Top 10 picks of 2005

>> Thursday, December 29, 2005

Kristie started it. I've actually only read 31 2005 titles (they take time to get here, unless I pay to have them couriered), so I thought I probably wouldn't get to 10 picks, but it seems the 2005 books I've read have been just wonderful, because I did, and I even had to add 3 honourable mentions. I added the link to my review for the ones that have already been reviewed, but a couple haven't, because I've just finished them. In no particular order:

His Secondhand Wife, by Cheryl St. John: A very sweet and tender Western, a genre I'm not usually a fan of, but I loved it here. The very tortured hero is to-die-for.

Black Rose, by Nora Roberts: I'm absolutely loving this trilogy. I especially appreciated the more mature hero and heroine in this particular title. I can't wait for Red Lily to get here!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling: What can I say? I'm a huge fan of the HP series, and this book didn't disappoint.

Mr. Impossible, by Loretta Chase: Fun, fun, fun! Loretta Chase's beautiful writing + a wonderful hero and heroine + lovely Egyptian setting.

Simply Unforgettable, by Mary Balogh: After Slightly Dangerous, I was expecting a bit of a dip, but SU was almost as good.

The Veil of Night, by Lydia Joyce: What a wonderful discovery Lydia Joyce was! Her books are deep, lush, intense and complicated, and utterly fresh. I loved this gothic-tinged, almost claustrophobic and very romantic story.

The Music of the Night, by Lydia Joyce: As good as TVON. Characters who are just as complicated, a story just as romantic and fresh, plus a Victorial Venice setting. Wonderful!

Midnight Angel, by Lisa Marie Rice: Another great discovery, and the first author I've read who was first published in ebook form. I love how she combines steamy sex with tenderness. This one is my favourite by her, and I've now read her entire backlist!

Hot Target, by Suzanne Brockmann: I definitely haven't yet tired of Brockmann. This one has a very solid romance and suspense plot, and I just adored Jules' secondary storyline.

Crossing the Line, by Stephanie Vaughan: My first all-gay romance, and it was wonderful. Hot and tender and passionate, I loved it!

Honourable mentions:

Jigsaw, by Kathleen Nance: Smart techno-thriller, with a lot of AI I enjoyed almost as much as the romance.

Dedication, by Janet Mullany: Not a perfect book, but it shows lots of promise. Probably the most different Trad Regency I've ever read.

What a Woman Needs, by Caroline Linden: Another one with more mature than usual characters. Wonderfully sensual.


Genuine Lies, by Nora Roberts

This is amazing. Whenever I think I've reread all the Nora Roberts books I've forgotten about or never read at all, I always find another one I somehow managed to skip when I looked at my shelves. Last week I finally noticed Genuine Lies, hiding there behind all the others.

A book to die for...

Eve Benedict is the last of the movie goddesses, a smoky-voiced sex symbol with two Oscars, four ex-husbands, and a legion of lovers to her name. There is no secret, no scandal she doesn't know. Now Eve has decided to write her memoirs--no holds barred. All Hollywood begs her not to. But Eve has her reasons....

Julia Summers is the biographer Eve has handpicked to tell her story. Transported from her quiet life in Connecticut to glitzy Beverly Hills, Julia hates the limelight but loves her work--and the home it built for the ten-year-old son she's raising alone. How can she refuse this chance of a lifetime?

But Eve's elegantly sexy stepson, Paul Winthrop, will challenge Eve's determination to tell her story--and Julia's resolve to guard her heart. And as Julia learns just how far Eve's enemies will go to keep her book from publication, she also discovers that Eve has one last, dark secret to share. It is one that will change Julia's life--and could cut it brutally short.
Well, no wonder this one wasn't at all memorable. It was borderline ok, a B- hovering very near a C+. The middle section saves it, because the first and last parts weren't very enjoyable to me.

So what was the problem? Well, to borrow a a phrase from P.Devi, this was more Judith Krantz than Jayne Ann Krentz. Lots and lots of glitter and glitz and life of movie stars and sleazy scandal, which just isn't something that attracts me. Ever seen that "Move over, Sidney Sheldon: the world has a new master of romantic suspense, and her name is Nora Roberts." quote printed on the cover of one of Nora's books? It's always baffled me, because I really don't see much in common between the two. This book, however, givesme a glimmer of what that person could have been thinking. It does have that flavour to it, especially the first and last sections.

The book combines a present-day story with lots and lots of delving into the past, which is a device which I often love. Julia Summers is a writer of celebrity bios, and she's offered the chance to do the authorized biography of Eve Benedict, quintessential Hollywood star and still a very sought-after and sexy leading lady even as she nears her 70th birthday. Eve has decided to tell all, every single one of her secrets, and given her long career in Hollywood, these secrets are particularly juicy and involve a large number of people, many of whom would do anything to keep them secret.

So on one hand we've got Julia's story, as she settles in Eve's estate with her young son and works on the bio and falls in love with Eve's stepson. On the other, we've got the story of Eve's life and career in Hollywood, narrated both via flashbacks (not very many) and straight narration by Eve.

I actually thought the info about Eve's life story was well-integrated into the story. Unfortunately, it just wasn't a story that interested me. The 70-year-old Eve was an interesting character, but her past, not so much.

The thing is, I've never been fascinated by movie stars, and I've never been able to understand why people idolize them. Neither do I find the stereotypical "Hollywood romance" particulary romantic, and Eve's big love story is very stereotypical. She and Victor (whose last name has fled my mind right now) have supposedly been in love for years and years, but Victor can't leave his wife and live openly with Eve because his wife's sickly and a devout Catholic and he feels too guilty to leave her, because her health began to suffer when she miscarried a child. Is it supposed to be romantic that a guy cares more about his guilty conscience than about making the woman he's supposed to love happy? I don't think so.

There are lots more episodes in Eve's past which were like this: supposed to affect me one way, but actually affecting me in a completely different one. I guess I was supposed to find all that celebrity gossip exciting and glamourous, but I mostly found it sleazy and boring.

I wanted more on the present day story. I wanted more of Julia, of Julia and Paul, of Julia and Eve interacting, of Eve and Paul, even of Paul and Julia's son Brandon. The middle section concentrates on that a bit more, and it was good enough that it almost compensated for the rest of the book.

Oh, and I mustn't forget to mention the prologue. That was really BAD! I'd very much suggest skipping it to anyone who wants to read the book. It's one of those which show you a scene from very late in the book... in this case, Julia leaving the courthouse after being arraigned for the murder of a female, unnamed someone, who I immediately assumed was Eve (I won't say if I was right about that). She leaves the courthouse and goes into a car, where she's given a glass of champagne by someone, who I immediately assumed was Paul (won't say if I was right about that, either) and who asks her "Well, did you kill her?"

I hated that! First, because I spent the entire book waiting for that to happen, and second, because when it happened, it turned out something in that scene was definitely cheating on Nora's part. That "Well, did you kill her?" ? Very misleading. And this trial thing marked the moment in which the story turned into a bit of a courtroom drama, completely changing the tone of the book. Not very satisfying.

Oh, well, at least it was quick reading, even if it was 550 pages long!


Love Song for a Raven, by Elizabeth Lowell

>> Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In spite of the fact that I'm extremely leery of early Elizabeth Lowell titles, I bought Love Song for a Raven because I heard it has an extremely kind, gentle hero, a novelty for Lowell in those days.

Carlson Raven had no choice but to rescue Janna Morgan—the beautiful, courageous woman who struggled against the stormy sea. When he pulled her from the choppy waters and revived her with the heat of his body, his yearning was as unexpected as it was enduring. But Carlson Raven was as untamed and enigmatic as the sea he loved. Would Janna be the woman to capture his wild and lonely heart?
I don't know if it was that I wasn't in the mood, or what, but I was supremely bored by LSFOR. It was a solid C for me.

I really can't believe it. If there's something I've never felt for an old Lowell category title, it's indifference. She kind of specialized in provoking strong emotions back then. Most of them were extreme irritation and a need to bang the book against the wall, but I can't deny her books were, at least, always exciting.

Not LSFOAR. Yes, Carlson Raven is a real nice guy, but his relationship with Jenna Morgan had the most tedious conflict possible. It's one that it's perfectly possible to do right and it has the potential to make for a very poignant romance, but here it falls flat. Raven thinks he's unlovable, and that all Janna can ever feel for him is gratitude. He holds on to that belief against all evidence to the contrary (and there's quite a lot of it, what with Janna constantly trying to tell him she loves him). Janna thinks she has absolutely no sex appeal and that a man like Raven could never want her (she was married to a gay man, see). She holds on to that belief against all evidence to the contrary (and there's quite a lot of it, what with Raven getting constantly hard the minute he sees her).

That would be ok for a while, but that's all there is to the conflict. That's exactly how they each feel at the beginning of the story and it's exactly how they each feel at the end of it, except for the final 2 pages in which they come to their senses. All that happens during the book is that they have sex, and then some more sex, and then yet more sex, ad infinitum. I usually love Lowell's love scenes, but these were plain boring, because there's nothing happening. No growth, no development, nothing. I am especially fond of books with no suspense subplots, books which concentrate solely on the romance, but really, if you're not having anything happen outside of the main characters, you need to have something happening inside them!

Some other short notes:

- Raven kept calling Jenna "small warrior". Always. I don't mean he refered to her as a small warrior, he actually called her that, in a "Yo, small warrior, what's for dinner?" kind of way. So, so Lowell, that kind of thing. I guess it was better than "Fancy Lady", which was what the hero called the heroine in one of her Only books, but it was still irritating.

- Lowell is a true wordsmith. Her language is beautiful, even if at certain points it went beyond poetic into purple territory.

- This book is a kind of sequel to A Woman Without Lies, and you'll probably feel a bit lost if you haven't read that one. I know I was. There are lots and lots of mentions to the relationship between Raven and Angel (the heroine from AWWL), and I still haven't been able to work out what happened between them.

- There's a very funny thread at one of the AAR message boards. The discussion centers on how certain small, unimportant details like the hero's hair color, or the characters' names, or a book's title can be a deal-breaker sometimes, and the posters call this being citizens of Shallowland, a country of many regions (see here). Well, I guess I'm a citizen, too, and the city I live in is called Moustacheville. What is it with Lowell and moustaches and beards? Ugh!


Standing in the Shadows, by Shannon McKenna

>> Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My first Shannon McKenna, Behind Closed Doors, blew me away. I just couldn't believe I'd enjoyed it so much, mainly because the hero was of the alpha caveman variety. Standing in the Shadows (excerpt) seemed to be more of the same (and a friend assured me it was), so I simply couldn't resist.

Ex-FBI agent Connor McCloud can never forget the day he was set up to die at the hands of trusted friend and fellow agent Ed Riggs. Hard justice and loyalty to his badge have cost Connor what he wants most--Ed's shy, studious daughter, Erin. He can never have her now, but her beauty still haunts and torments his every waking hour and his most fevered erotic dreeams. But now that his old enemy, Kurt Novak has returned, Connor is prepared to do anything to protect the vulnerable young woman from a killer who has vowed a brutal payback . . . a killer with a predator's lethal patience.

Erin has been harboring secret fantasies about Connor McCloud since she first laid eyes on him--but that was before his testimony sent her father to jail. Her world is falling apart and it's all she can do to hold her family together. But now Connor is knocking on her door, telling her she needs his protection, whether she wants it or not. He won't give up and he won't stay away. He's sworn to guard her life with his own and his fierce protectiveness awakens long-buried feelings--and a fiery sexuality deep within her soul . . .
It definitely was more of the same, and I enjoyed it just as much as I did BCD. A B+.

I just love how absorbing, how intense McKenna's books are. They're usually pretty long, way over 400 pages (at a time when books seem to be getting shorter and shorter), and I think I must have read both in pretty much one sitting. Once I started SITS, it sucked me in. That's probably because the whole book was fairly vibrating with passion. Not just the love scenes (which were steamy, long and plentiful... more about that later), everything. What I mean is, McKenna obviously enjoyed writing every minute of this story: the romance, the suspense, the McCloud family scenes, every single part of the book, and as a result, it feels alive and fresh. I never, ever felt the need to skim even one paragraph, and that is rare.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I realize it's definitely not for everyone. Take Connor, the hero. Like Seth in BCD, there's a bit of the caveman in him. Professionally, he's great, even subtle in his thinking, but that very definitely does not cross over to his personal life. And guess what? I still found him an appealing character. I think it must have been because the way he cares about Erin (is crazy about her, actually, from the very beginning) just shows through everything he does. Even when he's lusting after her (heavy-duty, big-time, obsessive lusting), there's an undertone of tenderness there.

Erin was the weakest part of the plot. While she is stronger than I expected after reading BCD, she does have some episodes of stupidity. Typical stuff, refusing to be careful and take care when it's possible that she is under threat. I mean, even if there was only a small, tiny chance that there might be an animal like Novak after me, I'd probably be camping out at the police station! I don't expect such extremes, but I do want the heroine (and the hero, for that matter, but it's usually the heroine), to be a bit more vigilant, just in case. Other than that, she was ok. And when she was with Connor, she was definitely not a weak, powerless idiot. She has such power over the man, because of how he feels about her, and she does use it.

And this brings us to the sex. Now, this is exactly what I want from a hot book. I don't need gimmicks or exotic positions or anything like that. All I need is two characters who obviously turn each other on, as Connor and Erin do. And McKenna definitely has a way with love scenes. The first one is, IIRC, over 50 pages long (it's a couple of times in a row, actually), and I didn't feel tempted to skip one word.

Actually, McKenna writes this area dangerously close to the limits of my comfort zone. Most of the time she stays just a hair within it, which makes her scenes exciting, but I do have to say she loses me in the few instances in which she steps over the line. The scene in which Connor gets so angry at Erin for consenting to wear that dress when she visits her suspicious client was one of them, for example. It made me more uncomfortable than excited.

The suspense subplot is good, taut and suspenseful. I actually see quite a few things in common between McKenna and one of my new favourites, Lisa Marie Rice, and this is one of the areas in which they're similar. Both have got the hot-tender mix pitch-perfect and both create better-than-usual suspense subplots.

The only thing I'm not to happy about in this case is that the mystery was a bit too closely related to the one in BCD. Even having read that book not all that long ago, I didn't remember every detail, and I was a bit lost at the beginning. Still, it was a good one. I especially liked the way she had her villains play with Connor's head, making him feel a degree of helplessness and vulnerability that really enhanced his humanity and made him a bit less larger than life. And the conclusion was just amazing!

I really, really can't wait to read Out of Control now. Unfortunately, McKenna seems to be one of those authors which people tend to keep, so there just aren't that many used copies of it floating around, so I don't know when I'll be able to get to it :-(


The Forbidden Daffodils, by Mary Balogh

>> Monday, December 26, 2005

The Forbidden Daffodils is a short story by Mary Balogh, published in the Blossoms anthology.

Kate Buchanan was ruined when she was 18. After a disastrous elopement and being rescued by the Marquess of Ashendon, she refused to marry her rescuer, even though they'd spent two nights on the road together and everyone knew about it. Her father, angry at her defiance, condemns her to live the rest of her life in exile in a remote Welsh village.

Five years later, Kate has resigned herself to her new life, and is actually at peace and as happy as she can be, considering the circumstances. But who should arrive to perturb her contentment but Ashendon himself, who still seems to be so determined to do his duty that he keeps proposing to her, no matter how much she protests she hates him?

I really loved this story, it was an A- for me. It actually reminded me a bit of Slightly Dangerous, with a hero who has trouble showing that there are, indeed, very strong feelings behind his cold, seemingly impassive façade, and a heroine who has strong feelings for him, but rejects him because she doesn't want to spend her life with someone who doesn't return them.

It's a big misunderstanding story, but it works just fine because it was a perfectly believable one. It was one that was driven by the characters' personalities, not by the needs of the plot, and it made for a particularly poignant read. Ashendon is just so, so wonderful. Those scenes from his point of view, in which you really see his vulnerability, were amazing and had me almost crying.

At 70 pages, the story was the perfect length, too. A bit longer, and Kate would probably have begun to grate, but as it is, it was almost perfect. The only slightly false step was the revelations about what really happened that night 5 years before (Kate's "reasons"). That was an unnecessary whitewash of the heroine; I would have prefered the version that made her a more imperfect character. Still, that was a small thing, and it didn't make me love the story any less.

Googling this story gives me the impression it's something of a buried treasure. There just isn't much about it (or the rest of the stories in the anthology) online. Actually, the only thing I was able to find was a post by Alyssa, who listed it among her top 100 romances. I'd agree!

The rest of the stories, in case anyone's interested, are: A Golden Crocus, by Patricia Rice, Hyacinths for Victoria, by Patricia Oliver, The Apple Blossom Bower, by Margaret Evans Porter and Violets are Blue, by Karen Harper. I made a half-hearted attempt to read them, but I stopped after a few pages of A Golden Crocus because I just wasn't interested, and since I borrowed the book from a friend, I felt no obligation to finish it. Unless someone tells me one or more of the stories are truly wonderful, I'll just return this to my friend with only the Balogh story read.


Winterset, by Candace Camp

>> Friday, December 23, 2005

Winterset is the third book in Candace Camp's Moreland family series, of which I read the first book, Mesmerized.

Mesmerized was my second try of an author I hadn't much liked in her bodice-ripper incarnation, many years ago, and it was a pleasant surprise. It didn't blow me away, but it was a nice enough read that I was interested in Winterset.

Despite its graceful beauty, Winterset remains shrouded in the mystery of its dark past. . .

Ever Since Anna Holcombe inexplicably refused his proposal, Reed Moreland has been unable to set foot in the home that was the backdrop to their romance—Winterset. The eerie beauty of the Gloucestershire mansion and the mystery that surrounds it have always captivated him, and he can neither continue living in the house nor give it up completely despite the painful memories it stirs in his heart.

But when Reed begins having his troubling dreams about Anna being in danger, he puts his heartbreak and bitterness aside and directs his carriage back to Winterset, determined to protect the woman he cannot stop loving. Once again passion flares between them, but the murder of a servant girl draws them deep in to the foreboding, deadly legends of Winterset. . .and a destiny neither Anna nor Reed can escape.
To a lesser degree, my experience with Winterset to the one I had with Susanna Kearsley's wonderful The Shadowy Horses. This was a book I enjoyed even while realizing it had certain flaws and that most people wouldn't like it nearly as much. My grade is a B, then, but I'm pretty sure it will be lower for the majority of its readers.

This is quite a quiet story, considering the events surrounding it. It combines a second chance romance with a gothic- and paranormal-tinged mystery, and both very much engaged my attention.

Three years before the start of the story, Reed Moreland fell in love with Anna Holcombe on a visit to his newly purchased estate, Winterset. He had good reason to think she returned his feelings, and the courtship proceeded swimmingly, but when he proposed, she rejected him in terms that didn't leave him any grounds for hope. He immediately left Winterset and never went back.

The story starts as Reed wakes up after a truly scary dream about Anna, which convinces him of the fact that she's in danger. See, after his sisters' experiences with the paranormal (narrated in the two previous books) Reed is pretty open-minded about this kind of thing. Still, he can't very well write to Anna about it, so he decides to go to Winterset for a while, with the excuse of looking it over in order to sell it, which he realizes he really should seriously consider.

When he arrives everything seems just fine... until the body of a maid employed at Anna's house is found, clawed to death by what seems to be an animal, only there are no animals that big in the environs. Fifty years before there was a case just like that one (same claw marks, similar victim), which only adds to the mystery, especially when another body is found, also exactly echoing the old murders.

And then there's the fact that Reed's feelings for Anna are still very much alive, and that he still seems to get the feeling that Anna is very much attracted to him, too. As they team up to investigate the murders, the romance quickly flares up again.

Now, let's just look at the romance angle. The first thing I thought when I read the first few pages what that Anna had better have a very good reason for her actions of three years before. If she'd rejected Reed because she wasn't good enough for the son of a duke, or because she needed to take care of her brother and father, I thought, I'd probably have banged the book against the wall. Fortunately, the reason Camp gives her is a very good one, and her actions make perfect sense. Furthermore, she doesn't cling to the secret overlong. It's something she'd obviously want to keep a secret, but she tells Reed at the exact moment it made sense for her to do so.

Reed and Anna's romance is not a particularly exciting one -no fiery passions, no high tempers- but I liked it. These two people obviously liked each other immensely, as well as being attracted to one another. They enjoyed simply spending time together and talking, and I got the feeling they were perfectly suited.

Reed is quite a nice guy. His characterization wasn't particularly deep, but I liked what there was of it. As for Anna, she won my heart unconditionally with her good sense when, after the attacks, she decided to take precautions and give up her freedom to go for rides alone for a while, taking a groom with her instead. So refreshing!

The mystery was a truly interesting one, and I enjoyed the investigation. I realize I haven't mentioned it yet, but Anna is a bit of a psychic herself, and has spells in which she, for instance, kind of connects to the violence that happened at a certain place and feels what the people are feeling. That is crucial to the investigation, but it didn't feel like a cop-out. It and the more normal fact-finding activities were well combined and made for an interesting case.

My only problem with Winterset was the writing style, something that's a bit strange, considering how long Camp has been writing professionally. She kept jerking the POV around. I don't mind head-hopping from the hero to the heroine (or even to other characters, occasionally), as long as it is well done, but Camp would keep sticking bits of omniscient POV in there. She'd be in Anna's head, as she dressed up in her oldest clothes and went to meet Reed, and then, in the same paragraph, point out that what Anna didn't know was that those clothes made her look beautiful. This wasn't something I'd even have noticed a few years ago, but I did this time, and it kept throwing me out of the action.

As I mentioned, Winterset is part of a series, but it stands alone just fine. There are some characters from the previous books, and certain events mentioned, but they aren't much of a bother. In fact, the hero and heroine from book 2, Beyond Compare ,show up, and even though I didn't read that one, I was never lost.


Kiss of the Highlander, by Karen Marie Moning

>> Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ok, I'm about to start Kiss of the Highlander (excerpt, etc.), by Karen Marie Moning. If you take a look at my index, you'll see pitiful few time travel romances there, and that's for a reason: I'm really not into them. Same thing with Scottish set historicals, you won't find all that many of them in my index. Nothing against Scotland or Scottish men, I just don't usually enjoy the romance novel version of them.

So what am I doing starting a novel with the word "Highlander" on the title and a watch on the cover? Why, trying a new author for the Author of the Month at my Historical Romance Chat group! Moning was chosen this month, and since she has nothing BUT highlanders and time travels, usually both together (or at least, the two Monings my friend had that I could borrow were highlanders and time travel), I'm reading exactly that. I promise to keep an open mind and really try to enjoy this, no matter how unlikely I think that is, a priori. After all, I've heard good comments about Moning from plenty of people whose taste I trust.

A laird trapped between centuries...
Enchanted by a powerful spell, Highland laird Drustan MacKeltar slumbered for nearly five centuries hidden deep in a cave, until an unlikely savior awakened him. The enticing lass who dressed and spoke like no woman he'd ever known was from his distant future, where crumbled ruins were all that remained of his vanished world. Drustan knew he had to return to his own century if he was to save his people from a terrible fate. And he needed the bewitching woman by his side....

A woman changed forever in his arms...

Gwen Cassidy had come to Scotland to shake up her humdrum life and, just maybe, meet a man. How could she have known that a tumble down a Highland ravine would send her plunging into an underground cavern—to land atop the most devastatingly seductive man she'd ever seen? Or that once he'd kissed her, he wouldn't let her go?

Bound to Drustan by a passion stronger than time, Gwen is swept back to sixteenth-century Scotland, where a treacherous enemy plots against them ... and where a warrior with the power to change history will defy time itself for the woman he loves....
I'll be trying something new here. I'll write every now and then and record my impressions as the book progresses. Let's see how it goes.

Just started, page 12. Groan. Right, the heroine's a 25-year-old virgin with a PhD, tromping around Scotland trying to lose her virginity. Someone kill me now! No, really, I promise, I'll keep an open mind and I truly will try to enjoy this!

page 57: I'm quite enjoying this! Gwen has just found Drustan and serendipitously woken him up, and he's just realized he's in the 21st century. It's fun. Drustan's quite arrogant, of course, very caveman-ish, but there's a certain kindness there that tempers it.

page 158: oh, wow, I planned to make a little note every 50 pages or so, but the story has really grabbed me, and I completely forgot. The only reason I stopped now is because I had a phone call, and since I'm at a bit of a crisis point in the book, it's a good moment to appraise.

So far, the book's been surprisingly good. I really liked the scenes of Drustan confronting the advances of the 21st century. Making him a powerful druid, with a certain concept of time travel already, makes it more believable that he'd take this all pretty much in stride. And the scenes in the clothing store and the car were fun. Things like Drustan wanting to buy a purple sweatsuit tickled my funny bone. Also, there's quite a bit of chemistry between Drustan and Gwen, and they really sizzle together. I especially like the way Drustan is so smitten by her, the way he's so sure she's the woman for him, that it was worth it for him to travel 500 years to the future to find her.

I'm not 100% happy about where the story is right now. Drustan's decision to, as far as I understand, take Gwen back to the 16th century with him, without her approval, or even knowledge, is *very* iffy for me. I'd really, really hate to have to live back then!

Let's see if I'm right about what will happen (I promise not to delete this if I'm wrong, so you can see just how off base I was at this point): the version of Drustan that's been in the 21st century will disappear (if I understood what he said about the danger of two versions of the same person being in the same time and approximate space), because he'll have been slightly wrong about the symbols. Gwen will be stranded in the 16th c. and have no idea what to do. She (again, if I understood correctly) will just need to find 16thc!Drustan and recite the poem 21stc!Drustan made her memorize, in order to restore his memory, but he never explained that, so she won't do it for a long time. And obviously, 16thc!Drustan will not believe anything she says. I kept wondering as I read why he didn't write the instructions down on a piece of paper. After all, he knew there was a good chance he was going to screw it up!

Ok, I'm going back to the book to see just how wrong I am!

page 232: Just as I suspected. Gwen protests and protests and Drustan won't believe her. These past 75 pages have been somewhat frustrating. Come on, Gwen, think!!

page 335: At last! Gwen thought, and did what she should have done days before. Still, the whole process (at least, these past 100 pages, once Gwen realizes she's going to have to keep trying and that' that) was better to read and less frustrating than it could have been, and there were some lovely scenes there. Their conversation with Drustan locked in the garderobe was one of them. When Gwen repeats a certain something that Drustan said to her in the future, wow! So now things are just lovely between them.

And that is a bit of a problem... the story is all but over on the romance front, and we still have some 65 pages to go. I guess the action will shift to the problem of who Drustan enemy was, something that had been pretty much forgotten up until now. It's also something we readers know already, though, so where is the tension going to be coming from?

The end: Well, the suspense subplot was dispensed with in a hurry (good news for me, since I wasn't particularly anticipating long, drawn-out battle scenes), and Moning did manage to get some conflict there that I should have guessed but didn't, and it was pretty good. I quite liked the solution to how they can be together from now on (and I'll say no more about this).

And that thing at the end, the setup for Drustan's brother book? Should have irritated me to no end, but all it did was make me want to read his book, Dark Highlander, even if the AAR review sounds dire.

Final verdict: This was pretty damn good! I'd rate it a solid B. Drustan was a nice alpha: a bit possessive, a bit dominating (Gwen could stand up to him just fine, so that was ok), but his basic kindness just came through and he had enough vulnerability to make him interesting. As for Gwen, she was actually pretty smart and fun and didn't grate as I feared she would when she was first introduced.

I've got to thank Sandy for choosing Moning, as I would never have picked up one of her books if I hadn't been forced to. That's what AOM is all about! :-)


The Legacy of Croft Castle, by Jean Barrett

>> Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Legacy of Croft Castle, by Jean Barrett is part of the Harlequin Intrigue Eclipse promotion of gothic mysteries. Strangely enough, even though I'm a fan of gothics, this is the first I read in this line.

Ghost hunter Meredith Allen couldn't resist the summons to Croft Castle. A centuries-old ghost had suddenly become more than a nuisance — it had become deadly. But the castle with its eerie glowing lights, secret passages and ghostly apparitions was not her greatest obstacle — it was the very mortal, very manly presence of private eye Jackson Hawke.

Jackson was convinced that the perpetrator behind the strange happenings at Croft Castle was human. Only, he needed Meredith's help to prove it, even if her nearness clouded his judgment, aroused his desire…and made him fear for her safety. But Meredith was right about one thing — there was something evil in the castle, and the more they investigated, the deeper the mystery grew…the stronger their passion burned….
A fun mystery set in a truly creepy and well done location, with a romance that's quite nice, if a little bit bland. A B-.

It says something about the under-utilization of contemporary Europe as a setting, especially in series romance, that I was quite surprised to see this book was set in England. Seeing "Croft Castle" in the title wasn't that big a clue, as far as I was concerned, since I've read more than a few books with castles moved to America stone by stone by eccentric ancestors. That's what I was expecting here, too, but nope, Croft Castle was located in an island in Cornwall. Quite nice, that surprise!

And even nicer was the way the author made use of this setting, making it come alive so much that it was like a character on its own right, the very mark of a gothic. Croft Castle is wonderfully creepy and atmospheric (as is the whole island it's built on), and the mystery centred on it truly intriguing and unique, with a nice combination of very human villains and the occasional ghost.

It wasn't perfect, though. Even liking the basic plot quite a bit, I had some trouble with how Barrett wrote Jackson and Meredith's investigation of the case. Even when they were right about their conclusions, their reasoning felt flimsy. I don't know if I'm expressing it very well... I just mean that sometimes they'd reach certain conclusions (which were the correct ones) and it didn't seem to me that there was enough evidence for them to draw from and actually deduce their conclusions. You could see the hand of the author there, propelling Meredith and Jackson from point A to B to C.

And also, it might not be particularly fair of me, but I have a golden standard against which I can't help but compare ghost stories, and that is Barbara Michaels' books. In her stories, the protagonists work very hard not to be gullible and to only conclude the explanation to strange events is supernatural phenomena when the evidence is solid. Compared to them, Meredith is a gullible idiot. She already arrives at Croft Castle 99% convinced that she's going to be investigating a real ghost, and that of Edward Atheling, at that. And she goes the extra step into 100% belief at the slightest excuse, after seeing something that is suggestive, but hardly conclusive! Again, of course she's absolutely right in her conclusions, but I wasn't convinced by the process.

The romance itself was ok. Not great, but ok. I liked both protagonists, and they genuinely liked each other, too, which was good. Still, there just wasn't enough character development or heat between them to make the romance really exciting.

I'm going to have to try some more Eclipse titles. This wasn't perfect, but it mostly hit the spot.


Return Engagement, by Lynn Michaels

>> Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My first Lynn Michaels was Mother of the Bride, which I didn't love, but did like enough to try another one by her. Her next book was Return Engagement, and it sounded interesting.

Act One: Girl Leaves Boy

Lindsay West may have the face of a Hollywood starlet, but the demanding life of a teen celebrity never suited her. So nearly twenty years ago, she left her hit TV show and returned to her hometown of Belle Coeur, Missouri Now Lindsay takes a role in a new play in a regional theatre, unaware that she'll be sharing the stage with her former castmate, one-time heartthrob Noah Patrick.

Act Two: Boy Tries to Win Back Girl

Noah Patrick took the gig at the Belle Coeur Theatre hoping it would help revive his stalled career - but it was his heart that got the jumpstart. Playing opposite the beautiful and enigmatic Lindsay, he begins to understand that fame is fickle and fortune is fleeting but true love lasts. Growing up together on the set of the show that made them both stars, Noah didn't give Lindsay much thought. But now she has grown into someone impossible to forget.

Act Three: Anyone's Guess

Fighting off man-eating bears, Lindsay's quirky family, and a pretty serious case of pneumonia, Noah will do whatever it takes to prove that this former bad boy has turned into a man Lindsay can love…before the curtain falls!
Return Engagement was a nice read. It could have been much better with a little tightening up, but I quite enjoyed it anyway. A B-.

It didn't really start well. Or rather, the first scene was pretty good: down on his luck, former child star Noah Patrick has touched bottom. After a truly spectacular crash-and-burn, involving oceans of alcohol and diva-like temperamental behaviour, he's lost everything and, even though he's been sober for a while, he's been living on the streets for some years now. The book opens as he's had enough with life, and he decides to let the waves he used to love so much when he was a surfer drown him.

He almost succeeds, even after he changes his mind in the last minute. As he drags himself out of the ocean, he runs into prize bitch and agent Vivienne Varner, mother of Lindsay, the actress who was his co-star in the teen show (Betwixt and Be Teen) which made him famous. Vivienne proposes a bargain: she'll "scrape him off the ground" and pay him a respectable salary, if he'll agree go to Belle Coeur, Missouri, where Lindsay lives now, and appear opposite her in the play Vivienne's other daughter, Jolie, has written.

With nothing to lose, Noah agrees and, after a few weeks tuning up his formerly buff body and pretty face (living on the streets is hell on that), Noah heads on to Belle Coeur.

All this takes a few pages, and was nicely intriguing. It's when the actual action in Belle Coeur starts that I got a bit worried. Michaels quickly introduces a huge cast of characters (most of them Lindsay's family), all of them trying awfully hard to be wacky and zany and cute. In those first sections, not only did I have a horrible time trying to figure out who was who (I confess I still wasn't sure exactly who was whose brother or sister when the book ended), the wacky relatives' antics threatened to overwhelm the entire plot.

I looked at the slightly longer than usual book (over 400 pages) and worried I'd be reading about these people for pages on end, and I didn't think I could tolerate it. It wasn't just that they were irritating; many of the things which were supposed to be wacky and funny, just weren't. Take Lindsay's Aunt Sassy and her husband Ezra Pantz, for instance. Their "thing" is that Sassy cheats on Ezra with any and every man who seems even slightly interested, and Ezra gets insanely jealous and threatens people regularly with his gun, Lucille, only to get all chastened and ashamed when Sassy berates him for it. Does this sound funny to you? To me, Sassy's actions were just too mean and hurtful to be funny. Plus, did you notice Sassy's name? Sassy Pantz, yeah. That kind of overly precious cuteness doesn't do it for me.

Fortunately, after some 70 pages, the story finally got going and concentrated on Noah and Lindsay (and on Lindsay and her adversarial relationship with her sister, Jolie, who's still pissed off at her mother and Lindsay for abandoning her as a kid and going off to Hollywood), and this was a huge improvement. The zaniness quotient got above tolerable levels every now and then, but it was seldom enought that I could take it.

I really liked Noah. He's a truly decent guy who's made some very big mistakes in his past and hurt a lot of people, and he knows it. Or rather, he knows it but a bit vaguely, because so much drinking has made a whole lot of those years extremely fuzzy. The best scenes in the book were the ones in which he was made to truly understand exactly how big those mistakes were, and what they can cost him in the present. The minute he meets Lindsay again, he wants her like crazy, and not just physically. When he finds out what he did to her all those years ago, oh, wow! There's one particular scene, after they make love for the first time and he gets all possessive and Lindsay isn't particularly receptive to this, which makes him realize exactly how deep the consequences of his actions were, that was just amazing.

I was surprised to see that Michaels made no excuses for Noah's old behaviour. There was no evil villain who caused a big misunderstanding between him and Lindsay, no one who plotted to make him addicted to drink, not even a horrible, horrible childhood he drank to drown. He was just a supposedly well-adjusted young man from a nice family whose sudden fame went to his head. The thing is, he was from such a nice family, that near the end of the book, when we get a glimpse into Noah's relationship with his parents, some doubts emerged. What could have kept his parents away from Noah, when his downward spiral was supposedly so public? And why wouldn't Noah go to them for help? Pride? After the way he glommed on to Vivian? I didn't completely buy that.

Lindsay was a bit blah, and she really annoyed me sometimes. The repressed, martyr for her little sister who treats her like crap routine is oh-so-romance-novel-heroineish, and then there was the "No-ah!" thing she kept doing which made me feel like slapping her. And don't get me started on the whole Papa Bear thing she had going on right there in the epilogue... yucks! That epilogue was so saccharine sweet it turned my stomach.

Still, even being a bit ambivalent about Lindsay, I truly enjoyed her relationship with Noah. Once they finally get into bed, that relationship becomes surprisingly raunchy and quite hot, which I loved. Actually, the only thing that I didn't like in this area was how careless they were about safe sex, especially Lindsay. I guess it's probably a double standard on my part, but I tend to be especially hard on someone like her, who has a 15 year old son and really should have had worries about safe sex on her mind!

Something I liked was that Michaels kept tricking me. I'd think I could see certain staples, certain clichéd plot twists coming, but then she headed them off neatly, which kept the book fresh. Unfortunately, though, some of the plot she did choose was a bit irritating. I really thought Lindsay made too much about how evil her mother was, and how big a threat she was, and, at the same time, she just refused to put that awful Jolie in her place. And really, the whole psychic mumbo-jumbo about Chaos really could have been cut without losing anything. All it added to the book was confusion, since I never really understood what it was about.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this book needed tightening up. However, the romance was nice enough that I'd recommend it.


Island Enchantment, by Robyn Donald

I don't really remember why I bought a bunch of old Robyn Donald Harlequin Presents. I think someone might have recommended her on the comments after one of my Susan Napier posts, but damned Haloscan keeps only the last 150 comments, so I can't find that. I'm seriously thinking of attempting to install Blogger comments again.

Anyway, the first Robyn Donald I tried was Island Enchantment.

She'd fallen into his plans like the naive fool she was - allowing him to charm her totally and to use the bewildering response of her body against her. Behind his devastating facade was a ruthless businessman - a man determined to steal her home and her livelihood in the north of New Zealand. That had been seven years ago. Now, face-to-face once again with Guy Lorimer, Mike couldn't run from the dark spell that still drew her to him. And she knew the only way to break free was to give in to her desires - totally, recklessly and let the pieces fall.
I'm afraid it wasn't a success. Island Enchantment was just chock-full of the very elements which made me stop reading the old translated Harlequins, which are so easy and cheap to find here in Montevideo, and motivated me to go through the trouble and expense of getting other kinds of romance novels. This one had it all (except the crappy translation, that is, since this one was the original English version): weak-willed, extremely naive heroine; cold, derisive hero, whose POV we're not privy to, and simplistic plot. It also had a wonderful setting, which was what so often attracted me to some of these books, but that just wasn't enough to compensate for the rest. A D+.

A short summary, since the blurb I quoted above is not particularly informative: 20-year-old Mike Christopher (the heroine; Mike is short for Michaela) has been living and working at the Far Islands resort ever since her mother died 4 years before and left her all alone in the world. The resort's owner has gone into a funk since his wife died and he crawled into the bottle, so the resort has been going to pieces. Mike does her best to keep it running, working in every area, from dusk till dawn, but it's just not enough.

One day Guy Lorimer, a mysterious, masterful stranger arrives at the resort, and Mike feels a powerful spark of attraction for him, one that he seems to return. He... well, I wouldn't exactly say he woos her, because he's much too coldly arrogant for that. He comes on to her, at any rate, and Mike soon falls for him. They spend a lot of time together, and Mike often takes him exploring the area, which always seems to result in some passionate interludes.

This section wasn't good at all. I couldn't really understand Mike's attraction to Guy. Ok, so he was attractive, so I understand a bit of lust, but the man did not have an attractive personality! He was always cold and derisive and insulting, typical old HP fare. And Mike was a particularly irritating heroine, all defensive about the hotel owner and the way she's being exploited, and oh-so-pliant whenever Guy expressed any interest at all, no matter how insulting he was about it.

After Guy leaves, Mike finds out he was the advance for a group that has bought the resort, and both the owner and the rest of the employees will need to vacate the premises. There is no way any of them can keep their jobs, apparently, and Mike gets terribly upset about all this and travels to the mainland to confront Guy.

And here I had another problem. Instead of getting upset at Guy for using her (he was just doing his job, but did he really need to seduce an obviously innocent young woman to do it?), she gets upset at him because of the hotel purchase. Never mind that the owner had been running the hotel into the ground, never mind that the other employees were quite incompetent, Guy's EVIL for wanting to buy Harry's hotel. She never even considers blaming poor Harry for not taking care of his business and putting his employees at risk.

So off she goes to see Guy. When he sees him, she does say her piece, but again, the ninny goes all submissive when Guy makes yet another move on her. It was just weird, as if she's gone into a trance and had the word "no" removed from her vocabulary. Everything Guy proposes she does. Go to dinner, go to bed with him, everything. And the little misunderstanding there at the end, about her motivations for going to bed with him, was just so, so silly.

The action then fast-forwards 7 years (I wouldn't ordinarily mention this, since it happens way past the half-way point of the book, but it's plastered all over the back cover) and Mike and Guy meet again. She's supposedly grown up and become worldly and sophisticated, but she shows just the same backbone she showed at the beginning when confronted by Guy: none whatsoever.

Guy confesses to her that his motivations back then hadn't been the ones she thought, that he loved her and blah, blah, blah, but it just didn't ring true to me. There was this huge disconnect between his actions and what he says he was feeling, and actually, his actions and the way he speaks to Mike in the present-day action didn't sound particularly loving to me, no matter what he said. He was the same old cold, insulting, etc. bastard, as far as I'm concerned, no matter how much he protested he loved Mike. Maybe getting inside his head and seeing some of the action from his POV, instead of all from Mike's would have helped bridge this disconnect somewhat, but Island Enchantment follows the rigid rules and never peeks into his mind.

Oh, well, at least it was a short and quick read. Now, what should I do about those other Robyn Donalds in my TBR? I don't feel at all tempted to try them now!


Cruel to be Kind, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Saturday, December 17, 2005

Cruel to be Kind was actually the first book I got by Stephanie Vaughan, but I didn't get around to reading it until after I'd read her two 2005 gay romance releases, Jumping the Fence and Crossing the Line.

Steve Eriksson is a regular guy. He likes basketball and beer. He works hard in his family's construction and restoration business. Steve’s normal life is about to change. Because he's about to meet Megan.

Professional chef Megan Mussina returns to her home town looking for some peace and quiet. A place to put her life back in order after the disaster of a relationship gone publicly wrong. A new man in her life is the last thing she wants. Until she meets Steve.

From the first they share an overpowering physical attraction. Steve is just the sort of powerful, successful submissive man Megan never knew she needed. And Megan knows the one thing Steve never knew he craved. Sometimes, you just gotta be Cruel to be Kind.
Unlike those other two books, CTBK has a romance between a man and a woman, but it's still one that is quite different from what you usually see in romance novels. Megan is a domme, while Steve is a submissive. This is actually a first for me. I've read a few books that had a certain hint of it, all of them with the hero as the dominant partner, and I didn't like any of them at all, so CTBK was a bit of an experiment for me. Would having the heroine be the dominant one make all the difference for me?

The answer is not really. Vaughan was very careful to lay this out as a relationship where the dominance and the submissiveness was something that had full and well thought-out consent from both of the partners, which was a marked improvement from those other books I'd read. The thing is, however, that I never got to viscerally understand Megan and Steve's relationship.

I understood it intellectually with no trouble at all, and I really had no problem with it in terms of approving or disapproving. But I just couldn't identify with the protagonists yearnings. Her gay romances weren't much of a stretch for me in that sense. What Ben and Kevin and Ryan and Jamie were looking for in a relationship is pretty much what I look for, even if I look for it in people of the opposite sex. It's just the same impulse that makes me attracted to men, the same thinking.

It's different here. I didn't completely get the need for dominance, in Megan's case and for submission in Steve's. The shame is Vaughan had been doing a pretty good job in the first half, and I'd began to have a certain inkling of where these two were coming from, but in the second, especially in the very last pages, when they leave for San Francisco, all this seemed to dissipate, and the action left me scratching my head.

Maybe it's unfair of me, because, in a way, I'm penalizing this book for not succeeding in "educating" me. Maybe if this had been the fifth book I'd read about this subject matter I'd have liked this much better. However, I am grading for my enjoyment of the book, and since this affected my enjoyment...

Also, this one had the same problem the other books had: length. It was much too short and could have done with a bit more development of the romantic relationship. Also, I got the feeling quite a few things were left hanging, as some truly puzzling hints about a certain past between Steve and his brother's wife. I really don't know what that was about... maybe a reference to another book?

So, basically, an intriguing book that was ultimately pretty unsatisfying. A C+.


Bedspell, by Jule McBride

>> Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bedspell is my first book by author Jule McBride. It got conflicting reviews at the two sites I usually check out (a B at AAR, 2 stars at TRR), but I thought it sounded interesting.

Signe Sargent has it made in Manhattan. Fab girlfriends to hang out with, a line on a hot new job and a crush on Gorgeous Garrity, the Big Apple's #1 bachelor. Except he's not quite responding to her charms, so for fun Signe casts a love spell on him.

Amazingly that night she gets her man — in bed — for some very good sex! Problem is that next morning it's clear he's the wrong Garrity brother. James is a mere Park Ranger, no wealthy business exec. Signe wanted Frat Boy; she got Nature Boy instead. Though James is very appealing....

Meantime James can't believe how quickly he's fallen for sexy Signe after just one night together. Is it love, magic or her wacky spell that worked too well?

And what happens when the love spell wears off?
My own take on it is about halfway between those two reviews I linked to. I liked it a bit less than the AAR reviewer, but more than the TRR reviewer did. Ultimately, though it had some nice moments, it was pretty average and I'd rate it a C+.

Bedspell combines three elements I particularly like, but it doesn't really do much with them.

First, it has a relationship which starts with the sex. The first time Signe and James actually see each other is when they wake up in bed together, and only after that do they start to get to know each other. This type of plot is very hard to get right, because how do you sustain sexual tension when your hero and heroine are going at it like bunnies? Well, some authors manage to do it quite well, but this wasn't one of those cases. Signe and James were nice together, but a bit bland.

Second, it has the hero as the pursuer. After waking up together, Signe gives James the wrong name and hightails it back to New York. James is captivated by her anyway and follows her and tracks her down, even taking time off from work and paying a huge sum for this makeover thing Signe is working at in order to be able to be near her. That was quite sweet, but very soon, these two are getting along just fine together, and the only thing separating is a conflict that's shallow at best.

Finally, James is the brother of the guy Signe had a crush on, the guy Signe actually thought she was seducing when they slept together. This is a complete guilty pleasure for me, but I confess it; I actually seek out books with this plot (not this exact plot, duh, just this kind of thing -married to the wrong brother, etc). The thing is, however, that I get the feeling we're supposed to find this out very late in the book, so it's never really an issue. The only reason I knew James was a Garrity was because it says so in the blurb, but now that I think of it, there are only some vague suggestions in the actual book.

For every good part, there was another one which wasn't. The hip New York setting was nice, but Signe never even thinking of asking James for his last name stretched my suspension of disbelief. The scene in which Signe stands up for herself in front of James family was great, but the plot about the theft at the museum was silly at best (that detective following Signe around... really?).

Basically, I had an ok time reading Bedspell. Sometimes it irritated me, but only mildly, and sometimes it made me enjoy myself, but again, only mildly.


Grave Secrets, by Kathy Reichs

>> Wednesday, December 14, 2005

As I wrote in my post about my first Kathy Reichs, Fatal Voyage, the book I wanted to read originally was this one, Grave Secrets.

They are "the disappeared," twenty-three massacre victims buried in a well in the Guatemalan village of Chupan Ya two decades ago. Leading a team of experts on a meticulous, heartbreaking dig, Tempe Brennan pieces together the violence of the past. But a fresh wave of terror begins when the horrific sounds of a fatal attack on two colleagues come in on a blood-chilling satellite call. Teaming up with Special Crimes Investigator Bartolomé Galiano and Montreal detective Andrew Ryan, Tempe quickly becomes enmeshed in the cases of four privileged young women who have vanished from Guatemala City -- and finds herself caught in deadly territory where power, money, greed, and science converge.
Not a perfect book, but I enjoyed this one very much. Actually, given that so much of my reading is romance novels, it feels a bit weird to use the word enjoyment to describe how I felt about Grave Secrets. I seem to relate that word to books that make me feel happy, books I close with a smile. Not in this case, but even though a lot of this book was truly harrowing to read, it was fascinating and well-built and had great characters, so enjoyment does seem to be the word for my feelings for it. A B+.

The book starts with our heroine, forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, working as a volunteer in Guatemala at a dig, trying to find and identify the remains of people killed in a massacre during that country's civil war. Right there, I started crying, probably because this all rings very close to home these days.

The main story isn't really about this, but about a more contemporary investigation, one into the disappearance of four young women from Guatemala City, but Guatemala's recent past is still very much part of the story, affecting the backdrop to a huge degree.

That backdrop was what I found most fascinating about Grave Secrets. As much as I was very intrigued by the actual case, it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting to me if it had been set somewhere more typical. It's quite clear to anyone who reads this that Reichs is describing something she's experienced first-hand. This is no generic Central American setting (jungle -check!, tinpot dictator - check!), this feels real. The people, the culture, the physical setting. What I found a bit annoying in Fatal Voyage, those too-detailed descriptions of obscure places, didn't bother me here.

I especially liked the procedural aspects of the plot, something I'm not usually particularly interested in. The thing is, when I read mysteries or romantic suspense books set in the US, it's like reading science fiction as far as I'm concerned. It's just so incredibly different to the way things are done at home... the procedures followed by cops and technicians, the judicial aspects, the technology, everything!

Reading about this particular investigation, though, gave me the feeling I was reading something that could happen right here. The problems were ones I recognized, even if they are slightly less grave here than in Guatemala (or, at least, the Guatemala described by Reichs) and the people and society felt very familiar.

On the character development front, I liked the triangle Reichs sets up, adding a very interesting Guatemalan detective to the still-in-development Tempe - Ryan relationship. I have to say, though, that I didn't appreciate the gimmicky, cliff-hanger ending in this area.

And speaking of the negatives, as with Fatal Voyage, I thought the book deflated somewhat in the resolution. In a mystery, especially one as complicated and with as many different threads going all over the place as this one, what the resolution needs to accomplish is to give the reader an "a-ha!" moment. I don't know if I can explain it. It's that moment when you realize everything makes sense, the moment that has you thinking back and realizing that all those little things you didn't pay much attention to were important and had a very clear meaning. It's what makes a mystery really satisfying, at least to me.

Here, the "a-ha!" feeling was extremely muted. To be fair, I'm not saying certain things didn't make sense, or that they were any plot holes that were left unexplained. I just mean that finding out what had happened didn't feel as satisfying as it might have. I guess part of it was that a lot of the tying up of seemingly unrelated threads depended too much on coincidence, especially the way the Chupan Ya massacre investigation and the septic tank case ended up being related. I don't know, all I can say is that the unknown piece of the puzzle which was revealed last, the one which should have made everything make sense, didn't fit as well as it might have.

Still, even with that, this is one of the better mysteries I've read lately.


Port of Paradise, by Lisa Marie Rice

>> Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Port of Paradise: my last Lisa Marie Rice. Until I can find the Secrets anthology where her story is published, at any rate. *sob*. Why can't she have a longer backlist? I'm going to try her Elizabeth Jennings mysteries anyway, but I believe those don't have the hot romance her LMR titles do.

Hope Winston is in Italy running a school for her best friend, Kay Summers. But helping Kay has put her life in danger. Hope doesn't want protection and she doesn't want help. She doesn't want anyone, particularly not devastatingly sexy Capitano Franco Rivers, head of the elite anti-mafia squad. Hope hates cops. So how did she end up sleeping with one?

Hope Winston is the most delectable woman Franco Rivera has ever seen.

There's only one problem. Hope keeps sticking her pretty little nose in trouble. She needs a keeper. And Franco Rivera is just the man to keep her...

In his bed.
From the copyrights, I see this one's an earlier book than the ones I read first, and while it's pretty good, a B, I think she's improved with each book. Which means, of course, that there's no way I'm missing her next title, since it's bound to be spectacular!

A lot of Port of Paradise was wonderful. The hero, the setting, the plot, they were all very enjoyable. Unfortunately, the heroine was the fly in this particular soup. In the first part of the book, especially, her constant TSTL behaviour really grated on me.

There she was, chasing after the bad guy at her house, checking out a noise in the dark, not bothering to wake up the cop sleeping in the next room (a guy on guard duty, no less!), refusing to leave the house just because, even when it's getting really dangerous, and so on and so on. She even showed very bad judgment during the first love scene: "no, you don't need a condom, I'm on the pill". Suicidal idiot, you've just met the man!

And then there was Hope's cop phobia, which, even after knowing all the details about the aftermath of her stepdad's murder, seemed a bit much. I would have understood something like that intellectually she knows all cops aren't like the ones who suspected her after her stepfather's death, but she still can't help being afraid. But it's not like this at all. In Hope's case, she firmly believes all cops are violent brutes, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fortunately, Hope does outgrow this behaviour as the story progresses, and I enjoyed the book more and more. And of course, Franco is a lovely hero and the relationship between these two has Rice's trademark heat and tenderness. As all her heroes, Franco is completely focused on Hope from the minute he sees her, and he's relentless in his pursuit. I enjoy betas as much as anyone (more than most people, actually), but seeing Franco's fascination and his determination to have a serious relationship with Hope did make my heart flutter!

And I must not forget to mention the setting. I absolutely loved it. Rice actually lives in Italy, and her descriptions ring true. I could just see it all in my mind, especially because I'd seen a special program about the Puglia region on the BBC a few days earlier, and I had all those lovely images right there, ready to be called up. I've said it before, but I really think Europe is very under-utilized as a setting for contemporaries. I'd love to see more of them.

Oh, and the suspense was fine. As I said in my post about Woman on the Run, LMR's suspense subplots are always above the usual. She never does the boring, clichéd stuff everyone else is doing, which just feels like they were forced by their editor to add a suspense subplot. With this author it's not like that at all. Even if I'm not really reading for the suspense subplot and prefer to spend as much time as possible with the hero and heroine, I don't find myself bored with the suspense, and I can appreciate the fact that it's very competently done. More than I can say about most romantic suspense!


Simply Unforgettable, by Mary Balogh

>> Monday, December 12, 2005

Simply Unforgettable, by Mary Balogh is slightly related to the Slightly series (heh!), and especially to Slightly Scandalous, Freyja's book.

If you remember, in that book there's a certain Miss Martin, who Freyja remembers as one of the governesses she made quit by being a brat. In Scandalous, Freyja finds out the school Miss Martin has established near Bath is struggling, so, feeling guilty for her behaviour (and favourably remembering Miss Martin's dignity in quitting -not accepting further help from Wulf, for instance), she becomes an anonymous benefactor to the school. Also, later in Scandalous, Freyja sends Anna Jewell, a friend of Josh's who's been ostracized because she has an illegitimate son, to be a teacher at the school.

Anyway, this new series focuses on four teachers at the school, including Claudia Martin herself, whose book is supposed to be the last in the series. The second will be about Anna Jewell, and the other two, books 1 and 3, star heroines we haven't previously met (though we did meet the hero from book 3 in A Summer to Remember).

With this, the first in a dazzling new quartet of novels, Balogh invites us into a special world–a select academy for young ladies–a world of innocence and temptation. Drawing us into the lives of four women, teachers at Miss Martin’s School for Girls, Balogh introduces this novel’s marvelous heroine: music teacher Frances Allard–and the man who seduces her with a passion no woman could possibly forget.…

They meet in a ferocious snowstorm. She is a young teacher with a secret past. He is the cool, black-caped stranger who unexpectedly comes to her rescue. Between these two unlikely strangers, desire is instantaneous…and utterly impossible to resist. Stranded together in a rustic country inn, Lucius Marshall, who is the Viscount Sinclair, and Frances Allard share a night of glorious, unforgettable passion. But Frances knows her place–and it is far from the privileged world of the sensual aristocrat. Due to begin her teaching position at Miss Martin’s School in Bath, Frances must try to forget that one extraordinary night–and the man who touched her with such exquisite tenderness and abandon.

But Frances cannot hide forever. And when fate once again throws them together, Lucius refuses to take no for an answer. If Frances will not be his wife, he will make her his mistress. So begins an odyssey fraught with intrigue, one that defies propriety and shocks the straitlaced ton. For Lucius’s passionate, single-minded pursuit is about to force Frances to give up all her secrets–except one–to win the heart of the man she already loves.z   
After reading the wonderful, wonderful Slightly Dangerous I tried not to raise my hopes up too high for the following book. No way Balogh could write two so amazing books in a row! Well, I did like Simply Unforgettable a teeny bit less than Dangerous, but not much. It was an A- for me.

What is it with Balogh and and those "stranded by some kind of storm and seeking comfort from each other" storylines? And what is it with me for enjoying them so much? That's exactly how this one starts. Teacher Frances Allard is on her way home to the school from a Christmas visit to her aunts, when she's caught by a big snowstorm on the road. Driving conditions become dangerous, and they are not improved by the behaviour of a certain gentleman's coach, whose driver has a quite daring driving style. After her carriage falls into a ditch, and realizing it's just not safe to keep driving, Frances and the gentleman, Lucius Marshall, and their respective drivers and grooms decide to take shelter in a nearby inn, empty but for its caretaker.

Frances and Lucius' relationship doesn't start out well. She thinks he's an arrogant ass, he thinks she's a sour shrew. But as they get to know each other, being stuck together for a few day (not much else to do in an empty inn!), their impressions of each other start changing, and a strong attraction develops.

Before long, they've given in to that attraction, and when the time comes to go back on their ways, there is more than a little reluctance to part, on both parts. Lucius is more than willing to continue their relationship (actually, he's quite eager to do that), but Frances refuses to be his mistress. She's got a job she enjoys, one that is secure and that gives her quite a comfortable life, surrounded by people she likes and who like her. She sees no reason to chuck all that for, at most, a couple of years with a man she will probably fall in love with, a man who will never love her back.

So Lucius and Frances separate, but before long, circumstances conspire to make them meet again, and now Lucius is determined that he will have a relationship with Frances, whether it's marriage or something else.

I just loved seeing these two interact. Strangely enough, I especially enjoyed the way Lucius plotted and manipulated and arranged things to get himself and Frances together more and more often. I'm not usually too fond of arrogant, manipulative heroes, but with Lucius, I could just see his desperation because he saw no other way to have a chance to woo the woman he soon knew he was in love with. And he miscalculates more than a few times. Frances doesn't react very positively to his scheming, and this makes for some very emotional and memorable scenes.

I also liked the way the issue of Frances's suitability as a viscount's bride was dealt with. The romantic in me sighed at how Lucius decided she was the woman for him and hang all expectations! But I liked that he realized that for Frances, it was important that he didn't have a falling out with his family because of it, because she recognized that his family was so very important to him. The way this was solved was wonderful. Oh, that last scene at the school!

And kudos to Balogh for her characterization of Portia, the woman all Lucius' family expects him to marry. She's a very real character, neither angel nor demon, just a woman who's not right for Lucius, and just irritating enough for me not to feel overly sorry for!

A truly beautiful book. I can't really point out any flaws. The only thing even approaching a problem was Lucius' name, and that was probably just me. Instead of Lucius Marshall, I kept calling him Lucius Malfoy in my head, and I'm not someone who has a crush on that particular fictional character. In fact, I can't understand how people can have a crush on him! He's not a misunderstood, endearing villain, he's a vicious bigot -nothing endearing about that!

Err, sorry, I disgress. I'll just close this by saying I loved this one so much I'm seriously considering ordering the next one in HC, and never mind the astronomical shipping costs of having it sent to Uruguay!


The Mummy Case, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Friday, December 09, 2005

I promised myself when I read The Curse of the Pharohs that I wouldn't wait long before reading the next book in , by Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series. And I didn't: I started book # 3, The Mummy Case, almost immediately.

They first saw the mummy case carelessly propped against the Baroness' grand piano like some outré parlor ornament. It was a relatively insignificant mummy case, as such things go ... and no one suspected the mystery behind its enigmatic façade.

Once again, daring Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody and her handsome, irascible husband Radcliffe Emerson embark on an adventurous archaeological dig in Egypt...and as usual, they unearth a mystery as intriguing as an ancient tomb... and far more dangerous.

Joined by their precocious young son Ramses and his Egyptian cat Bastet, the fearless Amelia and Radcliffe pit themselves squarely against a hand of murderers to unlock the secret behind...THE MUMMY CASE
Another very strong entry in the series. A B+.

What I always love about this series is present here: Amelia and Emerson's interactions, a fascinating case, lots and lots of early archeology. But this book introduces an extra, which is seeing Ramses in Egypt. He'd already stolen every scene he was in in The Curse of the Pharaohs, and he keeps doing it in this one, only there are many more of them. Seeing Ramses explore new grounds and hearing his precocious observations was one of the high points of the book.

The only thing I didn't like much was the way Amelia kept shushing him, never allowing him to speak and impart vital clues. That was funny the first few times, but by the end of the book, it was already becoming tedious.

I can't wait to start Lion in the Valley now, especially because I seem to remember there's quite a bit more of Sethos in that one. The ending of this one was a good introduction, but I want more!


Unearthed, by C.J. Barry

>> Thursday, December 08, 2005

Unearthed was my first C.J. Barry. It hadn't got very good reviews, but it sounded promising.

Life on Earth was just getting interesting for Tess MacKenzie. She’d postponed her singing career to support the family business and after eight long years, she finally earned her chance to shine. Her band was hot, her songs were rocking and Tess was on her way to becoming a star.

Things were definitely looking up.

That is until Cohl Travers, alien extraordinaire, swoops out of the night sky and snatches her off her planet. When he says he desperately needs her voice for a dangerous cosmic mission and the fate of two planets hangs on her song, she figures one of them is in for some serious therapy. Tess soon finds herself up to her neck in smelly bad guys, a robot with a superiority complex, an ancient Amulet that could end her singing career permanently and a man who can burn her from the inside out.

Cohl Travers thought he was free and clear of his destiny to become the next ruler of his planet. But when the warring Trakas abduct his father and hold him hostage for the Amulet, Cohl is dragged back to a fate he does not want with a woman he cannot ignore.

Together, they might defeat the Trakas – but what is Cohl supposed to do about the feelings that Tess has unearthed in him.
It was a promising book, but that promise wasn't really fulfilled. A C.

At the beginning, I thought Unearthed reminded me a bit of some of JAK's futuristics, a very good thing for this big fan of that author. A couple of scenes definitely put me in mind of such favourites as Sweet Starfire. However, the cheese factor ended up being a bit too high (and for me to say that it was too high after admitting to loving JAK's futuristics gives you some idea of exactly how overpowering it was!) and I never completely warmed up to the hero or, to a lesser extent, the heroine.

Cohl really drove me crazy with his unwillingness to share anything with Tess. I mean, Tess owes him and his family absolutely nothing, and he's asking her to risk her life for them. Surely he owes her at least a clear understanding of exactly what she will be risking before she decides? As for Tess, she had a slight tendency to classic TSTL behaviour, but really, it was at least partly Cohl's fault for not telling her anything!

After a very readable beginning (or maybe it's just that I'm a sucker for books set in spaceships), the middle section of the book sagged quite a bit. They really spent much too long in Cohl's home planet, and he didn't behave very well in those sections. Also, his motivations for leaving home and becoming an adventurer weren't very well done. I'd be the first to understand someone fighting for what he wants against expectations put on him just because of his birth, but Cohl just came across as a whiny child in those sections.

After they left on their final mission, things improved, with a very fun adventure sequence, only for the ending to be ruined by a very clichéd misunderstanding-ridden ending. I could just have punched Cohl for being an idiot!


It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It Happened One Autumn is the second in Lisa Kleypas' Wallflower series, after Secrets of a Summer Night.

Four young ladies enter London society with one necessary goal: they must use their feminine wit and wiles to find a husband. So they band together, and a daring husband-hunting scheme is born.

It Happened at the Ball...

Where beautiful but bold Lillian Bowman quickly learned that her independent American ways weren't entirely "the thing." And the most disapproving of all was insufferable, snobbish, and impossible Marcus, Lord Westcliff, London's most eligible aristocrat.

It Happened in the Garden…

When Marcus shockingly -- and dangerously–swept her into his arms. Lillian was overcome with a consuming passion for a man she didn't even like. Time stood still; it was as if no one else existed…thank goodness they weren't caught very nearly in the act!

It Happened One Autumn...

Marcus was a man in charge of his own emotions, a bedrock of stability. But with Lillian, every touch was exquisite torture, every kiss an enticement for more. Yet how could he consider taking a woman so blatantly unsuitable…as his bride?
Oh, yes, as I was hoping after reading the first book in the series, Lisa Kleypas is back! IHOA continues in the direction SOASN seemed to be taking, and is one lovely book. A B.

The best thing about this book was seeing the straight-laced, apparently cold-blooded, low-sexed Marcus go wild for Lillian. I loved seeing him change from a guy who thinks once a week is enough, or it will interfere too much with work, to a sex-crazed maniac, who can't keep his hands to himself whenever he gets a whiff of Lillian. And good for Simon for driving the point home later, LOL!

Marcus was just a sweetie of a hero. I loved the way he reacted to a pretty hellish past, with a real prince of a father, not by becoming as much of a bastard as his father was, but by becoming much kinder and gentler (if quite arrogant) man, someone his father wouldn't have approved of at all.

Some of his scenes were among the most romantic I've read lately. I especially appreciated the way he opened up and told Lillian why he needed her so much. I also loved how he didn't try to change her into the perfect, bland aristocrat, but rather appreciated exactly those characteristics that supposedly made her so inappropriate for him and which made her Lillian.

Oh, and I liked that the perfume thing became a non-issue. It would have been very tedious if things had degenerated into either "oh, no, I've been betrayed, you used an aphrodisiac" or "can't accept you, you only want me because of the perfume". As it is, this was a wonderfully charming book, even if I did like SOASN a bit more, and had trouble with the ending.

About that ending: I think the only thing I liked about it was seeing Marcus go even wilder when he realized what had happened, and especially the way he confronted his mother after it. Other than that, I didn't think what was actually happening was particularly plausible. My main problem was with the motivations of the "villain" in helping the countess with her plot. I'm afraid that, while those actions were perfectly in character for the countess, I didn't think it made any sense for that other person to do what he did.

What he risked to lose with his actions was huge, while what he won, it was pretty obvious that he could have got in other simpler and less dangerous ways. Of course, it's very possible that we don't know everything that was going on on that person's side. Maybe there were other reasons other than those that were stated, and they are going to be revealed in the next book. Thing is, for the purposes of this book, this person's actions were poorly motivated.

And then, very related to this, there are those last two pages, the very bald setup of the next book. It's a small thing, and easy to ignore, but I really don't appreciate it when an author seems to be trying to manipulate me like that to buy her next book! It was especially silly, because there's the excerpt from the following book in the next couple of pages, and that's where this should have gone. And really, it was pointless, at least in my case. I didn't need any added impetus to make me buy The Devil in Winter!


Body Search, by Jessica Andersen

>> Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I'm always on the look-out for Outbreak-ish romance novels. The closest I've come to finding one so far is Kathleen Nance's Day of Fire, which means I still haven't come near at all. Body Search, by Jessica Andersen sounded like a good bet.

Dale Metcalf had spent fifteen years running from his past. Then a string of suspicious deaths linked to a fierce epidemic forced the outbreak specialist to return to his boyhood home on Lobster Island with Dr. Tansy Whitmore — the one woman he'd never stopped loving.

But the sinister incidents that coincided with their arrival on the windswept coastal island — a mysterious plane crash, a raging fire and a near-fatal attack — proved that someone desperately wanted them dead.… And now, in a race against time, could the two stormy lovers combat danger — and desire — before it was too late?
Well, the basic plot was pretty much what I wanted, but unfortunately, the execution and, most especially, the romance, were pretty bad. A C-.

Body Search's main flaw was its characterization, which was beyond weak. Neither Dale nor Tansy qualified even as two-dimensional characters, let alone three-dimensional. Andersen basically took one characteristic of each and amplified it until it became all they were about, no matter how flimsy that felt. By the end of the book, all I knew about Tansy was that she was determined not to be like her mother, obsessed with a man who kept lying to her, and about Dale, that he had a huge chip on his shoulder about being from Lobster Island.

Dale was especially problematic for me. He's set up as a hugely tortured character, in a very dramatic way, so at the beginning of the book, I was expecting some kind of real issue. But it soon became clear that his whole trauma, the one and only reason why he was so tortured couldn't share himself with Tansy was that he didn't have a privileged upbringing, but was a lobsterman's son from a poor, fishing island. That's it. Can you say shallow snob?

The plot was quite promising, but that promise was never completely delivered. Unlike with most Romantic Suspense books, in this case I kept wishing for more about the suspense and less about the romance. Still, what there was about the whole outbreak thing I did enjoy quite well, even if I never really understood the resolution very well. Just why had these people become infected? And why? Hell, I don't know, maybe this was explained and I missed it. By the time I got to the end of the book, I was having a really hard time keeping my attention from wandering!


Made in America, by Bill Bryson

>> Monday, December 05, 2005

I often reread bits and pieces of Made in America, by Bill Bryson (a couple of pages here, a chapter there), but this is the first time in a few years that I reread it from beginning to end.

Readers from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Idiotsville, Oregon--and everywhere in between--will love Made in America, Bill Bryson's Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it's clear that a nation's language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America's history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others.

Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more. Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau's given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Or that the supposedly frigid Puritans--who called themselves "Saints," by the way--had something called a pre-contract, which was a license for premarital sex? Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.
Anyone who loves language will be fascinated by this book. An A+.

Made in America is basically an informal collection of language-related anecdotes and interesting facts, all organized by theme, and it is one of the funniest, most entertaining books I've ever read. This is not a rigurously scientific treatise on language. If that's what you prefer, try The Mother Tongue. That one was much more "serious"... and not as entertaining, IMO.

Bryson states at the beginning that one of the agonies of writing such a book as this one is that the research unearths some wonderful stories that don't have much to do with the subject, and so can't be included in the book. Fortunately, Bryson includes quite a few, in an effort to give us context, and many, many of them are just brilliant.

When I started the book, I thought it would be fun to write only a short introductory paragraph and then let the book speak for itself, by quoting a few of the best parts. Well, I tried. I started reading with a stack of Post-It notes and marked every likely passage. By the time I was on page 20, it was becoming obvious this wasn't going to work. My book bristled with so many bits of paper that it looked like a porcupine.

So I've decided to open my book at random and look for the next fascinating snippet, so that you see the type of thing this book is chock-full of. Let's see, let's see... here. A small paragraph from the chapter on names (that chapter alone is worth the price of the book), discussing the penchant among some New Englanders of naming their children for virtuous qualities:

At first descriptive names were confined to a single virtue: Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, Increase, Continent and the like, but within a generation Puritan parents were giving their children names that positively rang with righteousness: Flie-Fornication, Misericordia-Adulterina, Job-Raked-Out-of-the-Ashes, Small-Hope, Praise-God, Fear-Not, The-Lord-Is-Near. Names began to sound rather like cheerleaders' chants, so that among the early Pilgrims we find Fight-the-Good-Fight-of-Faith Wilson, Be-Courteous Cole, Kill-Sin Pemble, and the memorably euphonious Safely-on-High Snat. Occasionally the desire for biblical fidelity resulted in names of daunting sonorosity: Mahershalalhasbaz, Zaphenathpaneah, Zerubbabel and Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin. And sometimes parents simply closed their eyes and stabbed blindly at the Bible, placing their faith in Providence to direct them to an apposite word, which accounts for the occasional occurrence of such relative inanities as Maybe Barnes and Notwithstanding Griswold.
How about that?

On a more serious note, I also particularly enjoyed the last chapter, in which Bryson changes the tone of the book a bit while writing about American English Today. As part of this chapter, he leaves his place of amused observer and vigorously defends the political correctness movement. I'd forgotten this was even there (I'd never got this far in my partial rereads), and while reading it I got the thrill you get when you read something that perfectly expresses those half-formed thoughts in your mind that you haven't yet succeeded in putting into a coherent form. He's so, so, right!

Anyway, read this book! And the best advice I can give you is to always read it with someone nearby. That way, when you come to passages which are so good you absolutely have to share with someone, you can read them out loud to that person ;-)


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