loves her was very touching. I found myself being mad at myself that I actually liked it. Very sweet, and hot, sex followed.

The climax was good except the author rather gratuitously makes sure that Caroline is nude when she’s kidnapped, a rather obvious and pointless fact that really did take away from the action.

After she’s kidnapped, life seems like it will be fine for Danny and Caroline. Yet, Danny turns on his surly act. Caroline finally grows a spine and tells him that she can’t live with that anymore. He has to be able to communicate. So he just vanishes for a few weeks. It reads a little over dramatic. He becomes a slobbering drunk. It’s really unattractive.

Then his father talks to him about he should have worked harder to please his mother before she was murdered. This is one of those cringe-worthy cheesy moments I described earlier. It’s just too uncomfortable for me. Anyway, he literally chases her down on a mountain in New Zealand (she’s hiking with a group, and he runs up the mountain for her). He professes his love, vows to change, and they have sex.

Overall, it’s a good book and a good example of its genre. I would recommend it with the caution that there are those cheesy moments are very cheesy, and they’re embarrassing to read. But they thankfully don’t last long and you can move on to some awesome sex.

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