Review: Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

Trigger Warning: Attempted sexual assault, some graphic violence

Sorry for the unexpected week off, life got a little busy but that did not stop me from reading so you’ll get caught up here pretty quickly.

I read Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning for the “Fae is Bae” category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

It got big Sookie Stackhouse vibes from this heroine. Blond, gorgeous, desired by all who see her, and also gives very detailed descriptions of her “super cute” outfits. The outfits were so 2006 that I actually really enjoyed this part and made me wonder why we stopped caring what characters wore. It gives an interesting insight into the character and also, while aging the book, gives the reader a fun blast from the past. Anyway, I should give a synopsis first.

Mackayla (Mac) is a modern day southern belle who lives with her parents and is eagerly awaiting the return of her big sister and best friend who went to study abroad in Ireland. Her picture perfect world gets shattered when she receives word that her sister was brutally murdered and no one can say how it happened or why. Despite her parent’s protests, Mac goes to Ireland on a one-way ticket determined to discover her sister’s murderer. While there she discovers that she is a sidhe-seer, one who can see the fae. She is taken in by mysterious shop owner Jericho Barrons who also knows of the fae and is seeking the sinsar dubh, a powerful and dangerous book only Mac can help him find.

There are some things this author did that I really enjoyed. First of all, the fae are powerful and manipulative and many of them are evil. Usually we see typically monstrous creatures turned romantic but this time she took typically (in modern media) beautiful, romanticized creatures and took them back to their more monstrous origins. Even the “good” fae represented is a character whose power is making people instantly, overwhelmingly horny and attempts to take advantage of that more than once. The fae are complex creatures that do not adhere to mortal moral codes and that’s an interesting thing we don’t see played with often. Or at least I don’t in the admittedly limited fae reading I’ve done.

The heroine is also unapologetically feminine and feels no shame about it which I also appreciated. She also does not put up with Barrons being condescending or treating her like shit (which he does often). She makes some rookie mistakes but she is a rookie so I’m more than ok with that. The author also does a good job of depicting grief. Mac does not discover the fae are real and suddenly that’s all that matters. Her sister’s death and trying to cope with that and do the basic tasks that are often forgotten, like cleaning up their home and choosing which items to keep or give away, is an equally important, difficult part of her new reality.

There were a couple of things that rankled. The issue of adoption is handled in a way I felt a bit… shitty? Mac discovers her and her sister were adopted by her parents and she falls into a “I have no real family left cuz my sister is dead” spiral which I felt was unfair and honestly gross. Both of my parents were adopted into their families and my older brother is technically my half-brother. It was always important to my family, and to me, that adoption be viewed as an equally valid and legitimate form of creating a family. I never felt that my grandparents weren’t “really” my family, even when I was old enough to understand what adoption meant. Then again, these facts weren’t treated as secrets growing up and it is possible I would have felt differently if I had been the one adopted or if I had found out when I was an adult. This is probably just a personal peeve but I felt it should be mentioned in case others also struggle with adoption plots for whatever reason.

I am interested in where the story goes. My only real big issue is that I genuinely did not like the hero who is clearly going to be the love interest for the heroine. He’s an asshole who gaslights her, threatens her, roughs her up, and gives zero fucks about how he treats her. I’d say he’s an alphahole but I don’t read that kind of hero so I can’t confidently say that he is but if you like heroes who are gorgeous assholes, here’s your man. And listen, no judgment, it’s a type and I salute you and your thirst.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

I jumped back to the HB Reading Embrace to read Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick to fulfill the Competency Boner category of the embrace. Amanda Quick was actually the first romance novelist I read. I snagged my mom’s copy of I Thee Wed as a young teen. I don’t remember how I felt about it. I know I didn’t read romance again for years but that certainly wasn’t a reaction to the book. In any case, I was excited to give this author another read as an adult who has a bit more romance experience under her belt.

Slater Roxton has a reputation that precedes him, most of it lies, some of it truth. He’s been rumored to be mad since he spent a year on an island after a cave-in during his expedition and now leads a quiet but much storeyed life retrieving artifacts and cataloguing them. Helping him with this is Ursula Kern, widow and owner of the Kern Secretarial Agency. When an employee and friend turns up dead and is shrugged off as a suicide, Ursula takes it upon herself to pursue what she knows has been murder. Slater helps her and along the way they find the truth and fall in love in Victorian England.

I enjoyed reading this book, but there were definitely some things that got in the way of my enjoyment. Slater apparently loved Ursula at first sight and is very protective and a little bit possessive of her in ways that are totally inappropriate, especially because he doesn’t actually relay his feelings until well into the book. Ursula’s past is hinted at as very shocking and maybe I’ve just grown snobbish about my Secret Past backstories but the reveal was kind of anticlimactic in my opinion. Also the sex is written in a very hyperbolical, every-touch-sets-someone-on-fire way that felt almost satirical with how elaborately it was described. But I recognize that is in part just a hallmark of the time and there definitely weren’t any descriptions that thoroughly turned me off (see “hot honey” from Once Burned). However, there were some delightful side characters. The pacing and the writing were both good and I was happy for the characters. It also definitely qualified for the Competency Boner category because both characters are smart and talented and good at their jobs.

Review: A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier

I read A Midwinter’s Wedding by Melanie Cellier to fulfill the “Frog” category of the HB Reading Embrace. I DNF’d at least two, if not three, books to get to this one. We could say that I had to “kiss a few frogs” to find my prince of a book but even I will not go that far with puns. I will say that I’m happy I ended up landing on this one because I was almost to the point where I was going to just read a novelization of The Princess and The Frog and call it good but here we are!

For those who may not know the story of the Frog Prince, a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale, I’ll offer a quick rundown. A princess drops a gold ball she is playing with in a pond and a frog tells her that he will retrieve it for her in return for a kiss. She agrees, they kiss, and he transforms back into a handsome prince. In this retelling the princess is one of seven children (oof), Cordelia, who is going to a midwinter wedding between her older brother Rafe and his bride. Before she leaves she is given a gold ball by her younger sister who tells her it is a godmother’s gift and will help their brother find his true love. Cordelia accidentally drops the gold ball into an icy pond and Captain Ferdinand, “Ferdy” to friends, retrieves it for her. He’s a froglike looking man with bulbous eyes and bent knees and at first Cordelia is startled by his appearance. As they spend time together and work to stop an evil plot against the royals they grow closer and Cordelia looks past his appearance and finds that she loves him. Since it’s based on a fairytale I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that she ends up kissing him and he transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

This is the 3.5th book in a series so there was definitely context I was missing that would have made the other characters matter. I liked the heroine and was curious about the “curse” she kept talking about related to her younger sister. I also liked the hero of the story and the way the author paced their relationship and gave them plenty of opportunities to get to know each other and bond before they were in love. Obviously it’s still a speedy romance because it’s a novella and it has to get to an HEA ASAP but it didn’t feel ridiculously hurried. That might in part be due to the fact that she isn’t attracted to him initially. The traditional romance formula I’ve found is two people identify each other as attractive and then feelings stem from there. It’s a formula that works, you want the characters to be attracted to each other, but I liked that their relationship was based on more substantial things from the start. Granted, the hero is attracted to Cordelia even though she frets that she isn’t THE most beautiful princess in her land, but even still you could see the reasons he fell for her beyond her beauty.

This is a brief read but Cellier still provides good worldbuilding and though the major conflict was resolved pretty briskly, I can’t fault her for that because, again, novella. I enjoyed this story and might check out the rest of the series. The only reason it isn’t a definite yes is because with seven siblings it’s likely a long series and I’m trying to stay on track with my reading challenges. But we shall see!

Review: Tempest by Beverly Jenkins

Well guys, I goofed.

I had heard about Tempest for awhile and Beverly Jenkins is such a prominent figure in the romance community, so I just chose that one as my intro and jumped in. I did not realize at the time that this was the third and I believe final book in a series. I hate reading books out of order, especially when it becomes clear that references are being made to established characters, and the ending of the novel was essentially wasted on me. However, I never claimed to be a professional and all I can do is give you my impression of the books I read as I read them so let’s do that.

Tempest started strong with the heroine, Regan Carmichael, an african-american woman on her way to meet her husband (Dr. Colton Lee, stoic and swarthy as the day is long) and fulfill her role as mail order bride, shooting the aforementioned fiance. Right away, I was hooked. Obviously it was a case of mistaken identity (she thought he was part of the gang of robbers who had just attacked her carriage and caused the death of one of the drivers) but there’s still something wonderful about shooting your soulmate on sight. From there the pace of the book continued along pretty excellently with seamless introduction of some excellent side characters (looking at you Spring Lee) and realistic challenges (Does he want to marry a lady who shoots on sight? He just isn’t sure and I love him for it). The way Jenkins writes sex is interesting. It was at times incredibly poetic and then unexpectedly violent terms would be used. For example, the first time the heroine orgasms she describes it as “shattering” which took me out of it. That being said, their first sex scene together was the perfect blend of seduction and clear consent and led to complicated feelings for the hero who has only sought out a wife after losing his first wife and mother of his child in childbirth. He isn’t sure how he feels about not just engaging in sex but actively enjoying it with his new bride. And she isn’t sure how she feels about him not being sure how he feels about it. This is all very good and very understandable. After this point, however, I felt the tension slack and the pace did as well.

Essentially after both characters have accepted and realized they love each other (which also did not take as long as I expected), all the oomph went out of the book for me. There were still distinct challenges with someone trying to kill the heroine and the trial for the robbers and the heroine is openly rejected by her husband’s grandfather. But there were things that were written as working so seamlessly it just didn’t feel right. There is a large portrait of the late Adele Lee in the main room and Regan is completely comfortable with this and with her legacy surrounding her and running around in the form of Colton’s daughter Anna. She even goes so far as to talk with the deceased lady in the portrait as though they were old friends. There isn’t a moment of wondering how she would feel about her being there. Regan does worry that Colton, who openly declares at first that he does not intend or expect to love her, will never open his heart to her. But there is no awkwardness with the lady of the house still looming large. To be fair, this was a time in history where people could and did die often from many things, childbirth especially, and it is possible that Regan would truly feel entirely unconcerned by this. From my modern perspective it felt almost forced, as though the author were trying to just cut through any of those feelings by saying “Nope she’s fine let’s move on.” And you know what? That is her right. It just felt weird for me.

Another relationship that was oddly swift and without complication was Anna and Regan’s. Anna is at first a little shy and standoffish, though this is more due to the abuse of her aunt than any hesitation over a new mother coming to take over. I expected more hesitance on Anna’s part. True her mother died before she could know her but her presence has been maintained (see: large portrait) and with her father being too busy to spend time with her it would be normal for her to worry that this new woman would only usurp the very minimal attention she already receives from him. Regan is charming and clever and wonderful with her and their relationship flows without a single question or hiccup. And future hiccups are marched out somewhat quickly and factually and the line between character experience and author giving you a history lesson blends a little to the point where there was a part that I felt should have been a focal point of its own novel instead of being pocketed into this one.

All of that being said, Tempest was a story that I was able to devour in very little time and did keep my attention. It had interesting side characters, representation without denial of the ignorance of the time but also without denying these characters their own agency and happy ending, and though the ending and references to prior characters was lost on me I would be interested in going back and reading them.

Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace 2019

My favorite podcast, reading related or otherwise, is Heaving Bosoms where two friends banter and discuss romance novels. It’s like belonging to a long distance book club where I practically never do the reading. It is magical. This year they introduced their own reading embrace and I am all in and urge you to join us! I’m a fairly new romance reader and this embrace really gives you an opportunity to revisit old favorites and branch out and explore new facets of the genre.

Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace 2019 Syllabus

America Times: Tempest, Beverly Jenkins

Because Witches: Witches of East End, Melissa de la Cruz

Consent Boner: The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan

Cousin Stuff: Mastersons, Lisa Lang Blakely

Do They Got Reasons: Guilty Pleasures, Laurell K. Hamilton

England Times: The Duchess Deal, Tessa Dare

Herbs, Herbs, Herbs: Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

Highlander Times: The Highlander’s Bride, Amanda Forrester

Hufflepuff + Slytherin Love: Duke With Benefits, Manda Collins

Keep Being A Badass: When All The Girls Have Gone, Jayne Ann Krentz

Lady Love: Fried Green Tomatoes, Fannie Flagg

Medieval Times: Temptress, Lisa Jackson

Pirate Times: The Notorious Lady Anne, Sharon Cullen

Reindeer Mafia: Ruthless People, J.J. McAvoy

Sherlock Holmes Times: A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn

Sportsball: Time out, Jill Shalvis

Virgin Duke: The Naked Duke, Sally MacKenzie

Werves: The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan

Western Times: Big Sky Mountain, Linda Lael Miller

#Problematic: I Thee Wed, Amanda Quick