Still trying to catch up

>> Monday, April 28, 2008

A bit of everything, in a short-ish round-up:

TITLE: A Walk in the Woods
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

This was a reread of one of my favourite Brysons, and I had a blast as I followed him and the hapless Katz in their walk through the woods. The humour, as always, is top-notch and hilarious. The portrayals of the people he meets while on the trail are deft and entertaining, making them into comedic figures but without making them into caricatures. That's the main thing I like about his humour: it might get scathing sometimes, but it's never cruel.

The book also contains some more "educational" information on the Appalachian trail and the different woods they walked through. This was really interesting stuff, and narrated without ever falling into dullness or infodumping. And through the entire book, his love and respect for the trail and what it represents shines through.


TITLE: The Warlord's Mistress
AUTHOR: Juliet Landon

After all those years of asking for more varied and original settings for historicals, it seems someone has noticed and decided to give us what we were asking for: Mills & Boon. In The Warlord's Mistress, Juliet Landon takes us to Roman Britain and gives us a Celtic heroine who falls in love with a Roman tribune.

Dania is in a bit of a pickle. Her clan has been experienced a bit of bad luck and when the powerful druid (who has it in for her) demands that she be sacrificed to the gods, they seem ready to go along. Thinking on her feet, she manages to convince them she might do them more good if she sets up residence in the nearby garrison town of Coria and spies on the Romans for them.

Years later, she's established herself there and her House of Women (a kind of very classy brothel, patronised by high-ranking Romans) gives her the perfect source of information she can send back to Boar Hill. But then a new tribune arrives, the attractive and dangerous Fabian Cornelius Peregrinus. He's much more intelligent and perceptive than any of the previous authorities, and this puts Dania's plans in jeopardy.

I enjoyed this one very much, but not really because of the romance. What I loved was the fascinating and vividly painted setting and Dania's identy conflict, with her conflicting feelings towards her clan. This was very well done, and I couldn't help but understand why she still felt loyalty to them even though she saw the not-so-good aspects perfectly way. I liked that this conflict was somewhat reflected in Fabian's feelings for his own role and government. Throughout most of the book this seemed like an unsolvable problem, but Landon did find a good, satisfying solution.

The romance wasn't bad, but I didn't find it particularly interesting or compelling. I never completely got why they would fall in love with each other. But well, at least they weren't annoying together. The only real problem I had with the book was at the beginning, because the writing was very bit overblown and purple, especially when Landon is describing Dana's oh-so-amazing and irresistible beauty. Fortunately, that tapered off a bit as the book progressed.


TITLE: North and South
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Gaskell

I blame KristieJ and her crusade for me picking up this one. Well, indirectly. Kristie made me want to watch the miniseries (which I now have thanks to Ana... though I haven't watched it yet *blushes*), but before I did that, I wanted to read the book. Fortunately, being a classic, I was able to find it quite easily in my library.

I'll save most of my comments for when I watch the miniseries, so just a bit of a taster now. I really liked the combination of social commentary and a strong love story, especially because the love story in many ways reflects and illustrates the conflict. From a completely modern perspective, though, it was a bit hard for me to really like the main characters (Margaret, with her initial disdain for people she considered "shoppy" and John's reaction to thinking Margaret might have been alone with a man). However, I was able to put myself in the mindset of the times and enjoy the story anyway. I couldn't really love the romance, but I can see how it could be really wonderful in the miniseries, and I'm really looking forward to that.

The only thing I didn't like at all was the sense of melodrama that permeates some parts. Let's just say that the scenes with Nicholas Higgins and his sick little daughter didn't cause the effect Ms. Gaskell must have intended. My reaction was more on the line of "oh, give me a break, what nauseating mawkishness" than "oh, that's so saaaaaaad!".


TITLE: The Venetian's Mistress
AUTHOR: Ann Elizabeth Cree

Like The Warlord's Mistress (huh, I've only just noticed the very similar titles), this is one of those M&B historicals with exotic and original settings. Unfortunately, as it often happens, the story didn't live up to the setting, and in this particular case, the setting itself didn't live up to the concept either, as there was no real sense of place.

Cicely Renato is a widow, an Englishwoman living in Italy, in the home of her late husband, an Italian. Her grown, although still very young step-daughter lives with her, and Cicely is drawn into trouble when Mariana falls in love with a young man from a noble Italian family and he seems to return her regard. They're much too young to get married, so both Cicely and the young man's uncle, the Duke of Severin, are against the match. And there's also the fact that there seems to be an old quarrel between the Severin and Cicely's husband's family. But when Mariana elopes with her beloved, Cicely and Severin are thrown together in trying to find them before it's too late.

The best word to describe this book is tepid. I thought Cicely and Nico, the duke, were both nice enough, but they weren't very interesting. Nor did they have much chemistry between them. The plot was supposed to be exciting, with old enemies and chases and an old murder which seemed to be affecting the present as well, but I found it much too easy to put the book down.

The plot about the old murder (not that it's acknowledged as a murder at the beginning of the book, but it's pretty obvious that it was), was probably the worst part of the book. It was awfully half-baked and I knew who the villain was from the moment that character was introduced. Plus, the character of Barbarina, Cicely's sister-in-law was incredibly frustrating. She knew or suspected everything and kept saying cryptic, suggestive things, but then would always refuse to explain. No reason why she would, and no reason why Cicely wouldn't just shake her until she spoke.



Dime Store Magic, by Kelley Armstrong (Otherworld #3)

>> Friday, April 25, 2008

TITLE: Dime Store Magic (prologue, chapter 1)
AUTHOR: Kelley Armstrong

PAGES: 448

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal fiction / romance
SERIES: #3 in the Otherworld series

REASON FOR READING: Catching up with the series.

Leader of the American Coven, guardian to the preteen daughter of a black witch ... it's not the lifestyle twenty-three year-old Paige Winterbourne imagined for herself, and it's wreaking hell on her social life. But she's up the challenge. When half-demon Leah O'Donnell returns to fight for custody of Savannah, Paige is ready.

She's not as prepared for the team of supernaturals Leah brings with her, including a powerful sorcerer who claims to be Savannah's father. Cut off from her friends, accused of witchcraft, Satanism, necromancy, murder...Paige quickly realizes that keeping Savannah could mean losing everything else. Has she finally found a battle she isn't willing to fight?
DSM brings us a shift in POV, as the narrator isn't Elena anymore, but witch Paige Winterbourne. And rather than werewolves, we delve deeper into the world of those age-old enemies, witches and sorcerers.

Hmm, how to explain the plot without spoiling the action of Stolen? Pretty much impossible, so I'll just settle for trying not to give away all the details. Ok, so as a consequence of what happened in the previous book, Paige has become the leader of her Coven. Though she approaches the role with great energy and very many ideas for a highly needed change, at 23, this is a bit overwhelming. And even more overwhelming is having custody of Savannah Levine, an immensely powerful teenaged witch who happens to be the daughter of a witch (the most notorious dark witch of her generation, no less) and a sorcerer.

Trouble comes when Savannah's father, Kristof Nash, discovers her existence and decides to fight Paige for her custody. The problem is that since Kristof is a sorcerer and heir of the Nash Cabal (one of the many kind of mafia-like organisations set up by sorcerers), the fight for custody won't be played out by the rules, in the courts.

Enter Lucas Cortez, determined to help. Lucas is also a sorcerer and also the heir to one of the Cabals, but he's a rebel. He's turned his back on the family business, refusing his father's entreaties to assume his role, and instead has become a lawyer who defends supernaturals against the Cabals' bully tactics.

Given the long-standing enmity between their races, Paige is understandably reluctant to accept Lucas' help, but she quickly realises she has no choice, not if she wants to keep Savannah.

This was a fantastic read. Paige might be a bit young and inexperienced, but she makes it up in determination and courage. And I loved, loved, loved Lucas, geeky, unassuming, chivalrous Lucas, and very much enjoyed the romance between them. Maybe it helped that it was a romance I could root for without reservation, while with Elena and Clay, as compelling as they are together, there's always a niggling doubt about whether it's really a healthy relationship, at least in human terms.

The plot was also really good. I mean, the custody fight was interesting enough, but what I was most fascinated by was the conflict between witches and sorcerers. They have a complicated history and they have evolved, very believably, in completely different directions. The sorcerers have concentrated on certain kinds of spells and have approached them with a somewhat utilitarian attitude, turning their knowledge into powerful corporations which have no problem in using their magic for profit. Meanwhile, the witches have developed almost a fear of their magic, timorously getting rid of anything that has even a whiff of danger to it, and consequently losing most of their power.

Neither Paige nor Lucas are satisfied with the statu quo, and in a way, both are trying to bring their groups back from the extremes they have reached. Lucas, as I've mentioned, fights to quell the worst abuses of power in the only way he can, while Paige struggle to bring her Coven into the 21st century, trying to change the unbelievably risk-averse attitudes and to get them to embrace a bit more of power. It's a hard fight, but it's just beginning in this book.

Oh, and another highlight of this book is Savannah herself. She's a frighteningly powerful witch, even at 13, and the very fact that she is 13 makes that power even more frightening, because in a typically self-absorbed teenage way, she has no real conception of the consequences her actions might have. She's impulsive and difficult and very, very interesting :-)



Stolen, by Kelley Armstrong (Otherworld #2)

>> Tuesday, April 22, 2008

TITLE: Stolen (prologue, chapter 1)
AUTHOR: Kelley Armstrong

PAGES: 532

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal fiction (verging on paranormal romance, sometimes)
SERIES: # 2 in the Otherworld series

REASON FOR READING: I really liked Bitten, the first book in the series. I enjoyed the story and the characters and the romance. However, there was something there that held me back from reading further. Compelling as I'd found it, certain elements made me uncomfortable, like the degree of violence in Clay's character and the ease shown by the werewolves when killing humans who hadn't really done anything wrong, other than being in possession of dangerous information.

I told myself that wanting to be comfortable probably isn't the best way to challenge myself as a reader and find reads that really make me respond. I sincerely meant to continue with the series, but a couple of years later, I hadn't followed through. Which was when No Humans Involved came out, and I heard so much about it that I just skipped to it and absolutely LOVED it, even more than Bitten.

So earlier this year, when I found them in my library, I started reading all the books in the middle, in quick succession.

When a young witch tells Elena that a group of humans are kidnapping supernaturals, Elena ignores the warning. After all, everyone knows there's no such thing as witches. As for the thought of other 'supernaturals', well, she'd just rather not dwell on the possibility.

Soon, however, she's confronted with the truth about her world, when she's kidnapped and thrown into a cell-block with witches, sorcerers, half-demons and other werewolves. As Elena soon discovers, dealing with her fellow captives is the least of her worries. In this prison, the real monsters carry the keys.
While in Stolen the focus is still on Elena and Clayton, as it was in Bitten, Armstrong starts widening our vision of her world.

During a routine investigation of a reported werewolf sighting, Elena meets with Ruth Winterbourne and her niece, Paige. It's soon clear to Elena that it's a setup and that they're not genuine info dealers, but she's very surprised when she finds out what's going on. Ruth and Paige are witches, you see, just one of the many different kinds of paranormal beings that exist in the world. This is news to Elena, just as it is for the reader, as both she and us previously thought werewolves was as far as the non-human, paranormal world went.

And not only are there more paranormals (witches and sorcerers and vampires and half-demons), they are gathered in something called the Interracial Council, where representatives of all the different races deal with issues that pertain to them and make sure the human world remains unaware of their existence. Werewolves used to be part of the Council, but due to a falling-out years earlier, they've remained aloof, with the existence of the other beings quickly becoming no more than vague legends for the current Pack members.

But now someone is abducting paranormals, and the Council wants the werewolves' help. They're not well-disposed to give it (the Pack has been doing quite well in its isolation, thankyouverymuch), but then Elena gets abducted herself, and if they want her back, the Council's help will result invaluable.

Most of the book's action takes place in a compound where she and other paranormals are being held captive, ostensibly for research purposes. And I say "ostensibly", because while the millionaire who conceived of the project is fascinated by the power implicit in the paranormal and wants to discover its secrets, the guy has a sadistic streak which makes this very claustrophobic book also feel very scary and creepy and disturbing.

In spite, or maybe because of this, I found it to be a very good read. I especially appreciate that Elena is as complicated and interesting a character as she was in Bitten. She's strong and kickass, but she's also smart enough to know her vulnerabilities and she's willing to be cunning and devious when she needs be, even if that requires manipulating her enemies and (*gasp*) making them believe she's their friend. What an un-heroine-like kind of behaviour! She's also got a wry, dark sense of humour, which is fortunate, because she makes the grimness a bit more tolerable.

I also liked seeing the new dimensions of the Otherworld. As you come to realise when you continue with the series, this is a complex world, with several different kinds of beings, all with their strengths and weaknesses and agendas. Stolen does a good job of introducing the concept without overwhelming us.



The latest 3 Brockmanns

>> Friday, April 18, 2008

I've at least enjoyed all of Suzanne Brockmann's Troubleshooters books, but I hadn't read them for a while, a long enough time that there were already three books out by the time I started to catch up. It's strange, I did the same with the three books after Gone Too Far. Why? I've no idea.

TITLE: Into the Storm

This is one of those rare Brockmanns where the main storyline is a thousand times more interesting than the secondary one. The heroine is Lindsay Fontaine, a former police officer who works for Troubleshooters Inc. (Tom's firm, for those a bit fuzzy on the details). She and her colleagues have been hired to participate in a training exercise for Team Sixteen, and Lindsay is in charge of coordinating stuff with Mark Jenkins, the SEAL appointed as liaison.

Lindsay is immediately very attracted to Mark. So is Mark to Lindsay, only the Troubleshooters Inc. new secretary is Tracy Shapiro, his childhood crush. Jenk used to be a pudgy little nerd as a boy, so now that he's a buff, sexy SEAL, he's quite tempted to get some validation by getting the dream girl who wouldn't have given him the time of day way back when, no matter that he has someone right in front of him that is clearly much more compatible with the grown-up man .

He's tempted, but his attraction for Lindsay is stronger. Only then, in the middle of the exercise, Tracy disappears and it's soon clear she's been taken by a scary serial killer operating in the area...

I LOVED Lindsay. She's funny and smart and very capable, and well aware of her own worth. She will NOT be the second choice, even if the guy doing the choosing is as gorgeous as Mark. And given how brain-dead Mark behaved at the beginning, I can't blame her for blowing him off when she did. Only for Mark, she's not the second choice. He quickly realises how immature his Tracy thing was and that he's fallen like a ton of bricks for Lindsay. He makes the reader believe it, and it was wonderful to read about him trying to convince Lindsay as well, with the added complication that with Tracy in such trouble, she must also be his concern. Even so, their romance is sweet and funny and sexy. I loved every minute.

The secondary romances I didn't love as much, but I did enjoy them. Sophia and Decker are still circling around each other, each determined to misunderstand each other (and though I'm not there yet, if they keep that up much longer, I'm really going to lose interest). And the foul-mouthed, outwardly sexist jerk Izzy develops a thing for the outwardly airheaded Tracy.

What I didn't like at all was the serial killer thing. I mean, I did enjoy the plot that involved the exercise turn into a search and rescue operation and the soul-searching this inspired in Izzy and how it affected Lindsay and Mark's relationship. But the thing is, the serial killer's actions were so disturbing that they gave me nightmares for days. All right, props to Brockmann for creating someone so disturbing, if that's what she was going for, but the thing is, I didn't think the book required something so awful and nightmarish. It didn't go well with the tone of the rest of the book and it was unnecessary to create fear for Tracy's fate in the reader. The one piece of good news there is that IMO, these scenes are not really integral to the book, so you can easily skip them if you know you can't handle this kind of thing. Just know that Tracy is in danger of having terrible things done to her, and you'll be fine and able to enjoy the much better rest of the story.

MY GRADE: It would have been an A read without the serial killer stuff, but as it is, I'll give it a B+.

TITLE: Force of Nature

With Force of Nature, it was exactly the opposite to Into the Storm. I kept wanting the main storyline to go away and leave me to enjoy the secondary one. Because Ric Alvarado and Annie Dugan didn't interest me much, while the secondary romance was the long-awaited happy conclusion to Jules' story, and I adore Jules!

Ric Alvarado is a PI and he's recently hired his childhood friend Annie Dugan as a receptionist. Annie is determined to become a partner, and convinces Ric to let her help in what seems like a routine case. Only the routine case results in them being drawn into the orbit of scary Florida druglord Gordon Burns.

So how does Jules come into it? It just so happens that the FBI currently has its sights set on Burns, as they suspect he might be involved in a plot to bring a dangerous terrorist into the US. They observe that Ric has gained entry into Burns' world, and knowing his past as a police officer, they suspect he might be able to help them. Jules is sent down to Florida to explore the possibilities.

And wouldn't you know, Robin Chadwick, now a major movie star, is in town as well. You'll definitely remember Robin if you read Hot Target, as the alcoholic and in-the-closet actor Jules almost had a love affair with. Burns happens to be a film-lover, so Robin, determined to finally, finally get a relationship going with Jules, forces his way onto the investigation and helps them out.

And between all the plotting and planning to bring Burns down, Ric and Annie and Jues and Robin are getting more and more drawn to one another.

Ric and Annie weren't bad. I didn't find the conflict between them at all compelling, but they were nice enough, both individually and together, and they did have chemistry. Maybe in another book I'd have been more interesting, but sharing pages with Jules and Robin? They could have completely disappeared and I wouldn't have noticed the difference.

Because the Jules and Robin story was everything I'd hoped for and more. Now their story involved a compelling conflict. Jules just knows they can't be together, that a relationship with an alcoholic like Robin would be toxic for him. Especially since, even though Robin does seem to have accepted his sexuality to himself (huge step, considering how in denial he was when they met), it would be career suicide to come out publicly. Being known to be gay, all chances of leading-man, A-list stardom are off. And a discreet, secret relationship is not a possibility. Jules is out and it's a point of pride for him to be out, given his career at the FBI. Although... if he were to have a hugely public relationship (and a relationship with a well known celebrity like Robin would definitely be public), he can kiss certain very possible, very huge career advancements goodbye. All in all, many, many good reasons why they should be apart rather than together. And yet, and yet... what's between them is too strong for all these justifications, however true and important they might be.

I'm amazed at how firmly Brockmann made me believe that they should be together, no matter what; that Robin had changed enough to be worthy of Jules. Because when I read Hot Target, I wasn't a Robin fan. In fact, I lamented "that this wonderful man [Jules, that is] seems to be such a sleaze magnet." But Robin, while still at heart the same person, has grown and changed from the other book. He did become a person I could root for -and I did.

This might be something of a spoiler, but for those who don't know, there is a HEA for Jules and Robin here. A wonderful one, which made me really, really happy after all the heartbreaking yearning and sizzling chemistry that had preceeded it.

MY GRADE: A B+. I'm averaging the A for Jules and Robin's story with the much lower grades for Ric and Annie and the background suspense subplot.

TITLE: All Through the Night

Right, I said that Jules and Robin get their happy ending in FON. So what is this book? I think the best way to describe it is to call it a celebration. It's a celebration of love, romantic and platonic, of friendship and of the fact that this is the 21st century and in certain parts of the world, at least, people like Jules and Robin can have a happy ending that involves wedding vows and the exchanging of rings ***.

There's a plot here, which starts with a kind of mutual proposal and then a very eventful preparation for it, complete with Adam (Jules' ex) interfering and a stalker skulking around. There's even a secondary romance between Robin's assistant and a journalist who's trying to score a scoop. But this wasn't the point of the book. It was the obvious and powerful love between Jules and Robin that held my attention, and the growth of their relationship. It was also seeing the developing respect and friendship between Robin and Jules best friends, Sam and Alyssa, who are just as doubtful about Robin as I would have been.

This might have been boring, almost like a long, sappy epilogue, but it wasn't. It was funny and sweet and heartwarming, and it made me happy to read it.


*** My own country, Uruguay, isn't one of those places, but I'm very glad to report we're heading in the right direction. Parliament recently approved laws legalising same-sex civil unions, making us the first Latin American country to allow it at a national level (Mexico city and Buenos Aires already did, IIRC). The first union took place yesterday, and according to what my dad told me on the phone today, one of the grooms was an actor who used to scare me silly as a child, when he appeared characterised as the sinister Professor Macchiavello in my favourite TV show. Squee! :-D


Which Mary Stewart book will I read next?

Really cool quiz from Jennie and Julie's Mary Stewart blog:

Which Mary Stewart novel should you read?
Your Result: Airs Above the Ground

Lovely Vanessa March did not think it was strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire in Vienna and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister.

Touch Not the Cat
Nine Coaches Waiting
This Rough Magic
Wildfire at Midnight
The Ivy Tree
Madam, Will You Talk?
My Brother Michael
Which Mary Stewart novel should you read?
Make Your Own Quiz

I haven't read that one yet, so it will definitely be my next!


The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

>> Monday, April 14, 2008

TITLE: The Laughing Policeman
AUTHOR: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

PAGES: 216

SETTING: 1960's Stockholm, Sweden
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 4th in the Martin Beck series

REASON FOR READING: I can pinpoint this one quite well. I read a NY Times review a while back (a long while back, 5 or 6 years at least) which mentioned this series, and I was intrigued by the idea of mysteries set in the Sweden of a couple of decades ago (I've always had a fascination with Sweden, for some strange reason). I even ordered the first one, Roseanna. I never did read it (it's still in the huge TBR pile back in Uruguay), but the names of the authors stuck in my head, and when I saw this one in the library, I checked it out.

In this classic police procedural, the ever-dyspeptic Martin Beck has nothing to be amused about, even though it's Christmastime. Åke Stenstrom, a young detective in Beck's squad, has just been killed in an unprecedented mass murder aboard a Stockholm city bus. Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did he push a murderer too far in his efforts to make a name for himself on the force? Realizing that Stenstrom's presence on the bus was no mere coincidence, his compatriots retrace his steps and chase years-old clues to a crime long thought unsolvable.
THE PLOT: The summary above is quite decent, so I'll just skip this.

MY THOUGHTS: I very much enjoyed this book. It was quite a change from the mysteries I usually read, and not just because of the setting.

The main thing was that I'm used to the lone detective going after the truth. Even when it's a police investigation and there's a whole team working on the case (à la JD Robb's In Death series), there's a clear leader who's the one to make the breakthrough deductions and get to the bottom of things.

Here, Beck is supposed to be the main character, but this is very much an ensemble cast story. I didn't see him particularly "lead" the investigation. They all lead it. Each senior cop takes his own line of investigation and obsesses over it. In the end, it all comes together and the work of each of them is crucial to getting to the solution.

And it was a good solution, too, one that tied up all the threads in a neat and interesting way.

The setting was also a plus. You could almost consider this a historical mystery, I suppose, as 1968 is already 40 years ago. It's not just a matter of years, but that things have changed so much since then, especially the way police would go about an investigation. It's not just technology; the knowledge of the psychology of certain behaviours (mass murders, sexual crimes) has become much more sophisticated. Some of the police's speculations about these things were su unsubtle as to be primitive. This didn't bother me at all, just gave me more of a feeling for the time.

On the whole, while Sjowall and Wahloo (who were writing a contemporary mystery, remember) don't set out to do social commentary, the book is, nonetheless, a fascinating window into Stockholm and Swedish culture at that time. There's a distinct sense of place and a clear portrayal of the sensibilities. This is a place where everyone smokes everywhere (funny how that kind of thing often seems the most obtrusive for us modern readers) and where professional policemen have no problem qualifying women as sluts and whores and even nymphomaniacs. Where sex and drugs (and condoms and socialists!) still shocked. Heh, I don't know that I'd like to live there, but I certainly enjoyed my visit.



The Doctor's Proposal, by Marion Lennox

>> Sunday, April 13, 2008

TITLE: The Doctor's Proposal (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

PAGES: 187
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Medical Romance

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Series romancey
SERIES: First in the Castle at Dolphin Bay series, but stands alone.

REASON FOR READING: Malvina recommended the author as a good one in the M&B Medical romance line.

Tragedy has left Dr Kirsty McMahon afraid to fall in love. So when she meets commitment-phobic single father Jake Cameron - Dolphin Bay's gorgeous doctor - she assures herself that the chemistry between them will never amount to anything...

Kirsty busies herself with caring for her patients, getting to know the people of Dolphin Bay - and generally doing all she can to keep her mind off the handsome single dad. But when the attraction between her and Jack becomes too strong to ignore they find themselves having to reconsider the rules they've made for themselves.
Wow, that blurb above is pretty uninformative. Everything there's quite true, FWIW, but it doesn't come close to describing the book. Let's see if I can do any better.

Kirsty McMahon is desperately worried about her twin sister. Susie is a recent widow, pregnant and clinically depressed. She won't try to heal from the injuries sustained in the accident that killed her husband, she won't take care of herself, she won't even eat. As a last resort, trying to save Susie's and the baby's life by giving her something that will make her react, Kirsty decides to take her from the US to Australia to meet her late husband's Uncle Angus. Making a 7-months-pregnant woman travel around the world is not ideal, but Kirsty's a doctor, so she knows she can control the situation. And the alternative is much worse.

As the book starts, Kirsty and Susie have arrived at Angus' remote house after spending a whole month in Sydney because Susie almost delivered her baby prematurely. To their surprise, it's not a mere house, but a castle, and Uncle Angus is a Scottish laird. And he's dying.

Dr. Jake Cameron is just as desperately worried about his elderly patient as Kirsty is about Susie. After Angus' wive's death, he just feels he has no reason to live and is slowly letting himself die, to Jake's frustration. When after a visit Jake opens the door of the castle to a woman claiming to be part of Angus' family, he lashes out at her for being a vulture who neglected him when he needed family the most and is there just to get an early start claiming the inheritance. But Kirsty's no pushover, and in a wonderful scene, she sets him straight. Even better, he immediately acknowledges that he was completely out of line and that his reactions were really dumb.

And this sets the tone for the whole book. Kirsty and Susie are soon ensconced in the castle, where Susie and Angus engage in a beautiful process of reciprocal healing. And while she waits for her sister's due date, Kirsty helps Jake by applying her specialist skills of a palliative care physician (the area's classified as a remote location, so getting her accredited in Australia is a snap). Close proximity generates some strong attraction between them, but Jake is still running scared after his wife left him.

Actually, I did think the romance was nice enough (even if the motivation for Jake's commitment-phobia wasn't so solid), but it wasn't what made the book so lovely to read. What did was:

a) Kirsty, who's sensible and smart and won't take no shit from anybody, not even Jake. She's the reason why Jake's behaviour (presumptuously telling her he didn't do relationships when she'd just invited him over to dinner -with the whole family, no less- and so on) didn't make me dislike the book in the least. She reacted like I wish I would react, telling him exactly how ridiculous he was being. And again, as in the first scene I described, he sheepishly sees her point. So even when he wasn't behaving well, I didn't think too badly of him, because at least he could see he'd behaved badly and seemed to learn from his mistakes.

b) The warm fuzzy feeling I got from reading about all that's going on around them. Angus and Susie and the way they immediately saw each other as a lifeline practically brought tears to my eyes, and the whole book takes place in an atmosphere of love and caring that warmed my heart. And humour; some gentle, extremely funny humour which prevented the warmness from becoming mawkishness and which kept some of the things going on from feeling too harrowing (remember, Kirsty does palliative care, which means that the cases she sees tend to be people who are in a lot of pain and won't be cured of their disease).

The ending, that scene at the fête, was just fantastic, and illustrated the atmosphere of the book perfectly. From the scene when the pumpkins were judged to the way Kirsty found to send her message to Jake, it was perfect.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+. I'm going to be raiding my library for Lennox's backlist.

NOTE: I sigh when I see those titles. Why, M&B, why??


Some random lightning reviews

>> Wednesday, April 02, 2008

TITLE: The Food of Love
AUTHOR: Anthony Capella

Not very original of me, but it has to be said: this is Cyrano de Bergerac, only with food (yummy Italian food) taking the place of the letters.

Tomasso is completely infatuated with American student Laura. The only catch is, he picked her up by claiming to be a chef, when he can't cook worth a damn. Enter his best friend, Bruno, sous-chef at an elegant restaurant in Rome, but a devotee of traditional Roman cooking. He agrees to sneak into Tomasso's kitchen and cook for him. But it turns out that Laura is the woman Bruno has been ogling at the marketplace for weeks, and after a while, Bruno is pouring his heart out in the kitchen, expressing his love for Laura in his food, while Tomasso reaps the rewards.

This is a delicious book. Bruno's long unrequited passion for Laura and the ways he finds to express it create a very romantic, earthy atmosphere. There's romance, there's humour and there's a very nice portrayal of the friendship between the two men. There is a happy ending (rest assured, romance readers), although I never found Laura as fascinating as Bruno did. Now him I did love. Outwardly shy, awkward Bruno, always eclipsed by his handsome friend, who grows a lot during the book and acquires some much needed confidence. He's just as yummy as the food.

And speaking of the food, it's funny that reading this made me so hungry, when most of the dishes Bruno prepares are stuff that this quasi-vegetarian wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole IRL. But Capella has a way of describing them that made them terribly tempting.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

TITLE: Arousing Suspicions
AUTHOR: Marianne Stillings

Tabitha March has an interesting job: she's a psychic dream interpreter. By touching her clients she'll see their dreams, which allows her to be much more effective. But one day she sees murder in one of her clients' dreams, and the details fit perfectly with those of a real life crime. She feels she has no choice but to contact the police, even knowing that she'll have a hard time being believed. And Detective Nate Darling, who's working the case, is just as hard a sell as she feared.

I really enjoyed the humour in the previous Stillings book I read, The Damsel in This Dress, and I did find some funny moments here, but on the whole, AS didn't work for me very well. There was nothing I really hated. Rather, it was a mix of things. I thought the "annoying cuteness" quotient was a bit high, Nate was tiresome in his boneheadedness, Tabby came across as pretty silly and icky girlish (as well as often headstrong and TSTL). And also, the very serious suspense subplot didn't go well with the overall tone of the book.


TITLE: First Among Sequels
AUTHOR: Jasper Fforde

This, the fifth and latest in the Thursday Next series, was the weakest Fforde I've read so far. Plot first: I won't even try to summarise a Thursday Next novel, so here's something from Fforde's website:

It is fourteen years since Thursday Next pegged out at the 1988 SuperHoop, and the Special Operations Network has been disbanded. Using Swindon's Acme Carpets as a front, Thursday and her colleagues Bowden, Stig and Spike continue their same professions, but illegally.

Of course, this front is itself a front for Thursday's continued work at Jurisfiction, the Policing agency within the bookworld, and she is soon grappling with a recalcitrant new apprentice, an inter-genre war or two, and the inexplicable departure of comedy from the once-hilarious Thomas Hardy books.

As the Council of Genres decree that making books interactive will boost flagging readership levels and Goliath attempt to perfect a trans-fictional tourist coach, Thursday finds herself in the onerous position of having to side with the enemy to destroy a greater evil that threatens the very fabric of the reading experience.

With Aornis Hades once again on the prowl, an idle sixteen-year-old son who would rather sleep in than save the world from the end of time, a government with a dangerously high stupidity surplus and the Swindon Stiltonistas trying to muscle in on her cheese-smuggling business, Thursday must once again travel to the very outer limits of acceptable narrative possibilities to triumph against increasing odds.
As always, I loved the absurdity of the humour (the border disputes between subgenres, mentioned in this post at SBTB, are a good example of the kind of thing I mean) the witty literary references and the very idea of the BookWorld and Jurisfiction. What I didn't like so much this time was the abundance of technical, jargon-heavy explanation of how it all works (why?), the fake-feeling conflict of Thursday not telling her husband about her undercover world and finally, the fact that the action felt more episodic than usual. The book lacked a strong main plot that drove the action forward, and instead felt lost in all the little side plots. Plus, that ending was majorly confusing.

MY GRADE: What I loved I loved so much more than I disliked what I disliked (huh?), so a B.

TITLE: Silver Master
AUTHOR: Jayne Castle (pseudonym of Jayne Ann Krentz)

The latest in Castle's Ghost Hunters series (comes after After Dark, After Glow and Ghost Hunter) is just as expected. A comfortable read, quite predictable, but also very satisfying.

Celinda Ingram is a matchmaker who doesn't trust anyone connected with the Guilds, after a very bad experience in the city where she used to live. Davis Oakes is a PI who's on a mission to recover an artifact for the Cadence City Guild boss. He doesn't trust matchmakers, after a very bad experience. When Celinda picks up the artifact Davis is after and it immediately disappears, they have to work together to find out the mystery behind it.

It's a warm, lovely story, with characters I enjoyed. JAK always succeeds in showing caring and respect between her protagonists, and this is no different. I especially appreciated that there is more of an emotional connection and intimacy between hero and heroine than in previous books. She hit a patch a while back where the romance was extremely tepid, but it seems she's back on track.

What else? Well, the dust bunnies are cute (good cute, just cute enough, without going over the line into cutesy), the family drama and Celinda's past are wonderfully done and add some great angst, and the secondary characters are fun. The suspense subplot is par for the course, a bit too overly complicated and not particularly interesting, but it does serve to move the story forward, and I didn't mind it at all.

MY GRADE: A solid B.

TITLE: The Twisted Root
AUTHOR: Anne Perry

This is the 10th book in Perry's William Monk series. In it, Monk has to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Miriam Gardiner, fiancé of a young man called Lucius Stourbridge, who seems sincerely heart-broken about it. It seemed everything was going wonderfully when Miriam just up and left a croquet party held at Lucius' family's place, and the driver of the carriage in which she fled soon appears dead.

I knew as I was reading that when we found out the truth, it wasn't going to be anything good, but it was even worse than I'd imagined. Perry often shows hopeless situations, with people having to endure very unhappy circumstances through no fault of their own, but this one hit me especially hard. I thought maybe with Hester and Monk being newlyweds in this book we might get something lighter, even a little happier, but this was dark, dark, dark. It's getting to be a bit much, I think.

The mystery itself, as much as I felt for the people involved, was based on slightly too far-fetched coincidences. I liked the more personal aspects much better, including what we saw of Rathbone's feelings about Monk and Hester's marriage.


TITLE: The Tenderfoot Bride
AUTHOR: Cheryl St. John

Will Tucker is desperate for a housekeeper to keep his Colorado ranch in order, but when he meets the woman his sister has hired for him, he's furious. Tiny, delicate Linnea McConaughy is not what he was expecting, not the kind of woman who can handle the back-breaking labour required, and he's determined to send her back. Of course, in the end he relents, even after he finds out she's pregnant, and the initial uneasy truce develops into a much warmer relationship.

Oh, man, that Will was so STUPID! Stupid and cruel. I developed a strong antipathy to him right at the beginning, due to his reactions when he met Linnea. Let's see if this makes any sense to you, because it didn't to me: so this woman arrives to work as housekeeper and she looks too fragile to handle the work. Major assumption, but ok. Does he test this? Does he say "ok, show me what you can do, and we'll see if you can have the job"? Nope, he just gets angry at her and completely blasts her for "doing this to him" and immediately decides to send her back the next morning, even though the trip back to the train station is a full two days of exhausting travel. Bad enough. That night, Linnea, who's feeling very guilty about what she "did" and wants to somehow pay this man back for her dinner and bed (yes, she should be thinking "well, fuck him", but she's that kind of hyper-vulnerable woman... understandable, given her background) does some scrubbing and cooking. Will's reaction? Anger that she's trying to manipulate him and convince him to let her stay. BUT THE REASON YOU'RE SENDING HER AWAY IS BECAUSE SHE CAN'T HANDLE THE WORK, YOU MORON! HOW IS SHOWING YOU THAT SHE CAN, INDEED, HANDLE IT MANIPULATION???

The book does improve. Will becomes nicer and gentler and treats Linnea right, and so on, but the book never recovered from the initial horrible impression. Plus, I don't know why I keep trying. Westerns, the very "feel" of them, just doesn't do it for me.



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