A Babe in Ghostland, by Lisa Cach

>> Tuesday, July 31, 2007

TITLE: A Babe in Ghostland (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Lisa Cach

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 368 (I'm guessing the font in the print version is huge, because it didn't look very long in my e-book reader)
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Contemporary Seattle
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Nope

REASON FOR READING: Cach was Author of the Month for July in my Historical Romance Chat group (after I unsubtly pressured Malvina into choosing her *g*)

Megan Barrows has retired from a brief career as a ghostbusting psychic and now uses her sixth sense to fill her Seattle antiques store with objects with happy pasts. After once nearly having the soul sucked out of her by a malevolent spirit, she prefers a quiet life.

Case Lambert is a real estate prospector who restores old houses, then sells them for profit. He has just bought a dilapidated mansion so amazing that he wants to keep it for himself, but the house appears to be haunted. Seriously haunted. A few inquiries lead him to Megan Barrows.

Megan at first refuses to help, but Case is a master of persuasion. Moving into the mansion, they discover that one of the ghosts has a thing for Case -- and there may be even more amorous spirits inside this veritable paranormal vortex. But it soon becomes clear that no one -- dead or alive -- can stop Megan and Case from ending up in each other's arms...
THE PLOT: Megan Barrows is the real thing, a medium with a gift for psychometry. However, after a traumatic experience during a particularly scary ghost hunt, she retired and now makes a living running an antique store.

When Case Lambert approaches her for help investigating his possibly haunted house, Megan is initially disposed to refuse, and not just because the other ghost-hunter involved, the one who gave Case Megan's name is Eric, the guy she holds responsible for the traumatic experience I mentioned. In addition to this, Case first comes across as a close-minded skeptic to Megan -a jerkish close-minded skeptic, to boot.

But they make a bargain that if the house is proved to be haunted and if it's Megan's contribution and not Eric's that is key to solving this haunting, she'll get a bonus that will really make a difference in her shop. All three are to stay in the house in question during the investigation, and things really heat up the minute she moves in.

It's immediately clear that the haunting is very much real, and definitely not of the inoffensive variety. And that's not all that heats up: soon Megan comes to realize that Case is not the jerk she first thought him to be, and amid the danger of their investigation, their relationship gets more serious than either expected.

MY THOUGHTS: I liked this. I really, really liked this, even though it was completely different in tone to The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid, which I read and loved not long ago. TESOAFM was laugh-out-loud funny, a "sex comedy" which really worked. ABIG did have some very nice touches of humour, but it was more scary than funny, and this made for a very satisfying ghost story.

Like the other "investigation-of-a-haunted-house" I read recently, there's an excellent balance between the romance and character development and the plot about the haunting. Both are interesting and well done.

I really liked Megan. I especially appreciated her very level-headed approach to her psychic gifts. She's not an overwrought nut, seeing ghosts in everything, but neither is she in denial about what she can do. She's comfortable with knowing her capabilities, even if, because she knows the dangers involved, she's reluctant to use them. Case was a bit harder to warm up to, because like Megan, I thought he was a bit of a jerk at first. But Cach soon gives us more insight into him and I ended up understanding him much better.

This is a romance with a very narrow focus, as Case and Megan fall in love while pretty much locked inside the house, without any distractions other than the increasing dangers posed by the ghosts. Oh, and Eric, who was almost as interesting a character as they were. Now, he really was a jerk, but more because he was incredibly self-involved than because he was evil, and his inclusion in the book prevented the romance from being too claustrophobic, while providing some good opportunities for Case to show the way he'd come to care for Megan.

The details of the haunting were intriguing and original, and I was as interested in finding out what was going on as I was in the romance. It ended up not being as eerie and scary as it promised to be at the beginning, but it was a good resolution anyway.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+. Cach's voice is really clicking with me.

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Secrets Vol. 4 anthology

>> Monday, July 30, 2007

TITLE: Secrets Vol. 4
AUTHORS: Jeanie Cesarini, Desirée Lindsey, Betsy Morgan & Susan Paul and Emma Holly.

COPYRIGHT: 1998
PAGES: 222
PUBLISHER: Red Sage Publishing

SETTING: Contemporary for the Cesarini and for the Morgan and Paul story, historical for the Lindsay and fantasy for the Holly.
TYPE: Erotic romance
SERIES: Only the Cesarini, which is a sequel to another story, published in the previous Secrets volume.

REASON FOR READING: Purely for the Emma Holly story. I've liked what she does with paranormals and fantasy romance, and I believe this was her first try at it.


THE STORIES:

Jeanie Cesarini is a pseudonym for Jeanie London. I've read a couple of the Blaze books published under the London name, but An Act of Love was my first for the Cesarini name.

Shelby Moran’s past haunts her and has left her terrified of sex. International film star Jason Gage is hired to gently coach the young starlet in the ways of love. He wants more than an act — he wants Shelby to feel true passion in his arms.
As I mentioned above, this story is a spin-off from the one in the previous Secrets anthology. From the beginning, we know that the heroine, up-and-coming Hollywood actress Shelby Morgan, went through some traumatic experiences in that other story, when she was a teen. We're not told exactly what happened until much later, but it has left her with some problems. Sexual situations spark off panic attacks, and that includes acting in the sex scenes in her latest movie.

Jason Gage is a former Hollywood star and well-known acting coach who's retired, got a degree in psychology and now teaches in a university. He's pressured by the director from Shelby's movie into coaching her through her traumas, but the minute he meets her, he doesn't just want to teach her to act through her fears. What he wants is for her to really get over her problem and learn how to enjoy sex -with him.

The plot is of the "oh, please" variety. How much more unprofessional can a psychologist get? And we don't really get much character development before Jason and Shelby hit the sack, so the sex wasn't as erotic as it could have been. On the plus side, though, both of them were pleasant people and clearly liked each other from the very beginning, which made this a painless story to read. And even though Jason is 15 years older than Shelby, I never got a dirty-old-man vibe from him.

I'll give a it a C, then.


The next story, Enslaved, was written by an author I'd never heard of: Desirée Lindsey.

Lady Crystal Halverton is in turmoil. Lord Nicholas Summer’s air of danger, dark passions, and irresistible charm have brought her long-hidden desires to the surface. Will he be able to give her the one thing she desires before it’s too late?
I'm marking this one down as a DNF, but really, it was more like a PDES (Practically Didn't Even Start). I went uh-oh right at the dedication:

To my reader:

Everyone loves a good, angst-filled love story and adore (yes, "adore", without an s) a tender, provocative hero. Here's to vulnerable alpha heroes -to a sensate adventure with Nicholas and Crystal, their undying love, fierce passion, and all things as brilliant as his gift to her...

I give you award-winning seduction -may your hearts be Enslaved.
I read 4 or 5 pages and the writing style was just as overwrought and purple as the dedication. Plus, the plot seems to be that perennial favourite of bodice-ripper authors: the heroine who can't conceive with her husband and, with his encouragement, goes to another man to get impregnated. Definitely not a favourite of mine, so I wasn't going to waste my time trying.


Next, a collaboration: The Bodyguard by Betsy Morgan and Susan Paul

Kaki York is a bodyguard, but watching the wild, erotic romps of her client’s sexual conquests on the security cameras is getting to her — and her partner, the ruggedly handsome James Kulick. Can she resist his insistent desire to have her?
Another DNF (and I'm starting to get worried), but at least I read half the story this time.

The plot description above is pretty accurate: Kaki is hired to be a bodyguard to nymphomaniac actress Alana Manley, who's recently acquired a stalker. The hero, James, is Alana's chauffer, who's more than qualified as a bodyguard himself. Alana's entire appartment has been wired with hidden cameras and about the point where I stopped reading, Kaki and James are starting to have to use them for surveyance, even while Alana's having vigorous sex.

I'm not much into voyeurism, but I guess this could have been interesting, if only I hadn't gotten bored waiting for the story to start. As of the midway point of the story, I don't think we've spent more than a couple of pages where hero and heroine are front and center. It's been all long and unexciting sex scenes between Alana and her latest conquest. I'm getting tired of saying this, but watching characters I don't know or care about getting it on? Not erotic to me, no matter how kinky the actual acts involved are. Plus, in the one scene in which we see Kaki and James together he acts like a sexist jerk, all angry because a woman can't be a bodyguard. Idiot.


As you might imagine, after these stories, getting to the Emma Holly felt like a prize for good behaviour. The Love Slave was the title.

A woman’s ultimate fantasy. For one year, Princess Lily will be attended to by three delicious men of her choice. While she delights in playing with the first two, it’s the reluctant Grae, with his powerful chest, black eyes and hair, that stirs her desires.
It felt like a prize not just because it was an Emma Holly, but because of the plot. A fantasy of a matriarchal land, where the princess is served by her personal Love Guard, three men she choses among hundreds and over whom she has total power? In Emma Holly's hands, it sounds like it could be deliciously dirty. Erotica about sexually dominant men bores me, but switch the roles and give it to a talented author, and it just might work.

Thing is, the roles aren't switched here. Not really. Not at all, in the case of one of the Love Guards. Princess Lily technically has total power over Col, Ian and Grae. Col and Ian are fine with it, but Grae isn't and Lily just doesn't have it in her to assert herself. I stopped reading after he spanks her. Yes, her slave spanks her. Pissed me off. Too bad, because it had started well, and the sex scenes, at least, were yummy.

*Sigh*. Yes, another DNF.


I think this was probably the weakest anthology I've ever read. One very blah but inoffensive story, three I couldn't bear to finish. That adds up to a D- in my book.

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Oleander House, by Ally Blue

>> Friday, July 27, 2007

TITLE: Oleander House (for e-format: here)
AUTHOR: Ally Blue

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: Print version has 228 pages
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing

SETTING: Contemporary Mississipi
TYPE: Gay paranormal romance
SERIES: First in Bay City Paranormal Investigations series.

REASON FOR READING: I've liked Ally Blue's books and I love good ghost stories, so this plot appealed to me.

Sam Raintree has never been quite normal. All his life, he’s experienced things he can’t explain. Things that have colored his view of the world and of himself. So taking a job as a paranormal investigator seems like a perfect fit. His new co-workers, he figures, don’t have to know that he’s gay.

From the moment Sam arrives at Oleander House, the site of his first assignment with Bay City Paranormal Investigations, nothing is what he expected. The repetitive yet exciting work, the unusual and violent history of the house, the intensely erotic and terrifying dreams which plague his sleep. But the most unexpected thing is Dr. Bo Broussard, the group’s leader. From the moment they meet, Sam is strongly attracted to his intelligent, alluring boss. It doesn’t take Sam long to figure out that although Bo has led a heterosexual life, he is very much in the closet, and wants Sam as badly as Sam wants him.

As the investigation of Oleander House progresses and paranormal events in the house escalate, Sam and Bo circle warily around their mutual attraction, until a single night of bloodshed and revelation changes their lives forever.
THE PLOT: Sam Raintree's new job as a tech with Bay City Paranormal investigations quickly becomes more eventful than he ever could have predicted. His very first job is BCPI's investigation of Oleander House, a stately old home with a history of mysterious and gruesome murders.

The crew moves in and from the very first, it's clear that something very strange is going on. The members of the team with psychic gifts (which turns out to include Sam, to his surprise) all sense something menacing and foreign, and their dreams are becoming more and more violent and upsetting.

And if all this weren't stressful enough for poor Sam, there's also his complicated developing relationship with his boss, Dr. Bo Broussard. It's obvious from the first that Bo is majorly attracted to Sam, but the man is married and insists he's not gay. So what are all those mixed signals he's sending Sam all about?

MY THOUGHTS: Oleander House brought me out of my post-Deathly Hallows blues. I'd been listlessly picking up and discarding books ever since I'd finished it, right until I started OH. I ended up staying up late to finish it that same evening. It's not a perfect book, but both the paranormal aspects and the romance are tremendously absorbing.

It's hard to say which of these aspects I enjoyed the most, because I really liked the balance Blue struck between them. The increasing horror (and I do mean horror) of the BCPI team's experiences in the house only helped ratchet up the tension between Bo and Sam.

I loved the mystery of the house and enjoyed following the investigators doing their thing, even though much of what they did sounded incredibly boring, the poor things. I mean, all that watching of the videos taken by the cameras they'd set up in the house? I'd die of boredom after an hour. But I appreciated the touch of reality.

As for the romance, it had me at the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen. Oh, the lovely, lovely tension! I wanted to smack Bo a couple of times for the torture he put Sam through, but I couldn't help but sympathise at the same time. But man, the guy was so totally in denial! And just a warning for those who've become used to "gay romance" being more like "gay erotica": this one is not. There's plenty of sexual tension (and I'd even characterize the book as hot), but there's little actual sexual content. That's left for the sequel.

And that brings me to the ending, which was on the open-ended side. Well, only slightly open-ended in the plot, pretty open-ended in the romance.

The BCPI team does discover the basics of what's going on in the house and they do manage to resolve the "haunting", but it's clear that there's a lot left for them to find out in the future. I'm afraid the climactic scene in this respect was not completely successful, mainly because the reality wasn't as scary as the previous suggestions, which were very chilling. But still, it was interesting and original.

The romance had much less resolution. It does end in a hopeful note, but it's also clear that there's still much to be resolved between Bo and Sam, especially because Bo is still pretty uncomfortable with his sexuality. I didn't mind too much because the following book, What Hides Inside is already available, but if it hadn't, I might have been pissed.

MY GRADE: A strong B.

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To Marry the Duke, by Julianne MacLean

>> Tuesday, July 24, 2007

TITLE: To Marry the Duke (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Julianne MacLean

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 373
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Starts the American Heiress series. See the other book titles here.

REASON FOR READING: It's been in my TBR for a while. I finally picked it up after reading Ana's post about it.

My dear sister Clara,

London society is so much more complicated than I could ever have known! Every night is a different ball or assembly, and a different swirl of glittering jewels and rustling gowns. Though I fear I am making social blunders left and right I am having some measure of success in my (or rather, Mother's) objective. Mother is beside herself with glee at the attentions I have been receiving from a few gentlemen she finds supremely suitable as husband material.

But my dearest sister, it is so hard for me to even look at any gentleman but a certain duke, who, if I may confess, makes my heart beat so that I fear it can be seen across a ballroom. He is James Langdon, the Duke of Wentworth, and though I may sound dramatic, he makes me feel as no man ever has before.

But I must push these feelings away. I sometimes hear whispers about his dark past, and he is quietly called the Dangerous Duke. Oh Clara! I am secretly overjoyed that he may love me, and at the same time terrified of his attentions. I have waited so long for my true love, and now I must resist him to protect my heart.

If only I knew how to proceed…

Your devoted sister,
Sophia
THE PLOT: Ugh, I hate those letter-from-the-characters blurbs. This one's particularly silly (not to mention this doesn't sound like Sophia at all). The plot is quite simple. Sophia is an American heiress with a social climbing mother. After rejecting some good prospects in America, she accedes to her mother's demands that they go to England to find her a husband.

Sophia is determined to marry for love, but soon word of her obscenely huge dowry gets out and she fears any man who proposes to her will be out for her money. James Langdon, the Duke of Wentworth, doesn't seem to be one of them, though, and she allows herself to be courted by him and consents to his proposal of marriage.

But James is out for her money, or at least that's what he tells himself. He's felt drawn to Sophia from the start, but a fear of giving in to his passions and ending up like his father (and his grandfather before him) keep him from approaching her. It's only when he hears about her dowry and is reminded of just how bad things are at his estate that he gives himself permission to go after her. After all, a marriage between them will be all about business: she gets his title, he gets her money.

Too bad no one told Sophia until after the marriage.

MY THOUGHTS: My entire problem with the book hinges on one thing: I didn't buy James' motivation for fighting his feelings for Sophia.

The whole thing about how his father and his grandfather had been so awful was sad and yes, I felt sorry for him. It's just that I wasn't able to make the connection between not wanting to be like those two men and his conviction that having a real relationship with his wife would have that effect. His thought processes in that area made no sense to me and made me think he was a bit stupid.

And when he rejects Sophia so painfully, I added "cruel" to "stupid". The man is completely thoughtless in all his dealings with her, seems to delight in hurting her feelings as much as he can and all for no good reason. That's just not good.

I think at the point when James reveals his real intentions in the marriage the book could still have been salvaged, if only Sophia had reacted in a different way to James' actions. Maybe a "so you want a cold wife? I'll give you a cold wife" reaction that made James realize how much he would be missing if he made his marriage into his idea of what a proper marriage should be like. But no, Sophia just keeps acting the same, still giving James all he wants. I lost a lot of respect for her because of it. I expected something better than this doormat behaviour from someone previously characterized as intelligent and strong.

Up until the last 100 or so pages I was still engaged in the book. I wasn't liking how the conflict was going, but at least I was interested in it. But then the action moves to a booooring and trite plot about someone who's blackmailing the dowager duchess and oh we must rescue James' sister. And of course, the French are evil and treacherous. Bah.

MacLean writes nicely, but this story wasn't my cup of tea. Sorry, Ana!

MY GRADE: A C-. I don't think I'll be reading the rest of the series.

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Harry Potter 7 and why El Pais sucks

>> Sunday, July 22, 2007

It was a huge effort to resist temptation, but I arrived at the bookstore at 8:01 on Friday (that is, a minute past midnight, London time), having managed not to read even the slightest spoiler about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I grabbed my copy, took it home and after another huge effort of will, went to bed without starting it. I knew if I started it then, I'd end up reading the night away. I didn't want that; I wanted to feel fresh and well awake while I was reading it, so it would be better to start it early the next morning and just read all day.

So at 6:30 on Saturday morning, I wake up with a huge smile, relishing the prospect of finally, finally starting the book and finding out Harry's final fate. I make breakfast, open to the first page, and remember I haven't brought in the newspaper. I'm not reading it, just in case, but I'd better bring it in.

It's lying on the floor right outside the door, looking perfectly innocent. I bend down to pick it up and for some reason, my eyes immediately go to a small headline at the bottom of the top half. And at that moment, I'm tempted to get on the car and drive to the El Pais offices and kill someone.

That little headline revealed, very clearly, Harry final fate. I'm not going to be as sadistic as those shit-for-brains fucktards at El Pais and spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet, so I'll just mention it said "Harry Potter ____ at the end of the book", the blank being whether he was dead or alive. Here's what I saw, with the operative word smudged out.


Click here to see a larger version of the smudged version, and here to see the unsmudged version).

Argh!!!! I know I'm not good at expressing anger in writing, but believe me, I was (and still am) steaming. Fortunately, I'm better at expressing my anger verbally, so I kept phoning El Pais offices until I could speak with the person in charge, and I really reamed him out. I still knew the ending, but at least I'd vented, LOL! I still can't believe it... I mean, this is the biggest newspaper in the country, with journalist who are supposed to have at least a certain degree of journalistic integrity, and they pull this shit?

Oh, and to add insult to injury, the photo under the offending headline? Yep, there I am on the front page. The one in a white jacket coming out of the bookstore.


And that's not all... this morning, on page 2, another photo of me, this time as part of the weekly roundup, next to a tremendously condescending little snippet about those hysterical Harry Potter fans and how the huge expectation the book caused was so exagerated. Stupid fuckers. If it was so exagerated, then why the hell are you putting the ending of the book on your front page?





The book itself? Well, that was all good. I haven't really digested it enough to put my thoughts about it in order, so all I can say was that I enjoyed it immensely in spite of the best efforts of those idiots at El País.

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Dangerous Magic, by Jayne Ann Krentz

>> Friday, July 20, 2007

TITLE: Dangerous Magic
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz (written as Stephanie James)

COPYRIGHT: 1982
PAGES: 219
PUBLISHER: Originally: Silhouette Special Edition (see its cover here). My copy was a reissue, a "Collector's Edition" from Harlequin.

SETTING: Contemporary (bah, early 1980s, actually)
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Estelle started an intriguing thread about it at AAR. I already had it in my TBR pile, left over from my massive JAK glom from a few years ago, so I immediately went and fished it out.

Sleeping her way to the top was not Elissa Sheldon's style...

Sure, she had skills and intelligence, but senior work colleague Wade Taggert was convinced that Elissa had slept with a married man to advance her career. Elissa was furious at Wade's assumptions and was very tempted to quit her job—but when he had the nerve to blackmail her into an affair of his own, the opportunity for revenge was too sweet to pass up.

The trap was set. She would manipulate him into falling in love with her, and when he was on his knees begging her to marry him...she would shoot him down for the dirty dog that he was. But what she didn't count on was falling in love herself...
THE PLOT: When Elissa Sheldon is called into the new boss' office, she expects to be told she got the promotion she was angling for. After all, she was clearly the best-qualified person for the position. But she doesn't get her promotion, in spite of Wade Taggert acknowledging that she was the best person for the job. Her problem, he says, is that she slept with the wrong man for the job. She should have gone for him, not for that other executive he saw her with. And from now on, she will. They will be lovers, and that is that.

Elissa is outraged, especially because she wasn't sleeping with that guy at all. But rather than suing Wade for sexual harassment (which, to her credit, she does consider doing), she goes for revenge. She'll pretend to go along and when he's begging her for marriage, she'll turn him down, in the most humilliating way possible.

MY THOUGHTS: Estelle, my friend, we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Dangerous Magic is better than those titles I warned you to stay away from, but Wade still crosses my personal line between self-assured and jackass.

I think this plot, which depends on the hero behaving so badly, might just have worked if we'd got a huge grovel on the his part. I would even have accepted a bit of a scare, a bleak moment in which he thinks that his abominable behaviour might have cost him the love of his life. But we don't get either of those things.

During the dénouement, Wade tells Elissa: "You’ve been outclassed, outmaneuvered, and out-tricked every step of the way, my lovely.", and so she has been. All thorought the book he's been manipulating her into doing what he wanted, making accusations he knew were baseless and basically doing his best to make her feel bad. Not one moment of doubt on his part, not one moment of guilt for the distress he's causing this woman he's supposed to love. And he's rewarded for it, because he gets everything he wanted, just as he wanted it.

His actions upset me even more than they did Elissa. I hated the way he kept telling her that she needed a man to keep her under control, to dominate her, that she'd been allowed to handle people all her life and she needed someone who she couldn't handle. Blergh. And even worse was the scene in which he threatened to beat her, and though it's made clear that he wouldn't have followed through, it's only after a horribly humiliating episode of begging and pleading on Elissa's part, who really did believe he would hit her. This particular scene was the worst, but this guy had a general tendency to threaten violence whenever he perceived Elissa was "offending" him. He could make the most awful accusations to her and she wasn't allowed to get angry, but let her give him a bit of lip, and he considered it his right to chastise her. He was also an insanely jealous.

On the plus side, Wade did have more of a sense of humour than the typical old alpha jerk, which was the only reason I was able to finish the book. He was even able to laugh about himself, at times (at times being the operative words here). Also, I was intrigued by the obvious loneliness in him, his very real need for Elissa. And that's all the positive things I can say about him.

Elissa wasn't a bad heroine, at least not until the end. She was suitably outraged by Wade's accusations, and I sympathized with her need for revenge. If only she'd been able to follow through! Wade really, really deserved Elissa to do her worst.

I must say, though, that no matter how many negatives I list, this was a one-sitting book. There was a bit of a guilty pleasure element to my reading it, and with a better ending, I might have excused a lot of the problems.

MY GRADE: A C-, with bonus negative points for the pointless appearance of a shallow, beautiful, sophisticated Evil Other Woman, out to get Wade. Was that a requirement back then?

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That's Amore, by Carol Grace

>> Wednesday, July 18, 2007

TITLE: That's Amore
AUTHOR: Carol Grace

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 343
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Contemporary Italy
TYPE: Straight romance, with a lightish suspense subplot
SERIES: No, but it's part of Pocket's Bon Voyage line, which features contemporary romances in exotic locations (which apparently means anywhere but the US, as Italy and Greece and Ireland and France don't really seem particularly exotic to me).

REASON FOR READING: I love contemporary romance in exotic (or not so exotic, but at least different) locations!

In this delicious contemporary romance, Carol Grace whisks readers away to Italy's sunny Amalfi Coast, where whitewashed villas and fragrant lemon trees sit high atop craggy cliffs...and romance is always in the air.

Ever since high school, Anne Marie Jackson has dreamed of visiting Italy - a dream no doubt enflamed by Giovanni, the dashing exchange student with whom she shared her first kiss. Twenty-three years, one divorce, and one postcard from Giovanni later, Anne Marie decides to follow her heart to Italy, where her former flame has promised to show her the sights.

Giovanni proves elusive but Marco Moretti - a mysterious, handsome Italian - seems to be everywhere she is. Anne Marie doesn't know why the persistent, irresistible Marco wants to find Giovanni as badly as she does, or if her old friend's in some kind of trouble - but she soon discovers that it's her own heart that's in danger...of falling head-over-heels for the man who insists on being her personal tour guide to true love!
THE PLOT: Anne Marie Jackson is in Italy to meet up with her former high school crush, the sexy Giovanni (and the fact that her trip allows her to avoid her ex-husband's wedding is a plus). But Giovanni is not at the small town in Southern Italy where she was supposed to meet him, and as she follows him all over Italy, Anne Marie finds herself unable to shake the handsome Italian tour guide who keeps popping up wherever she goes.

The tour guide is not a tour guide, but Italian cop Marco Moretti, out to arrest Giovanni for diamond smuggling (and for breaking his little sister's heart and being his childhood nemesis; how's that for conflict of interest?). He has received intelligence that Giovanni's American accomplice is bringing him an important stolen gem, and he's determined to be there to catch them in fraganti during the handover. He will arrest them both, even if he is becoming more attracted to said accomplice every day...

MY THOUGHTS: Italy is beautiful, but most everything else in this book is a mess. My problem was all about the characters and how they kept behaving in ways I found implausible for reasonable adults.

Anne Marie, especially, was just unbelievable. The things the woman takes in stride! How she could believe Marco's excuses about why he's following her all over Italy is beyond me. I mean, the guy is everywhere she goes and he refuses to answer most of her questions. All he says is that he's a tour guide and the reason he's following her is because it's his job to take care of tourists, and she seems pretty ok with it. So he's doing it for free? A 5-year-old wouldn't believe this!

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The most surreal part of the book was when she's in this little town in the middle of nowhere and suddenly Giovanni appears inside her hotel room, basically tries to tear her ring off her finger and runs out when he hears Marco approaching. Does Anne Marie freak out? Worry at all? Nope, she doesn't seem to find it odd in the least. In fact, she's still determined to continue on to Rome and meet Giovanni there, as they'd originally arranged. That's the kind of thing this book is full of.

Marco is remarkably dumb for a cop. If he's a realistic one, then poor Italy. He neglects to do the most obvious things, keeps thinking Anne Marie is some kind of crook long after it would be reasonable to do so and keeps sleeping with her even as he believes it. Grrr.

Plus, there was no real chemistry between Anne Marie and Marco. Other than a few lust-atacks, he didn't seem particularly into her. And neither did she seem particularly into him... I mean, she'd think about how Marco was the incarnation of the dark, handsome Italian lover fantasy, but she was all about finding Giovanni.

The suspensey thing with the diamond plot wasn't that bad, but it could have been much better. It was also pretty obvious who was behind it and where the diamond was. The clues weren't particularly subtle.

The one thing I enjoyed was the visit to Italy, though this, too, could have been better. The sense of place was nice, but not too remarkable, and the author's image of Italian people was stereotypical in the extreme. Marco's grandma is mad to get him married, all the women he knows are materialistic and sophisticated, etc.

MY GRADE: A C-, which includes extra points for the travelogue.

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Once a Gentleman, by Candice Hern

>> Monday, July 16, 2007

TITLE: Once a Gentleman (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Candice Hern

COPYRIGHT: 2004
PAGES: 373
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: 1802 London
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: This series is centered around the Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet, a magazine that is purportedly a harmless diversion for those weak-minded women, but which in reality subtly preaches republican and equality-minded messages. The first book is Once a Dreamer, followed by Once a Scoundrel. Once a Gentleman is the third and last in the trilogy.

REASON FOR READING: I liked the other two books, especially the first one.

Prudence Armitage is his dearest friend… until a compromising position changes everything.

Nicholas Parrish had no intentions of taking a bride, and certainly not someone like Prudence. Of course she's charming, pleasant, and a diligent employee of The Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet, the magazine Nicholas and his sister run from his home. Prudence may even be considered pretty, when you look past the mousy hair and dreadful glasses. But when she falls asleep at her desk and remains in his town house all night, her irate father demands satisfaction. And being a true gentleman, Nicholas agrees to do the proper thing.

Though marrying Prudence never crossed his mind before, he has to admit there is an intriguing and desirable side to her he's only just beginning to see. But Nicholas may need to reconsider his plans for a marriage "in-name-only" especially now that Pru has decided to make herself totally irresistible.
THE PLOT: With Edwina, the Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet editor, on her honeymoon, Prudence Armitage has temporarily taken over her duties. She's spending long hours at the house which Edwina used to share with her brother Nicholas, which is where the Cabinet's offices are located.

One night, Pru falls asleep over her work and ends up spending the entire night in Nicholas' house. The horror, the scandal! Yep, that's what her father and brothers think when they find her there the next morning. She and Nicholas will get married and never mind that nothing actually happened between them.

Pru has had a huge crush on Nicholas practically forever, but she's horrified at the idea of having him marry her because he had no choice. As for Nicholas, he feels guilty for being so careless as to allow this to happen to poor Pru, and so he promises he'll give her as much time she needs to feel ready before they consummate the marriage. It's not such a hardship, after all, because it's not as if he's at all sexually attracted to her. At least, not at first...

MY THOUGHTS: I've got somewhat mixed feelings about this one. Throughout the whole book there were certain things that were very nicely done, but others which weren't so good. There was nothing really bad, mind, but a few elements felt a bit tired and clichéd.

At the beginning, I liked Nick much, much better than Pru. She's such a doormat in those early pages! Her family keep taking advantage of her, and she doesn't even feel a little bit of resentment. She actually feels guilty when her stupid sister scolds her for not being on hand to manage her (the sister's) servants. It doesn't even cross Pru's mind to tell her "manage them yourself, you useless cow". I don't necessary wanted her to actually say it, but please, a bit of rebellion, if only inside her mind!

Nick, OTOH, is really great at the beginning. The guy has been trapped into a marriage he never would have seeked, through no fault of his own (his guilt for not preventing such a situation? Completely baseless). It's natural that he would be angry. He is, but he's mature enough to realize that it wasn't Prudence's fault either, and he treats her accordingly. He's always liked her and considered her a friend, and the marriage doesn't change this.

The best thing about the book was the way Hern wrote the change in Nick's feelings about Pru. It's a slow process in which he goes from not noticing Pru at all as a woman to going practically crazy with lust over her, and it was excellently done. It was slow and gradual and felt natural. I liked how he initially started noticing the good things about her when he realized the injustice of her overbearing family taking her so much for granted, and I loved the way he championed her in front of them from the very beginning.

However, as much as I liked the gradualness of this process, I wasn't too convinced by the device through which they're kept from coming together sexually from the very start. That conflict got tiresome after a while. It's like this: Nicholas doesn't want to go to his wife's bed before she's ready. Given that whenever he gets near... say, gives her a quick kiss on the lips, she jumps, he concludes that she'll obviously take a long while to really feel completely ready. So no matter how much he now wants her, he'll keep away. But it's all a lack of communication, because Pru is VERY ready, has been so since the very first day. It's just that she doesn't know how to convey it, and no way she'll come right out and say it.

So there's a lot here about Nicholas completely misinterpreting all of Pru's very obvious signals (I thought he was this huge rake, with lots of experience with women?) and of Pru's disastrous attempts to flirt. She tries to take lessons from the Cabinet's fashion editor, a former courtesan, so we get treated to some very unamusing scenes of broad comedy with Prudence looking ridiculous when she tries to entice Nick. She pokes herself in the eye with her fan, bats her eyelids so fast Nick thinks something got into her eye, lurches around the room when she's trying to be sexy, etc., etc., etc. Rinse and repeat.

Even more problematic was the conflict caused by Nick's refusal to even consider making use of Pru's money, even though he's not in such a good economic position himself. I did understand his pride, but it didn't completely fit in with his egalitarian, republican ideas, which should have made him more open to entering into a true partnership with a wife, not giving in to the silly idea that the man must be the provider and that's that. I liked that at one point Pru really lets it rip and tells him exactly what she (and I, actually) thought of it, but in the end, the way Hern resolved the issue was a total cop-out.

This is one of those books which looks worse in hindsight than it felt as I was reading it. I quite enjoyed it, even as I rolled my eyes at some of the things that bothered me. Plus, I really like the premise of the Cabinet and these characters' heartfelt Republican convictions.

MY GRADE: I'm in a good mood today, so B- it is.

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Sunrise Alley, by Catherine Asaro

>> Thursday, July 12, 2007

TITLE: Sunrise Alley
AUTHOR: Catherine Asaro

COPYRIGHT: 2004
PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Baen

SETTING: Near future (2030s, IIRC)
TYPE: Sci-fi romance
SERIES: There are some vague links to The Veiled Web and The Phoenix Code, but no need to read those to understand SA (I mean, you should read them, but simply because they're so good *g*). SA is followed by Alpha.

REASON FOR READING: Sci-fi romance is very rare, and it's a genre I love. Asaro does it well.

When the shipwrecked stranger washed up, nearly drowned, on the beach near research scientist Samantha Bryton's home, she was unaware that he was something more than human: an experiment conducted by Charon, a notorious criminal and practitioner of illegal robotics and android research. The man said his name was Turner Pascal-but Pascal was dead, killed in a car wreck. Charon is experimenting with copying the minds of humans into android brains, implanted in human bodies to escape detection, and plans to make his own army of slaves that will follow his orders without question.

Samatha and Turner quickly find themselves on the run across the country, pursued by the most ruthless criminal of the twenty-first century. In desperation, Samatha decides to seek help from Sunrise Alley, an underground organization of AIs and androids that had gone rogue. But these cybernetic outlaws are rumored to have their own hidden agenda, not necessarily congruent with humanity's welfare, and Samatha prays that her only hope will not prove a forlorn one...
THE PLOT: Due to some ethical disagreements with her employers, leading biotech engineer Samantha Bryton has retired and is living in her isolated sea-side home. But her calm is shattered when she finds an unconscious man washed up in the nearby beach, a man who wakes up and claims he's a victim of an experiment conducted by a dangerous criminal, Charon.

He claims he's Turner Pascal, a bellboy who died in an accident. According to him, Charon stole his recently dead body, imaged his brain, and downloaded it into a miraculously advanced android body, his current one. He claims he's still a man, even though his body is all mechanic, and he fears Charon will come after him. Sam is his only hope.

As they try to escape the villains after them and take refuge within the legendary Sunrise Alley, a comunity of rebel artificial intelligences, Sam will have to decide where the line between android and human lies.

MY THOUGHTS: What I most like about Asaro's books is that she makes me think, and about issues that are not the kind of thing I usually consider. The main theme in SA is what exactly makes us human. Can you still be human even if the essence of your brain has been downloaded into an artificial construct? Is the answer "yes" as long as you feel like you're the person you were before changing bodies? And what if being in the new body has made your intelligence and capabilities evolve far beyond what they were before?

Asaro explores these issues in a way that's not hard to grasp (even for us non-technical types) and that still goes into very satisfying depths. I don't know if life in 30 years will ressemble Asaro's projections, but I'm certain we will have to handle issues at least similar to this, and probably before too long.

But this is not merely an excellent exploration of the line between human and artificial intelligence, but also a pretty good story (and with a nice romance in it, too!). Turner is a great character, with doubts and insecurities in spite of his enhanced intelligence that only make him more human, and Sam is the perfect person to understand his unique issues. She sometimes crosses the line into too much perfection, but it wasn't too bad. The romance that develops between them is heartwarming and actually feels like real love, in spite of the short time they've known each other and the abnormal circumstances in which all their interactions have taken place.

Speaking of those abnormal circumstances, that was something that didn't work as well for me. The story proceeds at a quick pace, maybe too quick for me. Turner and Sam spend most of the book in grave danger, either captured by a variety of villains or on the run from them. There are hardly any quiet moments here. It's a wonder Asaro was able to delve into Turner's humanity in as much detail as she was. I still wanted more of that and less of escapes and running, which got a bit tiresome after a while

I also wasn't crazy about the links between Sam and Charon, which didn't completely ring true. Especially the details revealed near the end connecting it all with her father's death. That really made me go "Hmmm".

On the whole, though, this was minor, compared to what's good about the book.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Weighed in the Balance, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, July 11, 2007

TITLE: Weighed in the Balance
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

COPYRIGHT: 1996
PAGES: 373
PUBLISHER: Ivy

SETTING: Late 1850s London, with short sections in Venice and one of the German states.
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: # 7 in William Monk series

REASON FOR READING: Still rereading the series. I'm quickly getting to the end of the books I have.

When Countess Zorah Rostova asks London barrister Sir Oliver Rathbone to defend her against a charge of slander, he is astonished to find himself accepting. For, without a shred of evidence, the countess insists that the prince of her small German principality was murdered by his wife, the woman who was responsible for his exile twenty years before. Though private investigator William Monk and his friend Hester Latterly, manage to establish that the prince was indeed murdered, as events unfold the likeliest suspect seems to be Countess Zorah herself...
THE PLOT: On being approached by Countess Zorah Rostova, who wants him to defend her in a trial she's facing for slander, Oliver Rathbone's first impression is that she's insane. The woman freely admits she's been saying to whoever would listen to her that Princess Gisela has murdered her husband, the former crown prince of one of the German states, when everyone knows theirs is the love story of the century. In fact, Prince Friederich even renounced to the crown of Felzburg because his family wouldn't accept Gisela, and they're known to be devoted to each other.

But Rathbone somehow finds himself accepting the case and in danger of losing his professional reputation for his defense of Zorah. Unless Monk manages to find proof of the murder, a murder even Rathbone isn't certain occurred...

MY THOUGHTS: At first sight, this didn't seem to be a case with much at stake (I mean, slander case?), so I settled in for a simple puzzle. Boy, was I wrong! The stakes end up being quite high, high enough to endanger Rathbone's entire future and Zorah's whole way of life.

This is still a murder case -our approach to it is through slander, rather than Monk simply being asked to investigate a mysterious death, but if he manages to prove it wasn't simply an accidental death, it's still murder. So there's the issue of not allowing a killer to go free.

Then there's the possible involvement of other members of the Felzburg royal family, through the confrontation between the parties wanting a Felzburg that's part of a larger, unified Germany, and those who would fight to the death to keep it independent and would like Prince Friederich to lead the fight. The process of German unification was one I was fascinated by in high school and I enjoyed reading about it here. Anyway, since foreign royalty is involved, the British establishment is not too happy to have Rathbone and his client make a scandal and forcefully make him aware of this.

And that's not all: through defending Zorah, Rathbone finds himself basically having to try to destroy people's illusions, the conviction they've had for years about Prince Friedrich and Princess Gisela being the embodiment of true love and that royals are perfect, exalted beings. This is a position sure to bring him much hate even if he succeeds in proving his case. Powerful stuff.

Monk's investigation was interesting and gave us some glimpses of Continental society, which was great. And the trial is excellent, as always. Perry's courtroom scenes are always gripping, even when what we're doing is mostly retreading some territory we've already covered. I always enjoy Rathbone's careful strategizing and his way of eliciting information from people without bullying them.

As for the resolution was the best kind: one that felt right. I didn't exactly guess it, but the whole proof did hinge on a certain point I'd been wondering about... Monk and Rathbone seemed to assume something without really delving into it and trying to find if it really was so, and I was practically screaming at them to look into this more. I didn't predict what came out when they did look into it (or rather, Hester did), but at least I was pointed in the right direction!

I did sympathize with the villain somewhat, even though I'm pretty sure Perry was angling for her readers to think this person was vile. Just to make it completely clear: I didn't sympathize with what this person actually did, but I did understood very well the feelings that brought it about. And there are certain revelations that I suppose I was supposed to be disgusted by, but which didn't really work that way, only made me more sympathetic.

In addition to this outstanding case, there's the personal stuff that has been becoming more and more important in the last few books. As in the last book, Monk is still in denial after what happened between him and Hester at the end of The Sins of the Wolf. And he's as bone-headed about it as ever. He just doesn't learn, does he? He's still so determined to convince himself that he couldn't possibly have feelings for a woman as "un-feminine" and "irritating" as Hester, that he busies himself trying to find the most obviously unsuitable and shallow women to become infatuated with. Not that he even realizes, the dolt. It says something about Perry's talent that I'm still extremely interested in all this. And fortunately, by the end of the book, I get the feeling he might see reason quite soon! I loved to see his instinctive jealousy at Hester's preoccupation with Rathbone's fate.

While Monk is behaving like a fool all over Europe, Hester is nursing a young man who has become paralized after a grave fever. He's from a Felzburg family, and this all ties in quite nicely with the rest of the case, not to mention that these sections were interesting in their own right. There's the tragedy of this young man (and his entire family) having to cope with the possibility that he might never be able to walk again, and there's also a sweet romance that develops between him and a secondary character from an earlier book in the series. Very nice.

MY GRADE: A B+ for this one.

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Wild Thing anthology

>> Tuesday, July 10, 2007

TITLE: Wild Thing
AUTHORS: Maggie Shayne, Meljean Brook , Marjorie M. Liu and Alyssa Day

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 394
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING:Contemporary
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: 3 out of 4 stories are part of series. Meljean Brook's story is the third in the Guardians series, Marjorie Liu's is the first in a new series and Alyssa Day's is second in the Warriors of Poseidon series. I believe the Shayne stands alone, but I could be wrong and it could be 4 out of 4.

REASON FOR READING: I was dying to read the Meljean Brook story, so when she offered to send it to me, I went "YES, YES, YES and YES, please." Well, actually, I first told her I would be perfectly happy to get it as e-ARC, but Meljean said she knew I liked Marjorie M. Liu, so better to send me the actual book so I could read that story as well. Wasn't that incredibly thoughtful?

New York Times bestselling authors Maggie Shayne and Marjorie M. Liu, and sizzling newcomers Alyssa Day and Meljean Brook discover the wild instinct in everyone with four all-new stories of feral heat. Fans will get swept away by the passions in the unfathomable depths of Atlantis; they'll follow the shadows that stalk both the living and the undead in a world of vampires and guardian angels; they'll enter the forbidden world of the demon horde and their willing victims; and they'll be privy to the secrets of a beautiful animal-whisperer who's drawn closer to the most suspect of all male animals-man.
I didn't exactly read the stories in order (I still have trouble giving myself permission to NOT read a story in an anthology at all, but my inner dictator has now relented a bit and lets me go straight to the one I most want to read), but that's how I'm presenting them below.


The first was by Maggie Shayne, titled Animal Magnetism.

A hot cop trying to solve a string of rapes in his hometown; a lady vet who can talk to animals--including the dog who can identify the rapist; a desperate man who needs to silence them both.
Unfortunately, I didn't remember just how much I'd hated this author's story in the Hot Blooded anthology, otherwise I might have convinced that inner dictator to give me a pass. Animal Magnetism was an improvement over that one, but that's not saying much.

The story itself is not bad. The execution is pretty ho-hum, but the plot did have possibilities. I mean, a woman who can communicate with animals and is shown the face of a serial rapist by the latest victim's dog? Interesting! And the hero was quite nice.

But the heroine! I intensely disliked Macy. I always say how I like bitchy heroines, but I guess that isn't exactly true. I like heroines who are not afraid to stand up for herselves for fear people will think them bitchy. I like strong, decisive, proactive women. I don't like bitchy people. There's a difference, and Macy belongs to the latter category. She treats people badly for no reason. She's rude and inconsiderate, and I'd probably be very tempted to deck her if I were to meet her in real life.

She does mellow a bit as the story goes on, but sorry, I wanted the hero to run in the opposite direction. I didn't see why he loved her and I actually didn't see why she loved him either. The former because she's such a major bitch, the latter because I have no idea who this man was.

GRADE: A C-.


Second in the book, but the first to be read by me: Meljean Brook 's Paradise.

Lucas Marsden has faced nosferatu before and survived, but he doesn't know how to defeat the demon who hunts the vampires in his community...

But he knows exactly what he wants from the beautiful Guardian sent to protect them.
I didn't start reading this story with extremely high expectations. After reading the short story that was the introduction to the series and the two full-length books, I got the impression that MB does best with plenty of space to do justice to her complex worldbuilding and in-depth characterization. Plus, there was this review at AAR...

Well, I suppose having read the rest of the series makes all the difference, because I loved this story. It might even have been better to have read Demon Moon before I read Paradise, because there was a lot about vampires that I already knew and wasn't seeing for the first time. To my eyes, this was simply a lovely romance with an excellently done external plot, set in a world I already knew well. But yeah, I suspect that for someone for whom this story is an introduction to the Guardians universe, trying to understand the rules of this very unique world might distract them from enjoying the story.

So, what did I like? The characters, especially. I hadn't really got much of a feel for Selah in Demon Angel, but I did now. After reading this story,I know exactly who she is, and I know exactly who Lucas is. They're very much individual, unique characters, each with their personality and issues, and MB succeeded in showing a very real connection between them. I totally got why these two particular persons would fall in love with each other. They fit together, both mentally and physically.

Also excellent: the story outside Lucas and Selah's relationship was pretty simple and straightforward (for MB *g*), which fit the short length well, and I was almost as interested in it as in the romance.

GRADE: A very strong B+


The anthology continues with Hunter Kiss, by Marjorie M. Liu.

...the introduction to a brand new urban fantasy series about a woman whose body is covered in living tattoos -her own personal demons to call on when the sun goes down, who both protect her life, and are destined to end it.
HK is very clearly an introduction to these characters and their universe, but Liu manages to present a perfectly satisfying romance and story, while making it clear that this is just the beginning.

Maxine's mission and the story behind the tattoos are a fascinating premise, and she's a very intriguing character. In fact, both she and Grant Cooperon, the former priest with whom she falls in love, are great characters. We don't get to go in too deep into their issues and personalities, but this story made me very anxious to read a full-length book about them.

GRADE: Another B+.


Finally, Wild Hearts in Atlantis, by new-to-me author Alyssa Day

Bastien can't believe Prince Conlan sent him to be the liaison to the Florida panther shape-shifter coalition. He's a warrior, not a politician. To make matters worse, the only woman who has ever seen behind the mask of calm he presents to the world is a half-breed shape-shifter—sworn enemies to the Atlantean defenders of humanity. But old alliances may be changing . . .
As I mentioned above, this is the second entry in a series. Day did well in explaining her universe without ever making me feel lost, but she never did succeed in fully capturing my interest.

The former is quite a feat, given that there are different factions in conflict -vampires, humans, shapeshifters-, plus those people from Atlantis, which include a group of Warriors charged with protecting humanity. Our hero is one of them, and he's sent on a mission as a go-between between his people and the shifters. The heroine, half-human, half-shifter, and not able to actually take her animal form (therefore teased and bullied by everyone), is his contact, and together they're to stop a horrible plot.

Could be good (especially because the hero is pretty interesting... a guy convinced that he's not particularly smart), but it never engaged me. I think my problem was how completely unsubtle it all was. It felt pretty campy, but the author wrote it all very seriously. I ended up fighting the temptation to skim.

GRADE: C+ for this one, with bonus points for clear world-building.


GRADE FOR THE WHOLE THING: Two excellent stories and two more or less average ones. I'll round up and give this a B.

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Something Shady, by Pamela Morsi

>> Thursday, July 05, 2007

TITLE: Something Shady
AUTHOR: Pamela Morsi

COPYRIGHT: 1995
PAGES: 326
PUBLISHER: Jove

SETTING: Venice, Missouri, in 1915
TYPE: Americana romance
SERIES: I don't think so

REASON FOR READING: Reread. I'm rearranging books and I keep finding great stuff shelved on the second row (yeah, I have so many books I have to shelve two-deep) and going "ahhhhhhh, this one was soooo lovely".

Gertrude Barkley, unmarried and unapologetic, had already caused a lot of talk in Venice, Missouri, with her independent ways and her book-writing career. But when she bobbed her waist-length hair, the town gossips had a field day...

Mikolai Stefanski didn't know what all the fuss was about. In fact, he rather liked Gertrude's daring new look. A proud Polish immigrant, who had managed to become Venice's most successful businessman, Mikolai had always admired Gertrude's rebellious spunk--if only from afar. After all, he believed in doing things his own way, too--though he wasn't quite as flamboyant about it.

They had lived in the same sleepy town for a long time. But it would take a scandalous discovery--and a wild misunderstanding--to make them appreciate each other in a whole new way...
THE PLOT: Gertrude Barkley is the town eccentric of Venice, Missouri. The shocking books she writes are scandalous enough, but not content with that, she keeps behaving in strange ways... cutting her hair short, for example, which makes her brother, with whom she lives, practically die with shame.

Mikolai Stefanski's the town's foremost citizen, owner of the brickyard that keeps it alive, but that wasn't always the case. Almost 15 years earlier Mikolai was a newly arrived Polish immigrant with nothing but a bit of broken English, a little motherless child and some big ideas.

There was always a simmering attraction between these two, but it isn't until Gertrude's niece Claire discovers an old diary of her aunt's that anything happens between them. See, that diary tells of a doomed love affair between Gertrude and Mikolai, one that ended in Gertrude giving birth to a child at around the time Claire herself was born. What is she to think? With the help of her best friend Teddy, who happens to be Mikolai's son, Claire will do her best to reunite the two people she now believes are her parents.

MY THOUGHTS: Lovely, just lovely. Yep, this book has the dreaded matchmaking kid, but I swear, it's funny, rather than painful. Claire's machinations were positively machiavellan and her very, very teenage conviction that of course the two boring people she's always thought were her parents can't possibly be so, because could never have produced such a special girl... well, that was terrifyingly believable. I didn't completely buy the thing about the diary, mind, because sure, an aspiring author might fantasize about her life in writing, but would she leave it lying around for her niece to find? Hmmm.... Reminds me of Mrs. Giggles' newest peeve about heroines who take secret sex diaries and naughty sex toys to job interviews *g*

But ok, I was quite fine with this setup. I think it works so well because Gertrude and Mikolai don't really need much of a push to move from merely thinking "He (she) is wonderful and attractive, but I'm past the age of romance" to actually doing something about it. It's clear they've been unconsciously waiting for something to make the idea of an affair between them conceivable. And for those who assume Americana is always Kisses-only... you obviously haven't read Morsi yet. Gertrude and Mikolai's relationship is nicely spicy.

It's also one in which it's clear that the physical attraction is only a small part of what's between the characters. Each very obviously likes and respects the other, and they treat each other accordingly. They are both grown-ups, and this is clear as well.

Each was also interesting in their own right. I loved seeing the growth in Gertrude. At first, this is someone who believes her life is pretty much done and that these are the circumstances that will be hers until she dies. The only excitement in her life is destined to be watching her niece and nephew make their own lives. She'll just watch as other people live, maybe enlivening things a bit with harmlessly shocking actions, such as cutting her hair. It was wonderful to see her realize she can still make a life for herself with Mikolai.

And Mikolai was even more fascinating to me. I was very interested in the glimpse into the immigrant experience that we got through him. A lot of his attitudes and experiences are obviously shaped by the first half of his life, which he spent in Poland, but he's embraced his new country completely. He doesn't consider himself Polish, but American, even though he's aware that many of his new countrymen and women don't consider him so. He doesn't even much care, actually, because he knows his son will be seen as fully American and will have the same opportunities as anyone else, and that's what he endured so much for.

This all rang very true to me. He could have been my great-grandfather, except that great-grandpa took the ship to South America instead of the next one, which was going to North America, and that he started from Southern Italy, not Poland. But he assimilated completely, as well, and worked his butt off to make a success of himself in this place where he actually had the chance to improve his life.

Ahem, anyway. Moving on. This is going to sound weird coming from me, because obviously, my picture of America is not a real one, but one constructed from books and movies and the internet and talking to people, not real-life experience, so I might be talking out of my ass here. But I think the setting of this one might be close to what many Americans think is the old-fashioned quintessential America. The Mom, the flag and apple-pie, Main Street, USA kind of thing. It's interesting, and a just-rosy-enough picture. Morsi isn't so in love with this that she doesn't see the flaws. The flaws are clear, but her love for it all does shine through. And while I thought things like "I would hate living among that bunch of hypocritical, judgemental gossip-mongers", I understood that the good things about it would compensate for the problems, at least for the people Morsi had established Gertrude and Mikolai to be.

And speaking of the setting, given that I was reading Maisie Dobbs at the same time as this one, something that stuck me was how completely unconnected the people of Venice, Missouri were from what was going on in Europe. 1915, that's the middle of World War I! What was strangest was that Mikolai was Polish and still had a lot of family living there, and yet he devoted no thought whatsoever to what might have been happening in their lives. And a lot probably was, because from what I can tell from a cursory google search, there was a lot of fighting and destruction going on there. Not something that jarred me out of the story, or anything, but I did wonder.

All in all, a wonderfully charming book, with an especially good ending. I dare anyone not to go "awww" at Mikolai's chicken pox comment! And honestly, I can promise you that after a while, the fact that the heroine's name was Gertrude didn't bother me in the least!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Lord of a Thousand Nights, by Madeline Hunter

>> Monday, July 02, 2007

TITLE: Lord of a Thousand Nights (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Madeline Hunter

COPYRIGHT: 2002
PAGES: 357
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING:Mid-1350s Scotland
TYPE: Medieval Romance
SERIES: Her medievals are all related and, to make things more complicated, the chronological order in which they take place is not the same order the books were published. Of the six, LOATN was published fifth, but the events narrated in it take place last of all. So I would suggest reading it after the other five. More info here.

REASON FOR READING: I didn't remember I hadn't read it before. I've had it since it came out, over 5 years ago (ordered it on January 1st, 2002, according to amazon... a New Year's present?), but I kind of assumed I'd read it. I just really looked at it a couple of weeks ago and realized I hadn't. It was probably because I accidentally put it in my keeper shelves instead of back in the TBR when my friend who'd borrowed it returned it.

Called the Lord of a Thousand Nights, Ian of Guilford was famed as much for his feats in the bedroom as on the battlefield. But Lady Reyna Graham had no idea of this when, disguised as a courtesan, she passed behind enemy lines with a desperate plan to save her people.

Now, sitting in the tent of the dizzyingly handsome warrior who commanded the army outside her gates, the beautiful widow suddenly realized that she had underestimated her foe.

For she found herself in the company of a man whose charms were said to be impossible to resist...and who would show no mercy in laying siege to her heart — and body — with every sensual weapon in his arsenal.

For the sake of her people, she must not give in ... and she must somehow turn this legendary lover who never lost his heart into a man who would exchange all his thousand nights for one with her....
THE PLOT: The external plot is closely related to The Protector. The hero of that one, Morvan, saw his family's lands taken over by another lord when he was a child and has dedicated his life to recovering them. That goal is within grasp now and while he lays siege to his former home, he sends his right-hand man, Ian of Guilford, to conquer an allied keep, Black Lyne.

Lady Reina Graham is the widow of the former holder of that keep, and her situation was tenuous even before the siege started. She's suspected of poisoning her husband and there's a very real possibility that she'll be hung for it. Fearing the consequences of an adverse outcome to the siege, Reyna hatches a plan: she'll sneak out to enemy camp, pretending to be a prostitute, and drug and then assassinate Ian (who she initially thinks is Lord Morvan), after which she'll run away to Edinburgh.

But this is a romance heroine we're talking of, so of course, at the last minute, she can't quite pull it off. She's quite soundly defeated: Ian sees through the plan immediately, and then even tricks her into revealing the secret entrance to the keep, thus achieving a bloodless and victorious end to the coup.

Ian doesn't quite know what to do with Reyna, who's determined to escape to Edinburgh. And in the end, circumstances make it seem as if he's compromised her and a marriage of convenience becomes necessary, Not that Ian minds so much, surprisingly, because he's become quite intrigued and attracted by Reyna.

Even more surprising, given that Ian has received the nickname of "Lord of a Thousand Nights" for his bedroom feats, is the fact that Reyna is completely opposed to the idea of marrying him and needs to be convinced. But Ian manages it and they wed. And during their marriage, they not only will have to learn to undertand and trust each other, but to investigate the truth behind the death of Reyna's late husband.

MY THOUGHTS: The first thought that comes to mind is "It's good, but....". Yeah, that "but" is all about expectations. I'm not rating it higher or lower because it's Madeline Hunter, but it did affect how I felt about this being the B read it is. With a new author or one I hadn't much enjoyed before I'd think "Yay, a B!". With Hunter, whose other books (especially the medievals) I've adored, I think "Eh, a B." and I'm ever-so-slightly disappointed.

One of the reasons for my somewhat lukewarm reaction is that, of all her books, I'd say this one is the one that's least infused with History. What I've become used to from Hunter, whether she's setting her story in the Medieval era or in the 19th century, is that the story and characters will be shaped by the events happening around them and that the setting will come alive in a very rich and vivid and unique fashion.

LOATN, while very far from a wallpaper historical, doesn't have that richness. In fact, other than how this needed to be happening X years after a certain event, as far as the rest of the plot and the characters' worldview, the story could probably be moved a couple of hundred years to the past or future. I think this might be partly because most of the story takes place at a keep, and I've read a thousand other keeps in medievals. Same thing for the characters. I'm less intrigued by yet another warrior and yet another aristocratic lady than by merchants and potters and stonemasons.

I also didn't love the romance. It was pretty good, and the characters were nicely individual, but I couldn't stop a small sigh at seeing yet another virgin widow paired with a promiscuous hero. To Hunter's credit, the reason for this is not convoluted and plays an important part in the resolution of the plot, but still.

And my enjoyment was lowered further by an egregious instance of TSTL behaviour on the part of the heroine and her two friends, the heroines of By Arrangement and The Protector. Their husbands are involved in the last stages of a siege and have sent them to a safe place. Well, makes sense... after all, things are obviously in a convulsed state in the area at that time. Well, I just couldn't believe it when the three twits just up and decide to ride on their own to Glasgow, right through this convulsed area. Why? Any important reason? Why, not really, just bored. And of course, they do run into trouble. *sigh* Look, I'm a feminist, so I can definitely sympathise with a desire for independence and not being willing to just be stashed in a safe place while the men have their fun, but there's independence and there's stupidity, and this falls under the latter.

*sigh* I've been ranting and ranting and it sounds like I didn't enjoy the book in the least, doesn't it. But I did, I really did. While I was reading it, I had a great time (other than when the three idiots went on their little excursion). Hunter is a great writer and the book flowed wonderfully. The story drew me in immediately and I was never bored. I liked the politics and strategies of the situation, I liked the mystery of Reyna's husband's death, I liked many small nuggets of character development, like Ian's fascinating relationship with Morvan, who trusts him but still has a few doubts. And yes, I did like the romance, just not as much as I hoped for.

MY GRADE: Eh, I've given that away already: a B.

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