One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman

>> Thursday, August 31, 2006

I've been meaning to try Jo Goodman for a while, because I've heard such good things about her books. I actually started reading one of them, the first in the Compass Club quartet, but for some reason, I put it aside and never picked it up again. Her latest, One Forbidden Evening, sounded so good that I decided to pick that one up instead of persisting with the other one.

As a masked ball reaches its fever pitch, Cybelline Caldwell surrenders to the embrace of a midnight lover, a stranger who seals her fate. By morning the wanton seductress has been replaced by a determinedly sensible woman preparing to leave London...and its memories. Yet temptation follows. For Christopher Hollings, Earl of Ferrin, the notorious rake she so brazenly challenged, vows to show her that one night was not enough.

It took some clever detective work, but Ferrin uncovered the identity of his mystery lover, surprised and intrigued to come face to face with Cybelline. Soon he discovers she is a woman of mystery-and a woman in danger, stalked by a ruthless enemy. Unable to erase the searing memory of Cybelline in his arms, Ferrin knows he must discover the secrets that shadow her days...for only than can he claim all of her nights.
I truly don't like having to write this review. I wanted to love this book, not just because I wanted to agree with all those people who are big fans of Goodman and recommended I try her, but because in abstract, it has so many things I usually enjoy, things I would list as favourites of mine and really should have enjoyed. There's the complex characters who actually talk to each other, there's the nerdy hero who has great respect for the heroine, there's the tortured heroine, there's the rich, flavour-full writing. But in spite of all this, the OFE failed to engage me at all. A C+.

Christopher Hollings, the Earl of Ferrin is known to be a rake, but he's still very surprised when during a masquerade ball given by his mother, a young woman dressed as Boudicca approaches him and propositions him. Half-convinced that this must be someone's idea of a prank, he's even more surprised when she actually follows through, and they end up having sex in one of the servant's stairwells.

After this, Boudicca disappears, and Ferrin is left intrigued. He uses the antique spear his Boudicca left behind, as well as some things she said, to deduce that she must somehow be related to Cybelline Caldwell, the Viscount Sheridan widowed sister. Finding out that Mrs.Caldwell has recently set up her household at one of Lady Riverdale's estates, Ferrin follows her there, where he finds it's Mrs. Caldwell herself who was his Boudicca.

Cybelline isn't particularly happy to see Ferrin again, not least because she already has enough troubles. For months she's been receiving letters from her late husband's mistress, accusing her of having murdered him, and those letters are getting more and more menacing. But Ferrin is much more than he seems at first sight, and she finds herself increasingly drawn to him.

I think my main problem was with Goodman's writing style. I had two problems with this, one small, one bigger. The small one is that the rich writing is at times too rich and ends up bordering on purple. That's not bad in itself, but I had trouble getting used to it, and in fact, never fully did. Also, at times it felt to me as if Goodman had a mild case of Cheryl Holt-itis.

No, Goodman's writing isn't as bad as the writing in the one Holt book I read, but the main thing that drove me crazy about the writing in Total Surrender was how Holt seemed to have written her book in "regular" language, and then gone through it with a thesaurus, substituting words at random with whatever synonym sounded most archaic or old fashioned. While in Holt's case sometimes the word used was inappropriate, and this didn't happen with Goodman's, what did happen in the latter was that the writing gave me an impression of artificial old-fashionedness, and instead of feeling lush and beautiful, it felt a bit stilted and overwritten. Of course, writing style is just as personal as sense of humour, so I don't expect everyone to have been bothered by it, just as I don't expect everyone to find funny the same things that I do.

Anyway, if this had been the only thing about her writing that bothered me, it wouldn't have been that bad. The bigger problem was one that I'm not completely sure I should categorize as one of writing style. I'm talking about the way Goodman often kept quite a lot of a character's motivations and feelings hidden from the reader, even we were seeing a scene from that particular character's POV. We'd see him (or her) doing something, but we weren't sure why he was doing it, or how he felt about it.

I'd compare this to the way I felt when I read a certain mystery in which we actually saw some post-murder scenes from the POV of the person who ended up being the murderer. Of course, the person wouldn't have been constantly thinking "I killed so-and-so, I killed so-and-so", but it felt wrong not to have been given that information when we'd been in that person's mind. Same thing here, it didn't feel natural that we were seeing such a partial view of what was happening in the character's mind, as if the author was deliberately hiding information.

In OFE, the result of Goodman doing this was that I felt very distant from her main characters. I never got to completely understand who they were or where they were coming from. Which means that I was never able to care all that much about them. Which, in turn, meant that I found it hard to stay involved in the book, and that the temptation to skim was strong.

I had other problems, but they were more minor than what I just described. Things like how in the problem with Nicholas' mistress and the letters, it was much too easy to figure out who was to blame, or how the whole to-do about having Ferrin being disguised as Mr. Wellesley added nothing. I haven't read the previous book in the series, so I was bored by the numerous scenes devoted to Cybelline's brother and sister-in-law and the kids who live with them. And the final scenes, when the suspense element comes to its climax, were uninteresting. By then, I didn't much care about what would happen to these people.

Oh, well, seems that Goodman isn't for me, right?


Hunting Midnight, by Emma Holly

>> Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hunting Midnight (excerpt) is the second in Emma Holly's upyr series (there's a short story before them, the on in the Fantasy anthology, but it takes place in another time and place and has nothing to do with these characters. It just serves to introduce the upyr universe).

For centuries, Ulric's pack of shapeshifting immortals have hidden in the Scottish forest, far from the dangers of the human world. Only when his longtime lover betrays him does their leader venture out, recklessly roaming the streets of Bridesmere, singing for his supper . . . and whatever else he desires.

Ulric never expects to meet Juliana Buxton, dutiful daughter of a rich merchant, nor to be blackmailed into helping her escape her elderly betrothed. Juliana is everything he has learned to distrust in a woman: bright, bold, and endlessly curious. The smart course of action would be to ditch her, no matter how deliciously passionate she is.

Luckily, Ulric's heart has other ideas.
Hunting Midnight was very so-so. It was readable enough, but I never got to really care about the characters, and the upyr universe still hasn't completely gelled for me. A C+.

If you've read Catching Midnight, the first book in the series, you'll probably remember Ulric, the leader of Gillian's pack, with whom she was involved before deserting him and her other fellow pack-members for the human world. That Ulric was a bit of an asshole, a dominating man who, protesting that he was doing it only because he loved Gillian, tried to blackmail her into going back to him.

Hunting Midnight takes place only a couple of weeks after the events of CM. Ulric, devastated by Gillian's final abandonment, has been wondering around England enthralling women right and left and having tons of meaningless sex (*sigh* men!).

Juliana Buxton is the only daughter of a prosperous merchant, and she's in a bit of a pickle. Her father has decided that she will marry a business connection of his who Juliana finds intolerable, and though he loves his daughter, he will not be moved.

Juliana and Ulric meet when he picks her as the flavour of that particular night and they quickly end up having sex in a nearby alley. Juliana had picked that particular night to run away from home, but none of her tentative plans had worked, so when she saw the beautiful man singing outside the inn, she was at the end of her rope and he seemed quite a godsend.

Ulric finds the young woman attractive enough, but nothing special. Definitely not special enough for him to want to take her along. He allows her to believe that he's willing to help her get away from town, while never intending to follow through. But he doesn't count on Juliana quickly figuring out he's upyr (the sex left him so exhausted he neglected to take the precautions necessary to secure himself for the night... talk about idiotic!) and threatening to let him burn if he doesn't really promise to take her away. And not only that, Juliana also decides she wants to become a upyr, and she secures the promise that if by the end of the summer she still wants it, she will be changed.

And so Juliana and Ulric head north to Scotland and to Ulric's pack's territory, where more problems await them. The pack is in disarray, and Juliana is still being chased by her intended husband, who seems more interested in her companion than in anything else.

One of the main problems I had with the first book in the series was how matter-of-factly everyone took finding out that there were such a thing as upyrs and that, in fact, the person who was beside them (or in their beds!) was one. I had the same problem here, especially at the beginning. Julianna's reactions to finding out that the man who just screwed her brainless was a upyr were weird. I could excuse the incredibly quick sex because of Ulric's power to thrall her, but I really couldn't buy the way she acted afterwards, both relating to her discovery and to what she'd just done.

Maybe if she'd been in a very bad position, at the end of her rope, I would have been able to buy her behaviour, but come on! A woman whose only worry is that her father wants her to marry a man she doesn't like (the guy was a piece of work, but at the beginning, Holly never made me think Juliana was afraid of him or even hated him or was repulsed by him. It merely felt as if she didn't like the man much) wouldn't immediately jump, just like that, at the possibility of leaving all her life behind her and becoming a vampire! It was hard enough to believe she'd run away like that, with no plans and no certain means of supporting herself. Or rather, it was hard to believe that anyone with half a brain would do that. The upyr thing was much too much. It made me start out with a low opinion of Juliana's intelligence and sommon sense, and that opinion never really grew all that much.

The romance wasn't particularly good, either. At the beginning, I didn't get the feeling that Ulric was even particularly attracted to Julianna... not more than he was to all those women he'd seduced the previous nights, at any rate. She was there and insisted on being taken with him, so he took her, but if she'd decided to go back to her house, I didn't get the feeling Ulric would have been too put out by it. He would probably have just shrugged and gone on on his way.

Obviously, his feelings for Juliana changed, but the way they did felt a bit weird. One moment he's still madly in love with Gillian, the next, he's decided he loves Juliana instead. Er, ok, I guess.

But the main problem I had with the romance was I didn't feel there was any tension in that area of the book. After he decides he loves Juliana, Ulric gets all kind of ideas about how she can't love him, and blah, blah, blah, and he starts angsting about it, but all this never did make much sense to me. It didn't really add any tension there, it just made me a bit distant from Ulric, because I didn't understand what the hell he was going on about.

I know what you're thinking now: since this is an Emma Holly, how was the sex? Well, I can't deny the woman knows her way around a sex scene, so objectively, they're pretty steamy. However, to be honest, these particular sex scenes of Holly didn't affect me at all. It's probably because of the lack of tension I mentioned above, but most of the times Ulric and Juliana got it on (and they did get it on a lot), I yawned. I even skimmed a couple of the scenes, because they really weren't adding anything. Did you read what I just wrote? I skimmed a sex scene! In an Emma Holly book! That's pretty telling, I think.

The most interesting thing in the book, I thought, were the dynamics of Ulric's pack, and the way Juliana was integrated to them. That was pretty intriguing, as was Lucius' appearanceat the end. Lucius is the hero of the next book in the series, Courting Midnight, and I was interested enough by this character that I'm going to give it a try.


The Phoenix Code, by Catherine Asaro

>> Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I've never tried Catherine Asaro's Skolian books, which I guess she's best known for (actually, I did read one short story which I believe beongs in that universe, the story in the Irresistible Forces anthology, and I wasn't too impressed), but I love her two books that I've read that are set on Earth in the very near future and deal with Artificial Intelligence. Those are Veiled Web and the book I reread recently, The Phoenix Code (excerpt).

When robotics expert Megan O'Flannery is offered the chance to direct MindSim's cutting-edge program to develop a self-aware android, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project is trouble plagued--the third prototype "killed" itself, and the RS-4 is unstable. Megan will descend into MindSim's underground research lab in the Nevada desert, where she will be the sole human in contact with the RS-4, dubbed Aris. Programmed as part of a top-secret defense project, the awakening Aris quickly proves to be deviously resourceful and basically uncontrollable. When Megan enlists the help of Raj Sundaram, the quirky, internationally renowned robotics genius, the android develops a jealous hostility toward Raj--and a fixation on Megan. But soon she comes to realize that Raj may be an even greater danger--and that her life may depend on the choice she makes between the man she wants to trust and the android she created.
An excellent combination of sci-fi and romance. A B+.

AI expert Dr. Megan O'Flannery is thrilled when MindSim, the leading company in the field, offers her the chance to head the team developing their promising new android. The job implies living in an underground lab in Nevada, alone with the android at first, and then also with the robotics expert chosen to work on the prototype.

The robotics expert is the very renowned Raj Sundaram, a man Megan had already met once, and been very intrigued by. Raj is a man considered very difficult by most people. His mind doesn't work in a particularly linear way and he doesn't do much to hide it, so his cryptic way of speaking, combined with his social ineptness confuse people, turning them hostile to him. Unlike most, though, Megan isn't bothered by this, but fascinated.

When Raj arrives in Nevada, the attraction between him and Megan quickly develops into something more. But all is not fine, because the android, Aris (who later changes his name to Ander), has become very attached to Megan, so he develops a strong resentment towards Raj. And soon Megan finds herself in a dangerous situation in which she doesn't know who to trust.

Both the romance and sci-fi elements here were wonderfully done. I was fascinated by the way Asaro dealt with the AI element. Her setting gives a very interesting vision of the near future, which, even after 6 years of the book being written, still feels valid.

TPC is also pretty rare for a genre book, in that it really delves into certain big issues and makes you thing about them. Asaro asks some very interesting questions about what being human means, and this made think about how I feel about this, and actually made me question some of my beliefs.

I really enjoyed the scenes in which Megan worked on Ander and his development. Ander is a compelling character, very believable as someone who's only learning how to be human and is having to cram years of development into weeks. I loved how Asaro showed his thought processes through his reactions, and he became a very well-rounded character for me.

The romance was lovely, even though I might have liked a bit more space devoted to it. Asaro gives us a very unique romantic triangle, one with the intriguing twist of having one of the vertices being an android. I very much enjoyed both Megan and Raj. I liked the way Megan was so honourable, so determined to do the right thing by Aris/Ander, once she became convinced that he'd developed a consciousness that made him human. And Raj I loved for his vulnerability and his genius and his social ineptitude, and for the way he interacted with Ander, always so respectful of his humanity, even when the android was hostile. The relationship between these two men was among the best things in the book. And only now that I've finished the book do I realize that we see things only from Megan's point of view, and that's because the book's so well written that I felt I knew what was in Raj's mind, and I didn't feel anything was missing.

The resolution was great, the best possible solution (and I remember the twist catching me completely by surprise the first time!), and the action, even the adventurous part, never confusing. I didn't completely understand why Megan would still trust a certain person, but other than that, TPC was great.

I think I'm now going to start Sunrise Alley, which looks to be in the same vein as this book.


The Devil's Delilah, by Loretta Chase

>> Monday, August 28, 2006

Loretta Chase's single titles have worked much better for me than her Trad Regencies, but The Devil's Delilah came very highly recommended.

Sure to be ruined by the tell-all memoirs of her father— society's most infamous rogue—Delilah Desmond is determined to suppress the manuscript. She enlists the aid of bookish Jack Langdon—whose rumpled brown hair and poetic gray eyes hide a most passionate heart…
This one was better than most of her other Trads, and quite good, but nowhere near as great as single titles like Lord of Scoundrels, Lord Perfect or Mr. Impossible, to mention just three. Still, I liked it enough for a B.

Jack Langdon and Delilah Desmond meet at an inn, when Jack finds Delilah holding his best friend's father at gunpoint. Jack jumps to exactly the wrong conclusion and tries to interfere, only to find out later, to his chagrin, that Delilah is no criminal, but the daughter of a well-known former rake, and that she's not trying to rob the Earl of Streetham, but defending herself against him (the lovely man had assumed she was a maid, and thus fair game).

Delilah is worried, very worried. All her chances of making a good, respectable marriage (thus providing for security for herself and her parents), are hanging in the balance, because her father has written his memoirs, and it's obvious that if they were published, the scandal would be enormous. To make things worse, he's actually gone and offered them to a publisher, and now the man is chasing them, alternating between trying to convince her father to hand the manuscript over and trying to steal it.

Realizing that Jack is a really nice guy, Delilah asks for his help with hiding the manuscript. At the same time, the Earl of Streetham, who has an interest both in making money from the manuscript and in getting some revenge on Devil Desmond, enlists his son, Jack's friend to help him. And so starts a huge farce, in which people cross and double-cross each other, steal, hide, bury, unbury and rewrite the manuscript and, last, but not least, fall in love.

What I loved:

  • Jack: I loved this absent-minded bookworm of a hero, who finds himself captivated by this young woman who couldn't be more unlike him if she tried. And the way he falls for her, despite his best efforts not to, is vintage Loretta Chase. It reminded me a little bit of Benedict's reactions to Bathsheba in Lord Perfect.

  • Delilah's father, Devil: I just loved that the absent-minded bookworm was the love interest, while the dangerous, feared rogue was the heroine's father. Devil's reactions to some of Delilah and Jack's more clumsy attempts at romance were hilarious.

  • The writing: Chase is a genious at smart and witty writing, and her dialogue sparkles.
What I didn't much care for:

  • The whole to-do about that cursed manuscript: So and so has it, so and so hides it, so and so is pressured by yet another so-and-so to steal it, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. After a while, I didn't know (or care) who had it and where, and wanted nothing more than for Chase to forget about it and concentrate on Jack and Delilah.
Of course, the good parts were many more than the annoying one, and I quite enjoyed TDD.


The Mysterious Mr. Quin, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, August 25, 2006

book coverAgatha Christie's The Mysterious Mr. Quin is a collection of 12 stories which were published in magazines during the 1920s, and were only collected in a single volume in 1930. I remembered this collection fondly from my early teens, when I was devouring all of Christie's oeuvre.

All twelve of these stories feature two characters. Mr. Satterthwaite, who is our... well, not narrator, because this isn't told in 1st person POV, but maybe our witness to Mr. Quin's actions? Mr. Satterthwaite is in his late sixties, an elf-like little man who knows everybody worth knowing and is known by everyone. He's spent his whole life, and most especially his latest years, as an observer, watching as other people live their high dramas, but never participating himself.

Until, that is, the events narrated in the first story, The Coming of Mr. Quin. It's New Year's Eve and Mr. Satterthwaite is staying at some friends' house, as a member of a larger party. After dinner, the men are talking about the mysterious suicide of the house's former owner, which happened in the presence of a couple of them, when someone knocks on the door. It's a gentleman named Mr. Quin, a passing motorist whose car broke down nearby and who asks for refuge for half an hour, while his chauffer fixes the car.

And during that half hour, Mr. Quin skilfully manipulates the conversation so that the whys and hows of that mysterious death become quite clear to Mr. Satterthwaite, with unexpected consequences to some of the party.

The other 11 stories vary in setting, but there's always one constant. Mr. Quin mysteriously appears when there has been or will be a need for him, acting as a catalyst for Mr. Satterthwaite to wade in and take a part in the dramas developing in front of him, always helped by Mr. Quin in seeing things in a different way.

Each story also has a link (sometimes subtle, sometimes very obvious) to the Harlequinade. I especially remember that on my first read, those mentions intrigued me enough to go to the library and investigate (no internet back then!).

The stories vary in quality, but other than the last one, which was just as confusing and nonsensical this time around as I remembered it being when I first read it, they're all interesting, neat little mysteries. And there's the bonus of the glimpse into English society in the 1920s, which was fascinating.

In general, I liked the earliest stories in the book more. It would make sense if the stories are arranged in chronological order, which I'm not sure they are. I especially liked the story I mentioned above, the second one, The Shadow on the Glass, the third, At the Bells and Motley, the seventh, The Voice in the Dark and the eighth, The Face of Helen.

On the whole, I'd rate this book a B.


All U Can Eat, by Emma Holly

>> Thursday, August 24, 2006

More and more, I'm realizing I prefer very hot mainstream, vanilla romance rather than all-out, no-holds-barred erotica. However, there are a couple of authors for whom I make an exception, and one of them is Emma Holly. Her erotica works just as well for me as her more mainstream romance does... the same things that don't work at all for me in other writers' work are just perfect in an Emma Holly. All U Can Eat (excerpt) is a good example.

A tale of sex, lies, and big, juicy burgers . . .

Sassy diner owner Frankie Smith just lost the battle to keep her wandering boyfriend home, a fact everyone in her small Southern California town is happy to comment on. With looks like hers--and never mind her mean mesquite fries--she's soon swimming in offers to cheer her up. But when a local society girl turns up dead behind her diner, and Frankie becomes the prime suspect, it looks like world-weary cop, Jack West, might have the inside track!
All U Can Eat was pure steamy fun, with a perfect blend of romance, hot sex and a neat mystery. A B+.

Frankie Smith owns a diner in the Southern California town of Six Palms and has a good life. But things start getting complicated when her boyfriend, Troy, suddenly leaves her for another woman (after some truly excellent sex, to add insult to injury), and the new couple start parading together all around town. To make things worse, a body turns up in the alley behind Frankie's diner, and there are some indications the victim might have been mistaken for Troy's new girlfriend, which makes Frankie a suspect.

Jack West is Six Palm's chief of police, and he's long had a bit of a crush on Frankie. He hasn't found the nerve to approach her yet, but as the murder case gets more and more complicated, and as surprising revelation after surprising revelation start coming out, Jack and Frankie finally get together.

The first thing I should mention, because this is something that might be an issue for many readers, is that we see Frankie doing a bit of sexual exploration before she gets involved with Jack. There's Troy (which, strictly speaking, doesn't really count, because when we see them having sex they're actually still in a relationship), there's the mysterious, tortured stranger with whom Frankie engages in some rebound sex, right after Troy leaves her, there's the two bi-sexual owners of a local garage with whom she has a threesome... you get the picture.

It didn't bother me at all. I have to say, though, I was glad to see those sexual explorations limited to the heroine. I don't mind seeing the heroine exploring her sexuality with other people, but I tend not to like seeing the hero sleeping with someone else, even before he and the heroine get involved (not that I refuse to read a book that has this element, or that I've never enjoyed one. I'm just talking in general). Yes, yes, I have double standards when it comes to this. I know it, and you know what? I'm reading romance for pleasure, so I see no reason to try and change it. I'll just stick to what I like in this area. Anyway, I actually liked that Frankie had no problem sleeping with whomever she was attracted to, and that she didn't torture herself about it. And, even better, she's not punished for it by the author!

Also, however much I've enjoyed Holly's more open relationships in the past, I liked that when Frankie and Jack do get together, they are faithful to each other. And I loved their relationship. I loved that Jack had had a crush on her forever, and I loved how he was much less "perfect" (older, more tired) than Frankie's partners earlier in the book. And of course, he's a bit vulnerable about that.

The mystery is not the focus here, but it was lots of fun. It was very intriguing, and very sexually charged itself, too. The people in Six Palms, California sure do have interesting sex lives, and we get to hear all about them! ;-)

Coming out next November, Prince of Ice, which is set in the same universe as The Demon's Daughter. Yay!


A Kiss of Fate, by Mary Jo Putney

>> Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mary Jo Putney used to be one of my big favourites when I first started seriously reading romance. I absolutely adored her Fallen Angels series, and I loved many of her other books. Titles like The Rake are still in my keeper shelves (not that I have actual, physical keeper shelves. I keep too many books and shelve them all together. But you know what I mean).

Anyway, in the past few years, around the time she wrote those contemps, I took her of my autobuy list. I actually haven't yet read the Bride series (not contemporary, but writen around that period). And I'm afraid reading the short story in the Irresistible Forces, the short story that acts as an introduction to the Guardian series, didn't really inspire me to go back.

So why did I end up picking up A Kiss of Fate (excerpt)? Well, I read the keeper review of The Marriage Spell at AAR, and though that one is actually part of a new series, Putney's brand of fantasy romance seemed tempting. And since I already had AKOF in the TBR...

Laird of an ancient, powerful Scottish clan, Duncan Macrae is committed to ending the ceaseless strife between Scotland and England. But he also has other, secret powers-those of a Guardian, humans with mystical abilities to control nature's forces and see into the hearts of others. From the moment he encounters independent young English widow Gwyneth Owens, his fiery spirit is irrevocably drawn to claim her as his own-a passion that will not only set his loyalty to his land against his sworn Guardian vows, but will also threaten everything he cherishes most.

Though Gwynne's father was a Guardian, she believes that she has inherited only her mother's beauty, not her father's power. Then one kiss from the dangerously alluring Laird of the Macraes ignites a hunger that shakes her to her soul-and reveals visions of a looming catastrophe that threatens England and Scotland both. Only by becoming Duncan's wife and betraying the man she loves can she avert disaster.

As irrevocable destiny and two mighty nations clash, Gwynne and Duncan must test their powers and passions past the most forbidden limits if they are to save their love-and secure the future.
To be honest, I liked AKOF more than I expected to. It was a very solid B for me.

AKOF is set in an alternate version of mid-18th century Britain. It looks just like our world, except that there's a group of people with paranormal powers, the Guardians, operating behind the scenes to influence events in a positive manner, but with as little interference as possible.

Our heroine, Gwyneth Owens, is part of a Guardian family but has no powers of her own, something that's been the source of frustration all her life. She's dedicated herself to becoming a keeper of all the information and history regarding the Guardians, something that's very much appreciated by the rest of her community (Guardians can't just operate on instict; knowing what effects things have had in the past is basic to their actions).

When Gwynne meets Duncan Macrae, he's instantly crazy about her, but she hesitates. Duncan is an incredibly powerful weather mage (a Guardian who can affect wheather phenomena, like his ancestors, the characters in the short story in the Irresistible Forces anthology) and Gwynne feels intimidated. Against her instincts, she rejects him, right until the Guardian Council strongly suggests that she should accept his suit.

And so Gwynne and Duncan go off to his castle in Scotland, while around them events threaten to go to hell. Charles Edward Stuart has just landed and is beginning his campaign, pitting Duncan's loyalty to the Guardian Council (which has decided that all things considered, Britain will be better off with its current monarchs) against his innermost feelings that his country deserves to rule itself. And among all this, Gwynne can't seem to be able to dispel the vague feeling that she will betray her husband.

AKOF has two pretty distinct halves. The first covers Gwynne and Ducan's courtship and marriage, as well as the development of Gwynne's powers, which suddenly appear after the wedding (more on this soon) and lasts up until they begin their married life in Scotland.

This part was nice enough, mostly because of Putney's talent as a writer. I'd forgotten how smooth her writing feels, how well it flows. And though it feels a bit underdeveloped, the Guardian universe is quite intriguing.

Ducan and Gwynne's relationship here is nice enough, too (pretty clear I liked this but wasn't particularly wowed by it, eh?). The only thing I didn't like was those powers of Gwynne's that developed after her marriage. It turns out Gwynne's Guardian talent is to be an Enchantress, a woman who can project power in order to captivate and fascinate any man, and that the reason why she didn't know until after her marriage was that those particular powers lie dormant until... yes, you guessed it! Until a woman first has sex. My eyes are rolling. Oh, please! I wish Putney had kept away from the silly magical sex. She seems fond of it, she also had it in the short story!

When we got to the end of this first half I was a bit worried. The relationship between Duncan and Gwynne seemed to be settled already (Duncan had been madly in love with her since he first saw her, and by this time, she had fallen in love with him, too), so my thoughts were basically "Oh, no, will the rest of the book be just political intrigue and Jacobite uprisings?"

Well, yes and no. The historical events do come to the forefront in the second half of the book, but it's not only that, because this has a huge effect on Duncan and Gwynne's relationship, and this part of the book ended up being much, much better than the first half.

The history is extremely well-integrated in the story. This particular period and place in history aren't my favourites to read about (the main reason why I was so worried at the halfway point), but Putney managed to make it not just interesting, but truly fascinating. And perhaps because I don't actively seek out books set here, Putney's point of view, which is pretty anti-Jacobite, felt fresh. The few books I have read really romanticize Bonny Prince Charlie and demonize the English, and it was interesting to read something different.

And these events create very compelling conflicts in both characters and have a devastating effect in their marriage. There's Duncan's struggle within himself to decide where the line is between acting to prevent needless loss of life and acting to aid the Jacobite cause, and to decide whether he should actually cross the line. And there's Gwynne's struggle to decide how she should react to Duncan's actions, whether she should act to stop him from making what she sees as a huge mistake, even though this will probably mean the end of her marriage.

I really liked how all this played out. It might be a bit of a spoiler, but I especially appreciated that, unlike in so many other romances, it turns out it's the hero who's been led astray by his instincts and the heroine who is right in what she did.

The first half was a B- for me (ok, but not great), while this second half was a B+. This makes the B I mentioned above. I'd like to see where Putney goes with this universe, and maybe know a bit more about those mysterious Guardians, so I'm going to read the next book in the series, Stolen Magic, ASAP. Unfortunately, there seem to be only these two books in the series!


Angels Fall, by Nora Roberts

>> Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I don't think there's any author whose new books I anticipate more than I do Nora Roberts's. I thought I'd lost her back in the late 90s / early 00s, but I've loved all her more recent books. Her latest is Angels Fall.

Reece Gilmore has come a long way to see the stunning view below her. As the sole survivor of a brutal crime back East, she has been on the run, desperately fighting the nightmares and panic attacks that haunt her. Reece settles in Angel's Fist, Wyoming - temporarily, at least-and takes a job at a local diner. And now she's hiked this mountain all by herself. It was glorious, she thought, as she peered through her binoculars at the Snake River churning below.

Then Reece saw the man and woman on the opposite bank. Arguing. Fighting. And suddenly, the man was on top of the woman, his hands around her throat . . .

Enjoying a moment of solitude a bit farther down the trail is a gruff loner named Brody. But by the time Reece reaches him and brings him to the scene, the pair has vanished. When authorities comb the area where she saw the attack, they find nothing.No signs of struggle. No freshly turned earth. Not even a tire track.

And no one in Angel's Fist seems to believe her. After all, she's a newcomer in town, with a reputation for being jumpy and jittery-maybe even a little fragile. Maybe it's time to run again, to move on .

Reece Gilmore knows there's a killer in Angel's Fist, even if Brody, despite his seeming impatience and desire to keep her at arm's length, is the only one willing to believe her. When a series of menacing events makes it clear that someone wants her out of the way, Reece must put her trust in Brody-and herself-to find out if there is a killer in Angel's Fist before it's too late.
I'm not one of those who complain about how books are getting shorter, and how it used to be so much better in the golden older days, when books were routinely 500 pages long. I happen to believe that most of those older stories could have done with some a lot of tightening up, and I enjoy the more focused feel of many newer books. However, nothing can beat a long book when it's written by a talented author, who can handle all that space, and so I loved the bigness and depth of Angels Fall. It's a book that goes pretty slowly, but rather than bore me, this allowed me to wallow in it and enjoy it. An A-.

Reece Gilmore has been travelling around the US since she survived a mass shooting in the restaurant where she worked in Boston. She's pretty much recovered from her physical injuries, but the psychological ones are another matter. She still suffers from panic attacks and there are plenty of things she can't handle.

When her car breaks down in Wyoming, right outside the tiny town of Angels Fist, Reece sees it as a sign she should spend a bit of time there (she's become big on such signs in the past couple of years). She plans to do just what she's done in tens of other places around the country: get a temporary job to make a bit of money and then move on when the urge hits.

But Reece soon realizes that she might finally be recovering and that Angels Fist might not be as temporary for her as all those other places. There's the way the town seems to fit her, and how the job she's got is cooking at the local diner, when she hasn't been able to handle cooking since the shooting. And there's also Brody, a novelist living right outside town, to whom Reece feels attracted.

Then disaster strikes. When out hiking, Reece is witness to a murder. She immediately reports it, but the sheriff can find no traces of it. And then strange things start happening, things that seem to indicate Reece's mind might not be strengthening as much as she thinks it is, and which support the sheriff's theory that she might have been imagining things. After a while, no one believes her. Except Brody, that is.

There is definitely a certain similarity here to Northern Lights, both in the compelling setting and in that both are mainly the story of one of the characters. Just as NL was basically the hero's story, Angels Fall is mainly the story of the heroine's growth. But in both novels, Roberts manages to strike a perfect balance between the growth of her main character, the romance and the suspense.

It works because Reece is such a fascinating character and one of the most corageous I've read in a long time. I loved how Roberts showed that it can be not at all easy to just bounce back from a traumatic event. This is something that often bugs me in romance novels, that regular-Joe (or regular-Jane) characters are so often faced with pretty horrible violence and are just not affected psychologically by this. Actually, they're often not even that affected physically (in some books bullet wounds seem to hurt no more than mosquito bites!), but that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, my point is that I appreciated reading a book which explored the way facing violence, even in this world that seems to have grown so inured to it, can have devastating psychological consequences. And I loved seeing Reece's growth and healing. I have to agree with Brody's assessment that she's not running away, but on a journey and doing exactly what she needs to do in order to recover. Reece is a woman who knows herself, and I liked the way she accepted herself and her foibles and the things she had problems with and dealt with them, indulging them when she knew they wouldn't have adverse consequences, but fighting against them (and winning) when it was necessary.

Brody is also an interesting character. Unlike so many Nora heroes lately, he's no nurturer. How weird is it that I love Nora's nurturer heroes for being so nurturing and I loved Brody anyway for how he was? At first he does come across as callous and does go a bit overboard with the constant sarcasm, but I think this worked for me anyway because it was so exactly what Reece needed at the time. A good clue of this is that Reece herself feels most comfortable with him and with Joanie, the two people who are the least "poor baby" with her. And when the time comes that Reece needs his unwavering support, he gives it, without a question. He's literally the only one who doesn't doubt Reece's sanity (even Reece thinks she's losing his mind and might never have thought she wasn't if Brody hadn't set her straight on some things).

And this tough, callous facade makes the moments of tenderness very affecting. At first sight, it looks as if maybe he isn't THAT attracted to Reece. This is not a hero who sees the heroine and pursues her like crazy. No, you kind of get the feeling at first that he likes her, finds her attractive, but wouldn't really have gone out of his way to pursue her if she hadn't got in his way. But you slowly start realizing that his feelings are much deeper than that, and you realize that at the same time *he* does.

He's not perfect though. At times I wanted to strangle him (Reece and I both, actually), like when he reacted as he did to what he thought was Reece trying to pressure him into marriage, but this only made him more real to me.

The secondary characters, like all the other townspeople, were wonderfully well-drawn. Not one stock character among them. I have to say, though, I didn't really enjoy the secondary romance. That whole "I'm giving him time to sow his wild oats" thing is just not my cup of tea.

The suspense element was a good, too. I actually zeroed in on the culprit from the very beginning, but Roberts had me second-guessing myself all throughout the rest of the book. Still, it's not really very hard to guess who did it; you only need to think who's the only person who could have done the cover up without some very improbably big coincidences and tight times. And there was something about him I didn't like right from the beginning.

Something else I appreciated was that Roberts left the original crime in Boston as it was, and didn't feel the need to tie a neat bow around that particular end. I know many authors would have been tempted to try to link it somehow to the current action, or to have Reece somehow remember a key detail that helped finally solve it, but that isn't the case, and I thought it was the right choice.

Like all her good books, this one had me wanting to read more Roberts. Fortunately, Morrigan's Cross is coming out in a week! Will I be able to hold off until all three books in that trilogy come out, so that I can read them together? I don't know -and I wouldn't bet on it! ;-)


Bare Bones, by Kathy Reichs

>> Monday, August 21, 2006

This one's for AngieW's TBR challenge. This month the challenge was to read a non-romance book, and I opted for a mystery.

Title: Bare Bones (excerpt)

Author: Kathy Reichs

Year published: 2003

Book blurb:

It's a summer of sizzling heat in Charlotte where Dr. Temperance Brennan, forensic anthropologist for the North Carolina medical examiner, looks forward to her first vacation in years. A romantic vacation. She's almost out the door when the bones start appearing.

A newborn's charred remains turn up in a woodstove. The mother, Tamela Banks, hardly more than a child herself, has disappeared. Did she kill her infant, or is an innocent teenager also about to become a victim?

A small plane crashes in a North Carolina cornfield on a sunny afternoon. Both pilot and passenger are burned beyond recognition. Was it pilot error? Something more sinister? And what is the mysterious black substance covering the bodies?

Most puzzling of all are the bones discovered at a remote farm outside Charlotte. What has Tempe's dog, Boyd, unearthed? The remains seem to be of animal origin, but Tempe is shocked when she gets them to her lab.

With help from a special detective friend, Tempe must investigate a poignant and terrifying case that comes at the worst possible moment. Daughter Katy has a new boyfriend who Tempe fears may have something to hide. And important personal decisions face Tempe. Is it time for emotional commitment? Will she have the chance to find out?

Everything must wait on the bones. What story do they tell? Why are the X rays and DNA so perplexing? Who is trying to keep Tempe from the answers? Someone is following her. Someone is following Katy. That someone must be stopped before it's too late.
Why did you get this book?: It was basically a "why not?" thing. I'd read a review of the previous book in the series, Grave Secrets, which interested me because it was set in Guatemala. I bought it and had it sent to my friend's house (the friend who then periodically forwards the books to me in an M-Bag). Anyway, said friend mentioned that she had two other Kathy Reichs books. Was I interested? Well, why not? And so I also got this one and Fatal Voyage.

Do you like the cover?: Not particularly. I appreciate the fact that it does reflect the plot, with those leaves and the red lines which I guess represent a bear's claw marks, but there's something about the colours or design (or maybe those red claw lines?) that repels me.

Did you enjoy the book?: Not particularly. I didn't find the mystery or the setting interesting, and this meant things that hadn't bothered me before in Reichs' books started irritating me.

The main thing was the writing. It felt clumsy, especially what I think might have been attempts at humour. With much of the dialogue, I felt like author was trying for funny but falling flat on her face.

Plus, I admit I might not have been paying much attention, because the mystery felt confusing. Or maybe it wasn't really my fault, because Reichs included several summing-ups throughout the book, so I guess she must have realized her reades might be the teeniest bit confused. Those helped, but felt awkward.

There's actually quite a bit of development in a romance here, which makes it pretty remarkable that I felt so cool about this story. If you've read Grave Secrets, you'll remember that it ends in a cliff-hanger in this area (Tempe is attracted to two different guys during the book, and in the end, she goes off with one, but Reichs doesn't tell us which one). Well, that guy spends some time staying with Tempe in Bare Bones, and their romance gets off to a good start. Still, for some reason, I couldn't care less.

But speaking of cliff-hangers, that's something else that bothered me. First, the cliff-hanger mentioned above about the identity of Tempe's love interest. This is prolonged in the early sections of the book ("he" was arriving to the airport, "he" should be here already, etc.), and the manipulativeness irritated me. And the cliff-hangers abounded in the last lines of the chapters... really unnatural-feeling cliff-hangers, which didn't make me intrigued, but pissed me off because they felt so amateurish.

Grade: I'm afraid I'm going to have to go with a C-.

Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again?: She's not new to me, I've already read the two other books I mentioned above, and those were pretty good, especially Grave Secrets. Which means I'd probably read something else by her, maybe one of her early ones. Deja Dead and Death du Jour do sound pretty interesting.

Are you keeping it or passing it on?: Hmm, that's a tough one. I always hesitate to get rid of books that are part of a series, but really, I don't see myself ever rereading this, so I guess I won't keep it.

Anything else?: Nope, that's it from me!


Nalini Singh's Slave to Sensation

Well, if you've been reading my blog, you probably know I absolutely loved this book. If not, you can see my rave review here. So far, it's my book of the year, and I really hope this experiment works and it gets the exposure it deserves!

I am participating in a blogging experiment hosted at To enter the contest, put up this blurb, image, and trackback and you are entered to win the following prize package.

  • $200 Amazon gift certificate

  • Signed copy of Slave to Sensation

  • New Zealand goodies chosen by Singh

  • ARC of Christine Feehan's October 31 release: Conspiracy Game

You can read about the experiment here and you can download the code that you need to participate here.


Nalini Singh

Berkley / September 2006

Slave to Sensation

Welcome to a future where emotion is a crime and powers of the mind clash brutally against those of the heart.

Sascha Duncan is one of the Psy, a psychic race that has cut off its emotions in an effort to prevent murderous insanity. Those who feel are punished by having their brains wiped clean, their personalities and memories destroyed.

Lucas Hunter is a Changeling, a shapeshifter who craves sensation, lives for touch. When their separate worlds collide in the serial murders of Changeling women, Lucas and Sascha must remain bound to their identities…or sacrifice everything for a taste of darkest temptation.



Derik's Bane, by MaryJanice Davidson

>> Friday, August 18, 2006

I've heard mixed feedback about Derik's Bane (excerpt), by MaryJanice Davidson, but since it's part of her Wyndham Werewolves series, and I loved the first story in that series (Love's Prisoner, in the Secrets Vol. 6 anthology), I thought I'd give it a try.

Derik's a werewolf with alpha issues - and a body to die for. Sara is the personification of evil. Now, if they could just stop drooling over each other long enough to save the world...
My reaction to this one is basically "meh". It's a fast, undemanding read, and it's got some nicely funny parts, but ultimately, it was empty calories. A C+.

Derik Gardner is part of the Wyndham werewolf pack, headed by Michael (hero of the short story I mention above). Michael's an excellent alpha, and Derik has no complaints about the way he's been heading the pack (actually, the man's his best friend), but lately he's been feeling very clear indications that he's an alpha, too. He knows that if he doesn't get out of the way, he won't be able to keep himself from challenging Michael and one of them probably wouldn't survive that.

So when one of the members of the pack, a foreteller who has never been wrong before, prophesies that the end of the world is approaching, unless Derek goes off to California and takes care of a woman who happens to be a reincarnated Morgan Le Fay, Derek agrees to go.

But when he arrives at the house of Dr. Sara Gunn, the purported evil sorceress who will destroy the world if left unchecked, he can't kill her. At first he does try, and he literally can't, but it's a half-hearted attempt at best. After that, he can't kill her because he's too attracted to her for that, plus, the whole story doesn't feel right. So these two simply join forces (even though Sara doesn't really believe the preposterous story, there have been too many weird coincidences in her life lately) and travel accross the country, where they will supposedly get to the bottom of things.

On the positive side, this was a very entertaining read, which moved along quite nicely. The banter was fun, full of witty one-liners, and I did like the humour, especially because MJD has a sense of the absurd that is quite appealing to me.

But... this basically worked MUCH better for me as comedy than as a romance. I just didn't feel the romance at all. It felt to me as if MJD was barely skimming the surface of what these two were feeling, never really giving us any depth. I know, I know, this was probably intended that way, intended to be more zippy plot than character-driven romance, but such shallowness in the romance didn't work for me at all.

Plus, her characters have began to sound all alike to me, even though I've been consciously trying to space her books out (and I don't mean a couple of weeks... I try not to read more than one of her books every few months). This is especially bad with her heroines. Her heroes have managed to retain some individuality, but her heroines are all like one mind in several different bodies.

Another negative is that the plot really went out of control at the end. I know it was meant to be fun and crazy, not anything that would hold up to close scrutiny, but this was too much. Crazy or not, it had been working for me up until then, but by the end of the book, I was left wondering what the hell had happened.

I will probably still read a MJD book every now and then, because in the end, this wasn't a bad way to spend a couple of hours, but my expectations keep going down.


A Bit of Rough, by Laura Baumbach

I picked up A Bit of Rough (excerpt), by Laura Baumbach because of jmc's post about it. I was especially interested in what she mentioned there at the end of her review, about how this one differed from other m/m books she'd read.

BTW, I read the electronic version, but the cover I've put there is from the print book. It's much nicer. Sexy, but subtle... you have to take a closer look to really get what is going on.

Architect James Justin impulsively lets himself be picked up in a biker bar by seductive hunk Bram Lord for a one nightstand that turns into something bigger. The physically impressive, forceful stranger meets, matches and exceeds James' sexual fantasies, but can shy, uncertain James be everything the strongly committed Bram wants?
My opinion of this one is actually very similar to jmc's and I, too, am wavering between a B- and a C+. Hmmm, I think I'll go with a B-, simply because Baumbach actually got me liking a relationship tinged with d/s, which is not really my thing and because I'm feeling generous today.

The plot is simple, and completely character-driven: young architect James Justin is feeling a bit down and goes to a local bar (a bit rougher than his usual haunts) to pick someone up. He finds someone almost immediately, big and brawny Bram, and they have very hot and very rough sex right outside, in an alley. They are both very attracted to each other, and Bram, a man who knows his own mind, sweeps Jamie off his feet and they start dating.

And that's it, really. The whole book is basically about Jamie and Bram having hot, rough sex, building a relationship, having more hot, rough sex, falling in love (and yes, that seems to happen a bit too soon), and having yet more hot and rough sex. There are some minor blips going on around them (asshole neighbour tries to bully James, James has to decide whether to take Bram to a work dinner party, etc), but they are just that: minor.

What's most interesting and different about this one is what I mentioned above that made me seek this one out: like jmc says, James is assigned the more "female" characteristic, while Bram gets all the "male" ones. I thought this was interesting, because you know how ignorant idiots are always all "heh-heh, I wonder who's the guy and who's the girl" when they see a gay couple? (Or maybe this is just a Uruguayan thing?) Well, I'm not particularly well-read in the m/m subgenre either, but I've read a few, and in none of them did I feel like one of the guys was the guy and the other the girl. They were all very far from that stereotype. Both heroes were perfectly masculine. Here, James and Bram seemed to conform to some very traditional gender roles. To be honest, I'm not completely sure about how I feel about this. After all, in heterosexual romance, I prefer to stay away from this kind of thing. Maybe I enjoyed it here because of the novelty?

More problematic for me was the fact that this gender role thing was mixed up with a good dose of d/s, too. It's not something I've liked much in other books, but I was pretty ok with it here. The reason? James actually says it very clearly: he likes a man who'll dominate him and run things in bed, but he's perfectly capable of running his own life out of it, thank you very much. And it's very clear in their relationship that no matter how dominant Bram is in bed, he's all about what James wants. This wasn't completely clear at first, and I did find him a bit scary at first, but it soon became obvious.

The one negative I did see was that there were too many sex scenes. Yes, yes, I know this one is supposed to be erotic romance, but I'm not really complaining about the actual frequency. I've read books where the entire relationship was developed through sex scenes, and they worked. Here, my feeling was that too many scenes were gratuitous. If a sex scene isn't really adding anything to the story, it tends to bore me, and at times, I felt bored while reading ABOR. I actually ended up skimming a few of the sex scenes.

Other than this, ABOR was a nice read. I've been looking at Baumbach's website and she's got other m/m titles that sound interesting. I might give them a try.


Slave to Sensation, by Nalini Singh

>> Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I mentioned in my review of Nalini Singh's Awaken to Pleasure that I'd managed to score an ARC for her upcoming September release, Slave to Sensation (excerpt). It took me a while to convert the pdf to a format my Ebookwise accepted, but thanks to Jane, La Inteligente, I could finally get to it this last weekend. And boy, am I glad I did!

book coverDive into a world torn apart by a powerful race with phenomenal powers of the mind-and none of the heart…

In a world that denies emotions, where the ruling Psy punish any sign of desire, Sascha Duncan must conceal the feelings that brand her as flawed. To reveal them would be to sentence herself to the horror of "rehabilitation"- the complete psychic erasure of everything she ever was….

Both human and animal, Lucas Hunter is a Changeling hungry for the very sensations the Psy disdain. After centuries of uneasy co-existence, these two races are now on the verge of war over the brutal murders of several Changeling women. Lucas is determined to find the Psy killer who butchered his packmate, and Sascha is his ticket into their closely guarded society. But he soon discovers that this ice-cold Psy is very capable of passion-and that the animal in him is fascinated by her. Caught between their conflicting worlds, Lucas and Sascha must remain bound to their identities-or sacrifice everything for a taste of darkest temptation…
This was an incredibly wonderful book. I'd already heard some buzz going about it, and some people mentioned enjoying it (Jane herself, for instance, said she'd thought it was "phenomenal" in the comments after my review of Awaken to Pleasure), but I hadn't really expected it to be so great.

So, how great is it? Let me just tell you: I spent this past weekend at a spa, and I actually stayed in my room for an extra hour after lunch in order to finish the book. So it was great enough to make me give up an extra hour of being pampered in the spa in order to finish it. That good! I give it an A.

STS is set in an alternate universe, in which Earth is populated by three different species of men and women. There's the humans, there's the changelings (shape-shifters who can change into a certain animal) and there's the Psy. I'm not 100% sure of how exactly the Psy differed from humans and changelings originally (maybe because of their psychic abilities?), but their difference as the book starts is very clear. They don't feel. At all. I'll let the author explain it herself. This is part of the book's prologue:

In an effort to reduce the overwhelming incidence of insanity and serial killing in the Psy population, the Psy Council decided, in the year 1969, to instigate a rigorous program called Silence. The aim of Silence was to condition young Psy from birth. The aim of the conditioning was to teach them not to feel rage.

However, the Council soon discovered that it was impossible to isolate that one emotion. In 1979, after a ten year debate over the millions of minds in the PsyNet, it was decided to change the aim of Silence. Its new mission was to condition young Psy to feel nothing. Not rage, not jealousy, not envy, not happiness and certainly not love.
As the book starts, it's 100 years after Silence started aiming to suppress all emotion, and the different species coexist pretty peacefully. But that's in danger of changing, because there has been a spate of killings of changeling women that the other changelings have discovered were committed by a Psy.

The last woman taken was from the DarkRiver leopard pack, and its alpha, Lucas Hunter, has barely managed to stop an outright war between Psy and changelings from erupting. He's managed to keep the other packs in control by promising he'd discover the culprit and then they could punish him. In order to do this, Lucas needs an opening into the very closed Psy society, and to do that, he has initiated a business deal with the Duncans, a very influential family among the Psy.

Sascha Duncan, who's assigned by her powerful, Psy Council-member mother to oversee the deal, is a woman with a huge secret. Unlike the rest of the Psy, she feels. She always has, and she's spent all her life hiding it and building defenses so the other Psy won't notice. Lately, though, she's been feeling more and more out of control. She suspects it's a matter of time before someone realizes what's wrong with her, and she fears she'll be sentenced to a fate she considers worse than death: rehabilitation, a kind of mind-wipe.

When Sascha meets Lucas, things become even worse. She is so powerfully attracted to him, that she feels herself going out of control even faster. As for Lucas, his attraction for Sascha is just as strong, and he's just as conflicted about it as she is. How can he be feeling such warm feelings for one of those cold Psy, someone who might even know the identity of the murderer and be covering up for him? Surely that feeling that there might be quite a lot behind the icy façade might be just that, a feeling, even if his leopard insists its instincts are right about that...

That's all I'm going to say about the plot. Suffice it to say Sascha and Lucas' initial adversarial relationship soon becomes one of the most convincing and beautiful romances I've read lately. It's got it all, both sexual tension so thick and hot it will curl your toes (and the pay-off! Those love scenes, oh, my!), and a lot of feeling behind it.

You know how, in books where the hero and heroine start out as antagonists, often you don't really understand how they get from that point to falling in love? Well, that's very definitely not the case here. The change in the relationship between Lucas and Sascha is very gradual and natural, especially the change in Lucas' attitude. There was always a certain tenderness and protectiveness in his feelings about Sascha, but at first it was tempered by mistrust. That mistrust slowly lifts in a way that feels perfectly believable, and only the good feelings are left.

And Sascha! It was a beautiful thing to watch her slowly become more and more comfortable with all the different and powerful things she's feeling, and to gradually open to Lucas and the rest of the Pack. I just loved the development of her relationship with the other changelings, those scenes were just as affecting as the scenes with Lucas.

The universe in which the story is set is fascinating and complex, but Singh makes it easy to understand and to follow. She gives us exactly the right amount of information, neither so much that it bogs down the story, nor so little that the world-building feels half-baked. It's just enough, even though it includes some tantalizing hints about stuff I would have loved to know much more about. I think the reason it worked so well is in that you got the feeling that the author had thought about all this stuff, that if we're not being told about something, it's because it'll either be more developed in the future or because they're not relevant and would only clutter the story.

The next book is set in the same universe, and I really have to commend the author because at no time did any scene feel like sequel baiting. She did introduce quite a few interesting and well-drawn secondary charactes, any of which I would be very interested in reading about in a future book, but none of them were parading around, waving placards reading "future hero here". Authors, take note. That's the way it should be done!

The only negative I could find in STS is that the ending felt a bit anticlimactic. After the big final scene there's a longish bit that, though really needed to close certain things and give us a HEA, felt a bit too slow.

But this is just a very tiny niggle. On the whole, STS was pretty much perfect!


Street of the Five Moons, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Elizabeth Peters, whether under that name or under her Barbara Michaels pseudonym, is one of my favourite authors, and even rivals JAK when it comes to her books being comfort reads. I love all her books, but among my favourites are those in the Vicky Bliss series.

The one I reread recently was Street of the Five Moons, which is the first one in which both our protagonists are together. You see, both appear in earlier books but on their own (John has a scene-stealing cameo in The Camelot Caper, while Vicky is the heroine in Borrower of the Night), but they don't meet until the events of SOTFM.

When a masterful fake of a famous piece of jewelry shows up in a dead man's pocket, along with an address in Rome, Vicky is off to Italy to investigate. While there she encounters forgers, nobility, and a dashing art thief with a healthy sense of self-preservation. Her suspicions of a criminal conspiracy put her life in danger, and test her intelligence and courage.
Oh, what fun! Romance, adventure and a fascinating plot, narrated with Peters' wonderful witty and humorous touch. A B+.

Vicky Bliss is hard at work (on her sensational novel) at the Munich National Museum, when her boss, Herr Professor Doktor (in whatever order these are supposed to go) Schmidt comes in in a state of extreme excitement. No one who's read Borrower of the Night is going to be surprised that Scmidt is in a state of extreme excitement, but this time, the excitement is justified. A man has been found dead on the streets of Munich and sewn inside his clothes, he had a perfect replica of the Charlemagne talisman, one of the National Museum's treasures.

Suspecting that a plot to substitute fakes for the Museum's artifacts might be afoot, and always on the lookout for any excitement in which his darling Vicky might apply her sleuthing skills, Schmidt sends her to investigate. No one is more surprised than Vicky when she actually finds what might be a clue, one that she deducts points to Rome. And so Vicky goes off to Rome, to investigate, according to Schmidt, to pretend to investigate and actually get a nice vacation with an expense account, according to Vicky herself. But the perfunctory investigative actions her conscience insists she make have unexpectedly suspicious results, and so Vicky gets embroiled in an adventure that includes a sexy, conscienceless thief, assorted Italian aristocrats, temperamental mistresses and a seemingly mediocre artist.

Making me actually enjoy a caper-type story is probably one of the biggest tricks an author can pull. I tend to prefer character-driven stories, rather than those in which the characters are running around all over the place, crossing and double-crossing each other. Well, Peters pulls the trick here, probably because all the running around doesn't make her skimp on the character development, and those characters are just amazing.

John is one of my favourite characters in all fiction, but I like Vicky just as much. I think what I love best about the way Peters writes them is that both are wonderfully honest about themselves. They know themselves, and they refuse to indulge in any kind of self-deception, never, ever trying to convince themselves that they have honourable motives when they are being moved by self-interest. For instance, right at the beginning, when Schmidt shows up with the fake talisman and suggests Vicky go to Rome to investigate, Vicky doesn't even try to convince herself that she's doing some kind of important job. She knows it's a very long shot, but well, she can use a vacation, and Rome on an expense account is too good to resist. Both she and John were very refreshing in this respect.

They also don't take themselves too seriously, which makes for some funny, funny scenes, full of witty banter. And between that banter, and the teasing and the playing, we get the beginnings of a lovely romance. Vicky and John "get" each other. They are very different in certain aspects (foremost among them that while John's not particularly bothered by "victimless" crimes and is of the "oh, all I'm hurting is the finances of some big museums and dishonest collectors. The former are insured and the latter deserve it" school of thought, Vicky's ethics are much more rigid), but they understand each other completely. These two are seldom serious, but you do realize some very real feelings are starting to develop.

Apart from the characters, the plot is actually pretty interesting, with some beautiful locations (Rome! Beautiful villa on its outskirts!) and a very developed sense of place. There's also the way everything is narrated, which makes even the most prosaic descriptions hilarious. Elizabeth Peters rules! ;-)

I can't wait to reread the rest of the series, especially the next-to-last book, Trojan Gold, which is my favourite. I've already started with Silhouette in Scarlet, which comes before it and I'm enjoying it enormously.


Erotique, by Alessia Brio

And now for a change of pace: an erotica short story. Erotique, by Alessia Brio got a very interesting review from Mrs. Giggles which caught my attention.

Without that, no way I would have picked this up. Man, that cover is scary (and scarily bad!)

Mandy stands to inherit the family legacy – a famous Philadelphia adult toy store and museum called Erotique – but she first has to meet the terms of the will and spend the night. With the help of her best friend, Bruce, she soon discovers the exhibits are VERY educational and her feelings for Bruce run deeper than she realized.
Don't let the creepy cover give you the wrong impression. Erotique is sexy, playful erotica, with a paranormal touch, yes, but not a scary one. For a short story, it's pretty good, though I really think it would have been better if it had been longer... maybe novella-length? Still, good enough for a B-.

The plot is pretty simple, and works well. Mandy's aunt has recently died and left her her very successful adult store. Provided, that is, Mandy spends a night in it first. The store is a fascinating place and includes a famous museum, full of historical sex toys and exhibits, and Mandy soon discovers touching some of those exhibits makes her see and experience some very interesting things!

It's a vey entertaining story. The characters are not terribly deep, but Brio manages to draw them well enough for me to actually get a feel for who they are, and at first glace, at least, they seemed to be people I would like. The plot is interesting, and the descriptions of the exhibits and the effects they have are pretty fascinating... and pretty erotic, too.

I also quite liked the little romance we did get. Bruce and Mandy are good friends, and though it's clear to both that Bruce would like to move from friendship to a more intimate relationship, Mandy is reluctant. At the end of the day, it seems clear that they are headed in the right direction, and that's all I ask in order to consider an ending a happy one.


Stolen from Jennie

>> Monday, August 14, 2006

Jennie posted about AAR's list of Top 100 romances (the one that was updated in 2004), and because I'm all about lists, I loved the idea and immediately stole it.

So here it goes, I've changed one of the colours from Jennie's version: in plain text for the ones I have already read, red for the ones I haven't, and in blue the ones I've got in the TBR.

  1. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

  2. Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale

  3. Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

  4. As You Desire by Connie Brockway

  5. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

  6. Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas

  7. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

  8. Over the Edge by Suzanne Brockmann

  9. All Through the Night by Connie Brockway

  10. Sea Swept by Nora Roberts

  11. It Had to be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

  12. A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh

  13. Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer

  14. The Proposition by Judith Ivory

  15. A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught

  16. Ravished by Amanda Quick

  17. Frederica by Georgette Heyer

  18. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

  19. MacKenzie's Mountain by Linda Howard

  20. Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  21. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

  22. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

  23. The Bride by Julie Garwood

  24. Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens

  25. To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney

  26. Born in Fire by Nora Roberts

  27. Winter Garden by Adele Ashworth

  28. Gone Too Far by Suzanne Brockmann

  29. The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

  30. Saving Grace by Julie Garwood

  31. My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway

  32. In the Midnight Rain by Barbara Samuel

  33. The Windflower by Laura London

  34. Naked in Death by J.D. Robb

  35. Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught (wish I could unread it, though!)

  36. Nobody's Baby but Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

  37. A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

  38. Paradise by Judith McNaught

  39. The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale

  40. Dream Man by Linda Howard

  41. Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann

  42. Silk and Shadows by Mary Jo Putney

  43. See Jane Score by Rachel Gibson

  44. Shattered Rainbows by Mary Jo Putney

  45. Thunder and Roses by Mary Jo Putney

  46. The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

  47. Heart Throb by Suzanne Brockmann

  48. For My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale

  49. Honor's Splendor by Julie Garwood

  50. Lord Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh

  51. Untie my Heart by Judith Ivory

  52. Dream a Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

  53. The Secret by Julie Garwood

  54. This is All I Ask by Lynn Kurland (this one's in the top 100? Ranked 54? Over Slightly Dangerous? Unbelievable! I HATED it!)

  55. Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh

  56. One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney

  57. To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney

  58. Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

  59. Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

  60. Venetia by Georgette Heyer

  61. Daughter of the Game by Tracy Grant

  62. The Prize by Julie Garwood

  63. Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly

  64. Prince Joe by Suzanne Brockmann

  65. The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh

  66. Heartless by Mary Balogh

  67. Son of the Morning by Linda Howard

  68. Sleeping Beauty by Judith Ivory

  69. Where Dreams Begin by Lisa Kleypas

  70. The Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer

  71. The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

  72. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegar

  73. With This Ring by Carla Kelly

  74. The Lion's Lady by Julie Garwood

  75. The Rake by Mary Jo Putney

  76. Fallen from Grace by Laura Leone

  77. Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath

  78. Castles by Julie Garwood

  79. One Good Turn by Carla Kelly

  80. Chesapeake Blue by Nora Roberts

  81. By Arrangement by Madeline Hunter

  82. Perfect by Judith McNaught

  83. My Darling Caroline by Adele Ashworth

  84. The Defiant Hero by Suzanne Brockmann

  85. The Unsung Hero by Suzanne Brockmann

  86. Guilty Pleasures by Laura Lee Guhrke

  87. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

  88. Kill and Tell by Linda Howard

  89. After the Night by Linda Howard

  90. More than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

  91. Born in Ice by Nora Roberts

  92. Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase

  93. The Charm School by Susan Wiggs

  94. Scoundrel by Elizabeth Elliott

  95. How to Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn

  96. Angel Rogue by Mary Jo Putney

  97. Trust Me by Jayne Ann Krentz

  98. Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney

  99. Once and Always by Judith McNaught

  100. This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
If I'm counting correctly (I had to start a couple of times, because I kept getting lost), that makes a grand total of 80 read, 7 in the TBR and 13 I haven't read. And of the latter, there are a few I probably never will read... I tried Garwood a couple of times and she's just not my cup of tea. Same for Heyer (sacrilege, I know), though I might be persuaded to give her another chance, which I very definitely won't do with Garwood.

So, how many have you read?


Cover of Night, by Linda Howard

>> Friday, August 11, 2006

With each new book, Linda Howard's Romantic Suspense titles seem to be moving more and more towards Suspense. So why am I still reading? Simply because even with less space, the romance is still good, and because her suspense is pretty interesting. Her latest release is Cover of Night.

And speaking of covers, I do like this look her last books have got going for them. It's sexy and, at the same time, not too explicit. In this case, though, it might be a bit too sexy for this particular book.

In the charming rural town of Trail Stop, Idaho, accessible to the outside world by only a single road, young widow Cate Nightingale lives peacefully with her four-year-old twin boys, running a bed-and-breakfast. Though the overnight guests are few and far between–occasional hunters and lake fishermen–Cate always manages to make ends meet with the help of the local jack-of-all-trades, Calvin Harris, who can handle everything from carpentry to plumbing. But Calvin is not what he seems, and Cate’s luck is about to run out.

One morning, the B&B’s only guest inexplicably vanishes, leaving behind his personal effects. A few days later Cate is shocked when armed men storm the house, demanding the mystery man’s belongings. Fearing for her children’s lives, Cate agrees to cooperate–until Calvin saves the day, forcing the intruders to scatter into the surrounding woods.

The nightmare, however, is just beginning. Cate, Calvin, and their entire community find themselves cut off and alone with no means to call for help as the threat gathers intensity and first blood is drawn.

With their fellow residents trapped and the entire town held hostage, Cate and Calvin have no choice but to take the fight to their enemies under the cover of night. While reticent Cal becomes a fearless protector, Cate makes the most daring move of her life... into the very heart of danger.
Cover of Night continues the trend I mentioned above... more and more emphasis on the suspense, but with romance that's still good. And since the suspense was pretty entertaining as well, I very much enjoyed the whole thing. A B+.

After the death of her husband, Cate Nightingale took her toddler sons and settled in the very remote small tiny town of Trail Stop and took over the local B&B. She's been living there ever since, and as the book starts, she has only recently began really coming out of mourning.

Cate has been so out of it for the past few years, that she hasn't even noticed that Cal Harris is crazy about her. To Cate, Cal is simply the town handyman, the painfully shy man who can't seem to string two sentences together in front of her, but who is happy enough to fix whatever goes wrong in her house and not charge her too much.

Things start to change when one morning Cate realizes that one of her guests has escaped his room through a window, leaving all his stuff behind. Cate can't think of what might have caused that strange, strange behaviour, and she becomes even more worried when she receives a call purportedly from the car rental agency, inquiring about the man, and then happens to find out that the agency never actually called her at all. Shortly after which, a man she suspects might be the same caller, calls to make a reservation for two other men.

Realizing that Cate suspects them, the two new "guests" (who are actually assassins hired to get rid of the mystery man) decide to throw caution to the winds and hold her and her friend at gunpoint until they give up the runaway man's belongings. But fortunately Cal shows up and behaves in a way Cate would never have expected of him, humiliating the hired killers and chasing them away.

But these guys aren't too happy about being humiliated, and soon make a plan to get back at that damned handyman and get what they were looking for: they will take the whole town hostage!

CON was an incredibly absorbing story. The action takes place over only a few days, and there aren't any lulls. Not that the plot proceeds at breakneck speed... the pace of the story is actually quite leisurely, but, if it makes sense, the intensity just builds and builds. My absolutely favourite kind!

It helps that the book didn't have a humdrum plot I've read a thousand times before, but one that felt fresh and original. As much as I always want more of the romance, I was so intrigued by what was going on and so anxious to know what was going to happen next and how things would turn out, that I even liked the scenes from the villains' POV.

That's just unprecedented for me, because I usually hate that. More than one book (coughRunning Scaredcough)has been almost ruined by too much time spent in the villains' heads. I think what made the difference here (in addition to the intriguing plot) was that the villains were well drawn. No moustache-twirling eeeeevil guys in sight, no villains out to harm the heroine just because they're so, well, eeeeevil. What we have here is the scarily believable: amoral men out for a buck and not caring that they will hurt innocent people.

I've heard people say that the whole plan was so stupid that they lost interest. Well, yeah, the plan was stupid, but see, all but one of the villains *knew* it was stupid, and had their own reasons and agendas which motivated them to carry it out anyway. That whole deal with competing agendas, and having them actually working against each other in some cases, made all the difference in making things believable and added quite a bit of interest to these scenes. Therefore, I didn't mind at all spending time with these guys and seeing their interactions.

But we don't just spend time with the villains. We spend even more time inside the town and with our main characters, and the romance soon heats up. I would have liked more of that (but not by sacrificing any other bits... maybe I just wanted a longer book? Hmm, maybe not, as that would ruin the taut feel of the whole story... Bah, forget I said anything), but what romance we did get was fantastic.

Cal was the main reason it was so great. I just adored this guy. He reminded me a lot of Diaz, from Cry No More: quiet and almost shy, and yet an extremely competent man who knows what he's doing and is actually incredibly tough. I like this type of LH hero, this combination between tough and shy, soooo much more than her oversexed he-men!

And Cate was none too shabby, either. I loved her reactions when she started to realize she had missed so many clues that Cal wasn't quite what he seemed, and I even bought completely that she'd fall for him so hard and so fast. I think Howard was very right in taking the tack she took with Cate's kids, because otherwise I don't think I'd have been able to believe the romance quite so easily.

Any quibbles? Well, the secondary romance was promising, too, but while the beginning and ending were nice, Howard just skipped the entire middle. Even *one* tiny scene in between would have made the difference. As it is, it was nice, but undeveloped, and that final scene felt awkwardly placed.

Other than this, CON is a wonderful book. When's the next one coming?


Book Minx's Opening Line Contest

Book Minx has a really fun contest going on in her blog. She's posted the opening line from several books (big romance section, too) and you have to guess which book they come from. Absolutely NO googling allowed!

You have time only until tonight, so hurry up and go answer!

Thank you Cindy for bringing this one to my attention!


Heart Vs. Humbug, by M.J. Rodgers

Heart Vs. Humbug is book #3 of M.J. Rodgers Justice Inc. series. So far, the first two books have been just ok, but they are at least different from most Harlequins.

He said the law couldn't afford a heart...

Attorney Brett Merlin - alias the Magician - was certain he'd squashed one senior citizen's Christmas crusade against his Scrooge of a client. Until he met opposing counsel, the fiery, flame-haired Octavia Osborne... and his open-and-shut civil suit escalated to murder in the first degree.

Suddenly, the magician of law found himself up against a mistress of legal abracadabra, who pulled more countersuits out of her attorney's brief than Santa did presents out of his sleigh.

What Brett saw as a matter of law, Octavia saw as a matter of heart. Either way, he was out to set some surprising new precedents - both legal and personal.
When I read the first two books in the series, Beauty Vs. the Beast and Baby Vs. the Bar, I had a very similar opinion of them: fascinating legal drama, but mediocre romance and characterization. Heart Vs. Humbug wasn't much different, other than the fact that the legal angle, though nice enough, wasn't as interesting as that in the other books. This one was a C+.

Granted, the last book featured a psychologist accused of killing one of the personalities of a Multiple Personality Disorder patient, and that's hard to top. But even considering that, the case here is more than ho-hum enough in its own right. The plot involves a Senior Citizen Centre locked in a battle with their landlord, who has raised the rent in order to force them out so he can develop the land into a nice, profitable complex. Yawn.

Heroine Octavia Osborne (a Justice Inc. associate) has been asked to help by her grandmother Mab, one of the Centre's director, while our hero, Brett Merlin, a lawyer himself, is helping his uncle, the landlord in question (but don't worry, the mean Scroogen isn't a blood relation of Brett's; he's merely married to his aunt).

The first sections of the book are the best, because they show Octavia and Brett locked in legal battle, and that's where Rodgers is always great. I very much enjoyed the ways each found to outmanouver the other, and most especially the courtroom scenes. Those were witty and fun. And I loved that Octavia tended to get the best out of Brett (not a double standard in this particular case... it's just that Scroogen was so mean and horrid!).

But after a while, when the legal drama turned to murder mystery, things became pretty dull. The characters didn't help. Octavia and Brett were the only ones who showed even minimal depths; most of the others were pretty wooden. Scroogen was the worst: a more cardboard villain I've never seen.

And speaking of Octavia and Brett's depths, that was somewhat disappointing, because these characters had huge potential that Rodgers ended up wasting. I was pretty interested in the issues that were set up, especially their views of the law and what it means to uphold it. There's Octavia, with her attitude that what's important is the spirit of the law, and there's Brett, who thinks it's most important to follow the law to the letter. It would have been a fascinating subject to develop, especially given Brett's history of putting The Law above everything else, even his ex-wife.

However, the space that could have been spent exploring how these two very different people can manage to get along in a relationship is spent on the boring plot. I was especially disappointed at the end, when Brett makes a certain gesture that's absolutely HUGE for him, and we don't get to see any details about why and how he came to that decision.

All in all, a book even fans of this series might skip without really losing much. There's almost no Justice Inc. stuff here. There's only a tiny cameo appearance by AJ (we don't really learn anything about her, anyway), plus a hint about something mysterious in Adam's past, about some kind of spate of law-breaking after his wife left him, but since Adam hasn't really shown up much in the whole series, it was hard to get too worked up about it.


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