Jill's Favorites

Contemporary  —  Romantic Suspense  —  Paranormal  —  Historical  —  Movies  —  TV

 

 

Contemporary Romances


Dream a Little Dream
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Dream a Little DreamLet’s talk Dream a Little Dream. If you haven’t heard of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, you must not be familiar with contemporary romance all-stars, and if you haven’t read this book, you’re missing out. Phillips does a wonderful job creating sassy-mouthed heroines and to-die-for heroes, and Dream is no exception. Many of her characters are players from the fictitious Chicago Stars football team, however, so in some ways it is a departure.

Gabe Bonner is brother to Cal Bonner, Chicago Stars quarterback, and Ethan Bonner, a pretty-boy pastor. They all live in Salvation, North Carolina. This is Gabe’s story (and what a story it is) but the secondary romance between Ethan and his church secretary is dynamite.

Gabe lost his wife and 5-year-old son to a drunk driver two years ago, and he’s been dead emotionally ever since. This is the tortured hero to end all tortured heroes. Get out your hankies, ladies and gents, because Phillips will tug on your heartstrings and never let go. Gabe has been fixing up the old drive-through movie theater outside of town, more for the mind-numbing work than out of any interest in the business. When Rachel Stone shows up on his property with her own 5-year-old son, begging for a job, Gabe turns them away cruelly, unable to face the feelings that well up inside him upon sight of her frail body and sickly-looking boy.

Rachel Stone is the kind of character you can’t help but root for. She’s down, but not out, starving herself to afford the basic necessities for her son, clawing tooth and nail just to survive. Unlike Gabe, she’s a fighter who hasn’t given up on life. When her car breaks down in front of Gabe’s ramshackle drive-through, she has no money, no job, and nowhere else to go. Ignoring his curt dismissal, she starts pulling weeds in the playground outside the snack bar, hoping Gabe will reconsider and hire her on. He doesn’t. When she faints from lack of nutrition and sheer exhaustion, he shoves some vending machine snacks her way and tells her to get lost.

As a last-ditch effort, Rachel offers Gabe her body. She’s bone-thin and worn-out, but he almost agrees, so disturbed by her indefatigable spirit that he’s struck by the perverse longing to break her. It is an intense, pivotal moment for both characters. Rachel knows she no longer can afford the luxury of pride, and Gabe has hit rock bottom in his quest for self-destruction. They both have nowhere to go but up.

Whew! This is emotional stuff. Phillips balances the heartache with a sweet subplot almost as strong as the main story. Gabe’s younger brother Ethan has been celibate since he got “The Call,” (from God, not his publisher, ha ha) but he’s a young, hot-blooded man who struggles with his physical needs and secretly lusts after slutty divorcee types. When his good-girl secretary gets a sexy makeover to catch his attention, he realizes that what he’s been missing has been right under his nose the entire time.

I can’t praise Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or Dream A Little Dream, enough. So damned good it will make you cry.

 

 
Romantic Suspense


Slow Heat in Heaven
by Sandra Brown

Slow Heat in HeavenThis book changed my life. Before Slow Heat in Heaven, I was an ingénue to the world of romantic literature. Sure, I’d read hundreds of category novels and YA romances over the course of my lovelorn adolescence. As a preteen, I’d even been swept up in the saccharine world of Sweet Valley High. Not surprisingly, I considered the genre a lesser art. Like brain candy.

Slow Heat in Heaven converted me from a fan into a fanatic.  Let me go so far as to say that it made me a woman.

After discovering this book, I bought every Sandra Brown novel I could get my hands on. I must have thirty or forty at home, and I still reread them, even the outdated Loveswept Romances where the guys come on so strong you need a can of man-spray to fend them off. Ah, the eighties.

Most of what Brown writes these days is modern, mainstream suspense, but the love story is always satisfying and the hero is always HOT. Nobody does male characters like Sandra Brown, and I mean nobody. Cash Boudreaux from Slow Heat in Heaven is something of a legend. Sensitive, mild-mannered types who give butterfly kisses and whisper sweet nothings need not apply. Brown’s heroes talk dirty.

I ran across a quote that illustrates my point perfectly.  In Chill Factor, one of her more recent titles, two FBI agents are on the trail of a rapist/murderer. The first agent takes one look at a picture of the hero and discounts him as a suspect, muttering, “this is the kind of guy women throw their panties at.” Need I say more?

 

One Summer by Karen Robards

One SummerKaren Robards is another of my favorite authors and One Summer might be my favorite romance novel ever. It’s just so hard to choose!

The reason One Summer works so well is because Johnny Harris is such a dynamic character. At the beginning, he’s surly, suggestive, foul-mouthed, and foul-mannered. Understandable, after spending ten years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

Rachel Grant, his former high school English teacher, (scandalous, I know!) helps him get a job at the local hardware store. Johnny is only a few years younger than Rachel and handsome as sin, but he doesn’t behave like much of a romantic hero. He drinks too much, acts defensive, engages in fistfights, and sleeps with another woman.

As we learn more about his troubled childhood and miserable stint in jail, Johnny begins to grow on us, and on Rachel. He’s been hot for teacher since high school—he used to fantasize about her in class, and continued to do so in his lonely prison cell. Eventually, he cleans up his act and clears his name, proving he’s worthy of Rachel’s love. By the end of the book we also discover that he earned a degree in literature during his time in jail and plans to go on to law school.

Johnny’s marriage proposal, in which he quotes a poem by Robert Burns, is the most touching happily-ever-after in romance novel history, hands down.

Here’s a sample:

My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June.

My love is like the melody that’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonny lass, so deep in love am I,

An’ I will love thee still, my dear, till all the seas gang dry.

Till all the seas gang dry, my dear, and the rocks melt in the sun.

And I will love thee still, my dear, while the sands of life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love, fare thee weel awhile.

And I will come again, my dear, though it were ten thousand mile.

From another guy, such over-the-top romantic flummery might seem ridiculous. Robards makes it work because Johnny Harris is so rough around the edges. Every time I think about him loving Rachel “till all the seas gang dry,” I melt.

 

Hot TargetHot Target by Suzanne Brockmann

Most of Brockmann’s books feature Navy SEALs, and they pack a lot of punch. Her heroes are hard as nails and her heroines are always strong enough to stand up to them. It is with no small amount of surprise that I confess my favorite character from the series is none other than Jules Cassidy, the very manly, very sexy, very gay FBI Agent.

Jules is a secondary character in this novel and several others, but he absolutely steals the show. He shares two kisses with a potential boyfriend in Hot Target and these are the most memorable (and hottest) scenes in the book. I don’t think it’s because I secretly crave guy-on-guy action; for me, great love scenes are all about character development. Jules Cassidy is as strong, as honorable, and as masculine as any of his heterosexual counterparts. I applaud Suzanne Brockmann for creating a stud rather than a stereotype.

 

Force of Nature by Suzanne Brockmann

Force of NatureJules Cassidy is back and better than ever! The continuation of his love affair with tragic movie star Robin Chadwick sent me into an emotional tug of war. On the one hand, I’ve been waiting forever for these guys to get together. On the other, I wanted to take Jules by the shoulders and shake him for being so weak where handsome men are concerned. Robin doesn’t deserve you, Jules! And yet, now that Robin has grown into his manhood, and come to terms with his sexuality…mmm. What a delicious conundrum.

Thankfully, Brockmann put me out of my misery by giving Robin a heroic turn to die for. By the end of the novel, he totally won me over and earned Jules’ love. The last fifty pages of Force of Nature had me on the edge of my seat. It is without a doubt the most tautly paced romantic suspense I’ve ever read.

Oh, and there’s a hetero love story, too. Brockmann weaves more magic with spunky Annie Dugan and smoldering Ric Alvarado, the other main characters who manage to hold their own against Robin, Jules, and company.

Suzanne Brockmann, you rule!

 


Paranormal


Kiss of Midnight
by Lara Adrian

Kiss of MidnightIs Lara Adrian as good as J.R. Ward? Let me go out on a limb and say…maybe.

I was blown away by J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover, the first of the Black Dagger Brotherhood Series. Ward is fierce! Her stories are original, exciting, and ambitious. So why am I showcasing Lara Adrian instead? Because Kiss of Midnight is a beautifully crafted piece of work and she deserves the accolade.

Before I go any further, I must confess that I’m a notorious skimmer with a miniscule attention span. I adore Buffy, but paranormal isn’t my favorite genre, world-building makes my brain hurt, and I don’t want to feel as though I need a degree in demonology to follow the plot.

With Kiss of Midnight, I actually understood, and would be able to explain, if pressed, where the vampires originated, what unique struggles they face, who their enemies are, and why. Lara Adrian had me hanging on her every sentence. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series. I’ve already done my homework!

Gabrielle Maxwell is a lonely photographer whose stark imagery strikes a chord with art lovers and reflects the emptiness inside herself. There’s something missing from her life. Could it be…neck nibbling? One night she tags along with a group of friends to a hot new underground club called La Notte. Disturbed by the sinister ambiance and the hypnotic, drugged-out gyrations of the crowd, she makes her excuses and leaves, only to witness a brutal murder in the alley behind the club. Unable to assist the victim, who is being torn to shreds by a group of toothy, amber-eyed attackers, she acts on instinct, clicking a photo with her cell phone before she flees the scene.

Enter Lucan Thorne, Rogue vampire slayer and a member of the Breed himself. After making mincemeat of the indiscriminate killers who give his kind a bad name, he seeks out Gabrielle, intent on retrieving the damning images from her cell. And maybe sampling a taste of her jasmine-scented blood, if he can persuade the lovely lady to Host him for the evening…

 

Lover Eternal by J.R. Ward

Lover EternalRound two of the paranormal wars goes to Ward—by a landslide. I liked Dark Lover, but I loved Lover Eternal. Ward had me at hello, fire-breathing dragon! She kept me riveted from start to finish, with hilarious dialogue, OMG hot sex scenes, and just enough heart-twisting sentiment to make us all believers in love eternal. Behold the supernatural power of J.R. Ward. I am in awe.

Let me set up a snippet for you:

When Rhage goes into a…well, a rage, he transforms into a scaly, razor-toothed beast with a voracious appetite. We see the first change from Butch’s perspective, a human who is watching the action with another warrior from inside the SUV.

“What the hell is that?” Butch whispered, fumbling to make sure the door was locked.

“Rhage is in a really bad mood.”

The monster let loose another howl and went after the lessers as though they were toys. And it…Good Lord. There wasn’t going to be anything left of the slayers. Not even bones.

Something bounced off the hood of the Escalade. Oh, God, was that a head? No, a boot. Maybe the creature didn’t like the taste of rubber.

In short order, the clearing was empty of lessers. With another deafening roar, the beast wheeled around as if looking for more to consume. Finding no other slayers, its eyes focused on the Escalade.

“Can it get into the car?” Butch asked.

“If it really wants to. Fortunately, it can’t be very hungry.”

“Yeah, well…what if it’s got room for Jello,” Butch muttered.

Here’s a snatch of dialogue from another turning point in the novel, and a much milder transformation, when Mary Luce wakes up in the muted morning light with a sizzling, fanged-out Rhage.

“What…are you?” she choked out.

“No sunlight.  Funky choppers.” He inhaled raggedly. “Take a guess.”

It is so satisfying when a man suffers big for his beloved, and Rhage goes through hell and back for his would-be shellan. Even Ward’s deus ex machina ending, (goddess from a machine?) in which the Scribe Virgin orchestrates the happily-ever-after, rings true because Rhage has earned her favor.

Wild, weird, and fan-freaking-tastic. I have joined the masses and jumped on the Black Dagger Brotherhood bandwagon in a big way.

 

 
Historical Romances


There are so many books in the genre I cherish that I couldn’t possibly include them all. Please forgive me for giving a brief overview of a select few.


The Devil to Pay by Liz Carlyle

The Devil to PayThis book has the best hero-meets-heroine scene in the history of historicals. Sidonie Saint-Godard, an elegant young widow by day, notorious Black Angel by night, lures the Marquess of Devellyn to an upstairs room where she proceeds to tie him up and rob him of all his worldly possessions. It’s hilarious, sexy, and unforgettable. We might feel sorry for poor Devellyn if he wasn’t such a hopeless scoundrel. In another scene he confesses to Sidonie (before he becomes aware of her scandalous alter ego), “I don’t fare well with women. It’s my own fault, of course. I’m irresponsible. I drink to excess, gamble to excess, and sometimes I brawl. I never remember special occasions. And I very often go to sleep before they’ve…well, never mind that.”

Devellyn is very much a typical rake, but he has a humility most of his ilk lack. The honesty of his character, and Carlyle’s storytelling, is refreshing. The Devil to Pay, like most of Carlyle’s books, resonates with you long after the story is finished.

 

The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

The Raven PrinceI like my heroes handsome and charming as much as the next gal, so The Raven Prince was an unexpected delight. Edward de Raaf isn’t exactly a beast, but he is a bad-tempered boor with harsh features and pockmarks. Instead of subjecting his foul self to more discriminating women, he pays for his pleasure at a London brothel. When his enterprising secretary, lonely widow Anna Wren, finds out where he’s going, she dons a mask and arranges to be his entertainment for the evening.

Hoyt’s romance sizzles because she makes Edward irresistible despite his less-than-perfect face and personality. The tension between highborn de Raaf and his off-limits employee is palpable; every furtive glance swells with restrained longing. Although Edward refuses to personalize the encounter at the brothel by kissing his mystery lady on the lips, the scenes are as passionate as they are illicit. Titillating, but never tawdry, The Raven Prince is the best debut novel I’ve ever read.

 

Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James

Desperate DuchessesThe first time I picked up an Eloisa James novel, I wondered why she spent so much time developing secondary characters. I prefer that my hero and heroine be on almost every page. Together, preferably. James must weave some kind of magic, because I’ll happily go along with her on any tangent, and before I know it, I’m hooked into the subplot. Desperate Duchesses was no different. I thoroughly enjoyed the main love story between Damon and Roberta, but I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen between estranged spouses Jemma and Elijah!

I love, love, love, the idea of a husband and wife falling for each other, but these two have so much going against them. Both have been unfaithful. It seems Jemma caught Elijah with his mistress (on top of the desk in his office, no less) shortly after they married. What an unforgivable cad! And yet, from Elijah’s point of view, there was no comparison between an awkward coupling with his inexperienced young wife and the “bouncing eroticism” of his mistress. Is this a good excuse for infidelity? Of course not! Even so, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Eloisa James will find a way to end my suffering and get these star-crossed lovers back together.

 

 

 
Movies


Tully

TullySome movies are like romance novels on the big screen, and this little-known indie flick is one of them. Look elsewhere for edge-of-your-seat action or independent film wackiness, because this is a no-frills story about a couple of farm boys in a languid Nebraskan town.

Tully is a twenty-something womanizer who works hard on his daddy’s farm by day and plays hard at night. His younger brother Earl is sensitive and reflective, Tully’s polar opposite. Their mama ran off with another man when the boys were little, and Tully doesn’t seem to realize that he’s seeking to fill the empty space inside him with an ever-changing roster of willing females.

Unsurprisingly, Tully always keeps the ladies at an emotional distance. In one memorable scene, after he gets together with a stripper on the hood of her car, she says, “You’re pretty good at that, for a young’un.” To which he replies, tongue firmly in cheek, “Aw, shucks.”

Enter Ella, requisite Good Girl who’s Back in Town interning for the local vet. Ella is the perfect romantic heroine—intelligent, freckled, redheaded, and lovely in an understated way. She’s also a friend of Earl’s and the kind of woman Tully doesn’t usually mess around with.  Tully befriends Ella and hooks up with her anyway, running scared after their awkward, emotionally charged sexual encounter.

Where most films would treat Tully’s promiscuity as a male rite of passage, this one shows us that men also sleep around for all the wrong reasons. Hilary Birmingham’s directorial debut is evocative, heart-wrenching, and superbly executed.

 

Dune

DuneEvery time I watch this movie I turn into a total sci-fi geek. I imitate the various characters, recite lengthy bits of dialogue, and pretend that I have mastered the weirding ways of battle. Water of life, anyone?

Sting in DuneDune is epic, over the top, and completely insane! The whole movie is like an acid trip, from the disgustingly putrid Vladimir Harkonnen to the blue-within-blue eyes of the Fremen and the ridiculous sand worm special effects. In a word, it’s awesome.

And where else can you find Sting wearing this aerodynamic loincloth?

 

 

The Blair Witch ProjectThe Blair Witch Project

Go ahead and laugh, but I used to be a horror movie junkie and this low-budget gem still scares the freak out of me. My husband and I are avid campers so I know how spooky the woods can be. With little more than snapping twigs, odd piles of rocks, and hanging tree branches, the filmmakers create a chilling ambiance. The Blair Witch Project plays upon the most frightening aspect of horror: our own imaginations.

 

A History of ViolenceA History of Violence

This movie probably shouldn’t be on my list of favorites, but I do admire it. Shockingly violent and unabashedly sexual, A History of Violence taps into a secret housewife fantasy: your husband is not the man you think he is. Viggo Mortensen explodes on screen as a deceptively placid café owner, pouring coffee one moment and pulverizing some guy’s face the next. The chemistry between him and Maria Bello is scorching.

 

The TerminatorThe Terminator

Not an obvious choice, for a romance novelist, and yet this film is wildly romantic. Reese travels through time for Sarah. He falls in love with her photograph. They spend only one night together, and they have to make it last a lifetime. If you’re into skin, look for Arnold in all of his pre-gubernatorial glory during the opening sequence.

 

Rear WindowRear Window

No one does suspense like Alfred Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart’s recuperating photographer looks out at the seedier aspects of life from behind the glass and through the lens while confined to a wheelchair. This film makes every moviegoer an instant voyeur, an amateur sleuth, and a helpless invalid.  There are so many layers to Hitchcock’s genius I can’t begin to sort through them all. A must-see.

 

ParenthoodParenthood

I loved this movie before I had kids. Now I love it even more. Parenthood is a sentimental look at family dynamics told through interwoven stories with a large, all-star cast. Steve Martin’s stressed-out dad is poignant and hilarious. Every scene is top notch, but the exchanges between Jason Robards and his deadbeat son are especially effective, teaching a lesson no parent wants to learn: sometimes our children disappoint us.

 

Gael Garcia BernalHonorable Mention

Anything with Gael Garcia Bernal. If you like subtitles, check out Amores Perros, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, or Y Tu Mama Tambien. All are Oscar-nominated.

Paul WalkerPaul Walker

Sadly, none of his movies rank as my favorites, so this picture of him is totally gratuitous. If you want more, I recommend Pleasantville.  His scenes with Reese Witherspoon are the keenest.

 

 


 
TV Shows


Man vs. Wild

Man vs. WildMan vs. WildBear Grylls is the craziest, manliest man ever. This outdoor adventurer teaches you how to survive in the wilderness in ways you’d never imagine. I don’t know if it’s the way he eats scorpions, his willingness to drink his own urine, or his pasty-pale, rock-hard, overexposed Englishman’s belly, but I’m mesmerized by him. Bear is easy on the eyes and his accent is music to my ears. My husband might like him even more than I do.

 

The Hills

The HillsNow here’s a show my husband would rather boil himself in oil than watch. Yes, it’s girly, glittery, and inane. I could make the argument that by showcasing superficiality, The Hills makes a profound statement about what it means to be rich and 21 in LA.

Oh, who am I kidding? The Hills doesn’t make any profound statements. Most of its characters can’t even string an intelligible sentence together. And yet, their petty rivalries are oddly compelling. I relish every moment that Heidi comes across as a lovely, lonely villain. I live to hate Audrina’s Bob Marley wanna-be boyfriend. And I so admire Lauren’s commitment to making enemies.

With a glamorous Hollywood backdrop, pretty people in good lighting, and a lot of clever editing, this show makes something fabulous out of virtually nothing.

 

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