Awaken the Senses, by Nalini Singh

>> Thursday, May 31, 2007

TITLE: Awaken the Senses
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Silhouette Desire

SETTING: Contemporary California
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: Book #5 in the Dynasties: The Ashtons continuity series. You can see the other titles in the series in this ebay listing (only place where I could find them!)

REASON FOR READING: I ordered Nalini Singh's entire category backlist after reading the fantastic Slave to Sensation.

Charlotte Ashton had never belonged anywhere - until she met worldly Alexandre Dupree. The winemaker was consulting at her family's vineyard, and soon shy Charlotte was completely under his spell. He seemed to know all her secret desires, all her dreams - as if he'd been put on earth just for her pleasure.

Alexandre seduced Charlotte in all the ways she had fantasized about. He'd read her secret journal and discovered the real Charlotte - the sensual lover, the generous woman, the vulnerable virgin. Was his crime so unforgivable when all he'd wanted was her love? Yet now to maintain her trust, he would have to continue to lie....
THE PLOT: Frenchman Alexandre Dupree has been hired by the Ashton family to consult at their vineyard. He's just there to do his job and intends to have nothing to do with this particularly disfunctional family. Until, that is, he meets shy Charlotte, daughter of the family patriarch's late brother.

Charlotte is part of the Ashton family, but she's always felt apart from the others, partly from personality, partly because of her Native American heritage (from her mother's side). She lives on the Ashton estate but keeps to herself, taking care of her greenhouses and creating flower arrangements.

Charlotte is initially intimidated by suave Alexandre, but he's determined to pursue her. And when he finds her journal and reads her erotic fantasies, he might just know exactly how to go about it.

MY THOUGHTS: It's strange how different Nalini Singh's category books are to her Psy/Changeling titles. Both are well-written and with at least streaks of originality, but they seem to have completely different sensibilities, with the category ones being comparatively quite old-fashioned.

This one in particular was nice, and maybe less old-fashioned than the rest, even though the heroine is the virginal, innocent type and the hero has some illegitimacy issues (that seems to be the common thread in all the category titles).

Both Charlotte and Alexandre were interesting people. Charlotte's relationship with her family was intriguing, especially the hints we get of her relationship with her brother. And I liked her all the better for having the self-protective instincts to want nothing to do with that horrible Spencer.

As for Alexandre, he seemed very sweet under that "seductive Frenchman" façade. His mother was his father's long-time mistress, and Alex's reaction to this wasn't the stereotypical "all women are sluts" one, but to want something more solid and established for himself, which he finds in Charlotte.

Unfortunately, for all that the hero and heroine were interesting enough on their own, they were pretty ho-hum together. I just didn't feel the chemistry or the heat. I thought the letters in Charlotte's journal, or at least, what we saw of them, were nowhere as erotic as Alexandre seemed to find them, and the love scenes were all right, but didn't completely engage me.

And then there was the whole issue of this story being part of a continuity series. For the most part, Charlotte and Alexandre's romance seemed to be apart from the whole overarching story of the Ashton family, and my impression is that this was probably a good thing. From what I saw of it here, and from the blurbs of the other books in the series, it seems to be the trashy soap opera type, which is very definitely not my thing.

But here's the thing, as much as we're outside it here, some developments do happen, which creates certain problems. First, Charlotte discovers something huge about her mother, and this plot thread is left unresolved, which was very unsatisfying. I'm guessing it will be dealt with in her brother's book. Second, near the end of the book, there's a murder and stuff which have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot here, so I was left reading 20 pages which didn't interest me in the least.

MY GRADE: A C+. It would have been a B- without the last few pages.

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It takes a village

>> Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If you're browsing around the romance blogosphere and have ended up here, chances are you're not the type of reader who simply picks up whatever looks interesting at the bookstore. If you're anything like me, your book buying involves meticulous and incredibly time-consuming research into what's coming out next.

Well, have I got a website for you! Romantic Advances was a concept Jane and Sybil came up with, and a bunch of us bloggers have been helping make it real.

The idea is to have all the information you need in one stop. We're planning to list all upcoming romance novels (though at first, at least, we're confining ourselves to RWA -authorized publishers), but not just title and author. We know that unless it's a book by an autobuy author in the first place, we readers need a bit more information to make up our minds.

So, at Romantic Advances, you'll also be able to see what the book is about, whether it's part of a series, a picture of the cover, and in many cases, an excerpt. Plus, you'll be able to search these upcoming books according to different criteria... Medievals coming out in June? You've got it. Vampire books? Got it as well.

We've only just started and are still in beta, so we don't yet have all the info up and haven't ironed out all the bugs, but we invite you to come on over and explore.

Building the TBR mountain... one book at a time.

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A Lick and a Promise, by Jo Leigh

>> Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TITLE: A Lick And A Promise
AUTHOR: Jo Leigh

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 249
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: The author. Jo Leigh is one of a handful of Blaze authors I still follow.

Hot 'n sexy...

Food stylist Margot Janowitz's sizzling commercials for a chain of burger joints all scream "Eat Me" on TV, but her sensual adventures offscreen are another story. Until a scrumptious stud arrives on the scene and taste-testing him sounds like a totally mouthwatering idea.

...add up to "Yum!"

Mr. Ultraconservative Daniel Houghton III, moves in next door to Margot and he's just begging to be savored, toyed with and enjoyed. making him over into a wild and sexy lover should be easy for Margot - a piece of cake for a pro when she's working with a perfect set of buns!
THE PLOT: Margo is a hip, cool food stylist, Daniel is the cool, conservative architect who's just moved into her building in Chelsea, trying to bring some new air into his life. The minute she meets him, Margo decides to take him under her wing and help him keep that fresh air coming in. It doesn't hurt that though he's pretty uncool, Daniel is extremely yummy.

MY THOUGHTS: In the past months, I've unsuccessfully tried to read some of the Harlequin Blaze books left in my TBR. I couldn't even really start any of them. The plots seemed all ridiculous, and the ones I thought I could deal with, I abandoned after rolling my eyes for 10 or 15 pages. So when I received my latest M-Bag and found a bunch of Blazes there, I was dismayed. What was I thinking when I bought them? Isn't it obvious I've outgrown them? Well, reading ALAAP, silly title notwithstanding, made me realize it was simply that what's left in my TBR is the left-overs. This is what I want when I read a Blaze, not a collection of contrivances that are supposed to be sexy but are not.

As you can see above (a one-paragraph plot description has to be a record for me), the plot of the book is quite simple... it's just boy-meets-girl, really. But this doesn't mean ALAAP is a simple book. Leigh delivers full-drawn characters who actually feel and act the age they're supposed to be, as well as a complex relationship between them, even if all they're actually doing is falling in love and dealing with the normal pressures of their jobs.

Actually, when I read the first few pages, I had some doubts. I mean, I liked the idea of it being the hero, not the heroine who wants to change his life and stop conforming to everyone's expectations of him. I liked even more that it was the heroine who'd help bring out the wildness in him. But Margo was a bit of a problem. She sees Daniel and immediately thinks what a waste, he's yummy but uncool. He needs a makeover and I'm the one to do it. I disliked her arrogance in just judging Daniel lacking after barely meeting him and deciding she had the right to just walk in and change him.

But you know what? It ended up being fine, because their relationship soon went far beyond makeover giver / makeover receiver (makeoverer / makeoveree? That sounds awful!). And I loved seeing them together. At first, Daniel is just incredibly dazzled by Margo. He's unbelievably shy and serious and has no idea how to handle a woman like her, completely unlike anyone he's ever met. His brain pretty much goes into meltdown whenever he's with her. And she delights in keeping him off-balance, teasing him and saying all kinds of outrageous things to him. This could have fallen flat, but it turned out to be majorly HOT.

And it goes on for just long enough. They're soon beyond this, too, and building a real relationship, even if it's not what either of them intended. This is still just as hot, but the yummy love scenes and their interactions in between them are not just about sex, but about two people getting to know each other and discovering much deeper feelings.

Something else I loved was that neither Daniel nor Margo are living in a vacuum as they get to know each other. They have issues with their jobs, issues which reflect what's going on in their outside-work lives. Margo seems to have bitten off more than she can chew, taking on the food styling for series of hamburger-chain commercials, while Daniel is having trouble keeping on doing boring designs for the boring architectural firm in which he works, when he's having such a good time going beyond the traditional in his personal life. The way they resolve all this is excellently done, too.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+.

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The Warrior's Gift, by Bonnie Dee

TITLE: The Warrior's Gift (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Bonnie Dee

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: some 42,000 words, which I'd say would be about 120/130 regular mass market paperback pages.
PUBLISHER: Loose Id

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Erotic romance
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: Mrs. Giggles' review

In Katya's world, villagers sacrifice their daughters as sex slaves for a sect of warriors who keep their lands safe from invasion. When Katya herself is chosen as a "bride", although she's always questioned the arrangement, she submits for the sake of her family. She has no idea what to expect from the warriors, and not much more idea when it comes to sex.

Blessedly, her Warrior, Turan, turns out to be a sweet, gentle giant of a man, despite being raised in ignorance of anything but fighting and killing. He knows as little about sex as Katya herself, but his primal passions burn hot.

Together they learn the pleasures of the flesh...and incite a revolution that changes their world forever.
THE PLOT: An elite group of Warriors is all that stands between Geveldon and invasion by their neighbours, and so the population has become used to making some sacrifices to support them and the Guardians who train them. Not only do the villagers pay tithe, they also periodically give the most beautiful among their daughters to be the Brides of those Warriors who perform outstandingly in battles.

When Katya is chosen to be a Bride, she's not happy, as she's always been against the practise. She wants more out of life than to be a man's sexual plaything, and she doesn't think it's fair for men to be practically bred to be killers, either. Still, refusing would mean ostracism for her family, so she gives in, even if she's determined not to submit to the chosen Warrior easily.

But she didn't count on being given to Turan, a sweet, kind man in that scary Warrior's body. Meeting and falling for him really bring home the point that the Warriors are just as much the Guardians' slaves as the women chosen to be Brides, and so Katya becomes determined to overthrow the tyrannical Guardians, just as much for her sake as for Turan's.

MY THOUGHTS: This story had a very interesting concept behind it, and I enjoyed many things about it. Most of all, I liked the heroine. Katya is a very proactive, independent woman, determined to do what's right, even if she has to pull everyone (including Turan) along with her every step of the way.

And she does, which is another thing I found interesting. Turan is this huge scary warrior, but he's been conditioned all his life to obey the Guardians without a second thought, and it's not at all easy for him to overcome a lifetime's habits. It takes a lot of courage for him to change this, and it's thanks to Katya that he finds this courage. But, I also liked that there was already something in Turan that was yearning to get out and get more out of life, even before Katya entered his life.

Problem is, the whole story feels shallowly done. Everything seems too simple (not to say simplistic): the way they fall in love, the way Katya and Turan convince everyone to revolt (especially the way Turan convinces some of the other Warriors... he himself has trouble disobeying a Guardian's orders, even after meeting Katya, and we're supposed to believe he convinces other people like him to revolt only with a couple of whispered words?).

Plus, there were way too many sex scenes. The first ones were great, and I read them word by word. Turan is even more sexually innocent than Katya, because he's seldom seen a woman in his entire life, and seeing these two discovering each other and what they can do together is lovely. So ok, I was just fine with those first scenes. But after that, we get quite a few love scenes that are just two people having sex... no development at all of the feelings involved, just sex, and that got boring. I know this is supposed to be erotic romance, but I still say that if a sex scene can be removed from a book and nothing is lost of plot and/or character development, then it should be removed.

MY GRADE: I'm going to give this a B-, because I so liked the bare bones of the story.

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Spanish Disco, by Erica Orloff

>> Friday, May 25, 2007

TITLE: Spanish Disco
AUTHOR: Erica Orloff

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Red Dress Ink

SETTING: Contemporary Florida
TYPE:Chick-lit
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: Intrigued by the AAR review.

A tale about love, publishing and doing the hustle.

"Real life was messy. Sloppy bathrooms I could handle. Love I could not."

For thirty-three-year-old Cassie Hayes, life is about to get messier. She can't cook, unless you count coffee as a meal (she does). She can't commit (just ask her ex-husband). She drinks too much (tequila for breakfast). Of course, she has guided her share of authors to the bestseller list for the literary publishing house where she works (when she makes it to the office). And now she must coax a sequel out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author-turned-recluse. Moving in with the recluse is one thing, but teaching him the hustle so he can win the heart of his Spanish housekeeper is way beyond the call of duty.

Cassie slowly unravels, with no coffeehouses, no bagels and nothing but sand for nightlife. On top of that, she's having phone sex with her favorite author, the mysterious, London-based Michael Pearton, who has suddenly decided to ruin their perfect affair by insisting that after five years they meet in person. Add a tabloid reporter who is after the literary story of a lifetime, and Cassie's dance card is full.
THE PLOT: After decades of silence, the author of the book that gave a voice to the Vietnam war generation is ready to publish his follow-up to it, and he's chosen a small Florida press to work with. His condition? Editor Cassie Hayes must work on the book, and she must do so at his isolated island home.

The future of her publishing house depends on this, and so tequila-guzzling coffee-addicted city girl Cassie packs her Mr. Coffee and heads to Sanibel Island. Who knows, it might be good to have some distance from English author Michael Pearton, who seems bent on turning their very satisfying long-time phone affair into a real one.

But what she finds at Sanibel Island is not what she expects, and her job might be harder than she could ever have imagined... not to mention change her life completely.

MY THOUGHTS: I'm rereading what I just wrote above, and doesn't it seem as if she will fall in love with the mysterious author, or that he will turn out to be Michael, or something like that? I probably should rewrite it, but I'm feeling lazy, so I'll just say that's just not at all what this book is about. I thought so for the first few pages, but nope, the old author is just a figure who ends up giving Cassie life lessons, not romance. The guy is in love with his young Mexican housekeeper, and Cassie ends up kinda matchmaking.

So, did I like it? It was a fast, not-at-all-boring read, and I quite liked some parts, but the book as a whole just didn't do it for me.

I think the problem might have been what felt to me as a strong sentimentalistic streak throughout it, juxtaposed with a heroine who's supposed to be one tough cookie.

Cassie herself was a pretty good character, very much the opposite of all those nicey-nicey, bland heroines who must, above all, be "likeable" and are not allowed even one real flaw. I liked that she saw herself clearly and was not insecure. In fact, she accepted herself with all her flaws, and I loved that she didn't have to be "redeemed" or anything like that. Michael loved her, bitchiness, unhealthy habits and all.

But around this interesting heroine we get this plot brimming with important Life Lessons To Be Learned, and it's not done in a particularly witty or edgy way. And even Cassie sometimes behaves unrecognizably, as when she has an email exchange in which she and Michael end up talking about their relationship using a metaphor of dancing, and I kept thinking "this is Cassie writing?"

Another negative for me was the subplot about the tabloid reporter, which simply went nowhere. It was intriguing enough, but I've no idea what it was doing in this book, and those pages of this pretty short book would have been much better used in developing the romance. I liked the ending and its resolution, but I would have liked more meat there.

MY GRADE: C+

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Jennie's meme

>> Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It took me a while to come up with the books (big dilemma: most of my favourite, favourite books are pretty well-known), but at last, here's my answer to Jennie's experimental meme.

The rules? Veeery simple: just list and describe three of your favorite books that other people might not be familiar with. Then tag five people.

So, here we go:

My first is Desire's Moon, by Elane Osborn, and this is one I'm willing to bet not many of you will have heard of. I actually tried to find out more when I read it, a couple of years ago, and there was nothing at all online.

Anyway, this book has a very unique setting: 1897 San Francisco. And not just that, it's also got a great heroine, who's trying to build herself a place in the archeology field, and a lovely, beta professor of a hero. And the romance... ahhhh.



A Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotson is probably better known (it's even been reviewed at AAR), but you just don't hear enough buzz online about Ibbotson, considering how wonderfully Romantic with a capital R her books are.

And this one is the most romantic of them all... the heroine is an exiled Russian countess who's forced to find a job as a maid in an aristocratic house in England. And wouldn't you guess it? She falls in love with her employers' son. Very telenovela-ish plot, but it's written in such a sweet, funny and charming way that you can't help but fall in love with it.

Best news of all: it's just been reissued, less than two weeks ago.



Finally: The Shadowy Horses, by Susanna Kearsley. I know Jennie, at least, knows this one, but Kearsley is another author who's not as well-known as she deserves. This particular title is my favourite of hers. It's one of those books I recognize is flawed, but which I still enjoy immensely.

It's also another one with an archeology theme. There's a dig in Scotland, searching for a lost Roman legion, ghosts and a lovely romance. And there's also one of the most vividly rendered settings I've ever read, so if you feel like a nice trip to Scotland...



Now, who to tag? Having taken so long, I'm thinking most people will have been tagged already. Let's see, I believe I haven't seen it in these blogs yet:

Ana
One of the Ja(y)nes
Katharina (time to resusitate that blog, honey!)
Marg
RenéeW

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U.S. Male, by Kristin Hardy

>> Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TITLE: U.S. Male (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Kristin Hardy

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 251
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary Sweden
TYPE: Series Romance
SERIES: Sequel to Certified Male (both comprise the Sealed With a Kiss series)

REASON FOR READING: Sweden. It's always held some kind of fascination for me. I hope I can visit some day. Also, I've read Kristin Hardy before and liked her books.

She gives new meaning to the word undercover…

The plan was as simple as one, two, three:
1. Fly to Stockholm.
2. Track down the twisted, obsessed collector who stole her grandfather’s priceless Mauritius stamp.
3. Try not to get killed in the process.

But for feisty Joss Chastain there’s only one problem. John “Bax” Baxter is the best private eye – sorry, executive security professional – in the business. And her last chance for getting the multi-million dollar stamp back. But confident, capable and “eat-me-with-a-spoon sexy” Bax knows Joss is trouble with a capital T. There’s no way he’s going to get roped into the case.

That is until Joss gives him a taste of what investigating a foreign hotel room together might lead to….
THE PLOT: From what I was able to tell here, in Certified Male, Joss and Gwen's grandfather left them in charge of his stamp shop and a bunch of his stamps got stolen, including the very valuable Post Office Mauritius pair. And when I say "very valuable", I mean it: about $ 4.5 million for the pair (I'll never understand the collector mentality). Gwen somehow recovered one of them in that first book, but the other one is still in the hands of the person who ordered them stolen.

It's Joss' turn to go after the second stamp in U.S. Male. Apparently, the collector who has them is a very dangerous Swedish guy, so off she goes to Stockholm, where she'll try to recover the stamp that's still missing by dangling the other one in front of the thief. In that, she'll have the help of former Interpol agent and now PI John "Bax" Baxter.

MY THOUGHTS: The Stockholm travelogue was nice and fun, though Hardy isn't in the league of those authors like Mary Stewart or Susanna Kearsley, who make you feel as if you're right there. Her descriptions are all right, but hardly as vivid as I hoped for. Still, interesting enough, and I'm now even more determined to visit Stockholm soon.

As for the story, blah. First, I couldn't muster any real interest in whether or not they'd recover the stamp. I mean, Joss would go "oh, oh, my grandpa's retirement", but grandpa still has the first stamp, and that's worth about a million bucks, so he'd hardly be left indigent! So is it worth it to risk her life for it?

The characters were pretty bland. It's a shame, because they both have what could have been an interesting background, if developed right. Both grew up outside their country, Bax in Europe, Joss in Africa, and as a result they've never felt as if they really belonged anywhere. This is mentioned, but not really explored much. Also, Bax was nice enough, but I never warmed up to Joss completely. I didn't get her drifter past, because it was so not like the person she seems to be here. Plus, some of her actions crossed the line into TSTL. She hired Bax because of his expertise, but then constantly refuses to heed his advice and goes off on her own.

The romance was just as bland. Bax and Joss become lovers almost immediately, when she goes to hire him. He makes as if to refuse, so Joss pretty much throws herself at him, offering to "pay" him that way. On the plus side, it doesn't really come across as some kind of prostitution, because it's pretty clear from the start that Joss is doing it because she's strongly attracted to him anyway, and the "payment" thing is somehow of a joke, so that's all right. Unfortunately, there's no heat whatsoever here. No chemistry, and the sex scene and all that followed were totally meh. After two or three, I was skimming them.

MY GRADE: A C+, with the plus being extra points for the unique setting.

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A Sudden, Fearful Death, by Anne Perry

>> Monday, May 21, 2007

TITLE: A Sudden, Fearful Death
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

COPYRIGHT: 1993
PAGES: 439
PUBLISHER: Ivy (Random House)

SETTING: Late 1850s London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: # 4 in the William Monk series

REASON FOR READING: I'm rereading the whole series, in order this time. I first read them over 10 years ago, and back then I just read whichever installment I'd just bought. Didn't worry much about series order.

In a London hospital, Prudence Barrymore, a talented nurse who had once been one or Florence Nightingale's angels of mercy in the Crimean War, meets sudden death by strangulation. Private inquiry agent William Monk is engaged to investigate this horrific crime- which intuition tells him was no random stroke of violence by a madman.

Greatly helped by his unconventional friend Hester Latterly, another of Miss Nightingale's nurses, and barrister Oliver Rathbone, Monk assembles the portrait or a remarkable woman. Yet he also discerns the shadow of a tragic evil that darkens every level ot society, and a frightening glimmer ot his own eclipsed past....
THE PLOT: Remember Lady Callandra Daviot, Hester's mentor and the benefactor who helped Monk set up his private investigator business? Well, she's the one who initially involves them in this particular case. When a nurse is found strangled in the hospital of which she's one of the Governors, Callandra fears the police will focus one on of the doctors (on whom she had a bit of a crush), just because he's a foreigner.

So to the rescue come Monk and Hester, he doing his thing as a "private agent of enquiry", she getting hired as a nurse herself, trying to investigate from the inside. For Hester, it's more than about clearing Callandra's doctor friend: Prudence Barrymore, the murdered nurse, served with her in the Crimea, as one of Florence Nightingale's nurses. Both Hester and, once he finds out more about Prudence, Monk as well, are determined to find her murderer.

MY THOUGHTS: It's hard to articulate my thoughts about this one. On the whole, it was a book I enjoyed. The hospital setting was excellent, and so were the court scenes. As for the mystery, it was very interesting, especially because of the victim's personality, which really made her come alive, both to the reader and to the people investigating the case. I liked that, because it gave them an important stake in resolving the case... it wasn't just about the intellectual puzzle, but a need to see Prudence avenged. Unfortunately, the way Perry develops the mystery is unquestionably weaker than that of the earlier books.

The first puzzling choice was to start with 50 pages that don't seem to have anything to do with the main case, as Monk investigates the case of a young woman who was raped in her sister's back garden... a case Monk quickly solves. You do realize why it's relevant to the rest of the book after a while, and while I understood what Perry was trying to do by structuring the book in this way, I don't think it was the best choice. This whole first section is much too long and much too isolated.

The plot about Prudence's murder was interesting and well done, except that for hundreds of pages, everyone kept debating about the content of certain letters, about what what it could have been that Prudence wrote that she wanted and debating whether it was believable that she wanted what to them is the obvious choice. The problem is that what she actually meant really is obvious to anyone who reads these letters, and no one in the book sees it. I suppose you could argue it would be inconceivable to people of her time, so it would be logical that they would think what they thought (sorry for being so cryptic, but I don't want to spoil it), but it made for some very frustrating reading, because I kept wanting to shake them all so that they would see.

I also had a problem with the resolution of the case. This time, the person who actually did it didn't seem right, didn't fit in as perfectly as in other books. Maybe it was because Perry has brought us to believe that Rathbone and Monk have an almost unfailing insight into people, and if they think something like "he couldn't have been lying, couldn't have been that good an actor", they will indefectibly be right in his assessment. But here, they're completely misled by the culprit.

Outside of this, though, the book is immensely enjoyable. The relationships between the characters continue to develop and we keep learning more about them. The setting and characterization as wonderfully done as in the other books in the series. I don't want to repeat what I've said so many times before, so I'll just say that the way Perry makes her setting come to life, exploring important issues and social mores, and the way she makes her characters fully realized and very much children of their time, is unparalleled.

MY GRADE: A B, though I admit I maybe I'm being a bit too stringent, and comparing this one too much against Perry's other books.

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Wrapt in Crystal, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, May 17, 2007

TITLE: Wrapt in Crystal
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 335
PUBLISHER: Ace (Penguin-Putnam)

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Romantic fantasy
SERIES: No, this is a stand alone

REASON FOR READING: Sharon Shinn's name on the cover is enough for me. I've become a huge fan since reading her Samaria series.

Women from two very different religious sects are being murdered on the planet of Semay, and no one knows why. Sent to investigate is Cowen Drake, a special assignment officer with an intergalactic peacekeeping force -also known as a Moonchild.

He finds himself drawn to the vibrant and sophisticated Jovieve, head of the joyous Triumphante sect. But at the compound of the ascetic Fideles, he finds himself falling in love with a quiet, intense woman named Laura -who risks her life so carelessly that she might be the killer's next victim.
THE PLOT: Interfed, an intergalactic alliance of planets, has long been courting the distant Semay, trying to lure this peaceful, Latin-influenced world into joining them. So when the Semayese ask Interfed for help investigating a series of murders, the latter send their best, Lieutenant Cowan Drake, member of the much admired peacekeeping force called the Moonchildren.

Semay is a planet divided into two sects, both worshipping the same goddess, Ava. These sects are diametrically different: while the Triumphantes revel in Ava's joyous side, seeing nothing wrong in enjoying creature comforts while doing good works, the Fideles are ascetic and austere. But now they have something more in common: a serial killer is strangling priestesses, and he's alternating between the Fideles and the Triumphantes.

To find out what could be happening, Drake, a man who's lost his faith, will have to come to really understand the two sects and their faith. For this, he'll have the help of two women, each as fascinating as the other: Jovieve, the head of the Triumphante order, and Laura, one of the Fideles.

MY THOUGHTS:WIC is a fantasy, an exploration of the issue of faith, a police procedural and a romance, all in one. These disparate aspects work well together, and the book suceeds wonderfully at the first three and is good enough at the fourth.

Shinn has developed a full, interesting world here. Most of the focus in WIC is on Semay and its religion and way of life. That intrigued me, but I was just as interested in the wider world, in Interfed and the different worlds in it and in the political manouvering involved in trying to bring Semay into the fold. In her website, Shinn mentions that she has a handful of stories already written in the Moonchild universe (all written before she was first published, unfortunately, so apparently they'd need some work before they are publishable), and it shows that she's given it a lot of thought.

Semay itself is well done, but there was only one issue that distracted me and which I thought wasn't as sucessful. I'm talking about the language. I appreciate what Shinn was trying to do, showing a language that is supposed to be a current one that has evolved over hundreds of years (or rather, a mix of current ones, supposedly, but other than one or two words, everything else is from a single language). Problem is, the language Shinn chose is Spanish, my own mother tongue, so it's one I know very well and love. And so the whole thing fell flat to me. It simply read like bad Spanish to me. In fact, many of the new words and word combinations were such that I was extremely skeptical that Spanish would have evolved like that. It had no rhyme or reason. If you compare today's Spanish to that of the 15th century, there's a logic to the changes, and that was missing here.

Like in the Samaria series, the issue of faith is a big one here, and it's explored in a way I enjoyed. In a way, the Triumphantes' and Fideles' doctrines and ways of worshipping complement each other and each is enriched by the presence of the other. On first starting the book and being introduced to the two sects, I expected a different dynamic between them, one more full of rivalry and conflict. Shinn surprised me with this much more complex, subtle relationship, and it was a good surprise.

The romance wasn't as enjoyable to me, however. We've got a bit of a triangle going on here, with Drake being drawn both to Jovieve and to Laura, albeit in different ways. I suppose it's my traditionalist romance reader heart speaking, but I was uncomfortable with how Drake had sex with one of the women when he already knew he loved the other one (even if nothing had yet happened between them). Well, at least this other woman didn't turn out to be some kind of villain, and I appreciated that there wasn't a demonization of her sexuality (she's not interested in a deeper relationship with Drake, either).

But once the triangle is out of the picture, the romance improves. The woman who ends up being Drake's definitive love interest is a very compelling character, a true tortured heroine, and the resolution of their relationship is wonderfully romantic, in a completely non-schmaltzy kind of way.

Something else I really liked was the police procedural aspect. The case is one that is truly interesting and that is made even more so by Semay's way of life and each sect's characteristics. I enjoyed following Drake's painstaking investigation, and once we find out what's going on, everything clicks perfectly, especially the things that had made absolutely no sense previously.

MY GRADE: A B+. Let's hope Shinn can publish all those Moonchild universe stories one day.

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Dead Reckoning, by Linda Castillo

TITLE: Dead Reckoning
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 330
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: I like Linda Castillo's brand of dark, dark romantic suspense.

There is a fine line between justice and revenge . . .

Assistant D.A. Kate Megason is about to prosecute the case of her career--a senseless double homicide caught on video. But before she can bring it to trial, someone starts sending her terrifying messages. Someone who obviously knows Kate's deep, dark secret...

Eleven years ago, Kate and her seventeen-year-old twin sister were brutalized and left for dead. Kate survived, but her sister was left brain damaged, her life destroyed--and the perpetrators were never caught.

Now, Kate needs the help of Frank Matrone--an investigator with his own shadowy secrets--to help her discover whether the maniac she escaped all those years ago is the same madman taunting her now. If she and Frank don't succeed, Kate's violent past will likely be repeated.Only this time she may not survive ...
THE PLOT:Kate Megason is an Assistant D.A., and devoted to her job. Her boss has just assigned her an important case that could really make her career. It's one that seems open-and-shut but which will need to be meticulously prosecuted (it's an election year, after all), and Kate is very definitely up to it.

The only fly in the ointment is one of the investigators assigned to her team, former cop Frank Matrone. The man just doesn't seem to have a sense of responsibility. He arrives late for his very first meeting, and keeps on doing it. Plus, Kate suspects that he's got some kind of problem with substance abuse.

Frank is having trouble, and he does have a problem with alcohol and prescription drugs It's a result of being caught in a bombing while working in Jerusalem. Frank was badly injured (thus the prescription drugs), but his fiancée was even unluckier, and died (thus the alcohol).

But even with these issues, Frank's cop instincts are untouched, and he immediately zeroes in on certain characteristics that make him suspect the crime they'll be prosecuting isn't as straightforward as it seems.

We readers know it isn't, as we see scenes from the POV of the villains right from the start. These people are determined to keep their secrets secret (though what they are, we don't know), and so they decide to make sure the prosecutor in charge is distracted. And since Kate has a really horrible episode in her past, the way to do this is easy.

MY THOUGHTS: This is not a happy, cheerful book. For starters, the protagonists have Issues, with a capital I.

Kate is a rape survivor. Eleven years later, when she was a teenager, she and her sister were brutally raped and left for dead. Kate recovered, by her twin was left brain damaged. Even after extensive therapy, Kate is still traumatized, and has devoted all her life to her job. She just has no personal life whatsoever, and is so focused and demanding at work that the cops have taken to call her Megabitch (*sigh* So typical. In a man, exactly the same behaviour would be admired, but because she's a woman, she's demonized. I wanted to hit those chauvinistic pigs). Furthermore, Kate has to deal with guilt over having been the one to convince her sister to sneak out of their house, and has to deal with the fact that her mother blames her for it. It's a wonder she doesn't go to pieces even more when she starts getting stalked by someone claiming to be the man who raped her all those years earlier!

Frank is as conflicted as she is. He's still got to deal with the grief for his girlfriend, as well as with his addictions and the loss of the job he loved. For a good part of the book, he's barely functional.

And then there's the crime Kate is preparing to prosecute. It's a horrific, senseless double murder, and even more sinister than it seems.

In addition to not being happy and cheerful, this book is often difficult to read. Some scenes were extremely hard to read, like the first, which really conveys the horror of the double murder, or a flashback to when Kate and her sister were raped. That one was especially harrowing to read, even though it wasn't excessively graphic. But I understood why they were there. It's not at all about titillation or shock value, simply a way to really bring home the brutality of the villains and exactly what Kate has come to overcome.

What makes the book work is that for all its darkness, it's not depressing. In fact, I'm left with a feeling of hope for the future. Castillo doesn't take the easy way out with Kate and Frank's problems and simply make them disappear. They still have issues to deal with at the end of the book; they haven't magically gone away. But they overcome a lot throughout the book, and I was left with the feeling in the end that both were on the right track, and that being together would help both be happier, healthier persons.

Considering what's going on, it's amazing that Castillo was able to create a romance that works as well as this one does... a pretty hot one, too. But it does, and Kate and Frank's increasing feelings for each other never feel inappropriate or out of place. That's one of the reasons I so like Castillo's books: she's very, very good at combining fully realized characters, strong romance and intriguing suspense.

MY GRADE: B+ for this one. Castillo doesn't disappoint.

NOTES: That style of cover makes me think Linda Howard, for some reason. And of course, Castillo's first name helps...

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Kiss of Midnight, by Lara Adrian

>> Wednesday, May 16, 2007

TITLE: Kiss of Midnight (excerpt, etc.)
AUTHOR: Lara Adrian

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 432
PUBLISHER: Dell (Random House)

SETTING: Contemporary Boston
TYPE: Vampire Romance
SERIES: First book in the Midnight Breed series.

REASON FOR READING: It's embarrassing to confess it, but it was the way this series sounds pretty J.R. Ward-ish that made me want to give it a try.

He watches her from across the crowded dance club, a sensual black-haired stranger who stirs Gabrielle's deepest fantasies. But nothing about this night--or this man--is what it seems. For when Gabrielle witnesses a murder outside the club, reality shifts into something dark and deadly. In that shattering instant she is thrust into a realm she never knew existed--a realm where vampires stalk the shadows and a blood war is set to ignite.

Lucan Thorne despises the violence carried out by his lawless brethren. A vampire himself, Lucan is a Breed warrior, sworn to protect his kind--and the unwitting humans existing alongside them--from the mounting threat of the Rogues. Lucan cannot risk binding himself to a mortal woman, but when Gabrielle is targeted by his enemies, he has no choice but to bring her into the dark underworld he commands.

Here, in the arms of the Breed's formidable leader, Gabrielle will confront an extraordinary destiny of danger, seduction, and the darkest pleasures of all . . . .
THE PLOT: After the successful opening of her latest exhibit, photographer Gabrielle Maxwell goes clubbing with friends to celebrate. The club chosen seems a bit wilder than she would like, so she decides to leave early. But before she can find a cab and leave, a fight breaks out outside the club and Gabrielle is the only witness to a group of men dragging another one into an alley and tearing him to pieces with their teeth and their hands. In shock, all Gabby can do is take some pictures with her cell phone and run to a cab and tear out of there.

Being a good citizen, Gabby reports the crime she's just witnessed, only to be met with open scepticism when the cops can find no trace of anything bloody having happened in that alley. There are no other witnesses, and even the cell phone pictures, which to Gabby are very clear, don't seem to convince them.

The only one who listens to Gabby is that nice and sexy Detective Thorne who comes to her house one evening to pick up the cell phone for tests. What Gabby doesn't know, though, is that Detective Thorne is no detective. He's a vampire, just like the men whose crime she witnessed, and he knows very well what she saw.

Lucan is the leader of a group of vampire warriors whose mission is to fight against creatures like those murderers: vampires who've given in to Bloodlust and gone Rogue, killing humans indiscriminately. Gabby's photos would be quite useful to him and his comrades, and that's originally the only reason he comes to her house. But he soon becomes obsessed with Gabby, and when he discovers she's a Breedmate (don't worry, we're not talking destined mates or anything like that, here; a Breedmate is simply a human woman whose biology makes her able to mate with a vampire... any vampire) he realizes he's going to need to bring her over to his world.

MY THOUGHTS: It's undeniable that much of the plot of this first book in the Midnight Breed series is very reminiscent of J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood. We've got:

- Vampires who are not undead, but simply another race.

- The stories centre around a group of elite warriors, who live in a high-priced mansion together with their mates.

- The warriors are fighting a group of people who are enemies of their race. As the series starts, the war between the two groups, always simmering, is entering a more serious, high-risk stage, as the enemies start behaving in a more organized way.

- In the first book, we get the story of the warriors' leader.

- The heroine is someone whose biology ties her to the vampires, but she doesn't know it, so she's always felt like she doesn't belong in the human world.

- In the first book, one of the warriors dies in an explosion.

- The most intriguing of the group is a dangerous looking outsider, even from the inner circle of warriors (and his book will be the third in the series).

And I could go on. At some points I did feel like I was reading BDB redux, but on the whole it wasn't at all bad, since the feel of the books was completely different. I guess you could say Adrian writes a JRW kind of story, but without the cheese. Unfortunately, she also writes it without the sizzling energy that makes the JRW books so addictive, even as I tell myself I shouldn't be liking them, which is the bad side of the comparison.

Not that there's no energy here, not at all. I was actually quite engaged by the story, maybe except for a stretch there in the middle of the book which felt a bit slow and as if they were only going around in circles.

I liked Adrian's world. Her vampires have a unique history and Bloodlust is a very interesting idea. I was intrigued by the conflict it creates in her vampires, since it's a very real danger for every single one of them: they need to feed, but have to walk a very fine line, because feeding too much will make them into blood addicted murderers, while feeding too little weakens them (and makes them more prone to falling to Bloodlust the next time they feed).

Lucan, as one of the oldest of them all, is in even more danger, because his generation of vampires seem to give into it more easily. He himself has been fighting Bloodlust for a long while as the book starts, and it's the main reason why he believes he cannot be with Gabby in the most intimate ways.

Gabrielle is an interesting character as well. She's not really a misfit in the human world, as she has close friends and what is building up to be an excellent career, but there are certain aspects of her that just don't fit in well with others. They only make real sense once she finds out about the vampire's world. My only disappointment in this area was the ease and almost unconcern with which she abandons her entire life in the end. This felt a bit undeveloped.

Lucan and Gabby's relationship is very effective, though it suffers from that slow patch I mentioned, in which nothing seems to be actually happening with them. Adrian creates a real connection between them, and there are some very sexy scenes here. I was especially impressed by how erotic she made the actual bloodsucking, which is something that I often find kind of yucky. Here, it's all about intimacy and passion, and it was very well done.

I was surprised by how interested I was in all the stuff going on outside their relationship, including the goings-on with the Rogues. At one point, the warriors are betrayed by someone, and just as I was reading that, something came up and I had to go run an errand. And as I was driving around, all I could think of was "Who did it? Who betrayed them?". That's good stuff! Oh, and those Rogues? Scary as hell. Some of the scenes involving them are very definitely not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but work very well in this book.

MY GRADE: A B, and I'd probably have gone for a B+ if the middle section hadn't sagged slightly.

NOTES: The next book is Kiss of Crimson and it comes out in late May. So, if you like this, just a couple more weeks to go. That's the kind of publishing gimmick I can really get behind.

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Blind Curve, by Annie Solomon

>> Monday, May 14, 2007

TITLE: Blind Curve (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Annie Solomon

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 366
PUBLISHER: Warner (Warner Forever)

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Loosely related to Tell Me No Lies.

REASON FOR READING: Recommended by someone in the HistoricalRomanceChat group (where, as you see, we don't just discuss historicals).

FROM DARKNESS

Bullets are whizzing around him, but he can't shoot back. In the middle of a weapons bust, undercover cop Danny Sinofsky suddenly goes blind. Now this man who has always looked out for himself can't cross a room without the help of his rehab instructor, Martha Crowe. Furious and frustrated, he'd almost rather die than live this way—and someone is more than willing to grant him his wish.

TO DANGER

Hiding her emotions behind a calm, practical facade, Martha is sure Danny doesn't remember her, the plain girl from high school who had a crush on him. When she witnesses an attack on his life, the two are thrown into a safe house, and this man without sight starts to see deep inside the soul of a courageous, passionate woman. Their very lives will depend on their fragile connection . . . and their ability to combine Danny's razor-sharp instincts with Martha's eyes and move as one. Because an enemy is stalking them, forcing them to go on the run, and moving in closer and closer for the kill.
THE PLOT: Cop Danny Sinofsky is undercover and in the middle of a shootout, when suddenly all goes black. Turns out he's just had a stroke which has left him blind, and the prognosis isn't good. There's no way to fix it, and the odds that the condition will spontaneously reverse itself are tiny.

In denial, Danny rebuffs the efforts of the orientation and mobility instructor assigned to him, Martha Crowe. But Martha has a very personal reason to want to help Danny: they were in high school together, and she had a huge crush on him, mostly because he was the only one to ever defend her when her classmates mocked her for being so ugly.

When someone tries to kill Danny and Martha sees the face of the would-be murderer, the two of them are sequestered in a safe house together. But the danger isn't over, and they end up on the run, with someone clearly after them.

MY THOUGHTS: What was good here was very good. I really liked what Solomon did with Danny. Not so much his personality, because he himself was merely all right, not particularly scintillating. What was really gripping was the situation into which he's forced.

We've got a man who practically lives for his job as a cop and suddenly, through no fault of his own, poof, it's gone. Without his sight, there's no chance he'll ever be able to go back on the streets, so he basically refuses to accept that his condition might be permanent. No way he'll learn how to use a cane, cook a meal without using sight, etc., etc., because learning this would mean that he's given up hope for a reversal of his condition. It's a very understandable reaction, and that would have been an interesting enough plot on its own.

But it gets even more interesting. Only a couple of days after being blinded, it becomes clear that someone is after him and that he can't trust anyone but Martha. So he doesn't just have to learn how to deal with the blindness, he has to do so while also having to deal with the dangerous situation. Solomon does an excellent job of portraying his sense of helplessness and frustration and the strength of spirit it takes to work through it.

So, when it comes to Danny himself, the book was quite excellent. My only quibble in this area is that he learned to cope with his blindness at a superhuman speed. But ok, I can suspend my disbelief.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the book is as good. In fact, the rest wasn't very good at all. The romance was just meh. I never warmed to Martha, and their relationship didn't really convince, mostly because I couldn't understand what Danny saw (so to speak) in Martha. It's not that she was plain, almost ugly... that needn't have been a problem. It was her attitude: the woman was just dreary and tiresome. I didn't buy that what they felt for each other was love. It felt more like dependence on Danny's part and desperation and a high-school crush on Martha's.

And then there's the suspense plot. It was well put-together, I guess, but the drugs-and-guns-and-lowlifes kind of plots tend to bore me. Not Solomon's fault at all, just a matter of very personal taste, but it did make me enjoy the book a bit less.

Also, I did see the real solution coming from pretty much the first page. Not the details of it, but I knew it had to be related to a certain upcoming event that was mentioned very, very frequently, always in passing, kind of trying to sneak it past us. Well, it didn't sneak past me, and I knew it would have something to do with the danger they were in, so that last twist didn't catch me by surprise in the least.

MY GRADE: A B-. The thing with Danny was good enough that I'd try another book by this author.

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Spending, by Mary Gordon

>> Friday, May 11, 2007

TITLE: Spending
AUTHOR: Mary Gordon

COPYRIGHT: 1998
PAGES: 301
PUBLISHER: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Nope, not that I know of

REASON FOR READING: It was recommended by one of the posters at the AAR message boards, Sherryfair (where is she, BTW? Haven't seen her post in a while, which is a real shame, as I always enjoyed her posts). She mentioned it as literary fiction that might appeal to romance readers.

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Monica Szabo, a middle-aged, moderately successful painter, encounters B, a wealthy commodities broker who collects her work. B volunteers to be her muse, offering her everything that male artists have always had to produce great art: time, space, money, and sex..
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PLOT SUMMARY: Monica Szabo is a 50-ish painter living in New York. She's a good artist and her work has been well received, but she's not successful enough to have the time and space she needs to really devote herself to her art. A lot of her time is spent making a living, teaching art at a private school. She does like that job, but nevertheless, would like to be able to work on her art without constraints.

During a presentation at a friend's gallery, Monica rhetorically laments that women don't have their muses, as male painters have long had. Where are the men ready to take over all those mundane concerns, giving the female artist the freedom to worry about nothing but her art and making no demands on her?

Well, right there in the gallery, apparently, because a rich commodities broker named B comes up and offers himself for the post. He admires Monica's work, and not being an artist himself, he's interested in involving himself in art by helping make things happen. If Monica agrees, he'll provide all she needs to be able to concentrate exclusively in her work.

B is also very attracted to Monica herself, and since she finds him just as attractive, their personal relationship ends up being an important part of their deal.

MY THOUGHTS: I loved this book, mostly because Monica is an amazing character and her way of looking at things was so interesting and unique. She's not a "nice" character, being pretty self-absorbed and brusque, but she's one who is always compelling.

The most interesting aspect of Monica is that's she's an artist, and she's very believable as such. This is not what she does, it's what she is. It affects her whole outlook, the whole way she perceives the world around her. Not that I can judge if it's like this in reality, not being an artist myself, but Gordon did succeed in presenting Monica as someone whose mind works in a way completely alien to mine in regards to this.

I found myself wishing I understood art much better than I do, seeing Monica's thought processes and the way she focused on certain details of paintings. And I also enjoyed her thoughts on the value of art, which is one of the themes of the book.

Something else that I think makes this book so good is Monica's relationships with her family and friends. I guess I've developed an image of literary fiction that's somewhat in line with that recent column at AAR. Maybe it's unfair, but I tend to expect "dysfunctional" when it comes to family relationships. This was very definitely not the case here. Monica has a good relationship with her daughters. Not a saccharine-sweet "perfect" relationship, she's not a selfless paragon of a mother, but one who relates to her daughters as adults and clearly loves them and is loved back. She also has a beautiful, warm relationship with her sister, Helena, completely free of the almost expected envy and resentment.

And then there's the romantic relationship. Now, that's what I don't usually look for in literary fiction. Most times it feels as if authors are afraid of really tackling a good romantic relationship. If it's a dysfunctional one that makes both characters miserable, then they can dig in, but if it's a good, solid relationship, then it usually feels undeveloped. They just won't go into how and why the characters fall in love and what makes their relationship good. Fear of critics calling them mawkish, maybe? Who knows, but it's a fear Gordon doesn't seem to have, because the relationship between Monica and B turns out to be excellently done, and yes, it's a good relationship!

It's also a fascinating one that is very definitely not traditional: their deal said Monica was the artist, B was the muse, and that's exactly how it works. It's all about Monica's needs and her work. B's promised he'll cater to them, and amid much doubt and soul-searching (can she really do this? doesn't it make her a whore to sleep with a man who's paying her rent, even though he'd be paying it even if Monica wasn't sleeping with him?), she takes him on his word.

The rigid roles do become more relaxed as the book progresses, and they start relating more as people, and less as simply "the artist" and "the muse", but it's all done without indicting Monica for having dared to behave as male artists have always done. This is a most feminist book, and it doesn't betray itself in this. In the end, B and Monica's relationship is still not "traditional" but it's warm and satisfying, and it's one that works perfectly for both of them.

MY GRADE: An A-. I'll be looking for more books by this author.

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She Who Laughs Last, by Jennie Klassel

>> Thursday, May 10, 2007

TITLE: She Who Laughs Last (excerpt, etc.)
AUTHOR: Jennie Klassel

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 300
PUBLISHER: Leisure

SETTING:Fictional island (The Dominion), during the Medieval period
TYPE: Romantic comedy
SERIES: There's a sequel Girl On The Run, about Syrah's younger brother.

REASON FOR READING: It got a DIK review at AAR.

The first time they meet, Prince Jibril captures Lady Syrah's thirteen-year-old heart. The second, nineteen-year- old Syrah kidnaps and deposits the prince in a coffin. And that is just her first trick. Odorous bedpans, clever disguises, fainting maids, gold coins: All are part of Syrah's daring and brilliant strategy to restore her family's wealth and honor. Tantalizing kisses, forbidden embraces, and heartfelt promises (and her brother's overzealous tall tales!) are not. Who's laughing now? So she frees Jibril. Then the prince vows to discover and marry his outrageous abductress, and Syrah knows at last they'll laugh together.
PLOT SUMMARY: Lady Syrah Dhion is the daughter of the head of the Ninth House, one of the 27 aristocratic families in the fictional island kingdom of the Dominion. At thirteen, Syrah fell in love with the Crown Prince, Jibril, and as she grew up she even suspected he might make her his bride.

But when Syrah turned 19, her mother died and her father became gravely ill, giving hateful cousin Ranulph the chance to barge in and take over the Ninth House. To give his claim legitimacy, he tried to marry Syrah, just as the obviously fake betrothal contract he produces said he had the right to.

When her flurry of petitions to the King produces no response, Syrah decides to fake her family's death. But she's not giving up: Syrah is determined to fight for her young brother's heritage, and so she hatches a plan. She needs to hire a mercenary to recapture her manor house, and for that, she needs some very serious money. So, how to get it? How about by kidnapping and ransoming the Crown Prince? After all, the royal family needs to pay for not heeding her calls for help...

MY THOUGHTS: Whether you like this or not will probably depend on whether you click with the author's sense of humour. In my case, it was hit and miss, with more hits than misses.

A lot of the humour was in the way Klassel has of putting things (not really what she was saying, but the funny way in which she was saying it), and that, I really liked. But she also had some running jokes, and bits of more physical humour, and those were the ones that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.

Just as a for instance, a running joke that really had me laughing was Syrah's brother Eben' propensity for tall, wondrously embellished tales, which he used in order to get out of tight spots. Those I found really hilarious. Whenever he was in a difficult situation, he started going on about dromedaries and worms and cannibals, tales so ridiculously detailed that all who heard them were hopelessly befuddled and just let him go, rather than risk their sanity and continue listening.

And one that didn't make me laugh in the least was Syrah's lady's maid, Mayenne. Anything would set her off into complex, detailed, terrorific fancies. Like, Syrah would ask her to guard the prisoner, and she'd go "he'll ask me to set him free, and I'll have to do it, and I'll be taken prisoner, and blah, blah, blah", going into detail as to what the jailer would wear and how she would die. This was just more silly than funny.

I guess the difference is that with Mayenne, we were supposed to laugh at how stupid she was, while with Eben, the humour came from his unique intelligence.

As for the plot and the romance, I enjoyed the first half much better than the second. The first was basically Syrah holding Jibril prisoner and outwitting the king to get the ransom. Great stuff. I loved that Syrah knew exactly what she was doing and behaved just as what Klassel told us she was: a master strategist. All her actions are perfectly thought out and planned, and she's always at least 5 steps ahead of everyone else.

I also liked the chemistry between her and Jibril here, though I would have prefered to do without the childhood crush thing. I wanted to see Syrah fall in love as an adult, not simply confirm a crush she already had. Anyway, their relationship in this part was pretty good, and what I liked the most was how Jibril was attracted to Syrah's intelligence and resourcefulness.

In the second part, however, the romance which had been building up quite nicely lost all steam and the conflict felt forced, because the only reason there was any distance between Syrah and Jibril was that all the men insisted on keeping Syrah in the dark about what was going on. Syrah, the woman they all knew could plan and strategize even better than they could!

So all we had in that second half was everyone running around thinking they were outwitting the others and trying to capture this pirate I cared nothing about. The romance doesn't develop at all here. Fortunately, Klassel's writing style is nice and zippy and those last 150 pages went fast enough, but they didn't give me any satisfaction whatsoever.

MY GRADE: A B-. The second half was too much of a let-down.

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Dark Angel, by Mary Balogh

>> Wednesday, May 09, 2007

TITLE: Dark Angel
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 1994
PAGES: 219
SETTING: Regency England
TYPE: Trad Regency romance
SERIES: First in a quartet that includes some of my favourite Baloghs: # 2 is Lord Carew's Bride, # 3 is The Famous Heroine and # 4 is The Plumed Bonnet.

REASON FOR READING: Well, it's Balogh, and I'd read anything by her. But this particular title came to my attention when I saw the review at DearAuthor. It was kind of HTF and expensive, so my friend M.I. helped me buy it for my birthday.

Miss Jennifer Winwood was engaged to be wed. Even better, her husband-to-be was the dazzlingly handsome, impeccably upright Lord Lionel Kersey, the man of her dreams since girlhood.But Jennifer had never dreamed that a man like the Earl of Thornhill could possible attract her - or even want to.

Why should this disreputable rake whose very name sent shock waves through society use all his will and wiles to seduce an innocent like Jennifer? And how could Jennifer forget her flawless fiancé when she found herself in the arms of this licentious lord who was everything that a proper young lady should despise? Jennifer had a great deal to learn about men... about herself... and most of all about when love was true and when it was a lie...
SHORT (HOPEFULLY!) PLOT SUMMARY: Jennifer Winwood is in London for her Season, but she doesn't have to worry about finding a husband. She's been informally engaged to the swoonworthy Lord Lionel Kersey for years, an arrangement that is officialized as soon as she arrives in London.

Gabriel Fisher, the Earl of Thornhill, doesn't interest Jennifer in the least. He might be attractive, and she might be spending more time with the scandalous man than she should (mostly because it annoys her that people order her not to), but the man just can't compare to Kersey. Well, that's what Jennifer insists.

What she doesn't know is that Gabriel's pursuit of her is really an attempt to get back at Kersey, the man who impregnated Gabriel's mother-in-law and left him to take the blame, with the ensuing hit to his reputation. Or at least, his pursuit started that way...

MY THOUGHTS: This was well worth the investment, and an excellent birthday present. Balogh was just soooooo good at writing angst in her older Regencies, and this one's a great example of that.

DA is basically a story about two men playing games, trying to score points off each other, and of a woman getting caught in the middle. It's a game Kersey gets very close to winning, simply because he doesn't have a conscience to contend with, unlike Gabriel, who really suffers when he realizes what his need to get some revenge has done to Jennifer.

At first, I wasn't completely sure this was going to work. With revenge plots, romance writers can step onto unstable ground. Is using an innocent to get revenge on someone else justified? I don't think so, which means many revenge plots completely fail for me.

In Gabriel's case, however, I didn't get the feel of a ruthless man, willing to destroy anyone if it helped him get his revenge on Kersey. His sin, rather, was failing to consider Jennifer's feelings and being a bit blind to some of the unintended consequences of his actions.

He tries to justify what he's doing by telling himself that Jennifer will actually be better off if she doesn't marry Kersey, who'll obviously make her suffer. He is right, but he doesn't consider a lot of things. He doesn't take into account that being an unmarried young woman in the middle of a scandal is not fun and games. He also doesn't think of the turmoil he'll be putting this woman through, by luring her into being attracted to someone other than the man she thinks she loves (remember: at first he didn't intend to have anything to do with her after she'd broken her engagement to Kersey). He just fails to see that Jennifer is a real person and that his actions will have a very real effect on her.

But when finally did really see what effect his actions had had on Jennifer, oh, wow. This is when the book got really, really good. By then, it's not just a matter of feeling guilty; he's also unwillingly fallen in love with her, and is convinced that what he's done has lost him any chance he had to have a real marriage with Jennifer, so all he can do is try to make it up to her, even if this means putting his feelings aside. Ah, the angst! *g*

I haven't talked much about Jennifer, but she's an interesting character, too. I loved how Balogh wrote her increasing doubts, and how it was clear that she was feeling them, even as she staunchly denied this even to herself. Jennifer is quite a smart woman, but innocent, so I didn't blame her for not seeing through Gabriel's traps.

NOTES: There's a secondary storyline which features Jennifer's cousin Samantha, who accompanies her to London and becomes yet another of Kersey's victims. This subplot actually continues in the next book, Lord Carew's Bride.

MY GRADE: It didn't have that undefinable "something" that puts a book into 'A' territory, but still a very solid B+.

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Forbidden Territory, by Paula Graves

>> Monday, May 07, 2007

Borrowing RenéeW's review format (with some minor changes) here. Otherwise, I'm never going to catch up...

TITLE: Forbidden Territory
AUTHOR: Paula Graves

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 251
SETTING:Contemporary
TYPE:Category Romance (Harlequin Intrigue)
SERIES:First in the Browning sisters series (three sisters, each with her own paranormal power)

REASON FOR READING: I bought it because of something one of the AAR reviewers posted on the message boards. The discussion was about a "yet another psychic heroine" book, and the poster mentioned Forbidden Territory in passing, as one pretty much overlooked book that had got this plot right.

Walking away wasn't an option...

"Help me!"

For Lily Browning, there was no escaping the visions that had haunted her all her life. And now a little girl's desperate cry for help had brought enigmatic, disturbingly masculine Lieutenant McBride to her door…

McBride didn't have time for psychics. He had a kidnapper to catch. But the woman with the golden eyes seemed to see things no one else could-including his own tragic secret. With a child's life at stake, he had to trust Lily…even as each step plunged them deeper into danger and into the uncharted territory of irresistible desire….
SHORT (HOPEFULLY!) PLOT SUMMARY: Schoolteacher Lily Browning is a psychic who's fought against her frightening, horrific visions all her life. Lieutenant J. McBride is a cop with an intense mistrust of psychics, especially since the disappearance of his daughter a few years earlier, when his hopes were raised by one of them and then dashed.

When McBride is assigned to investigate the kidnapping of the daughter of a Senate candidate, these two come into contact, as Lily is ambushed by a vision she can't close out and her conscience prods her into going to the police with the info.

Faced with McBride's refusal to believe in her, even when it seems clear she just can't be making that stuff up, it would be easier to give up, knowing that she tried. But Lily can't abandon little Abby, who she keeps communicating with in her dreams. And neither can she abandon Casey, the mysterious little girl who keeps joining her and Abby during those visions.

MY THOUGHTS: FT was nice enough. Graves handled the paranormal and mystery portions of the plot well. Lily's visions were smoothly done, and I liked the way the revelations were paced. I especially enjoyed the Casey angle. It was always quite obvious just who she had to be, but I was very intrigued by how she would fit in and why Lily was seeing her. And the "aha!" moment when we find out exactly what had happened during that earlier episode with the psychic who got it wrong was good, too.

However, the romance and the characters weren't as good. Lily and McBride were a bit indistinct. In fact, the characteristic of McBride's that sticks in my mind the most is his unreasonableness when dealing with Lily. Understandable, yes, but I still felt like shaking him sometimes. And the romance was a bit meh. Nothing bad, but no tingly feelings, either.

MY GRADE: A B-. Some of the twists in the plot raise it from the average where the characters would place it.

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Dazzling Brightness, by Roberta Gellis

>> Friday, May 04, 2007

Dazzling Brightness is the first in Roberta Gellis' Greek Mythology series. I've actually already read the first one, Shimmering Splendor, which was really good.

He was Lord of the Underworld, cast down by the gods into a kindom of everlasting darkness. She was born with mystical powers in a place of eternal light. And some where between the shadows and the sun was a world of treachery, danger, and unending desire...........

Against the savage splendor of Ancient Greece..from the exalted mountaintops of Olympus to a glittering midnight realm... they would defy the gods themselves to make their heaven right her on earth with a love that would blaze forever in.........

Dazzling Brightness
This is a book that starts out well, but then loses a lot of steam, mostly due to the lack of internal conflict. A B-.

The big twist in Gellis' reinterpretation of Greek myths is that her gods aren't gods. Hades, Zeus and the lot are simply powerful mages who use the powers given to them by the real goddess to make the natives think they're gods. Why? Power, adoration, tributes, that kind of thing.

Anyway, in this first book in the series, Gellis tackles the myth of Hades and Persephone, one of my favourites. Faced with the need to feed an increasing number of people in the Underworld (they aren't really dead, you see, so they need to eat), Hades arranges with his brother Zeus to take one of the Corn Goddess' priestess as his wife, so that crops can begin growing in his realm. Since Zeus had once adopted Demeter's sheltered daughter Kore, it's Kore that Hades will take, with her adoptive father's full consent, to make it all legal.

Kore doesn't really appreciate that fine point when Hades suddenly kidnaps her and drags her into the scary Underworld, a place everyone above ground is terrified of. But she soon comes to realize that the Underworld has a beauty of its own, just as Hades does. Plus, she'd be trading a life where she was smothered by her mother and had nothing of her own, not even a name ("Kore" means simply "girl"), for one in which she'd be the powerful Queen Persephone, with an adoring, genuinely kind and sexy husband and responsibilities of her own. No contest, really, and she quickly realizes so.

But ah, it won't be easy to convince Demeter of her daughter's well-being. She's so obsessed with recovering her Kore, that she soon unleashes a chain of events that could put everyone in Olympus against Hades and Persephone remaining together. It will take all their ingenuity, diplomacy and courage to manage to find a way to stay together.

Things started out really, really well. Gellis' vision of the Underworld is a fascinating one, and I loved the way she developed her heroine from the powerless, almost identity-less Kore to the powerful, sensible, extremely good ruler Persephone. I especially liked that it's not Hades who "makes" Kore into Persephone. It's obvious that she has the germs of common sense and intelligence in her from the very beginning; she's simply given the possibility of developing them in the Underworld.

The romance between these two is quite nice. I rolled my eyes a bit at the practically middle-aged Hades' lust-crazed fascination with the very young Persephone, but it was only at the very beginning that this gave me a shallow, creepy vibe. After a while, it becomes clear that it's Persephone's intelligence and strength that Hades loves.

And while the two lovebirds are exploring the Underworld and Kore is truly becoming Persephone, we see Demeter plotting and manouvering above ground, and her machinations are pretty interesting.

But... all good things come to an end. Near the half-way point, it becomes necessary that Persephone return to Demeter for a little while, to try to convince her she's ok, and I reached a kind of block. It reminded me so much of a similar point in SS, that I kind of didn't want to continue. I hate long separations. It was obvious one was coming, and it did, and it was just as boring as I feared.

I think the main problem is that the internal conflict is resolved way too early in the story. By page 150 or so, Hades and Persephone are in love, and everything's mostly fine between them. All that happens after that is external plot, and it's the equivalent of court intrigue in a historical... Zeus vs. Poseidon vs. Hades and Demeter throwing herself in the mix, plus everyone trying to calculate how everyone else will react. So-and-so resents so-and-so for this thing he did that time, so he might not defend him if so-and so attacks him, and so on, and so on, and so on.This is just personal taste speaking, but I find that kind of thing really boring.

Plus, I said everything's "mostly" fine between Hades and Persephone, and that's another thing I didn't much like. The issue I thought they still had to solve between them was one that wasn't really dealt with. It just wasn't acknowledged that it was an important one. And it was, IMO. Both these characters are much too prone to doubts and jealousy when not in the presence of the other, which gets old fast. Even worse, Hades was sometimes scary jealous, convincing himself that Persephone was betraying him at the slightest provocation. At one point he even knocks her to the ground in a jealous frenzy (mostly accidentally, but still), and I had visions of future physical abuse flashing before my eyes.

Still, the good first half makes up for the pretty boring second, and so this is a book I didn't mind spending a few hours with.

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The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid, by Lisa Cach

>> Thursday, May 03, 2007

From the blurb, I don't think I'd have wanted to read The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid, by Lisa Cach. But the review at Dear Author sold me on it, and I'm very glad it did.

Strapped for cash after an unsuccessful search for her dream job in architecture, Emma Mayson takes a less-than glamorous position as a maid for a wealthy entrepreneur. The bright spot? Her new employer, Russell Carrick, is the picture of male perfection—his mere presence sends Emma reeling. But he’s also a total workaholic who has lost his zest for living. Or did he just misplace it?

Emma sets aside her feather duster and her inhibitions to find out. Soon a transitory house-cleaning gig becomes a cushy role of well-paid mistress, as Emma rekindles her employer’s passion with a fantasy world of boundless pleasure. But then the unthinkable happens: She falls for Russell. Having already fulfilled his primal desires, can she make him see her as more than a plaything?
This was a one-sitting book for me. It was fun, fun, fun and very charming. And for all that, it didn't lack substance. A B+.

26-year-old Emma Mayson has a master's degree in architecture, but is having trouble finding a job in her field. Needing money to live, but not wanting to become sidetracked by another career, she goes for a job that won't tempt her to do so: cleaning houses.

Her latest client is software millionaire Russ Carrick, a man Emma finds tremendously attractive, even though he's 10 years older and in a totally different place in life. So attractive she thinks him, in fact, that she finds herself doing what she always unconsciously starts doing whenever she's attracted to a man: she brings up sex in the conversation. Emma jokes with Russ about how she sometimes thinks it might suit her to be a man's kept woman, to have all her expenses taken care of in exchange for regular sex. She's always horny these days, anyway, so as long as she finds the guy attractive...

And then, through a series of hilarious misunderstandings, Emma finds herself in just that position, set up in one of Russ' appartments and committed to giving him sex Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Russ thought he was asking Emma to cook for him on those days, but by the time he realized what Emma was thinking, the arrangements were pretty much complete, and he didn't want to embarrass her by telling her she misunderstood him so spectacularly. Russ knows it's not the decent thing to do, and keeps telling himself he needs to tell her he's changed his mind about it, but he just can't bring himself to actually do it.

I loved the sex scenes. Cach is good, really good. What happens is that Emma thinks she needs to make some kind of big production out of the sex, being a "mistress" and all, so she goes for the big bang... costumes, scripts, props, you name itl. Russ would rather just make love to Emma being Emma, so he's bemused by all the extras (which he also thinks are kind of silly), but at first he feels bad about saying anything (she worked so hard in the preparation, see) and then the outlandish scenarios start getting to him. Cach managed to make these laugh-out-loud funny (and I do mean *literally* LOL... I was laughing my head off as I read certain things), but at the same time not slap-stick in the least and tender and sweet and very, very hot.

I also loved both these characters. Russ is incredibly sweet. He's a bit geeky, with not much idea of how to "handle" women, which is sometimes really funny, like his awkward "Do you need a hug?" when he catches Emma crying. Russ isn't particularly comfortable about having such a hot woman cleaning up after him (in fact, the big sweetie keeps cleaning the house before Emma arrives, so that she doesn't find any embarrassing messes), so the mistress arrangement is even more difficult for him. That makes what could have been a sleazy situation merely exciting.

Emma was just as wonderful. She's smart and funny and an all-around likeable person. I totally got her insecurities about her creativity and her doubts about her career and where she is in life and where she wants to take things. I also understood her fear of risking herself and failing, which would seem weird, given what she does here, going to "work" as Russ' mistress, but it makes sense. Keeping Russ in that rigid role keeps her from taking a risk on a "real" relationship, so it takes even more courage for her to go out on a limb about the feelings that have developed than to actually become Russ' mistress. But she does it, she braces herself and takes the necessary steps, both personally and professionally, and I applauded her for it.

In addition to good characters and good sex, we also get some very satisfying romance developing. Both Emma and Russ start wanting more from the relationship, but each assumes the other wants what was originally agreed, and nothing more. It would be a flimsy conflict for a longer book, but since this one is extremely short (it says 288 pages at amazon, but it was 368 in my ebookwise, which means we're talking more like 200 in a normal-sized paperback. The margins and font must be huge in the print version), it works perfectly.

Something else I liked about the story was that Russ was really hung up on the 10-year age difference and their differing lives, which weirdly, made me not as freaked out about it as I might have been if he'd simply ignored it or considered it just right. What makes it work is that the fact that these things are an issue is acknowledged and dealt with, and it is made clear that Russ and Emma do, indeed, share a worldview and a way of looking at things, and get along fine. Since all these issues are properly appreciated, I got a sense of equality between them. And by the end, Emma has progressed to a point that she's in a much better place in her career (not insta-spectacular success, just on her way to becoming successful, which I thought was much better), so all remaining blocks to a relationship were removed.

I've got a few other books by Cach in my TBR, including the very interesting-sounding A Babe in Ghostland, so I think I'll just get cracking on them!

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Brazen Angel, by Elizabeth Boyle

>> Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Brazen Angel (excerpt) is my first book by Elizabeth Boyle, and one that has been in my TBR for years and years.

A DOUBLE LIFE...

She was every man's fantasy–and most dangerous desire. One bewitching look, the whispered promise of unspeakable ecstasy, and London's richest and most notorious rakes followed the Brazen Angel like sheep–ready to be fleeced. All London was in her thrall as she waltzed from masquerade to masquerade, seducing and stealing with impunity–until she met her match in the dark and dangerous lord who vowed to unmask her.

A SINGLE PASSION...

He raced through the streets after the sapphire-eyed beauty, determined to catch London's most audacious thief. Giles Corliss, Marquess of Trahern, had come home to honor his father's last request and marry a woman he'd never met, Lady Sophia D'Artiers. It was to be a marriage of convenience to beget an heir. But Giles had yet to discover that behind the fragile, ailing facade of his intended, Lady Sophia, lay the mistress of disguise–an irresistible brazen angel who was about to lure him into a reckless passion that threatened to destroy them both...
Brazen Angel is a book I should have liked more than I did, and if I'd read it back in 1997, when it was published, I probably would have. It's just that what would have made it original and revolutionary back then just wasn't so much so 10 years later. Plus, for some reason, I just didn't click with the story. A C+.

It's 1793 and Giles Corliss, the Marquess of Trahern is a spy (hey! I heard those groans! See what I mean about some things not being as original now as they might have been back then?). His work is of utmost importance to him, a fact his father has used in order to pressure him to marry. Not only did he make Giles make a deathbed promise to marry Lady Sophia D'Artiers, he also got his crony, Giles' boss at the Foreign Office to pile on the pressure. If he doesn't marry this woman his father chose for him, he's off his missions. Because a real spymaster is more concerned with his operatives' sentimental lives than with his top secret missions, apparently. Right.

But Lady Sophia isn't the sickly, delicate young woman she pretends to be. She's playing some very dangerous games. In London, she's the Brazen Angel, playing the temptress in order to steal from particularly debauched men. She's doing that to raise money to rescue her aristocratic family, who are imprisoned in France, waiting to be guillotined. To do this, she's got yet another secret identity. In Paris, she's La Devinette, revolutionary heroine and friend of the very people who will give the orders to execute her family.

It's in both these roles that Sophia draws Giles' attention, when it becomes suspected that La Devinette is a double agent who's betrayed and killed one of Giles' best friends and colleague. With Giles in pursuit of both La Devinette and the Brazen Angel, and quickly becoming obsessed with the woman he soon discovers is playing both roles, he's going to have to make a decision soon about what to do with his unwanted fiancée. Will he give in to what he wants and betray his vow to his father? (Well, what do you think?)

On the surface, I should have loved this book. The setting is rich and interesting, with most of the book taking place in France just after the Revolution. We've also got two characters working together as a team, with the heroine being just as competent as the hero, sometimes even more.

And yet... the setting was good, but for some reason, I couldn't really connect with the characters. I had no idea who they were; the author told me, but I didn't feel them. It was the kind of book where the heroine thought "oh, I love him" and I went "huh? why? what do you know that I don't?". So uninterested in them was I, that I ended up having to force myself to slog through pages and pages, just to get to the end (and why do I keep doing that?).

10 years ago, I probably would have liked it more, giving it props just for having a strong(ish) heroine. But see, I'm not starved for strong heroines even more. I'm finding plenty of them these days. Plus, the spy thing probably wouldn't have bored me as much.

Eh, well, this is probably an "it's not you, it's me" C+. If anyone has tried or will try the book, please tell me what you thought. I wouldn't be surprised if many people liked it much, much better than I did.

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