Honeymoon Baby, by Susan Napier

>> Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Random pick from my Susan Napier stash: Honeymoon Baby. I winced when I actually took a good look at the cover and read the blurb, but by then I was already on the bus, and it was read it or stare out the window for two hours.

book coverJennifer had taken drastic measures to become pregnant, and she was saving every ounce of love she had for her baby. There was no room in her life for marriage--but now the father of her unborn child had arrived on her doorstep!

Jennifer's first problem was that her entire family believed Raphael Jordan was actually her husband--and that, at last, the happy couple could have a honeymoon! Her second was that Raphael was delighted to oblige...so Jennifer was forced to share a bed with her gorgeous, sexy, pretend husband!
If I hadn't been stuck on that bus, I probably wouldn't have got past the first 20 pages, because my first impression of the setup was that it was incredibly sleazy. Basically, the young heroine married an impotent old man and was artificially inseminated with his son's sperm. Now her husband is dead and her former step-son is livid. Sounds like a particularly trashy soap opera, doesn't it?

Of course, once you continue reading, there are extenuating circumstances. The heroine didn't actually know whose sperm she was getting; she thought she was simply using the services of a sperm bank. She (of course!) isn't a gold-digger, she just married the old guy to help out with the legal issues surrounding the inheritance, and because she wanted a baby and he offered to pay for the fertility clinic bills. Now that he's dead, all she wants is to keep to herself and run her inn in New Zealand with her mother.

The hero is problematic at first, too. He starts to rant and rave about how he feels used and raped because Jennifer's pregnant with his child without his consent, and I wanted to slap him, because no one forced him to donate his sperm to the clinic. Well, duh, if he did that, it was only to be expected that someone would be inseminated with it.

In the end, the book didn't completely win me over, but it did develop into an ok romance, once the anger and sleazyness were over. And in true Napier fashion, it wasn't a by-the-numbers book, but a pretty individual and quirky one. Points for:

- The setting, in an inn near an active volcano in New Zealand, with the volcano about to blow (not dangerous, but creating a cabin romance feel because they couldn't go out until the ashes dispersed).

- I was afraid Jennifer would end up being a virgin widow (which would have meant she was a pregnant virgin widow... the horror of it!), but she turns out to have a pretty normal past.

- Jennifer writes erotica under a pseudonym, and Rafe turns out to be her mysterious editor. I liked his admiration for her and the way he values her.

Not Napier's best, but tolerably readable. A C+.


Comments on 2006 AAR annual readers' poll

>> Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Settle in, because this will be long. The results for the AAR 2006 Annual Reader Poll were announced yesterday (see them here), with an analysis presented here, in the accompanying ATBF column.

So now that the results are out, here's my ballot, together with my thoughts on the books that actually won. I haven't actually provided links to my reviews for the books I voted for (I wanted to post today, not next week! *g*), but if you'd like to read them, you'll find the links here.

Best Romance

My vote:

Slave to Sensation, by Nalini Singh

This one was a hard category to vote in, not because I had any doubts of which book I'd go with, but because 2006 was such a good year for me that there were other really excellent candidates. Books like Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase, Two Little Lies, by Liz Carlyle, The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll, The Rules of Seduction, by Madeline Hunter... all would have easily been the best in some earlier years. They just had the bad luck of being published in 2006.


Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Well, can't say I'm surprised. I loved this book myself, but I was too conscious of the flaws (and the cheese) for it to be seriously in the running. Plus, even if I'd ignored this and had gone purely with enjoyment, I did enjoy STS better anyway.

Favorite Funny Romance

My vote:

Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Olivia's letters, Benedict's inner thoughts... Witty and brilliant!


Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Yay! Obviously, I agree completely, and it's one first point for me.

Most-Hanky Romance

My vote:

Left it blank

I just can't think of any book that was particularly affecting that way. None that got me at all close to crying, at any rate.


Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Yeah, well, I guess. It did give me that knot-in-my-throat feeling a few times, and I suppose that might count for "Most-hanky". I tend to think "sad" for this category, but I accept that it's not necessarily so for many people. BTW, the honourable mention, which is Simply Love, by Balogh, was almost my choice, but it didn't feel completely right, either.

Most Luscious Love Story

My vote:

Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Truly luscious, even more than my runner-up in this category, Prince of Ice, by Emma Holly.


The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt

Oh, come on! It wins in the categories I don't vote for it but not where I do choose it? *g* TRP *was*, indeed, very luscious, but it just can't compare to LA, IMO. And honourable mention Devil in Winter? No way.

Best Erotic Romance

My vote:

Off World, by Stephanie Vaughan

Vaughan is one of my two favourite ebook authors (Lisa Marie Rice would be the second), and I love her erotic romances.


All U Can Eat, by Emma Holly

Good choice, too. In fact, I was pretty sure one of the two Hollys, either this one or Prince of Ice, would win here. The day an e-book wins a category in this poll, we'll know they've gone mainstream.

Most Tortured Romance Hero

My vote:

Zsadist, from Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Can't really get any more tortured than that, but Simon Aristide, from The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll was also a contender.


Zsadist, from Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

No surprise here, and that's 2 points for Rosario.

Strongest Romance Heroine

My vote:

Maxine Blake, from Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

I adored Max. Hands down the strongest heroine I've read in years. She rivals Eve Dallas in that respect.


Bella, from Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

WTF? Bella as strongest heroine? That's just wrong!

Best Romance Hero

My vote:

Zsadist, from Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

It was hard to decide between Z and Benedict Carsington, from Chase's Lord Perfect.


Sebastian St. Vincent, from Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

Eh, well, maybe taking DIW on its own. What bothered me was the personality change from the previous book.

Best Romance Heroine

My vote:

Maxine Blake, from Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

Have I mentioned I loved Max?


Evie Jenner, from Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

This one I just can't understand. She was all right, I guess, but not particularly unforgettable.

Best Romance Couple (names, title, and author)

My vote:

Lucas Hunter & Sascha Duncan, from Slave to Sensation, by Nalini Singh

You'll notice I voted for neither of them as Best Hero or Best Heroine, but as a couple, they were mucy more than the sum of its parts.


Bathsheba and Benedict, from Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

I loved these two, as well.

Best Romance Villain

My vote:

Davey, from the Circle Trilogy, by Nora Roberts

Davey's the creepy child vampire, and what NR did with him was incredible, especially the tiny glimpse of the normal little boy he had once been. He was most scary in Dance of the Gods, the second book of the trilogy.


Villain from Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Maybe I'm the only one who wished those lessers sections were shorter and we could have gone back to Z and Bella.

Most Annoying Lead Character in a Romance

My vote:

Left it blank

No one comes to mind who I found particularly annoying. Or even mildly annoying, really, and I combed through the 2006 books in my spreadsheet.


Blair Mallory, from Drop Dead Gorgeous, by Linda Howard

I haven't read DDG, and I don't think I will, but I kind of liked Blair in the first book. It was Wyatt who got on my nerves, so much that he got my vote here last year.

Best Romance Author Who Debuted in 2006

My vote:

Elizabeth Hoyt

None of the awkwardness commonly associated with debut books. Hoyt writes like a pro, and I loved her book.


Elizabeth Hoyt

I was pretty sure she'd win here, since there was so much overwhelmingly postive talk about her book late in the year. 3 points for me.

Best Buried Treasure Romance Read

My vote:

Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

I've tried to post about this book everywhere I go. I think many of us were looking for a book like this one, and it seems a shame that it doesn't get talked about.


Jacob, by Jacquelyn Frank

I haven't read it, but it's in the TBR. Maybe I'll bring it up and see what the fuss is about. And same thing for one of the hon. mentions, The Beauty and the Spy, by Julie Anne Long.

Guiltiest Romance Pleasure

My vote:

Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

Ward's books always perfectly fit my definition of guilty pleasure. As I read them, too many sections make me think "This is awful, why am I loving it so much?". Also in the running: The Assignment, by Evangeline Anderson.


All U Can Eat, Emma Holly

Guilt-free sex does seem to make people feel guilty.

Romance Author Most Glommed in 2006

My vote:

Nalini Singh

Not a BIG glom, as I've done in earlier years, when I tried to collect the backlists of such prolific authors as JAK or Anne Stuart, but I did immediately buy her entire backlist after reading Slave To Sensation.


J.R. Ward

I share LLB's surprise at this result, which she expressed in the ATBF column. I've got all 3 Ward books, with the 4th on the way, and I don't think I'd call it a glom, precisely. It's not just the actual number, but the manner in which I bought them: I bought book 1, read it, waited for book 2, read it, waited for 3, and so on. Glom for me means reading one book and then searching for anything the author has already out. I don't know, I guess it's possible that's how some people read Ward, maybe if they found her late, when all 3 books were already out.

Best Cabin or Road Romance

My vote:

Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

A road romance, in this case, and I thought Chase made wonderful use of this.


Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Point # 4. Good win.

Best Medieval/Renaissance Romance :

My vote:

The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll

Loved, loved, loved this whole series.


The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll

And point # 5 right after it. Ahhh, this was such a good book.

Best European Historical Romance

My vote:

Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Just edged out the Carlyle and the Hunter. It was just so delightful!


Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

No, no, no. I mean, I *liked* this book, but it's NOT better than Lord Perfect (which, at least, got an honourable mention). Well, opinions will vary.

Best Amer Hist or Frontier Romance

My vote:

Left it blank

These have never been my favourite settings, and I didn't read even one 2006 book that would fit.


tie between A Reason To Live, by Maureen McKade and The Rogue's Return, by Jo Beverley.

I might try the McKade, I think some of my favourite bloggers liked it, too.

Best Contemporary Romance

My vote:

Angels Fall, by Nora Roberts

I always have a problem differentiating between Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense. As far as I'm concerned, "Contemporary" is simply a time setting, while "Romantic Suspense" refers to a type of romance. So I ended up voting for a RS title that happened to be set in the present. Otherwise, this would have been left blank, because the only "plain" contemporary-set single title that I read sucked.


Drop Dead Gorgeous, by Linda Howard

Yep, haven't read it. At least mine got an honourable mention. And LOL, the other mention is for Sex, Lies and Online Dating, which you'll see mentioned below. You'll see why I'm laughing.

Best Series/Category Book

My vote:

Left it blank

I read only one, Mistress for a Weekend, by Susan Napier, and though it was all right, it wasn't good enough for me to feel comfortable voting for it.


Family at Stake, by Molly O'Keefe

I think I actually put it on my wish list after reading the review at AAR.

Best Romantic Suspense

My vote:

Angels Fall, by Nora Roberts

There were other good books in this category, even one of last year's In Death titles, which got the same grade as Angels Fall, but AF won by a hair.


Cold as Ice, by Anne Stuart

Would you believe I still haven't got to this one? I will, I will, soon. Again, my choice got honourable mention.

Best Alternate Reality Romance

My vote:

Slave to Sensation, by Nalini Singh

STS was the best book I read last year. STS belongs to the "Alt. Reality romance" category. Therefore, it's the best "Alt. Reality romance" I read last year. No ifs or buts.


Lover Awakened, by J.R. Ward

The other voters applied the same logic. Makes sense.

Best Chick Lit/Women's Fiction

My vote:

The Manolo Matrix, by Julie Kenner

Only 2006 one I read, but I loved it, so I'm comfortable voting for it.


Hot Dish, by Connie Brockway

Haven't read it yet, but it's interesting to see it in this category, not in Contemp. Romance. It's coherent with all I've heard.

Best Romance Short Story

My vote:

Haunted in Death, by J.D. Robb, from Bump in the Night anthology

Best of the In Death short stories so far, IMO.


Hot Toy, by Jennifer Crusie, from Santa, Baby anthology

Hey, I'd forgotten this one had come out. I meant to get it, off to amazon I go.

Romance Author You Gave Up On in 2006

My vote:

Anne Gracie

I LOVED an earlier book, but her latest.... Blergh


Christina Dodd

Gave up on her years ago. Never much liked her books, really.

Most Disappointing Romance

My vote:

One Good Knight, by Mercedes Lackey

First things first: disappointing doesn't necessarily mean bad, just not as good as I'd hoped for. And unfortunately, there were a few last year. One Good Knight was nice enough, but I was very disappointed in the YA-ish feel and the lack of protagonism of the Tradition. Also in the running: The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas and One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman, but OGK "won" because I'd loved The Fairy Godmother so much.


On the Way To the Wedding, by Julia Quinn

Haven't read it yet, but it's not a surprise. I've been hearing a lot of comments along this line, maybe the reason why it's still languishing on the TBR.

Worst Romance

My vote:

Left it blank

Due to the way I buy my books, I guess I don't take many chances when it comes to new releases. If I'm going to go through the expense and trouble of buying a new book, it's going to be one by a proven author or one that got excellent buzz online. Which means I don't usually miss. The worst 2006 book I read last year was Sex, Lies and Online Dating, by Rachel Gibson, and it was only a C+, really not bad enough to merit a vote here.


On the Way To the Wedding, by Julia Quinn

As I said, I haven't read it, but really? Did Julia Quinn really write a book that was worse than anything else out there? I'm going to think of this category as "worst book that a lot of people actually read", maybe it will make more sense that way. Plus, I still get the feeling some people don't see the difference between disappointing and bad.

Purplest Prose Romance

My vote:

One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman

I know many people love her writing, but for me, it crosses the line between lush and purple. YMMV, of course.


Prince of Ice, by Emma Holly

Weeeell, I guess so, maybe. Didn't particularly bother me, though.

Phew, that's it. So, what did you think?


The Pirate Lord, by Sabrina Jeffries

>> Monday, February 26, 2007

The Pirate Lord (excerpt, etc.) is the first in Sabrina Jeffries' Lord series. I've read the other two (in fact, the book after this, The Forbidden Lord, was the one to send me on a Jeffries glom), but this one was a bit hard to find.

book coverA Splendid Opportunity

A shipload of women-theirs for the taking! Pirate captain Gideon Horn couldn't be more delighted. His men are tired of wandering the high seas and want to settle down with wives on the uncharted island paradise they've discovered. And the women are bound to be grateful to be rescued from the life of drudgery awaiting them in New South Wales . . . Lord, he's so clever!

A Splendid Passion

Married? To pirates? Sara Willis couldn't be more appalled. First she demands proper courting-at least a month. The darkly handsome pirate lord gives them two weeks. Then Sara insists the men vacate their huts for the women-Gideon demands her kisses in return. As the demands heat up, so do their passions-and soon Sara can't remember just why she's fighting the devilishly seductive captain so hard...
This was entertaining and smoothly written, and mostly fun, but I just don't feel the excitement and wonder I felt when I read The Forbidden Lord. I don't know if it's the book that isn't as good as the other, or simply that I've changed and am now looking for something a bit different. Still, a B.

Sara Willis is the step-sister of an Earl, but she hasn't let this turn her into a society lady. Her mother was always a reformist, always very concerned about improving the lives of those less fortunate, and Sara has followed in her footsteps. Over the objections of her brother, Jordan (hero of TFL), Sara's next project is sailing to Australia on a female convict ship. She'll note the awful conditions on the ship, the abuses perpetrated by the sailors and the people on the other end, and when she goes back, she'll use her first-hand experience to try to press for reform.

Sara thought she was ready for the privations and problems she'd face on the journey, but what she wasn't ready for was an encounter with a pirate ship. But pirates would just be interested in stealing the valuables on the ship, so Sara and the convict women she's so determined to protect shouldn't come to any harm, right?

Wrong. This is no ordinary pirate ship, but one under the command of Gideon Horn, The Pirate Lord, a man known for hating the aristocracy and always making a point to annoy the lords he encounters on the ships he steals from. But this time Gideon and his men aren't looking for booty. Or rather, they are looking for booty; simply another kind of it, because their whole intention in boarding the convict ship is taking all the women.

Don't worry, they're not bent on rape and pillage, these men want wives. See, after all those years plundering rich British ships, they've got rich enough to retire from piracy. They've settled on a hard to find tropical island, and decided to start a kind of paradisiacal, utopic colony, one in which life will be better and fairer than where they all come from. But of course, to start a colony that can actually develop they need wives, and the women they meet in their regular ports aren't really that anxious to move to the middle of nowhere.

When Gideon hears of the convict ship, he sees a golden opportunity. These women are in a desperate situation, so they'll obviously be happy to be snatched from their ship and taken to a place where they'll be valued, rather than abused and forced into servitude. But Sara doesn't see it that way, she hates the arrogant way in which Gideon and his men refuse to give the women any choice other than marriage to them, and when she accidentally goads Gideon into taking her, too, she takes her fight right to him. But she's not just fighting for the convict women, she's fighting for herself, too, because she's not exempted from the orders to marry one of the men, or else, and Gideon seems to be determined to seduce her into compliance.

I loved the book at first. Sara was an interesting, very admirable character, and I was fascinated by her struggle to make the penal system fairer and expose the truth about what went on in those ships. I admired her courage in undertaking that mission, and after being taken by the pirates, her courage in fighting for better conditions and at least a degree of choice for her women, even if she wasn't able to change Gideon's mind completely.

Gideon... well, I usually finding myself saying just the opposite in romance novels, but this time the hero was definitely not as good as the heroine. In fact, he came across as a bit of a dolt. His plans evinced a total lack of knowledge of human psychology, and then there was his thing about hating all things even peripherally connected with British aristocracy. Hating an entire group of people because of a bad experience with one person who happens to have that nationality is pretty stupid. It's a mark of ignorance, and I just don't find willful ignorance attractive.

Still, at first I was very involved in the growing romance between Sara and Gideon, but aroung the half-way mark, the book lost steam, and their relationship just wasn't that interesting. Or that sexy, either, which was a surprise. Oh, it was nicely sensual, and there was some good chemistry between the two, but this is supposed to be an extremely sexy book. I remember finding TFL incredibly intense in that respect, and was assured that TPL was even more so, but I guess I've been desensitized by erotic romance, because for me it was nice, but nothing particularly remarkable.

Anyway, once the spell was gone, I couldn't help but see the simplistic, almost Disney-like cheesy touches, and that induced some major eye-rolling. What do I mean? Well, for instance, Gideon's pirates are all improbably nice and kind, not one rotten apple between them, and of course, all the women convicts are good, too. If they did commit a crime, it was a trivial, understandable one (stole a trifle, and only to buy medicines for their sick mammas, at that, or stabbed their employer, but just because he was rapist scum). I know, I know, obviously, if they had commited truly heinous crimes they would have been hanged, not transported, but still! After a while, I was half-expecting them to break into song and start dancing with animated teapots or something.

The ending was something that didn't work for me, either. I think I would have liked it better if Gideon didn't get this too-neat reworking of his history. It would be a spoiler to say more, but I'll just mention that it was reminiscent of One Perfect Rose.

Hmm, I've been awfully negative in this review, haven't I? Well, it's not a bad book; after all, I'm giving it a B. For all the flaws, it was a smooth read, one that I didn't feel tempted to put aside and read something else (and after my experiences this month, trying to make a dent in my TBR and trying all kinds of new authors who are often awkward and whose books get bogged down, that's something I have to appreciate).


Visions of Heat Meme

>> Saturday, February 24, 2007

Nalini Singh has created a cool meme for the release of her latest, Visions of Heat. It's a really excellent book (I got an ARC, nyah, nyah, nyah *g*). I'll be posting my review sometime next week.

Do this in your own blog before Tuesday, March 10th, and you'll be entered in a contest to win a $50 Amazon voucher and an Advanced Copy of Book 3 of her series, Caressed by Ice.

book coverThe VISIONS OF HEAT meme

1. Which psychic power would you most like to possess?

Does being able to eat anything and not gain weight count as a psychic power? No? Ok, then, let me think. Most psychic powers sound very uncomfortable to have. I guess I'd like to be able to hear what animals are thinking. Sometimes my cat gets this really weird expression on his face, and I wonder what on earth he could be thinking about. This way, I'd know.

2. If you could see the future, what would you like to see?

I think I'd hate to see the future (just go read Visions and see what poor Faith goes through, even if she does end up seeing a bit of a positive side to it). I'd like to get that power only long enough to see the numbers that will come out in the lottery and then not see anything else ever again (very original of me, I know).

3. Imagine you woke up one day and could shapeshift - what would you shift into?

Cat. Not just any cat, my cat, O'Neill. And with me as the owner (would I be able to duplicate myself that way? Eh, well, as long as I'm fantasizing...). The bastard has a really, really easy life, and I'm a pushover for him.

4. What kind of a paranormal creature would you invite over for dinner if there were no limits on who you could ask?

A vampire, but one of those urbane, witty ones, with beautiful table manners. And one who can eat actual food. I don't think I'd be up to... er, feeding him, otherwise.

5. Which future innovation do you wish would hurry up and get here already? i.e. flying cars, a transporter, computers with artificial intelligence, an auto chef?

I want to teleport. I want to be able to go to Paris for the afternoon and then have dinner in Tokyo. That would be awesome.

This meme was begun by Nalini Singh to get the word out about her next book, Visions of Heat (releasing March 6). Want to play, too, and enter to win a $50 Amazon voucher plus an ARC? Click here for details.


Local Hero, by Nora Roberts

>> Friday, February 23, 2007

Local Hero is an old Nora Roberts Silhouette Special Edition from 1988.

book coverWho was that masked man...?

When Mitch Dempsey appeared in Hester Wallace's doorway bearing gifts, she knew she should beware. She'd just moved and didn't need trouble in the form of an all-too-attractive downstairs neighbor. Her nine-year-old son had no such qualms. When he discovered Mitch was the creator of his favorite comic book hero, he was sold.

Though Mitch was no Superman Hester made him as if he could leap tal buildings in a single bound. But could he convince her she needed a hero to call her own?
I read a few reviews at Amazon before I bought Local Hero, and the consensus seemed to be that it was a bit blah and boring, with not enough plot to carry the story. Now, I've loved some of NR's old categories, but I do feel that a few of them (like many of those that have been reissued in those 2-in-1 books) are very unremarkable and dated, so I wasn't expecting much when I started this one.

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised. Yes, it's character-driven and with no external plot whatsoever, and yet, it's not boring in the least. It's sweet and heart-warming, and yet not at all sugary or mawkish. Just a wonderful romance. A B+.

Not much plot means that I can do my summary in a few words: one of the first people Hester Wallace and her nine-year-old son Radley meet when they move into a new appartment is their Mitch Dempsey. Mitch is immediately attracted to Hester, and he likes Radley very much, too, but Hester has some issues related to her ex-husband's abandonment, so she's a bit stand-offish. However, it turns out that Mitch writes the Commander Zark comics, and Radley loves Commander Zark, so it won't be so easy for Hester to ignore the guy.

So all we get here is Mitch overcoming Hester's reservations and developing a loving relationship with Radley. No stalkers, no murders, no vampires, not even a secret baby, a cowboy or a SEAL. In short, no distractions from two appealing characters falling in love with each other.

And Mitch, especially, is very appealing. He's got this boyishly charming thing going on, but it's soon very clear that this is a mature grown-up, no matter how immature Hester first thinks his career choices are. I just love NR's sweet good guys. Mitch reminded me a little bit of Declan, from Midnight Bayou, who is one of my faves.

As for Hester, who at first I thought might turn out to be one of those "A man hurt my feelings once, so I'll never, ever look at a man again", she ends up being an interesting, relatable character. I liked the way her history with her ex was dealt with, and I thought her issues with it were understandable and given the perfect weight.

I even loved Radley, and I'm not usually someone who likes kids in my romance novels. But Radley was just incredibly adorable, to my surprise. There are a few scenes narrated from his point of view, and I wanted to reach into the book and hug him. And it's not just me: I gave this book to my sister (who actually stayed up until 4 in the morning to finish it), and after reading for half an hour she said she wanted to adopt Radley.

Oh, and Mitch's career, writing the Commander Zark stories? Fascinating. I might have liked an even more in-depth view into what was involved in creating them, but what we get here is very interesting. I'd love to read some of those, though at least I do have an idea of what Commander Zark looks like, since the first page of the book is a cute drawing of him, done by Dan (who, I'm guessing, is probably one of NR's sons). Heh, when she first opened the book, sis came up to me and asked "Just what is the meaning of this?". Not a very adventurous reader, my sister. I had to reassure her that the hero of the book wasn't a superhero in a cape (which, actually, sounds pretty good to me *g*).

PS - As a side note: I realized as I was reading this that it's the first time I remember reading a romance novel in which the heroine is raising a child in an appartment building in the city (the first time that the heroine isn't in a desperately bad money situation, which forces her to do it, that is), and that got me thinking. As far as romance novels are concerned, it seems as if most Americans think children should be raised in a big house, if not in the countryside, in the suburbs. Would you say this is correct? Even Hester, in this book, has a dream of moving to a big house in the country so that Radley can have a yard in which to play with his dog, etc. It's very different to what I'm used to. I was raised in an appartment in the city, and so were many of my friends, and we were all in comfortable situations, financially, so it wasn't at all that there was no other choice. It was just one of the normal, regular choices parents could make without feeling their children should have something different. I'm not sure what my point is here, I guess I just found the difference between the American dream and the Uruguayan dream interesting.


Indiscreet, by Candace Camp

>> Thursday, February 22, 2007

Candace Camp is an author I rediscovered a few years ago. Back when I first started reading romance I picked up a couple of her books which were really awful bodice rippers, so reading what she's been writing in the past decade or so was a surprise. My latest was Indiscreet, a 1997 title.

book cover
Benedict Ellsworth and Camilla Ferrand were using each other shamelessly. If her grandfather thought she was engaged, he could die in peace. And if Benedict could get an entree into her family's estate, he could ferret out a treacherous spy.

Each was drawing the other into a dangerous deceit--for even if they survived the danger of Benedict's mission, how would they undo the love between them?

Indiscreet was pretty blah, and there were a couple of plot points which would have required more suspension of disbelief than I can achieve. Still, Camp is a good writer, and as all of her books, this one was quite readable, which I guess should count for something. A C.

On her way to her grandfather's estate, Camilla Ferrand's carriage gets lost in the fog, and she drives right into a dangerous situation, from which she's rescued by one of the men involved in it, Benedict Wincross. Each blames the other for the mess, and their relationship is adversarial from the start.

On arriving at a nearby inn and meeting Benedict's very respectable-looking friend, Sedgewick, Camilla tells them about what's weighing on her mind: her grandfather's very sick, and his worries about Camilla's future (basically, that she's still unmarried and with no prospects of being so any time soon) are aggravating his condition. Therefore, to stop him from worrying, Camilla has made up an imaginary fiancé. This has obviously become more complicated than she expected, and her whole family is insisting on meeting this guy. So here Camilla is, on her way to visit them, and knowing she'll have to invent some kind of excuse about why her fiancé isn't accompanying her (at which point, she fears her grandpa will become even more worried about just what kind of man his dear granddaughter has got involved with).

Anyone puzzled about why Camilla would reveal such intimate concerns to two men she's just met, one of whom she actively dislikes? Me, too. But ok, this I could take. Problem is, it gets worse.

Hearing this story, Sedgewick sees a golden opportunity in front of him. See, he and Benedict are spies (Of course!, you're thinking), and they're in the area trying to investigate a leak in their spying ring, which employs the town's smugglers as conduits (spies and smugglers, what could be more original?). Unfortunately, their investigations have been getting nowhere, because no one will speak to them, and the man who was their go-between is dead.

If Benedict could pretend to be Camilla's fiancé, however, both their problems would be solved. Camilla would be able to show off a real, live man, and Benedict would be regarded almost as one of the family, and so worthy of being trusted. So Camilla is persuaded to agree, even though she's not told about Benedict's mission. She thinks he's just doing it for a fee.

But here comes what I just couldn't bring myself to buy: when they arrive at their destination, it turns out one of Camilla's silly aunts has taken the story about the fake fiancé a little futher, and has told the rest of the family that she's actually already married. So does Camilla simply state that this is wrong, maybe by saying that her aunt must have misunderstood her latest letter, or inventing some excuse? Nope, she can't contradict her aunt, you see, because that would so humiliate the poor thing! There's nothing to do but allow everyone to think she and Benedict are, indeed, married, even if this means they'll be sharing a bedroom.

I'm sorry, but give me a break. The fake fiancé thing was stupid enough, but the way she went along with her imbecilic aunt's story was too much. This is 1812, the consequences of being found out would be pretty huge, and yet that idiot Camilla will rather risk her reputation (and her grandfather's health, if he should find out, because what could be a greater shock that finding out that the man who's been sleeping in his sweet, innocent granddaughter's bed isn't her husband?) than make up a story about why the marriage hasn't taken place yet. Come on, off the top of my head: "I did write to auntie that we would be married last week, so I imagine that's why she told you the marriage had already taken place. But Mr. Benedict's mother was sick and couldn't attend, so we were forced to postpone it for a little while longer." See? Piece of cake.

This is just the set-up of the book, which includes Camilla and Benedict's initially hostile relationship turn into something more, Benedict carrying out his spying mission and a subplot about Camilla's young cousing getting in over his head with the smugglers. Pretty humdrum stuff, and I'm afraid it never got very interesting.

What saves this book from a D is Camp's writing. I don't mean that it's a particularly beautiful or lyrical style, simply that it's very smooth. Even though I wasn't that involved in the story or the romance, I read the book quickly, without having to force myself to go on. There's no choppiness or weird dialogue, or anything like that here; Camp really is a pro, and this is nothing to sneeze at.


Angelica, by Sharon Shinn

>> Wednesday, February 21, 2007

All three books in Sharon Shinn's Samaria trilogy rated A grades from me last year. Angelica is a bit of an add-on to the series, written some 5 years after the publication of the third book, The Alleluia Files, but taking place a couple of hundred years before the entire trilogy.

book coverTwo hundred years ago, in order to keep the peace in Samaria, the god Jovah created a legion of land-dwelling angels, led by an appointed Archangel. Now, Jovah has a new appointee: Archangel Gaaron. And for his life-mate, his Angelica, Jovah has chosen a woman named Susannah. With trepidation, she bows to the will of Jovah and an unspoken affection slowly develops between the two.

But there is a terrible threat besetting the land-black-clad strangers who call fire down from the sky, leaving death and destruction in their wake. And the true hearts of Archangel and Angelica may never be known, as the future of the planet hangs in the balance...
One of the things I like best about these Samaria books are how I'm able to really sink into them. They're long, but I never feel in a hurry to get to the end. On the contrary, when the stack of pages to my right starts getting smaller and smaller, I start getting depressed, because I just don't want to leave this world. Angelica was no exception. An A-.

This is a very romantic book, almost as romantic as Archangel. In fact, it starts in a way that reflects Archangel very strongly. A few months before the Gloria and the change in archangels, the archangel-elect (currently the leader of the Eyrie hold) goes to the oracle and asks for the god's instructions with regards to chosing a wife. Jovah gives him a shock with his answer: the angelica is not to be the expected upper class, very appropriate heiress. In fact, just as Rachel in Archangel, it turns out the angelica-to-be has spent most of her life with the Edori. And unlike Rachel, Susannah actually is an Edori.

Gaaron is not one to question the god's will, and so he goes in search of his angelica. And when he finds her, another shock: she already has a lover, one she loves very much. But when Gaaron arrives, Susannah and Dathan are in the middle of a fight, and so when she hears the god's pronouncement, Susannah allows herself to be stolen away by Gaaron.

Angelica deals with Susannah's struggle to get used to a way of life very different to the one she's known all her life, and with the increasing love developing between her and Gaaron. But in addition to this, there's a strong outside plot. All's not well in Samaria. Very suddenly, isolated farms and travelling caravans have began to be found burnt to a crisp, burnt by a fire so hot and all-consuming that no one manages to get away. Nothing that is known in Samaria could produce such results. And when more information about what's happening is discovered, Samarians are even more baffled. They seem to be under attack by black-clad invaders who have incredibly destructive weapons, sticks which they point at targets and which send out the incredibly hot fire. No one knows who they are and what they want, and much less how to stop them, especially since one of the tenets of Samarian society is the rejection of technology, especially technology applied to weapons.

I mentioned Angelica is almost as wonderfully romantic as Archangel was, but as much as their initial circumstances ressemble those of Rachel and Gabriel (and even though Gaaron's full name is actually Gabriel Aaron), Susannah and Gaaron couldn't be more different.

Where Rachel was defiant and refused to settle into her new life, Susannah is resigned almost from the first to the fact that she will never again be able to live the Edori life. She's very realistic about her prospects, and from the first, does all she can to make a good life for herself, even while accepting that she might not be completely happy. All she needs, she tells herself, is contentment, and she's positive that she might find it in the Eyrie.

As for Gaaron, he's nothing like the arrogant, showy Gabriel. Gaaron is a really sweet guy, and one's who's very unsure about himself. He's always considered himself the dull one, the uninteresting one, the one everyone comes to for help when they have a problem, but not the one they come to when they want to have a good time. The circumstances surrounding his relationship with Susannah exacerbate the problem. He's knows that that Susannah was in love with a charming, fun man when he came to her bearing the god's command that she marry him. And compared to Dathan, Gaaron feels even more boring and humdrum. He doesn't see how Susannah, this woman he's increasingly fascinated by, could ever love him.

And to be fair, Susannah's first reactions are in that vein. She really doesn't feel she could love a staid, solid man, when what she loves so much about Dathan is precisely his charm and light-heartedness. But this changes with time, as she gets to know Gaaron better and starts seeing the beauty of his solidness and trustworthiness. And when she comes to the realization that what she feels for Gaaron is love, it's something we readers were able to see even before she understood it.

Most of the book follows Gaaron and Susannah, telling their story in Shinn's very characteristic way (follow one character until a turning point, then go back and follow the other until he or she reaches that same turning point), but there's also a thread there, told in the same way, following Miriam, Gaaron's young mortal (not angel, that is) sister.

Miriam is a difficult character. Gaaron loves her very much, but it's pretty much impossible for him to do the right thing with her, not because of any failure in him, but because Miriam's upbringing, with their cold, hard father, means that she's determined to make trouble and not accept that her brother loves her and wants the best for her. In the first parts of the book, she lives at the Eyrie with Gaaron and then Susannah, but later in the book, she ends up joining Susannah's Edori tribe. While she's with them, there's an incident with the invaders which results in one of them being injured and taken in as a prisoner/guest by the Edori. Miriam takes this man under her wing, and a relationship develops between the two.

I confess at first I thought Miriam a spoiled, self-centred brat. A very realistic one, yes: I mean, I had to laugh at some of her thoughts, the way she did things like run away to join the Edori, and revel in the thought that when Gaaron and Susannah found her missing, they'd be worried and they'd be sorry they treated her badly. Such a typical teenage thought that. But I have little patience for that kind of thing, and I resented having to spend time with the little twit. The first sections devoted to her, I kept wishing we could go back to reading about Gaaron and Susannah.

But gradually, by living the hard Edori life, and in a way in which you really saw how the evolution would happen, the brat grew up and gave way to a more mature woman. There was some slight backsliding in the end, but it was more an instinctive reaction to being again with the people who'd always inspired the more brattish behaviour, and when made to see what she was doing, Miriam did step back into maturity. That made her growth even more evident, IMO.

Her interactions with Jossis, the invader, end up being among the best parts of the book. I got a kick out of seeing their evolving communication, and had fun seeing how they carefully and gradually were able to get their meanings across. It helps that Jossis' story is a fascinating one, and one I, as a reader, understood much better than Miriam did.

And this brings me to what's going on with these invaders: who they are and what they want. Before I started this series, I remember being a bit confused about in which order I should go. Chronological or publication order? If chronological, Angelica would have gone first, and I'm really glad I didn't go with that option. The outside events in Angelica don't give any spoilers for Archangel, but if I hadn't read those three books first, I would have ended up almost as much in the dark as the characters here end up. I actually enjoyed that though we Samaria-savvy readers were pretty much sure of what must be happening, the characters (with the exception of the oracle) are not. I would probably guess that I'd be irritated by something like this, but it works perfectly.

*sigh* Only one more full-length book and one short story left that are set in Samaria. It depresses me a little to think of it.

PS - A little Easter egg: remember in The Alleluia Files, the romance novel Tamar read with great pleasure while recovering in Semorrah? Susannah the Stolen? Guess who that was about?


Double Sin and other stories, by Agatha Christie

>> Tuesday, February 20, 2007

book coverDouble Sin is a collection of eight short stories by Agatha Christie. Half of them star my favourite detective, Hercule Poirot, but Miss Marple does make a couple of appearances, and there are two detective-less stories.

Double Sin, the title story, has Poirot taking a journey with his friend Hastings, in which they meet a young woman who gets robbed. It's not a particularly interesting story, and the only remarkable thing about it is just what it was that caught Poirot's attention and made him think not all was as it seemed.

Wasps' Nest is another Poirot story, and much better. Poirot visits an acquaintance to warn him about an upcoming attempt at murdering him. I loved the way Christie turns what I thought was going on completely on its head.

The Theft of the Royal Ruby is the longest story in the collection. It starts out quite awful, with Poirot being pressured into visiting a country house for a traditional Christmas, only to try to recover a fabulous jewel "lost" by a foreign royal. Blergh, the scummy, cheating little prince deserved the scandal, in my opinion. However, it turns out to be a fun story, partly because of the atmosphere of the old-fashioned Christmas celebrations, partly for all the undercurrents going on in the house and the way Poirot cuts through them.

Neither of our two detectives is present in The Dressmaker's Doll, an intriguing, creepy story about a mysterious doll who seems to want to take over a dressmaker's shop. The doll apparently has a mind of her own, and the shop's owner and her employees are increasingly disturbed by the way it seems to move on its own. The creepiness is mixed with a good dose of humour, and this made it my favourite out of the stories here.

Greenshaw's Folly is the first Miss Marple story we get, and it concerns the mysterious murder of an eccentric old woman, who lives in a house that's just as eccentric. Miss Marple is very low-key here, and the plot turns out to be so complicated as to be far-fetched and unconvincing.

The Double Clue features the first meeting between Poirot and his much admired Russian countess, Vera Rossakoff. Jewels were stolen and all evidence seems to point to a particular visitor to the house, but it's much too much evidence for Poirot, who makes some very good deductions. Interesting enough.

The Last Séance tells of a real medium's last séance, as the title indicates. Elise wants to retire, and doesn't even want to do this last one, but she's promised the overbearing Madame Daubreuil she'd do another communication with the woman's dead daughter. But there's danger here, and it is a very real one. This one was depressing, not just for its ending, but for the way Elise's fiancé was so obviously taking advantage of her.

Sanctuary is the second Miss Marple story. Her niece Diana "Bunch" Harmon (who I'm pretty sure I've already met in another Christie book) discovers a dying man in her vicar husband's church. The man tries to tell her something before he dies, but doesn't succeed. A few days later, his family comes to get his possessions, but there's something about them that doesn't ring true to Bunch, and she searches those belongings before handing them back. Her discoveries send her running directly to her aunt, who will help her orchestrate the next actions satisfactorily. Bunch is fun, and though Miss Marple's deductions are again short of the brilliance I'm used to from her, she thinks up a very good plan.

All in all, this is not really Christie at her best. The stories are nice enough, but only one really stands out and the others are merely pleasant. A B-.


The Rules of Seduction, by Madeline Hunter

>> Monday, February 19, 2007

Even though I consider Madeline Hunter's first three Medievals to be her best books so far, I have enjoyed her other books, and quite a bit. Enough to keep her in my autobuy list, even. So I would have bought The Rules of Seduction even if I hadn't started hearing a persistent buzz about how it was her best book in years and years.

book coverHis rules will teach her the most sensual seductions and pleasures.

Her rules will bring him to his knees.

He enters her home without warning or invitation—a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding charisma. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her innocence in one impulsive act of passion.

Society's rules of seduction force Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her family. What Alexia doesn't know is that her masterful, sensual new husband is driven by a secret purpose and bears a dark debt of honor. He will risk anything, give everything, to repay it. Except, he discovers, the woman who starts playing by her own rules.
Well, that buzz was right: I loved TROS and did, indeed, think it was her best in a while. It's a thoughtful, character-driven, very sensual book. An A- from me.

Hayden Rothwell only put some of his money in his longtime friend's bank to support and help him. But his friend Benjamin is now dead, and so when Hayden discovers that the new partner, his former friend's brother, Timothy, has been defrauding the bank's depositors, he feels no obligation to him. He does, however, know that if the situation becomes public it might be disastrous for his country. Banks have already been failing right and left, and if this new manouver becomes known, it might result in even more of them, as people lose whatever faith they had in the financial system.

So Hayden does what he can to fix the situation. Practically every one of Timothy's belongings will be taken away to pay back what he stole, but though he and his family will be ruined financially, he will be allowed to keep his good name, because the real reasons for his ruin won't be publicized. Hayden even promises on his honour that he won't reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as he makes this promise, he begins to regret it, because Timothy tells all his family that the only reason for his ruin was that Hayden suddenly removed his money from the bank, forcing him to ruin himself to keep the institution solvent. Hayden wouldn't ordinarily care about what these people think of him, except that Timothy has a destitute cousin living with them, Miss Alexia Welbourne.

For Alexia, her cousins' ruin means she loses all hopes she might have for a future. And that, together with seeing her cousins suffer under their newly reduced circumstances, makes her despise Hayden for so carelessly ruining them. So why would Hayden care? Simple: despite himself, he finds Alexia very attractive, and as he gets to know her better, that attraction intensifies into something even stronger.

Yes, TROS is a book in which the heroine spends most of the story operating under a misconception about the hero, a misconception the hero can't correct simply because of a promise to someone who really would deserve that promise to be broken. A priori, I thougth I'd find this very frustrating, but Hunter somehow managed to pull it off. It's just that his actions fit Hayden's personality so perfectly, and I think his frustration at having made that damned promise relieved mine. I also thought the way the situation was finally resolved was excellently done. I won't give spoilers here, but I loved how Hunter avoided a painful sudden revelation (which would have come complete with Alexia exclaiming "oh, then I don't hate you"). It's all much more subtle than this, and speaks very well of Alexia's intelligence and increasing knowledge of her husband.

TROS has a perfect balance between plot and romance, which doesn't mean that it's equal parts of each. AAR recently had an ATBF column talking about historical fiction as an alternative to historical romance for those readers who are tired of wall-paper historicals and crave something with a more vivid historical feel. Well, if more writers were like Hunter, that problem wouldn't exist. She strikes what for me is the perfect balance: the story is very much a romance, and the focus is on the relationship, but at the same time, the history forms a rich backdrop to the plot, shaping events and people's personalities. And something else I love about how Hunter does it is that she takes little known (to me, at least) aspects and makes them the basis of her plot. In this case it was the financial crisis of 1825, with its wave of bank failures, while in other books she's used things like the issue of reapportionment (The Charmer), for instance.

But what really made TROS so excellent was that against this fascinating setting, we get a beatiful romance, one between two interesting and well-developed characters.

I liked Alexia because she was so pragmatic, but at the same time, human enough to resent having to be practical and make the best of things. She's intelligent and realistic enough to know that she'll need to make the choice that gives her the best chance for a good future, even if this choice means a blow to her pride and surrendering some of her romantic dreams. But what made her rise above a placid and doormattish character was that she had those prides and those dreams, and that though she makes the practical choice and ends up making the best of things, it's not without some resentment, and she takes great pleasure in rebelling in the small ways she can afford.

Hayden was as fascinating a character as Alexia, maybe even more so. This is a serious-minded, extremely analytical and even somewhat cold man, who, nonetheless, goes crazy for this woman whom he knows doesn't like him very much at all, and with good reason (at least to her mind, and Hayden knows that too). The best thing about this increasing madness of Hayden's was that he went crazy but in a very Haydenesque way. He didn't go wild and change personalities completely, he just fell for her in a quiet, completely intense kind of way that I found incredibly romantic.

There are no huge, passionate fights in this relationship, but it's fraught with deep, heart-felt conflicts, all the more dangerous because they're not regularly hashed out in the open. There's nothing Hayden wants more than Alexia's love and trust, and yet he is pretty sure that Alexia's heart is still with her dead cousin Ben. And as for her loyalty, he also fears it's with her family, not with him. Which is not really that off the mark, at least not at first. Alexia really has to struggle with this issue, because her love and trust, which she thinks should belong with her family, are slowly changing and becoming focused on Hayden, something she regards as a kind of betrayal. These conflicts are beautifully written and explored, in a way that isn't any less heartwrenching for being expressed quietly.

I think my favourite part of the book has to be the last one, the ending, for its lovely, intensely romantic feel. Still trying not to spoil anything, I'll just say Alexia is given the chance to make a choice she never would have thought she'd be able to make, and Hayden goes practically to pieces, even while allowing her to freely make that choice, because her happiness has become more important to him than his own. My, oh, my, it was an amazing and wonderful way of showing the intensity and depth of their feelings, and it ended the book in a perfect note.


I'll Be Hot For Christmas, by Evangeline Anderson

>> Friday, February 16, 2007

I'll Be Hot For Christmas (excerpt) is a short sequel to Evangeline Anderson's The Assignment.

book cover.
It’s a year after their assignment at the RamJack where they first confessed their feelings for each other and Valenti and O’Brian have been sharing an exclusive and white-hot relationship when Valenti suddenly pulls away. Understandably upset, O’Brian is determined to find out why his partner/lover is giving him the cold shoulder on Christmas, even if it means handcuffing Valenti to the bed to get the truth out of him! .

I liked the idea of catching up with O'Brien and Valenti, but I'm afraid this wasn't too good. Obviously in such a short piece (some 50 pages in my Ebookwise, so at most, 30 pages in a regular paperback), I'm not expecting something complex and deep, but I am expecting an interesting conflict.

I thought for a minute that Anderson was heading in an interesting direction, into dealing with what being known to be gay might mean for these two cops, but the reason why Valenti was being stand-offish ended up being beyond lame, which pretty much ruined it all for me.

There was also something about the dialogue that really grated on me, and it was the way both O'Brien and Valenti seemed to be allergic to the word "I". It was never "I want you", always "Want you"; never "I need you", always "Need you". This was a low-grade annoyance in The Assignment, but for some reason, here it bothered me much more.

The one thing that I did find myself intrigued by was Sean's insistence that he wasn't gay. He isn't attracted to "men", he says, he's simply in love with Valenti, nothing more. I kind of like that idea, that he is in love with a person, regardless of that person's sex.

Unfortunately, other than this, the story is just blah. A C-.


The Face of a Stranger, by Anne Perry

>> Thursday, February 15, 2007

I've been reading Anne Perry for years and years... since I was in high school, actually, since I remember borrowing some of her books from the library there. And because I started reading her long before the Internet came along, I didn't pay much attention to the order of her books. I'd read whichever title I came accross, whether it was part of the Pitt series or the Monk series, and whether it was an early or a late entry in whichever series it belonged to.

The book I've just finished, The Face of a Stranger, is actually the first in one of those series, the one featuring policeman William Monk and Hester Latterly. I've read the 8 books that come after it (though not in order), but I'd never had the chance to read the first one, the one which started it all.

book coverHis name, they tell him, is William Monk, and he is a London police detective. But the accident that felled him has left him with only half a life; his memory and his entire past have vanished.

Trying as best he can to hide that fact, Monk returns to work and finds himself assigned to the brutal murder of the Honorable Joscelin Grey, Crimean war hero and popular man about town, in his rooms in fashionable Mecklenburg Square. The exalted status of the victim puts any representative of the police in the precarious position of having to pry into a noble family's secrets—which in itself will be difficult for Monk, as he's forgotten his professional skills along with everything else.

But slowly the darkness begins to lighten as each new revelation leads Monk step by terrifying step to the answers he seeks but dreads to find....

The mystery plot featured here would be interesting and well-plotted enough for a B+ on its own, even if the book had an indistinct setting and anonymous detective. When you add the fascinating and vivid setting, plus the intriguing issues facing Monk, this bumps my grade up to an A-.

When police detective William Monk wakes up in a London hospital, he has no memory. He doesn't remember even his name, much less that he's a detective. Quickly realizing that admitting anything might place him in a vulnerable position and lose him his job, his only way of earning a living, Monk tries to conceal his amnesia.

But it's not easy, because as soon as he's physically healed, his boss sets him to investigate the murder of a man named Joscelin Grey, a Crimean War veteran. It's a complicated case, and not just because Monk has no memory of investigative techniques and wouldn't recognize one of his contacts if he bumped into him on the streets. Grey has been dead for weeks now, so the trail is cold, and he's part of the aristocracy, brother of an Earl, which means any questioning of his peers has to be done veeeery delicately. And when it starts looking as if the murderer must have been someone very close to Grey, Monk starts suspecting that his boss is setting him up for a fall.

As I mentioned above, the mystery of who killed Joscelin Grey is solid enough to make the book work on its own. Reading so much romance I've more or less got used to suspense or mystery subplots that are either shoddily plotted or so insubstatial that they are simply an excuse to get the hero and heroine together, and so reading a mystery like this one is a treat. The case is interesting (when I put the book down, I found myself wondering what might have happened and thinking up theories) and the pacing is superb, with the clues revealed slowly and carefully. And best of all, when the truth is finally revealed, it's one that feels right. When you look back at the book, there are plenty of indications of what might have happened, and everything clicks perfectly.

In addition to this, there's Monk's amnesia, which (strangely enough, considering how I usually feel about amnesia plots), really makes the book amazing. It meant that, in effect, Monk was conducting two investigations at the same time. One, the traditional one in a mystery, on the murder of Major Grey, and a second one to discover who he himself is. Not his identity, because he's told from the first that he's a police detective and called William Monk; what he needs to know is what kind of man he is. Is he a cruel man or a kind one? A generous man or a miserly one? He has no idea, and is half scared to find out, because his first impressions of himself, based on how other people treat him, are of an ambitious, cold man.

I liked the way Perry questions, through this, what makes who we are. If we lose our memory, do we lose our personality, or is personality somehow ingrained? How much value should we give to what others think of us? They are interesting questions, and Perry handles them in a thoughtful way. We don't really get much conclusion in this area, but from what I remember, there are more answers in the following books in the series.

In addition to Monk, TFOAS introduces another character who will be important in the series, and a wonderful character it is, too. Hester Latterly is a well-born woman who's spent the past years nursing in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Even before she left she was a strong, intelligent woman with no patience for fools or the silly constraints of society, and her experiences in the Crimea have only exacerbated these qualities. On her return to England, Hester is unsure of what to do with her life, and she first gets mixed up in the Grey case through her friendship with Joscelin's Aunt Callandra, who will become a kind of mentor and benefactor for her. I had some memories of the powerful chemistry and somewhat adversarial relationship that develops between Hester and Monk later in the series, and it was very interesting to see the start of it here.

Another thing that's wonderful about this book is its portrayal of England in the late 1850s (I can't remember if we're given an actual date, but the action happens right after the end of the Crimean War, and that was in 1856). Perry's setting is so vivid and strong that you can practically see and smell and touch it, and the characters she creates are very definitely people of their time. I was especially interested to see the problems Monk had when dealing with the aristocracy, because as a policeman, he was regarded as almost slightly above servants, and so his "impertinent" questions weren't at all well received. And the glimpse of a very different world, the London rookeries, was just as fascinating. Perry doesn't shy away from the unpleasant sides of her setting, but at the same time, she somehow manages to keep her book from getting bogged down in an atmosphere that's too depressing.

Now that I've read TFOAS, I can hardly wait to reread the rest of the series, in order this time, and see how things evolve. The next one is A Dangerous Mourning, and fortunately, it's already in my shelves.



>> Wednesday, February 14, 2007

book cover
I'm so proud! My thanks to Mailyn for running the awards, and to all of you who voted! And congratulations to all the other winners, especially Bloggers Of The Year KristieJ and Ames!

(Such a lovely icon I get, too! Do you notice there's a little image of my blog in there? Wonderful job on that, M!)


The Squire's Daughter, by Deborah Simmons

I bought The Squire's Daughter when I was acquiring all of Deborah Simmons backlist, after enjoying books like her de Burgh medievals, The Gentleman Thief and the Regency quartet that includes The Last Rogue. TSD is a very early book in Simmons' career.

book coverJustin St. John would always remember the day his little pixie had ridden up to Worth Hall, her limpid eyes as big as saucers. But nothing could have prepared him to see Clare again, grown-up, beautiful…and nearly betrothed to a madman! He couldn’t just sit back and watch the innocent Clare ruin her life….

Clare Cummings had thought she could save her childhood prince from the curse of his melancholy. Youth must have addled her brain. Now, here he was again, acting as if she needed his help! Justin’s behavior hardly befitted a prince, so why was she still drawn to the infamous marquis?
Usually when I don't finish a book what happens is that I'm having trouble reading on, but more for an accumulation of problems than for any specific things (unless it's because of the writing style, that is). I stop, decide not to go on, decide to give it another try, read for a while, stop, rinse and repeat, until I give it up for good.

With TSD, it wasn't like that. I was reading on quite well... not really loving the book, because there were some things that annoyed me, but the book was readable enough. And then things came screeching to a halt.

The plot concerns a young virginal hero and a rake (*sigh* of course). 18-year-old Clare is the squire's daughter in question, and she's in London, sent by her father to find a husband. Unbeknownst to her, her father has pretty much arranged a match with a guy named Farnsworth.

But a few years earlier, when she was just a girl, Clare had befriended a neighbour, a young rake in his early 20s. Their friendship ended when Clare's father discovered she'd been visiting Justin and threatened him if he saw her again. For the next two years, they didn't see each other, but when Justin finds out that she's supposed to be marrying Farnsworth, he hits the ceiling.

Apparently, this guy is absolutely horrible. I'm not exactly sure what the evil things he did were, because I didn't read that far, but from Justin's thoughts, we're talking budding psychopath. So to save Clare from him, and as a last resort, because none of her family will listen to his warnings, Justin arranges with the squire to marry Clare himself.

This is an idea Clare doesn't like at all. She's been in love with Justin since she first met him; how can she marry the man she loves so much when he so obviously doesn't want to marry her for love? You know the type of thing, pretty common romance-novel reaction. Blah, blah, blah.

So anyway, I was reading happily enough until page 85. Farnsworth has just finished trying to assassinate Justin's character, by hinting about a young woman whose death he says Justin caused, a young woman who died of what he says was an "accidental" fall, while carrying Justin's child. When he leaves, Justin tells Clare the whole story. It had happened when he was 18. Yes, the young woman (a 16-year-old) was pregnant by Justin, and yes, the fall that killed her wasn't accidental. She threw herself out of a window because Justin wouldn't marry her.

And then comes the kicker. Clare thinks:

"So you blamed yourself", she said. (...) And drank to escape your guilt, Clare thought. And perhaps used women for the same reason -to forget something that shouldn't really be laid at your door. Irresponsible males of all ages were always getting foolish young women in the family way. It was scandalous, but it was not a matter of life and death, not a matter of suicide and lifelong torment.
Say what? It's not? Have we suddenly time-traveled into a big city in the 21st century or are we still in a small town in the 19th? So Justin shouldn't be blamed at all, because boys will be boys and he was just an "irresponsible male", Clare? May I remind you he was the same age you are now? Of course, of course, the decision to commit suicide was the girl's, but the idiot man should damn well be blamed for doing things that would have resulted in ruining a woman's life, even if she hadn't killed herself!

To be completely clear, it's not Justin's behaviour per se that made me throw the book against the wall. I don't require him to be a paragon of virtue. He did something wrong, but sure, he could have been redeemed by Simmons, I don't doubt that. It's Clare's careless whitewash of his character that burns my ass. It's her complete dismissal of the other's woman tragedy that gets me.

If I had been loving the book up until then, I might have continued reading, just to see if Simmons would fix this, but since I'd already been thinking Clare was a bit of a silly twit and that a lot of the plot felt clichéd, I just don't want to continue reading. This gets a big, fat DNF.


The Knave and the Maiden, by Blythe Gifford

>> Friday, February 09, 2007

I've accumulated quite a stash of Harlequin Historicals, seduced by the fresh and different plots and settings. The last one I read, The Surgeon, by Kate Bridges, wasn't a success, and I hoped Blythe Gifford's The Knave and the Maiden (excerpt) would be better.


Mercenary knight Sir Garren owed much to William, Earl of Readington: his sword, his horse, even his very knighthood. And in return Garren had saved the earl's life in the Holy Land. Yet when his liege lord fell gravely ill upon their return home, Garren knew he must save his friend once more, whatever the cost - even if it meant embarking upon a pilgrimage to pray to a long-forsaken God, or promising to deflower an innocent young woman along the way....

Dominica was certain Sir Garren was a sign from heaven. Surely the pilgrimage, blessed with the presence of the handsome and heroic knight, would provide a sign of heaven's plan for her to take the veil. But every step of the journey seemed to be leading her straight into Garren's powerful arms. And Dominica was beginning to wonder if her true mission was to open the mercenary's seemingly cold heart to true and lasting love.

It was. Much, much better. The opening was slow, but after the first 60 or 70 pages it hit its stride and became a very good read. A B.

TKATM is a road romance featuring a type of road trip I've never seen before in a romance novel: a pilgrimage. Our hero and heroine meet while on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Larina. They each have strong reasons to go there. Sir Garren, a landless knight, is going there because he was asked by his liege, Lord William, who lies dying after being rescued from the battlefield by Garren himself. Dominica, a young foundling living in a nunnery, is going to receive a message from God confirming that she should be a nun herself, too.

The very religious Dominica is in awe of Garren, called The Saviour by some, for his saving of Lord William. But Dominica doesn't know that the prioress, pushed to it by the unscrupulous Sir Richard, brother to Garren's liege lord, has offered Garren a tidy sum of money to seduce her, so she can't enter the nunnery. And even worse: she doesn't know he's accepted the offer.

I'm not sure why, but the first part of the book was really slow going. I'd read a few pages and lose interest and put the book aside. This actually went on for a couple of weeks, with me (obviously) reading quite a few other books in between a couple of pages read of this one.

I think part of the reason for my lack of interest was the character of Dominica, who at first was very difficult for me to understand and like. She's almost otherwordly in her faith. Everything is "God this" and "God that", and nothing in the world around her is dangerous, because God will take care of her and fix it. Her willful blindness to reality made me want to shake her.

But then came a turning point, when I realized that Gifford wasn't writing Dominica as a perfect, supernaturally good child-woman, but as someone so sure of everything that this becomes a flaw. It became clear that her faith in the fact that God will do anything she wants, if only she asks for it, crossed the line into pride and arrogance, and when she becomes aware of this, I was hooked.

This increasing awareness comes from her contact with the world around her during the pilgrimage, and especially from her contact with Garren. Garren turned his back on God years earlier, when all the people he loved were taken away from him during the plague, in spite of the constant prayers and even the gift to the Church of all his family's properties. He doesn't believe a pilgrimage will help at all, but he's willing to do anything that will give William peace of mind. But as the pilgrimage proceeds, and he interacts more and more with Dominica and the other pilgrims, Garren starts questioning his lack of faith.

As you might deduce from reading what I wrote above, this is a book in which faith and religion play a huge role, not just in the plot, but in the very make-up of every single character. I'm no historian, so I can't very well judge how historically accurate the book itself was, but I'll just say that Gifford made her Medieval setting come alive, and that her characters never come across as 21st century people in costume. The way they think and see the world is completely different to mine, and it was a very interesting experience to spend some time with them.

Oh, and the romance? Very nice, actually. I was a bit doubtful about the thing with Garren promising to deflower Dominica, but it ends up playing very well, adding even more to Garren's questioning of himself and his motivations. And I was also worried about Dominica's overwhelming hero-worship of Garren at the beginning. But the romance ends up being between two equals, people who have equal power over each other.

I also enjoyed the plot, the actual pilgrimage. The trials and tribulations the pilgrims go through to reach the shrine are just fascinating, and Gifford creates some very intriguing secondary characters.

I've checked Gifford's website, and it seems that this, a book published in 2004, is the only one she has out so far, and that's a shame. I would love to read something else by her.


High Rhymes and Misdemeanors, by Diana Killian

>> Thursday, February 08, 2007

High Rhymes and Misdemeanors, by Diana Killian was recommended to me in one of the Elizabeth Peters yahoo groups I belong to, as part of my neverending quest to find authors who might write like her.

book coverCan a love of dead poets save her from following in their footsteps?

While visiting her favorite poets' old haunts in England's Lake District, Grace Hollister, an American schoolteacher and literary scholar, stumbles upon the body of Peter Fox face down in a stream. Thankfully, the dashing local antiques dealer is not dead -- but after saving his life Grace soon finds herself pursued by two menacing thugs who are after the gewgaws Peter is hiding. Problem is, Peter doesn't have any gewgaws. He doesn't even know what gewgaws are. But he and Grace soon discover they've got something to do with Lord Byron?and someone's willing to kill for them.

As Peter's dark past is gradually revealed, his knowledge of vice coupled with Grace's love of verse lead them straight into the heart of a caper of the highest order -- one that might lead to a spectacular literary discovery and poetic justice for all.
The blurb actually gets it right: HRAM is definitely a caper. I like capers when done right (and when the setting is interesting), and this one was all right. A B-.

American teacher Grace Hollister is having the vacation of her life, touring the English Lake District and visiting the locales which inspired her favourite poets. Or rather, she was having the time of her life until the friend who was accompanying her ran into an old boyfriend and abandoned her. And her vacation goes even more off-course when one evening, while taking a walk around the inn in which she's staying, she finds the body of a man face-down in a stream.

The body in question belongs to Peter Fox, a man also staying at Grace's inn, and it's still alive, though barely. It quickly becomes clear that someone is after him, someone who wants certain Byron-related gewgaws they think Peter has. And through her rescue, Grace becomes involved, too. The problem? Neither Grace nor Peter have any idea about what those gewgaws might be, or where they might be hidden.

Running around picturesque locales in Northern England, old-fashioned English villages, antiques, dead poets and their artifacts, eccentric characters... all the ingredients a caper should have, and most of them were very well done. Killian gives us an excellent sense of place (and I liked that you do get a sense of a modern, multicultural England, though it could have used a bit more of that), and the atmosphere was perfect. I especially loved the Byron connection, and trying to figure out, together with the characters, just what the villains could be after that would be so important.

I also thought the author did very well with the plotting. Sometimes the problem in books like this one is getting the characters involved in something so obviously out of their depths, but without making them look like reckless idiots. I thought Killian succeeded. The characters' actions felt reasonably reasonable (sorry, sorry!), and it felt plausible that they'd react as they did. Some actions at the end were a bit iffy and verging on stupid, but I could overlook it.

But... an interesting plot can only go so far, and I did feel a distinct lack of spark in the characters. Peter had potential, with his colourful past, but he never completely came alive. As for Grace, I'm sorry to say she a was pretty boring character. She's just so... well, average, I'd say. In any case, as the main characters, they didn't have the sizzle and energy necessary to make a book like this really outstanding.

There are two more books in this, the Poetic Death mystery series, and both Verse of the Vampyre and Sonnet of the Sphinx (the latter coming out this April) feature Grace and Peter. Who knows, maybe they'll come into their own in these next installments. I was interested enough in HRAM that I might check them out and find out.


The Surgeon, by Kate Bridges

>> Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I found a pile of Harlequin Historicals in my TBR, and the main thing I've noticed is the variety. They seem to be the only publisher that wasn't obsessed with the Regency period in the last few years. The Surgeon (excerpt, etc.), by Kate Bridges, for instance, is set in late 19th century Canada and features a Mountie surgeon hero.

book coverA wife shouldn't be a surprise package.

But Mountie surgeon John Calloway suddenly found himself saddled with a special delivery he hadn't signed for - mail-order bride Sarah O'Neill. He had no room in his life for marriage! But why then did he feel compelled to protect Sarah from all things dark and dangerous - including her own unspoken past?

If John Calloway didn't want her, fine! Sarah would survive - and thrive! - without him! The rugged, committed doctor dismissed his proposal as an elaborate prank. So how come the two of them kept finding themselves in each other's arms? And what would Sarah be forced to deny in order to stay there?
A potentially interesting setting and plot, but very bad characterization and dialogue make this a C-.

Mail-order bride Sarah O'Neill arrives at Alberta full of hopes for the future. She's to marry the fort's surgeon, John Calloway, a man whose letters to her make it clear is a kind, thoughtful person. But when she arrives, it's all a surprise to John. It turns out his men had decided to play a joke on the serious minded doctor they tease about seeing the world in black and white, and the idiots' idea of a good joke is to order him a bride without his knowlege... basically, to make a poor woman turn her life upside down and endure a nightmarish 8-day train journey, for nothing. Brainless twits.

When Sarah finds out the truth, she's understandably devastated, but she's got nothing to go back for, so she decides to stay in Alberta anyway. She can work for a living, and also, there's the fact that she suspects she might find her runaway brother there. But several misunderstandings, in addition to the revelation of certain intimate details she'd included in the letters she'd thought she was writing to he future husband, cause Sarah's reputation to suffer, and so she and John, who feels responsible and is starting to think Sarah wouldn't be such a bad choice, end up marrying anyway.

This book just didn't flow. The more I read from my TBR, the more I appreciate authors who write smoothly and don't kick me out of the story every couple of pages. In The Surgeon, the main reason I kept stopping my reading was because I never got the feeling the characters' actions and thoughts were coherent and natural. Half the time, I didn't understand what Sarah was going on about, and never understood why she kept getting angry at John. Both of them kept doing things that didn't really make much sense and had no motivation, other than helping the author complicate the plot.

For instance, there was Sarah's incomprehensible decision to keep the fact that she's trying to find her brother from John. Whyever wouldn't she tell him? No reason, just to cause conflict later in the plot. Or, why wouldn't she just say that the reason she knows so much about guns is that her father was a gunsmith as well as a watchmaker, as so many watchmakers were? Just so that John would assume the worst and to cause a discussion later.That's what I mean by the characters and their actions not feeling natural.

Also, the dialogue and interior monologues felt melodramatic and fake, as did the secondary characters, who were one-dimensional and acted like no normal person would ever act.

The only reason this one didn't get an even worse grade was the interesting setting and the likeable hero (when he wasn't behaving incomprehensively, that is).


Passing on the word

>> Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Racism In Publishing, How Does It Affect You?

Are you an African American author who’s been published for at least one year? If so Karen Scott wants to hear from you.

She’s conducting a survey based on the racism within the publishing industry, and whether or not it’s as prevalent as some believe. She’s looking for black or African American authors who have been published for at least one year.

She would like to know about your specific experiences within the industry thus far. She wants to know how AA authors feel about the current shelving policies, and niche marketing. She wants to know who you feel is to blame for the problems that you face. She also wants your suggestions on how things can be improved upon.

In all, there are twenty questions in the survey, and all that she asks is that people be as honest as possible. Confidentiality is assured if requested, but for the findings to yield more weight, she would request that she be granted permission to directly quote from the answers given by the authors.

She’s hoping to poll at least 100 AA authors, in an effort to ensure that a fair representation is achieved.

If enough authors agree to partcipate, (and depending on the findings) the results may well be sent to representatives within media and press. No promises that Oprah will hear about it, but all efforts will be made to get the message out.

If there are AA authors out there interested in participating in this poll, please e-mail Karen at hairylemony @ gmail. com (without the spaces) with the subject header ‘Please send me the survey'.

The deadline for the survey to be completed and returned to Karen is March 1st 2007


In Hot Pursuit, by Suzann Ledbetter

I'm so proud of myself. So far this February, most of the books I've read have been books by new-to-me authors that have been in my TBR for ages. It really needed to be done. Some have been great, some haven't, but at least now I know. How about In Hot Pursuit, by Suzann Ledbetter? Good or bad?

book coverAfter the brutal murder of her husband, police officer Liz Rivas entered the witness protection program to save her young son. Today, twenty years later, she's Jenna MacArthur, shop owner in Pfister, Missouri. Jenna and her son, Sam, a rookie cop, have build new lives in a small town where everybody knows everybody's business. Or at least they think they do.

Then a stranger arrives in Pfister, a men who remembers Liz Rivas. He is Paul Haggerty, a fellow cop from her past. There are memories here, sure. . .and a fierce attraction. But is he a connection to her former life -- or a threat to the life Jenna has sacrificed so much to build?
*sigh* The answer is: not really bad, but to me, unreadable. And damn it, I really, really did want to read this. The story has the potential to be very interesting: the heroine has been in the Witness Protection system for 20 years, and as the book starts, a man has appeared in her town who knows who she is. He doesn't seem to wish her ill (in fact, he seems to be the hero). But what does he want? How will things play out?

Unfortunately, I won't be able to find out, because the writing style is such that after 85 pages, I just can't tolerate to continue reading. In all honesty, I can't say that it's a *bad* writing style. In fact, I'm sure it's the very reason many of Ledbetter's fans like her books. It just didn't work for me. The constant colourful, elaborate (which I'd actually call "tortured") metaphors and other imagery grated.

It's difficult to describe how much they grated. I first put the book aside on page 50, but after a few hours, I went back to it, thinking it couldn't have been as awful as I remembered. Surely I could ignore it and keep reading? Well, no, I couldn't. I closed it again 35 loooooong pages later, this time for good. This book with a wonderfully promising plot ends up being a DNF.


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