A College of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer

>> Friday, June 29, 2007

TITLE: A College of Magics
AUTHOR: Caroline Stevermer

COPYRIGHT: 1994
PAGES: 380
PUBLISHER: Tor

SETTING: Alternate reality
TYPE: Young adult fantasy
SERIES: Not that I know of

REASON FOR READING: I've heard great things about it and... it's a little embarrassing, but... waiting for Harry Potter here, so a book about a school for magic seemed like a good way to make the wait seem shorter.

Teenager Faris Nallaneen is the heir to the small northern dukedom of Galazon. Too young still to claim her title, her despotic Uncle Brinker has ruled in her place. Now he demands she be sent to Greenlaw College. For her benefit he insists. To keep her out of the way, more like it!

But Greenlaw is not just any school-as Faris and her new best friend Jane discover. At Greenlaw students major in . . . magic.But it's not all fun and games. When Faris makes an enemy of classmate Menary of Aravill, life could get downright . . . deadly.
MY THOUGHTS: The book has been lying on my bedside table untouched for a month, so I think I should just go official on the DNF and put it away, back in the TBR.

The fact that it's going back on the TBR and not on the To Trade box will tell you that I didn't hate it, just couldn't get into it. Might have been my mood, might have been that Stevermer's style doesn't click with me right now. Whatever it is, I'd be willing to give it another shot in a couple of years and see if I feel any differently.

The main reason I had a hard time mustering any interest in continuing reading was that I felt very distant from the characters. Even though the action was narrated from her POV (though not in 1st person), I'm still not quite sure who Faris was, exactly. I know some of her history and I know she intensely dislikes her uncle, but I never got to feel this. As for her feelings on the day-to-day happenings and the people at Greenlaw College, I only ever caught some glimpses of them. She felt too self-contained, too opaque, and not like any teenager I've ever known.

Same thing for her classmates and friends at school. I barely had a sense of who they were, and therefore I could never really understand their actions and motivations. All their interactions felt highly stilted.

As for the day-to-day happenings at Greenlaw College that I refered to above, they lacked wow factor. This is supposed to be a school that turns out witches, and yet nothing the least exciting happens, ever.

Eh, well, maybe it's all so suble it's going -whoosh!- right over my head. That's kind of how at felt at some moments, as if there were things going on between the lines that I just wasn't getting. Makes for a highly frustrating read, I'm afraid.

MY GRADE: That official DNF.

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Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

>> Thursday, June 28, 2007

TITLE: Maisie Dobbs (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Jacqueline Winspear

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 294
PUBLISHER: Quality Paperback Book Club (there's also a Penguin edition, which is the one with the cover you see below)

SETTING: 1929 England (with extensive flashbacks to the 1910s, both in England and in France during WWI)
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: kicks off the Maisie Dobbs series.

REASON FOR READING: I'm not quite sure on whose recommendation I bought it, but I liked the idea of a psychologist-investigator heroine in the 1920s. I finally picked it up from my TBR because of Li's comments.

Hailed by NPR's Fresh Air as part Testament of Youth, part Dorothy Sayers, and part Upstairs, Downstairs, this astonishing debut has already won fans from coast to coast and is poised to add Maisie Dobbs to the ranks of literature's favorite sleuths.

Maisie Dobbs isn't just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse. It is there that she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.
THE PLOT: It's 1929 and, after working for her mentor for years, Maisie Dobbs establishes her own investigator business. Her first case is an apparently very straighforward one: a man who suspects his wife is being unfaithful and wants her followed to find out what she does when she disappears every Wednesday. But Maisie is not a typical investigator, and she soon detects a mysterious feature in this case, one which will lead her into a much more dangerous case, and that will bring back memories of Maisie's experiences of the suffering she witnessed during WW I.

MY THOUGHTS:There's a mystery here, and Maisie does investigate it, but because of the book's structure, I'd hesitate to label this book as a mystery novel.

The first section of the book introduces Maisie's first case. She sets herself up as an investigator and she's consulted by a man who believes his wife might be unfaithful. As cases go, this is very straightforward and Maisie quickly discovers what the woman is doing when her husband believes she's with a lover. This section ends with the suggestion that Maisie might have stumbled on something mysterious, something related to the war (WWI) and very much tangential to the original case.

I found this first section difficult to get through, even though it was shortish, mostly because I thought the characters sometimes behaved in ways that felt fake. Like the first meeting between Maisie and her first client. Let's just say Maisie doesn't behave as a "normal" detective; she goes on about her responsibility to the truth and wants to know what her client plans to do with it when she finds it and a lot of things in that vein (things that make sense after you read the rest of the book, but that made me go "huh? WTF?" when I read them here). And the client, though not exactly pleased, takes it and still hires her. Err, not likely. And then there's her instinctive conviction that there's something important to be investigated in this tangential issue I mentioned. I have no idea what made her think that, really.

And then we get a long section, easily three times as long as the first one and comprising over half the book, detailing how Maisie got to the point where we see her start. We know from the beginning that she's a former housemaid, that she managed to attend Cambridge, that she nursed in Europe during the War, that she was trained in her very special kind of investigating by a man called Maurice Blanche. Well, in this section, we actually see all this, and it's fascinating stuff. Maisie's life is very intriguing, and I liked this section much better.

And then it's back to the present and to the case, in a way that's much more orthodox "mystery novel"-like. It's here that Maisie's unique approach to investigation really shines. Now we do understand why she behaves the way she does (though I would love to see more about what Maurice's training entailed, exactly) and I very much appreciated the care with which this was drawn. Maisie isn't the kind of detective that will simply barge into a situation and find out the truth, no matter its consequences and who she hurts while doing so, secure in her belief that the truth should come out and that's that. No, Maisie feels very much responsible for the effects her asking questions will have on the people involved, especially those who share their stories with her. It will be interesting to see more details and examples of this in the following books.

Something else I enjoyed about the book was the setting, which was vividly drawn and I thought really captured a very different atmosphere. Lately I've become especially interested in the WW I period and the time between the wars, and MD delivered some fascinating (and tragic) insights into both.

MY GRADE: A B. It took me a bit too long to work through the first part to allow me to grade it better. I'll definitely be reading the second book, which I already have, as my edition is a 2-in-1.

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No Humans Involved, by Kelley Armstrong

>> Tuesday, June 26, 2007

TITLE: No Humans Involved (read Prologue, Chapter 1)
AUTHOR: Kelley Armstrong

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Bantam Spectra

SETTING: Contemporary (mostly Los Angeles)
TYPE:Paranormal fiction / romance
SERIES: Book #7 in the Women of the Otherworld series.

REASON FOR READING: I really liked Bitten, the first book in this series, but I never did read the follow-ups. I vaguely meant to continue reading some time or another, but I definitely never intended to skip 5 books and go straight to number 7! Thing is, the online buzz got me. I remember seeing good comments at Jennie's, at Devon's and at Alyssa's, and since I was assured that I probably wouldn't feel lost if I read NHI, I decided to go for it.

It's the most anticipated reality television event of the season: three spiritualists gathered together in one house to raise the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. For celebrity medium Jaime Vegas, it is to be her swan song--one last publicity blast for a celebrity on the wrong side of forty. But unlike her colleagues, who are more show than substance, Jaime is the real thing.

Reluctant to upstage her fellow spiritualists, Jaime tries to suppress her talents, as she has done her entire life. But there is something lurking in the maze of gardens behind the house: a spirit without a voice. And it won't let go until somehow Jaime hears its terrible story. For the first time in her life, Jaime Vegas understands what humans mean when they say they are haunted. Distraught, Jaime looks to fellow supernatural Jeremy Danvers for help.

As the touches and whispers from the garden grow more frantic, Jaime and Jeremy embark on an investigation into a Los Angeles underworld of black magic and ritual sacrifice. When events culminate in a psychic showdown, Jaime must use the darkest power she has to defeat a shocking enemy--one whose malicious force comes from the last realm she expected.... In a world whose surface resembles our own, Kelley Armstrong delivers a stunning alternate reality, one where beings of the imagination live, love, and fight a never-ending battle between good and evil.
THE PLOT: Jaime Vegas (whose name I kept seeing as Jamie in my mind, as Jaime is a male name in Spanish) is a medium and a necromancer. Unlike most in the Otherworld, who try as best they can to keep out of the public eye, Jaime hides in plain sight: she's a pretty well-known TV medium. Mostly she fakes it, but sometimes she does make use of her ability to talk with dead people.

The book starts as Jaime is about to participate in a stunt of a reality show, in a bid to finally get the solo TV show she's always been convinced she wants. She and two other mediums are supposed to raise the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, and to that effect, they're all staying in a house in an LA celebrity suburb.

It's not only Jaime's professional life that seems set to take a turn to the better, but also her personal life. Her longtime crush, werewolf alpha Jeremy Danvers (who I did remember quite well from Bitten) has accepted her invitation to come to LA for a while, and Jaime is convinced that he might be willing to take their friendly relationship to the next level.

But (obviously), things don't go exactly as planned, and the first sign of trouble comes when Jaime feels something very strange in the house's garden. It's spirits, but not the kind of spirits Jaime has ever known (and she does have a vast experience in this area). These spirits seem somehow drained and fractured, and before long, Jaime is having to combine the Marilyn shoot (which has developed its own complications) with an investigation into what might have happened to these spirits and how she might be able to free them. In this she has the help of Jeremy, and other supernaturals in the area... a good thing, really, as the investigation soon develops some dangerous edges.

MY THOUGHTS: The first thing I should mention is that those who told me I'd be ok skipping straight to this one were quite right. I could see plenty of instances where it was obvious that there were some stories behind them (complicated stories, too), but it never got confusing. All kinds of people with all kinds of powers make appearances here, but rather than irritating me or making me think Armstrong was indulging in fan-wanking, I was intrigued and anxious to go read their stories (Eve's especially... am I understanding this correctly and she's dead during her book? Now, that I've got to read!). Anyway, all these characters and their varied powers played important roles here and their presence here was relevant to the plot, and that made all the difference.

All aspects of NHI were excellent. The mystery of what happened to the spirits is intriguing (even if we readers are given some clues about what went on that the characters don't have) and so are the paths Jamie's investigation takes. Some sections are definitely not for the faint-of-heart, but even though the stomach-turning quality of the violence in Bitten had been one of the reasons I didn't continue reading the series, I was fine with it here.

I also loved the sections dealing with the reality show and the other mediums. Those injected some lighter touches and quite a lot of humour, which balanced the darker aspects of the disturbed spirits' plot nicely.

Of course, given that the book is told in first-person, it's fortunate that we get a wonderful narrator. Jaime is just great. She's got a lovely sense of humour, with just the right amount of self-deprecation, and a nicely skewed way of looking at the world. I liked that she's a very nice, decent person (witness her interactions with the other mediums), but not so "nice" as to allow people to walk over her.

From what I understood here, Jaime has featured in some of the previous books, where she's always been the one who has had to be rescued. Her powers aren't as... well-suited for combat, I guess, as those of other supernaturals (though the scene where she finds a way to twist this is just awesome), and she has a bit of a need to prove herself because of it. She fears the other members of the Interracial Council see her as a liability, someone who can provide insight into her area, but not a good candidate for a job that actually involves the least danger. Well, she definitely proves herself here, but she doesn't do it by running off half-cocked and getting everyone into danger. She's not stupid about it and takes all the reasonable precautions, as far from TSTL as she could get.

And then there's the romance. Ahhhh, the romance. That was just lovely as well. I really loved seeing serious, responsible Jeremy, who's always put his duty to the pack before any personal satisfaction, get the girl. At first I thought he was almost too controlled, and wasn't sure this was the right person for quirky Jaime. Well, that was right until the point where I realized that he's getting a huge kick out of helping her in the investigation and being able to actually do something. As the alpha of the pack, he's much too valuable to be allowed to get into danger, and the poor guy is a bit frustrated by having to send his pack-members out to have the fun, while he has to stay by the fire.

I also loved that these two are very much mature grown-ups, and they relate to each other as such. There are no silly games, stupid assumptions or misunderstandings here: they like and trust each other enough to put their feelings and intentions out in the open quite soon, and they deal with the issues that could keep them apart before they start anything. That doesn't mean their relationship is boring or staid, however. On the contrary, this is majorly hot! I'd seen people sighing about the balcony scene, and it was as good as I could have wanted.

MY GRADE: An A-. I'm very motivated to go back and read the whole series now.

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Drive Me Crazy, by Nancy Warren

>> Friday, June 22, 2007

TITLE: Drive Me Crazy
AUTHOR: Nancy Warren

COPYRIGHT: 2004
PAGES: 335
PUBLISHER: Kensington

SETTING: Small town in Oregon
TYPE: Contemporary romance
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: I've liked Warren's Blazes.

Can't a guy look up a woman's skirt...

...without losing part of his anatomy? It isn't my fault the town librarian, aka Miss Alex Forrest, likes to perch on high heels and tall ladders for a guy's maximum viewing pleasure. The lady's bod and choice of outfit may be muy caliente, but the gaze is icy. Freezing. Arctic-in-a-bikini cold. Give her time. She'll come around to the old Duncan Forbes charm. And once I have that Alex in bed, she'll tell me everything I need to know about this town and its link to the lost painting my employers paid me to find...

I'd rather eat drain cleaner...

...than spend one more minute with that smug, big-city art professor, Duncan Forbes. The "Indiana Jones of the Art World"? Please. He couldn't find the Architecture stack till I pointed it out. And if I grabbed hold of his well-toned arm, it's not because he happens to be the sexiest man ever to destroy my Dewey Decimal System, it's because I'm not used to finding a dead body in my library and a girl can be excused a weak moment...

In the town of Swiftcurrent, Oregon, things are heating up. Dead bodies and missing masterpieces, family secrets and dangerous threats, a man who likes to feel his way around a problem and a woman who enjoys being the problem...it's all adding up to the kind of steamy sleuthing that just may lead them both beyond temptation and put their desires in drive...
THE PLOT: Librarian Alex Forrest plans to stay in Swiftcurrent, Oregon only long enough to settle her late grandfather's estate. She'll write up the memoirs he left in tapes, sell his house and then she's off.

But before she can, life in calm Swiftcurrent suddenly becomes more complicated when she finds a dead body her library, the very day the irritating (but attractive) Duncan Forbes appears in town. Is it a coincidence? Alex is not convinced he's the college professor he claims to be, in town only to write his book.

Indeed, it's not a coincidence, and Duncan is related to the affair of the dead body. He is the professor he claims to be, yes, but he's also a pretty notorious treasure hunter, specializing in recovering lost art. He's received a tip that Alex's grandfather might either have or know the whereabouts of a Van Gogh lost during WW II, and it seems clear he's not the only one who got that information, because he recognizes the dead guy as a crooked player in the field.

MY THOUGHTS: From what I see in the first pages, this was Warren's first single title, and I'm afraid it does show. It's a book that feels like a longer, padded category romance. I'm not sure if I can define it, I guess it's an instinctive feeling, just as some category romances feel like compressed single titles. It's not too bad, though, because some of the stuff she added to make it to ST length, like a secondary romance, was quite nice.

The romance between Alex and Duncan was ok, but nothing that kept me riveted. I liked Alex's style and enjoyed her uninhibited and uncomplicated attitude towards sex, and she and Duncan did have chemistry, but in the end, I didn't feel I really knew who these people were. Part of that is because after a while, too many pages were devoted to sex scenes. Don't get me wrong, they were well written, and the first ones didn't tempt me to skip at all, but after a while, they weren't adding anything new.

I actually liked the secondary romance better than the primary one. Alex's cousin is an interesting character, and so was her story, and she gets a very sweet romance. Plus, I very much liked the development of the relationship between the two women, who definitely have a history.

The suspense subplot about the missing Van Gogh painting and the murder wasn't very successful, probably because it was incredibly obvious who the bad guy was. So obvious, in fact, that I suspect it can't have been meant to be a secret in the first place. No suspense whatsoever here, and I wasn't at all intrigued.

MY GRADE: A C+. It was almost a B-, but not quite.

NOTE: I hate those a-letter-from-the-characters blurbs! Who the hell thought they were a good idea?

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Mystic and Rider, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, June 21, 2007

TITLE: Mystic and Rider
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Ace

SETTING: The land of Gillengaria
TYPE: Fantasy (and with Shinn, I'd go as far as to say Fantasy Romance)
SERIES: First in the Twelve Houses series

REASON FOR READING: Shinn's become an autobuy ever since I read Archangel. Plus, Jane liked it.

The fire mystic Senneth crosses the country of Gillengaria, trying to discover if noble marlords of the Twelve Houses are planning an uprising against the King.

She's accompanied by the soldiers Tayse and Justin, two King's Riders who are unswervingly loyal to the crown. Also on the journey are the shape-changers Kirra and Donnal, and a young mystic named Cammon who can practically read minds.

It's soon clear that not only are marlords planning a rebellion, but that they are being aided by Daughters of the Pale Mother, a fanatical religious sect that hates mystics. While Senneth can clearly take care of herself, Tayse finds himself unable to stop watching her -determined both to protect her and to uncover her secrets.
THE PLOT: Mystic and Rider follows a group composed of mystics (people with some kind of paranormal or psychic power) and Riders (members of the King's guard) as they travel all over Gillengaria gathering information for the King.

King Baryn has heard tales of potential unrest among some of the twelve Houses (the noble families which lead each of the twelve "districts" which make up Gillengaria), and so he's asked a trusted mystic, Senneth, to find out what there is to them. Senneth is accompanied by two more mystics, the shapeshifters Kirra and Donnal, and by two King's Riders, Tayse and Justin. They are soon joined by another young mystic, Cammon, who they rescue from abuse in a tavern.

From the beginning, it's clear that there is something to the tales, and that the situation might be getting dangerous. A fanatical group of women who call themselves the Daughters of the Pale Mother have began a campaign against mystics, and their crusade seems to be gathering strength among the Southern Houses.

MY THOUGHTS: Like with all of Shinn's books, I was absorbed by the story from the very beginning. And though the world she's created here is well-drawn and interesting and the adventures of our little band of explorers are exciting, that was not what drew me in. In fact, you could say that the action was a bit too episodic and that most of their travels are pointless, because they never learn much more than what they already know after the first couple of stops.

But see, Shinn's the kind of fantasy author I like, because her stories are all about the characters. What made me love this book were the developments within the group, seeing it turn from two separate bands, which start out mistrusting each other almost as much as the threats around them, into a real team.

At the beginning, there's a sharp division between the three (then four) mystics in the group and the Riders. While the Riders are not mystic-haters, they're not particularly comfortable with them. They don't really understand their powers, and there's an element of fear in their lack of understanding, especially in Justin. As for the mystics, they know how the Riders feel about them and suspect their intentions toward them.

But as they face increasing dangers together, they all start relating as people, rather than simply mystics and Riders, and much more complex relationships develop, in a process I found fascinating. I was especially interested in what's the central relationship in this book, which is that between Senneth, the group's leader, and Tayse, the oldest and more experienced Rider. They're both compelling characters. Senneth is a very strong heroine, a woman who's lived through a lot and survived trials which would have broken a lesser person. This has made her very tough, and quiet, stoic Tayse is the right person for her to be a little softer with. Their romance is just lovely. It's very romantic, but in a way that fits these two characters perfectly, which means it's not a cloying, sweet kind of romantic.

And in case anyone's worried, we do get a perfectly (make that "wonderfully") satisfying resolution to their relationship. The outside plot is another story, though. We get a conclusion of sorts (they do conclude their trip), but it's clear that M&R is only the beginning and there's still the prospect of a coming religious civil war out there. Fortunately, two more books are already out, so I won't have to wait long at all to see what happens.

MY GRADE: I was going to go with a B+, but even after a couple of weeks of reading this book, it's still very fresh in my mind and thinking of it makes me smile. So I'm going to upgrade that to an A-.

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Cain His Brother, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, June 20, 2007

TITLE: Cain His Brother
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

COPYRIGHT: 1995
PAGES: 404
PUBLISHER: Ivy

SETTING: Late 1850s London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Book #6 in the William Monk series.

REASON FOR READING: Still rereading the series in order.

In his family life, Angus Stonefield had been gentle and loving; in business, a man of probity; and in his relationship with his twin brother, Caleb, a virtual saint. Now Angus is missing, and it appears more than possible that Caleb--a creature long since abandoned to depravity--has murdered him.

Hired to find the missing man, William Monk puts himself into his shoes, searching for clues to Angus's fate and his vicious brother's whereabouts. Slowly, Monk inches toward the truth--and also, unwittingly, toward the destruction of his good name and livelihood. . .
THE PLOT:When Genevieve Stonefield engages Monk's services in searching for her husband, who's been missing for three days, she's insistent on her belief that he's probably dead. Most cases involving a missing husband would be about adultery and hardly worth Monk's time, but Angus Stonefield's is special. Angus had a twin brother living in the slums of the Limehouse, a twin brother who hated him and resented him. in spite of this, Angus would visit him regularly and help him out whenever he requested it. It's in one of these visits that Genevieve fears he might have met his death.

Combing the Limehouse to find any traces of Angus, Monk becomes more and more convinced that Genevieve is right and that Caleb must have killed him. But can he succeed in proving he's dead if he can't find a body?

And as if his current case weren't hard enough, a threat from Monk's forgotten past rises up and threatens to drag him down.

MY THOUGHTS: We've got three options here: either the solution was very obvious, or I'm incredibly brilliant and made some stunning deductions, or something about this book has stuck in my memory from when I first read it, over ten years ago. I would love for it to be #2, but I'm thinking it was probably # 3. Whatever it was, I saw the essence of the solution from the very beginning, and this meant that all element of surprise was removed from my reading experience.

And without it, this wasn't a particularly scintillating mystery, case-wise. Right up until the trial (hey, you know Rathbone will have to have his space, somehow), it feels as if Monk is going around in circles. Around and around and around Limehouse, asking the same questions again and again and always receiving the same answers. And after that, off to Genevieve to report that there are no news to report. Perry's keen sense of characterization keeps it from being deadly boring, but it's not great, either. Oh, and the final resolution? Didn't completely buy it, either.

What saves this from being blah is the more romancey and relationship-related part of the book, which was much more interesting (and which I didn't remember at all, which helped). If you'll remember, at the very end of the last book there were some definite developments in Hester and Monk's relationship. That simmering attraction between them, which they each denied so vigorously and which was so obvious to us readers, flared up. And then the book ended without them even talking about it, and left me wondering what would happen next.

Well, what happens is more denial, especially on Monk's part. It seemed to me that Hester (who's nursing tiphoid victims in Limehouse here, and can provide Monk some help because of it) has finally accepted her feelings, but obviously, this is the Victorian era, so however modern she is, she can't just go and push. It's up to Monk to do that, and he seems to be trying tremendously hard to forget anything happened at all. I wanted to shake the obstinate, mule-headed idiot for it, and he really deserved the scare he got because of the way he went about trying to get over his feelings for Hester (while denying they existed at all). Serves him right, the fool, and I crowed even harder at how Hester had to rescue him, because Mr. Powerful Investigator here was completely defeated even before he got started. Hah!

MY GRADE: I'll go with a B. Now, will something finally happen between Hester and Monk in the next one, Weighed in the Balance? According to the comment LizL left after my review of Sins of the Wolf, "the relationship sinks back down into the deep for a book or two". I certainly hope it's only one, and that we move forward in the next one.

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Again, by Sharon Cullars

>> Tuesday, June 19, 2007

TITLE: Again (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Sharon Cullars

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Kensington Brava

SETTING: Contemporary Chicago and 1870s New York City
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: I was very intrigued by Bam's review.

.
From the moment they meet, Tyne Jensen and David Carvelli share an intense attraction to each other. Each feels something inexplicable but much deeper than mere physical connection.

When Tyne uncovers the story of the unsolved murder of a nineteenth century woman named Rachel, she becomes convinced that she and David share not only the present, but also a distant past in a very different world.
.
.

THE PLOT: In 1879 New York, Joseph Luce (of the Manhattan Luces, doncha know) falls madly in love with Rachel Grant, a black schoolteacher. And when I said "madly", I mean it: the man becomes completely obsessed with her. He doesn't take it easily when she decides not to give up her whole life and position in black society to "be with him forever" as he wants, however much she's tempted to do so. Their love affair ends in tragedy.

In 2006 Chicago, white architect David Carvelli and black journalist Tyne Jensen have each been experiencing weird dreams, sometimes scary, sometimes erotic, often both at the same time. When they meet at Tyne's sister's wedding, the chemistry is undeniable, but there's something about David's persistence and total focus on her that disturbs Tyne as much as it turns her on. Soon it becomes clear to the reader that while Joseph and Rachel might be dead, their souls are still trying to live out their story through David and Tyne, and it just might end up being as much of a tragedy as it was on the first go.

MY THOUGHTS: Well, wow. I don't think I've ever read a romance quite like this. Those dreams, scary and erotic at the same time? That describes this book perfectly. What develops between Tyne and David is one of the least comfortable romantic relationships I've read lately, but also one of the most exciting ones.

I think what struck me the most was how Cullars manages to make her hero a scary figure without going the old gothic way of trying to make us believe he might be the villain in the piece (which just doesn't work on us longtime romance readers, anyway, because by now we can usually tell who the hero is from a thousand yards away, and we know he won't really be bad... unless it's an Anne Stuart novel, that is, but that's a whole 'nother subject). Anyway, what Cullars does is much more effective. The reader knows what David is going through quite well. We know it's Joseph Luce's soul that is trying to possess him in a certain way, but we don't know the details of what he wants and what he can make him do, and that's what makes the whole thing so creepy and chilling.

In a way, Cullars made me feel a bit like Tyne must feel. I liked the person David was very much, but I found myself very disturbed by some of his actions, especially his obsession with Tyne. But at the same time, I thought this unwavering and immediate fixation on her was as sexy as it was dangerous. When she actually got involved with him despite all her qualms, I didn't feel like shaking her for her risky behaviour (and it was very risky), but couldn't help but understand why she couldn't help herself. In fact, that was a constant throughout the whole book. I completely identified with Tyne, which isn't something that happens to me that often. Her reactions were pitch-perfect, a strong, sensible woman caught up in an unimaginable situation

Apart from the scary feelings, the other thing I thought was disturbing to me as a reader was trying to decide to what extent Joseph was determining David's feelings for Tyne. Was David falling for Tyne at all or was it all Joseph still loving his Rachel? I kept going back and forth with this, but never fear, this is a romance and it works fine as one. Still, I was glad that Cullars gave us the ending she did.

When the book focuses on David and Tyne and Joseph and Rachel and the way their stories mesh, this was an A book, a story so powerful I couldn't stop reading. However, there was a bit too much going on around them, too many threads that seemed not to go anywhere or were not used to their full potential. There were some which should have been cut altogether, like Tyne's journalistic investigation into a tire plant dumping old tires into a poor neighbourhood, or like David's difficulties with his partners at his architectural firm. Others could have been cut as well, or else should have been substantially more developed, as the young woman who's researching Rachel's life. During the climactic scenes, I kept expecting all these threads to come together in a way that would make me think "ah, so that's why we spend those long scenes finding out about the tire dumping" , but it never happened.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+. I really like Cullars' brand of paranormal (am I the only one who misses the monster-less paranormal?) and I can't wait to read The Object of Love.

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Dishing it Out, by Molly O'Keefe

>> Monday, June 18, 2007

TITLE: Dishing it Out
AUTHOR: Molly O'Keefe

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 218
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Flipside

SETTING: Contemporary San Francisco
TYPE: Series Romance
SERIES: Follows Pencil Him In, which is about the heroine's sister.

REASON FOR READING: Bought it because of the review at AAR.

Slaving over a hot stove had taught Marie Simmons a thing or two—like not letting another cook steal her thunder! If it took her last chocolate chip (okay, second to last—a girl can't give away all the chocolate!) she had to find some way to foil Van MacAllister—a gourmet's flavor du jour—her new co-host on a cooking show. With some careful planning the only sizzle the audience would see would be from the steak, not the hunk.

Of course, she feels a soup of guilt at first because he really is a talented chef. And by the time they get to the appetizers it finally dawns on her that the, um, "to-die-for dish" on their show just might be the man himself!
THE PLOT: Chef Marie Simmons' cooking segment at a local morning show has finally become a hit, which she hopes will mean good things for her struggling restaurant. Understandably proud of what she's managed to build, she's not amused when the show's producer tells her they want to bring in a cohost. And it's even worse: the man they want to bring in is her bĂȘte noir, the chef who outbid her for the location she wanted for her restaurant, who keeps her awake every night with jazz bands playing at his place and who called her bistro a "cute little coffee shop" in a newspaper interview.

But Van MacAllister isn't nearly as awful as Marie expected, and she finds herself working quite well with him. The sizzling chemistry between them makes their show wildly successful, and Marie will have to make some hard decisions about trust.

MY THOUGHTS: Given Marie's reaction to Van calling her restaurant cute, I'm almost afraid to say the same thing about this book. But it is, it's very charming and yes, very cute. Believe me, I'm not damning it with faint praise. Good cute is not easy to do and I really like it when it's done well, as it is here. It's got fun characters and a sense of humour that really appealed to me.

I was a bit worried when I started the book because the first pages seemed to indicate a romance based on a very adversarial relationship, full of one-upmanship and each trying to sabotage the other. Fortunately, both Marie and Van (and especially Marie) got over that quite quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, come to think of it, because we didn't really get much in between Marie being determined to make Van regret horning in on her program and her trying to help him navigate the first make-up session, or between Van dismissing Marie as not being a "real" chef and his professing to admire her tremendously. Short book, with no space to do that, I guess.

No matter, it was a development in the right direction, and I enjoyed their relationship much more once they started working well together. The issues they ended up having to overcome to be together were much more interesting than fight, fight, fight. Marie has a huge problem with trusting people, stemming from her past (which I imagine I would have appreciated even more if I'd read Pencil Him In), and she has to get over that if she wants her relationship with Van to survive.

I liked Marie, and I liked Van even more. He really is just endearing. I especially liked that this isn't an all-powerful, all-confident alpha guy, but a man who has some doubts and is still struggling with the first months of his restaurant. He's not this immensely successful businessman (yet!) and he needs this TV show quite a bit, which does give Marie some power over him.

About that humour... Flipside notwithstanding, this is not really a hilarious book. And honestly, that was fine with me. Its humour is of the low key variety, with not a pratfall or ridiculous situation to be seen. What it did have was plenty of quirky observations and events and internal monologues that had me smiling. Just as an example, one of my favourite parts of the book was when Van gets an attack of stage fright in the middle of their first live appearance. He doesn't actually do much (he certainly doesn't come out of the scene humiliated or looking ridiculous), but what's going through his mind as he sits there, frozen, is excellently done. His paranoid thoughts about the little red lights staring at him, his worries about how big his nose has suddenly become and that it's now casting a shadow over everything... it probably doesn't sound like much as I write it here, but in the book it's funny, funny, funny.

MY GRADE: A B-.

NOTES: This book made me hungry. I want to go have lunch at Marie and Van's restaurants.

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Hush, by Jo Leigh

>> Wednesday, June 13, 2007

TITLE: Hush
AUTHOR: Jo Leigh

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary New York City
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: First in Do Not Disturb continuity series, apparently constructed around the Hush hotel.

REASON FOR READING: I really like Jo Leigh's books, and after reading the wonderful A Lick and a Promise recently, I was in the mood for another Blaze by this author.

A hotel for first-class sex? That's the buzz in Manhattan on Piper Devon's new upstart boutique hotel, Hush. From romantic nooks to silky sheets to naughty toys and videos in every room, the place positively oozes sex. And that's sending a deep shudder through the stodgy Devon hotel empire. Devon family attorney Trace Winslow has checked in to check out Hush. He has to put a stop now to wild Piper and her sexy antics. Why, she makes Paris Hilton look positively tame! Except before long Trace is making full use of the, uh, amenities with gorgeous Piper. But are the two of them ready to hang a "do not disturb" sign on their suite ? for life?
THE PLOT: Hotel heiress Piper Devon has a reputation as a wild party girl. When she turns 25 and receives part of her inheritance, with the condition that she needs to make a profit on it, she decides to go with what she knows (i.e. hotels) and to take advantage of that wild (and mostly undeserved, obviously) image. The result? A hotel built around sex, devoted to give those who can afford it the perfect place for nooky.

Hush seems set to make a splash, but Piper's father is very definitely not pleased about the Devon name being associated with a hotel where every room offers sex toys and erotic movies (plus equipment to make your own movies, if you so please) and which is advertised with an image of his daughter in bed, seemingly inviting all of Manhattan to share it. He decides to send the family lawyer, Trace Winslow, to make Piper fall in line. If she doesn't remake Hush in the Devon Hotels image, she'll be cut off.

But there's always been a strong attraction between Trace and Piper, and so when she convinces him to let her show him what Hush is really supposed to be like, what the experience would be for couples, the very public it's intended for, the result might not be what Mr. Devon expected.

MY THOUGHTS: In a word: disappointing. I didn't particularly care about the characters and I wasn't sold on the concept of the Hush hotel.

For starters, I didn't buy Piper's image. It seemed to me hard to believe that she could have such an overblown reputation based on basically nothing. I mean, sure, I know tabloids like to make up stuff and put the worst possible interpretation on everything, but come on, this was way too much.

I also had a hard time seeing why I should be rooting for her hotel to be a hit just as she had planned it, without any compromising with her father. The truth is, no matter how much she protested, I felt the Hush concept was a bit sleazy and tasteless, and believe me, I'm not particularly prudish. I suppose the main thing was that it was hard for me to get excited about yet another place where the rich and famous can be pampered for huge amounts of money. I should want this to succeed, why? Because the rich and horny deserve a place like this? Bah.

As for Trace, I never completely warmed up to him. Sure, as I said, I did think he had a point in his arguments about Hush being tacky, but it bothered me that in his determination to force Piper to make Hush into yet another stodgy Devon hotel I saw an element of a childish "since I had to conform to my dad's expectations and give up my dreams, then so do you".

Leigh writes well and I liked that, as always, her characters feel hip and modern, but this one is not her best.

MY GRADE: A C.

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His Private Pleasure, by Donna Kauffman

>> Monday, June 11, 2007

TITLE: His Private Pleasure
AUTHOR: Donna Kauffman

COPYRIGHT: 2002
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary New Mexico small town
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Sequel to Her Secret Thrill, but only slightly related. Stands alone.

REASON FOR READING: I got it because I'd liked Her Secret Thrill. Plus, I'd read somewhere that this one had a heroine who was unapologetical about her past sex life, and that sounded very daring back in 2002, I guess.

Having control is good...

Enough is enough! When Liza Sanguinetti realizes that her past relationships have been as shallow as her Hollywood lifestyle, she decides it’s time to get a better grip on reality. But maybe her attempt at celibacy at the same time is pushing it! Alter stumbling into Canyon Springs, New Mexico, on an extended vacation and getting an eyeful of the sexy town sheriff, she knows this is one vow she’ll be delighted to break....

But sometimes losing control is even better!

Dylan Jackson, an ex-vice cop, is a man with little time for Liza’s big-city ways—he leFt his taste for that kind of woman back in Vegas. . . or so he thinks. Yet Liza’s need for control in all situations piques his libido, and soon the battle to dominate begins.. starting in the bedroom.
THE PLOT: Liza Sanguinetti has given up her life as a celebrity PR in Hollywood, tired of the shallowness of it all. She doesn't know what she wants to do next, and is currently just driving around the country on a kind of soul-searching trip.

She takes a break from her travelling in the small New Mexico town of Canyon Springs, when she catches sight of the very sexy sheriff, former Las Vegas vice cop Dylan Jackson. Liza initially intends only to spend a night with Dylan and then continue on, but when an old case of Dylan's follows him all the way from Vegas and he requests her help, she's happy enough to prolong her stay.

MY THOUGHTS: I'm really not into "sophisticated city girl finds meaning in life by moving to a small town and marrying the sheriff" stories, but this one avoids most of the pitfalls that kind of story often shows. The people in Canyon Springs are pretty sophisticated themselves (though Dylan's mother's going-ons are of the dreaded "zany" variety) and Liza is never demonized, not for coming from Hollywood and not for having a normal sexual past. And believe me, though she does decide to stay in Canyon Springs, she won't be staying there to wash the hero's shirts. So in this sense, this book was quite good.

What I wasn't so crazy about was how the book felt sexed-up and that didn't really leave much space for the falling in love part. Dylan and Liza fall into bed at the very beginning and then keep at it throughout the whole book, but though Kauffman writes her sex scenes well, I was never fully involved in them and kept wanting to get back to the story. I didn't feel like I knew her characters enough, and by the end of the book I wasn't completely convinced that they were in love. Plus, the whole "control" issue that the back cover makes so much of never really got off the ground.

MY GRADE: B-.

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The Last Herald Mage trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Friday, June 08, 2007

TITLE: The Last Herald Mage trilogy (Magic's Pawn, Magic's Promise, and Magic's Price)
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

COPYRIGHT: 1989 for the first book, 1990 for the second and third
PAGES: 352, 320 and 352 for books 1, 2 and 3 respectively
PUBLISHER: DAW (Penguin group)

SETTING: Valdemar, a country in the fictional world of Velgarth
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: These three books are a complete trilogy on their own, but they're part of a larger group of books set in Velgarth, mostly in Valdemar. This larger group includes several series, all interconnected (you can see a bit more here). From what I've been able to find out, this particular trilogy covers a relatively early part of Valdemar history.

REASON FOR READING: I've been meaning to read more Lackey, after loving both her 500 Kingdoms and Elemental Masters series. Li recommended these in particular.

(nice summary taken from here):

Alienated from his family, unsuited to life as a warrior or landholder, Vanyel is entrusted to the care of his aunt, Savil, a Herald-Mage in the kingdom of Valdemar.

Sensing that there is something unusual about the youth, Savil seeks to help him discover his true talents. Yet it is not until his friend and fellow student Tylendel opens a Gate of power and unleashes horror upon the land that Vanyel's latent talents are jolted awake - with dangerous effects.

The only thing that may save Vanyel from his own wild magic is the intervention of a Companion, one of the beautiful, mysterious beings in the form of great white horses who bond for life with a chosen human Herald or Herald-Mage.

But though Vanyel may prove to be the most powerful Herald-Mage Valdemar has ever seen - if he survives long enough to master his abilities - desperate trials await him. For ill luck has taken an increasingly heavy toll on Valdemar with each passing year, claiming the lives of many among the Herald-Mages.

Even more disturing, there is no rest for Vanyel even in sleep, for his dreams have long been haunted by the barely glimpsed image of an unknown enemy - one who may be only a figment of his own imagining ... or the creature responsible for all the evil and misfortune that plague the kingdom.

Is Vanyel foreseeing his own doom, as he believes in his darkest moments? Or are the dreams a warning that will enable him to save Valdemar, his fellow Herald-Mages, and himself?
THE PLOTS: The Last Herald Mage trilogy follows the aristocratic Vanyel Ashkevron from his adolescence to his becoming the most powerful Herald Mage in Valdemar, as he struggles with his increasing duties, his loneliness and his sexual identity. And if you would like to read this, I'd recommend that you don't continue reading, as what follows will probably be pretty spoilerish (just to say what the second book will be about will spoil things about the first one).

In Magic's Pawn we meet Vanyel as an unhappy and misunderstood young man, constantly berated and abused for not being the kind of brute warrior his landholder father wants him to be, especially because he's the eldest son and heir. Vanyel is resentful and scared when he's sent to Haven, the capital city, to live with his aunt Savil, an intimidating Herald-Mage. Surprisingly, under her tutelage Vanyel finally comes into his own and even finds love with another of her students -another boy, something Van wasn't expecting. But this is a love affair that ends in tragedy, and it's aftermath suddenly unlocks Van's heretofore latent powers to an amazing degree.

Magic's Promise takes place some 12 years later, when Vanyel is 28. In those intervening years he's mastered his raw powers and become a celebrated hero, the most recognized of all Herald-Mages. During this middle volumen in the trilogy, he spends some time resting at his ancestral home, learning to come to terms with his relationship with his family. But he won't be able to rest as much as he intended, because there's some potential trouble nearby, right over the border, and it soon become clear that if he doesn't do something, the consequences could be disastrous.

By the time we get to the last book in the trilogy, Magic's Price, Vanyel is in his mid-30s. The peace agreements signed by the previous queen have been slowly falling to pieces, and Valdemar is under threat. With fewer and fewer Herald-Mages appearing and their death-toll going up, Vanyel has been running himself ragged trying to do everything and be everything. And to make things worse, the King, his friend, has become practically crippled by disease. The only thing that calms him is the music of a young Bard, Stefan, who happens to have a long-time crush on Vanyel.

MY THOUGHTS: Ahhhh, Vanyel. I fell in love with him early, even when he was being a little twerp. The rich, complex world-building, the interesting, subtly-drawn secondary characters, the plots... all well and good (or rather, more than good), but it was Vanyel who had me turning the pages. He's just so real, so heartbreaking, and it was amazing seeing the way he developed through the years.

I liked Pawn because he's so believable as a teenager there. Sure, he is very badly treated by his family, but he definitely feels very sorry for himself, too, in a very sullen teenager way, and it can't be denied that he's a bit of a brat, especially once he's at Haven. But there's something there under the irritating boy that drew me in and make me feel for him.

As I mentioned in the summary, we have a romance with a sad ending in this first book. What Vanyel develops with Tylendel is not some kind of light puppy love, but a real, solid lifebond he will miss for the rest of his life, and this is something that Lackey manages to show even at this stage. But you know, I didn't really mind the unhappy ending all that much (other than hate to see Vanyel suffering so much), because like Savil, I had the very same doubts about the healthiness of the relationship those two had developed.

I finished this one feeling very bittersweet but loving the feeling. The moody teenager living deep inside me was in heaven. I couldn't wait to see how things would evolve.

The next one, Promise, ended up being by far my absolute favourite of the trilogy. This was quite a surprise to me, because when Li described the books for me, she mentioned that there was romance in the first and third book, so I thought "Well, I suppose I'll have to read that second one quickly then, so I can get to the romance in the third one".

I fully expected some filler here. Instead, I got an immensely affecting portrayal of a wonderful man having to deal with the prospect of having only a lifetime of duty to look forward to. Van is a fascinating character in this book, as he comes to accept the loneliness of being a hero everyone is afraid of. Here's where he comes to terms with who he is, sexually and in general, really, and comes to terms with losing Lendel.

But all is not sad in this book, as Van also finally makes peace with his family and comes to accept them, as they come to accept the real Van. It becomes even clearer here that in the first book Van really was a very young man, with a very young man's vision of things, a vision that was sometimes wrong because the adolescent Van was so self-involved and so determined to see himself as a poor, misunderstood little thing.

So that was amazing, but it wasn't the only thing going on in the book. There's also the matter of what's happening across the border in Lineas and Baires, and that was a fascinating little mystery. It was the combination of these two elements that made this one the best book in the trilogy.

I don't think I waited even five minutes after I finished Promise before I started Price. And at the beginning, it was great. I was drawn in by the dark, dark tone and atmosphere, even as I very much enjoyed seeing Van get a little bit of happiness for a change.

His romance with Stefan could have been a problem. First, because of the age difference. Van is in well into his 30s here, while Stef is about 18 (or probably more like 17 around the beginning). And second, there's the fact that Van is this huge hero for everyone in Valdemar, and Stef has idolized him for years. But this wasn't as squicky as it might have been, mostly because Stef is much more sexually experienced than Van, and he's the one who does all the pursuing. There is an awareness on Van's part of the possible power imbalance, and so when they finally do get together, it's dealt with, and I didn't think there was really a dominant party in their relationship.

So I was quite liking the book. Maybe not as much as book two, in spite of the fact that I was getting a romance here, but it was good. And then... wham, the ending. Or rather, the last part of the book. I'm talking about what happens from the moment Vanyel travels North with Stefen to confront the danger there. I can't really describe my problems without going into huge spoilers, and it will be a long rant, so I'll just leave some spoiler space, rather than white out the font

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

Ok, here's the thing. The problem isn't really the lack of HEA (and no, having Stefen live out his long, long life alone and then join Van in death isn't a HEA for me, even if Van made him a ghostly visitation and assured him that he would be waiting on the other side). I didn't like having Van die, but all right, it was an ending that was appropriate to the trilogy, what with all that about "magic's price" and so on. What really pissed me off and made me close the book very unhappy was something else.

First, it felt to me as if this particular villain appeared completely out of the blue and was wholly undeveloped. Sure, we'd already seen that someone was after Van personally, but it was a very minor thing in the whole of the story. In the end, the whole thing felt like: oops, turns out that, though we never even suspected it, this guy has been up there getting power and plotting against us for a hundred years and more! He's been attacking Herald Mages all along and we never knew! (and what the hell did Van mean when he said that he and Lendel, too? Was Lendel's suicide related to this? It wasn't clear to me). It wasn't something that had been threaded throughout the book, much less throughout the trilogy, other than Van's dreams about his death. This huge final confrontation felt completely unintegrated to the rest of the story.

And there was also the fact that this all-important villain is just featureless. We know nothing about him. Who is he, why is he doing this? Oh, he's someone evil, and he's doing all this because he's evil. That's as far as motivation goes. I prefer my villains a bit more understandable, thank you very much. It's what makes things more interesting.

Second, and even graver, I was extremely disturbed by a scene of horrific and graphic sexual violence that was totally needless, as far as I'm concerned. On the way to confront that evil mage, Van is taken captive by a group of bandits and subjected to a brutal gang-rape. Part of what bothered me was that Lackey is an excellent writer and had succeeded in making me give myself over to the story completely, so she really made the scene come alive to me. I wasn't expecting it, and it turned my stomach completely. Some of the details she considered necessary to share with us were much too sickening, like what happened to Yfandes's tail. That particular detail has been stuck in my nightmares ever since I read the book. I actually had to immediately pick up a book by comfort-author extraordinaire JAK after that, just because I couldn't stop thinking about this stuff (yep, I've had this review in the works for some time. This was the book that had me reaching for White Lies).

But the key word about this scene is "needless". It wasn't really the graphicness that I found unforgivable, but the fact that there's no reason to include it in the story at all. Storywise, is it needed to show how evil the evil mage is? No, because this isn't done on his orders; all he wanted was to get Vanyel alive. The rape is just the bandits trying to get some revenge on the Heralds, who'd made their lives difficult for years.

Or is it needed for character development? I recently read a book by Linda Castillo that included a graphic description of a rape endured by the heroine (it was a flashback, in this case, but this didn't make it any less awful). The thing is, as distrubing as that scene was, that rape was a key element in making the heroine into the person she became. It was necessary that this happened to this character and it was even necessary that we see exactly how horrific it had been, so that we understood her.

But in the case of the scene in Magic's Price, does surviving the rape forge Vanyel into a stronger, more determined man? Does it put doubts in his head about what he needs to do? Does it change him in any way? IMO, no, not at all. He's traumatized by what has happened, obviously, but he and Stef and Yfandes take refuge with some friends of the Tayledras and Van recovers with Stef's help, a process greatly glossed over. And no, this recovery isn't the point of the rape, either, because I didn't see that it advanced Stef and Van's relationship in any way. The love and trust between them remains just as huge.

Then Van immediately heads up into the mountain to confront the villain and gives his life to defeat him. Would the pre-rape Vanyel have behaved any differently? Hell, no. Would it have been easier or harder for him to make the decision to sacrifice himself? I really don't think so. So, again, why the hell was was this rape scene even included?

The only possibility I can think of is to show that Van can have a dark side (when he gets free, he very nearly mind-forces his main tormentor to kill himself), but this was so obviously Van in a traumatized rage and not thinking clearly, that I don't think anyone can blame him, just as Stefen and Yfandes don't. And even if this had been Lackey's intention, it would be overkill, like killing a fly with a nuclear blast.

Phew, it really did bother me, didn't it? Such a long rant, I hadn't done this for a while!

MY GRADES:

Magic's Pawn: A-

Magic's Promise: A

Magic's Price: B- (averaging a B+ for most of the book and a D for the last part that was so disappointing).

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The Sins of the Wolf, by Anne Perry

TITLE: The Sins of the Wolf
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

COPYRIGHT: 1994
PAGES: 436
PUBLISHER: Ivy

SETTING: Victorian Scotland and London (late 1850s)
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Book # 5 in the William Monk series

REASON FOR READING: I'm slowly working my way through the whole series -in order, this time around.

Nurse Hester Latterly finds herself well-suited for the position: accompany Mrs. Mary Farraline, an elderly Scottish lady with delicate health, on a short train trip to London. Yet Hester's simple job takes a grave turn when the woman dies during the night. And when a postmortem examination of the body reveals a lethal dose of medicine, Hester is charged with murder--punishable by execution.

The notorious case presents detective William Monk with a daunting task: find a calculating killer amongst the prominent and coolly unassailable Farraline clan. Since Hester must be tried in Edinburgh, where prejudice against her runs high, there is little that the highly skilled barrister Oliver Rathbone can do to help. He can only try to direct her Scottish lawyer from the frustrating sidelines, and pray that Hester will not be sent to the gallows....
THE PLOT: TSOTW has former Crimean nurse Hester Latterly taking a short job that seems easy enough. She's to travel to Scotland and then accompany Mrs. Mary Farraline back to London, to visit her daughter. There's nothing really wrong with Mrs. Farraline, other than advanced years, so Hester's job is supposed to be nothing more strenuous than administering the old lady's medicine and being good company on the trip.

But when Hester awakens to find Mrs. Farraline dead, and an autopsy reveals that she was poisoned, things suddenly become complicated. And even worse when Hester discovers a piece of valuable jewelry in her luggage, a brooch she knows belonged to her late patient. Despite her immediate efforts to return the brooch, Hester finds herself accused of murder and sent to Edinburgh for her trial.

MY THOUGHTS: This was a truly excellent book, probably the best in the series so far -until we got to the ending.

What made most of it so brilliant was that the stakes were the highest they've ever been so far, and this made for some very beautifully done high emotion. It's Hester's life that's hanging in the balance, not an anonymous someone's, and this hits everyone hard. It hits her, of course, but also Monk and Rathbone and Callandra. And all their reactions and feelings were perfect, just right. I loved the subtlety of them, the way they weren't just "sad" or "worried" about her, but a whole host of other things, all mixed up, from frustration to anger to fear and everything in between.

Add an interesting puzzle with fascinating characters, some spectacular court scenes and some new territory to cover with regards to setting (Perry's Victorian Edinburgh has a whole different feel to it than her Victorian London), and I was one happy reader.

But then the ending was a real let-down. Suddenly there's nothing more at stake than getting to the bottom of things, Monk takes a long, pointless trip to Northern Scotland (some nice descriptions, but this turns out not to have any relevance to the solution of the case, which feels wrong, this late in the story), and we get these artificially exciting chases and confrontations. And I call them "artificial", because it this is just not what this series is about, not where the excitement should come from.

Plus, finally, finally, we have some definite development in Hester and Monk's relationship, but it feels unsatisfying because it smacks of cheap melodrama ("We probably won't live to see the morning", etc.). Eh, well, let's see how this develops in the next one.

MY GRADE: Most of it was in the A range, but the ending lowers it somewhat. Still, what was good was excellent enough that I'd still rate the book a B+.

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Heaven's Fire, by Patricia Ryan

>> Wednesday, June 06, 2007

TITLE: Heaven's Fire
AUTHOR: Patricia Ryan

COPYRIGHT: 1996
PAGES: 341
PUBLISHER: Topaz (Penguin-Putnam)

SETTING: Medieval (12th century England)
TYPE: Hmm, I suppose the suspense subplot might be big enough to call this Romantic Suspense-ish.
SERIES: Follows Falcon's Fire. Seems the hero of HF was an intriguing character in FF, because there's a foreword saying that many readers asked for his story.

REASON FOR READING: It's a second chance for HF. I tried to read it 3 or 4 years ago, and didn't get past the first 50 or so pages. Since I didn't remember it as a bad book, just one that didn't click with my mood at the time, I decided to give it another try after enjoying two other medievals by the author, Silken Threads and The Sun and the Moon.

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Young Constance was practically a slave, waiting to be taken at will by the cruel Sir Roger Foliot. But Sir Roger did not count on her ability to escape from him into the protection of priest, Oxford scholar, and sworn celibate, Rainulf Fairfax.

Now Rainulf and Constance have a lesson to learn about love...how unstoppable it is...what it will cost them...and what the priceless ecstacy of sharing a future--forever--can be..
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THE PLOT: Desperate to escape the cruel Sir Roger Foliot, who thinks all the young women living on his lands are his to do as he will, Constance decides to fake her own death. She pretends to have died in the pox epidemic (she almost did, actually), and while a friend makes a show of burying her "body" (a sackful of hay), Constance runs of to Oxford disguised as a boy.

In Oxford she takes refuge with Rainulf Fairfax, a former priest and currently a teacher at the university. Rainulf had first met Constance when he'd gone to help at her village and nursed her through the pox. Hearing of her death, he'd been devastated, so discovering that the young man named Corliss is actually Constance in disguise is a huge relief.

For both of them, it's extremely important that Constance/Corliss be able to maintain her disguise while staying with Rainulf. Sir Roger didn't take long to find out about Constance's ruse and he's sent a very scary man after her. Plus, Rainulf might not be a priest any more, but he aspires to the chancellorship at Oxford, and to get that post he needs both to be celibate and to seem it.

MY THOUGHTS: I really don't know why this book didn't hit it off with me that first time. There were a couple of things that exasperated me (more on that just ahead), but that was later in the book. This time, the first section felt just fine to me. Eh, well, guess I'll never know.

Anyway, as in her other Medievals, Ryan creates a vivid, flavourful setting here. I have to confess that it's not a setting that comes across as completely genuine, but I still loved visiting Ryan's version of Medieval Oxford. I especially enjoyed catching a glimpse of the early days of Oxford, with its rowdy students and their conflicts with the townsmen and the politics of how it was ran.

HF is a book with some very interesting characters, too. Rainulf is a wonderfully done beta hero. He was a warrior before he became a priest and brought the single-mindedness necessary for the former to the latter. So when he experienced a crisis of faith and became wracked with doubt, it was disastrous for him and he ended up leaving the priesthood (and for those of you who're shaking your heads at the concept of a medieval priest simply leaving the Church as easy as he pleased, it's not like that. It was shown here as a complicated process, involving petitions to the Pope based on the fact that the priest who ordained Rainulf had been condemned as a heretic, so Rainulf argued he was never a real priest. It might be historically accurate or it might not, I don't know, but at least you can rest easy that the issue was not ignored).

But leaving the priesthood didn't solve the problem, and Rainulf is still as tormented by doubts as ever, and he questions whether he's the right person to be teaching his students, considering this. Thus his determination to continue with his celibacy (eleven years and counting) and to move into the chancelor's position, a goal that is derailed when he starts spending time with Corliss. Their relationship was quite lovely, marked by respect on both sides and what seemed to me to be genuine fondness. This is one very sweet guy, and if his characterization holds from the previuos book, I don't wonder at all those readers writing to ask Ryan for his story.

As for Constance, I liked her much better at the beginning of the book than nearer the end. She starts out as a heartbreaking character. Until she runs to Oxford, her entire life has been about avoiding Sir Roger Foliot's "attentions" (which are known in the village to be horrific), and she's had to go as far as to trade her body for protection from him. See, Sir Roger is terrified of going to hell, and it seems he believes that while rape is just fine in God's eyes, sex with a married woman or interfering with a priest will damn his soul. Taking advantage of this, Constance married very young and when her husband left her a widow not too long after that, she became the "housekeeper" of the local priest.

When she moves into Rainulf's home and realizes he's not expecting sex from her in exchange for his protection, the freedom of it is a revelation, and I rejoiced right along with her. And even more when she realizes her work illuminating manuscripts is a highly marketable skill, which allows her to be independent.

Though... maybe too independent, as much as it pains me to say so, because it really goes to her head. After a while, she started driving me nuts. For a brilliant, learned woman such as she was, she was terribly stupid about her safety. She knows she's being hunted by this horrible psychopath, whose handiwork she's seen (all those mutilated women he'd "recovered" for Sir Roger before, so damaged they'd prefered to kill themselves rather than go on living like that). So what does she do? Why, she pooh-poohs Rainulf whenever he urges caution and insists on walking around on her own so she won't bother people. After all, she's disguised as a man, so she's safe. And she keeps on nattering on about that even after events prove that being male has its own dangers. And then there's her "oh, I have to leave for his own good" thing there at the end, when Rainulf's students have accidentally exposed her identity in front of all of Oxford. Think, you idiot! All Oxford knows now that the young man who was living with Rainulf is actually a young woman. So how does going away now help? That's the kind of thing she kept doing.

I really wish she hadn't had those episodes of stupidity, because if she hadn't, then this would have come close to being a keeper.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Guest blogger Arielle - You've got mail... eventually!

>> Monday, June 04, 2007

From guest blogger Arielle, a tale I can very much identify with.


Friday, when I came home from work, I found a notice from the post office asking me to pick up a "tied package". I thought for a minute it might have been from Ro herself, but then again, she would have warned me beforehand [Rosario: I would, I would. And I'll be sending something out later this week, so here's your warning]. So I was intrigued (and amused by the mix of creole and french the postman had used to express the nature of the package, LOL). Here's a pic of what I got.



Since it was to late to go pick it up that same afternoon, I put it on my to-do list for Monday, first thing. I wasn't enthousiastic about it because we're into the rainy/hurracany season and the Post office is a "little to the left" as they say here, so it wasn't going to be fun...or clean for that matter.

I went to the post office at 8 A.M. and was handed this package. Four - yes, 4 - envelopes of books waiting for me. But the date are what really floored me. I'd forgotten about half these books.



So, here's the list:

  • package # 1, postmarked March 10th, 2006 :

    Medeiros, Teresa : A Kiss to Remember, The Bride and The Beast (both HC, autographed)

    Comments : I had to check my inbox. I'd won them as the Grand Prize on TM's site. I was also happy to see included a postcard of the now defunct SquawkRadio ladies in their chicken outfits. Must be a collector's item already, LOL!


  • package # 2, postmarked Feb 4th, 2006:

    Grant, Susan : Contact
    JAK: Absolutely, Positively
    Barnett, Jill : Carried Away

    Comments : This was a trade with Cindy and I thought I had lost them forever so she replaced them for me with another set of three. When I emailed her about this, she tought it was "just too funny".


  • package # 3, postmarked Dec 16th, 2005:

    Caskie, Kathryn : Rules of Engagement
    D'Alessandro, Jacquie : Love and the Single Heiress

    Comments : Now this is the really interesting one since it was posted by Susana from *Miami*. Worse, neither she nor I even remembered what the trade was, LOL! There was even a Christmas card inside...


  • package #4, postmarked Feb 22, 2006:

    Rogers, Annie : Dream Across Time

    Comments : I discovered this author via a flash ad at AAR and there was a contest. I won...and promptly forgot. I might just have to review this one here. What do you think?

Well, there you have it. My mail, delivered...finally!!! I can't stop grinning like a fool, it's so... inefficiently funny. I've lost packages before but this is absolutely the first time I've ever received mail so late. Still, it couldn't have come at a better time. My TBR pile was dwindling so I'm looking forward to reading all those books.

What about you guys, anything similar ever happen to you?

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Demon Moon, by Meljean Brook

>> Friday, June 01, 2007

TITLE: Demon Moon (excerpt: pdf of the first 4 chapters)
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

COPYRIGHT: 2007 (the book comes out on June 5th... next Tuesday)
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Berkley Sensation

SETTING: Contemporary San Francisco
TYPE: Fantasy Romance
SERIES: Part of the Guardians series (starts with Falling For Anthony, in Hot Spell anthology, then Demon Angel and Paradise, in Wild Thing anthology, which I've somehow missed).

REASON FOR READING: Loved, loved, loved Demon Angel, and Colin's always intrigued me.

Return to the sensual netherworld of Demon Angel for a heartbreaking romance of eternal love threatened by the darkness of a Demon Moon…

No one would call vampire Colin Ames-Beaumont kind, but they would call him unnaturally beautiful. For two centuries his tainted blood has kept him isolated from other vampires, sustained only by his beauty and vanity—bitter comforts, since a curse has erased his mirror reflection, replacing it with a terrifying glimpse of Chaos.

Savi Murray's insatiable curiosity had gotten her into trouble before, but she'd always escaped unscathed. Then came Colin. In the midst of Heaven, he gave her a taste of ecstasy—and of Chaos. Deadly creatures from that realm herald the return of an imprisoned nosferatu horde, and Colin and Savi’s bond is their only protection—and their only passion…
THE PLOT: If you've read the previous books in the series, I've no doubt you'll remember the protagonists of DM, as they're definitely not the forgettable type. Colin Ames-Beaumont was introduced in Falling for Anthony, where we saw the aftermath of a nosferatu transforming him into a vampire. He also had plenty of lovely scene-stealing appearances in DA. Savitri Murray is Hugh's surrogate sister from DA, the young, geeky, half-Indian woman whose rescue precipitated his decision to Fall.

Already in DA there was a palpable chemistry between them, and as DM starts, we find out that something huge happened between them when they took refuge at Caelum, as Hugh and Lilith battled the nosferatu. There are plenty of exciting things happening around them during this book, including some creatures finding their way out of Chaos, raising the possibility that the nosferatu locked up there will manage it as well, and a demon impersonating Colin and trying to take control of the San Francisco vampire community, but DM is actually surprisingly character-driven.

The real meat is Colin and Savi falling all the way in love and finding a way to be together, which isn't at all easy, given that Colin is under a curse which prevents the simple solution of turning Savi into a vampire as well.

MY THOUGHTS: When I've loved an author's book and pick up the follow-up, this is what I hope happens. With Demon Moon, I got a story and characters very different from those in Demon Angel, but I still got what I'd adored in the first book.

This is what I mean: Savi couldn't have been more different from Lilith and Colin couldn't have been more different from Hugh, but they were just as fascinating, just as well-drawn. Like with Lilith and Hugh, I could try to describe their characters, but if I were to note every single little thing that made them real and gave their characterization such depth, I'd have to write a review as long as the book. Not one-note characters, these; they were complex people.

And they were people I loved reading about. I loved Colin's humour and his vanity, the way he could be heartbreaking and exasperating at the same time. And I loved Savi's intelligence and determination to find a way, the way she was a combination of the modern and the technological cutting edge with the more traditional, not completely rejecting her Indian grandmother's ideas out of hand.

The same thing I said about the character goes for the romance between them. Savi and Colin's romance develops in a way that's nothing like Hugh and Lilith's, but it gave me the very same feeling of a love that's big and really worth it, worth all the sacrifices and angst. The sexual tension is unbelievably intense, and doesn't diminish one iota even after these two actually start having sex. I read every single word (sometimes even twice *g*) and would rate this book as probably the hottest and most sensual I've read this year.

The complicated, well-rounded universe introduced in the previous books continues here, and it's just as vivid and subtle and complex. But we don't simply retread the same territory: given that our hero is a vampire, we see loads more about the vampire comunity and how vampirism works, and so on. We get to about the same depth as we got into demons and guardians in the first book, and I was fascinated by every detail.

Also as in DA (are you getting bored of me saying that, yet?), I loved that we didn't get a conflict with an easy solution, but one I had no idea whatsoever how Brook was going to be able to solve. And it's a very intriguing one, too. You see, Colin must drink blood regularly, and for vampires, blood-drinking comes hand-in-hand with sex, often whether they like the person they're drinking from or not. But he can't drink exclusively from Savi, who's human, or she'll be weakened, and understandably, Savi just couldn't live with the knowledge that he's with other women every night. But neither can Colin simply turn Savi into a vampire, because he's under a curse, one that we caught a glimpse of in DA but which is made clear only here. His blood is poison to other vampires, so if Savi were turned, she'd have to drink from other men, simply reversing the problem in the first place. It seems impossible that we could get to a HEA, but we do get there, and in a way that makes total sense, even if I didn't see it coming.

All the above was the good news, and now we get to... nope, not the bad news, as you might be guessing, but to the even better news *g*. Yes, because of its complexity, this is not a book to be skimmed. You have to pay attention, because Brook trusts her readers to figure things out and doesn't spell things out ten times. That's not a problem, because the pay-off is really worth the effort. In DA, however, there were certain sections where I wasn't sure what was happening, even if I was paying attention and reading carefully. Well, the excellent news is that there weren't any such problems here. DM is much better in terms of clarity.

MY GRADE: An A. It really blew me away.

NOTES: After you've read this, go read the deleted emails Meljean's put up in her site. Truly hilarious!

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