Hitting the Mark by Jill Monroe

Cover of Hitting the Mark by Jill MonroeThese days, good contemporaries are hard to find as bookstore shelves are laden with paranormal and erotic romances. Want a good romance with vampires? Sure, throw a rock and a dozen of those will be hit. Craving a good romance that’s a cover-to-cover sex romp? Good is highly subjective with those, but at least there are lots to choose from. But a good love story set in the present, in this world, between humans who do more talking than groping? Not so much. In this era of sharp teeth and high octant erogenous zones, stories about men and women falling in love that are simply stories of men and women falling in love are few and far between.

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Billionaires Prefer Blondes by Suzanne Enoch

Cover of Billionaires Prefer BlondesIt happens every now and then. You see a book, look away and then walk back and pick it up. The author’s name is familiar but you’ve never read her. You like the title, think the cover blurb sounds promising and decide…why not?
Then you get it home and realize the book is a bit different than you thought. It’s not a standalone title. It’s one in an ongoing series where the hero and heroine and their relationship date back two books. These folks already love each other. The courtship is over. You missed that part, which makes you wonder what’s left to discover about these two. Sure, J.D. Robb manages to keep the interest alive in her “In Death” series with Eve and Roarke. Your book also revolves around a wealthy, sexy hero and a tough-talking heroine and a mystery of some sort. So…maybe Suzanne Enoch can pull it off? And, for the most part, she does.

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Dream A Little Dream – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Dream A Little Dream CoverI can’t explain why I am sometimes compelled to go into the scary place that is my garage and root around in boxes in search of a specific book. It’s like a chemical reaction that I can’t control — I wake up and nothing will make me happy except for that one specific book (generally that one specific book is also located in a box under a zillion other boxes, meaning I work up a sweat before I get to read. Beats hitting the gym.).
A couple of weekends ago, I woke up with a powerful need to read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Dream A Little Dream. It turns out that I get this urge about once a year, give or take. I love this book. I love this book despite the fact that I spend a good three quarters of my reading time in tears. Please do not tell anyone about that — I do not cry easily (what is the old saying? There’s no crying in reviewing?). But this book does me in. Every. Single. Time.

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Rumble on the Bayou by Jana DeLeon

rumble on the bayou.jpgFor all the criticisms that can be leveled at romance – and there are many – it’s easy to lose sight of what a fostering environment romance can be for young writers. Devoted readers of the genre are often quite forgiving of green and otherwise unprofessional debut efforts. The sense is, as long as there is promise in a young author, the rough spots can be forgiven for what is to come. Sometimes there is a tremendous payoff for that patience (Jude Deveraux comes to mind for having penned a spectacularly faulty first novel and then improved as her career grew), and other times, nothing comes from the buried promise of a first book. It is then a treat for those nurturing readers when a debut comes along for which allowances need not be made. In the rarest of rarified debut novel air, are first books that do not read like first books at all, but more like the product of an author in her prime. And, that is exactly how Jana DeLeon’s debut Rumble on the Bayou plays out: like it’s the product of a professional.

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Highlander in Her Bed by Allie MacKay

highlander in her bed.jpgHighlander in Her Bed is the sort of romance novel that, by intention, strains credibility at every turn. The principles are an American woman, Mara McDougall – who, despite having no Scottish relations, inherits a Scottish castle – and a seven-hundred-year-old Scottish ghost, Alex Douglas. The conflict is obvious and immediate, as is the catch: A ghost, unlike his undead brethren, lacks a corporeal body, and something, most likely something implausible, needs to happen to ensure the hero and heroine jaunt off to their happily ever after. A bit of poof or smoke and mirrors needs to be employed so that the ghost is alive again or, at least, just solid flesh. One of the most exciting aspects of romance is the willingness of the authors who work within the genre to take on a premise that doesn’t even hope to be believable. Every once in a while there is a rather spectacular payoff for the risk. Usually such success is the result of grounding an otherwise unbelievable premise –The Black Dagger Brotherhood comes to mind – but here, with Highlander in Her Bed, Allie MacKay didn’t take that route, instead she went for the might-as-well-hemorrhage-believability-at-every-turn path and the result is only spectacular in the train wreck sense of the word.

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True Confessions – Rachel Gibson

True Confessions by Rachel GibsonI’m going to confess yet another reviewer secret: it’s the medium books that are the hardest. Loving a book is easy. Hating a book is pure reviewer joy. Enjoying a book for all the wrong reasons is a delight. But the lukewarm books are killer.

This is my second go-round with Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions, and it’s almost weird that my second reaction largely mirrors the first: I had a good time, but not enough to remember it a year from now. Which is a shame, because this time, as I read, I kept thinking, “Man, she’s a good writer.”

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Revenge of the Second Son by Sara Orwig

revenge of the second son.jpgCategory romance is the literary equivalent of tract housing. The units line up, one after the other, in perfectly matched symmetry, completely known and quantifiable. And, certainly, there is no reason to fault category for succeeding in doing exactly what it sets out to do: offering the reader the comfort of sameness and the certainty that what is expected will be delivered upon. But, all too often the trade off that comes with this familiarity is a lack of originality. It would seem the plots points of category romances have the same limitations as three bedroom two bath ranch homes in that there are only so many ways the principle elements come together and remain true to the original intention. In both cases what’s so easily jettisoned to form is creativity.

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Swept Away by Toni Blake

sweot awat.jpgThe debate over what constitutes “erotica” versus “erotic romance” versus…well, versus whatever descriptive the book-buying public is using at that moment to define these sexy works, is one guaranteed to drive even the most level-headed reader to hunt down the nearest bottle of pain relievers. The definitions are murky. The marketing purposely misleading. The availability of titles growing, perhaps too much. The authors traveling from publisher to publisher making any distinction between publishers even harder to ascertain.
An otherwise intelligent person could get confused.
Into this mess walked publishing giant HarperCollins. A bit later to the genre party than other publishing houses such as Kensington and Berkley, HarperCollins launched its own brand of erotica with the Avon Red imprint. Avon Red’s books are self-described on the imprint’s website as: “…the best, most sophisticated erotic fiction available in the industry…” If the launch single title Swept Away by Toni Blake is any indication, the definition should include the word “romance” in bright, shining letters because the focus of Swept Away is, and stays on, a romance.

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Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

welcome to temptation hb.jpgWhen I signed on to Paperback Reader, I inserted a clause in my agreement to the effect that there would be a team review of Welcome To Temptation during my first year of employment. In retrospect, I probably should have gone for the signing bonus. You live, you learn.

So, what with one thing and the other, a year passed, but the dream remained alive (also, I forgot to insert language about what would happen if said review failed to materialize). And…here it is. A review of Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie. It should probably go without saying, but there is not a single unbiased word in the lengthy discussion Wendy and I had. We didn’t even attempt to fake impartiality. Had someone (name withheld, but initials are HK) kept her promise to read with us, maybe things would be different. We’ll never know, will we?

Welcome to Temptation is the story of a girl, her family, and her dog. Or maybe it’s the story of a boy, his town’s water tower, and his pool table. Sophie Dempsey comes to Temptation with her sister Amy to film a screen test for D-list movie star, Clea Whipple. Phineas Tucker, mayor of Temptation (three generations and counting), learns that there might be loose women (and possibly a porn flick being produced) out at the Whipple farm. Phin isn’t opposed to loose women on principle — too bad because Sophie’s wound so tight with nerves, she might snap.

Which means, yes, porn is happening, but only the vanilla kind, and Sophie is sure she’s going to be thrown out town pronto. What happens next? Political maneuvering, phallic, flesh-colored water towers, family strife, thwarted ambition, con games, blackmail, apparent murder, softball games, and pool. Not necessarily in that order. Suffice to say that a lot of paint was sacrificed in the making of this story.

What? You want a detailed, linear synopsis? Better that you read the book. But read our review first. We gush.

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Anybody Out There? – Marian Keyes

Anybody Out There CoverBack at the dawn of the chicklit era, authors like Helen Fielding and Melissa Banks were getting a lot of attention (even though I still remain confused by Melissa Banks’ inclusion on the chicklit list). However, a select, savvy group of readers were hip to an author who largely slipped under the media radar: Marian Keyes.

Keyes is an Irish author who writes bitingly funny, painfully real stories about modern day Irish women and the troubles that foil them. Keyes’ depiction of her country – much drinking, smoking, drugging, shopping, and middle class mores – is short on the mystical, magical, woo-woo that passes for Ireland in romance fiction. Since I much prefer the Irish of The Pogues, I couldn’t be happier.

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