Dear Ms. Laurenston:
Your Pack Challenge series introduced me to three wonderfully strong, sassy, and entertaining heroines (the Samhain reissues, that is), making me actively anticipate your first Kensington release, The Mane Event. Although I had only recently discovered your work myself, I was excited at the possibility of a wider audience being able to enjoy your confidently engaging voice. All of which made my experience of reading The Mane Event bittersweet. Had I not committed to reviewing it, I would not have made it past the first few chapters of this two-novella book. But because I had already promised Jane I would purchase and review the book, I had to read it all. And I am glad I did, because the second novella was much, much stronger than the first.
In “Christmas Pride” we meet Mace Llewellyn, former Navy SEAL, anticipated breeding male of the Llewellyn pride, and all-around hunky male. As a healthy and wealthy specimen of shifter perfection, Mace is unexpectedly resistant to what most shifter males in his position would embrace: honoring his leonine nature and helping to repopulate the pride with superior genetic stock. Instead, Mace has spent nearly 20 years pining for the full-human he crushed on in 9th grade, Desiree MacDermot, now a tough-on-the-outside NY cop on the case of a murdered shifter. And when Mace finds Dez questioning his crazy sister Missy, on the hunt he goes, an unrelenting predator on the trail of the skittish Dez.
There is little new in the setup of “Christmas Pride” outside of the shifter-spin, and even that element of the novella is not particularly compelling because of myriad issues I had with this story. Had I not read the Pack Challenge series, for example, I would not have known how unusual it was for a Pride male to crave monogamy, making Mace’s single-minded pursuit of Dez a 'true love’ anomaly. And as for Dez, her most notable characteristic, both to Mace and to every other male in both novellas is her triple-D bust size. Whether licking her own nipples or filling out a leather bustier, she is always — to my recollection — referred to by others in terms of her “well-endowed” status. It is what I remember most about her, now, too. Well, that and the disjunction between her sexuality as it manifests in her relationship with Mace and as it surfaces in her internal dialogue.
I understand that part of the Romance formula seems to be that women in highly sexual, mated relationships have to be having the VERY BEST sex of their lives. But that so often seems to translate into a sexual background of inexperience, trauma, or conflict. Dez replays an internal dialogue her ex-husband apparently fed her of a “bitter . . . cold fish with a dry pussy.” I kept expecting her to have a traumatic family history (when in fact her she’s her father’s favorite, and not in an icky way) or some other history of rejection. But in fact, every single man who comes in contact with her is bowled over by her breasts and her overall attractiveness, and she’s incredibly sexually free with Mace, virtually climaxing every time they’re in physical proximity. Consequently, those moments in which she rehearses her ex-husband’s unkind litany seem manufactured, although I cannot really discern the purpose. Similarly, Mace’s singular focus on Dez made his occasional ruminations that he should instead be basking in the myriad privileges of being a prime pride breeding male seem downright uncharacteristic.
And I think this is one of my biggest problems with this novella: so much of the conflict felt manufactured and awkward. For example, there is the way the internal thoughts of characters seem to be directed at the reader: A sudden move like that could blow it all. Dez trusted him. Trusting him even though she knew he wasn’t human. Not completely. That meant more than he could ever say, and he wasn’t about to ruin it by being…ya know…a guy. There are certain descriptors like “twisted pervert” or “cocky prick” that are inexplicably repetitive, as well an overabundance of awkward phrasing: He took that as a good sign and decided to barrel forward-slowly. There are copyediting issues, as well. For example, Dez’s house is alternatively described as an apartment, and in one scene she’s wearing a sweatshirt that morphs into a sweater in the next. Plus, there were enough dangling modifiers that I started to keep mental track of them as I was reading, as well as quite a few jarring transitions and POV shifts. Then there wass the fate of the suspense plot, which basically evaporated once Dez and Mace consummated their sexual relationship, despite Dez’s insistence that she’s cop to the bone. Had I not read the Pack Challenge series, “Christmas Pride” would probably have been my first and last venture into this shifter world.
Fortunately, however, “Shaw’s Tail” reminded of what I loved so much about those earlier Pack novels. Where “Christmas Pride” was awkwardly written and inconsistently characterized, “Shaw’s Tail” was crisper, smoother, and tighter. Like Mace Llewellyn, Brendon Shaw is a pride male, but unlike Mace, he has welcomed his role as prime breeder and successful businessman, enjoying the process of populating his pride but maintaining strict contracts regarding his and his children’s rights. Seriously wounded in the course of “Christmas Pride,” Brendon ends up in the hospital with a young she-wolf, Ronnie Lee Reed, left to watch over him after Dez and the wolves rescue him from his attacker. In the course of a raging fever (during which shifters can change back and forth erratically), Brendon latches onto Ronnie, drawing both of them inadvertently into a precipitous escape from the hospital. Precipitous because Brendon is still in the grip of a fever and because the only place Ronnie can think to take him is her aunt’s modest Long Island house. At Christmas time. When Brendon is more than a little likely to flee the house, shift into his lion form, and mambo to the Christmas calypso music floating across the neighbor’s lawn.
Unlike in “Christmas Pride,” the very slight suspense plot here works well as a relationship catalyst, believably creating the right conditions for Brendon and Ronnie to grow a strong hankering for one another. In his initially fevered state, Brendon engages Ronnie in a few hot and heavy kisses that seal the attraction and keep them thinking about each other after he recovers. Most of the conflict here is in the relationship, especially from Ronnie’s sheer terror of a long-term attachment (despite the fact that she’s wolf, and wolves mate for life), and, to a lesser degree, from Brendon’s efforts to save his renegade brother and bring him back into the family fold.
It’s a shame that this novella didn’t come first in The Mane Event, because “Shaw’s Tail” is so much more polished and confident than “Christmas Pride.” Ronnie has recently decided to give up her hard-drinking, international drag racing ways for a return to school and the beginning of a grown-up life. She imagines that someday she will meet a nice wolf and settle down to have pups, but her commitment phobia keeps that reality forever in the future. Her fear of emotional attachment is never actually explained, especially in life of her wolf nature, but her character is consistently rebellious enough that on that level, at least, it made sense. That her mother would have liked her to settle down and be a 'respectable’ member of the Smith pack seemed enough to push the ever-contrary Ronnie in the opposite direction: They’re afraid of becoming like some of the Smith females. Trapped in a small town, mated to men they love but can barely stand with five or six more Smith males to raise. The women in “Shaw’s Tail” seem to subscribe to a different theory of love: “Trust me, pups, one day you’ll find that male who makes you love him, care for him, and want to stab him in the face all at the same time. And your lives will never be the same.” And to a great degree, this pretty much describes Ronnie’s attachment to Brendon.
Although it sounds a bit cynical, that slightly twisted approach to love works for these characters, in part because they are both so alpha in personality, and also because they come from historically competitive backgrounds (dogs and cats). And perhaps because the dynamic between them is clearly both affectionate and competitive, the chase remains engaging for the course of the novella:
“And you have three brothers.”
“Yup.” She shook her head. “They wouldn’t like your pretty face one bit.”
“Don’t give a rat’s ass about your brothers. Do you like my pretty face?”
“Yeah. I do.” She gently stroked his cheek. “But if my brothers come to New York and find you sniffing around me, what the Doogan brothers did to you in those tunnels will seem like a cakewalk compared to the Reed boys.”
Brendon leaned into her, his eyes locked on her lips. “I’ll take my chances,” he whispered and moved in.
Should have kept his eyes open, though. It would have prevented him from going face-first into his couch.
By the time he sat up, she had his front door open.
“Where are you going?”
“My momma says to hell in a handbasket, but I’m fightin’ that.”
Unlike in “A Christmas Pride,” the characters in “Shaw’s Tail” don’t seem particularly ambitious beyond following the relatively modest but amusing story arc. Not that the story is completely superficial, but the sharp edges of the humor keep a lot of excess emotional drama at a distance in both positive and negative ways. Although I did find the twist to the subplot involving Brendon’s brother both unexpected and satisfying, and I would love to see him get his own happy ending someday.
While I would not speculate that the problems in the first novella stem from trying to push the story and characters further, the strength of this book as a whole is absolutely expressed in the second story. Had I not read three versions of “Shaw’s Tail” already (in the Pack Challenge books), it would have been a wonderfully different experience for me as a reader. I hope that with more books, the weaknesses that plague the first novella will give way to stronger prose and greater depth of plotting and characterization, along with the polished humor evident in the second work. I look forward to a book that effectively combines all of these elements, but in the meantime, I have to give “Christmas Pride” a D and “Shaw’s Tail” a B-, averaging out to a very low C/C-.