Indiscreet, by Mary Balogh

>> Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Author of the Month read we do at one of my Yahoo chat groups is supposed to be a bit of a challenge, the opportunity to try things we otherwise wouldn't. Or at least, that's the way I see it. I've had successes (see Karen Marie Moning) and I've had flops (see Lynn Kurland), but I love trying someone new.

For January, the author chosen was Mary Balogh, an author I already know I love, so finding something that was a challenge was a challenge in itself. I meant to try that old Trad Regency in which the hero marries the heroine for her money and then continues to keep a mistress (can't think of the title right now), which considering how I feel about infidelity, would have been a challenge indeed. I took too long before I ordered it, though, so I just didn't have time to get it all the way here and read before the end of the month (probably my subconscious resisting).

So I decided I'd reread Indiscreet. Where's the challenge in that, you ask? Well, this was one of my first Baloghs (if not the very first), and it played a great part in making me decide this author just wasn't for me. After reading Indiscreet, my opinion of Balogh was that her books were depressing and uncomfortable. It took me a while to realize this wasn't so. Rereading it, I hoped to discover if it had been the book or if it had just been me.

A beautiful, young widow seemed like easy prey for the Viscount Rawleigh. In the country visiting his twin brother, Rex longed for a little diversion. But Catherine Winters was a lady of virtue, and she roundly rejected his improper proposal to become his mistress. Since the handsome lord would not be daunted, Catherine fought the feelings he aroused feelings that brought to life a past she had sought to escape. One kiss could bring her to ruin. But temptation proved a worthy foe--and Catherine could not ignore the beating of her treacherous heart...
It was just me. I guess I first read this one when I was too young, and I've learned to appreciate Balogh with the years. A B+.

Mrs. Catherine Winters has lived in the small village of Bodley-on-the-Water for five years. She arrived suddenly, a total stranger to everyone in the village, and proceeded to live an exemplary life: quiet, discreet and full of good works. Even though no one knows anything about her, it's obvious she's part of the gentry, and she's treated as such.

Her quiet life ends when, one year, the Adams, the leading family of the area, bring with them a house party during their yearly visit. Among them is Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh. Rex has come to spend some time with his twin brother Claude, but expects to be quite bored while he's there. Until, that is, he spots Catherine standing by the road as the carriages go by, and she smiles at him.

And so begins Rex's pursuit. Catherine is attracted to him, but she very definitely doesn't want anything to do with it. The only reason she smiled at him was because she thought it was Claude, but when she realized her mistake, it was too late and Rex was convinced his advances would be welcomed. And he's so attracted to her, that even when she makes it very clear that she does NOT want to take the attraction anywhere, he pretty much can't help himself from trying again and again... until he manages to compromise her so thoroughly he makes her a pariah.

A part of me found Rex's complete inability to stop pursuing Catherine romantic (especially because he was annoyingly persistent, but did recognize and respect the word "no"), but another was exasperated. I mean, the first time he went after her should have taught him that there was NO privacy in the village, that any action he took to try and make Catherine his mistress would have had repercussions on her position in the village. And come on, he lived there when he was young! He ought to know life would have become intolerable to her if she were compromised!

But he persists, and they find themselves in the position of having to deal with the consequences. I think it was this part that I didn't like back when I first read it, but I absolutely loved it this time. Yes, their interactions aren't particularly comfortable, at least at first, but that's exactly what's so great about this. They are strangers, and Catherine has quite a few secrets, after all, and I loved how Balogh portrayed the development of the intimacy between them. Oh, and the sexual tension between them is wonderfully built.

This is a book that's completely character driven, and both Catherine and Rex were strong enough characters to carry the book. They are likeable and yet imperfect enough to make it all interesting, and I loved the conflict between them, which, again, was strong enough to carry the book.

I also really enjoyed what Balogh did with Clarissa, Rex's sister in law. She is quite a vicious bitch, and yet Balogh doesn't completely demonize her, but paints her as a woman who can be a bitch, but who also loves her husband very much and is loved by him just as much.

This one's the first book in a trilogy about four friends who fought together in the war. Yep, trilogy, since apparently, the last book, Irresistible, tells the story of two of them. In the middle is Unforgiven, the premise of which is set up near the end of Indiscreet. Both these next books didn't receive very good grades at AAR (in fact, Unforgiven received a D), but I'll give them a try anyway.


Black Ice, by Anne Stuart

>> Monday, January 30, 2006

Well, I finally gathered enough courage to try Anne Stuart's last year's release, Black Ice. It took quite a while to get into just the right mood to read it. It's been in the TBR since November, but I'd heard so much about the darkness and the (almost?) amoral hero, that I was never quite in the right frame of mind. Mood reader, me?

The job was a killer!

Living paycheck to paycheck in Paris, American book translator Chloe Underwood would give anything for some excitement and passion--even a little danger. So when she's offered a lucrative weekend gig translating at a business conference in a remote chateau, she jumps at the chance to shake things up.

Then by chance Chloe discovers her employers are anything but the entrepreneurs they appear, and suddenly she knows far too much. Her clients are illegal arms dealers, and one of them is ordered to kill her. But instead, Bastien Toussaint drags Chloe away, and the next thing she knows she's on the run with the most terrifying and seductive man she's ever met.

What were his motives--and would she live long enough to find out?
I definitely did well in waiting for the perfect mood, because Black Ice is not an easy book to read. It was just as dark and difficult as advertised. At first, I had some doubts about whether I was going to enjoy it, but I finally did, quite a bit. A B+.

For about the first half of the book, I feared this was going to turn out to be another Moonrise, which, after some hesitation, I rated a D.

Chloe Underwood is a young American living in Paris, working as an underpaid translator for a small publisher. One day her roommate, another translator, asks her to cover for her and spend the weekend at a château, translating for a group of food importers. Since the money is good (and Chloe is a bit of a pushover for roommate Sylvia), she accepts.

Only, the food importers aren't food importers but arms dealers, and Chloe soon becomes aware of certain discrepancies that make her suspicious. And she's not the only one suspicious. Among the arms dealers is Bastien Toussaint, part of the Committee a shadowy organization supposedly dedicated to fighting terrorism. He's infiltrating the meeting, and to him, something about Chloe feels wrong. He can't decide whether she's an inept agent or a very good agent pretending to be inept. That she is an innocent is way down on the list of possibilities.

This part in the château is the one I had the hardest time reading. The effect his work for the Committee has had on Bastien is to turn him into a feelingless, amoral killing machine. He does whatever he's told, and doesn't waste time questioning whether his orders are right or wrong. As far as he's concerned, the Committee's choices between evils (for instance, that he deliver detonators to Syria, detonators that kill 73 people, including a large number of children, because this is supposed to save more lives) make them as much the bad guy as the people they are supposed to be fighting, and he still works for them, just because this is what he does.

Bastien is ice cold in this part, even in his interactions with Chloe. He coolly considers whether he should kill her a couple of times. He's not looking forward to it, but he doesn't really mind, he thinks. It was when I read these scenes from his POV that I kept thinking of Moonrise. That book didn't work for me because I became convinced that there wasn't enough life left inside the hero to make him human, and Bastien was walking close to that line here. But there were some signs of life and of what might have once been a conscience there: not enough to convince me, but enough to give me some hope. And strangely enough, that hope was realized when he performs his coldest action in the book, delivering Chloe to a sadist to torture rather than compromise his own cover, and this seems to wake him up.

When the action changes to Bastien and Chloe on the run, things changed for the better. The new Bastien was a son of a bitch, but he was alive and I could imagine a HEA for him with Chloe, which I couldn't for James, from Moonrise.

I notice I haven't really said anything about Chloe. Well, she's not really the star of the book -as in all Anne Stuarts, that's the hero- but she's one of Stuart's better heroines, and I did like her. Chloe's just a regular girl stuck in a truly terrifying situation. She goes off for a weekend in the country and, through no fault of her own, finds herself in the middle of an orgy of violence. No wonder Bastien has to rescue her a few times! I really didn't hold that against her, and I thought she was actually pretty brave in not just curling up into a ball and refusing to move.

The ending is a bit abrupt, which is a criticism I remember hearing back when everyone was discussing Black Ice. I'm glad I decided to save (without reading it first) a post by Anne Stuart which was a kind of epilogue.

From Anne Stuart's post (highlight to see)

Well, for the first few months they'd both sort of lay low, make love, and bond in a very tender way to go with the intensely violent, sexual bond they already formed. Her family would come back to see the guest house in ashes but no other sign of trouble -- Madame Lambert would have seen that everything else is cleaned up -- and Bastien is now in place. They met him before, knew he'd saved her life, knew she'd been only half alive since she left him, so they'd welcome him into their lives (though they'd be wary since he's clearly a dangerous man with a dark past -- but they'd know he loves her and that counts for a lot. Her brothers would be particularly protective).

Bastien and Chloe might even go away for a time, to a remote Caribbean Island where they could be safe and quiet and just be with each other. She'd get pregnant in about a year, he'd become a carpenter (he'd need to do something physical and rewarding, and he has tons of money in a swiss bank account so a career is unimportant). He'd probably build them a house on the 320 or so acres her parents have -- far enough away for privacy, close enough for family. Chloe would probably do free-lance translating for a New York publisher while she raises the babies, and no one will ever know that Bastien survived. He'll have hellacious nightmares as he starts to come out of his cold killer persona, but she'll be there for him, because, in fact, she is stronger than he is, at least emotionally.

And they WILL live HEA.

I just like a tight ending, though occasionally I do epilogues. I guess I've been a little too terse recently.

Yep, that fits. :-)


The James Joyce Murder, by Amanda Cross

>> Friday, January 27, 2006

jmc had a post the other day about academics writing genre fiction, in which she mentioned Joanne Dobson's Karen Pelletier mysteries. I vaguely remembered reading a few mysteries some time ago by author Amanda Cross, and I seemed to remember that they were set in an academia environment.

A quick google later, and I had confirmed that yes, indeed, Amanda Cross was an academic. Her real name is Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, and she started writing mysteries while teaching at Columbia. I was interested to read in one of the links I found that "Heilbrun did not reveal that she was Amanda Cross until after she got tenure at Columbia--and was the first woman in the English Department to do so." I was also interested to hear Heilbrun described as a "feminist scholar" and the main character of her mystery series, Kate Fansler, described as "a feminist middle-aged literature professor at a University in Manhattan".

After reading this, I needed to give her books a try again! Fortunately, I'd kept them (back of the bottom shelf, but still), so I started with the earliest one I had, the second book in the series, The James Joyce Murder, which was also voted by readers as their favourite.

What can be more idyllic than a summer in the Berkshires, sorting through James Joyce's letters to his publisher? What could be more peaceful than long walks in the woods with friends old and new?

Well, just about anything. Kate Fansler finds that literary ability and love of nature are far less vital than super sleuthing skill when her next-door neighbor is murdered - and all her houseguests are prime suspects...
I wasn't particularly convinced by the mystery, but the characters were so interesting and fun and witty that I did enjoy the book. A B.

Kate Fansler doesn't usually "do" country living, but this summer finds her isolated in a country house in rural Massachussets. An old friend has asked her to go through her late father's correspondence, and since said father was a very important editor, the man who first published writters like James Joyce in the US, Kate finds this request tempting indeed. So off she goes to the editor's country house, accompanied by Emmet, a graduate student from the University where she is an English professor.

Kate doesn't "do" kids, either, but she's joined in the country by her nephew, Leo. Leo hasn't been doing well in school, so Kate's brother has asked her to take him on for the summer. Leo is accompanied by William, yet another grad student from Kate's university, who's supposed to watch him and tutor him throughout the summer.

And the people keep arriving... Reed Amhearst, who's Kate's lover and has began to want something more and Eveline (or was it Evelina?) and Grace, two more professors. By the time an unpleasant, malicious neighbour is murdered, in circumstances which involve Kate's household, that household (and all the nearby households occupied by "summer people") are full to the gills with potential suspects.

What I loved best about this book was the characters and their interactions. These are all truly interesting people, and even when there wasn't much going on, following their minds as they wandered around was fascinating. And when they talk, their dialogue sparkles. They do tease in the book about how, unlike in the mysteries they read, nothing really happens there and they just talk and talk. But what talk!

Also interesting to me was the fact that the book was written in the late 60s, and this shows. Certain things especially, for instance, the whole way Kate's household causes amazement in everyone (I just couldn't understand what was so shocking about it), or that thing about William's celibacy, just felt off to my contemporary eyes, but it was interesting anyway. I do get the feeling Kate and her friends would have been considered pretty modern for their times, so it was less of a culture shock for me to read.

I also enjoyed what turned out to be the relationship between the murder and the James Joyce papers. At one point, I wondered why the title of the book was The James Joyce Murder, since I just couldn't imagine how the two could be related. However, Cross manages to tie them in quite neatly, which was fun.

The main problem I had with the book was actually related to the murder, and it was quite a big one. I thought Cross didn't really succeed in showing why the victim was such a monster. I mean, everyone seemed to be really blasé about her death, seeming to to think she deserved it, and, when we find who the murderer was, the attitude is that this person was justified in killing her. Ok, but what Cross showed us readers about the victim (as opposed to merely telling us), was a woman who was, at worst, annoying, but someone who just didn't have enough power to inspire such hate from everyone. This was a bit puzzling.

Still, I enjoyed the book. It was a fun, quick read and I'll probably give the two others I have a reread, at some point.

BTW, someone mentioned in one of the amazon reviews that if you enjoy this book, you should try Sarah Caudwell. Has anyone read her?


Garden of Thorns, by Lillian Stewart Carl

>> Thursday, January 26, 2006

I first tried Lillian Stewart Carl because of a recommendation by someone who mentioned she wrote in the vein of Barbara Michaels. I started with Ashes to Ashes, the first in a trio of related books. That one was all right, so I read the next, Dust to Dust, which was a bit less all right but not a total waste. I read those in quick succession, but it's taken me a while to pick up the third, Garden of Thorns.

It might have been the cover that kept me away. Isn't it awful? The colours are horrible, and it's just wrong! The house in the background is supposed to be pinkish brick, not clapboard, and there's that person in her nightgown going around the garden. Plus, take a closer look at the image (see bigger picture here). Does the idiot woman have three arms?

Mark Owen and Hilary Chase, who met at the excavation of a medieval Scottish priory, get back together in Fort Worth, Texas. He's excavating an eerie turn of the century house owned by a prominent local family. She's working at an art gallery on medieval artifacts recovered from the Nazis by the same family. Mark's and Hilary's relationship is rocky enough without someone resorting to murder to keep a century's worth of skeletons locked in the old house's closets.
Oh, damn! Damn, damn, damn, damn, DAMN! I had to abandon this one at around the 100 page mark. The few other times I've abandoned books without finishing them it's been a relief, because it has always been because the whole book was a chore to read. Not here. I was quite liking it until then.

The Medieval art-related suspense plot was fascinating, so was what was shaping up to be the modern suspense subplot and I was even enjoying the relationship between the two leads. But there's a certain thing that's a huge hot button for me, and that's infidelity. I just cannot tolerate it; no way, no how. I'm sure some people will consider it naive or too rigid of me, but I simply don't believe any excuse is good enough. And darling Mark turned out to be the worst kind of dirty cheat. And to think I was liking him so well up until that point! I almost felt betrayed.

Up until then, I'd really enjoyed Hilary and Mark's relationship. The sexual element was especially interesting. Hilary was a survivor of rape, and she had quite a bit of trouble feeling comfortable and safe enough to actually have sex with anyone again, including Mark. I think most of the times I've read this type of thing in romance, once the guy knows what the woman's problem is, sex is effortless. Not here. It was taking quite a bit of time and effort, and I was really liking what the author was doing with it.

Until, that is, we got to the point in which I had to abandon the book. One of the other characters gives Mark a call because she's staying at a house which is reputed to be haunted and it's a stormy night and she's a bit nervous. And I never even suspected, because those two had been set up to be nice, honourable people. But at a certain point, the woman makes a pass and Mark just goes ahead and goes to bed with her. There just hadn't been any chemistry between them before that. I mean, Mark had though that she was good-looking, but in a distant, purely esthetic kind of way. And yet, first chance he gets, he's banging her. Why? The only reason given is that he's frustrated. Argh!!! The whole reasoning seems to be that men are somehow justified in cheating if their girlfriend isn't putting out, even if it's for a reason as justified as Hilary's, and that is just wrong! Plus, I skimmed ahead to the scene in which Hilary finds out, and the bastard actually trots out the "it's completely separate from us; it didn't mean anything" line!

I briefly considered pressing on, because, as I said, the rest of it was quite interesting enough. Even the writing style was going well. See, in the first two books I'd got the feeling that Carl's writing wasn't quite smooth. I especially disliked the way her British characters spoke, because it sounded so very self-consciously British. That is, I got the feeling it was just American-speak with a couple of words substituted for British slang, and it didn't feel right. Things were better here. It helped that this book is set in Texas, so there's only one British character, and while I found her speech just as problematic, there just wasn't that much of it in the book. Plus, I liked the overall style much better. I even though some of the descriptions and comparisons were quite neat. Keep in mind I'm no specialist in this area, so what I liked might seem laughable to you, but I really liked things like how she described an Eastern European character's speech, which was British upper class but with some Eastern European gutturals (like "paprika sprinkled on a crumpet"), or when Hilary is at the museum on her first day and she notices the carpet is very deep, and thinks of Sharon in her stilettos there "walking like a flamingo". Those gave me some very clear and striking images in my mind!

Anyway, sorry for the disgression. The book would have been interesting enough for me without the Mark/Hilary love interest part. Thing is, I know myself. I would have been gritting my teeth, completely pissed off, at every Mark/Hilary scene. I would have wanted every one of them to close with Hilary kicking Mark in the balls and taking of with another guy, and I didn't get the feeling anything like it was going to happen. I just don't need the aggravation, so it's a big, fat DNF for this one. My teeth will thank me for it, as they get to keep their enamel this way.


Die In Plain Sight, by Elizabeth Lowell (Rarities #3)

>> Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Die In Plain Sight is the third in Elizabeth Lowell's Rarities, Unlimited, following Moving Target and Running Scared.

I've been liking Lowell's latest releases very much. I know there are many fans (most of them, probably) who much prefered what she used to write before when she was doing historicals and category romance, but I much prefer the kinder heroes of her latest romantic suspense titles.

When Lacey Quinn inherits the striking landscapes done by her late, much-loved grandfather, she believes they are as good as anything hanging in museums. But the paintings now in her possession are more than the works of a talented master. They are anguished voices from the grave . . . crying murder!

Lacey begins researching her grandfather's past -- and is rocked almost immediately by a strange series of violent events. Someone wants to steal her inheritance, to reduce the paintings to unrecognizable ashes in a suspicious blaze. Someone wants to prevent Lacey from examining her grandfather's work too closely . . . by any means necessary.

Ian Lapstrake, a security specialist, has taken an interest in Lacey's inheritance . . . and in her. Troubled by what he sees, he becomes Lacey's shadow, as her search for answers leads them both down an ever-darkening road paved with lies, blood, and devastating secrets.
I quite liked this one. It has the best features of the other books in the series and improves on what had bothered me the most about Running Scared. A B.

The main thing I'd had a problem with in Running Scared was the sheer number of pages spent with the villains, both the really evil ones and the ones who were just mildly mean. It seemed to me as if every other chapter put me in the company of truly unpleasant and amoral (and very un-interesting and dumb) people.

There is a bit of that here. We do spend a lot of time with the Forrest family, but a) there was a degree of uncertainty, because while these people were suspicious, we didn't positively know whether or not they were the villains; and b) while the family patriarch was quite unpleasant, the rest of the family was much better. I was even mildly interested in the subplot of Bliss Forrest's relationship with the sheriff, her ex-husband. She and Rory (the sheriff) and her brother Savoy weren't so bad, so I didn't really suffer through these scenes. I mean, most of the times I would have preferred to be with Ian and Lacey, but they weren't a chore to read.

And speaking of Ian and Lacey, they were very enjoyable characters. I especially liked Ian. At one point, Lacey thinks of him as a "gentle warrior", and that description fit him perfectly. I'll repeat it: I so much prefer Lowell's more recent heroes to her more alpha-asshole guys from very early books!

I was actually a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed Ian and Lacey together. This is a book where the conflict is wholly external. These two are immediately (and quite explosively) attracted to each other and, they are very open about it. They quickly fall into bed and each acknowledges to the other exactly how they're feeling. If it hadn't been for the whole problem with the paintings, I imagine they would have been pretty much married in a couple of weeks (and they would have, because they even meet for the first time independently of the paintings, when Ian happens to go into Lacey's shop).

And yet, despite the seeming lack of conflict, I still had plenty of interest in their relationship. There was considerably more romance here than in the first entries in this series, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Their chemistry and banter and obvious enjoyment of each other was engaging enough to keep me interested.

Oh, and I musn't forget about Susa! Painter Susa Donovan is the woman Ian is protecting when he meets Lacey (for the second time), and she's a recurring character in Lowell's books. She's the mother of all those Donovans of Lowell's previous series, and it was interesting to see more of her than the throwaway references we'd had in those books, even if I did think she was a bit of a Mary Sue character. Still, I enjoyed the almost mother-daughter relationship she and Lacey developed. I hope Lowell will do something like this in another book with the two owners of Rarities, Dana and Niall. They had a bigger presence in the previous books, here they were just voices on the phone.

The suspense subplot was interesting to read, especially all the stuff about the art, but the solution was way, way too obvious. From the very beginning the whole mystery about the origin of the paintings was so straightforward that I was almost sure Lowell didn't mean to keep it a secret from the readers, and Ian and Lacey look a bit silly for never even thinking of it. Heh, I'm trying to be cryptic, but I don't know why. Absolutely anyone who reads it will come to the same conclusions within 50 pages.

Same thing with the villain. There's a very obvious person from the very beginning, someone so obvious he might have been wearing a sign reading "Villain" on his chest. I thought, ok, he's so obvious he can't possibly be the one, and was looking forward to some cool twist and a villain I'd never even considered, but nope. He was indeed the one. A bit disappointing, really.

Other than this, a fun book. 518 pages long, and it just flew by!


Dark Desires, by Eve Silver

>> Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Eve Silver's Dark Desires (excerpt) is yet another of the books from Zebra's debut authors program, released with a very attractive price and very nice covers, according to the images I've seen. So far, I've only tried one other book from this program, What a Woman Needs, by Caroline Linden, and that one was excellent, so I had great hopes.

Dark Streets

On the streets of Whitechapel, a man steps from the fog-shrouded shadows, looking for company. The women are always happy to take his coin—just before they take his knife…

Dark Secrets

Darcie Finch has come to the East London brothel as a last, desperate choice. Instead, the madam turns Darcie out into the harsh night with new hope—to seek employment from one who owes her a favor, Dr. Damien Cole—as well as a last warning: Have a care. Steer clear of his work and his secrets. He is a man to fear…

Dark Desires

The Cole residence is a strange place, indeed. Servants disappear. Unsavory characters call at odd hours of the night. And Darcie has seen the handsome doctor leave his laboratory splattered with blood. Now, Damien has offered her the chance of a lifetime, using her skills as an artist to work beside him. Long hours together soon ignite an unexpected—and irresistible—passion. But the closer Darcie gets to Damien and his secrets, the more she wonders if he is a dedicated, charming healer…or a cold-blooded killer…
I've gone on and on about this already, but I love gothics. A well done eerie and spooky atmosphere is, in itself, a draw for me, and Dark Desires offered a Jack the Ripper inspired plot, too, so I was well disposed to enjoy it. Unfortunately, while it starts out strong, it's somewhat of a downward slope from there. A C+.

In the gothic fashion, the book is narrated wholly from the POV of our heroine, Darcie Finch. After a nice, middle-class childhood, bad luck struck Darcie's family and they lost everything. As the book opens, she's been living on the streets of Whitechapel for a while and has become increasingly desperate. Down to her very last bit of strength, she takes the step of going to Mrs. Feather's house, a brothel which happens to be ran by Darcie's own sister, come down in life after being abandoned by a lover.

Taking pity on her, the hardened Mrs. Feather decides to call in a favour and tells Darcie to go ask for a position at Dr. Damien Cole's household. And as she leaves, who should happen to nearly ran Darcie over with his coach but Dr. Cole himself? On hearing Mrs. Feather's request, Damien takes Darcie on as a maid, and she soon progresses to be his assistant, when he finds out she has a talent for drawing.

But even after she leaves the back-breaking work of a maid behind, life isn't easy for Darcie. For one thing, she begins to develop some strong feelings for Dr. Cole. For another, a savage killer has been killing prostitutes in Whitechapel, and Darcie is witness to certain things in Dr. Cole's house that make her fear the man she's so attracted to might be somehow involved.

Well, I did get the eerie, spooky atmosphere, but it wasn't enough to compensate for what I felt were the flaws in this story.

As I said, it does begin on a high note. The whole setup of the story and the early interactions between Darcie and Damien were deliciously gothic and very enjoyable.

In the first third or so of the story, the classic gothic formula holds up, and Darcie never comes across as TSTL. Even when she witnesses extremely suspicious events, events that put some very solid doubts in her head as to what Damien might be up to, it makes sense that she would stay there and wouldn't confront him about it.

She sees herself as a servant in the house, even when she trades her mop for a pencil, and when it comes to servants here, we're not talking "beloved retainer who nags the hero to get married" or anything like that. Damien is a kind employer, but his staff still lives, not in fear, but knowing they're just employees,and that if they screw up enough, they will lose their positions. So Darcie has a fear of having to leave this refuge she's found, especially after her experiences living on the streets, and she does her best to ignore the strange goings on she happens on.

She feels an unwanted fascination for Damien, though, even as she fears him. And slowly, a degree of familiarity starts to develop between them, starting with a sexual bond, and this was just great. So far, so good.

At one point, though, and I really cannot pinpoint where it was, or what happened to change how the book affected me, it was as if the magic lifted. I began to see the author's hand, and that's like the kiss of death to me.

I don't know if I can explain it. For instance, the Suspicious Events that had worked so well earlier began to feel ridiculously contrived. Instead of seeing things that might possibly happen and be naturally misinterpreted, I saw the author doing her best to manipulate events for maximum effect, however illogical those manipulations would be (think Darcie's suspected resurrectionists).

Darcie's actions, too, began not to make that much sense, other than as a way to push the plot where the author wanted it to go. Another for instance: when the other maid is attacked, and Darcie never says anything to Damien. At the beginning of the book, I might have accepted it, but once her relationship with Damien has changed enough, I don't understand why she would keep quiet.

And speaking of her relationship with Damien, strangely enough, the way it turned hot didn't work for me. I'm one of those people who actively want to see the hero's POV in romance. One of the reasons I'm leery of old romance novels is because you never got to see inside the hero's mind back then (all right, most of the times). In gothics, however, that's the price you've got to pay to have a truly dark and mysterious hero, so ok, I'm usually fine with it. Here, however, the very romancey tone and steaminess of the sex scenes didn't marry well with the old fashioned gothic tone that the author had been setting up. While Damien would have been just fine as a regular gothic hero, as the hero of a book such as the one Dark Desires turned out to be, I just didn't get enough of a feel for who he was.

And really, this was a surprise for me. I've often wished when reading gothics for "exactly this book I'm reading, only with hot sex", but now I don't know if it's such a great idea.

So there I was, reading a book that had started out well, but had soon began to fizzle and fizzle... until I got to the ending, when it sank like a stone. The resolution to the suspense subplot was NOT good. Actually, the entire suspense subplot was clumsily constructed, because Silver introduced the villain in such a way that he stood out as a sore thumb, especially because it's a character who we meet and who then plays absolutely no other role in the story.

Still, for all this I've said, I'd be willing to try Eve Silver again. She shows quite a bit of promise and, from what I saw in the first parts of the book, she can do well!


The Tutor, by Portia Da Costa

>> Monday, January 23, 2006

It was Wendy who made me want to read The Tutor, by Portia Da Costa (see her blog post about it here). Her description sounded just wonderful.

It took a while, because Black Lace books are never particularly easy or cheap to find, but I finally managed to get myself a copy.

When Rosalind Howard becomes Julian Hadey's private librarian, she soon finds herself attracted by his persuasive charms and distinguished appearance. He is an unashamed sensualist, a man of wealth and intellect who, together with his libidinous wife, Celeste, has hatched an intriguing challenge for their new employee.

As well as cataloguing their extensive archive of erotica, Rosie is expected to educate Celeste's young and beautiful cousin in the arts of erotic love. Having led a sheltered life, the young man is simmering with youthful passion. In luxurious surroundings, they find themselves drawn into increasingly decadent scenarios where experimental sex is on the menu and likeminded libertines reap the rewards of unbridled desire.
Oh, yeah, this one's as good as Wendy said it was. A B+.

After her boyfriend leaves her for a more dynamic and upwardly-mobile woman, librarian Rosie Howard wants a radical change. A new wardrobe and a new job seem like a good start, so she goes shopping and accepts a job organizing the private library of rich and sexy Julian Hadey. But Julian soon makes clear that, in addition to her duties in his libraries, he'd very much like Rosie to take on the task of introducing his wife's 19-year-old nephew to sex.

David has spent all his life living with his grandparents in the country, so he's had no sexual experience at all. It's become clear to both Julian and his wife, Celeste, that David's hormones have began to drive him crazy, but it seems he doesn't quite know how to go about solving his problem. Most of the women in Julian and Celeste's acquaintance are much too experienced and sophisticated for David to feel comfortable about approaching, so Julian thinks Rosie, who's still somewhat of a beginner herself (though a passionate, enthusiastic one, as Julian finds out soon enough), would be a wonderful choice. Rosie's a bit taken aback by all this, but after meeting David and finding him very attractive, she's quite happy to do it.

There's quite a bit of mix-and-match sex going on here (Julian with Rosie, Rosie with the masseuse, Ladybird, Julian with Celeste, Julian with the chauffer, Stephen and so on, and so forth). Those scenes were nicely enough written, but really, they didn't affect me particularly. Mostly, I wanted the action to get back to Rosie and David.

Now, that was where the really emotionally powerful stuff was, in David's fascination with Rosie and his journey of discovery of his sexuality, and in Rosie's increasing tenderness and fondness for him, and her rediscovery of her own sexuality. Their scenes were pretty vanilla, compared to the going-ons around them, but they had a heart, and that made them just wonderful to read.

Actually, I've come to realize lately that I'm just not that much into kink. I like hot books, the steamier the better, but it seems I much prefer vanilla hot. Books by people like, say Linda Howard, or Suzanne Brockmann (not really well known for her love scenes, but I think she does them wonderfully), or my new discoveries Shannon McKenna, Lisa Marie Rice and Stephanie Vaughan (her two gay romance novels, at least, which I don't consider to be kink), have been hotter to me than a great many ebooks I've read featuring complex permutations and positions and toys and sex acts.

I guess the thing is that what tends to arouse me are the emotions described in a love scene. You can add all the bells and whistles you want, but if I have to choose between an orgy between relatively flattish characters and a love scene involving just two people in the missonary position, but with real emotion in it, it would be the second that gets me, every time.

Of course, you'll say, there's nothing keeping kinky stuff from being as emotionally powerful as the type of scenes I say I like. Sure, I'd agree. Emma Holly could be Exhibit A for that. Thing is, I get the impression that quite a few of the people who write kinky seem to think that it's enough to have, say, a threesome, or whips and chains for a scene to be arousing. It's not, it needs more than that.

Er, ok, where was I? The Tutor, right. Musn't go on detours like that. And I have to say, Julian and Celeste and the rest weren't flattish at all, it's just that David and Rosie interested me more, both because of the emotion (as I've explained at GREAT length), and because I don't think I've read this before. Books about an an experienced older man initiating a virgin woman are a dime a dozen, and I have read a few in which it's the guy who's the virgin and the woman is more experienced (not as many as I would like, but I've found a couple). In the latter, however, hero and heroine are usually equals in everything other than sexual experience. Not here. David is not really a boy, but he's 19 and quite innocent. I was really surprised at how much I liked this, because I usually much prefer equality in bed, but I truly enjoyed it.

The ending was perfect. Sure, my romance-novel-reading little heart did wish for a HEA, but the happy ending we got was really more appropriate to the circumstances than eternal promises of love, and still left a window open for that. And speaking of endings, I loved how Rosie turned the tables on the idiot who was her boyfriend at the beginning of the book!

Any Portia da Costa recs? I'm glad to have found another author to glom!


The Givenchy Code, by Julie Kenner

>> Friday, January 20, 2006

I didn't much like the first Julie Kenner book I read, Silent Confessions.

The second one, The Spy Who Loves Me was an improvement.

The latest, The Givenchy Code (excerpt), was even better!

As if a recent break-up, scrounging for rent money, and lusting after designer shoes weren't enough to make graduate student Melanie Prescott's life challenging, suddenly she's practically living The DaVinci Code. A mysterious stranger is sending obscure codes and clues her way and she soon discovers she has to solve them in order to stay alive. With stakes like that, her dissertation on "the derivation and primary characteristics of codes and ciphers used by prevailing nations during wartime" is looking a little less important than it was yesterday.

Right now she's just worrying about living to see tomorrow. The only bright spot in the whole freakish nightmare is Matthew Stryker, the six-foot tall dark and handsome stranger who's determined to protect her. Well, that and the millions of dollars that will be her reward if she survives this deadly game. And she'd better survive. Because that's a heck of a lot of money to be able to spend on shoes and handbags and sunglasses and dresses, and, well, it's hard to be fashionable when you're dead.
I love treasure hunts. I'm willing to forgive many flaws in a book, as long as the treasure hunt aspect is well done. In The Givenchy Code, it was, and there weren't many flaws to forgive anyway. A B+.

The premise is great. Play.Survive.Win is an online game in which players are assigned the role of either Target, Protector or Assassin. The Target has to solve codes (taylored to the interests the player has included in his profile) to advance in the game, all the while escaping the Assassin. The Assassin, obviously, has to pursue the Target and try to kill him or her, and the Protector has to make sure the Assassin doesn't get to the Target.

All well and good; the only problem is that someone has decided to take the game live, and heroine Mel Prescott has been assigned the role of Target. One day she receives a mysterious code, reading "Play or Die". She dismisses this as nonsense, until the Assassin has killed someone close to her in order to persuade her he means business. Still, she doesn't really find out exactly what's going on until her Protector finds her and explains things.

Matthew Stryker has been assigned the Protector role. It's his second go at it; the first time, he dismissed the warnings (just as Mel did) and the woman who was the Target that time was killed. This time around, he refuses to let it happen, and he'll protect Mel at all costs... especially because he's soon very attracted to her.

From then on, the book just flies as Mel and Stryker rush around Manhattan following obscure clues and evading the Assassin. Even though I tend to prefer slower-paced books, I really enjoyed the pace here. It was fast enough to keep it very exciting, and yet it never gave me whiplash. Yes, Mel and Stryker spend most of the time on the run, but there's enough there during those scenes to persuade me that they're falling for each other, and just enough justified downtime that the love scenes don't come off as silly, like so many of those shagging-while-the-bullets-fly-above scenes often seem.

I really liked the dynamics of Stryker and Melanie's relationship. They are truly a partnership, and that's quite rare. Mel is a smart and sensible woman caught up in a truly horrible situation, but while her reactions are realistic and she doesn't simply take things in stride, she handles it well. She's pissed off and angry and scared, but she pulls up her socks and does what she has to do to stay alive. She solves some pretty difficult codes during the game (and is human enough to actually enjoy the challenge somewhat, in spite of the circumstances), and, remarkably, she realizes she needs to trust Stryker and his expertise and does exactly that.

Stryker is a bit of a shadowier figure than Mel, who has more scenes from her POV and narrates those in first person, but I very much liked what I saw. I especially enjoyed that he had no foolish ego about Mel being better at codebreaking and puzzle-solving than he was. In fact, he was actually attracted to her because she didn't go all defenseless little girl and cower behind him, but stood right next to him and did her part to make things happen.

The codes themselves, as I mentioned, were lots of fun. They're not exactly solveable by the reader, unless said reader has a very expert knowledge of Manhattan, but I didn't mind. After all, they were supposed to be specific to Mel's expertise, so I wasn't really expecting to be able to solve them. Anyway, I found them quite ingenious and had a blast following Mel and Stryker around. Plus, all that whipping around Manhattan had plenty of colour, and made for a fun tour.

The ending of TGC was pretty good, too. It leaves the door wid open for more adventures in this world, while giving this particular episode a good closure and giving Mel and Stryker their happy ending. The latter was great, because promises of eternal love and white picket fences after books as action-packed as this one often make me roll my eyes. Here you get the possibility of all that, but in a much more believable way.

A question for those of you who read this book and weren't knowledgeable about online gaming going in: did you have trouble understanding all this about PSW? I want to give the book to my mom, and while she does ok with computers, she just doesn't know much about this particular aspect of them, so I want to know if she'd be completely lost or not.

Coming up next month: The Manolo Matrix. Can't wait!


Two Little Lies, by Liz Carlyle

>> Thursday, January 19, 2006

Liz Carlyle's new trilogy continues with Two Little Lies, sequel to last year's One Little Sin.

I was lucky enough to win this one in a contest the author offered the members of her mailing list (yep, I'm a Liz Carlyle fangirl and I've been on her mailing list forever), so I got to read it pretty early!

BTW, for her contest, Carlyle asked which was our favourite cover in the trilogy, and I chose this one. I just love the colour (though it looks more greenish in the picture than it really is, at least in my copy), and the model's pose... it seems to me as if she's wondering "should I, or shouldn't I?", and the least proper option is winning ;-)

Handsome scoundrel Quin Hewitt has been living a devil-may-care existence in London for years. But when his father dies unexpectedly, Quin finds himself saddled with an earldom he never wanted, a country estate that seems to suck the very life out of him, and a mama who won’t quit crying. Reluctantly, Quin faces up his family duty, and decides to find himself a sensible, suitable wife so he can beget a sensible, suitable heir. And who better to marry than his best friend’s governess, the proud and pretty Miss Esmée Hamilton?

But when Quin’s euphoric mother throws an impromptu betrothal party, Quin finds himself faced with a very unexpected guest. The beautiful Viviana Alessandri has been called by duty back to England, the land she loathes. No longer the unknown opera singer Quin once kept as his mistress, Viviana is now the powerful Contessa Bergonzi di Vicenza, worshiped throughout Europe for her voice and her passion. But despite her new title and wealth, to Quin’s eyes, his old love has not changed. She is not suitable. She is not sensible. And she still takes his breath away.
Yay, Liz Carlyle is back! One Little Sin was a bit of a disappointment, and, to some extent, so was The Devil To Pay. They were good, but not as good as I was hoping for, and I got the feeling the writing style that I had liked so much ever since My False Heart had become less distinctive and more generic.

TLL is a return to the Liz Carlyle of her earlier books. Lush, passionate and romantic, it was one of the best books I've read lately. An A. Wow, that's the second one this week, and I'm not one to hand them out lightly (only 4 non-reread books got one last year).

Note: I'm going to follow the lead of the AAR reviewer and discuss what I guess might be considered a spoiler in my review. As far as I'm concerned, it's so obvious, even in the very first scene, that I wouldn't call it a spoiler, but just in case, proceed at your own risk. Oh, and the whole early action of TLL is also a bit of a spoiler for the first book in the series.

Opera singer Viviana Alessandri and Quin Hewitt first met when they were very young and Viviana had just arrived in London. Her father, a well-known Italian composer, had sent her there alone, since the situation between her and his patron had become intolerable.

The very young and inexperienced Quin, also newly arrived in London, had fallen in lust with Viviana at first sight, and pursued her relentlessly until, after truly attempting to resist, Viviana gave in and became his mistress. Their very tempestuous relationship ended when Viviana left Quin and went back to Italy to marry her father's patron, the Count Bergonzi di Vicenza.

Nine years later, Viviana is back in Englad with her father and her three children, the eldest of which (and here's that pesky supposed spoiler) is actually Quin's. See, the catalyst of Viviana's marriage to the Count was the fact that she had become pregnant and Quin had made it pretty clear that he wouldn't consider marrying a woman like her. Being the heir to an Earldom, he explained, he was going to have to marry a suitable young lady with a spotless reputation. So Viviana, instead of telling Quin and hoping he'd miraculously change his mind about marrying her, simply goes away.

(BTW, really, considering the very obvious morning sickness and the maid's comments in that first scene, if anyone didn't guess about the pregnancy, then he or she must have been skimming).

Anyway, back in England, Viviana and her family are invited by a friend of her father's to his country house. The thing is, said friend is Quin's uncle, and his country house is within walking distance of Quin's country seat, where he is in order to celebrate his engagement to Esmée, the heroine of OLS. Here the action overlaps with the action of the first book, and we see all those events which culminate in Quin and Esmée's break-up from a different perspective (including that scene between Quin and Viviana which takes place in the study and which had me so anxious to read TLL).

Fortunately, this part with Quin engaged is quite short (I say fortunately because there wouldn't have been much tension otherwise, since I knew exactly what was going to happen, having read the first book not that long ago) and the action soon proceeds with Quin and Viviana getting reacquainted and finally getting to understand each other.

Because, you see, this book might be considered a "big misunderstanding" + "secret baby" story. And it just goes to show that you should never say never, because just about any plot can be as wonderfully done as these were here.

The book works so well because the original misunderstanding between Viviana and Quin was so completely understandable. Those two were just heartbreakingly young when they first met; two innocents trying to pretend they were much worldlier than they actually were, and each succeeding so well, that the other felt at a disadvantage in their relationship. Carlyle shows it quite clearly even in the first scene, and as they later begin sharing what they had been feeling at the time, it becomes even clearer and more understandable why they each behaved as they did.

I loved that, as they slowly begin to rebuild their relationship, their chemistry is as powerful as ever, but now they are grown-ups, so the relationship that develops is much more solid and mature. Unlike nine years earlier, they are each confident people and they relate as equals.

As for the secret baby thing, I quite liked what Carlyle did with it. As I said, in this case it fell under the "understandable" category that Viviana would have kept it a secret. I guess I'm more willing to accept it in a historical. I loved seeing Quin with his daughter, even before he found out the truth. And when he did, which really pissed him off, the scenes between him and Viviana were powerful stuff, especially because both were right, to a certain extent.

I read TLL in a single sitting last Saturday morning. Once I started it, I just couldn't stop. Quin and Viviana really captured my imagination, and I came to care for them and be very affected by their romance. The book provided plenty of the stomach-clenching sensation that I think is the true mark of a really good romance. And I loved that there were no distractions from the romance, no pesky murder investigations or any spies running around. Just Quin and Viviana and their developing relationship, and that was more than enough plot to keep me riveted.

Can't wait for April, which is when Three Little Secrets will come out!


Red Lily, by Nora Roberts (In The Garden #3)

>> Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Red Lily closes Nora Roberts's latest trilogy, titled In The Garden. It's been a solidly good one so far, starting with After Blue Dahlia and continuing with Black Rose, each of which had a really good romance, plus significant development in the ghost story that is the thread which spans the entire trilogy.

So far, the only thing I haven't liked about this trilogy is the cover look it has been given. Is it just me or aren't they a bit meh? I think I saw the UK covers somewhere and they were an improvement, but not by much!

A Harper has always lived at Harper House, the centuries-old mansion just outside of Memphis. And for as long as anyone alive remembers, the ghostly Harper Bride has walked the halls, singing lullabies at night...

Hayley Phillips came to Memphis hoping for a new start, for herself and her unborn child. She wasn't looking for a handout from her distant cousin Roz, just a job at her thriving In the Garden nursery. What she found was a home surrounded by beauty and the best friends she's ever had-including Roz's son Harper. To Hayley's delight, her new daughter Lily has really taken to him. To Hayley's chagrin, she has begun to dream about Harper-as much more than a friend...

If Hayley gives in to her desire, she's afraid the foundation she's built with Harper will come tumbling down. Especially since she's begun to suspect that her feelings are no longer completely her own. Flashes of the past and erratic behavior make Hayley believe that the Harper Bride has found a way inside of her mind and body. It's time to put the Bride to rest once and for all, so Hayley can know her own heart again-and whether she's willing to risk it...
I've been anticipating this book for a year now. Ever since I read Blue Dahlia, I've been intrigued by Hayley and Harper. I liked the mildly "forbidden" aspect of their relationship... each believing the other just saw them as a friend: Hayley thinking she shouldn't come on to Roz's son, while Harper felt making an overture to his mother's guest, a pregnant woman (and then a new mother), no less, who showed no sign of being attracted to him, was beyond the pale. So, did it live up to my expectations? Oh, yes! While it didn't have that special wonderfulness that is the mark of an A read, it was extremely enjoyable. A B+.

The romance was actually what kept this one from making the small leap between a really, really good B+ book and an A- or A. Don't get me wrong, I loved Hayley and Harper together. Harper's pretty much a dream guy, kind, nice, charming and oh-so-sexy, and Hayley was just flawed enough that I found her cute and not irritating. I just loved her conversations with Roz about Harper, how she'd go right ahead and tell her what was going on between her and Harper, instead of torturing herself with misplaced guilt for months. The things that just came out of Hayley's mouth during those conversations were hilarious!

However, on the... well, not negative side... I really should call it "not-so-wonderful side", I did think Nora jumped the gun a bit with the beginning of the actual romance. I wanted a bit more of the unrequited wanting, especially on Harper's side. This was what had hooked me about these two in the first place, and I'd just settled myself in to enjoy it, when POOF! Hayley makes her move and they begin a relationship in earnest.

As in the other books, I just adored all the interactions between characters, not just the romance. Hayley's friendship with Stella, her slightly more maternal relationship with Roz, with Mitch, with David... everyone criss-crossed and you really got the feeling of a real family between them, which is what keeps me coming back to Nora Roberts' books, when seemingly everyone who has been reading her for a while is so over her already.

As for the supernatural element, the Harper Bride plot, it was just great in this one, and a perfect close to the trilogy. The investigation into who this mysterious Amelia is and what she wants continues, and I'll just say the conclusion was shocking and spine-chilling. I was pretty convinced there just wasn't much mystery about what had happened, so the actual conclusion surprised me. And it was a good surprise, because it made perfect sense and felt right.

The best part about the Harper Bride plot, though, was the way Amelia slowly started getting into Hayley's head and sometimes "possessing" her. That was just wonderfully done. It worked so well because there was a certain rough parallelism between Hayley's and Amelia's circumstances, and seeing Amelia's thoughts in Hayley's head was especially chilling, because they fit the circumstances perfectly, being what many people would feel in Hayley's place, they just didn't fit the person we knew Hayley was.

I recently discussed this book with jmc and we agreed that a priori, neither of us was a fan of single parents as protagonists, because too often authors don't bother making them distinct characters and just make them parents, as if that is all they are. We were both also doubtful that Hayley was doing the right thing in not telling Lily's father about her. In the first area mentioned, I thought Nora did a great job in making Hayley Hayley, not just "a mom". She also didn't make motherhood seem too easy, but by providing her with built-in support and child-care, through her friends and family, this aspect didn't overwhelm the story. In the second are, I wasn't as happy. I still think it's a mistake, no matter the justifications, but it didn't really bother me all that much, surprisingly enough.

Having finished the last book in the trilogy, I really can't wait until the next one starts, and I've began to scour the web looking for information. From several sources (sorry I can't provide links, but I'm afraid I haven't saved that information), it appears the title of the trilogy is The Circle Trilogy, and that the first book, Morrigan's Cross will be out in September. Books 2 and 3 (Dance of the Gods and Valley of Silence) will be out in October and November. Really cool, that. I loved when they did that with the Key Trilogy, because I managed to restrain myself and read them all together.

Anyway, something else I found (and which also reminds me of the Key Trilogy) is this description of the trilogy, supposedly posted by Nora herself (supposedly, I said! Don't blame me if it ends up being wrong):

[Morrigan's Cross] starts a trilogy that's more romantic fantasy--sorcerer, witch, shape-shifter, vampires, goddesses, alternate worlds. In the first we gather together the six who make the first circle charged to stop a two-thousand year old vampire queen and her army from destroying worlds and enslaving humankind.

Vampires from Nora? Wow! I don't think she's done a vampire before, but she's definitely gone in this direction already... Key Trilogy, as I mentioned, Donovan Trilogy, etc. We'll see, I guess.


Anna's Book, by Barbara Vine

>> Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ruth Rendell (who writes this book as Barbara Vine) isn't a new author for me. I picked up a few of her books pre-Internet, when I used to comb the shelves of the couple of stores selling paperbacks in English for anything that sounded interesting. I actually remember reading a couple: Simisola and Judgment in Stone. I can't really remember details, but I do recall finding them interesting, if a bit depressing. Looking through the deepest depths of my TBR shelves, I've found a couple more (Road Rage and The Keys to The Street), so I guess I liked her enough to buy more.

Anna's Book wasn't one of the books I had, though. I got this one after reading the review at AAR and thinking it sounded like just my thing.

Anna is a young woman living in turn-of-the-century London, confiding her rebellious thoughts and well-guarded secrets only to her diary. Years later, her granddaughter discovers that a single entry has been cut out - an entry that may forge a link between her own mother's birth and a gory, unsolved murder in the long hot summer of 1905. But by whom? And why? Ann Eastbrook embarks on a dark journey into a forbidden history, to a place where truth, passion, and deceit are explosively intertwined.
This was a brilliant, amazing book, combining a truly fascinating mystery and wonderful psychological portrayals. An A.

I've purposely chosen the most obscure blurb available to paste above, because I truly do think this is a book better read without much knowledge of what will happen. By the time it got here to Uruguay, I'd forgotten every single specific thing about the book that I'd read in the review, just remembered the feeling of really wanting to read it that it gave me, and as I read, I loved not having the slightest idea of where things might be going.

I'll just mention the very basics here. The book's present-day narrator is Ann Eastbrook, granddaughter of Anna Westerby, a Danish immigrant who moved to London in the early 20th century. Married to an absent man she wasn't too fond of, the mother of two boys and expecting a third, the 25-year-old Anna starts a diary in Danish, which allows her to write down her thoughts with total and absolute honesty, because no one is likely to understand it.

Anna keeps up this diary for years, and after her death, many decades later, her elder daughter, Swanny (Ann Eastbrook's aunt), finds it and has it published to great acclaim. The present-day action of the book starts right after Swanny has died and left Ann everything. And here begins Ann's investigation into the events of the past, especially those surrounding Swanny's birth in 1905, an investigation which has some unexpected connections to a notorious murder case which took place near the Westerby's place that year.

And that is all I'm going to say about the plot. It really is worth it to discover it as the author meant for it to be discovered. Bit by painstaking bit, Vine reveals what happened with flawless timing, and using a variety of voices: from parts of Anna's diary, to Famous Trials accounts of the Roper case, from Ann narrating what Swanny has told her to Ann narrating her the present-day investigation as it happens, they're all there, and they all sound very different.

Every one of the characters here is believable. Their portrayal is unusually deep and complex... no one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, but they are all interesting. As I read the diary entries, I actually caught myself thinking that it was too bad we couldn't read all the diary entries, because maybe we were missing some important clue! Took me a while to remember there wasn't actually a diary, and that we weren't likely to miss any clues, because it was all being carefully crafted by Vine.

The mystery in the book is just as wonderfully constructed. It's the best kind: the clues are all there, and when you finally know everything, you can't believe you never thought of it... it's just obvious, but in the best way possible. My reaction wasn't "hmm, ok, I guess it might have happened that way. Not very probable, but possible". It was "Of course!! How didn't I see that it had to have happened that way?". It just felt so right!

I highly recommend Anna's Book, even if you're not a big mystery fan. It really is worth it.


What a Woman Needs, by Caroline Linden

>> Monday, January 16, 2006

What a Woman Needs, by debut author Caroline Linden really slipped past me this year. I usually take at least a look at the reviews posted at AAR, especially the positive ones of books in subgenres I enjoy. And yet, when Arielle sent me her guest review of WAWN, it didn't sound at all familiar. I did a search and found it had indeed been reviewed at AAR, and that the review should have made me quite eager to get it, so for once, I must have missed it! It's fortunate Arielle chose this one to review, otherwise I would have missed on a lovely book!

How hard can it be to marry an heiress?

Not terribly, Stuart Drake thinks, if you're good-looking, charming, and in line for a viscount title, which, fortunately, he is. To end his penniless existence, he simply has to convince his intended bride's shrewish, wizened old guardian that he isn't a fortune hunter... which, unfortunately, he is in the extreme. Still, once he meets the old witch, how difficult could it prove to charm her?

Quite, actually. Especially when the lady in question is temptation made flesh- a gorgeous widow with a reputation for knowing a rake when she sees one, having bedded many herself. She'd rather die than let Stuart win. And with his plans thwarted, Stuart has only one option: to take revenge on his tormentor through seduction. But learning what this woman needs might only leave him hungry for more...
Zebra have published WAWN under their debut author program, which means it has a "special value" price of $3.99. I hope this lower price made more people give this very fresh, different and yet smooth book a chance. A B+.

Stuart Drake needs to marry for money. His father has cut him off and the mortage on his dream estate, which he's just bought, will be due soon, and he won't be able to pay it. He's put so much hard work in it already that it would really irk him to lose it, so he philosophically decides he might as well marry... after all, it's just a matter of time before he's forced to settle down.

He chooses a young woman he thinks will be suitable and quickly courts her, not expecting much trouble, even though he would prefer it if she wasn't so obviously and demonstratively besotted by him. But trouble arrives when he finally meets his would-be fiancée's guardian, who is very definitely not the old dragon he expected, but a widow of his own age, and one he's immediately very attracted to.

Charlotte, the Countess Griffolino, has had a very bad experience with a fortune hunter, so she's determined her niece will be married for herself, not for her fortune. A quick investigation is enough for her to realize Stuart has a bit of a reputation and does need to marry for money, and her initial meeting with him (in which he very much welcomes her advances) is enough for her to make sure he's not in love with Susan anyway.

It's very clear to her what kind of man Stuart must be, so she proceeds to use what she has learned to make completely sure she squashes that courtship and to run Stuart out of town. When she founds Susan gone, having only left a note that she was running off with her beloved, she immediately wrongly assumes she's referring to Stuart, and goes to accuse him. And there begins a new part of their relationship, in which Charlotte and Stuart slowly become better acquainted and come to care more and more about each other.

What's most different about this book, even more than Charlotte's past (more about that later), is that Stuart isn't a larger-than-life, all-powerful figure. He's in quite precarious circumstances, both in social and economic terms, and Charlotte really hasn't much trouble routing him when she wants to put a stop to his courtship of Susan. He does briefly get the upper hand when he surprises her in his rooms, but once he sets her free, there's just not much he can do (plus, he doesn't really have the cold-bloodedness to take real revenge on her).

Linden takes quite a risk with him, because -I've said it before- many romance readers seem to view a hero who's not in complete control of his circumstances at all times as a bit effeminate. I don't share that opinion at all, and I really enjoyed Stuart. He's a kind, charming man, and I loved the way he was so fascinated with Charlotte and the way he didn't judge her at all when she told him all her secrets.

Charlotte is just as interesting and likeable a character. As I hinted above, she has definitely got quite a past, and what a past it is! Quite a bit more lurid than I've read lately, even though she's a very respectable countess now. Still, even though this has marked her, and her experiences weren't really her choice, she hasn't allowed herself to become a victim to them. She's a mature woman, and one who is very sensual.

As Arielle said in her review, these two have great chemistry together, and their love scenes go beyond the norm, especially because the two people in them are equals in experience and knowledge and because these scenes really show the increasing intimacy between them.

I also coincide with Arielle in her assessment of the book's negative aspects. The main secondary characters were quite irritating, and also, I felt the external plot was a bit undercooked, even though I enjoyed the closeness it forced on Stuart and Charlotte. Still, this wasn't something that bothered me all that much, and on the whole, I had a great time reading this book.

The latest ATBF column at AAR is about buried treasures of 2005, and readers are invited to share theirs. I think this one would definitely qualify!


Saving Will, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Friday, January 13, 2006

Stephanie Vaughan was one of my favourite discoveries last year, and as soon as I finished Crossing the Line, I went looking for her backlist. Among them was
Saving Will.

Will Bruschetti's life is simple. As a Navy SEAL he trains hard, works hard, and plays hard. Experience has taught him not to trust anyone outside the teams -- a woman least of all. But Will never expected to meet anyone like Lee Ann.

Newly relocated to San Diego, Lee Ann Hunt has traded in her expensive lifestyle as one of Hollywood's top entertainment attorneys to do something that matters to her. Smart, sexy and caring, Lee Ann is the epitome of everything Will ever wanted in a woman.

Burned before, Will knows the military life is a relationship killer, and vows to enjoy what the lovely lawyer has to offer while keeping his heart safely out of play. But for once, safe is a lonely place to be. Can Lee Ann save Will from himself?
I wasn't quite as bowled over by this one as I was by some of her other books, but it was all right. A B-.

First thing that struck me about Saving Will was how vanilla it seemed after the other three... I mean, two of those were gay romance, and the third had a dominance/submission theme, so it was interesting to read this one and see how Vaughan does without all those very different extras, some of which I enjoyed so much.

The first half is quite nice, but nothing too different. It's a pretty basic boy-meets-girl story. Lee Ann has just moved in to a new house, after leaving her old high-powered job in Hollywood. When she meets Will, her next-door neighbour, she's instantly overwhelmed by her attraction to him, and Will feels the exact same way. They are quick to act on that attraction and they begin a relationship. But just as things are getting more serious between them, Will is sent abroad on a long mission.

There's something a bit clichéd in the guy who distrusts all women just because one wronged him in the past, and, to some extent, this is the situation with Will. The last time he went on a mission and left a woman he was having a relationship with behind, she cheated on him, so when he has to leave Lee Ann behind, a woman he cares even more about, he's worried. He doesn't go overboard with it, though, just worries about it, but is pretty hopeful Lee Ann will turn out to be a different kind of person.

However, when he comes back and finds what he feels is a suspicious situation, he blows up. He says some very hurtful things to Lee Ann, and she, deeply offended and disheartened to find out exactly what the man she's come to think she could fall in love with thinks of her, kicks him out on his ass and refuses to have anything else to do with him.

Will realizes pretty quickly that he's been a jerk and that he was completely wrong in his assumption, so the rest of the book, then, is basically about Will having to win Lee Ann back... and it very definitely isn't an easy task; he really has to work for it. If you like a good grovel, you'll probably enjoy this part. I know I did!

I would have rated Saving Will a B, if it weren't for an issue that just doesn't get that much air time here, but that was something that bothered me. Their life from then on kind of worried me. I'd probably hate knowing that the man I love will be regularly going to risk his life at dangerous hot spots so hot they could qualify as hell, and that this will mean plenty of very long separations during which I won't know if he's dead or alive. I suppose I could have been able to handle this if it had been at least seriously discussed by Will and Lee Ann, but he basically dismisses her concerns when she brings them up, telling her not to worry, that there's no risk he could be killed. Er... not a good enough answer for me!


Any Place I Hang My Hat, by Susan Isaacs

>> Thursday, January 12, 2006

With the exception of Almost Paradise, I've loved every single Susan Isaacs novel I've read, and I think I've probably read them all. One of them, Shining Through, was even in the top 100 romance novels list I put together in late 2004, even though it's technically not a romance novel (neither are a few of my top 10, for that matter, but that's a whole other subject!).

I'd settled in for the long wait until her latest, Any Place I Hang My Hat, came out in paperback, but jmc came to the rescue and sent it to me. Thank you so very, very much! :-)

No matter which side of the nature/nurture debate you're on, Amy Lincoln's prospects do not look good. Her mother abandoned her when she was ten months old (just a couple of months after Amy's father went off to serve his first prison term), leaving her in the care of Grandma Lil, who shoplifts dinner on the way home from her job as a leg waxer to the rich and refined.

When Amy is fourteen, she gets a scholarship to a New England boarding school -- her exposure to the moneyed class. After Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism, Amy becomes a political reporter for the prestigious weekly In Depth. While covering a political fund-raiser, Amy meets a college student who claims to be the son of one of the presidential candidates. It's precisely the sort of story that In Depth wouldn't deign to cover, but the idea of tracking down a lost parent and demanding recognition intrigues Amy. As she begins a search of her own past as well as the candidate's, she discovers a new and unimpeachable grandmother and a mother who is much more than she bargained for. Most important, she finally comes to understand the stuff she's made of and finds the perfect place to hang her hat in the world.
Vintage Isaacs. A B+.

For once, the back cover blurb (or, in this case, book jacket flap blurb) really does give you a good idea of what the book is about. Like so many of Isaacs, it's about identity, about a young woman finally coming to understand who she is and why, and coming to accept herself.

At first glance, Amy Lincoln would seem to be pretty centered and unscarred by a, err, let's say unconventional upbringing, which included a mother who abandoned her when she was a baby, a father who spent most of her childhood in jail and a grandmother with skewed priorities, who was more interested in what type of cutlery was in fashion among the upper classes than in her granddaughter.

However, a fundraiser in which a young man crashes the party and melodramatically announces he's the son of the guest of honor, a potential presidential candidate, changes this and has Amy thinking more and more about the past, about her mother and what she might have gotten from her and about the possibility of looking her up and trying to understand why she did what she did.

Being a journalist, Amy definitely has the expertise needed for this task, and she soon sets on it. And do I even need to say that the results are unexpected, to say the least?

Amy is a very likeable character. I loved her sense of humor, the way she was perfectly ready to laugh at herself and her own foibles, and I enjoyed reading her observations of the world and people around her.

That's something I always enjoy with Isaacs: the narrators' voices are always so good that I enjoy every minute of the time I spend with them, whether what they're talking about advances the plot or not. I guess this book (and many of hers) could be considered a bit unfocused, because Isaacs does have a tendency to take detours (she'll go on for ages about the family history a secondary character, for instance), but I'd argue that this is what gives her characters, even the unimportant, secondary ones, such depth and distinctiveness. Her friend Tatty is a good example... she was perfectly three-dimensional.

Something else I always enjoy about Isaacs' books, and that was present here, is that her Jewish characters seem to me to be distinctly Jewish. I think this is what people mean when they say they expect a multi-cultural romance to have a certain flavor to it. Not that they expect characters of a different race or religion to be somehow alien, but that they expect that their race or religion has had an effect on them, to have shaped them somehow, to some extent.

I don't know if I'm explaining myself well. Going back to Amy, what I mean is that she wasn't just a character who, oh, yes, happened to be Jewish. If Isaacs had decided at one point "Hmm, I want to make Amy a Christian", it would have had to involve much more than a simple "search and replace" on her computer. She would have had to rewrite the book completely, because Amy's Jewishness is that ingrained in the way her character was written.

Ok, leaving that particular potential minefield behind and moving on. I've only now remembered, having written all this, that while this book isn't a romance novel at all, there is a romance thread in there. I guess that shows how important this thread was in the grand scheme of this book. It's nice enough, and reflects quite nicely Amy's growth, the way she has been able to get over some problems neither she nor the readers realized she had in the early sections of the story, but we just don't see enough of Amy and this person together, and the ending is a bit abrupt.

And speaking of endings, I very much enjoyed the conclusion to the main plot of the book, Amy's search for her maternal family. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll just say I loved that it was anything but pat and sentimentalistic. Just perfect.

On the news section of Isaacs website, I found the following tidbit:

Work In Progress
Susan is now working on her eleventh novel. It's about Katie Schottland, TV writer, wife, and mother whose first out-of-college job fifteen years earlier comes back to haunt her. Oh, her employer way back then was the CIA.

Sound good, doesn't it?


Reading Year in Review - Part 7: New authors tried

Well, I can tell you, after yesterday's post, I'm tired of spreadsheets and pivot tables, so this will be short and sweet ("Good", you all think).

It helps that I did a version of this in late October, where I analyzed most of the new authors I've tried in detail (read it here).

So, total number? Did I read as many new-to-me authors in 2005 as I did in 2004? Nope, I did not. I read 63 this year, while last year I managed to read 79.

Outstanding discoveries (using stringent criteria here... the first book of theirs that I read got B+ or better):

The ones mentioned back in October bear repeating:

- Mercedes Lackey
- Shannon McKenna
- Nick Hornby
- Dodie Smith
- Michelle Cunnah
- Cheryl Sterling
- Megan Sybil Baker
- Lydia Joyce
- Kathleen Nance
- Cheryl St. John
- Piers Anthony
- Lisa Marie Rice
- Linda Castillo

... especially because I read only one (!) since then:

- Caroline Linden

Yes, out of 16 books by new authors I tried in the last 2 months of the year, only Linden got a B+. There were a few Bs (Stephanie Vaughan, Kathy Reichs, Janet Mullaney and Karen Marie Moning), but that was it.

Outstandingly BAD discoveries

That was fewer, thankfully. Before October:

- Lynn Kurland
- Carla Neggers
- Patricia Oliver

..and after that:

- Robyn Donald

I did ok with my new authors, I think. A full 56% of them got grades above B-, 35% were in the average range (C- to C+), while only 10% were downright bad.

I've even read more books by 10 of these authors, and, considering the time it takes me to actually get books here, that's a very respectable number!

And that's it for this year! Thanks for reading!


A Thousand Roses, by Bethany Campbell

>> Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I quite liked the first Bethany Campbell book I read, Child's Play, so I went out looking for more. A Thousand Roses was the one I chose to read next, even though it wasn't a mystery romance, as Child's Play was.

'When the going gets tough--get tougher!' That's what Perdita Nordstrand had learned growing up on the wrestling circuit with celebrities like Ravishing Ricky and Hugo the Horrible. So she wasn't about to be intimidated by a miserly Scrooge from Boston who was trying to claim her New Hampshire home at Christmas.

But when she came face-to-face with the tall, darkly handsome Ebenezer Squires, she actually felt frightened. Not because he came from a world of power and breeding so distant from hers.

It was the strange tantalizing force drawing them together that unnerved her..."
Since people seemed to like my review of Kiss of the Highlander, I'll use the same format here. So follow me along, as I read about Perdita and Ben!

page 24 - The situation has been set up, and it sounds intriguing. It's almost Christmas, and the sale of Perdita's house, which seemed like a done deal, has been delayed, since there is a little problem with the titles and her purchaser won't budge until that's solved. She's already sent on most of her belongings to Cloverdale, Indiana, which is where she plans to open an fabric shop and settle down, but now she hasn't got the money from the sale of the house, so she can't buy, which means she's stuck in New Hampshire for the moment.

To make matters worse, the buyer had wanted to be in the house by Christmas, come hell or high water, so they'd signed a rent deal, contingent on the purchase. Since the purchase hasn't really fallen through yet, the rent deal is still on. So Ebenezer Squires moves in, and since Perdita has nowhere to go, she doesn't move out.

I'm liking Perdita very much. Her background certainly feels unique. She grew up following the Mid-West professional wrestler circuit, raised by her big, scarred, wrestler father and his manager and manager's wife, both midgets, who became surrogate parents to her. She seems to be a strong, proud woman, and I like her! And her reasons for wanting to move to Cloverdale, sight unseen, are touching.

page 73 - Uh-oh! Not as good as I was hoping for. It definitely has some of the hallmarks of bad, old categories, hero-wise. Ben's constant, belittling comments about Perdita obviously being an easy woman (she obviously has received her jewelry from an "admirer", she dresses the way she does to tempt him, she doesn't care about her reputation, since she's allowing him to stay at her house) are dated and offensive, and one of the things that used to be so typical of romance novels and I'm so glad are now considered to be old-fashioned.

I've just read this gem:

"If you're so respectable, why are you staying here, at the house? You obviously don't care two cents for your reputation -letting a strange man move in with you. And you certainly haven't gone out of your way to be unattractive. What's a poor, proper Bostonian to think, except that he's dealing with a woman of easy virtue?"

He's apparently trying to be funny and trying to keep from laughing as he says this (having some scenes from his POV might help, but there have been none so far), but still, what a creep!

page 88 - Ben has improved, showed he can be nice. But Perdita's trying my patience now. What an absurdly inept woman! What seemed endearing at first is just plain stupid now. And her "you're a man, aren't you? Can't you fix that furnace?" comment? Ugh. Just as offensive as a guy saying "you're a woman, aren't you? Can't you cook a five-course meal?".

page 102. God, can there be anthing that's more of a cliché than that scene I just read, with Perdita eavesdropping on Ben's phone conversation about a certain wedding? Hasn't she read any romance novels, that she can't guess it was obviously his sister on the phone, not a fiancée? And her constant harping on whether she's a good girl is getting on my nerves. Oh, and those outfits! The crimson silk lounging pajamas with the pitchforked devils and the plunging cleavage was bad enough, but the gold, belted sweater and the black cossack pants... ugh! I just hate 80s fashion.

Not a good sign that I'm writing here every so few pages, is it?

page 148 - I'm not having a good time at all! Perdy's still hung up on the misunderstanding with Ben's "wedding", and I'm finding her more and more irritating. Boring book.

page 158 - "I want you to be my mistress". I WANT YOU TO BE MY MISTRESS??? What the hell? Argh. Damned stupid book. And it's unbelievable, but Perdita keeps getting stupider and stupider. I didn't think she could do that.

The only positive I can see (if you can call it that) is that the author is very aware of Perdita's flaws. She even says it perfectly, by calling what she does "engaging in magical thinking". True, true, true. The thing is, I despise this. Someone close to me does it all the time, and it makes me want to kill her. I guess you could say it's a hot button of mine.

the end - I'm a bitch. Ben's sob story left me cold. All I could think was "could you get any more clichéd than this?". And the final big, supposedly romantic gesture that gives this story its title? Big yawn.

Verdict? Ugh. I really hoped I'd like this one, but I didn't, not at all. I disliked the characters, I disliked the plot and I hated the schmaltz. A D+.


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