32AA, by Michelle Cunnah

>> Thursday, March 31, 2005

I'm fast becoming a chick-lit convert. I had a lot of fun with 32AA (extras), by Michelle Cunnah.

The Emma Taylor theory about men:

The Ionic Bonder: charms you, (i.e. makes you fall in love with him), dispels his extra electron (i.e., has sex with you), then ruthlessly dumps you.

The Noble Gas: does not bond with anyone.

The Covalent Bonder: permanently bonds with you (i.e., falls in love with you) and totally completes your outer electron field. The perfect man!

On her thirtieth birthday Emma Taylor expects (a) an engagement ring from Adam, her wonderful live-in boyfriend, and (b) a promotion at work.

But when Ionic Bonder Adam ditches her for his older, full-breasted mistress (good-bye Tiffany ring and Manhattan loft!), and the jerk at work steals her promotion, Emma swears off men for ever...until she meets Jack, the classic Ionic Bonder. Or is he?
I had a blast reading 32AA. I zipped right through it in one sitting, laughed, almost cried, and finished it with a smile on my face. And immediately gave it to my sister :-) My grade: a B+.

I just loved Emma. She's smart and fun and a genuinely nice person, without being a pushover. I liked that she had quite a bit of bitchiness in her, and the way she got her revenge on that pig Adam was great.... a reasonable type of revenge, not going into crazy stalker territory, but not letting him walk scott-free, either. I think the best was at work, simply because it was so smart of her. She drove the guy nuts, all while not giving him any reason to complain about her behaviour.

And I adored her group of friends. They were *good* friends, supportive and always there, and Emma was a good friend to them. I liked that each of them had kind of their little story in the book, a kind of mini subplot (even their own romance, in the case of her two single friends), which made them even more interesting. I thought it was great how Cunnah was able to balance the space devoted to them and to Emma's story. The friends' subplots were just long enough. I think my favourite was brilliant Rachel, with her bitchy attitude and potty mouth.

The weakest part of the book was actually the romance. There's just not enough interaction between Emma and her love interest (I won't name him, as this development comes quite late, but don't read the back cover blurb if you don't want to get spoiled). He seems to be a nice guy, and does some very nice things, but this was somewhat offset by the fact that he was very much a slut, which is quite a bit of a turn-off to me.

Has anyone read the sequel, Call Waiting? For some reason, as much as I adored 32AA, I'm not in any particular hurry to go buy the other book.


Under the Wishing Star, by Diane Farr

>> Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Under the Wishing Star, by Diane Farr, was one of the books kindly sent to me by Susan K., and I couldn't wait to start reading.

Widower Malcolm Chase wants to dismiss his daughter's cruel governess and hire kind Natalie Whittaker instead. Natalie fears it would be unseemly for a woman of her station to move into a bachelor's household. The obvious solution? Marriage. But Natalie desires a union of love, not convenience-a wish that just might come true when fate gives her feminine wiles a fighting chance...
As in all the Farr books I've read so far, UTWS has a to-die-for hero and a less wonderful heroine. A B.

Malcolm is just lovely, a sweet, honourable, genuinely nice man, with a knack for the most romantic gestures. For all that I love romance novels, I don't particularly like most of the stuff popularly considered romantic, as most of it is much too schmaltzy for me. But the kinds of things Malcolm did... ::sigh:: Oh, yes! :-D Throwing a party just so that you can dance with someone... oh, wow! And while it wasn't really a romantic gesture on Malcolm's part, I especially liked the scene of the first kiss. The things going through his brain while they kissed put a silly grin on my face.

Unfortunately, I didn't particularly care for Natalie. My main problem was her "I'll marry someone who loves me or I won't marry" stance. Ok, I was ok with the fact that she would like to marry for love. After all, hey, I'd want that too, and Farr even makes it clear that she knows most people are not like that. The thing is, she just acts stupidly about it.

I mean, even before she was given an ultimatum by her brother, it was pretty stupid for her to refuse Malcolm's offer, since she was fully conscious that the odds were high she wouldn't be meeting anyone elegible where she was, and that her options were basically to either live all her life with her unbearable brother and his stupid wife or marry a man who she loved and who was, at the very least, extremely fond of her. And even when the choice was between the latter and living on the streets, she doubted. Then there was the way she wouldn't believe Malcolm when he told her his feelings, even though he has given her absolutely no reason to think he'd behave so manipulatively. She realizes this same thing long afterwards, but the damage was done.

Still, for all that there were times I wanted to slap Natalie, the romance did work for me. I loved how Malcolm and Natalie became friends and confidantes before anything more physical developed, and I loved that there were no extraneous suspense subplots and the focus was on the character development. I even didn't mind the conflict all that much, even though I usually lose patience with having both hero and heroine madly in love but refusing to tell or show the other so as not to influence or pressure them.

I think I would have liked love scenes that were a bit more detailed. Sometimes very subtle descriptions, as the ones here, work fine, but Farr had developed such wonderful sexual tension that it felt like a lack of payoff, having the bedroom door more or less banged in my face (or rather, I'd describe it more as having the hero and heroine burrowing under the covers while doing it, so all I could see were the bedcovers moving around).

Susan sent me the book which comes after this one, Under a Lucky Star, too, so I'll probably be getting to it soon. I loved Derek in UTWS, so I want to see if I like him even more than Malcolm in his own book!


Thief of Hearts, by MaryJanice Davidson

Thief of Hearts is an earlier MaryJanice Davidson, published by Ellora's Cave in 2001. Would this be one of those "inferior" works she mentioned in her interview at AAR? If so, I beg to differ!

Never a dull night in the ER for Dr. Jared Dean, especially when he sees the woman of his fantasies beating the crap out of the largest man he has ever seen, only to have her escape before he even gets to ask her name.

Kara realizes the gorgeous doc is now in danger of retribution from the Godfather wannabe, so she immediately assigns herself the arduous task of guarding the hard body of Dr. Dean until she can figure a way out of the mess.

Jared is only too happy to accommodate the woman of his dreams, even if he doesn't take her seriously. Anything to have her close at hand... and in his bed
This was a very fast, sexy read, and what it lost in depth of characterization, it won in zippy fun pace. And still, for all that it was much shorter than books like A Royal Treatment, it had much more heart and emotion. A B.

This is the closest I've read to a story I've long wanted to read. I love role reversal stories, and I've really wanted to read one in which the hero was the regular guy who finds himself in danger and the heroine was the one who kicked ass doing it.

Go read Thief of Hearts if you don't believe it can be done without emasculating the hero and making the heroine a cold bitch. Jared was a sweetie, and the fact that Kara was better than he was at beating up bad guys, picking locks and stuff like that simply didn't make him any less strong and masculine. I adored his sense of humour and his goofiness and the way he fell for Kara like a ton of bricks because of the way she kicked ass!

Kara had some things I liked and others that I didn't. I liked how she was so perfectly able to take care of herself and did dangerous things without ever crossing into TSTL territory, and how she definitely grows throughout the book and works out some of her problems. What I didn't like was that MJD tried a bit too hard to make her sympathetic... she steals only from creepy, disgusting bad guys, gives all the money to charity and often engineers the capture of the baddies by the police. It really made her sound idiotic when she'd insist she'd done such baaaaad things, no respectable man could want her.

The scene where she decides to show Jared exactly who she is and what she does, fully expecting that he'll recoil in horror, was just dumb. Ok, she steals a valuable necklace from guys operating a kiddie porn ring, sets off the alarms so that the police will come and find some of the photos strewn around, then goes and donates the necklace to a home for retired prostitutes... and she expects Jared to be disgusted by her? Riiiight....

Ok, anyway, except from this, and from wanting to know a bit more about Kara and what pushed her to live the life she lived, I really enjoyed the book. Jared and Kara had great chemistry. I liked them together in and out of bed, and yep, especially out of bed. Some of the love scenes here are truly steamy, especially those narrated from Jared's POV, because he's just so into it. Kara too, but Jared's complete obsession with Kara was even better to read. The only love scene I didn't like was the very last one, which features something I'm not crazy about, but have enjoyed reading on occasion. Here, I'm afraid, the scene just didn't work. It was completely out of character, especially on Jared's part, and just icky, IMO. The other scenes more than make up for it, though.

Luckily, I think I've got a few other MJDs in my TBR, including other early works!


A Wedding Bouquet, an anthology

>> Monday, March 28, 2005

I'm not a very big Trad Regency fan, but I do like Carla Kelly's books quite a bit, so the A Wedding Bouquet anthology, which contains a new story by her, as well as stories by one author I've read before and 3 I haven't was irresistible.

The first story, Something Old, by one of those new-to-me authors, Patricia Oliver, was a very, very bad start to the book. A D-.

The story starts as wallflower Jane Sutherland, age 19, starts out her second Season. She becomes infatuated at first sight with a handsome rake, and her married friend introduces them and presses the man into writing his name on Jane's dance card for a dance he then never claims.

Fast-forward to 10 years later, when Jane is a spinster living in the country and rescues a man who's had an accident in his carriage and takes him into her house. Unbeknownst to her, the man is obviously the same rake who broke her heart all those years before.

Why so bad? Ok, where shall I start? Jane is a twit, and Martin is one of the most disgusting, hateful, MEAN heroes I've read lately. The cruel way he ignores Jane in the beginning is bad enough, but I really started hating him when he was laid up in her house and behaved like the worst kind of boor. He was rude, ungrateful and demanding to these nice women who'd saved his life and were now waiting on him hand and foot, and I wanted to strangle him every time he opened his mouth. Plus, I hated that he's the type of rake who despises the women he does his raking with ;-), which is something I truly detest.

It was all quite preposterous... why he'd behave so obnoxiously, why he'd hidden his identity when he woke up and then the way he changed from cynical rake to a man in love made no sense. The whole story was just horrendous and painful to read.

Luckily, after this first aberration of a short story, came Something New, by Carla Kelly, and it couldn't have been more different. A B+.

After Napoleon's abdication, artilleryman Major John Redpath accompanies one of his subordinates to England, having agreed to stand up as the best man in his wedding. They take with them Marie Deux, a four-year-old little girl found among the ruins of a defeated French artillery and adopted by the entire battallion (please forgive any mistakes in military terminology. I'm just not familiar with them and I forget them as soon as I read them).

John and his friend, Ed, are supposed to leave Marie Deux at an orphanage on the way, but don't have the heart for it, so they arrive at the bride's house with the child still in tow. The bride and her mother are shocked and extremely pissed off, and they demand the little girl be got rid of. The only one with an ounce of charity, who doesn't consider the girl's presence shameful or dirty, is Audrey Winkle, the bride's sister, widow of a sea captain. Major Redpath is immediately captivated by her.

This was a wonderfully sweet story, sweet in the very best sense of the word. I adored John Redpath as much as I despised the hero in the previous story. This is a kind, honourable man, whose lack of palish is tremendously appealing. At 36, he's spent the previous 20 years engaged in war all around the world, so he hasn't the slightest idea of how to go about doing something about his feelings for Audrey.

Audrey's a lovely character, too. So different from her obsessed-with-appearance mother and sister (though, I have to say, having a sister who's just started planning her wedding, I have some inkling of the amount of work organizing one takes, so I do understand their determination that nothing shall ruin their effort). She's a widow who had a good, if very short, marriage, and after eight years she's definitely ready to marry again, as she misses both companionship and sex, which she thought was a lot of fun.

She and John dance a little bit around each other, but they are so attracted that this soon shines through. It was a lovely story, and I was even fond of little Marie Deux, with her solemn, serious ways.

Something Blue, by the second of the new-to-me authors in this anthology, Patricia Rice, was pretty blah. A C-.

When Melanie's sister leaves Damien standing at the altar in their secret wedding, melanie proposes that they pretend to be married. According to her, this will solve both their problems: he needs money, and she has it. Meanwhile, she has a crippled leg and her parents have her buried in the country, and don't allow her to go to London and live!, as she wants. So off they go to London and stay at the house Melanie has inherited from her aunt, while pretending to be wed.

The huge conflict here is simply that while Damien wants to marry Melanie in truth, both because he's falling for her and because he does need the money, Melanie can't bring herself to say yes, as she wants to, because she's lame and can't saddle a man who's an earl! with a crippled wife.

I felt like a bitch for it, but I couldn't stand Melanie. She's oh-so-kind, oh-so-beautiful (while believing to be hideous, of course. Can't have a virtuous heroine who knows she's beautiful), oh-so-maternal and oh-so-determined to martyr herself to her leg. The author makes the mistake Màili describes in last month's column Beyond the Halo at Romancing the Blog: she makes her character all about her disability. Her leg was her personality.

Damien was a little more interesting, but not particularly well characterized, either. Plus, I never got why he was so desperate to marry for money that he'd take on someone like Jane, Melanie's sister. I mean, I don't mind a heroine marrying for interest in a historical, but a hero is more problematic. No, it's not because I have some kind of old-fashioned idea that the man has to be the provider. It's simply that while women had few respectable and not totally unpleasant ways to earn a living for themselves and a family, a man, especially someone with obvious connections, like an earl, would have a much better chance. I simply didn't see any evidence that Damien had even considered this. And if he had to marry for money, why was someone as unpleasant as Jane his only choice? Again, he was an earl, and not particularly disreputable either. No nice merchant's daughter he could marry?

Anyway, this wasn't an offensive story, as the first one, but not at all good, either.

The fourth story was by an author I'd tried and liked before, Edith Layton. Something Blue is a very short story, barely 50 pages long, and while nice, it was pretty forgettable, utterly average. A C.

June and Lawrence meat at a ball and were soon in love and engaged. It's a wonderful match for June, but now, barely two weeks before the wedding, the entire ton is abuzz about how the groom seems blue about something.

It's a bit of a pointless story. June and Laurie talk and after a couple of tries, he finally tells her what is bothering him, something completely unrelated to their relationship and which doesn't threaten it in the least. Both June and Laurie seem to be nice people, but we didn't get to know them much at all. All we know is that they're crazy about each other and that both are gorgeous but believe their looks inadequate compared to their family.

And that's it! Hardly enough to make a story interesting.

The last story, closing the wedding rhyme, was "... And a Sixpence for her Shoe, by Anne Barbour. Not only had I not read this author before, I can't remember ever hearing her name (of course, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Trads, as I mentioned above). And yet, this was the best story in the anthology, after the Carla Kelly one. Given the quality of the three others, that's not much to say, but still! A C+.

Drew and Catherine had been unofficially betrothed by their families since childhoow. Right before he went off to war, Drew, who, as far as I can tell basically liked the idea of leving behind a a fiancée who'd worry about him and send him letters, decided he'd like to make the engagement official. Catherine, however, fancied herself in love with someone else, so the scene degenerated into a fight, and Catherine said some very hurtful things, including that she hoped he wouldn't return from the war.

She repented immediately, but the damage was done, and Drew wouldn't open the letters in which she apologized. So Catherine started writing pretending to be someone else, her ladies' companion, Helen, so that he'd open the letters.

The story starts three years later, when Drew returns, recovered from bad wounds received in the war, facial scars and a bad arm included. Now it's Cathierine who wants to make the engagement real, but Drew believes himself in love with the woman who wrote him all those letters, who he still thinks is Helen.

At least the story wasn't boring, but I thought it was too soap-operaish, and both Catherine and Drew felt a bit childish and shrill to me. So, for all that it was at least readable, I didn't enjoy it very much.

This wasn't really a very successful anthology, since only one of the stories was worth recommending. Most of the others were about average, though, so, with the Carla Kelly story balancing out the horrible Patricial Oliver one, I'd give the whole book a C.


Crazy For You, by Jennifer Crusie

>> Thursday, March 24, 2005

I don't know what's with me lately, but I've been rereading and rereading like a fiend. My TBR is huge and there are piles and piles of books there that I can't wait to read, and yet books already on my "read" shelves keep catching my eye. The latest was Crazy For You (excerpt, etc), by Jennifer Crusie.

On Wednesday, Quinn McKenzie adopted a dog and changed her life.
On Thursday, she tried to get somebody to notice.
On Thursday night, somebody did

Quinn McKenzie has always lived what she calls a “beige” life. She’s dating the world’s nicest guy, she had a good job as a high school art teacher, she’s surrounded by family and friends who rely on her, and she’s bored to the point of insanity. But when Quinn decides to changes her life by adopting a stray dog over everyone’s objections, everything begins to spiral out of control. Now she’s coping with dog-napping, breaking and entering, seduction, sabotage, stalking, more secrets than she really wants to know, and two men who are suddenly crazy...for her.
Ooohh, I so adore Crusie! Each time I read or reread one of hers I remember why I love them so much. Even those which aren't her absolute best, like this one, are great. A B+.

Like Tell Me Lies, this is a book about stopping living according to how others think you should live and changing your life into what you want it to be, and about how others who have no say on your life can get pissed off when they realize you don't want what they think you should want. That, especially the second half, really speaks to me, and I was cheering Quinn all the way.

I think I even liked this one a bit better than Tell Me Lies because here Quinn starts changing right from the beginning. Unlike Maddie, who we see trying to fulfill everyone's expectations for a while, before deciding to send them all to hell, the story here starts as Quinn begins her change. I was cheering for her all the way.

And I did enjoy the romance quite a bit. I know many people are icked off by the fact that Nick was married to Quinn's sister before, but it's not something I mind... in fact, I kind of enjoy the sort of forbidden vibe it adds to the relationship ::blushing::. I know, I know. It's weird because considering how close I am to my sister in real life, and how completely icked out I am by the mere thought of having something with my brother-in-law, I would have guessed I would hate this type of plot. Anyway, BTW, I really enjoyed Zoe, Quinn's sister, their relationship, and especially Zoe's relationship with her husband, as came through in all those phone conversations.

But I thought the most brilliant thing about this book wass how it flipped a romance-novel staple on its head. Quinn's spurned live-in boyfriend, Bill, does many of the crazy-stalker things I've seen romance novel heroes do, things we're supposed to think oh-so-romantic because we know he's supposed to be the hero. Well, Bill is very definitely not the hero, and I thought the progression of his craziness was really well done. It rang very true, how even Quinn didn't realize how serious the situation was until long after it became serious.

Heh, as long as I'm in a rereading kick, I think I'm going to pull out my Jennifer Crusie categories next...


Donovan trilogy, by Nora Roberts

>> Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Donovan trilogy, by Nora Roberts was published by Silhouette in the early 90s. It tells the stories of three cousins, modern-day witches and wizards. It was a nice series, but definitely not up to her newest ones.

The first, Captivated, about Morgana, who has a gift for.... I guess I'd say, conjuring and the more spectacular side of magic, was the one I liked best of all. My grade: a B.

His interest in her was purely professional . . . Or so he told himself. Nash Kirkland had sought out the alluring Morgana Dovovan to help him research his latest screenplay, though the hardheaded skeptic didn't believe for a minute she was what she professed to be. But, as Morgana revealed herself to him, Nash found himself falling under her bewitching spell. Nash had never trusted his feelings and always kept them in check. So how could he be sure the irresistible passion he felt for Morgana was real and not just some conjurer's trick?
There's not much external plot in this story, just Nash and Morgana falling in love and dealing with their issues, but it was still quite engaging.

I very much enjoyed both Nash and Morgana. I loved Morgana's self-assurance and in-your-face sexiness, and the way she never hid exactly who she was. And Nash was an endearing hero, with his enthusiasm and his very, very open mind. He was a bit of a cross between Gray, from Born in Ice, with his difficult childhood and the way it affected him in adulthood, and his horror writing, and Mac, from Heaven and Earth, with his geekiness and his fascination with the occult.

There were some very nice moments here, like the moment Nash finally manages to convince himself that Morgana has very real powers, and the final confrontation between them, back in Donovan castle. This one's an excellent start to the series.

Entranced told the story of Sebastian, who has a gift for seeing. I remember liking this one more than I did this time. My grade: a B-.

He was certainly a fraud, and she wasn't about to let him exploit her friend's vulnerability. But fiercely protective Mary Ellen Sutherland was desperate to find a missing baby and had run out of leads. So, reluctantly, the dubious private investigator agreed to enlist Sebastian Donovan's help. Soon she had to admit -- grudgingly -- that this beguiling mystery man had some pretty remarkable gifts, including his extraordinary ability to penetrate her tough façade and awaken her heart.
Strangely enough, while this one had much more external plot than Captivated, I found it parts of it duller. The first half especially, strangely enough: the one which should have been the more interesting, while they're following Sebastian's visions after the missing baby. I had a hard time being too interested.

Luckily, the second part was more interesting, but it's weird, because this one was something that's much more common. It was simply our two protagonists going under cover, trying to get the baby-stealing ring to focus on them so they could catch them in the act. This part was fun, and I really liked the romance there. Sebastian and Mel were interesting together, with her rough-and-ready personality and his old-world charm. In fact, I'd probably grade this section a B+. Unfortunately, the first one really was a loss.

Charmed is about Anastasia, the third cousin, who has a gift for healing. It's not really a very good end to the series. I'd give it a C+.

When a new neighbor, Boone Sawyer, moves next door to her with his young motherless daughter, Anastsia proves not only to be a good neighbor but wins the hearts of both Boone and his daughter. As time goes on Boone is drawn more and more into Anastasia's spell and begins to fall in love with her. Ana, though, worries how she will ever tell him the truth about herself and her family.
My main problem with this one was that I just didn't warm up to Boone. I thought he was an ass, a judgemental, narrow-minded ass. I wasn't too crazy about him throughout most of the book, but the kicker was the ending, once he found out about Ana's powers. Oooh, I wanted to kick him! Considering the way he found out, he should have been on his knees, kissing Ana's feet, not looking at her as if he was afraid of what she could do to him and his daughter. But instead of thanking her, he accused and hurt her. Bastard.

The rest of the book.... ehh. All that innocence and purity and cute little kids bored me, though I did like the Hallowe'en scene, with the Donovans out in force and Morgana giving birth upstairs. That was fun. Too bad the rest of the book wasn't.

There was a spin-off of this series released years later, Enchanted, which I remember liking. I can't recall exactly how these books are related (there's no mention here of the Liam Donovan who's the hero of Enchanted), but I'm going to find out!


To Die For, by Linda Howard

>> Tuesday, March 22, 2005

To Die For is a bit of a departure from the type of stories Linda Howard's been doing lately. Humorous, first-person, with a very different heroine, it was also published directly as a softcover.

Blair Mallory lives the good life. She’s pretty, confident, and the owner of a thriving up-scale fitness center. But in the shadow of success, a troubled member of the club develops a strange fixation on Blair, imitating her style and dress. Matters take a darker turn when the look-alike is shot dead–and Blair witnesses the horror.

As the media speculates on the tawdry details of the homicide and pushes Blair into the harsh spotlight, she locks horns with police lieutenant Wyatt Bloodsworth. He wants to lead an investigation without interference, while Blair is determined to probe the dead woman’s life on her own. But when someone begins to menace Blair with mounting threats, Wyatt takes notice: Was this murder indeed a lethal case of mistaken identity–and was Blair the intended victim?
I mostly enjoyed reading it, and there were certain appealing things about the romance, but I wasn't crazy about it. My grade would be a B-.

I've heard much about readers want to slap Blair, but I was fine with her. She was smart, sensible and fun, even if she was a little too much of a Southern belle, girly-girl for me to completely like. The one I wanted to slap was Wyatt. God, that man was high-handed and patronizing! I just hated the whole "you've ran rough-shod over men all your life, you need a guy who can dominate you" attitude he had with Blair.

As for the romance, on one hand, I couldn't help but get some nice jolts from Wyatt's absolute and complete focus on Blair. There's just something about it that instinctively appeals to me. But really, I couldn't wholeheartedly like the romance, and I think it was because I just don't identify with the whole man-woman dynamics here.

Blair and her mom's view seems to be that there are girl things (stereotypical things, like how one can never have enough shoes, and stuff like that) and there are guy things, and guys will never understand the importance of all those vital girl things, so they're going to have to be manipulated and emotionally blackmailed into it. A woman's married life will be spent manipulating her man into "letting" her do what she wants.

I know this is the view of many women, but I just find it horrific. My ideal relationship is a more equal partnership, not something like what I see Blair and Wyatt's relationship as being in the future, which is a continual power-struggle, an eternal fight to manipulate the other into doing what they want. Blair basically admits that at one point, and while she takes the view that "at least we'll never get bored", it just sounds exhausting to me. Plus, well, really, even if I didn't particularly like Wyatt, I almost felt sorry for him, after seeing the type of things Blair had in her list of "girl things".

The external plot, about someone trying to kill Blair was pretty good, though I thought the resolution was a little disappointing. I found the complete mystery of why anyone would even want to kill Blair quite engaging, but when the solution was revealed, I didn't think it was particularly believable.

Anyway, for all my criticism, as it often happens to me with Linda Howard books, I enjoyed the book more than my rational reaction to it would indicate.


The Lady Chosen, by Stephanie Laurens

>> Monday, March 21, 2005

The Lady Chosen (excerpt, etc) is the first book in Stephanie Laurens' Bastion Club series.

There is more than a touch of the wild adventurer in each of them, and they are loyal to the bone. Seven of London's most eligible bachelors band together to form The Bastion Club, an elite society of gentlemen dedicated to determining their own futures when it comes to that most important step of all - marriage.

Tristan Wemyss, Earl of Trentham, never expected he'd need to wed within a year or forfeit his inheritance. But he is not one to bow to the matchmaking mamas of the ton. No, he will marry a lady of his own choosing. And the lady he choses is the enchanting neighbor living with her family next door. Miss Leonora Carling has beauty, spirit and passion; unfortunately, matrimony is the last thing on her mind.

To Leonora, Tristan's kisses are oh-so-tempting, but once bitten, forever shy, she has determinedly turned her back on marriage. But Tristan is a seasoned campaigner who will not accept defeat. And when a mysterious man attempts to scare Leonora and her family from their home, Tristan realizes he's been given the perfect excuse to offer his services--as protector, seducer, and ultimately, husband.
I have a strong suspicion that I should stop reading Stephanie Laurens' books right here. This was a C-.

There's nothing really wrong with the characters or the plot of the book. I liked both Leonora and Tristan, I confess I like heroes in pursuit (even if Laurens has written this plot a thousand times before), and the external plot, about who was trying to break into Leonora's house and what he was looking for was interesting and suitably mysterious. And I really enjoyed the ambience of the neighbourhood in which both Leonora's house and the Bastion Club were situated.

So, why a C-? Well, it's just that Laurens managed to make this quite a bit boring. First problem was the style. Is it just me or has she changed, from the first few Cynster books? I'd read a few pages and find my mind wandering. Even in love scenes! I'm not one of those readers who routinely skip love scenes -nothing further from the truth- and Laurens is usually great at them (think Scandal's Bride ... yum!). And yet, in this one, I just HAD to skim, or I'd have been bored out of my skull.

And no, it wasn't just my mood. I read two other novels while I read this one (when my mind wandered off too much, I'd put it down and read something else for a while) and I had absolutely no problem getting engrossed in them. So I strongly suspect the author just doesn't sound like she used to.

Oh, and another negative was the whole rationale behind the Bastion Club. Oh, come on! The whole "refuge from the attacks of marriage-minded women" was just stupid.

Also -and this is a spoiler, so stop reading right here if you plan to read the book- I was very uncomfortable with the way they end up dealing with the formula for blood clotting that was what those foreign interests were looking for. They keep it out of other people's hands to basically keep it to themselves. It's probably very naive of me, but I really do think this was certainly something which should have been freely circulated, to help everyone who got wounded, not just the British. By doing this, they are just as bad as those foreigners who wanted to steal it.

Anyway, I don't think I'll be reading the next in the series, A Gentleman's Honor. What with my problems with this one and the fact that it got an F at AAR, it doesn't sound like it'll be worth the trouble.


The Charmer, by Madeline Hunter

>> Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Charmer (excerpt), by Madeline Hunter is book # 3 in the author's latest series, of which I've now read all but the 4th book, The Sinner (I couldn't resist the temptation and read the fifth book, The Romantic, as soon as I got it).

Their first meeting is not promising. Sent by the king to bring the Sophia Raughley home, Adrian Burchard finds her in another man's arms, at an orgy that includes the young artists who form her entourage. He soon discovers, however, that this errant daughter of the nobility hides secrets and wounds beneath her mask of frivolity, and possesses a vulnerable sensuality that draws him like no other woman has.

Sophia resents this man who high-handedly interferes with her life--a life in which she hides from the past. Worse, he seems to offer an intimacy that she dare not accept--until the night when he skillfully seduces her, peeling away the defenses to her heart as artfully as he does the layers of her clothing. As Sophia falls under the spell of his erotic charms, and Adrian finds himself unable to resist her passionate response, they embark on a dangerous affair. An affair that will either destroy them both, or prove the one thing that can save them when mysteries from the past reach out to entangle the present.
It's interesting, my reaction to the first three books in this series was very similar. As in The Seducer and The Saint, I was initially turned off by the hero's high-handed, overbearing attitude, but soon warmed up to the story, when he started falling for the heroine and her power over him became clear. And, as in those books, my grade for it is a B+.

I started liking Sophia once she decided to stop running away from her problems. Yes, it was terribly unfair that she was forced to move to England and take on these responsabilities she didn't want, but well, that was just a consequence of how her title worked. It's ok that she railed against fate for a while, but after a time, it became a bit tedious that she kept trying to escape, leaving everything unsolved.

Still, not long after I began to become irritated, Sophia saw reason and took her fate in her own hands. And, not only that, she did a wonderful job with it, doing something that really appealed to my modern, liberal sensibilities ;-)

The romance was really good, too. Adrian was a nice character, once Sophia developed a little background and stood up to him.

One of the best things about the book is that Hunter very definitely does not write wall-paper historicals, and the setting comes alive and plays an important role in the action. I was especially intrigued by the politics, and in fact was reminded a bit of Tracy Grant's Rightfully His, which I loved. Sophie being a duchess in her own right was fascinating enough, and I loved the political behind-the-scenes intrigues and the exploration of the issues like reapportionment and what exactly a pocket borough means.

The Sinner is arriving next June (keeping my fingers crossed, here!), and I'm looking forward to it.


The Last Hellion, by Loretta Chase

>> Friday, March 18, 2005

The Last Hellion, by Loretta Chase is part of a series of related books that include The Lion's Daughter, Captives of the Night, my favourite romance of all time: Lord of Scoundrels and a short story, The Mad Earl's Bride, included in the Three Weddings and a Kiss anthology.

In 1820s England, 28-year-old Lydia Grenville is a few inches under six feet tall and mind-numbingly beautiful. Clever as well as gorgeous, she is the author of a London newspaper's most popular adventure serial and has also penned scathing articles about the prostitution trade in the city. Her less-than-ladylike occupation, checkered past, and questionable lineage make it highly unlikely that she will ever marry a member of the Regency ton. However, in keeping with a long legacy of hell-raising ancestors, Vere Mallory, the notorious Duke of Ainswood, has a reputation for flaunting society's dictates. Besides, one look at Lydia and he loses his heart, although at the time, it doesn't occur to him that love is what he feels. He terms it lust and sets out to bed the beautiful Lydia.

What follows is an endearing, hilarious contest of wills between a woman determined to hold her heart and body safe, and a man just as determined to conquer her. In a final, winner-takes-all contest, Lydia and Vere come to terms, but neither is sure just who won and just who lost the wager. Is it possible they may both come out winners? Meanwhile, Lydia's very public crusade against the worst offenders in the city's illegal prostitution business has earned her dangerous enemies. Just when it seems that Vere and Lydia may resolve their personal contest of wills, the dark forces at work in the seamier side of London threaten not only Lydia, but also Vere's beloved nieces.
I know many readers, even those who loved LoS, aren't that fond of The Last Hellion, so I didn't have particularly high expectations when I started it. This meant it was a lovely surprise, how much I liked the book! A B+.

What I adored about it was how Vere was completely crazy and obsessed about Lydia, right from the beginning. Even when he believes he doesn't like her, he still can't stay away from her. Also, once he realizes how much he does like her, it's the whole woman that attracts her... her beauty, sure, but he's just as fascinated by her mind and her competence and her idealism and determination to see justice done.

And really, that's exactly what made Lydia a wonderful heroine, too. I always enjoy it when a heroine who chooses to do dangerous things doesn't behave as a TSTL twit and actually knows what she's doing. And even better, Vere knows that she knows what she's doing and when bad things happen near the end of the book, he recognizes that Lydia can make a valuable contribution and doesn't go all overprotectively, patronizingly macho.

The tone of The Last Hellion was interesting, because while it shows a darker than usual look at the horrible things that went on in the London underworld, the lovely, fun romance gives a much needed lighter touch. This can be iffy, and I can remember quite a few books which do this in which the romance and the external plot elements simply didn't go together well. It works wonderfully here, thought.

There's a lovely, sweet secondary romance here, too, between Bertie Trent (brother of Jessica Trent, from LoS and Lydia's protegée. Bertie's a character I'd become fond of... not too bright, but oh so nice and periodically showing flashes of staggering insight, so this was very nice to read.

There really aren't many negatives in this book. The only thing I can think of is that it could have used a little more fleshing out in the part in which Vere realizes that he's, in fact, in love with his wife. But that's minor. All in all, it was a truly enjoyable book.


I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

>> Thursday, March 17, 2005

From the back of my 1998 edition of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith:

"This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met. Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain captures the castle in her insightful, witty journal entries."-- Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling

"I Capture the Castle is finally back in print. It should be welcomed with a bouquet of roses and a brass band. Ever since I was handed a tattered copy years ago with the recommendation 'You'll love it,' it has been one of my favorite novels. Cassandra Mortmain is one hell of a narrator, offering sharp wit, piercing insight and touching lyricism. She is a heroine we readers wish we could be, a young woman it is impossible not to adore." -- Susan Isaacs

Glowing recommendations from JK Rowling AND Susan Isaacs, raving about the novel's narrator? These are two authors who, IMHO, create the absolute best characters, so how could I resist?

This wonderful novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her extraordinary family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle.

Cassandra's eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends most of his time reading detective novels from the village library.

Cassandra's elder sister, Rose - exquisitely beautiful, vain and bored - despairs of her family's circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord Simon, regardless of the fact she does not love him. She is in turn helped and hindered in this by their bohemian step-mother Topaz, an artist's model and nudist who likes to commune with nature.

Finally there is Stephen, dazzlingly handsome and hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amidst this maelstrom Cassandra strives to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries, which candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has captured the heart of the reader in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments.
Unlike many romance readers, I do like first-person narratives, and this was a wonderful one. A B+.

A book written in first-person has to have an interesting narrator, and I Capture the Castle definitely did. Cassandra was just lovely, and I adored her voice. She was a wonderful observer, and I liked that even when she was oblivious about something, odds are, we readers could arrive at our own conclusions through her writing. The ending, for instance, is pretty much left open in Cassandra's mind... she has no idea of what will happen to her, but there are some very nice clues there!

And the pictures that came through her writing were delightful. I saw her family so clearly! I think I especially enjoyed Topaz ;-)

This was very much a coming-of-age story, and I though Cassandra had underwent some very satisfying growing-up throughout the story. They all did, actually, the Mortmains, which left me smiling at the end of the book :-)

The book was published in 1948 and set over a decade earlier (IIRC), and one of the things I liked most was the picture of life in that time. We see mostly the countryside, but also quite a bit of London, and it's all fascinating. The only problem here is something that always comes up when I read stories set between the world wars... realizing that in a few years time, odds were, the men would have gone off to war. That makes the whole idea of a HEA a bit problematic.

Still, it's fiction, and if I choose to believe everyone will be all right, who's to contradict me?


The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale

>> Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I've had The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale in my TBR for some time, but I dug it out immediately when I read Jorie's post about it at her blog. Careful if you haven't read it, there are some spoilers there (I couldn't figure how to link to the post itself with the spoilers hidden), though I have to say, I did read those spoilers and I think knowing what I knew might have even enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Ah, before I forget, TSATS is a spinoff of Kinsale's first novel, The Hidden Heart. I had both, but I was so anxious to read TSATS that I skipped THH, and while I was intrigued enough that I'm planning on reading the latter soon, TSATS stands alone perfectly well.

He is a man of dark secrets -- wealthy, strong, majestically handsome -- the master of the ancient arts of a distant land. Scarred by a cruel childhood, he has sworn only to love chastely ... yet he burns with the heat of unfulfilled desire.

She is innocent and nearly destitute, yet she possesses a beauty as incandescent as a heavenly orb. And she is drawn to this powerful stranger by a need she cannot deny.

Never has such passion so consumed a man and a woman. But by giving his heart freely, the Shadow risks everything he believes in. And to follow her enigmatic warrior means the Star must enter his world of intrigue, vengeance, and desire -- and surrender to the most dangerous love there ever could be.
The Shadow and the Star is difficult to grade. I thought it was brilliant, but one of the aspects that made the book so good, that both Samuel and Leda were wholly of their time, definitely NOT 21st century transplants, was also responsible for making me feel a bit frustrated. So this, together with an ending which took the focus from Leda and Samuel, where it had been squarely fixed throughout the book, and concentrated on a not particularly interesting action subplot, make the grade slip from an A to an A-.

I can't imagine writing my review any better than Jorie did, so I'll just say "what she said". The handling of Samuel's past and the effects it's had on him as an adult, Leda's characterization, the development of Samuel and Leda's relationship, both in and out of bed, it was all amazing.

I do differ in a certain something, and that's one of my only two negatives: the ambiguous effect that Leda, especially, had on me. On one hand, I appreciated the fact that she was so much a product of her time and her upbringing by a group of old ladies who Kinsale describes thus:

"Proper, generous, proud; sure of what was right and what was wrong, they gave me a foundation, a place to stand in life. Perhaps they were as shocked by a crooked hem as by a crooked banker, but there was always a pie or a boiled custard going out the door for an ill neighbor. They represent a feminine community and a standard that has quietly sustained civilization for centuries, unnoticed and unreported in newspapers and history books. "
Problem is, people like this drive me crazy. I don't find them admirable, I find them dangerous. Their preocupation with appearances and what's proper can result in the neglect of what really matters (Leda being put in danger of pretty much starving because the old ladies couldn't find the proper book that would help them write the proper character), or in their being actually cruel to people for whom appearances don't matter and what counts is the reality. For instance, when Leda would worry so much about not behaving in a way that could result in her being thought "fast", I couldn't help but think of the fact that the flip side of this worrying would be an excessive ease in labeling other people fast.

So, when Leda would act so perfectly in character, exactly like she was raised to act, one part of me would adore Kinsale's characterization, while the other would scream in frustration. What an incredible book! ;-)


The MacKades, by Nora Roberts

The MacKades was a series Nora Roberts wrote for Silhouette in the mid-90s, about four brothers living in the fictional town of Antietam, in Maryland. I hadn't reread it in some time, and this time I did it as I've started to do with all my Noras, and I read the entire series all in a row.

The first book is The Return of Rafe MacKade, about "the baddest of the bad MacKades", as the author herself calls him. Rafe had left Antietam years before, leaving behind a town convinced that he'd end up behind bars before long. Since he was a kid, he has been fascinated with the old Barlow place, a run-down old house reputed to be haunted since the Civil War, and he promised before he left that he'd own the place.

The book starts as he returns home, a successful businessman who runs a construction company and the new owner of the Barlow house, which he intends to restore and set up as an inn. As soon as he comes back he meets newcomer Regan Bishop, who owns the new antique store in town and who he hires to help him furnish his inn.

This was a pleasant, comfortable read, but nothing earth-shattering, really. Both Rafe and Regan are very likeable characters, but there just isn't that much conflict to keep things interesting. A B-

The Pride of Jared MacKade comes next, and it was much more exciting. Jared is the eldest of the MacKades, and the more serious and bookish one. He's a lawyer and of the four, he's the one who's built a more refined, sophisticated life, complete with a boring, refined ex-wife and a boring, refined law office.

As always in romance novels, conservative Jared gets paired with a very definitely not conservative heroine, illustrator Savannah Morningstar, who happens to be a single mom and former stripper, street artist and myriad other things.

I really, really liked Savannah. She was a much more interesting character than Regan, much livelier and more colourful. I loved that she made no apologies for her past, and simply refused to play the victim, the poor little woman, seduced, impregnated and abandoned when she was 16. Jared I felt was a bit of a jerk in the end, but at least his difficulties in accepting Savannah's past were interesting. And really, I don't think it was so much a sexist, double-standard thing, as much as frustration at not being able to go back in time and make things easier for Savannah. The scenes in which he tortures himself when he hears just how difficult some things in her life were pretty powerful. A B+.

The book about the third brother, The Heart of Devin MacKade used to be my favourite in the series, but I liked it a bit less this time.

Devin has been in love with Cassie Connor (now Dolin) pretty much forever. He had a thing for her even when they were in high school, but he dragged his feet a little too much and the disgusting Joe Dolin beat him to it and married her as soon as she got out from high-school... and proceeded to make the following 10 years or so of her life a living hell. Devin, who became sheriff of Antietam, was perfectly aware of the fact that Cassie has been suffering Joe's physical and mental abuse, but he couldn't do much more than make Cassie aware of her options, which in turn, made Devin's life pretty hellish as well.

This book starts a couple of years after Cassie finally decides to leave her husband (an event which happens in book # 1). Ever since this happened, Devin has been biding his time, waiting for the moment to be right for him to make his move. When Cassie gives him a chaste little kiss, Devin finally explodes and let's it all out, and their romance gets moving.

Devin is a lovely, wonderful hero, and I just adore stories about guys who have been madly in love with the heroine for years and years. So why didn't I love, love, love this story? The answer is Cassie. Unlike many readers, it's the heroine who makes or breaks a romance for me, and I just wasn't all that crazy about Cassie. The problem was basically that I couldn't really understand her, and I feel like a bitch for saying this. I know intellectually that she's probably a perfectly accurate character, but I simply couldn't get her emotionally.

Why didn't she leave Joe much earlier? Everyone in town knows he's been beating her up, so it can't be shame at confessing what has been happening, what she has been "letting" him do. And she has the explicit support of pretty much everyone except her zealot mother, so it can't be that she has no other options. Also, there's no evidence of Cassie ever being convinced that Joe loves her in spite of what he does to her... she seems to have accepted from the beginning that she's nothing more than a punching bag for him. As for her kids, I know she isn't aware of the fact that Joe has been physically abusing their son, but how can anyone really believe that the kids are better off with both parents, in an environment where they obviously know their mother is getting beat up every week, than there would be only with a single, caring parent? Of course I'm oversimplifying, and I know that the psychological issues that can make an abused woman stay with her abuser are much more complicated than this, but for all the theoretical knowledge I can have, I just can't completely understand Cassie, and this lowers a bit my enjoyment of the book.

Still, I did like this quite a bit. The love story between Devin and Cassie is lovely and sweet, and I loved the way Devin wins over Connor, Cassie's son. A B.

The last book of the series is The Fall of Shane MacKade, about the younger brother and ladies' man extraordinaire. Nora is spot-on when she differentiates between a womanizer (who would be a user, basically) and someone like Shane, who simply adores and is fascinated by women, every single kind of woman.

Shane's fall begins immediately after he meets Rebecca, Regan's brilliant, brainy former roommate in college. Rebecca is quite simply, a nerd, and it's always fun to see a suave, experienced hero become fascinated by someone like Rebecca. Some of the scenes were pretty much telegraphed from the beginning... I mean, I knew right from page 1 that this would end with Rebecca saying some variety of "Well, bye-bye, so long, it's been fun" and Shane freaking out because this time it's he who wants more, but this didn't make this scene any less effective, and it alone raised the grade from a B to a B+.

This series has a nice paranormal thread going through it, about the ghosts from an episode of the battle of Antietam haunting both Rafe and Regan's inn, the MacKade farm and the woods around it. It's an interesting element, and doesn't overwhelm the stories, it simply adds an extra interest to them.

As always in Nora's series, one of my favourite things was the way the family interacted. I was totally convinced that these four men obviously love and support each other, even if I did feel that they were a bit too fond of pounding on each other ;-) And I loved the way their wives were successively integrated to the group, quickly becoming part of the whole family.


In Bed With the Boss, by Susan Napier

>> Monday, March 14, 2005

Susan Napier is pretty much the only Harlequin Presents author I read regularly. Her books use the HP staples, sure, and her titles are often horrendous, but still, she manages her stories feel fresh. My latest read by her was In Bed With the Boss.

Kalera and Duncan Royal have the perfect working relationship. Polite, professional-except for an accidental, intensely passionate one-night stand that should have never have happened! Both have tried to put it behind them-or so Kalera thought. But Duncan is haunted by their one reckless night together, and he's furious when Kalera announces her engagement to another man. Whatever it takes, Duncan intends to entice Kalera back into his bed, and his life-permanently!
I want to make it very clear that my grade of C+ is not really for In Bed With the Boss, but for a slim book in Spanish called Campaña de Seducción, which I couldn't resist picking up when I took my grandma to change her "novelas rosas" at the UBS the other day. Campaña de Seducción (a title that actually fits the story better) is supposed to be a translation of In Bed With the Boss, but I strongly suspect it's more of an adaptation of it... or rather, a butchering.

First there's the fact that while Harlequin Presents usually come in at about 190 pages, this one is only three quarters that length; that's enough to make one suspicious. And, by now, I kind of know Napier's writing, and there are a couple of things I refuse to believe she wouldn't have developed a little bit more, like Kalera's past, living in a commune with her parents, for instance. It's made clear that she hated it, but even after Duncan meets her parents, she never talks about it with him. I'm not 100% sure, of course, and if you've read the book and there isn't any exploration of this subject, you're welcome to correct it, but I'm willing to bet something was cut there.

Oh, and also, there's practically no action here from Duncan's point of view. Given that there has been some hero POV in all three books by Napier that I've read, it would have been suspicious if there had been *nothing* from Duncan. It's even more suspicious in this case because there's actually one paragraph from his POV lost in the middle of one scene. One, and then nothing else in the rest of the book, as if the translator forgot to remove that one, as he or she did the others. And this are just a couple of examples, there were too many instances of too-abrupt transitions and lack of development.

Anyway, it pisses me off, because I liked the bare bones of the story, Duncan is a great character, with his flamboyant ways and mercurial temper, and I enjoyed reading about his way of doing business. And I just loved the ruthless way in which he fought to get Kalera, it reminded me a bit of Another Time, my favourite Napier. Kalera was also nice, even if she was a little obtuse about her fiancé, Stephen. I appreciated that she had had a wonderful first marriage, and that Napier didn't trash her first husband to make her hero look better. In fact, both Duncan and Kalera still love Harry by the end of the book.

This is definitely one book I'll be getting in English too, if only to find out what exactly was cut!


I've updated my links

>> Friday, March 11, 2005

Well, I've finally updated my links, especially those to romance-centric blogs. I tried to keep the list manageable and to keep to sites that are updated regularly (a couple haven't posted since mid-February, but I'll hold on to them for a while longer).

One of the things I did was to change the names a bit from what I had. What I did in most cases was list them under the name of the blog owner (the name she uses when she posts) and when you roll your mouse over the link, you see the name of the blog. Otherwise, the names were sometimes too long and took two or three lines, or they were too generic and I couldn't remember who exactly they were until I went looking.

So, let me know if you're not there and you want me to list you, too, or if you're there but would like me to list you differently.


Scent of a Woman, by Jo Leigh

Like Kristin Hardy, Jo Leigh is one of the very few authors whose Blaze titles I always buy. The latest I read was Scent of a Woman.

When Susan Carrington sees David Levinson in a boutique, she impulsively propositions himjust a little sex, on a weekly basis. Afraid shell regret it later, she decides to meet David at the pre-arranged time and place, thinking at least shell be with a man who wants her for her and not for her money. What starts out as pure physical attraction soon blossoms into something more. But can their true identities foul up any type of potential romance?
Scent of a Woman is among the hottest Blazes that I've read so far, probably even crossing the line into Romantica territory. But hey, I like good romantica, and since this is very good, no problem! My grade: a B+.

The book is basically about two grown-ups exploring their sexual fantasies by creating an environment and a situation in which they feel safe enough to check their inhibitions at the door. No gimmicks, no stupid, contrived sexual neuroses, just two mature people who start realizing that in addition to finding each other sexually attractive, they have begun to fall for the real people who shine through in these sexual encounters.

Both David and Susan are likeable and they are scorching together. Leigh has a way with love scenes, and manages to infuse them with emotion, using them not (only) to titillate but to tell us more about her characters.

I also enjoyed that as always, Leigh's characters actually do feel like real young people, with attitudes and lifestyles that ring true (even if both David and Susan did have much more money than a regular person their age would). Plus, I liked their having strong, supportive groups of friends. Love it when romance incorporates certain elements of chick lit!


About a Boy, by Nick Hornby

From Chick Lit to Lad Lit: About a Boy was my first book by Nick Hornby. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I had only a vague idea of what it was about.

Will is thirty-six but acts like a teenager. Single, child-free and still feeling cool, he reads the right magazines, goes to the right clubs and knows which trainers to wear. He's also discovered a great way to score with women at single parents' groups, full of available (and grateful) mothers, all waiting for Mr. Nice Guy.

That's where he meets Marcus, the oldest twelve-year-old in the world. Marcus is a bit strange: he listens to Joni Mitchell and Mozart, he looks after his Mum and he's neve even owned a pair of trainers. Perhaps if Will can teach Marcus how to be a kid, Marcus can help Will grow up and they can both start to act their age.
Well, my first read in the genre was impressive. The story felt fresh and original, and I enjoyed it. So maybe the reason why I couldn't predict what direction the story would take was simply because I'm a novice here, but still, I had a wonderful time reading this, and that's what counts. My grade: a B+.

I loved the way Hornby wrote Will and Marcus' relationship, which is the whole meat of the book. There's no sentimentalistic, immediate father-son bonding, their relationship is much more complicated than that. But it does develop quite a bit and I found it fascinating and even more touching than I expected. Both these characters are wonderfully drawn and, for all their flaws, very endearing.

I think I have a couple of other Hornbys in my pile (including one with a lot of football in it, if I remember correctly). I'll definitely have to dig them up!


The Plumed Bonnet, by Mary Balogh

>> Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Plumed Bonnet, by Mary Balogh, is the 4th book in a series that includes Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and one of my favourite Baloghs: The Famous Heroine.

When the Duke of Bridgwater picks up Stephanie Gray in his carriage one day, she is wearing a fuchsia colored cloak and a bright pink, garishly adorned bonnet. He draws his own conclusions about her and listens to her story about being on her way to claim an inheritance with a great deal of amusement. By the time he realizes that she is telling the truth, it is too late--he has compromised her virtue and must marry her.
Like The Famous Heroine, this one's a misunderstanding-based story, one of my least favourite devices, and yet it works. My grade would be a B+.

There's actually two different misunderstandings here, and while they are quite different, both worked just fine, each in its own way.

The initial misunderstanding is a bit like the one in The Famous Heroine in that it's all funny and light-hearted. Alistair takes one look at Stephanie's clothing, especially that plumed bonnet, and assumes she's a courtesan. He spends the entire trip not believing a word of her story, in the mistaken understanding that she's aware of this and simply spinning her story to keep him amused, a bit like Scherezade.

Alistair's thoughts, as he tries to predict what contrivances Stephanie will add to her story (governess getting an unexpected inheritance, needing to get married to get it, and so on) and guesses correctly most of the time, are very funny. I also liked that, even believing whole-heartedly that she's not what she says, Alistair is always perfectly polite and kind to Stephanie. I've read too many books in which the hypocritical hero takes the heroine's perceived lack of virtue as an excuse to treat her like crap, so this is always a plus.

Once this misunderstanding is cleared up and these two are forced to marry, a new misunderstanding creeps up, and this one changes the tone of the book completely, something that, surprisingly, I wasn't bothered by. While up until that time the book hadn't been particularly intense, Balogh piles on the angst in the second half, as Stephanie and Alistair each misunderstand what the other wants from them.

Alistair wants a wife he can love and be loved by, and he's powerfully drawn to Stephanie. She, meanwhile, believes he simply wants a proper duchess and that she's indebted to him for marrying her, saving her from being compromised, so she tamps down her joie-de-vivre, exactly what Alistair loves about her. So, while she doggedly becomes the perfect duchess, becoming miserable in the process, Alistair comes to believe she basically can't stand him.

It probably sounds frustrating and a bit contrived when I describe it, but believe me, it felt perfectly realistic, that each would think what they do. And it's not one of those situations in which it feels stupid that they won't sit down and clear up the misunderstanding. On the contrary, it would have felt very fake if these two had simply had a heart-to-heart about their innermost feelings, not true to character at all! As it was, it was just wonderful to read, and I loved the scene in which they realize the other's real feelings. It wasn't an easy "I love you - oh, and I love you!" scene, and I greatly enjoyed the resolution.

I haven't liked all of Balogh's Signet Regencies, but I know many people believe that they were her best. I don't know, I've liked a few of her single titles quite well, but I've got to admit some stories, like this one, fit perfectly in the lenght of a Trad and would have felt too stretched out in a single title.


Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown

>> Monday, March 07, 2005

Angels and Demons is a prequel to Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

An ancient secret brotherhood.
A devastating new weapon of destruction.
An unthinkable target.

World-renowned Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to a Swiss research facility to analyze a cryptic symbol seared into the chest of a murdered physicist. What he discovers is unimaginable: a deadly vendetta against the Catholic Church by a centuries-old underground organization -- the Illuminati. Desperate to save the Vatican from a powerful time bomb, Langdon joins forces in Rome with the beautiful and mysterious scientist Vittoria Vetra. Together they embark on a frantic hunt through sealed crypts, dangerous catacombs, deserted cathedrals, and the most secretive vault on earth...the long-forgotten Illuminati lair
Most of those of my friends who've read both books have actually told me they liked Angels and Demons better than The Da Vinci Code, but I liked it a bit less myself. Still, I'd give it a good grade, a B.

What I liked best was the treasure hunt aspect, following Langdon around Rome as he deduced, step by step, the Path of Illumination. And thanks to the Internet, I was even able to see what each place looked like. I didn't think to use the author's own site for this and ended up googling, but if you've already read the book, here are pictures of all the locations, courtesy of Dan Brown.

I was also very interested by the stuff about the Vatican and the way a new Pope gets elected, especially since the speculation has already started these days. And anyway, even without this, a papal conclave is fascinating, anyway.

Even with this, I wasn't all that crazy about the book right until near the end. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll just say that I liked what was actually going on much better than what it seemed was going on.

The pacing was another of the things I didn't like very much. I'm just not fond of break-neck speed, race-against-time books. I know this is very personal, and most people won't agree (in fact, this was the reason my mum liked A&D better than TDVC), but I prefer not to get that stressed out. I'm just weird that way ;-)


Can You Keep a Secret?, by Sophie Kinsella

>> Friday, March 04, 2005

I have my own copy of Can You Keep a Secret? (excerpt), by Sophie Kinsella on its way here, thanks to the wonderful Màili, but when a friend mentioned she had a copy, I was weak and borrowed it. You see, it was just before I voted at the All About Romance poll for best reads of 2004 and I'd read almost nothing in the Chick Lit / Women's Fiction category.

Meet Emma Corrigan, a young woman with a huge heart, an irrepressible spirit, and a few little secrets:

Secrets from her mother:
- I lost my virginity in the spare bedroom with Danny Nussbaum while Mum and Dad were downstairs watching Ben-Hur.
- Sammy the goldfish in my parents’ kitchen is not the same goldfish that Mum gave me to look after when she and Dad were in Egypt.

Secrets from her boyfriend:
- I weigh one hundred and twenty-eight pounds. Not one eighteen, like Connor thinks.
- I’ve always thought Connor looks a bit like Ken. As in Barbie and Ken.

From her colleagues:
- When Artemis really annoys me, I feed her plant orange juice. (Which is pretty much every day.)
- It was me who jammed the copier that time. In fact, all the times.

Secrets she wouldn’t share with anyone in the world:
- My G-string is hurting me.
- I have no idea what NATO stands for. Or even what it is.

Until she spills them all to a handsome stranger on a plane. At least, she thought he was a stranger.

But come Monday morning, Emma’s office is abuzz about the arrival of Jack Harper, the company’s elusive CEO. Suddenly Emma is face-to-face with the stranger from the plane, a man who knows every single humiliating detail about her. Things couldn’t possibly get worse—Until they do.
I immensely enjoyed this one. My grade for it was a B+. Actually, I was a bit surprised, because I've heard a lot about the Shopaholic series, and that one sounds exactly like the type of chick-lit I don't like at all.

At first, I was ready to be irritated by Emma. The first couple of scenes seemed to show the type of humour I hate, the type which relies on the heroine behaving like a nitwit. Emma seemed to make no effort in her job and to be inept. But then she started to grow on me. She's just a normal young woman, one who loves her parents and yet is tremendously irritated by some of the things they do; one who has a job she isn't the best ever at and which doesn't particularly fulfill her, but hey! she knows there are worse jobs out there and hers isn't that bad! She gets along fine with some people and despises others, and isn't above being a little bitchy to them. And last, but not least, she has a strong honourable core and tries her best to be responsible, as evidenced by the fact that she's absolutely serious about paying her father back the money she owes him and actually cuts back on shopping for clothes and ends up buying stuff at charity shops.

The plot is a lot of fun. Kinsella took full advantage of all the possibilities afforded by having Jack knowing every single little secret of Emma's, and the result was hilarious, and sometimes even surprisingly poignant. A book as laugh-out-loud funny as this one risks lacking a bit of emotion (The Royal Treatment, anyone?), but Can You Keep a Secret? actually almost made me cry a few times. I simply loved, loved, loved the scene in which Jack stands up to her family for her, really sticking it to her annoying cousin! And the scene of Jack's betrayal.... wow! Powerful stuff!

If there's anything that kept this from being an A read it was the fact that I felt Jack was a little underwritten. I didn't know him as well as I wanted to, and this made the romance not as satisfying as it could have been.

Still, that's a small problem. On the whole, this was an amazing book!


While She Was Sleeping, by Suzanne Forster

>> Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I hadn't read Suzanne Forster in years (and I don't remember enjoying her books that much, to tell the truth), but While She Was Sleeping sounded interesting, even if the reviews were lackluster.

He knows when you're alone...
He abducts women from their beds at midnight, gagging and terrorizing them and then dumping them, drugged but alive, days later. None of the victims have been able to identify him, and the Seattle police have no leads-until now...

And after the lights are out...
There's been a new abduction, but with a terrifying twist--the latest victim, a cop working on the case, has been found dead. But the police may now have the break they need-a witness...

He comes for you...
The sole witness is a homeless woman with a shaky memory. Forensic sketch artist Jennifer Nash has been called in by the SPD. However, her unconventional techniques have made her unpopular with cops­--one cop in particular. Russ Sadler was the victim's ex-partner. He's now the chief investigator --and the last person Jennifer wants to work with. Their affair left them both burned, but they can't let their emotions interfere. The killer is a lot closer than anyone realizes, and now he has his eye on Jennifer...
Well, I should have listened to the reviews and stayed away from this one, my grade for it is a D.

Russ didn't make a good impression at the beginning. He looked like the worst kind of cop, the kind which will actively sabotage someone (Jennifer, in this case) who has a real chance to break the case simply because he wants to "win" himself. I just couldn't believe the way he hid the witness from her and contaminated the witness' memories, all the while knowing that Jennifer's methods, however polemic, were so often successful.

Still, in the beginning, the book at least looked interesting, even with Russ behaving like a baboon. Soon, however, it started to drag and drag and drag. Nothing would happen for pages, they kept either running around in circles or doing nothing that would help catch the murderer. Even Jennifer's sketching thing, which was interesting, was ruined by her stupid, stupid behaviour when it came to the way she evaluated her results. So the "police procedural" part was basically a bust.

And the characters! I didn't perceive even a smidgen of chemistry between these two former lovers. Their interactions felt wooden, and my personal un-favourite part of the book was the way their previous break-up was explained. Lots of meaningless psychobabble from Jennifer about her father and trust and having lied to her mother, and this apparently made sense to Russ, as a good reason to leave someone practically at the altar? No way!

Things picked up a bit at the end, but only because the Forster made Jennifer behave like a brain-dead twit and recklessly endanger her life just because. I ended up skimming the completely unbelievable ending.

What a waste of time! This one's going straight to my trade list!


AAR 2004 annual reader poll

>> Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The results of AAR's 9th annual reader poll were published today, and I had great fun looking at the results and reading the accompanying analysis column. Since I voted this year (as I have for the past few years since I started keeping a reader journal), here's my comparison between my ballot and the results:

- Best romance: Yay! I voted for Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, and it was the winner! I loved Bet Me and gave it an A. It was by far my favourite read this year.

- Favourite Funny: That was definitely Bet Me for me, too. This is the type of smart, witty humour, complete with wonderful banter, that I adore. I also liked the book which got an honourable mention, MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed and thought it was really funny, though I might have burnt out a bit on MJD after reading too many of her books in a row.

- Most Hanky read: Yet another category in which I picked the winner, When He Was Wicked, by Julia Quinn. I'm so proud of myself, but I've no idea why, since this is in no way an achievement of mine. I guess it's nice to have one's taste validated ;-) Anyway, I liked this "new" direction of JQ's. The first part of the book, especially, was heart-wrenching.

- Most Luscious Love Story: Ah, here is the first I sort of don't agree with. I did read the winner, Adele Ashworth's Duke of Sin, but while I did like it and thought it was an improvement on her latest couple of books, I wasn't crazy about it. As for its "lusciousness"... hmmm, ok, it was a sexy book, but I've read a few others which were much more so. My pick was actually a short story, Night Owl, by Emma Holly, published in the Hot Blooded anthology. That one was burn-your-fingers hot! My close runner-up in this category was the book that won the honorable mention at the poll, Shadowheart, by Laura Kinsale. Those love scenes really did work for me, which means I'm probably "adventurous", as LLB says in her column ;-)

- Best Cabin / Road romance: I left this category blank in my ballot, because after thinking and thinking, I hadn't read any books I'd enjoyed that fit the bill. That's actually weird, since it's a theme I enjoy. I have already procured a copy of the winner, My Seduction, by Brockway, so I'll be getting to it as soon as it gets here.

- Best New Author: I confess I haven't read many new authors this year. I voted for Robin D. Owens, one of the only 2 or 3 new authors I've read from 2004. As in the last category, I've got the winner, Marianne Stillings' first book, on its way.

- Best Buried Treasure: I haven't read the winner here either, Under a Lucky Star, by Diane Farr, though it's in my Wish List. My vote went to Fair Play, by Deirdre Martin, which I guess could count as a buried treasure, even though it did get a bit of buzz.

- Guiltiest Pleasure: I didn't read Night Play, but Sherrilyn Kenyon. I did read the first in that series and liked it, but I never did continue. I might, even if I find Kenyon / MacGregor's heroes way too tortured, crossing the line into over-the-top. My vote here went to Heart Duel, by my favourite new author, Robin D. Owens.

- Author Most Glommed: Mine was an author I really got into late in the year, Susan Napier. I've started collecting her extensive backlist.

- Best Medieval: I voted for the winner in this one: Shadowheart, by Laura Kinsale. I didn't read many 2004 medievals, and this one was so good it was head and shoulders above anything in the field.

- Best European Historical: I meant to read the one which won, Slightly Dangerous, by Mary Balogh before voting, but I was advised to read at least the previous couple of books in the series before, and I never did get around to it, though I have them all in my TBR. I voted for Liz Carlyle's A Deal With the Devil, which barely edged out my favourite most-hanky read, When He Was Wicked, by Julia Quinn.

- Best Traditional Regency: The winner in this category, Nonnie St. George's Courting Trouble was actually the only 2004 Trad I read, so technically, it was my best of the year. I didn't like it at all, though, so I left this category blank.

- Best American Historical / Frontier: Yet another category I left blank. I'm just not into these genres very much, and I didn't read any book here.

- Best Contemp: Oh, yes, definitely Bet Me. I know some people try to vote for different books in the "best romance" category and in the genre it belongs to, to spread their votes around, but I figure if a contemp was my favourite book of the year, I should vote for it as best romance and best contemp.

- Best Series novel: My vote went to Darkness Calls, by Caridad Piñeiro, a wonderful, gritty, vampire book. The Winner, AKA Goddess, by Evelyn Vaughn, is yet another book that is on its way here. The winner of the honourable mention isn't one I'm too interested in, since I believe Catherine Mann writes military romance, right? And I didn't much like the book of hers that I've read.

- Best Romantic Suspense: I voted for Northern Lights, by Nora Robers. Wonderful book! I haven't read Howard's Kiss Me While I Sleep yet (you guessed it, it's currently on its way here), but I did read the winner of the honourable mention, Brockmann's Flashpoint and I liked it.

- Best Alternate Reality: I liked Divided in Death, by JD Robb a bit better than I liked the book which won here, Undead and Unwed, by MaryJanice Davidson.

- Best Chick Lit / Women's Fiction: Like LLB, I didn't consider Bet Me chick lit, but I do understand why people voted for it here, since it did contain my favourite elements from chick lit. My choice was Can You Keep a Secret?, by Sophie Kinsella, which I read just in time to vote. I meant to wait for my copy to get here (thanks Máili for sending it!), but my 2004 chick lit reading had been so sparce that I couldn't resist it when a friend mentioned she had a copy.

- Best short story: I didn't read the winner here, my vote went to the story which won my vote for most luscious love story: Night Owl, by Emma Holly, from the Hot Blooded anthology.

- Most Tortured Hero: For some reason, I never even thought of Allegretto when time came to make my choice in this category, but he does deserve the title. I voted for Robert Carroway, from Suzanne Enoch's England's Perfect Hero, a book which started out well but basically went down a cliff in the second half. Still, Robert was pretty tortured, even in the most literal sense of the word.

- Strongest Heroine: As I said, I haven't yet read the book which won here, and the winner of the honourable mention is also on its way here, after it came out in paperback. I voted for Meg Galloway, from Northern Lights, by Nora Roberts, a really kick-ass heroine!

- Best Hero: I loved Cal and Nate, and I haven't yet met the others, but I can't think they can beat my choice, Julian Hampton, from Madeline Hunter's The Romantic, truly one of the most wonderful, amazing and yes, romantic heroes I've ever read.

- Best Heroine: My favourite was also my strongest heroine, Meg Galloway, from Northern Lights, though I liked Min, the winner, too.

- Best Couple: I picked the winners here, Min and Cal, from Crusie's Bet Me. They were truly wonderful together!

- Best Villain: I never know whether to vote for the most scary, disgusting, horrible villain, or for my favourite. I chose the latter option this year, and voted for the one from The Legend of Banzai Maguire, by Susan Grant. I hadn't read Brockmann's Flashpoint at the time of voting, but if I had, I would have been tempted to vote for the truly terrifying Padma Bashir. That guy really did make my skin crawl.

- Most Annoying Lead: Oh, the winner, Aline Marsden, from Kleypas' Again the Magic really was annoying, but I thought Declan MacDonald, from The Sexiest Dead Man Alive, by Jane Blackwood was even worse. I hate whiny little boys. Of the dishonourable mentions, I actually liked Theresa Falconetti, from Deirdre Martin's Fair Play!

- Author You Gave Up On: I left this category blank, as I don't think I really gave up on anyone this year.

- Author Others Love That You Don't: Oh, I'm one of the people who love the "winners" here, Nora Roberts and Suzanne Brockmann! My choice was Christine Feehan, after (if I remember correctly) several years of voting for Julie Garwood.

- Most Disappointing Read: I haven't read the winner and don't plan to, from everything I've heard about it. My vote went for Married to the Viscount, by Sabrina Jeffries. I chose it because I had previously enjoyed everything I'd read by Jeffries, so I was really expecting something much better.

- Worst Read: Oh, dear, I'm planning to read The Real Deal! Let's hope I like it better than most people! My vote here went to The Spare, by Carolyn Jewel. I've often left this category blank in the past, because my worst books of the year were just "not that good", not truly awful, but I truly disliked The Spare.

- Purple-est Prose: Definitely Christine Feehan's short story in the Hot Blooded anthology. I don't read Nicole Jordan, and this doesn't tempt me to do so, either!

My thanks to LLB and everyone who helped with this at AAR, I look forward to this every year!


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