March 2013 wish list

>> Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A relatively small number this month. Probably a good thing, considering how many I got during February!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Just the 3, but they're all books I'm looking forward to.

Along Came Trouble, by Ruthie Knox (Mar 11)

I loved Ruthie Knox's first 2 Loveswepts. Unlike those two, the plot description of this one doesn't particularly draw me to it (bodyguards, ex-military, tabloid press -meh), but I'm interested in seeing what Knox does with it. Plus, the idea of the series sounds like fun.

Lover At Last, by JR Ward (Mar 26)

I've gone a bit off Ward lately, and even though the couple featured in this one (Qhuinn and Blay) were the only two characters who interested me in the last few books, I don't much like where their story has been going. Still, gay romance front and centre a in mainstream, blockbuster romance series! I'll be reading it, and I hope it does well and opens some doors (especially since rumours are that whether Meljean Brook's Scarsdale book is traditionally published will depend on how this one does). ETA: Sorry, turns out that's not true, please see Meljean's comment below.

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

A Most Improper Rumor, by Emma Wildes (Mar 5)

The series (Whispers of Scandal), seems to be about heroines who are caught up in different sorts of reputation- ending situations. In this case, the heroine is a suspected murderer who asks the hero to clear her name. Emma Wildes is an author I've been meaning to try, and this one might do.

An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James (Mar 5)

I didn't adore St. James' The Haunting of Maddy Clare as much as everyone else seemed to, but it interested me enough to give her brand of creepy, eery ghost story another chance.

The Turncoat, by Donna Thorland (Mar 5)

I'm really not sure about this one, but I haven't read a romance set during the American Revolution for ages. Depending on reviews, this might do.

Dark Tide, by Elizabeth Haynes (Mar 12)

I really liked Haynes' Into The Darkest Corner, she does suspense well. Plus, a houseboat!


Doukakis's Apprentice, by Sarah Morgan

>> Saturday, February 23, 2013

TITLE: Doukakis's Apprentice
AUTHOR: Sarah Morgan

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Category romance

With her family business in crisis. Polly Prince does her best to keep calm and carry on. But hard work alone can't save her company from a takeover by the infamously ruthless Damon Doukakis -or her traitorous body from the lethal sensuality of her boss!

As his new apprentice, Polly accompanies Damon to Paris to negotiate the business deal of her life! Worse still, Polly must at all costs resist Damon in the most dangerously romantic city in the world.

I've been hearing really good things about Sarah Morgan, and Brie's review of her latest pushed me into finally trying her, even though she writes mainly for Harlequin Presents, a line that really isn't to my taste. Brie suggested several titles to start with, and it turned out I had Doukakis' Apprentice on the TBR already, so there, decision made!

The setup is very Presents. The hero is Damon Doukakis, Greek tycoon extraordinaire. His sister has ran off with Peter Prince, a feckless businessman twice her age and won't get in touch. Worried that his sister might actually marry him, Damon decides to takes over Prince's advertising agency, to force the man out of hiding.

It turns out that Prince is even more irresponsible than Damon thought, and for years, the agency has been effectively ran and kept alive by his daughter, Polly. She's been pouring her heart and soul into the company and is single-handedly responsible for keeping them afloat despite of the fact that their Board is entirely composed of useless, blood-sucking leeches. With better management and someone reining in the Board, she's convinced the company could be a success. When Doukakis takes over, Polly is terrified. She's sure he's out for revenge, and rather than take a proper look at the situation, he will just shut down the whole thing to get back at her father, putting the people who are like a proper family to her out of work.

Things start out as you would expect in this line, with the very familiar angst at the injustice of having the heroine wrongly judged. Damon instantly makes assumptions about Polly and accuses her of being useless, a rich girl on a lark, who's never done a day of hard work in her life. Typical Presents. I have to admit, it's a very effective technique, and it hits you (and it did hit me, in this case) straight in the gut. It's also a bit manipulative, and now that I've read so many of these books and recognise exactly what the author's doing, it does annoy me a bit.

But then things just flip. Damon turns out to be a reasonable guy, whose first step is to actually look at the evidence. He then reasseses his initial conclusions. Not only that, he admits it to Polly, and is very clear about his admiration and respect for the amazing work she has done.

And there's more! They end up jetting off to Paris for this important meeting, and Morgan allows her big alpha hero to be wrong. About business! Yes, we're not talking about a story where the conclusion is that women are good at the fluffy, creative stuff, but for serious business, you need a man, and women needn't worry their pretty heads about it. Polly's good at the creative side, but when it comes to pitching for accounts, she knows what she's doing as well, and her approach is more effective than Damon's. The story ends with her business being given the management help it needs, but with his business changing to incorporate the more employee-friendly practices of Polly's (creches! no more hot-desking!).

[As an aside, speaking of those business practices of Polly's: some of them are the kind of thing that would have driven me crazy when I first started this blog. The accountant has no idea what he's doing and can't use a spreadsheet, but he's a dear, so she'll keep him on and try to teach him, very slowly. The mail-room lady gives everyone the wrong mail, but again, she's a dear, so people just fix her mistakes. I've written reviews where I screamed in exasperation at that sort of thing, annoyed at what it says about femininity, that a true woman must be nurturing and couldn't possibly be ruthless enough to run a business properly. But now... it turns out I don't mind so much. I've become increasingly socialist in my own age. Oh, the gender role thing still annoys me, and that incompetent accountant is keeping a competent one who could do the job better out of work, but still, there's nothing wrong in a business has providing good jobs for its employees as one of its reasons for being.]

The relationship between Damon and Polly is really, really good, too. She gives as good as she gets in the business sense (read some of the quotes in the Dear Author review, they show that perfectly), but also in their personal interactions (even though, completely unnecessarily, a virgin *sigh*). A lot of the fun comes from seeing the suave, powerful Damon perpetually off-balance with her, and gradually coming to care for the woman he discovers under the surface. It turns out he can give her exactly what she needs, someone who cares about what happens to her, rather than assume she's tough and she'll be all right and can handle anything. Damon comes alive as well, showing both Polly and the reader his vulnerabilities, the family history that made him into the overly serious and protective man he became. It was a romance I found believable and satisfying.

So, a fantastic book, but I have to say, not one that makes me feel any different about Presents. I liked it in spite of the Presents-ish elements. In fact, I loved it because it overturned these elements and stood them on their head.



Jane Austen & Cinderella

>> Thursday, February 21, 2013

TITLE: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
AUTHOR: Paula Byrne

This is not your usual biography. Rather than take a linear, chronological approach and go through Jane Austen's life step by step, Byrne chooses to use use objects relevant to her life as a starting point. Through them, she presents a fascinating look at Austen's life and times.

An Indian shawl sparks of an exploration of how Austen wasn't a closed-off, provincial writer. Rather, she had plenty of international connections, and Byrne shows how this is reflected in her work. This portrait, showing Lord Mansfield two adopted daughters, is a starting point for a discussion about her views on slavery. A royalty cheque provides insight into the business side of how her books were published (I had no idea that her first, Sense and Sensibility was, for all intents and purposes, vanity publishing!).

It's not really about what she did and when. That's there, of course, but the emphasis is on how she felt and thought, and how this is reflected in her books. There are a couple of points where I thought the author was overreaching and possibly jumping to conclusions, but that was only on relatively minor things. On the whole, I thought it was fantastic. I haven't read biographies of Austen done the traditional, linear way, so I can't really compare, but I really liked this thematic approach!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

AUTHOR: Malinda Lo

Oh, the disappointment! I've heard good things about Ash, and the idea of a lesbian retelling of Cinderella sounded amazing. I just couldn't get into it.

Mainly, my problem was that the characters were too opaque and enigmatic (and not enigmatic in a good way). It was all: then she did this, and then so and so said this. Ash's stepmother told her Ash would have to become her servant to pay off the debts her father had left, and Ash became a servant. Ash met a fairy prince in the forest, they went for long walks together and became friends. That's the level of the narrative. It's a level that can work for a traditional fairy tale, but in a full novel, it becomes tedious.

What I want in a fairy tale retelling is insight into the characters, an understanding of why they might act in the often puzzling ways characters act in fairy tales. I didn't get that here. After almost half the book, characters were still just as superficial and illogical as in the original, and I lost patience.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


Death du Jour, by Kathy Reichs

>> Tuesday, February 19, 2013

TITLE: Death du Jour
AUTHOR: Kathy Reichs

PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Contemporary Montreal and South Carolina
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Temperance Brennan series

In the bitter cold of a Montreal winter, Tempe Brennan is digging for a corpse buried more than a century ago. Although Tempe thrives on such enigmas from the past, it's a chain of contemporary deaths and disappearances that has seized her attention -- and she alone is ideally placed to make a chilling connection among the seemingly unrelated events. At the crime scene, at the morgue, and in the lab, Tempe probes a mystery that sweeps from a deadly Quebec fire to startling discoveries in the Carolinas, and culminates in Montreal with a terrifying showdown -- a nerve-shattering test of both her forensic expertise and her skills for survival.

I had some reservations about the first book in this series, but first books will often be iffy, and I remember liking some later entries in the series. That was absolutely the right thing to do; this one was much better.

The book starts out with an almost disjointed feel, sort of an "a few weeks in the life of a forensic anthropologist". We first see our protagonist, Dr. Temperance Brennan, in Montreal, digging up the body of a 19th century nun who's about to be postulated as a candidate for sainthood. The next morning it's off to do a recovery from a truly horrific house fire, and we're with her during the autopsies, which include two mutilated babies. Later an acquaintance asks for help finding a missing girl, there's a dead woman who was mauled by dead, and as soon as she goes down to South Carolina, where she teaches, she stumbles across two bodies in a remote island. And that's just the beginning.

Obviously, the reader knows there has to be something linking all the stuff that's going on, otherwise it wouldn't be a very good mystery. And once we start getting a glimpse of what might be the common thread, it's a good, creepy one. It all relies a wee bit too much on coincidence, but that didn't really bother me all that much. I guess I was ready to suspend disbelief on this, and I was able to go with the flow.

Tempe was a much better character here. She was on the TSTL side in book 1, keeping things to herself for no reason, not making really obvious links and placing herself in dangerous situations when it made no sense for her to do so. I put that down to the book being a debut and the author finding no better way to move the plot in a particular direction. It's not a problem here. There are a few "Come ON, Tempe!" moments, but it was all relatively minor, and Tempe's involvement in the case felt a lot more organic.

In addition to the case, we get quite a bit of personal stuff. Tempe's relationship with her daughter (which is a refreshingly healthy one) and her sister are interesting, and there's also a developing thing between her and one of the detectives who was introduced in the first book. I'm interested in the latter, but there really isn't much chemistry there, I'm afraid, so the romance, when it comes, falls flat on its face. There's this wannabe torrid scene which was just embarrassing to read and truly cringe-worthy, and I'm a romance reader, I'm perfectly happy to read explicit sex scenes. Still, it's a mercifully small element in the book.

Something else that didn't work for me in book 1 was the excessive detail, both on the mundane, day-to-day end (e.g. constantly being given exact driving directions whenever Tempe went anywhere) and on the forensics. There was a bit of that here, but it wasn't overly bothersome. There was also a bit of infodumping on the theme that was the link between all the different threads (being cryptic here!), as Tempe talked to academics about the subject, but it was fascinating stuff, so the fact that it wasn't that well-integrated wasn't too bad.

On the whole, then, a solid mystery that kept my interest, and I reckon I'll be listening to book 3 in a few weeks.

MY GRADE: It's a B.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The first one in the series was narrated by the wonderful Barbara Rosenblat, who I suspect made me enjoy it more than I would have if I'd read it on paper. The narrator has changed for this second one, and it's Bonnie Hurren. She's... well, adequate. It's all a bit flat sometimes, and definitely lacking the spark Rosenblat brings.


The House on Tradd Street, by Karen White

>> Sunday, February 17, 2013

TITLE: The House on Tradd Street
AUTHOR: Karen White

PAGES: 252

SETTING: Contemporary US (Charleston)
TYPE: Paranormal romance (ghosts)
SERIES: Starts a series

Practical Melanie Middleton hates to admit she can see ghosts. But she's going to have to accept it. An old man she recently met has died, leaving her his historic Tradd Street home, complete with housekeeper, dog -and a family of ghosts anxious to tell her their secrets.

Enter Jack Trenholm, a gorgeous writer obsessed with unsolved mysteries. He has reason to believe that diamonds from the Confederate Treasury are hidden in the house. So he turns the charm on with Melanie, only to discover he's the smitten one...

It turns out Jack's search has caught the attention of a malevolent ghost. Now, Jack and Melanie must unravel a mystery of passion, heartbreak -and even murder.

Estate agent Melanie Middleton might sell old houses, but she prefers new ones. And then she inherits the mother of all old houses, a beautiful but run-down mansion which is one of the best-known in Charleston. She has no idea why the former owner, an old man she only met once, left the house to her, but he's made it really difficult for her to say no. Before she can sell the house or anything in it, Melanie must spend a year living in it. If she does so, she'll receive a salary and will have access to whatever funds she needs to put the house back to rights. A hard offer to turn down, indeed.

That sounded all very good to me, not to mention the fact that Melanie can see ghosts, and the house has a full complement of them, as well as Secrets From The Past. Unfortunately, it soon became clear the book wasn't going to work for me.

Initially, I was just uncomfortable with how Melanie's dislike for old houses was obviously White building up a straw-man to knock down later, when she made Melanie see the errors of her ways. Because of this, Melanie's practicality, her preference for new houses, rather than old money-pits, no matter how gorgeous the latter are, feels forced. It's a perfectly respectable, reasonable opinion, especially for someone living on their own (I'm thinking of the leak I had last year. Having to sort every single detail out myself was a huge pain, requiring countless phone calls and time off from work. I kept wishing I lived in a newly-built flat, rather than my charming old Victorian!). But it's not that Melanie just prefers new houses, she dislikes old ones, in a blind, irrational way. She's wrong, and must be made to see the error of her ways!

And that's the sort of story that was being set up when I decided to just press the delete button. Silly woman, she needs to be bullied (by pretty much every character in the story, from her father and friend to random men and her receptionist) into living her life in the way everyone else thinks she should live it. Of course she can't just make decisions about her own preferences! It put my back up, and made me want her to tell them all to go to hell.

And "putting my back up" is a mild way of describing the intense annoyance engendered by the presumptuous, arrogant bastard who's supposed to be the love interest. He's horrendous and a total asshole from the very moment he's introduced, when Melanie returns his phone call only to be told off for calling in the morning (when the guy had left heaven knows how many times the day before, indicating a certain level of urgency). Then, when she tells him there's no need to take the phone into the shower with him, as she can call back later, he retorts that if he does that, then she won't have the pleasure of imagining him naked. After which he suggests they go out for dinner that night, and Melanie, the utter idiot agrees (why? Because she'd just seen a photograph of him and thought she was good looking. Idiot. She deserved him).

And of course, once they meet, he's yet another character who refuses to respect any of her wishes and bullies her into stuff, from insisting on calling her "Mellie" even though she tells him she prefers Melanie, to taking her to a dive because he likes the food, even though she's dressed for something a little bit more upscale, to high-handedly changing her dinner order because he thinks she should have the shrimp. Oh, spare me! I was out of there.



King of Darkness, by Elizabeth Staab

>> Friday, February 15, 2013

TITLE: King of Darkness
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Staab

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Paranormal romance (vampires)
SERIES: Chronicles of Yavn book 1


Scorned by the vampire community for her lack of power, Isabel Anthony lives a carefree existence masquerading as human--although, drifting among the debauched human nightlife, she prefers the patrons' blood to other indulgences. But when she meets the king of vampires this party girl's life turns dark and dangerous.


Dead-set on finding the prophesied mate who will unlock his fiery powers, Thad Morgan must find his queen before their race is destroyed. Their enemies are gaining ground, and Thad needs his powers to unite his subjects. But when his search leads him to the defiant Isabel, he wonders if fate has gotten it seriously wrong...

King of Darkness is a hugely promising start to a paranormal romance series. Of course, since I'm saying it was "promising", rather than "great", you can probably guess I had ISSUES with it.

Thad Morgan is the new vampire king. Since his parents' death, however, he hasn't quite assumed all the responsibilities of his role. It's a heavy load, as the vampire race is under threat from their enemies, wizards who kill vampires in order to steal their powers. Not to mention, sections of the vampire community are making noises about taking protective actions that Thad is afraid will be counterproductive.

Before he takes on the role in full, Thad decides he needs to find his mate. A prophecy when he was born indicated that he wouldn't develop his power until he found her, and apparently, that's a must for a proper King who wants to be respected. As the book opens, he and his right hand, Lee, follow Thad's homing instincts into a nightclub, where they find Isabel Anthony.

Isabel is a vampire whose parents, for reasons that were never particularly well explained, chose to live outside of the community. When they died, she continued with that isolated existence, living in the human world. Her best friend is a human woman, and she's been feeding on human blood all that time.

Isabel doesn't react well to the news Thad and Lee bring. The idea of her as the Queen is ridiculous, and she doesn't intend to leave her life, thank you very much. She's a little bit tipsy, though, and quite intrigued by the very attractive Thad, so she agrees to continue the discussion (and er... more) at her flat. That's where they all are when a wizard somehow manages to track them down, and that's that: Isabel and her best friend and roommate, Alexia, are whisked off to the royal compound for their own safety.

The setup of the series clearly takes a lot of inspiration from JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, from vampires as a separate race, with a King who's one of the warriors who defend it, to starting the series with the new vampire king, facing rebellion and doubt in his subjects. Not to mention, their physically unprepossessing, but extremely evil enemies. The characters, however, made the book feel completely fresh and original.

Where the BDB males are over-the-top and ridiculous and have a kind of unhealthy hypermasculinity that is not particularly appealing to me, Staab's males feel a lot more normal. Thad, for instance, is a strong guy, but he has doubts, and he admits so. He feels out of his depth as a leader, and he's not quite sure how to approach Isabel, fated mates or not. He doesn't take himself deathly seriously, and is very definitely not some sort of superhuman warrior. I also thought it was quite refreshing that having grown up within the confines of vampire royalty, he's a lot less worldly than Isabel, who's lived the life of a party-loving human female. There's a really nice scene at the beginning when she introduces him to the pleasures of red wine (which has some interesting effects on vampires!).

The female characters seem a lot stronger, as well. Well, Isabel kind of fades a bit after a strong start, but her friend, Alexia, seems great, and I'm dying to read about Tyra, Thad's sister, who's just as much of a warrior as the men, no matter that she's female and half-human, to boot. And the men seem perfectly happy about it, too, and are not stupidly protective. There's a bit when someone proposes she do something risky, as because of her particular powers and half-human nature, it's the perfect task for her, and the discussions about it and whether it would be safe enough were the same as if it had been Thad. Tyra's book is the next one, and the sections setting it up were very intriguing. The hero will be the son of the top wizard, so instant conflict, and he seemed pretty beta to Tyra's alpha.

So, great characters I was happy to read about. The plotting, though...*sigh*. Not very good at all. Things felt disjointed, and characters' reactions several times felt out of character and purely driven by Staab's need to move the plot in a particular direction. I mean, if you need to place your characters in danger and create a big confrontation with the villains, the worst possible way of doing so is to make your previously intelligent and savvy heroine behave like a braindead idiot for no reason at all (I mean, really! -'Hmmm, I quite fancy taking a walk into town, even though we're holed up in this ridiculously secure mansion and everyone's told me we're probably in danger, and I believe them"?).

I also wasn't happy with the resolution of the romance. That is, I had no problem with the nature of the happy ending. What I didn't like was that, even though an interesting conflict had been set up, with their being fated mates, but Isabel having no interest in taking on the role of Queen, and Thad's conflicted feelings about taking over his father's throne, that was just brushed aside. It's all misunderstandings and deus ex machina.

So yeah, not good. BUT! This is a debut, so I'm willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and hope that the shoddy plotting will be sorted out as she gets more experience. Also, I liked the characters and the world that's being set up for the rest of the series enough that I'd still recommend this one, if only to get the beginning of the fascinating story that's being set up for book 2. Which, by the way, I've already bought!

MY GRADE: A B. It might seem a bit high after all my complaints, but I did really enjoy the book as I was reading, even when I was rolling my eyes.


The Girl With The Cat Tattoo, by Theresa Weir

>> Wednesday, February 13, 2013

TITLE: The Girl With The Cat Tattoo
AUTHOR: Theresa Weir

PAGES: 150
PUBLISHER: Belfry Press

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance

For cat lovers everywhere, this sweet, quirky, and delightful romance is about a young woman and her matchmaking cat. A little bit of mystery, a whole lot of whimsy.

Melody's husband was murdered by what seemed a random act of violence. Two years later, the killer hasn't been caught, and Melody is coping in unhealthy ways. During the day she's a mild-mannered children's librarian, but at night she's a party girl, hanging out in bars, drinking with new friends, and often bringing home strange men. Although acquaintances have tried to keep in touch, Melody has cut herself off from most of the people in her old life. Max, her eccentric cat, doesn't approve of her new friends, he's tired of the parade of losers, and he finally takes it upon himself to find Melody a new man.
Max the cat is worried about his human. Melanie lost her cop husband a couple of years earlier, when he was the victim of a shooting, and she's still not doing well. She keeps drinking that smelly liquid and then she brings home men who Max knows are just not right for her (or for him!). Well, if she wants a man, he'll find her one.

It first looks as if Max got it right on his first go. Joe is nice, and he and Melanie seem to like each other just fine. But then Max finds a gun in his backpack...

So, let's get this out of the way: big sections of this book are narrated by Max. And you know what? They're what makes this book worth reading.

The romance itself is nice enough. Melanie and Joe are good together, and the conflict is understandable and believable. However, the relationship is not hugely developed. We stay very much on the surface, and on a normal book, this would mean a mediocre romance.

The fact that it isn't mediocre and I enjoyed it quite a bit is all about Max's contributions. The sections narrated from his point of view are a hoot. Weir gets his voice spot-on. He's a very clever cat, but he's still very much a cat, and that's reflected in how he thinks, and what he thinks about. I'm sure every cat owner has at some point wondered what's going on inside those little heads, and I wouldn't be too surprised if turned out it's something like what's going on inside Max's!

I have to say, though, some of these sections skating the line between cute and cutesy, but on the whole, Weir does well in staying on the right side of that line.



Beyond The Night, by Joss Ware

>> Monday, February 11, 2013

TITLE: Beyond The Night
AUTHOR: Joss Ware

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: 2060 in what's now the US
TYPE: Post-apocalyptic romance
SERIES: Envy Chronicles book 1

A man with no future...

When Dr. Elliott Drake wakes from a mysterious fifty-year sleep, the world as he knew it is gone. Cities are now desolate, and civilization is controlled by deadly immortals. Stranger still is Elliott's extraordinary new "gift"--he has the power to heal, but it comes with fatal consequences.

A woman with a past...

Jade barely escaped the immortals and is now hell-bent on revenge. She trusts no one . . . until Elliott. His piercing gaze and tempting touch shatter her defenses, but the handsome doctor seems to have dangerous secrets of his own. Is it safe to trust him with her heart?

If they are to survive in this dark new world, Jade and Elliott must work together to fight the forces that take them beyond danger.

Beyond desire.
I've been eyeing this post-apocalyptic romance series for a while now, and I finally tried the first one this month. It showed great promise at first, but then didn't fully deliver on that promise.

Elliott and his friends were just regular guys when they decided to explore some caves in Sedona. While they were inside, there was a massive earthquake, and they all lost consciousness. And then they woke up, and soon realised they'd been asleep for 50 years. Turns out those earthquakes were part of events that triggered world-wide devastation, and very few people survived.

When we meet Elliott and his friends, it's been 6 months and they have began to accept that the world they lived in is gone and get to grips with this new one (which comes complete with zombie-like creatures which hunt humans at night). They've managed to piece together some of what happened all those years ago, but there are still many questions left. They've been looking for a place called Envy, apparently the largest new city around, where they hope they can find someone who was alive back then and might have more information.

Their chance comes when they rescue a group of kids from the zombies. They're helped in the rescue by Jade, a mysterious woman who rides in on a mustang and helps save the day. Both Jade and the kids are from Envy, and the kids agree to let the men escort them back. There, they finally find someone who survived the disasters, and before they can blink, they have joined him and Jade in the resistance against a shadowy group called the Strangers. According to their new friends, the Strangers prey on humans, and might even have caused the events that ended the world.

So, a lot going on, and I haven't even mentioned the special powers the men have developed after their 50-year sleep (Elliott, who's a doctor, is now able to scan people like a living MRI, and then heal their injuries, although with the minor glitch that he takes on those injuries himself). On the whole, it started out really well on the world-building front. It's interesting and vivid, and I really liked the sort of Wild West feel. Also, having the book start 6 months after the men wake up was a good choice, as that way Ware avoids too many infodumps when they're being told new things (there's a lot of info they need to learn, as it is, especially all the stuff about the Strangers), and doesn't have to deal with their shock and confusion on top of all the worldbuilding.

I was completely engaged in this world right about the moment when all the revelations start coming in about the Strangers, and who may have caused the apocalypse. That's where Ware lost me. It all became too silly and nonsensical. The focus moved from humanity organising itself and creating a new world after a massive disaster, to monstruously evil people plotting their evil plots. I liked Ware's take on the former, but had not a whit of interest in the latter.

And then there's the romance. From the beginning, it felt forced, and the chemistry just wasn't there. There was lots of lusting (often at really weird, inappropriate points), but I never believed in it. Elliott was a good character, but Jade never really gelled.

MY GRADE: I read about 2/3 of the book, which is much further than I usually get into a DNF, but I just wasn't interested enough in these people and their world to continue.


The Secret Mistress, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, February 09, 2013

TITLE: The Secret Mistress
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 432

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Prequel to More Than a Mistress and No Man's Mistress.

While Lady Angeline Dudley’s pedigree dictates that she must land a titled gentleman, the irrepressible beauty longs for a simple, ordinary suitor. So when Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heyward, defends her honor with unmatched civility, Angeline thinks that she has found true love. Persuading the earl is another matter entirely. From her unconventional fashion sense to her hoydenish antics, Angeline is the last woman on earth for Edward. And yet a stolen kiss awakens something primal within him. Naturally, being a gentleman, he does the right thing after compromising a lady: He offers marriage. The proposal is born of duty, but will Angeline cause Edward to forget about decorum behind closed doors, where sensuality and seduction play wicked games? For a proper wife by day can become a husband’s secret mistress by night, when delicious desire rules.

It's a common plot in historical romance. A nobleman hero, whose family have determined he needs to get married as soon as possible, so he can start producing an heir. The perfect candidate, whom his family all champion, a young, highborn débutante without much common sense. Another, older young woman, sensible and easy to talk to, whom he would prefer to marry, but whose social status is not quite high enough to please his family.

Another common (if slightly less so) plot is the vivacious, lively heroine, whose family decides the perfect man to court her is a boring stick-in-the-mud.

Balogh writes both these stories, but with a little twist. The heroine is not the older, sensible woman, but the young, perfect candidate, and the stick-in-the-mud suitor is exactly who the lively young woman wants from the start. She's done it before, in A Summer To Remember, and she does it just as well here.

The hero is Edward Ailsbury, who's just inherited an earldom on his brother's death. His brother was this charming ne'er-do'well, whom everyone loved, and serious, conscientious Edward always felt very ordinary and boring next to him.

Now that the period of mourning is over, Edward is resigned to doing his duty and setting up his nursery. His family, all of whom he loves, and all of whom love him, are determined to help him make a splendid match, to marry someone just as elegible as he is. Edward is not too happy about this, as he's always thought that, if he had to, he'd quite like to marry his old friend Eunice, the daughter of his old don and mentor. Eunice is just as serious-minded and sensible as he is, and he thinks they'll do very well together. However, even if she's a gentlewoman, what would have been an ok match for Mr. Ailsbury is not quite grand enough for an earl.

On his way to London for the Season, Edward comes across a young woman, clearly a lady, behaving ever-so-slightly indiscreetly. He defends her from the impertinent advances of a rake, and then leaves, shaking his head at the woman's risky behaviour.

The woman turns out to be Lady Angeline Dudley, the year's most elegible débutante, and the very lady his family insist he court. They keep engineering situations in which they have to interact. Edward is not happy about this. He disapproves of Angeline and thinks they would never suit, even if he thinks she's the most beautiful lady he's ever set eyes on. Even if, as he gets to know her better, he realises she's nowhere near as silly and airheaded as he first thought.

I loved both these characters. Angeline is a delight. She's got a really charming joie-de-vivre, and is determined to enjoy life. She's also not at all stupid. She hasn't had a great deal of education, and she's interested in non-stereotypical-bluestocking things (such as shopping, especially for over-the-top bonnets!), but she's intelligent, and she's sensible, and never, ever behaves in a TSTL way.

I really liked the way the romance progressed. I would have expected it to be a reluctant thing on both sides, with Angeline having to realise Edward is not a boring old stick, just as Edward has to realise she's perfect for him, but that's not the case. Angeline, vivacious, lively Angeline, sees from the start how wonderful this man, so ordinary and seemingly boring, really is. She sees the honour and the caring and the humour behind his staid behaviour, and as he gets to know her, all that shines through more and more.

It was all very romantic, without being soppy, and I loved every minute of it. It's a purely character-driven romance. There are no villains (in fact, there aren't even real antagonists), and yet it held my interest throughout. The secondary characters are also great fun (I especially loved the secondary romance, which kind of mirrors Edward and Angeline's, in reverse). Just lovely.

I should also say something about the writing. Balogh's voice is perfect for this story. She's got a way of showing us the action from a deep point of view, one in which the characters are sometimes sometimes unreliable. They'll tell themselves things about their own feelings that aren't quite true, or they'll try to convince themselves of what they think they should be feeling. It works beautifully.



Botswana and space

>> Thursday, February 07, 2013

TITLE: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
AUTHOR: Alexander McCall Smith

This was quite a disappointment. It's one of those books I always assumed I would like. I don't know anyone who doesn't, for starters, and I loved the idea of the plot, a woman who sets up a detective agency in Botswana, a story set in Africa which is not tragic and worthy, but about regular people going about their regular lives. Plus, I've read McCall Smith before and enjoyed his writing.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into it at all. It felt shallow. Precious is three-dimensional, but the rest of the characters are paper-thin and stereotypical. This made the cases (at least the ones I read before giving up) obvious and boring. The writing here is completely different to that in the books I enjoyed, with the author doing a faux-folksy voice which just annoyed me. In fact, I found it a bit condescending. Not even the very good narration by Hilary Neville (it's this version) could make me enjoy it.


TITLE: Ender's Game
AUTHOR: Orson Scott Card

I read this one for my book club a while back. I have issues with supporting an author known for having really offensive views on homosexuality, but figured if I just borrowed it from someone else, rather than buy my own copy or get it from the library, he wouldn't get any money out of me, and my conscience would be relatively calm.

Anyway, I almost wanted the book to be bad, but it wasn't. It really, really wasn't. It's set in a world which defeated an alien invasion once in the past, and is now facing the same threat again. It's the tale of a boy, Ender, taken into a military academy at age 5. The academy takes potential candidates and trains them with extreme intensity, hoping to find amongst them their last hope, someone capable of being the one commander who can defeat the alien army again.

I'm not one for military sci-fi, but this was a page turner, and I couldn't stop reading. The military element was fascinating, but the reason it worked so well was because it dealt with some really big issues (whether the ends justify the means, the nature of leadership, you could say even the human condition!) and it did so in a way I found nuanced and intriguing. I won't say much more, as it works best being read 'blind', but it really is one to try, even if the genre doesn't interest you.



Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt

>> Tuesday, February 05, 2013

TITLE: Wicked Intentions
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Hoyt

PAGES: 392
PUBLISHER: Grand Central Publishing

SETTING: Late 18th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Maiden Lane series

From the New York Times bestselling author of To Desire a Devil comes this thrilling tale of danger, desire, and dark passions.


Infamous for his wild, sensual needs, Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire, is searching for a savage killer in St. Giles, London's most notorious slum. Widowed Temperance Dews knows St. Giles like the back of her hand-she's spent a lifetime caring for its inhabitants at the foundling home her family established. Now that home is at risk . . .


Caire makes a simple offer-in return for Temperance's help navigating the perilous alleys of St. Giles, he will introduce her to London's high society so that she can find a benefactor for the home. But Temperance may not be the innocent she seems, and what begins as cold calculation soon falls prey to a passion that neither can control-one that may well destroy them both.


Temperance Dews and her brother run a foundling home in the desperately poor and dangerous London parish of St. Giles. It was established by their father and a generous patron, but now both have died and the home is struggling financially.

Temperance finds a potential, if risky way out when she's approached by Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire. Caire is searching for a murderer in St. Giles, and he's getting nowhere, as people just will not speak to him. He and Temperance make a deal: if she will act as his guide and use her connections in the area to make people a bit more forthright with him, he'll provide an introduction to respectable society events, and ensure she meets potential patrons for the foundling home. But, of course, this being a romance novel, what's supposed to be a business transaction becomes much more due to their attraction to each other.

Hoyt has written some excellent books, which I've loved, but this isn't one of them. I found it very disappointing. The one element of it that I liked was the setting and atmosphere of St. Giles, which is excellently done. It's vivid and scary and feels real. Other than that? Meh.

I found Caire especially problematic. Hoyt tries to write him as tortured and complex, but he just never gels, and comes across as half-baked. The perfect example of that is the big drama about how he feels pain when anyone touches him, but not when he initiates the contact. So many issues with that! 1) It's never explained why this is the case, and the whole thing seems to come and go. 2) The way it's resolved is just as mysterious and laughable. 3) The contrived way the whole thing works means he can only have sex with a woman he's tied down. This is just a cheap way of introducing some mild bondage and make reference to his dark sexual appetites, without shocking mainstream readers with actual BDSM.

It was all "oh, look how tortured he is! He doesn't feel anything!". He's such a 'tortured' man that he's a complete jerk to Temperance for no reason for a lot of the book, that's how. I lost patience with him before long, and with his mission to find the murderer. That never makes any sense at all. Over and over, he keeps putting the woman he's beginning to care about in really severe danger (which he knows is so) for no reason. Caire himself acknowledges at one point that the hunt for his mistress's murderer isn't really motivated by anything other than the fact he doesn't care, but he should, which is just puzzling thinking.

Temperance... well, she's supposed to be tortured as well, and have this secret pain, but really, blah. Their relationship development seems to mainly consist on sex scenes, which I found pretty boring.

The plot is contrived and nonsensical, but I'm pretty sure that exact same set-up and the deal Temperance and Caire make could be made into something perfectly serviceable, even great, if only the characters' motivations were sorted out and made a bit more sense. What's just unfixable is the resolution of the case, which is ridiculous and cartoonish, with a villain who makes even less sense than the main characters. And that, I must say, is quite a feat.



Fire, by Kristin Cashore

>> Sunday, February 03, 2013

AUTHOR: Kristin Cashore

PAGES: 480

SETTING: The Dells
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Part of the Graceling series (2nd published, but 1st chronologically).

It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. In King City, the young King Nash is clinging to the throne, while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. War is coming. And the mountains and forest are filled with spies and thieves. This is where Fire lives, a girl whose beauty is impossibly irresistible and who can control the minds of everyone around her.

I started reading this one without any idea of what it was even about. Add to thit that fantasy is a genre I don't read all that much, and I was completely in the moment, not knowing what to expect. Much as I love romance, It's fun to do that, once in a while. So, if you want to do the same, just go and read it, it's worth it. If you need more convincing, though (or, of course, if you've already read it), carry on!

Fire set in The Dells, a world beset by monsters. All animal species have their monstruous varieties, beings with entrancing colours and even more entrancing mental capabilities. Monsters, you see, can influence minds, even control some of them, and they use this power to lure their victims.

Fire, our protagonist, is a very unique sort of monster: a human one. She's the only one in the Dells, now that her father has died. Unlike her father, who delighted in using his powers, and was the King's advisor (or rather, puppet-master), Fire lives in almost-isolation, and is very reluctant to use her powers, other than to save her own life from mortal danger.

But then men with strange, clouded-over minds start showing up where she lives, and when she and her friend, the local Lord, try to investigate what's going on, she comes to the attention of the new King. Turns out The Dells are in turmoil, with a potential civil war simmering, and the King and his advisors see Fire as the perfect secret weapon. They hope whe will help them prevent a war, or if not, to win it.

This was my introduction to Cashore's novels. It's technically the second book written in the series, but chronologically, it takes place before book 1, Graceling. I'd had recommendations both to start with Graceling and with this one, so I basically flipped a coin. It mostly stood alone fine (except for the graceling child character, who seemed to be there purely for readers of the other books). It was also simply wonderful.

I'm not usually into fantasy with much political intrigue (actually, the excessive politics are what often turns me off urban fantasy, as well). It's not so much the politics themselves, but the fact that I need to care about it before I find it interesting, and authors often fail to get me to that point. Not Cashore. Maybe that was because I felt that the plot, all the politics, where there as a background to the character development. What this is about is Fire learning to trust herself, about her realising that she isn't her father and that using her powers for the better good isn't going to turn her into him. It's a fascinating conflict, especially when you combine it with her mixed feelings about him. He was a loving father, and yet also a profoundly evil man. That's a conflict that really, really resonates with me, due to some family history (not my dad, he's a lovely man all around).

Fire's powers might make her come across as a Mary Sue character, in a less skilled author's hands. She's gorgeous, and everyone who sees her is enthralled (a sort of female version of Colin Ames-Beaumont, from Meljean Brook's Guardians series), but her monster nature is no picnic. In fact, it's something that keeps her constantly on the edge, always on her guard, never completely safe. It's a trial, not a wonderful gift, and that's what it feels like, which makes all the difference.

I also loved what Cashore did with Fire's personality, and with the romance, because it was all so subversive. Fire is allowed to be ruthless when need be, not to go all 'eek, eek!' when circumstances require it, just because she's a woman. She's also allowed not to equate love and sex. There is a romance, a satisfying one, but when the book starts, she basically has a friend with benefits she's not at all in love with. Also, she will not have children, although she does want them, and there's no hand-waving in the end to allow her to have them, an acceptance that it is possible for a woman to have a happy ending and a satisfying life without kids.


AUDIOBOOK NOTE: There are two versions of this book available, and I listened to the one read by Xanthe Elbrick (this one). I liked it well enough. The voices she did for the male characters weren't particularly convincing, but on the whole, it was fine.


January 2013 reads

>> Friday, February 01, 2013

A very good start to the year. Not quite sure why I'm suddenly reading so much, when I'm actually pretty busy. 15 this month, and only a couple of them were shorts. Plenty of fantastic reads, too, and only a few bad ones.

1 - Fire, by Kristin Cashore: A-
review coming soon

This fantasy novel blew me away. It's set in this really fascinating world, and has a brilliant heroine and a really nice romance. There's a lot of political intrigue (the plot's mostly about trying to avoid / preparing for a war), which is not usually my thing, but I loved it here.

2 - Stitches in Time, by Barbara Michaels: A-
original review here

Reread, last in a trilogy of connected books. The story is set in the vintage clothing store opened by Karen and Cheryl in Shattered Silk. There's an antique quilt with strong, quite scary powers, a heroine to cheer for, a lovely romance (the love interest is just adorable) and Pat is in great form. I loved it.

3 - The Secret Mistress, by Mary Balogh: A-
review coming soon

I love it when Balogh takes a well-used romance plot and turns it on its head. She did it with A Summer To Remember, and she does it again here. The heroine is the very elegible and airheaded young débutante the hero's family want him to marry, the hero is the stick-in-the-mud nobleman the heroine's family encourage her to accept (of course, both are much more than that). In most books these characters would be there to create conflict between hero and heroine. Here, they're perfect for each other, and I loved this.

4 - Deep Desires, by Charlotte Stein: B+
review coming soon

Completely different to my first Stein (Restraint, which I adored), but also very, very good. Guess this confirms it's the author's writing that works for me, rather than her simply having hit on a plot that appealed to me. I find it hard to find an erotica author who works well for me, so I'm very glad to have discovered Stein.

5 - Blind Spot, by Meljean Brook: B+
original review here

Part of my reread of the Guardians series. In this short story published in the Must Love Hellhounds anthology, for the first time, we get two humans as protagonists, albeit one with some paranormal powers. Brook packs a lot into this one, without making it seem overcrowded. A lovely romance, an interesting plot and the hero's powers and what Brook does with them are very cool.

6 - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka: B+
original review here

Reread for my book club. Two estranged sisters have to learn to work together when their father announces he's marrying a woman much younger than himself, clearly a trashy gold-digger. I liked it just as much as the first time. It's funny and heartbreaking, ridiculous and serious at the same time, and there were things about it that really resonated with stuff in my family history.

7 - The Moving Finger, by Agatha Christie: B
review here

Audiobook. It's an early Miss Marple, but she shows up only in the last bit. The book is narrated by a young pilot who's movedto a small country village to recuperate. The mystery here is one of poison letters, which seem to lead to someone's death. Fun plot and characters I enjoyed, but it was all marred by a romance I found really, really icky.

8 - Emotional Geology, by Linda Gillard: B
review here

Women's fiction. The heroine is bipolar and has moved to a remote island in the North of Scotland seeking peace, after a chaotic end to an affair. She finds that, and a potential romance, too. I liked this one, especially for the acceptance with which the heroine's mental health issues are treated, and the way they are dealt with in the romance.

9 - The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson: B
original review here

Bryson's adventures and observations as he drives around the USA. It's fun, and I always like his voice, but it's very much of its time (the late 80s). While that's good sometimes as a record of its time (it was interesting to remember just how much New York City was thought of as dangerous and terrifyingly murderous), at times it does feel a bit dated in a cringy way that affected my enjoyment of it.

10 - About Last Night, by Ruthie Knox: B
review coming soon

Bad girl, good boy romance, but the plot is done in a nuanced way, with characters who actually seem modern. I liked it very much, but some of the only-in-romance-novels tropes used clashed with the more modern feel, even if I liked what Knox did with them.

11 - Ten Tiny Breaths, by KA Tucker: B-
review coming soon

New Adult. Heroine survived a horrendous tragedy, and is now all alone in the world with her younger sister. When the uncle they live with becomes a threat to her, they run away to Miami, and rent an appartment in a low-rent Melrose Place-type building. There she starts to make friends, including with a really hot guy next door, and begins to think she can live again. Very angsty, but in a way I enjoyed. Still, not perfect, and I'm not sure the ending is quite healthy.

12 - Gather The Bones, by Alison Stuart: C+
review here

Romance set a few years after WWI. The heroine is an Australian who comes to stay with her late husband's aristocratic family in England, and encounters both a new love and some ghosts who want her to solve a 100-year-old mystery. Loved the sense of time and place and the idea of it, but the story felt a bit clunky and didn't grab me as much as I would have wished.

13 - Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: C-
review here

Audiobook. Mystery set in Iceland, which was something I really enjoyed. The protagonist is a lawyer who's asked to assist in the investigation into the death of a student, whose body was found mutilated, with eyes missing. Interesting mystery (with some truly fascinating links with Medieval witch hunts in Iceland and Germany), but an utter twit of a heroine whom I despised.

14 - Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt: C-
review coming soon

The heroine runs a foundling home in dangerous St. Giles, hero is looking for his mistress's murderer there. They make a deal: if she'll be his guide, he'll introduce her to rich potential patrons for the home. Disappointing. It felt very half-baked, especially the quasi-paranormal thing the hero had, where touch was painful, and he behaved like a jerk for ages, for no reason.

15 - Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion: still reading
review coming soon

Audiobook, this one's for my February book club. The main character and narrator is a zombie (yes, really). On a raid, he eats a young man's brain, which allows him to see some of his memories, and feels compelled to save the man's girlfriend. He takes her back with him to the airport his group of zombies is holed up in. So far, although I'm enjoying it (in spite of several icky moments), I'm not quite sure what to make of it. We'll see.


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