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are taken from books I myself love, and heartily recommend you should read. Every month readers can post comments below the current review – it’s my own Book Club! Please feel free to join in and do check the archives!
~ Eloisa

 

 

MacKenzie’s Mountain by Linda Howard

I Own the DawnOne of my favorite girls-in-glasses romances is in the outrageously non-PC “MacKenzie’s Mountain,” by Linda Howard (first published back in 1989 and it’s held up!).

In the preface, Linda says that she wanted to write “a simple love story about a half-breed Wyoming rancher and an old-maid schoolteacher.” A lot of girls-with-glasses stories start with an old maid. But in the good versions, the girl turns out to be far from meek and mild: she wields her glasses as a weapon to get exactly what she wants in a world that tends to consign pretty girls to a career as a wife.

MacKenzie’s Mountain opens with the immortal words, “He needed a woman. Bad.” That’s not only a fragment, but ungrammatical as well, but Wolf Mackenzie would never say, “He needed a woman. Badly.” Howard delights in her rough-hewn, uncivilized hero: imagine a ruthless outcast who’s seen the inside of a prison due to an unfair rape charge: “In his veins ran the blood of two of the most warlike peoples in the history of the world, Comanche and Celt.” So what do you think the good people of Ruth, Wyoming would think of a school mistress who beds their most-loathed outcast?

Mary Elizabeth Potter doesn’t care. She heads up the mountain to confront Wolf about the fact that his son Joe dropped out of school a few months ago and falls directly into lust. At first, she thinks Wolf is making fun of her, so she sets him straight: “I know I’m not an attractive woman, certainly not the type to stir a man’s—er, savage appetites.” Well, you can see where this is going.

But Mary is tough. She’s just as tough as Wolf, and in some ways, even stronger. She confronts small town prejudices about race with a kind of guts and glory that puts her in danger, but also slashes through the hatred and intolerance that made Wolf and his son outcasts.

That’s all great, but at the heart, this is a really terrific romance between a man with a crazy amount of testosterone…and a girl who wears glasses.

» Buy MacKenzie’s Mountain by Linda Howard

 

I Own the Dawn by M.L. Buchman

I Own the DawnM. L. Buchman, author of I Own the Dawn, is one of very few male romance writers.  Buchman leans on his testosterone: his Night Stalker series turns a passion for military helicopters into a fundamental characteristic of his heroines. These women are the ultimate alpha soldiers—although it should be said that the novels do not glorify the American military.

What they do glorify is a military chopper with four seats—“the nastiest gunship God ever put on Earth and only the best flew in her,” as the heroine of I Own the Dawn, Sgt. Kee Smith, puts it.  Kee is a tough-talking girl who grew up on the streets and fought her way into being a helicopter gunner.

Since I’m both squeamish and a pacifist, I tend to avoid military romance, but Buchman made Kee’s obsession with a Black Hawk helicopter fascinating. The fact that Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III, a first lieutenant copilot in her chopper, is a blue blood (albeit alpha) aristocrat didn’t hurt either. This is a classic tale of socioeconomic opposites who fall wildly into love—and passion.  I loved it!

» Buy I Own the Dawn by M.L. Buchman

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Scent of Darkness by Christina Dodd

Scent of DarknessOne of the complicated things about romance is that it speaks to all sorts of desires  PC and otherwise. In real life, we want men to be gentlemen. We like to be paid large salaries ourselves, and we’d prefer that our men are not collecting welfare. It’s great if they can whip together a pasta primavera, or at least hold their own in front of the dishwasher. We wouldn’t want them to be overly aggressive or wildly mysterious. In real life, wildly mysterious probably translates into something tedious like an addiction to on-line porn, or three wives he forgot to tell you about.

But in fiction?

It’s all different. There’s a part of every woman, a little corner of her heart, that harks back to the time when we were hanging out in caves waiting for hubby to bring home a saber-toothed tiger for dinner. Paranormals, more than any other genre, speak to that particular desire.

If you’re reading a paranormal, you don’t have to worry about mystery or politics (rednecks are certainly alpha, but, um?). You can simply relish the presence of a gorgeous, utterly alpha male  who happens to be a wolf part of the time. But it’s just the wolf-like quality that gives him force and mystery and makes him into a wildly desirable man.

Christina’s newest book, Scent of Darkness, gives us a hero to die for perhaps even more importantly, a hero who would unhesitatingly die for his beloved. She’s set up a whole family of them, in fact. An ancestor centuries ago in Russia gave away his soul and the souls of his descendants to the devil. In exchange, he gained the ability to transform into a predator, to be the best hunters in the world.

Jasha Wilder is just that: a wolf. A wolf with the face of a fallen angel: “dark hair, dark brows, long dark, curly lashes that framed eyes a most peculiar shade of gold, and a tattoo that rippled down one arm from his shoulder to his wrist. The eyes, the tattoo, and the height made him look dangerous.”

If you meet someone like this in real life, just let him hop onto his Harley and scoot in the other direction, OK? But meeting someone like this in fiction, oh, it’s wonderful! Jasha’s innocent secretary Ann ( Christina writes the best modern-virgin stories in the world you have to admit, its hard to carry off)  anyway, Ann doesn’t have a chance to escape him.

Not that she’d want to.

The great thing about a truly alpha book is that the heroine is simply swept away in a fashion she would never allow in real life. Jasha’s passion is “like a blast from the funeral of hell.” When he kisses Ann, she gets weak knees. But the real pleasure here is when Jasha falls in love, when he realizes that he loves her.

Damn civilization. Damn proper workplace behavior. He wanted to go back into the forest with his mate and show her the way of the wolf.

Don’t miss this book!

-Eloisa

» Buy Scent of Darkness by Christina Dodd

 

The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand

Chocolate Thief

Some despair at the idea the world will end in fire or ice. To my mind, given that the earth is our only source of chocolate, it hardly matters how the supply is cut off. I think woe and joy are best addressed with chocolate, whether it is shaped into a kiss or comes from an Ecuadorian plantation.

My husband disagrees. He’s from Florence, Italy, and his favorite store — Scudieri on Piazza del Duomo — refuses to make chocolate when the weather is not conducive to a perfect texture. If Alessandro accidentally puts pedestrian American chocolate into his mouth, he shivers all over like a toddler given an oyster. I merely smirk: Hershey’s kisses are sold all over Italy, summer or winter. I am never without my drug of choice.

The plot of Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Thief casts my cultural clash with my husband into high relief. Cade Corey is the heiress to a thinly disguised Hershey’s-esque fortune, and she’s determined to learn the secrets of the oh-so-snobby French chocolatiers.

Unfortunately, they won’t even speak to her, and the topartiste in Paris, Sylvain Marquis, actually throws her out of his store after she asks him to collaborate on a line of “premium chocolates” with his name on it. Cade bribes her way into his chocolate-making class and he tosses her out again. Finally, she breaks in and steals four boxes of chocolate. When she waltzes into the store at midnight for the second time, the inevitable happens: They make love on the marble counter used for rolling chocolate. (I don’t want to put you off French chocolate for life: Sylvain covers all that cold marble with sweaters first).

Sylvain is entranced by the woman who would risk anything to taste his creations. Cade is equally entranced — and bemused. Sylvain is the first man she’s met who is both completely uninterested in her billions and unshakably arrogant about his work — in other words, a classic romance novel hero.

Their affair is complicated by a French blogger who launches a media frenzy about the bon-bon burglar, followed by aNew York Times story that exposes Cade’s identity. But despite all the complications, their relationship is explosive, sensual (including an outrageously sexy encounter set on a narrow flight of stairs) and utterly sweet. Rather like “real” chocolate, as Sylvain would call it.

That chocolate battle is at the heart of the novel. Sylvain throws a Gallic fit at the very idea of putting his name on a Corey Bar; Cade labels him a “chocolate anarchist,” since all she wants is to make his chocolate accessible to the masses. Why should chocolate be sold for 33 cents a bar in America, and for 36 times as much in Paris — although both give equal pleasure to their respective consumers?

Sylvain’s refusal of Cade’s offer turns the question of relative worth on its head: “I can’t really imagine anything I could buy that would make my life better,” he tells her. Of course, that leaves open the question of what would make his life better.

There’s a time for novels like Catch-22, books that take a cynical and jaundiced look at war or death. The Chocolate Thief is for days when you lust not for wisdom, but for a bar of chocolate — at any price — and a hero who understands what is truly important: “Every dream I have has you in my apartment, has you in my laboratoire, has you with my babies … Every chocolate I’ve made since I met you, I’ve made for you.”

» Buy The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand

 

Emily & Einstein: A Novel of Second Chances by Linda Francis Lee

Emily and Einstein Emily and Einstein is a novel that dances between genres: women’s fiction, magical realism, romance, dog lovers’ fiction (surely its own genre by now).  The novel doesn’t fit into any neat package, and Linda Francis Lee uses these incongruities, including a paranormal flourish, to deepen her story’s emotional punch.

The titular Emily is a book editor, happily married to her husband Sandy—until he dies, and she finds out that he was a serial cheater whose family immediately starts eviction proceedings against her.  She’s furious, heartbroken, and humiliated.

But Emily and Einstein is not a simple novel about marital betrayal.  Emily was stubbornly blind to the reality of her marriage: as she says, she “was never good at sensing trouble.”  She deliberately didn’t see her marriage, her husband, her life: she loved a man who didn’t exist.  She created a phantom husband, a paranormal partner.

And here’s where the fascinating magic aspect of the novel comes in:  Lee gives Emily’s scruffy little rescue dog the soul of a man: to be exactly, Sandy’s soul. Sandy-as-Einstein is a scruffy, sarcastic, and funny dog who finds it hard to come to terms with the fact he was a rabid little mutt as a human.  And Emily has her own learning to do:  she needs to understand that she is an expert at avoiding truths that stare her right in the face.  Any of us who have avoided a powerful, painful truth know the utter conviction of denial. But this plot really hinges on one question:  can Emily recognize Sandy-as-Einstein—a truly impossible truth?  Lee turns what could be a simple redemptive tale, in which Emily gets over her faithless former husband and meets a lovely guy named Max, into a real challenge:  can Emily accept a truth that her commonsense tells her cannot be true?

I loved the complexity of Emily and Einstein: the way that a touch of magic and humor makes deep sorrow and painful secrets more visible. With a nod to Pythagorus, Lee will have you believing in miracles, second chances, and a dog with the soul of a man.

You might even find yourself eyeing the family pet in a new light!

This review first appeared on the B&N Review website in 2011.

» Buy Emily & Einstein by Linda Francis Lee

 

Learning To Breathe by Karen White

Learning to BreathReaders, not to mention academics and publishers, wrangle endlessly about the definition of “women’s fiction.” Well, here’s mine: I think women’s fiction roughly distinguishes itself from romance because all its heroines are flawed. As a practitioner of romance, and one who loves it dearly, I read very few romances in which the heroine is truly flawed. Yes, there are some who are TSTL (too stupid to live, for non-techies), but they generally balance that flaw with their gorgeous locks and utterly cheerful demeanors. And there are some who have concealed their babies in an utterly inadvisable way, but they almost always have some sort of youthful foolishness type of reason for it.

Romance heroines may be silly, but they employ the little wits they have in a remarkably intelligent way (I’m thinking of Garwood’s early heroines, in case anyone’s wondering). The majority of romance heroines are not at all silly, being snappy, fun, intelligent and assertive. What’s more, they’re mostly gorgeous and often very rich.

In women’s fiction, on the other hand, I’m finding a lot of romance, but the heroines are not “romance heroines.” Let’s take Karen White’s Learning to Breathe as an example. I happen to adore Karen’s books. I’ve been reading them from the first few she wrote, there’s a glorious tearjerker in the early group that made me cry happily for hours. This novel is classic KW: the heroine of Learning to Breathe is flawed. I mean: Brenna isreally flawed.

Now what I do not mean is that she’s a husband-beater or a kleptomaniac. She’s entirely likable. But she’s made some serious mistakes in her life, and her life is a complicated web that has grown from things she’s done and not done. It’s hard to explain without wrecking the plot, but here’s a snippet from the first chapter: the boy she adored in high school returns to town to help his father tie up the bits of his life. When he walks into her sister’s store, she happens to be sitting there covered with cold cream (bummer!), but there he is, grown to a man. And she’s about to get engaged to someone else. The rest of the novel spreads from that situation. In a romance, it would be a question of unraveling the plot threads that kept them apart and that’s true here as well. But the really important reasons for that situation lie in Brenna and her character.

Learning to Breathe is a fascinating book — if you’re sick of golden-haired perfection, Brenna is a dose of fresh air!

-Eloisa

» Buy Learning to Breath Online

 

Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess by Gael Greene

In honor of the publication of Paris in Love, we decided to pop up Eloisa’s review of a fabulous memoir about decadent experiences, some of which take place in Paris. Though Eloisa would like it noted that Gael Greene’s life is much more exciting than hers (Gael’s up close and personal time with Elvis is a good example!).

Insatiable coverI don’t read many celebrity kiss-and-tell biographies. Frankly, as someone who doesn’t watch much TV, I’m often in the dark about who the big celebrities are, and so why would I be interested in reading about their bed-time adventures? But when it comes to big names…

For example, Elvis?

OK! I’ve heard of him. Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess opens with the young author of this memoir wrangling her way into Elvis’s hotel room in 1956. All the important details are there: “I wore a simple body-skimming black shantung dress (my most slenderizing) with white stitching along the neck and cap sleeves, shiny black patent-leather pumps, and little white kid gloves.” Can’t you see her? And then there’s this moment: “He sized up the room and astutely realized I was the only female in it. He slunk directly toward me, slender in shiny black faille rousers and a sheer blue short-sleeved eyelet organdy shirt…”

I thought I’d give you quite a few quotes because this is the kind of memoir in which the author really remembers what she’s writing about. Not that I want to give you the impression that it’s all bopping from celebrity bed to celebrity bed (though I wouldn’t want you to miss the chapter involving Burt Reynolds).

This is really a book for people interested in food. Some people call them foodies. I think that word is infantile and over-used. I like food. I’m not a foodie, though. I would identify a foodie as someone who carries a little packet of olives and paté onto a plane while the rest of us make do with chicken…or whatever that airplane food is pretending to be. In other words, my body is not a temple to great food.

But on the other hand, I like to cook. I find good food a lot better than bad food. And I like the Food Network a lot. Even in college I used to watch Julia Child for fun. My mother was not like that. She read The Joy of Cooking and then got on with the business of life. I think I’m representative of my generation.

Gael Greene’s memoir is, in essential respects, something of a history of American’s attitude toward food. After she grew up and made her way out of Elvis’s hotel room, she became one of the most important restaurant critics in New York – the critic for New York Magazine. She was writing before nouvelle cuisine came around, with its discrete little mounds of food. She was right there when the California revolution came along. In short, this is a fascinating look at a life spent right in the middle of America’s huge change in attitude toward food. Her mother was the queen of Velveeta – she, on the other hand, includes a few recipes in her memoir for things like mushroom strudel, which likely would have horrified her mother.

But to go back to Elvis: this is a very odd, addictive memoir, and not just because of the descriptions of food. Ms. Greene is, to put it bluntly, along the lines of a sex addict, and her life reflects that. It’s not a book that describes sex, per se, but it is a book that describes her men. She had into a weird relationship with a porn star. She has many adulterous relationships and eventually ruined her marriage (don’t read this thinking you’ll find a heroine – she’s a very real, very witty, sometimes very stupid woman). It’s fascinating – like watching a train wreck happen before you, but she writes so wittily and so frankly that you’re along for the ride the whole way.

Here’s a true affirmation of my feeling for this book: I was flying from Frankfurt, Germany, to Dallas, Texas alone. No children. No husband. That’s nine hours. The stewardess appeared, told me that she has a little population control problem (given the number of drunk men wandering the aisles, I had already guessed that), and could she put an unaccompanied minor next to me for the flight? My heart sank.

Every time that charming nine-year-old stopped talking, or trying to get me to draw pictures, or play cards, I would pick up this book and dive back in. Finally, she said to me: “You like to read, don’t you?”

Yes. If only there were enough addictive books to get me through life with my nose in a book! I recommend this one for long plane rides, for long sickness, for lunch break…

-Eloisa

» Buy Insatiable by Gael Greene

 

Secrets of Surrender by Madeline Hunter

Secrets of SurrenderSexuality is a very perverse thing, and frankly (in case none of you noticed) it doesn’t tend to be all that pc. Just look at the 1970’s label bodice-ripper, which the media still plasters onto many a romance featuring a man and a woman. The connotations are unpleasant — a man ripping off a woman’s clothing, forcing her intimacy, even raping her. Along with the secondary implication that she likes it. Ug.

But now let’s look at that scenario from the point of view of the libido. You show me the woman who hasn’t had a pirate fantasy one time or another. Or a Hollywood fantasy. If <name your gorgeous male actor here> found himself riveted with lust in your company, wouldn’t you (in your imagination) allow him to pop a button or two? The truth is that sensuality and political correctness are not always in tune.

So where does that leave the modern romance novelist—the one who isn’t writing bodice-rippers, and would never want to write a rape scene, no matter how much the heroine apparently enjoyed it? With a delicate balancing act, that’s where. With a challenge.

Madeline Hunter is a novelist who has taken up this challenge with relish. Secrets of Surrender opens with one of my personally favorite, utterly-un-pc plot twists: an auction in which the heroine is going to the highest bidder. An auction! It’s got all the same connotations as the bodice-ripper: the heroine obviously isn’t choosing her partner; equally obviously, they’re going to have sex; and furthermore, she’s going to enjoy it. So…you might ask… how does Madeline Hunter succeed with that plot while not curdling our feminist stomachs?

Brilliantly! Roselyn Longworth finds herself in a room full of courtesans, about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder (and Hunter doesn’t mince words: it was Roselyn’s own stupidity that got her in this situation). She’s rescued by Kyle Bradwell, a man who just happened to stroll into the room. A man who isn’t of her class, and doesn’t know all her secrets. A man who has plenty of secrets of his own. Plus, he’s not a gentleman. So, obviously…he’ll take what he just dearly paid for.

Or not. Hunter creates a couple who are delicate with each other and intelligent in the face of challenges. At the same time, she allows us the fantasy, so that when they do fall into bed together, while there’s no forced intimacy, Roselyn throws off her inhabitations in the way that the auction fantasy demands:

She lost control of every part of herself except the small consciousness that demanded more, anything, everything.

His voice, quiet and deep. “Surrender to it. You will see what I mean. Let it happen. Choose it.”

There’s the modern bodice-ripper/auction retooled for our sensibility: we choose the surrender, and it’s none the less delicious for that.

» Buy Secrets of Surrender by Madeline Hunter

 

Mother of the Bride by Lynn Michaels

Mother of the BrideI’m a huge fan of Lynn Michaels’s quirky, beautifully written contemporaries. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be writing them any longer, but the four I have are tucked away among my Keepers. Mother of the Bride is a great place to start, if you haven’t discovered this great author.

The heroine, Cydney Parrish, raised her sister’s child, Bebe, because her sister (a globe-trotting photographer) was too glamorous and sophisticated for a task as prosaic as mothering. Every once in a while Gwen would stroll in trailing a new husband, and buy Bebe a red convertible or designer clothing. Of course, Bebe adores her mother, who calls her (affectionately) my “dear little dimwit.” But it’s Cydney who’s stuck with the tough parts of mothering. And all her protective instincts go on alert when the very young and very airheaded Bebe runs in screaming that she’s engaged to a boy named Aldo Munroe.

This is the kind of novel that piles outrageous characters on top of each other, and each one is a delight: bigger than life and more outrageous. Cydney grounds the craziness, because she’s ordinary in every way. She feels like the only failure (she hasn’t managed to finish a novel) and thing only get worse when it turns out that Aldo’s guardian is the famously reclusive author Angus Munroe—who is Cydney’s idol.

Everyone from the gorgeous Gwen to Bebe, Aldo and Angus end up in the tiny town of Crooked Possum in the Ozarks… where Cydney falls in love with Gus, who falls in love hard for Cyd (“I’ll give you a massage.” He’d give her the moon, Gus thought, the sun, the moon and all the stars in heaven.) It’s incredibly to see the most glamorous man of all falling hard for plain, ordinary Cyd.

Buy this book — I love this book and I bet it will end up on your keeper shelf!

 

It’s In His Kiss by Julia Quinn

Its in His KissIt’s In His Kiss opens with a prologue from the hero’s point of view, which is absolutely appropriate because after reading this book, I ended up thinking it was one of the funniest portraits of a man I’ve ever read. Gareth is a guy—a real guy. How unusual is that in romance these days? I read far too many books about men who aren’t men at all — either because they are really werewolves (all very well in their own way, but with little relevance to my home life), or they are pure alpha male with the surprising ability to convert overnight into a sensitive, loving beta (alas, also irrelevant to my home life). In fact, almost all the heroes I read about are shape-shifters of one sort or another.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. My husband is ruthlessly himself, and I can’t help wondering if werewolves are especially nice because they de-stress loping around the woods. Perhaps they survive the stress of going out to dinner two nights in one week without baying at the moon? (Because my husband doesn’t, she said sourly.)

But I digress.

What Julia has done in this book is create a hilarious, heart-rending, sexy picture of a real man: Gareth. I’ve read all of Julia Quinn’s books, and I’m putting on my literary critic hat for a moment to tell you that this is definitely one of the best books she’s written. It’s brilliant, screamingly funny, and yet manages to have a tender, deep side to it. Plus Hyacinth and Gareth squabble in a far more clever way than most of us do—and I loved that!

Now for a moment of prideful revelation: I actually had a hand in the book. Not in the writing, obviously, but there’s a mystery here that has to do with a diary written in Italy which Hyacinth wants to translate. Since Hyacinth isn’t fluent in the language, Julia needed the passage to go from English to Italian, and then back into English in a non-fluent translation. No problem! My husband is from Florence and (obviously) fluent. I’m from Minnesota and (alas) not terribly fluent. So Alessandro took the diary entries from English to perfect Italian, and I played Hyacinth and took them back from perfect Italian to an awkward English translation. I wish it had been a struggle to suppress my perfect knowledge of the language, but I am the person who politely snoozed through an entire dinner party in which the other couple detailed their experiences at a sexy “tantric” weekend for married couples. I thought they’d done a weekend of marriage counseling and couldn’t figure out why my husband was so fascinated.

Buy this book — it’s terrific!