Off World 2: Sanctuary, by Stephanie Vaughan

>> Thursday, August 30, 2007

TITLE: Off World 2: Sanctuary (ebook here or here)
AUTHOR: Stephanie Vaughan

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 288 in the print version
PUBLISHER: Torquere Press

SETTING: Futuristic - Doradus station, on a hollowed-out mining asteroid
TYPE: Gay romance
SERIES: Follows Off World.

REASON FOR READING: Vaughan is on my autobuy list, and Off World was fantastic.

Vigilant crewmember Sandy D'abu stays behind on Doradus station to mind the crew's new secure cargo business while the rest of the guys take the spaceship out on a run. There isn't a lot for him to do, so he spends his evenings at Durty Nelly's, keeping an eye on bartender Alex, a former pleasure slave a few of his crewmates feel responsible for.

When the man who made Alex's a pleasure slave back on Earth suddenly turns up as part-owner of the sex club, Sandy agrees to help Alex out by pretending to be his boyfriend. After all, what are a few kisses among friends? The problem is that Sandy doesn't want to pretend; he's already in love with Alex. Alex is still skittish about being touched at all by anyone, let alone kissed by the huge ex-soldier, and if that wasn't enough, there are plenty of bad guys in both Sandy and Alex's pasts back on earth who have escaped to Doradus station too, and they all want a piece of the action.. Will Sandy and Alex be able to put the past, and the men who want to hurt them, behind them to find a future together? Find out in this passionate sequel to Off World.
THE PLOT: OW2 takes place right after the events of OW1, but though what takes place here is a direct consequence of something that happens in the first book, this book stands alone quite well. Anyway, during OW1, Sarhaan and friends got help from Alex Valentine, a man they'd first met when he was a sex slave at a kind of brothel catering to "special" (read "completely perverted") tastes, but hadn't been able to save. Alex later managed to escape on his own, even though he'd been pumped full of drugs all the time, and made his way to the off-world station of Doradus, on a faraway asteroid. As the book starts, he's managed to be clean for some time and is working as a bartender at Durty Nelly, a high-end sex club.

Since a ear infection kept him grounded on his spaceship's latest run, his fellow crew members have asked chief engineer Sandy D'Abu to keep an eye on Alex while they're out. He's been spending his evenings at Durty Nelly doing just that (it's not like there's a lot to do on Doradus, otherwise), and during his long chats with Alex, he's become extremely attracted to the guy. However, he's aware that the events in his past have left Alex barely able to bear even the most casual of touches, so Sandy doesn't have any hopes that anything more can develop.

But circumstances change when a man from Alex's past arrives at Doradus and becomes a part-owner and Durty Nelly. Feeling threatened, Alex asks Sandy to pretend there's something more between them, and suddenly they're spending a whole lot of time together, in close quarters...

MY THOUGHTS: I loved it! I knew I would, so I made a whole production out of reading it... opened a good bottle of wine, set out some olives and cheese and crackers and then some really good chocolate and dug in. And it was totally worth it: Vaughan doesn't disappoint in the least.

It's not a perfect book, because I had a couple of little issues with the plotting. Like, how Nick's past relationship with that Nick guy is never made completely clear. It happened before Alex was forced to become a sex slave, and there seems to have been some kind of betrayal involved, but what exactly happened? What did Nick do? Why does Alex see him as so much of a threat that he's willing to "impose" on Sandy, as he sees it? I have some theories, but no certainties. And that instance of grave danger at the end kind of came out of the blue.

But did these very few small plot issues lessen my enjoyment of the book one whit? Hell, no. I was wholly caught up in the relationship, and that was just lovely. Alex is a wonderful wounded hero, a man still haunted by the horrors of what happened to him a few years earlier and convinced he'll never be able to have a real relationship with another man, and furthermore, that if he's ever able to handle it, he's not really worth anything. He's damaged goods, more trouble than he's worth, etc. He might have become annoying or whiny in another author's hands, but he never did here. I was totally rooting for him and found his insecurities and doubts just heartbreaking.

Sandy was the perfect guy for Alex, and I loved that Alex was the perfect guy for Sandy, too, because Sandy was such an incredibly good, decent man and he deserved it. He's the gentle giant kind, a scary looking Samoan, all huge and tattooed, but a tender, caring sweetie on the inside.

That's just how their relationship was, actually, tender and caring, as well as very, very sexy. And the best thing was, it's not just Alex who finds the sanctuary of the title. Both of them do, with each other, because Sandy has his own issues that are made much better by being with Alex, and that made for a much better relationship than if it had been one-sided. The focus of the story was squarely on that relationship, with the outside plot merely creating the circumstances for a closeness that would have been harder to achieve naturally.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+. Gorgeous book!

NOTE: I initially tried to buy the book directly from Torquere, but MY GOD, their website is crap. My payment just wouldn't go through, so I had to search and search for it, since it wasn't at Fictionwise yet. Finally, I ended up buying it from All Romance Ebooks in MS Reader format, rather than the html I was trying to get from Torquere. Good thing I was determined to get the book, because I suspect a casual shopper would have just given up.

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The Silent Cry, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, August 29, 2007

TITLE: The Silent Cry
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

COPYRIGHT: 1997
PAGES: 356
PUBLISHER: Ivy

SETTING: 1860 London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 8th in the William Monk series

REASON FOR READING: Still rereading my way through the entire series, and rapidly approaching the end of what I already had. Fortunately, it looks like many of the later books are available in ebook format.

Deep in London's dangerous slums, Victorians transacted their most secret and shameful business. For a price, a man could procure whatever he wanted, but it happened now and then that the price he paid was his life.

Now, in sunless Water Lane, respected solicitor Leighton Duff lies dead, kicked and beaten to death. Beside him lies the barely living body of his son, Rhys. The police cannot fathom these brutal assaults until shrewd investigator William Monk uncovers a connection between them and a series of rapes and beatings of local prostitutes. Then, shockingly, it begins to appear that young Rhys may have killed his own father...
THE PLOT: In TSC, Hester is hired to care for a young man, Rhys Duff, who was found near death on the street of a slum, next to his father's dead body. Both of them had been brutally beaten up, and the police have no idea of what might have happened to them.

At the same time, Monk has been hired by the wife of a sweatshop owner to investigate who has been beating up and raping some of her employees, women who occasionally do some streetwalking to make ends meet. After a while, it becomes clear that there might be a link between the two cases. But what exactly happened?

MY THOUGHTS: As always with Perry, we get a mystery that is rich in atmosphere and historical context, with a nice, complex plot and continuing development in the histories of our detective and his friends.

As a mystery, this was a particularly interesting one, and the investigation was fascinating. It's clear to the reader, long before Monk starts suspecting, that there is a link between the two cases, but what exactly is that link? That kept me guessing until the very end, and Perry succeeded in tying all the different threads: the murder case, the rapes and Monk's lost memories, seamlessly.

The solution wasn't completely satisfying, though. I had identified the culprits quite easily, but as I said, never suspected the exact details. The thing is, could I have? Given the victims we were shown? I don't think so, and that made me feel a bit cheated. Plus, it all felt a bit abrupt, with a lack of development of the culprits' motivation. I think I would have liked to see more of them when the truth was revealed. I wanted to gloat, because they really were vile people.

And when I finished, I went back and thought a bit and there were certain details that didn't completely convince me. All right, so Rhys couldn't speak, but why didn't Hester use a kind of Ouija board method, at least when it was clear he was really, really wanting to communicate but couldn't? And how come the first doctor, the one on the hospital they were first taken to, didn't catch what ended up giving Hester the clue as to what had happened?

So, a book I enjoyed immensely as I was reading it, but with an ending that made me question some of my enjoyment.

MY GRADE: A B.

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The School for Heiresses anthology

>> Tuesday, August 28, 2007

TITLE: The School for Heiresses anthology
AUTHORS: Sabrina Jeffries, Liz Carlyle, Julia London & Renée Bernard

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: 1820s England
TYPE: Straight Romance
SERIES: The Jeffries is part of her School For Heiresses series, while the Carlyle is an introduction to her new trilogy.

REASON FOR READING: I've got the two new Carlyles waiting in my TBR and just had to read the introduction before getting to them.



I started at the beginning, with Ten Reasons to Stay, by Sabrina Jeffries. I've really liked some of Jeffries single titles, and I loved the one short story of her that I happened to read, in the Fantasy anthology.

When Miss Eliza Crenshawe discovers her new guardian's plans to marry her off without so much as a Season, she flees – on a horse she unwittingly steals (oops!) from Colin Hunt, a newly minted earl who wants nothing more than for her to go home…or stay forever
With this story, I'm afraid I just wasn't able to immerse myself in the fantasy. Most of it felt silly and unbelievable.

Eliza Crenshaw is running away from her drunken guardian, who means to force her to marry a crony of his. The new earl of Monteith, Colin Hunt, just back from India, catches her when she's borrowing a horse from her stables, so that she can get to the nearest town. For reasons I never completely understood, Eliza refuses to tell him the full details, even though she tells him enough that he could easily find her identity. And for reasons I never completely understood, either, Colin is sure Eliza is just like his ex-wife, ergo, she'll say anything to get her way, ergo, she's lying. Why he's so adamant never made sense. He refuses to let her go, locks her in the room next to his, and some unbelivable sex ensues, with supposedly innocent Eliza turning into this incredibly daring sex kitten. Blergh. I liked the detail of Colin being half Indian, but not much is done with this. A C-, because the story went fast and, while I didn't believe that they fell in love, the love scenes did show some passion.


Next was After Midnight, by Liz Carlyle.

In this passionate tale of scandal and intrigue, meet the mysterious Lord Rothewell and his sister Xanthia Neville. Rothewell and Xanthia have traveled far from their Barbados plantation in order to marry off their beautiful but reckless niece Martinique to a proper English gentleman. But the gentleman Martinique chooses is anything but proper—and Xanthia and her brother are soon busy avoiding a scandal which might well ruin Martinique forever...
This one works very well as the introduction to Carlyle's new series, but a bit less well as a romance.

Carlyle does a good job telling us about the Neville family and their history, without really overwhelming Martinique's story, since it's all very relevant to who she is and the issues she has. It's interesting stuff, and both Xanthia and her brother, Kieran, are people I'm looking forward to read about. Kieran, especially, as I'm very intrigued by the hints about something more there in how he treats Martinique. That was actually the most interesting part of the book... Martinique and Kieran's rocky relationship.

As for the actual romance, it's... well, merely all right. After leaving school, 18-year-old Martinique is taken by her adoptive uncle and aunt (who are brother and sister, not husband and wife) to spend the holiday season at an old friend's house. Neighbour Justin St. Vrain is a frequent visitor there, as he's having an affair with a widow who's staying in the house. The widow gets annoyed at him and engineers things so that he ends up naked in Martinique's room, thinking it's the widow's. Scandal ensues, not just because where he's found, but because he's got quite a scandalous history which makes him suspect even before this. Around the time of the bedroom scene I thought the romance was getting good, but things between Justin and Martinique dilute into out-of-the-blue I-love-yous. A pity, because both characters had some interesting depths and complicated histories. Plus, yet another unbelievable sex kitten virgin. *sigh*

A B-, mainly for the family stuff.


The third story was The Merchant's Gift, by Julia London

A graduate of Mrs. Harris's school, Grace attends a refresher tea and receives a lesson. Sent to London to attract a match among the ton, she finds herself drawn to rugged Barrett Adlaine – an entirely inappropriate mate who will never meet with the father's approval.
I didn't expect much when I started this, since I haven't liked the books I've read by this author. A good thing, that, since I didn't get much.

The story's about Grace, daughter of a merchant who made his fortune in wool and now despertely wants his daughter to marry a titled gentleman. Grace has done her best, but she's not been a huge success in London. Her father won't accept any excuses, though, and much less will he accept that Grace settle for the one man she's attracted to, mill owner Barrett Adlaine.

The main problem with this story was that Grace clearly doesn't share her father's social-climbing goal, and yet she behaves as if she does. She's horribly snooty and pompous and all-around idiotic to Barrett, so I never understood why he felt any attraction to a woman who was either a snob or a doormat. She does improve, but the grand scene at the end just wasn't enough. My grade: a D+.


The last story, Mischief's Holiday, by Renee Bernard was the only one by a new-to-me author.

Alyssa's father is counting on her to make a match that will allow her transition into titled society despite Alyssa's constant mishaps and chaotic ways. There's no way she's a match for Mr. Leland Yates, who is ruled by logic and reason – or is there?
Alyssa Martin is home from school, where she continued to add to her reputation for getting into the most funnily disastrous situations. She's determined to avoid any such situations from now on, though, and make a good much. However, much as she tries, disaster seems to seek her out... and these days, it usually finds her in front of Mr. Leland Yates, her father's very serious friend.

This was a cute story. Kudos to Ms. Bernard for not making Alyssa a ridiculous figure or an idiot. Rather, she was quite adorable, and all the disasters that happened to her really weren't her fault. Leland was a good match for her, a guy with the right attitude towards her mishaps and one who could be counted to see the humour in the situation and yet not laugh at Alyssa. I would have liked a bit more development in the romance, but I was so happy to end this anthology on a nice note that I'm giving this a B-.


Overall grade: a C. No extra points for any kind of cohesiveness in the collection, since the School for Heiresses conceit added nothing at all to the stories.

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The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde

>> Monday, August 27, 2007

TITLE: The Big Over Easy
AUTHOR: Jasper Fforde

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: A fantastic version of Reading, England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Nursery Crimes series.

REASON FOR READING: I loved Fforde's Thursday Next series.

'It looks like he died from injuries sustained during a fall...'

Bestselling author Jasper Fforde begins an effervescent new series. It's Easter in Reading - a bad time for eggs - and no one can remember the last sunny day. Humpty Dumpty, well-known nursery favourite, large egg, ex-convict and former millionaire philanthropist is found shattered beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Following the pathologist's careful reconstruction of Humpty's shell, Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant Mary Mary are soon grappling with a sinister plot involving cross-border money laundering, the illegal Bearnaise sauce market, corporate politics and the cut and thrust world of international Chiropody. As Jack and Mary stumble around the streets of Reading in Jack's Lime Green Austin Allegro, the clues pile up, but Jack has his own problems to deal with. And on top of everything else, the JellyMan is coming to town...
THE PLOT: Detective Inspector Jack Spratt is head of the most overlooked, underfunded and derided police division in Reading: the Nursery Crimes Division. When Humpty Dumpty is found dead at the foot of his wall, it's clear that as a nursery rhyme character, the crime falls under Jack's orbit.

But Jack will have to fight to keep it, as his bête noir, noted detective Friedland Chymes, is determined to take on the investigation on Humpty's increasingly complex death. And since Chymes is part of the Most Worshipful Guild of Detectives, he can bring a lot of pressure to bear on Jack's superiors.

MY THOUGHTS: My expectations weren't sky-high when I started TBOE. Every review I'd seen named this one as Fforde's poorest effort. But you know what? I ended up liking it even better than my favourite in the TN series!

Like Fforde's other books, TBOE is chock-full of marvelously clever and funny and completely absurd details. From Humpty himself, the giant egg who happens to be a philantropist, a criminal and a womanizer, to Jack's new lodger, Prometheus (he who gave humans fire and is now fighting extradition back to Greece), not to mention the excitement about the Jellyman coming to town and dedicating the temple of the Sacred Gonga or the Rombosian officer who speaks in binary ("“1000 010011 1010010 10010,” said Ashley in hushed tones on Gretel’s phone in the next room. “10010 11010 00100111 1011.” - “Are you talking to your mother on the office phone?” bellowed Jack. - “Sorry,” said a sheepish voice...")

But what makes the book work so well is that the absurdity is only in the surroundings of the story, not in our main characters or the actual procedure of the investigation. Jack and Mary are both completely normal people, who react just as you or I would if faced with what's around them (and used to it, that is). They're not ridiculous figures themselves. And same thing for the investigation; the procedure involved is very solid. Furthermore, Jack is perfectly seriously about this absolutely ridiculous case, and because of that, the reader can't help but being touched by the tragedy of Humpty's death.

And speaking of the investigation, this is quite an excellent mystery on its own right, an outstanding police procedural. The case is just fascinating, with a lot of twists and turns, and the ending turns it from merely great to brilliant. Throughout the story we'd had about a dozen different threads developing, each funny and clever on its own, but all seemingly unrelated. Well, the ending brings them all together flawlessly and in a spectacular way.

Oh, and the eggy insults were fantastic!

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Coming soon: Caressed by Ice, by Nalini Singh

I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this one, so I'm veeeery happy about this result. Judd is just fantastic, as is his book. I'll be posting my review a bit closer to the release date, but until then...


Which Psy-Changeling Hero Is For You?





Your Psy/Changeling Hero: Judd

Quiet, lethally contained and almost impossible to know, Judd Lauren is a Psy with incredible power. It will take one determined woman to melt this man of ice...but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Are you up to the challenge?Find out more about Judd and the series at www.nalinisingh.com
Take this quiz!








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If you want to participate in the drawing for a $50 Amazon voucher, all you have to do is:

1. Go and do the Which Psy-Changeling Hero Is For You? quiz and paste the result into your blog, livejournal or myspace etc.

2. Leave a comment on this post telling Nalini you've done it and including the web address where it's posted. (If you can't comment for some reason, just email her at nalinisinghwrites @ gmail.com (without the spaces).)

3. Do all this before midnight Sunday 9th September 2007 (P.S.T)

Good luck!

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Five years ago today...

>> Sunday, August 26, 2007

Five years ago today, I posted my first entry in this blog. I wish I'd made it a bit more scintillating, but it was just:

"My first post! I'll be back as soon as I figure out what I'm doing."

Boring as hell. Later that day, I posted my first book review, a D, I'm afraid, for Thirty Nights, by JoAnn Ross. Since then, I've posted over a thousand other reviews, most of them fortunately better than my first.

At first I used to post a mix of reviews and more personal stuff. Over the years, the personal stuff melted away, and these days I'm posting pretty much only reviews. There's still a lot of me in here, but only as it affects how I feel about a certain book.

In these five years these reviews have definitely gotten longer, more detailed and, I hope, better in their analysis. They have been posted in templates that changed as I got bored and became fuller and fuller of bells and whistles!


Back when I started the blog, the romance blogosphere was tiny. I kept searching and searching for more reader blogs, but the only one I could find was LLB's and then Wendy's.

And then one day the whole romance blog scene seemed to explode, and it's not just that there are now hundreds of different voices out there; we became a community, one I love being a part of. Blogging has allowed me to get in touch with many kindred souls and to make some excellent friends all over the world.


This fifth anniversary of my blog seems like a good time to make a few changes. Oh, I'm not giving up blogging, doing reviews or bloghopping --I enjoy it all way too much to stop!

However, this next year will be one of huge personal changes for me. As many of you know already, I will be leaving for England on September 17th, and I will be there for a year, attending grad school. So... I won't have time to read nearly as much as I read now (not for pleasure, at least!), and I won't be able to spend so much time doing the reviews of what I do manage to read (and whatever it takes, I will make time to read a few romances).

Starting soon, then, don't be surprised if my reviews start getting shorter and a bit more infrequent. Expect more miscellaneous posts, and expect lots and lots of photos of my trip (though those will probably be posted on a special blog I've created for that purpose, and which you can see here. I'm already posting some pics of all the goodbyes!).

Anyway, however it turns out, I hope you all find it interesting enough to keep visiting! :-)

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Back in the Bedroom, by Jill Shalvis

>> Friday, August 24, 2007

TITLE: Back in the Bedroom
AUTHOR: Jill Shalvis

COPYRIGHT:2004
PAGES: 219
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Temptation

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Series Romance
SERIES: I don't think so

REASON FOR READING: I think I bought it because of the review at AAR. I started reading it because I felt like something short and breezy.

When Tessa Delacantro agrees to house-sit, she doesn't expect armed robbers to throw her into the taut arms of the sexiest stranger she's ever met—Reilly Ledger. They're trapped together in a small room with an even smaller bed and a long, cold night ahead. Soon she's aching for his warmth, his touch—his mouth....

When ex-CIA agent Reilly helps Tessa escape, they swear to put their night of passion behind them. Tessa isn't usually attracted to a man so stoic, edgy and...dangerous. And Reilly is sure he'll never be the man Tessa deserves. But if it's so wrong, why does it feel so right? Because bed or no bed, nothing can stop what's started....
MY THOUGHTS: I gave up on this one after dragging it around for days and days and not being able to get past the first 50 or so pages.

The plot was actually ok... Tessa has agreed to housesit for her boss, but when she arrives, she's surprised by burglars who lock her in a room while they take their time to do their thing. The room's not empty, though. The thieves had been surprised earlier, too, by Tessa's boss' son, Reilly. So there they are, Tessa and Reilly (in his underwear), locked up together in a tiny room with only one bed. Potential for some nice sizzle, right there!

But... there were a few irritating details, like big, bad, former secret agent Reilly naming his accounting business a silly, cutesy name, or Tessa showing some TSTL impulses, but the main reason I had such a hard time reading this was the writing style. In between the dialogues (that is, in between each of them speaking, during a dialogue), there are loooong and pretty boring mental meanderings. Same thing in between things actually happening. My attention kept wondering from the book, time and time again.

It's a short book, at barely 220 pages, but if it continues this way, it would take me way too long to get to the end.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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High Noon, by Nora Roberts

>> Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TITLE: High Noon
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Putnam

SETTING: Contemporary Savannah
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Nope, it's one of NR's stand-alones

REASON FOR READING: It's a Nora, baby!

Police Lieutenant Phoebe MacNamara found her calling at an early age when an unstable man broke into her family's home, trapping and terrorizing them for hours. Now she's Savannah's top hostage negotiator, defusing powderkeg situations with a talent for knowing when to give in-and when to jump in and take action. It's satisfying work-and sometimes those skills come in handy at home dealing with her agoraphobic mother, still traumatized by the break-in after all these years, and her precocious seven-year-old, Carly.

It's exactly that heady combination of steely courage and sensitivity that first attracts Duncan Swift to Phoebe. After observing her coax one of his employees down from a roof ledge, he is committed to keeping this intriguing, take-charge woman in his life. She's used to working solo, but Phoebe's discovering that no amount of negotiation can keep Duncan at arm's length.

And when she's grabbed by a man who throws a hood over her head and brutally assaults her-in her own precinct house-Phoebe can't help but be deeply shaken. Then threatening messages show up on her doorstep, and she's not just alarmed but frustrated. How do you go face-to-face with an opponent who refuses to look you in the eye?

Now, with Duncan backing her up every step of the way, she must establish contact with the faceless tormentor who is determined to make her a hostage to fear... before she becomes the final showdown.
THE PLOT: Just the basics here: Phoebe MacNamara is a hostage negotiator with the Savannah police department. She meets Duncan Swift during a routine call, involving persuading one of Duncan's employees to step down from the ledge from which he threatened to jump. The attraction between the two is immediate, and Duncan pursues. Phoebe doesn't try too hard to run away, and they begin a relationship.

But as smooth as her personal life is going, Phoebe's professional life is quite another thing. She's facing harassment from a fellow police officer at her station, a situation which even escalates into a brutal assault on her. Phoebe deals with it by the book, and supposedly, the situation is concluded. But is it? It soon becomes clear that someone is still after Phoebe, someone willing to go to unimaginable lengths to threaten and hurt her.

MY THOUGHTS: Damn, what a meh summary for such a fantastic book! Not time to redo, though, so there it is. Anyway, this is vintage Nora. So what does "vintage Nora" mean? It means an amazing, strong heroine and a yummy hero, both of whom feel real and have a great deal of depth. It means a lovely romance. It means fully drawn and three-dimensional secondary characters. It means a fresh, excellently done suspense subplot. As a whole, it means being able to completely immerse myself into a book and not wanting to come out.

Phoebe was just great. Probably like most long-time NR readers, my first thought when hearing the new book had a cop heroine was of Eve Dallas. Well, rest assured, Phoebe is a completely different person. She's as competent and tough on the job as Eve, yes, but that's only to be expected, as Nora just doesn't do useless ninny heroines (and that's one of the many reasons why I love her). Outside the job, Phoebe is someone who's quite comfortable with the softer side of life. She's the fond mother of a budding beauty queen (and oh, my, Carly was hilarious), both daughter and pillar of strength for her agoraphobic mother and good friend for the almost-relative who also lives with them. It was quite a support network she had at her house, and it was one I thought was beautifully done, where each member gave and received equal measures of love and support.

Phoebe also has a mentor at work... like Feeney, I hear some voices saying. Well, no, if I would compare it to anything, it would be to Reena and Minger in Blue Smoke. There are some similarities there. They meet when Phoebe was a little kid and her whole family had been taken hostage by a former boyfriend of her mother's. David is the hostage negotiator in charge, and Phoebe, who shows some very clear signs of an aptitude for the job, very much admires her. Anyway, the whole thing was excellent... Phoebe and Dave's relationship, her strong vocation for the work and the very life-changing consequences this episode of violence had on the whole family.

Though I thought this was quite clearly Phoebe's book, I loved Duncan as well. He's charming and sweet, and at first sight he looks like this not particularly deep guy who's life is about playing around with his millions, which he got by doing something as non-strenuous as winning the lottery, if you can believe it. But pretty much at the same time as Phoebe, you realize he's a much more complicated man that what he seems, much deeper and serious, but only when the situation warrants it. This is a guy who knows how to play and how to enjoy himself, and his scenes are often filled with humour, especially those with Phoebe's family. His scenes with Carly, especially, were a hoot. Oh, and Duncan has a support network of his own, a whole huge family who've adopted him as a honorary son, and Phoebe fits in very well with them, as well.

As I mentioned in my oh-so-inadequate but pretty-much-accurate summary, there's not a great deal of conflict in the romantic relationship. They meet, they date, they start a relationship, the relationship becomes serious. There's a moment there where Phoebe's protective cop instincts get the better of her and she does a little bit of pushing away, but that's just a blip. And reason # 245 why NR is the Queen of Romance? This very non-conflictive relationship is absorbing as hell and never gets boring. I adored the romance here.

And as for the suspense, I loved it just as much. It was fascinating and well-built and it kept me guessing as long as it was meant to keep me guessing. The timing was superb, and I followed the investigation right at Phoebe's side, never getting ahead of her and never being left behind. I won't say too much, but there were at least two scenes that will stay with me. That tragic cemetery scene and the final scene, where Phoebe made me want to stand up and cheer, she was so incredible.

MY GRADE: An A-. NR doesn't disappoint.

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A Whisper in the Dark, by Linda Castillo

TITLE: A Whisper in the Dark
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary New Orleans
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: I've liked all the books that Castillo that I've read. Her usually very dark suspense plots feel fresh, original and well developed, and they are well integrated with the very nice romances.

Secrets can be deadly...

Until now, no one has suspected the truth about down-to-earth bookseller Julia Wainwright. But the arrival of six threatening letters indicates someone has discovered her secret-and wants her to pay for her sins…

Ever since he accidentally killed a fellow officer, ex-cop John Merrick has been tormented by the mistakes of his past. Now, called upon to repay a favor, he will do anything to keep Julia Wainwright safe. To do that, though, he'll first have to figure out what the gypsy-eyed beauty is hiding…

As the threats escalate, Julia and John must find a way to trust each other. Because if they don't, a twisted stalker will make sure all the gruesome things he's promised will come true…
THE PLOT: Bookstore owner Julia Wainwright has been receiving some scary anonymous notes relating to an erotica book she wrote under a pseudonym, but though she's getting more and more creeped out by them, she doesn't want to go to the police. Her father is a well-known religious leader, so she'd rather not embarrass him. But when the latest note is delivered directly to her store, proving that the author has her real address, her sister overrules her protests and goes to her dad.

Benjamin Wainwright wants his daughter protected, and he asks a former cop he knows for help. John Merrick doesn't feel at all ready for the assignment. He's still suffering from the aftermath of a tragic incident in Chicago, where he accidentally shot and killed a fellow cop who was undercover. John is still fighting the guilt and horror of what he did, however unwittingly, and sinking deeper into a bottle every day. He can't resist Benjamin's pleas, though, nor the very attractive Julia, whom he quickly realizes is under a very dangerous threat.

MY THOUGHTS: Did you see what I wrote above, in my "reasons for reading", about why I've liked all the Castillo books I've read? Well, for AWITD, you can scratch the "fresh and original" part. This is a very humdrum woman in peril plot. Heroine threatened by a stalker? Check. The stalker is after her because she secretly wrote a volume of erotica and he thinks she's a slut and a sinner? I've read this a thousand times. The hero is the ex cop hired to defend her? Couldn't be anything else. She chafes under every common-sense restriction he tries to place on her? Of course she does.

The one original bit is the incident in John's past and its consequences. The incipient alcoholism, the hoplophobia (fear of guns), etc. John's issues are very well done and truly heartbreaking. The problem was that while I definitely did sympathise with him and felt very sorry for what he was going through, through no fault of his own, the fact remained that he was in no shape to protect Julia. It's clear right from the moment he arrives on the scene that the stalker is getting truly dangerous, so he should just have taken a step aside and hired someone else. That he was able to save Julia, in the end, was just a product of the plot playing out that way, but he couldn't have counted on that.

And something else: the drinking must have addled his brain, from the way he just assumed he had the culprit there around the middle of the book. They had just the flimsiest evidence pointing to this guy and what does he do? He basically lifts every protection on Julia. Very iffy reasoning.

The romance wasn't too interesting, either. All I saw there was lust and an old crush on Julia's part. Not particularly good.

MY GRADE: A C-. This one was competent, at best.

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What Hides Inside, by Ally Blue

>> Friday, August 17, 2007

TITLE: What Hides Inside (for e-book: here)
AUTHOR: Ally Blue

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: Print version will be 260 pages
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing

SETTING: Contemporary Alabama
TYPE: Gay paranormal romance
SERIES: Second in the Bay City Paranormal Investigations series.

REASON FOR READING: After reading the first book, Oleander House, I wanted to know how Sam and Bo's relationship turned out.

Sam Raintree's life changed forever when he started his dream job with Bay City Paranormal Investigations. In one fateful week, he learned he was psychic, discovered he possessed the power to open interdimensional portals, and accidentally let loose a horror like he'd never imagined. He also began a relationship with his boss, Dr. Bo Broussard, a man who'd been in the closet all his life.

Now, three months later, the burden of secrets has become too heavy for a fragile relationship to bear. Bo isn't ready to come out, and Sam is tired of hiding. When Bo hires a new investigator, Dean Delapore, Sam is intrigued in spite of himself. Dean is bisexual, attractive, and very interested in Sam.

During the intense investigation of South Bay High School, from which three students have mysteriously disappeared, Sam and Dean draw closer together, while Bo pushes Sam away despite their feelings for one another. When the investigation erupts and Sam comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare, he has to decide whether to fight for Bo's love, or let him go.
THE PLOT: WHI takes place some three months after the events of OH, and Sam and Bo's relationship hasn't really progressed all that much. Oh, Bo has separated from his wife, but only now has gotten around to asking her for a divorce and he's nowhere near ready to come out and be with Sam out in the open. He's not even ready to go beyond hurried hand jobs when it comes to their sex life. As much as he loves Bo, Sam is beginning to get tired of skulking about like a teenager. He's an adult, and would like an adult relationship.

Events come to a head when a new tech is hired. Dean is bisexual and not shy at all about being attracted to Sam. With it looking more and more unlikely that Bo will ever be really ready for a real relationship, should Sam just cut his losses? He'll have to make some very big decisions as the BCPI team begins a dangerous investigation at the local high school, scene to some recent mysterious disappearances which bring back uncomfortable memories of the events at Oleander House.

MY THOUGHTS: I'm really liking this series. The romance in this first entry is a bit heavier than in the first book, but it and the very nice paranormal plot still balance each other beautifully.

Sam and Bo's relationship continues to be very interesting and absorbing. These are very real issues that they are facing, and it works to have them juxtaposed with the more fantastic plot elements. I did feel like shaking Bo a couple of times, but couldn't help but understand what he was going through.

Something happens here which I was very surprised to find myself having absolutely no problem with. This probably qualifies as a spoiler, so stop reading if you'd prefer not to know, but I think it's something most readers might prefer to know beforehand.

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

Still here? What I'm talking about is Sam going ahead and having sex with Dean one night. Bo has broken up with him and he's really down about it, so he gives in and takes what Dean has been offering. Not technically an instance of infidelity, then, but I really prefer my protagonists to be only with each other. What made the difference here was that I felt this episode was a really positive experience for Sam. It basically helped him really understand his own feelings and cemented his determination to persevere with Bo. I know, I know, I can't believe I'm writing this, either. Having sex with someone else (and not in an open relationship context, either), positive for the relationship? But I bought it here, and I thought it worked for the story.

Plus, Dean was a lovely surprise. From the moment he was introduced and made his attraction to Sam crystal clear, I half-expected him to be some kind of agent of mischief, to actively try to break up Sam and Bo. Well, I was completely wrong, and this was something else that worked really well.

As for the paranormal plot, it was really good. Very creepy and original, and I still very much like the angle of having these events investigated in as scientific a manner as the BCPI people do.

Like with OH, we don't get full closure in either the romance or the plot. We do get some resolution, though, enough to make the book satisfying. The romance has taken a definite step forward and this particular "haunting" has been shut down. But Blue leaves the door wide open for the next book. Bo and Sam still have a way to go before they get to a real HEA, and while our characters know a lot more about these mysterious "portals" now, it's clear there will be more of them. And there's that intriguing suggestion of them intensifying, even.

Well, the next book, Twilight, is coming in October, so I guess I'll see.

MY GRADE: A nice, solid B.

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Not-So-Secret Baby, by Jo Leigh

>> Thursday, August 16, 2007

TITLE: Not-So-Secret Baby
AUTHOR: Jo Leigh

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 248
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Intrigue

SETTING: Contemporary Las Vegas
TYPE: Series romance
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: The author sent it to me, I think after I lamented the fact that I'd found out too late about a contest to win it and mentioned that the title made me want to read it. It does, the in-joke makes me laugh.

The empty crib, the warning note—Jenny Granger recognized the signs that her secret life had been discovered. To save her son, she became the willing captive of a man arrogantly convinced that her baby was his child. But proof of paternity lay in the birthmark on her baby's back. One just like his real daddy...

Nick Mason had always seemed too honorable to be a corrupt man's henchman. After all, he'd helped Jenny to escape once...but not before branding her his. Now, Jenny prayed that Nick could be trusted again, especially with a truth that could get them all killed.
THE PLOT: When handsome millionaire C. Randall Todd started wooing her, Las Vegas waitress Jennie Granger was too young and naive to see beneath the polished surface. She was drawn into a relationship that soon turned abusive. Given that Todd was an immensely rich and well-connected man and that she didn't know who she could trust among the police, Jenny found it very hard to get away from him. She only managed it with the help of one of Todd's employees, Nick Mason, but not before they both gave in to their attraction and had sex.

A few years later, Jenny is living incognito with her small son in the middle of nowhere. The life she leads now is very far from the luxury of her lifestyle in Vegas, and she likes it that way. Unfortunately, all that changes when she finds little Patrick's crib empty. Todd has finally found her, and is determined to claim both Jenny and their son. Only Patrick isn't Todd's, but Nick's.

Nick is still working as Todd's henchman, and he's assigned to guard Jenny. He wishes he could help her escape again, but it's too risky. He's been undercover for years now, infiltrating Todd's organization, and he can't risk the operation now that something big is about to go down.

MY THOUGHTS: I think this one would appeal to those readers who liked Anne Stuart's Black Ice. The conflict is much the same, with the hero stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between blowing a truly important mission and keeping an innocent from suffering.

It's a compelling conflict, because Leigh doesn't cop out at the last minute. There are no last-minute escapes for Jenny. There are no graphic, titillating scenes here, but it's clear that some truly awful things happen to her. While it's not the "traditional" torture of the Stuart, I think I'd take that anytime over constant rapes by a clearly sadistic and cruel man like Todd and the psychological torture of having to pretend to like them.

Jenny's a truly amazing heroine. She's got a dignity and strength that are amazing to behold, though she doesn't come across as a superwoman, just as someone doing what she has to do to survive. She's got a mama-bear thing going on, as she'd probably just give up if Patrick weren't there, but for him, she must stay whole and keep planning. And plan she does. This is not a helpless woman, waiting for someone to save her, and her escape plan looked solid to me. She hadn't taken into account Nick being a cop, so she doesn't exactly put it into action, but I had no doubt that if she'd had to, it would have worked.

Nick was a weaker character, I thought. Not "weak" and in being a weakling, but as in not being so well-done a character. I think the main thing lacking with him was a stronger sense of outrage at what Jenny was being forced to endure. He knows perfectly well what's going on every night, but while he is angry about it and hates that he can't do anything about it, he doesn't particularly torture himself about it. The situation really needed a bit more angst, I thought. Some more fighting against a "you-don't-touch-my-woman-and-live,-you-bastard" instinct, which wasn't really there.

Maybe because of this, the romance wasn't as good as it could have been. Jenny and Nick are both risking a lot when they steal a few moments together, and I was never completely convinced that this was so huge and important a love that it was worth it for them to risk death just to be close to each other for a little while.

As for the plot, it's interesting, but C. Randall Todd is a bit too much on the evil-psycho-nutso side, going to a lot of bother to do things just because. The final confrontation between him and Jenny is great, though, and I was cheering her on.

MY GRADE: A B.

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The Billionaire Next Door, by Jessica Bird

>> Wednesday, August 15, 2007

TITLE: The Billionaire Next Door
AUTHOR: Jessica Bird (aka J.R. Ward)

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 249
PUBLISHER: Silhouette Special Edition

SETTING: Contemporary Boston
TYPE: Series romance
SERIES: Starts the O'Banyon Brothers trilogy

REASON FOR READING: I love Ward's books, so I've been meaning to try her Jessica Bird titles.

Take-no-prisoners deal-maker Sean O'Banyon ate Wall Street financiers for lunch. So why was he losing sleep over a fresh-scrubbed nurse in old jeans and a too-big T-shirt? Maybe it was those warm green eyes. Or the way she blushed when he got personal. There was no denying the serious chemistry between them. But sooner or later Lizzie would learn his deep, dark secrets: First, he had trust issues. And second—he'd rather not go into the whole family thing.

He didn't do relationships... but amazingly, Lizzie made him want one anyway.
THE PLOT: The O'Banyon Brothers trilogy will tell the story of three brothers (duh!) from a working class neighbourhood of Boston. Mac, Sean and Billy grew up with a drunk, abusive father. They all left home as soon as they could, but their father's treatment of them has left deep psychological sequels on the three of them.

This first book is about Sean, the middle brother. Sean's escape was through a scholarship to Harvard. With hard work and a ruthless attitude, he's become a billionaire and one of the most powerful deal-makers in New York. His nickname is well-earned: SOB is not just his initials. He's a tough bastard, both in his professional and personal dealings, and most especially when it comes to women. One of his first upper-class girlfriends used him for his money, and he's determined to make that the first and last time. While he's not a miser (he tips very generously, for instance), any woman dating him must understand that being with Sean O'Banyon isn't a ticket to a life of luxury and be ready to go dutch whenever they go out to dinner.

In the middle of one of the biggest deals of his career, Sean receives a very unexpected phone call. His father is dead, and since he can't immediately get in touch with his brothers (Billy is a professional football player and is in the middle of the season, while Mac is some kind of secret agent thingie and is currently unreachable), Sean heads to his old home on his own, not-quite-ready to face the memories but determined to pack everything up and sell the place.

Lizzie Bond is the nurse who called Sean to give him the news of his father's death. Eddie O'Banyon wasn't just another patient to her. She'd been renting his downstairs duplex from him for a few years, and after a while Lizzie and the grumpy old man had become good friends. Lizzie was the one who took care of him in his last days, becoming almost a daughter to him.

When Sean meets Lizzie, his first suspicion is that she was his father's lover. I know, I know, but he realizes he's wrong soon enough and develops feelings for her that are much deeper than he's used to. Before long, he finds himself making exceptions to his usual rules about relationships.

MY THOUGHTS: Why on Earth did I wait so long to try Jessica Bird? This is what category romance is all about. TBND was an intense, completely character-driven, touching story and I loved every minute of it.

At first sight, this is a storyline that has been done a thousand times. Hard-bitten guy who thinks all women are mercenary whores meets innocent girl and falls in love. Blergh. But this book goes beyond the stereotype and delivers characters who feel real, with understandable issues.

I suppose Sean is the big character here (this is the author of the BDB, after all), but it was actually Lizzie who was the most interesting to me. I just loved her. She's sensible and kind, and with a healthy sense of her own self-worth. No "I'm not worthy" silliness from Lizzie, and when Sean behaved like an idiot, she called him on it refused to take any shit from him. I did fear the worst at first with her mother, because I thought initially that Lizzie might turn out to be yet another martyr heroine here, unable to say no to mom, but the reality of the situation was quite different. I don't want to spoil it, but it practically brought tears to my eyes. This is a tremendously strong woman.

Also, at the end of the book, Lizzie's behaviour during the reconciliation scene with Sean made me want to stand up and clap. His trust issues are recognized and dealt with. Lizzie is very aware of just how bad what he did was, but she also sees the reasons quite clearly, and puts conditions on her forgiveness that will make sure it won't happen again. Good for her!

As for Sean, he was a very appealing character as well. He's very much an alpha, yes, but he's also totally vulnerable. He's never really dealt with his horrific childhood, and so it's still affecting him all these years later, turning him into an emotional cripple, and he knows it. His past makes his more bone-headed actions, if not excusable, at least understandable. Anyway, it was just lovely to see him falling for Lizzie completely against his every intention. She's exactly what he needs.

TBND does introduce the heroes of the next two books, Sean's brothers, Billy and Mac, but it wasn't at all obtrusive. Billy's appearance and Sean's recollections about Mac actually felt natural in the story, and they made me very anxious to read their books. I wonder if we've already met their heroines? I thought I saw something between Billy and Denisha, Lizzie's former boss at the clinic. That could be good: the man convinced he's stupid and this highly intelligent woman. As for Mac... maybe Elena, Sean's socialite friend? She did seem a bit overdeveloped for the role she ended up playing in this story. I guess we'll see.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Changeling Bride, by Lisa Cach

>> Monday, August 13, 2007

TITLE: The Changeling Bride (excerpt, extras)
AUTHOR: Lisa Cach

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Lovespell

SETTING: Present day and then 1790s England
TYPE: Time travel
SERIES: No.

REASON FOR READING: I originally bought it because of the DIK review at AAR , but that was back in 2001, before I came to realize time travels aren't really my thing. So it languished in my TBR until last week, when I picked it up because I'd read two really good Lisa Cach books in a row and felt like reading one more.

A Midsummer Night's Prayer

In order to procure the cash necessary to rebuild his estate, the Earl of Allsbrook decided to barter his title and his future: He would marry the willful daughter of a wealthy merchant. True, she was pleasing in form and face, and she had an eye for fashion. Still, deep in his heart, Henry wished for a happy marriage.

A Lifetime of Ecstasy

Wilhelmina March was leery of the importance her brother put upon marriage, and she certainly never dreamed of being wed to an earl in Georgian England -- or of the fairy debt that gave her just such an opportunity. But suddenly, with one sweet kiss in a long-ago time and a faraway place, Elle wondered if the much ado was about something after all.
THE PLOT: Wilhelmina March is stuck in a dead-end job and tired of too many disastrous dates. When a strange homeless woman forces a coupon for a free husband on her, Elle thinks it's a joke. However, after a particularly frustrating experience with a guy her brother tried to set her up with, Elle is fed up and half-jokingly screams to the heavens that she wants that free husband. She wants a civilized guy with a big house, one who won't expect her to love him.

Well, she gets it, only not exactly as she would have expected. Fairies transport her to the 1790s and susbstitute her for Eleanor Moore, a rich merchant's daughter who's died of the flu and looks exactly like Elle. Eleanor is about to be forced by her father into a marriage of convenience with Henry, Earl of Allsbrook, an impoverished nobleman who has decided to trade his title for the riches to put his estate to rights. Elle is sure that she'll be transported back into her life once the wedding is over (after all, that would be just enough to give her that husband she wished for), but she's not, and now she must face the consequences.

Henry is surprised when his new wife seems nothing like the angry woman he met when they got betrothed, who threatened to make his life hell if he insisted on marrying her. She seems much kinder, even though she's got some very weird and innovative ideas!

MY THOUGHTS: This one started out quite well and had me actually enjoying the time-travel aspects, but it pretty much derailed at the end. Or rather, it started out bad, because I was pissed off about the demonization of Eleanor (she's supposed to be this awful person for not wanting to marry Henry... basically, for not wanting to be sold by her father for a title, not wanting to be sold to a man who'd sell his title for money. I very much sympathized with her, instead), but soon improved dramatically.

I think what I liked best was that the heroine's reactions to being suddenly transported over 200 years to the past really rang true. Some many heroines in T-T books seem to take things in their stride, but not Elle. It's not easy for her to adapt. The clothes are tight and her corsets are excrutiatingly painful, peeing in a chamber pot in her bedroom icks her out, her maid looks at her strangely for wanting to bathe every day, sidesaddles are uncomfortable, even for a woman who actually knows how to ride (astride, of course). As for women's health issues, those are beyond awful. No tampons (I'd curl up and die right then) and even worse, no birth control.

Which brings us to one of the main conflicts in the story. Elle finds herself very attracted to her new husband, and hey, they're married and it looks like she might have to stay there forever. So nothing wrong with just going ahead and consumating the marriage, right? Well, that's where the lack of birth control comes in. Elle's female ancestors have a history of dying of complications of either pregnancy or giving birth, so she's quite reasonably afraid of conceiving.

It was quite an interesting conflict, because I really could identify with Elle's fears. However attracted she is to Henry, how to have a sexual relationship in the 18th century if you truly don't want to get pregnant? Especially when you're married to an earl, for whom a wife is, first and foremost, a heir-making machine. Me, I think I'd remain celibate until menopause, in Elle's place. Anyway, I really liked Henry's behaviour here, because he shows himself to be a much more open-minded and generous man than I would have imagined an 18th century earl would be.

Unfortunately, the resolution of this conflict was bad, and that's one of the reasons why I said I thought the book derailed in the end. The resolution just wasn't there. Elle's very carefully developed and very valid reason for fearing getting pregnant just magically disappears. There's no mention of it in the ending. Why isn't she afraid anymore? I mean, she's living in the 1790s! If anything, the risks are exponentially higher that any pregnancy will come to a bad end! That was very unsatisfying.

And that was another problem I had with the ending. It was the ever-present one in T-T of "so, where will they live, the present or the past?". The choice they made was one I disliked.

The actual time-travel was fine, though. The logistics are usually problematic for me. Not just the why and how, but the whole crap about changing events in the past and affecting the future. If the author gets into that, I tend to get a headache, but if she doesn't, it feels like something is being ignored. But in this book, having the T-T combined with fairies pretty much gave the book a free pass in my mind. It didn't worry me.

MY GRADE: A B- just for the scene where Elle explores alternatives to birth control :-)

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The Thirteenth House, by Sharon Shinn

>> Friday, August 10, 2007

TITLE: The Thirteenth House
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 496
PUBLISHER: Ace

SETTING: The land of Gillengaria
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Second in the Twelve Houses series

REASON FOR READING: I love Shinn and I loved the first book in this series, Mystic and Rider.

After joining an unlikely band of soldiers and sorcerers to rescue the kidnapped regent Romar Brendan, the shiftling Kirra returns home to learn that her half-sister, Casserah, has been proclaimed heir to the land. But when Casserah refuses to go on a social tour of great Houses, Kirra shifts into her sister's form and makes the rounds-during which she unexpectedly encounters her former compatriots. The motley group of mystics and warriors faces many dangers-and Kirra places herself in peril when she falls in love with the married Lord Romar. Revealing her true identity to him, Kirra begins a tempestuous affair that places them both in mortal danger, and leads them both into the stronghold of the devious lords of the Thirteenth House...
THE PLOT: TTH sees the six from M&R on the move again, travelling throughout Gillengaria and facing plenty of adventures together.

At the start of the book, Kirra's father names her younger sister Casserah the heir to Danalustrous. It's not an entirely unexpected development, and Kirra is mostly relieved, no matter how much people want to believe that she must be resentful at being dispossessed. So UNresentful is she, that she's willing to take the reclusive Casserah's place (and form... Kirra's a shiftling, after all) and join the round of house parties and balls in each House that makes up the Gillengaria equivalent of the Regency Season. Her constant companion, Donnal, will be with her.

Also doing this round are the royal Princess Amalie and her mysterious step-mother, Queen Valri. As was determined in M&R, the fact that most of the noble Houses don't know Amalie at all has contributed to the unrest and the lack of confidence on the future succession, so it seems that a good idea to make Amalie more visible, in spite of the danger to her life that this might entail. It's because of this danger that the royal party will be accompanied by the best protection possible: King's Riders (including Tayse and Justin), as well as powerful mystics Senneth and Cammon.

Yet another person travelling with them is the Regent, Princess Amalie's uncle, Lord Romar. It's clear that as the person who'll be in power if the King were to die before his daughter reaches her majority, Lord Romar has become another possible target of the malcontents, so this has put him in close contact with our six. And as he and Kirra get to know each other, a powerful attraction develops, in spite of Romar being a married man.

MY THOUGHTS: Before starting the book, I'd heard quite a lot about Kirra's bad choices in this book. Knowing that there would be a tragic affair with a married man here definitely made me wait a longer time to start the book than I otherwise would have.

In the end, though, it was fine and I enjoyed the book very much. I even liked what Shinn did with the Kirra-Romar relationship. Maybe it is because of all the Shinn books that I've read, this one is the least romancey. It's more about Kirra than about a love relationship. But even looking at her romance with Donnal, I confess I have a double standard. I don't mind seeing the heroine with another man before she comes to the hero, but I do mind seeing the hero. I guess that's the fantasy for me.

And anyway, while Kirra makes some questionable choices here, I didn't necessarily think they were dishonourable ones, because she wasn't the one breaking any vows. But they were definitely choices that could lead to nothing but heartache for her. At one point Romar talks about what the future would be for them, not really liking it, but accepting as the best possible for them, given the circumstances, and it sounded like hell on Earth to me. Each married to someone else, stealing some moments together whenever they chanced to meet somewhere? Oh, no, no.

But see, I couldn't help but understand Kirra and why she made those choices anyway, even knowing (because she was an intelligent woman) that they could never lead to happiness in the long term. Shinn doesn't make the mistake I've seen other authors fall into of making the other man completely despicable. That way, the heroine just looks like an idiot. Romar is a good man, and I could see why Kirra would love him.

The ending was the right one here, for all the sadness it caused Kirra. Faced with the chance of getting all she wanted, if only she'd ignore her ethics for a little bit, she chose to do what was right, even if it hurt her. And she went the extra step from merely honourable behaviour to truly heroic actions when she did all she could to make her rival happy.

Oh, yes, the ending was right, and I wouldn't even call it a sad ending. It was hopeful and looked towards the future, suggesting happiness coming for Kirra. But... I would have liked a bit more development of this future happiness: i.e. I wanted a bit more of Donnal. We get none of his POV here, and I just didn't really see how Kirra's feelings for him would move from loving him immensely, but as a friend, to a different kind of love.

So far this review has been all Kirra, Kirra, Kirra, but the book isn't like that. All throughout it, there's even more development in the group relationship of the six mystics and Riders, and that's beautifully done as well. Kirra and Justin's relationship takes a fascinating turn which made me even more eager to read Justin's book soon, and seeing how Tayse and Senneth are doing was great. Theirs is a lovely, extremely romantic story, and it continues here. And then there's Cammon, who's just incredibly adorable, for all that he's becoming scarily powerful, and his interactions with Queen Valri and the Princess. All great stuff.

There's also a very interesting plot about discontent in the Thirteenth House (that's the name given to the minor aristocracy, those who aren't part of any of the Twelve Houses but do have quite a bit of social standing), and what some of their members are willing to do to get better conditions from the authorities. It wasn't the focus of the book, really, but provided a good rationale for driving the action forward.

MY GRADE: A B+

SOME SPECULATION: I found myself wondering after this one if Amalie mightn't be some kind of shiftling as well, able to become a Raelynx. I'm thinking of the title of the fourth book... Reader and Raelynx. Reader has to be Cammon, so how about that Raelynx? It would explain the mystery of the King's marriage to Valri, that woman no one knows anything about and who doesn't really seem to have the King in love with her. It would explain her fear as they were travelling here, and it would explain her reaction to the raelynx they picked up during M&R. It would also explain Amalie's reclusiveness as she was growing up. Well, I guess we'll find out in November.

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Portrait Of My Heart, by Patricia Cabot

>> Wednesday, August 08, 2007

TITLE: Portrait Of My Heart
AUTHOR: Patricia Cabot (aka Meg Cabot)

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 359
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1870s England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Follows Where Roses Grow Wild

REASON FOR READING: The very good review at AAR, as well as the fact that I've liked books written by this author under the Meg Cabot name.

They parted in disgrace....But desire would bring them back together.Years ago, in one explosive instant, childhood rivalry turned into wild passion for Jeremy, handsome young Duke of Rawlings, and Maggie Herbert, the object of his affections. Unfortunately, the ensuing scandal found them banished to separate corners of the world.Now fate has joined Jeremy and Maggie again-- for a long-overdue dance of desire as uncompromising as the lovers themselves. Jeremy, a decorated soldier, is determined to claim Maggie at last. And Maggie, engaged to be married to another man, finds her secret fantasies of Jeremy spinning out of control. All that stands between them and the steamy passion the years can no longer chain is the past-- and a present steeped in jealousy, intrigue, and danger....
THE PLOT: Jeremy Rawlings, the Duke of Rawlings and Maggie Herbert were childhood rivals. When they meet again after not seeing each other for five years, they are astounded at how incredibly attractive they find each other.

Maggie is 17 and trying to convince her father to allow her to attend art school in Paris, while at 21, Jeremy has just been sent down from University for scandalous behaviour. Like the conceited, spoilt twit he is, Jeremy immediately makes a clumsy pass at Maggie and can't believe it when she rejects him. At that point they're discovered by Jeremy's uncle, and then the shit really hits the fan.

Nope, the uncle doesn't demand that he marry her (in spite of Jeremy's hope that he will). He says Jeremy's not good enough for a woman like Maggie, and that he should make something of himself before proposing to her. He proposes anyway, but Maggie just won't take him seriously, so he decides to join the cavalry and head over to India, where he can make his mark. He's still determined to marry Maggie, though, and asks her to either wait for him or send him a definitive "no".

It's a further 5 years before Jeremy returns home, the hero of many battles. He's just heard that his Maggie, now an up-and-coming portrait painter, has become engaged, and he's determined to get both his girl and some revenge for her betrayal.

MY THOUGHTS: There's a really, really good moment there at the beginning of the book and in the end, I wish it hadn't been there. Why? Because I continued reading long after I should have tossed this book, just for the hope that the goodness might come back. It didn't.

When we first meet Jeremy, he's a horrible, dishonourable bastard. He not only blithely decides to seduce Maggie practically on a whim, but brags that he's actually succeeded in seducing any number of society girls and is very pleased with himself about it. What he wants, he takes, and never considers the consequences for the girls involved. And then there's how he's not at all troubled by the fact that he's just killed a man in a duel. I didn't think him a charming ne'er-do-well, as I get the feeling the author wanted me to see him. I despised him.

Then there's a shining moment when his uncle finds him trying to seduce Maggie and gives him a stiff talking-to. We catch a glimpse of his vulnerability here, and I liked him a bit better for actually wanting to be made to marry Maggie. I thought ok, very definitely redeemable. Maybe with a bit of growing up...

But when we see him again, five years later, it's clear that he hasn't grown up at all. He's still the same selfish bastard who doesn't consider anything but what he wants.

The first impression of this now older Jeremy was disastrous, and Cabot never managed to change my mind about him. The idiot returns to England having decided to get revenge on Maggie for not waiting for him, and rather, giving herself to someone else. But one page earlier, we've been told about how he'd proceeded to sleep with any female he could get as soon as he left Maggie. He had to try to forget her, right? The hypocritical bastard! You didn't wait, when you were the one pushing hard for an immediate marriage, and yet she should be chastely waiting at home for you? Argh. Am I supposed to find sluttiness sexy in men? Because I don't.

And all throughout the book, he proceeds to behave like the thoughtless, selfish jerk he is. So he wants to be able to sneak into Maggie's room and not risk discovery by her maid? Oh, he'll just drug the maid, and if she feels like hell and spends the entire next morning throwing up (as he knows it's very possible she will), too bad. What Jeremy wants, Jeremy gets.

I never felt for a moment that he loved Maggie. He lusts after her and has made up his mind that he'll have her, but I find it hard to believe that his feelings amount to much more than that. He doesn't know her at all. He doesn't know who she is and what she wants. The gesture with her family, which was so precisely what Maggie needed? He never would have thought of it on his own, because he had absolutely no idea of what Maggie wanted, really. It had to be suggested by her friend.

I didn't hate Maggie quite as much as Jeremy, but I didn't have much respect for her, either. She was completely blind to Jeremy's faults and just couldn't say no to him, ever. That's just tedious. Also, she was not at all convincing as an artist. There was no passion for art in her, none that I could perceive. She painted, but she could easily have been an actress or any other shocking activity, for all she FELT like an artist.

There's some kind of external plot about someone trying to kill Jeremy, as well as some misunderstandings about Jeremy having been awarded the Star of Jaipur after a particularly heroic deed. The maharajah wanted to bestow his niece on him, but Jeremy refused, and he was given the diamond called the Star of Jaipur instead. However, everyone in England thinks it was the princess he accepted, and hi-jinks ensue when the princess herself follows him to England and makes mischief. I guess this was supposed to be funny. Whatever.

Eh, well, at least Maggie's fiancé is not demonized. He's quite a nice man and I do see why she would have married him. This and Cabot's charming writing style were all the book had going for it.

MY GRADE: A C-.

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An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie

>> Tuesday, August 07, 2007

TITLE: An Autobiography
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

COPYRIGHT: 1977
PAGES: 519
PUBLISHER: Dodd, Mead and Co.

SETTING: Mostly England during the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, but Christie travelled all over. There are bits in France, Iraq, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Honolulu and myriad other places she passed through.
TYPE: Autobiography
SERIES: Nope

REASON FOR READING: Another one I found while rearranging. Sorting my bookshelves has been hell on my TBR, because there's so much I want to reread.

MY THOUGHTS: I loved this. It was just like sitting next to Christie and hearing her reminisce about her life. She does more or less keep to a timeline, but it's all very informal, sometimes going back or forward and sometimes going off into tangents about what Christie thinks of this or that.

The book was especially interesting because Christie lived an amazing life. The early sections give us a fascinating glimpse of life during those times for an upper middle-class family. She does mention quite a few times that certain things about her childhood will probably convince modern readers that they were terribly rich, but that it was simply the way things were for people who were moderately well-off. I can certainly believe that, because I have that very experience when I describe my childhood here to friends abroad. We sound very rich, but we're not, it's just that certain things that are luxury in the 1st world are very affordable here, while for many other things, it's just the opposite.

Anyway, it made for great reading, and the book remains just as interesting when she begins her career as a writer. I found it surprising that even when she starts regularly writing and takes it up as a real career, the book doesn't become consumed with how and when she wrote her books. In fact, though she does share some details about that, it's her life outside work that concerns her. She never seesms particularly consumed by her writing. She's very workmanlike towards it: no mystical artsy attitude to be found here! Her pride about her work does come through, but you never get the feeling she ever saw herself as an author first and foremost.

The main criticism I've seen of this autobiography is the fact that Christie skips right over one of the most infamous episodes in her life, her disappearance during the aftermath of her husband's leaving her and the resulting mess, with everyone in England clamouring to find her.

Well, I was quite all right with the way she wrote it. I don't need to know all the bloody details, the details the person is uncomfortable sharing. That's probably the main reason why I don't read more biographies, and the reason why I despise celebrity gossip crap with a passion: it makes me very uncomfortable to find out private details of a person's life that the person wouldn't like for complete strangers to know. With made-up characters in books, I want to know everything (please no closed bedroom doors for me in romance!), but real people are a different matter.

Real people should be allowed to keep harmless, embarrassing private details like this one private, IMO, so I was perfectly happy to go straight from Archie asking for a divorce to Agatha deciding she needed to go abroad to escape the feeling of being hounded by the press. Someone who has no idea of what happened might be slightly puzzled for a second, but since I know the bare facts, I was fine.

MY GRADE: A B+. I'm now feeling the urge to reread some of my favourite Christies.

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Wild Oats, by Pamela Morsi

>> Monday, August 06, 2007

TITLE: Wild Oats
AUTHOR: Pamela Morsi

COPYRIGHT: 1993
PAGES: 318
PUBLISHER: Jove

SETTING: Small town of Dead Dog, in the Oklahoma territory. I'm not 100% sure of the date, but the characters mention the prospect of statehood, and I see in wikipedia that Oklahoma became a state in 1907. So let's say early 20th century.
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Followed by Runabout.

REASON FOR READING: I found it when I was rearranging my shelves and decided to reread it. I actually read it immediately after Something Shady, but I'd forgotten I hadn't done a review for it.

The last thing Cora Briggs expected was to see a fine young man like Jedwin Sparrow at her doorstep. After all, she'd been shunned by the citizens of Dead Dog, Oklahoma, for so long that she'd given up hope of having any respectable gentleman callers.

But the last thing Jed expected was romance. He was looking for a sophisticated woman to help him sow his wild oats. Instead, Cora made him a proposition of her own--one that would cause a fury in the town--and cause her to question her own heart...
THE PLOT: Cora Briggs is the pariah of Dead Dog, Oklahoma. Not only is she a divorcée, having been married to the son of the town matriarch, but her former mother-in-law and her friends delighted in spreading false rumours about her after the divorce. So now Cora lives alone in her little house right outside town, struggling to make ends meet.

When Jedwin Sparrow, the local undertaker, approaches her with a very improper proposition, Cora's first impulse is to send him off with a fly in his ear. But she can't resist engaging in a little revenge, because Jedwin's mother, Amelia, was one of the main spreaders of the rumours that ruined her. Cora doesn't intend to let Jedwin touch her, but she'll keep him hanging around long enough for someone to notice. That's sure to embarrass Amelia. And if it embarrasses Jedwin as well, that's no more than he deserves for the insult of his offer.

But Jedwin is nothing like the arrogant spoilt idiot Cora assumed he was. He takes Cora's conditions as an invitation to court her and energetically does just that. And after a while, Cora can't remember why she wanted to punish him...

MY THOUGHTS: I know what you're thinking: the local undertaker? Really? Yes, really, and he's a lovely, kind and sexy guy. It does help that he doesn't actually handle the bodies, because as much as I rationally know that it's a perfectly respectable job, one someone has to do, there's something icky about being touched by a guy who's just spent his day embalming dead bodies.

Well, it just so happens that Jed has a bit of a phobia about embalming, and kudos to Morsi for not making this read like a contrivance, designed to spare her readers' sensibilities (even if it was exactly that). She actually turns it into a symbol of the conflict between Jed and his mother, of their struggle over whether Jed will strike out on his own and follow his dreams or whether he'll simply step into the role his mother is determined he'll fill. It was excellently done.

And even more kudos for not making Jed come across as a mama's boy even if the main conflict in his relationship with Cora is his mother. Jed comes across as young and pretty innocent in some respects (yep, he's a virgin), but he's very much a man, too, and he's got plenty of strength of character to stand up for the right thing and for what he wants. When he realizes he's falling for Cora, he doesn't care in the least about the whole town's disapproval. As long as Cora is happy, he's happy.

Cora is great. She's been done wrong by everyone, but hasn't let that sour her. But neither is she a perfect martyr: Cora resents what happened and is not above wishing for a little revenge against the people who slight her and make her everyday life hell. She has a small brain fart near the end of the book, when she does the "I'm not worthy" thing, but Jed doesn't let her wallow in it and sees through what she's doing right away, so the whole thing didn't annoy me all that much.

Like Something Shady, Wild Oats is both sweet and spicy and both charming and aware of the dark side of those small towns, full of judgmental people. I really like what Morsi does with her settings.

There's a secondary romance here between Jedwin's mother and the embalmer working at Jed's undertaker business. It was nice enough, I suppose, but I'm afraid I wasn't too crazy about it, as I didn't think Amelia was made to pay enough for her actions in destroying Cora's life just to curry favour with Cora's former mother-in-law.

MY GRADE:A B+.

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Dangerous Lover, by Lisa Marie Rice

>> Thursday, August 02, 2007

TITLE: Dangerous Lover (ebook: here)
AUTHOR: Lisa Marie Rice

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Avon Red

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: I've been anticipating reading this book ever since I first heard of it. I loved LMR's ebooks and I wish her backlist wasn't so short. Midnight Angel and Woman on the Run have become particular favourites and I've reread them again and again.

"I don't want to be alone tonight."

Caroline Lake can hardly believe she would ever say these words to someone she'd never met before. When a tall, dark stranger arrives wanting to rent a room in her beautiful empty shell of a mansion, she hesitates. Though she is in dire financial straits, the man looks dangerous-dangerously sexy. She's overwhelmed by the desire he sparks in her-hotter than anything she's ever felt before, making her ache to experience his sensuous touch. But who is this armed and mysterious man with danger following in his wake? He's not what she thinks he is...

Jack Prescott has wanted Caroline forever. He has spent the past twelve years dreaming of her, desiring her, while fighting in some of the worst hellholes on earth. Now he's back, with $20 million dollars in blood diamonds and a relentless enemy stalking him. But this time Jack's determined nothing will stop him from finally making Caroline his.
THE PLOT: Caroline and Jack first met twelve years earlier, when he was living with his father in a shelter. She and her well-to-do family visited the shelter a few times, and Jack fell hard for this young woman who treated him kindly.

Twelve years later, Jack is still obsessed with this first love of his. And now that the man who became his father in later years is dead, and Jack has no responsibility towards him anymore, he can go back and see if he could have a shot with Caroline.

These days, Caroline is far from the golden girl she was in earlier years. She's endured a lot of tragedy in her past and her financial burdens are still dragging her down. She doesn't know why her sexy new boarder would be attracted to her, sad sack that she is, but he is, and she needs what he's offering.

MY THOUGHTS: I don't know how LMR does it, but wow! Her alpha hero was just amazing, and even more amazing is the fact that I, a total non-fan of the typical alpha, loved him. It should be a bit creepy and scary, but Jack's total and complete focus on Caroline comes across as sexy, not creepy. LMR makes obsession hot *g*

How can I love such a total, dominating and unrepentant alpha? I think it might be because it's clear from the very beginning that Jack would rather die than cause Caroline even a mildly unpleasant feeling. He's possessive, yes, but at the same time, he's fully and completely Caroline's, and he accepts this.

Usually, I don't like it when the hero is the one that's always in control and does what he want with the heroine. But Jack... I should have been turned off by his manipulations to make sure she's not scared by him and will accept him as a boarder, the way he strategizes to make bonds develop between them, so that there's a smaller chance that she'll kick him out later. But this guy is not in control, not really. It's Caroline who has the power over him. All his careful manipulation is because he doesn't think he has any chance of winning her if he doesn't do this. He doesn't really believe she could ever really love him, so it was beautiful to see when she actually DID.

I liked Caroline. She's a very vulnerable and sad figure here, but she's a strong woman. This is something that Jack understands perfectly: the courage it takes to go through what she did, not just the death of her parents, but the 6 years of caring for her brother and basically watching him die without falling apart, all the while trying to keep his spirits up.

And this understanding of his was what made me buy that what he felt for her was love. He sees the woman Caroline is now very clearly, and it's with her that he falls in love.

Most of the book is Jack and Caroline alone in her house during the weekend, not quite snowed in, but almost. But thoroughout the book there's a sense of growing menace as a man who's after some blood diamonds Jack took from him in Sierra Leone (don't worry, Jack's blameless here) gets nearer and nearer. This subplot was actually quite interesting, even if I kept wanting to go back to read about J & C during those sections.

LMR creates some very good villains and suspense subplots that feel fresh. Deaver was evil, but evil in a way that I could understand and recognize. He's not insane or evil just because he's evil and likes to cause suffering. He's simply someone who doesn't have the morals to stop him doing anything to make a comfortable life for himself. And Sanders, Caroline's former on-and-off boyfriend is another horrible, horrible person who's nonetheless believable and recognizable. As for the details from the past in Sierra Leone, they were just heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and fascinating, at the same time.

As much as I loved most of the book, there were a few flaws. The most minor of them was the brand dropping. I thought the author went a bit overboard with it. There were quite a few times in which she started to list what someone bought or what someone ate in such minute detail that I just zoned out. It was excessive... think JR Ward at her worst and increase it a little bit.

But the bigger problem was the ending, which was much too abrupt. We're in the middle of an action scene and wham! the end! I'm not asking for a mammoth epilogue showing them surrounded by all their children, but I'd have appreciated a bit more here. Most especially, I would have liked more development of the big moment of revelation, which was something I'd been anticipating throughout the whole book. I guess I felt a little bit shortchanged in this area.

Also on the ending, I wasn't completely comfortable with what happened with the diamonds. It's not that they went to a bad purpose, or one that wasn't worthy on its own. It's just that in my eyes, this was wealth belonging to the people of Sierra Leone, and I firmly believe that it should have gone to alleviate their suffering.

MY GRADE: A B+. With a few more pages there at the end, it would have been in A territory.

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