Guilty Pleasures, by Laura Lee Guhrke

>> Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Laura Lee Guhrke is a bit of a buried treasure. You don't see her discussed all that much online, and yet all three of her books that I've read have been quite good (one of them, Breathless, even made the Top 100 list I'm putting together for the AAR poll, which I'll have to post here whenever I finish sorting out the order I want), including Guilty Pleasures, one of the books I read last weekend.

For prim and shy Daphne Wade, the sweetest guilty pleasure of all is secretly watching her employer, Anthony Courtland, the Duke of Tremore, as he works the excavation site on his English estate. Anthony has hired Daphne to restore the priceless treasures he has been digging up, but it's hard for a woman to keep her mind on her work when her devastatingly handsome employer keeps taking his shirt off. He doesn't know she's alive, but who could blame her for falling in love with him anyway?

Anthony thinks that his capable employee knows all there is to know about antiquities, but when his sister decides to turn the plain young woman in gold-rimmed glasses into an enticing beauty, he declares the task to be impossible. Daphne is devastated when she overhears… and determined to prove him wrong. Now a vibrant and delectable Daphne has emerged from her shell, and the tables are turned. Will Anthony see that the woman of his dreams has been right there all along?

What I noticed in all of this author's books that I've read is that they have had an element of freshness, something that sets them apart from much of the derivative pap that is put out these days. Guilty Pleasures did feel fresh and quite original, too, even if it's set in a more popular period than the other books and the "shy wallflower gets the rich, sought-after rake" plot is a staple of the genre. My grade: a B.

I especially liked the heroine, Daphne, even though her infatuation with Anthony at first made me cringe a bit. Once she gets over that, however, and starts to stand up to this very arrogant man, the story gets good. I liked that once her eyes are opened, she applies the very bright intelligence she's been applying in her work to other areas, and realizes that a man who's behaving towards her as Anthony is, isn't worth her attention.

As for Anthony, well, he did not make a good impression at first, what with his very shallow way of looking at people and his outlook on what a satisfying marriage should be, but once he started noticing Daphne, I enjoyed the way he changed. This is very much a story which has a pursuing hero, and the way Anthony courted Daphne was really romantic!

Something that struck me very positively was how the situation with Daphne's family was dealt with. Her mother married "beneath her station", and so Daphne's maternal family refuses to acknowledge her. At one point, her grandfather now approaches her (for quite self-serving reasons) and wants a rapprochement. For a moment I thought we were going to get the "blood is thicker than water, you have to make up with your grandfather, even if he treated you abominably in the past" lecture, but Guhrke turned this on its ear, and allowed the heroine (with some very pragmatic prompting from her friends) to realistically consider the implications of what her pride asked her to do and to simply do what was most advantageous for her. It was just a perfect little bit cynical of her, and I respected her for it.

As a negative, I can't help but mention the love scenes. I'm perfectly able to enjoy stories with kisses only sensuality, and though I enjoy a steamy love scenes as much as anyone, I hardly *demand* them in every book. However, in the case of Guilty Pleasures, I thought the level of sensuality of the whole novel required love scenes that were a bit more elaborate, and a bit longer!

That was just a niggle, though, and on the whole, Guilty Pleasures was a winner.


Just testing this Hello service to post pictures to my blog. Let's see how it works. Like the pic? It's Barbalib, from the Barbapapas cartoons. Sooooo me! ;-) Posted by Hello


Darkess Calls, by Caridad Piñeiro

>> Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Caridad Piñeiro was kind enough to send me her book, Darkness Calls, herself, and I'm glad to report that I really, really liked it!

FBI Agent Diana Reyes has learned the hard way how to master the darkness, but it will tempt her again when she is forced to go undercover to solve a serial killer case and meets Ryder Latimer, the enigmatic owner of the nightclub where the murders have occurred. Ryder is not what he appears to be, but something about him calls to Diana and makes her take a dance with him along the edge. That dance is both erotic and soul shattering. Ryder draws her into his world, which he regrets. Humans after all, are born to die. Ryder also knows that Diana is not prepared to discover a truth more scary than the identity of the serial killer -- that he is actually a one hundred and forty year old vampire. The race is on to find the killer before he strikes again and before Diana loses her heart to Ryder.
Darkness Calls hit the spot for me. I wasn't in the mood for light-hearted comedy or overblown melodrama, so this dark and gritty vampire story was exactly what I wanted. My grade: a B+.

The darkness of the story and setting was one of the things I enjoyed the most about the story. It was excellently done. Piñeiro's New York had a bit of a Gotham City feel to it, and Ryder's club, which in someone else's hand could have felt way over-the-top, lent an extra layer to the scenes of Diana undercover trying to lure our serial killer.

The book's other strength was its main characters. I very much enjoyed Diana, a kick-ass heroine who was much more than a plastic action hero. This is a woman who can take care of herself and of others. And the best thing is that Piñeiro didn't try to make her more "feminine" by making her a weak and unprofessional. She does fall for Ryder, and makes herself vulnerable to him (so does Ryder), but she does so without compromising who she is.

Ryder was a fascinating hero, too. I really liked that he wasn't one of those all-powerful vampires, maybe like Feehan's Carpathians, who can fly, shapeshift and whatever. He was more human, and that made his struggle with his "animal" side and his loneliness much more affecting. It all felt more real here. Ryder's vampirism doesn't have a whole elaborate mythology behind it. He doesn't seem to even know other vampires, so his being a vampire seems to be... I don't know how to describe it, less "magical", I guess, than in other books. All he knows about himself is what he's been able to discover himself and with the help of the Danvers, the family who have taken on the responsibility of caring for him through the years. I was actually even a little bit surprised by what happened when he bit Diana and the bite healed quickly. That was an unexpected touch of magic.

The ending wasn't perfect. I would have prefered to be more sure about what was going to become of them, what their life would be like. Still, a little bit of mystery there didn't bother me all that much. I can imagine the conclusion I'd like :-)


Amber Beach, by Elizabeth Lowell

>> Monday, September 27, 2004

I'm not a big fan of romantic suspense, but once in a while I feel like reading one, and Elizabeth Lowell seemed like a good bet. I've heard good things about book 3 in her Donovan series, Pearl Cove, so since I already have the entire series, I thought I'd start with the first book, Amber Beach.

Honor Donovan is a shrewd businesswoman, yet she has been shut out of Donovan International by her father and four brothers. When her favorite brother Kyle vanishes, along with a fortune in stolen amber, Honor's questions are ignored by the Donovan males. Defying them, she heads to the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest in search of answers.
Honor needs a guide because she knows nothing about running a boat -- and she knows nothing about Jake Mallory until he answers her ad. One of the things she doesn't know is that Jake is much more than a fishing guide. Until Kyle disappeared, Jake was brokering amber deals in the Baltic for Donovan International. Honor is completely unaware of the old wars, new politics, greed, and stolen amber that have lured ruthless, high-stakes players from around the globe.

Jake wants no part of the intrigue, or of a Donovan woman in his life, but he suspects the Donovans have set him up to take the fall for Kyle's treachery. The way Jake sees it, some Donovan is going to pay for his troubles, and it just may turn out to be Honor

Jake and Honor cast off on a journeys moldering with distrust, betrayal, vengeance... and temptation. A hunger grows between them that is as dangerous as the secrets they keep. Alone at sea, they pursue the stubborn mystery of the Amber Room, flee from relentless enemies, and fight against trusting each other. Yet when Honor and Jake dare to confide in one another, they face a final truth: the penalty for betrayal is death; the reward is a lifetime...together.
Pretty good, this was an enjoyable read. I'd give it a B.

Amber Beach was the type of romantic suspense I enjoy the most: the type where the strong suspense subplot doesn't detract from the romance and a book which didn't have a breakneck pace. The slower pace allowed our protagonists to spend quite a bit of time together, and to spend it in conditions that allowed for more communication than the running from the villains that happens in so many books.

On the whole, I found the romance satisfying, though there were certain things, certain aspects of the personalities of Jake and Honor that I wasn't crazy about.

I understood Jake's feelings after being betrayed by his friend, but he went quite a bit overboard with his "all Donovan's are the same" mentality. As for Honor, I really liked the way she was not a pushover and stood up to Jake and I admired that she did what she felt she had to do, even if it involved doing things she was afraid of, like sailing in a small boat and entering a dangerous world. However, I groaned at her sexual history. It didn't feel so much like something that fit the person she was, but something tacked on by the author to please readers who demand that if heroines are not virgins, they must never have enjoyed sex before.

Still, I really liked the two protagonists together. Their relationship developed mostly through witty bantering which was a delight to read, even if it was sometimes a bit *too* wittily elaborate to be realistic dialogue. And these two definitely had wonderful chemistry. I especially liked what happened once Honor realized who exactly her fishing guide was ;-)

There is a lot of information on several subjects here, and most of it enriched the story. I liked the stuff about the amber, which was fascinating. The meticulous research on boats and how to drive them was much less interesting, and made for some very dry reading, but it wasn't really overwhelming. This meticulous research makes me doubt that something that seemed to me very wrong could actually have been so wrong. Lowell goes on and on about Lithuanian separatist groups, though, at the time, Lithuania was already independent, as far as I know. Given the level of research in other areas of the book, I want to believe that what Lowell meant was something like that even if Lithuania was now independent, their government was too influenced by the Russian one, and *that* was what these separatists wanted to achieve (I've no idea if this could be true), but I'm afraid the impression I got was that Lowell didn't realize Lithuania was an independent country already.

Now for the real negatives. As I said above, I'm planning to read the four books in the series, but one of the side effects of Amber Beach was a definite dislike for Honor's brothers. They are the types who refuse to "let" their sisters go into a business that could become dangerous, though of course, they can do whatever they want. I do NOT want to read about such sexist pigs!

Also, the ending was quite disappointing. I'm not asking for 20 pages of Jake and Honor declaring their love, but a measly half a page of "we are getting married, I love you" - "ok, I love you, too", and in front of her brothers? That simply didn't give a satisfying conclusion to the romance side of the book.


Hot Blooded, an anthology

>> Wednesday, September 22, 2004

It seems like a bit of a waste to buy an anthology for just one story, but that's what I did with Hot Blooded. I got this one only because it had a story by Emma Holly.

The first story was Dark Hunger (excerpt), by Christine Feehan.

In a dark jungle, a beautiful activist liberates animals from a secret laboratory—and stumbles across an unexpected prisoner releases the Carpathian from his bonds—only to unleash his voracious appetite on herself…
Same old, same old. I know already that I don't like Feehan, I shouldn't have wasted my time, but I'm still stupid enough that I feel guilty if I leave a story unread in an anthology. The same uber-alpha hero, who has almost unlimited powers, the same "You're mine" relationship, the same very disturbing mind-rape element...

That said, this particular entry was slightly better than the other ones I've read, since the hero actually tells the heroine that maybe, possibly, he should have considered her feelings and her plans for her life before he bonded her to him (or whatever it was that he did). Oh, joy! Still, this was a D for me.

The second story was my least favourite of the whole anthology. It was Awaiting Sunrise by Maggie Shayne.

A science professor enters the steamy bayou to find a new species of animal, convinced that its presence is behind the stories of lycanthropy in the region, but finds herself tempted by a legendary creature straight out of her most sensual nightmare…
The story starts really bad, totally surreal. And I say surreal not because the heroine is attacked by a warewolf, but because she then goes to a doctor who basically sexually harasses her and she seems to see nothing wrong in that. This is not a "hmmm, is that expression in his eyes sexual interest? Or am I imagining things" situation. No, the guy basically paws at her breasts and grabs at her nipples. And the nitwit simply feels no outrage about it, never even thinks how utterly inappropriate his behaviour was. And then the guy's excuse, later on, is that she releases the beast in him, or some such rot.

I'm afraid the characters never recovered from this, as far as I'm concerned, and I simply couldn't relate to them at all. Add to this a villain who is considerate enought to write out detailed plans of what he means to do, and keeps them locked inside a regular, easy to unlock drawer. "Jennifer Rose is the best I've ever seen, the best I've ever worked with. But I must never let her believe I support her theories. In fact I need to prove them wrong, discredit her, even while I use her to lead me to what I need." Is this ridiculous or what? A D-.

Luckily, when I was thinking this anthology would hit the wall, I came across the third story, The Night Owl by Emma Holly. Ahhh, now that's more like it!!!

Little ever seems to stir in the sleepy woods of a small Vermont town, until a new owner takes over the exclusive local inn. He is centuries old and has traveled far and wide to find his queen—and now nothing will stop him from claiming her…
Excellent, just excellent. A really sweet, wonderful hero who's seriously sexy and charming, and who is knocked on his ass by how much he loves the heroine. And a heroine who's a refreshingly normal person.

The love scenes blew the top of my head off. Whereas in the first two stories I found them a bit icky, here they were steamy hot. I also liked that there was little plot in here, the story was mostly focused on the characters. My grade: an A.

The last story was the most complex, Seduction's Gift by Angela Knight.

All's fair in the war between desire and resistance when a lady cop pulls over a speeder—and finds an immortal lover who is determined to seduce her into accepting her own passionate destiny!
The very uninformative summary above doesn't give a clue about the complex mythology involved in this story. Basically, the knights of the Round Table were vampires/Magi and they are still undead. Their mission in life is to save the world. Their have had children all over the place over the last 1600 years, and these descendants carry inside them a Gift, which from what I could understand is the potential to become Majae (female) or Magi (male) themselves. To come into their power, they have to have sex a few times (at least three) with a Maja or Magus of the opposite sex (a bit cheesy, I know). I've probably made a couple of mistakes, but that's basically it.

So, our hero is Lancelot du Lac and our heroine is Grace Morgan, a descendant of Morgana. Lancelot's mission is to awaken Grace's gift, but Grace wants nothing to do with it. Simple.

I was amazed at how well Knight managed to set up her world and mythology in a very short story, and not overwhelm me with information. Yes, a couple of scenes felt a little clumsy, like Lance sitting in while a new recruit is given information, but mostly, it was good.

The romance itself was pretty nice, too, though I might have liked Grace to be a little less powerless faced with Lancelot's power. She's had a crush on him forever, he has supernatural strength... a bit too much. Still, pretty good.

My grade: a B+. I'd love to read more

A bit of an uneven anthology, my grade for it is a B-, just because I liked the Emma Holly story so much!


The Last Time I Saw Paris, by Elizabeth Adler

>> Tuesday, September 21, 2004

I used to read Elizabeth Adler years ago, when I basically read whatever books in English my local bookstore decided to stock. Her novels were the "From the streets of Paris, to the luxurious mansions of turn-of-the-century San Francisco" kind, huge stories covering entire decades, full of glitz and glamour and larger-than-life villains. Not my kind of thing at all. Lately, though, it seems she's taken to writing stories about either living or traveling in Europe, books which sound a bit more like what I like. My mom still buys everything Adler writes, and lent me The Last Time I Saw Paris.

Paris: the most romantic city on earth. A place of second honeymoons and newly discovered passions. A banquet of tastes, sounds, sights, and smells. And for Lara Lewis, it is the place where she and her husband once experienced love at its best. Now, it is a place where fortysomething Lara believes she can rekindle her marriage. She plans the most romantic adventure: to retrace her first honeymoon with her husband. Visit the same sights. Eat in the same restaurants. Explore the same villages. But when her surgeon husband tells her at the last minute that the marriage is over-- there's another woman--Lara's heart is broken...almost.

Somewhere along the road of life, Lara has lost herself. But Lara makes a bold move: she decides to invite a man she hardly knows to take the trip with her. A man much younger than she. A man who is out of her usual realm. What follows is a madcap romantic adventure that begins with missed connections, lost luggage, and language barriers, and ends up being one woman's journey to find herself and the love that has eluded her all her life.
This one sounded very promising: Woman whose husband of 25 years is leaving her for a younger woman doesn't mope around, but go on a tour of France with her younger lover. Unfortunately, the execution wasn't that good, and my grade for it would be a C.

My main problem with it was the characterization. Adler has a way of showing her characters' thought processes that is almost childishly simple and she relies on telling us how they are feeling about things rather than showing us. This made it hard for the characters to come alive. Also, I did like Dan (though he was a bit too good to be true), but Lara irritated me with her continuous doubts. One minute she's convinced that Dan is the love of her life, very sure that leaving Bill was the right thing to do and the next she's having second thoughts about whether she shouldn't go back to her husband. I'd understand a bit of this, because obviously it's not a decision that's a piece of cake, but her constant wavering and her treating Dan one minute cold and the next hot tired me.

As for the romance, I wasn't bothered myself with the fact that Dan and Lara's is an adulterous relationship, but the way they went into it and were suddenly "in love", both of them, didn't ring true. And also, I'm sorry, but the fact that she's taking him on what was supposed to be her Second Honeymoon, one paid for by her husband's money, felt really, really tacky.

As a travel book, it wasn't perfect, either. Lara and Dan's trip is meticulously described... too meticulously described. We find out which road they took, where exactly they got lost for a little while and so on, things that made some parts a little tiresome. And Adler's idea of making the setting come alive is gushing about how beautiful it is. Yes, it is beautiful, and I admit the descriptions are nice, but reading this felt like an acquaintance telling me at mind-numbing length about the trip she took last month. There is a kind of vicarious pleasure in reading about people going to beautiful places and eating delicious food, but Adler goes a bit overboard.

If it were mine, this is a book I'd keep, not for the story, but as reference for some pointers to plan a future trip to France!


Wings of the Falcon, by Barbara Michaels

>> Monday, September 20, 2004

Why, why, why isn't MPM publishing any more books under her Barbara Michaels pseudonym? As much as I love her Amelia Peabody books (and I do!), I can't help wishing for one more BM! What inspired this, BTW, was my reread of Wings of the Falcon.

Francesca accepted shelter from the noble Italian family of her dead mother after her father's death, but nothing prepared her for the strange forebodings, the elusive secrets, and the terrifying oppression. And nothing could explain the mysterious appearance of the horseman known as The Falcon.
For a long time, I thought I'd managed to find all of Barbara Michaels' books, until a careful check made me realize I was missing a couple. One of them was Wings of the Falcon. After I received it, it spent some time in my TBR, mostly because I was a bit afraid it would be a let-down... after all, the only two BM books I haven't really liked have been historical-set, like this one (I'm talking about Greygallows and Black Rainbow). Luckily, this one was much, much better. A B+.

The best thing about the book is the setting. Michaels has picked a time and place which isn't usually found in romantic novels, and yet is as romantic as one could wish: the Papal states in the midst of the fight for Italy's unification.

Our narrator has an interesting position: she's a foreigner, so she's able to see things with a bit of distance, but she's also part of it, through her family, so she can't distance herself completely. Her being so ignorant at first of what's going on, of course, gives Michaels the excuse to enlighten us readers with all the relevant information. I thought she did that very well, without sounding like a textbook. It helps, of course, that the history she's using is so fascinating and little known to her audience. I knew a bit of it from school, enough to know how it all would end, but my knowledge basically broad strokes.

The only thing I wasn't too crazy about was Francesca herself. She started out as a naive, girlish and pretty foolish 17 year old. I have a problem with teenaged heroines (outside Young Adult novels, of course), especially when there's a romantic situation with an older guy involved. Sometimes, if the heroine doesn't act 17, I can block this fact, mentally add a few years to her age, and go on quite happily. With Francesca, however, it was impossible. Her thoughts and actions were simply those of a young girl.

On one hand, this was quite well done, because her growth as a person was made very, very clear. On the other, I couldn't helped but being icked out by the romance. It was a shame, because I really liked the hero, who was a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel character.

The novel was nicely rounded out by a well-drawn cast of secondary characters. My favourite has to be Miss Perkins, the English spinster hired to accompany Francesca to Italy. This might have been even better with her as the heroine!


Too Wild To Wed?, by Jayne Ann Krentz

>> Friday, September 17, 2004

Too Wild To Wed?, is one of the last category novels written by Jayne Ann Krentz. Around the time this one was published (1991), she was writing some of my favourite of her books, like Family Man and Perfect Partners, so I had high hopes for this one.

Swept off her feet…

History professor Letty Conroy had led a quiet, scandal-free life--until she found out fiance Xavier Augustine had had her investigated and declared perfect wife material. They Letty set out to prove him wrong. She had some wild and naughty plans that impudent Augustine might not approve of .. . .

Xavier's nickname might be "Saint" Augustine, but there was nothing saintly about him or his troubled past. He'd come up the hard way, and he wasn't about to let Letty ruin his reputation--or hers. He would have to rescue her from the wild celebrations of the annual university medieval gathering--like a knight in shining armor. Little did he know that Letty wasn't exactly a damsel in distress!
It shows that this is a later book than some of the awful early-90s things JAK has written, but it's not yet up to the level of her single titles. My grade would be a C+.

Jayne Ann Krentz's heros have mellowed with the years, but this particular one I didn't really warm up to. The way he was so condescending to the heroine drove me nuts. I really would have prefered for him to spend much more time scared that his actions had lost him Letty. As it is, he was always confident that he'd be able calm her down, that this was nothing more than somewhat ruffled feathers. He never did realize why exactly Letty was so angry with him, and he never realized that her anger was justified.

Letty, a bit too sweet and naive. She did try to stand up for herself, but this was nothing more than a gesture, as she was way too easily manipulated by Xavier into doing exactly what he wanted.

The secondary relationship, between Xavier's detective friend and Letty's friend who helped her research Xavier, was potentially interesting, but it simply didn't get much space.

The one thing I loved was the backdrop to the story, both the academic comunity and the Medieval Revelers' convention. I wish there was something like that I could attend, even if it didn't end too well! ;-)


After Caroline, by Kay Hooper

>> Thursday, September 16, 2004

Before she started going in a more "suspens-ey" direction, Kay Hooper wrote a few almost-gothic mysteries. I read Finding Laura some years ago, and really enjoyed it. I got all the others, and the first I read was After Caroline.

Two women who look enough alike to be twins. Both involved in car wrecks at the same time. One survives. One doesn't.

Now, plagued by a bewildering connection to a woman she never knew, driven by an urgent compulsion she doesn't understand, Joanna Flynn travels three thousand miles across the country to the picturesque town where Caroline McKenna lived -- and mysteriously died. There Joanna will run into a solid wall of suspicion as she searches for the truth: Was Caroline's death an accident? Or was she the target of a killer willing to kill again?
The mystery aspect of After Caroline was much stronger than its romance side. This balanced out to make it just an ok read: B-.

The mystery in this very gothic tale was fascinating. I was baffled until the end, and very interested in what had happened. The author didn't play completely fair, though, since the one clue as to who the villain was came very late. I caught it, but it was only a while before everything came out. I much prefer it when I can think back on things happenning near the beginning of the book, things that have a significance which I can only see now, and think "I should have known".

The book starts with a bang, (literally!) with the accident and Joanna's increasing realization of what is happening to her. However, I'm afraid it has a bit of a sagging middle. I actually tend to prefer books with a slower pace to breakneck action, but this one was a bit too much, too easy to leave the book aside for a while.

The romance was the weakest part of the book. It's not that there wasn't enough... three couples we've got here! But, unfortunately, no chemistry, none at all, especially between the main protagonists. I simply couldn't get interested in them.

Not a bad way to spend a few hours, but not a book to get excited about, either.


Dying for Ice Cream, by MaryJanice Davidson

Except for the Harry Potter books, I'm not really into books intended for children or teens. I don't read much in the genre, but I recently accidentally acquired one by an author whose voice is very good, MaryJanice Davidson. I've liked her vampire/chick-lit, her warewolf/romantica, and now I also like her Young Adult voice! The title of the short story I read was Dying for Ice Cream.

Austin Opitz never meant to fall for Yvonne Robinson. The girl was rich and spoiled, a lethal combination. But when he saw her sobbing in the hospital cafeteria with a plate of ice cream melting in front of her, he couldn't walk away.

So begins a strange friendship between two opposites: Yvonne, a recently diagnosed diabetic bitter about the mandatory change in her lifestyle; and jokester Austin Opitz, who covers up his own recent tragedy by playing class clown.

This is a story about teenagers getting a taste of life's ups and downs, and how they cope, despite tremendous odds.
As I said, I didn't intend to get a Young Adult book when I got this one. It was a surprise, especially since I didn't know Ellora's Cave published this genre!

I liked it quite a bit, though. This is a story that's short and sweet. The characters are really well done, especially Austin. He's got this really funny, snarky voice, and I giggled quite a few times reading the way he teased Yvonne. I especially liked his relationship with his father.

The plot was well done, too. It's an "issue" book, but I didn't find it too preachy.

My only problem: too short! Grade: B.


Beyond Seduction, by Emma Holly

Emma Holly is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. It's not only her love scenes, I really like her characters and stories. The latest of her books that I've read was Beyond Seduction (excerpt).

Merry Vance has made it quite clear she has no interest in marriage, but that hasn't stopped her long-suffering suitor from proposing, or her parents from getting more furious each time she turns him down. Merry has no choice but to concoct a scandalous solution: to pose nude for Nicolas Craven, famous artist and infamous libertine. No man in his right mind would marry a woman who had bared her secrets to him!

But Nicolas has his own plans for the spirited young woman he has convinced to move into his home. In Merry's plain face, he sees uncommon beauty. In her soft eyes, he sees sparks ready to burst into flame. And, best of all, he's certain the masterpiece she helps him to create will tantalize the ton . . .
After some doubts about a story about a feisty 20 year old who wants to ruin herself to avoid marriage and an older rake who has a son only a little younger than she is, I soon loved this book. My grade: a B+.

Holly has created some truly wonderful characters here, who rise above the stereotypical and come alive.

Nic was one "irresponsible" rake whose change I did buy. Even at the beginning, under all the careless Lothario and moody artist facades, you could see the kindness, the way he was actually a dependable person for those who relied on him. You could see that in the way he treated his household and in the way he was always kind and respectful towards Merry. Even when he thought he was a maid, he was very, very careful to make her understand that anything more than posing would be her free choice. He's also an incredible lover, tender and passionate, and I though Holly did excellently well in showing who this man was by showing us how he made love.

Merry was great, too. I started liking her more for the way her defiance towards her mother took. Sure, she could have chosen a less complicated and more reliable way of ruining herself, but I started respecting her when she took the initiative on realizing that if her mother would to certain things to her to ensure her surrender to her plans, she didn't deserve Merry's loyalty. And so she carefully made her plans and put them in motion. She was strong and independent, which I liked, and I also enjoyed that though she was sexually inexperienced, she was not ignorant. I'm so tired of that clichéd scene in which the virginal heroine looks at the hero's penis in alarm and thinks it won't possibly fit!!! Merry would laugh right along me at that.

Holly's prose is wonderful, lush and earthy at the same time, with no purpleness creeping in. Her portrait of both London and Venice were delicious, as were the love scenes, of course. These scenes were amazingly well done. They were just as steamy as the ones she writes in her erotica title, but a little more vanilla. Still, she did go a bit further than most romance authors go, with certain details and with certain hints as to exactly how far Nic's sexual experimentation has gone.

The cast of secondary characters was really, really good, too. No cartoons here, all were complexly-drawn people, especially Merry's mother and Ernest, her unwanted suitor. All these were imperfect people, who never acted out of character solely to further the plot.

After this one and the two short stories by her that I read, as well as her two excellent erotica titles, I'll probably buy everything Emma Holly writes!


Christmas Kisses, an anthology

>> Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Christmas Kisses did not look like the kind of anthology I'd enjoy, but it contained the only story I hadn't read in Linda Howard's Mackenzie series, Maris's story, so I decided to get it anyway. I shouldn't have bothered, there wasn't even one good story in the lot and my grade for the whole anthology is a D.

The first story was the Linda Howard one, MacKenzie's Magic.

The novella starts with a little perfunctory story about a plot to kill a horse and about how Maris and Sam fall in love, but the main point here was the horrible mammoth epilogue, showing what happens when Maris takes her new husband to meet the whole family.

Basically, the story was just an excuse to get all the Mackenzies together and have them act like cavemen. Do people really think that's cute, all those testosterone-filled brutes acting out, and being "managed" by their wives? I deeply dislike this type of relationships, it seems to me unfair both to the man and to the woman. Add to this a disgustingly precious, baby-talking little girl, and this story went from just boring to groan-worthy.

My grade: a D-.

Next came a story by new-to-me author Debbie Macomber, Silver Bells. Apparently, the heroine of this one was a teenager who did some matchmaking for her mom in a previous book and here she gets a taste of her own medicine as the teenage daughter of her new neighbour decides she wants her for a mother.

This was a boring, boring story. I simply couldn't muster any interest for it. The protagonists were cardboard and chemistry-free and the matchmaking teen was disgustingly precious. Add to that a loooong family reunion with characters I didn't know and the demonization of the hero's Evil Career Ho e-wife, and this one was a D-.

The last story, A Wild West Christmas, by another new-to-me author, Linda Turner, was the best of the lot (which isn't saying much).

Ten years before the start of the story, when she was 17, Priscilla Rawlings had a hot and heavy summer romance with her cousins' cousin Wyatt Chandler. When he realized she was beginning to look at him with marriage on her mind, he decided to break it off, and the best way he could find to do this was to arrange for her to find him kissing another woman. Fast-forward to the present, and both meet again at their mutual cousins' ranch, and realize they're still attracted to each other.

I didn't like this one at all, but at least it didn't put me to sleep. I found both characters pretty stupid, and I felt I'd read their story thousands of times already. I detested the very contrived subplot about the woman who's obsessed with Wyatt and who makes him take refuge from her at the ranch. The catching up with characters from previous books was less than in the other stories, but still way too much for me. My grade: D+.

As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to buy this book is if you're a HUGE fan of the Mackenzie, Manning and Rawlings families and would read anything where they show up. I'm not a rabid Mackenzie fan (though I did like most of the books in the series) and I'd never heard of the Mannings and Rawlingses before, so for me, it was all a complete waste of time.


Captive Flesh, by Cleo Cordell

>> Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I recently got my hands on a pile of Black Lace novels, and I'm trying to space them out. The first I read of that batch was Captive Flesh, by Cleo Cordell.

Eighteenth-century French convent girls Marietta and Claudine learn that their stay at the opulent Algerian home of their handsome and powerful host, Kasim, requires something in return – their complete surrender to the ecstasy of pleasure in pain. Kasim's decadent orgies also require the services of Gabriel, whose exquisite longing for Marietta's awakened lust cannot be contained – not even by the shackles that bind his tortured flesh.
Can't remember where I read that the early Black Laces used to be a bit too focused on the women as sex slaves to dominant males. I'm afraid Captive Flesh, which actually was one of the first BL books, fits that mold. My grade: D.

To me, there are two types of erotica. There are the ones like Emma Holly writes, which are really like a romance novel, only with more sex and with the actual sex much more adventurous, and with the protagonists usually having more than one partner. Then there are the novels such as this, where what there is of a plot is simply an excuse for sex scenes. Characters are not real people here, they are more like characters in porn movies.

And, in this case, I liked the story even less because it was so much about dominance and submission, with the woman doing the submitting and finally loving it of course. Bah! (BTW, I don't mean a consensual D/S relationship. The heroine is literally forced here). The sex scenes... well, a couple weren't bad, but it was not enough to save the book.


When Tomorrow Comes, by Regan Forest

>> Monday, September 13, 2004

Yet another book I have no idea why I bought? Maybe for the childless angle? When Tomorrow Comes is my first book by Regan Forest.

The whole town was curious about Kyle Sanders. It was odd for a stranger to settle in Rosewood, and the handsome architect had even bought land. Margie Donovan's land, to be precise, which made them neighbors. Close neighbors...

Despite the gossip, Margie welcomed Kyle. As an auctioneer she appreciated his expertise in designing the new sales barn. As a woman she appreciates.. other qualities. And then they had so much in common... including the man who wanted to expose their scandalous pasts.

When Tomorrow Comes wasn't badly written, it was actually quite original and its characters were likeable. However, too many things about it bothered me for me to actually like it. My grade: a C-.

As I said, the plot was original. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that Kyle's wife disappeared 5 years before the beginning of the story, and since then, he's being harassed by an investigator from the insurance company, Wayne Brockmeier, who's trying to either pin her murder on him or to prove that she's not actually dead and Kyle conspired with her to disappear in order to get the insurance. My problem with this were both Kyle and Brockmeier's actions. The investigator was waaaay too overzealous for someone just doing his job. I don't buy his actions unless there was something personal there going on, or the guy was mentally unbalanced. And I also don't buy that Kyle would let things go so far with this, to allow this guy to harass him this way without throwing in some legal impediments.

Maggie also has secrets in her past, and these secrets really, really dated the book. In fact, they felt too old-fashioned for a book written in 1988! I detested the scene in which everyone in town found out. You'd think it was the 19th century, after how these people reacted to the news that someone had a child out of wedlock once upon a time! And BTW, the actual secret, the part about her aristocratic French lover, and his long-standing betrothal and so on felt incredibly naive and stereotypical. Even the guy's name didn't ring true.

The ending of the story lowered my grade quite a bit. There was the part about Maggie's secret, and the whole feeling of injustice I ended up with, all those people acting so badly, just because they were mean, apparently, and not getting what they deserved. Or maybe we're supposed to think they got what was coming to them later on, after the book was over, but that just wasn't satisfying. I wanted to see them pay!

I also had some problems with the writing. The dialogue felt unnatural to me, and the author added some funny scenes with a pig that didn't work at all. I mean, the actual scenes about the pig's antics were really funny, and the pig himself was adorable, but instead of providing a welcome respite from the tension, as I guess was intended, all they did was contrast badly with the rest of the story and feel out of place.

Add to this a lackluster romance, between two very nice people but people who had zero chemistry between them, and this was a very weak book.


Diamond Bay, by Linda Howard

I was in a Linda Howard kind of mood, so I decided to reread Diamond Bay.

He was barely alive. Someone had shot him twice. Trusting her instincts, Rachel didn't call the police. Her sixth sense told her that she was his only hope. With him lying unconscious before her, Rachel had to decide his future, as well as her own.
Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it as much as I remember doing the first time I read it. Still, not bad. A B-.

What went wrong? Basically, Kell was too "macho action hero" for me, and I didn't really "buy" his whole thing about not being able to handle having a wife again. It was so obvious that if he found someone he loved and really wanted to be with her, as happened with Rachel, there were ways. In fact, the ending proved that. So his moaning about how impossible it was didn't make me feel at all sorry for him.

Rachel I mostly liked. She was one of Howard's strongest heroines, both physically as well as emotionally. The only thing I didn't like much was how she fell "in love" so soon, and made herself completely vulnerable to Kell. That's a bit of a double standard I have, since I would have loved the book if it had been the hero who'd felt like that. At least the sexual tension was incredible, as it always is in a Linda Howard book.

Not Howard's best, but not a bad way to spend a couple of hours at the hairdresser's ;-)


Compromising Positions, by Beverly Bird

>> Thursday, September 09, 2004

I'd bought Compromising Positions, by Beverly Bird as soon as I'd read the very good review at All About Romance, but it wasn't until I saw it mentioned again in the latest ATBF column, that I was inspired to pick it up.

Beverly Bird delivers her own knockout punch in COMPROMISING POSITIONS (4.5), a suspenseful tale of a lady medical examiner whose controversial past puts both her and a dynamic district attorney in grave peril. Ms. Bird shows a wonderful dramatic flair as she mixes blazing excitement, hot passion and tender emotion into a love story you'll not soon forget.
Wow, I see what the reviewer at AAR meant when she said this one didn't really feel like a series book. It doesn't, it feels like a single title romantic suspense, albeit one focusing mostly on the character interactions, precisely the type I like best. My grade: a B+.

The book's strength lay exactly there, with the characters and their romance. Bird managed to perfectly flesh out both Josh and Angela, and they came alive to me. I liked both of them very much, Josh for his honor for not losing all his idealism in spite of being a pragmatic politician, and Angela for her courage in standing up to her fears.

If the characters were the best thing about the book, the negative part was the actual suspense subplot. It wasn't overly intrusive and I liked how it affected the characters and how they reacted to the situations it caused, but the villain's motivations were pretty weak, I'm afraid. It simply didn't really ring true to me that he'd do what he did. His actions felt like overkill.

Still, this was a pretty small niggle, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit.


A Clean Slate, by Laura Caldwell

>> Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Chick-lit books, being mostly trade paperbacks, are very difficult for me to get. There are usually no cheap copies used, the shipping costs the Earth, and buying them new is way too expensive for me. I made an exception for A Clean Slate (excerpt), by Laura Caldwell, because of all the wonderful comments it had received.

A Clean Slate chronicles the days of Kelly McGraw, a Chicago woman who suddenly can't remember the last five months of her life, a time when she was dumped by her soon-to-be fiance and laid off by the company she thought would make her partner. Overwhelmed and confused but otherwise feeling wonderful, she begins to realize that she has a clean slate in life. She can do anything she wants, go anywhere she wants, be anything she wants. But what, exactly, does she want?

Follow Kelly on a journey that includes her search to discover what caused her memory loss, an internship with a bad-boy British photographer, a Caribbean photo shoot, her boyfriend's desire to come crawling back and, eventually, a brutal discovery that will cause her to reevaluate both her old and new lives.
A Clean Slate very much lived up to the feedback that made me buy it. An A-.

This is the perfect book for people who like certain things about chick-lit (like more modern-feeling characters, urban settings, heroines who have a real network of friends, engaging first person narraton) but have no interest in reading about the TSTL twits whose only interest in life is getting a man, who are featured in so many Bridget Jones - wannabe books.

The story starts as narrator Kelly realizes she can't remember anything about the previous 5 months. Her friend Lane tells her about how depressed she's been, how she's barely been leaving her appartment, how she's been stalking her ex-boyfriend... but Kelly feels just fine now. She finds herself in a situation in which her life truly is a clean slate, and she can take it in any direction she wants.

It wasn't a story of high-adventure, but it was riveting. Kelly is an immensely likeable narrator. She's very self-aware and her reactions to what was happening made it very easy for me to identify with her. I loved the way she took control of her life again and was very entertained by the going-ons in her life. And, most of all, the "mystery" of what exactly had happened during those 5 months, that had caused her amnesia, kept me turning the pages like crazy.

There is very little romance here, but I didn't feel the lack. What little there was of it, near the end, was perfectly enough for me, and very, very nice.

I very much liked the not-quite-closed ending, with its hints of the myriad possibilities Kelly's life still held. I found it very appropriate, continuing the theme of the book.

If you think you might like chick-lit, but haven't been able to find one you like, give A Clean Slate a try.


The Accidental Duchess, by Jessica Benson

>> Monday, September 06, 2004

I recently finished The Accidental Duchess (excerpt), by new-to-me author Jessica Benson.

Dear Reader,

I married the wrong man.

I had every intention of doing the thing right. Of saying my vows and walking out on the arm of Bertie Milburn. Nice, safe, easygoing Bertie. And that is precisely what I thought I had done.

But as it turned out, I’d been tricked! Tricked into marrying Bertie’s twin brother Harry, the Earl of Cambourne and (as my mother would insist on reminding me at every opportunity) future Duke of Winfell! And the shocking way in which I found out—on my wedding night, no less. . . well, it doesn’t bear repeating here!

And the truth is that Harry, who is my husband, but should not be, makes my hands shake and my heart pound in a way that Bertie never has and never will. Vexing, dangerously charming Harry, who won’t tell me why he had to marry me, why he insists on masquerading about town as his brother, or most bothersome still, why he won’t stop that annoying (and rather excitingly successful) habit of trying to seduce me!

What is a young lady to do?
I hate awful books, of course, but it's book like this one, ok books which have the potential to be excellent, but simply miss the mark, that frustrate me the most. My grade: a C+. I'd compare my reaction to this one with how I felt about Caroline Jewel's Lord Ruin. Both books squandered the opportunity to be excellent, but I'm definitely following these authors' careers.

The first chapter, in which Gwen discovers that she's been tricked and is now married to Cambourne, not Milburn, as she thought, was superb. Gwen's voice, her funny aside comments about the situation, her reactions what is going on, everything. It's also a deeply emotional scene, because it's perfectly obvious to us readers how Cambourne is feeling about it all, and I fell half in love with the guy right then.

Unfortunately, the book didn't manage to maintain this level after that. It wasn't too bad, it simply lost focus and lost itself in the ridiculous antics of a big cast of cartoonish secondary characters.

On the positive side, I liked very much the chick-lit feel this book had, with it's first person POV and a heroine who has some very nice girlfriends who support her in everything. I was surprised at how well the first person narration worked here. I'm not usually fond of it for romance, but I did enjoy it in this book, because Benson managed to make it quite clear to the reader what Cambourne was feeling, even when our narrator had no idea. And she did it without making Gwen look like an idiot. Plus, Gwen had a fresh, engaging voice, something vital in a 1st person. Benson also managed to create some very nice chemistry between her two protagonists.

The negatives are more numerous. The secondary characters were one of my main problems. While Gwen and Cambourne were real people, I got the feeling that the author actually meant to make the secondary characters cartoons. I see what she was trying to do and I guess this was meant to be funny, the way they had such exaggeratedly ridiculous reactions to things, acting like no normal person ever would (for instance, not even allowing that Gwen might be upset at being tricked), but it just didn't work for me. I'm thinking of Gwen's parents, her mother's friend Violetta, her friend Cecy's mother, even Milburn. I didn't find them funny, really, I just wanted to kill them all. After all, cartoon characters don't bleed... it wouldn't have made much of a mess. These people took up a large part of the book which could have been devoted to the much more interesting relationship between Cambourne and Gwen.

Cambourne and Gwen's relationship wasn't perfect, though. Cambourne, especially, drove me nuts with his foolish insistence on not telling Gwen what was going on. This was an instance where the Big Secret plot didn't work at all. There was absolutely no reason why Cambourne wouldn't tell Gwen, except to keep them apart for a while longer. It is his secret to tell! To top it all, once the secret is revealed to Gwen, it's simply brushed aside. Either it's important or not!

As for Gwen, as the story went by, I lost some sympathy for her. For a long while, she simply let things happen to her. To be fair, she did try to be proactive and find out what the hell was going on, but at the first difficulties, she gave up and went with the flow.

Even if this one didn't really satisfy, I'll be looking forward to the author's next.


Cold Feet, by Brenda Novak

>> Wednesday, September 01, 2004

I'd previously read only one book by Brenda Novak,and that one had been a very typical Superromance. Cold Feet (excerpt)is nothing like it.

The Seattle police suspect Madison Lieberman's father was the serial killer they call the "Sandpoint Strangler." Madison refuses to believe it. Her father is now dead, and all she wants is the chance to create a new life for herself and her six-year-old child.

Then she discovers something in the crawl space beneath her parents' house. Something that makes her question her father's innocence. Or the innocence of someone else who's equally close to her...

When another woman turns up dead, crime writer Caleb Trovato wonders whether they're dealing with a copy cat killer. Or is the real Sandpoint Strangler still alive? He's sure Madison knows more than she's telling, and he's determined to find out what. But he doesn't expect to fall in love – or to lead Madison and her child into danger...
Ok, full disclosure: I'm definitely not a big fan of romantic suspense. I'll read one once in a while, if it sounds interesting, but as a rule, I much prefer books in which the emphasis is squarely on the love story. So, you might want to take this into account when you consider that I'm giving this book a C+.

The suspense plot was actually pretty intriguing here, and the author did a good job of developing it, slowly giving us a little more info every time. It wasn't an easy to guess mystery. In fact, I did see the clue pointing out that certain something about the killer that Caleb didn't see (trying very hard not to spoil anything, here!), but this made me focus on the wrong person.

The reason I ended up not really liking the book, in spite of being interested in the mystery, was that I never became really invested in the main characters. The romance felt pretty humdrum, and these people weren't particularly interesting to me.

Also, the book was really, really depressing. Even the romance didn't lighten things up any. The ending didn't give me a positive feeling, it was mostly "Oh, well, poor Ellis. Too bad he killed himself for nothing."


Arm Candy, by Jo Leigh

99% percent of the times, I don't buy books unless someone's recommended them. The rec can be a review at a place I trust, someone's comment on a message board, anything. I especially follow this rule with category romance, but I made an exception for Arm Candy, by Jo Leigh, basically because I've liked everything I've read by this author.

Marketing whiz Jessica Howell needs some "arm candy"-a deliciously sexy man by her side to keep her married playboy boss in line. Dan Crawford fits the bill-he's handsome, discreet and available. Helping gorgeous Jess with her dilemma is a treat for Dan-and very tempting. Attend a few parties, exchange heated glances, kiss her senseless...pretend to be in love. Tough job? Except there's no pretense after they share one night of sizzling no-holds-barred sex. Dan doesn't want to be kept at arm's length anymore. But will their hot fling lead to the real thing? Or will he always be...Arm Candy?
I really enjoyed Arm Candy. The plot itself was nothing special, but I really liked the characters. Jo Leigh is an author whose young people really do feel like young people, and yes, Jessica and Dan really did feel like people my age. I'd give this a B+.

I completely understood Jessica. I don't share her "money and power are everything and I'll derive happiness solely from this" stance, but I can definitely understand how she'd come to be this way. I very much liked that Leigh didn't completely emasculate her in the end of the book. Jessica doesn't ultimately decide that all she needs is love and she'll give up everything she's always worked for and be happy only with her man's love. Nope, Jessica gets everything! The high powered career she wants, and the supportive partner who loves her to go with it.

Dan was lovely. I really liked his attitude towards life, his boundless, almost childlike curiosity about everything and anything. And Leigh gave him a backstory that made perfect sense and explained how he'd become that way. This curiosity of his played nicely into the story, since the payment he demanded of Jessica was to be able to ask her any question he wanted and she'd have to tell him the truth, however intimate. Leigh got some very provocative scenes from that.

I also loved how Dan was attracted to Jessica's strenght and drive, and that even though his role in their relationship was, at least at first, basically rescuing from a harassing boss, he was always very clear that Jessica wasn't the damsel in distress type, and he actually much prefered this.

The plot was simple, and the whole deal about Jessica having to "hire" someone to keep her boss away from her and not sexually harass her could have felt like an "only in category romance" situation. Only, it worked. It felt natural, not contrived, probably because the characters' reactions to it all were very believable.

There was a secondary storyline, too, but that one as very underwritten. It simply wasn't given enough space, so I never came to care for these people. It also didn't add much to the story, only an example of someone who was taking a different path from the one Jess was planning to take, but I didn't think this was needed to show Jess what she could have. Also, this secondary love story was a bit too sweet for me.

The ending of the book was good. At first, I didn't much like that it felt anticlimactic. No "a-ha!" moment, no final conflict, just Jess gradually seeing what it could be like with Dan. But then I realized that this was exactly what Jess would need to be convinced, actually experiencing the possibilities, and I now think this was the perfect ending for this story.


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