Finding Mary Blaine, by Jodi Thomas

>> Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Finding Mary Blaine has been in my TBR for a couple of years already, and it's by an author I hadn't read before, Jodi Thomas. So double points for me!

Prominent Attorney's Wife Killed in Bombing!

The morning's newspaper headline leaves Blaine Anderson reeling. Only a few hours ago she'd dragged herself dazed and bleeding from the smoking rubble, but it might as well been a lifetime ago - - because now the world believes she is dead.

Before Blaine can reach her husband, the bomber strikes again. With terrifying clarity she realizes he's bent on wiping out the witnesses to his crime - - and she's one of them. Without money and ID she becomes Mary Blaine, hiding in a homeless shelter, knowing it's too dangerous to go home.

Meanwhile, her husband, Mark, realizes his carefully managed life is beginning to crumble. After years of taking Blaine for granted, he finally grasps how nothing -not even a promising career in politics- is worth it without her by his side. Desperately he searches for anyone who was with Blaine just prior to the blast. But instead he finds something -someone- much more important.
An intriguing story, and one that had me turning the pages, but some problems in execution keep me from giving this the excellent grade I was hoping for when I started it. A B-.

Blaine and Mark Anderson's marriage isn't a passionate one. They've been married for ten years, and it was like this from the very beginning. Blaine loves her husband and knows her husband is fond of her, but their relationship was never about being madly in love. When Blaine suspects she's pregnant, she gets worried, because she knows Mark won't be happy about it. Before doing anything, though, she wants confirmation, so she goes to a downtown clinic to get some tests done.

But before she gets any answers, the clinic gets bombed and Blaine barely manages to crawl out of the wreckage, only to go unconscious in a nearby alley. When she emerges, it's to discover everyone thinks she's been killed. The first thing she does is to go to her husband's office, trying to find him, but before she can do so, she overhears a conversation which makes it clear that if it becomes known that she's still alive, Mark will be in danger.

Obviously, Blaine can't very well go home or approach Mark in public. She decides to stay away until things become clearer, and until the police capture the people responsible for the bombing, and considering she has no money on her and her scratched face, matted hair and ragged clothing make her look like a homeless person, the only option she has is to actually hide out among the homeless.

Meanwhile, Mark is discovering that his wife meant much more to him than he would have thought. With Blaine missing, Mark realizes that he's been taking her for granted, and that he should have taken the time to get to know her. So when details emerge that make him suspect that Blaine might have survived the bombing, Mark will do his best to find her.

The best thing in FMB is the change and growth in the characters and in their romance, even if they're apart throughout most of the book. Blaine starts out as a somewhat wimpy, completely boring person. After a childhood full of rejection, she made herself into a "perfect attorney's wife" persona as a defense mechanism. Only her interest in volunteering with the underpriviledged keeps her from being completely shallow. As for Mark, his childhood was as bad as Blaine's, but his response was to channel all his energies into work, even if this meant completely neglecting his wife. Not that she seems to care much. At the start of the book, Mark and Blaine are practically polite strangers to each other.

But as they spend time apart, they each discover their strengths. Blaine brings out the warrior inside her and learns to survive on her own, while Mark finally realizes that he's been missing out on a lot by being so disinterested, not just in his wife but on the other people around him. And it must be hard to pull off, but Thomas manages to make the relationship between these two grow stronger while they are apart, just as they are growing stronger themselves.

But I mentioned some execution problems, didn't I? The first thing was something that was pretty frustrating, and it was that it never felt to me as if Blaine made that much of an effort to contact Mark. All right, so she was afraid to endanger him, so she couldn't approach him openly, but obviously, given that she tried to phone him a few times, and even left him messages on his lost cellphone, her plan wasn't to keep him thinking she was dead, so that he'd be safer.

And if she really did want to contact him, there were too many options she didn't explore. All she did was call periodically (and not that frequently, either, even when she could have); she didn't really try to intercept him, she didn't try to get someone to give him a message, even when she got friends like Miller and the doc and Mrs. B who could have done it for her without raising much suspicion. In fact, she didn't do a thousand things she could have done to let him know that his wife was all right.

The only reason I can think for this is one that probably explains part of it, but not all, and which is what made much of this story so poignant. Blaine just didn't really feel that Mark would care all that much about her death. To put it simply, considering what their relationship had turned into over the years (and what it had been from the very beginning, really), to Blaine's mind, she wasn't much more than a convenience for Mark. She never would have guessed that he'd be so destroyed by her death, so she wasn't thinking along the lines of "Oh, how Mark must be suffering, thinking I'm dead! I need to let him know I'm alive ASAP, so that he stops suffering".

And to be honest, after reading what their marriage had been like, both from Blaine's and from Mark's POV, neither would I. And yet, Mark's increasing realization of his feelings for Blaine, and of how he'd been taking her for granted, it all rang true, and the poor guy really broke my heart.

Another problem was the Clark Kent/Superman thing. I just didn't buy Blaine would change so much with some small, cosmetic changes. Plus, there's something a bit illogical here: the bomber runs across her by chance in a crowded room and recognizes her, even when he thinks his victim is dead and he isn't expecting to see her, while Mark, looking at a woman closely, trying to decide if she's his wife or not, doesn't? And he doesn't because she's put on a bit of weight, changed her hair-style and colour and is wearing glasses? That strains my credulity.

An even bigger problem was that I thought Thomas screwed up the big moment in which Mark and Blaine meet again. All the book I was anxiously awaiting the moment in which Mark finally has his wife before him and they talk, the moment in which he can finally let her know what her disappearance did to him and how he feels about her. However, when it comes, Thomas pretty much bangs the door in my face. Mark realizes Mary is, in fact, Blaine and the next thing we know, it's the day after. There are some indications that they did talk more after Mark told Blaine he knew who she was (Mark thinks about how he and Blaine agreed to stay separated to stay safe, etc), but we just didn't see that conversation, and furthermore, there are no indications that they talked about anything more than very prosaic plans. Absolutely no talk about how much Mark has missed her, etc., etc.,

Even later, when they meet again, that conversation never happens. Yes, it does become clear that Mark's feelings are not the cool ones Blaine had thought, and that Blaine has become a different, much stronger woman, but we never get that emotionally satisfying conversation I was hoping for.

Eh, well. Even with those annoyances, this was a book I mostly enjoyed. There are some very interesting things here, and Thomas is an author I'd be willing to read more from.


Love Vs. Illusion, by MJ Rodgers

>> Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Love Vs. Illusion is the fourth book in MJ Rodgers' Justice Inc. series, coming after Beauty Vs. The Beast, Baby Vs. The Bar and Heart Vs. Humbug.

She was on the fantasy ride of a lifetime

When her brother is betrayed by his own client, it's up to A.J., Justice Inc.'s ace investigator, to prove his innocence. But to do that, A.J. will have to live out another woman's fantasies.with Zane Coltrane, her sinfully sexy competitor, coming along for the ride.

And Zane has his own special reasons for going undercover at the ultrasecret island kingdom of Fabulous Fantasies, a theme park that promises its patrons fulfillment of their every fantasy.

But these two seasoned private investigators are about to learn that living someone else's fantasies can be a pretty risky business.especially when desire and danger become part of the program.
I'm giving Love Vs. Illusion a C+, but it's not a mediocre book. This C+ is all about the sucky ending, which ruined what was, up until the very end, a very good book.

Private Investigator AJ Justice's brother, Adam, is the founder of Justice Inc., the law firm featured in all the books in this series. Adam and AJ are very close, so when Adam is found to be in contempt of the court in a case he's trying, and sent to jail, it falls to AJ to find the true facts of the case in order to get him out.

Problem is, the information that would keep Adam out of jail falls under the confidential attorney-client relationship, so even though it's his very client who is causing all the trouble, Adam can't make the truth clear. This means AJ will have to investigate the whole thing blind, not really knowing what she's looking for. She decides to infiltrate the client's Virtual Reality theme park, Fabulous Fantasies. But her mission doesn't go as planned when she realizes rival PI Zane Coltrane is following on her footsteps, and means to work with her on the case, whether she wants it or not.

This series is all mystery romance, and in general, the mysteries have been much stronger than the romances, and this one is the most interesting yet. To make a long story short, Adam is defending the owner of the VR firm against allegations made by two abandoned husbands. The men say that their wives abandoned them for no reason after spending a weekend at Fabulous Fantasies, and so they claim that they were somehow brainwashed there.

AJ's first impression is that it's just a nonsense case, but after all that happens with Adam, she starts wondering, and so she decides to try out these VR services herself, going in undercover. I had a blast reading about AJ's adventures in VR, even as they start getting more and more ominous. I did have some doubts from the start about whether VR, at least as described here, would even be possible (my impression? no way, and probably not even in the near future), but I was easily able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

So I enjoyed this, and I also enjoyed the way AJ and Zane went about investigating what was going on. The steps they took made sense, and their discoveries were very, very interesting.

Also good news is that in L Vs I, unlike in the other books in the series, the romance is quite strong, too. Not as much as the mystery, but still pretty good. AJ and Zane have a lot of chemistry, and I bought their relationship without much trouble.

So there I was, smiling as I headed into the epilogue, because it had been a fun book, when wham!. I can see what Rodgers was trying to do, I guess. She was probably wanting to do some kind of unexpected, ingenious twist, but the thing is, though unexpected, yes, it was not ingenious in the least. And not original, either, just a variation of a clichéd soap opera plot device. In any case, it completely ruined the HEA for me.

For those of you curious about what I'm talking about, here's a spoiler: [[It turns out it was all a dream... a VR dream. There was no case, Adam wasn't in trouble, AJ and Zane didn't infiltrate Fabulous Fantasies, and they didn't fall in love, either. It all happened in AJ's mind, as she was recovering from an injury, and she'd been doing a VR session to get her mind off the pain. Gah!]]


Circle Trilogy, by Nora Roberts

>> Monday, January 29, 2007

I made it! When I saw early last year that Nora Roberts would be having a new trilogy out in three consecutive months, I promised myself that I'd wait until I had them all before I started reading. It was hard, especially because I didn't wait to order each book, so first Morrigan's Cross and then Dance of the Gods had weeks to do their siren's call from my bedside table, but I managed to resist.

Morrigan's Cross

In the last days of high summer, with lightning striking blue in a black sky, the sorcerer stood on a high cliff overlooking the raging sea...

Belting out his grief into the storm, Hoyt Mac Cionaoith rails against the evil that has torn his twin brother from their family's embrace. Her name is Lilith. Existing for thousands of years, she has lured countless men to an immortal doom with her soul-stealing kiss. But now, this woman known as vampire will stop at nothing until she rules this world—and those beyond it...

Hoyt is no match for the dark siren. But his powers come from the goddess Morrigan, and it is through her that he will get his chance at vengeance. At Morrigan's charge, he must gather five others to form a ring of power strong enough to overcome Lilith. A circle of six: himself, the witch, the warrior, the scholar, the one of many forms, and the one he's lost. And it is in this circle, hundreds of years in the future, where Hoyt will learn how strong his spirit—and his heart—have become...

.With one vampire determined to rule the earth, the Circle of Six prepares to battle for their lives-and their hearts.

Valley of Silence

The battleground has been chosen for the final showdown between those selected by the gods and the minions of the vampire Lilith. But there is one vampire who dares stand against her. And his love for the scholarly queen of Geall will complete the circle of six—and change the face of eternity.

I'm very glad I was strong and resisted, because this trilogy reads very much like a 1000-page book in three volumes. There is a sense of closure to the romance in each of them, but the bigger story, the good vs. evil battle, doesn't reach any kind of climax until book 3. And even the romance doesn't stand alone completely. I mean, the one in book 1 does, but the one in book 3 has quite a bit of development in the first two books.

I'm just mentioning this to warn potential readers not to start in the middle of the trilogy, not because this hampered my enjoyment of the trilogy in the least. Reading the books in the way I did, one right after the other, and having them be so closely related was wonderful. My grade for the entire trilogy is a B+.

In 12th century Ireland, evil vampire Lilith turns Cian MacCionaoith into one of her creatures. After a confrontation with them both, Cian's mourning twin brother Hoyt, a powerful sorcerer, receives a visit from the goddess Morrigan. Morrigan has an important mission to entrust him: a battle will take place against Lilith, the most important battle ever to be fought. Every world ever created is at stake, not just this one, and the consequences will be dire, should Lilith triumph.

Morrigan wants Hoyt to travel some 900 hundred years into the future, to the time when the battle will happen, and gather five others into a Circle of six which will lead the forces of good. Cryptically, she tells him the identity of the other members of the circle will become clear, and that they will be the witch, the warrior, the scholar, the one of many forms, and the one Hoyt's lost. They'll have three months to prepare for the big battle, which will take place in Samhain, in a place called the Valley of Silence.

And this is what the trilogy is about, basically. In book 1, Morrigan's Cross, the Circle is gathered in 21st century Ireland, with its members slowly becoming clear, just as Morrigan promised. And while the members of the Circle get to know each other, assess their strengths and start planning what they will need to do in order to get ready in time for the battle, a romance flourishes between sorcerer Hoyt and with Glenna.

In book 2, the action moves to the world of Geall, where two of the members of the Circle come from and where the famous Valley of Silence is located. The focus here is on the preparation for the battle, and it's not just the members of the Circle that need to hone their skills. These six will lead an army, and all the people of Geall will need to be part of it, not just the trained soldiers. And also here, as the training continues, we get a very nice romance between shape-shifter Larkin, a native of Geall, and the warrior in the team, the kick-ass vampire slayer Blair.

Finally, book 3 takes us to the final battle and the very last preparations leading up to it. And as they get to the point of no return, the relationship between vampire Cian and the queen of Geall and scholar Moira, which had been full of sexual tension from the very beginning, develops into a seemingly hopeless love affair.

And of course, while all this happens and the battle gets closer, Lilith and the vampires are not just waiting quietly for the final fight. Throughout all the books, there are clashes between both sides, clashes which make it very clear to us readers that the consequences of a victory for Lilith's side would indeed be disastrous.

To be honest, the romances here are nowhere near the best NR has written. I enjoyed them, especially the one in the second book, which I think makes me the exception, because most other readers seemed to prefer Cian and Moira's. This was a surprise to me, actually, because when the relationship between Larkin and Blair started heating up I wasn't very excited about it at all, but they both (and especially Larkin, with his easygoing personality which hid some very interesting depths) won me over. Meanwhile, Cian and Moira, who I'd expected would have the most wonderful romance, were a bit disappointing, mostly because it felt to me as if things were settled between them almost before they got started.

I was saying, before I got side-tracked, that I enjoyed the romances, but they weren't at all what really made the books so wonderful. Reason Nº 1 I couldn't stop reading even for a second was the relationships between all six, not just the three couples. This is par for the course for me in NR trilogies. She is excellent at depicting friendship and comradeship and relationships between brothers and sisters, and this aspect was very strong in these books as well. I especially liked the rapprochement between Hoyt and Cian.

Reason Nº 2, which was a surprise to me, was the bigger plot. There's a lot of emphasis here on things that would ordinarily put me to sleep, like action and fight scenes, battles and battle strategy and scenes of evil-doing from our horrible villains. And yet... I couldn't get enough. They were wonderfully written and fascinating, and I was captivated by the huge feel of the story, the enormous scope of it and the very life-or-death consequences their struggle would have.

Part of the reason this works so well is that Roberts has created some very scary villains here. The vampires are Evil, really Evil, with a capital E, as shown clearly by some scenes that literally made me queasy, and yet felt necessary and not at all intended for titillation. Lilith was spine-chillingly horrible, and her "son", Davey, was the creepiest thing I've seen in some time.

Next to them, the humanity of the Circle and their followers is even clearer, especially Cian's, vampire as he is. I also liked that it is acknowledged that many of the Circle members and of the people who will make up the army that will fight Lilith just aren't ready for such a fight at the beginning. The preparation is truly grueling, and so exhausting and complete that I was able to buy that they would, in the end, be ready to fight the powerful vampires.

Finally, with such a trilogy, with almost 1000 pages all leading up to one big scene, that scene had better give us the climax we've been waiting for. And it does. The battle is wonderfully written, with as big a scope as the story itself, but at the same time, with enough human detail to keep it from becoming impersonal. Just excellent.

Having loved all this so much, why not an A grade for the trilogy? Well, what keeps it from that is a problem I had with the very definite characterization of all vampires as "other", with no humanity at all. You do get a tiny glimpse, once of the idea that there still might be a tiny little bit of the regular child Davey in the evil child vampire Davey, but it's only a second. All the rest of the time, it's stressed that what the Circle is battling is not human, that they can't afford pity, or any kind of hesitation in destroying any vampire, however pitiful it might seem. There's even a scene in which one is taken prisoner alive, and when the interrogation (and I mean interrogation in the worst possible sense) is over, he's immediately executed, over Moira's instinctive protest. She's told it had to be done, and what possible purpose would be served by keeping him a prisoner, alive? It's not like he'll repent and become a good person.

Ok, I might have bought this because, yeah, it's Nora's world, and if she says that being evil is an inevitable consequence of being a vampire, well, she makes the rules for her world. But the thing is, we have Cian here showing us that a vampire can, indeed, not be evil. If Cian had the potential in him to, after centuries of hunting humans and killing them, become the good person we're seeing now, why not this vampire they've just interrogated? Or was there something special about Cian (other than simply being one of the heroes, I mean)? For that matter, just how was it that he became what we see now? That was never really explained. There's a throwaway "It was uncomfortable and awkward to live among them and do business with them and at the same time hunt them" explanation, but we never see how Cian moved from bloodthirsty vampire who couldn't think of much more than to kill and feed to someone who'd be cool enough to actually engage in business with humans.

But that's it, really. This is a trilogy I'd recommend even to those who don't generally like paranormal but do like Nora Roberts characterization.


Banner's Bonus, by Carole Ann Lee

>> Friday, January 26, 2007

I think 2007 is going to be the year of the TBR. Already this month I've gone into its deepest depths and brought up books that had been there for years. This last weekend it was Banner's Bonus, by Carole Ann Lee.

Tressa Loring could think of much better ways to spend her time than traveling through space with an arrogant brute-especially one she had secretly adored for years. But duty forced her to journey with Nick Banner to a far-off world, even as desire led her to unknown realms of passion.

Banner's assignment was supposed to be simple: He had to keep his friend's daughter safe from kidnapping threats without letting her know she was in danger. The hard part for the dashing rogue was he had vowed not to lay a hand on his headstrong passenger.

If he succeeded, a fortune would be his reward. If he failed, a love without end would be...
There's been a lot of talk about DNF reads lately, with Kristie posting her RTB column about INYIM (It's Not You, It's Me) DNF reads and Janine from DearAuthor posting about how sometimes a DNF isn't really a book that's so bad you couldn't be bothered to finish. My Banner's Bonus' DNF was a mix of the two.

I love romances in which the hero and heroine spend a long time together in a spaceship (or the hero and hero, as in Vaughan's Off World), so the set-up of this book had me rubbing my hands with glee. Jonathan Loring (who I suspect must be the hero of an earlier book of this author's) has received an anonymous note warning him that there's a plan afoot to kidnap his daughter, Tressa. He doesn't want to scare Tressa, so he devices a plan to get her out of danger without actually telling her she's in danger. He asks his friend, Nick, who captains a ship of his own, to take her with him on a run and stash her somewhere safe. Tressa, meanwhile, will be told she needs to go because her security clearance is necessary for a made-up mission Nick is undertaking for Jonathan.

So far so good, although I was a bit worried about how young Tressa seems. But ok, I thought. They'll be together in the spaceship, and it's a tiny one, so oh, good, I'm looking forward to some nice sexual tension. Well, I didn't get it. In the 150 pages I managed to read, all I've got is Tressa acting feisty and Nick behaving like an asshole for no reason. The only remotely sexual scene was one in which Tressa is drugged and she starts telling Nick how attractive he is, and this scene just felt silly and embarrassing, not sexy.

I guess I've changed. A few years ago, I would have liked this well enough, maybe even loved it, but today? I'm just disappointed at how annoyingly feisty Tressa is and at how shallow the characterization seems. At this point, continuing to read feels like a chore.

Add to this two more factors:

a) This is a long book. At over 400 pages, and not particularly gripping pages, either, it would have taken me a while to finish it.

b) My reading time just got a lot more valuable to me. When I leave in a few months, I won't be able to take my physical TBR with me (thank heavens for ebooks!), and I want to read as many of the books there as I can. It's just not acceptable anymore to spend a few days struggling with a book, when I could be using that time to discover hidden gems still lurking in my TBR.

... and I'm done!


Then Came You, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The same thing I said yesterday in my intro goes for this one: I read (or rather, reread) Then Came You, by Lisa Kleypas back in November, so my apologies for the review, which might turn out a bit lean.

Reckless and wild, beautiful Lily Lawson delights in shocking proper London society -- and will break any rule to flaunt her independence. And now she is determined to rescue her helpless sister from an upcoming, undesired marriage to Lord Alex Raiford, the arrogant Earl of Wolverton.

Through fair means and foul, the headstrong hellion succeeds outrageously -- but her handsome adversary is not to be outdone. A master gamesman, Lord Alex counters Lily's scorn with kindness, and parries her blistering barbs with gentle words and a soft, sensuous touch. For he has resolved to make the spirited miss pay dearly for her interference -- with her body, her soul...and her stubborn, unyielding heart.
This is a lovely story today, and I believe it probably was even more fresh and different back in 1993, when it was written. This is my second favourite Kleypas, after Suddenly You. A B+.

Lawless Lily Lawson is well-known throughout London for her wild, outrageous behaviour and her supposed affair with a cockney game-hell owner. Though she's managed to cling to the fringes of polite society, her bad reputation keeps her estranged from her family. Still, when Lily hears of her sister's upcoming marriage, she's determined not to let her make an unhappy match, especially after she meets the prospective bridegroom and judges him a rigid, arrogant cold fish.

Lord Alex Raiford, the bridegroom in question, isn't particularly taken with his future bride. She'll do just as well as any other eligible girl, as far as he's concerned, but he'll be damned if he'll let her disturbingly sexy sister alter his plans. But she does, and when Alex finds out what Lily's done, there will be hell to pay.

The reason TCY was so fresh back in the mid '90s then wasn't just because of the heroine, a "wicked" woman with a bad reputation (but who turns out to be virtuous and almost completely sexually inexperienced, of course, even though she's an unwed mother). No, the reason I was so wowed by it on my first read was because of the hero.

Yes, Alex initially behaves a bit like those alpha assholes of old: arrogant and with a huge sense of entitlement, he simply cannot bear to have his plans thwarted by the heroine, even if he's privately relieved that she did. He must punish her and humiliate her publicly. Par for the course for those bastards.

But then Alex does something novel: he falls for Lily like a ton of bricks, and then treats her kindly! Incredible! He perceives that she's hurt inside and that she has a secret that is at the root of her impetuous and reckless behaviour, and not only doesn't he bully her into submission, he supports her and trusts her and shows her he cares, hoping at some point in the future she'll love him and trust him enough to tell him. I loved, loved, loved this whole part of the book.

Also of interest here: the gamehell owner I mentioned above, the one who's supposed to be Lily's lover? That's none other than Derek Craven, hero of most people's favourite Kleypas, Dreaming of You. Derek is the best type of secondary character. Kleypas clearly did't set out to sequel-bait with him. He's simply a regular secondary character who just happened to turn out to be fascinating. Maybe someone else will know, but I suspect Kleypas didn't create him with the intention of turning him into a hero later on, and it shows.


Spellbound, by Kathleen Nance

>> Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another read from way back in November, so please forgive me if this review is a bit meager: Spellbound, by Kathleen Nance.

As the Minstrel of Kaf, Zayne kept the land of the djinn in harmony. Yet lately, raging desires and unquenchable yearnings were throwing his life into discord and wreaking havoc on his home. He needed a woman to restore balance to his life, a woman with whom he could blend his voice and his body. And according to his destiny, this soul mate could only be found in the strange land of Earth.

Madeline knew to expect a guest while house-sitting for her eccentric neighbor. However, she hadn't expected the man would be so sexy, so potent, so fascinated by the doorbell. Zayne may have been a disaster with modern amenities, but he certainly knew what made her tick. With one soul-stirring kiss, she saw colorful sparks dancing on the air. But Madeline wanted to make sure her handsome djinni wouldn't pull a disappearing act before she could allow herself to become utterly . . . Spellbound.
This one is (I think) book 4 in Nance's Djinn series, dealing with genie-like beings from the planet Kaf, existing in a kind of alternate universe from Earth. I've read one so far, the very fun More Than Magic. This was just as fun: a B.

Hero Zayne is the Minstrel of Kaf, charged with keeping the harmony on his planet through his music. When he starts losing control of it, he resorts to a spell to help him find his mate, who will supposedly help balance him. The spell shows him Madeline Fairbanks, a woman from Terra (Earth, that is). Zayne has reservations, but he finally goes find her.

Madeline is a woman on a mission. Her catastrophic stage-fright has almost made her lose her job, and she needs to find her former stepfather to keep it (don't ask). When she meets Zayne and finds out he's a djinn, she's at first nervous of him, but when it turns out he needs to find her stepfather, too (he somehow seems to be related to the strange magic that is disturbing his music), they team up.

The humour was one of the things I loved best. I enjoyed how Nance played Zayne's fish-out-of-water circumstances, not making it ridiculous or slapstick, but making it hilarious anyway. For once, the back cover copy does convey the tone of the story: However, she hadn't expected the man would be so sexy, so potent, so fascinated by the doorbell.. That's the kind of humour we have here, and it made me laugh.

I also thought there was very nice chemistry between Madeline and Zayne. The book is not particularly erotic, but I thought these two clicked very nicely, and their scenes are enjoyable. I especially liked the way Zayne was able to let go his preconceived ideas of what his zaniya (wife) should be like and accepted Madeline for who she was.

The plot was pretty interesting, even if it did feel a bit insubstantial in the first sections. It actually turned out to be something pretty dark (so the humour I mentioned above was very a necessary element), and I especially enjoyed the final confrontation, and the scenes that result from it, when Madeline goes all out to fight for Zayne.

Spellbound isn't a perfect, wonderful book, but as all of Nance's stories that I've read, it's solidly enjoyable and very, very readable. This author is a true buried treasure.


A Regency Christmas Carol anthology

>> Monday, January 22, 2007

Yeah, I know, it's the middle of January, what am I doing readig a Christmas anthology now? Haven't I just finished OD'ing on Christmassy stuff. Well, what can I say, I'm weird!

The A Regency Christmas Carol anthology was one I bought on the strength of two of the authors: Mary Balogh and Carla Kelly usually do great short stories. As the title indicates, this one's built around a musical theme, and each of the stories features Christmas music in some way.

The Bond Street Carolers, by Mary Balogh was first in the anthology, so I didn't have to feel guilty for reading the Balogh first ;-)

A London street choir brings together a nobleman who dislikes Christmas with a pretty widow who can melt his icy heart.
The hero is an arrogant, icy-cold baron who is captivated by the heroine's son's voice when he hears him sing in a street choir. The heroine is a respectable widow, who is determined to resist him and his plans for her son.

I loved the hero's thawing. That was beautifully written and very poignant, especially his interactions with the heroine's daughter, who was surprisingly adorable. What wasn't so good was the romance. I just didn't see Heath falling in love with Fanny. With her daughter and son, yes, but with her, no way. Fortunately, the rest was good enough to make me rate this a B.

Next came The Earl's Nightingale, by Edith Layton. Layton is a newish author to me. I did read one of her full-length historicals, but though it was nice enough, I haven't been motivated to read anything else.

A lovely heroine pawns a music box, and begins an odyssey that takes her to a handsome earl's parlor... and into his heart
Like the Balogh, this was another story where the romance wasn't particularly convincing, and yet the whole thing was enjoyable anyway.

Eliza is an impoverished music teacher whose grandmother has just left her a music box, telling her that it will bring her happiness, and that as soon as it does, she should set it free. Christmas is coming, and Eliza desperately needs money (for the most romance novel heroine-like of reasons, don't worry. She wants to buy a good present for her brother, etc., etc.). So she pawns her music box, agreeing with the pawnshop owner that he will wait a week before he sells it from under her.

Of course, he doesn't. He sells it to a nobleman, who sends it as a gift to the woman he's been courting, who is angry that it isn't a ring and gets rid of it, giving it to a chambermaid, who.... you get the picture. The long and short of it is that when Eliza goes to retrieve it, well within the week agreed upon, it's not there anymore, and so she and the nobleman who first bought it (and who finds himself captivated by this young woman), embark on a mission to get it back.

As I said above, the romance was pretty meh. I never got too interested in neither the hero nor the heroine, and I disliked that a bland sort of "virtuousness" seemed to be her defining characteristic. However, I did like very much the music box's odyssey and the way it somehow managed to spread happiness into the hands of whoever found themselves their owner. A B-.

Elisabeth Fairchild was the only wholly new-to-me author in the anthology. Her The Mistletoe Kiss was the middle story.

The celebration of the Yuletide season helps a grieving governess to discover that Christmas can bring new hopes, new dreams, and perhaps even a new love.
This one just didn't succeed in engaging me in the story, and I actually had to skim to the end, because I got stuck mid-story and couldn't bring myself to read more than a couple of pages at a time. I thought it had potential, and I liked the idea of a more melancholy Christmas story, rather than the usual sappy, giddy happiness (the bell-ringing was very good in setting the tone and mood), but the characters never came alive at all -and neither did the story. A C-.

Carla Kelly's story came next, the delightfully titled Make a Joyful Noise.

In this joyful tale, a widower discovers an enchanting surprise in the Christmas choir: a mysterious Welsh lady.
The Marquess of Chard is a former soldier and now farmer who lives alone in Northumberland with his two children. His first marriage was an unhappy one, and he's very lonely. Until, that is, he meets his neighbours' widowed and pregnant daughter-in-law and tries to recruit her for the church choir.

This was my absolute favourite. The hero is one of Kelly's trademark kind, honourable men, and I thought he was to-die-for. We get the entire story narrated from his POV, and oh, how I loved being in his mind! Still, the only reason this wasn't an A was that the heroine remained a bit too much of a mystery at the end of the story. A B+.

Finally, Melody, by Anne Barbour. I've only read another short story by Barbour, and it was a bit blah, just ok.

An American finds himself in an English village, where a singer with the voice of an angel helps him find not only his tie with the past- but a future filled with love.
And that's exactly how I felt about this story about an American who's recently and unexpectedly come into a title, and who falls for the dowager countess' shy and scarred companion. Nothing at all offensive here, but it was pretty boring! Josh did have a spark of life in him, but heroine Melody was bland beyond description. A C.

No real clunkers, and three stories I'd actively recommend. My grade for the anthology as a whole is a B-.


New column up at Romancing the Blog

>> Saturday, January 20, 2007

Go read (especially you, jmc! *g*)


Born in Death, by J.D. Robb

>> Friday, January 19, 2007

The latest in J.D. Robb's In Death series Born in Death, is book # 24 already, and that's not counting the short stories! And I'm still having fun.

Eve Dallas has a grisly double homicide to solve when two young lovers—both employees of the same prestigious accounting firm—are brutally killed on the same night. It doesn't leave Eve a lot of leftover time to put together a baby shower for her buddy Mavis, but that's supposedly what friends are for.

Now Mavis needs another favor. Tandy Willowby, one of the moms-to-be in Mavis's birthing class, didn't show up for the shower. A recent emigrant from London, Tandy has few friends in New York, and no family—and she was really looking forward to the party. And when Eve enters Tandy's apartment and finds a gift for Mavis's shower wrapped and ready on the table—and a packed bag for the hospital still on the floor next to it—tingling runs up and down her spine.

Normally, such a case would be turned over to Missing Persons. But Mavis wants no one else on the job but Eve—and Eve can't say no. She'll have to track Tandy down while simultaneously unearthing the deals and double-crosses hidden in the files of some of the city's richest and most secretive citizens, in a race against this particularly vicious killer. Luckily, her multimillionaire husband Roarke's expertise comes in handy with the number crunching. But as he mines the crucial data that will break the case wide open, Eve faces an all too real danger in the world of flesh and blood.
With an interesting case, as well as plenty of interesting character-based stuff going on around it, this is a solid entry in this series. A B+.

The case: Two, actually. First, Eve is assigned the investigation into the deaths of two young accountants. Clues seem to point to one of them having found out something big in the course of her work, and telling her fiancé, the other accountant, resulting in the culprit killing them both for it.

And then, one of Mavis' pregnant friends disappears, seemingly into thin air, and Mavis guilts Eve into asking to be primary in an investigation that wouldn't even fall under her orbit in Homicide, but would really belong in Missing Persons.

I thought both cases were interesting enough on their own, but what took them a notch above was having to guess how they were connected. Because, although Eve never suspects they are, it's pretty obvious for us readers that they must be!

The character-based stuff: Ohhh, plenty.

Related to the case, there's some big tension between Eve and Roarke because the victims' employers question her ethics, implying she might let Roarke see confidential information about their clients, many of whom are his business rivals. Well, of course, they're questioning both's ethics, actually. Since the Commander feels the need to share these concerns with Eve, Roarke is incensed, and goes ballistic.

To be honest, this wasn't my favourite part of the book. For some reason I can't really pinpoint, Roarke's extreme reaction didn't ring true to me. When he starts making certain huge demands of Eve, my thoughts were along the line of "Whoa there! Who are you and what have you done with Roarke?". Thinking about it now, I recognize his reaction wasn't out of character at all, and as much about his being offended for Eve as about his being offended because someone implied he'd need to resort to cheating to win, but well, at the time I was reading the book, it hit me in the way I described.

What I liked much better was the whole thing about Mavis being about to pop and seeing Eve having to deal with all the implications. That was just loads of fun, seeing the strong, unflinching Eve freak out. I get the feeling the intensity of most of Eve's protests about everything related to the preparations was partly for show, because it was expected of her, but deep down, she really does find the whole thing pretty scary, especially the actual childbirth!


A Stranger's Kiss, by Shelly Thacker

>> Thursday, January 18, 2007

Random pick from my TBR: A Stranger's Kiss, by Shelly Thacker. I can't even remember why I bought it.

Brilliant French scientist Marie Nicole LeBon awakens in a Paris asylum with no name and no memory of the tragic accident that has erased her past.

A fair-haired rescuer with the face of an angel comes to free her, claiming to be her husband—but he is an imposter, Max D'Avenant, a British agent who finds himself torn between his loyalty to the Crown and his love for this woman he is sworn to betray.

This is a very romancey romance, very mid-90s Avon, and so many things had me rolling my eyes. But there were also some elements I liked very much, especially near the end, and since it ended on a high note, I'm giving this one a B-.

Max D'Avenant considers himself the timid one in his dashing family. His brothers are all adventurous, experienced men, but a long sickness prevented him from following in their footsteps. Being confined for so long inside the house, his interests turned to more intellectual pursuits.

So Max is understandably surprised when he's approached by two master spies and assigned to a dangerous mission in France. The French have got their hands on a sample of a new kind of extremely destructive explosive, and the British have found out that, rather than the man the French think discovered it, the real inventor is his sister, a young woman currently in an asylum, being "treated" for amnesia. Max is to get her out of there by pretending to be her husband, and then is to convince her to reveal the explosive's formula to him. After which, he's to hand her over to British authorities.

So why was inexperienced Max chosen? Well, they did ask other people first, the spies say, but none could do it. Plus, Max's knowledge of chemistry will allow him to perceive any tricks when he's given the formula, and then there's the matter that he has got a lot of motivation to want revenge against this woman. After all, the French happened to test the sample they got on one of the D'Avenant's merchant ship, and one of Max's brothers was seriously hurt in the explosion.

Max isn't completely convinced, but he just can't say no, because his need for revenge is very real. So he does go to France, and he does get the young scientist, Marie Nicole LeBon, out of the asylum, and he does pretend to be her husband. But he also falls for her completely, in spite of whatever he thinks she's done.

A lot about the first parts bothered me, most especially both characters' extreme naiveté. Yep, both of them were quite naive. Max's whole attitude, especially at the beginning, his disbelief that a woman might have created such a lethal weapon, and for money!, made me smile. What planet do you live in, honey? And you do realize that if your mission is a success, your country gets that weapon and won't have any problem in using it, right?

And Marie Nicole, well, this was supposed to be an intelligent, sensible, mature scientist, but without her memory, Marie seems to become a brainless, childlike twit, and one capable of behaving with extreme stupidity, too. So you've spent three weeks locked up in an insane asylum, a guy rescues you and tells you that you were kidnapped by the people who put you in that asylum, and that you're still in danger, so you very definitely shouldn't leave the house you're in. So the first thing you do is to go for a walk, take a carriage to a store, and tell the storekeeper your real, full name? God, that's STUPID!

Ahh, but Nicole is so good! Because the whole idea of "goodness" here is very old-style romance-novel. Goodness in a woman is being naive and silly and childlike, so when Nicole behaves this way, Max can't help but doubt that this virtuous woman could have created a weapon for money. So of course, it was her evil brother who forced her to do it, so Max can now be attracted to her with a clear conscience.

Well, not exactly a clear conscience, and this is where the book starts to get interesting. He's attracted to her and forced into close proximity. She's attracted to him and thinks he's her husband. So after manfully resisting for a little while, Max can't stop himself from really playing Marie's husband, if you know what I mean. And why did I like this? Well, Max is behaving like a bastard with Marie, but the man really tortures himself about it. The pleasure he gets from making love to her is almost offset by his angst about how it's so wrong of him to do it and his dread of what is going to happen when Marie finds out, and being a sadist when it comes to romance heroes, I couldn't help but enjoy it *g* .

And the best part of the book comes when Marie does find out. This is near the end, after the outside plot is resolved and Marie has recovered her memory. She is understandably angry at Max, not because of the mission he undertook, because she finds that understandable, but because she feels he was unnecessarily cruel to her in seducing her and making her believe he loved her. And when I say she's angry, she really is, and thinks very, very badly of Max. Even... you know the very clichéd scene, when the heroine is insisting she doesn't love the hero anymore, and he's insisting she does, and tells her "look me in the eye and tell me you don't love me". And of course, the heroine can't do it, and blah, blah, blah, kiss, kiss, the end. Well, Marie does tell him "I don't love you"!! Let me tell you, it's a huge struggle for him to get her back, and right until the end, he believes he has no hope of succeeding, and I enjoyed every minute of it!

A Stranger's Kiss is part of the D'Avenant family series, and comes right after Silver and Sapphires. We get a lot about what happened in that book, and from what I've seen, I don't think I'll be looking for it. It sounds even more romancey than this one. Just one hint: the hero and heroine's names? Saxon and Ashiana. Enough said ;-)


Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I know I keep complaining, but damn it, I'm sooooo behind with my reviews! Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan, is a book I actually read back in November. November, people! I'm 2 months late! And I still have other books from around that time to review!

*deep breath* Ok, ok, anyway, the very existence of Off World was a wonderful surprise. Vaughan is an autobuy author for me, but I'd kind of lost track of what her upcoming books were. So when someone posted in one of my yahoo groups about having read her latest short story, Sharing Spaces, I immediately went looking for it at Fictionwise. Imagine my surprise when I didn't just find that one, but yet another new book, and a full-length one, too!

P.S. - Hmm, does the cover say steamy gay futuristic to you? Still, I much prefer this to many e-book covers! Boring it may be, but at least it's not offensive!

Sarhaan and his band of elite soldiers don't know what to make of Caleb when his little spaceship turns up on their viewscreen. Believing that he might be a spy, they bring the junior diplomat onto their stolen spaceship and question him.

Caleb is no spy. He's come looking for Sarhaan's soldiers to help them clear their names of a crime they didn't commit. What he hadn't counted on was falling for the genetically enhanced Sarhaan, who seems to think Caleb is just a good time.

Set against the backdrop of space and Doradus Station, a place where anything goes, Off-World is part mystery, part romance, and all heat!
Stephanie Vaughan is one of those authors whose voice and characters are so strong that even when I can perceive flaws in her books, I don't care at all and enjoy them anyway. This was what happened with Off World. As I read, a couple of things made me raise my eyebrows, but I was so caught up in the hot and wonderfully emotional romance between Sarhaan and Caleb that I just glossed over them. A B+.

When his best friend is killed, young diplomat Caleb Adams suspects that the real reason for this was because her investigations into a recent rash of murders made someone nervous. Around the same time, a group of outlaw elite soldiers, who've defected with their gunship, begin to be mentioned as the possible culprits.

Cal knows this all has to be part of the cover-up his friend had discovered, and so he decides to take a small ship himself and go find these soldiers. He means to work with them to clear their name, which they'll accomplish by finding the real killer, thus avenging Cal's friend's death.

But when he finds them, as the book starts, things don't initially go as he optimistically expected, because the soldiers find it hard to believe that Cal's mission is as innocent as he says it is (can't blame them, really!). They think he's a spy, sent by the Republic to capture them, and one of the two guys who find him wants to employ methods of interrogation that would be decidedly painful for the poor guy.

Fortunately for Cal, the de facto leader, the big, scary and mouth-wateringly attractive Sarhaan, decides not to allow his more aggressive colleague to have his way. His prefered course of action is to simply keep an eye on the suspect, partly to keep him from harming them if he does turn out to be a spy, partly to protect him from harm. And "keeping an eye on him", for Sarhaan, seems to mean not allowing him to move from his side, even during the night.

The relationship between the taciturn Sarhaan and the more extroverted and inexperienced Cal was just wonderful. At first, it seemed that, unlike in the other gay romances I've read by this author, their relationship was going to have a certain clichéd romance heroine / romance hero dynamic, with Cal playing the naive, slightly TSTL, impulsive heroine. But as the book progressed, their relationship became more even. Of course, Sarhaan remained the more physically powerful of the couple, as well as the one with more real-world experience, but he quickly developed a great respect for Caleb's abilities and intelligence. As for Caleb, he never allowed himself to be dominated and steamrolled by Sarhaan (at least, not out of bed, and very often not even in it!), but stood up for himself.

I enjoyed the increasing fondness and then love between the two, a fondness and love that were excellently developed through the love scenes, something that isn't easy to do. This book has a high ratio of pages devoted to love scenes, and it's a testament to just how good Vaughan is at them that I never wished for even a page less. I read them word by word, and was never tempted to skim, not (just) because they were erotic, but because they were really telling me things about the characters.

I think those love scenes were so hot and effective and erotic because they were not really about what Sarhaan and Cal were doing, but about how they were feeling while they were doing it. I mentioned in my post about my top picks of 2006 (Off World merited an honourable mention), that something about Vaughan's love scenes reminded me of Suzanne Brockmann's. I guess "hot love scenes" isn't the first think that comes to mind when hearing Brockmann's name, but I happen to think she writes them hotter than many erotica authors. The reason? I remember reading something by her about this very matter, about how love scenes should be written (I wish I could remember where I read this, though), and she said exactly this: that love scenes should be about feelings, not about where exactly the hero has just put his hand. The description of what is happening physically shouldn't be missing, of course, but it shouldn't be the focus of the scene.

Something else I loved was Cal's delight in finding that with Sarhaan, he can indulge freely in what had always been forbidden for him. See, in Vaughans's version of 22nd century Earth, homosexuality is punishable by death. So while Cal has had some furtive encounters, they have been just that: furtive and hidden and as scary as they've been erotic. So when Sarhaan tells him that things are different there, that no one will care what they do behind closed doors, as long as it doesn't affect their job, Cal is like a kid in a candy store.

So far, so good right? The romance is just excellent, and there was nothing at all that I didn't care for there. The weaknesses in the book come with the plot. It's not that it's not an interesting plot. It is interesting, and that was part of the problem, because the mystery about the serial killer and the cover up was much too underdeveloped. It all sounded so intriguing that I wanted to know more and understand it better. On the other hand, though, I loved the romance so much that I would have resented losing even one page of it to a mystery subplot. *sigh* Off World is actually much longer than Vaughan's earlier books (both of which I thought could have used a few more pages), but I'm still wanting more!

Apart from the general sense of under-development of the mystery plot, there were a few other things that could have been better. Like, just how did complete-newbie-to-flying Cal find the ship when the military had been searching for Sarhaan and his soldiers for months and had never found them? And I also wished we'd explored Sarhaan's reaction to finding out that he'd been a product of an eugenics experiment. This is pretty huge, and yet it's simply announced and then ignored.

Well, so the book was not perfect, but it was very, very good anyway, and I enjoyed Vaughan's first foray into futuristics. I just saw in her site that it won't be her last: Off World 2: Sanctuary is listed in her Upcoming section. Has anyone heard anything else about it? Will it be about Sarhaan and Caleb, too, or merely set in the same world? Whatever it is (and whenever it's due to come out, exactly), I'm looking forward to it!


Amanda, by Kay Hooper

>> Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Kay Hooper has written several types of books in her long career. She started out with category romance and is now writing very scary romantic suspense, with the Bishop/Special Crimes Unit series. Around the late 90s, however, she wrote a few gothics for Bantam that have been my favourites of what I've read by her. So far, I've read Finding Laura and After Caroline and now Amanda, too.

Others have claimed to be Amanda Daulton, but now a beautiful, sell-assured woman has stepped out of the shadows of the past, insisting she's the missing heiress to a multimillion-dollar fortune. One look is all it takes to assure the family patriarch that she's his beloved granddaughter. But others at the magnificent Southern mansion called Glory are not as easily convinced, others with much to lose from her sudden reappearance.

Soon suspicion erupts in a chilling attempt on her life, and after the traumatic ordeal, she begins to have flashes of a nightmarish vision. What, if anything, happened twenty years ago to drive a mother and her nine-year-old daughter away from their privileged life? The struggle to find the elusive answers exposes a frightening trail of secrets — a trail that leads shockingly to the present and to the enigmatic woman who calls herself Amanda.
Well, this was a nice enough read. The first part was actually more promising than what the book ended up being, but on the whole, this was an intriguing, nicely atmospheric read. A B-.

Even after 20 years, no one yet knows exactly why one night Christine Daulton took her 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, and ran away from Glory, the Daulton family mansion in North Carolina. In all those years, not a trace has been found of the runaways, but the family patriarch still has hopes of finding his granddaughter, the daughter of his favourite son.

Amanda Grant is the third person to show up claiming to be the missing Daulton heiress. Since the first two were easily exposed as frauds, she's obviously greeted with much suspicion by everyone. Her supposed cousins and aunt, the old-time housekeeper, even the family lawyer, they all seem to regard her with coolness. The only exception is Jesse himself, who decrees she's definitely his missing granddaughter the minute he sees her. But is this Amanda the right person? And why is someone trying to kill her? Is it just to prevent her from inheriting the Daulton fortune, fraud or not, or is someone still trying to hide the events of 20 years past?

This was a book that kept me guessing, and this was what I liked best about it. Those questions in the previous paragraph aren't just for show: throughout most of the book, I did question all those things, even, yes, whether our heroine was really Amanda Daulton. I had those doubts even though we saw most of the action through Amanda POV. This might have made it awkward not to know the truth, but Hooper managed to make it feel right that we wouldn't be told that, even as we were privy to her thoughts.

This made for a very intriguing book, even if I did feel a bit of distance with Amanda. A couple of weeks after finishing the book, I don't think I can tell you much about who exactly she was, or what made her tick. I guess her character wasn't particularly well drawn.

Her love interest, the family lawyer, was slightly better done, a character I got to know better. Their romance had its good and bad parts. On the good side, I liked the way the issue of trust was dealt with. Walker is a pretty cynical guy, and he long harbours doubts about Amanda's identity, even as he starts developing feelings for her and they begin a relationship. Amanda knows this, and it bothers her, so it's something that they need to get over before their relationship progresses, and I enjoyed the way they did it.

On the not-so-good side, I thought the romance became hot out of the blue. At one point, Walker suddenly starts behaving like he's sexually obsessed with Amanda and can't keep away from her, but previously to that, even though we readers had seen his POV often, I just hadn't seen it. I had seen evidence that he wasn't indifferent to Amanda, but it was more a matter of him finding himself liking her, when he would have prefered to despise her. Definitely not a sexual obsession!

In addition to the intriguing plot, I liked that rather than going Southern Gothic all the way and having every single secondary character be irreversibly dysfunctional and nasty, Hooper allows the non-villains a hopeful future. Sure, everyone's a bit screwed up, thanks to that horrible Jesse, but by the end of the book, we see glimpses of positive things to come for them. I was especially happy about Amanda's aunt, Catherine, who's got mammoth daddy issues and has been trying to win Jesse's love forever. During the book, we see her accepting that her father is a bastard who'll never care a whit about her and turning what first looks like a self-destructive relationship with a guy into a HEA.

The ending I wasn't too crazy about, and I thought it was the book's weakest point. I guess it does make sense, but it just didn't feel natural and right to me. I can't really point to any particular problem with it, it was just a sense of disappointment that a mystery that was felt intriguing and fresh had a recycled, very prosaic explanation.

Even so, I had a nice time reading Amanda. I need to find the one book I'm missing out of that group, Haunting Rachel.


Demon Angel, by Meljean Brook

>> Monday, January 15, 2007

Ok, I'm embarrassed. You know how long I've had my e-ARC of Meljean Brook's Demon Angel (excerpt)? Over two full months. Yep, Meljean sent it to me on November 7th, after a wonderful person mentioned to her that I'd said it was one of the three 2007 books I would have sold my soul to get an ARC of (hey, that's kind of appropriate, come to think of it!). So I got it, loaded it on my ebookwise, and then couldn't start reading it until around the New Year. That was basically because that was around the time I started preparing my application for the scholarship, which I needed to hand in in late December, and this didn't seem like a book I should read while distracted (everyone seemed to agree that it was a no-skimming-allowed kind of book), but it's still pretty embarrassing.

BTW, I did finish it in very early January, but it's taken me a while to actually write this review. Rave reviews are just so hard to write! You want a review that reflects just how amazing the book is, one that is worthy of it, I guess. I don't think I really succeeded at this below, but well, here goes.

For two thousand years, Lilith wrought vengeance upon the evil and the damned, gathering souls for her father's armies Below and proving her fealty to her Underworld liege. Bound by a bargain with the devil and forbidden to feel pleasure, she draws upon her dark powers and serpentine grace to lead men into temptation. That is, until she faces her greatest temptation-Heaven's own Sir Hugh Castleford...

Once a knight and now a Guardian, Hugh spent centuries battling demons-and the cursed, blood-drinking nosferatu. His purpose has always been to thwart the demon Lilith, even as he battles his treacherous hunger for her. But when a deadly alliance unleashes a threat to both humans and Guardians in modern-day San Francisco, angel and demon must fight together against unholy evil-and against a desire that has been too long denied...
When I just looked back at Meljean's email to see (to my shame) when exactly she'd sent this to me, I noticed that she wrote if you get past Part One I promise it gets better! To which I answer: Are you kidding me?. Part One, Part Two, I loved each just as much. Demon Angel has an tremendously compelling romance, fascinating characters and an intrincately built world... in both parts! An A-.

The famous Part One has Hugh and Lilith meeting for the first time in England in the 13th century. At the time, Hugh is still a chivalrous young knight and Lilith is a demon whose current mission includes manipulating Hugh into dying in such a way that his soul will be damned to Hell. However, an unlikely attraction develops between the two, because wicked Lilith isn't evil, and in Hugh's case, honour and goodness aren't accompanied by priggishness or lack of a sense of humour.

So, when the time comes that Lilith has manipulated and deceived Hugh right to the edge of his death, she can't quite follow through with her original intentions, and events result in her allowing Hugh to be turned into a Guardian, becoming part of a group created by the angels to protect humans from demons and other supernatural evils. Like demons, Guardians can't directly hurt humans or interfere with their free will, but they do their best to keep the demons' manipulations from making humans die and go to Hell.

And so Part One follows Hugh and Lilith through the centuries, showing us how this complex relationship we saw start in the 13th century develops through the next 800 years. Until, that is, in the early 1990s Hugh experiences a huge crisis with his role as a Guardian and feels the need to "Fall", that is, go back to being human again, something Guardians are allowed to do at any time. But before he does, Hugh makes a last-ditch attempt to free Lilith from Lucifer's influence, an attempt he believes succeeded.

This part was fantastic for so many reasons. I usually get pissed off if an author takes too long to get to the real meat of the story. I'm willing to read stories like this from very few people, and even for them, I merely tolerate those prologues, all the while wishing the story had been written differently, maybe through flashbacks, or with the backstory interwoven through the main story (case in point, quite a few Nora Roberts books, including Blue Smoke, which I ended up loving anyway).

With Demon Angel, it was nothing like that. I didn't read Part One impatiently, wishing we'd get to the real story already, maybe because Part One was just as much "meat" as Part Two, as far as I'm concerned. It was powerful, fascinating stuff, and this was where the basis for Lilith and Hugh's love was built. Part One was also where I first understood just how huge and powerful this love was.

By the time Hugh and Lilith meet again in Part Two, some 16 years have passed. Hugh is now a wholy human university professor in San Francisco, and has gathered a family of sorts around him, while Lilith is using the cover of an FBI agent, and is closer to human than she ever was since she was turned thousands of years earlier, because Lucifer has punished her by taking some powers from her.

I don't want to give too much away, but the plot here involves nosferatu, who are fallen angels, just like the demons, but who didn't take sides on the original battle between Lucifer's demons and God's angels. They are ordinarily hunted by both of these groups, only now something appears to have changed, because there seems to be some kind of agreement between nosferatu and demons, and soon Hugh and Lilith begin to suspect that this plan may feature Hugh's death and the loss of his soul.

So these two will have to work together to get to the bottom of all this, uncovering the plot and beating Lucifer and the Nosferatu at their own game. But for Hugh, it's just as important to figure out a way to keep Lilith and her soul out of Lucifer's clutches, and for Lilith, to keep Hugh from sacrificing himself to do it.

As much as I loved, loved, loved the world-building (more on this later), what made me fall in love with this book completely was the characters. Hugh and Lilith are unlike any characters I've ever read, Lilith especially. She's amazing, strong, intelligent and willing to do what's necessary, whatever the costs to her. I loved the way that even at her most demon-ish her humanity just shone through, and not in a way that made her seem weak, either.

Hugh is my favourite type of character, a kind, honourable, good man, with a will of iron, but Hugh is just more so than anyone else I've read. My favourite thing about him, though, is the way he acts with Lilith, the humour with which he takes everything she does, and they way that, even though he is desperate to save her, he doesn't try to dominate her (with one wonderful, sexy exception!) or change her in any way. He loves her the way she is, even with metaphorical or even physical horns, and there's nothing sexier than that, IMO.

Which brings me to how scorching hot this book is. Even the banter between them sizzles, and when they actually get physical, oh, my. It's not a matter of the book being especially explicit or pushing envelopes with regards to sexual content, it's all about the intensity of the feelings involved and the way these two react to each other, which reveals even more about their characters. I confess I even went back and reread those scenes as soon as I finished them, they were so hot ;-)

I'm going to leave this here, because there's just no way I can explain the complexities of these characters and their feelings for each other. This is where the wonderfulness of the characterization really hits me, when I realize I can't very well write down all the subtleties and little details that made them such amazingly real characters, because otherwise this review will end up being as long as the book . Let me just say that Lilith and Hugh's was a love I fully believed in, one that I thought merited the sacrifices each was willing to make for the other, and that as fucked up as both are, even at the end of the book, I had no doubts whatsoever that they would be happy together.

Ok, moving on to extra-character territory now, let me talk a bit about the world building. This was very impressive. This is the kind of book where you realize the author didn't just slap together a few details to drive the plot (the "hmm, how do I make my characters do X? Oh, I know, in this world, things will work in such and such a way" school of worldbuilding, which results in contradictory, nonsensical worlds). It's clear there's a fully-formed world existing in Brook's mind, and that though we get only what's relevant to the story that's being told, the author has a million other (so far) irrelevant details figured out already. This results in a dense, believable world, one in which everything hangs together.
And it's all so interesting and original! Nothing feels recycled, and even the elements I have seen before are given a different twist.

What I loved best about Brook's writing style was what made this a slow, satisfying book to read. The author trusts her readers to be smart enough to get things. She doesn't explain stuff again and again and again, just gives enough information for us to figure everything out. You have to pay attention, though, because there are no infodumps here, where you can get all your info together in one convenient go, and then go back to skimming. Things are revealed slowly and gradually. This is very definitely a no-skimming book. Not that I ever felt the urge, to be honest. As long and dense as the book is, it's not one you want to end. Even the love scenes, I went word by word, because every single word counted.

Also very impressive was the ending. When you start a romance novel, you already know there's going to be a HEA ending. It takes a talented author to make you doubt. This is what happened to me with Demon Angel: the whole situation was so impossible, so seemingly unsolvable, that a part to me began to have doubts. Oh, not the rational part, of course. The rational part kept telling that other, very emotional part of my brain to calm down, this was a romance novel, there would be a way out. But that emotional part still doubted, even as it nodded and said Ok, I believe you.

The best thing about this ending was that it came from the characters, fit who they were completely. There's no deus ex machina cop-out here. Neither Lilith nor Hugh suddenly realize one of them has a new power her or she knew nothing about, and can defeat Lucifer with it, Michael doesn't suddenly remember this obscure rule that lets them off the hook, God doesn't suddenly appear to spank Lucifer (which just might fly in this particular book). Something like this would have cheapened the suffering both these characters had endured, so I'm glad it didn't go in such a way.

What happens (and I'm going to try very hard not to give any spoilers here, even as I try to convey the flavour of the ending) is that everyone behaves in character, in ways in which it was predictable that they would behave, given the circumstances, and that these circumstances are manipulated by our guys in such a way that they win. And they are manipulated in ways that are in character for the manipulators, too. Hugh acts like Hugh, Lilith acts like Lilith and Lucifer, Michael and the nosferatu act like Lucifer, Michael and the nosferatu. And the result is a conclusion that felt right, one that made me think I should have imagined that was the only way out. Just perfect!

The most common criticism I've seen of this book is about the pacing, that it's slow in some parts and drags a bit. Not for me, I just didn't notice anything like that. Maybe it was because of the way I read it, because not only did it take me a while to start the book, it took me a few days to actually read through it, for reasons completely outside the book. I was really on the go those few days, and I couldn't take the ebookwise everywhere where I was going, so the way I was able to read Demon Angel was an hour or so every evening. And so all I can say is that each of those hours flew and that every time I had to put the book down I wanted nothing more than to keep reading a couple of hours longer. I was even very tempted to read it on the computer at work, and if work had been a bit slower, I might have!

The one thing I'd classify as a negative, and which makes me give this an A- and not a higher grade (yes, the rest is good enough for an A, or even an A+), was that a couple of times I got a bit lost, even with my no-skimming policy. For a while, I was somewhat hazy on just what the nosferatu were planning and who was trying to screw whom and in what ways. Fortunately, I just kept on reading and I was perfectly able to follow the action, but some details I never did get, and those stretches I read with my head spinning were a bit much.

Now I officially can't wait for Colin's book. June can't come soon enough. Meanwhile, I'll be rereading Falling For Anthony. It will be interesting to look at Hugh and Lilith there with new eyes. Oh, and BTW, I was very tickled to see that Lilith thinks that Emily (heroine of FFA) is a spoiled brat. Even in that Meljean is original! Isn't everyone who's not eeeeevil supposed to love every one of the heroines? And aren't all of an author's heroines supposed to be bestest friends? ;-)


Big news

>> Friday, January 12, 2007

Ok, I'm so excited that everything I write will probably turn out to be garbled nonsense, but I just need to share this! I just got a call from the British Embassy, and they told me I've been accepted for the scholarship I'd applied to! So, if all goes well, starting next September, I'll be spending a year in Nottingham, getting my master's degree in International Economics! (and yeah, I do realize I'm ending every sentence with a !, but what can I say, I *am* excited! *g*)


Top 10 picks of 2006

>> Thursday, January 11, 2007

Phew, finally, we've got to the end of this mammoth look back at 2006. Today, my top 10 picks of 2006, only taking into account those books actually published during that year. Considering that, as I've mentioned, new books account for only about a fifth of my reading, it was surprising to see I had a wealth of choices!

More or less ordered by my enjoyment of them, here are the titles (and a couple of honourable mentions, which I couldn't resist including):

Slave to Sensation, by Nalini Singh

This book really blew me away. I'd read a series title by this author and it had been nice enough, but nothing that could prepare me for how incredibly awesome, how fresh, smooth, sexy and just plain absorbing STS would be. This is a paranormal I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to people who usually hate that subgenre.

Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Almost as good as my all-time favourite, Lord of Scoundrels. Read this witty and sexy character-driven romance to see the way the to-die-for straightlaced hero, Lord Benedict Carsington, is completely undone by his unexpected fascination with Bathsheba Wingate.

Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Ward's are books I shouldn't enjoy this much, but I do. I feel emotionally manipulated when I read them, and totally see the author's hand, so to speak, but strangely enough, the manipulation works just fine anyway. Her books suck me in, and I love every minute. Even the heroes' silly names cease to matter.

Two Little Lies, by Liz Carlyle

Lies, secret babies, misunderstandings... and I loved this? Why, yes, I did indeed. I'll offer this book as proof that a talented author can make even the most clichéd, groan-worthy plot seem fresh again. Loved the heroine, too!

The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll

The end to Carroll's Faire Isle trilogy is just as good as the wonderful first two installments. I loved the romance between this damaged former witch-hunter and the woman whose life he destroyed by betraying her time and again. A fascinating paranormal plot adds a magical flavour.

Angels Fall, by Nora Roberts

A big, and yet deeply focused story about a young woman recovering from the devastating psychological consequences of a mass shooting. There's a strong romance here, and one that I loved very much, but this was very much Reece's story, and it was amazing.

Circle trilogy, by Nora Roberts (Morrigan's Cross, Dance of the Gods and Valley of Silence - all included in one spot because it reads like a long book in three volumes)

I loved the big, epic feel of this good vs. evil story, and the down-to-earth character interaction at its core.

Memory in Death, by J.D. Robb

I thought this series had gone firmly into "comfort" territory, but MID brought back the intensity and sparkle of earlier books. There's plenty of tension between our main characters here, and I loved exploring an entirely new aspect of Eve's personality and past.

The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt

A debut which doesn't feel like a debut. Hoyt writes like a seasoned veteran, and her characters are fresh and interesting. A sexy plot that works surprisingly well, a nicely-done setting and a very funny touch combine with these characters to put this author into my to-watch list.

Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

Heroine Max Blake really made this book for me. She's kickass strong in the best way possible: tough and confident, smart and no-nonsense, but also perfectly human and feminine. Extra points for the truly adorable dogs!

Honourable mentions:

(this section seems to include a lot of books verging on erotica, now that I look at it again)

Simply Love, by Mary Balogh

Two damaged characters, well on their way to recovery from their tragic pasts, find love and together take the last steps to healing. A very romantic story, sweet without being mawkish.

Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan

Maybe this year I've read technically better books than Off World, but if I did, I didn't enjoy them as much as I did this sexy gay futuristic. Vaughan has a way of writing romance and love scenes that reminds me of Suzanne Brockmann (a huge compliment, coming from me!)

Prince of Ice, by Emma Holly

A cross between her erotica, her historicals and her paranormals, POI offers an erotic story with a remarkable sweet and innocent feel.

The Assignment, by Evangeline Anderson

Like many of this list, another book that was a guilty pleasure. Not because it's so sex-driven (though it is), but because the suggestive situations are so patently preposterous and cheesy. And again, I loved this Miami Vice-ish story about two supposedly hetero cops falling for each other, anyway.


2006 Reading Year in Review - Part 7: New authors discovered

>> Wednesday, January 10, 2007

One of my reading resolutions a few years ago was to try more new authors (new to me, that is, not necessarily debut authors). I did so well that year, that I've kept it up. In 2006, I think I did pretty well. The actual number of new-to-me authors tried went down to 57, but since I read fewer books this year, the percentage works out to be higher than last year, and only a bit lower than my all-time high in 2004.

2004 - 79 books (30% of the total)
2005 - 63 books (21%)
2006 - 57 books (28%)
Best new discoveries (got B+ and above in first book tried):

  • Susan Carroll (The Dark Queen) - only one who got an A- on my first book of hers

  • J.R. Ward (Dark Lover)

  • Elizabeth Hoyt (The Raven Prince)

  • Beverly Jenkins (Sexy/Dangerous)

  • Portia Da Costa (The Tutor)

  • Marjorie M. Liu (Tiger Eye)

  • Helen Fielding (Cause Celeb)

  • Lauren Willig (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation)

  • Alison Pace (If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend)

  • Evangeline Anderson (The Assignment)

  • Maria V. Snyder (Poison Study)

  • Lindsey Davis (The Silver Pigs)

  • José Pedro Barrán (Historia de la sensibilidad en el Uruguay: Tomo 1: La cultura "bárbara" (1800 - 1860))
In the case of a couple of these authors, like Susan Carroll, J.R. Ward & Marjorie M. Liu, I've already gone on to read and very much enjoy more of their books.

Good (B and B-):

  • Meljean Brook (short story in Hot Spell anthology)

  • Nalini Singh (Awaken to Pleasure)

  • Roberta Gellis (Shimmering Splendor)

  • Marie Donovan (Her Body of Work)

  • Patricia Frances Rowell (A Scandalous Situation)

  • Lori Handeland (Blue Moon)

  • Kimberly Dean (short story in Secrets Vol. 9 anthology)

  • P.C. Cast (Goddess of the Spring)

  • Stephenie Meyer (Twilight)

  • Olivia Gates (Doctors on the Frontline)

  • Shana Abé (The Smoke Thief)

  • Kresley Cole (A Hunger Like No Other)

  • Diane Tyrrel (On the Edge of the Woods)

  • Morag McKendrick Pippin (Blood Moon Over Bengal)

  • Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason (The Rule of Four)

  • Erin Grady (Echoes)

  • Mary Blayney (short story in Bump in the Night anthology)

  • Lynn Viehl (If Angels Burn)

  • Laura Baumbach (A Bit of Rough)

  • Alessia Brio (Erotique )

  • Jo Goodman (One Forbidden Evening)

  • Erin McCarthy (The Pregnancy Test)

  • Shiloh Walker (short story in Hot Spell anthology)

  • Patricia Waddell (True Blood)
So far, I've read further books by Meljean Brook (Demon Angel, which I've just finished, and was absolutely wonderful) Nalini Singh (also wonderful, Slave to Sensation), Olivia Gates (Emergency Marriage, which I liked about as much as the first) and Kresley Cole (No Rest For The Wicked, also a B).

Blah books (C-range grades):

  • Eve Silver (Dark Desires)

  • Tracy Montoya (Maximum Security)

  • Susan Peterson (Midnight Island Sanctuary)

  • Ruth Ryan Langlan (short story in Bump in the Night anthology)

  • Lacey Alexander (French Quarter)

  • Liz Maverick (The Shadow Runners)

  • Abel González (Elogio de la Berenjena)

  • Amanda McCabe (Lady Midnight)

  • Sharron McClellan (The Midas Trap)

  • Meryl Sawyer (Closer Than She Thinks)

  • Lisa Valdez (Passion)

  • Bonnie Hamre (short story in Secrets Vol. 9 anthology)

  • Amanda Stevens (Silent Storm)

  • Shelby Reed (A Fine Work of Art)

  • Claudia Dain (short story in Wish List anthology)

  • Lynsay Sands (short story in Wish List anthology)

  • ...and an unpubbed manuscript by an author whose name I won't mention here
The only authors here I see myself reading again are Liz Maverick (there were glimpses of very good things in her book) and Meryl Sawyer (because Katharina highly recommended a few titles).

Bad, bad, bad (only Ds and DNFs, cause there were no Fs this year):

  • Lora Leigh (short story in Hot Spell anthology)

  • Kathryn Anne Dubois (short story in Secrets Vol. 9 anthology)

  • Melody Thomas (Must Have Been the Moonlight)
The first two were awful, the Melody Thomas might have been my mood. I think I just might try her again.

Coming up tomorrow: Top 10 picks of 2006


2006 Reading Year in Review - Part 6: Publishers and Imprints

>> Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Publishers and imprints were not something I paid much attention to until a couple of years ago. Actually, when I first started keeping track of what I read, it wasn't even something I noted down in my spreadsheet.

A few years ago, though, I thought it might be interesting to see if I was more drawn to the books of any particular publisher, so I started gathering this information. In 2006, I read these percentages of books from each publisher:

Penguin-Putnam: 29.5%
Harlequin: 18%
Random House: 14.5%
Kensington: 6%
E-publishers: 6%
Dorchester: 5.5%
HarperCollins: 5.5%
Simon & Schuster: 5.5%
Macmillan: 3.5%
Warner: 1.5%
Others: 5%
The top 5:

  1. Penguin-Putnam - 59 books (29.5%): They publish some of my favourites, like Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Loretta Chase, Sharon Shinn and Emma Holly, and some very talented newer authors, whom I've recently put on my autobuy list, like Nalini Singh, Lydia Joyce, Meljean Brook and J.R. Ward.

    I should also note that of the 23 books that I rated in the A range last year, 13 were from this publisher, a very impressive 57%.

  2. Harlequin - 36 books (18%): This includes old, backlist titles by favourite "big" authors, like Anne Stuart, Jayne Ann Krentz, Jennifer Crusie, Linda Howard and Nora Roberts. These authors account for a third of the books read here.

    Favourite line seems to be Harlequin Intrigue, with 5 books, closely followed by Silhouette Special Edition and Silhouette Intimate Moments, with 4 each.

    Harlequin's non-category romance lines (like Bombshell, HQN, Mira, Luna and Red Dress Ink), have a total of 7 books.

  3. Random House: 29 books (14.5%): They have some very good authors (Linda Howard, Madeline Hunter, Susan Carroll, Bill Bryson, Suzanne Brockmann, Mary Jo Putney, Catherine Asaro, Shana Abé), and they used to publish such faves as Nora Roberts, Amanda Quick, Connie Brockway.

    I didn't rate any of their books below B-, and only one got that grade, the others were B or better.

  4. Kensington - 12 books (6%): a variety of authors here, and the kinds of books were just as varied, from a sweet Trad Regency by Donna Simpson to Shannon McKenna's hot, hot books. The grades seem to be all over the place, too, with a few Bs, but also a few Cs and even one of my rare Ds.

  5. E-publishers - 12 books (6%): Obviously, this is not one publisher, as all the other cases above. I didn't buy from a great variety of e-publishers, really. I got: 5 books from Ellora's Cave, 3 each from Torquere and Loose-Id and one from Phaze. My favourites were from Loose-Id and Torquere (Stephanie Vaughan and Evangeline Anderson), and I also liked Lisa Marie Rice and Kimberly Dean from EC.
Big Winners:

Random House went from 11.5% last year to 14.5% in 2006.

Dorchester grew from 3% to 5.5%

Penguin-Putnam went from 27% to 29.5%

Big Losers:

Harlequin went from 22% last year to 18% in 2006.

HarperCollins grew from 9.5% to 5.5%

Simon & Schuster went from 8% to 5.5%

Coming up tomorrow: New authors discovered


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