The Lily Brand, by Sandra Schwab

>> Saturday, October 31, 2009

TITLE: The Lily Brand
AUTHOR: Sandra Schwab

PAGES: 310

SETTING: Early 19th century France and England
TYPE: Straight romance

REASON FOR READING: It's been on my TBR for ages, and I've only now been in the mood for it.

Troy Sacheverell, fifth Earl of Ravenhurst, was captured in France. He'd gone to fight Napoleon, but what he found was much more sinister. Dragged from prison to an old French manor on the outskirts of civilization, he was purchased by a rich and twisted widow. But more dangerous still was the young beauty who claimed him as hers.

Lillian wished to flee Camille, her stepmother, but none escaped the Black Widow's web. And on her nineteenth birthday, Lillian became Camille's heir. Her gift was a plaything: a man to end her naiveté, a man perfect in all ways but his stolen freedom. Reluctantly Lillian did as she was told, marked that beautiful flesh and branded it with the flower of her name. As she did, she saw there was no place to run. No matter if she should flee, no matter where she might go, she and this man were prisoners of passion, inextricably joined by THE LILY BRAND.
I closed the book with regret for the wasted potential. It was all right. It could have been great, but it wasn't.

The setup was fantastic. Troy Sacheverell has been in a hellhole of a French prison for some time before the Black Widow pays a visit. As bad as the prison is, the rumours about what happens to the men taken away by this woman are worse. But Troy refuses to bow and scrape and hide, and his defiance draws her attention to him. Troy is taken away to a remote manor to be subject to humiliating torture, but it turns out that the evil Black Widow doesn't want him for herself, but for her heiress.

Lillian has been under her stepmother Camille's control since her father died, and the Black Widow is determined to make her in her own sadistic image. The new slave she's procured from the prison is to be broken by Lillian and then shaped in the same mold as the many other slaves Camille has serving her. Under Camille's careful observation, Lillian gives the appearance of obeying her orders, even to the point of leading the slave round the manor on a leash like a dog and branding him with her mark (the lily brand of the title).

But Lillian and her old nurse have set escape plans in motion, and these come to a point not too long after the slave's arrival. And rather than being sensible and just leaving the man there to die, Lillian puts herself at risk and takes him with her, leaving him behind only when he's got a fair chance to save himself.

Lillian's escape is successful. She reaches England and takes refuge with her grandfather, a marquess. Several years later (it wasn't completely clear to me, from the dates it looks like 8 years, but it feels like much less from some things about the action), Lillian is a young lady like any other enjoying the Season and being courted by a harmless young man. A young man, however, who happens to be Troy Sacheverell's cousin.

When Troy recognises his cousin's almost-fiancee as his torturer, all he can think of is revenge. So he engineers things so that she has to marry him and is at his mercy.

Like I said, the book starts out great. The scenes in the French manor had me turning the pages. They were dark and very harrowing, but just keeping on the right side of the line dividing angsty and way too much. And then when Troy and Lillian meet again in London, I couldn't wait how they would finally, finally! deal with each other and fall in love and begin to heal. The setup promised a satisfyingly angsty romance.

But then, nothing. By that I mean, no romance, not for ages. They get married, and obviously Troy feels nothing but hate for Lillian. Everytime he sees her he can't help but remember being humiliated and hurt, so he avoids her. And avoids her and avoids her, and so they don't interact at all for most of the middle section of the book really. They only talk a tiny little bit when Troy realises Lillian was as much of a victim as he was.

And that is yet another thing. This realisation of Troy's feels very anticlimactic. It doesn't come from him coming to know his wife and there's no big dramatic scene where the penny finally drops. The one scene that might have qualified happens after Troy has had his revelation, and is pretty understated, for the horrors Lillian actually suffered. No big emotional scene, and so, no payoff for this reader for all the pain in the first bit.

Even after that happens and Troy realises Lillian is not evil, the action is more focused on them dealing with the danger from Camille for good (and that was over-the-top and way too much, by the way, slipping into melodrama), rather than on any romance. By the end of the book, I didn't feel these two people knew each other at all. They shared a very painful past and had both been victims of the same woman. Other than that? I've no idea if they would suit. Disappointing, really.

MY GRADE: I'm wavering between a B- and a C+. For the story, I'd go with the latter, but I'm thinking the writing was too beautiful for that, so I'll rate it a B-.


Tempt Me At Twilight, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Thursday, October 29, 2009

TITLE: Tempt Me At Twilight
AUTHOR: Lisa Kleypas

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Hathaways series, comes after Mine Till Midnight and Seduce Me At Sunrise

REASON FOR READING: I've no idea why, but I haven't read a Kleypas since The Devil in Winter, over 3 years ago. The comments about this one intrigued me enough to come back.

He was everything she'd sworn to avoid.

Poppy Hathaway loves her unconventional family, though she longs for normalcy. Then fate leads to a meeting with Harry Rutledge, an enigmatic hotel owner and inventor with wealth, power, and a dangerous hidden life. When their flirtation compromises her own reputation, Poppy shocks everyone by accepting his proposal-only to find that her new husband offers his passion, but not his trust.

And she was everything he needed…

Harry was willing to do anything to win Poppy-except to open his heart. All his life, he has held the world at arm's length…but the sharp, beguiling Poppy demands to be his wife in every way that matters. Still, as desire grows between them, an enemy lurks in the shadows. Now if Harry wants to keep Poppy by his side, he must forge a true union of body and soul, once and for all...
It all begins with a kleptomaniac ferret. Said ferret belongs to Poppy Hathaway's sister, and has stolen a love letter from her soon-to-be (as soon as he works up the courage to talk to his very disapproving father) fiance Michael. Chasing the ferret through corridors and secret passages of the Rutledge Hotel, where her family always stays while in London, Poppy bumps into Harry Rutledge himself, the mysterious, filthy rich and powerful owner.

The meeting (especially the kiss that ensues) makes quite an impression on Poppy, but an even bigger one on Harry, who decides he has to have her. And being ruthless, as well as mysterious, filthy rich and powerful, Harry engineers a separation between Poppy and Michael, and then promptly (and not-quite-on-purpose, but almost) compromises her.

Poppy is heartbroken when her engagement to Michael comes to nothing, but she quite likes Harry, and is prepared to make her marriage to him work. Until, that is, she finds out what his role was in the collapse of her love affair.

Why, oh, why have I stayed away from Kleypas for so long? This was good, a lovely, satisfying romance, slightly reminiscent of everyone's favourite Kleypas, Dreaming of You (although I liked Poppy a lot more than Sara and even (*gasp*) Harry more than Derek).

I think what I loved the most was how Harry was so bowled over by his feelings for Poppy that he would do what he did to have her. Having had to be ruthless to be successful in life, the only way he knew to do so was to be ruthless in this, too. I understand why Poppy would have been upset and even why other readers wouldn't like him for it, but I loved it, in a guilty pleasure kind of way. There's a particular bit of dialogue that expresses what I liked perfectly:

"Would you say that you're a good man, Harry?"

He had to think about that. "No," he finally said. "In the fairy tale you mentioned last night, I would probably be the villain. But it's possible the villain would treat you far better than the prince would have."
This imagery of the princess and the villain in the fairy tale came up quite a few times throughout the book, and I found it very effective.

I didn't find their HEA at all doubtful, even knowing that it will still take Harry a few years before his first impulse (and I suppose even his second and third) is to manipulate people ruthlessly whenever he wants something. I actually found this facet of his personality rather endearing, as Poppy seems to.

The Hathaway family features very prominently in the story, both the protagonists of the first two books in the series and the two characters who will star in the next. But even though they're given quite a lot of space, and this is something that tends to annoy me (I'll often wish the author would just concentrate on the story she's telling rather than try to sell the ones she's written / is planning to write), I was fine with it here, possibly because her sisters and her brother are such a big part of Poppy's life that it was only right that they would be a big part of her book. In fact, it actually made me want to read the books in question.



As Darkness Falls, by Bronwyn Parry

>> Tuesday, October 27, 2009

TITLE: As Darkness Falls
AUTHOR: Bronwyn Parry

PAGES: 358

SETTING: Contemporary rural Australia
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Followed by and loosely related to Dark Country

REASON FOR READING: Two of them: First Wendy's review about a year ago made it pop up on my radar. A more recent post in Kate Rothwell's blog reminded me of it, and since it's now out in the UK, I could get it!

Haunted by her failures, Detective Isabelle O’Connell is recalled to duty by DCI Alec Goddard to investigate the abduction of yet another child from her home town. They have only days to find the girl alive, with few clues, a town full of suspects, and a vast wilderness to search. It soon becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Bella firmly in the killer’s sights.

For Bella, this case is already personal; for Alec, his best intentions to keep it purely professional soon dissolve, and his anguish over Bella’s safety moves beyond the concern for a colleague.

Their mutual attraction leaves them both vulnerable to their private nightmares – nightmares the killer ruthlessly exploits.
Dark romantic suspense has been my genre of choice in the last few months. I've been in the mood for it, and quite a few intriguing examples by new authors have come to my attention. As Darkness Falls is yet another.

A serial killer is operating in the small outback town of Dungirri. A third girl has been abducted in only a few years, and since the previous two were found dead from a shot in the head only a few days after disappearing, it's urgent that the investigation gets going fast.

DCI Alec Goddard has been put in charge of the case and on the previous investigator's recommendation, his first move is to find Isabelle O'Connell and bring her out of semi-retirement. Bella, who grew up in Dungirri, had worked the previous case until things went horribly wrong. The townspeople got it into their heads that they knew who was responsible and formed a mob that attacked the man. Having gone to protect him, Bella was caught up in this mob and badly hurt, finally not succeeding in saving the accused man's life.

Although her physical injuries have healed, Bella doesn't feel anywhere near whole yet. She doesn't want to go to Dungirri again and face all these people, but she knows she's the little girl's only hope, so she does. And when it becomes clear that the killer is targetting her, the pressure only increases.

This is one dark, dark book. I don't mean that it's graphic or that particularly horrible things happen during the action -not at all, in fact. But the atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. You can feel the oppressive heat and the hopelessness growing in this little town that's quite clearly in decline.

Against this backdrop and the desperation to find a young girl before she's mercilessly executed, Parry develops two wonderful characters and a convincing romance.

Bella was especially amazing, and I thought the way her issues were explored was excellent. The events of the previous year almost destroyed her. Not just the trauma of being injured and the guilt of not being able to save an innocent man, but the horror of watching these horrors being perpetrated by people she knew well and considered good people. What was worst was the loss of innocence, in a way, the realisation that the world isn't separated so easily into good and bad people, black and white, but that people you wouldn't hesitate to place in the "good" camp, can have it in them to do something like this.

Bella feels she's finished, that there's no way she can join the living again, and being part of such an investigation should only add to the trauma. But it doesn't, mostly because it brings her into contact with Alec. Alec is, in a way, just as damaged as Bella. Events in his past have convinced him that he can never have a real personal life, a truly intimate relationship with a woman. He's never wanted one before, so he hasn't missed this at all. But when he meets Bella, he suddenly wants nothing more than to pursue something real with her.

The original attraction did strike me as coming out of nowhere, but as it developed, I started believing in it more and more. I could practically taste Alec's need and want for Bella and his disheartened feeling that he couldn't have what he so desperately wanted. I loved his protectiveness towards her, especially because he was fully aware of the fact that she was an extremely competent officer and could take care of herself. He knew this and respected her, felt that protectiveness in spite of it, and didn't let those feelings treat her any differently on the job. This was one romance I could believe in, even if it happens in a short timeframe and against very tense and stressful circumstances.

The suspense plot itself and the investigation were mostly very well done, but I'm afraid I was not convinced by the resolution and explanation. The breakthrough in the case comes out of nowhere, Bella just suddenly knows, after seeing something and making a link that provided a motive for someone that I didn't find particularly clear. I never got a clear sense in the end of why this person had decided to do these particular evil acts. Why kidnap little girls? Why shoot them in the head? Other than, that is, because this person was a complete and total psycho. Yes, that would cover motivation for just about anything, but it doesn't make the final revelation too satisfying. No "ahhh" moments here, unfortunately.

Still, this wasn't as bad, when I enjoyed everything else as much as I did. Not to mention, I loved the Australian setting. It was like nothing else I've read and felt very fresh (and I suspect it was so well done that it would have felt fresh even if I read books set in Australia every week). Can't wait to read Dark Country. Fortunately, the wonderful Malvina was kind enough to mail it to me from Australia, because otherwise, I would have had to wait until March until it came out here. Shameful! :)

MY GRADE: A solid B+.


Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak, by Julie Cohen

>> Sunday, October 25, 2009

TITLE: Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak
AUTHOR: Julie Cohen

PAGES: 276
PUBLISHER: Little Black Dress

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Somewhere between chick lit and romance, probably leaning more towards chick lit.

REASON FOR READING: I really like this author.

A hilarious, clever romantic comedy which shows that the course of true love is never predictable

Rosie Fox is a liar. A really, really good liar. But when you’re a stage psychic who’s not actually psychic, you have to be. Then one night, while pretending to commune with the dead relatives and pets of her audience, Rosie makes a startling prediction – which tragically comes true. Suddenly she’s trapped in a media frenzy, spearheaded by the impossibly handsome journalist Harry Blake, a man intent on kick-starting his stalled career by exposing Rosie as a fraud. Yet when his interest in her goes from professional to personal, she thinks she can trust him not to blow her cover – but maybe she’s making a huge mistake.
Rosie Fox is a fake spychic. Her live audience shows are based on a combination of covert pre-show information-gathering, shrewd guesses and Rosie being excellent at reading people. One night, however, Rosie makes a surprisingly (even to herself) accurate prediction during a show. It's something completely unguessable and Rosie's actions after her very public prediction provide proof that she couldn't have manufactured those events. Cue massive media attention, especially because the book is set in England, and the tabloids here are truly something else.

The hero, Harry Blake, is a journalist, a disgraced serious one whose "thing" now is to debunk paranormal fakes. Rosie's usual act is one of many and not really worth his time, but her latest prediction has him stumped. Exposing her now would be very, very good to his career, so he decides to practically glue himself to her side during her English tour. But when professional pursuit turns personal, Harry will have to make some big decisions.

I usually love Cohen's style, but this one was just ok. Fun, but ultimately not completely satisfying.

What I enjoyed the most was Rosie's career and the way she did what she did. I really got a kick out of the bits where she was doing her shows. I went through a stage where my guilty pleasure was watching that very thing, a show called Crossing Over With John Edward, so it was fun to see what went on in Rosie's mind and how she worked out what to say when she was doing basically the same thing John Edward did in his show. And of course, she was a fake psychic with a conscience, so you couldn't help but sympathise with her even when she was lying through her teeth!

The romance wasn't too well developed, unfortunately, with a hero who remained too much of a cypher throughout the book. It's narrated in first-person, which didn't help give me a very good sense of who exactly Harry was. There are intriguing glimpses (most notably, in the first love scene, surprisingly), but on the whole he remains quite shadowy. He also does something pretty bad to Rosie, and I didn't really get her reaction to it.

I was also disappointed by how there's no real resolution to the psychic bit. I mean, that famous prediction was proof that Rosie really does have some psychic powers, but then this element of the plot goes nowhere.



Goddess of the Hunt, by Tessa Dare

>> Friday, October 23, 2009

TITLE: Goddess of the Hunt
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Followed by Surrender of a Siren and A Lady of Persuasion.


Ever the bold adventuress, Lucy Waltham has decided to go hunting for a husband. But first she needs some target practice. So she turns to her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Trescott, the Earl of Kendall, to hone her seductive wiles on him before setting her sights on another man. But her practice kisses spark a smoldering passion—one that could send all her plans up in smoke.

Jeremy has an influential title, a vast fortune, and a painful past, full of long-buried secrets. He keeps a safe distance from his own emotions, but to distract Lucy from her reckless scheming, he must give his passions free rein. Their sensual battle of wills is as maddening as it is delicious, but the longer he succeeds in managing the headstrong temptress, the closer Jeremy comes to losing control. When scandal breaks, can he bring himself to abandon Lucy to her ruin? Or will he risk his heart, and claim her for his own?
What a lovely discovery this was! GOTH reminded me a bit of an early-Bridgerton Julia Quinn. I'd compare it to, say, The Duke and I, or The Viscount Who Loved Me, two of my favourites. There's something about Dare's voice and about the way she combines light comedy with plenty of angst and heat in the romance. Yum!

Lucy Waltham's brother Henry and his friends have always spent the autumn at Waltham Manor. As they grew up, autumn was always an idyllic time, both for them and for Lucy, and the time never came for her to go to London and have a season. It didn't really matter to Lucy, though, because she was already in love with one of Henry's friends, Toby. But this autumn Toby seems to be about to propose to someone else, and Lucy just won't have it.

Lucy is determined to hunt Toby down (so to speak) and seduce him until he realises he actually wants to marry her, not the annoyingly perfect Sophia. As the book starts, she barges into another of her brother's friends, Jeremy Trescott, Earl of Kendall, and practises her kissing technique on him. It was a scene I didn't much care for (Lucy comes across as a perfect idiot), but I needn't have worried, because from then on, things become much, much better.

Jeremy deeply cares for Lucy and doesn't want to see her hurt, so he agrees when Henry and Toby ask him to distract Lucy (Lucy is pretty obvious in her infatuation, and they all know what's going on). But after those kisses, Jeremy has began to see Lucy in a different light, and now can't help obsessing about her.

Lucy is a character I'm sure some readers will have trouble with, but I liked her very much. Continuing with the comparisons to my favourite authors, she reminded me of an Amanda Quick heroine, someone who in another author's hands would seem ditzy and stupid, but as she was written here, was adorable. Sometimes she does cross the line from naivete and optimism into TSTL, like when she organises that disastrous dinner, but her optimism and appetite for life and determination to be happy are just what Jeremy needs.

Ahh, Jeremy. What an absolutely fantastic hero he is. Jeremy is considered by all, even his friends, to be a cold, withdrawn man. So much so, actually, that none sees any danger in throwing him together with Lucy. But Jeremy is someone who feels really deeply. He wants Lucy so much that it gave me the shivers to read it. He's possessive and protective, and the only one who sees her as something more than just a pest of a little sister. I loved every minute of their courtship, especially how he literally couldn't control himself around her, and I loved seeing Lucy grow up as her feelings for Jeremy developed and she started to understand what it was like to really love someone.

The first half of the book was brilliant, and it made ME all tingly inside, almost as much as it did Lucy. In the second half, unfortunately, the book lost a bit more steam, and the action was mostly based on miscommunication. Still, this was something that was perfectly character-based, and so I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the first.

MY GRADE: GOTH was thisclose to being a DIK. If it had sustained the wonderfulness of the first half, it would have been an A or A-, but on the whole, I'll have to go for a B+.


Pitch Black, by Leslie Parrish

>> Wednesday, October 21, 2009

TITLE: Pitch Black
AUTHOR: Leslie Parrish

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: 2nd in Black CAT series, follows Fade To Black

REASON FOR READING: I loved the first one in the series, thought it was one of the best romantic suspense books I'd read for a while.

After a botched investigation left him wounded and disgraced, Special Agent Alec Lambert was forced to transfer onto Wyatt Blackstone's team. This former profiler has lost his edge, buried by the guilt he feels over another agent's death. But he'll need all his skills when he realizes he's getting another crack at a case that has haunted him. A serial killer known as the Professor is now using the latest e-mail schemes to lure his victims and the Black CATs are on his trail.

Samantha Dalton didn't set out to become an online vigilante, until her grandmother was swindled out of everything she owned. Devoting herself to exposing fraud and preventing tragedies from happening to other families, Sam has gained fame and success with her website and a recently released book. A hermit since her ugly divorce, Sam really doesn't want the outside world intruding on her privacy. Especially not when that outside world is a sexy FBI agent who tells her she has a cyber connection to a murdered teenage boy.

When the killer opens a line of communication with Sam via her website, Alec and his team enlist her help to stop him. There's one thing they don't know, however. The Professor doesn't just see Sam Dalton as an anonymous online foe. He is, in fact, her number one fan. He's been watching her, waiting for the time to be right to make his move. He just isn't sure what that move will be.

Take her. Or kill her.
This seems to be what I say in every single romantic suspense review I do, but oh, well, here goes: romantic suspense is at its best when both the suspense and romance elements are strong and well developed. I loved Fade To Black so much because it did just that. Pitch Black also devotes pretty much equal space to the romance and the suspense, but unfortunately, while I thought the suspense was brilliant, I was a bit less enamoured of the romance.

Like the hero of the previous book in the series, Alec Lambert is a newcomer to the Black CAT, the new FBI Cyber Action Team devoted to internet-related murders. His first case is not what he expected, either. Before he was shot and disgraced in his last case in the Behavioural Analysis Unit, Alec had been going after a serial killer called the Professor, and what does he run into on his first day at work? Evidence from the Black CAT's latest case indicates that it was committed by the Professor, who's now changed his modus operandi slightly and branched into internet-related methods for procuring his victims.

Samantha Dalton runs a website where as "Sam the Spaminator" (a handle that for some reason struck me as pretty weird... probably because I kept reading it as "Sperminator"), she tries to keep people from being scammed online. One of the Professor's latest victims had contacted before being killed, and this draws her into the investigation, especially When it becomes clear that a certain Darwin who posts comments at her website is the Professor himself.

Like I said, this was a bit of a mixed bag. I felt very lukewarm about the romance, probably because I felt lukewarm about the characters. Alec is nice enough, but I never got a real sense of who he was. His feelings for Sam therefore never felt real. I was told he was attracted to her and that it was turning into more, but I just didn't feel it.

Part of it might have been that I never completely warmed up to Sam. Maybe not so much Sam's personality per se, but what I perceived as her alarmist and paranoid attitudes. I do think her mission to give people the tools to keep from falling from scams is laudable, even if I question its usefulness (if someone gets to the point where they are looking for information about something they got on the internet, then they're already questioning the scam, and probably won't fall for it). However, her extremely skewed perceptions of risk annoyed me.

For my work, I've been reading quite a bit about actual risk and people's perception of it, and if this were the real world (rather than than a romantic suspense version of it, where there are murderers lurking everywhere) Sam would be quite a fear-mongerer. Her complete disgust at the very idea of internet dating, for instance. In real life, I don't know any single people in their 30s who haven't tried it, and as long as you're sensible about it, there's nothing to fear. For Sam, it's something only someone so desperate that they're stupid would try, and of course, she's proved right in the book.

As a matter of fact, if you want to look at actual, real risks, the Snickers bar and cans of Coke in her living room in the scene we meet her are much more dangerous to her than sensible online dating would be. If I met her in real life, I'd make the woman read a book like Dan Gardner's Risk.

The suspense, on the other hand, was top notch and more than made up for the weak romance. I loved the villian. Well, not loved him, I just mean I thought he was brilliantly done, fresh and original. Part of me understood him, even... the victims are people I would probably think of as TSTL in an uncharitable moment, although before you call the cops on me, I wouldn't go as far as to take the acronym literally, much less actually do something about it. And seeing what happens if you follow that line of thought was heartbreaking, because the victims are portrayed very compassionately.

The investigation is fascinating and satisfying, because it features well-matched oponents. Darwin is smart; not invincible, but careful and crafty. However, the Black CAT team is just as smart, and their pursuit of him is extremely professional and doesn't rely on unbelievable coincidences or hunches. I loved it, and I also loved that I was wrong, wrong, wrong about who Darwin was, and yet at the end, it all made perfect sense and gave me that quite excellent "ahhh" moment that's the mark of good mystery.

I hesitate to end this on a low note, but I must mention that the book has a very strong secondary storyline, something that's coming out of the first book in the series. We saw there that another of the Black CAT members, Lily, had become extremely personally invested in catching one of the participants in the online forum they were investigated. This guy was a probable pedophile, and Lily had some very painful things in her past that made her determined to catch him. Well, this storyline was germane and relevant in book 1, but here it has absolutely nothing to do with the main storyline. So while it was interesting enough, it felt much more like a transparent set-up for book 3. Well, I suppose it didn't bother me enough to keep me from reading it once it comes out.

MY GRADE: The suspense was great enough for a B.


Hot Under Pressure, by Kathleen O'Reilly

>> Monday, October 19, 2009

TITLE: Hot Under Pressure
AUTHOR: Kathleen O'Reilly

PAGES: 224
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance

REASON FOR READING: Everyone seems to love O'Reilly's Blazes, and I had great luck with trying Sarah Mayberry, another author beloved by those who were recommending O'Reilly.

Boutique owner Ashley Larsen hates flying. Especially when there's a sugar-fueled little hellion on board. But then David McLean (sexy!) sits next to her, and suddenly Ashley finds herself hoping the delay will last forever—and that David won't notice her comfy pink bunny slippers (sadly, the opposite of sexy).

David does notice Ashley, and when the flight is delayed overnight, they can't get to the airport hotel fast enough. Off with the slippers and in with the zing! Fortunately, America is filled with cities—L.A., New York, Miami—and nothing says "smoking-hot passion" like an intercontinental affair!
Chicagoan Ashley Larsen and New Yorker David McLean meet when they sit next to each other in a crowded plane that is going nowhere. After flirting for hours and really connecting while waiting for the plane's mechanical issues to be sorted, their flight is finally cancelled and the two waste no time heading to a hotel to indulge their attraction.

They don't intend to have more than a one-night-stand, but they are so incredibly good together that it's hard for them not to want to keep the affair going. Ashley owns a chain of boutiques and often has to travel on buying trips, while financial advisor David is constantly visiting companies in other cities. Turning the one-night-stand into an intercontinental affair is a no brainer. Until, of course, they start feeling more than they were supposed to feel.

I really wanted to like this, but I'm afraid I didn't. I had plenty of niggles, but even with them, this would have been a definite B grade, if it hadn't been for the big problem I had with O'Reilly's writing. Her voice just didn't work for me. At all.

So what was the problem with it? Well, it's always hard to describe why an author's voice works for a reader, but the one thing I can identify is that I got a "trying very hard to sound cool and hip" vibe from it. That doesn't sound like much, but it annoyed me, it kept kicking me out of the story, and it even meant that I just didn't connect with her characters at all. And I got very, very irritated by Ashley's constant (and I do mean constant) mental conversations with her sister. This conceit would have been bad enough on its own, but it was even worse because Ashley's mental interlocutor is presented as a sort of "voice of reason", but in reality, her sister is a bit of a wreck.

It's a shame, because I liked the idea of the story, and I even liked the basic characters and would normally have been interested in their issues. Ashley has a problematic family, living with a sister who's a recovering alcoholic and who seems to put a great deal of the responsibility for staying sober on Ashley. This presents the obvious problems when Ashley begins to have other priorities in her life, and she (and David) start resenting having to come to her sister's rescue whenever she's done something else stupid. David, meanwhile, has issues with his own brother... quite understandably, since he slept with David's ex; in fact, she left David for his brother, and they are now married. Part of David misses his brother, who was always his friend, but he can't seem to make himself forgive him. These issues were dealt with quite well, but my annoyance with the writing style didn't allow me to enjoy them.

There were a few "whoa there!" moments, though, in addition to the writing. There's a scene where Ashley and David go for dinner to his brother's house. It's a very uncomfortable situation, because . As they get out of the car in front of the car, Ashley takes a look at the very modest house in the slightly shabby neighbourhood, and thinks that the woman was just plain stupid. This is exactly how she puts it, and no, she's not saying the woman is stupid to leave David just because he's so wonderful that it would be stupid to leave him for any man. She clearly states she's stupid for leaving a man with a high powered Manhattan finance career for a man who works as an electrician. I found that just offensive, and even worse, inconsistent with what we'd previously been told about Ashley.

In general, there were several of those, where the characters reacted in surprising, illogical ways, inconsistent with what we knew. I really shouldn't have been surprised, because I've read one of O'Reilly's historicals (Touched By Fire) and had the very same experience.

MY GRADE: A C, but this is one most readers might actually like. If the story sounds interesting, give it a shot. Most people clearly aren't bothered by the writing style, and odds are, you'll be one of them. And BTW, If you liked the idea of the plot and would like to read what I thought was a much better version of it, I'd recommend another Blaze, Scent of a Woman, by Jo Leigh.


Goodnight, Beautiful, by Dorothy Koomson

>> Saturday, October 17, 2009

TITLE: Goodnight, Beautiful
AUTHOR: Dorothy Koomson

PAGES: 433

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: I've read other books by Koomson that I loved (and which I promise to review asap!)

Nova Kumalisi's 8-year-old son Leo has been in a coma for days. As she tries to deal with the possibility that he might not be about to wake up any minute, she also needs to decide whether she might need to tell her family what's going on - and her best friend Mal, who happens to be Leo's father, even though they've been estranged since before Leo was born.

At the same time, Stephanie, Mal's wife of 10 years is desperately trying to save their marriage, which is clearly falling apart.

The key to both women's struggles lies in what happened 8 years early, the events surrounding Leo's conception and birth. This is something that is spoiled in the back cover in the edition I had (which is why I'm not including it in this review, as I usually do), but that is very gradually revealed throughout the book, as the action goes back and forth between the present and the past, and alternates between Nova and Steph's points of view and narrations.

Koomson is an excellent writer, and this is a story that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. There is just so much pain here, and not just in Nova's increasing realisation that Leo might actually be dying. It's unlike other Koomson books that I've read in that respect -both The Chocolate Run and The Cupid Effect were pretty angsty at times, but in the end were fun and happy. Goodnight, Beautiful definitely isn't that, even if you could say there's some hope in the ending.

Still, even with the painful bits, this is a book I didn't find hard to read. The structure works brilliantly, and made me really wanted to know what on earth had happened (and imagine if I hadn't read that stupid back cover and been spoilt! I would have been desperately turning the pages, I think).

Nova, Mal and Steph are characters that feel real and that I couldn't help but care about. They have faults (especially Mal -I hated him for what he did at times, but ultimately understood him), and that makes them even more interesting.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely, and I'm not a reader who normally goes for depressing books. I recommend it, but with the caveat that you need to be in the right mood to read it, and not expect a romance novel at all.



Anything For You, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Thursday, October 15, 2009

TITLE: Anything For You
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 2006
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Category romance

REASON FOR READING: I really liked the other Mayberry book that I read. I chose this one from her backlist because of the friends-to-lovers theme, which is one of my favourites.

Since when was his best friend this hot?

The world according to Sam Kirk has just turned upside down. His best friend and business partner, Delaney Michaels, has returned from vacation a new woman...a gorgeous, hot new woman. Suddenly Sam is thinking entirely inappropriate thoughts about his buddy. Worse, with Delaney's changed look, she's abandoning their friendship in pursuit of the picket-fence dream. It's a nightmare come true.

Then one night finds them tangling in the sheets.

It should feel wrong, wrong, wrong...instead, it feels very right. And now Sam knows exactly what he'd do to keep his best friend: absolutely anything.
Delaney Michaels and Sam Kirk have been best friends forever, since they were teens. They're huge parts of each other's lives, they even work together in the extreme sports magazine they founded and live in flats in the same building.

Sam has no idea, but Delaney has been hoplessly in love with him all those years. When her biological clock suddenly wakes up, she decides she really needs to do something about meeting the right man and starting a family. And the only way she sees to achieve this is by cutting Sam completely out of her life.

But Delaney makes the mistake of getting a makeover, and her radical actions of leaving the magazine and selling her flat are slightly undermined by the fact that Sam has suddenly started seeing her as a woman, and neither of them can keep their hands off the other.

There's something about Mayberry's books and I'm going to keep reading her, but this one didn't quite hit the spot. Part of it might be that I absolutely hate plots based on biological clocks, and there was a very strong "all women one day wake up and crave having children" message here. Ugh, because the other thing I get from that is "and if they don't, there's something wrong with them". Or maybe I'm being to sensitive.

But it was more than that. Like I said above, I love friends-to-lovers plots, but I didn't quite see the best friends bit here. Delaney, especially, didn't seem like a particularly good friend to Sam. At points I even felt she didn't much like him. Most of her thoughts about him concerned how resentful she felt that he didn't feel the same way as she did, and she seemed out to punish him for it.

Also, I understand about pride, but if she was going to take extremely radical action and completely cut her best friend ever out of her life, making both herself and him suffer, wouldn't she want to make absolutely certain that it was needed? Especially after they began their affair and it became clear that Sam couldn't keep his hands off her, suggesting he just might feel something. But no, since he hasn't made a pass in those 16 years, he clearly doesn't feel anything. No matter that she has been madly in love with him for the same period, and she hasn't made any moves, either.

There's a lot of angst in the relationship, Delaney's about feeling she needs to do this but finding it hard, Sam's about his best friend abandoning him and he having no idea why. Unfortunately, though, I found Delaney's logic for doing this faulty (not too mention nonexistent logic in her idiotic plan to burn out on Sam by having a whole weekend of uninterrupted shagging with him -great capacity for fooling herself, that girl). This meant that the angst on her part felt manufactured. She just seemed determined to make herself miserable, and I wanted to shake her, rather than feel for her.

So what did I like? Well, Sam's nice, and I did feel for him. His bewilderment about what the hell is going on with his best friend and the way he's so torn about wanting her were excellently done. lso, the book and its setting feel younger and hipper than I'm used to in category romance (I mean, how many heroes with dreadlocks, have you seen in these books? Although if you don't quite fancy that, he does cut them off quite early on). Delaney, again, is the exception here. For all the extreme sports paraphernalia in her life, she seems staid and dull.

So this one was a bit of a dud. Not a huge one, since I liked a lot about Sam and it was a quick, breezy read, but I don't think it will take a place among my favourite categories.



Delicious, by Julie Cohen

>> Tuesday, October 13, 2009

TITLE: Delicious (published in the US as MacAllister's Baby)
AUTHOR: Julie Cohen

PAGES: 216
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Modern

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Category romance

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed other books by this author

Can she take the heat...?

What on earth is Angus MacAllister doing at her school? He's way too gorgeous, arrogant and famous!

Teacher Elisabeth Read isn't prepared for the cookery class to be given some star treatment by celebrity chef Angus. She's even less prepared for the delicious attraction that instantly flares between them! The usually cautious Elisabeth is soon feeling hot, bothered, and definitely out of control, as Angus uses all his persuasive powers to tease and tempt her into his bed!

But Angus is unaware that Elisabeth is still coming to terms with a painful past, when she was left pregnant and alone...

All it takes is one small moment of recklessness...and Elisabeth will be forced to make the toughest decision of her life...
Famous chef Angus MacAllister would like to be even more famous, and his publicist has suggested tutoring children from a disadvantaged background who have entered a cooking competition. Teacher Elisabeth has been assigned to work with Angus and make sure the children's interests and privacy are protected.

For Angus the project is soon about much more than publicity, and he becomes emotionally involved... both with the children and with the teacher.

This was a fun and sexy, with a to-die-for hero, and a heroine who started a bit joyless but improved as the book went on.

I quite liked that at the beginning Angus wasn't particularly enthusiastic about his project at the school, and saw it only as a promotional opportunity. Not that Cohen portrayed him as being manipulative in that... he was still a good person from the start, he just wasn't immediately all into the project. Cohen showed him getting gradually more and more into it and really enjoying helping the kids, and it was a believable process.

His attraction to Elisabeth wasn't as gradual, but it was even better for that. I love how he was so absolutely and completely turned on by Elisabeth, and that it was clearly not just about the way she looked. He was turned on by the whole of her... the way she moved, the way she acted, even her primness. Lovely guy. There's a point where Elisabeth thinks: "He wasn't just sexy. He was funny, and playful and intelligent, and, in a strange way, vulnerable." Absolutely, and that was what made me love him all the more. For all his cool, he's a little bit dorky and vulnerable, and that really made the character for me.

As much as I liked seeing Angus completely lose his cool over Elisabeth, I just had a bit of trouble seeing what he was getting so hot and bothered about at the beginning. That's because for much of the book Elisabeth comes across as sour and judgemental. We get hints that there's a reason for this, but it turns out to be something that to my eyes, didn't completely justify her initial attitude (though it did justify a certain reaction of her near the end). And anyway, for a long time, all we know is that she's had an unconventional upbringing, with parents who didn't give her as much structure and stability as she would have needed, although they loved her very much. That hardly seems a reason to be as annoying as she was at times. Angus' background was a lot more traumatic, and yet he hadn't let that affect him! I think the book would have worked even better if we readers had been given the whole information about Elisabeth's past a lot earlier.

The other somewhat disappointing element was the food. Given this is a book with a chef character, centering on a cooking competition and with a title like Delicious, I was looking forward when I started to some quasi-erotic food descriptions, but the book was quite low-key in that area. They do eat some food that is described as delicious, but I never really got a proper sense of just how sensuously delicious that food was. Most of the time it's not even described. Eh, well, it would probably have made me hungry, anyway.



Mastered by Love, by Stephanie Laurens

>> Sunday, October 11, 2009

TITLE: Mastered by Love
AUTHOR: Stephanie Laurens

PAGES: 480

SETTING: England post Napoleonic Wars
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: 8th and last in the Bastion Club, 9th if you count the horrendous Captain Jack's Woman as the first in the series.

REASON FOR READING: I haven't read Laurens in ages... I loved the first 6 or so in her Cynster series, but found the ones after that really mediocre and repetitive, so I stopped reading her. I wouldn't have picked this one up if it wasn't for the AAR review. The reviewer hadn't read any of the previous Bastion Club books and really enjoyed the book, so I wondered if I'd feel the same.

The men of the Bastion Club proved their bravery secretly fighting for their country. Now their leader faces that most dangerous mission of all: finding a bride.

As the mysterious leader of the Bastion Club known as "Dalziel," Royce Varisey, tenth Duke of Wolverstone, served his country for decades, facing dangers untold. But as the holder of one of England's most august noble titles, he must now take on that gravest duty of all: marriage.

Yet the young ladies the grand dames would have him consider are predictably boring. Far more tempting is his castle's willful and determinedly aloof chatelaine, Minerva Chesterton. Beneath her serene faÇade lies a woman of smoldering sensuality, one who will fill his days with comfort and his nights with sheer pleasure. Determined to claim her, he embarks on a seduction to prove his mastery over every inch of her body . . . and every piece of her heart.
Well, I don't know if Mastered By Love was a lot better than those last books I read, or if it was the hiatus that made the difference, but I quite enjoyed it. Probably a combination of the two things.

The war is over and master spymaster (hee!) Royce Varisey is going back home. His father, the late Duke of Wolverstone, who'd exiled Royce when he decided his duty was to serve his country during the war, is now dead, so Royce is also taking over the dukedom.

This is not an easy thing to do, especially for someone who's been away and a bit isolated from society for such a long time, and so the help of the castle's chatelaine, Minerva Chesterton, is invaluable. Minerva knows everything there is to know about the castle and the estate, the people and any potential undercurrents, and works closely with Royce to help him avoid any pitfalls.

What Minerva isn't is the slightest attracted to Royce, which is unfortunate, because his first reaction to her was extremely strong attraction, and it only gets stronger as they spend more time together. Or at least, that's what Royce thinks. Unbeknownst to him, Minerva has had a crush on him for years, and is working very hard to hide it.

When a threat to his title makes it necessary for Royce to marry as soon as possible (and this threat was tolerably believable and un-hokey, I must say), Minerva isn't the first obvious candidate, but he quickly comes to realise there's no one else he wants in the post.

The fact that I liked MLB is all about the characters and their relationship, mostly their relationship. I really liked the way it started, was very intrigued by how Royce was almost violently attracted to Minerva, all the while being completely certain that she didn't fancy him at all.

I think what I liked so much about that (apart from the tension it created and the fact that I'm a bit of a sadist, who loves to see romance heroes suffer) was that it establishes Royce as very much human. There's no denying he's an alpha hero, but he doesn't have supernatural powers to sniff out when a woman is attracted to him, as so many of them seem to have. He can be wrong, and that makes him a much more interesting hero.

Also, Minerva is not powerless when it comes to Royce. Yes, there was a bit too much of her melting and losing all resistance whenever he touched her, but in the more important decision, whether she would marry a man she loved but was convinced would never make her happy, she was a lot firmer. She changed her mind obviously (we do need a HEA, after all), but not because of being steamrolled by Royce into it, but rationally, because she saw that she had made a wrong assumption.

That was a VERY good thing, because that assumption was driving me insane. See, according to everyone, including Minerva, Varisey males behave in very narrowly defined ways. For a while, at least, it was, ad nauseam, all Varisey males do this, Varisey males don't do that, Varisey males do not love and when they marry, they and their wives go their separate ways. Knowing that she's halfway in love with Royce already, Minerva doesn't want to have such a marriage, and yeah, if you believe it's inevitable that if she marries Royce, he'll never love her and end up cheating on her, it makes sense. I found the genetic determinism quite depressing (not that they'd call it that, of course).

Fortunately, Royce doesn't seem to be as wedded to the idea that his every action needs to echo those of his ancestors, and some of the nicer scenes in the book involved him realising that he can forge his own path, both in managing the dukedom and in his personal life. He has a group of friends, all of whom have married women they care about and with whom they have happy marriages, and Royce is not idiot. He sees his friends are happy, and he wants that for himself as well. And that means convincing Minerva that her fears are unfounded, because she really is the only woman he thinks he might have a chance of loving.

I just loved the way Royce's feelings for Minerva were developed. He knows she will be the perfect partner for him, someone with whom he can share the huge responsibility of running his estates and caring for his people. He admires her and respects her for that, but that's not the whole extent of his feelings. He desires her from the start, but it's soon much more than that. There's a very poignant scene where they're just lying there after sex and he thinks about how he's feeling completely peace and joy just by being with her. It's clear Royce has never even come close to feeling what he feels with Minerva, but thank heavens, Laurens does it without needing to portray Royce as having derision for previous partners.

It's not a perfect book, though. The pace is veeeery slow, and it's not helped by the numerous and lengthy love scenes. Quite a few actually added to the development of the relationship, but as the book progressed, they started feeling a bit gratuituous. Adding to the slow pace is the fact that everyday estate matters and Royce's familiarisation with them take up more than a few pages. It's interesting enough stuff, but slowed down the action considerably.

This was mostly a character-driven book, but it was unfortunate that what suspense there was was very poorly done. It was extremely blah, and could have been done away with altogether. It seemed to be a leftover from previous books in the series, and since I haven't read those, I had very little interest in who the "infamous last traitor" (I almost feel as if I should capitalise Last Traitor) was. Plus, this person just lurks round throughout most of the book, creating very little sense of danger or anything of the sort. He suddenly comes to the forefront at the end, for what felt solely like a perfunctory fulfilment of the "at some point the heroine must be in mortal danger" rule I suspect some editors must insist on.

Oh, well, even though it took me a while to read, I did enjoy the experience. I might come back to Laurens, still!

MY GRADE: Wavering between a B- and a B, but I loved some of the moments in the book enough that I'll go for a B.


Waking Up, by Amanda Carpenter

>> Friday, October 09, 2009

TITLE: Waking Up
AUTHOR: Amanda Carpenter

PAGES: 189
PUBLISHER: Harlequin

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance

REASON FOR READING: Someone mentioned it as an old category romance in which both hero and heroine were young, and where there was a surprise about the hero. The latter is pretty spoilerish, so don't read the body of the review if you don't want to know.

Robbie Fisher had always been a couple of years and a few changes behind her neighbor, Jason Morrow. Still, he'd lent an ear to all her dreams and troubles right up to the time he'd left for university.

Now he was back in Cincinnati, looking after his parents' home for the summer. But Robbie no longer felt comfortable confiding in him. He was the man with the golden future, while hers was still in question.

What could he be to her now? Stranger, big brother, friend or something disturbingly new? It was a dilemma Robbie could discuss with no one--Jason least of all!
Robbie and Jason have been neighbours forever, and they grew up being both playmates and good friends. In the past years, however, with Jason away at Uni, they've grown apart. Jason has been back in town for a while now, working at an accounting firm in town, but he hasn't really been in touch and things are still somewhat distant between them.

It all changes when Jason moves into his parents' house for the summer while they're away. He and Robbie are soon back to their bickering and teasing, only it's not so comfortable now as it was all those years earlier. Jason is looking at Robbie differently now, and so is she.

I very much wanted to like this. I normally prefer somewhat older heroines than 22-year-old Robbie, but that's mainly because in books such as this they tended to be paired with much older, cynical men. Jason is 24 himself, and he's no high-powered billionaire looking for a little woman to bring some innocence into his life. He's pretty normal, with a promising career in front of him, but only just starting out.

I suppose from the way I started the last paragraph, it's obvious I wasn't able to like it, much as I'd hoped to. Jason was all right, and I wasn't at all disappointed about how his character was developed. Robbie, however, was another matter. She might have been 22, but she read like a 12-year-old.

I think partly this might have been because the book was quite dated in several things. The sexual mores were clearly different in this Harlequin world, and this is quite clear in how Robbie reacts. Yes, of course she's a virgin, but that was just as expected and perfectly believable. The problem is her reaction to anything sexual. Jason is quite tentative and sweet in his advances, but Robbie keeps reacting as if he's proposing a threeway with a donkey. She's forever shocked and scared and practically runs away in disgust. I do understand that what's freaking her out is really that it's her friend Jason kissing her, but she comes across as incredibly immature.

And it's not just Jason kissing her she overreacts to. She overreacts to everything, all the freaking time. After they have sex for the first time, she freaks out completely at the idea she's having *shudder* an affair. She actually tells herself to calm down, it's only with Jason, she's not *shudder again* promiscuous. She just cannot deal with it, and ends up trying to break up with Jason in the final scene arguing she cannot have an affair, because she wants to get married some day. It's not said explicitly, but the implication is that if she has an affair, she'll be damaged goods and no man would want her.

There's other examples of very dated elements, but those just made me smile and shake my head. I think the most dated thing of all is that Robbie has been out of high school for four years and still living at home, doing mostly nothing, just working every now and then as a waitress at a restaurant. She's not particularly satisfied with how her life is going, but not in much of a hurry to do anything about it. And no one is worried about this. I guess that was what struck me as something that's really changed. These days, with someone with her background (solidly middle-class) the pressure would be really on for her to do something with her life, acquire at least some skills that will allow her to make a living. Her father wouldn't be so nonchalant about her still living at home these days, but in this book, Robbie's dad clearly assumes she'll get married soon enough and her husband will provide for her. Nothing to worry about.

In addition to the datedness, there are also quite a few cliched plot points (which I suppose makes the book feel even more dated). There's an older, sophisticated woman Robbie is jealous of, of course (although to be fair, this one's actually not portrayed as a man-hungry bitch, so I didn't get angry, I just rolled my eyes at how cliched it all was), and there's the annoying ending with Robbie misinterpreting Jason welcoming a friend into his house, and just taking off to the Virgin Islands (yet another dated thing: it was another world where a woman whose job is being a waitress a couple of nights a week could afford to take off on a luxury beach holiday at the drop of a hat).

To cap it all, the writing was pretty bad. It was quite clumsy, with point of view handled especially badly. As most old Harlequins, the narration is all supposedly from the POV of the heroine. And yet, every now and then, with no rhyme or reason, we get a sentence from an omniscient POV. It was especially bad with descriptions of the heroine. It didn't feel like it was done on purpose, for effect, it just felt weird and kept bringing me out of the story.

I mentioned earlier that the main reason I wanted to read this was a bit of a spoiler, and here goes. Well, Robbie was a virgin, but so was Jason, and I've got a thing for that particular plot. Unfortunately, Carpenter didn't take advantage of this. It's was just sort of "'I'm a virgin as well' - 'Oh, right' - And then they made love." Maybe if we'd had a bit of Jason's POV it would have been more interesting, but this was just blah.

MY GRADE: A C-. I think I probably would have loved it if I'd read it 15 years ago, but it hasn't stood the test of time well.


Warsworn, by Elizabeth Vaughan

>> Wednesday, October 07, 2009

TITLE: Warsworn
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Vaughan

PAGES: 306

SETTING: Another world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: Second in the Chronicles of the Warlands.


Lara is the Warprize

A powerful healer, she has sworn an oath of loyalty to Keir the Warlord, and his people. Now the Warlord and his chosen mate face enemies within the tribe and danger lurks on every hand as they journey toward Keir's homeland.

When they reach a village marked with the warnings of the plague, Keir forbids Lara to heal the sick, commanding that she not risk her own life. But both Lara and Kier are strong of will and neither will bend easily, even for love; and when Lara disobeys, she pays the price: both she and Kier are plague-struck... and so is their entire encampment.

In the midst of the dying, Iften, a rival warrior, gathers his followers and challenges Keir for the right to rule their tribe. If Keir, weakened by the sickness, loses -- he dies.

And so does Lara.

To save her love, her life, and her adopted people, Lara must find a cure for the plague -- and fully embrace her sworn role as Warprize to her Warlord.
Warsworn picks up right after Warprize left off. I'm not sure how well it stands alone, but I suspect you'd probably appreciate it more if you've read Warprize. Anyway, Keir and Lara are together and in love, and though Lara still has a lot to learn and understand about Plains culture, she's well on her way.

They are travelling to the Plains people's base, and on the way, they come to a walled Xy city which seems closed. The Plains people are outraged that the Xy are denying them entry and violating the terms of their surrender, but Lara recognises the markings on the walls and realises the city has been affected by a plague.

Keir refuses to let Lara risk herself, but as a healer, she considers it her duty to do what she can to help her people. She goes in anyway, and finds an illness much worse than she could have imagined, one against which all she's learnt from her wise teachers seems useless.
Keir is angry at Lara's defiance, but things get even worse when the plague spreads to their camp. Keir's relationship with Lara and the way he has started to break with some Plains traditions don't sit well with some of his tribesmen, and now that the plague has made his position precarious, they take the chance to make their move.

I still liked much of this book, but less than I did Warprize. While the focus of the latter was on the differences between the two cultures, Xy and Plains, something I found fascinating, this one focuses more on internecine disputes and intrigue. The worst aspects of the Plains people came to light, like the way their pride in who they are can turn into xenophobia, and the action stressed me out (and I don't mean in a tense, "ohhh, I can't wait to see what happens next" kind of way).

I think what was best was seeing Lara grow and become stronger and more confident, being now able to understand the Plains people and to fight her enemies using what she's learnt. That I really enjoyed, and though there isn't that much development in the romance, I did feel that Lara's strengthening resulted in the relationship being even more among equals now.

By the end of the book, there are several things that are left hanging, and I should have been desperate to read the third one. However, even though my library has it, I've had no desire to find out what happens next. I should, since both books have been Bs, but I just don't. Make of that what you will.



Demon Forged, by Meljean Brook

>> Monday, October 05, 2009

TITLE: Demon Forged
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

COPYRIGHT: 2009 (comes out tomorrow, October 6th)
PAGES: 448

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Book 8 in The Guardians series.

REASON FOR READING: I adore this series.

Four centuries ago, Irena and Alejandro would have succumbed to the need smoldering between them — if a demon and a monstrous bargain hadn’t shattered the possibility of love. Torn apart by shame, Irena avoided Alejandro for centuries — until a vampire’s call for help throws her into his arms again.

Alejandro can control fire, but he’s never been able to control — or quench — the flames between him and Irena. And he knows Irena, hardened by her hatred for demonkind, will never accept that he now works at a demon’s behest. But even as he fights for a second chance, a shocking betrayal and a deadly prophecy shake the foundations of the Guardian universe, and all Hell threatens to break loose…
NOTE: If you haven't read the previous books in the series, it's probably best if you don't read this review. I'll try to avoid spoilers for previous books, but this far into the series, I'm pretty sure some will slip in. And anyway, if you want to read this series, you really should be starting at the beginning. I mean, there's certainly enough information in each book to allow them to be read as standalones (it's useful for us who've been reading the other ones, too; this is a fabulously complex world, and my memory isn't perfect), but you'd get so much more out of them if you've read the previous entries. Go read my review of Demon Angel if you want to know what it's all about.


Irena and Alejandro are among the oldest of the Guardians. Alejandro is old enough, having been one for four centuries, but next to Irena, he's a newbie. She was already an experienced Guardian when Alejandro became one, and he was actually assigned to her to be trained. There was as much heat and attraction as there was respect in that relationship, but before they could move from the very enjoyable and exciting foreplay to the action, a demon intervened and completely wrecked what was between them. Irena had to make a horrendous bargain to save Alejandro's life, and neither could get over the shame and guilt of the aftermath.

In the hundreds of years since, the two of them have done all they can to keep at a distance. But as we've seen in previous books, this is a pivotal time for the Guardians, what with the threat of the Nephilim rising and the small matter of a potentially disastrous prophecy to understand, not to mention increasing mistrust among the Guardians themselves, arising from the revelations about Michael's past. When Alejandro and Irena are required to work together, what had previously looked like an insurmountable chasm suddenly feels like it doesn't have to keep them apart.

Alejandro and Irena are two fantastic, very unique characters. Irena, especially, is amazing. I think she's a sort of character I'd never read before. She's fierce and wild, almost primitive in some ways, so much so that all the novices are a bit scared of her. From glimpses in earlier books, I thought I might find it hard to warm up to her, but I didn't. Brook is really good at getting you to completely understand her characters, and Irena was no exception. What was most brilliant about this careful characterisation was that I could completely get her and feel that what made her completely different to more modern characters (her "ancientness", for lack of another word) was still there.

Irena and Alejandro's romance must be one of my favourites in the whole series. What came between them was something that wasn't just awful, but designed to do as much damage as possible given the kind of persons they each were (exactly what you would expect from a demon, eh?). Getting over it is not just a matter of communicating and wanting to get over it; it takes true character growth and some hard decisions about what's most important, especially for Irena. It also takes a whole lot of trust and love and respect, and boy, do Irena and Alejandro have that! It made the romance incredibly satisfying.

To make things even more amazing in the relationship department, we finally, finally! get some clues about Michael and what's going to happen with him in this area. Big, gut-wrenching developments there, about which I'll say no more, other than you're going to want to read this. Like everyone, I've always been very intrigued by Michael, so it was really good to start to understand what he's like under the whole enigmatic Doyen role.

Ok, on to the plot. In Demon Forged the romance and the bigger storyline share pretty much equal billing. This is one series that really is going somewhere. It's not just a bunch of completely separate stories which happen to take place in the same universe, maybe with some recurring characters. Oh, no, while we do get plenty of closure in the main relationship developed in each book, there's something bigger that is going on, and it's something that progresses book by book.

I think, though, in previous books the plots have felt a bit more self-contained. I mean, they have always fit in with the larger picture and advanced it, but they still felt like single stories, with their own closure delivered in the book. In Demon Forged the link between the plot and the bigger story arc was clearer... in fact, there didn't seem to be much of a smaller plot at all. At one point, right before the denouement, I was actually feeling a bit anxious. The romance felt like we were almost there, and it wasn't clear where the plot was going. I was afraid the action was about to start to drag. And then... WOW!

I received an ARC quite a bit in advance, and was especially told by the author to be very careful not to let it out of my hands, because something huge happens. I hope Meljean doesn't get offended if I say I thought she was being a bit dramatic. Well, she wasn't. She really, really wasn't. That particular development was huge. In fact, even with the warning, I was surprised by just how huge it was. It was brilliant, too, and takes things in a direction I didn't expect at all. My god, that epilogue! I really and truly can't wait now to find out what's going to happen. And that, my friends, is all I'm going to say about that.

MY GRADE: An A. This keeps getting better and better.


Dark Needs at Night's Edge, by Kresley Cole

>> Saturday, October 03, 2009

TITLE: Dark Needs at Night's Edge
AUTHOR: Kresley Cole

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary New Orleans
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: 5th in the Immortals After Dark series

REASON FOR READING: I'm enjoying this series very much


Néomi Laress, a famous ballerina from a past century, became a phantom the night she was murdered. Imbued with otherworldly powers but invisible to the living, she haunts her beloved home, scaring away trespassers -- until she encounters a ruthless immortal even more terrifying than Néomi herself.


To prevent him from harming others, Conrad Wroth's brothers imprison him in an abandoned manor. But there, a female only he can see seems determined to drive him further into madness. The exquisite creature torments him with desire, leaving his body racked with lust and his soul torn as he finds himself coveting her for his own.


Yet even if Conrad can win Néomi, evil still surrounds her. Once he returns to the brutality of his past to protect her, will he succumb to the dark needs seething inside him?
Just when I was getting comfy with the adventure-romance feel of the last two Talisman Hie-set books in the Immortals After Dark series, Kresley Cole changes the game completely and gives us a more slow-moving and introspective romance. The good news is she does introspective just as well as she does fast-moving adventure!

In the 1920s, Néomi Laress was a notorious burlesque dancer. She was famous and celebrated, and her dancing allowed her to leave behind a deprived upbringing and become independent, even comfortable. Unfortunately, she had really bad taste in men, and made the mistake of getting involved with an insanely jelous man, who ended up stabbing her to death. Having become a ghost, she's been spending her afterlife in the decaying New Orleans mansion she owned when she was alive. Try as she might, she cannot leave the grounds, and she can't communicate with anyone who comes into the house, either. Her existence has become boring and lonely, only slightly enlivened whenever someone moves in (unfortunately, they all tend to move out too quickly... maybe because the house has a ghost who's a bit of a kleptomaniac and choosy about who she lets live in her house?).

That boredom is interrupted by the arrival of some very strange people, who bring a madman into the house and chain him to one of the beds. That madman is Conrad, brother of Sebastian and Nikolai, heroes of No Rest For The Wicked and The Warlord Wants Forever respectively.

Like Sebastian, Conrad was turned into a vampire against his will by Nikolai, who'd been turned earlier and was trying to keep his brothers from certain death. Conrad dealt with his change even worse than Sebastian, though, and he's now one of the Fallen vampires, maddened by bloodlust and a danger to everyone. Normally one such as him would be executed, but his brothers can't bear to do so. Instead, they capture him and isolate him, hoping against hope that somehow they can find a solution, a way to cure him. If they can't, they will have to execute him, no matter how much it hurts.

Néomi is fascinated by this madman chained to a bed and very intrigued by what's going on. Checking on him is a way to pass the days, and she amuses herself by "visiting" him. She's very surprised when he seems to react to her presence.

Conrad is just as surprised to see a beautiful woman at the foot of his bed, but he simply regards this as proof that his madness is not fading quite as much as he would otherwise assume. But when his brothers run into trouble and disappear, leaving him behind (don't worry, these are immortals, so he won't die), Conrad's mind continues to clear and he can't but conclude that Néomi is real.

I just loved what Cole did with their relationship, the way she used the fact that Néomi is a ghost. See, in this mythology, vampires feel no physical desire whatsoever until they meet their Brides (each creature here seems to have a fated mate, and these are the vampires'). The way they realise the woman they've met is their Bride is because their blood starts flowing and they feel their heart start pumping. Now, the more time Néomi and Conrad spend together, talking and sharing, the more they fall for each other, and Conrad is convinced she's the woman for him. However, because she's incorporeal, she cannot "blood" him (as it's called), and so this is a relationship where though attraction and sensuality play an important role, they do so without any overt sexuality. The way their relationship developed made me believe in it wholeheartedly.

The corolary of the above paragraph, if you were paying attention, is that Conrad is a virgin while Néomi, well, really, really isn't. And when they finally find a way to really be together, the payoff is fantastic.

So how do they find a way to be together? Ah, that's what's hanging over the reader's mind throughout the book. I kept wondering, how is Cole going to pull off a happy ending without going the JR Ward way? Well, suffice it to say, she does, and it all makes sense and is very satisfying. Not to mention, it sets off all sorts of complications that involved and developed our understanding of many of the other players in this universe of Cole's. It also sets up the next books in the series, and left me dying to read them.



To Taste Temptation, by Elizabeth Hoyt

>> Thursday, October 01, 2009

TITLE: To Taste Temptation
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Hoyt

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Georgian England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Starts the Legend of the Four Soldiers quartet.

REASON FOR READING: I loved Hoyt's Prince series, and so was really excited about her coming out with a new one.

The ton loves nothing more than a good scandal, and they're giddy with the appearance of wealthy Samuel Hartley. Not only is he self-made, American, and in the habit of wearing moccasins, but he is also notorious for fleeing a battle in which several English gentlemen lost their lives. What the ton doesn't know, though, is that Samuel is in London because of this massacre. He believes his regiment was given up to the enemy and won't rest until he finds the traitor.

Lady Emaline Gordon is captivated with Samuel. Not only does he defy convention with his unusual dress, his sensual smile, and his forthright manner, but he survived the battle that killed her beloved brother. Samuel suspects that the person responsible for her brother's death is Jasper Renshaw, Viscount Vale, a family friend since childhood - and Emeline's fiance. Despite Emeline's belief in Vale's innocence and her refusal to break off her betrothal, she and Samuel begin a passionate affair. But can their relationship survive the fallout from Samuel's investigation?
Samuel Hartley is said to be a coward. A Colonial, he joined the British Army during the French and Indian war, and was part of a regiment that was ambushed and massacred by Indians. Sam, however, is supposed to have saved himself by fleeing and abandoning his comrades. When he shows up in London he meets much disapproval and scandal, no matter how rich he's become. It doesn't help that he delights in provoking the ton by being as rough and unpolished as possible (see the inappropriate wearing of moccasins described in the blurb above).

Sam isn't in England for fun, though, but because he's recently discovered evidence that the ambush of his former regiment was due to someone betraying them. Concluding that the culprit must be one of the few survivors, he's determined to talk to them and get to the bottom of things.

Lady Emeline Gordon's brother was in Sam's regiment and died in the massacre. She's a very proper lady and not too impressed by the strange and somewhat wild man who has rented the house next to hers, even if he was in the army with her brother. However, she finds herself agreeing to help him introduce his sister to society, and as their acquaintance develops, so does an attraction. It's an unwelcome one for Emeline, though, and she's so determined not to succumb to it that she goes as far as to get betrothed to someone else.

I was very impressed by how very individual and real these characters felt, and how absorbed I was in their relationship. Emaline's characterisation, especially, was brilliantly done. Her fear of falling in love with Samuel and her insistence on marrying someone she sees as a safe choice was something that, on the surface, I've read a hundred times before in other historicals. And to be honest, it doesn't usually work, because the heroines doing it tend to come across as pretty silly and nonsensical, because it's so obvious they've got nothing to be afraid of. In this case, however, it rang completely true. Emaline's afraid of caring and being hurt again, yes (nothing new here), but also of being with someone who really *sees* her, as Samuel does. She knows there's no emotional safety with him, nowhere to hide, no way to pretend she's a typical, proper upper class lady, when deep inside, she knows very well she's not.

I also really liked Sam. At first he annoyed me a bit (the whole moccasin wearing when it was completely inappropriate thing... who knew I was so rigid that something like that would irritate me that much?). He was also a bit shadowy there at the beginning... when it seems all he cares about is his investigation into who betrayed his regiment, I didn't really get a sense of *him* at all. But once I started seeing more about his feelings for Emaline... oh, wow! He's so crazy about her that this otherwise completely honourable man is willing to steal her from her fiancé, both for her, because he can't see her throwing her life away like that, but also for himself, because he really and truly NEEDS her. He goes after her full out, and I found it really thrilling.

The secondary characters were also well done. I very much liked Emaline's friend Melisande. She looks like this very proper young lady at first, but there are flashes there of someone much more unconventional. The next book in the series is hers, and her perfectly non-gratuitous appearances really made me want to read it.

As for the external plot that will tie the quartet together, I found it fascinating and can't wait to know more. This is not a period you read that much about in the romance genre, and there's especially few books that have any ties to the Colonies, so this element was a plus. It's also such a unique and interesting mystery that being investigated. It's one that has happened already, so it's a mystery rather than suspense (and I so love mysteries in romance), but the events that are being investigated are so gut-wrenching that there's no sense of cool detachment. We do get a bit of resolution at the end of this, the first book in the series, but it seems likely that we won't get the full answers until the fourth book. I, for one, can't wait.



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