The Disgraced Playboy, by Caitlin Crews

>> Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TITLE: The Disgraced Playboy
AUTHOR: Caitlin Crews

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: 2nd in continuity series, The Notorious Wolfes.

Lucas… Playboy. Rebel. Rogue.

No one denies Lucas anything. Women fall at his feet and into his bed at the click of his fingers. His life is charmed, reckless and carefree-he is definitely a bad boy.

Grace Carter knows uncontrollable Lucas could ruin her career, and she won't tolerate his wayward behavior, despite their chemistry. But working with Lucas is thrilling, and after just a small dose of his magic, even Grace's prim-and-proper shell begins to splinter…
I was really looking forward to this one. I picked it up based on really good reviews, and then it got the enthusiastic endorsement of my only romance-reading real-life friend (hey, MI!), who thought it good enough to specifically tell me I needed to read it, when we got together to catch up while I was in Uruguay.

Sorry guys, it really, really, really didn't work for me.

Ok, the plot. This seems to be part of a continuity series, so I don't know the whole set-up, but basically, the hero, Lucas Wolfe, goes through life playing the part of a useless playboy, never known to work for a day in his entire life, and desired by every woman in England. The heroine, Grace, works in PR for a posh department store, which used to be owned by the Wolfes. For reasons of his own, Lucas agrees to become the store's new face, and has to work with Grace. He immediately is determined to seduce her.

I did not believe in these characters at all. I think Lucas is supposed to be this really charming, irresistible man, but even though the author told me so repeatedly, through Grace, I didn't find him charming in the least. I found him annoying and rude, and too often behaving inappropriately to Grace at her own place of work, not caring about the consequences this would have on her. That, to me, is not sexy. It's being inconsiderate and not giving a shit about someone's livelihood.

It's supposed to be this epic seduction, with Grace resisting with all her strength, but finally giving way to Lucas' charm because it's impossible to resist him. I think we're supposed to agree with that, and wonder at how Grace manages to hold out in the face of such irresistibleness. My reaction was the opposite. I wonder what the hell she saw in him, beyond good looks.

And I also wondered what the hell he saw in her that he hadn't seen in a thousand women before. She's distinctly average and I found her very boring.

And then there was this massive scandal about Grace having posed in what sounded like really quite tasteful and harmless swimsuit pictures when she was a teen. That was just preposterous, and ended the book on an even lower note than it started. Even the nice touch of having Grace reevaluate her past and decide she's actually proud of it didn't save it.

I am well aware that I'm being a bit of a grinch here. I don't know why I took such a dislike to the book. I promise I was really well-disposed to it when I started it -I really expected to love it. I guess it must have been a matter of the author's voice just not working for me, which made me react with annoyance to everything else. I just wanted it to end, because I was bored with these two.



One Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

>> Sunday, January 29, 2012

TITLE: One Week in December
AUTHOR: Sebastian Faulks

PAGES: 392

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

London: the week before Christmas, 2007. Over seven days we follow the lives of seven major characters: a hedge fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astray by Islamist theory; a hack book reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on reality TV and genetically altered pot; and a Tube train driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop.

With daring skill and savage humor, A Week in December explores the complex patterns and crossings of modern urban life; as the novel moves to its gripping climax, its characters are forced, one by one, to confront the true nature of the world they—and we all—inhabit.
I randomly picked this one up at the library, not really knowing what to expect. What with all my constant review reading and book chatter online, that's a pretty rare experience these days, and I enjoyed the change. That's possibly because I really enjoyed the book as well.

The setup is pretty straightforward. It's mid-December 2007, and people are just going about their lives. And for a week, we follow a group of characters who are doing exactly that.

It's a diverse and interesting group. There's Jenni Fortune, a Tube driver, involved in a legal case arising from someone jumping in front of her train a couple of years earlier. There's Gabriel Northwood, a barrister also involved in the case. There's John Veals, a hedge fund manager engaging in machiavellian manouvers. There's his son. There's Ralph Tranter, an unscrupulous book reviewer who delights in tearing books to pieces (do I detect some getting even there on Faulks' part?). There's Hassan al-Rashid, a would-be suicide bomber and his father, Knocker, a successful industrialist. There's a Polish football player just starting out in a Premier League team. And these are only the "main" characters.

Over the one week we spend with them, their lives cross and connect in more or less unexpected ways.

I was interested in all of them and their stories (with the exception of Veals, the hedge fund manager). But what was even more intriguing was the way in which Faulks used their stories to explore the idea of the increasing artificiality of modern life, and how the virtual is sometimes becoming more real than 'real' life. Some of it is a bit obvious but still interesting (like Jenni's engagement in a Second Life-type site, or Finn's obsession with a reality show so jaw-dropping it will probably become real at some point). Some is obvious in boring ways (John Veals' financial dealings, but that's probably a function of me reading this in 2011, when the utter lunacy of such stuff is not a particularly novel idea. Still, I dreaded reading his sections. Mind-numbingly boring detail, and I'm an economist, I'm supposed to be interested in this stuff). Most of it is really revealing, though, and I enjoyed thinking about it.

I was listening to the latest Guardian books podcast last weekend, and they were discussing the fact that there is no British equivalent to the Great American Novel, that sort of state-of-the-nation statement. Well, I beg to disagree. One Week In December is a damn good stab at just that.



Life From Scratch, by Melissa Ford

>> Friday, January 27, 2012

TITLE: Life From Scratch
AUTHOR: Melissa Ford

PAGES: 208
PUBLISHER: Bell Bridge Books

SETTING: Contemporary US (New York)
TYPE: Chick Lit

Her life's a mess. And so is her kitchen. Divorced, heartbroken and living in a lonely New York apartment with a tiny kitchen, Rachel Goldman realizes she doesn't even know how to cook the simplest meal for herself. Can learning to fry an egg help her understand where her life went wrong? She dives into the culinary basics. Then she launches a blog to vent her misery about life, love and her goal of an unburnt casserole.To her amazement, the blog's a hit. She becomes a minor celebrity. Next, a sexy Spaniard enters her life. Will her souffles stop falling? Will she finally forget about the husband she still loves? And how can she explain to her readers that she still hasn't learned how to cook up a happy life from scratch?
A few months earlier, Rachel Goldman took the wrenching decision of leaving her husband. Adam no longer was the man she had married. For the past years, he'd been so focused on his work that he didn't even see Rachel, and she couldn't stand being married but not really having a husband any longer.

Since she'd made a big change in her life already, Rachel decided to go one more step further and take a year off her job as graphic designer. That's how, as the book starts, she's engaged in learning to cook (reversing the influence of her hyper-successful mother, who believes that real women don't cook; they go out or order really nice takeaway), and blogging about it.

And it's that new past-time that leads her to new things in her life, from dating a sexy Spaniard to exploring the possibility of a new career and yes, finding herself.

I hesitated before writing those last two words, because though accurate, they might make the book sound like self-indulgent nonsense. It's not. Rachel is a really enjoyable character, not completely put together yet, after her divorce, but working on it, and doing a good job (temporary setbacks notwithstanding).

There were quite a few things I really liked here. First, there's a really nice portrayal of female friendship. Rachel and her friend Arianna have a really nice relationship, supportive and warm. And Arianna isn't just there to give Rachel someone to call and bare her feelings to: she's clearly got her own life and her own story, and we do get to see some of it here.

I also liked the whole cooking and blogging thing. It's not gimmicky like the project from Julie and Julia. Rachel is properly learning from scratch, as the per the title, and in the blog she shares her discoveries, her joy at discovering the creativity and satisfaction in cooking a good meal, as well as what's going on in her life. There are snippets of her blog entries at the beginning of each chapter, and I really liked reading them. I didn't think they were as absolutely amazing as others seem to in the book (always a danger, when you have a character writing something that's supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread), but they were fun, and I also liked the sense of a blogging community. It seemed different from the online romance community that I know and love, but still quite nice.

Finally, though this is chick lit, there is romance and there is a happy ending. I'm not going to say much about it, to avoid spoilers, but it was surprising, and yet a really good, satisfying ending.

MY GRADE: A solid, enjoyable B.


The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

>> Wednesday, January 25, 2012

TITLE: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
AUTHOR: Philip Pullman

PAGES: 245
PUBLISHER: Canongate

TYPE: Fiction

Upon its hardcover publication, renowned author Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ provoked heated debates and stirred a frenzy of controversy throughout the clerical and literary worlds alike with its bold retelling of the life of Jesus Christ.

In this remarkable piece of fiction, famously atheistic author Philip Pullman challenges the events of the Gospels and puts forward his own compelling and plausible version of the life of Jesus. Written with unstinting authority, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a pithy, erudite, subtle, and powerful book by a beloved author, a text to be read and reread, studied and unpacked, much like the Good Book itself.
Days after finishing it, I'm still not quite sure what to make of this one. Unfortunately, I had to miss my book club's discussion of it -that might have helped. Basically, this is Pullman's version of the life of Jesus, an alternate explanation of what might have actually happened and still be recorded in the Bible as it is today. This includes Jesus Christ being actually a pair of twins: Jesus, who goes around preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God, and his brother Christ, who follows him, recording his deeds and words and putting his own spin on them.

This is not like, say, The Red Tent (, taking something from the Bible and providing us with more insight into the characters and why they do what they do. It kind of moves a little bit in that direction, but it's still very much a "this happened, and then this happened, and X told Y to do this and Y did it" type of thing, of the kind where you constantly go "hang on! Why on Earth did X agree to do it?". I found it very distancing, and found it hard to really care about what was going on.

I did think, however, that it was a clever book, and I enjoyed its exploration of what the truth is, and whether a more apt fiction can be more truthful than reality. Still, I think I probably would have appreciated it more if I was a bit more familiar with the New Testament, but alas, my religious instruction ended as soon as I was old enough to decide such things on my own. My knowledge of the Bible is a child's, plus whatever I've managed to absorb as a grown-up without really trying. This meant I probably caught only a fraction of the clever twists.

It feels a bit churlish, but given that in this blog I rate books purely for my enjoyment of them, and that my main reaction to this one was: "so what?", it's not a great grade.



His, Unexpectedly, by Susan Fox

>> Monday, January 23, 2012

TITLE: His, Unexpectedly
AUTHOR: Susan Fox

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Contemporary US and Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Wild Ride to Love series

Shying away from commitment, Jenna Fallon has only one rule in life: to ignore the rules. So when her car breaks down en route to Vancouver and she's forced to hitch a ride with a sexy stranger, she's thrilled to discover they share the same no-holds-barred views...As a globe-trotting marine biologist, Mark Chambers is used to changing locations - and women. Yet as he and Jenna make their way up the Pacific coast, camping, skinny dipping, and having scorching hot sex, Mark's not so sure he wants to say goodbye. But is Jenna brave enough to meet the challenge of a man who may be perfect for her?
This series, by Susan Fox/Lyons, has been one of my best discoveries this past year. The link is three sisters travelling home to their youngest sister's wedding and finding love in the process, in planes, trains and automobiles. Fun premise, but the wonderful thing about the books is that Fox takes full advantage of the prolonged proximity inherent in a road romance, and gives us heroes and heroines who actually talk to each other. By the end of each book, I was completely convinced that the couple in question would make it and that they were perfect for each other.

The other brilliant thing about this particular book in the series is that it features a heroine unlike any other I've read in romance novels. Jenna is a true free spirit, and not a ditz. As the book starts, she's just spent a few months on one of the many projects she's been interested in over the years -in this case, volunteering in a project to count peregrine falcons- and is on the way home. But then her beloved ancient car breaks down, and she lacks the money to fix it. Of course, she could phone home and borrow some money, but that would generate yet another 'I-told-you-so' from her family. Fortunately, she just happens to meet a man heading the same way in a camper van, and ends up hitching a ride.

That man is marine biologist Dr. Mark Chambers, and at first sight, he couldn't be more different from Jenna. He grew up with a hippy mother who raised him in a really crappy commune. It wasn't the kind of commune where children are raised by a whole village; it was one where the adults selfishly concentrated on their own pleasure and the children weren't raised at all. Not a very safe or happy environment, so when Mark's mother died and he went back to his very strict, traditional grandparents, he relished the structure in the new life, and has become very much like them, rigid and inflexible. His first impression of Jenna is that she's just like his mother, and he's therefore not particularly well-disposed towards her.

But the great thing about this book is that it's soon quite clear that while Jenna and Mark are superficially opposites, they actually share very similar outlooks and want lives for themselves that aren't at all incompatible. They discover this organically, through long conversations, and each encourages the other to have a good, critical look at their preconceptions. Both change during this book, but in healthy way, which means that they are still in essence the same person at the end, only better.

I especially appreciated that Fox doesn't take sides here. Not one way of being is pushed as being better than the other. With Jenna, for instance, it was clear that Fox wasn't saying that there's any thing wrong with being unconventional. Jenna is not made into a cookie-cutter heroine, even at the end. Her big issue is commitment-phobia, and the more extreme elements of this can be traced to a traumatic relationship in her youth, but this doesn't mean falling in love with Mark means she's "cured" and now wants a white picket fence and a 9-to-5 job. Nope, Jenna is still as much of a free spirit at the end as she was at the beginning, she's just learnt that committing to something doesn't have to mean loss of freedom, as long as you choose a person to commit to who wants the same kind of life that you do. She's still Jenna, and Mark is still Mark, even as he learns to appreciate life more and to accept other people.

In addition to a fantastic romance, His, Unexpectedly also provides excellent family drama. Jenna's relationship with her family is quite a fraught one. There's a great deal of both love and pain, there, showing perfectly well that those you love are the ones that can hurt you the most. This family of overachievers needs to appreciate their daughter, who feels that whatever she does, her judgment is questioned and any mistake (unavoidable, for an adventurous person such as Jenna) is seen as a character flaw. They need to learn that what Jenna does is also valuable, and this is what her relationship with Mark gives to Jenna, that self-knowledge. It was especially satisfying that we've seen over the entire series that Jenna is not the only one to feel that way, and matters come to a real head in this book.

This is a deceptively deep, meaty book, as it's also very fun and sexy at the same time. The big emotions kind of sneak up on you, and it made me choke up much more than supposedly "tragic" books do.


PS - Having just finished my review, I went to have a look at the one at AAR, and the reviewer mentions that the big flaw for her was the structure, with alternating chapters being written in 1st person, from Jenna's POV, and 3rd person, from Mark's. So I probably should mention this, in case anyone has got any hang-ups about it. It's not something that bothered me in the least -actually, I quite liked it, myself!


When Beauty Tamed the Beast, by Eloisa James

>> Saturday, January 21, 2012

TITLE: When Beauty Tamed the Beast
AUTHOR: Eloisa James

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Early 19th century England and Wales
TYPE: Romance

Miss Linnet Berry Thrynne is a Beauty... Naturally, she's betrothed to a Beast.

Piers Yelverton, Earl of Marchant, lives in a castle in Wales where, it is rumored, his bad temper flays everyone he crosses. And rumor also has it that a wound has left the earl immune to the charms of any woman.

Linnet is not just any woman.

She is more than merely lovely: her wit and charm brought a prince to his knees. She estimates the earl will fall madly in love—in just two weeks.

Yet Linnet has no idea of the danger posed to her own heart by a man who may never love her in return.
After a ridiculous misunderstanding involving a prince, some innocent kisses and an ill-fitting dress that makes her look pregnant, Linnet Thrynne is ruined. She might still be a virgin, but no one will believe it. All seems lost until Linnet's aunt comes up with a way to actually take advantage of the misunderstanding: the Duke of Windebank's eldest son is rumoured to be impotent, so a bride with heir included would be a bonus. And that is how Linnet finds herself bundled off to a remote castle in Wales, which Piers, the Duke's heir, has set up a sort of teaching hospital.

Piers is a brilliant doctor, doesn't suffer fools gladly and his natural grumpiness isn't improved by the constant pain from his leg, which forces him to rely on a cane. Does this sound familiar at all? I don't tend to watch much TV, but House MD has been the exception since my brother forced me to watch the first episode (I'm still catching up and hovering somewhere round the end of season 2, so there might be some references here that I missed). Anyway, Piers isn't impressed with his father's meddling, and no matter how attractive his "fiancee" is, he won't give his father what he wants (the two share quite a painful history). But Linnet is unlike any other beautiful woman he's met before, and she gives as good as she gets, which he finds extremely appealing...

This was fun. I thought things kind of collapsed in the last third or so, but I enjoyed the first parts quite a bit. I especially had fun with the whole House thing. It's taken to just the right point... a grumpy but brilliant doctor, with a bad leg and an extremely sarcastic tongue, but that's it. It's inspiration, not an extra episode of House set in the 19th century.

I also liked how James mixed this inspiration with Beauty and the Beast. In that context, the setting that is more fantasy historical than proper historical romance was perfect. It feels "period", but James doesn't particularly concern herself with historical plausibility (I mean, having an Earl and a marriageable miss constantly disappear off for naked swimming lessons? Really?). But it was all so vivid and fun that I didn't care.

Now, the romance I had some doubts about. I enjoyed the banter, but on reflection, I realise I just didn't find the relationship particularly romantic. There was something about the way they constantly traded insults that went a teeny bit too far for me to find it romantic, I guess, even though I recognised this was just right for these clever, cerebral and unsentimental people. Well, clever and cerebral except for Piers' stubborn refusal to grab what he wants just to spite his father. That was extremely out of character, and got very tedious.

And things weren't much better in the believable romance front with the secondary romance between Piers' estranged parents. Basically, there was so much painful history there that I felt it wasn't developed enough, and would have needed either more page time or to be cut completely. I think I've had similar reactions to previous Eloisa James books as well: I feel somehow distanced from her characters and enjoy the books more for the comedy of manners than for the romance. Fortunately, I enjoy this aspect quite a lot.

What I didn't much enjoy was the ending. I didn't think it really went with the rest of the book. Suddenly it's all melodrama and Peril of Death, and it left me scratching my head.

Still, an entertaining read, if not a particularly memorable one.

MY GRADE: A B, mostly on the strength of the humour and Ms. James' writing, which is beautiful.


The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

>> Thursday, January 19, 2012

TITLE: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
AUTHOR: Katherine Howe

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

"Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?"

Connie Goodwin thinks her academic advisor is teasing her; she has mastered the scholarship surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692 and knows the question he poses is preposterous. She never suspects that answering it will alter everything she knows about the past, her family, and the professor himself.

Sent by her mother to prepare her long-deceased grandmother's home for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a decrepit dwelling filled with venerable oddities, including a collection of ancient bottles filled with peculiar liquids and powders. On her first night there, Connie chances on a crumbling bit of paper, bearing the words "Deliverance Dane," that has been carefully hidden inside a key tucked between the pages of a 300-year-old family Bible.

Combing the local church registry for traces of this mysterious name, Connie strikes up an acquaintance with Sam, a steeplejack engaged in the church s preservation. Together they piece together Deliverance's tragic story and learn of her precious book of spells and recipes for healing potions. When a series of sinister events threaten Sam's life, Connie's search for the book is transformed from scholarly pursuit to a matter of life and death -- and love.
I'm forever on the lookout for books that remind me of Barbara Michaels', but I stumbled upon this one completely by accident. I'm very glad I did. Although flawed, it was tremendously enjoyable and dealt with a historical period I didn't know all that much about and found fascinating.

Connie Goodwin has just passed the interrogation that's officially made her a doctoral candidate. All she needs now is a dissertation topic, something that interests her and that relies on original sources. Little does she know, when her mother asks her to clear out her late grandmother's house, that the perfect source material will be right there.

The house, in the small town of Marblehead, near Salem, is a bit of a hovel, and the job of sorting out valuables before the house can be sold seems monumental. But Connie is naturally drawn to the old books first, and it's there that she finds her first reference to "Deliverance Dane". Tugging at that first loose thread soon leads her to suspect that the mysterious Deliverance might have been a previously unknown woman involved in the Salem witch trials, and that she might have owned a book of spells that could still be out there. And since no book of spells from the time has ever been found, the potential is huge for a dissertation topic that will really get her well and truly started in her career.

With the help of a young man who befriends her, Connie begins the painstaking investigative work that she hopes will lead her to Deliverance Dane's book. But it's not all plain sailing: her dissertation supervisor is showing an unhealthily intense interest in her search, and after a while, Connie can't help but suspect that there is more to Deliverance's book than women writing out old wives' cures and playing at being witches.

I absolutely love the setup of having someone in the present investigating a story from the past, with the action moving between the two periods, but so very few authors do it well and get the balance right. Howe is one of those few. The action takes place mostly in the present, with the sparse sections set at the times of Deliverance and her descendents exactly enough to enrich the investigation and mirror and illustrate some of the developments in Connie's story.

I also loved that Connie had to do proper detective work to uncover what had gone on in Deliverance's time. The last few books I read with this setup (by Rachel Hore, whose ideas I like but whose execution I often find a bit disappointing) had the present-day protagonist just stumbling on stuff, and then doing nothing more strenuous than reading a diary. Connie isn't so lucky. She has to follow up on all sorts of sources, and since the book is set in 1991, this doesn't mean just going online and running a few searches. She needs to actually visit a variety of places and consult a whole lot of potential documents, from church archives to probate records, and when she does find something, she needs to interpret and decode what ambiguous records might mean and imply.

The only problem there was that, much as I liked the detective work, I think Howe underestimates her readers slightly, and unfortunately, Connie comes off as a bit of an idiot sometimes for not making the obvious connections. She's a doctoral candidate specialising in colonial history, for goodness sake, would it really take her so long to make the connection between an "Almanack" someone was really upset had been given away and the spellbook she was specifically reading that material to try to find? Plus, she's a little bit too trusting with her supervisor sometimes.

I was also a bit nonplussed by the direction in which Howe took her story, with certain things being a lot more real than I'd expected (hope I'm not being too obvious when I'm trying to be cryptic!). It wasn't that I didn't like it, really, more that I was expecting something different, both from what I'd heard about the book and from the sections I'd read. It was... interesting, I guess, but I thought if Howe had kept in the direction I was expecting, she might have had something even more fascinating.

Something I really ended up liking, though were the relationships in the book. There are a few false steps in the characterisations at the beginning, with people sounding a bit off (like, Connie is telling her new friend Sam about witches' brooms, and tells him that "a medieval witch on her way to a sabbath would strip off all her clothes". And Howe tells us that Sam "blanched" at that. Really? Really? The idea of a woman stripping off makes this actually quite lovely guy, untraditional enough to wear a nose ring, blanch?). It's minor stuff, but it was a bit distracting. However, Howe soon hits her stride, and things feel much more natural. I liked Connie and Sam's romance, but I think my favourite was the way Howe develops the concept of mother-daughter relationships, both through the way Connie and her initially stereotypically flaky New-Ager mum start to understand each other better, and through what we see in the historical sections.

All in all, the strengths were enough to make the weaknesses seem relatively unimportant, and I would recommend this.



Snapped, by Laura Griffin

>> Tuesday, January 17, 2012

TITLE: Snapped
AUTHOR: Laura Griffin

PAGES: 432
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Book 4 in the Tracers series


On a sweltering summer afternoon, Sophie Barrett walks into a nightmare. A sniper has opened fire on a college campus. When the carnage is over, three people-plus the shooter-are dead and dozens more are injured. Sophie escapes virtually unscathed. Yet as details emerge from the investigation, she becomes convinced that this wasn't the random, senseless act it appeared to be. No one wants to believe her-not the cops, not her colleagues at the Delphi Center crime lab, and definitely not Jonah Macon, the homicide detective who's already saved her life once.

Jonah has all kinds of reasons for hoping Sophie is mistaken. Involving himself with a key witness could derail an already messy investigation, not to mention jeopardize his career. But Sophie is as determined and fearless as she is sexy. If he can't resist her, he can at least swear to protect her. Because if Sophie is right, she's made herself the target of a killer without a conscience. And the real terror is only just beginning...
Sophie Barrett is a receptionist at the Delphi Crime Centre lab, but she wants to get ready for bigger and better things. Thus her midday visit to the local university, where she plans to enroll in some courses. She never makes it, though, since someone starts shooting in the university quad. It soon becomes clear that it's a sniper, shooting from up high. Still, in time, the cops get to him, and he kills himself. And when the autopsy shows a brain tumor, that's basically case closed for the police.

Not for Sophie, though, because she saw something that makes her feel sure that the shooter-driven-crazy-by-tumor-kills-random-strangers explanation is not the right one. Unfortunately, the police don't seem to believe her, not even Jonah Macon, the police detective she knows already and thought liked her.

The suspense plot starts out really fantastic. I was intrigued by it, really wanted to know what had happened. The clues came out in a natural way, and I enjoyed the way the cops conducted the investigation. There were quite a few other cops, apart from Jonah (I suspect their books will come out at some point soon), and all played key parts in the investigation.

Unfortunately, when the ending approached, this all got a lot less interesting. I didn't find the resolution particularly credible (in fact, I found the whole idea of it faintly ridiculous and the reasons for this fantastic plot pretty pedestrian). It ended up being a bit disappointing.

The romance was a bit boring as well. There seems to be a lot of history between Sophie and Jonah, which means that Griffin doesn't really develop their relationship much at the beginning. It just is, instantly. I think a lot of this development would have happened in the book I read, Unforgivable. Problem is, I just didn't remember this. I read it a year ago, and whatever happened between Sophie and Jonah, it wasn't interesting or intriguing enough to stick in my mind. Same thing for something bad that happens to Sophie in that book and that influences her character and behaviour a lot: that one at least I very vaguely remember, but I wanted a bit more, and Griffin didn't really catch us up.

Anyway, whatever development there is in the relationship here, it just didn't interest me much. It's a very tepid romance, and not one I believed in particularly. Not surprising, since I didn't find the characters individually too interesting, either.

MY GRADE: A C+, but almost a B-, due to the good suspense plot at the beginning.


New York To Dallas, by JD Robb

>> Sunday, January 15, 2012

TITLE: New York To Dallas

PAGES: 416

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Romantic suspense / Police procedural
SERIES: 34th full-length novel in the In Death series

The new novel from the #1 New York Times-bestselling author, which takes readers deeper into the mind of Eve Dallas than ever before.

The number-one New York Times-bestselling author J. D. Robb presents an intense and terrifying new case for New York homicide cop Eve Dallas, one that will take her all the way to the city that gave her her name-and plunge her into the nightmares of her childhood.

When a monster named Isaac McQueen-taken down by Eve back in her uniform days-escapes from Rikers, he has two things in mind. One is to pick up where he left off, abducting young victims and leaving them scarred in both mind and body. The other is to get revenge on the woman who stopped him all those years ago.
This new installment in the In Death series comes with a title that breaks the pattern of the previous ones, but with a plot that doesn't. It provides quite a lot more than recent books on the personal front, but it's still very much an In Death book.

Back in Eve's rookie days, when she was still a beat cop, she accidentally stumbled upon the lair of Isaac McQueen, a pedophile who liked to "collect" young girls. A routine round of door-knocking after a purse-snatching on the street below led to McQueen's apprehension. Eve's perceptiveness in realising something was not quite right when she knocked on McQueen's door, as well as her success in capturing him, brought her to Feeney's notice in Homicide, and the rest is history.

It's not history to McQueen, though, and when he breaks out of prison, determined to recreate his collection, he plans to also get his revenge on the cop who got him. Not only will he kill Eve, he will mess with her head by forcing her to face him in Dallas, the city that looms so large in her childhood memories.

With this series, it often feels like there are two separate aspects. There's the police procedural aspect and there's the personal, relationship stuff. The best books marry the two well and make each as strong as the other, while the merely good concentrate on one of the two elements. This one is of the former type.

The case is really well done. It's stomach-turning, but the way Eve and her team approach the investigation is solidly enjoyable, and McQueen himself might be vile, but he's vile in an interesting way.

But it's the way that the investigation and the case itself affect Eve that is even more fascinating. If you've been following this series, you'll guess that a case such as this one will prove particularly difficult for Eve to handle, given her past. And when you add the fact that she's had to do this in Dallas, and that this is because McQueen knows of her past, it's especially bad for her. There is quite a big revelation here, and while not particularly shocking (I guess the change in titles had me looking for a big shock somewhere), it was very, very good.

And lest I sound like a sadist, gloating at how Eve suffers, it's the way she and Roarke deal with all this that makes it great. They might not have been married for that long, despite the tens of books, but they're miles from where they were when Eve's past first started to emerge. They are a unit now, and the trust and caring make things bearable that wouldn't have been otherwise.

MY GRADE: A solid B+.


Blue-Eyed Devil, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Friday, January 13, 2012

TITLE: Blue-Eyed Devil
AUTHOR: Lisa Kleypas

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows Sugar Daddy

His name is Hardy Cates. He’s a self-made millionaire who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s made enemies in the rough-and-tumble ride to the top of Houston’s oil industry. He’s got hot blood in his veins. And vengeance on his mind.

She’s Haven Travis. Despite her family’s money, she refuses to set out on the path they’ve chosen for her. But when Haven marries a man her family disapproves of, her life is set on a new and dangerous course.

Two years have gone by. Now Haven has come home. This time, she is determined to guard her heart. And Hardy Cates, a family enemy, is the last person she needs darkening her door—or setting her soul on fire.
This was the most disappointing book I read during my holidays. I'd had a few smallish issues with Sugar Daddy, but mostly, I'd enjoyed it quite a bit. And I'd been very intrigued by Hardy, and looked forward to his story. However, while very readable, Blue-Eyed Devil made me want to bang it against the wall too many times.

Haven Travis and Hardy Cates meet on the day of Haven's brother's wedding. Haven is there with her boyfriend, Nick, but can't help but notice the very magnetic Hardy as soon as he comes in. Due to a misunderstanding, they find themselves in a darkened room and share a passionate kiss, with Haven mistaking Hardy for her boyfriend for much of it (obviously, she wonders why this kiss is turning her on much more than usual, duh!).

Haven does realise who she's kissing after a while, though, and is soon devastated to hear that Hardy is gatecrashing the wedding, and is a former friend of her sister-in-law, who tried to steal her away from her now-husband. Obviously, Haven thinks, Hardy was trying to get revenge on her brother when he kissed her.

The shock makes her even more committed to marrying her boyfriend, even though her family disapproves and her father threatens to cut her off if she does. The ensuing isolation from her family means that when her husband starts being abusive towards her, Haven doesn't feel she has anyone to turn to, and endures the situation for years, while Nick methodically destroys her self-esteem and her entire life.

But finally, Haven gets out of it, and before too long, Hardy is back in her life, determined not to accept no for an answer.

I had many, many issues with BED. The main one is probably how unconvincing I found Haven as a character. The book is narrated from her 1st-person point of view, and we are with her as she goes through her abusive relationship, with a husband who first tears her self-esteem to pieces with constant criticism and verbal abuse and then moves on to physical violence. I got the feeling Kleypas had done her research about abusers and what a believable MO would be and had built Haven and Nick's relationship accordingly. And I still didn't buy it for a minute. I think it was that it felt too step-by-step, more some sort of "typical" abuse story than the story of this particular character. This meant that I never completely understood why Haven would not have done something earlier. Kleypas had set it up to show why, Haven was telling me exactly why, in perfect therapy-speak, and I wasn't buying it. I think this is a section of the story that would have worked a lot better as a flashback, with it being hidden from the reader at the beginning, to create some tension about why Haven was not comfortable with Hardy.

I also felt very frustrated and disbelieving of Haven's tolerance of the situation she finds herself in when she gets her first job after that, working for her brother's company. Basically, her line manager is the female equivalent of her abusive husband. And Haven knows it immediately. By then, she has began to recover from her earlier experiences and done quite a bit of therapy, so when it starts, she doesn't blame herself, or anything. She realises pretty quickly that the woman is gaslighting her, critisising her constantly for nothing, putting her down, doing things like hiding files and then telling Haven off for being disorganised when they turn up in weird places, telling her to come to a meeting at 1.30 and then swearing she said 1 when Haven turns up half an hour late, that kind of thing. And Haven just goes with it. Haven talks about it with her therapist, but doesn't complain to her brother, doesn't stand up to the woman. Someone else has to do it for her. I wanted to smack Haven and tell her to stop being a doormat. Why on earth doesn't she just quit? She doesn't need the money, she doesn't need to put up with this. And don't tell me she doesn't want to be a spoilt rich girl who doesn't earn anything she gets, because that's exactly who she is here. Other than those two years with Nick, she's perfectly happy to be handed everything. Plus, I also couldn't believe the evil boss' behaviour. Haven was her own boss' sister, after all. Wouldn't such a person be more likely to assume Haven would complain, and suck up to her instead?

But it wasn't only Haven I had trouble with. I also found Hardy completely uninteresting here. He's at the same time arrogant and high-handed and sexist, and too, too perfect in understanding of Haven and her issues (except for one small misstep which I thought was well done). There was nothing interesting at all. He was an amazing character in Sugar Daddy, but I didn't recognise that character at all in BED. His behaviour in Sugar Daddy, right at the end, made me think that his book was going to be about whether the right woman would make Hardy chose her over his overwhelming ambition. This was presented as the big issue with him. But in BED... what ambition? This was a complete non-issue, and his big rivalry with the Travises was over with a whimper. The book was about something completely different, and I found this a lot less interesting.

What made me go from disinterest to outright dislike, though, was a tiny bit which was just glossed over by Kleypas and stopped me in my tracks. At one point Hardy talks about his brother and says the man is taking after his father, who we know (and he's just mentioned) has a history of sexual assault, and that he had to bail him out earlier and pay off a girl's family to keep them from pressing charges. And that's not supposed to be an issue at all, as far as Kleypas is concerned. This utter asshole, who enables his brother in continuing to be able to commit more rapes is still the hero of this book. Unbelievable.

The book also felt very old-fashioned in many ways. Haven's lack of experience was yet another way in which she was completely unbelievable. It was similar with Liberty... well, at least Liberty had been allowed to have a couple of relationships, but they had all been crap until she met the hero, and she, like Haven, was convinced she was awful in bed. Amazing that these books were written in 2007 and 2008, it felt like a holdover from the dark times in romance when even contemporary heroines had to be virgins, whether that was realistic or not.

Additionally, I really disliked what I guess I might describe as the book's sensibility. This was the first book I've ever seen where someone's been described as a "good old boy" and it's a positive. Showing my biases here, but ick! In BED, this kind of man, high-handed and arrogant, convinced he knows what's best for the little woman in his life, is the best kind of man there is, and I absolutely hated it. There was a bit of a whiff of it in Sugar Daddy, which was one of the problems I mentioned I had with it, but it's terribly overt here. It made me want to stop reading every time I came across a particularly bad bit, whether it was something snide about those icky metrosexuals or Hardy showing off his relationship with Haven in front of Nick by patting her bottom (yes, he really did that).

With all those really big problems, should I even mention the really bizarre lecture in the middle of the book about something called rigs-to-reef (some sort of thing where oil companies, instead of bringing in old oil rigs, chop the tops off and leave the in the ocean, for fish to colonise). It had nothing to do with anything, and yet we got a big info-dump about how some environmentalists are against it, but it actually helps fish, and it's not at all about oil companies saving costs. I don't know enough about this to make a judgment, and a lecture in the middle of a romance novel is not going to convince me.

There's a third book in the series, but I don't think I'm going to read it, even hoping it's more like Sugar Daddy than this one. I had a look on amazon and it starts with a scene between the heroine and her boyfriend, who happens to be a vegan. Given the glorification here and in Sugar Daddy of unreconstructed machismo, I just know Kleypas' treatment of his veganism is going to enrage me. Tell me, those of you who've read it, is it used to prove that he's less of a man that the manly, steak-eating Jack Travis? I bet it is.

MY GRADE: A D. I really didn't like this.


Holiday reading

>> Thursday, January 12, 2012

I'm back! A had a fantastic holiday, and even the 36-hour trip back to Liverpool (including an 8-hour wait in Sao Paulo and a 5-hour one in London) didn't manage to put a dent in my relaxation.

My main plan, in addition to seeing family and friends, was to not do all that much, just lie about and read some good books. I definitely managed that. The first couple of weeks I was in Montevideo, out every evening with different old friends and running around doing errands for my mum, who's having some knee issues (this included doing her Christmas shopping two days before Christmas -lovely!). I did some reading, but not as much as I would have liked. But the last two weeks and a bit, we all decamped to my parents' place in Punta del Este, and I mostly sat by the pool with my Kindle. Bliss!

And the best bit is, quite a few of the books I read were great. I'd been hoarding some by authors I knew I'd enjoy, and even most of the ones I only suspected I'd like were good. In fact, half of the 23 books I finished were either A- or B+ books, which is way better than usual for me.

I'll be reviewing all of these in the next few weeks, but highlights included the much talked-about A Lady Awakened, by Cecilia Grant, Practice Makes Perfect, by Julie James (which I'd been hoarding, since it was the last Julie James book I had left), and His, Unexpectedly, by Susan Fox, one of my favourite discoveries from the last year.

I also really enjoyed The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson, a paranormal, Jack the Ripper-themed YA (definitely not my usual fare), Lead Me On, by Victoria Dahl (loved the very flawed heroine), the good-though-imperfect The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe and Unclaimed, by Courtney Milan, who's fast becoming one of my favourite authors.

There really weren't many books I didn't like. There was only one D (Blue-Eyed Devil, by Lisa Kleypas, which annoyed the hell out of me), and 3 in the C range (including my first by Caitlin Crews, who I really expected to like and one by Wen Spencer, whose Ukiah Oregon books I've enjoyed). I also had one DNF, which I won't mention just yet, since I stopped reading after the very first scene turned me off massively, but might end up giving it another shot.

Finally, looking back at what I read, I realise it was a very romancey month for me. I've been reading more and more non-fiction and stuff outside of the genre, but a full 70% of what I read while on holiday was traditional romance. And even the books that weren't fully within the romance genre, most had strong romance threads (e.g. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, or Life From Scratch, by Melissa Ford, both of which I enjoyed).


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