Friday, May 9, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-04-26 through 2014-05-02

Well, after several weeks of not reading anything, it was about time I got back to it, don't you think? I certainly do. And guess what? They give you free books at writing conferences! Good, good, just the thing to get me started.

The Best Man, by Kristan Higgins
Sometimes the best man is the one you least expect. . .

Faith Holland left her hometown after being jilted at the altar. Now a little older and wiser, she's ready to return to the Blue Heron Winery, her family's vineyard, to confront the ghosts of her past, and maybe enjoy a glass of red. After all, there's some great scenery there. . .

Like Levi Cooper, the local police chief--and best friend of her former fiancé. There's a lot about Levi that Faith never noticed, and it's not just those deep green eyes. The only catch is she's having a hard time forgetting that he helped ruin her wedding all those years ago. If she can find a minute amidst all her family drama to stop and smell the rosé, she just might find a reason to stay at Blue Heron, and finish that walk down the aisle.

This is the first one I picked up from the stack of paperbacks I brought home from the conference. It's tough for me to read printed books around my kids. They want to see what new toy mommy is playing with. They grab them with their sticky, slobbery fingers. They picks them up and chew on the corners if I set them down to go to the bathroom or check on dinner or something. And did you know paper makes the coolest sound ever when you're ripping it apart?

In short, if a paperback comes into my house, it either gets read quickly or hidden away for safekeeping and then forgotten. So I picked this one up the day after the conference and plowed through it.

And it was good. I've never read anything by Kristan Higgins before, but she made me laugh and tear up during her keynote address, so I don't know why I didn't expect to do the same when reading her book. This story was delightfully entertaining and also quite heartbreaking in places. I found myself laughing right from the first page and there was a scene in the middle there that had me sniffling on the couch right before dinner and I had to take a minute before I could come to the table, lest the kids get confused.

Faith and Levi were wonderful characters and I loved how Higgins wrote them. Watching them fight and flirt and fall was so much fun. I really enjoyed the dynamic between them. The side characters were also interesting and fun. Faith's family is insane in the best possible way and I can't wait to see what happens when brother and sister get their own books.

The only thing I didn't like about the book was all the flashback. I understand that these characters have a past and that impacts their lives and all, but it just felt like too much to me. Some of the flashback scenes were great scenes, but they slowed down the story for me and I found myself skimming ahead.

All in all, a great read that left me curious to know more. I immediately checked out the second book from the library and put the third one on hold.

The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig
I just reviewed this book on Wednesday as part of my Reading About Writing series. Since I just posted about it there, I'm not going to add more here. I just wanted to note it down as something I finished reading last week, because, you know, compulsions and all. And because non-fiction books take me a really long time to read and I want to make sure I get credit when I finally finish one!

(Yes, in my twisted neurotic brain there's the possibilty that someone is out there noting down how many books I've read and judging me for it. Paranoid? Who? Me? Never. Why do you say that?

No, really, why? What do you know? Have you been spying on me?

*ahem* Moving on.)

Unlocked, by Courtney Milan
A perpetual wallflower destined for spinsterhood, Lady Elaine Warren is resigned to her position in society. So when Evan Carlton, the powerful, popular Earl of Westfeld, singles her out upon his return to England, she knows what it means. Her former tormenter is up to his old tricks, and she's his intended victim. This time, though, the earl is going to discover that wallflowers can fight back.

Evan has come to regret his cruel, callow past. At first, he only wants to make up for past wrongs. But when Elaine throws his initial apology in his face, he finds himself wanting more. And this time, what torments him might be love. . .

I read this novella when it first came out back in 2011 and I loved it. I was talking to someone about Courtney Milan's books at the conference (okay, fine, I was fangirling like a damn lunatic to anyone who would sit still long enough) and it made me nostalgic. So I downloaded it back onto my phone and read it again.

And I loved it again. This story spoke to me. I know what it's like to be that girl, the one who everyone laughs at, who has to prepare and strategize and be constantly aware of the exit routes just to get through a social function. And I know what it's like to be on the other side of it too. I've also found myself in the position of having hurt someone and not known how it would ever be possible to begin to apologize for it. Milan does a great job of showing both sides.

I loved how Evan owned his mistakes and really works for redemption. And boy Elaine make him work for it. She really has a huge epiphany moment in the middle of the story and takes control of her life in such a fantastic way. The love story was sweet and sexy. I could have done without the cameos by some of the other characters from the story, as they seemed a little random to me. (I know that's expected in a series, but I'd personally rather they just not be there than be there for no reason.) Still, even with those little moments of oddness, I really enjoyed this story and it made me grin.

Selene, by Lilith Saintcrow
Life isn't easy for a sexwitch. Even your own body betrays you. It's bad enough that Selene is part slave to Nikolai, the Prime Power of Saint City, but she's got her brother Danny and she's got her job at the college. In the postwar wreckage of an uncertain world, it's pretty much all she's ever allowed herself to want.

Then Danny ends up murdered, and Selene finds herself a pawn in a dangerous game. Indentured to a bloodsucking Nichtvren and helpless, told to stop trying to uncover the identity of her brother's killer, Selene has nowhere to turn. If she's a good girl, Nikolai will leave her a little bit of freedom. He'll take care of her, and she'll be safe--if she obeys.

But Selene hasn't survived this long by being obedient to her cursed powers, or to the men who buy her time. Her brother was all she had, and now she's ready to borrow, beg, lie, steal or kill--whatever it takes to avenge him.

And if Nikolai gets in the way, Selene will use every tool in her arsenal to make him regret it. . .

The re-release of the serial went so well, Selene--and both the prequel and sequel short stories--are now available collected in one volume.

From what I can gather, Saintcrow released this story a while ago, but I hadn't discovered the wonder that is her writing at that point, so I missed it. I did catch it when she rereleased it as an online serial and I loved it. Reading in installments over a period of months is not my usual style. I tend to devour books whole in less than 12 hours. Waiting a week for the next chapter nearly killed me every time. We will not discuss how I felt when I found out she was taking a break in the middle.

I reread the entire Dante Valentine series to pass the time. So that killed, you know, a week.

When she decided to release the whole things as a novel, combined with two short stories I'd also missed, I was ecstatic. I downloaded it and jumped right to the short stories, because hey, new fiction! Then I went back and reread the novel in the middle, because hey, awesome novel!

Selene is a fabulous character and I really loved seeing her origin story, as it were. The glimpse of her relationship with Nikolai that I got in the Dante Valentine books struck me as one that really had a wealth of intrigue just waiting to be explored. You just know there's more there.

Selene did not disappoint, either on the original reading or the reread. There's so much tension and fire and passion and trauma burning out of the pages whenever Selene and Nikolai are in a room together. Half the time, I didn't know if I wanted them to rip each other's clothes or heads off. Either would be a totally believable outcome.

Selene is such a badass character. Being a sexwitch, there was the potential for her to be softer, but Saintcrow doesn't write like that. She hates her curse, she hates the life she's forced to live because of it, and she's not proud of a number of the choices she's made, though she wasn't exactly presented with a whole host of better options. Still, she takes all that frustration and rage and pain and channels it into power. She's strong and determined and she doesn't take anything from anyone. Unless she wants to.

Nikolai is also a badass character, though I wasn't as interested in him as I probably should have been. I usually get a lot more out of a good bad guy/antagonist/whatever. He's hot and strong and powerful, but he's also an asshole and a very intelligent and cunning idiot. I kinda want to punch him in the head, and I grinned with savage pride whenever Selene took him down a peg.

As a warning, you should know that this isn't a romance. I mean, it is a gritty sort of love story, but not in the traditional genre sense of the word. If you've read the Dante Valentine series, you know where Selene and Nikolai end up (if one can really they've ended up at that point), but this is not some grand sweeping romantic story with feels and flowers at the end.

The Perfect Match, by Kristan Higgins
What if the perfect match is a perfect surprise?

Honor Holland has just been unceremoniously rejected by
her lifelong crush. And now--a mere three weeks later--Mr. Perfect is engaged to her best friend. But resilient, reliable Honor is going to pick herself up, dust herself off and get back out there. . . or she would if dating in Manningsport, NY, population 715, wasn't easier said than done.

Charming, handsome British professor Tom Barlow just wants to do right by his unofficial stepson, Charlie, but his visa
is about to expire. Now Tom must either get a green card or leave the States--and leave Charlie behind.

In a moment of impulsiveness, Honor agrees to help Tom with a marriage of convenience--and make her ex jealous in the process. But juggling a fiancé, hiding out from her former best friend and managing her job at the family vineyard isn't easy. And as sparks start to fly between Honor and Tom, they might discover that their pretend relationship is far too perfect to be anything but true love. . . 

After finishing the first book in the series and liking it so much, I did what I always do and rushed forward into the next book just as fast as I could. And I'm so glad I did. I loved this book. Honor and Tom were both so great to read about and I completely fell in love with watching them fall in love.

Honor came off as a bit abrupt and cold in The Best Man, so I was expecting something of a thaw-the-ice-queen kind of story. This wasn't that. Honor isn't cold at all. She's more a big bundle of insecurity hiding behind a workaholic shell. Watching her learn to enjoy more about life and take charge of her happiness was better than any thawing ice queen would have been.

Tom. Oh. My. God. He is so hot. All that vulnerability and caring for Charlie. And sexy and smart and that accent. Mmmmm. I don't usually enjoy written accents, particularly in major characters, but every time he walked onto the page and said "Hallo darling" I heard it in Mark Sheppard's voice and I pretty much just wanted to melt into the floor.

(Disclaimer: Despite watching every available episode of Doctor Who and Coupling on BBCA, I'm not at all familiar with the differences in British accents, so it's entirely possible--probably likely--that a mechanical engineer from Manchester would sound absolutely nothing like Mark Sheppard, but I don't care because that's what I heard in my head and I loved it.)

I was unhappy to see more flashbacks. I understood it in The Best Man, because the circumstances of Faith and Levi's relationship depended rather heavily on what had happened with Jeremy, but Tom and Honor have no history together. While knowing things like how Tom's relationship with Charlie's mother fell apart is certainly interesting, I don't think the story really needed it. Maybe it's just a particular pet peeve of mine that no one else cares about, but flashbacks like that yank me right out of the story.

That said, the romance was good and pretty damn sexy for a book that doesn't have any open-door sexytimes. More humor than the first book and less crying, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. All in all, a good read. So good, in fact, that I couldn't wait for my turn in the hold queue on the third book to come up and I just bought it.

Waiting on You, by Kristan Higgins
Is your first love worth a second chance?

Colleen O'Rourke is in love with love. . . just not when it comes to herself. Most nights, she can be found behind the bar at the Manningsport, New York, tavern she owns with her twin brother, doling out romantic advice to the lovelorn, mixing martinis, and staying more or less happily single. See, ten years ago, Lucas Campbell broke her heart. . . an experience Colleen doesn't want to have again, thanks. Since then, she's been happy with a fling here and there, some professional-level flirting and playing matchmaker to her friends.

But a family emergency has brought Lucas back to town, handsome as ever and still the only man who's ever been able to crack her defenses. Seems like maybe they've got some unfinished business waiting for them--but to find out, Colleen has to let her guard down, or risk losing a second chance with the only man she's ever loved.

I was. . . underwhelmed by this book. Don't get me wrong. It was lovely in its way and romantic enough. It's not like I hated it or anything. But the characters just didn't grab me the way I wanted them to. I don't really feel a whole heck of lot of sympathy for characters who have one bad experience and then decide to toss the whole concept of finding love over. And I don't trip and fall all over characters who "suffer for their honor" either. And neither the main characters seemed to do much to transcend those tropes either.

I found myself more interested in the subplots (the evolving relationship with Colleen and her step-mother ended up showing a lot of potential) and wondering about the supporting characters (Tell me more about Connor! I want to know his story!) than in the main love story, which is never a good sign.

And again with the flashbacks. I honestly think a third or possibly even half the story was flashback. Colleen and Lucas have a past. It didn't go well. I get it. Reliving it for chapter upon chapter just distracted from what was actually going on.The scenes are nice and all, but they're almost completely unnecessary, in my opinion.

This is the third book I've read by Kristan Higgins and all three of them have had these huge chapter-length chunks of backstory jammed in throughout the narrative. Nice scenes. Interesting scenes. Sometimes damn funny and/or sexy scenes. But very distracting. Is this standard for her writing style?

I'll probably give the next book a go, mainly because I liked the first and second in this series. But for me, this one was just sort of meh. No bad, but not great either.

What have you been reading lately? Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?

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