February 2013 wish list

>> Thursday, January 31, 2013

Not sure what’s happening on Feb. 26th, with so many interesting books coming out? Not that I mind, since I go on my annual holiday to Uruguay the next morning, so a fully-loaded kindle will come useful!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Calculated In Death, by JD Robb (Feb 26)

I still love this series. The books have become comfort reads, in a way, even though they can be really exciting.

A Bride by Moonlight, by Liz Carlyle (Feb 26)

I’ve kind of gone off Carlyle lately, mainly since she started with the paranormal stuff (although I’d started to lose some interest even before). I know she can write amazing books, though, so I will try her again, even as I fear it's be JAK all over again.

Lord of Darkness by Elizabeth Hoyt (Feb 26)

I’ve just started Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series. I’m not overly impressed with the first book so far, but this one seems to be about a long-standing, mysterious character in the series.

The Best Man, by Kristan Higgins (Feb 26)

I like Higgins’ voice, and this one sounds interesting. The heroine is a woman who was jilted right at the altar years earlier, and the heroine is her then-fiance’s best man.

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on reviews for

Hip Check, by Deirdre Martin (Feb 5)

I read the first two in the series and they were great. I’ve been meaning to read another by Martin for ages. Might give this one a try (although the plot sounds a bit tired, so I might well decide to read an older one).

A Duke Never Yields, by Juliana Gray (Feb 5)

A hero who’s made a vow of chastity, a heroine who wants him to become her lover. Hmmm... in the right hands, this could be good. We’ll see.

Where The Light Falls, by Katherine Keenum (Feb 5)

Belle Epoque Paris, yay! Hero addicted to laudanum, ehh, not that interested in addiction. Another one to keep an eyes on reviews for.

Crystal Cove, by Lisa Kleypas (Feb 5)

I was put off by the novella that introduced this series (saccharine and bland, was what I thought), but people do seem to like the full-length novels.

The Girls' Guide to Love and Supper Clubs, by Dana Bate (Feb 5)

I love the idea of launching an underground supper club. This sounds like it could be fun, but also have some more serious elements.

Reservations For Two Jennifer Lohmann (Feb 5)

Because the review at Wendy’s blog intrigued me. The plot itself doesn't sound particularly original (and when writers include an unfair review as a plot point, I always start bristling), but there’s plenty else there that makes me want to read it.

Human Remains, by Elizabeth Haynes (Feb 14)

I was very impressed by Haynes’ previous book, and this one sounds interesting. The heroine is a police analyst who discovers a string of seemingly unsuspicious deaths which she thinks might be more than they seem.

Promises Made Under Fire, by Charlie Cochrane (Feb 25)

Novella, set during (and, I’m assuming, after) WWI, a period which seems to be gaining in popularity. The plot sounds intriguing.

A Most Scandalous Proposal, by Ashlyn Macnamara (Feb 26)

Debut author, supposedly “perfect for fans of Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Sabrina Jeffries”. Ok... haven’t had much luck with Julia Quinn wannabes, but the next line in the summary (“two childhood friends in Regency England discover love with the most unlikely of partners: each other”) does interest me.

Night Resurrected, by Joss Ware (Feb 26)

This is the third in a series. All the books on it have caught my eye, but I haven’t yet read any of them. It’s post-apocalyptic romance, but then, I haven’t read all that much in that subgenre, so I’m not tired of it.


The Moving Finger, by Agatha Christie

>> Tuesday, January 29, 2013

TITLE: The Moving Finger
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 240
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1940s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Technically a Miss Marple mystery

Lymstock is much like any other English village. Those that live there enjoy the peace of rural life until a series of poison pen letters destroy the safety they took for granted. When one villager commits suicide and another is murdered, the village is plunged into suspicion and terror. Once a village of trust, now all inhabitants are full of accusations. Who could be writing the letters and why? Perhaps Miss Marple might be of help...

Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna are both sophisticated urbanites, whose natural environment is the big city. But alas, Jerry's an RAF pilot and he's had a pretty bad crash. He's well on his way to recovery, but his doctor recommends total peace and quiet. Ideally, he should bury himself in the country for a while, until he regains his strength.

This is how the two wind up in Lymstock, a sleepy country village. Except, it turns out Lymstock is not as quiet as they thought it would be. Someone is sending nasty poison-pen letters to what seems like every single one of the villagers, accusing them of all sorts of things. The accusations are completely preposterous, but people have a way of saying "no smoke without fire", so the village is soon in turmoil. And then someone dies, a suicide, and not long after that, someone else in the same household is murdered. The police are on the case, but the vicar's wife thinks she might call in an expert, someone who knows more about wickedness than anyone else she knows. Wonder who that is?

I should make this plain from the first: this is barely a Miss Marple book. She shows up really late (way into disc 5 of 6, in the audiobook I was listening to), and she really doesn't do a great deal. However, I didn't particularly mind, as it was a really good one, anyway.

The plotting is solid and entertaining, with plenty of red herrings, and when the truth is revealed, you get a great a-ha! moment. I had my own theory, which was completely wrong, and clearly one into which Christie had skilfully maneouvered me without me noticing a thing. Probably amongst her best.

The cast of characters in the village was a really good one, as well. They're individual and quirky. I didn't like all of them, obviously, but all were interesting, and all had at their core at least a grain of truth. The only exception, I'm afraid, is Jerry's love interest. That romance left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, as this character was written as a strange and unbelievable cross between a small child and a loyal dog. Jerry is young himself, but the disparity in mental age made it all a bit icky. Still, Joanna gets a romance herself, as well, and that one I was very satisfied by, so not too bad.

The Moving Finger was first published in 1942, and was written during the war. Surprisingly,the only (and pretty oblique, at that) reference to the war is Jerry being an RAF pilot and having been injured. Other than that, nothing at all. There's even a trip to London where everything seems just fine, no rationing, no problems at all. I was intrigued by this. I find it hard to believe that it would have been like that in reality, so I'm guessing it was a conscious decision on Christie's part, possible to allow readers their escapism without them having to think about what was actually going on at the time?

MY GRADE: A B. Would be a B+ if it weren't for that icky romance.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: As I run through my library's Agatha Christie's audiobooks, I've started to form preferences for the readers. James Saxton is definitely not my favourite. The voices he does for some characters (usually secondary characters, thanks heavens) are too often preposterous, over-the-top and annoying. His women are especially bad, working class women the worse.


The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley

>> Sunday, January 27, 2013

TITLE: The Firebird
AUTHOR: Susanna Kearsley

COPYRIGHT: 2013 (Jan 28th in the UK and Australia, Jun 4th in the US)
PAGES: 500
PUBLISHER: Allison & Busby

SETTING: England, Scotland, Belgium & Russia, 21st and 18th century.
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows The Winter Sea, and is connected to The Shadowy Horses

Marg, from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and I were both lucky enough to receive ARC's for this, one of the most anticipated books of the year. Marg suggested doing our review in discussion format, and since I love her reviews (and I was dying to talk about the book with someone!), we ended up with this review:

Marg: I am so excited to be sharing a discussion with Rosario about the new book from Susanna Kearsley, The Firebird. While I am an avid SK fangirl now, ‘gently encouraging’ just about everyone I know to read her, my first introduction to Susanna Kearsley was when I read Rosario’s review of The Winter Sea nearly 5 years ago!

Thanks Rosario!

Rosario: Oh, you’re very welcome, Marg! It does my book pimp heart good to hear that! :)

I’m afraid I can’t even remember who to thank for my intro to Susanna Kearsley, just that she was mentioned as someone lovers of Barbara Michaels would like. I picked up The Shadowy Horses, and that was it for me, I was in love! It remains my favourite of hers still, and Robbie, whom we get to meet again in The Firebird, remains one of my most beloved characters.

Marg: Let’s start talking about The Firebird then. Robbie seems to be a good place to start seeing as you just mentioned him.

We first meet Robbie in The Shadowy Horses as a small boy with special abilities. He can see the past and communicate mentally with others who share that same ability. His role in that book was crucial to helping discover the past on an archeological dig. Now, as a grown up, he still has those skills and they are very much part of who he is. He still plays an active part in the small town he grew up in, working the lifeboats as a volunteer and working as a policeman.

I loved reading about Robbie as a grown up (although he does prefer to be known as Rob now!). Like a lot of Kearsley heroes, he is a pretty quiet man but very sure of who he is. There is no way he is going to hide his abilities, and it frustrates him to see that his ex-girlfriend Nicola is not prepared to develop her own skills or to be open about them, especially when she comes to him for the kind of help that utilises his special talents.

How did you find grown up Rob? Did anything surprise you about him now?

Rosario: Not really, he seems to me exactly the man a boy like Robbie would grow into, if he lived in a supportive community where he’s completely accepted. He’s comfortable in his own skin and accepts his powers with no seeming internal conflict or secrecy. And that is what provides the conflict in the present-day storyline, because, as you said, Nicola is completely different.

Nicola has very similar powers to Robbie’s, although with her, they mainly take the form of psychometry. If she touches an object, she can see events linked to it (very useful, since she works for an art dealer). It’s an ability passed on to her by her grandfather, who emigrated to England from the USSR, and for whom his psychic abilities were nothing but trouble. We’re talking really nasty testing here, so when he realised his granddaughter had inherited his powers, he encouraged her to suppress them and keep them to herself. This has created lots of doubts and mixed feelings in Nicola, and it was what separated her and Robbie when they first met, some years earlier.

Throughout the story, Robbie spends a lot of time encouraging and even, to an extent, pressuring Nicola to embrace her powers and not hide them. Did you think the latter was a reasonable thing to ask of her, Marg? I confess, I felt somewhat uncomfortable with that. Use them, explore  them, embrace them, yes, fine, but just come out and tell all her colleagues in the art world that she’s a psychic? That felt like it wouldn’t be the best decision, unless you just want to be branded a complete nutter!

Marg: For most people, I think there is an aversion to being too different, especially with something as unusual as the kind of abilities that Nicola has and how sceptical a lot of people are when it comes to psychic abilities. Whereas Rob was encouraged to use and develop his skills, Nicola’s grandfather actively discouraged her, and this gave her reason to think that learning more was something to fear, especially seeing as she believed the people around her would not believe her and more importantly not accept her should they find out about her abilities.

Having said that, Rob wanted Nicola to develop her skills for her own good, so that she could fully accept who she was, rather than pushing this part of her that was unique down beneath her surface and squashing it down as far as it would go. As you can see, I was kind of torn by Rob’s actions - he was pushing her but he was doing it because he thought it was best for her. Nicola clearly believed in the existence of these abilities because she asked Rob for help, but she just didn’t believe in her own abilities.

Let’s talk about how the story begins.

Nicola works in an art gallery and she is present when an elderly lady brings in an object that according to family tradition was given to one of her ancestors by Empress Catherine of Russia. Unfortunately, there is no proof of that, and so the gallery cannot accept the item for sale. When Nicola touches the statue, she does sees an image from the past. The woman leaves but Nicola can’t get the vision she saw out of her mind so she heads up to Scotland to visit her again, along the way meeting up with her old boyfriend, Rob, who she believes will help her understand what she saw.

This is the start of a journey that takes both Rob and Nicola on a journey from Scotland to Belgium and Russia, as well as to the past. I must confess when I saw the synopsis for this book I was very excited. What could be better than a new Susanna Kearsley book …. if it was partially set in Russia! I really loved the modern travel, but it was really the historical story about Jacobites in both Belgium and Russia that I didn’t previously know about and really loved.

Were you surprised by the journey that both the present and past characters took?

For the rest of the discussion, please visit Marg's blog here.


Emotional Geology, by Linda Gillard

>> Friday, January 25, 2013

TITLE: Emotional Geology
AUTHOR: Linda Gillard

PAGES: 288

SETTING: Contemporary North Uist (island off North of Scotland)
TYPE: Fiction


Rose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she'd hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Rose Leonard has just moved to North Uist, an island off the North of Scotland, in search of some peace in her life. She hopes the slow pace and emptiness of the island will allow her to concentrate on her art and will do her mental health good. Rose is bipolar, and she's still recovering from a chaotic ending to a stormy relationship.

In North Uist, she not only finds a community she quickly becomes part of, but a man who weakens her determination to stay away from relationships.

I enjoyed this one very much. What I liked best about it was its treatment of Rose's mental health. For starters, when a book's protagonist has such issues, the book tends to be all about them, all about the character's struggles to deal with whatever they are. But here, Rose's bipolar disorder is not really front and centre. It's certainly important in Rose's life (I mean, it's the reason behind the change in her life that brings her to North Uist), but she's made peace with her condition. She understands and accepts herself, and is quite natural about disclosing she's bipolar and what that means to her. The story is not about her struggling with her mental health issues, but about her moving beyond a very important relationship in her life that has ended a few years earlier, and reaching for happiness, in a way that is right for her, and contemplates her mental health needs.

Also, I liked that a happy ending for her is not about true love curing her bipolar disorder, or even making it better. It's about her finding love with someone who accepts her as she is, doesn't want to change her and understands what being with her entails:

"Don't joke about it, Calum -it wears people out! It wears them down. All my friends walked away."

"What wears folk out is the wanting, Rose - wanting things to be different. Better. I don't want that. I don't want to change you. I don't want you "cured". I love you the way you are. It won't wear me out. I know there's a price to be paid for what I want. Maybe it's a high price, but I'm prepared to pay it. Seems like a bargain to me."

I accept that Calum does come across as a bit too good to be true. He's just lovely from the very first, takes one look at Rose and makes his interest clear, never looks at anyone but her, and takes her mental health issues completely in his stride. But as the book goes on, you realise he's got his own problems, and that he's getting the same love and acceptance from Rose as she's getting from him.

It's a book that feels literary in its style (and Gillard does some interesting things with point of view, which sort of swirls around), but it's one that fits in the romance genre, and will be satisfying to romance readers (it's more a hopeful than a full-blown HEA, but that's fine by me). I especially appreciated having more mature characters. Rose is in her 50s late 40s and Colin about a decade younger, and they acted like proper grown-ups.

I also liked lots of other elements, the setting (there's a strong sense of community, and life on the island is fascinating), Rose's work, Calum's poetry, the secondary characters. A solidly enjoyable story.



Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

>> Wednesday, January 23, 2013

TITLE: Last Rituals
AUTHOR: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

PAGES: 314
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary Iceland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series

A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir is commissioned by his family to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich. Their investigations into his research take them deep into a grisly world of torture and witchcraft both past and present, as they draw ever closer to a killer gripped by a dangerous obsession...

Thóra Guðmundsdóttir is a lawyer in Reykjavík, Iceland. She's newly divorced and in her 40s, and dealing with the responsibility of raising her two children and a struggling law practice. The cases she and her partner tend to take on are mostly boring stuff and don't pay particularly well. And then she receives a phone call from Germany.

A few weeks earlier, a body was found at the university, with all sorts of ritual-looking symbols carved onto it and the eyes missing. The police immediately arrested a drug dealer with whom the dead man, Harald Guntlieb, had last been seen. Harald's wealthy family, however, have reasons to think the police have got it wrong. They have sent their company's head of security, Matthew Reich, to investigate, but not speaking Icelandic, he's hitting some walls. They offer Thóra (who studied in Germany, and therefore speaks the language) a very temptingly high fee to work with him.

Despite some doubts, Thóra accepts, and before long, she and Matthew are immersed in Harald's world. Harald had an obsessive interest in medieval witch huntings, which were part of his History studies at University, and Thóra and Matthew soon beging to suspect the killing must be somehow related to this.

Very mixed feelings about this one. It had some good (nay, great) points. The best was that I absolutely loved the Icelandic setting. Apparently the book was written for the Icelandic market, with no thought that it might be translated, so the everyday details are all very matter of fact and felt completely natural. At the same time, Matthew is an outsider, so some things have to be explained to him, and the history involved is clearly on the obscure side, so Sigurðardóttir doesn't assume knowledge on the reader's part. That was great, and well done.

So was the setup of the case. It's really fascinating, and apart from the fact that the body has no eyes, it's more focused on the really amazing history than on the grisly bits. I don't think you need a particularly strong stomach for it. The investigative choices were all fine, too, with Matthew and Thóra taking intelligent steps and no points where I felt like they were being stupid for not doing something obvious.

Unfortunately, that's it for the positives. I had definite issues with the authors' plotting, because a lot of the case depended on secondary character hiding or not revealing things for no reason. Too many of the characters say at some point that they didn't think X was relevant to the investigation, when it was really obvious that it was the kind of thing the police would definitely want to know. Also, several of these characters behave in ways I thought were on the unbelievable side. But ok, while a bit annoying, I would have been able to live this.

What really ruined my enjoyment of this book was the characterisation, especially the fact that I could not stand Thóra. Pretty much all of the characters are cartoonish and unbelievable, but Thóra was the real problem. She is a sanctimonious jerk and extremely judgmental. Every single thing even slightly outside her tiny narrow worldview is greeted with a euwww! Harold's body modifications, for instance. Piercings, euwww! You get a definite whiff of disapproval from the narration. He's weird, she's weird, they're not normal. Oh, and her mental comments about her secretary's weight are particularly bad.

Thóra is also a total ninny. She keeps getting embarrassed about the most idiotic things and blushing and generally acting like an unwordly 12-year-old, rather than a 40-year-old mother of 2. She's the type of person who, when she didn't sleep in her bed in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, will run to her room the next morning to mess up the bed, so that the hotel maid doesn't think she's promiscuous. Oh, grow up. I especially 'loved' the scene when she's at home watching trashy TV and when Matthew calls her, she says she's reading War and Peace "by Dostoyevsky". I think that was supposed to be funny, but clearly, the humour here just didn't click with me.

I also had quite a low opinion of Thóra's legal chops and mental acuity. She can't even rid herself of an incompetent and positively hostile secretary, even though she and her partner do a lot of employment law. As for her intelligence, she keeps jumping to completely illogical conclusions. Like, her son says "I need to see some people", and she immediately thinks "Some people?? Had he joined a cult?" Whaaa? She does this constantly, and it drove me bonkers. But then, when she should actually draw some conclusions, like when her daughter innocently tells her that her brother is no fun, because when he's supposed to be babysitting her, he locks himself in his room with his friend, and they jump on the bed and howl (gee, I wonder what they could be doing), she's completely oblivious. Oh, and how about this one? She's just had the news that her son is in a spot of trouble, and Mrs. Guntlieb is coming to Iceland to speak to her, mother to mother. Thóra panics. What is she supposed to tell this woman when she asks about her children? That her son X and her daughter Y, and oh, how awful! Er, this is a professional relationship, how about saying "they're very well, thank you" and leaving it at that? Twit.

This series is quite a few books long now, and all the cases sound truly amazing. Unfortunately, I'd have to explore them in Thóra's company, and I just can't face the prospect.

MY GRADE: A C-, since I did enjoy the case, if not the main character.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: Not good. It was this version, and I really, really disliked Kim Hicks' narration. She gave some characters particularly nasty, annoying voices. One of them was Martha Mist. She's one of Harold's friends, a character the author makes quite nasty and hypocritical. Hicks, however, goes far beyond the character assassination in the text and makes her even worse than she's supposed to be. Random female characters are done as shrill and horrid, again, completely outside of the text. Then there's the accents. Matthew speaks in a comedy German accent for the entire book, and the one Hicks does for two Filipinas who work as cleaners at the university is particularly offensive. They're talking amongst themselves, presumably in their own language, why give them an accent that makes them sound like utter idiots?


Gather The Bones, by Alison Stuart

>> Monday, January 21, 2013

TITLE: Gather The Bones
AUTHOR: Alison Stuart

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Lyrical Press

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Paranormal romance (ghosts)

War leaves no one untouched

The horrors of the Great War are not the only ghosts that haunt Helen Morrow and her late husband's somewhat reclusive cousin, Paul. Unquiet spirits from another time and another conflict touch them.

A coded diary gives them clues to the mysterious disappearance of Paul's great-grandmother in 1812, and the desperate voice of a young woman reaches out to them from the pages. Together Helen and Paul must search for answers, not only for the old mystery, but also the circumstances surrounding the death of Helen's husband at Passchandaele in 1917.

As the mysteries entwine, their relationship is bound by the search for truth, in the present and the past.

It's a few years after the end of WWI, and Helen Morrow has just arrived in England from her native Australia. She and her daughter are to spend some time with her late husband's aristocratic family. Charlie left to join his cousin, Paul, in his regiment when Helen was in the very early stages of her pregnancy, and died before he could see her. Since little Alice will now never know her father, Helen would like her to know her father's family.
After Charlie's death, the title and estate passed to Paul, who's now struggling both with recovering from injuries sustained in the same charge that killed Charlie and with the new responsibilities he's inherited. There's not enough money to keep the house going for very long, and the fact that he's seriously considering selling it does not help his difficult relationship with his aunt Evelyn, Charlie's mother.

For Paul, the sequels from the war are not just physical, but mental, and he's become reclusive. Helen and Alice's arrival start bringing him back to life, and he and Helen soon develop a connection. But that's not all that's going on. Paul and Helen are not just haunted by their memories, but by the Hall's ghosts. Paul has long been aware of them, but with Helen's arrival, their actions become more urgent and purposeful. It becomes clear that there's a secret from 100 years earlier, and Helen and Paul join forces to discover it.

The concept of this book is right up my street. The period is underused and one I find fascinating, and Stuart does make the time and place come alive. I also love plots where the main characters work together to solve a mystery from the past, especially if there are some creepy ghosts involved (I blame this on my love for Barbara Michaels and my obsession with finding more books like hers, now that she hasn't written one for years). I even liked the characters and was interested in their issues.

Other than a particular development near the end, where the romance goes in a tedious and pointless direction right before the HEA (they act like idiots for a little while, and then change their minds with no angst or consequences), there's really nothing wrong with the book. I liked it well enough. It's just that it's all a bit... thin, I guess. The romance, the old family mystery, the mystery of how exactly Charlie died, it's all explored in a way that felt somewhat shallow to me. There's quite a lot here that should have been very traumatic, but it never felt that way. We were just skimming over the surface.

I felt oddly disengaged from it all. Not quite bored, but close. It was the sort of book where I didn't feel any urgency to pick it up when I'd put it down, but was happy enough to keep reading. It was the emotional connection that I missed.



Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels

>> Saturday, January 19, 2013

TITLE: Shattered Silk
AUTHOR: Barbara Michaels

PAGES: 352

TYPE: Paranormal Mystery/Romance
SERIES: 2nd in Michaels' Georgetown trilogy, after Ammie Come Home and before Stitches in Time.

Karen Nevitt has brought new life to old, abandoned things. Her vintage clothing collection, nestled away in Washington, D.C.'s picturesque Georgetown, features exquisite designer originals from decades past. But there is something deadly sewn into the lace and delicate fabrics she has—clues to a forgotten mystery that is pulling Karen into a dark and terrifying place. A secret once locked away in old trunks and dusty attics is crying out for justice, and only she can make things right. But a killer still lurking in the shadows has decided that the truth must remain hidden... and Karen Nevitt must die.

It was a review at Radish Reviews that made me pick this one up for a reread. This and the trilogy it's part of have always been amongst my favourite Barbara Michaels books, and ones I've reread again and again. Clearly not in the last 10 years, though, as I was surprised to find I haven't reviewed them here. Time to rectify that oversight! (Seriously, though, I could have sworn I reread Ammie Come Home not that long ago... oh, well).

Anyway, enough waffling, and on to the review. Shattered Silk takes us back to Georgetown and Ruth Bennett (now MacDougal)'s house, where the haunting/possession in Ammie Come Home took place, but tells a story with no paranormal elements. Our main character is Karen, whose older sister was the main subject of those earlier events some (I'm guessing) 15 years earlier. Just like Sara, Karen went to live with her aunt Ruth while going to uni and met her future husband there. Unlike Sara, however, she made a really crappy choice, and ended up married to a right bastard. Jack's a university professor whose MO seems to be to get himself a young, bright and pretty undergrad, marry her and use her as unpaid labour to further his career, and then change her for a newer model as soon as she's not that dewy.

After 10 years, Karen's been traded in for the new model, and not knowing where to go, she's licking her wounds at Ruth and Patrick's house. She doesn't have much money, no marketable skills (she thinks), she's overweight and her confidence is generally shot to hell. It doesn't help that she's taken a part-time job helping out at an old friend's antique shop, and that this "friend" is a real piece of work who seems to delight in tormenting her.

It is while working there, however, that she comes up with a plan. Ruth has lots and lots of really well preserved vintage clothing. So does her mother-in-law, who used to be a legendary socialite in Georgetown, and both are happy for Karen to do whatever she wants with it. Her friend assumes she'll be the one to sell them, but what if, Karen wonders, she just set up shop herself?

The story follows Karen as she gets on her feet and starts the process to set up her shop. Along the way, she develops more and more confidence and learns to stand up to people again. I loved seeing that, and I loved that Karen also makes a very good female friend. cheryl is the sister of the guy Karen dumped for her husband all those years ago, and a widow still grieving for her late husband. In her own way, she's just as diffident as Karen, only in her case it's mostly about her lack of education. It's a supportive, healthy relationship between the two women, and I really enjoyed seeing them click and become stronger individually through it.

In addition to this there's a bit of romance (subtle, but definitely there), and a bit of a mystery, as someone seems determined to find something in Ruth and Patrick's house, and Karen and Co. suspect it might have something to do with her increasing stock of vintage clothing. I love how Michaels often has a group of friends acting as a team to solve the mystery (even if they themselves don't realise that they're a team!), and this one (Karen, Cheryl, Cheryl's brother Mark and his cop friend Tony) was great fun. The mystery itself is interesting, as well, and so is all the stuff about the vintage clothing. Some of those pieces sounded truly gorgeous.

Something else I enjoy with Michaels is her writing. I used to think it was a bit too oblique, as she hints at things, and tends to let you draw your own conclusions. It used to annoy me a bit years ago, but I've loved it every time I've read one of her books recently. She trusts her readers to get it and to be paying attention, and that's great.

As you'll see above, Shattered Silk was written in 1986, so just a couple of years before the Peter Robinson I reviewed a couple of days ago and so despised because of its dated sexual politics. This one has dated elements as well, but I was perfectly happy with it. The world Michaels was writing in might have been sexist, but she never was, and there are always plenty of strong feminist elements in her books. That's precisely why she became such a favourite when I started reading grow-up books. It was refreshing.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


Gallows View, by Peter Robinson

>> Thursday, January 17, 2013

TITLE: Gallows View
AUTHOR: Peter Robinson

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1980s Yorkshire
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: #1 in the Inspector Banks series

Former London policeman Alan Banks relocated to Yorkshire seeking some small measure of peace. But depravity and violence are not unique to large cities. His new venue, the quaint little village of Eastvale, seems to have more than its fair share of malefactors, among them a brazen Peeping Tom who hides in night's shadows spying on attractive, unsuspecting ladies as they prepare for bed. And when an elderly woman is found brutally slain in her home, Chief Inspector Banks wonders if the voyeur has increased the intensity of his criminal activities. But whether related or not, perverse local acts and murderous ones are combining to profoundly touch Banks's suddenly vulnerable personal life, forcing a dedicated law officer to make hard choices he'd dearly hoped would never be necessary.
Gallows View is the first in a long-running (over 20 books) series featuring Inspector Alan Banks. In this first entry, Banks has just moved from London to a small Yorkshire town, hoping for a bit of the quiet life. He's not quite getting what he hoped for, though. There has been a rash of muggings, and then an old woman gets killed in an apparent robbery. Not to mention, a Peeping Tom is targetting the women in the village, and the local feminists are giving the police trouble for not stopping him.

Well, all I can say is that this is a very popular series, and knowing the people who've mentioned they like it, I'm assuming the books must have improved A LOT over the years. They really were starting from a low point. The plot was kind of interesting, but the characters ranged from boring to broad stereotypes, and extremely dated, 1980s stereotypes, too, which made me want to bang my head against a wall. The ridiculous, strident "women's libber" character was particularly offensive.

In fact, ALL the sexual politics in this book were dated and offensive. Even Banks, who's supposed to be a halfway decent human being, engages in some lovely victim-blaming (some of those victims of the Peeping Tom were clearly looking for it, why didn't they close their curtains completely), and is exasperated when the women's libber character objects to one of his men having made sexual comments to one of the victims, during an interrogation.

Bad enough, but it got even worse. Here's where I bailed and refused to keep reading: two young criminals have been steadily moving up from petty crime. They've now graduated into house breaking, and they've broken into a woman's house, when she walks in. They need time to get away, and even though they've tied her up, they seem to think that's not enough. One of them wants to hit her over the head, but the other doesn't want to, because she might get killed.

And then this character, who'd been vaguely sympathetic up until then, portrayed as basically a kid who'd got mixed up in things that were a bit too big for him, decides to rape her. Yes, rape her. But it's fine, the reader shouldn't get too upset, you see, because Robinson's been laying the ground well. The woman has sexy underwear, including low-cut bras (as if a teenage boy would look at a bra not on a woman's body and recognise it's low-cut. Please), lives alone, and is wearing too much mascara. Clearly she's promiscuous, so let's rape her, why not? Oh, and to make matters worse, I've been having a look at 1 star reviews on goodreads, and someone included the spoiler that the rapes are only solved because the victim had an STD, and gave it to her attackers. So pay attention, children, promiscuous women might deserve to be raped, but be careful, because they're dirty and might give you a disease. Well, all I can say to that is that I've only just managed to restrain myself from making this part of the review about the author, rather than the book.

MY GRADE: It's technically a DNF, but what I read deserves a big, fat F for its offensiveness.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The audio really didn't help this book any. The version my library had was a quite old one, not the one you can find on audible. I had a quick listen of the sample on audible and the narrator of that one sounds quite good. This one was read by Tim Goodman, and he was utterly terrible. He sounds like he's either sneering or reading through gritted teeth, and I hated how he did dialogue, especially women's voices. Every female character, even a psychologist brought in by the police, who's the only female character portrayed as intelligent in the text, sounded really naff and silly


Night Echoes, by Holly Lisle

>> Tuesday, January 15, 2013

TITLE: Night Echoes
AUTHOR: Holly Lisle

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Signet Eclipse

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal romance

Artist Emma Beck returns to her southern hometown to discover the truth about her secret family history.

With the help of Mike Ruhl, the contractor she's falling in love with, Emma finds that her legacy is more chilling and unexpected than she ever dreamed. Especially when she starts hearing the whispers late at night.

All her life, artist Emma Beck has been incorporating elements of a particular house in her paintings. Then she discovers the name of her birth mother, and visiting the town she was from, she finds that exact house, and has to have it. It's a place that has long given the townspeople the creeps, so she doesn't have any trouble acquiring it.
Then she moves in, and all sorts of weird, eerie things start happening, from sudden feelings of terror, to hearing strange sounds, to a ghostly cat. Not to mention, her unexplainable feelings of recognition when she meets local contractor Mike Ruhl, who seems to feel just the same sense of belonging with her, and the fact that (surprise, surprise!) he has shown up in her pictures before, just as the house.

This was disappointing. It starts quite strongly, with an intriguing plot and paranormal elements that are actually quite scary, as well as interesting. There's not only a mystery regarding Emma's mother's fate, including just who Emma's father was, but something clearly happened in her house many years ago, something tragic, and the house wants Emma and Mike to discover the truth. I also loved Emma's job as a painter of cover art for fantasy and sci-fi novels, which was a really fascinating little nugget.

Unfortunately, it just didn't gel. The supposedly scorching hot chemistry between Emma and Mike felt overdone and fake. I liked them both, and bought that they liked each other and were probably quite well-suited, but the intensity of the relationship Lisle was writing between them didn't suit the characters. I guess that kind of was the point, that this is something completely unlike them, but rather than it coming across as two people feeling something they'd never felt before, it came across as an author telling me they were feeling something they weren't.

And then we get to the last third, or so. Emma and Mike start rushing to mistaken conclusions so abruptly they gave me whiplash (completely unwarranted conclusions, too, with no logic whatsoever), and the finale was ridiculously and laughably over-the-top, ending the book on a very sour note, and in a way that didn't fit the rest of the story.



Ride With Me, by Ruthie Knox

>> Sunday, January 13, 2013

TITLE: Ride With Me
AUTHOR: Ruthie Knox

PAGES: 306
PUBLISHER: Loveswept

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance

When Lexie Marshall places an ad for a cycling companion, she hopes to find someone friendly and fun to cross the TransAmerica Trail with. Instead, she gets Tom Geiger - a lean, sexy loner whose bad attitude threatens to spoil the adventure she's spent years planning.Roped into the cycling equivalent of a blind date by his sister, Tom doesn't want to ride with a chatty, go-by-the-map kind of woman, and he certainly doesn't want to want her. Too bad the sight of Lexie with a bike between her thighs really turns his crank.Even Tom's stubborn determination to keep Lexie at a distance can't stop a kiss from leading to endless nights of hotter-than-hot sex. But when the wild ride ends, where will they go next?
Lexie Marshall and Tom Geiger have the same plans for the summer: they're riding the TransAmerica trail, a bike route that will take them from one end of the USA to the other.

Tom is still in mental recovery from a really crappy situation, where he had to choose between his conscience and what was right, on one hand, and his family and a lot of people's livelihoods, on the other. He chose the first option, and the results were explosive. Since that happened, he's been working in a bike repair shop and living like a hermit. His bike ride will be a continuation of that, just him, his bike and the road, and this is something his sister, the only member of his family who still speaks to him, isn't happy about. It's not so much the physical danger (as Tom notes, he is the serial killer type most people are afraid of encountering on the road), but the fear that the solitude will dig him even deeper into his hole. Unbeknownst to him, Tom's sister has a look at people advertising for a companion for the trip, and arranges for him to travel with one of them.

That companion is Lexie, advertising as "Alex" Marshall, to avoid creeps. Tom isn't happy to discover the riding buddy he's been pressured by his sister into accepting is a woman, since now he feels dutybound to find her a substitute companion before taking off to do his own thing. Plus, Lexie's his polar opposite. She's chatty and gregarious, and she's also planned this, her dream trip, to the most minute detail. She's got rules and she's got gadgets to tell her exactly what she should do in each circumstance. She's also got an imaginary husband, the perfect way to make sure she won't sleep with Tom, whom she recognises immediately as an emotional danger.

But of course, as they spend time together and get to know each other, Tom's determination to palm Lexie off on someone else wanes, and she begins to regret that imaginary husband.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm amazed that it was Knox's debut. Her writing is smooth and accomplished and flows beautifully, and her plotting and pacing are (apart from a slightly abrupt ending) perfect. It's a 100% character-driven romance, which works so well because these are interesting characters, with issues that make sense and provide a reasonable, believable conflict. These two felt real, and seeing them interact was fun. They're not perfect and each have their annoying things, but Knox made me believe it was much more than simple chemistry between them (although there was quite a lot of that as well!), and I was fully engaged in their relationship. It changes slowly, starting from a point where they don't particularly like each other, through liking to love, with no out-of-character jumps in its development, and I loved every second of it. Plenty of memorable scenes, too (if I say "hot sauce challenge", I'm sure everyone who's read this will know what I mean!).

I also loved the setting and biking bits. Even though I haven't ridden a bike in years and years and I'm not particularly interested in doing so, I completely got what Tom and Lexie loved so much about it. Obviously, my ignorance of the subject means I can't really tell you whether Knox gets her details right, but it certainly felt as if she knew what she was talking about and had a real love of the sport. Tom and Lexie cover a lot of ground, and it was fun visiting as well.

So, a solidly enjoyable book, and I can't wait to see what more Knox writes. She's already published another one (which I bought as soon as I finished this), and I'll be reading that very soon.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


They Came To Baghdad, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, January 11, 2013

TITLE: They Came To Baghdad
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1950s London and Iraq
TYPE: Thriller

Baghdad is holding a secret superpower summit, but the word is out, and an underground organization in the Middle East is plotting to sabotage the talks.

Into this explosive situation appears Victoria Jones, a young woman with a yearning for adventure who gets more than she bargains for when a wounded spy dies in her hotel room.

The only man who can save the summit is dead. Can Victoria make sense of his dying words: Lucifer... Basrah... Lefarge...
After the disaster that was my experience of reading The Body In The Library, I was almost afraid to pick up my next Christie. They Came To Baghdad restored my confidence a bit. I might find a couple of unexploded granades amongst Christie's books, but I'm thinking the majority will be more like this one... a couple of instances of "oh, those foreigners are a bit funny", but nothing to bother me overly.

This one's very definitely not a typical Christie. It's not a domestic mystery, but more of a thriller. It's what I would describe as a caper, madcap adventure along the lines of some of Elizabeth Peters' standalones. It reminded me quite strongly of some of her titles, in fact, such as The Camelot Caper or The Dead Sea Cipher.

Our protagonist is Victoria Jones, a bored typist living in London in the early 1950s. One day, having just been fired from a job (that often happens to her), she meets an attractive young man in the park. They start talking and they seem to click, but unfortunately, the young man, Edward, is about to leave for Baghdad for his job. Impulsively, Victoria decides she must get herself to Baghdad as well.

She has nowhere near enough money to get there, but in a stroke of luck, she gets hired as a travelling companion to a lady who's broken her arm (even travelling by air, getting to Baghdad took days back then, including a couple of pit stops). The job ends once they arrive at their destination, however, so a couple of days later, Victoria is trying to sort out what she's going to do next and how she can get a job.

And that's when a mysterious man breaks into her hotel room one night, begs for her help and promptly dies, but not before uttering some cryptic words. Before she knows it, Victoria has a job: trying to get information on a mysterious international conspiracy which could lead to all-out war between the Americans and the Soviets.

I had an absolute blast reading this. Oh, the plot is complete nonsense (think of the more preposterous Bond villain plans and you'll be in the right territory), but that's not the point. It's all about following the delightfully plucky Victoria, as she gets into situation after situation where it looks like she might be in over her head, and then emerges triumphant. She is street-smart and resourceful, with a facility for telling the most outrageous lies, but a strong sense of right and wrong, and I loved her.

I realise she sounds like a bit of an idiot if you summarise the setup. I mean, going all the way to Baghdad, chasing after a man she met for all of 5 minutes? Reading the book, though, she doesn't come across as stupid for doing it. She tells herself she's chasing after him, but it felt quite clear to me that she was just bored of her life and thirsty for adventure. If it hadn't been Baghdad, she would have been off somewhere else a week later.

Christie is not known for her characterisation. Even her fans will admit it's the plotting she's good at, and characterisation her weak point. Well, this is the exception. McGuffin plot, brilliantly drawn protagonist. The other secondary characters are a bit more reliant on types, but there's still enough to make them come alive.

The other protagonist of the story is Baghdad itself. Christie spent quite a bit of time in Iraq, working in her archaeologist husband's excavations, so the setting comes alive and is drawn with fondness. I enjoyed the strong sense of place, but also the portrait of a time long gone, both in Iraq and the London right after World War II. Christie was obviously writing this as a contemporary, so she doesn't make a big song and dance about her own world, but there are details that stop the 21st century reader short. For instance, no mention is made of the fact that in 1950 London there was still some rationing going on, but the American lady Victoria accompanies to Baghdad gives her a pair of silk stockings as a parting gift, the assumption being that contemporary readers would have know just how impossible it would have been for her to get them on her own.

Anyway, this was a good one, not a typical Christie, but still great. We even get a nice little romance!


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This was the version I listened to, narrated by Emilia Fox, who was just brilliant. I loved the voice she did for Victoria, and she was great with all the others as well, really brought out the humour.


Best of 2012, non-Romance edition

>> Wednesday, January 09, 2013

As I mentioned in my earlier post, looking at my top 10 romance novels read last year, I've been reading more and more stuff outside the genre. Here's the best of what I read in 2011. Unlike with romance, where most on my list were new releases, there's only one 2012 release here (probably my top favourite of the year, to).

Top 10 books that aren't Romance Novels

1 - Wolf Hall, by Hilary MantelTA (2009)
review here

I toyed with the idea of cheating and having both Mantels taking up one place, but it feels wrong, somehow. They're fantastic enough that they deserve to take up one space each. They're part of a planned trilogy covering the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, who, from relatively humble beginnings, became one of the most powerful men in England, as the person Henry VIII turned to when he needed something done. Wolf Hall is the first one, and it charts his ascent to power.

2 - Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (2012)
review coming up, hopefully soon!

This one is book 2, with Cromwell at the apex of his power. Now, the Tudors have been popular for a while, so this is not particularly new territory. It's the writing and the incredible subtle and multilayered character portrayal in both books that make them so incredible. This one, if anything, is even better than Wolf Hall, as we see Cromwell grappling with situations in what he feels he has to do and what is right do not coincide.

3 - We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (2003)
review here

The film was my favourite of 2011, so I had to read this. It's one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching, honest books I've ever read. Knowing that it's narrated by a woman whose son carried out a school massacre, I feared it would be Jodi Picoult-type exploitative crap, but it's far, far from that. Very difficult to read, but rewarding.

4 - The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller (2011)
review here

Miller takes the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, so marginal in Homer's Iliad, and yet so key in its events, and makes it the centre of her book. It's the ultimate tragic love story, so not the usual fare for this HEA-loving romance reader, but it worked wonderfully for me. Beautifully written and very satisfying.

5 - I Knew You'd Be Lovely, by Alethea Black (2011)
review here

A collection of short stories that are just a pure delight. Beautifully written, with a delicate touch and plenty of humour, they made me stop short several times, as Black made me look at relatively common-place things and situations in a completely new way, one that went right to the heart and truth of things.

6 - Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)
review here

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where people spend most of their lives plugged into a virtual world called OASIS. The hero is one of a large number who participate in the treasure hunt organised by OASIS' creator before his death: the winner will inherit the company. If you were alive in the 80s and are the slightest bit geeky, you'll love this. Pure entertainment, extremely cool, and loads of fun.

7 - Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver (2010)
review coming soon

A fantastic, creepy ghost story. It scared the living daylights out of me, and I loved that, being set in an isolated Arctic island in the 1930s, it was completely different from the usual ghost story.  It also had a really interesting main character whose motivations made sense.

8 - Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)
review coming soon

It pains me to have a book here by an author known for having really offensive views on homosexuality, but it really was a very good book. It's the tale of a young boy taken into a military academy and intensively trained to become their last hope, a commander that can defeat an alien army. It was a total page turner and dealt in a fascinating way with some very uncomfortable issues. This is one I'd recommend even to people who don't do sci-fi.

9 - The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane (2010)
review here

This novelised non-fiction book looks at a terrible accident which happened in London during the Blitz: streaming into a shelter when the air raid sirens sound, something goes wrong and almost 200 people are crushed to death. It's a terrible tragedy for the community, and a local magistrate is brought in to write a report that will provide closure. It's a sensitive exploration of guilt and blame and responsibility, taking the disaster as a starting point.

10 - Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman (1995)
review here

Northern Lights follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, who lives in a fantasy version of Victorian England. What is at first sight 'just' a really exciting children's book has some very serious themes running through it, and truly superior world-building. I hear the rest of the trilogy isn't as good, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.


Unmasking Maya, by Libby Mercer

>> Monday, January 07, 2013

TITLE: Unmasking Maya
AUTHOR: Libby Mercer

PAGES: 210
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

Defamed, Disgraced and Displaced...

Fresh from a career-killing scandal, New York fashion girl, Maya Kirkwood, arrives in San Francisco to reinvent herself as a fine artist. She's offered the opportunity to create an installation at the Silicon Valley headquarters of a hot new tech company. Fabulous, right?

Not so much.

She can't stand Derek Whitley - wunderkind software genius and CEO of the company. Hot as he may be on the outside, inside the man is a cold, unemotional, robotic type. Way too left-brained for her right-brained self.

As Maya and Derek get to know each other, however, their facades begin to crack. She catches her first glimpse of the man behind the superhuman tech prodigy, and he starts to see her as the woman she used to be. But is this a good thing? Once that last secret is revealed, will it bring them closer together or will it tear them apart?
Maya Lockwood had a high-flying fashion career in New York, until it was destroyed by a betrayal. It was bad enough that people told her "you'll never work in this town again" and really meant it, so she changed her name and moved to San Francisco. As the book starts, she's rebuilding a career and is incognito at the first exhibition of her textile art.

She's struggling with money, so the news that local software millionaire Derek Whitley is interested in commissioning a piece for his headquarters is very welcome. But then her agent points out the man, and the first surprise is that he looks nothing like the weedy nerd she was expecting. The second one is that, not knowing she's the artist, he tells her she doesn't like her art.

It turns out, however, that he still wants her to commissioning that work from her, and she installs herself at his headquarters to work. And before too long, as she spends some time in Derek's company, she realises he's not the cold robot she first thought he was.

There are some good things here. First of all, Mercer has a voice I enjoyed. It feels smooth and almost breezy, which works perfectly with the tone of the book. I also thought her characters (main and secondary) were interesting and appealing. The setting is great, as well. The book has a very nice and vivid sense of place. I felt like I was in San Francisco, and I enjoyed the vibe of Derek's tech company and his employees.

Unfortunately, the romance didn't work for me. I didn't really feel much chemistry between the two main characters, and their relationship felt very underdeveloped. I think the problem was that Mercer introduced too many elements and conflicts, which then didn't go anywhere.

Take the horrible experience Maya had had in New York, being framed for something she didn't do and losing her career. It was only used as the reason why she moved to San Francisco. There was some suggestion that it might have more of an effect, providing conflict between her and Derek, but nothing. On one hand, it's good that we didn't have the predictable misunderstanding, where Derek assumes she's planning to steal his company secrets, but it all just felt like a damp squib. Same with the sudden appearance of her father, with whom there's such a fraught history. It's one confrontation, just to give us a reason why Derek would whisk Maya off, and we never see him again. And how about Maya's worries that Derek is driven by ambition, when she's sworn not to go out with another ambitious man after the debacle in New York? That just disappears as well. It felt very unsatisfying.

I'd be interested in reading more from this author, as I liked her voice and the book's premise, but this one just needed a stricter editor, someone to insist on a clearer narrative thread.


NOTE: My copy was provided to me by the author for review.


Best of 2012, Romance edition

>> Saturday, January 05, 2013

2012 was a fantastic year for reading -for starters, I read some 150 books, about 30 more than in 2011! But it was great in quality, as well, and I really had to whittle down my list below, because there were plenty of candidates. I was so spoiled for choice that all the 10 books below are titles I gave A grades to, and I'm not even counting rereads!

My Romance - non-Romance ratio is now standing at about 60-40, so I'm doing 2 lists: the Romance one below, others in a few days. So, in no particular order:

Top 10 Romance Novels

1 - A Lady Awakened, by Cecilia Grant (2012)
review here

The heroine, a recent widow, needs to urgently get pregnant, and hires a ne'er-do-well neighbour as stud. One of the freshest romances I've read in a while, very subversive in what it does with the sex and relationship, but at the same time beautifully romantic. It was so good that I will now buy anything Cecilia Grant writes.

2 - Real Men Will, by Victoria Dahl (2011)
review here

The 3rd in a really strong trilogy, which got better with every book. The hero was the overbearing older brother who'd spent the first couple of books being all straight-laced and disapproving. Turns out a while back he'd had an amazing one-night-stand with the heroine, but giving her his brother's name. I loved this one as much for the family stuff as for the romance. BTW, another Dahl, Lead Me On, almost made the list.

3 - The Witness, by Nora Roberts (2012)
review here

The heroine witnessed something as a teenager that has put made her a target of the Russian mafia. She's been on the run ever since, and her reclusive, prickly personality attracts the attention of the sheriff in the small town she moves into. The reason this one's such a standout for me is the ending, which is precisely what most people dislike about it. To me, it's not anticlimactic, it's refreshing for how it avoids the cliched final confrontation and does so in a way that's completely right for the characters.

4 - A Week To Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare (2012)
review here

A bluestocking heroine, a rakish hero and a madcap dash to Scotland with a trunkful of dinosaur bones. It's a preposterous setup and the plot has no pretense of historical accuracy, but I loved this frothy, sweet, but very emotional book.

5 - Her Best Worst Mistake, by Sarah Mayberry (2012)
review here

Violet has never liked her best friend's fiance, and the feeling was mutual. But then the best friend dumps him, and it turns out that dislike wasn't dislike after all. Loved, loved, loved this, and not just because the premise of a stuffy hero thawed out by the "wild" heroine is one I like. This had that, plus characters I loved. I also loved Mayberry's Suddenly You, which had a not-dissimilar premise (it was the hero falling in love with his friend's ex, in this case).

6 - Beguiling The Beauty, by Sherry Thomas (2012)
review here

The hero, a powerful duke, has long been obsessed with the heroine's legendary beauty, but has the wrong idea of her character. This leads him to unwittingly humiliate her when he refers to her obliquely (but clearly to anyone who knows her) and unflatteringly in public. Which, in turn, leads to the heroine plotting revenge, the old "I'll make him fall in love with me and break his heart". Bits of these sound trite, but it's all in how it is done. The way Thomas writes this story makes it absolutely gorgeous.

7 - Riveted, by Meljean Brook (2012)
review here

I adored the story of Annika, a young woman who's left her hidden village in Iceland to find her sister, and David, a man searching for his mother's mysterious birthplace. I don't want to say too much, just that 1) Annika and David are characters unlike any I've seen Brook write before, but just as good, and 2) There are some amazing, really cinematic scenes that left me with my mouth hanging open. Fantastic.

The next 3 are all December reads, so they're in my December summary already, and I probably don't need to say much!

8 - The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan (2012)
review here

I especially don't need to say much about this one, as I posted the review just yesterday! Milan is firmly in my autobuy list now.

9 - Easy, by Tammara Webber (2012)
review here

I was surprised at how much I loved this New Adult story, especially after an iffy beginning. It's got a lovely romance, but also a really strong message of female empowerment.

10 - Restraint, by Charlotte Stein (2012)
review here

Erotic romance where the eroticism comes from the emotions involved, not the variety and kinkiness of the sex acts. Short, but very, very satisfying.


The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

>> Thursday, January 03, 2013

TITLE: The Duchess War
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: 412
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century Leicester
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st full-length book in the Brothers Sinister series, follows The Governess Affair

Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly—so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention.

But that is precisely what she gets.

Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match...
I've featured The Duchess War in my "Next month's wishlist" posts for a few months running, as its release kept getting postponed. It's now out, and man, was it worth the wait!

Minnie is a woman with a big secret in her past. She's determined to draw no attention to herself, get married, and live quietly for the rest of her life. And then someone starts publishing revolutionary pamphlets, urging workers in Leicester to  organise. Suspicion falls on her, and she's terrified that if people start looking into her past with any depth, her secret will come out.

There is something she can do, though. Quiet she might be, but Minnie is also extremely clever. Based on the content and timing on the pamphlets, she knows exactly who's behind them: Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, and she intends to prove it.

This is a romance which works so well because the sense of connection between hero and heroine is so strong. Milan showed me exactly why this particular woman and this particular man were so right for each other. On the surface, they aren't, but the thing is, they each manage to immediately look right under the other's surface, and see the real person beneath. Robert looks at Minnie and sees the brilliant strategist under the mousy skin, while she sees the radical revolutionary beneath the glossy duke. These two aren't broad archetypes, they're people, and they act and think like people.

There are all sorts of elements I just loved. There's Robert's relationship with his brother, and his determination to be completely different to his father. There's his sexual history, and the way this results in one of the best first love scenes I've ever read. There's Minnie's own history, and the way this creates a completely organic conflict, which wouldn't be the same with any other two characters. There's Robert's mother, a much subtler character than she initially seems. There's even a really cool setting... imagine, an English city other than London in a historical, and the fact that that workers' rights play a big role in the plot!

I don't want to say too much, because a big part of why this book worked for me is that Milan takes so many typical and tired romance elements and turns them on their head. She does this while also delivering a satisfying, heart-warming romance, thus proving that these elements are not actually necessary. This year has been a great one for subversive romances, and I'm hoping the experiementation will continue!



December 2012 reads

>> Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I've been having some relatively mediocre months lately, but December was just fantastic. I read more than I have in years, and there were some brilliant, brilliant books. I don't think I've had so many A books in a month for ages!

1 - The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley: A-
review coming soon

 Nicola's psychometry tells her a small sculpture of a firebird is authentic, but she needs tangible proof in order to help the owner. She appeals to a friend with even stronger powers: my beloved Robbie, from The Shadowy Horses, all grown up! Beautiful, evocative story, also with ties to The Winter Sea. I loved it. It comes out in a couple of weeks here in the UK, but unfortunately, those of you in North America will have to wait a bit longer.

2 - The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan: A-
review coming soon

 A duke who happens to be one of the most politically radical characters I've ever read in a romance novel, a heroine with secrets which threaten to be revealed by the duke's activities. Great romance, with wonderfully individual characters who fit together perfectly.

3 - Restraint, by Charlotte Stein: A-
review here

 Very short, but packs a punch. Mallory has always thought Artie hates her and is put off by her outrageousness, but she discovers that's not quite the case. Plenty of steaminess, but also genuine romance and raw emotion, and Stein has a very distinctive voice that I really loved.

4 - Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry: A-
review coming soon

 The hero decides to help out his mate's ex, who was left high and dry by said mate when she became pregnant and decided to have the baby. But spending time together leads to some truly toe-curling attraction. Lovely, lovely romance, sweet and hot and with as much humour as it's got angst.

5 - Easy, by Tammara Webber: A-
review here

 Audiobook. My first New Adult, hero and heroine in university. Really liked it, it's got loads of emotion and romance, but also a very female-positive message. It would probably have been my favourite book ever if I'd read it in my late teens/early 20s.

6 - Demon Bound, by Meljean Brook: A-
original review here:

Part of my Guardians reread. Puppy-dog Jake and creepy Alice are a fantastic couple, and there are some fantastic revelations. Love it!

7 - Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes: B+
review coming soon

 Audiobook. Young woman takes a job as a carer for a quadraplegic man, and their relationship changes the lives of both. Very emotional book, but in an honest, completely non-manipulative and non-maudlin way. Really good.

8 - They Came To Baghdad, by Agatha Christie: B+
review coming soon

 Audiobook. Plucky heroine travels to Baghdad, chasing after a man, and gets accidentally embroiled in an international conspiracy. This is Christie doing a spy caper, rather than a traditional mystery, and it's good fun, with a really cool, plucky heroine. Plus, great setting!

9 - The Mephisto Club, by Tess Gerritsen: B+
review coming soon

Audiobook. After a body is found horribly dismembered, with evidence suggesting a Satanic ritual, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles come across the Mephisto Club, a group of well-heeled intellectuals who say they study evil. Some of it was a bit much, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

10 -Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels: B+
review coming soon

Reread of one of my fave Michaels. Karen has just been left by her husband and her self-esteem has taken a big hit. Going back to her aunt's in Georgetown, she starts to live her life again, including setting up a business, dealing in vintage clothes. Atmospheric, with excellently drawn characters and a really cool plot.

11 - Grease Monkey Jive, by Ainsley Paton: B
review here

 A player hero who wants to reform, a dance teacher heroine, and a ballroom dancing competition. Really nice, gradual, and completely believable romance, and a book that felt fresh. Unfortunately, it also felt a bit bloated and in need of editing.

12 - The Rescue Man, by Anthony Quinn: B
review coming soon

 Set in Liverpool at the start of WWII and in the 1860s. The main character is a man fascinated by the city's architecture, who becomes a "rescue man", helping save people from collapsed buildings once the German bombing starts. He also becomes interested in a revolutionary architect from the previous century. A big part of my interest was because it's set where I live and the setting is really vivid, but it's a good story, too.

13 - The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths: B
review here

Audiobook, 1st in series featuring forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway. Brought in by the police to help with bones just discovered, she gets involved in a child disappearance case. Interesting case and great sense of place (the Norfolk salt marshes). The personal stuff kept my attention, but felt a bit sordid.

14 - Unmasking Maya, by Libby Mercer: C+
review coming soon

Maya is an artist, starting anew in San Francisco after her high-flying career in New York was destroyed. She's commissioned to create some art for a software millionaire, who turns out not to be the weedy nerd she was expecting. It's got a nice sense of place and I liked Mercer's voice, but the plot felt unfocused, with thread after thread popping up and then never going anywhere, and the romance wasn't developed enough.

15 - No Strings Attached, by Bridget Gray: C+
review here

The heroine saved the hero's life during the Asian tsunami, but when they meet again, he doesn't remember her. Not wanting him to feel he owes her, when they've just started dating, she doesn't tell him. Meh. The execution felt a bit off. Plus, we get 3 different romances in a shortish book, and all feel underbaked.

16 - A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens: C+
review here

Audiobook. Read for my book club. It's a good story, but I just cannot stand Victorian sentimentality, so I didn't particularly enjoy it. Jim Dale's narration was really good, though.

17 - Gallows View, by Peter Robinson: DNF
review coming soon

Audiobook. Mystery set in a Yorkshire village in the late 80s, starts a series featuring Inspector Banks, who's just moved up North from London. The case(s) involve(s) a peeping Tom and a series of muggings, and I was hoping for a good connection between all the strands. Interesting plot, but the sexual politics were so dated and appalling that I had to stop reading it.

18 - Leave Me Breathless, by Cherrie Lynn: DNF
review here

Opposites attract-type erotic romance. Macy is an all-country riding instructor, Seth is an all-heavy metal tattoo artist. The characters didn't appeal to me, and the first third or so that I read is sex scene after sex scene, and those didn't really appeal, either.

19 - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith: DNF
review coming soon

Everyone seems to love this series, about Precious Ramotswe, and her detective agency in Botswana, but I couldn't get into it. Possibly McCall Smith's writing, I've liked other books of his, but he does a faux-folksy voice here that just annoyed me.

20 - Demon Forged: still reading
original review here:

Only just started it, but enjoying it as much as I did the first time around!


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