Sunday, January 24, 2010

Explaining My Vanishing Act

Some of you may recall a few posts back when I mentioned moving to a new city and starting a new career. Well, that new career is the reason my online presence has been virtually nonexistent the last few weeks. To make a long story short: I'm in the police academy.

For those of you who don't know, police academies in California are 22 weeks of intensive academic and physical training in a para-military structure. I can best describe it as a combination of boot camp and college, which, in practical terms, means most of my free time is spent either studying for exams or spit-shining my boots. Seriously.

When I started this blog a couple of months ago, I had no idea how much longer the hiring process was going to take, or if I would even be successful. It wasn't until Thanksgiving week that I found out my year-and-a-half wait was over and that I'd been hired. I had 6 weeks to relocate and prepare for the start of the academy. Needless to say, December was a stressful month.

Going into the academy I knew I'd be busy, but I wasn't exactly sure how much free time I'd have. After a couple of weeks, I now realize that it will be a struggle for me to meet my monthly AAR reviewer commitment of 3 books, let alone find time to blog on a regular basis.

Which means that for the next several months I'm putting this blog on hiatus, with the fervent hope that once all of my training is complete, I'll be able to re-devote myself to the endeavor, which I truly enjoyed for the short time I did it.

In the mean time I'll still be reviewing for AAR, so I won't be completely absent from Romanceland. In fact, since my last blog post I've had two reviews go up at AAR -- If Looks Could Chill by Nina Bruhns and Strangers in the Night by Saskia Walker -- and my reviews of Slow Heat by Jill Shalvis and Waking the Dead by Kylie Brant should be posted within the next week or so. But the likelihood of my having time to blog-hop is close to nil.

As an aside, I can now call myself a true Bay Area resident. I experienced my first earthquake within days after moving to the area, which was a very Twilight Zone experience. I was sitting with my fellow recruits in the classroom, listening to the T.O. speak, when I felt this shaking. I started looking all around trying to figure out what the hell was happening, but everyone else was listening to the T.O. like there was nothing out of the ordinary. Which, apparently, there wasn't. The T.O. didn't even pause in her speech. I remember thinking, "What the hell? Don't any of you people feel that?" It wasn't until after class ended that someone got on their iPhone and said, "Nice. A 4.1." Yeah, nice. That's exactly what I was thinking.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

2009: My Fave Reads (and Un-Favorites)

It's nearly a week after my 2009 stats post, but I'm finally getting around to posting my list of favorite reads from 2009. At first I was planning on picking the "best" books from only the pool of books that were both published in 2009, and that I actually read in 2009. But when I started choosing books I discovered that I wasn't happy with those rules. Yes, I'm going to have to follow those rules when choosing my selections for the AAR poll, but who says I have to follow them on my blog too? I say I don't, so I'm not gonna.

So with that in mind, the following books were chosen using only one rule: I first read them in 2009. Some were published in 2009, some were published earlier, so I'm not calling this my list of Best Books of 2009. Instead, these are my Favorite Reads of 2009.

(Hyperlinked book titles will take you to my reviews.)

Contemporary Romance
Under the Influence
Author: Nancy Warren
Published: 2009
Grade: A-
It was a really close decision between this one and Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O'Reilly, but Under the Influence wins it by an itty-bitty margin. I picked this book up because I happened upon Cindy's review -- this was before I really started blog-hopping so I have no idea how that happened -- and just fell in love with it. It's light, funny, sexy, and has a gender role-reversal plot (usually it's the heroine in a service position, and the hero as the high-powered executive). Because this book also happens to be a series romance, it's my pick in that category too.

Erotic Romance
Crossing Borders
Author: Z.A. Maxfield
Published: 2008
Grade: A-
Normally I don't go in for romances where one or more of the protagonists is under the age of 25, but this one really worked for me. Tristan is only 19 to Michael's 26, and this age difference is a source of conflict between the two, in addition to Michael's job as a police officer. This one was emotional, compelling, sexy, and romantic. Really it's one of the best erotic romances I've read, period.

Romantic Suspense
Fever Dreams
Author: Laura Leone
Published: 2004
Grade: A-
After reading Leone's awesome Fallen from Grace, I started tracking down her backlist. Fever Dreams was originally issued in 1997, but in 2004 this revised version was released by Leone's then-publisher Five Star. It's an adventure romance set in a fictional South American country that erupts in civil war, and is an edge of your seat, I-can't-possibly-put-this-book-down experience.

Out of the Deep I Cry
Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming
Published: 2005
Grade: A
Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. *Sigh.* Two of the best romance protagonists, ever. Out of the Deep I Cry is the third book in Spencer-Fleming's incredible series following this Army chopper pilot / Episcopalian priest and the Chief of Police in fictional Miller's Kill, New York. After hearing my AAR colleagues Rachel and Lynn rave about this mystery series, I just had to give it a shot. Oh. My. God. I read all 6 books (that are out) in about a week and a half. I couldn't stop myself, nor did I want to. I've loved them all, but Out of the Deep I Cry was just spectacular. It features a compelling mystery dating back to the 1930s, and one of the hottest, sexiest, most emotional kiss-scenes I've ever read.

Paranormal Romance
At Grave's End
Author: Jeaniene Frost
Published: 2009
Grade: B
Currently the only paranormal series I follow is Frost's Night Huntress series, although I haven't had the chance yet to read her latest entry in that series, Destined for an Early Grave, so I can't compare these two 2009 releases. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Cat and Bones in At Grave's End, and look forward to reading more of them in the future. This book is also distinguished as, IIRC, the only paranormal romance I read in 2009 that I actually enjoyed.

Historical Romance
Lord of Scoundrels
Author: Loretta Chase
Published: 1995
Grade: A-
After hearing so many readers rave about this book, I finally got off my ass and read it when it was one of the picks for the AAR Book Club. I am so thankful, because I just loved this book. Jessica Trent quickly became one of my favorite romance heroines, and I must say that she rocked my world when she actually shot Dain. I know a lot of readers don't like that scene, but I thought it was awesome. I guess I was expecting traditional romance fare and a heroine who threatened but wasn't really willing to pull the trigger (heh). While I enjoyed the entire book from start to finish, I found the first half much more solid than the second half, hence the minus attached to the A grade.

Women's Fiction
Red's Hot Honky-Tonk Bar
Author: Pamela Morsi
Published: 2009
Grade: A-
I don't read much Women's Fiction or Chick Lit, but I couldn't resist the premise of a forty-something bar owner grandmother heroine paired with a younger man. When I started the book I wasn't sure if I was actually going to like Red, but as the book wore on and Morsi peeled away the layers of her character, I grew to not only like her, but have a great deal of respect for her. The big reason I didn't like Red in the beginning is that she seemed like a terrible mother and grandmother. But at some point I realized that Red wasn't actually so terrible; that was her opinion of herself, not others' opinions of her, but because the book is told from Red's perspective, in the beginning (when you're only getting her view of herself) you're only seeing the bad stuff. 

Most Disappointing Book
What I Did for Love
Author: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Published: 2009
Grade: C+
I was so very excited that SEP had a new book coming out last year and I was thisclose to buying the hardcover. Then I read LinnieGayl's less-than-stellar review, and because she's normally a big fan of SEP like myself, I decided to wait and get it from the library. I'm so glad I did, because I was really disappointed with this one. It was kind of like a cross between SEP's older saga-style women's fiction books and her contemporary romances, only without her trademark humor. For most of the book we know the heroine far better than the hero, which is a problem because the heroine only sees the jerk the hero used to be, hence the readers see him as a jerk. It took far too long for me to like Bram, and I was disappointed that this one wasn't funny like SEP's romances usually are. What I Did for Love is far from the worst book I read last year, but it was the one that I was most eagerly anticipating that didn't end up paying off.

Least Favorite Book (aka Worst Book)
Lucky in Love
Author: Carolyn Brown
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Published: 2009
Grade: F
What can I say about Lucky in Love? How about that I hated everything about it, from the pushover hero, to the selfish heroine, to the frustrating Secret Baby plot, to the extreme head-hopping, to the 40-page epilogue final chapters, and especially the constant references to feces and/or bowel-movements. It was a chore to read this book. Had I not been reading it for review there is no way in hell I would have ever forced myself to finish it. I can't even make myself think about it anymore; I just want to banish it from my memory.

Biggest Gloms
Elizabeth Hoyt
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Megan Hart

Favorite New Author Discovered
Julia Spencer-Fleming

So that wraps up my Favorite Reads of 2009, plus a couple of un-favorites. Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Review: The Gift by Eva Cassel

My review of The Gift by Eva Cassel is up over at AAR. I was hesitant to try this one due to the cover blurb, but took a chance that ended up paying off. Click here to read my full review.

Disclosure: I purchased this book myself.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Year in Review: 2009

I considered a few different approaches for my 2009 year end book review, but I figured nobody would be interested in reading a list of all 178 books I read last year, so I axed that idea. Instead I'm talking statistics -- specifically the various statistics from my 2009 reading habits that interest me. Probably none of you are interested in that either, but it interests me and it's my blog so I'm doing it anyway. Feel free to move onto the next item on your feed reader.

Total Books Read
As I already mentioned, in the year that was 2009 I managed to read a total of 178 books. This is nowhere near how many I've read in previous years, but I actually figured the number would be much lower. 2009 just felt like a busy year, but apparently I squeezed in more reading time than I'd thought.

Single-Title vs. Category vs. Short-Story
Of those 178 books, 3.4% (6) were anthologies, and another 9.6% (17) were short-stories* that were not part of an anthology. I also did a fair amount of category romance reading, and apparently I'm in love with the Harlequin Blaze line. (This is not really news to me, or anybody who knows me.)

Category romance made up 23.6% (42) of the books I read, and of those books, 90% (34) were Blazes. I expect this latter percentage to change a bit in 2010, simply because thanks to Lynn and SuperWendy, I'm discovering a new-found affection for the Harlequin SuperRomance line.

*I categorize books by length into the following groups: short stories (<20,000 words), novellas (20,000-40,000 words), and novels (>40,000 words).

Series vs. Stand-Alone
A whopping 60% (107) of the books were part of a series of connected books, which means that either I just love series, or simply that a large number of authors like to write connected books. I actually think both of these reasons are at play.

Pubbed in 2009 vs. Pubbed Prior to 2009
Only 45.5% (81) of the books were first published in 2009, indicating that I accomplished a fair amount of TBR shelf reading, as well as checking out recommendations of older books. The downside is that I have fewer books to choose from when making my selections for the AAR Annual Reader Poll.

New Reads vs. Re-Reads
Probably the number that most amazed me: only 5% (9) of the titles I read were re-reads. Normally this number would be significantly higher, if just for the holiday re-reading alone. But this year I wasn't able to find the time to re-read any of my annual holiday favorites, much to my disappointment.

Books Reviewed
Here's a number I'm quite proud of: I reviewed a total of 28.7% (51) of the books I read. Yay me! (Actually I wrote reviews for 53 books, but 2 won't be published until this year.) After 10 months of reviewing for AAR, I'm still loving it, although I suspect given my new job, the number of reviews I'm able to turn in will drop down a bit.

Borrowed vs. Bought vs. Freebies
Of the 178 books I read, I borrowed only 15.2% (27) of them, which quite surprised me, and almost all of the borrowed books I read in the first half of 2009. The latter half of the year was categorized by me borrowing quite a few books, and returning the vast majority of them unread.

I received 19.7% (35) of the books for free by reviewing them for AAR, and purchased a total of 65.2% (116) of the books I read. Holy crap! So that's where all my money went.

Print vs. Electronic
After receiving my Sony Reader in late-October, I managed to squeeze in 34 ebooks into my reading schedule, accounting for 19.1% of my reading. Ebooks made up the overwhelming majority of my reading from November and December, so I expect this percentage to skyrocket in 2010.

Genre/Subgenre Breakdown
Contemporary Romance: 50.6% (90)
Erotic Romance: 17.4% (31)
Romantic Suspense: 11.2% (20)
Historical Romance: 9.6% (17)
Mystery: 5.6% (10)
Women's Fiction: 2.8% (5)
Para Romance / Urban Fantasy: 2.3% (4)
Non-Fiction: 0.6% (1)

So, which genre/subgenre do you think is my favorite? If you answered Romance/Contemporary, you're right!

Grade Breakdown 
As usual, I had a pretty damn good reading year. This is because I almost totally rely on reviews and recommendations from fellow readers before trying a new author, and I pretty much have my strategy nailed.

I must add, however, that my number of C, D, and F reads were higher than in years past. There are two primary reasons for this: 1) I started reviewing for AAR, thus becoming unable to rely on reviews before trying a new book, and 2) my entry into ebook reading prompted me to take many more chances with books and authors that were unknowns to me. I discovered many new fantastic authors, but I also discovered a lot of average or crap reads. But enough about that. On to the statistics*!

A Range: 15.8% (30)
B Range: 55.8% (106)
C Range: 21.6% (41)
D Range: 2.1% (4)
F Range: 1.1% (2)
DNF: 3.7% (7)

*Anthology stories were graded individually, and these figures do not include re-reads.

Okay, I'll stop boring you all now. (And if you're still reading, I give you props -- you're probably a stats weirdo like myself.) I'd originally planned to include my favorite reads from 2009, but this is already a hellishly long post, so I'll save that for another day soon.

So tell me: How did your 2009 reading year shape up?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: Holiday Outing by Astrid Amara

My review of Astrid Amara's Hanukkah novella, Holiday Outing, is up today over at AAR. After reading Jessica's review over at Racy Romance Reviews, I decided to add this one to my holiday reading extravaganza. I found it funny and heartwarming, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Click here to read my full review. I also read this book as part of the 2009 Holiday Reading Challenge.

Disclosure: I purchased this book myself.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Tidbits

My awesome family members and Dear Boyfriend helped me move 98% of my possessions on the day after Christmas, which means we all had to drag our asses out of bed at an ungodly hour after the festivities the day before. Lucky for Bro -- who was suffering from an eggnog hangover -- I wisely hadn't yet packed the aspirin.

Moving last weekend also means that since I'm still working at my old job this week, I'm living in an apartment furnished with a chair, a folding tray table, and an air mattress. Oh, the luxury.

Every year my mom draws each of our names out of a hat and assigns us someone for Christmas. This year I was in charge of gift-giving for Middle Sis (age 27). Knowing that Middle Sis is a big paranormal YA fan, I endeavored to both surprise her with my selection, and find a well-regarded YA book that she hasn't yet read. I also took the opportunity to, ahem, expand her horizons.Which led to this conversation:

ME: "Now, I should warn you, two of these books aren't YA. They're adult paranormals, but I've read one and it's really, really good, and the other one comes very highly recommended. I really think you should give them a shot, you know, even though they're not YA."

MS (looking a bit miffed): "I do occasionally read grown-up books too, you know. You don't have to warn me that they might have adult themes. I am a big girl now."

ME (feeling acute embarrassment): "Uh, right. I didn't think that you didn't ... I mean ... um ... sorry. ... I mean, of course you read more than YA... Uh, yeah, so ... Hope you enjoy the books!" (scurries away)

Little Sis was in charge of my gift, and she did an excellent job. I drink a lot of tea during the fall and winter, but have never gotten off my ass found the time to purchase a tea kettle. So LS got me a rockin' retro red (say that 5 times fast) tea kettle very similar to the one pictured here. I'm too lazy to take a picture of my actual kettle, so y'all are stuck with this one.

At one point during the festivities, my mother decided to share a rather embarrassing story from when Bro and I were very young. After the guffawing died down a bit, Bro stated that since our family is ruled by democracy, he was taking a vote from the people who were there as to whether or not said events actually occurred.

Predictably, Mom was out-voted by Bro and I, and the story is now officially categorized under the heading of Spurious Tales Containing Vicious Lies and Untruths.

How did your holiday turn out? Good times, good food, and all that?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Review/Rant: Mirror, Mirror by Amanda McIntyre

Title: Mirror, Mirror
Author: Amanda McIntyre
Genre: Erotic Fiction
Length: Short Story
Published: September 2008
Sensuality: Burning
Setting: Urban/City
Disclosure: Purchased Myself

Unlike those that came before, lover number seventeen left Charlie aching for more, and for the first time, she regretted her and Paul’s arrangement. Theirs was a most unconventional marriage. Unable to enjoy sex firsthand, Charlie’s wealthy husband provided her with a stream of anonymous young, handsome lovers, while cameras hidden behind the mirrors enabled him to enjoy their lovemaking second hand. It was an arrangement that had sustained their marriage, but Charlie was beginning to resent her goldfish bowl lovelife. Then a chance encounter with number seventeen led to the forbidden--a hot session of soul searing sex in a clothing store dressing room, with no prying eyes intruding on her pleasure. Or so she thought. Then things began to turn really surreal, and Charlie discovered nothing was what it seemed.

For most of Mirror, Mirror, it was ... meh. I was interested enough to keep reading, but not terribly invested in the story. As the story wore on, however, I became increasingly curious about how the author was going to create that "satisfying" ending and resolve the conflict. Then the ending came and I wanted to throw the freaking book against the freaking wall. I didn't, but only because it's an e-book and I didn't want to break my Sony Reader. Suffice it to say: I was pissed.

You know those endings which at first surprise you, but then you think back over the story and realize little clues had been dropped along the way, and the ending is actually quite clever? This isn't one of those endings. Hell, this ending isn't even out in left field; it's beyond left field. The main character, Charlie, does something extremely TSTL, then on the next page all the conflict that has been building and building for the entire story is poof! gone. It was like Charlie'd had a total personality transplant and everything she'd been feeling for the last 45 pages was being remembered through glasses so deeply rose-colored as to be opaque.

In addition to it being beyond left field, the optimistic and so-called "satisfying" ending disgusted me on so many levels. But I can't explain that without giving away major spoilers, so if you want to know why you'll have to read the following Rant section.

Grade: F

This rant contains major spoilers, frequent swearing, and irrational anger. Read at your own risk. (Highlight text to read.)

Throughout Mirror, Mirror it becomes increasingly evident that Charlie is not only very unhappy with "whoring herself out" (her words, not mine) for her husband's pleasure -- he's the driving force behind her sleeping with all of these men -- she's also terrified of him. He's extremely controlling -- he literally watches every single move she makes through an elaborate video setup, she's not allowed to go anywhere alone or without permission, he chooses all of the men she has to have sex with -- and she has to constantly be on guard with her facial expressions, emotions, tone of voice, etc. She's terrified of what will happen to her and Lover #17 if Paul ever finds out that she's emotionally attached to this one, as Paul is very wealthy and powerful. It may not be a physically abusive relationship, but it is on every other level. Paul is, to put it mildly, an obsessive, dangerous, controlling stalker.

As the story wears on, and Charlie is feeling more and more desperate, I couldn't figure out how the author was going to realistically get her out of her predicament and have it all end well. What happens is that Lover #17 -- in a complete 180 of his character up to this point -- decides to kidnap Charlie, collect a large ransom, then murder her. He tells her as much when he shows up to kidnap her. And Charlie just goes right along with the plan. Seriously? He tells her he's going to murder her and she doesn't even attempt to save herself? She just follows him like a puppy dog out the door? What. The. Fuck.

But the real what-the-fuckery is when the reader is transported a month in the future to see how it all turned out. At first it seems like Lover #17's plan was to trick Paul by faking the kidnapping and murder, all so Charlie could escape her abusive husband. Uh, no. Turns out, Charlie is still with Paul and Lover #17 is in prison.

Wait, what? Charlie is still with Paul, you say?

Yep, and she's blissfully happy. No, Paul hasn't changed. He's still the obsessive, controlling, stalking emotional abuser who expects her to whore herself out to any man of his choosing. It's just that Charlie has come to realize that Paul's behavior is because he really, truly loves her. *sigh* He's just so wonderful. She's so thankful that he'd secretly implanted a chip in her cell phone, and tracked her down rescued her from the big, bad kidnapper. She's so thankful for his love that she's determined to do anything at all to please him, because pleasing him is the very least she can do after all he's given her. Oh! could her life just get any more perfect? *big sigh*


Was I just transported to some alternate universe where emotional and psychological abuse is the ultimate expression of love? Did I not just spend 45 goddamn pages reading about the heroine's increasing emotional distress and fear? Did I not read about how much she hates living every second of every day under constant scrutiny? How she feels there's no one she can trust because they're all loyal to Paul? How she wants so badly to get away from him, but is too damn afraid of what he'll do? How she's tired of whoring herself out to please him?

I'm supposed to read all of that and then to be satisfied with how Charlie's been lobotomized seen the light and realized that Paul is an abusive psycho just really, really loves her with all of his twisted big heart? I'm supposed to be happy that she's so fucked in the head grateful to Paul for controlling loving her that she's willing to do anything to please him?

Are you fucking kidding me?! I'm supposed to buy that? And be happy about it? I'm about as happy about that ending as I would be if I stepped in a big pile of dog crap.

Merry fucking Christmas to me.

Okay, yeah, I'm still a little pissed. And not a little irrational. But I'm done now. I feel much better. I've mentally thrown the book at the wall at least half a dozen times, but it's not the same, you know? I just really needed to get all that off my chest. So, uh, thanks for putting up with me reading.