The Desperate Game, by Jayne Castle

>> Friday, April 28, 2006

The four books in Jayne Ann Krentz's Guinevere Jones series (written under her Jayne Castle pseudonym) are some of her hardest to find titles. Looking through ebay and amazon auctions, I see they go for some nice sums. I like JAK, but considering some of her old books are a bit iffy, there's no way I would pay that much for these books! Fortunately, a friend managed to find copies much cheaper than that, and she allowed me to borrow them. The first is The Desperate Game.

Unlikely Partners - In Love and in Danger

Guinevere Jones - Smart, savvy, and something else to see. She was an independent operator until Zac enlisted her secret services and ignited a desire for adventure and romance.

Zachariah Justis - The dark, rugged private eye thought he could use Gwen, then let her go. But forcing her to become his personal spy meant stepping into his own trap to discover the perfect partner in danger and in love.
The dynamic duo follows a baffling trail of high-voltage video game clues to solve a computer crime and catch a cunning high-tech killer.
If you like Moonlighting... If Remington Steele turns you on... That's part of the presentation of this series, and it does have a bit of that feel to it. A really fun book, vintage JAK. A B+.

Guinevere Jones, owner of small temp agency Camelot Services is not amused when she's approached by fellow small-businessowner Zacariah Justis. Zac has just opened his security consulting agency, and he's investigating some disappearing shipments for computer company StarrTech. Gwen had done a bit of temping there herself a few months earlier, and Zac blackmails her into going back and being her inside "man", using the knowledge that while working at StarrTech, she'd done some massaging of the companies benefits program and taken it for some $2.000.

As Zac and Guinevere work together to find out what's going on (or rather, Zac works both at finding out and at trying to keep Gwen from doing some investigating of her own into the fate of one of the programmers, who seems to have disappeared), they realize they may have more in common that they thought at first.

Oh, this was great! I was a bit leery when I started it because I've been burnt by some old JAKs, but Zac is fortunately not one of the old asshole alphas she sometimes wrote in the 80s. He's an alpha, yes, but he's an ok guy. I think he actually reminded me of of the hero from Smoke in Mirrors, Thomas, a guy who knows he's not very exciting or sophisticated, with a solemn, serious manner and a sense of humour that takes a bit of getting used to.

And Guinevere is cool, too. I liked how she's this sensible, proactive small businesswoman, who's more than a match for Zac. I was, however, a bit bothered by her gothic heroine tendencies. Like the gothic heroines of old, she's fond of getting herself into dangerous situations for no reason, even when Zac, who really is the expert in the investigative area, has told her to stay put. And her explorations tend to backfire and not help, but hinder the investigation. Still, she didn't irritate me enough to be a real bother.

The romance was great, but you really should start reading this knowing that what you'll get here is just the beginning of a relationship. If I had no way of getting the other books, it would have pissed me off, but since I've got all of them and I *know* that the romance will continue there, it didn't bother me at all. Anyway, it's quite a nice beginning. JAK gets the chemistry right, and I liked how being with Gwen assuages Zac's loneliness and sense of being disconnected from the world.

I also very much enjoyed the humour. There are plenty of running jokes throughout the book, like about different management styles, and about Guinevere constantly cadging free lunches from Zac, and Zac being a "frog", and that kind of thing, and I thought JAK had the perfect touch with it. None of the jokes got old, and they remained funny until the end.

I was really intrigued by the glimpse into the world of computer games in the 80s. This is important: you have to know when you start reading this that it was written in 1986, so it's best to approach it as a kind of period piece, and not expect it to be completely contemporary. I had lots of fun with this. I'm sure for the people who read it at the time this would have felt impossibly cutting edge and modern, but well, what I imagined when I pictured the Elf Hunt game were the graphics from the games I was playing... well, not at the time, because 20 years ago Uruguay was at least 10 years behind the US in that area, so in 1986 all I was doing with my Spectrum computer was playing with Logo and loading a really basic Scrabble game through my cassette player, but maybe 10 years later? Stuff like Laura Bow or the early King's Quests? And that would be more quaint than cutting edge right now, of course!

Anyway, that was a fun element, as was the the whole role of the game, Elf Hunt, in the suspense subplot. Not particularly believable, but fun.

I can't wait to read the rest of the series, to see what it's like. The next three books are:

The Chilling Deception
The Sinister Touch
The Fatal Fortune


Midnight Island Sanctuary, by Susan Peterson

Midnight Island Sanctuary, by new-to-me author Susan Peterson is part of Harlequin Intrigue's Eclipse gothic promotion. So far, I haven't been terribly impressed with it.

Cora Shelley arrived on the remote and forbidding Midnight Island under the protective cloak of darkness, fleeing a nightmarish encounter with a psychotic killer. She never expected to be magnetically drawn to her brooding employer, Jacob Mackenzie—the formidable lord of the manor who harbored haunting secrets of his own....

But this secluded hideaway was not the safe haven that it seemed.... Suddenly mysterious incidents and unexplained deaths were as commonplace as the dark, stormy clouds and rolling mists that surrounded Jacob's ancient castle. With hysteria at an all-time high and Cora's deranged stalker lying in wait within the shadowy crevices of Midnight Island, Cora had no choice except to place all her trust in the enigmatic man who vowed to keep her safe.
I've been reading a lot of books from the Harlequin Intrigue line lately. I always tend to find myself intrigued (hah-hah) by the storylines, but too often, the stories have just not flowed well. This one is better than most of the others, but still not the exception. A C+.

Cora Shelley has survived a nightmare. She and her roommate lived next-door from a seemingly normal guy who turned out to be a psycho. After a few months of suspicious circumstances (unimportant objects disappearing or being moved in their appartment, for instance), the psychopath struck in earnest, killing Cora's roommate and taking Cora prisoner, intending to kill her, too. Cora managed to escape and is now determined to testify against him in court.

However Cora's really freaked out by the murderer's promise to come after her, so she decides to run away and hide under an assumed name until the trial, not telling anyone where she's going. She takes a job as a cook in an isolated castle in the middle of an island in either Canada or northern US (can't remember which, just that it's a really cold place!). But when she hears that the murderer has broken out of jail, Cora wonders if she has she managed to outrun him, after all. Because certain weird events are making her question whether Midnight Island will be a sanctuary for her, after all.

Let's start with what worked. What I liked best about MIS was the ambience, which was outstanding and very, very gothic. There's a castle, which Peterson describes in such a way that it feels real, and there's a mysterious man with a mysterious past, which includes a wife who seems to have disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and it was all suitably, well, mysterious.

There are also those strange things which start happening to Cora, which would have been really interesting if her reactions hadn't been so absolutely stupid. Because that was my main problem with this book: a heroine who keeps making puzzling choices over and over, who reacts in ways that are completely against common sense and are only explainable by the fact that the author needs to move her plot in certain directions. And really, if she never managed to realize for herself that there must be something in that tea, then she deserved whatever she got!

Something else that really, really bothered me were the heavy-handed messages about gender-roles. As an example of what I mean, there's the very explicit way in which Peterson describes how the "good" women (Cora, Jake's mother) cook for "their men", while the "bad" ones (Amanda, Natalie) refuse to and prefer to hire others to do what Ms. Peterson obviously considers "their" job as women. Blech.

And the romance? Really ho-hum. There's just not any chemistry between Jake and Cora, and the HEA for them came completely out of the blue. These two were ready to start dating, not to get married!

Oh, well, at least the final explanation of what's been going on is a good one, and makes sense. It didn't manage to save the book for me, but at least things ended in a somewhat good note.


Lover Eternal, by J.R. Ward

>> Wednesday, April 26, 2006

If I have to be positive, I'll say being late to the Dark Lover party and missing on all the original discussions and talk did have a benefit: I was able to go read the second in J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series, Lover Eternal (excerpt), pretty much immediately (and yes, I know it's been a while since I posted about Dark Lover, but I'm slooooow!).

In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there's a deadly war raging between vampires and their slayers. And there exists a secret band of brothers like no other - six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Possessed by a deadly beast, Rhage is the most dangerous of the Black Dagger Brotherhood...

Within the brotherhood, Rhage is the vampire with the strongest appetites. He's the best fighter, the quickest to act on his impulses, and the most voracious lover—for inside him burns a ferocious curse cast by the Scribe Virgin. Possessed by this dark side, Rhage fears the times when his inner dragon is unleashed, making him a danger to everyone around him.

Mary Luce, a survivor of many hardships, is unwittingly thrown into the vampire world and reliant on Rhage's protection. With a life-threatening curse of her own, Mary is not looking for love. Her faith in miracles was lost years ago. But when Rhage's intense animal attraction turns into something more emotional, he knows that he must make Mary his alone. And while their enemies close in, Mary fights desperately to gain life eternal with the one she loves…
Well, I really, really liked this, just as much as I liked Dark Lover. It's got the same kind of wonderful energy and absorbing quality, and now that I've finished it, I'm wishing I'd waited about 6 months longer to read the first one, so I could have read the first three all in a row! Though of course, it's very likely in September I'll wish I'd waited until the first 4 were out! ;-) A B+.

Lover Eternal tells the story of Rhage, the most spectacularly beautiful of the brothers and also a man who under a curse from the Scribe Virgin. Rhage pissed her off one time too many, and as punishment, he's been sentenced to share his body with a beast. And this is a very real beast: when Rhage gets a bit too overwrought (especially when he hasn't been able to let off steam by either having lots and lots of sex or fighting), he turns into this great, big, bloodthirsty beast that chews anyone around it to pieces.

Sounds like a good weapon, especially for someone in the middle of a fight to the death for the survival of his kind, right? The problem is that when I say the beast chews anyone around it to pieces, I do mean anyone -friend or enemy. So Rhage lives in terror of not being able to control the beast and hurting the people he cares about. Ergo, Rhage makes sure he get lots and lots of sex, purely to take the edge off.

And no, I'm not being facetious when I say that. He does do it purely to take the edge off. It's reached a point in which the guy is completely sick of the anonymousness and tawdriness and loneliness of it. It's actually quite an accomplishment on the part of the author that I'm able to write this with a straight face. But with Rhage? I felt for him, I really did. He truly would like nothing better than to have someone he loved that he could go home to at night and be with, instead of having to do what he does. But he has never met a woman who with whom he'd want more than casual sex, and he knows that he shouldn't even wish he had, because having to deal with his beast would keep him from having a relationship.

But of course, he does meet a special woman he just can't stay away from, even though he knows perfectly well he should. Rhage and Mary Luce's initial meeting is quite intriguing. See, Mary befriended this mute young man, and they're hanging out in her backyard when her neighbour Bella joins them. Bella happens to be a vampire (Mary obviously knows nothing about this), and when she notices the young man, John, has a design on him which is written in the old language of the vampires, she insists on taking him and Mary to the Brotherhood.

It is there that Rhage first, well, not "sees", because he's half-blind at the time... that Rhage first perceives Mary, I should say, and his obsession with her is immediate. Her voice just speaks to something in him and he can't stay away. His brothers tell him he shouldn't and he knows he shouldn't, but he immediately beings to pursue her.

Mary can't understand why this movie-star spectacular guy would be interested in her, but he's extremely persistent (sometimes coming perilously close to the line separating persistent from stalker... who am I kidding, he actually does cross it a couple of times!), and when Mary ends up finding out what he is, he takes her with him to the Brotherhood's headquarters and by then not having a relationship becomes impossible.

Rhage and Mary are actually only half the story in this book. Equal importance is given to the rest of the Brotherhood and their interactions, and to a couple of subplots which just start to develop here, like that of John (or rather, Tehrror) and that of Mary's neighbour Bella and Zsadist. I actually liked this. I mean, as much as I enjoyed Rhage and Mary's romance, I think that storyline might not have been strong enough to carry the entire book. As it is, since it shares space with a lot of other stuff, the book didn't lose any momentum.

Ok, so what was good and what wasn't?

First of all, I loved Rhage's immediate complete and utter devotion to Mary, and I thought that what separated them was both original (I mean, a real, ravening beast?) and powerful (yeah, I've read plenty of heroes who refuse to be with the heroine for fear they might hurt her -i.e. some kind of metaphorical beast living in them-, but the reader always knows they're just being silly. In this case, Ward had me fearing that Mary really was at risk from the beast!).

Related to this, there's something I should mention, even though it's very much a spoiler (so BEWARE!!!!!), because it will be a deal-breaker for many people. Rhage sleeps with another woman during the book, even after he gets involved with Mary and is in love with her. And I should also mention that I'm usually one of the people for whom this is a deal-breaker, but while I didn't *like* it here and I REALLY wish it had been solved in another way, I could excuse it and understand that it actually made sense that it would happen. I mean, if there's ever a good excuse for sleeping with another woman, I guess needing to do so because otherwise a flesh-and-blood scary beast will come out from inside you and savage everything around you, well, that would be it (especially if you absolutely hate having sex with the other woman, anyway). So all I'll say is that if this is the only thing keeping you from reading Lover Eternal, you should read it anyway, because odds are it won't be such a huge problem.

Ok, then, that taken care of, I'll mention that I really liked what Ward did with regards to Rhage coming to accept the beast. Anything else would have been a huge anticlimax. I also loved the scene in which Mary finally comes face to face with it. The reactions of the other vampires were priceless!

And right here before I start with the negatives, I'll mention something I was a bit ambivalent about. I mentioned I enjoyed all the other stuff going around Rhage and Mary, and what I loved best was the Zsadist and Bella scenes. Zsadist is seriously fucked up, and I really can't wait to see what happens with him and Bella, since what we see here is very promising.

That said, it was a bit annoying that so much there was left unresolved, especially because Ward doesn't even conclude that particular "battle" in the war between the lessers and the vampires. Yes, the action in that area is completely independent from the book's protagonists, and when the book ends, there isn't even some kind of partial closure there. There's sequel-baiting and then there's sequel-baiting, and this particular example of it was a bit much. And it annoys me even more that the manipulation worked and the minute I put LE down I started to think about who I could bribe to get an early copy of Lover Awakened.

Crossing the line into the negatives, we get to Mary's passive role. I don't know if I can explain exactly what my problem was with this. Let's see, I wouldn't say it's a flaw in the characterization, or that Mary's weak. Mary isn't weak at all. Actually I saw her as very corageous for the way she dealt with her illness and the way she adapted to some very frightening circumstances, once she found out what exactly Rhage and his brothers were. Nor do I fault her for being willing to remain at home while Rhage went out on his missions. What was she supposed to do? Insist on going out with the brothers to fight those lessers? That would have been extremely stupid.

What did bother me, though, was that in both Dark Lover and Lover Eternal Ward elected to write a dynamic in which it made sense that the women would be waiting at home, doing nothing. As I read, I found myself wishing for a chance for them to actually do something... maybe not something physical, but to somehow become involved in what's going on. Maybe doing research on possible properties for the lessers' HQ? I don't know, something other than sitting around on their butts, worrying about their men!

I was also a bit annoyed by the language. I quite like the atmosphere Ward creates for her world, but I still get the feeling she's trying much too hard with the dialogue and the slang and that a lighter touch there would be better. All those "you feel me?" and "my brother" and so on and so forth had me rolling my eyes.

And then there was the one element I truly hated: the way Mary's disease was resolved. The whole thing about the Scribe Virgin taking pity on Mary because she couldn't have children that were biologically hers... Argh. Give me a break. After everything the woman has gone through in her life, with her mother's death, the cancer, having to completely give up a life she enjoyed because of her illness, and that stupid Scribe Virgin seizes on that as the most tragic thing that could happen to a woman? Oh, come on! I hate the Scribe Virgin. She seems unduly cruel and merciless to me (which, I guess, would make her kind of like the Greek gods, so this isn't necessarily such a bad thing).

Ok, I'll stop now, even though this is one of those books about which I can just write and write and write. I really hope Ward can keep the energy level just as high for the next few entries in the series, because I fear that without that, the cheesiness would just overpower anything else. So far, we're on the right path!


The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Devil in Winter (excerpt) is the third (and probably the most anticipated) book in Lisa Kleypas' Wallflowers series, which started with Secrets of a Summer Night and continued with It Happened One Autumn.

IMPORTANT: Please note that the very plot of TDIW is a spoiler for the ending of IHOA, so if you haven't read the latter, you might want to stop reading right now.

book coverA devil's bargain...

Easily the shyest Wallflower, Evangeline Jenner stands to become the wealthiest, once her inheritance comes due. Because she must first escape the clutches of her unscrupulous relatives, Evie has approached the rake Viscount St. Vincent with a most outrageous proposition: marriage!

Sebastian's reputation is so dangerous that thirty seconds alone with him will ruin any maiden's good name. Still, this bewitching chit appeared, unchaperoned, on his doorstep to offer her hand. Certainly an aristocrat with a fine eye for beauty could do far worse.

But Evie's proposal comes with a condition: no lovemaking after their wedding night. She will never become just another of the dashing libertine's callously discarded broken hearts -- which means Sebastian will simply have to work harder at his seductions...or perhaps surrender his own heart for the very first time in the name of true love.
Still here? Ok, then, don't say I didn't warn you. If you remember, at the end of IHOA, heiress Lillian was kidnapped by Marcus' friend Sebastian, Viscount St. Vincent, who, being in need of a cash injection, meant to force her to marry him. However, Marcus managed to catch up with them rescue his Lillian, but not before giving Sebastian a well-deserved beating.

As TDIW starts (and IHOA ends, really, because this was partly in the epilogue), Sebastian is in his house, recovering from his injuries, when he receives a very unexpected visit. It's Lillian's Wallflower friend, Evangeline Jenner, who has got a very peculiar proposal for Sebastian.

To make a long story short, Evie's well-born mother married gambling club owner Ivo Jenner (which many of you will probably remember from Kristie's beloved Dreaming of You). When his wife died, Jenner gave little Evie to her mother's family to raise, and other than a few visits to her dad, Evie grew up with them. They never treated her well, but while Jenner was alive and well, their behaviour was at least tolerable.

At the time the story starts, however, Ivo Jenner is dying of consumption, and Evie's family has left off all masks. They're planning to marry her off to her cousin Eustace in order to get her money, and since Evie is a shy, unprepossessing, stuttering little mouse when she's with them, they don't expect her to make any trouble about it.

But Evie isn't as weak as they think, and she escapes to Sebastian's, where she proposes a marriage of convenience (not really a marriage in name only, because she's aware of the fact that they'll need to consumate their vows so that there's no way her family can take her from his side, but near enough). He'll get money, while she'll get independence from her family and the freedom to be with her father until he dies.

Sebastian is pretty shocked by Evie's proposal (and it's not easy to shock this man!), but it is quite a godsend for him, so he accepts, and they leave for Gretna Green immediately, before her family can find out where she is. And it is during this trip that we begin to see a different Sebastian from the cruel, cold and mocking man we'd seen so far. It's a long, tiring cold journey, and one Evie's ill-equipped to take, and the way Sebastian tenderly and sweetly takes care of her is lovely. It's a convincing, gradual transformation, and we readers start to see a change in the way Evie affects him, too, the way he's more and more attracted to her and more protective with every mile they cover.

I think this part of the book was my favourite. Once they get back to London and they set up in Jenner's gambling club, with Sebastian taking over its running, it's still good and there were certain elements I absolutely loved, but other annoying elements made it not as wonderful as the first section promised.

What I did love was how, to some extent, Sebastian is made to "pay" for his past promiscuity. While Evie understands that they need to consummate the marriage, she refuses to continue to have a real marriage with a man who's sure to make her suffer by continuously cheating on her. So when Sebastian, who's become more and more obsessed with his wife since their wedding night, deigns to promise that ok, he'll be faithful (and be thankful, woman, because you're the first to ever manage to get such a promise from me), Evie very sensibly just won't believe that such a well-known rake will reform and be faithful just like that. She needs much more convincing than that, and Sebastian must make a few sacrifices.

But now we start with the problems. First, around this time, we lose Sebastian's POV for a while, and I really though this section would have been better if we'd really seen Sebastian's internal reactions to the situation.

And around this time, a weird suspense subplot rears its ugly head. Why do I say ugly? It's just that I thought it was something totally unnecessary, and all it did was take space away from Evie and Sebastian, which was all I was interested in. I really think there wasn't any need for more external conflict. I mean, there was more than enough internal conflict there (I would have much prefered to keep concentrating on the rake overcoming his bride's disbelief that he really would want to work at reforming), and if Kleypas thought she needed something external as well, there was her family right there, wanting to get Evie away from her husband and into their control. With villains with perfect reason to want to harm Evie, why would we need a crazy loon with poorly motivated reasons?

And speaking of motivations, in IHOA, I'd thought the motivation for Sebastian's kidnapping of Lillian was the weakest part of the plot. As I closed the book, I hoped it would become better explained in this book why exactly he'd thought the potential benefits would outweigh the very large costs, and why he'd thought he had no other options, but we get no explanations. I still think his behaviour was foolish in extreme and didn't make any sense, and Sebastian sees it, too. He actually thinks at one point that if he'd bothered to look around, he'd have seen Evie was a much better (and less troublesome) prospect. Well, duh!

Coming back to TDIW, something else that bothered me was that the tension deflated as the ending approached. By the time there were some 50 pages to go, there was just no romantic tension. Things between Evie and Sebastian were pretty much resolved, and all we were waiting for was the resolution of the very boring suspense plot. And for some reason, as the book progressed the style became more and more heavy on exposition about what was going on. I started hearing the author's voice, and it was a bit awkward.

And, to finish with my problems with the book (really, this is the last negative thing I'll write), I was completely puzzled by the setting up of the last Wallflower's story. There's a really contrived scene between Daisy and the very intriguing Cam (a scene that felt like sequel-baiting of the worst sort -Kleypas just has no subtlety in this area- and a scene which added nothing whatsoever to the plot of TDIW), but then it turns out that Cam won't be the hero of Daisy's story, Scandal in Spring! This just makes this weird scene even more pointless.

Considering all I've written, it sounds as if I liked this one much less than I actually did. But no, really, considering that I'm giving TDIW a B, in spite of the very real problems I had with it, that gives you a clue of how much I loved the things that worked about the book. I loved Sebastian's change from a cruel bastard to a loving, kind man, protective of his wife and his friends. I loved the way Evie became more and more confident as she felt more comfortable with Sebastian, completely "curing" herself of her stutter when she was near him. And I loved Sebastian's rapprochement with his friend Marcus, from IHOA, and the friendship between the Wallflowers. If only we'd had more of that and less of the annoying bits!


Tea For Two, by Cathy Maxwell & Liz Carlyle

>> Monday, April 24, 2006

Tea For Two contains the only Liz Carlyle story I had left to read. Actually, rather than a "short story", this one would be a novella (I think. Am I getting the terms right?), since it's almost 200 pages long, so I had no problem getting the book for her contribution alone. Can you tell I haven't liked the couple of Cathy Maxwell books that I've tried?

Cathy Maxwell's In a Moonlit Garden comes first in the book, but I read it second.

Posing as a tea merchant, Colonel Michael Sanson infiltrates an eccentric chemist's household in search of a stolen formula. But as soon as he lays eyes on the thief's niece, Lady Jocelyn, he is sidetracked into doing the fair lady's bidding. Little does Michael know that assisting in Jocelyn's scheme to make her former suitor jealous will send him into a tailspin of love and white-hot passion.
Did I say "read it"? Well, read part of it, at any rate. This was a DNF for me. I read about a third of the story: 60 pages, and it took me two weeks to work my way that far into it. Me! The person who reads over 200 books a year!

By the time I got to page 60, I was hating the book, the characters, the plotting, the writing style, and even the complete historical inaccuracy (this is so not like me! I'm not one of those creatures who get all upset if the author dresses her characters in a style that didn't become fashionable until the following year).

And I was bored. Bored! Bored, bored, BORED. And did I mention I was bored? Writing "bored, bored, bored" in my blog is more entertaining than reading that story. So, considering that a) at the point I left the story Maxwell seemed to be setting up to take the plot in a particularly annoying direction, and b) my past experiences with this author gave me no hope that things would improve at all, I just put the book down, and good riddance to this silly story.

The Liz Carlyle was miles better. Hunting Season is actually kind of related to other books by the author, and we catch up with the characters from books like A Woman Scorned and Beauty Like the Night, two of my favourite Carlyles.

Christian Villiers, the Marquis of Grayston, returns to England determined to ruin the man responsible for his beloved sister's suicide. Seducing the cad's intended, Lady Elise Middleton, would be a bonus. But during an elaborate house party, Christian realizes he has met his match in the fiery and passionate Elise...and soon he must decide whether a moment of vengeance is worth risking a lifetime of love.
I've said before that I'm not the biggest fan of revenge plots, especially when the hero (and it always seems to be the hero, doesn't it?) sees nothing wrong in ruining innocent people to gain his objective. That blurb made me fear this could be the case, but fortunately, it wasn't. Christian is totally justified in wanting revenge against this man, and his plans don't include ruining the man's fiancée (our heroine, Elise), but to flirt with her enough to make her fiancé challenge him.

It's quite a sexy story, and while I thought the lust was a bit better done than the love, I found Christian and Elise's relationship really engaging.

Also, I loved Carlyle's writing style here. This is a 2002 book, so it was before her voice started becoming more and more muted and undistinguished (her last book that I've read, Two Little Lies, seems to mark a return to her old style, hopefully), and it was as rich and lush as it was in my favourites.

My grade for this particular story: B-.


Catching Midnight, by Emma Holly

>> Friday, April 21, 2006

This one's for AngieW's TBR challenge. This month we needed to read a book that's been in our TBR for longer than 6 months, and like Sandy, I went for an Emma Holly. This is one I received in July last year, so it qualifies.

Title: Catching Midnight

Author: Emma Holly

Year published: 2003


Deep in the Scottish woods live the children of the night. At times, they run through the wilderness as a pack of wolves; at others they take human form, pairing off to revel in the throes of sexual ecstasy. But when they cross paths with the world of the mortals, nothing will ever be the same...

1349. Orphaned by the plague, young Gillian is rescued from certain death by a pack of shape-shifting immortals. Once a human child, now Gillian is one of them herself, reveling in the pleasures of the flesh and the hunt. This ethereal beauty would be happy if only her heart did not yearn for the world beyond their caves...

Aimery Fitz Clare is mortal, second son to a noble house, and a master falconer. Little does he dream that his latest "catch" is more than she seems. Gillian has taken a falcon's form to escape her immortal keepers, only to find herself losing her heart to her latest captor. Aimery's kindness is a powerful seduction, not to mention his human beauty and warmth. Does Gillian dare embrace this forbidden love, and can it survive her jealous breathren bearing their fangs?
Why did you get this book?: I really like Emma Holly, and I adored the two short stories she wrote set in the upyr universe (Luisa's Desire, in the Fantasy anthology and The Night Owl, in Hot Blooded).

Do you like the cover?: Eh. Not particularly, but it doesn't really bug me, either.

I give it a few points for actually somewhat conveying the medieval setting, but I deduct some because it's the heroine who can shape-shift into a falcon, so she couldn't very well sit there bare-breasted while staring at herself, could she?

Did you enjoy the book?: Nowhere near as much as I loved the two short stories, but it was ok. Most of it was just very average, but I loved the hero enough to give it a B-.

My biggest problem with CM was that the universe didn't completely gel for me. There's a lot about the children of Auriclus and how they live apart from humans, not harming them, and the children of Nim Wei, and how they live among humans and interfere with their world, and how there's a kind of rivalry between them. There's also a lot (at the beginning) about Ulric's "pack" and how would be so adamantly against Gillian leaving, and blah, blah, blah.

All well and good (I did find it pretty interesting, really), but where I thought Holly failed was in giving all this world-building a relevance to the romance. It almost felt to me as if Aimery and Gillian's romance was completely separate from the manouvering and manipulations of the upyr world. Never did I feel as if their relationship was genuinely threatened by Auriclus, Ulric or even by Nim Wei (who was actually in the castle for most of the story!)

And another thing, as surprised as I was to feel so little danger to their relationship from outside influences, I was even more astonished when I saw how little threat there was from the inside: that is, I expected the fact that Gillian wasn't human to be some kind of problem. Maybe not the obstacle to their relationship, but I don't know, wouldn't you expect a medieval hero to at least be a bit taken aback when a supernatural being turns up in his bed?

Well, not Aimery, and not Edmund, either. Both of them seem to take the appearance of these obviously non-humans very much in their stride, and that just felt really weird. I might have been able to accept it if they had already been in contact with some kind of supernatural phenomenon, but to have them go from regular, mortal men to welcoming a kind of witch or sorceress or vampire into their beds... hmmm, hard to believe.

Other than that, I mostly liked the book and found it extremely readable. I especially adored Aimery. For once, we get a hero who's not the big man in the castle. Aimery lives in his brother's keep, and actually works for him, in charge of the keep's defenses. He's a war hero, and a man people find scary, but inside he's a real sweetie. He's caring and kind, and loves children and animals, and I loved how he behaved towards Gillian.

Gillian I didn't understand all that well. I never got that much of a sense of who exactly she was, and I think I got the feeling that she didn't really know who she was, either. Other than her curiosity about humans, she felt to me almost as this wild, animal, innocent, simple being, and I never got any sense of complexity from her.

What saves the romance here is the sensuality with which Holly writes. The chemistry between Aimery and Gillian is really well done, and so are the love scenes. And she did manage to convey a sense of their caring for one another, so this element ended up being pretty ok.

However, I think my favorite element in this book was the fascinating, complicated relationship between Aimery and his brother. I really liked how Holly wrote that mixture of jealousy, love, resentment and admiration that characterized their relationship, and the final scene between them was lovely.

Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again?: To the first question, no. I've read quite a few of Holly's books, from her erotica titles, to her historical romance, to her alternate reality stories, and I've liked what she's done in all three areas.

To the second question, definitely. I have the next two books in this series in the TBR (Hunting Midnight and Courting Midnight) and I'm really looking forward to All U Can Eat.

Are you keeping it or passing it on?: Keeping it.


Blue Moon, by Lori Handeland

>> Thursday, April 20, 2006

book cover
Blue Moon (excerpt), starts Lori Handeland's Nightcreatures series, which is in its fourth entry by now.

By the light of a blue moon, danger prowls—

Miniwa, Wisconsin is under siege, but not by the usual summer tourists. The area's normally shy wolf population has begun stalking human prey, and their victims have been disappearing... or worse. Something is happening in the woods. Something brutal and primitive…

and desire is unleashed...

Officer Jessie McQuade has seen plenty in her years on the force—but nothing as intriguing as the gorgeous, naked man she encounters while tracking a rogue wolf. Professor Will Cadotte is a Native American activist. He's also the only man capable of distracting Jessie from her work. And for a cop, distraction—no matter how pleasurable—can be deadly. It's against Jessie's better judgment to accept Will's help in her investigation, yet she soon finds herself doing exactly that—and more. Will's dark, penetrating eyes see into a part of Jessie's soul she never knew existed. It's exhilarating...and terrifying.

Now, as a town's deepest secrets come to light, no one is safe: not friends, lovers, or strangers. And as Jessie follows a bloody trail to the shocking truth, she'll have to decide who she can trust when the moon is full...
I really don't know why I haven't read many werewolf romances, because I've quite liked most of the ones I've read -including this one. A B.

Jesie McQuade is a police officer in the small Wisconsin town of Miniwa. She's pretty much the opposite of a girly-girl and is a really good hunter and tracker, so when one night she's called to the site of an accident on the highway and finds a woman who seems to have been bitten by the wolf she hit with her car, Jessie immediately takes off after the animal. She tracks it to right outside a mysterious cottage in the woods, where she loses the track and finds a beautiful naked man with some brusing on his hip.

The following morning, Jessie receives another emergency call, which brings her right into a horrifying situation at the elementary school. Rather than a "typical" school shooting, which was what Jessie was expecting, she finds that the accident victim from the night before (a teacher at the school), has gone berserk and basically eaten the principal. When Jessie arrives, she's ready to continue her meal with one of her students, but she and her boss manage to shoot her before she does.

And this is only the start to a bewildering succession of incidents, which makes even the anti-woo-woo-stuff Jessie begin to believe there might be werewolves around in her town, and that it might fall to her (and to a very strange old hunter) to stop them from taking over.

Not to mention that, to add to an already stressful situation, in the course of her investigation she's forced to work with the Professor Will Cadotte, who happens to be the only expert on Ojibwe matters around and the very attractive naked man she met on the woods on the day in which things started to go bad.

Blue Moon was a real page-turner. Handeland managed to combine the romance and the werewolf stuff wonderfully, so whether she was concentrating on Jessie and Will or on the very strange things going on in Miniwa, I basically couldn't put the book down.

I really enjoyed the direction in which she took her werewolf plot. The explanation given was fresh and original and fascinating, and I liked the way the scene was left all set up for the following books, all the while closing the action in Blue Moon perfectly. Jessie is perfect here, a bit doubtful and scared sometimes (as befits a normal woman who comes face to face with all this weirdness), but also kick-ass enough when she needed to be. The only thing I didn't like was how Handeland didn't really resolve the "is Will a werewolf or isn't he" conundrum. Don't want to give any spoilers, but this area was a teeny bit unsatisfying.

I think I liked the romance even better than the paranormal plot. At first, I was a bit doubtful, because I just didn't like the way the tough Jessie went all gooey and girly and silly with Will. Soon, however, this element of the book really hit its stride, and it became hot and sweet and really romantic. These two had some lovely chemistry, and even though I might have liked a little more development in the romance, what there was did make me buy it completely.

Book 2 in this series is Hunter's Moon, which fortunately I already have in my TBR. It probably won't be long before I pick it up.


Secrets Vol. 9, an anthology

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2006

book coverI have to send a great big thank you to author Stephanie Vaughan for sending me the Secrets Vol. 9 anthology (great author, and I'm not just saying it because she sent me the book *g* Her Crossing the Line was one of my top 10 2005 reads last year. If you want to give gay romance a try, that one and Jumping the Fence are the place to start). A-hem. Anyway, she knows I'm a big fan of another e-book author, Lisa Marie Rice, so she offered to send me this anthology, which has one short story by her.

Rice is the only one of the four authors that I've already read, so I was also looking forward to trying the other three.

The anthology doesn't start well. The first story, Wild for You, is by Kathryn Anne Dubois.

When college intern, Georgie, gets lost and captured by a wildman of the Congo, she soon discovers this terrifying specimen of male virility has never seen a woman. The research possibilities are endless! Until he shows her he has research ideas of his own.
My feelings about this 70-page story would look a bit like a low hill if plotted out as a graph.

The beginning, as pea-brained college intern Georgie gets lost in the Congo jungles and captured by a modern-day Tarzan (white guy, of course, and one who shaves and washes with soap and shampoo, even though he's been lost in the jungle so long that he's lost his ability to speak), was silly and irritating as hell. Plus, the writing style felt flat. There's quite a lot of action in the first couple of pages, but Dubois basically writes "this happened, and then this happened, and then this", so there's just no excitement at all there.

As the story advanced, however, I found myself liking it a bit more. Mark's total fascination with Georgie (he hasn't seen a woman since he was a little kid) was cute, and some of the love scenes were kind of fun. Low on characterization, so they were not as hot as they could have been if we'd actually known these people, but fun, all the same.

But then, when Georgie goes back to her camp and Mark is captured and then returned to civilization, my enjoyment suddenly plunged. That part of the story totally and completely sucked. The worst (though not the only awful) part was that we get to see Mark making up for lost time and having loads of sex with the native girls of the tribe, and then with Georgie's fellow interns, all while Georgie looks on. Was I supposed to enjoy reading that? Was I supposed to find the scene where the uncle of one of the girls spanked and butt-fucked his niece after finding her and Mark exchanging oral favours (all while Georgie watched on a mirror), erotic? Blech. And that imbecile Georgie simply thinks oh, was she supposed to blame Mark just for being a man? Er, yes? How about blaming him and cutting off his balls? My grade for the story: a D-.

The second story was much, much better. Steph told me she'd liked Wanted, by Kimberly Dean even better than the LMR story, and it was a good one.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Reno wants Danielle Carver. There’s her body, brains—and that charge of treason on her head. Unable to clear her name, Dani goes on the run, but the sexy Fed is hot on her trail. What will he do once he catches her? And why is the idea so tempting?
Wanted starts right in the middle of the action (which I tend to like, in short stories): Danielle Carver is on the run, after being framed for treason, and FBI agent Jeff Reno is close behind. As the story starts, they've been in touch via email and instant messaging (Danielle is an expert in this kind of thing, so she doesn't need to worry about being traced this way), and have already began to develop a relationship that way. Even when they're not together, the sexual tension is high, and (best of all) a sense of them actually caring for each other shines through. And when Reno manages to catch up with his prey, oh, wow!

So Reno's behaviour was extremely unprofessional and should have got his ass fired? I didn't care. So some of the computer / IM stuff seemed to suggest some confusion in the author's mind about certain things? Details, details! The chemistry and romance were strong enough that the story was a success for me. A B.

Then came Secluded, by Lisa Marie Rice, the story I originally wanted this anthology for.

Nicholas Lee had to claw his way to the top. His wealth and power come with a price—his enemies will kill anyone he loves. When Isabelle Summerby steals his heart, Nicholas secludes her in his underground palace to live a lifetime of desire in only a few days.
Nicholas Lee has managed to climb up from extreme poverty to extreme wealth, but the process made him some very scary enemies, and he's become a man who's as lonely as he's rich. When he discover's Isabelle Summerby's book program on TV, he falls in love at first sight, and he plots and manouvers until he gets close to her. But his enemies are near, and Nicholas doesn't dare to have a real relationship with Isabelle, for fear they might kill her to get at him. His solution? They'll have a hot affair for ten days, and then go their own way. Nicholas knows it won't be enough, but feels it will at least be better than nothing.

I very much enjoyed this one, and I'm pretty sure anyone who usually likes this author's books will enjoy it as much as I did. The hero, especially, is vintage LMR: an total alpha whose alphaness manifests not in domineering asshole behaviour but in protectiveness and a complete focus on the heroine. Even Nicholas's stalker-like actions struck me as sweet and romantic, not as scary and screwed up. Oh, and the plot was cool, especially how Isabelle saves the day in the end, after which we get a really nice epilogue. A B.

The last story is Flights of Fantasy, by Bonnie Hamre, a story that's a bit different from the others.

Chloe has taught others to see the realities of life but she’s never shared the intimate world of her sensual yearnings. Given the chance, will she be woman enough to fulfill her most secret erotic fantasy? Join her as she ventures into her Flights of Fantasy…
The reason why I say Flights of Fantasy is different is that it's erotica, while the other stories are merely very hot romance. Photojournalist Chloe is ordered by her boss to accept an invitation to a kind of vacation cruise and recharge her batteries. But when she gets to the yacht, it's all a bit weird. She's welcomed aboard by the organizer, the mysterious Yancy, a millionaire who tells her he knows her from college, and her last two boyfriends are passengers on the cruise as well. And it seems the whole cruise is set up around the idea of fulfilling its passengers' fantasies...

I didn't much like this one, though it didn't offend me, like the first story did. It just felt sort of flat. Chloe's sexual adventures lacked heat (even though they were adventurous... including a scene in which she fulfills her fantasy of having sex with three men at the same time), and the romance was really, really meh. Objectively, Yancy's actions were as stalker-like as Nicholas' from Secluded, but in this story they felt creepy to me. My grade: a C, with extra points given because it's the heroine who gets to have have lots and lots of sex with different people.

On the whole, even though I give it a C+, I liked the whole anthology better than I did Vol. 6, the only other Secrets anthology I've read. Yes, if you look at the grade, Vol. 6 got a B-, but that's just because it contained an absolute gem that was the MaryJanice Davidson story. Thing is, that volume had a kind of theme of domination, which is something that doesn't usually do anything for me, and this just wasn't present here.

Oh, and after her story here, I'm going to check out more by Kimberly Dean. Any fans here who can recommend other books by her? I think I have an ebook of Fever, but that's it.


Echoes, by Erin Grady

book coverSee, this is one of the problems of having to wait months before books arrive here: by the time they get to me, I barely remember why I wanted to read them, so they often end up languishing unread, in the TBR. That was the case with Echoes, by Erin Grady.

When I read the review at AAR, I was all fired up to read it, because it really did sound fascinating. So I bought it and had it sent to my friend's house. It spent a couple of months there until I accumulated enough books for an M-Bag, then four more months until the M-Bag arrived, and when it got here, it just got put in the TBR and forgotten. I only remembered it when I read an interview with the author, again at AAR. And when I did, I grabbed it from the TBR immediately.

A whisper of suspicion...

Tess Carson isn't surprised when her irresponsible sister vanishes again, but when she arrives in the remote town of Mountain Bend to care for her niece, Tess realizes that there's more to the disappearance than mere flight of fancy. Her sister's boss is dead—and her sister is the prime suspect.

A hint of seduction...

Tess turns to an unlikely ally to clear her sister's name—the dead man's son. But Grant Weston is haunted by his own familial demons, making Tess wary of his true intentions—and suspicious of his connection to her sister.

A vision of fear...

And there is something else haunting Tess. Something forcing her to experience strange, terrifying hallucinations of another time and place. Now, the only way for Tess to discover the truth about her sister—and about Grant—is to confront the secret that binds them together through time itself.
After the story above, aren't you expecting me to rave about the book and lament the fact that I waited so long before reading it? Well, I can tell you I was expecting to love it when I finally picked it up, too. But I didn't. I liked it all right and even thought the idea behind the book was really intriguing, but the problem was the execution. It was just... eh, just ok. I'd rate it a B-, with extra points for the originality of the idea.

Tess Carson lives a calm, nice -if unexciting- life. She lives in New York and has a job that she doesn't hate, but doesn't love either. She dates occasionally, but hasn't found a man who calls to her. Until one evening, her ordered life is disturbed by a phone call from accross the country. The principal from the Mountain Bend, California elementary school calls because Tess' sister Tori hasn't arrived to pick up her 7-year-old daughter from the school, and since Tess is listed as the emergency contact, she needs to decide what to do.

Since if Tess doesn't do anything little Caitlin will be sent to a shelter, she immediately catches a plane to California, even though she's pretty sure Tori will have turned up by the time she gets there. After all, it's not the first time Tori behaves irresponsibly. But when Tess arrives, Tori is still missing. She disappeared right after a local rancher died in suspicious circumstances, and there's money missing from his house, so the police seem to be very interested in talking to her.

As time passes, it becomes clearer and clearer to Tess that something is wrong (the prologue lets the reader know from the very beginning that there is, indeed, something wrong), and she also gets more and more drawn into the Mountain Bend community, especially since she's becoming powerfully attracted to the son of the dead man, Grant Weston, a former Hollywood star who abandoned his career after getting embroiled in some really bad scandals.

To make things even weirder, Tess starts to experience some very disturbing flashbacks, during which she goes back to the mid 19th century, following a young woman traveling West from Ohio with her late sister's husband and his family. And what's especially creepy is that this young woman's circumstances seem to mirror Tess', and she begins to suspect there might be a warning to her in those past events which, she soon discovers, concern people who are not merely figments of her imagination, but people who really existed.

At first, I really enjoyed the story. It felt fresh and different, and both the present-day story and the one narrated through the flashbacks were interesting. But after a while, I started liking things less and less. The first to go was the 19th century story. It drove me absolutely crazy that the guy in that one was the oblivious type, who refused to believe things were as bad as the woman he loved was insisting they were and thus put her in danger. I wavered between wanting to slap him for being so willfully blind and wanting to slap her for being so wishy-washy when it came to telling the man exactly what was going on. What she did tell him should have been enough, but when it became clear he was so blind to what was going on around him, she should have been a lot more insistent in her warnings.

Soon after that, the present-day story started becoming less enjoyable, too. I began wanting to slap these people, too. Ok, they weren't as bad as the ones in the flashbacks, so I guess a good shake would have been enough, but they really frustrated me, with the way they didn't take simple steps to protect themselves when it started becoming clear that there was danger all around them.

Take Tess, for instance. It would have been bad enough if she had been naive and believed everything she was told. She isn't, she becomes suspicious at certain things that are suspicious, but instead of doing something to check out these possible falsehoods (and some of them would have been extremely easy to check), she does nothing. And Grant? Another guy who prefers not to see, not as bad as Adam (flashback guy), but enough for a few vigorous shakes.

Ok, it wasn't all bad, because what's going on is interesting and I liked the way Grady very gradually revealed everything, but it could have been so much better! And the romance wasn't particularly good, either. Grant remains a bit too shadowy and I never got the feeling I knew him, so the romance never really took off.

Even though this one was pretty disappointing, I think I still want to read Grady's new book, Whispers. It sounds as fascinating as Echoes did, and maybe the things that irritated me here are better in this one. I can hope, can't I?


What The Lady Wants, by Jennifer Crusie

>> Monday, April 17, 2006

book coverJennifer Crusie's old category books gave some very clear indications that this wasn't going to be just another run-of-the-mill Harlequin author, that there was something special and different about her. What The Lady Wants looks like a regular Harlequin Temptations (it's a shame I haven't been able to find a picture of the original cover online... it's a doozy, with a heroine whose clothes make her look like a refugee from the 80s and hero who looks like there's absolutely nothing going on inside his head), but inside, it's special.

She was dangerous--in more ways than one!

Mitch Peatwick KNEW he wasn't cut out to be a private eye. Photographing cheating husbands and tailing cheating wives left him cynical about love. He wanted to quit... until gorgeous Mae Sullivan strolled into his office. The brunette had a lethal body, an even more lethal set of relatives--but a case Mitch couldn't refuse.

Mae wanted Mitch to find her uncle's killer and the missing family fortune. She wanted a man she could trust--not like the other men in her life. She wanted someone to... well, love her just a little.

The lady wanted HIM, Mitch soon deducted. What the hell did he do about THAT... never mind those lethal relatives?
WTLW isn't really one of my favourite Crusie's; not even one of my favourites among her category titles, but it's still really good. A B.

The story pokes fun at those old PI stories, complete with femmes fatales and burnt-out detectives. Only Mitch Peatwick isn't really a burnt-out detective, but a broker who's made a bet that he'll be able to make a certain amount of money if he opens a detective agency for a year. It's been a disappointing year, full of boring divorce cases, but he's nearly there, and the beautiful femme fatale who's just come into his office with a strange story about her uncle having been murdered will put Mitch in the black.

The femme fatale isn't really a femme fatale, but Mae Belle Sullivan, dressed to kill to try and get the dumbest PI possible. She wants some inept, empty-headed big guy to start asking questions, so that the person who took her uncle's diary will get nervous and return it, allowing her to find out what the hell happened to all her uncle's money. But Mitch isn't as dumb as she assumed he was (if he looked anything like the guy on the original cover, I don't blame Mae for her assumption), and his investigation doesn't exactly go as Mae hoped.

This is romantic comedy at its best. It's funny as hell, with a cast of unforgettable characters who are really well-rounded and don't feel at all like caricatures, and hilarious scene after hilarious scene. And it's also romantic and hot, with two protagonists who have some wonderful chemistry between them and whose love story I totally bought. The comedy doesn't take any heart out of the romance. Rather, it makes it even better.

As it's probably obvious given that the cover above is new, WTLW has been reissued, so it shouldn't be too hard to find. If you didn't catch her category books when they originally came out, you should definitely pick them up now!

Edited to add: Courtesy of the wonderful Beverly and Malvina, the original cover of WTLW! Thank you both!


Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

>> Friday, April 14, 2006

book cover
Poor Loretta Chase must specialize in pissing off people in her publisher's cover department. Just look at the cover of her latest, Lord Perfect. It's almost as bad as the one on Lord of Scoundrels. But the people I really pity are those who are put off by those awful covers, because they're missing some of the best romance novels ever written.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the heir to the Earl of Hargate, Benedict Carsington, is known for his impeccable manners and good breeding. Benedict knows all the rules and has no trouble following them--until Bathsheba Wingate enters his life. Now, the two must embark on a rescue mission that puts them in dangerous, intimate proximity. Fortunately, Benedict is in perfect control--despite his mad desire to break all the rules. Perfect control. Really.
I've repeated it ad nauseam: Lord of Scoundrels is my favourite romance novel, so in a way, every new Loretta Chase novel is fated to be compared to it. As much as I've loved some of her other books, like Miss Wonderful, Mr. Impossible, Captives of the Night and The Last Hellion, they pale in comparison with LOS. Lord Perfect pales next to it, too, but only very, very slightly. It's the second 2006 book to get a straight A from me, and it's only April. Seems this will be a great reading year!

Bathsheba Wingate and Benedict Carsington, Lord Rathbourne couldn't be more different, at first sight. While Bathsheba is part of the "Dreadful" branch of the DeLucey family, a branch noted for being particularly unscrupulous and disreputable, Benedict has an absolutely spotless reputation and is respected by all. When they meet at a museum, after Bathsheba's daughter, Olivia, and Peregrine, Benedict's godson, get into a bit of a fight, there is an immediate attraction, but as soon as they realize who the other is, each realizes nothing could ever come from it.

Or, at least, that's their intention, because Benedict can't seem to stay away from her, in spite of all his resolutions, and neither can Bathsheba remain withdrawn from him, in spite of hers. And when Olivia and Peregrine take off together in a treasure hunt, they're thrown even closer together, as they go after their charges.

Oh, how I adored the relationship between Bathsheba and Benedict! From the beginning, you see that they are just perfect for each other, and they both recognize it, but try to stay apart, because no matter how honourable they both know Bathsheba to be, her reputation is just too ruinous. But it's not so easy, because even though Benedict is always oh-so-proper and perfect, he just can't control himself when he's with Bathsheba, and I loved to see how she made him lose it without even trying! And his inner monologue when his desire for her just overcame him was incredibly funny and tender and sexy. These were some of my favourite scenes.

There's no external "danger" conflict here. This is just a road romance, with Benedict and Bathsheba going after the children, but not really all that worried about them. The main conflict is basically internal, with Benedict struggling between what he wants and what his life's work demands, and Bathsheba refusing to "ruin" the life of the man she loves. I loved how Chase dealt with those conflicts. It so easily could have irritated me, if, for instance, Bathsheba had been a martyr about it, or if I had felt Benedict was too in love with his position and refused to even consider to do anything that might compromise it.

But no, Chase avoided any of those pitfalls, and created a story I loved. Bathsheba was just so matter-of-fact about it. She did resent the way people seemed to despise her without her having done anything to deserve it, but well, she was philosophical about it. It was the way it was, and she refused to beat her head against the wall and fight an impossible fight. As for Benedict, I liked how Chase showed why it was so important for him not to lose his reputation (his work in Parliament really is important to him), but though he doesn't give in immediately (which underlines the fact that it is important to him), it's finally very clear that Bathsheba is much more important to him than anything else, and his initial hesitation makes his determination to make a sacrifice even more heartwarming. Knowing him as she knows him, it also makes sense that Bathsheba won't want him to make this huge sacrifice for her.

The only tiny problem I had with the story was with the resolution, with the way the problem of Bathsheba's reputation is overcome. I mean, it was fun and ingenious, but I don't know if I really buy it. It felt a bit too easy to me, I guess.

Other than that, it's all wonderful. I'm not the hugest fan of children in romance novels, but Peregrine and Olivia were just priceless. I loved, loved, loved their scenes, and Olivia's letters? Hilarious. They were just really well-rounded characters, fascinating mirrors of what Benedict and Bathsheba might have been.

Oh, and the writing style wass just delightful. I love Chase's humour, which shows through not just in her funny scenes, but in the very way she describes things and shows us what her characters are thinking. Benedict's inner monologues that I mentioned above are a wonderful example. They're sweet and hot and emotional and also very funny.

I'm sure tens of reviewers at amazon have used this line, but it needs to be said: Lord Perfect really is perfect! ;-)


Shadow and Silk, by Ann Maxwell (aka Elizabeth Lowell)

>> Thursday, April 13, 2006

book cover

Elizabeth Lowell wrote some very interesting-sounding romantic suspense titles as Ann Maxwell. Among them, is Shadow and Silk, a story which starts in Tibet, of all places!

With her stormy marriage at last behind her, Professor Dani Warren has found contentment as an expert in the study and preservation of antique textiles. Yet from the moment she touches an ancient piece of silk in Lhasa's Thieves Market, nothing in her safe, secure existenec will ever be the same..

An ex-mercenary employed by a shadowy oganization, Shane Crowe has fought battles both in the wilds of Asia and within his own soul. Seeking a more peaceful life, he has taken a vow of celibacy. But his spiritual and physical worlds clash when his latest assignment brings him to the Far East and to the lovely, fiercely independent woman who can lead him to Tibet's most sacred treasure.

Until the priceless silk is stolen and Dani and Shane become reluctant partners on a journey that takes them from the exotic mountains of Tibet to the shimmering beaches of Aruba, from Washington's corridors of power to the fog-shrouded islands of Vancouver...where one woman will be swept beyond the limits of desire—and one man must confront the deepest yearnings of his heart...
I quite liked S&S. In fact, it reminded me a bit of my favourite Lowell, Tell Me No Lies. It had interesting characters, an intriguing suspense element and a nice (if a bit underdeveloped) romance. A B.

In S&S Lowell introduces Risk Limited, a seeming precursor to that other organization, Rarities Unlimited, which she wrote about in Moving Target, Running Scared and Die in Plain Sight. While Rarities had Dana and Niall, Risk Limited has a similarly intriguing and well-rounded couple at its helm: former high-ranking diplomat Cassandra Redpath and her lover, Gillie, a British former military man.

But while these two are a strong presence in the book, they are not the hero and heroine. That place belongs to two characters that were just as intriguing, the textiles scholar Danielle Warren and Shane Crowe, a man whose history includes a stint with the CIA, a period as a hermit, in which he considered becoming a Buddhist monk, and work for a UN charity digging up and disarming live land mines. It's interesting: S&S's from 1997, so it's not very old, but it's a whole other world. I don't think any author today would have a hero having spent years working with the muhajedeen in Afghanistan, against the Soviets. How things change!

Anyway, Dani and Shane meet in Tibet, when she's approached by a Chinese dealer trying to sell her a priceless old textile. Shane, whose mission for Risk Limited is to recover this same fabric, the Budda's robe, stolen from the monastery of the Azure sect, saves Dani's life when it becomes clear that it was all a setup. Forced to make a split-second decision between saving Dani and recovering the fabric, Shane chooses the former, and then helps her get out of the country.

Back in Washington DC, Dani's approached by Risk Limited for help in recovering the fabric. Seems it was stolen by the Harmony, a shadowy secret organization grouping some of the most dangerous criminal associations in the world, and they mean to use it as a gift to draw in a reluctant Japanese yakuza boss and make themselves even more powerful.

Shane would prefer to keep Dani out of danger, but his bosses overrule him and insist on allowing Dani to choose whether she wants to risk it or not. Dani, feeling she owes both Shane and his organization for her rescue (and feeling she owes it to the world to keep a treasure such as the fabric from disappearing), decides she wants to, so she and Shane thus begin a mission that will take them to Aruba, Seattle and the islands off Vancouver.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the story, even though every element I enjoyed had its flaws. For instance, I really, really liked Shane and Dani and their relationship. Each were interesting in their own right, and Lowell created a wonderfully steamy sexual tension between them. However, I would have liked this even better if I'd had more of it. They just didn't have enough time together, and though I liked the idea of Shane's chastity vow (seeing him wish it was over already was fun), it did mean that the payoff for all that lovely sexual tension took a bit too long.

Same thing with the suspense subplot. I liked it, but... I enjoyed all the stuff about the ancient textiles, but I just don't think Lowell really succeeded in impressing in me why it was so necessary to recover the robe, why it would be so disastrous if they failed to do so. And this created a distinct lack of urgency. It seemed to me it was more important to destroy the Harmony, but they seemed to regard this as more of a secondary aim.

Katya Pilenkova and Ilya Kostanin were more interesting villains that I'm used to from Lowell. I did think we spent a bit too much time with the Harmony (especially considering I was wishing for more time with Shane and Dani), but unlike in her newer books (like Running Scared, for instance, where it was the main thing I disliked), these villains are at least interesting people.

The writing style was one I mostly liked, though there were certain things there (too) that I wasn't too crazy about. I do like how Lowell writes banter between her protagonists, but she makes the mistake of having them constantly congratulate each other on how witty, quick and brilliant their comments are, rather than let them stand alone and allow us readers to judge whether they are, in fact, so witty and brilliant.

On the whole, though, the positives much exceeded the negatives, and I really enjoyed myself reading this.


Doing the happy dance

Woo-hooo!!! I just got an email letting me know that I was accepted for a scolarship I applied to, so in about three weeks, I'm off to Japan for two months! I still can't take it in!

I'm going to be taking a course on productivity management, together with people from all over the world. I'll try to write more details later, when I come down from this high! :-D


Wish List, an anthology

>> Wednesday, April 12, 2006

book coverI actually read the Wish List anthology last month. I picked it up because it had a short story by author Lynsay Sands, who had been chosen as Author of the Month for March in my romance reading group. I had actually bought the book for the Kleypas story, but since it was already in the TBR, it saved me the trouble of ordering a Sands single title.

The first story was the one by Lisa Kleypas, I Will. Lord Andrew Drake (who seems to have been the villain in another Kleypas book which I haven't read) has been disinherited by his father for being an all-around scoundrel. He hatches up a plan to pretend to court an unimpeachably proper woman, in order to get his father to reinstate him in his will, and blackmails Caroline Hargreaves into cooperating (she agrees in order to keep her reckless brother from ruin, duh).

This story did have the potential to be a good one, but Kleypas just tried to cram much too much into it. The main story was ok, if a bit lackluster, but then there's a half-baked blackmail plot (not Andrew's; yet another one) which just had me barely resisting the temptation to skim until the end. A C.

The second story was the best of the lot: Puddings, Pastries, and Thou, by Lisa Cach.

Orphan Vivian Ambrose has spent all her life being shuffled between reluctant relatives. After the death of the horrid old distant cousin she was serving as companion to, she's sent to yet another branch of the family, the Twitchens, who seem to be much kinder and even seem willing to help her get married and get a life of her own.

Actually, the Twitchens' daughter, Penelope, is even more anxious to get Vivian married, and quickly, than her parents, because she's ready to start her first Season and would much prefer not to share it with her older cousin. So, with Vivian's reluctant approval (Vivian's pretty pragmatic, and does want to get married ASAP, too), she matchmakes between her cousin and Richard Brent. Vivian and Richard are immediately attracted to each other, but Richard, for reasons that become clear later in the story, is not considered to be suitable by Vivian's aunt and uncle.

I really, really liked the humour in this story. Vivian's constant eating never failed to elicit a smile, and the whole tone of the story was really charming. Both Vivian and Richard are interesting characters, she with her clear-eyed attitude towards her prospects and he with his hunger for a family of his own, that's just as deep as Vivian's. I especially enjoyed the reason why Richard isn't considered a good prospect. These two share a very nicely-done attraction, with some very real heat. The ending, however, wasn't that good, as these two came across more like petulant adolescent than responsible grown-ups. My grade: a B-.

New-to-me author Claudia Dain takes the third spot with Union, and I was not impressed! Clarissa Walingford's brother Albert has given her an ultimatum. She needs to get a husband, or else! (We never are told why it's so urgent that she marries, but her brother is adamant) Clarissa is determined to marry an Irishman, so she's really resentful about having to go to London and get herself an English husband. She decides that as long as she has to do that, she'll find one who at least has an Irish estate where she can retire to. She meets Lord Montwyn, and there is an attraction there, but since she thinks he doesn't meet her requirements, she refuses to let it go anywhere. Until she finds out that he does have property in Ireland, and then she goes after him.

I didn't care for this story at all. I found Clarissa extremely unsympathetic, and her Irish obsession was irritating, even after I found out the why of it. The romance was just blah, and the secondary characters too numerous. And her big brother Albert? I guess he's supposed to be a kind of Wulfric, but he wasn't nearly as interesting. A C-.

Finally, I came to the story by the author I wanted to try: Lynsay Sands. In All I Want, Prudence's father has been drinking and gambling like there's no tomorrow, ever since her brother died. He's oblivious to the fact that his gaming has reached alarming proportions, and his creditors have began to hound his family.

Determined to do something to gain his attention (and given that she can't manage to get to even talk to him the few hours he's home), Prue decides to infiltrate his gaming club and make him listen to her. Most of the story involves her constant attempts to get in and the disasters that follow each of them (the little menace manages to start a fight and poison the entire clientele, among other things). But rather than get her arrested, the club's owner, Lord Stockton, falls in love with her.

Why didn't this one work for me? The humour, basically. I just thought it was all distinctly unfunny. Sands is known for her silly, slap-stick humour, and, while I sometimes find silliness hilarious, Sands particular brand of it left me cold. And since the story is basically nothing but the humour, the entire story fell flat. A C-.

All in all, with only one story worth reading, this anthology was a disappointment. My grade for it all: a C.


Out of Control, by Shannon McKenna

>> Tuesday, April 11, 2006

book coverI really liked Shannon McKenna's first two romantic suspense titles, Behind Closed Doors and Standing in the Shadows. The suspense was exciting, and the romance even more so. I even enjoyed the cavemen heroes. Her latest, Out of Control (excerpt), features Davy McCloud, brother of Connor, from SITS.

In Behind Closed Doors and Standing in the Shadows, Shannon McKenna introduced the McCloud Brothers: intense, rugged, super-sexy, and deliciously sensual. Now, Davy McCloud is about to meet a woman he can't trust--or live without . . .

Disillusioned P.I Davy McCloud has learned the hard way not to follow blind impulse when it comes to women. He'd rather play it safe, and keep his life simple, calm and uncomplicated. But he's prepared to make an exception when Margot Vetter shows up to teach at the gym next door. The luscious, mysterious woman stirs a hunger he hasn't felt in a long time, as well as a fierce protectiveness he can't quite explain, expecially when her background check reveals she's hiding secrets--secrets of the ugly, deadly kind.

Margot is at the end of her rope. It's bad enough that she's broke and on the run, framed for a murder she didn't commit. Now, she's being terrorized by a malevolent stalker. The only person she dares to turn to is buff, scarily gorgeous Davy McCloud, a man who seems like nothing on earth could intimidate him. But Davy has questions of his own, and the closer she gets to him, the more Margot discovers that she can't hold herself back from this enigmatic, sensual man in any way.

Neither of them expected passion to flare this quickly--or to drag them into a danger as real as their love. Margot's past has finally caught up with her. And for Davy McCloud, life is about to get more than complicated . . .

It's turning deadly...
While as hot as the other books, and with a hero who's not as much of a caveman as Seth and Connor, I liked this one a little bit less. Still, it was a good book, and I'd rate it a B.

Margot Vetter has been running for months now, after waking up alone and naked in a hotel room, only hours after she walked into her boyfriend's office and found him strung up and dead. She soon realized she was being framed for his murder, so she left her whole life behind and ran.

Now in a new city, and with a new name and hair colour, Margot still hasn't left trouble behind. She seems to have acquired a truly creepy stalker, and she can't help but suspect that this isn't wholy independent from the whole murder mess she's running away from. With no one else to turn to, she asks the guy next door to the gym in which she's working for help. After all, the guy's brother has mentioned that he's a PI, so maybe he can give her a few pointers about how to deal with the situation.

Davy McCloud has been watching Margot since the first time she taught a class at the gym, and he's been lusting after her. When she asks him for advice with her stalker problem, Davy gets the feeling she's hiding some crucial details. No matter, her problems are his problems now, and when Margot tries to retreat, Davy refuses. He'll protect her, whether she wants him to or not.

This was fun to read, mostly. While the protagonists of the first two books were kind of similar, Margot and Davy broke that mold. Rather than caveman macho-man, Davy's more an icy, calm, zen martial arts master. Nothing flusters him, except for Margot, who makes a point to try to make him as bothered as possible, as often as she can. And rather than a quietly strong, innocent young woman, Margot is pretty pushy and aggressive, as dominating as Davy. They clash often, and though the constant bickering did get old after a while, it was mostly entertaining, especially seeing cool Davy losing his cool.

The sexual tension and love scenes are top-notch, as I'm used to with McKenna. This aspect of the book is exciting and never, ever feels gratuitous, as what goes on between the sheets very definitely works in the development of their relationship.

I also liked that, though Margot is isolated now, it's made clear that this is not the way things normally are. Margot used to have a good support network, before the traumatic events happened and she had to go on the run. She really misses her girlfriends and her normal, succesful life, and I found myself liking her all the more for it.

The suspense is interesting enough, though I must confess some of it really turned my stomach. McKenna very definitely doesn't shrink from the tough stuff. Unlike in SITS, where the conflict pretty much continued from the events in BCD, you don't need to have read either of the previous books to understand what's going on in OOC. You do catch up with some of the characters of those books, but nothing that will leave you scratching your head.

I'm really looking forward to laid-back, clownish Sean's story, but the next one, Hot Night, doesn't seem to be about him. I wonder if it will be out any time soon?


Depth Perception, by Linda Castillo

>> Monday, April 10, 2006

Linda Castillo was one of my best discoveries last year. Her The Shadow Side and The Perfect Victim were really solid, fresh romantic suspense, and her backlist of RS single titles looked interesting as well.

Depth Perception (excerpt) is a 2005 release, and one that I had actually decided not to read when it first came to my attention, after checking out the subject matter. After actually reading other Castillo titles, however, I decided to trust her enough to give it a try.

Nat Jennings nearly died the night her family was murdered—and spent the next three years wishing she had. Now she is returning to the bayou town of Bellerose, Louisiana, driven by cryptic messages only she can hear—messages pleading for her help . . .

After serving six years for a crime he didn't commit, Nick Bastille is back in Bellerose, mourning his precious son, who drowned while Nick was in prison, unable to protect him. But when Nat approaches him with a shocking revelation, his denial slowly turns into a desire for revenge.

Together they will hunt for a merciless killer who nearly destroyed them both once before—and is now preparing to finish them off once and for all . . .
Depth Perception is a dark, scary and depressing book. It's also very, very good, both in the suspense and the romance department. A B+

Considering the book deals with child killings and that two the dead little boys were actually the sons of the hero and heroine, the book can't be anything but dark. Nat Jennings husband and son were killed three years ago, and after becoming the main suspect Nat tried to kill herself. This left her in a coma for over two years, and when she woke up, she discovered something had altered in her mind. She periodically has "fits", in which she writes messages from her dead son, Kyle. And Kyle is telling her his murderer has killed other children, children whose deaths everyone thinks were accidents.

One of those children Kyle mentions is Nick Bastille's son, who drowned while Nick was in prison after being set up by his former partner. Nick escaped Bellerose as soon as he could, and had made it big in New Orleans, but now he has nothing, so he returns to his father's farm in the town he hasn't seen in 18 years.

When a strange woman approaches him and tells him his son didn't die accidentally, but was murdered, Nick's first reaction is to get pissed off. Where does this woman get off, telling him that? But Nat soon proves to him that she does have a psychic connection with her son, and she and Nick join forces to try to find the murderer.

Both Nick and Nat are very well done characters, two very damaged people who, nonetheless, manage to find immense strength inside themselves. And it takes lots of strength to even be in Bellerose, especially for Nat, because this is a town full of people who think she killed her husband and son and who don't hesitate to punish her for it. This is a truly awful place for them to be in, with corrupt police harassing them and powerful people (including Nat's former father- amd brother-in-law) making their lives hell. I've read plenty of books in which one of the characters puts him or herself in a similar position and I usually just want to scream at them to just leave, why the hell are they in that disgusting town with those disgusting people? Think Linda Howard's After the Night, for instance. I enjoyed the book, but I never really bought that Faith would put herself through the awful experience of moving back to that small town just to investigate the disappearance of that guy who meant nothing to her.

In the case of Depth Perception, I never had that feeling. Nat started out the book as someone who was completely empty, except for a burning need to see justice done and her son's murderer punished. And Nick, while not damaged to the level that Nat was, was pretty desperate, too, especially once he accepts that what happened to his son wasn't an accident. This all justified that they wouldn't immediately hightailed it out of there. And I really liked that they don't decide to stay in Bellerose at the end of the book, once the truth comes out. I would have liked it better if I could have seen them rubbing their innocence in those judgemental people's faces, but all right, I see why Castillo would leave things where she left them.

In spite of the frustration of seeing Nat and Nick battle against unhelpful police and vengeful neighbours, I really liked the investigation aspect of the book, especially because the psychic element of it was intriguing and very satisfyingly done. I especially liked that there was no "am I going crazy" shit on Nat's part. By the start of the book, she has already dealt with the doubts and has very logically managed to prove to herself that she's not just writing things down that she already knew. This means that when she convinces Nick, they are able to use her psychic abilities logically and do the best they can with them to help their cause and find the villain.

And speaking of the villain, I thought that he wasn't particularly subtly drawn. I mean, we do get some insight into why he became what he became, and I did like that he wasn't just someone who was evil just because he wanted to be evil, but the whole thing about his childhood was a bit over-the-top. The final confrontation was well done, though.

As I mentioned above, this is romantic suspense, and the romance very definitely does not get overwhelmed by the suspense. After only a couple of pages, seeing just how grim the story was going to be, I wondered if the romance wouldn't feel inappropriate. Well, it didn't, even though it was quite a steamy one, too. I think what I liked best was how there was an element of healing in it, how it was a way for them to console each other. But, and this is important, it wasn't all it was. It wasn't just healing, and I bought that these two were going to be together after a while, and I appreciated that we didn't get some kind of saccharine epilogue showing them deliriously happy. What we got was just perfect, and went well with this very good book.


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