A Wicked Liaison, by Christine Merrill

>> Monday, June 29, 2009

TITLE: A Wicked Liaison
AUTHOR: Christine Merrill

PAGES: 299
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Historical

SETTING: Regency London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: No, although I believe some characters first appeared in an earlier book.

REASON FOR READING: Heard good things about it.

Constance Townley, Duchess of Wellford, has always been impeccably behaved. So why does she suddenly feel a wild urge to kick over the traces?

Anthony de Portnay Smythe is a mysterious figure. A gentleman by day, he steals secrets for the government by night.

When Constance finds a man in her bedroom late at night, her first instinct is to call for help. But something stops her. The thief apologizes and gracefully takes his leave…with a kiss for good measure!

And Constance knows that won't be the last she sees of this intriguing rogue….
I haven't had the best of luck with M&B Historicals. Most of them sound just fascinating... exotic settings, original plots, interesting characters. And yet, most have turned out to be distinctly blah and even hard to plow through. A Wicked Liaison has been one of the exceptions. While it had some flaws, it had a to-die-for hero and some of my favourite plot elements, not to mention good writing that flowed really well and had me turning the pages.

Anthony de Portnay Smythe is a former thief, now working for the government. His latest mission is to recover stolen money-printing plates, which could bring down the whole British economy if not found. He has a very good idea of who's responsible, though, and his first step is to go after the woman gossip currently links this man to, a woman who happens to be his first love.

Constance is the widow of a duke, and at her last tether. Her economic situation is extremely precarious, and she's become the target of a disgusting man, who seems to think that because she's a widow, she is therefore obviously desperate for sex. Even though she finds this man repugnant and has done nothing to encourage him, he has still succeeded in creating gossip about them, and her chances of making a good marriage are rapidly sinking.

Anthony has always considered himself to be too far below Constance's station to ever have a real chance at being with her, but when she surprises him searching her bedroom, something develops with the mysterious spy she believes him to be.

I'm a sucker for romances where the hero has been in love with the heroine for ages, so I really enjoyed this element of the romance. Tony is just lovely, so determined to help out Constance, and he's doing it for selfless reasons, too, since he doesn't think he'll be getting anywhere with her.

Constance I liked a bit less. I was perfectly happy with her completely mercenary marriage objectives, but she was too much of a damsel in distress for most of the book, powerless and resigned. I just found it hard to understand what was so great about her, what has Tony so far gone and head over heels.

Well, maybe it wasn't the characterisation of Constance that bothered me, but the fact that I didn't completely buy the situation. What I mean is, Merrill paints her as actually being powerless to stop Jack Barton and vulnerable to his threats, but I just couldn't believe that she was. She's a dowager duchess, for heaven's sake, and she does have friends! This is a man who's not particularly influential and he's basically just making shit up. Am I supposed to believe that it was so easy for a nobody to destroy the perfectly spotless reputation of someone with a high position in society?

I did like, though, that at the end, Constance snapped out of it and took steps to save herself. All in all, it was a good read, and I'm planning to seek out more of Merill's books.



A Fine Specimen, by Lisa Marie Rice

>> Friday, June 26, 2009

TITLE: A Fine Specimen
AUTHOR: Lisa Marie Rice

PAGES: No exact idea, it's about category romance-length.
PUBLISHER: Ellora's Cave

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
NOTE: Previously released as Taming Nick. Where it was released, I've no idea. I went through a period of trying to search for all of LMR's books (even got all her Elizabeth Jennings ones), and I never heard of this one.

REASON FOR READING: Auto-read author.

Lieutenant Alex Cruz eats, sleeps and breathes law enforcement. He's tough, brusque, and cops and criminals alike tremble beneath him. And that's the way he likes it. Until he meets Caitlin Summers—and decides he wants her trembling beneath him.

The beautiful scholar is doing dissertation research in his cop shop, and seriously messing with his head. His self-imposed sexual abstinence comes to a screeching halt in Caitlin's ratty hotel room, and dies a permanent death in his bed…and his kitchen…and his living room. Caitlin is also intelligent and funny, kind and generous, her smile a burst of warmth in his cold, austere life. And that scares the crap out of him.

With his head and heart fighting a battle of wills, Alex can barely concentrate on work. And that's too bad—because his dangerous job and his newfound love are about to clash in the worst way possible.
I was very happy when I saw LMR had another book out and it was with Ellora's Cave. I haven't loved her Avon Red books, and I was hoping this would be more similar to favourites such as Midnight Angel and Woman on the Run. In some ways it was, although a few too many flaws meant it didn't quite reach their level of wonderfulness.

Alex Cruz is a hard-ass police Lieutenant. A former gangbanger, he was rescued by the man who's now his captain and feels he owes him. So when his captain sends a young researcher to do some field work at Alex's police station, he can't really say no. But Caitlin Summers is more distracting than he expected, and workaholic Alex, whose life has become all about work in the last months and who wouldn't dream of bringing his personal life into his cop shop, suddenly finds himself feeling the urge to do some very unprofessional things.

A lot of things here are classic LMR, and I totally relished them. Alex's immediate and utter focus on Caitlin and his protectiveness and possessiveness were just delicious. I've even given up feeling guilty about finding such caveman attitudes sexy, when in real life I'd stay far, far away from a guy like Alex. As for the juxtaposition of huge, aggressive alpha and dainty, almost child-like heroine, it does still make me a bit uncomfortable, but there's something about the way LMR writes it. Basically, se makes it seem hot as hell. What I did like unreservedly was that Alex respected Caitlin's intelligence and opinions, even being open to considering her theories on law enforcement.

It's an intense, intimate and 100% character-driven story. There's a bit in the background about Alex being after a particular criminal, but it was only a slight distraction. I quite liked complete focus on the romance, even though I'm probably the only reader who did enjoy the very original suspense subplots in this author's older books (yes, even the scenes from the criminals' POV).

Unfortunately, it's now time to talk about the flaws. The main one was something that left a bad taste in my mouth was the complete derision with which Alex would think of his previous sex partners. It was especially bad during love scenes... he kept making comparisons between Caitlin and those other women, and I found some frankly offensive. I think the low point came when he was thinking how soft Caitlin was down there, whereas some of his other lovers had had "cunts like steel traps". Euwww! Doesn't speak very well of him that a) he'd think of other women that way, and b) that if he thought so, he'd sleep with them!

Also, the development of the romance wasn't totally satisfying to me, mainly because Alex's commitment-phobia didn't feel fully believable. What I love about previous LMR heroes is how they are so immediately convinced that the heroine is the best thing that's ever happened to them, and though they know they don't deserve her, there's no way they're going to let her get away from them. With Alex it was weird, because when we saw the way he felt about Caitlin, it felt as if he should naturally be trying to bind her to him as firmly as possible. And yet, he was so insistent on there not being a future in their relationship, and him not being into long-term relationships. Which didn't make much sense, really, because Rice didn't give any reason for why he would feel that way. It just felt strange and out of character, I suppose. Less objectively, there's also the fact that mindless commitment-phobia in a hero just doesn't appeal to me in the least.

Finally, I thought the ending was a bit lacking. For starters, it was quite abrupt. That's been the case in quite a few of LMR's books. Yes, long, drawn-out endings, with everything tied into neat bows and scenes showing the main couple happy, happy, happy are quite boring, but I could have used a little bit more. Not to mention that the way things happened was extremely predictable. In fact, the exact event that makes Alex reevaluate and change his mind about commitment was literally predictable; a long time before it happened I stopped for a minute and thought "I bet this and this and this is going to happen." And it did.



Lara Adrian - a bit of catching up

>> Sunday, June 21, 2009

I read these three books in quick succession a few months ago, and meant to read the fifth in the series, Veil of Midnight, before I did all the reviews together. Well, I haven't got round to reading it (or the sixth, out now) yet, so I better review these three before I forget all about them!

NOTE: for a description of the world these novels are set in, see my review of the first book in the series, Kiss of Midnight.

The second book in the series is Kiss of Crimson, and as in Kiss of Midnight, the heroine is a breedmate and the hero, a vampire, runs into her by chance and decides he wants her. Tess Culver and Dante meet when she finds him bleeding all over her veterinary clinic. Even though she fears he might be a criminal, Tess heals him, after which Dante wipes all memories of what has happened from her mind and leaves.

But not before realising she's a breedmate, and as you would expect, between that and the instant sizzling attraction, he can't stop thinking about her. Dante knows he needs to focus on discovering whoever's behind a new drug that has been making young vampires turn Rogue, but Tess' draw is too strong to ignore, and before long, he's made contact again.

I enjoyed this one, but didn't love it. The romance was nice enough, but flirted with bland. A few months on, I can't say I remember all that much about Tess and Dante, other than that they had some nice chemistry between them. As individual characters, though, they've kind of vanished from my mind.

The plot, I did quite like. The idea of the drug was interesting, and there are some really interesting developments there at the end. If I'm remembering correctly, I don't think I let even a full day pass before starting the next in the series!

MY GRADE: A C+. I would probably have gone for a B- right after reading it, but I require memorable characters to go into B territory.

Next was the one that's turned out to be my favourite in the series so far, Midnight Awakening. It features Tegan, a character I thought was the Zsadist-wannabe in this world, but who turned out to be quite different and individual.

For Tegan, the fight against the Rogues is his whole life. Centuries ago, they were responsible for the horrifying loss of his mate, and so Tegan has become a machine, caring only about defeating the Rogues.

A widow, Elise has decided to remove herself from her community and stop taking blood, since it cannot be from her husband. By doing so, she's going back to a normal, human lifespan, choosing to give up the quasi-immortality bestowed by vampire blood. Elise has as much reason to hate the Rogues as Tegan, as her son was one of the young vampires who died after becoming addicted to the lethal drug the Rogues were pushing in the previous book. Since his death, she has began going out and hunting Rogues. It's not as if she cares if she dies a bit earlier, after all.

These two come into contact when Tegan steps in to help Elise when she's going after a Minion and a reluctant attraction starts developing. Neither of them wants to follow through, but when Elise accidentally comes across an object that the leader of the Rogues is after, she and Tegan have to spend quite a bit of time together working things out. And guess what happens?

There was a very interesting dynamic between these two, and I really liked what Adrian did with the symbolism of the blood-taking. Both characters are very tortured, but they deal with their awakening feelings in different ways, and the result was an affecting romance.

Again, the plot was interesting, and I also liked the way Adrian depicted the relationship between the warriors and the community of civilian vampires, who disdain them as uncivilised and are kind of becoming convinced that they are unnecessary.

MY GRADE: Very good, a B+.

The plot of the 4th book in the series, Midnight Rising is based upon some developments in previous books, so I'll be vague to avoid spoilers.

Journalist Dylan Alexander is on holiday in the Czech Republic, when on a walk in the countryside, she stumbles upon a cave with walls covered in mysterious markings. Smelling a story, she snaps some pictures, right before a smelly, aggressive man who seems to have been sleeping in the cave chases her away.

Smelly caveman is Rio, a Breed vampire who's taken the mission to secure what's in the cave. Rio suffered a horrible betrayal in the first book of the series, and is now scarred and bitter. For months he's been gathering courage to end it all when Dylan crashes into his party.

Obviously, Rio can't allow those photographs to fall into the wrong hands, so he hunts Dylan down, in an effort to recover them. But it's not as easy as stealing her camera and wiping her memory, because Dylan has already done something with the files. Not to mention that she's a Breedmate. In the end, Rio kidnaps her and takes her to headquarters.

This was quite good, actually, even with the kidnapping element (a non-favourite of mine). Dylan is brave but not stupidly so (even though at times I felt she should be a bit more scared of the smelly caveman than she was). Rio is quite tortured, and with reason, and through his developing feelings for Dylan, he gradually begins to learn how to live with his past and forgive the person who wronged him. This last, btw, was one of the things I liked the most about this book. It would have been very easy to paint this person as the devil incarnate, but it was all done a lot more subtly.

MY GRADE: A strong B.

All in all, this is developing into a good series. I really should read the next two books soon.


Betrayed, by Jamie Leigh Hansen

>> Monday, June 15, 2009

TITLE: Betrayed
AUTHOR: Jamie Leigh Hansen

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal Romance
SERIES: Starts one.


A love found at first glance can last for lifetimes...

This is their last chance. After nine loveless lives and nine horrible deaths, Kalyss must save Dreux from his stone prison--or pass without him into an empty eternity.

When two strangers violently enter her life, Kalyss's gift awakens--along with the memory of her past lives--and she must learn who she can trust in order to break the cycle of hatred and betrayal that has held them captive for centuries. For only then can she free Dreux from his prison of stone.

But will Kalyss be strong enough, now that the last chance has arrived--now that she must face not only the pain of this life, but of all her lives before?
Betrayed promised to be a kind of paranormal there's not much currently around of... no creatures, just human beings caught in a curse and struggling to break out of it. It did deliver on that, but didn't quite capture my imagination.

The real beginning of this story takes place in the 11th century. His mind poisoned by his mother's lies, Kai decides to take revenge against him half-brother, Dreux, and kills him and his wife, Kynedrithe. However, a larger force intervenes, and the three of them, plus one of Dreux's knights, who'd unwittingly betrayed him, are caught in a seemingly neverending cycle.

Dreux is turned into a statue, while Kynedrithe gets reincarnated every time she dies, having the purpose of freeing Dreux in each and every new lifetime. As for Kai and Geoffrey (Dreux's knight), they find they simply cannot die. They resurrect each time they do, and so spend their time on their own missions: Kai's being to prevent Kynedrithe from awakening and saving Dreux, Geoffrey's being to aid her in doing so.

And so we reach the present day. Kynedrithe is on her 10th reincarnation, her previous 9 having all ended in tragedy. She's now called Kalyss, and has no conscious memories of her past lives. The memories of her more recent past are bad enough, as she is a survivor of an extremely abusive marriage. After escaping that situation, she's become a fighter, and even teaches self-defense.

When a strange man attacks her in her gym, and another rescues her and uses her long-denied psychic abilities to give her instructions to escape and get to Dreux, Kalyss is plunged back into the cycle. But this time she's different, and she and Dreux suddenly have a real shot at getting out of it for good.

It sounds interesting, doesn't it? It's the kind of book where if you think objectively about the plot and about the character, you think you should have loved it.

There's an intriguing set up and pacing that never drags, but still leaves the characters plenty of down-time in which to fall in love again. Which they do, it's not a matter of just picking up where they left off 1000 years before. Kalyss is a different person now, shaped by her past into someone a lot stronger than Kynedrithe. Dreux has to deal with that, and it's to his credit that although he loved his medieval wife, he loves what's she's become even better. There's subtlety in the feelings and there's a well-drawn cast of secondary characters.

But for some reason... I didn't love it. I didn't really dislike it, either. It just left me cold, I suppose, enough that I don't feel at all tempted to read the next book. Weird. I don't even have any specific criticism, other than the two following details.

First, the presence of something larger... angels and nephilims or whatever they were, manipulating and watching the action, felt completely unnecessary. That aspect of the world wasn't adequately explained, and I think removing it altogether wouldn't have affected the heart of the story at all. Everything would have still been completely understandable. I think it felt as if its only purpose was a bit of sequel baiting (ohh, now Maeve's free, danger is coming!).

Also, it might sound petty, but the names annoyed the bloody hell out of me. Dreux is bad enough, in its faux-Medieval, trying-hard-but-not-succeeding to sound French way, but Kalyss? Kynedrithe?? Holy made-up name, Batman! Where did those come from, Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing? The "my heroine's so speshul she needs a speshul name" vibe made me roll my eyes. *Sigh* Sorry, sorry, that's a bit ranty. Wow, I didn't know I felt that strongly about it! Anyway, I promise I'm not letting this affect my grade.

I would actually recommend this book to other readers, as I suspect it was just something about the tone that didn't hit the right note for me. If you do try it, do let me know how you felt, ok?



Shadows of the Night, by Lydia Joyce

>> Friday, June 12, 2009

TITLE: Shadows of the Night
AUTHOR: Lydia Joyce

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Romance

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed Lydia Joyce's books a lot in the past. Not sure why I haven't read one in a while.

Lauded for her "quietly chilling sense of suspense,"* Lydia Joyce delves into the shadows of Victorian England and beyond as a newly wed couple tests the limits of their loves...and of their hidden language.

Fern and Colin Radcliffe had a conventional courtship and expected a conventional marriage. But Fern's wedding night leaves her shaken — and reborn. Driven by a desire to control her own destiny, she strikes out at her new husband in a passionate assertion of independence. In doing so, she awakens a secret craving in the recently bound couple — an exquisite erotic delight that ignites their love and creates an insatiable hunger for more.

To encourage this new, forbidden love, they spend their honeymoon alone at Colin's isolated estate — the perfect setting to explore a world of pain, pleasure, and power. But their exploration is interrupted by a devastating secret from Colin's past — a secret that threatens their future together...and their very lives.
Shadows of the Night is a story I don't think I've ever read in romance. Well, the first half of it is, at least -more on that later.

Of all things, the first half of the book reminded me of one my favourite Anne Perry Victorian mysteries, A Dangerous Mourning. What struck me the most in that book was Perry's depiction of the claustrophobia and oppressiveness that a woman could suffer in a perfectly conventional family or marriage (and by that I mean one in which her father or husband wasn't some sort of sadistic monster, just a person with the normal attitudes and mores of the times). More than the mystery itself, what stayed with me was the hearbreak of her feeling her identity disappear and there not being any possible escape from such a situation, no possible happy endings.

In Shadows of the Night, Lydia Joyce puts her heroine in such a situation, and then does find a happy ending for her.

Colin Radcliffe courts and marries Fern Ashcroft just because at his age, he feels it's time he got married and Fern seems appropriate as a candidate. She's got the right background and breeding, seems of a quiet and docile temperament, and is attractive enough.

We've all read this same set up before, but what unfailingly happens in romance novels, is that it's quite clear the hero is fooling himself. He *obviously* doesn't want that docile wife he's telling himself he wants, and he *obviously* finds the heroine a lot more attractive and interesting that he's telling himself he does.

Not Colin. He really is that cold. He really does want a wife who won't have an opinion of her own and who will have his comfort as her life's mission, never putting her own wants before his, never contradicting him. In fact, when at one point Fern very mildly ventures that she would like to do a certain thing (attend a certain dinner party which he doesn't feel like going to, if I remember correctly), he's quite upset and disappointed at her unbecoming behaviour.

He is, in other ways, a complete and utter bastard to modern eyes, but really just a guy behaving as he's expecting to behave, and feeling as he's expected to feel.

Fern's reactions to the first days of her marriage are wonderfully done. This is a naive, normally docile girl -exactly as she was brought up to be, that is. But there's a rebellious streak in her, and something in her just cannot allow her helplessnes and the complete subsuming of her self under Colin's and urges her to strike out against it.

There were bits that rang just so true to me. At one point, Fern asks for something, even though she knows Colin would prefer otherwise and in fact, will completely overrule her and do things as he likes. She does this just to put this fact that she's being overruled out in the open, to make Colin have to actively decline her request, because she knows it's easier for him if she just pretends she wants the same things he does. A completely useless bit of passive aggressiveness, but then, passive aggressiveness is the only weapon Fern has in her situation.

This situation, of Fern anguishing about what she's got herself into and Colin being completely oblivious to there being anything at all wrong, beyond the vague feeling that Fern might need some time to adapt to her new circumstances, comes to a head during what to Fern is the most aggressive attack to her sense of self: sex. Completely without thinking about it, Fern lashes out and slaps him. And it just turns out, that pain somehow manages to wake Colin from his self-satisfied life and makes him feel alive for the fist time ever. From then on, he really sees Fern and himself, and things begin to change.

I must note that this slight S&M element isn't one I would normally be drawn towards, so don't let it put if off if you're not usually into it. It's one that makes sense. Only something so radical could change a man so immersed in the conventions of society. It even develops in a way that makes sense, too. Fern is not one of those natural-born sex kittens who seem to populate some historicals (you know the type I mean, completely innocent virgins who even on their wedding nights, are clamouring to perform oral sex). She doesn't set out to use mildly S&M sex to awaken Colin. It just happens, and she notices there's an effect, but it's not even like she immediately understands this effect. When she does, however, she realises she has power, and a great deal of it, and this changes everything.

At the point where Colin and Fern have began to explore their changing relationship, however, the book changes radically. They leave Brighton, where they've gone for their honeymoon and go to a remote estate of Colin's, which has been giving him some trouble lately. And this is where the story goes from an intimate and sensual portrayal of a fascinating relationship, to an over-the-top gothic that makes Colin's last name of Radcliffe seem like a clue.

There's mysterious letters, a crumbling keep, insane writing on a wall and hints of deep, dark secrets. Now, I love gothics. I liked this part of the book very much on its own. The only problem was that it didn't go with the first half at all. This is something that Joyce has done already, in Whispers of the Night, and it drove me just as crazy then. Why set up something so fascinating and then decline the opportunity to really, really explore it?

MY GRADE: I would give the first half an A, the second half a B+, but the book as a whole, rather than an average grade between the two, would be a B+ as well. The whole ends up being a bit worse than each of its two halves.


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