Hot Dish, by Connie Brockway

>> Thursday, May 31, 2012

TITLE: Hot Dish
AUTHOR: Connie Brockway

PAGES: 432

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance / Women's fiction
SERIES: Not that I know of

Here she is...

Years ago, Jenn Lind’s family’s dynasty crashed, forcing them to move out of their Atlanta penthouse and into a cabin in Fawn Creek, Minnesota. But Jenn saw a way out—she’d win the Buttercup Pageant, grab the scholarship, and run far, far away. The plan almost worked too, until some conniving townspeople cheated her out of her tiara. Still, she swore she’d make it out someday…

Miss Minnesota?

Twenty years later, she’s on the cusp of real stardom. She’s about to leave for New York to be crowned queen of daytime TV when Fawn Creek asks her to be grand marshal of the town’s sesquicentennial. Her network accepts, delighted over the potential PR, especially since she’ll be sharing the “honor” with international celebrity Steve Jaax, a man she got tangled up with once long ago. Between the all too attractive Steve, the townspeople, and a hundred pound butter sculpture, Jenn may never escape Fawn Creek. Or even worse, she might.
Jenn Lind is on the verge of making it big as the new lifestyle star of a large network. She is completely uninterested in leading an anniversary parade in Fawn Creek, Minnessota, the small town where she and her parents moved to when their business collapsed. The teenaged Jenn always felt like an outsider there, and the town didn't let her forget it. But the network is owned by a particularly unpleasant and sanctimonious prick, and the executives decide the Fawn Creek celebrations go well the wholesome image the prick likes his stars to cultivate.

Also in Fawn Creek in the middle of winter, and supposed to lead the parade with Jenn, is famous sculptor Steve Jaax. Steve and Jenn met way back when, right after she had just been unfairly deprived of the Buttercup Queen title (and the chance to escape town via a scholarship). Steve, down on his luck after a nasty divorce, had accepted to carve the finalists' heads in butter (yes, seriously). To cut a long story short, it appears that Jenn's parents have kept the butter head (which everyone had thought had been melted), and Steve is particularly interested in seeing it again. He justifies this by saying it was a seminal work in his career (which it actually was), but mainly, it's because he hid something in it that he desperately wants.

The first thing I should say is that I don't tend to like wacky. I got a lot of it here. Part of the story is about Jenn and Steve meeting again and slowly connecting, which was nice and not wacky at all, but a lot of time (and I do mean a LOT) was taken up by wackiness around the dratted butter head. Several parties are after it, for different reasons, and there are farcical chases, inept wannabe criminals, crazy ransom demands and ugly blackmail. It bored me when it was done for comedy, and I really disliked the point when it got serious and Jenn was actually threatened and blackmailed over some innocent thing in her past that could get her fired by the sanctimonious prick.

And that brings me to the fact that I lost a lot of respect for Jenn for even considering working for this guy. She's got a gay best friend, and yet she would work for a human being so vile that he would consider being gay grounds for firing someone?

Anyway, because of all the butter head stuff, it took me a while to get into the book. The full first half, since most of the attention is on the butter head and the iniquities of the people of Fawn Creek, I found it hard to warm to it. I was coasting, not really getting it. But then it suddenly all just got better, when Steve and Jenn started to click, and I was really into the romance, which felt fresh and original. Unfortunately, I felt that element of the plot got shortchanged by all the craziness going on around it. It really needed much, much more development.

I also didn't much like that in the end, the message seemed to be that Jenn just has a prejudice against her town, and is not being fair. I felt I was being told that because of her negative experience as a teen (which, apparently, was mostly her own fault for not wanting to be there and holding herself separate), she just assumes the worst about everyone in the town, and can't really see the good things about it. Well, unfortunately, in my opinion, the town was mainly populated by judgmental idiots, and they did treat her abominably when she was young. Even during the book, they don't treat her well at all. There are all those horrible old ladies harassing her, and they all seem to take pleasure in taking her down. Ugh, I wanted her to run far, far away, not come to accept that this was a good place.



The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost

>> Tuesday, May 29, 2012

TITLE: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
AUTHOR: J. Maarten Troost

PAGES: 272

SETTING: The South Pacific
TYPE: Non fiction

At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.
I recently discovered a new podcast, Books on the Nightstand, and this was the first of the books mentioned there that I picked up. The magic words? That people who liked Bill Bryson would enjoy this book. So did I? Did I ever!

The basic plot is that the narrator's girlfriend gets a job running an NGO in Tarawa, a tiny island in Kiribati, in the South Pacific, and they both move over there. There's no big overarching plot, just Troost's daily life and his adventures in Tarawa, which is not your ideal tropical paradise.

The book is a bit slow to get started. I thought we wallowed in the ever-present Kiribati shit on the reefs for a little too long. I liked it well enough in those first sections, but didn't feel compelled to pick it up after putting it down. But then when it got properly started I loved it, and ripped through the second half.

Troost is a great narrator. He's got a very appealingly deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humour, and I laughed out loud often. I giggled like crazy while reading the chapter on Maarten going mad wanting to know about the Clinton sex scandal, desperately trying to find a broadcast on his shortwave radio, hearing only random details, and then spending days and days wandering about the significance of cigars and stained dresses. I was half amused, half horrified with the chapter of dogs on Tarawa. And I loved the islanders' fondness for the Macarena.

Even through that, though, you can see his frustration with the most unsavoury features of life in Tarawa, including the ineptness and dishonesty of the politicians. He clearly cares about the people he's met and befriended in Tarawa, and his admiration for them shines through, even when he thinks they're nuts.



Decent Exposure, by Phillippa Ashley

>> Sunday, May 27, 2012

TITLE: Decent Exposure (aka Dating Mr. December, in the US)
AUTHOR: Phillippa Ashley

PAGES: 277
PUBLISHER: Little Black Dress

SETTING: Contemporary England (Lake District)
TYPE: Romance

When a nice girl asks twelve men to get naked, is it decent exposure or indecent exploitation?

Emma Tremayne has left her high-powered PR job and moved to the Lake District. She was expecting to find some much-needed peace and quiet, not to end up cavorting on a hillside with a naked guy. Emma thinks she's being community-minded when she agrees to help the local mountain rescue team put together a 'tasteful' nude calendar in order to fundraise for their new headquarters. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the community seems to mind what she's up to. Including the extremely handsome Mr July, Will, who appears to have got completely the wrong impression about Emma's intentions. So how does she convince him that he's more than just Flavour of the Month...?
Emma Tremayne used to have a high-flying career in PR. She had it all, the entertainment budget, the cool London lifestyle, the powerful boyfriend. But then it all blew up. Hurting from the disaster, Emma moves to a small town in the Lake District to take up a much lower-profile job at the local tourist board. As we meet her at the beginning of the book, she's started to settle down and is building a new life.

One of the things she's doing in her free time, to become part of the community, is helping the local mountain rescue team do some fundraising for a new base. Her idea? A naked calendar. It's a tough sell, but she wins everyone over. Except, that is, for Will Tennant, one of the volunteers. Will, who's a successful businessman in civilian life, is not amused. He's offered to pay for the entire base himself, and not only wasn't his offer accepted, he now needs to show his naked bits to the world to help get the money. And so the scene is set...

As I started reading, I quite liked this. It was cute and sweet, but in a good way, in a sort of warm, nice way. I really liked Emma, who was quite clearly still a bit vulnerable from having everything she'd been working towards for years collapse completely, but was showing some very real guts trying to adapt to a new place and new people. I also liked Will, who was endearingly smitten with Emma. I had loads of fun reading his point of view, as he's not this all-confident alpha male. He's determined to get a date with Emma, but has doubts when he approaches her.

But then the back and forth started, and it all turned into a horrid mess. Emma and Will's relationship (which is basically all that's going on in the entire book, as the calendar thingie is soon done and out of the way) is one of the most frustrating I've read in ages. Emma is just determined to assume the worst about Will, for no real good reason. Someone tells her some unflattering rumours about Will and how he treated his former fiancee, and she just believes them without question. And then Will behaves just as frustratingly, refusing to tell her the real story, again, for no good reason. And then it all happens again, exactly the same, but over this old house that Will wants to buy. Emma jumps to the conclusion that he wants to turn it into luxury flats (and she goes all "why do you need to make more money!!", which came out of nowhere, since at the same time she's pining for her high-powered London career). Will refuses to explain. And on, and on, and on. xArghhh!!!

Anyway, I ended up fighting the urge to skim.



Her Best Worst Mistake, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Friday, May 25, 2012

TITLE: Her Best Worst Mistake
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 55 thousand words (some 220 pages, according to my calculations)
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Related to one of Mayberry's Blazes, Hot Island Nights

She thinks he's stuffy. He thinks she's spoilt.?Then the gloves come off... and so do their clothes!

For six years Violet Sutcliffe has known that Martin St Clair is the wrong man for her best friend. He's stuffy, old before his time, conservative. He drives Violet nuts - and the feeling is entirely mutual. Then, out of nowhere, her friend walks out just weeks before her wedding to Martin, flying to Australia on a mission of self-discovery. Back in London, Violet finds herself feeling sorry for suddenly-single Martin. At least, she tells herself it's pity she feels. Then he comes calling one dark, stormy night and they discover that beneath their mutual dislike there lies a fiery sexual chemistry.

It's crazy and all-consuming - and utterly wrong. Because not only are they chalk and cheese, oil and water, but Martin once belonged to her best friend. A friend Violet is terrified of losing. What future can there be for a relationship with so many strikes against it?
Her Best Worst Mistake is a self-published companion book to one of Mayberry's Blazes, Hot Island Nights. I haven't read that one, but from reading HBWM, it's about Elizabeth, who dumps her boring but safe fiance and goes off to Australia, where she meets and falls in love with a hot Aussie dude. HBWM covers the same timeframe, but we stay behind in England with Martin St. Clair, the said boring fiance, and with Violet, Elizabeth's best friend.

Martin and Violet have always disliked each other. He thinks she's irresponsible and spoiled, she thinks he's dull and unimaginative, and that he's stifling Elizabeth. Still, once Elizabeth dumps Martin, Violet can't help but feel sorry for him. She decides she should check up on him, and does so with the excuse of bringing him a bottle of booze as a sort of commiseration present.

Martin is not particularly happy with this (to him, it's a pity gift, and there's nothing worse than being pitied), but he ends up drinking a little bit too much of the booze, and he and Violet end up in bed, having the most amazing sex of their respective lives. They both regret their "mistake" in the morning and tell themselves it won't happen again. Except it does. And then it does again. And before they know it, they are in something that is suspiciously close to a relationship.

I loved this. Both Martin and Violet are fully fleshed-out characters, people who show the world a only one side, but who have hidden depths. Before they fall into bed they knew only that one aspect of each other, but what starts as only sex turns out to reveal who they really are. So very gradually, they begin to care more and more, and through the very steamy and increasingly tender love scenes, Mayberry really made me believe they were falling in love.

I also loved that it's the kind of opposites attract romance I can really get behind, one where it turns out that though they've got different temperaments, they share a worldview and completely understand each other. This was shown perfectly in the heartbreaking scene when they have their first fight, and Violet's reactions are so rooted in her past with her family. I almost cried when I saw Martin's reaction to this, because it was so perfect.

The main conflict here is Violet's fear that what she has with Martin might damage her friendship with Elizabeth. In real life, I adhere to the rule that you just don't date your friends' exes, but I had absolutely no issues with this element of the story. We readers (even those of us who haven't read the first book), know perfectly well that Elizabeth is fond of Martin, but never cared for him deeply. Violet and Martin's relationship never feels like a betrayal. Mayberry showed how the feelings between them weren't completely new, and there had always been an increased awareness there, but at the same time, neither had been disloyal (even in their own minds) when Martin was with Elizabeth. It was things like both of them noticing little details about the other, things that even Elizabeth wasn't noticing. So not a conscious thing, not even something suspicious, but very telling.

I did think I might have an issue with Violet's extreme reluctance to tell Elizabeth, since a few people whose reviews I read before I decided to pick this up had thought it had become a bit unreasonable after a while. I don't agree with that at all. To me, given how important Elizabeth was in Violet's life, due to Violet's history, it made complete sense that she'd be a bit paranoid about the whole thing. I think Violet totally got that if Elizabeth got upset with her she'd be being unreasonable, but what if she did anyway, unreasonable or not? She'd still be losing Elizabeth as a friend, and I understood why that prospect would generate so much fear in Violet.

Anyway, this is my favourite Mayberry so far, and that's really saying something!



Firelight, by Kristen Callihan

>> Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TITLE: Firelight
AUTHOR: Kristen Callihan

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Warner Forever

SETTING: Victorian London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series called Darkest London

London, 1881

Once the flames are ignited...

Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity...

Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.
I had great hopes for this one. The plot sounded good: our heroine, Miranda Ellis marries a mysterious masked man she doesn't know anything about, under pressure from her father. Soon after the wedding, her husband, Lord Archer becomes an unofficial suspect in a gruesome murder. We readers, however, know that Archer is a good guy, and that he forced the wedding because he's been fascinated by Miranda since a memorable encounter on the London streets some years earlier. There's a hint of the paranormal as well, since both Miranda and Archer have got powers, and neither one wants the other to know. Sounds exciting, and the beginning was nicely atmospheric (if a little bit self-conscious about it).

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it. I couldn't get a handle on the characters and why they did what they did. In the sections I read, Callihan kind of took the worst of both worlds with the mystery of the gothic. She was clearly holding stuff back, especially about Archer's history and his powers, and this worked to distance me from him and make me lose interest. And at the same time, since we get his point of view, we know perfectly well he's a good guy, and that he has no evil designs on Miranda.

There were also a couple of WTF moments, like Miranda just going "oh, ok, I'll marry this weird guy I know nothting about", without any angst that I could detect. She really did have other options, and I just didn't get why she completely dismissed the possibility of getting her sisters' help. All very transparently there to drive the plot forward in the direction the author wanted it to go.

Anyway, the whole thing dragged too much for me to care to find out what was going on. It took me three weeks to read a quarter of it. I kept reading a few pages, and then putting it down and reading other books. In the end, I refused to put in any more time.



Blaze of Memory, by Nalini Singh

>> Monday, May 21, 2012

TITLE: Blaze of Memory
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Alternate reality version of future US
TYPE: Alternate reality romance
SERIES: #7 in the Psy/Changeling series

Nalini Singh returns to the Psy/Changeling world and its “breathtaking blend of passion, adventure, and the paranormal” as a woman without a past becomes the pawn of a man who controls her future…

Dev Santos discovers her unconscious and battered, with no memory of who she is. All she knows is that she’s dangerous. Charged with protecting his people’s most vulnerable secrets, Dev is duty-bound to eliminate all threats. It’s a task he’s never hesitated to complete…until he finds himself drawn to a woman who might yet prove the enemy’s most insidious weapon.

Stripped of her memories by a shadowy oppressor, and programmed to carry out cold-blooded murder, Katya Haas is fighting desperately for her sanity itself. Her only hope is Dev. But how can she expect to gain the trust of a man who could very well be her next target? For in this game, one must die…
Blaze of Memory presents what to me is the ultimate terror, the fear of oneself. What if you suspected there was something in your brain, set to go off any minute, and that would turn you into a danger to all those you love?

The woman having to deal with that fear is Katya Haas, a Psy who, traumatised and amnesiac, has been left where Dev Santos could find her. Dev is the head of the Shine Foundation, which is an organisation that emerged way back when Silence was first introduced, and protects the Forgotten, the descendants of those Psy who decided not to accept Silence and leave the fold.

The Shine Foundation is not the Psy Council's favourite organisation, and on finding Katya, Dev is immediately suspicious. She's just the sort of trick the Council would use to destroy him and his work, and the little that Katya can remember seems to support this. But even more dangerous than having her near is letting her go, so Dev refuses to let her out of his sight. And as she slowly recovers from her ordeal, pesky feelings start to develop.

As you can see, it's quite a tricky situation to start a romance in. Dev really can't be sure Katya isn't about to be come a weapon against him at any minute, and even worse, Katya herself can't be sure, either. It's a desperate situation, and it was hard to see how Singh was going to deliver a HEA. But deliver it she did, and in a way that made sense. And I'd best not say anything else about that!

Singh also delivered a good romance. It wasn't my favourite in the series so far, but Dev and Katya fit well together, and she managed to make me believe they would be so drawn to each other as to take the chances they do to get together.

One of the great things about this series is the world-building, and the fact that things in this world are actually moving forward, towards a sort of climax. There wasn't a huge deal of forward momentum here, but I liked that it kind of filled in some blanks. I've always been interested in this series in knowing more about how things were when Silence was first introduced, and through details about the Shine Foundation and its inception, Singh satisfied a lot of my curiosity.



Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

>> Saturday, May 19, 2012

TITLE: Half-Blood Blues
AUTHOR: Esi Edugyan

PAGES: 336

SETTING: 1930s/40s Germany and France, 1990s US, Germany and Poland
TYPE: Fiction

Berlin, 1939. The Hot Time Swingers, a popular jazz band, has been forbidden to play by the Nazis. Their young trumpet-player Hieronymus Falk, declared a musical genius by none other than Louis Armstrong, is arrested in a Paris café. He is never heard from again. He was twenty years old, a German citizen. And he was black.

Berlin, 1992. Falk is a jazz legend. Hot Time Swingers band members Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, both African Americans from Baltimore, have appeared in a documentary about Falk. When they are invited to attend the film’s premier, Sid’s role in Falk’s fate will be questioned and the two old musicians set off on a surprising and strange journey.

From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world as he describes the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that led to Falk’s incarceration in Sachsenhausen. Half-Blood Blues is a story about music and race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.
No summary from me, the one above is just right, so straight to what I thought of it. Basically, I had very mixed feelings. There were things I really liked about it, and I think it's objectively a very good book, but some things didn't quite work for me.

I think what I liked best about it was how completely fresh it felt. This is really something I've never read before. The jazz scene in Germany before World War II, Hiero's history, as a mixed race boy growing up there, the feel of Paris waiting, waiting as the Germans approach... all completely new to me, and they all really came alive here.

I also loved the language when Sid talks about music, especially when he describes Hiero's trumpet playing. I really don't know anything about jazz, but his descriptions made me want to hear how that would sound.

The actual story, however, was just not my thing. Well, the pre-War sections, mostly, since I quite liked the ones set in the 90s, with Sid and Chip as old men trying to find out and come to terms with what happened all those years ago. In the sections set in the past, there was a bit of a smug, "we're so cool" vibe, which I found pretty off-putting. I can't stand the glorification of the whole sex and drugs and rock and roll thing, and the fact that here it was more sex and alcohol and jazz didn't make it any better.

I wasn't particularly interested in Sid and Chip, either, and didn't want to spend time with them in those sections. Chip was quite unpleasant in a boring sort of way. And as for Sid, well, I recognised what Edugyan was trying to do, giving him all these vulnerabilities and insecurities, and making him act in ways that he knew was wrong, as a result. But it never quite gelled for me. I only got through these sections (and they're the longest ones) by making a rule for myself that I had to read this book on the train on my commute.

Hiero and Delilah were the only characters that really interested me, but I didn't feel Edugyan did them justice. With Delilah, it was mostly a case of me disliking Sid and not getting what she saw in him. She didn't feel real. With Hiero, it was just the one-dimensional portrayal. Sid is increasingly jealous and ill-disposed towards him, and yet even through his eyes, Hiero comes across as a complete angel. Sweet, innocent, good... a bit unreal, too, frankly. That was a shame, I would have liked to get to know him better.

I also thought the ending was a disappointment. My main reaction was "is that it?". We never really get much of a resolution, so there's no payoff here at all. The book just drifts off and finishes.

MY GRADE: A B-, just because the setting is so fascinating, that it's probably worth a read just for that.


The Proposal, by Mary Balogh

>> Thursday, May 17, 2012

TITLE: The Proposal
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Delacorte

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Survivors' Club series

Lady Gwendoline Muir has experienced her fair share of tragedies in her short life: she lost her husband to a freak accident, and developed a limp after falling from horseback. Still young, Gwen is sure that she's done with love, and that she will never be married again.

Gwen tries to be content with her life as it is, and to live through the happy marriages of her brother and her best friend, Viscountess Ravensberg. She's happy for them, and for years that is enough for her... until she meets Lord Trentham - a man who returned from the Peninsula Wars a hero, but is unable to escape the bite of his survivor's guilt. For he might just be the man who can convince her to believe in second chances.
The Proposal both starts a new series, and tells the long-expected story of a character from One Night For Love and A Summer To Remember, who apparently didn't get her book due a change of publishers. The new series is called The Survivors' Club, and it's about a group of people (six men and a woman) who survived the Napoleonic wars with a variety of injuries, mental and/or physical, and were taken in by the Duke of Stanford to recover in his Cornwall estate.

The book starts a couple of years after the war, when all are well on their way to recovering. Every year they meet back at the estate to catch up and take a breather from normal life. Hugo, Lord Trentham, missed last year's gathering due to his father death. He's been mourning and hasn't been quite ready to take on the responsibility of running his father's business empire, but after a year, he feels he should just take the bull by the horns. He'll also need to marry, which his friends tell him shouldn't be difficult. He's a war hero, so celebrated he's been given a title for it, and he's rich. All he needs to do is propose to the first personable woman he sees the next morning.

The first woman he sees the next morning turns out to be Gwendoline, Lady Muir. Gwen is in Cornwall visiting a one-time friend who's just been widowed, and she's unfortunately discovered the woman has become a total nightmare over the years. Out walking on the beach, Gwen twists her already bad ankle when she attempts a difficult path up the cliff. Hugo happens to be there, minding his own business, and feels obliged to rescue her.

Their first meeting doesn't go well. Hugo thinks Gwen is a silly, spoiled aristocrat, Gwen thinks he's rude and rough. But when Gwen is installed at the Duke's estate while her ankle heals, they discovered that as much as they tell themselves they don't like each other, they just can't stay away.

This is a story with no villains. In fact, there are not even any antagonists (there's a character who I thought was going to take on that role, but he's given short thrift), but there's still plenty of stuff going on that made me turn the pages. Balogh caught and kept my attention through having fantastic characters, each of whom had very real issues they needed to work through.

I loved Gwen. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't one of those people who have been clamouring for her story. Actually, I'd completely forgotten her existence. But she is truly a fantastic character, self-aware and honest about herself, with fears and vulnerabilities, but brave enough to change her life.

Hugo is interesting as well, a war hero who just wasn't suited to be the killing machine he became and is now feted for. For Hugo, the war has left very real effects on his psyche, and this shows in some very poignant ways. Both he and Gwen are victims of survivor's guilt, for very different reasons, and I liked how being together allows them to move forward.

These two are genuinely grown-up characters who actually talk to each other. This doesn't mean there's no conflict at all, because even though they talk, they each have their fears and insecurities. For instance, Hugo has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about class, but he doesn't just silently make his assumptions and let Gwen guess what the problem is. Nope, he makes his assumptions and tells Gwen what he's thinking and why, and she therefore can tell him (and show him) just how wrong he is. The conflict is there, it's just dealt with in a very satisfying way.

In addition to the romance, I thought the secondary characters were great. I especially liked what Balogh did with Hugo's stepmother. There's an element there that will remind readers of A Precious Jewel, and I liked how Balogh dealt with it. The characters from previous and future books were very well-integrated. Those from past books I wasn't too interested in, so I was perfectly fine with them being relatively unobtrusive. Those from future books, on the other hand, I'm really interested in knowing more about, as they all sound quite intriguing. Balogh left me wanting more on that end, which was probably her intention all along!



Dead Run, by PJ Tracy

>> Tuesday, May 15, 2012

TITLE: Dead Run

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery / Thriller
SERIES: 3rd in the Monkeewrench series

Monkeewrench founders Grace MacBride and Annie Belinsky - along with Wisconsin deputy Sharon Mueller - are en route to Green Bay when their car breaks down deep in the northern woods. A short walk through the forest leads them to the eerily quiet town of Four Corners, where they find severed phone lines and a complete absence of any life. But the quiet is deceptive. Before they know it, they witness a horrifying double murder - and discover that this is only the beginning of a race to save their own lives…and countless others.
In this third installment of the Monkeewrench series, Grace and Annie have been asked by FBI agent Sharon Mueller (who readers who've been following the series will remember from the first book as the deputy who was the love interest of the country sheriff, Mitch Halloran) for help. There's a serial killer operating in Green Bay, and Sharon thinks the Monkeewrench super-duper software will be useful to catch him.

The three women set off in what should have been a simple roadtrip, with a few pleasurable detours to see interesting stuff, since there are no men in the car to complain. Unfortunately, a car breakdown results in them walking into the tiny town of Four Corners, and what they find there is just creepy. There's no one there, no one at all. Not humans, not animals. And then the women witness something that puts her on the run for their lives.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Halloran's men fish the bodies of three men, killed execution-style, out of a pond, and before they know it, the FBI have taken over and the entire area is in lockdown.

Clearly something big is going on, but as soon as Magozzi, Halloran and the remaining Monkeewrench guys realise Grace, Annie and Sharon are missing, they're off after them, certain that something is very wrong.

This one was a bit different from the previous two, more fast-paced thriller than puzzle-solving. In general, I prefer the latter, and I did like those two books a bit better than Dead Run, but that only means I really, really liked this one, rather than absolutely love it.

The authors (PJ Tracy is a mother-daughter team) have created a really fascinating set-up, and although they dot clues throughout the novel, it takes a while for us and the characters to figure out what's going on. They also sustain the suspense wonderfully well. I couldn't stop turning the pages, dying to see what would happen. And I especially appreciated that while we have the men racing off to rescue "their women", these three women are perfectly capable to take care of themselves, thank you very much.

I also liked how we got some very intriguing hints about both Annie and Sharon and their pasts. Annie, especially, has previously been a fun character, but a bit of a cartoon. She becomes a lot more real here, and I can't wait to know more.

My only criticism is that I wanted to know more than what I got about the villains. They're not necessarily the kinds of men you'd expect, we're told. But what are they, then? How did they link up? It's all left a bit up in the air.

I said in my review of the previous book that I was looking forward to seeing the Monkeewrench people actually using their magical computer programme. I thought I might get that in this book. I didn't, but since I got something that was also fantastic instead, that was all right with me. Still, I do hope I finally get my geeky Monkeewrench payoff in the next one, and from Snow Blind's blurb, it appears I will!



A Week To Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare

>> Sunday, May 13, 2012

TITLE: A Week To Be Wicked
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare

PAGES: 354

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd full-length novel in the Spindle Cove series

When a devilish lord and a bluestocking set off on the road to ruin... time is not on their side.

Minerva Highwood, one of Spindle Cove's confirmed spinsters, needs to be in Scotland. Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, a rake of the first order, needs to be . . . anywhere but Spindle Cove. These unlikely partners have one week: to fake an elopement, to convince family and friends they're "in love", to outrun armed robbers, to survive their worst nightmares, to travel four hundred miles without killing each other... All while sharing a very small carriage by day and an even smaller bed by night.

What they don't have time for is their growing attraction. Much less wild passion. And heaven forbid they spend precious hours baring their hearts and souls. Suddenly one week seems like exactly enough time to find a world of trouble. And maybe... just maybe... everlasting love.
I sometimes wonder at myself. I read Tessa Dare's first few and liked them, but then just kind of stopped for no reason. I haven't read the last 3 or 4 books of hers, and given how much I absolutely loved this one, that probably wasn't a great idea.

The book opens with bluestocking Minerva Highwood very improperly knocking on Colin Sandhurst's door one night. Minerva is concerned that Colin might be seriously considering proposing to her sister, and she knows that though her sister would never be happy with a useless rake such as him, she'll be pressured by their mother into accepting.

Minerva offers Colin an alternative, since she assumes that the only reason he's planning on proposing is to access his inheritance (one of those will things so common in romance): if he escorts her to Edinburgh, where she will present an exciting new finding to the Royal Geological Society, she'll give him the prize money when (not if!) she wins it. That will set him up until his next birthday, when he'll come into his inheritance anyway.

Colin is not inclined to play, especially since he's not that desperate for the money, anyway, and he wasn't planning to propose to Miranda's sister, either. However, this new facet of Miranda intrigues him, and before he knows it, they're off on their roadtrip. And believe me, it's one exciting roadtrip!

I loved, loved, loved it. The plot itself is a bit improbable and the characters' behaviour struck me as just as improbable and modern in a few instances, but for me, it was a case of a good author being able to make me suspend disbelief without any trouble.

Because the romance, it's just fantastic. As they live through their often-laugh-out-loud adventures, Colin and Minerva begin to see below each other's surfaces, and start to appreciate each other for who they really are. Minerva discovers that Colin is not a useless rake at all, but a genuinely good, caring man, who just happens to enjoy teasing her by being outrageous. Colin's been dismissed by everyone all his life, and he's kind of taken it all in, but with Minerva, there's finally something he can feel strongly about, and she helps him realise his worth. Just as he helps her realise her own, because she's been just as dismissed all her life by her own mother. With Colin, she discovers that relaxing and being herself doesn't mean she has to be alone for the rest of his life, because he's crazy about her just as she is. I closed this with a happy sigh.

By the way, I'm trying to break myself out of the habit of having to read series in order, when I'm particularly interested in a later book. I started this series with book 2, and it was fine. It appears there was some stuff going on between Colin and Minerva in book 1 already, just as we see a few things between the protagonists of the next book in this one, but it didn't really make a difference, I loved this anyway.



I Knew You'd Be Lovely, by Alethea Black

>> Friday, May 11, 2012

TITLE: I Knew You'd Be Lovely
AUTHOR: Alethea Black

PAGES: 238

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Short stories

Alethea Black's deeply moving and wholly original debut features a coterie of memorable characters who have reached emotional crossroads in their lives. Brimming with humor, irony, and insights about the unpredictable nature of life, the unbearable beauty of fate, and the power that one moment, or one decision, can have to transform us, I Knew You'd Be Lovely delivers that rare thing—stories with both an edge and a heart.
I mentioned in my April wrap-up post that I read 3 different collections of short stories during April, when I don't usually go for them at all. One was great, one was good and one was terrible. This is the great one.

I knew it would be great from the first few pages of the very first story. A man goes to a New Year's Eve party in which he meets a woman who's got a clipboard hanging from her neck. She's too hoarse to speak, and so has to communicate by writing notes. Nothing earth-shattering happens, there are no shocking twists, but I was charmed.

In this and all the other stories (which I'm not going to say anything about, as I loved starting them with no idea of what I was going to get), Black writes with warmth and genuine fondness for her characters. She also writes with perceptiveness. There were several moments when I thought she'd gone straight to the heart of something, in a way I'd never thought of but realised now was exactly right.

It might be a bit of an obvious thing to say, given the title, but the best word for this book really is "lovely". Lovely, charming, beautifully written, low-key but powerful. It was all those things. I loved it so much that I refused to read it all in one go, and allowed myself only a story a day, to make them last.

Oh, and I also loved the little extra at the end, where Ms. Black gives us a bit more, a glimpse behind the scenes, at where each story came from. I wouldn't have thought this would be a good idea, fearing it might risk the stories losing their magic, but nope, they very definitely didn't!



Juggling Briefcase & Baby, by Jessica Hart

>> Wednesday, May 09, 2012

TITLE: Juggling Briefcase & Baby
AUTHOR: Jessica Hart

PAGES: 2010
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Romance

SETTING: Contemporary London and Scotland
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Follows Oh-So-Sensible Secretary

Lex Gibson is…nervous. The prospect of spending a weekend working with Romy, the only woman to ever touch his legendary guarded heart, has the lion of the corporate world…unsettled.

The tension between free-spirited Romy and buttoned-up Lex simmers dangerously. To complicate things further, Romy has a tiny daughter, who has Lex confused and distracted. They say never to mix business with pleasure, but Romy's adorable baby might just seal their very personal business deal—and change their family situation forever!
This was really not my normal kind of book. I was showing the books on my kindle to a close friend and the fact that I had something called Juggling Briefcase & Baby there left her with her mouth hanging open! Still, I've heard Wendy the Superlibrarian say so many good things about Hart and this book in particular that I thougth I'd give it a shot.

Lex Gibson and Romy Morrison had a torrid weekend together when she was 18 and he 26. Their mums were best friends, and it was one of those situations... he's away at uni, doesn't see her for ages, and when he finally does, she's gone from awkward teen to raving beauty. Anyway, at the end of their weekend (in Paris, no less), he's madly in love and wants to get married. She, although madly in love as well, is more sensible and knows she's too young. Too many things she wants to do before settling down, like travelling the world, so she goes off and does them instead of getting married. Lex, meanwhile, goes to work for the family business.

Years later, Romy is back, and with a baby (much too young to be Lex's -don't worry, this is not a secret baby book). She's now working for Lex's company, which he's running since his father had a heart attack. This all happened in an earlier book, so as this one starts, Romy has been working there for a while, although she and Lex haven't spoken yet.

But that all changes when Romy's direct boss, who was supposed to accompany Lex to Scotland to clinch a massive business deal, can't go and sends her instead, baby and all. So all sort of "category romance"-type situations ensue. The guy they're dealing with, Willie, is reluctant to deal with as cold a businessman as Lex is reputed to be (as if!). So, when he assumes Lex and Romy are together (and especially, that Lex is such a stand-up guy that the prospect of being a step-dad to baby Freya doesn't faze him), they feel they have to keep up the charade (this is a crucial deal, remember). So of course, they have to sleep in the same room, and it's cold, so she can't let him sleep on the floor. And then, when they get back to London, they have to keep it up for a while longer, until Willie travels South to sign on the dotted line. And so on and so forth.

Sometimes this sort of thing works, if you're so absorbed in the story and (especially in categories) the lovely angst of the romance that you can just gloss over it. I wasn't, so I kept nit-picking. I couldn't just let go and buy it and move on. I was just completely unconvinced that their only choices were either to pretend to be a couple or to reveal the truth and have him think Lex is actually cold and only interested in business. How about a version of the truth? How about Romy saying "Willie, actually, Lex and I are not together. We were, years ago, and I left him, but he's such a nice guy and so keen to help single mothers that he was happy to employ me in his company when I needed a job, and to accomodate my childcare needs when I had to come on this trip instead of Tim". But nope, we needed them sharing a room, didn't we?

And it wasn't a particularly interesting romance, either. I liked the basic bones of it (stuffed-shirt heroes who need to be thawed out by a more lively heroine are amongst my favourites), but the execution was just not great. The writing was good, and the book was a quick read and I didn't hate it, but that was it.

Also, the title? Deceptive. I was kind of hoping for at least a little bit of what it can mean for a single mum with a baby to have the competing priorities of a child and a career, but there was nothing of that here. Romy works for a company so child-friendly that not only do they have a creche, no one really sees anything wrong in her taking her baby along on a business trip (it was a special case, but still). And then she marries the CEO, so she'll be fine...



The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan

>> Monday, May 07, 2012

TITLE: The Governess Affair
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: 33,000 words (which would be about 130 pages of a mass market paperback, I think)
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Mid-19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Brothers Sinister series


Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she's demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it's not the duke she fears. It's his merciless man of business-the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke's dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn't stand a chance. But she can't stop trying-not with her entire future at stake.


Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition-a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner's son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it's just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don't work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can't bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He'll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love…
I really liked Courtney Milan's previous novella, Unlocked, so I bought this one as soon as it came out. And then I just proceeded to gobble it up in one sitting.

Hugo Marshall works for the Duke of Clermont, as a cross between man of business and enforcer. He always delivers, by any means possible, which has caused him to become known as the Wolf of Clermont. Hugo neither likes nor respects the Duke, but he's determined to prove his coal miner father wrong and become rich. To do so, he's set things up so that if the Duke does well, Hugo does well, too. And as the book starts, making sure the Duke does well means making sure his wife comes back to him, with the fortune she controls.

Serena Barton is threatening to derail that reconcilation. Clermont claims it's all about a minor employment dispute, but Hugo soon realises that's not quite it. Serena has been badly wronged by Clermont, and is determined to get her own back. She's hit on a way that's bound to be quite effective, so Hugo must make a difficult choice.

I hadn't even read what the story was about (that's how much I trust Milan), so as soon as I started reading I thougth oh, joy, neither hero nor heroine are aristocrats. And they're really not! She really is an impoverished gentlewoman, who used to be a governess, and he really is a coal miner's son. No tricks, no hidden identities.

When readers discuss the dearth of non-aristocratic heroes in historical romance, something that always gets mentioned is that many readers can't contemplate a hero who's in a position of weakness. And in their minds, anyone who's not either an aristocrat or stinking rich, must be powerless and subject to the upper classes' whims. Well, meet Hugh. A coal-miner's son, not much money, and he wraps Clermont around his little finger through sheer force of personality. And in a way I completely believed, too.

Milan explores the issue of lack of power in a different way, through Serena's circumstances. What happens to her illustrates the the dark side of the power of the aristocracy over regular people, but at the same time, she refuses to accept her supposed powerlessness and finds a way to get power over the Duke for herself. She will not accept any less than what she sees as fair compensation, and oh, how I understood her. I totally got the need to make a fuss, to have the man who'd wronged her pay a price for his actions, and how while that doesn't fix things, it does provide satisfaction.

I really liked the romance, even though I did have some issues with it. I loved how Serena instinctively saw beneath the Wolf of Clermont facade, and felt safe with Hugh, and I loved how Hugh's struggle with his decision about the right thing to do was reflected in the development of his relationship with Serena. The only issue I had was that I thought some things happened a bit suddenly, and I felt I needed a bit more insight into what was going on in the characters' heads. That was the case with Hugo falling in love, and also with Serena realising she needed a real wedding night. Still, this wasn't a big issue for me, just a way in which a good story could have been even better.

I should also mention how I loved the last chapter. I'm not going to say what's in it, just that I was surprised I liked it so much, because it was something that risked annoying the reader by concentrating too much on selling the future books. But Milan was on the right side of the line here... just. This chapter did sell the next books (it really did, I can't wait to read them, now), but it was also very much about Serena and Hugh and told us a lot about how they were doing, in an indirect, non-sappy way. I liked it all very much.



Diving Belles and other stories, by Lucy Wood

>> Saturday, May 05, 2012

TITLE: Diving Belles and other stories
AUTHOR: Lucy Wood

PAGES: 223
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary Cornwall
TYPE: Short story collection

Straying husbands lured into the sea by mermaids can be fetched back, for a fee. Trees can make wishes come true. Houses creak and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A mother, who seems alone and lonely, may be rubbing sore muscles or holding the hands of her invisible lover as he touches her neck. Wisht hounds roam the moors, and, on a windy beach, a boy and his grandmother beat back despair with an old white door.

Diving Belles is a luminous, spellbinding debut that introduces Lucy Wood as a spectacular new voice in fiction. In these stories, the line between the real and the imagined is blurred, as she takes us to Cornwall’s ancient coast, building on its rich storytelling history and recasting its myths in thoroughly contemporary ways. Calling forth the fantastic and fantastical, she mines these legends for that little bit of magic that remains in all our lives— if only we can let ourselves see it.
As I mentioned in my April wrap-up post, I read 3 different collections of short stories during April, when I don't usually go for them at all. One was great, one was good and one was terrible. This is the good one.

Reading the first story in this book gave rise to great hopes to the rest. It's set in a village where mermaids often come for the men and take them into the sea with them. But now someone's established a service which allows women to go down in a diving bell and fetch their husbands back. Ivy's husband left decades ago, but she decides to give it a try. I loved this. It was atmospheric and strange and clever, and beautifully written. I settled down to read the rest...

... and I ended up a bit nonplussed. There are a few more like that, maybe half of the twelve, like the one with the woman who periodically turns to stone, the one about the the retirement home for magical beings, or the one narrated by the spirits living in a house. Those were odd and quirky and original, and I loved them.

But then there are also several which I didn't get at all, and had to force myself to finish. Those left me feeling a bit grumpy, as I had the feeling there was supposed to be something there that I wasn't getting, and I had been too bored by them to go back and reread them and try to find it.

So mixed results, but the ones I liked were so good that in the end, I'm glad I read this.



General Winston's Daughter, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, May 03, 2012

TITLE: General Winston's Daughter
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Viking Juvenile

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: YA Fantasy

When seventeen-year-old heiress Averie Winston travels with her guardian to faraway Chiarrin, she looks forward to a reunion with her father, who is a commanding general, seeing her handsome fiancé Morgan once more, and exploring the strange new country. What she finds is entirely different. Although the Chiarizzi appear to tolerate the invading army, rebels have already tried to destroy them; Morgan is not the man she thought he was; and she finds herself falling in love with Lieutenant Ket Du’kai, who himself comes from a conquered society. Can the irrepressible Averie remake herself in this new world? Sharon Shinn’s newest romance has an epic sweep, piquant humor, social commentary, and love to spare—just the thing when you want to lose yourself in another world.
Averie Winston has spent her whole short life in close proximity to members of the Aeberelle army. Her father is a general, and her fiance, Morgan, is one of his right-hand men. She's never questioned what they get up to as anything other than necessary and right. But that all changes when her father and Morgan are posted to the newly-taken-over country of Chiarrin.

Averie and her companion, Lady Selkirk, follow them a few months later, and even before they arrive, Averie's eyes begin to open. It all starts when she meets Lieutenant Du'Kai on the ship going over. He's from Xan’tai, which has been an Aeberelle colony for about a century. Even though Du'Kai has joined the Aeberelle Army for the rare opportunities it gives someone from his country, he has some issues with how his country was just invaded all those years back. This makes him really uncomfortable with being part of the forces taking over yet another country, and he shares some of those opinions with Averie, who's completely shocked at the idea.

The initial shock fades, but leaves Averie much more aware of issues she'd never before considered, much more attuned to signs that people in Chiarrin are not receiving them joyfully. Or even impassively, actually, because before long, it's clear that there is still a strong resistence to the invasion. And Averie is not even sure they're wrong.

On the whole, I really enjoyed General Winston's Daughter, but had some mixed feelings as well. What was good was wonderful, but there were a few little niggles.

My main mixed feelings were about Averie. On one hand, I really liked her. I respected her curiousity and openness about her new home, as well as her willingness to challenge what she didn't understand and what she thougth was wrong, even if this was something that was not the done thing for someone in her position. I didn't blame her at all for not seeing these things before. She'd clearly been brought up being told that her own country was doing good by conquering those overseas land, bringing progress and modernity to primitive, suffering people. It sounded like opposing views weren't much tolerated in Aeberelle, so this trip was really the first time Averie was exposed to any doubts. And to her credit, she actually thought about these issues, rather than rejecting them out of hand just because they were uncomfortable to consider.

Still... I was left wishing this wasn't YA, and that Shinn had made her protagonist a bit older, someone with more at stake. I never got the feeling that Averie risked anything more than a mild scolding from her father or Morgan if she behaved in a way they thought inappropriate. Also, much as I liked her, she was a bit immature, which meant that I struggled to really buy the romance. Mainly, I thought her love interest deserved someone more grown up, and had no idea why he fell in love with her.

As always, the setting was fantastic. Vivid and colourful, I could actually see and hear and smell the city of Chesza, and I loved the idea of their very unique gods. I especially loved how they were very relevant to the character of the people who worshipped them, and in a way that made complete sense. The world building was enjoyable as well, even if I felt it was a little bit too based on the real 19th century. Shinn might as well have called Aeberelle England and Xan'tai India, and left just Chiarrin as a made up place. Not a big problem, though, and I thought what Shinn was saying about colonialism came through loud and clear, probably louder and clearer for the transparency of the comparison.

Through most of the book, I was thinking B, but the ending really bumped up the grade. I read the last 50 pages with my eyes wide like saucers, shocked that Shinn was actually going there. And I'm saying this in the best possible way. It raised so many issues that are relevant today as well, and well, the message was one I very much agree with, so it was all a very good surprise.



April 2012 reads

>> Tuesday, May 01, 2012

This month turned out to be short story month. I'm not a big fan, but for various reasons, I read 3 short story collections, with varying degrees of success! I also read much more than usual, and quite a few good ones!

1 - Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase: A+
review from a previous reread

This is my favourite romance ever and I reread it every couple of years. And every single time I'm surprised by just how brilliant it is. By the way, this was part of what I called my Decadent Easter Sunday: small bottle of champagne (well, it was actually a Luxembourgeois crémant, but that's close enough), Lindtt mini-Easter eggs and Lord of Scoundrels on my Kindle. Bliss!!

2 - The Witness, by Nora Roberts: A-
review here

A teenager witnesses something that puts her under police protection, with the entire Russian mafia after her. 12 years later, the reclusive and secretive Abigail Lowery attracts the attention of small-town police chief Brooks Gleason, a man who can't resist a secret. I loved it. Loved the romance, and I was really gripped by the suspense, which didn't go in the direction I expected!

3 - I Knew You'd Be Lovely, by Alethea Black: A-
review coming up

The first collection of short stories. It was thrust on me by a friend who's already given me 3 books that REALLY weren't my thing. It was a relief to read the first story and know within 2 pages that I'd finally be able to tell him he'd hit on a good rec! The word for it really is "lovely". Lovely, charming, beautifully written, low-key but powerful. It was all those things.

4 - A Week To Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare: A-
review coming up

Road romance, second in the Spindle Cove series. I haven't read the first one, but that didn't matter at all. We have here a plain, bluestocking heroine and a supposedly useless and rakish hero who's the only one to see below the surface. I loved it. The plot itself is a bit improbable and the characters' behaviour will probably strike many readers as a bit modern, but for me, it was a case of a good author being able to make me suspend disbelief.

5 - Born To Darkness, by Suzanne Brockmann: B+
review here

This is Brockmann trying something a bit new, characters with superpowers set in a dystopian-ish near future. Not too new, though: it's still very much vintage Brockmann. There's several couples and their stories, the hero of the main romance in this one is a Navy SEAL and it's not too subtle about its politics. I liked it, but if I didn't share Brockmann's politics, it would probably have annoyed me.

6 - General Winston's Daughter, by Sharon Shinn: B+
review coming up

YA fantasy. Averie is a girl from a military family, travelling to join her father and fiance in a newly colonised country. She's never given a thought to the rights and wrongs of what her country gets up to around the world (think 19th century Britain), but her experiences in Chiarrin open her eyes. I was left wishing this was not YA, but it was very good. Fantastic setting, and a jaw-dropping ending, in the best of ways.

7 - The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan: B+
review coming up

Milan is really good at novellas, and this one delivers. The hero, Hugo, works for a duke, as a cross between man of business and enforcer. The heroine, Serena, has been wronged by the duke, and is determined to get her own back. Hugo is assigned to make her go away. Obviously, things don't go as expected. I really liked this, it's quite dark, and I liked how Milan balances the dark side of the power of the aristocracy over regular people and the romance genre's need to have heroes who are powerful.

8 - Diving Belles and other stories, by Lucy Wood: B
review coming up

The second collection of short stories this month. This one I read after it was mentioned in several of my book podcasts. The idea of ghosts and the supernatural in a Cornwall setting intrigued me, and the collection satisfied these expectations, but only about half the time. I loved a few stories, and found them haunting and fresh and clever, but there were also several I didn't get at all, which kind of annoyed me.

9 - The Wild Marquis, by Miranda Neville: C+
review here

First in the Burgundy Club quartet. I quite fancy reading the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, so I thought I'd start at the beginning, with the story of a widow who owns a bookshop and the rakish nobleman who hires her as an advisor to purchase a rare book at auction. It was a bit meh. I did love the rare books angle, but the romance didn't engage me at all.

10 - Juggling Briefcase and Baby, by Jessica Hart: C+
review coming up

The hero and heroine, who have a history, are forced to pretend they're a couple for the sake of a business deal. Some original elements, and I usually like the stuffed-shirt hero / lively heroine pairing, but it wasn't particularly well-done here, and the contrived stuff was, well, contrived.

11 - Cuentos de Eva Luna (Short Stories of Eva Luna), by Isabel Allende: D
review here

This final short story collection was my April reading group book. Allende is an author I've really liked before, but this one, I hated. And I'm not using the word lightly, I genuinely and violently despised it. Mainly it was the offensive worldview and language, juxtaposed with the twee and whimsical way it was written in.

12 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by NK Jemisin: DNF
review here

First in a fantasy trilogy. The heroine's mother was cast out by her powerful ruling family, but now that she's dead, the patriarch of the family has commanded the heroine to come back, intending to name her as one of his three potential heirs. The rub, however, is that only one can inherit, whichever one can survive being basically hunted down by the other two. I really liked how the worldbuilding (the mythology, especially) was shaping up, but I was struggling with the author's voice, which I seriously didn't like. I dropped this one at about a quarter in.

13 - The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, by James Anderson: DNF
review coming up

Started out well. Set in the 20s in a house party at a "talkie-mad" Earl's estate, it looked like fun, but the characters descended into caricature and stupid behaviour after some 100 pages. I was tempted to put it down by several things, but what sealed the deal was the dialogue of an Italian character. Annoying to the point of being offensive.

14 - Hot Dish, by Connie Brockway
still reading

I've only just started this one. It was Brockway's first contemporary. So far I'm not quite sure what I think, it's a bit zany and surreal: the heroine is 17 at this point, wearing a pink ball gown, bangs standing on end (like a breaking tsunami or a Japanese woodcut, the hero thinks), competing for the Miss Buttercup title and about to have her head carved in butter. We'll see.

15 - Dead Run, by PJ Tracy
still reading

3rd in the Monkeewrench series, which I love. So far, so good. Mysterious happenings -3 bodies fished out of a pond, killed by automatic weapons, execution-style, and a whole town which has succumbed to something lethal. No idea what's going on, and I can't wait to find out.


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