Five works by Serenity Woods

This review was originally published at

Seven Sexy Sins  

A few weeks ago, Ruthie Knox was raving about this book on Twitter so I decided to give it a whirl. I’m glad I did. Seven Sexy Sins is a bawdy, diverting read that skims the surface of real emotion just enough to make one care for its characters. Faith Hillman is, though only twenty-two, a successful writer for a New Zealand magazine and web-site. (Her column was recently voted “the best editorial on women’s matters in the southern hemisphere.”) Her latest topic: spicing up women’s sex life. As she explains it to her friends,

I’m going to call it ‘Seven Sexy Sins’. I’m going to base it on the seven original sins, with each one relating to a ‘sexy sin’. The idea is that your average housewife, who’s struggling in the bedroom, could show her partner the list and work through them with him.”

She’s got a problem, though. Faith’s only had two boyfriends in her life and both of them were fizzlers in the sack; she’s never experienced the delights she wants to turn her readers on to. Her friends–her brother Dan, his girlfriend Eve, and Dan’s two best friends Rusty and Toby–are shocked when Faith shares with them her sorry sexual history. Toby offers himself up as a test case, but it’s clear he’s not really serious–for starters Dan would kill him. However, Rusty, while giving Faith a ride home, says he thinks he’s the answer to her problem. Faith is stunned.

She stared at him, her mouth falling open. “What are you saying, exactly?” “You need to do some research for your articles. And I’m happy to help.” “You want to help me research the seven sexy sins? Personally? Like, not in books?” “Absolutely. Sounds like great fun.” They studied each other for a moment. Eventually he gave a short laugh. “You needn’t look quite so shocked.” His eyes twinkled. “Don’t you find me attractive?” She gave him a wry look. “Of course I do—you know you’re sex on legs. That’s hardly the point.”

Faith not only thinks Rusty’s a hottie; she’s jonesed for him ever since she met him. He kissed her on her 18th birthday and she’d hoped it might lead to something more, but Rusty never made another move–Dan had punched his lights out and warned him to stay far away from his little sis–and Faith has seen Rusty as off-limits ever since. When he offers up his gorgeous body for her use, Faith realizes she’d be crazy to say no and she doesn’t. She does, however, take steps to protect her heart and her friendship with Rusty. She writes up a contract saying 1) there will be only seven sexual encounters between them (one for each sin), 2) no one is to know about their rendezvous, and 3) they will work to remain friends when their trysts are done. Rusty, amused but game, signs the contract and he and Faith become lovers. 

I liked so much about this novel. Seven Sexy Sins is one of the better friends to lovers tales I’ve read in a while. Rusty and Faith are close friends and their relationship means a great deal to them both. They also care deeply about the others in the circle; their group functions as family for them both. Rusty comes from a long line of abusive alcoholic losers whom he hates and works to distance himself from. Faith’s and Dan’s parents died in a car crash three years ago.  Faith and Rusty constantly weigh the benefits of their own actions–super hot sex, a lot of laughter, and a growing romantic attachment–against the possible damage those actions could do to the cohesion of their group. Everyone in the group is distinctly and compassionately rendered. Dan, in particular, though he comes across as an over-protective jerk at times, is sympathetically portrayed and shows himself to be the sort of big brother any woman would be lucky to have. I appreciated the tension between the joy Faith and Rusty found together and their fear it would ruin the most important relationships in their lives. 

The sex in this book is incinerating and well-written. I enjoyed both the pairing of the sins with the acts Faith picked and the enactment of those acts. (Envy=watching porn, Sloth=oral sex, Gluttony=sensual food applied all over, Pride=mutual strip-teases, Wrath=bondage complete with handcuffs, Greed=as many orgasms as they can fit in a day, Lust=quasi-tantric sex.) Each encounter–and the first few are endearingly awkward as Faith and Rusty figure out who they are as lovers–enriches the growing romance between the two. The more the two make love, the more the two become equals between the sheets–I loved watching Faith discover and revel in her sexual self with Rusty’s unwavering support. Here, Faith experiences the joy of cunnilingus for the first time.

She rested her forehead on her arms. The sensations he was creating were incredible. He caressed her thighs and hips and brought a hand underneath to stroke her, parting her lips with his fingers to access the heart of her sensitivity. He slipped his fingers inside her, deep inside, his thumb joining his lips and tongue in teasing the responsive spot at the top so that she groaned and widened her hips, begging him to take her further. 

So he did, slowly, making it last as long as he could. He drew out her pleasure until in the end he was barely touching her, each little brush of his tongue, graze of his teeth or sucking of his lips making her teeter on the edge of the chasm, until eventually she pleaded for him to let her fall. And so he covered her sweet spot with his warm tongue, slid his fingers back inside her, and held her tightly across the thighs with his other arm as her orgasm exploded within her like fireworks. 

Rusty let her lift herself off him and collapse onto the bed. He looked across at the sliding doors to see the twilight settling, and watched a moth hover around the lamp outside, although it didn’t come in. There were no lights on, but the full moon that hung low in the sky like a Christmas bauble lit the room, and as he turned his head to look at Faith, he saw her skin glowing, luminescent like an oyster shell. She looked as if she were made of marble, each muscle delineated by light and shadow, like a Greek statue of a gracefully reclining woman, sculpted with a careful hand.

The only part of the book I found to be less-engaging is the barrier standing between Faith’s and Rusty’s long-term happiness. (It’s not the dynamics of the group nor Dan’s conviction his friends shouldn’t have sex with his sister. Both of those issues are resolved in measured, interesting ways.) No, the real problem is that Rusty has convinced himself he can never marry and have kids because of his family’s awful track record. Even he knows he’s kinda nutty about this.

Part of him knew how ridiculous he was being. He loved women, and he’d never even spoken harshly to one, let alone mistreated any of his girlfriends. He wasn’t stupid—he knew there was no guarantee he’d react like his father or brother, even if he drank. He hoped he was a fair man, a kind one, a person who hated injustice and unfairness, who worked hard at his job, and who loved his friends. But the thought that Mr. Hyde might be lurking deep within him scared him enough to make him stay alone.

He is pretty stupid about this. As Dan says, when Rusty shares his fear, “You mean Rusty Thorne. One of my best mates. Secondary school teacher, steady job, reliable income. Honest, solid, trustworthy.”  The strength of Rusty’s belief in his possible fucked-up future is hard to understand given how smart he is about everything else. Everyone but Rusty can see he’s the stuff happy families are made of; his repetitive adamant refusal to see himself as he really is frustrated me. 

That said, I liked Rusty and all his self-analysis. This is a book where the reader is given lots of insight into what the lovers are thinking. I often find this tiresome but, in Seven Sexy Sins, that depth of exploration worked.  I had a blast watching Faith and Rusty work through their list of sins and their internal issues. By the time they got to their happy ending, the only thing I really disliked was that the book was over! There was nothing for it but to read another Serenity Woods book… and another… and another. I ended up reading five in all and of the five, Seven Sexy Sins was my favorite. I give it a B+. 

Summer Fling 

My second favorite book by Ms. Woods was Summer Fling. Like all but one of the books of Ms. Woods I read, the story is set in New Zealand, this one in the Bay of Islands.  Summer Fling is really a novella, but it tells a fairly straight forward love story and I wasn’t bothered by its brevity. The hero of this book, Garth Rowland, is an American now living in New Zealand, running a sky-diving business. Garth meets Chloe, a native New Zealander, when she, determined to prove she’s not a wimp, signs up to jump out of one of his planes. It’s clear from the story’s opening lines, Garth finds Chloe quite enticing.

“I should be on top,” the willowy blonde protested. 

She sat on the bench in front of Garth with her back against his chest and her butt nestled between his thighs. 

He stifled a groan. What red-blooded male wouldn’t misconstrue that statement? His brain had been in sex mode since she’d pulled on her jumpsuit. She’d leaned forward and the neck of her T-shirt had gaped to reveal generous breasts only just covered by the cups of her lacy white bra. He’d fought hard to concentrate on her training, too rusty at flirting to make a comment, but now the image of her sitting naked on top of him returned in full force. 

He attached the last clip of his safety harness to the one on her right shoulder and chuckled in her ear. “That’s kind of forward, Chloe, considering we’ve only known each other for thirty minutes. But I’m not going to argue with you.”

Chloe is so terrified she’s almost unable to make the jump but, just before she can pull away, Garth kisses her and the two of them plummet out of the plane. After the two land–safely–Garth asks Chloe to have a cup of coffee. The two talk about Chloe–she’s a control freak because her mom’s bi-polar and made Chloe’s childhood an unstable hell–and Garth makes it clear he’d like to see her again, preferably naked. Chloe shuts him down.

“Garth, I’m not a thrill seeker. And I could never date a guy who was. I want stability and security in my life. I made a pledge to myself years ago that I wouldn’t turn into my mother, and I haven’t changed my mind.”

A week later, however, after running into each other again, they both agree to go to a beach party being thrown by a mutual friend. There the two talk some more–Garth tells Chloe about his tragic past (He was a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan, was imprisoned, escaped and came back to New Zealand to find his wife had left him for another man.)–and Chloe decides to take a risk after all. The two share a very steamy–in more ways than one–encounter in Garth’s tent and, when the party’s over, Chloe goes home with Garth. 

There are, of course, obstacles to their happy ending. Chloe is trying to open up her own chocolate shop–I learned lots about chocolate in this book which was fun–and Garth’s vendetta against the man his wife left him for gets in the way of Chloe’s dream. Even more importantly, Chloe–rather like Rusty–is determined to let her past limit her future. Her feelings for Garth scare the hell out of her and she is sure the best choice is to run away.

“It’s not because I don’t feel anything for you. It’s because I do. I shouldn’t be feeling these emotions, Garth—I’ve only known you a week. And I won’t give in to them and make wild declarations of love, only to find out in a week’s time that we’re totally wrong for each other. I won’t turn into my mother.” 

He gripped her wrists and moved her arms behind her back. She gasped. His mouth was grim, his lips inches from hers, his hazel eyes hot, intense, and for a moment she thought he was going to give into the raging emotion he was obviously feeling and kiss her anyway. Part of her wanted him to. To fight her, to take her anyway, because then it wouldn’t be her fault if it all went wrong. She was desperate to feel his mouth on hers, his hand on her breast, to have him inside her again. 

But he didn’t move. 

Instead, he released her. 

“This isn’t over. I’m telling you now.” She shivered at his possessiveness. “Don’t be like that.” 

“Like what?” He looked out the window for a moment. The muscles bunched at the corner of his jaw as if he’d clenched his teeth. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before looking back at her. “I guess we both have our demons that make it difficult for us to trust in love. And maybe we have to exorcise those demons before we’ll be able to make things work. I’ve got things I have to sort out, things to do with the past, and I don’t want you caught up in them. But you’re the best thing that’s happened to me for a long time, and I’m not taking cowardice as a reason for us not to be together.” 

“I’m not a coward.”

Yes, actually she is and it takes her a while to overcome her fears. It didn’t take too long, however, and by the end of the novella, I believed she and Garth had a good shot at happiness. There really wasn’t anything I disliked about this book, but I didn’t find it as riveting as Seven Sexy Sins. For me, Summer Fling was a charming B read. 

Remember Me 

Remember Me is the most serious of the Woods books I read. It too is a novella and here I felt the brevity of the story was problematic. Its hero, Hamish McIntyre, has an even rougher past than Garth. Hamish was a soldier in the New Zealand Army and, while on duty in Afghanistan, was blown-up by a suicide bomber. He is now missing much of his right leg and his memory of the past fifteen years of his life. He’s returned to his family’s beach house on the west coast of the Northland Island to recover and rebuild his life. There he meets Rose, a woman his brother tells him he was involved with before he left the last time for Afghanistan.

“You met her the day you came home on leave, at a party. Her folks have a beach house somewhere nearby. You brought her back here for a drink. After the party, I went back to Kerikeri, so I only met her briefly. Far as I know, she stayed the night—and every night after that for three weeks. Mum and Dad loved her. So did Brandon.” He patted the boxer’s rump. “But then you had to return to Afghanistan. I don’t know what happened. You told me you didn’t want to talk about it.”

Rose has never gotten over Hamish and, now that he’s back, she inserts herself in his life again. One of the lovely parts of this book is their back story–Rose tells Hamish (and the reader) what happened between them in the past which is both sexy and sad. I struggled more with Hamish and Rose in the present. The conflict that pushed them apart in the past still exists for them now but, this go-round, it’s resolved in the blink of an eye. I liked the bones of their story–and it’s fabulous that a one-legged, amnesic vet is portrayed as decidedly sexually desirable–but I needed more to believe Rose and Hamish could have the happy ending Ms. Woods writes for them. I give their story a C+. 

White Hot Christmas 

It’s possible that I was beginning to burn out on Ms. Woods–this was the last of her books I read–but White Hot Christmas didn’t really work for me. (Jane liked it better than I did. You can read her review here.)  The hero, super-hunky fire fighter Neon (short for Napoleon) Carter, falls for his cousin’s wife’s sister while she’s visiting New Zealand over her Christmas holiday. The heroine, beautiful and brilliant Merle Cameron, is taking a few weeks to escape her miserable life in Southwest England where she’s single, underpaid as a university lecturer in archaeology, and stuck taking care of her demanding, mean mom.  Merle and Neon, in lust from the moment they first saw one another, embark on a passionate affair knowing it has a set end date. They have lots of great sex–and it is great sex, Ms. Woods writes passion well–and, of course, find they want more than the time they have. 

Neon is too faultless a hero for me. He’s gorgeous, smart (which is supposed to be surprising because he’s just a fire fighter–this irked me), the best lover in New Zealand (and maybe in the whole Southern hemisphere), and saves small children and cats with courage and kindness. He’s the best at everything he does–even his parents are flawless. I never cottoned to him. Plus, the stunt he pulls to win Merle’s love at the novel’s end seemed ridiculous and somewhat trashy. I didn’t find him sexy–although he seems like he’d be great to have sex with–I found him predictable. 

I didn’t like Merle much better. For starters, she comes to New Zealand to visit her sister whom she never sees and then she spends all her time with a studly guy. She violates the ‘ho’s before bros rule. She also has sex in the bathroom of her sister’s in-law’s house while his family and Neon’s are in the next room. This threw me–here again, it seemed smutty rather than hot. Lastly, she’s a bit of a martyr and she takes way too long to value herself and Neon. For much of the book, she annoyed me. 

I did, though, enjoy other parts of the story. There’s lots of witty banter in this book between many of the characters and some of it is laugh out loud funny. New Zealand is a character in this book and is described so gorgeously I wanted to emigrate tomorrow. I think if I’d read this book first, I’d have liked it more. It’s a light, fun read. It’s just no Seven Sexy Sins so, for me, it was a C read. 

Stranded with a Scotsman 

Stranded with a Scotsman was my least favorite Woods book. It seemed more like a chapter from a longer, possibly boring, novel.  The couple in it, Ewan Macbeth and Cori Spencer, are stranded in a ten-by-four-foot wooden box during high tide off the coast of Scotland. The two were once involved, her father put an end to it, and neither is really over the other despite the fact Cori is engaged to marry another man. They sit in the box, play a game of Truth or Dare, and discover… well, I’m sure anyone can suss out what they discover. I was actually bored by this book–I never liked Truth or Dare–and thought its premise forced. Part of the problem is it’s just 53 pages long–I had no context for the subtext that infused their interaction and found very little to like in their box. Upon finishing it, I wanted my half an hour back. I give it a D-.

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