O Brave New World, That Has Such Books In It

Official blurb:

The woman of his dreams…with the secret agent of his nightmares

Alix Gordon is a woman who doesn’t take life too seriously. What’s the fun in that? So when she stumbles across occult software that can bring any computer image to life, she conjures up lots of awesome outfits and accessories. And then, on one drunken, horny night, she conjures up Sir Kendall, the sexy TV ad spy . . . who looks exactly like Paul Reinhardt, the hot martial arts teacher who kicked her out of class a few years ago.

Fighter Paul Reinhardt has good reason to hate Sir Kendall, the character he brought to life to land a part in a TV ad; he’d do anything to forget him. A cross country road trip seems just the thing . . . until Paul finds himself inexplicably drawn to Minnesota and is shocked to discover Sir Kendall – in the flesh – with the girl he’d once loved from afar. He barges into Alix and Sir Kendall’s love nest, determined to stop the madness – somehow.

But is super spy Sir Kendall transforming into something more dangerous anyone can imagine? And what will Sir Kendall do when Paul and Alix finally give into their mad lust for each other?

Carolyn Crane describes her new novel, Mr. Real, as “a paranormal romantic suspense spy tale mashup.” Which gives you an idea of how unusual the book is, but barely scratches the surface of how interesting and wonderful an experience it is. At least, that’s what I found.

I quote Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the title of this review because I truly believe that in the old world of traditional publishing, I would never have had the privilege of reading this novel. It is too unusual for most traditional agents or editors to take a chance on — it belongs firmly in the realm of popular fiction, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any specific genre. It’s paranormal romance, for sure, but not the paranormal that most readers expect. Not only are there no vampires or shifters, there aren’t really special powers either. There’s magic, but it is mostly an external influence on the characters, which is why some of the book feels like romantic suspense — with other-world villains. And while the specifc paranormal elements make the book absolutely unique, to me the dominant flavor was contemporary romance, the kind that Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Victoria Dahl, among others, write so well, the romance of the “unlikeable heroine.” So hip-hip-hooray for the digital age and the growth of self-publishing, which allows an author to put a book this unique out there to find its audience.

Alix, the book’s heroine, is definitely difficult to love. (I liked her, but then I often enjoy heroines labelled “unlikeable” by other readers.) She is variously described as “free-spirited” (the author’s web site), “a woman who doesn’t take life too seriously” (the official book blurb), “unconventional” and “a wild-child” (quotes from other authors). She’s all of those things; she is also insecure, with low self esteem, and that goes a long way in explaining (not necessarily justifying) the immature behavior that I think some readers will find too annoying to get past. Which is unfortunate, because the beauty of this book for me is largely in Alix’s growth — as she gains a sense of self worth, she finds the strength to make better choices. She undergoes a metamorphosis that wouldn’t be possible if she hadn’t started out the way she does.

And then there’s Paul, the hero. A martial arts fighter, “Hardass Paul” (Alix’s nickname for him) has a complex past and a lot of baggage. He was having trouble keeping it hidden even before Alix started playing around with forces she didn’t really understand, but once she meddles, it becomes impossible for Paul to avoid facing his personal demons. But Alix turns out to be the key to Paul’s victory over his past; they help each other, and each makes the other stronger, which is the kind of romance I most appreciate.

This sounds like pretty serious stuff, and it is. This book deals in themes that are powerful and that rang very true to me, about how our childhood molds us, and how imprisoned we can be within our own limited view of who we are and what we’re capable of, and how the love of someone we admire and respect can be a key to seeing ourselves as being worthy of love and respect. But part of the joy of reading Mr Real is that it’s a crazy, fun plot, full of surprising twists and turns, so much so that you almost have to put the book down in places to really think through the emotional growth the characters are experiencing. Seriously, read the blurb: fictional characters brought to life! lookalikes with differing agendas! magic computers! It’s like a comic book in places, with way-out-there elements that eventually all make sense. I was in awe of Crane’s skill by the end of the book, because everything fit together so well.

I don’t think this book is for everybody (is any book?), but I loved it. I hope other readers interested in something different will give this book a try.

Hey Dude, Where’s My Bribe?

It has come to my attention that I have been cheated. Apparently there are authors out there paying for good reviews of their books. Well, I have given glowing reviews to a number of books lately. The following authors should be contacting me about payment:
Sherry Thomas
Jo Goodman
Gwen Hayes
Zoe Archer
Elyse Snow
Carolyn Jewel
Courtney Milan, Carolyn Jewel and Sherry Thomas — okay, some authors are on here TWICE! That’s extra gratitude owed.

I have also been informed that there’s a conspiracy among traditional publishers to discredit self-published authors by paying reviewers to give SPA’s books poor reviews. (Did you follow that? It took me a few minutes.) How do I get on this gravy train? Where do I sign up? Because I have DNF’ed some pretty piss-poor self-published books in the last few months, and if someone wants to pay me to actually review them, I could get on board with that. And let’s be creative — how about some of you self-publishing authors get together, pool your resources, and pay me to write bad reviews of the traditionally published books that I DNF’ed in the same period? Because yeah, there are some stinkers coming out of both ends of the publishing pool. I’d finish them and write about them for a price, but otherwise they just aren’t worth my time.

The lovely and talented Carolyn Jewel (yes, whose name appears twice in the above list) has been bartering the contents of her junk drawer for reviews; I’m sure the collective junk of a pool of authors could be pretty impressive. So let’s hear some offers! I mean, if Konrath says that sock puppets and paid reviews are okay, and the Bully Brigade has confirmed the existence of this publishing conspiracy, then who am I to hold to some ridiculous standard of honesty? Bring on the bribes and put those checks in the mail! And feel free to leave contact info in the comments if you want me to send you my PayPal address.

TBR Challenge Post: Paranormal Romance

For the suggested theme of romantic suspense or paranormal romance, I dug out Queen of Dragons, the third book in Shana Abé’s drákon series, This book languished in my digital TBR for no real reason I can determine. I liked the two books before it, but I sort of forgot that I had this one. Part of that is the cover, or lack thereof — when I bought it, it didn’t have the gorgeous cover pictured here, but instead had a generic cover.Not very exciting, right? But it popped up in Calibre when I was looking for something paranormal that I’d had for a while without reading, because I had sorted by author. So I guess that last-name-A thing works, but so does putting good covers on e-books.

As for the book itself, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. It definitely has middle-book syndrome; the main romantic couple gets together, but very little else about the overall story arc is resolved, and there are as many questions raised as answered, if not more. The main character, Maricara, is a good strong heroine, and her Eastern European background makes her stand out from the English drákon (a magical race, some of whom can turn into dragon form and/or smoke form). But her strength also limits her choices; she is Alpha, the ruler of her people, and once she meets Kimber, the English Alpha, it is a foregone conclusion by everyone that they will mate. Unfortunately Maricara doesn’t have complete control of herself at night, and there’s some suspicion that she has killed prize animals (at least) while sleep-turning. Sort of — honestly, that part confused me, since some of what she’s accused of, but not all, turns out to be the work of the bad guys hunting the drákon. Cynically, it seemed to me to be a convenient plot device for Kimber to lock her up or blindfold her at key moments in the book, since her sleep-turning problem wasn’t really solved or explained by the end of the novel.

I thought Kimber was a little boring; clever, responsible, capable, and just occasionally resentful at being thrust into the Alpha role because his parents ran off looking for his little sister (heroine of the previous book). Every time I thought that resentment might lead to something really interesting, he got all responsible again — great for the survival of his people and all, but too close to perfect for me to find him interesting. And of course there’s no need to judge whether he and Maricara really belong together, because it’s clear that the chemistry between them is irresistible. Almost “fated mate,” which is always a difficult device for me.

Abé writes well; the characters come alive, the action scenes are vivid, and the plot isn’t predictable. I probably should have read this book sooner, with the earlier ones fresh in my mind, and I’m definitely going to read the next two books soon, to find out what happens with all the plot threads left dangling at the end of this one. (Plus there’s Rhys, Kimber’s younger (and more interesting) brother, who’s the hero of the next book.) I recommend this series, but not this book by itself.