Much Ado About You, by Eloisa James

>> Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's strange. I loved Eloisa James' Duchess in Love and when I finished it, I was all fired up to read the conclusion of Esme and Sebastian's story. The rest of the books in the series were already out by then, so I bought all three a little later, during a trip to the US (you should have seen the suitcase full of books I brought back from that trip!). And then... nothing. The books are still in my TBR.

But based on the good time I had reading Duchess, I kept buying the other books James put out, and when I decided to read her again, I went for the first in her newest series, Much Ado About You (excerpt).

Teresa Essex has a unique lot in life. Actually…she'd rather prefer that lots were not mentioned. She knows far too much about playing the odds: her widowed father gambled away any spare penny owned by their family. Shillings that should have been spent on gowns and governesses for Tess and her three younger sisters were spent keeping her father's horses in proper condition for the race track.

When their father dies, the sisters become the wards of the Duke of Holbrook who knows far more about brandy snifters than children. But Tess's challenges have just begun. With nothing more than a horse each for a dowry, and a drunken duke as a chaperone, she and her sisters must achieve respectable marriages.

In the manner of romantic heroines from the time of Jane Austen, Tess must make a decision whether to marry for financial, prudent reasons, or to follow her heart. But unlike those tales in which heroines prudently make the correct decision, whatever that might be, here fate steps in and Tess must learn a hard lesson: not how to play at love, but how to play at that most serious of pursuits…
In many ways, MAAY is a lot like DIL. There's the almost-ensemble cast and the way all these characters are individual and imperfect, and there's the way the romance and the rest of the stuff going on are equally important. There's also the way I didn't mind that at all! A B+.

When a distant acquaintance dies, leaving him as guardian to his four daughters, the Duke of Holbrook expects four little darlings and prepares accordingly (four different rocking horses are involved, so that they'll be able to rock to their hearts' content and not have to take turns). But Rafe gets a shock when they arrive and he sees that three of them are full-grown women, and the fourth is almost there.

The Essex sisters didn't grow up in a very regular household. Their father was obsessed with horses and racing, and he sunk all their money into them, leaving his daughters to scrimp and save and worry about keeping their household afloat. Now that he's died and they're under Rafe's protection, the plan is to be a burden on him for the shortest time possible. One of them is to marry quickly, and then sponsor the rest of them in their own Seasons.

Fortunately, Rafe has a couple of good-looking friends who wouldn't be averse to considering one of the Essex women as prospects, especially because each of them has a famous horse as dowry, and all three men are very much interested in horses, too.

And so the fun begins. Eldest sister Tess is intrigued by Mr. Lucius Felton, but though obviously interested right back, he seems ready to let his friend, the Earl of Mayne propose to Tess instead. Tess isn't particularly attracted to Mayne, but she's practical, so she accepts when he proposes. The second sister, Annabel, was looking at Mayne, but she's even more pragmatic than her sister, so when he goes for Tess, she moves her sights to Felton. Then there's Imogen, definitely not pragmatic, and determined to marry Rafe's neighbour come hell or high water, and never mind he's already got a fiancée. And finally, there's Josie, the baby at 15, who's not interested in marrying anyone and provides some hilariously blunt commentary.

The romance between Tess and Felton was funny and sweet and tender and quite hot (more on this later), but it was the relationship between the sisters that made this book so good. In most books where I'm enjoying the romance I'll resent it if the focus is taken away from the protagonists, but in MAAY, I never minded seeing more of what was going on with the rest of the cast.

I was very interested in Tess and Annabel and Imogen and Josie. Their relationship is so... sisterly! They obviously love each other very much and are best friends, but they also bicker and fight and see each other's faults clearly. And then there's also their relationship with Griselda (Mayne's sister, and the girls' very plain-spoken chaperone) and Gillian Pythian-Adams (Draven Maitland's fiancée, who does all she can to make him jilt her). Even the relationship between the men was wonderful. There isn't one stock character to be seen among them, and all were lovingly characterized, with their flaws being just as interesting as their good points. Annabel was probably my favourite, with her cheefully mercenary nature, and Rafe, the kind-hearted, perpetually tipsy duke was a close second. I was also very interested in what's going to happen with Imogen, especially after the events near the end and the turn her relationship with Tess took.

As I mentioned, the romance was lovely, too, but I have to say, I had a big problem with the way James wrote a certain element of it. I got the feeling that she basically wanted to eat her cake and keep it, too. She wanted to keep some of the hero's motives in the dark, but she also wanted to give us scenes from his POV, and so she did both, and it just didn't work. ***The next paragraph is a bit spoilerish, so read on at your own risk.***

All throughout the first sections of the book I was bothered by how little Lucius seemed to care that Tess would marry his friend, and so I could only reach the conclusion that for some reason, he'd decided to let things continue as they might, and only stepped in to marry Tess as a last resort. So when it turned out he *had* done something, my first reaction was, hey, that's cheating!

It's a matter of reader expectations, I think. This reader's expectations are that if you have a POV character (and even more, if he is the hero), whatever he has done between segments narrated from his POV, any action that is very relevant to the plot, we'll be told so, in some way. So when Lucius' secret actions came out, I did think it terribly romantic, but at the same time, I felt betrayed, because this was something we readers should have known.

I've heard a lot about a certain something about the third book in the series that makes me think this is something that happens there, too. Well, I'll read it anyway, but I think I'll probably enjoy it more now that I'm warned something like this might happen. It won't be for a while, though. First I need to read Kiss Me, Annabel, and I'm hoping for the best!


Break the Night, by Anne Stuart

>> Monday, November 27, 2006

Break the Night came to my attention when I was taking a look at Anne Stuart's redesigned website. She has a section called OOP gems, and there were quite a few books there that I found very interesting. But BTN was among the ones I had in my TBR already, so that was where I started.

A silent scream, a bloodstained knife...

A century past, the faceless killer had strolled out of the London fog and into history, the most infamous murderer who ever lived. And reporter J.R. Damien knew he had never died, could never die. It was impossible, and yet it was true--Saucy Jack was back, plying his trade in the back alleys of Venice, California.

Lizzie Stride refused to accept the ravings of this man who swore she was fated to die, again and again, at the hands of a long-dead madman. But J.R. Damien's haunted eyes told her she must follow in a century-old dance of death and desire with a man who feared he was the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.
Lizzie Stride is a woman under siege. A Jack the Ripper wannabe is stalking Venice, California, and while he hasn't targeted anyone close to Lizzie, she still has a very personal connection to the crimes. The Venice Ripper leaves all his victims wearing handmade masks, all of which were made by Lizzie.

Lizzie is at her wits' end. The police bring her in every time a body is found and she keeps having to face the same vague suspicion and the same invasive questions time and time again. She'd like nothing better than to get out of town and away from the ugliness until things calm down, but the mask-making trade hasn't been lucrative for Lizzie, and she's perpetually broke, with not even enough money to pay for the gas to get far away from town.

But at least Lizzie's connection to the Venice Ripper has been kept quiet by the police, so she hasn't had to face any public scrutiny. Until, that is, a reporter named J.R. Damien breaks the story.

The murders have hit Damien even harder than they've hit Lizzie. He's been seeing them in his dreams, including details he could never have known that later prove to be exact. He's half convinced he's been committing those murders in his sleep. And maybe for that reason, Damien feels a heavy sense of responsibility for the murders, and is determined to find the culprit and stop him, even if it turns out to be himself.

Once he finally meets Lizzie, the woman he's decided to use as bait, he feels just as heavy a compulsion to protect her and stop her from becoming the Ripper's last victim. Because somehow, he knows that's what she'll be if he doesn't prevent it.

Anne Stuart writes all over the place plotwise, but I think her characters are always recognizable as hers, as both Lizzie and Damien are. Lizzie is her typical helpless heroine caught in a dangerous situation and not able to resist the fascination of a man she should probably be afraid of. But this time it worked for me just fine, because Damien, while showing a lot of the initial coldness and cruelty and tortured character of many of this author's heroes, wasn't as close to the line as others.

Damien was kinder and softer, in some ways, at least on the inside, which we readers could see. His actions towards Lizzie at the beginning didn't show much of it, but seeing the way he was so fascinated by her and couldn't resist her, from the minute he first met her, made them much more palatable for me. And something else that I liked was the view we get of Damien as a teen. It was a shock to see such a dark and tortured hero as a regular teenager, but it succeeded in making him more human to me.

The romance was quite good, and I liked the way Stuart moved it from something in which neither of them consciously wanted to have anything to do with the other, but were not able to resist the compulsion inside of them, to one based on a more genuine liking and knowledge of the other. What I didn't like so much, though, was the constant back and forth that served to delay things. First one didn't want anything with the other, then the roles changed, and then it was back again to the first person moving away, until I wanted to shake them. I thought Stuart took this a bit too far.

As important as the romance was the plot, and as important as the plot was the atmosphere. The Ripper murders and the reincarnation plot (the murderer actually is the same soul that was Jack the Ripper, which periodically reincarnates in different bodies, and both Lizzie and Damien are also reincanated from people related to the original cases) are fascinating, and creepy enough, but it's the wonderfully done atmosphere that makes the book really, really chilly.

I'm not sure exactly what Silhouette Shadows books were supposed to be like (the line folded long before I started to pay attention to such things as publishers or lines), but if BTN is a good example of them, with its dark atmosphere and its interesting paranormal plot, I'm going to be looking for more of them. A B


Boys of Summer: Sharing Spaces, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Friday, November 24, 2006

Jumping the Fence and Crossing the Line put Stephanie Vaughan on my autobuy list, so when I saw she had a short story out with Torquere Press (thank you, Katharina!), I immediately bought it. The title is Boys of Summer: Sharing Spaces.

DJ is looking for a roommate for his condo, and Joe seems perfect. Except for one thing. Joe's number one rule of sharing spaces is not falling for your roommate, and DJ is definitely falling in lust with Joe. DJ tries hard to deny the attraction, but Joe's Italian good looks, his motorcycle and charm soon make DJ regret his choice. And when it looks like Joe might think of breaking Rule Number One himself, DJ has a hard time looking and not touching. Can these two share space without giving in to their need?
My reactions to Vaughan's stories is always the same: I want more! A B.

This is a very sweet and hot story about two roommates who become very good friends and have to decide what to do about the very intense attraction between them. Simple, and yet very effective.

There are no distractions here, the focus is firmly on the relationship between DJ and Joe. For such a short story (75 pages on my ebookwise, so I'm thinking maybe 45 pages on an average paperback), the characterization is very well done, and you really get a feeling for who these guys are. Joe is the party boy who's starting to grow up and now is beginning to get the attraction of a responsible, steady guy like DJ. Both have interesting careers and hopes for the future which really go well with the people they are.

The sweet and hot that I mention go together. When Joe and DJ do finally give in to their attraction, the resulting scenes are amazingly steamy, but at the same time, they're filled with feeling, which is where the sweetness comes in. I loved it!

I also liked the ending. We don't get an "official" HEA, more like a very good beginning to a relationship which will probably grow into it, and I thought this was the perfect close for the story.

I see in fictionwise that there is yet another Vaughan that recently came out, and Off World is a futuristic. I'll have to check it out!


Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

>> Thursday, November 23, 2006

I'd never read Beverly Jenkins before, but when I read the blurb of her latest book, Sexy/Dangerous, I had to have it. It's just the plot I've wanted to read for a long time: a really kick-ass heroine paired off with a normal guy. It can be a secret agent or a special forces soldier rescuing a civilian hero, or like this one, maybe a bodyguard protecting a regular guy. I thought I'd found this a few times, but all those authors felt it necessary to make their heroes turn out to be even more kick-ass than their heroines, which just ruined it for me.

book coverWearing her shades, a black Stetson, and snakeskin cowboy boots, security agent Maxine "Max" Blake is the baddest thing walking. Ex-marine, ex-cop, and a whole lotta 'tude, Max doesn't have time for anything but her job. Her latest assignment: to protect Dr. Adam Gary. Her problem: he doesn't want her there.

Adam wants to focus on his work, not to be distracted by this tall, sexy woman. A foiled kidnapping attempt may have forced him to take an undercover agent into his household, but no one said anything about the agent being a woman, or that she'd be beautiful, or that she came with two monster rottweilers. How is he supposed to concentrate on his top-secret project that could revolutionize the world when all he can think about is her smooth, coffee-colored skin and those long, lean legs?

But as danger nips at their heels, love may be a distraction neither of them will live to enjoy...

The first scene, which showed scientist Dr. Adam Gary fending off a kidnapping attempt and kicking the asses of three baddies, made me fear this would be another one of those books. But when Max (Maxine, but don't call her that) Blake shows up, it was a whole other story. This was a very enjoyable B+.

The plot is simple: Adam, one of the most promising scientists of his generation, has developed a prototype for an efficient and inexpensive alternative energy source. After a kidnapping attempt right after a conference in Madrid, in which he had just unveiled his breakthrough, it becomes clear that there are some very bad people who want the prototype (and Adam, of course), so he is to have a bodyguard. And that bodyguard is to be NIA agent Max Blake, who'll masquerade as his housekeeper.

Max is just... wow. I think she's the best heroine I've read so far this year. This is a totally kick-ass woman who's tough and competent and wonderfully confident, both in her professional abilities and in her femininity. She's confident without being arrogant, straightforward without being abrasive, decisive without being stupidly stubborn. And at the same time, Jenkins managed to make her not this perfect, cold robot, but a real, very human woman, and all without compromising any of her strength.

There is no tragic past to try to tell us "yes, she's got vulnerabilities, too", or any inane bursting into tears constantly to try to tell us "she's strong, but don't worry, not too strong". There's just a very careful, deep characterization, which uses no silly gimmicks to succeed in establishing a character who felt completely real.

Even Max's relationship with her dogs is beautifully used to illustrate the person she is. See, Max comes to her jobs with her team, which is composed by two rottweilers, Ossie and Ruby, the smartest, best-trained dogs I've ever read. Many authors would have fallen into the temptation of using this to show that Max, can, too, be nurturing and talk to them in baby talk, but not Beverly Jenkins. Max obviously cares for her dogs and would do anything to protect them, but she respects them and their abilities, and while she takes every care before sending them into dangerous situations, she doesn't hesitate in doing so.

Speaking of the dogs, I'm not Max, so I totally would have been talking to them in baby talk, because these two were the funniest, most adorable dogs ever. There's a scene in which there's some construction going on in the house, so Ossie and Ruby are in doggie versions of hard hats, and I just melted. Yeah, I'm easy.

Anyway, going back to the story: the same straightforwardness and honesty and confidence that characterize Max in all things, define the romance. Adam and Max's relationship is tense at first, mostly because Max's very necessary actions to make the house into a place where she can guard Adam interfere with his research (think contractors doing some very intense construction work), and she refuses to tiptoe around trying to sweeten Adam up. What needs to get done, gets done, period. Max doesn't suffer fools gladly. And there's also the dogs. Adam is very cold towards them, something Max cannot understand, given that they're perfectly trained and really are necessary for keeping the house secure (which she's carefully explained to him).

But Adam and Max soon warm up to each other (not least because Adam finally tells Max about the childhood dog attack that left him with a fear of them), and give in to their attraction without any games or manipulation, and with plenty of communication.

Adam is a wonderful hero. I love super-smart, good-hearted heroes, but the main reason I thought Adam was wonderful was because of his reactions to Max. What I loved best in this area was that again, Jenkins goes deep in her characterization. She does not gloss over the fact that it might be difficult for a man to go into the house to be safe while the woman he's very attracted to goes out to face the guns to protect him. But the wonderful thing here is that, while Adam's first instinct is to shove Max behind him and face the bad guys himself, he doesn't do that.

Adam acknowledges that he's not nearly as well prepared as Max to do the job (he's never even fired a gun, while Max is an expert in all kinds of weapons and combat situations), and furthermore, he respects her abilities and recognizes that it would be disrespectful to her not to allow her to do the job she's been hired to do. So instead of doing what his gut tells him to do, Adam steps back and doesn't interfere with Max. And he's full of admiration for the way Max goes about doing her job.

I just loved this. There's no question in my mind of Adam coming off as weak for being willing to have a woman do his physical fighting for him. I guess that's the reasoning behind all those civilian heroes who end up protecting their bodyguard heroines, but I think it's just the opposite. For me, Adam is actually stronger than all those guys, in the way that matters most, which is mentally. He's not ruled by prejudices or by his instincts, but is able to fight against them and win.

The ending is just as good as the rest of the book, and touches on these subjects again. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say I loved the way Jenkins solved the issue of how Adam and Max can have a life together, given that her job has her jumping from dangerous situation to dangerous situation and staying in each for months at a time. And if you know me even a little bit, you can probably deduce that I wouldn't like a book in which the heroine gives up a lifestyle she loves just because a man demands it of her ;-)

It's been nothing but raves so far, right? So why a B+ and not an A? A few reasons.

First, the writing style, which I didn't love. It felt a bit awkward sometimes. Yes, I have a nerve saying this, when Jenkins has a pretty extensive backlist, but that's how I felt. It seemed to me there was a lot of telling instead of showing, and this bothered me.

Second, the villains. Their nefarious plans were interesting, and certainly unique (for one thing, it's not those easy targets, the oil companies, who want Adam's prototype, as I assumed it would be), but the villains themselves were ridiculously inept! I almost felt sorry for them for being so stupid, which really cut down on the sense of dangerousness. My favourite was a scene in which the Big Baddie has been told by someone that Adam is ready to sell out and calls him, only to be very surprised when Adam denies it. This scene read like an irate customer talking to customer support, which was just surreal.

Finally, S/D is fourth in a series about NIA agents (NIA seems to be this kind of crime-fighting private agency), and there's a lot of intrusion from characters and events from the earlier books, which was mildly annoying.

Even with all this, though, the hero and most of all, the heroine made this an immensely enjoyable book. I'm definitely going to be doing some exploring of Jenkins' backlist!

Note: The first 3 NIA books are The Edge Of Midnight, The Edge Of Dawn and Black Lace (this last one is available in electronic format here, so I'm off to buy it right now). And S/D is also slightly related to two of Jenkins' historicals, as Max is great-great-granddaughter of the heroines from A Chance at Love and Always and Forever.


Maili's In My Bag meme

>> Wednesday, November 22, 2006

No photo (camera's broken), but here goes: Maili's In My Bag meme.

  • Obviously, books: Two of them, the one I'm reading (Spellbound, by Kathleen Nance) and one (Whispers of the Night, by Lydia Joyce) for María Inés, who'll be picking it up later today from my office.

  • Wallet: Containing typical stuff (money, ID, credit cards, driver's license), plus my lucky football ticket from the last Nacional-Peñarol derby and a free pass for the movies, which I got last week when there was a blackout when I was at the movie theatre watching Transamerica and I missed the last 30 minutes.

  • Cell phone: Very old model, need to change it. This one doesn't even send text messages.

  • Compact mirror: with chokin (sp?) image of the Golden Pavillion on the lid

  • Business cards: in a little metal card holder

  • Extra tampon: just in case!

  • Pens: 2 of them, Bic brand

  • Newspaper clippings: One Sudoku, one crossword puzzle. In case I need to wait somewhere and I finish my book ;-)

  • Print-out of World Cup schedule: with the corresponding Japan time for each match, and with all results filled in

  • Sachet containing powdered green tea: which I should drink before it breaks open and covers my whole bag in green tea

  • Reading glasses: only to rest my eyesight when I'm at the computer

  • Old envelope: on which I've written some notes for my next Romancing the Blog column

  • Sports eyeshade: Blue, which I sometimes need to use when I'm at work on my computer. We've got BIG windows, and the light gets a bit too bright here

  • Pills: Dolo-Octirona (for headache and cramps) and Diaformina (antihiperglucemic).

  • Small datebook: very bad quality, the spine broke, so I need to keep it closed with an elastic band. But damned if I will copy all my phone numbers in November!

  • Small zippered bag: containing manicure stuff (nail file, nail cutters, small scissors, etc), a flash drive, ear plugs and a couple of pens

  • Sunglasses: in a metal case

  • Keys: Home, car (my mom's; I don't have one) and desk drawer at work. Love the keychain: it's a reproduction of the keychain at the Peta Palace in Istambul, from the room in which Agatha Christie stayed.

  • Lipbalm

  • Mint chewing gum

  • Paper tissues: a little plastic packet of them, plus *blushing* three used ones ;-)

What can I say, I have a huge bag!

So, anyone else up to doing some listing?


A Fine Work of Art, by Shelby Reed

>> Tuesday, November 21, 2006

AngieW's November TBR Challenge is to read a book that was originally published in electronic format. I went for one from Ellora's Cave.

Title: A Fine Work of Art

Author: Shelby Reed

Year published: 2003 (positively an oldie in the e-book world!)

Why did you get this book?: I think I saw it talked about in some of the blogs I visit, but I don't really remember which. And since I tend to like December/May romances...


At thirty-six, university art professor Elizabeth Gilstrom finds herself facing a bleak, lonely future when her husband leaves her for his young medical assistant. After giving up her own career as an artist a decade before, Elizabeth has nothing to show for their ten-year marriage…only the faded memory of a paintbrush's weight in her hand, an empty bed, and an empty heart.

She's still reeling from shock and devastation when graduate student Boone McCrea walks into her office...and into her bed. Boone might only be twenty-four, but he is, quite simply, one of the most attractive men Elizabeth has ever seen, a work of art that stirs wild sensations she has long repressed.

Do you like the cover?: Yes. It's sexy, but tasteful. At least, the one I posted here is. I've seen another version that's pretty bad.

Did you enjoy the book?: Not really. I mean, it wasn't bad, and there was nothing I hated here, but as a romance, it just wasn't believable to me. A C.

I think the main problem was that neither Elizabeth nor Boone were characters in whose story I was particularly invested. Elizabeth never rose above the cliché. She's a woman whose husband, a doctor, has left her after 10 years of marriage, a marriage that never satisfied her sexually or emotionally. With Boone, one of her graduate students, who's 24-years-old to her 36, she rediscovers her sexuality and, supposedly, finds love. So what makes Elizabeth Elizabeth, and not any other of those just-left-by-their-longtime-husbands heroines? Nothing.

And Boone was even more undefined. At least we got to see Elizabeth's POV and thus, how she felt about things, but we never get inside Boone's head and I never understood who he was, either. By the end of the book, all I knew about Boone was that he was a talented artist, he was 24 and he was attracted to Elizabeth. Nothing else.

So when these two declared their love, I didn't buy it. I didn't really see anything in common between them, or felt anything other than attraction, and not a very deep attraction, at that.

The age thing might have been an issue for me, too. It's just that 24 is so young! I'm 28 and not particularly mature (*g*), and I'd think twice before I went out with the typical 24-year-old. And that's just the thing, maybe if it had been established that Boone wasn't typical, but a very mature and grown-up 24, because this and this and that had influenced his growth, I could have bought it, but there's nothing of the sort here. Reed just tells us he's mature for 24, but never shows us.

Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again?: She was new to me. I might give her another try (they have a good review of one of her books at, but I won't be in a hurry to do so.

Are you keeping it or passing it on?: It's an e-book, so keeping it.


Lady Midnight, by Amanda McCabe

>> Monday, November 20, 2006

Lady Midnight, by Amanda McCabe was a random pick from my TBR. I think I bought it because it got a good review at AAR, but by the time I picked it up, I remembered absolutely nothing about it.

book coverA courtesan in training

Everyone that Katerina held dear has perished in a tempest off the coast of Italy. With not a penny to her name, the once-moneyed Venetian lady knows she must travel far to forge a new life. No one would ever accept her if they learned that her mother was Lucrezia Bruni, the infamous courtesan breeding young Katerina to fill her shoes someday...

A governess in hiding

Still mourning his late wife, Michael Lindley knows life must go on-and that his little sister and daughter need a woman's nurturing. When a dark-eyed beauty alights on his doorstep, claiming to be widowed governess, Michael feels a fire rekindle in him that he thought had been snuffed out long ago. And in Katerina, who thought her capacity to love had gone down with the ship, there flares a yearning that only Lindley can subdue.

A woman in danger -and in love...

But just as they give in to the desire that knows no words, a stealthy enemy plots his revenge-and their newborn passion must undergo the ultimate test...

Young Katerina Bruni is the daughter of a famous Venetian courtesan. All her life, she's known that she's to follow in her mother's footsteps, and the day is getting closer in which she will go to her first protector. He's been chosen and everything: a friend of her mother's English protector, who's much taken with Katerina.

But a sudden storm, which sinks the yacht in which all four of them are out for a sail, changes things radically. Katerina wakes up in a peasant's house, seemingly the only survivor from the shipwreck, and, with the help of an apparition of her mother's ghost, decides to let Katerina Bruni stay dead and leave that life behind. She'll build a new life in England, home of her father, as Mrs. Kate Brown, widow of an English soldier.

In England, Kate finds a position as governess in Yorkshire, in the remote Thorn Hill, home to Mr. Michael Lindley and the girls who'll be Kate's charges: 7-year-old Amelia, his daugther, and his sister, teenaged Christina. Kate quickly falls in love... with everything. She loves Thorn Hill and the peace she finds there, she loves both the girls, and as for Michael, soon she's well on the way to loving him, too. And he seems to reciprocate her feelings.

But hey, this is a 400-page book, so things can't be easy and straightforward, right? The secrets of Kate's past life have a way of intruding in her possible happiness with Michael. There's the fact that she's misrepresented herself to all these people she's come to love, which bothers her conscience, and soon it comes to light that she wasn't the only survivor of the shipwreck. Her protector-to-be is still alive, and still as obsessed with her as he ever was.

Lady Midnight is a book I would have expected to like much better than I did. The first part, especially, would seem to be just the type I like: wholly character-driven and with our characters actually communicating. Kate and Michael are nice people and they seem to like each other.

So why, then, did it take me 2 weeks to slog through the first 200 pages? If I was at home, I'd read 3 or 4 pages and put it aside for another book. I could only make some progress when I took it with me on the bus to work, but just because there was nothing else to do but read it (and even then, I'd find myself reading 10 or 20 pages and then just looking out the window).

I think the problem was that I just didn't find Kate or Michael particularly interesting. They're both nice and honorable, but not at all compelling. And the worst part was that the whole deal about these oh-so-angsty secrets in their past didn't didn't feel interesting, so much as melodramatic. They'd be doing the woe-is-me thing and lamenting the hopelessness of their burgeoning feelings, but McCabe couldn't make me believe these feelings were at all deep. I don't know if I can explain this, but it was like when Kate would think about the despair she was feeling, I didn't believe her. I had the impression she was some kind of actress pretending to feel despair.

Things do improve in the second half (more exactly, right after they make love), and I was able to finish the book in a couple of days.

Part of what makes this second half much more interesting was the appearance of Julian, Kate's prospective protector. We'd seen he was alive much earlier, but until this second half, neither he nor Kate were aware the other was still alive. I have to say, when we first see Julian survived, I groaned, because I feared McCabe might use this in the tedious, typical way I've seen so often before. He'd be bat-shit crazy and evil, and Kate would hide his threats from everyone, fearing he might hurt these people she cares about so much, and blah, blah, blah, kidnapping and final confrontation, the end.

Well, I was wrong. Julian turned out to be a very interesting, subtly drawn villain. Yes, he's not completely right in the head, but in a very intriguing way. And the way in which he affects the plot is very well done. I'm not going to go into details, but suffice it to say that what I was expecting was very wrong. Things didn't play out in a predictable way, and I appreciated that.

Still, even with the more interesting second half, this was no more than slightly better than average. A C+.


Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder

>> Friday, November 17, 2006

I discovered Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder quite by chance, browsing in my local bookstore about 10 years ago. I read the subtitle: "A Novel About The History of Philosophy", and I was intrigued. How could it be a novel and be about the history of philosophy at the same time? I bought it just to see, and I was blown away.

Since then, I've often reread bits and pieces, but I think this is only the second time I've read it in its entirety.

One day Sophie comes home from school to find two questions in her mail: who are you? and where does the world come from?

Before she knows it, Sophie is enrolled in a correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre and beyond, with a mysterious philosopher. But Sophie is receiving a separate batch of equally unusual letters. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up in Sophie's world?

To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning--but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.
Sophie's World is an great introductory text on philosophy, but what makes it so excellent is the way Gaarder integrated this textbook into a very entertaining fantasy novel. An A.

Sophie's a perfectly normal 14-year-old Norwegian girl who arrives home from school one day and finds a strange letter addressed to her in her mailbox. The letter contains just two mysterious questions: Who are you? and Where does the world come from? Pretty big questions, huh?

The next thing Sophie knows, she's started receiving letters from a stranger who tells that he doesn't want her to be one of those persons who are blind to the wonder of life and who only care about mundane stuff, so he's going to give her a course on philosophy and its history.

And he does, teaching her about philosophy from the very early attempts by Man and Woman to explain the world through myths to the present-day philosophical currents, touching on all the main thinkers of the past 2000 or so years.

A lot of the book is basically a textbook, but one written in such a way that it's wonderfully entertaining and easy to understand. It's an overview, of course, so each philosopher is not covered very deeply, but the book gives you a very good idea of what the gist of his ideas was.

Still, even with all this, this is a book which isn't to be read all in one go. I read only one or two chapters per day, and this was probably the best way to go, as it gave me time to digest them well.

I mentioned a fantasy novel above. At first, it seems that the device of having Sophie's sections around the textbook parts is just a very simplistic attempt at making a textbook not read like a textbook. Sophie would arrive home from school, read the letter from her philosophy teacher, explaining a certain philosopher or school of thought, and then think about what she'd learned.

But then Sophie's world starts becoming more and more mysterious and complicated, with the life of someone named Hilde Moller Knag somehow starting to pervade Sophie's whole existence, and that's when things get interesting.

I have to admit that Sophie and her teacher, Alberto, are not the best drawn characters I've ever read. Sophie's reactions often don't ring completely true, and Alberto remains too much of a cypher throughout the entire book. But you know what? I didn't really care about that all that much, because I was so blown away by the ingeniousness of the way Gaarder manages to make the events in Sophie's world reflect what she's learning in her philosophy course. I thought that was nothing short of brilliant, and it's the reason this book gets such a high grade.


A Hunger Like No Other, by Kresley Cole

>> Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I tried. I asked Cindy if I could read Kresley Cole's No Rest For The Wicked without having read A Hunger Like No Other and she said yes, but I just couldn't do it. I think it was the glossary that did me in. It all sounded so complex and confusing that I figured I'd better just start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Though this wasn't really the very beginning, because it seems this world is introduced in a short story in the Playing Easy to Get anthology. But still!

A mythic warrior who'll stop at nothing to possess her...

After enduring years of torture from the vampire horde, Lachlain MacRieve, leader of the Lykae Clan, is enraged to find the predestined mate he's waited millennia for is a vampire. Or partly one. This Emmaline is a small, ethereal half Valkyrie/half vampire, who somehow begins to soothe the fury burning within him.

A vampire captured by her wildest fantasy...

Sheltered Emmaline Troy finally sets out to uncover the truth about her deceased parents—until a powerful Lykae claims her as his mate and forces her back to his ancestral Scottish castle. There, her fear of the Lykae—and their notorious dark desires—ebbs as he begins a slow, wicked seduction to sate her own dark cravings.

An all-consuming desire...

Yet when an ancient evil from her past resurfaces, will their desire deepen into a love that can bring a proud warrior to his knees and turn a gentle beauty into the fighter she was born to be?
A wonderful romance. Unfortunately, what surrounds the romance wasn't as good and didn't really go well with the tone of the rest of the story, which made the last sections fizzle somewhat. Still, the very strong relationship between Lachlain and Emma in the first parts was enough to make me give this a B.

Cole creates a world in which all kinds of fantastical creatures coexist with humans. Seriously, think of any mythical or paranormal being, and it's probably in here. Maybe slightly modified, but it's here. Vampires? Check. Werewolves? Check. Sirens? Check. Ghouls? Check. Witches? Check. Gods? Check. Valkyrie?? Even that, check!

These groups (collectively called The Lore) are constantly fighting among themselves, forming and breaking alliances. But there are two groups which are mortal enemies and always will be: the vampires and the Lykae (basically werewolves, with some twists). So what better conflict than to have a hero who's Lykae and a heroine who's half vampire?

The book starts with an incredibly intriguing scene. Lachlain MacRieve, king of the Lykae, was captured by the vampires 150 earlier, and rather than kill him outright, the bastards preferred to torture him for all eternity. They chained him in the catacombs under Paris, right next to some kind of hell fire that periodically flares out and burns him to death. And yes, I said periodically. Because as a Lykae, Lachlain is pretty much an immortal being, and can only be killed in some very specific ways. Burning isn't one of them, so each and every time he is burned to what would be "to death" in a normal person, he comes back, ready to be burned yet again. Nice people, these vampires, eh?

Anyway, so there Lachlain is, chained in the catacombs and minding his own business, when he perceives the scent of his mate close by (yes, this is a fated mates story, but bear with me, because Cole writes it well). See, in this universe, many of the species have some kind of predestined partner who somehow "completes" them, a partner they can't help but go after. Vampires, for instance, have their Brides, while Lykae have their mates.

Lachlain has been seeking his mate for hundreds of years, and had almost given up hope when he smells her. So badly does he need to be with her, that he somehow manages to rip off his chains, and when the last one just won't budge, he rips off his leg and leaves it behind. Yep, his actual leg. But don't worry... immortal, remember? It grows back.

Emmaline Troy is in Paris trying to find more information about her father. All she knows is that he was a vampire, and that he and her Valkyrie mother lived in Paris for a while. It's Emma's first time alone away from Val Hall, the Valkyrie residence in New Orleans, and she's growing desperate. She hasn't managed to find out anything, and even worse, she's growing hungry, because she hasn't been able to secure a source of blood (drinking directly from someone's vein is not an option. Her Valkyrie aunts have always forbidden it). Emma is known among the Valkyrie for being a bit of a wuss, and so she doesn't want to go running for help at the first sign of trouble and confirm their predictions.

But things go from bad to worse for Emma when a huge Lykae suddenly appears and takes her prisoner, alternately insulting her for being a vampire and making sexual advances (when he's not flying into scary fits of rage and destroying everything around them). Finally, they make a deal. He promises to let her go if she drives with him to his castle in Scotland. And so they go on a road trip that will have their feelings for each other change radically, and teach Emma a lot about herself.

I still can't get over how much I enjoyed Emma and Lachlain's interactions, especially their very early relationship. It's very, very dark and sexual and even a bit violent. We've got Lachlain, newly freed from being tortured by vampires for a century and a half, and when he finally meets the mate he's been wishing for for centuries, she's a vampire herself, one of those murderous leeches. She's his mate, so he goes practically mad with lust whenever she's near, but he doesn't want to feel that way. And Emma is initially scared to death of this guy, and continues to be afraid of him for quite a while.

Hmm, it doesn't sound very good, does it? But for some reason, it worked. Maybe because it made the gradual changes in them so satisfying. Lachlain goes from debating between fucking Emma or killing her to being head over heels in love with her and being willing to lay down his life for her. The contrast between the violence of his initial feelings and the tenderness of the later ones was lovely. As for Emma, I loved seeing the growth in her, from a wimp scared of her own shadow to a much, much stronger woman, a total kickass heroine, in fact!

I also loved how tremendously erotic their relationship was. The scenes from the beginning, some of which practically amount to rape (or should I call it a forced seduction?), and those of later on, which are all about trust and loving, are different in tone, but just as erotic. And my absolute favourite was Emma's first time in drinking from the vein. That was... wow!

Surprisingly, I also liked the chosen mates thing. I thought Cole managed to make it romantic, not claustrophobic. It's probably because this is not a case of "you're my mate, so I love you". Neither Lachlain nor Emma are too happy to discover the other one is their mate, and so we get to see the whole process of falling in love, which is what so often goes missing in mate stories.

So this that I describe is, as Cindy says, the KEEPER, KEEPER, KEEPER! part. Too bad there are a few negatives.

The first thing I noticed was that sometimes, the juxtaposition of the angsty torture and the humour was a bit uncomfortable. I mean, we've got a hero here who's gone through hell, and the events of the beginning of the book, when he first latches on to Emma were very traumatic. The woman was attacked, practically raped and witnessed some very scary rages from Lachlain, and the next minute, she's on the phone wisecracking with one of her aunts. I just couldn't buy it. In the beginning, it was only a slight problem, but after a certain point, especially when we began seeing more and more scenes from the Valkyries' POV, it became much too pervasive. It wasn't really that there was humour, it was more that it was a very silly type of humour. Yeah, there were some funny lines (I did crack up when Emma said that her aunt Myst, who'd had an affair with a vampire general, was now sometimes called Mysty the Vampire Layer), but they were just out of place in this book.

Speaking of her aunts, I thought the incredible complexity and variety of the Lore in this book was a little overwhelming. There's just too much going on around them, too many creatures and too many big concepts I didn't understand and which didn't really add anything to the story (the Accession, anyone?). And most of all, I thought there were too many Valkyries, each with their complex story. Every time the story moved to New Orleans and we got a scene about the Valkyries, I wavered between yawning and wanting to slap the shrill bitches. I've just started the next book, and I think it's the heroine in that one who says Val Hall feels like a sorority residence. I read that and I went "Yes! That was what annoyed me so much!" I was MUCH more interested in Emma and Lachlain's relationship.

But even in that area, I thought the story lost a bit of focus once they got to Lachlain's castle and especialy once they consumated their relationship. First, because we started getting even more scenes of events outside of them, and also, because up until then Cole had created some amazing sexual tension. She'd done it mostly through coitus interruptus, which was kind of annoying, but well, it had worked, so once they did have sex, I found myself wishing they would have interruptused for a while longer.

Finally, a slighter but still real irritation was the accent. Lachlain is Scottish and last lived among other people in the mid-1850s, which apparently means he speaks slang-free American, only saying dinna, doona and no' instead of not. And Emma's language was almost as irritating, with her constant slang and pop-culture references.

God, I'm a grouch. Hard as it may seem to believe, consider the length of my negatives, this book was very good!


True Blood, by Patricia Waddell

>> Monday, November 13, 2006

Futuristics seem to be somewhat under-represented in the current craze for paranormals. Too bad, this is a subgenre I've always enjoyed. I was very happy to see True Blood, by previously historical author Patricia Waddell get a very good buzz online. And I'm almost embarrassed to confess that I probably read it sooner than I might have only because I was so curious about a certain unique-sounding sex scene! ;-)

Someone's out for blood . . . True Blood

The unexplained explosion of the space freighter Llyndar brings the League of Planets and the Korcian Empire to the brink of war. The Korcian Guard is on full alert, and the League is depending on Officer Danna MacFadyen of the Diplomat Corps to defuse the situation. At the request of her superiors, Danna puts her psychometric skills to work. Was the explosion tragedy or terrorism? But Danna's soon burdened with another question . . . Can she work side-by-side with Cullon Gavriel, a handsome Korcian Enforcer, without losing her heart?

Fighting isn't just in a Korcian's blood, it's in his very soul. An Enforcer by trade and a loner by choice, Cullon Gavriel arrives on Ramora with one purpose in mind: to find out who's killing True Bloods. What he finds is a beautiful Terran female with the ability to step into the past. But can the information Danna gleans from her dreamscapes prevent future murders?

As the pieces of an explosive puzzle fall into place, Danna and Cullon step into a conspiracy that stretches across the galaxy to the capital city of the Korcian Empire, where shocking secrets are waiting to be discovered, and where the lines between power and politics, and life and love cross unexpectedly.
This is a book with an intriguing plot and setting, but also with a romance that never completely caught my interest. A B-.

Danna MacFadyen is a diplomat from Earth, which is now part of the League of Planets. Ever since an accord was signed, the League coexists peacefully with the Korcian Empire. When a Korcian spaceship explodes in League-controlled space, and the Korcians threaten war if the culprits are not punished, the League responds by forming an investigative tribunal which will be assigned to get to the bottom of things and will be composed by a Korcian, someone from the League and a neutral party.

Danna is somewhat surprised to be the one assigned by the League to the tribunal, because she's relatively inexperienced, but she knows her psychometry talents (which seem to be pretty normal-ish in this world... not common, but no one is shocked to hear about them, either) will come in handy in such an investigation.

But the situation becomes more complex when the envoy from the Korcian, a disturbingly attractive Enforcer (kind of Special Forces soldier) called Cullon Gavriel tells her the real reason why the Korcians so immediately assumed the explosion wasn't an accident. One of the passengers had been a True Blood, a descendant from one of the eight families that ruled Korcia until they were deposed by a military coup. And that's not all; he was the third True Blood to die suddenly in a matter of weeks.

So Cullon and Danna have a hard task before them: they must find out who's killing the True Bloods, a situation that gets more complex by the minute as they discover new evidence, and they must do this while dealing with the powerful attraction between them. And as they do both things, they must be especially careful, because Cullon is True Blood himself, and could thus become the killer's next target.

As a mystery, this was very good. The question of who was killing the True Bloods and why was intriguing and the plot was well-constructed. Danna and Cullon's investigation proceeded in a satisfying, sensible way, and Danna's psychometric talents were well-used and depicted. Sometimes when an author gives one of her characters a psychic talent such as this, it can feel as if she forgets about it after a while, but that wasn't the case here. Danna used her psychometry whenever it was logical that she should and Cullon's reactions to it rang true.

The setting was also good, and added dimensions to the mystery. I wasn't quite as fascinated with Korcia as I was with the other settings depicted, including Ramora, Cullon's spaceship and that other planet they visited, the one controlled by the Conglomerate (sorry, can't remember its name), but it was interesting enough.

Unfortunately, it was the romance that was the weak point. Or rather, the weak point was mostly Cullon. I just couldn't get a handle on the man. I finished the book not really knowing who he was or what he thought, and that's strange, because we do get quite a few scenes from his POV. It's just that those scenes were so uninformative! All I got to understand was that he was attracted to Danna and that he had some conflicted feelings for his father. Nothing else. And so, while the Zero Gravity Sex scene was imaginative and well-written, it just didn't engage me. In fact, the numerous sex scenes were mostly boring, as they usually are when an author doesn't really succeed in establishing a connection between the participants. By the end of the book, when he was declaring true love to Danna, I was like "oh, really?".

Still, even with this, I'm going to keep an eye on this author, as I'd probably be interested in reading her next futuristic.


Jovah's Angel, by Sharon Shinn

>> Friday, November 10, 2006

Sometimes when I read the first book in a series and its an absolutely perfect read, I can be a bit hesitant about reading the next installments. It's basically a matter of being afraid something about the other book will diminish the first one for me, that the characters or universe will lose their freshness. Silly, isn't it? But it was the reason it took me almost 5 years to read book 2 of the In Death series after loving Naked in Death.

Strangely enough, this didn't happen with Sharon Shinn's Samaria series. After being blown away by Archangel (my first A+ of the year, yay!), I could hardly keep myself from starting Jovah's Angel immediately.

It is 150 years since "Archangel". Great storms and floods have swept down upon the land. And even the splendid voices of the angels--raised in supplication--cannot reach the god Jovah.
WARNING!: JA will make you look at the events in Archangel in a completely different way, so if you haven't read the first book yet, don't read this review. And what are you waiting for? Go read Archangel now!

In a way, it's a good thing that I didn't know how much JA would stand everything on its head, because the reasoning I describe above might have kept me from a truly excellent book. An A.

When Archangel Delilah falls during a foolhardy night-time flight and breaks her wing, Jovah decrees she can't serve as Archangel if she cannot fly, and names the angel Alleluia to take her place. No one is more surprised than Alleluia herself. A studious, quiet young woman, she has neither the inclination nor the experience to take on such a job. But the god has spoken, and he must be obeyed, so the change takes place.

But it's very definitely not a good time for such a change. It's some 150 years after the events in Archangel, and Samarian weather has been turning more and more unpredictable lately. The storms and draughts are coming more frequently, and the angels' prayers for changes in the weather are not being answered by Jovah. This coincides with what seems to be a generalized breakdown in the original settler technological appliances. The equipment in the music rooms in the angel holds, for instance, has began to break down, and since no one knows how it works, this is a problem. Plus, as always in Samaria, there's friction between the various groups. All this requires strong, savvy leadership, but can Alleluia provide it?

There's no villain driving the action here, like the Archangel Raphael did in Archangel. The story mainly follows Alleluia as she does her new job the best she can, concentrating on several tasks which end up being very much related: trying to find out why Jovah isn't listening any more, trying to see if she can get the failing machines repaired and trying to find the man who should be the Angelico and stand by her to sing the Gloria. To all this Jovah says "find the son of Jeremiah", a cryptic remark indeed. But with the help of a Luminaux engineer called Caleb Augustus, Alleluia makes very surprising progress in her tasks.

Like Archangel, this is excellent fantasy and just as excellent romance... two romances for the price of one, BTW. We get the slowly developing relationship between devout Alleluia and the agnostic Caleb Augustus, and we also follow the fallen Archangel, Delilah, as she adapts (mostly badly) to her new status and develops a fondness for another engineer, the Edori Noah.

Noah was a bit featureless, compared to the other three, but Alleluia, Caleb and Delilah were strong enough characters that this didn't really matter all that much to me. I especially loved Delilah, because I have a fondness for tortured female characters, but watching Alleluia and Caleb dance around each other was just lovely. What I loved the most was how perfectly suited they were to each other, despite their superficial differences. Both were people who needed to get to the bottom of things, to discover how they work. It was more obvious in Caleb's case, because he was such a tinkerer and was always fooling around with objects and machines, but Alleluia was just as curious, only in an intellectual way.

And this leads us to one of the things I loved best about JA: the huge, mind-blowing revelations about the history of Samaria that Alleluia and Caleb somehow discover. I can't say they were really such a surprise, by the time I got there, because we start getting hints right from the beginning of the book, when we see the oracle communicating with Jovah through an "interface". But still, this is such huge stuff, that even though my mind did instinctively reach conclusions that were in the right direction (not the exact nature of what was happening, that would have been impossible), I didn't quite believe Shinn would actually dare do this.

But she did, and I thought the results were wonderful. At least, I thought they were. I'm sure for some people what happens here will somehow make the series lose some of its magic. I'd go as far as to agree that the sense of mystery we got in Archangel can't really survive these revelations (and this is the reason why I insisted people should read that book without finding out anything about this), but for me, the magic is intact.

I thought Shinn dealt brilliantly with the implications these discoveries would have on faith, such an important thing for Samarians, especially how it affected people so different in this respect as Alleluia and Caleb. It's not a facile, simplistic reaction, and I loved the book all the more for it.

Ok, this review is already getting over-long, so a couple more comments and I'm done. First: I was fascinated by Shinn's portrayal of the changes that have taken place in Samarian society since we last saw it. Among other things, we see an early industrial revolution, and that the Edori have mostly lost their nomadic way of life. They've been herded inside sanctuaries, mostly worthless land, which doesn't keep the other Samarian groups from trying to take some away from them. For this reason, the Edori's longtime dream of going to Ysral, their mythic promised land, is more alive than ever, and we see some very interesting steps being taken.

We also see in detail some places we didn't find out much about in Archangel, like the oracles and Luminaux, both of which sound incredible.

This was a wonderfully rich, satisfying book. I'm so happy I'm finally reading this series!


Without a Trace, by Nora Roberts (O'Hurleys! #4)

>> Thursday, November 09, 2006

This week has been all Nora Roberts all the time, hasn't it? And it's not over yet! Because The O'Hurleys! are not just the triplets, and so this isn't a trilogy, but a quartet. I can't figure out if Without a Trace is an add-on or if it was a planned book all the time. The references in the other books to that mysterious Trace, whose occupation no one knows, seem to indicate the latter.

Trace O'Hurley had turned his back on responsibility and commitment long ago. Now he lived the way he wanted, did what he wanted when he wanted. But that was all going to change...

Gillian Fitzpatrick had responsibilities, commitments... her brother had disappeared and she was frightened and desperate. Trace was her only hope. He had the connections, the expertise...and the guts. But just what was she going to have to do to convince him to help her...?
I'm sorry to say this was the worst of the lot. Skin Deep had been bad enough, but at least I was interested in the plot. WAT never succeeded in engaging me, and while the hero was fine, the heroine was an idiot. A C-, and yeah, I know it's the same grade I gave SD, but some C- books are better than others, right?

In the first three books, I was always amused whenever they talked about Trace and so much was made of his mysterious occupation, which had him flitting around the world. An international jewel thief? A professional gigolo?, his sisters guessed. Well, all I can say is that these women have obviously never read a romance novel. What else could he be but a secret agent?

Trace is moping in Mérida, México, when he's approached by a beautiful readhead who asks for his help rescuing her brother and niece, kidnapped by a terrorist organization. Trace is on vacation and contemplating retirement because he's tired of his current life, but Gillian (the redhead) was sent to him by his mentor, Charlie, and her case actually has some relation to Charlie's recent death, so Trace accedes to her request.

And that's it, really. The rest of the book has them going to Morocco after the terrorists and putting in place a plot to rescue Gillian's family. And of course, falling in love in the process.

Ok, where should I start? Maybe with the main reason I almost threw the book against the wall, and that would be Gillian. Super-smart, genius Gillian, who, nevertheless, has no common sense whatsoever. Her insistence on being in on every single step of the plan, even when she has no training, expertise of even aptitude for this kind of work was bad enough, but her stupidity with regards to Trace's plans took the cake.

I mean, Gillian knows Trace is a professional and that they're in an extremely dangerous situation and that keeping their cover is paramount to their safety, and yet the twit keep getting offended by everything and making scenes! Trace gives her an order? Gillian gets offended and huffy and acts in ways that could break their cover. Trace asks her to stay in the room while he goes out? Gillian gets offended and huffy and acts in ways that could break their cover (stay inside a hotel room a whole afternoon? That's inhuman!). Trace tells her that since her cover is as his mistress, she needs to dress a bit less "convent"? Gillian gets offended and huffy and acts in ways that could break their cover. ("I'm not parading around half-dressed so you can keep up your image", she says. Well, you bird-brained idiot, you should, when keeping up his image means keeping up his cover so that he can rescue your brother!) And then there was the way she kept getting all bitchy and accusing Trace of incompetence because "they weren't doing anything", when Trace had spent all his time and effort laying out a perfectly workable plan. Are we supposed to admire this fool for crap like this?

The actual plot? The terrorist organization was laughable and I skimmed all through the final confrontation because I just didn't care. And the romance? No chemistry whatsoever, and, well, I've already hinted at how I felt about Gillian *g*, so I didn't want Trace to fall in love with her, I wanted him to ditch her.

This sounds awfully like a D review, not a C, and it would be, if it weren't for the O'Hurley family. In each of the books you do see some scenes from the past, when the junior O'Hurleys were travelling with their parents, playing in every two-bit nightclub they could find. And there was always some reunion scene... Frank and Molly come visit, the other two triplets in tow, and they meet their daughter's new guy. I didn't mention that in the other reviews because I just didn't feel it was too important in those particular books.

It's much more important here, though, because Trace's conflictive relationship with his father was by far the best part of the book. I loved the way Nora wrote the complex feelings each have for the other, Trace feeling his father doesn't care about what he wants, Frank afraid of his son considering him a failure. I wish more space had been devoted to this and less to the tiresome, preposterous plot and uninteresting romance.

I hate giving bad grades to book by one of my favourite authors, but this whole series, with only 1 book I'd recommend, was below par.


Skin Deep, by Nora Roberts (O'Hurleys! #3)

>> Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Skin Deep is the third in Nora Roberts The O'Hurleys! trilogy, which then turned into a quarted when older brother Trace's story was published.

The high price of fame meant learning to deal with obsessive fans. But this one was different...scary. He was watching...waiting...and Chantel O'Hurley was afraid. She needed help, and it cam with a five-hundred-dollar-a-day price tag. Quinn Doran, a private investigator with the kind of tough, gor-to-hell looks that made a woman's pulse race. What Chantel didn't need were his arrogant insinuations that she'd brought this trouble on erself. What she needed was to stay alive...
After the very meh first book in the series, I was happy to see that the second was very good. Unfortunately, I thought this one was even worse than the first. A C-.

If you've read the first two books, you'll know that the eldest of the triplets, Chantel, is a well-known Hollywood star. And what's the most stereotypical plot you can have with an actress heroine? Why, a stalker, of course, and the heroine being forced to hire a bodyguard because of it! And is the bodyguard a serious professional with a respectful attitude or is he a sexist asshole who has a prejudice about beatiful actresses and treats Chantal like crap because of it? A gold star if you answered the second option.

You can probably tell I detested Quinn. He mellowed a bit as the book progressed, but his behaviour in the first sections made me hate him so much that it would have been pretty much impossible to redeem him. What a judgemental, sexist prick he was! When he tells Chantel (maybe 5 minutes after meeting her, mind), that some of the fault is hers because she prances around on the stage showing her beauty, I wanted to strangle him. And then, in a one-two punch, he follows with this gem:

Not that Quinn was a supporter of the women's movement. To his way of thinking, men and women were different. End of story. If a woman walking by a construction site was insulted because she got a few whistles of invitations, he figured she should walk someplace else. After all, that was just good clean fun.
Oh, yeah! A prince of a guy! And totally unprofessional, too. Chantel is his client, and his job is to protect her, not to make insulting comments about her life. Who the hell does he think he is?

As I said, he does mellow a bit, and ends up taking the threat to Chantel's life seriously and obviously, falling in love with her. But though he did improve, he was starting from such a low place, that it just wasn't enough for me. I simply couldn't see what someone like Chantel would see in this clown.

Chantel herself was all right, I guess. She does stand for herself with Quinn -which is the reason why this didn't get an even lower grade- but the problem is that the plot means that she spends half the time scared to death, and with reason, and this puts her in a vulnerable position with the asshole.

I also groaned a bit at Chantal's history... of course, the beautiful Hollywood star is so sexually inexperienced she might as well be a virgin. Tragic romanc in her past, blah, blah, blah. Why, why, why??

Eh, well, such a disappointment. Maybe the last book will redeem the series, but I'm not holding my breath.


Dance to the Piper, by Nora Roberts (O'Hurleys! #2)

>> Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Continuing with The O'Hurleys! (yeah, I usually try to skip around subgenres, but I can't do that with Nora Roberts. With her, I will read the entire series in a row): book # 2, Dance to the Piper.

Recording mogul Reed Valentine saw the world in black and white...and women were on the dark side, not to be trusted. So when eternal optimist Maddy O'Hurley whirled into his life, bringing color and laughter, he was instantly suspicious. After all, if he danced to her tune, began believing in miracles, wouldn't he ultimately have to pay the piper...?
Funny, when I read the first book in the series, The Last Honest Woman, I thought the setting in the horse farm in Virginia would have felt current today, but the actual story felt dated. It was exactly the opposite with DTTP: the romance feels perfectly fresh and new, while the setting feels distinctly, well, 80's. Which, BTW, is totally not a problem for me. A B+.

It's a simple story. The middle O'Hurley triplet, Maddy, is well on her way to becoming a Broadway star. After years of hard work, of being a "gypsy" and auditioning and auditioning and being on the chorus and playing small parts, and then even playing the lead in a very successful play, Maddy is about to get an even bigger break. She was cast as the lead in a promising new musical, which she's just sure will make it even bigger than her last one.

So promising is this new musical, that Valentine Records has arranged to finance it in exchange of getting the exclusive rights to the cast album (sorry if the theatrical terms are wrong, I don't have the book in front of me right now!). When Maddy and CEO Reed Valentine meet, the attraction is immediate on both sides, but only Maddy is ready to do something about it. Reed, like seemingly all the other men in this series, was hurt by a woman in the past and so he doesn't want to love (yadda, yadda, yadda). His attraction to Maddy being so strong, Reed doesn't want to risk it going anywhere. But he didn't count on Maddy's persistence!

I loved, loved, loved Maddy. I loved her cheerfulness and optimism and refusal to play silly games with Reed. She's intrigued by Reed and sees that he reciprocates those feelings, so when he doesn't pursue her, Maddy simply goes after him herself. And she does it with no coyness at all; she puts everything out there. I thought Nora struck the perfect balance between persistence and openness and a healthy sense of self-preservation. Maddy continues to make overtures when Reed blows hot and cold, but she also is afraid of putting herself a little bit too much out there with him.

I have to say, though, Maddy's day-to-day routine just exhausted me! Man, the woman was an insanely hard worker and amazingly disciplined! Well, I can't say I'm surprised, as so many of Nora's heroines are. Maybe it comes from being written by an author who publishes so many books a year and who must have an incredibly tough work ethic herself to do it. *g*

Anyway, continuing with the book, Reed was nice, but I'd say his motivation was the weakest point in the book. The whole thing about how his mother had hurt his father, and this meant he'd never put himself in a position of letting a woman hurt him (i.e. he'd never care enough to actually be hurt), was a bit eh. The good thing was that this idiocy of his doesn't mean that he thinks badly of Maddy, or treats her like crap. What he does is simply try his best to keep his distance, and fail. And that was just incredibly satisfying to see! I just loved to see the dignified, somewhat straightlaced Reed reacting to the impulsive Maddy.

The setting was great, and really added to the romance. We've got Manhattan here, the Broadway scene 20 years ago, and the atmosphere is fantastic. I know nothing about musicals, so all the little details about the work involved in putting on a musical was fascinating to me.

This one was a winner, and I hope the next one is, too. At least I quite liked Chantel in her scenes here, when she visited Maddy!


The Last Honest Woman, by Nora Roberts (O'Hurleys! #1)

>> Monday, November 06, 2006

jmc's post about reading older Nora Roberts category romances had me picking up a series called The O'Hurleys! (not my !... that's the actual title of the series: "The O'Hurleys!"), a series I remembered nothing about.

I had the impression I'd bought it and never got to it, but the first one, The Last Honest Woman, is marked down in one of the very early versions of my spreadsheet as read back in 2000. I rated it a B, too.

When Dylan Crosby came to grill Abigail O'Hurley Rockwell about her infamous late husband, he expected cool white mink, icy diamonds. What he got was dusty dungarees and womanly warmth. Why would socialite Abby pretend to be a hardworking country mom? Worse, why did he believe her loving lies?
Well, whether I read it or not, I remembered not a word of it. And I liked it a bit less than I did in 2000. Maybe back then everything felt newer and fresher, but reading it now, a good part of the plot struck me as tired and dated. Still, it's a Nora Roberts, after all, and so there are also plenty of very nice bits. A B-.

In essence, this is the very old-fashioned story 90% of category romance and many single titles used to be about: man who was hurt by an ex who was a money-hungry mercenary/was a heartless career woman/didn't want children/all the the above, meets a woman he thinks is the same as his ex, and is seduced by her innocence and goodness.

Abby Rockwell is one of the O'Hurley triplets, daughters of itinerant entertainers Frank and Molly O'Hurley. When she was just 18, superstar racecar driver Chuck Rockwell fell madly in love with her and swept her off her feet. She did the glamourous racing circuit with him for a while, but when her first child was born she settled in Virginia, while her husband continued racing, and reportedly became quite a playboy. Until he died, a few years before the start of the book, that is.

Dylan Crosby is a writer of authorized celebrity bios, and when Abby Rockwell finally gives her permission and promises her cooperation for a biography of her husband, he's the man chosen by the publishers to write it. Having already done plenty of preliminary investigation, Dylan goes to Virginia to spend a few weeks working with Abby with some very set ideas in his mind. He expects a spoiled, pampered woman, one who married her husband for money and then abandoned him and left him alone in the circuit. Dylan has an image of Abby stuck in his mind, a photo of her in Monte Carlo wearing mink and diamonds, and that's who he's expecting to find.

He gets a surprise when he gets to Abby's ranch. Rather than pretty land and a huge house, with plenty of servants and maybe a couple of horses, he finds a homey but modest house, what seems to be a working horse ranch and no servants at all. The working ranch seems to be worked mainly by Abby, who, far from the picture of luxury Dylan expected, seems to be a hardworking and excellent mother. Dylan is at first convinced that this is just a facade, one planned to make him sympathetic to Abby and lull him into writing her into a saint, but he soon begins to realize that the picture in his mind might not exactly correspond to the truth.

It all develops in exactly the way anyone who read series romance in the 80s would expect it to develop. Dylan is a judgemental asshole at first and keeps being insulted. Self-sacrificing Abby takes it and takes it and takes it, and for a long while refuses to reveal just what a total bastard her husband was. When the truth comes out about Abby's marriage and about just how broke she is, despite her husband family's millions, Dylan feels suitably chastised.

But... this is Nora Roberts, so she makes even this tedious plot better than average. In between the dreary plot, there are many funny, sweet and emotional moments. What I loved best here was Abby and her kids. Abby isn't as much of a martyr as most authors would have made her. I especially appreciated that her reasons for wanting Chuck's worst abuses secret made sense and weren't just about preserving the name of someone who didn't deserve it. The scene in which Dylan finds out about this put a knot in my stomach (which is exactly what I mean when I say the many wonderful moments make up for the boring plot).

Oh, and the kids! I usually cannot stand children in romance novels, and at best just tolerate them, but these two? Adorable, and in a really good way. I wanted to hug them and kiss them. So weird!


Breaking Point, by Suzanne Brockmann

>> Friday, November 03, 2006

Suzanne Brockmann's Breaking Point finally gives us a conclusion to the story of Max and Gina, who we met in book # 3 of the Troubleshooters series, Over The Edge. Breaking Point is book # 9, so I guess you could say their story was stretched out quite a bit!

As commander of the nation's most elite FBI counterterrorism unit, agent Max Bhagat leads by hard-driving example: pushing himself to the limit and beyond, taking no excuses, and putting absolutely nothing ahead of his work. That includes his deep feelings for Gina Vitagliano, the woman who won his admiration and his heart with her courage under fire. But when the shocking news reaches him that Gina has been killed in a terrorist bombing, nothing can keep Max from making a full investigation—and retribution—his top priority.

At the scene of the attack, however, Max gets an even bigger shock. Gina is still very much alive—but facing a fate even worse than death. Along with Molly Anderson, a fellow overseas relief worker, Gina has fallen into the hands of a killer who is bent on using both women to bait a deadly trap. His quarry? Grady Morant, a.k.a "Jones," a notorious ex-Special Forces operative turned smuggler who made some very deadly enemies in the jungles of Southeast Asia . . . and has been running ever since. But with Molly's life on the line, Jones is willing to forfeit his own to save the woman he loves.

Together with Max's top agent Jules Cassidy as their only backup, the unlikely allies plunge into a global hot zone of violence and corruption to make a deal with the devil. Not even Jones knows which ghosts from his past want him dead. But there's one thing he's sure of--there's very little his bloodthirsty enemies aren't willing to do.
When Gone Too Far, Sam and Alyssa's book, came out, I fell on it the minute it got here and practically devoured it. I'd been anxiously waiting for it for months. I get the feeling Brockmann was trying to make Max and Gina the new Sam and Alyssa, but that never really gelled for me. I was able to wait for the pb of Breaking Point without much trouble, and I even took a while to start it once I got it. I guess this couple kind of lost me with all the back and forth and back and forth and back again and forth again they did in Gone Too Far.

Well, no matter. I loved their book anyway. Just what is it with Brockmann that she can make me love everything she writes? What happened to me with this book was kind of weird, actually. While I read it and right after I finished it, I was thinking well, it's nice enough, nothing spectacular but nice. But now that I've started writing my review, I've come to realize that I enjoyed it a lot more than a simply "nice" book would warrant. I keep thinking of things I thought were wonderfully done and about great bits of character development. I was originally thinking a B when I first started writing, but I'm going to go with a B+ now.

Brockmann's books in this series are well known for the way the focus jumps between different storylines. This is not exactly the case in BP (we've got only a main storyline and a secondary, which for the most part develops right along the primary), but the first half of the book certainly has a similar feel to the series earlier books.

What Brockmann does here is jump around in time, rather than between stories. Some of the chapters are from the present day, when Max receives the news that Gina has died in a terrorist bombing in Germany and goes to recover the body, receiving a huge shock when he realizes the body with Gina's ID isn't Gina, and that she's probably still alive somewhere.

We also get chapters from a few months before that, set in the AIDS camp in Kenya, where Gina went after she left Max. In those chapters, we mostly see the secondary storyline, which features our old friends Molly and Jones, from Out of Control. We see Jones show up under a fake name and be reunited with Molly after many years apart, with Gina looking on and helping.

Finally, we get chapters from about a year before that, when Max is recovering from being shot (in Gone Too Far, if I remember correctly), and finally succeeds in driving Gina away, after some abortive starts to a relationship.

It took a bit to get used to, but when at around the halfway point the jumping around stopped and we stuck with the present day action, which quickly turned into a kidnapping and rescue (turns out someone has taken Gina and Molly to try and trade them for Jones, and Max, Jones and Jules go after them alone, because all the SEALs and the people from Troubleshooters are busy foiling a huge terrorist plot), I realized I had been actually enjoying it very much.

I especially loved the bits in the recovery centre, with Gina vigorously pursuing Max (and when I say vigorously, I mean it. The pursuing she did in GTF is nothing compared to the way she went after him here) and Max resisting. The main reason Max and Gina's story tired me in GTF was that I wanted to slap Max, because I just didn't understand why he was resisting so much. It felt like stupid, forced conflict. Well, here Brockmann made me understand Max and where exactly those reactions were coming from, and it made sense. Kind of with Sam and Alyssa's story... I never understood Sam's insistence on marrying Mary Lou until I saw his history in GTF.

When we get to the point when the story continues all in the present day, the tone changes a bit and the book turns into a more action-driven story. For a while this bored me (as well as Brockmann writes breakneck-speed action, it's just not something I enjoy), but that was just a short section. When our two couples get trapped inside a bunker-type building and under siege, there are plenty of the mushy parts and character development I prefer. The way Max and Gina finally, finally get together completely almost put tears in my eyes.

In the best Brockmann tradition, the secondary storyline was great, too. I had loved Molly and Jones in OOC, and I enjoyed seeing their relationship get somewhere. Jones is one of Brockmann's best characters, IMO, and his history is fascinating stuff. And Molly is great. I especially loved how she is, as Brockmann puts it, a crunchy-granola Unicef mama woman, and this is still incredibly sexy to the younger Jones.

Interestingly, I thought the story's weak point was Jules. I love Jules, and his is the story I most want Brockmann to write, but the Jules here wasn't the Jules I know and love. Yes, the man was never afraid to show his gayness in public, but here he didn't sound gay, he sounded like my great-aunt, with the way he called everyone "sweetie". I also thought most of the touchy-feely stuff he kept spouting was completely inappropriate. There was one conversation with Max, especially, when they were keeping watch on the house in Indonesia where Gina and Molly were being kept prisoners, that was surreal, with the guy going on about Max having to give permission to his inner child to come out and play and crap like that. WTF?

The good part about having waited so long for this book is that the next one, Into the Storm is already out. Thanks to the 100% micropay rebate at Fictionwise, it's already in my virtual TBR, so I might read it soon. I'm interested in seeing where Brockmann is going now. This one felt almost like an ending to the original Troubleshooters' series.


Shadow Touch, by Marjorie M. Liu

>> Wednesday, November 01, 2006

After reading the wonderful Tiger Eye, I immediately grabbed the other Marjorie M. Liu book I had in my TBR: Shadow Touch (excerpt, extras).

Elena Baxter can work miracles with her hands. She can coax bones to knit, flesh to heal. She can mend the mind. She has been doing such work for almost all of her twenty-eight years. That is why she will be taken.

The media called it a rampage of terror, the recent murders. But fighting crime is why Artur Loginov joined Dirk & Steele. The international detective agency specializes in the impossible, and their creed is simple: Help those in need, no matter how difficult, and no matter what, keep the secret safe. For the agency helps its employees, too; people like Artur -- the gifted, the tormented. Dirk & Steele gave the Russian émigré purpose, protection, community...and refuge from his past, for who can trust a man who can start a fire with his mind, or shape-shift, or read others' thoughts as easily as drawing breath? For his similar talent, Artur will be taken.

Into the darkness Elena and Artur will be drawn, into the clutches of evil. Cornered, isolated, caged, they will fight for their very souls. But salvation awaits. it exists in a form least expected: a dream of a face, a brush of a mind, the hint of a kiss, and finally, at long last, a shadow touch.
Shadow Touch was quieter and gloomier than Tiger Eye, but it was almost as good. A B+.

If you've read TI, you'll probably remember Artur Loginov, the former Russian mafiya assassin, now a member of Dirk & Steele, whose particular talent is a type of psychometry. Artur can "read" any object that he touches, something very useful for his agency. Unfortunately, such a talent would also be useful for other, less scrupulous individuals, and as ST starts, Artur is kidnapped by an organization called the Consortium, who want him to work for them. He refuses, but he's locked up in their interrogation facility / lab, where his captors will do their best to break him.

But Artur's not the only psychically gifted person held in the facility. He soon runs across Elena Baxter, a young woman who can use her hands and mind to heal any sickness, even the most deadly, a talent the wheelchair-bound boss of the Consortium is very interested in. And while Elena and Artur are not often in physical contact, they manage to establish a bond that will help them through their captivity, and even escape.

ST has two very distinct halves, each of which was excellent, for different reasons.

The first half, with Artur and Elena in this shadowy facility, being tortured mentally and physically and experimented upon, was among the creepiest, most disturbing things I've ever read in a romance novel. It would have been difficult enough to read on its own, but I had just been reading a series of articles on the "disappeared" from my country and Argentina's military dictatorships, including accounts of people's experiences in an infamous torture centre. Reading ST right after that probably increased the creepiness a hundredfold, because certain elements had some uncomfortable paralellisms.

In this part, Artur and Elena's relationship progresses mainly through the mental bond they now share, and I loved the way Liu wrote this. She managed to create some very believable chemistry and attraction through this connection, as well as to make me believe that these two hurt, tortured people needed each other to heal.

The second part, once they get out of this facility, is different in tone, and becomes more of a road adventure romance. The escapees find themselves in... should I say? We only find out where we are half-way through the book, so it might qualify as a kind of spoiler. Bah, it's not much of a spoiler, and huge clues are plastered right on the cover, so... Russia! Elena and Artur find themselves in Vladivostok, on Russia's Eastern tip (map), from where they're going to need to get to Moscow to foil the Consortium's evil plans. And they won't just need to escape their pursurers; there's also the risk that Artur's past will catch up with him.

Liu does adventure wonderfully, making it fast-paced but still giving us enough quiet moments for the romance to develop believably. And I very much enjoyed the setting. Like the Beijing of Tiger Eye, Liu's Russia is a very vivid, well-drawn Russia. Even better: Vladivostok, the train and Moscow each have their own distinctive personalities.

The only negative I can mention in this book is certain aspects of the Consortium, especially the motivation behind it. There's a complicated explanation near the end about the Dirk & Steele's history and about the origin of Beatrix Weave's obsession, with an ominous portent of things to come, and I'm still not clear on exactly what that was all about. Maybe I'm stupid, maybe I was reading too fast, but I didn't understand. Oh, and another thing I didn't understand: just what was Rictor? Should I have figured it out from what is said in the book? Because I didn't...

Eh, well, I'm probably going to find out more in the next books in the series. So far only a single title (Red Heart of Jade) and a short story (in Dark Dreamers) are out, and I hope I can get to them soon.


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