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REVIEW:  Rules of the Game by Sandy James

REVIEW: Rules of the Game by Sandy James

“Kathryn West has it all–she’s a confident, bestselling author living it up in New York City. Too bad she doesn’t actually exist, and is only timid Maddie Sawyer’s pseudonym. Determined to attend her high school reunion with a man right out of one of her racy romance novels, she plots to find a sexy bad boy who’s up to Kathryn’s standards.

She finds Mr. Perfect shooting pool in a biker bar. He’s a blue-collar hunk who just happens to look great in leather. But the mysterious Scott Brady has some rules of his own: he won’t agree to her deal unless she poses as his girlfriend in front of his family and friends first.

As the reunion nears, Maddie tries to maintain her carefree façade, knowing she’ll soon face some old ghosts. She’s torn between her growing attraction to Scott and the nagging feeling that he’s hiding something important. Will she still want him when she finds out his secret? What about when he discovers hers?”

Dear Ms James,

I was interested in this book for a couple of reasons. First it sounded like it could be cute fun. Also, it seemed like Maddie had made the break from Small Hometown to Big City and was lovin’ it. Yeah, and the bad boy too. But….but…but…

For first 60 pages – where’s the conflict? Maddie and Scott seem to fall into insta-love. He’s freaken perfect – handsome, rugged, loves her pets, plays well with others, looks hot, has manners, loves and raised his siblings, is willing to delay sexual gratification, has endless patience teaching Maddie to drive his beloved “still in restoration” car (a 1967 Mustang so I know this guy is serious about her) and speaks in grammatically correct sentences.. what’s not to love? Clone this man and make a fortune. But where’s the conflict aside from Maddie wondering what he does to earn a living?

rulesofthegamemdThen, I wanted conflict and, suddenly! I got it. Tons of it dropped on my head and Scott’s. First Maddie’s skeleton-in-the-form-of-an-asshole high school attacker appears in the picture and then – an even bigger bombshell – the result of that attack. Now I’m swimming in all the conflict and, once again, Scott is almost too good to be true. Sure I’d love a guy like this if I were in Maddie’s shoes right now but Scott is almost eerily perfect, close to robotically so. His only faults are snoring too loudly and (initially) his profession. Yeah, he sounds great on paper but that’s just it – he doesn’t sound real. Even unconditional love givers have a few faults. He even says “I love you” first. What a guy.

I’m not sure it makes sense to me that Maddie is so anxious to go to her class reunion that she goes to the trouble of finding a stand-in bad boy boyfriend and then that she’s having a near panic attack at the thought of going and then almost has one when she gets there and sees the instigator of her teenage trauma. Why go back at all? Yet the next night she confronts this person with righteous anger. Too fast a turn around for someone with her emotional baggage? The way she eventually deals with him and gets him out of her life is smart fast thinking. You do mention that it took Maddie a long time to allow physical intimacy in her life which makes sense given what happened to her.

At one point Maddie says of herself that “You’re a fucking idiot.” Yep, that about covers it. Maddie truly is a heroine who has a ton of growth to go through before getting her HEA. On the one hand, I applaud your skill in making her such a fuck-up who needs to change and grow. On the other hand, there were plenty of places in the story were I wanted to smack her or shake her or both. Scott truly is a forgiving man. I can forgive his, almost, lone comment to Maddie to “Grow up.” Maddie’s primary reaction to conflict or trouble is to run. She runs from Craig, she runs from Eli, she turns off her phone and basically runs from her mother’s calls and then later on she runs from Scott’s calls. Maddie does a runner a lot of times. And she finally admits to herself that her relocation to NYC years ago was running from her old life. I think, I hope, that by the end of the book, she’s realized this trait and has fixed it.

Maddie’s loathing of defense lawyers might sound extreme but – given how important her brother was to her, and that he was killed when she was at a very impressionable age and that she’s nurtured this feeling for years, I can understand it. But, yes there always has to be one with me, hasn’t she encountered other lawyers over the years to tone down her anger? Even if they’re not defense lawyers…

The way Maddie ultimately bonds with Eli is in keeping with their mutual interest in art and being creative. Maddie’s confusion over how to deal with Eli suddenly being in her life seems realistic for someone who hasn’t seen him in years and has to learn how to relate. Eli ends up playing a pivotal role in getting Maddie to reassess how she feels about what Scott does and begin to see the shades of gray in life.

Maddie starts out wanting to be her pen name alter ego Kathryn West – from the blurb, I had imagined this would be a more slapstick type book but after Maddie’s initial quest for a bad boy to go with her to the reunion, the whole West thing was dropped until almost the end of the book where it does figure into Maddie’s change. Still, for it being so prominent a part of the book description – why the drop for so long? I began the book thinking I was getting mainly lighthearted and flirty fun. Turns out there’s a bunch more angst which is okay but required a mental readjustment from me as things got more involved. In the end, Maddie does seem like she’s on the road to getting over her past and welcoming her future. But I just wish that I could believe that her Mr. Perfect wasn’t a life sized Ken doll. C




REVIEW: Once a Marine by Cat Grant

REVIEW: Once a Marine by Cat Grant

Dear Ms. Grant.

This book is one of Riptide Publishing’s initial releases as it opens its doors for business. I had high hopes for it: contemporary m/m about a member of our Armed Forces kicked out under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and his hero, a writer of m/m romance. Unfortunately, this is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Not actively infuriating — I never yelled at the book, I never rolled my eyes — but just unutterably boring, with cardboard characters, speedbump conflicts, ordinary sex, and no tension whatsoever.

Once_A_MarineCole is a former Marine major kicked out under DADT. He has (relatively mild?) PTSD and the first semester of law school is very very hard (cue tiny violins.) Marc is a waiter at a local diner who writes m/m romance on the side. He’s hoping eventually to be able to earn enough from his writing to make it a full-time job, so he’s very committed to it. Cole has breakfast at the diner, Marc’s hot for Cole because he has a fetish for military men,  Cole leaves his cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone in the diner, Marc takes it back to him, Cole invites him in, Marc gives Cole a blowjob, Cole throws Marc out.

And really, the emotional depth of the actions are just about reflected in that summary.

Okay, so Cole gets mad at himself for being an asshole, goes back to the diner to apologize, Marc agrees to go out with him again, and they both agree to take things slowly. But then Cole gets spooked when they touch in public, so Marc gets mad at the closet case. But then Cole realizes he’s being an asshole and it’s all solved! And then they quickly get together to the point that they’re almost living together. Then they ARE living together. Then Cole’s asshole father calls to say his mother fell down, can he come visit, so Cole goes home to North Carolina, and is shocked at what he finds, because his mother has early-onset Alzheimers that no one told him about. So he stays and casually asks Marc to join him. Marc refuses, Cole breaks up with him. Marc changes his mind, goes out to NC to be with Cole, who tells him maybe not. Cole still wants them to be together, but he can’t ask Marc to give up his life. He sends Marc home, eventually goes back himself, and…oh who cares?

Honestly, every barrier is treated like a speedbump. Cole has PTSD! Marc whines him into going to see a psychologist, so that’s all taken care of. ::dusts hands:: Cole’s parents are falling apart and Cole has to be with them, even though his father hates that he’s gay and refuses to get help for his wife. Cole asks Marc to move to NC because he has no idea how long he’ll be there, Marc says no, Cole breaks up with him, Marc changes his mind, Cole changes his mind. Each one of these steps is maybe a conversation. That’s it. Seriously! For example: Marc chucks it all, goes to NC, meets Cole’s father, who throws him out, which Marc just accepts. Marc tells Cole his dad will just have to get used to him:

“Marc, you don’t get it,” Cole said slowly. “He’s an old-school Marine with a very set way of looking at the world. Everything’s either black or white to him. Right or wrong. If he won’t even accept his own son, what makes you think he’ll accept you?” [Oh, okay, so rolling over and letting him live with his own hate is the way to go? Check!]

Marc stared at him, swallowing another sip of wine. He couldn’t have looked more stunned if Cole had hauled off and slapped him. [Yeah, no shit.]

“Look, as much as I appreciate your offer, I think moving here would be a big mistake.” Scratch that — now Marc couldn’t have looked more stunned. [Uh, yeah, me too. What the hell happened to getting so mad he wouldn't come out that you broke up with him. Over the phone?!] Cole scooped up his hand, cradling it between both of his. “Sooner or later you’ll start resenting me for making you leave your friends and your job and your mom behind. [You couldn't have thought of this BEFORE asking him to move? And then breaking up with him because he said no for all of these perfectly valid reasons you're now quoting back to him as if you thought of them first?] I love you, Marc, and I want you to be happy. But believe me, you’ll be miserable here. I don’t even want to be here. I’d give my left nut to get on a plane back to California with you tomorrow.” [So...why'd you ask in the first place? Why no apology for asking?]

“Why don’t we leave your left nut where it is, okay?” [Oh, har har. Humor!] There was that crooked smile he loved so much, and Marc’s comforting arms wrapped around him, pulling him back down beside him. “I like knowing where I can find it. And all your other parts, too.”

He carded his fingers through Marc’s dark curls [wow, I got REALLY tired of this image -- find another way to say "ran his fingers through his hair" please], inhaling the faint piney scent of his shampoo. “Go home and take care of Thomas. I’ll be back to see you when I can.”

“Still think it’ll be a few months?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. But I’ve got a feeling we should get ready for the long haul.”

“All right.” Marc sighed.

They lay there in silence for a while.

And that’s it! That’s the sum total of their conversation. REALLY? Marc came all the way across the country because Cole asked on a whim and then broke up with him when Marc said no, and then Cole completely changes his mind, and Marc says “all right” and that’s it! Can we have a little more emotional affect between these two men?

No, apparently not.

This book could have been amazing. Cole could have been deep and fascinating. He’s never had a boyfriend before, doesn’t know how to treat one, doesn’t know how to believe that he himself deserves a relationship. He misses the Marines, hates law school. Except…nothing’s dealt with beyond mentioning it, let alone examining it. Marc actually writes a story that matches their story, as they’re living it, but again, it’s just mentioned. There’s no THERE there, nothing insightful, nothing interesting, nothing beyond, “ooh, a writer and a Marine! Nifty!” Nothing about a writer having insights about what’s happening to him, or meta-commentary about his own story, or…anything.

(And that’s leaving aside the ridiculousness about how Cole’s parents could not have been living in the same house in Raleigh NC his whole life if his father had actually spent 30 years in the Marines, because there are no Marine bases in Raleigh and they would have moved around more than that anyway. But whatever…)

Anyway, it didn’t take long to read this story because plot points was all it was. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading anything else you write if this is the level of your story-telling ability.

Grade: D

Best regards,


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