The Fallen Professor

How many feisty heroines does it take to change a lightbulb?

Review. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase

Lord of Scoundrels (Scoundrels #3) - Loretta Chase

After last week's disastrous reading experience, I felt I needed a palate cleanser. I also wanted to dip in to the "canon" of romance novels, and choose an older title that seemed to be a reader favorite. Finally, I love historical romance; contemporary is fun, but I often find that the cultural references in these books (social media, brands, even cities I've been to) sometimes throw me out of the story. I admit to loving journeys to places and time periods that are foreign to me; or at least, to places I might know, but that are given a very different atmosphere. This is why my historical and paranormal/fantasy TBR stacks are so much larger than the list of contemporary romances I want to read.


With that in mind, I chose *Lord of Scoundrels*, by Loretta Chase. It seems to be an especially beloved title for many romance readers, mostly because of its strong heroine and equally strong sense of humor; this last detail sold me on the book. I don't mind angst, and this story has plenty of that, but I find that well written humor says a great deal about an author's style and abilities. It's easy to pile on the drama, but it's *hard* to write dialogue or descriptions that will make a reader chuckle. In everyday life, there's something special about being able to make a loved one laugh: we delight in getting a reaction from telling a joke, or from eliciting the playful laughter of a baby. Sense of humor is a deeply personal trait, and often gets glossed over in fictional characters in favor of drama. But being able to forge a connection with someone through one's sense of humor is truly exceptional; playful teasing is an exhilarating part of courtship, because it focuses on seducing the mind instead of just the body.


There are two early scenes in *Lord of Scoundrels* where Chase turns a situation on its head (and gives the hero a good shock as well) through humor. In the first scene, Dain has entered an antique store and encounters Jessica and her brother Bertie. She's looking at an old watch, and Dain - thinking to shock her - shows her how the timepiece reveals a racy image. Instead of running for the hills, as he'd expected, Jessica calmly says that she's not naive, and that the watch will make a lovely gift for her grandmother. The second scene, one of my favorite in the novel, takes place at a cafe. Dain is trying to intimidate Jessica into selling him a valuable Russian icon, and proceeds to "ruin her reputation" when she refuses his terms. In the end, however, she points out that it's his reputation as a rake that's been damaged by his public seduction of Bertie Trent's spinster sister. Throughout these scenes, and the rest of the book, Jessica teases and good-naturedly laughs at Dain, and eventually succeeds in creating that all-important connection with the emotionally fragile Dain.


The handling of Dain's character is another standout feature in *Lord of Scoundrels*. As other reviewers have pointed out, it's easy to plant a fully-formed rake into a story, and proceed with the tale of his redemption. What makes Chase's book stand out is the heartbreaking prologue, where we see how, and why, Dain has become the man we meet in the first chapter. From his childhood experiences, we understand not only his cynical views on women and marriage, but also on parenthood and emotions in general. This background will become especially important near the end of the book, when he's offered the chance to become a better father than his own sire.


The final aspect of this book that I'd like to point out, because it felt so original, is the role reversal that takes place between Dain and Jessica. Once they're married, Dain goes to pieces emotionally, and it's Jessica who must lead him through the experience, going so far as to orchestrate the consummation. Dain is terrified of hurting Jessica, but also of betraying his own feelings, and it is she who takes control of the situation, becoming the alpha female who refuses to give up on her partner.


So those are some of the things I enjoyed about *Lord of Scoundrels*. However, there were a couple of bumps along the road for me as well. First is the character of Bertie (and here I could not but think of Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves books). There's clearly something not right in the head with him, although it's never explicitly stated what's wrong; he seems "simple," in the old sense of the word. Which is fine, and his presence in the first half of the book provides the spark needed to get the relationship going between Dain and Jessica. She's fiercely protective of him, as she has been of all the boys she's helped raise in her family, and she pursues Dain relentlessly to get him to stop influencing Bertie. But once Dain and Jessica marry, Bertie just disappears. We're told that grandma Genevieve's fiance is looking after him, but I still felt that he'd been conveniently used and discarded given the way he disappears.


Another issue I had is the apparent, sudden disappearance of Jessica's business ambitions. We know at the start that she's planning to open an antiques store, and that she has an exceptional eye for the value of objects. But once again, marriage makes this aspect of her life vanish. She and Dain are certainly unconventional enough to open such a store and not care what society said, so why let that plot thread die?


Finally, there is the issue of Jessica's rather violent way of calling out Dain after he humiliates her at the ball. We know she's an excellent markswoman, and that her shot was carefully calculated to do no lasting damage; I also understand that she felt she had to address Dain's extreme behavior with some of her own, to "speak his language" (of violence). However, in these cases I always try to imagine the situation reversed; how would I feel had it been Dain who'd shot Jessica to get her to capitulate? That, to me, would have been a very uncomfortable situation to read, like the "almost-rape" lovemaking scenes of old romance titles. I understand the intention, and the theatrical aspects of the scene, but it still jolted me out of the book.


However, the bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a lot, and fell in love with Dain and Jessica as a couple. I know the Comte d'Esmond, a secondary character, has his own book, and I'll be looking for it in the future. For now, though, I'll be making a detour to Paranormalandia. I did just finish reading another historical, but it's an ARC to be published in May, so I won't be posting that review until a few weeks from now. In the meantime, I'll raid the paranormal TBR pile for a change of scenery.


Review. Unexpected Temptation, by Samantha Hunter (Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle)

Unexpected Temptation - Samantha Hunter

Is it a bad sign that I was laughing uncontrollably while reading this romantic suspense story? Yeah, I thought so too.

Dear reader, I could not finish this one. I promised myself, many years ago, that I would refuse to feel guilty about not finishing a book I wasn’t enjoying. My TBR pile is as high as a skyscraper, there’s more fish in the sea, the sun will come out tomorrow, etc. etc. I do try to give books a fair chance, and I made it all the way to the first sex scene on this one. And then, for reasons I’ll explain below, I just gave up.

And I warn you that I’m going to hop into the Snarkmobile for this review; in the oft-repeated words of Christine Feehan’s immortal Carpathians, “I can do no other.” Now I shouldn’t even have to say this, but in light of recent online discussions , I’ll put forth the disclaimer that this is not a personal attack on the author. I’m reviewing a book, not someone’s personality. I’m not familiar with other Samantha Hunter novels; maybe the rest of them are excellent, maybe they’re not. I do, however, have major issues with this one.

These issues fall into two broad categories: character development (or, rather lack thereof) and writing style. The combination of both made this novel so unreadable for me that I couldn’t find a point of interest where I could cast my reading anchor and stick around long enough to find out what happened. I simply didn’t care; strong feelings, whether positive or negative, will get me through a book, but apathy will sink me every time.

The characters in Unexpected Temptation, Luke and Vanessa, are thrown together in very cinematic circumstances. Luke and Vanessa are in jail, there’s been an explosion of some kind from which Luke has saved Vanessa, and there’s trouble brewing. The conflict, at the beginning, stems from the fact that Luke thinks Vanessa is someone he knows as Nicky; he has tracked Nicky/Vanessa to her home, which has proceeded to blow up, and in true action movie fashion he has thrown her to the ground to save her life. The start of the book confused me, because it jumped right into the jail scene; but I learned that this book is part of a series, so I can only assume that the events before then were described in the previous book. Okay, I can deal with cliffhanger series endings. I wasn’t crazy about the writing, but the initial premise was interesting. So far I was on board.

However, once it becomes clear that Vanessa is not Nicky, Luke insists on rejecting the truth for what I felt was too long… and then he’s suddenly lusting after her, and she after him. There is a relationship between Vanessa and Nicky, which should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the first couple of chapters. But this makes it hard to understand whether Luke likes Vanessa for herself, or if it’s only because she reminds him of Nicky, who was once his lover.

By the time I reach a love/sex scene in a story, I should be able to understand why these characters are getting together (no matter how superficial or temporary the fling might be); otherwise, the scene will just fall flat for me. This is what happened for me in Unexpected Temptation; I felt that Vanessa went from Bland Robot to Sex Robot in a single leap, and I had no idea why she wanted to get it on with Luke or how her previously reserved persona changed so quickly once the clothes started to come off. 
In fact, and this segues into our writing style discussion, it’s hard to understand much of anything about these characters, because they’re so lifeless that they almost don’t seem human. Were it not for the dialogue tags, I could almost never tell who was speaking, that’s how blandly identical they seemed. It’s hard to describe this writing style, but all I could imagine as I read Unexpected Temptation was a computer voice droning out the text.

And you know what? I don’t even want to talk about this book anymore, because I simply can’t bring myself to care. The only thing I will say, before I leave you with a selection of choice quotes from the novel, is that I’m disappointed (I can’t even work myself up to anger) that Harlequin would publishUnexpected Temptation, because it needs a complete overhaul. Adrift in an endless stream of internal monologue filled with useless details that only serve to make the characters even more boring, one-word paragraphs, Stepford dialogue, and incomprehensible plot points, I decided to jump ship and leave Luke and Vanessa peeling off their clothes and setting their Robo-Sex dial to full thrust.

So that’s the last of the March 2014 bundle. I suspect it will be some time before I pick up another Harlequin title; I’ll be needing a few palate cleansers in the interim.

And, as promised, here’s a handful of stylistic gems from Unexpected Temptation. For the full effect, try getting your computer to read the text. You’re welcome.


  • “‘But it was a mistake, I’m sure. Someone must have thought my house was someone else’s. It’s the only explanation. Who would want to hurt me?’”
  • “She couldn’t leave him. If not for him, she might be dead. Again.”
  •  “‘Can you drive?’ She straightened, glaring at him as if she were offended by the question. She’s tough, he thought with a flicker of admiration.”
  • “He’d learned, during his eastern studies, not to discount things like karma. The flow of energy, the cycles of the universe that moved everyone along in life. Everything was connected…”
  • “He switched his gaze to the city’s lights that shone over the water in the distance.”
  • “It was only evident if you looked really close, like she was doing now.”
  • “She eased back, letting him investigate her injury. From a knife. That someone had wanted to use to kill her. Unreal.”
  • “Vanessa blinked. ‘How could anyone track my money, or my car? I mean, who does that other than the government?’”
  • “his touch, and how he looked at her… She couldn’t help but feel something.”
  • “She didn’t have any of her usual shampoos or soaps, but Luke had some on the counter, so she used his. It was intimate, she thought, moving the bar of soap he’d likely used that morning…” 
  • “Usually there would be a robe in the bathroom, but she didn’t see one. Luke must have used it that morning.”
  • “It smelled like him - like his soap. She smelled like him, too.”
  • “As he took her in, the salad nearly lodged in his throat.”
  • “…folding her legs under her in the way that women often did. He loved that.”
  •  “‘Jared changed the name, as he’s a famous chef. One you might know from TV, though I’m not supposed to share that.’ She did know. She watched that show all the time.”
  • “Luke hadn’t experienced the sense of being so totally in sync with anyone since his days in China.”
  •  “Luke recognized the flirtatious tone of her voice. She was perfectly capable of reapplying the bandage on her own, but she was asking him to help her for other reasons. Vanessa was seducing him.”
  • “‘Are you for real?’ It was like he was in a dream. A very good one. ‘Why don’t you find out?’ she invited, her tongue wetting her lips.”
  • “‘Luke, you’ve lost everything you had. You know what that’s like. So have I, and so much has happened today. Why not enjoy this moment while we have it?’”

Review. Alone With You, by Debbi Rawlins (Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle)

Alone with You - Debbi Rawlins

I’m of two minds when it comes to road trip stories involving two characters who start off at odds with one another but by the end become best friends/fall in love. On the one hand, I can’t help but think that there’s some weird variation of Stockholm Syndrome happening, turning almost enemies into soulmates. On the other hand, it’s a strangely believable outcome: after all, several days of travel adds up to the equivalent of a handful of dates, which we normally accept as enough time to decide whether we want to spend more time with the person we’ve been seeing. So for now, I’ll forget about my usual “instalove” qualms, because Alone With You was a fairly enjoyable read, although it had a couple of plot issues that threw me off the story near the end.

What I liked most about this book was the great chemistry between Lexie and Tanner. They bicker, tease, and manipulate each other, and have some great dialogue and steamy scenes in the process. Both characters are estranged from their fathers, the black sheep of their families, and able to continually surprise one another by tearing down their assumptions about the other.

I have to admit that at first I didn’t like Lexie. I found her career ambitions, and the groveling she was willing to do, really annoying. And the opening scene, where she asks her father to bring her into the family business, made me feel as if I’d been dropped into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty: the highrise office building; the names (Marshall, Alexis, and Harrison Worthington!); the conniving family members; and, of course, lots and lots of money. Mostly, I couldn’t understand why she wanted so much to be part of her family’s company. Yes, I know that she had fallen on hard times, and that her last name apparently made her unemployable in whatever her field of work was (although I had a hard time believing this detail). But when you can’t work in one field, you cross over to another; many of us have done it when the opportunities in our original career dry up.

But Lexie did eventually grow on me. She comes from a wealthy family, but (as Tanner points out many times) she doesn’t mind roughing it. She’s been on both sides of the fence, and is honest enough to admit that she prefers having money to being poor; so there’s no romanticizing the simple life on her part.

For his part, Tanner is also refreshingly realistic. He knows that his career is not going to last much longer, and has a fairly responsible personality. Also, I really like heroes who are gentlemen while also being alpha. Tanner is not willing to be pushed around, but he’s unfailingly courteous: he’s willing to accompany Lexie to Houston, especially once he understands she’s being punished by her father, but he’ll have nothing to do with the calendar. I think the subplot with the auction and poker game were a bit jarring considering what we know about him, but I was willing to go along with it because he was just a great character to hang out with.

So where did the story go wrong for me? Once again, I’m not sure whether it’s due to the original writing or the final editing, but I felt that some parts of Lexie’s family story were confusing, especially near the end of the novel. There are hints throughout Alone With You suggesting what Marshall Worthington is up to in sending Lexie on what is essentially a fool’s errand. There’s also a mysterious woman named Karina, who may or may not be involved with Harrison, but has been part of the calendar project. All this is supposed to come together at the end, but somehow it never did for me. At the end of the last chapter, Lexie has a moment of clarity and half-confronts her father, but she never states what her revelation was, and I was left feeling really dumb for not being able to figure it out. What was Mr. Worthington’s nefarious plan? Was there ever one?

I’m also not sure whether Lexie ever came clean about Tanner’s contract with The Worthington Group. She spent much of the novel holding the threat of a lawsuit over his head, and beating herself up for not telling him the truth, but I don’t remember an actual confession scene.

Finally, there’s the same rush to the finish line that I’d noticed in the two previous titles from this bundle. The epilogue is the requisite Happily Ever After, but is set far enough into the future of the characters that I was wondering about Tanner and J.D., and about Lexie and Harrison. Also, I found the last few lines of the book to be positively cringe-inducing in how stilted they were; they didn’t seem to come from the same author who had given us so many pages of witty and fun dialogue.

These issues were problematic enough to jolt me out of the story several times, but in general I enjoyed Lexie and Tanner’s story and felt that they worked well as a romantic couple. I was even willing to overlook the implausibility of Tanner just deciding to take a complete stranger on a road trip, and enjoy their fun and sexy ride.

One more book to go in this bundle! Next up: Unexpected Temptation, by Samantha Hunter.


Review. Texas Outlaws: Cole, by Kimberly Raye (Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle)

Texas Outlaws: Cole - Kimberly Raye

Book Links for this Review:
Texas Outlaws: Cole
Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle 

This was a tough book to review. When I first started reading, I thought I was going to hate it: The heroine’s name is Nikki Barbie, she pretends to have a “bad girl” reputation to please her mother, and takes this as far as pretending to take pole dancing classes instead of the gourmet cooking degree she’s actually pursuing. Oh, and there’s a marriage of convenience. That was enough to make me grind my teeth. However, as I read on, all of this started to make sense, and for a while I was enjoying myself. And then I ran into a bunch of editing problems that made me dislike the book all over again.

So yes, the heroine is named Nikki Barbie, and her mother Raylene has made sure to instill in her and her sisters the notion that men are fun for flings, but nothing more. The Barbie women are therefore known to be fun and flirtatious, always up for a good time. The problem is that Nikki’s sisters, Crystal and April, have “retired” from this lifestyle, and the book opens with their double wedding. Nikki is crushed, because until now she’s been able to fake it by letting her sisters take all the attention; she herself dresses the part, and talks the talk, but most definitely has not walked the walk. Instead, she’s been squirrelling money away for a move to Houston once she finishes her cooking course. She has big dreams that don’t involve the little town of Lost Gun or the honky-tonk bar her mother runs, and where she’s spent years working in the kitchen. She knows that, with her sisters gone, Raylene will turn her full attention on Nikki, and make her getaway almost impossible.

Enter Cole Chisholm, a rodeo star and the town’s bad boy. He and his brothers have a reputation of their own to work on: while they won’t pretend to be angels, they do want to have their names cleared from the townspeople’s minds for a robbery that their late father had committed years before. As the story starts, they’re digging up the last of the money that Silas Chisholm had buried before setting himself on fire, and they intend to return it to the bank. It’s important to them to return the original money; they’re certainly wealthy enough to pay it back from their own pockets, but they understand the importance of giving back what was actually taken. For his part, Cole plans to leave town once the money has been returned and he’s attended the wedding of two of his friends to April and Crystal; he no longer cares what the town thinks of him, but is willing to help his brothers make amends.

All of this makes for an interesting setup, and any qualms I had about the novel were temporarily eased by how great the chemistry was between Cole and Nikki. They’re paired off as part of the wedding party, and neither of them can wait to get out of there. By coincidence, they end up in the same hiding spot, and their facades begin to crumble: Nikki is drunk and confesses her desire for a different life, while bad boy Cole is enjoying a glass of milk and some wedding cake. Before they know it, tipsy Nikki has proposed a sham marriage, and Cole agrees to do it: it will surely drive Raylene away and give Nikki time to study for her cooking finals, and Cole will have respite from the women chasing after him so he can concentrate on training for the rodeo finals. They grab the judge, who’s still at the reception, and get hitched before an astonished crowd of onlookers.

And here’s something I really appreciated: although Nikki and Cole are wildly attracted to one another, and begin to act upon that on their way back to her place, they cool off before going all the way. This provides a healthy dose of tension that will last until they finally do make love. In the meantime, they will spend their days getting to know and trust one another, and becoming friends. They have known each other all their lives, and there’s a sweet story about Cole helping Nikki get home from kindergarten many years ago. I like the fact that there was a history between them, that they’d certainly noticed one another before now, but that they had hesitated to pursue that interest for various reasons. It lent a lot of depth to their story, and went beyond the “instalove” trope that I often find hard to stomach in romance novels.

Unfortunately, for me the novel started to show some serious editing problems early on. Some of these problems have to do with pacing and continuity, while others are language related.
The first of these issues is the jarring transition between chapters 8 and 9. Near the end of Chapter 8, Raylene leaves Nikki’s apartment after an argument. Cole then returns to pick up the duffel bag containing the money he’s set to return, only to find it’s gone. The chapter ends with Nikki remembering that her mother had picked something up off the floor on the way out.

Chapter 9 begins in Cole’s RV, where he and Nikki are supposedly staying while chasing Raylene across the state. This is such an abrupt and temporarily confusing transition that I’m wondering whether a scene was cut out in the final edit, where Nikki tells Cole that Raylene might have stolen the money, and they come up with a plan to travel together after her. Also, it’s never explained how they manage to track Raylene’s credit card transactions; how do they have access to what should be a private account?

The final chapters of the novel also had some pacing issues for me. Once they find Raylene, there’s a race to the story’s conclusion that left me thinking, once again, that some scenes might have been left on the cutting room floor. I understand that Harlequin category romances have certain word limit requirements, and maybe Texas Outlaws: Cole fell victim to some overzealous pruning.

There are also some continuity issues within shorter scenes. In one, Nikki is described as wearing tight leather pants at a bar; but when she and Cole start making out in the alley behind the bar, she’s suddenly wearing a skirt! Likewise, during a scene on the RV’s rooftop, Cole is said to be wearing jeans; later on, though, he’s wearing shorts. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it’s often hard for a writer very involved in her work to catch mistakes like these. However, there’s absolutely no excuse for an editor or proofreader not to have seen these glaring errors.

A proofreader should also have been able to correct several typos and misused words. For example, Nikki says at one point that her grandmother “had a ton of euphemisms… Like, ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.’” Which is, of course not a euphemism, but a saying or (if we want to get fancy) a proverb. During the past few years of reading, I’ve noticed the quality of writing deteriorate at an alarming rate; not just in self-published works whose authors may not have had access to copy editors, but in novels from large publishing houses that should be able to afford them. So Harlequin, if you’re reading this: I’m a freelance proofreader/editor! Let’s do lunch some time!

One final thing that really got on my nerves as I continued reading was the constant change in point of view. The novel is told in third person, alternating between Cole and Nikki. Sometimes this technique works, normally during long stretches of text; but at other times there was too much hopping back and forth for me to remain immersed in the story.

So overall, I’d recommend this novel for the interesting story and lively characters. I mentioned earlier that I’d initially been prejudiced against the book on the basis of the character backgrounds and the idea of a marriage of convenience. However, within the first few chapters I understood Raylene’s desperate attempts to give her daughters the take-no-prisoners attitude she thinks they’ll need to get through life, as well as Nikki’s ultimate rebellion and strong connection to her deceased grandmother. These are truly not one-dimensional characters, and I found the friends-to-lovers progression of Cole and Nikki’s relationship very satisfying. When they finally declared their love for one another, I believed them, because I (and they) realized that they’d loved each other for many years.

However, the pacing, continuity, and language issues that plague Texas Outlaws: Cole bothered me enough to break my immersion in the story time after time. This is the second book I read from Harlequin, and both have shown to have less than stellar editing. Let’s see if the third novel in this bundle fares any better!


Review: Captivate Me, by Kira Sinclair (Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle)

Captivate Me - Kira Sinclair Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle: Captivate MeTexas Outlaws: ColeAlone with YouUnexpected Temptation - Kira Sinclair, Kimberly Raye, Debbi Rawlins Texas Outlaws: Cole - Kimberly Raye Lord of Scoundrels (Scoundrels #3) - Loretta Chase

Book Links for this Review:


Harlequin Blaze March 2014 Bundle

Captivate Me, by Kira Sinclair


I’m trying to alternate reviews of past/classic titles with more recent publications, so I’m not always behind the pack. That, and the fact that I’d never read any Harlequin titles and was curious about some of their series, prompted me to buy the March 2014 bundles in Harlequin’s Blaze, Presents, and Superromance lines. Because some heat would be nice during the (hopefully) final days of The Winter That Will Not End, I decided to start with the Blaze line. This review is for the first novel in the bundle: Captivate Me, by Kira Sinclair.


First, a gripe about format. I don’t know whether this is a feature of the bundles only or is also in the individual titles, or maybe it’s just a Kindle thing, but I found it somewhat irritating that it took so damned long to get to the actual novel! There’s an intro blurb, a short scene that I thought was actually the start of the story... but no, wait, here’s a title page! And then an About the Author Page! I guess it’s an e-reader thing, since if I’d had a paper version I would just have flipped past those pages. Anyway, on to our story.


I always like to start off with the things I liked about a book, so that whatever negative things I might have to say later on can be seen in context of how good the book was otherwise. However, I’m afraid I don’t have much to go on for Captivate Me. The sexual tension works, and the sex scenes themselves are well written, but that’s all I could find to like.


My main issue, and this is what prevented me from liking either the plot or the characters, is that I felt that I was being asked to suspend my disbelief to a ludicrous degree. I don’t want to do a play-by-play of the entire plot, but I do want to address some specific issues.


  1. Character Backgrounds


Just once, I’d like to read about characters who don’t have an angst-ridden origin story to justify their crappy behaviour. In many ways, I felt that Alyssa and Beckett were walking stereotypes: she’s a brilliant yet sexy programmer with a wicked stepmother and a high school sob story; and he’s a ruthless entrepreneur who had to start from zero after being kicked out by his wicked father. Neither character’s family history makes any sense in the novel, specifically the reasons for ostracizing/abandoning that are set forth. I was, at the same time, reading Lord of Scoundrels, where the hero has a tragic family history of his own, but the way that background is described in the Prologue is much more powerful and in line with what we find out about his parents. Here, the families are mean and nasty without much of a believable explanation, which made the main characters’ personalities hard to justify. Near the end, we’re given a glimpse of hurt, or something, in Beckett’s father’s eyes; and Alyssa’s stepmother gets a verbal comeuppance, but that’s all the depth we get. 


Aside from the families, we have Alyssa’s sad tale of being rejected by Beckett at a party she’d attended during her high school days over a decade before the novel begins. She was drunk and looking for an easy hookup, and she never forgives him for rejecting her when he finds out she’s a virgin. Beckett does not remember any of this when she finally tells him why she hates him enough to not want to do business with her. So let’s recap here. She’s been holding a grudge against Beckett since her high school days, because he wouldn’t have sex with her. She’s mad because nothing happened, and she’s grown up feeling rejected and invisible. I really felt it hard to empathize with someone who lets an episode like that determine her future personality, never mind guide her professional decisions. I know how terrible this sounds, but I would have been more inclined towards sympathy if he’d actually taken advantage of her at that party. Then he’d have a reason for seeking redemption. I understand that the author wanted to point out that Beckett had been noble back then, unwilling to do the same thing his father had done (get a rich woman pregnant), but her subsequent years-long outrage just didn’t convince me.


  1. Masks


This was the biggest obstacle for me, in terms of accepting what came to pass between Alyssa and Beckett. She first sees him from her bedroom window: he’s on a balcony across the street, half in shadows, wearing a mask. So she does what any sensible woman would do (????) and proceeds to strip for him. You see, Alyssa has a wild side that she keeps carefully hidden (of course, all prim-yet-sexy programmers do). At this point, I could buy the idea that he was just a masked stranger.


However, beginning the following day, Alyssa and Beckett meet regularly as business rivals, with a healthy dose of sexual tension thrown in. She’s supposedly smart and observant, which means that she should be able to notice things like build, voice, and scent. Because Beckett proceeds to seduce her not once, but twice, while wearing that mask, and she has absolutely no idea who he is. We won’t even get into the specifics of her not being nearly creeped out enough that this stranger knows her name, where she lives, and sends her expensive clothes. Bu again, he’s just wearing a mask as a disguise. Not a full-on chicken suit, not a mummy wrap (though those would make for some intriguing scenes of their own): just a mask. I’m sorry to say that my disbelief was not only not suspended, it was knocking me upside the head yelling at me to stop reading.


  1. “Instalove”


I have no problem with instant lust, or instant attraction. I also understand that this is a romance novel (and a Harlequin title to boot), which means that there has to be a happy ending. However, I think there can be a compromise here. Instead of blurting out “I love you” after they’ve known each other an entire week (if that) and spent many of those days either fighting over business or playing identity games, how about settling for a “let’s be together and see where this takes us”? Are those three little words really a requisite ending to every romance novel? This is an honest question, not at all snarky or sarcastic; I’m really curious to find out whether it’s a required element in writing romantic fiction. Because for me, added to the above issues, it just adds to the reasons why I don’t buy this love story.



  1. Style Issues


Finally, a few words about language. I’ll write a full post on this in the near future. But the preview goes something like this: if you are a writer, language is your tool set, and you need to know how it works. I’m tired of the excuse that goes something like “Well, the story is good, and there’s no need to be a snob about language.” Let’s try to transfer this to another profession: “Well, her office hours are good, and there’s no need to be a snob about anatomy.” No? How about “Well, he has a state-of-the art garage, and there’s no need to be a snob about knowing what’s under the hood.” My point being that writers, and editors, should know their language anatomy, and be able to identify word meanings and parts of speech. And, while they’re at it and because there’s some art to it, give us a little variety too.


But I digress. As a former lit prof, I unfortunately do notice language, and it’s something that can really turn me off a book. For example, Sinclair uses the expression “reign in” instead of “rein in,” which irks me both as a language snob and as a horse person. There are way too many one-sentence paragraphs, many with no verb in sight. Also, too many... ellipses, and many descriptions that were used over and over and over. Eyes were stormy; tongues and fingers were talented (I’ve never understood this last one). I normally don’t do a lot of highlighting on my Kindle, but I found myself underlining like crazy here.


I understand that, by the time an author has finished writing a book, the entire thing can become a blurry mess in her mind. It’s also true that, with our own writing, our brains tend to skip over errors, because we’re so familiar with the flow of the text. This is why we have proofreaders and editors and critique partners; I certainly made sure to hand over my dissertation and articles to a second (and often third) trusted set of eyes. By the time the writing is done, we’re tired and biased and often resistant to change. Again: editors and proofreaders are here to save the day. And now that I’m on the other side of the fence, as a proofreader, I realize just how many changes many manuscripts need, grammar or style wise; and how hard it can be for authors to accept these changes. But in the end, language can make or break a book for many readers; it definitely contributed to my negative opinion of Captivate Me.




So what’s the bottom line?  I think Captivate Me does have some appeal: the story moves at a good pace, and the sexual tension between Alyssa and Beckett makes for some great scenes (the Bacchanalia Ball is a fun, steamy chapter). However, the problems I’ve listed above kept me from really enjoying the story. I was almost tempted to not read the next novel in the bundle until I’d had a “palate cleanser,”, but I decided to give Harlequin Blaze a second chance. So on to Texas Outlaws: Cole. Should I be worried, though, that the heroine’s name is Nikki Barbie?



Review: The Devil in Winter

Devil in Winter  - Lisa Kleypas

The Devil in Winter

by Lisa Kleypas

Avon Books




I didn’t really get into this book until well past the first half: in fact, at around (according to my ebook copy) 75% read. The hero gets shot, things look very bad for a while, and then they take a very interesting turn. But more on that later.


The Devil in Winter is the third book in a series about a foursome of friends known as the Wallflowers; the other titles are Secrets of a Summer Night, It Happened One Autumn, and Scandal in Spring. I mention this because I actually didn’t know this going in, and had read most of the book before finding out. It popped up in the Romance section of my Scribd subscription account (Scribd is like a Netflix for books), and the plot sounded interesting (I’m a sucker for reformed rakes). I’d also read Kleypas’ Bow Street Runners books some years ago, and remembered that I liked her style.


With that caveat, on to the story.


Evangeline (Evie) Jenner has run away from her abusive relatives when she finds out that they plan to marry her off to her cousin, so that her fortune (her dissolute father is dying of consumption) can remain within the family. She foils their plot by showing up, unchaperoned and in the middle of the night, at the house of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, to persuade him to elope with her. She knows that Sebastian is licking his wounds after trying to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee: his fortune is dwindling away, and he needs to marry into money. Though not titled, Evie has (or will have) money from her father’s successful gambling club, and she hopes this will be enough to entice him. It is, and they’re immediately off on the long carriage ride to Gretna Green for the ceremony.


The first half of the book is the usual getting-to-know you storyline, with some details that I really liked. Evie has always been the shyest of the Wallflower bunch, with an awkward physique and a debilitating stutter. To Kleypas’ credit, this impediment doesn’t magically disappear as Evie grows into a confident woman throughout the novel. She doesn’t have a miraculous transformation, and her stutter reappears during the times when her confidence falters. She’s also smart enough to know that Sebastian isn’t going to change immediately, if at all, once he’s married; she has no illusions about his ability to remain faithful, nor does she expect him to. Although her decision not to sleep with St. Vincent beyond the requisite consummation, and her subsequent bet with him, could have turned out to be facile plot devices, given what we know about her they actually become a logical means of self-protection for her. She’s also willing to give him, in a credibly gradual way, the benefit of the doubt: “although the man she had initially married was not deserving of such faith, the man he was becoming just might be” (324). In the end, the bet has an unexpected resolution, and the reasons for it make sense.


I also liked the setting. So many historical romances limit themselves to mansions and ballrooms that I found the gambling club a great departure from the norm. It also gave both Evie and Sebastian a chance to be half-out of their element. Evie has visited the club most of her life, but it’s certainly no respectable place for a woman to be, much less live. And, while Sebastian’s presence would be normal as an aristocratic client, as the new owner he has to prove himself to the rest of the staff (he doesn’t seem to care as much about his reputation among his peers).


As I mentioned up top, the parts I liked best about The Devil in Winter come in the latter part of the story, after Sebastian has been shot. I appreciated the way the medical details were handled: there’s an interesting dialogue between Dr. Hammond’s establishment views, Lord Westcliff’s more progressive knowledge, and Cam’s  traditional wisdom. I liked the fact that, while Hammond’s insistence on bloodletting is eventually rejected, the doctor is not portrayed as a villain, just a man of his time trying to do his best according to the accepted methods of the period. In the end, it’s a combination of Westcliff’s and Cam’s solutions that save the day, while Dr. Hammond fades away with his dignity intact.


Once Sebastian is on the mend, Evie takes over his care, and this is another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed. I think at this point Evie is still doubtful of Sebastian’s ability to remain monogamous, but maybe because he’s proven himself capable of self-sacrifice in saving her life, she decides to add a good dollop of kindness to his daily treatment, and see what happens. There are some humorous moments here, as Evie sets about basically killing Sebastian with kindness and he doesn’t know quite how to react. And humor is another think Kleypas does very well, and here it extends to a wink-wink self-awareness of the tropes she’s handling: “Really, someone should tell St. Vincent that he’s a living cliche. He has become the embodiment of everything they say about reformed rakes.” (375)


Eventually, all bets are off, the sex is steamy, and the couple’s focus eventually shifts to finding the villain. From this point on, the story moves quickly, with a couple of unexpected detours, towards the inevitably happy conclusion. So in all, there were many things I liked about The Devil in Winter.


What I didn’t like about the book might have to do partly with the fact that I didn’t read the previous novels in the series; on the other hand, I think I should be able to read a book and come to appreciate it without all the background. Regardless of Sebastian’s character and actions as shown in the previous books, I should get a clear sense of him in this one, because it’s his story. With that in mind, there were a couple of issues I had with The Devil in Winter.


First, I would have liked to have known more about Sebastian’s family background, especially his relationship with his father. This relationship is hinted at during the novel, but never fully developed. Again, maybe there was some information divulged in the previous books, but if that’s the case at least a recap of that info would have been greatly appreciated.


Second, there was the sudden appearance and disappearance of Evie’s family, the Maybricks. They show up to play villain for a chapter or so, and are thereafter completely banished from the story. I think the family might have been put to better use in bolstering the “real” villain’s actions, since there’s a temporary alliance between them, but as it stands the Maybricks just read as a handy plot device to show off Sebastian’s protective side and ability to change: a villain ex machina, if you will. Also, I found the description of her cousin somewhat cheap: next to strong, tall, dashing Sebastian, Eustace (he even has a wimpy name) is presented as nothing short of an angry, whiny lump of blubber. He reminded me of a grown-up Dudley Dursley: Dudley makes a fun character as a kid/teen, but this adult version just seemed like an easy way to provide another foil for Sebastian.


Thirdly, and this is just a personal gripe, is the red herring interlude with Cam and Daisy. I think Cam is a terrific character (if somewhat stereotyped at times), and the bookish, spunky Daisy would have been a really fun match for him. But when I looked at the description for Daisy’s story in Scandal in Spring, I saw that her hero is someone else! Cam does get his own book (Mine Till Midnight, which is actually the start of yet another series), and I’ll probably read that one at some point, but I was disappointed in this missed opportunity, and was left wondering why the Cam/Daisy story didn’t happen (or if it was ever meant to).


My final, and really small, quibble with the story comes near the end. Evie and Sebastian are at the club, and she’s approached by an older gentleman who says that he’s only seen one other person move through a crowd with such command and confidence. Sebastian promptly goes to Evie, and warns her away from the older man, only half-jokingly. His name is mentioned at one point (Lord Haldane), and then that’s it. Is he a previous character, or a future one? He’s not presented as a potential future hero, so he might have come from an earlier novel. Also, who’s the person he was talking about, the one who could command a crowd the way Sebastian could? Again, crickets (possibly followed by some cursing on my part).


So overall, I enjoyed many aspects of this book, but felt there were a few very rough edges that often jolted me out of the experience. Nevertheless, Lisa Kleypas remains very much a “comfort read” for me, because she always adds unique touches to her stories that I really appreciate.


What Am I Doing Here? Part the Second

This is Part 2 of my introductory post. See here for Part 1.



Last week, I wrote about what originally brought me to read romance, and what eventually pushed me away. But, as in many of the books I’d read, I couldn’t deny my attraction, even though I considered romance novels to be scoundrels and rakes who would eventually break my heart and leave me penniless and without honor. So I bid the dukes, knights, and assorted surly outcasts adieu, resolutely put on my spinster’s cap of respectable academia, and went on with my life.


Fast forward a couple of decades, by which time I was reaching the end of my rope as a university lecturer. I’d gone in to the profession, as many do, starry-eyed with the prospect of introducing generations of students to understand and love the works of literature that had become so dear to me. Reality proved much different. Between students whose only goal was to get the highest grade possible with the least amount of effort; to the mind-numbing administrative tasks and meetings; to conferences full of self-involved (though enthusiastically well-meaning) scholars whose specializations were so narrow that only they understood the content of their presentations, I eventually began to rethink my career choice. I loved teaching, but didn’t have a particularly strong drive to publish, and never even considered placing myself on a tenure track that would surely result in my being run over by the inevitable committee train. I also realized that I really didn’t like working with people all that much (speaking with students was the exception) and that I’d be much happier working for myself.


At this low point in my career, romance novels came knocking once again. Burnt out as I was starting to feel, they provided escape and, once again, hope for a brighter future. Also, I was able to procure them more easily and discreetly. I really have two great developments to thank for my return to reading romance: the proliferation of ebooks, and the growth of online communities. I was an early adopter of PDAs: I owned some of the early Palm models, and later a Sony Clié. As crazy as it sounds when I remember it, I read dozens of novels on those tiny screens: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series; Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, and Lisa Kleypas’ historical romances; and Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander books. Computer-to-handheld synchronization wasn’t always smooth, and loading books on to the Palm/Sony could be a bit of a crapshoot, but I soldiered through and plundered the Fictionwise shelves for all the books I’d been too embarrassed to buy in person at the bookstore. Plus, I could read them anywhere without receiving odd stares or sneers. I realize that in a perfect world people should be able to read whatever they want without being judged for it, but I liked the anonymity.


By the time I’d moved halfway across the world, started a family, and gradually transitioned into a new career as a freelance proofreader and indexer, the first e-ink devices were on the market, and I received a Sony reader one Christmas. It was awesome to be able to store so many books, and have a larger selection of stores to choose from; though this e-reader lacked wireless connectivity, loading books was fast and easy. Years later, I received an iPad; though I preferred e-ink, I appreciated the ability to shop from the device. Finally, once the Sony’s batteries seemed to be faltering, I bought myself a simple Kindle model, which was much lighter and had access to the store where I bought most of my books from anyway.


During this time, I’d been reading a smattering of romance novels, with some erotica thrown in occasionally. But I still felt a bit isolated, until one day I was surfing around for book recommendations and ran into a handful of websites that were promptly bookmarked: Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author, and All About Romance were the three I returned to most often. I’ve always been more the lurking kind on internet forums, but I was thrilled to read the interactions between these readers. They were smart, opinionated, and demanding in their choice of reading. They weren’t content to skip from one love scene to the next, paying no heed to the book’s other elements (a stereotype of romance readers that I wish would disappear): rather, they picked books apart to analyze plotting and characterization, and were quick to call authors out for faulty logic or poor writing skills. This was the catalyst I needed to get me reading full steam, and more importantly to treat these books with a level of rigor similar to the one I’d used in my academic life.


Which brings us (finally!) to the point of all this. I’ve always kept reading notes (you can take a girl out of academia, but I guess you can’t take academia out of a girl); so when I decided to stop worrying and learn to love the romance bomb, I became more serious about looking under the hood and understanding how these novels work. What makes me like a novel, and what turns me off? What are the tropes of the genre, and how do they change over time? I decided to embark on a long-term project: I’d read as many romance novels as I could, and turn my reading notes into something I felt comfortable sharing. During this time, I hope to read the canonical works of this genre, but also anything that strikes my fancy. I don’t want to turn this into a chore; I want to have a serious look at these novels, but I also want to have fun and, if possible, a bit of dialogue.


So next up, a warm-up review of a recent read: The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas.


What Am I Doing Here? Part the First

I’m not supposed to enjoy reading romance. This, according to the Defenders of Serious Literature. I’m sure my former colleagues at the Lit departments where I’ve taught would agree. They might grudgingly accept works of fantasy or science fiction, or even erotica if they were hip and experimental enough. But romance?


And yet, it’s a genre that I’ve sampled over and over throughout my reading life. In high school, I stumbled upon a book whose cover and title fascinated me:Savage Thunder, by Johanna Lindsey. It was stuffed into a rickety revolving rack of paperbacks sold in a cafe that specialized in artisan fudge (I guess I should have seen the connection). I had a brief flashback to a schoolmate’s house that I had once visited for a sleepover; her mother had kept a basement full of books with covers such as these. Another forgotten memory: another classmate circulating a couple of “naughty” novels within our circle of friends. One was rather explicit, detailing the relationship of a teacher and one of his students; the other was more innocent -Forever, by Judy Blume. On impulse, I bought the Lindsey book, along with a chunk of marbled black and white fudge, and finished the novel before I had eaten the last of the fudge; certainly a first for me.


As I read, I felt torn. On the one hand, I felt -no, knew- that this was not “proper literature.” By then, I was well on my way to making literature my field of study, and had rather serious ideas about what constituted a good book. If you have ever been a self-assured high school student, you can follow my train of thought as it sped along back in those years. On the other hand, I was fascinated by Lindsey’s novel: the surly long-haired hero (I now squirm at the “half-breed” label tacked onto him, but back then it seemed just another exotic trait); the fiery English heroine who does everything possible to seduce him; the Great Misunderstanding that I would later learn is an important trope in many romance novels; and of course the HEA - Happily Ever After. Oh, and sex on horseback (as a rider, I cringe when I remember the absolute impossibility of that scene).


After Savage Thunder, I read Jude Deveraux’s Knight in Shining Armor. It had a fantasy/time travel element that I found attractive, and I loved that the ending was a not-quite-HEA. Although the heroine irritated me to no end at several moments (cycling in a miniskirt and heels to seduce the hero? WTF...), I still cried buckets at the end.


There were probably a few more books after those, before my hiatus, but these first two are the ones I remember most vividly. What had drawn me in? Quite simply: love. For a geeky wallflower who took a blind (as in arranged) date to her prom, these books held the promise that there was light at the end of the tunnel of adolescent awkwardness. That someday I, too, would know love.


So why did I stop reading romance novels, if I obviously enjoyed them? Well, partly due to the aforementioned guilt about “wasting my time” on these books. Partly, also, because these were “Old Skool Romances,” with a hero/heroine dynamic that often made me uncomfortable: damsels in distress, borderline (or not so borderline) rape scenes presented as the most romantic thing on earth... Yes, the women were often feisty and pursued their man and other life goals; but they also had moments of astounding idiocy and passivity. The heroes, though dashing and protective, were often quite brutish and insensitive, and their final redemption/change seemed forced in many cases.


And then there was this:






I simply couldn’t get over the covers. In the era before the blissful anonymity provided by ebook readers, the book you carried with you in the subway, or to cafes, was a very public accessory, like a hat or handbag. The thought of reading romance novels in public made me feel like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. So I read a few more books, furtively, and then I was off to college and a life filled with Real Literature.


So what happened to bring me back to romance, and what do I plan to do here? Stay tuned for Part the Second of this post to find out!



Currently reading

The Iron Duke by 'Meljean Brook'