Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Strickly Another Book Review

Take a Chance on Me
by Susan Donovan
St. Martin's Paperbacks: Romance (2003)
5 spangles out of five
Contemporary set in Baltimore/DC area
Heat: Just a couple scenes, but oh, baby!

It's always a delight to read a good book after one has just finished a dull one. But it's even better when that good book is flat-out excellent!

The novel was on the trade table at the last Heart of Carolina Romance Writers meeting. We bring in books we've finished reading, and everyone gets to fish through the piles until they find something interesting.

"It's got a doggie!" I squealed and realized I'd said that out loud. At least I'd said it softly. The book does indeed revolve around one Hairy, a Chinese Crested, who has witnessed the murder of his master.

Our Hero, Thomas, is a burly lawyer who works with the police and sometimes with said master. He's found he has a talent for posing as an assassin for hire. He feels guilty about possibly having been the cause of said murder, and takes anxiety-ridden Hairy in. It's too much for him, and Thomas is finally reduced to taking the dog to a doggie shrink.

Said shrink is Our Heroine, Emma, who has recently (1) gotten divorced from a real stinko, and (2) taken guardianship of her newly-deceased best friend's 12-year-old daughter. Everyone has been badly hurt by life, but this book shows that love is a great healer as long as it is accompanied by patience.

But there's also a heaping helping of humor. Thomas' attempts to de-anxiety-ize tiny Hairy are hilarious, and sometimes involve having to buy maxi-pads. Or explaining why the dog always has a pair of his boxer shorts in his mouth.

The sexual tension between Hero and Heroine is spectacular. It starts from first look and strikes deep, but is never overdone. The author prolongs our agony in getting them into bed. One hysterical, magma-hot scene has the two on their first date, sitting on opposite sides of an outdoor picnic table at a crab shack. For various reasons, they never even touch each other. You'll laugh until you cry.

Did someone mention sex? The primary scene is a helluva scorcher! It runs the gamut of emotions and yet dishes out steaming, gooey, all-day man-woman action. Woof! I can't recall reading a better one.

One bit at the end on the hero's part struck me as not being true to the hero, but things were wrapping up and our couple probably needed one final Bad Bump before things straightened out again. Of course it takes a little terror, a culmination of a plot that's been brewing throughout the book, to tie up all the ends and give us the Happy Ever After that romance demands.

The prose is sparkling, the repartee delightful. The characters are people you'll take to your heart. I'm putting Ms. Donovan on my "must buy again" list, this time with something a little more recent. I do hope she's managed to keep up the excellent work!

The book is a real keeper. Buy it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Strickly a Book Review

by Beverly Jenkins
Avon Historical romance
3 spangles out of five (and I'm being generous)
Historical romance set at the beginning of the American Revolution
Heat: It has one explicit scene and a few others that are so-so

At last I not only found a fairly recent novel to review (late 2010), but an author I've been extremely curious about and a sub-genre that I'd been wanting to try: Black romance. Plus it was set in Revolutionary times, an era I haven't seen in many romances. How exciting!

I'm afraid the book let me down. Although I'd previewed a couple pages from the "look inside" feature on Amazon, they hadn't prepared me for the—sorry—sheer dullness that awaited. This is a romance that lacks emotion. The only ones who display any are the bad guys, and they are so over the top you expect them all, even the women, to sprout mustaches so they can twirl them. Wait—there's the part where Our Hero punches the main bad guy. So we have anger represented.

With a romance, though, I want positive emotion. I want to see love bloom, and not just because both parties like sex or because they respect each other in a very proper fashion and so have a very proper and orderly demi-love. I want the heavens to swirl, the surf to crash; I want to see these people's souls torn apart because of their love and rebuilt through it.

In a historical, I want to see how people really lived in those times, how they were affected in a day-to-day way. Best yet, in a historical that didn't have any lords or ladies about, I wanted to finally be able to see people actually working to maintain their living. In this book when it comes to showing us how the times were, the narrator usually takes over, steps back several paces from the action, and gives us a scholarly view of How Things Were.

For the Black sub-genre I was particularly interested to see how Blacks lived, especially free Blacks located in the city of Boston, as these are. You're going to have a clash of cultures, of people either trying to get along or trying not to. We did get told that Quaker churches let Blacks come in, unlike other churches, but that even there the Blacks were relegated to the back or balcony.

Other than that, these might as well have been white people living very ordinary lives and not having to deal with any particular day-to-day injustices. There's a mention of Redcoat soldiers harrassing Our Heroine in her past, but other than that everyone gets along very fine. It's not until late in the book that we find that the neighbors, or at least the wife, must be white because she has red hair.

When did Old Boston turn into Sesame Street? Even the Redcoats seem to have taken their war rations of valium.

As it is, the villains provide what little spark of drama there is. They are all, bar none, OTT. I was confused that the very young slutty woman who marries the villain was not being portrayed badly enough to be a villain in the book, when it was then mentioned (one of the few examples, as I said) that her skin tone was very light, and in fact her sister had passed and married a white man. We then get a hint that the villainess's yet-to-be-born baby is actually a white Redcoat's child. This villainess gets her own brief OTT exit near the end.

But our stoic, never-complaining Heroine is Cinderella, forced by her Evil Father (nyah-ha-ha) to work in her neatly-darned rags from 4 am until well after dark, and then hurry through Boston conducting her own spy business. This leaves her with about an hour's sleep every day, I figured. She is "Lady Midnight," the mysterious messenger of warnings to Minutemen leaders. Unfortunately, the book drops this promising idea less than halfway through.

Our Hero is Prince Charming, the exotic man of the world who has lived for some time with the local Noble American Indian tribe in the Noble American Wilderness doing Noble American Indian things, but then was kidnapped to serve on evil British ships in exotic locales only to escape not only with his skin intact, but with a thoroughbred stallion in hand. He returns with infinite amounts of wealth, and of course, Our Heroine is his chosen woman.

"Beverly Jenkins has reached superstardom," the cover blurb says. But I found this book (4 glowing stars on Amazon) to be lifelessly written and bereft of any real plotline. The characters are one-dimensional; the situation, which should reek of adventure, danger, and intrigue if not a bald examination of race relations and the role of free Blacks at the birth of our nation, is plodding and missing any punctuation points. Everyone's dialogue is extremely stilted and sounds like everyone else. No one uses a one-syllable word if they can use five syllables instead. Perhaps this was to avoid any kind of demeaning dialect? At least the villains occasionally got to sound human with a contraction or curse.

Someone will have to point me to a good Jenkins novel, one that helped her make her rep, for this one is enough to keep me far from her works. But I truly am fascinated with the possibilities of Black historical romances; it seems a very rich sub-genre open to all kinds of fresh new approaches and ideas and characters I haven't seen elsewhere. Suggestions? Please???

The book has a gorgeous cover, though.