Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Friday, March 30, 2007

After the wonderful Match Me If You Can, I realized I should read Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books immediately. Plus, the beaver suit excerpt from Natural Born Charmer that was after MMIYC kept playing in my mind.

Chicago Stars quarterback Dean Robillard is the luckiest man in the world. But life in the glory lane has started to pale, and Dean has set off on a trip to figure out what's gone wrong. When he hits a lonely stretch of Colorado highway, he spies something that will shake up his gilded life in ways he can't imagine. A young woman . . . dressed in a beaver suit.

Blue Bailey is on a mission. As for the beaver suit she's wearing . . . Is it her fault that life keeps throwing her curve balls? Witness the expensive black sports car pulling up next to her on the highway and the Greek god stepping out of it.

They're soon heading for his summer home, where their already complicated lives and inconvenient attraction to each other will become entangled with a charismatic but aging rock star; a beautiful, fifty-two-year-old woman trying to make peace with her rock and roll past; an eleven-year-old who desperately needs a family; and a bitter old woman who hates them all.
Does this woman lace the pages of her books with crack? Again, I didn't want to close one of hers. As the pile of pages remaining got smaller and smaller, I kept wishing more would magically appear. An A-.

Dean Robillard first showed up in MMIYC, the hot new football player Heath wants to sign and who becomes friends with Annabelle. From the very beginning, I was completely charmed. My reaction to SEP's heroes are usually more in line with how I felt about Heath, in that book: I always want to kick their asses first, but as the book progresses, they win me over. With Dean, it was nothing like that. It was love at first sight, in spite of his being a God's-gift-to-women type.

As NBC starts, Dean is heading to the farm he's bought in East Tennessee. Life is great: he's at the top of his game, he's got money to burn and women want him. But this is not as exciting as it was at the beginning, and so he's bought himself a place to regroup and relax. The house is still under renovation, but since his housekeeper seems to have that under control, he still expects to be able to rest.

As Dean is driving across Colorado, he's astonished to see a young woman in a beaver suit walking along the road. By this point, Dean is a bit bored, so he gives her a ride and witnesses her confrontation with her ex. When he finds out the young woman, Blue Bailey, is completely broke, Dean accepts to give her a ride to a bigger town. After all, as I said, he's bored, and also Blue is very cute and sexy under her combatively non-cute, non-sexy clothes.

Blue ends up travelling with Dean all the way to the farm in Tennessee, and once he sees what's waiting for him there, he refuses to let Blue leave.

See, Dean has a secret. He's the son of a rock and roll legend and a groupie, and this has left him with some understandable abandonment issues. His father, "Mad Jack" Patriot, was never part of his life, other than paying child support. Dean didn't even find out who he was until he was in his teens, and even after that, they only met a couple of times. As for his mother, April was an addict and a groupie who spent her life following musicians and sleeping with them. Let's just say this didn't make Dean's childhood particularly stable or secure. Oh, financially, it was ok, but not emotionally. So when he grew up, Dean separated himself completely from his parents. He found success completely on his own and he likes it that way. Both parents have tried to bring about a rapprochement with him, but he wants nothing to do with them.

But when he arrives to his house, he receives a big surprise. The mysterious housekeeper who's managing his renovation for him, and with whom he's never managed to speak on the phone, turns out to be his own mother. April has been clean for years now. She's rebuilt her life and after a few abortive tries, she's finally resigned herself to the fact that she can't fix her relationship with her son. But before she gives up for good, she wants to do something for him... give him a gift, basically. Thus her hard work on his house.

Dean still wants nothing to do with her. His first impulse is to send her away, but it soon becomes clear that if she's not there, the renovation will go to hell, and so he allows her to stay. But he still doesn't want any contact with her, and for that, he needs a buffer. And since Blue is right there...

But then things get even more complicated. First Riley shows up. Riley's Dean's half-sister, Jack's daughter from his marriage to a country star. Her mom has just died, and Riley has been pretty much left alone among people who care nothing about her, so she runs away to meet the brother she's not supposed to know is her brother. And then Mad Jack comes after Riley, and the four of them end up spending time on the farm, and almost against their will, slowly repairing their damaged relationships.

And as this happens, Blue and Dean are building theirs. Blue understands Dean's issues perfectly, because her childhood was similar, in a way. Only Blue doesn't feel comfortable accepting she's angry about it, because her mom didn't abandon her for drugs or sex, but to save the world.

I guess you can tell from my (very long *sigh*) description that there's some heavy emotional stuff going on here. Mad Jack and April have hurt each other and their children, and Blue, Dean and Riley have been deeply hurt by their parents. The healing and reconciliation are heart-wrenching, as well as very, very satisfying.

The only reason this doesn't get too heavy is that SEP has written her story with her trademark humour. This is not the laugh-a-minute book the first scene with the beaver-suit might suggest, but there's still plenty of incredibly funny stuff to lighten up things when they threaten to drag the book down. And the peace circles thing was almost as good as the cereal killer crack!

Now, how about the romance? I loved Dean and Blue together. The grumpy Blue was the perfect match for golden-boy Dean, just the right person he needed besides him. They're sweet and sexy and fun together.

I wasn't completely sold on the secondary romance, though. I never completely warmed to Jack, and I thought April deserved better than him. I liked that they'd forgiven each other, but I would have preferred April to get her HEA with someone else.

Even so, I loved practically every minute of this. I want a new SEP now!


The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Thursday, March 29, 2007

I've been meaning to read more Lois McMaster Bujold books for ages, ever since I read Shards of Honor. When I finished that one, I was all fired up to keep reading, but I had some trouble finding an affordable copy of the next book. That problem is solved now (most, if not all her books are available as e-books), but by the time this happened, I'd become a bit overwhelmed by the length of the Vorkosigan series.

I decided to read The Curse of Chalion instead (influenced by jmc's love of it), but before I started it, I read some very intriguing comments about The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement, and started it instead.

Troubled young Fawn Bluefield seeks a life beyond her family’s farm. But en route to the city, she encounters a patrol of Lakewalkers, nomadic soldier–sorcerers from the northern woodlands. Feared necromancers armed with mysterious knives made of human bone, they wage a secret, ongoing war against the scourge of the "malices," immortal entities that draw the life out of their victims, enslaving human and animal alike.

It is Dag—a Lakewalker patroller weighed down by past sorrows and onerous present responsibilities—who must come to Fawn’s aid when she is taken captive by a malice. They prevail at a devastating cost—unexpectedly binding their fates as they embark upon a remarkable journey into danger and delight, prejudice and partnership . . . and perhaps even love.
It took me the longest time to decide how to grade this book. Vol.1: Beguilement and Vol. 2: Legacy are not book and sequel, they're really two halves of a very long book. Well, duh, you say, couldn't you guess that from the fact that they're called Vol. 1 and Vol. 2? Well, no, I'm an idiot. I just assumed the whole Volume thing was some kind of affectation. *shrugs* My bad for not doing enough research, but the fact remains that I wish I'd known and waited until July to read them both together.

Read as a single book, Beguilement feels very unbalanced. The action is all at the beginning, and it's pretty fast-paced and exciting. Then the rest of the book is purely about the hero and heroine falling in love and working on the world accepting the seeming mismatch. I loved both parts, especially the second, as a good romance reader, but it still felt weird that there was nothing else about the rest. The external threat doesn't show up again at all. Obviously, we'll get that in the second book, but the fact remains that there's not even a small, intermediate climactic moment. So technically, I'd say this book is pretty flawed.

But you know what? I rate books for my enjoyment of them, not really for technical considerations, and this first volume of The Sharing Knife is a good example of it. I loved it, totally adored reading it, even as I saw the flaws. So I'll have to go with an A-.

Ok, on to the actual story. Our hero, Dag, is a Lakewalker patroller. The Lakewalkers are a separate cultural group (and also a different race, I believe) from what they call the farmers; i.e. the regular, mundane humans. The main difference seems to be that through time, the Lakewalkers have been able to retain a kind of mystical connection with the forces underlying all matter, whether inanimate or alive. They can sense these forces and sometimes even manipulate them. It's hard to explain, you'd have to read the book to really understand As it is, most farmers don't get this at all, and it, together with the Lakewalkers' main activity, have won them a reputation for black magic.

This main activity of the Lakewalker patrols is to rid the land of malices. Just what is a malice? Well, we don't get all the answers here, but they seem to be mysterious forces that periodically rise up and grow, blighting more and more land around them. A malice kills everything alive that it comes in contact with. More than kills: it even leeches inanimate objects of their "ground", that force of them that the Lakewalkers sense. Left unchecked, a malice could conceivably eat up the whole world.

Malices are not easy to destroy. The only way to get rid of them is with what the Lakewalkers call "sharing knifes". Bujold has crated a fascinating concept here: these malices are immortal in that they don't know how to die, so, to kill them, one needs to teach them how. Thus the sharing knife, which is "activated" or "loaded" with the death of a person. Don't think gruesome thoughts of human sacrifices here... Lakewalkers simply always carry an inactive sharing knife with them, and when they're at the edge of death, they simply speed the process by actually causing it with this knife, activating it in the process.

So, before I disgressed and started talking about how this world works, I mentioned that Dag is a Lakewalker patroller. As the story starts, he's hunting a malice with his patrol. Fawn, the heroine, is a young farmer's daughter who's run away from home after becoming pregnant by one of the neighbours. To cut a long story short (and I really, really need to learn to write shorter!), Fawn finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she and Dag end up facing the malice together.

And during this confrontation, something unheard of happens: Fawn manages to accidentally activate the inactive sharing knife Dag was carrying. This is done in such a way that gives Fawn some moral right over this knife, and so, after consultation with Dag's patrol's leader, it is determined that both she and the knife will travel with Dag to consult with an expert maker of knives, so that the events and its repercussions can be truly understood.

As long as it took me to write it, this all happens relatively early in the story, and that's about it for the external plot. The malices fade into the background completely, and for the rest of the book, we get to see Dag and Fawn's relationship develop into love. We also learn more about this strange and intriguing world, and most especially about Lakewalker/farmer relations.

Because romances between the two groups happen, but they're not meant to last, not like Dag and Fawn soon decide they want theirs to. They'll have to face a lot of opposition from both sides, and not just because of their different origins, but because of the significant age difference between them.

In this Volume 1, we explore the resistance among the farmers, Fawn's family, and we see how out protagonists manage to win them over. I'm not sure, but from what's going on when the book ends, I suspect in Volume 2 we'll be moving into Lakewalker territory, and that the opposition will be just as adamant.

Without much plot left, Beguilement becomes a quiet, romantic book, and I loved every minute. It's the wonderful main characters that carry the book. My first impulse was to say "Dag", not "the main characters", and I fear I was making the same mistake Fawn's family made and underestimating her. She's quite wonderful on her own, but in a less-than-obvious way. I loved the way she grows in this book from a scared young girl to a woman willing to face the entire world over her love.

As for Dag... ahhh, Dag. Most of the reviews I've read are by long-time Bujold readers, and they draw some fascinating parallels between Dag and her other heroes. Being a novice Bujold reader and more into romance than anything else, I'll make a different comparison. Dag reminded me a lot of some Carla Kelly heros. It's the honour and gruff kindness and weariness, together with the less-than-perfect appearance and the unassuming demeanor. Dag is the very opposite of the arrogant, all-knowing alpha, and he has plenty of vulnerabilities.

I even loved the May-December aspect of the romance. It actually surprises me that it works so well, because I tend to find dramatic age differences icky, and Dag is much older than Fawn... much, much older. He's got even more years on her in life experience, too, because Fawn has always lived quite a sheltered life. The reason it didn't matter to me is that I never got the feeling Dag was drawn to Fawn's innocence or purity, or anything else creepy like that. I truly believed he'd fallen in love with the inner woman, the "spark" from which his nickname for her arose.

This is actually a pretty hot romance, which surprises me, because I don't think this is the usual for Bujold. As it is, I think many romance authors should take notes, because her love scenes are fantastic. Hell, some erotica authors should read her and take note on how to create sex scenes with emotional connections.

Put this one in your TBR, even if you're not a regular fantasy reader. Just don't read it yet; wait until July!


Games of Command, by Linnea Sinclair

>> Tuesday, March 27, 2007

File this one under "what have I been waiting for?". I loved Linnea Sinclair's Gabriel's Ghost (the original, e-book version), and even have a couple more of her books in my TBR. But it took Games of Command coming out and Estelle revealing a certain detail about it for me to read her again.

Can she trust a man who is half-machine?

The universe isn't what it used to be. With the new alliance between the Triad and the United Coalition, Captain Tasha "Sass" Sebastian finds herself serving under her former nemesis, bio-cybe Admiral Branden Kel-Paten—and doing her best to hide a deadly past. But when an injured mercenary falls into their ship's hands, her efforts may be wasted …

Wanted rebel Jace Serafino has information that could expose all of Sass's secrets, tear the fragile Alliance apart—and end Sass's career if Kel-Paten discovers them. But the bio-cybe has something to hide as well, something once thought impossible for his kind to possess: feelings...for Sass. Soon it's clear that their prisoner could bring down everything they once believed was worth dying for—and everything they now have to live for…
Well, wow. Spaceships! A half-robot hero! Yummy romance and a really cool plot! What more could I ask for? An A-.

The Triad and the United Coalition have just established a new alliance, and U-Cee Captain Tasha Sebastian and other members of her team have been assigned to serve on the Triad's most famous and impressive ship, the Vaxxar. The assignment is the result of a direct request made by the Triad's most famous and impressive admiral, bio-cybe Branden Kel-Paten, who commands the Vaxxar.

This is quite a big surprise for Tasha, because during the war between their two sides, she kind of made it her mission to thwart and annoy Kel-Paten as much as she could, so she can't understand why he'd want her and her people on his ship, unless it's for some nefarious purpose.

We soon find out that it's not for any nefarious purpose. Kel-Paten has been madly in love with Tasha for years, since their first encounter, and now that the war is over he's decided to make a last-ditch attempt to get close to her. He knows it won't be easy, especially because he's a bio-cybe -a kind of hybrid between man and machine-, but he needs to try.

Unfortunately, he won't be able to devote all his time only to this project, because events soon intervene. I won't go into all the plot, because there's a lot of it, but among many other things, we get vortices, a former mercenary telepath with a chip implanted in his head by a rogue Triad government agency, someone wanting to kill either Tasha, Kel-Paten or the mercenary, a trip to a strange dimension and a mysterious Bad Thing which has Tasha and her friend Eden's pet furzels very worried.

GoC is a perfect combination of sci-fi adventure and romance. The adventure is well-developed and interesting, with a fully-realized world and a plot that feels fresh. I mentioned there's a lot going on, but the action never gets confusing or feels episodic.

And, at the same time, we get great characters and great romances. Yes, romances, because we get two for the price of one. And not even really a main romance and a secondary one. Both share the spotlight. There's Tasha and Kel-Paten, and there's also Tasha's friend Eden, the doctor, and Jace, the mercenary telepath who has that little problem with the implant in his brain.

I got the feeling Tasha and Kel-Paten were a bit more important, but that might have been because I was much more interested in their romance. Eden and Jace, well, on its own, their story would have been good enough, but next to the other two, it was a bit overshadowed.

It's probably that Tasha and Kel-Paten's relationship seemed to have been tailored especially to my taste. I love virgin heroes and I love it when the hero has been hopelessly in love with the heroine for years and years. Even more, I love still-waters-run-deep heroes, those guys who seem to be cold and unflappable, but who, in reality, are a seething mass of feelings. And as a cybe, Kel-Paten was the ultimate.

I also love seeing heroes like this paired with strong, experienced heroines, and Tasha was all that. She's extremely competent, and a bit older than usual, which was great. Definitely not a low-level officer, terribly impressed by the mythical Admiral Kel-Paten, Tasha's got rank and power on her own, and the confidence of her people.

I also adored the way Sinclair wrote their relationship. When the story starts, Kel-Paten is already completely crazy about Tasha, and he's trying his best to somehow make her see him in a different light, but having trouble making her see him as more than an unemotional machine. His feelings for Tasha are so strong, that they've broken through actual programmed emotional blocks, have actually inspired him to basically hack his own mind and go around those blocks. But it's not easy, because these blocks are still active, and both that and having had them for so long make normal, regular-guy reactions and, say, banter, very hard for him. Add to that a lot of shyness and vulnerability, and getting close to Tasha is pretty much impossible.

But Kel-Paten perseveres and keeps trying, even risking being reported as a mal-functioning cybe (they're not supposed to have feelings, after all). I loved the guy to death, and seeing him struggle was heart-breaking. Every time Tasha unwittingly said something that seemed to indicate she thought of him as nothing more than a robot, I cringed, and when things finally started happening between them, I practically did a happy dance, because he so deserved to be happy.

It takes a huge thing for Tasha to see him differently. It takes her accidentally discovering how HE feels, and I liked how Sinclair showed us the evolution of Tasha's feelings since that moment. It's not a matter of her immediately loving him because she discovers he has feelings for her. No, the discovery simply makes her look at him again, and her feelings move forward from that point, and she has to overcome a huge fear of her own to get to a point in which she can return his feelings.

And as if I needed any more reasons to love this romance, Sinclair makes things better and better. For instance, how about the fact that Kel-Paten has the utmost respect for Tasha and her abilities? He doesn't go all caveman "must protect" on her, doesn't try to shield her from danger, when it's her job to face that danger. Or how about Sinclair's treatment of Tasha's secrets? Tasha has a very hush-hush past as a mercenary, something that could prove disastrous if the Triad were to find out about it, and I half feared we'd get a horrible overreaction when they were finally revealed, but Sinclair took a wholly different tack with that. They're revealed at the precisely right point, and Kel-Paten's reactions are perfect.

The only thing about how Tasha and Kel-Paten were written that wasn't perfectly wonderful was that I would have liked to know more about them. I mean, Sinclair painted them both so well that I felt I knew the people they were now, but I remain very curious about their past, because about that, we get nothing more than what amounts to some very tantalizing hints. Just what is Tasha's story, how did she become Lady Sass, the mercenary? What brought her to that point? Just what happened on Lethant? (I couldn't help but think of Gabriel's Ghost, and the heroine's experiences at the beginning of it)

And Kel-Paten, there's a reference to him having been a perfectly regular human until age 16 (or 17? can't remember exactly), when they turned him into a biocybe, and I somehow got the impression that it wasn't a wholly voluntary process. Just what happened there? Is it related to the other reference we get much later in the book about his being so-and-so's brother? There just seems to be so much story behind these two characters, and I wanted to know more!

Paragraphs and paragraphs, and I still haven't talked about Jace and Eden at all! See what I mean when I say the other two overshadowed them? I might not have paid enough attention to them, really, because in all their scenes, I kept wishing the action would move back to the other romance. Plus, there just wasn't all that much tension there. They fall in love very quickly, and after that, the only thing keeping them apart is the external problems. I was actually more interested in seeing the development of the relationship between Jace and Kel-Paten (they pretty much hate each other at first sight) and the warm friendship between Tasha and Eden.

If not for two things, I would have gone for a straight A with this book. One was that the ending felt a bit rushed. The problem wasn't that we didn't get a "perfect" HEA ending. I mean, we do get a great HEA love relationship-wise, but the situation is not one where these two couples will simply spend their life with no more worries other than loving each other. What's going on around them, in their universe, is still pretty huge, and very much unsettled. I wouldn't be surprised if we got a sequel, maybe with another couple, showing us how this struggle proceeds.

Ok, I got a bit sidetracked here. The thing is, some very huge things happen in the last few pages. Enormous, world-changing things, and I felt they got short-thrift. They were over in about 10 pages of my ebookwise, and that's probably no more than 4 or 5 in a regular paperback. This is a long book (over 500 pages, according to what I see in amazon), so it's not like 20 more pages were going to make a difference, and in this, they were needed.

The second negative... I feel evil for saying it, but those furzels, they were nauseatingly cute. They didn't belong in this very grown-up story, they belonged in a 12-year-old girl's Mary Sue fanfic. I understand the role they played in the plot, and that was great, but their voices needed to be toned down drastically. It's a shame, because they had the potential of being good cute.

But hey, all that wasn't big enough to make even a dent in my enjoyment of this book. Sinclair is an author I'll definitely be watching. I'll also be hoping she's so successful that she can single-handedly create a renaissance in the subgenre of sci-fi romance. Meanwhile, I'll be reading Accidental Goddess, and waiting for her next book to come out.


Match Me If You Can, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Monday, March 26, 2007

To show Cindy why I'm not in a slump, this week I'll only post reviews of great books I've read lately. We start with Match Me If You Can, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

You met star quarterback Kevin Tucker in This Heart of Mine. Now get ready to meet his shark of an agent, Heath Champion, and Annabelle Granger, the girl least likely to succeed.

Annabelle's endured dead-end jobs, a broken engagement . . . even her hair's a mess! But that's going to change now that she's taken over her late grandmother's matchmaking business. All Annabelle has to do is land the Windy City's hottest bachelor as her client, and she'll be the most sought-after matchmaker in town.

Why does the wealthy, driven, and gorgeous sports agent Heath Champion need a matchmaker, especially a red-haired screw-up like Annabelle Granger? True, she's entertaining, and she does have a certain quirky appeal. But Heath is searching for the ultimate symbol of success -- the perfect wife. And to make an extraordinary match, he needs an extraordinary matchmaker, right?

Soon everyone in Chicago has a stake in the outcome, and a very big question: When the determined matchmaker promised she'd do anything to keep her star client happy . . . did she mean anything? If Annabelle isn't careful, she just might find herself going heart-to-heart with the toughest negotiator in town.

It took me a while to finally read this one. First my sister took it, then a friend (who took it on her honeymoon), then even my mother. By the time it returned, the urgency to read it had abated, and so it took me another month to start it.

I wish I hadn't waited so long. I wish I'd wrested it out of little sister's greedy hands and hid it under the bed. It's that good. No wonder every time mom asks me for a book now, she tells me she wants "something like that Susan Elizabeth Phillips book I borrowed the other time". An A.

The plot is vintage "how the hell will she make this work" SEP. Annabelle Granger has just taken over her late grandmother's matchmaking firm. The company's on the low end of the spectrum and doesn't have a particularly lucrative client base, but in spite of her family's pressure (and there is a lot of it... her whole family consider Annabelle a flighty screw-up and keep trying to get her to be something serious, like a doctor or a lawyer), Annabelle is determined to turn it into a powerhouse business.

Her best plan to do so involves getting herself a high-profile, glamorous client and succeeding in finding him the perfect match, to popular acclaim. Heath Champion seems to be her best bet.

Heath, a sports agent nicknamed The Python for his merciless way, is determined to marry the perfect wife before he turns 35. It's all part of his life plan. Heath has managed to rise from his trailer-trash beginnings, and he wants a wife who will enhance his image, and at the same time, be the perfect mom. I don't think I can remember all the requirements Heath feels his wife must fulfill, because they are myriad. She must be sweet and classy, well-bred and sexy, athletic and submissive, able to cook an impromptu dinner for the kids from scratch and to plan a dinner party for rich guests. And above all, an incredibly attractive woman who idolizes him and thinks he can do no wrong. Yeah, I wanted to bang the guy's head against the wall.

Heath's too busy to look for this wonder himself, so he has hired Chicago's premier matchmaking agency: Power Matches, to find her. When Molly, wife of one of his best clients, Kevin Tucker (both from This Heart of Mine) asks him to listen to a pitch from her friend Annabelle, Heath agrees only to keep her happy. Molly's not just his client's wife, she's also the sister of the owner of the Chicago Stars (Phoebe, from It Had To Be You), who absolutely hates Heath, so he's very interested in keeping her happy.

He doesn't plan to do much more than give this Annabelle Granger five minutes of his time, so he's very surprised when she manages to manouver him into giving her a shot. She'll get the chance to do one introduction, and only if her candidate is outstanding (and Heath really doesn't expect her to be), she'll get Heath as a client. Heath is astounded when the woman Annabelle comes up with is outstanding, and so he ends up signing on with her. And they start spending more and more time together as she tries to find him the perfect wife.

I give SEP chances I wouldn't give to other authors. Her books never sound like something I like, and yet, I know I'll like them, so I just ignore any apprehensive feelings and buy them. And when I start the books, I always start out disliking her heroes intensely, and yet I keep on reading, knowing the feeling will go away and I'll love them to pieces. It's all about trust.

And I needed a lot of trust here, because Heath starts out really, really dense. Forget about banging his head against the wall; I wanted to strangle him. But this first impression slowly changed, and I ended up really, really liking the man. Not that I didn't enjoy the way SEP drags him through hell before he can get Annabelle, but by the end of the book, I understood where his misguided ideal woman came from, and I was willing to forgive him for his denseness (especially because he fully realized he'd been dense).

I had no mixed feelings about Annabelle; I liked her from the very first. She's funny and smart and warm-hearted and I liked that she didn't let Heath walk all over her (quite an accomplishment, because he's naturally very dominating). She's also very much a SEP heroine, in that she's unappreciated by all those around her but ends up understanding her own worth.

Speaking of that, one of my favourite scenes was the one at Annabelle's birthday dinner party, because it turned what I felt about her relationship with her family on its head. I was totally expecting a scene in which Heath would defend her against her family's bullying and excessive pressure, but then SEP showed us what their relationship looked like from Heath's point of view, and damned if he didn't have a point.

A big part of the book's charm was its fully realized and extremely entertaining secondary characters. This is part of her football series, so obviously, there are a lot of football players around, and I liked that there is not that much romantization of them. All right, they're all really sweet guys, apparently, for all their arrogance and sense of entitlement, but it seems SEP's got her eyes wide open about them. I loved the scene in which Heath is going on about how his poor clients are being taken advantage of by those awful gold diggers, who sometimes even get *gasp* pregnant on purpose, and Annabelle asks him: which poor guys? The ones who go *you*, *you* and *you* on the hotel lobby, and then when they get to the room start explaining all the reasons why they won't wear condoms? Right on, Annabelle! See what I meant when I said she's not afraid of standing her ground with him?

In addition to those football players (including the to-die-for Dean Robillard, the hero of the next book, which I'll probably also be reviewing this week), the characters of SEP's other related books are a big part of the plot. I'm never happy when an author parades her older characters around just to show us how deliriously happy they are, but this wasn't like that at all. Phoebe and Molly and Kevin and Dan and the rest of them play an important role here, and they never felt extraneous. On the contrary, I felt they added a lot to the book (and I loved Heath's run-ins with Molly's daughter. Hah!)

Oh, and there's also a secondary romance, between Portia Powers, the owner of Power Matches, Annabelle's rival agency, and Heath's rough-looking chauffer and good friend. Portia is a fascinating character. She's portrayed like super-bitch, and she really does act like it (those weekly weigh-ins she had at her company, anyone?), but I could see the twisted logic and the good intentions behind what she was trying to do, and I just wish SEP hadn't brought her down so completely before she got her HEA.

But that's a small complaint, compared to how much I loved everything else in the book. Just thinking about it now, I'm wearing a huge grin. This was a book I didn't want to end, and there's no better compliment than that!


Ever Yours, by Gabriella Anderson

>> Friday, March 23, 2007

Ok, next week, to show Cindy why I'm not in a slump, I'll be talking only about the great books I've recently read, but to end this week, another of the blahs: Ever Yours, by Gabriella Anderson.

Could a letter change her life?

Ivy St Clair doesn't think so, but she's certain that the missive from eccentric Lord Stanhope, who has named her as one of his heirs, will at least provide adventure. And adventure is the one thing sure to be missing from her life when she marries Neville Foxworthy as her family expects her to do.

To inherit from Stanhope, she must deliver a portrait to reclusive Auburn Seaton, Earl of Tamberlake. No one has seen the man, badly injured in a carriage accident, for more than five years. But Tamberlake's scars are far less interesting than his melancholy, and Tamberlake himself--gentle, kind, and dangerously appealing--is everything her distasteful fiance is not. Before long Ivy realizes that the unlikely friendship they find together has deepened into the kind of love she will risk name and fortune to claim...
I've lost count of how many times I've said this recently: this book started out well enough, but after a while, it completely derailed. The main problem here was a conflict that didn't convince me. A C-.

Lady Ivy St. Clair is very surprised to receive a bequest from a man she's never met, her mother's former suitor, Lord Stanhope. Because of his fond memories of her mother, Stanhope has left her a house of her own and some money, but only if she'll perform a small service for him. She must go to Wales and deliver a package to the Earl of Tamberlake.

Ivy has recently succumbed to her father's pressure to marry, but she manages to convince her parents to allow her to have this last adventure before her betrothal is announced. And so, she sets off with her brother and Lord Stanhope's former housekeeper, who'll act as a companion.

The Earl of Tamberlake has been a recluse since the carriage accident that disfigured his face, and the sudden appearance of Lady Ivy and her companions is not a pleasant surprise. And even less pleasant is that the package Ivy brings is a portrait of him before his accident.

But Ivy seems to be different from other women. For starters, she doesn't seem to be repulsed by his appearance. A carriage breakdown forces Ivy and her party to stay in Tamberlake's house for a while longer, and as they spend some time together, she even appears to be attracted to him. But Ivy has promised to marry her fiancé, and she's not one to make a promise lightly. And then her fiancé suddenly appears to bring her back to town...

The first part was basically all right, a nice "Beauty and the Beast" story. Ivy and Tamberlake connect nicely and I bought that they'd fall in love. Both are interestingly-drawn characters, and likeable enough, and I liked how Tamberlake was so gruff on the outside and so obviously a marshmallow on the inside.

However, after the first 150 or so pages, we get what to me was basically a fake conflict. Ivy is in love with Tamberlake, Tamberlake is in love with Ivy, and they both know it (or at least, know that the other would like nothing more than a marriage between them).

But there are still 170 more pages to go, and there needs to be conflict. Sure, ok. Problem is, the way the conflict was created involved making the characters behave like fools, especially Ivy. She loves Tamberlake and he actually told her that he's in danger of losing his heart to her and that it might even be too late already. She dislikes her fiancé and even thinks badly of him for his unkind comments about Tamberlake. The only reason she agreed to marry him was because her father told her to, and she's well aware that her father is a selfish lout and cares nothing for her. She doesn't even appear to particularly care for her father. So what the hell is the problem? "Oh, I said I'd marry him and my father has already announced the betrothal" just doesn't cut it, when she doesn't care a whit about society's opinions and marrying an incredibly rich Earl would obviously fix any scandal that would be generated. Ivy needed to grow a spine, fast.

And Tamberlake doesn't get off scot-free. He's got the perfect way of convincing Ivy to change her mind about marrying her fiancé, because he knows a huge secret about him, and he doesn't use it, for no reason. Instead, he runs around for weeks making things extremely hard for Ivy, apparently not caring that he's creating a situation in which she'll get immense pressure and disapproval from her father.

And it wasn't just this that I found unconvincing. I thought most of the characters' motivations were iffy. Ivy's father is a cartoon, and I never understood why he was so adamant about Ivy marrying her fiancé. And what about Stanhope? Why is he so insistent on matchmaking between Ivy and Tamberlake? (don't tell me it's not obvious from the very first that this is what he's doing). He doesn't really know her, how does he know she won't take a look at his face and be repelled?

Of course, all this isn't enough to carry that many pages, so we get The Other Woman bent on mischief and a booooring suspense subplot about someone wanting to kill them.

Anderson voice is nice and smooth, but her story... not so much.


A Most Suitable Duchess, by Patricia Bray

>> Thursday, March 22, 2007

After I'd had the cover of A Most Suitable Duchess, by Patricia Bray on my sidebar for a few days, jmc emailed me wondering if she was seeing correctly. Since not everyone is as eagle-eyed as she is, click here to see a larger version of the cover, and read the title carefully.

I've checked the actual book and the title is fine there, so I wonder where that image came from (obviously, I didn't scan it. I just searched for it with google images). Is it someone's idea of a joke? I don't think this book had more than one printing, so it can't have been fixed in the reissue. Just strange.

PS - What's a "Dutchess", you ask? My best guess is: a duchess from the Netherlands (sorry, sorry, couldn't resist! *g*)

A Duke Desperate To Wed

Marcus Heywood, the new Duke of Torringford, must take a wife in three weeks or lose the country estate he's unexpectedly inherited. But how can he possibly find a suitable mate in so short a time? His brother, Reginald, suggests an advertisement in the papers, something Marcus refuses to consider, until a wine-fueled evening when he pens one in jest. Now, in a horrible mix-up, the ad has been printed and Marcus is mortified. Yet a week later, he is no closer to being wed than before. That's when the lovely Miss Penelope Hastings suddenly enters his life and his heart.

A Spinster Longing For Love

At one and twenty, Penelope's spinsterhood seems onfirmed; she'll never find a man she can marry. But her half-brother thinks otherwise. Without her knowledge, he answers the Duke of Torringford's advertisement for a wife and signs her name to it. When an announcement of her upcoming wedding to the Duke appears in the papers, Penelope knows she must take her place as his wife, or her honor will be ruined. But it will be a marriage in name only, that she's sure of; until the handsome good looks and warm smile of her new husband make her heart pound in a most unsettling way...
Best word for this book is "pleasant". Bray has a smooth style of writing and the book is very readable. It's got some very nice touches, but it's not particularly excellent or exciting, just... pleasant. Since it was just what I was wanting to read at the time, and it hit the spot perfectly, I'm giving it a B-.

Marcus Heywood has unexpectedly inherited a dukedom, after everyone else who was in line for it managed to pass away. Unfortunately, though, to inherit all the unentailed wealth that would come with the title, Marcus needs to be married before he turns 30... in barely a month.

Marcus is perfectly happy with his placid life in his farm, so he wouldn't mind passing on the inheritance. He intends to do just that, until he finds out that the former heir borrowed heavily against his prospects. This guy, BTW, was the reason for the "must be married by 30" clause... the old duke thought he was an irresponsible twit and that marriage would steady him. He had no idea that the guy who'd ultimately inherit would be as steady as Marcus.

Anyway, Marcus' overdeveloped honor just won't let him ignore those debts, but there's no way he can pay them on his normal income. Ergo, he'll need to claim that inheritance; ergo, he'll need to get married quickly. But.. who to marry, and so fast? Talking with his brother, they joke about how easy it would be if he could simply put an ad in the paper for candidates to the post of duchess, the same way they're advertising for a kennelmaster for Marcus' estate. They even write a mock ad with the attributes this duchess should possess.

A few days later, Marcus is horrified to discover that his brother took the wrong piece of paper to the newpapers, and everyone is talking about that crass new Duke of Torringford, who's advertising for a wife. He's even got a pile of replies, and since he's no closer to finding a wife on his own, he's persuaded to actually meet with the most likely candidates.

One of those candidates is Penelope Hastings, but she wasn't the one who answered the ad. It wasn't her brother, either, as it says on the back cover, but her brother's jealous fiancée. Penelope meets with the duke thinking he called her to talk about a contribution to one of the societies she's a member of, and is stunned to discover what has happened. She explains, Marcus explains, she politely refuses to consider any possibility of marriage, and leaves.

But oops! Everyone's seen her come out of his office, and rumours start flying that she was one of those trashy women who answered the ad. As a result, her nitwit of a brother, spurred on by the mean fiancée, gives her an ultimatum: either go through with the marriage, or retire to the middle of nowhere.

Penelope, a total city girl and no nitwit herself, goes for the marriage, and so she and Marcus begin what's a very classic marriage of convenience.

As you can see from my description, the whole book is based on a chain of errors and jokes and mean people behaving meanly, but there are no big misunderstandings, and that was something I loved about how Bray set things up. Penelope and Marcus actually talk to each other and quickly set things straight, going into their marriage understanding the circumstances perfectly.

They are both quite interesting characters, too. City-girl Penelope has quite a full live, with plenty of good friends and lots of different interests. She's not a social butterfly, but she makes the most of living in Edinburgh, participating in a bunch of societies. She's smart and sensible, and a pretty well-drawn character, with her own very individual flaws. For instance, Penelope has a bit of a sharp tongue. She doesn't tolerate any impertinence with the Torringford servants, who at first are predisposed to think badly of her and the new duke, and she doesn't like it when her friends try to gently remonstrate with her for something she does. It's definitely a fault, but one that makes her more distinct and human, and I liked her more for having it.

As for Marcus, he's very much the country gentleman, who just lives for his farm and his crops and his dogs. He's uncomfortable in his new role as duke and really wishes he could just ignore all this nonsense and continue with his comfortable life.

I liked seeing the slow development of their relationship, with their increasing fondness for each other and growing physical attraction. On this subject, I must mention that the door is banged on the reader's face during the sex scenes. Usually, I tend to prefer to actually see the sex (yeah, prurient interest, but not just that. Sex scenes can tell you a lot about characters and their relationship, if done right), but in this case, there wasn't any particularly hot chemistry going on, so I don't know. Maybe instead of going through the motions of a love scene just for the sake of a love scene, better to just skip it and be told they enjoyed themselves very much.

In this area we get the only misunderstanding in the book. Or rather, I don't know if I should call it a misunderstanding. What happens is that when it comes to their feelings, both think the other is happy with the original agreement of a marriage that's purely of convenience, while the reality is that both have fallen in love. But it's, well, such an understandable misunderstanding, and one true to their personalities and relationship. It makes sense that neither of them would feel comfortable going out on a limb and expressing their innermost feelings, and it's completely in-character for both that they prefer to wait and see. And anyway, this doesn't go on for an excessively long time.

As pleasant as this book was, it still had a couple of problems and annoyances. Near the end, a subplot develops about Penelope's former suitor reappearing. The guy is obviously up to no good, etc., etc. This was very uninteresting and came completely out of the blue, but I did like how it was solved, with complete honesty between Marcus and Penelope.

Something else I wasn't completely convinced by was about how Marcus and Penelope are supposed to be passionately in love. Hmmm. I just didn't see that much passion there. It looked more like great fondness and being best friends, but I guess it could have been simply a quiet, warm love. Still, not wholly convincing.

Finally, there's the issue of just how and where they will live that is left a bit hanging. All throughout the book, Penelope is presented as loving life in the city. As I said, she's not one for lavish balls and parties, but she does like having culture and sophisticated company nearby. Marcus, on the other hand, obviously hates the city. So once their feelings are expressed and seen to be returned, and they decide to have a true love marriage, what happens? How do they live? My impression is that they're living in Torringford, but what about Penelope? I'm willing to assume that Marcus will spend some time with her in the city, but it's not stated, and all I'm basing my assumption on is a feeling that Marcus is a decent man, so surely he'll be willing to spend some time there so that Penelope will have what she so loves at least a few months every year.

So, a nice, warm read. I'd be willing to try this author again.


Dangerous Deceptions, by Lynn Kerstan

>> Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another one from the depths of the TBR pile: Dangerous Deceptions, by new-to-me author Lynn Kerstan (awww, loved the cute cat on the author's website!)

"You are summoned to Paradise..."

One of these challenging invitations is accepted by Jarrett, Lord Dering, a family outcast who lives by his own rules...the other by Kate Falshaw, a high-tempered actress on the run from a scandalous past. The exclusive resort promises to fulfill every desire, but beneath the glittering surface deadly games are in play...

Jarrett and Kate, with nothing in common and nothing to lose, are forced into a dangerous alliance against a powerful enemy. But the daring masquerade that hides their true purpose also sets them on a journey of self- discovery. When Kate's antagonism yields to Jarrett's seductive charm, the unexpected passion engulfs them both. Jarrett longs to understand the secrets of his tormented and beautiful new companion.

And as the two work their way into the dark heart of Paradise, through its perils and mysteries, they discover that Kate's own past could prove to be the gravest threat of all.
Well, Kerstan can definitely write, but the story she tells has an unconvincing, cliché-ridden plot and characters I never particularly cared about. A C-.

Jarrett, Lord Dering is barely surviving by gambling in the London hells and clubs, when he receives a mysterious summons. "You are summoned, for your failures, your guilt, and your debts ... ", the letter starts, and it introduces him to the members of the mysterious Black Phoenix society, devoted to righting wrongs the authorities can do nothing about.

Through a mix of pressure and bribes and mild threats, Jarrett is recruited by the Black Phoenix into undertaking a dangerous mission. He's to spend some time at Paradise, an infamous resort which caters to rich noblemen's every whim, no matter how decadent. Another Black Phoenix operative will contact him, there, and together, they're supposed to investigate a series of crimes.

The other Black Phoenix operative is former actress Kate Falshaw, who's been performing in Paradise as the exotic gypsy dancer Gaetana. It just so happens that the resort owner has given Kate an ultimatum: if she wants to keep working at the resort, she'll have to make her sexual attentions available to the guests in an auction. Just dancing doesn't cut it any more, because the clients have began to complain that Paradise's promise that everything can be had, for a price, is not being fulfilled.

Kate decides to kill two birds with one stone. She needs to be able spend time with Jarrett unsuspected, so to do so, while at the same time saving herself from the owner's demands, she creates a complicated charade. Her plan involves her humiliating Jarrett on their first meeting, so that this not-particularly-rich guy will be able to win the auction because his fellow noblemen will relish seeing the proud Gaetana demeaned and owned by the very man she was so uppity with.

The plan works, and so Kate and Jarrett find themselves working together to accomplish their mission, while having to keep up the public appearance of the sexually-charged roles they're playing.

The set-up of DD asks for a huge suspension of disbelief from the get-go, and I'm afraid it never fully got it from me. The whole concept of the Black Phoenix society felt suspect. Even worse, I might have accepted it if it had appealed to me in some way, but I didn't find the idea of such an organization intriguing in the least. I'd even go as far as to call it contrived and silly. I didn't much like them, actually. Yes, they are against evil, and everything, but what right do they have to go around judging people and deciding that their "sins" merit that they should risk their lives doing their dirty work?

I also never saw why Jarret and Kate would volunteer for those plans. For your guilt, for your sins, for your debts? (paraphrasing here). Oh, please. Ok, Jarret does say something about being bored and accepting for that reason and for the money he'd get, but Kate? No reason I can see for her to do so, except for a martyr complex, and absolutely no reason for the Black Phoenix to use her and make her do what they were ready to make her do.

When Jarrett arrives at Paradise, that got another groan from me. Yeah, yeah, another Hellfire Club-type plot. Can we move on, please?

Maybe if the romance had been good, I would have been able to overlook the dubious plot, but it wasn't. I didn't feel any real fondness and not even much real attraction between Kate and Jarrett. And what attraction there was was tainted by the seedy feel of the roles they were acting, of dissipated rake and his sexual plaything. I guess that might have felt piquant, if done right, but it felt dirty instead. The humiliation Kate was feeling in some of those situations was too real for me to enjoy most scenes.

And yet another annoyance: the last 80 pages felt tacked on. They take place after the events in Paradise and after all danger emanating from it is over, and they were just not organic to the book. I was very puzzled by all the new characters coming out of the woodwork and the unnecessarily complex plans to fix Kate's past. Maybe it's a way of introducing characters who'll star in the next book in the series, but I really don't think I'll be looking for that one.


The Mistress Deception & No Reprieve, by Susan Napier

>> Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In an effort to get caught up (I'm about 20 books behind right now), a 2-for-1 deal. We've got two Susan Napier books today, The Mistress Deception and No Reprieve.

Let's start with The Mistress Deception, a 1999 book.

When Rachel had offered to help Matthew Riordan undress after a party her intentions had been purely innocent. She'd been trying to avoid a scandal -- instead, she found herself being blackmailed!

Yet, Matthew oozed sex appeal. He simply didn't need to blackmail Rachel into his bed! Or was this some kind of revenge plan because Rachel had clashed with him over a business deal? Matthew certainly wanted Rachel as his mistress. But was he driven by desire -- or deception?
Hmm, what a quandary. It seems a shame to give away this book's plot, because part of the fun at the beginning is discovering what the hell is going on. But if I don't say anything, people will assume that the back cover copy actually describes what happens, and that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Ok, just forget that awful title and back cover copy, at least the second paragraph. What mistress? What blackmailing into his bed and into being his mistress? What clash over a business deal? All come only from the fertile mind of whoever writes these things at Harlequin.

To give you a very vague idea of the plot, it involves apparently compromising photos of a situation that was actually perfectly innocent. Someone is trying to cause trouble with them, and at first, Matthew thinks Rachel is trying to blackmail him, while Rachel thinks it's exactly the opposite. And while trying to straighten out the situation, they end up falling in love.

It doesn't sound particularly interesting, but what makes the book good is that the characters have a high degree of individuality. They and, especially, their history have plenty of quirks that make them different from the usual.

And in Matthew's case, there's something very remarkable. It would be a spoiler to say, so just highlight the following if you want to know:

[[What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a virgin widower. Yep, you read that right, a virgin widowER; Matt, not Rachel is the virgin, and I completely bought the explanation of why he was one. Napier reveals this at just the right point, too, and like it happened in the other one of her books with a virgin hero, it made me rethink some of the previous scenes and go "ahhh, now I understand!"]]

Anyway, this was one of the better Napiers that I've read. The characters are interesting, the plot is pretty good and there's plenty of chemistry and steam. A B.

Now, No Reprieve, from almost 10 years earlier, was a very different book.

Seven faced a real problem

It didn't really matter to the quiet librarian that her Aunt Jane had become Madam Zoe, medium and spiritualist. Nor that she often enlisted Seven's aid.

But that was before Jake Jackson's mother wanted Madam Zoe to trace her missing grandchild. Jake, editor and owner of a crusading newspaper, wanted no part in their plan.

Seven knew that any future she dreamed of with Jake was in jeopardy. Trying to extricate Aunt Jane while maintaining her own anonymity was going to be next to impossible. Especially when this forceful abrasive man turn up at every corner...
For starters, No Reprieve (I started to write "NR", but that will forever be "Nora Roberts" to me) has much more of a plot, and it's one that could have been excellent, if done right.

The heroine, Seven, is psychic, but for years, she's been trying to block out the outside world. She doesn't read the paper, or watch TV, or do anything that might trigger her visions. One day, while throwing away some years-old newspapers in her Aunt Jane's house, she sees a photo of a missing child, and gets a flash telling her that the girl is just fine. Seven isn't particularly bothered by this vision because she assumes that since she got this particular feeling, it means the case was resolved favourably. She mentions it to her aunt, and leaves it at that.

Aunt Jane, however, doesn't leave it at that. She checks it out, and discovers the girl is still missing. So what does she do? Well, that stupid old bitch has been pretending to be a psychic, using Seven's occasional comments. So she goes to the girl's grandmother and tells her she had this vision of her child and asks her for money to help find little Rebecca. And when the girl's father, who turns out to be this cynical tabloid owner, finds out, the shit really hits the fan.

This could have been really good, because both Seven and Jake are interesting characters (quite individual, just as Rachel and Matthew in the book above) and the plot had potential. However...

For a book that has at its heart the search for a missing little girl, the book is weirdly not about the efforts to do so. Seven's actions to find Rebecca are very unfocused. I kept wondering why she didn't try harder. For instance, we discover after a while that being in the girl's former room might trigger visions. And yet she doesn't do this until days after she becomes involved in the case. Both she and Jake seem curiously leisurely about the whole thing.

And then there's Aunt Jane. I HATED her, I truly did. I thought she should be shot for her cruelty and the way she courted publicity no matter what the consequences to Jake and his mother and to Seven. She seemed like a child in her selfishness and her lack of concern about the consequences of her actions, and yet, though Seven and Jake did disapprove of her behaviour, they seemed to find it, at worst, mildly reprehensible.

My grade for this one is a C.


From This Day, by Nora Roberts

>> Monday, March 19, 2007

From This Day is a very early book from one of my favourite authors, Nora Roberts. It's from 1983, and the "Other books by this author" page has only 6 other titles, so she must have been a real newbie back then!

An Unexpected Dilemma

When B.J. Clark, the young and pretty manager of the Lakeside Inn, met the new owner, Taylor Reynolds, she was fully prepared to dislike him. For she feared -with good reason- that he planned to transform her sleepy old hotel into a resort for jet-setters.

That sparks should fly between them was inevitable. But that these should be fanned by a mutual passion was not in her plans. Against all reason, B.J. found herself torn between her professional antagonistm and her growing attraction to the man she had sworn to despise.
It's been a while since I've done one of these, so follow me as I read From This Day....

pg 27 - This is one of those "heroine against modernity" books. BJ is the manager of the old-fashioned Lakeside Inn, in Vermont, and Taylor Reynolds is the new owner, who wants to modernize it. Conflicts ensue (how's that for a concise summary? I'm getting better!)

It's been only a few pages, and BJ is already driving me crazy. It's been a while since I've seen a more childish, narrow-minded, judgemental, unprofessional heroine. One of her arguments not to make a few changes to the inn? "I don't want any plastic surgery on my inn". And her retort to Taylor's reminder that he is the owner, so he does have the right to make those changes, and as the manager, the final decision is not hers? Does she make a calm argument about why as the manager, she's the one who knows the inn best and so he should listen to her thoughts? Nope, when told that her position as manager does not entitle her to a vote, she cries "Your position as owner doesn't entitle you to brains!" Real professional, that.

Fortunately for the idiot woman, Taylor is a smart guy and recognizes that she might have something valuable to say, so he ignores the little temper tantrum.

pg 36 - Oh, give me a break! She's watching a horror movie, Taylor shows up, and the twit literally throws herself into his arms in fright at the monster... twice! Mindbending. He's your boss, you idiot! And of course, here we start with the inappropriate kisses.

pg 45 - Finally, finally, BJ starts behaving a little more professionally and giving some real arguments against turning the inn into a resort. About time!

BTW, so far, no hero's POV. Do we get any? I don't want to spend all the book in BJ's mind!

pg 61 - This is the kind of book where the heroine's mind turns to putty the minute the hero puts his hands on her, no matter how much she tells herself she despises him. Sigh.

pg 91 - Half the book is over, and all I know about Taylor is that he owns the inn, drives a Mercedes, is a bit imperious and is attracted to BJ (for some unfathomable reason). Oh, and he kisses well, though BJ is (of course!) a virgin, and doesn't really have much basis for comparison. Nothing else. Pretty flat characterization, so far.

pg 93 - Oh, fuck it. Just what was missing, the evil other woman, miles more sophisticated than BJ. Ah, and she behaves towards Taylor, her boss, in a way that obviously suggests that there's more than business between them... not that Taylor seems to notice, of course. These old-style heroes always were pretty oblivious to the Evil Other Women's machinations. I'm so looking forward to see BJ feel jealous and make even more of an ass of herself... not!

pg 106 - Ahh, now she cries. I knew she'd do so at some point.

pg 140 - We're now in Palm Beach, where Taylor has taken BJ with him to show her how his other hotels are run. Blah. And I still know nothing about Taylor other than what I mentioned already.

p 180 - "We're getting married, we will live in this house here, your mother is sending me your birth certificate so that you can get a passport, so we can fly to Rome in a couple of weeks." Whaaa?? Out of the blue, much? Yeah, imperious is an understatement for this guy (who I still don't know, BTW).

p 186 - The end. This was BAD. Stupid conflict, a twit of a heroine, a cardboard hero and no chemistry whatsoever. Nora Roberts has really come an incredibly long way from this. Unfortunately, this early effort rates only a D+.


Trick Me, Treat Me, by Leslie Kelly

>> Friday, March 16, 2007

I've accumulated piles and piles of Harlequins in my TBR, but in this "tame the TBR" project I'm working on, I've kind of been avoiding them in favour of single titles. I'm consciously going to be trying to read more of them from now on. First up: Trick Me, Treat Me (excerpt), by Leslie Kelly.

After spending more than a year overseas doing research, true crime writer Jared Winchester is dying for some excitement. So when he receives an invitation to a party his first night back—an in-character Halloween party, at that—he decides to go for it. For one night he’ll be secret agent Miles Stone. Too bad he doesn’t know that the party already took place—last year. Or that one certain woman will find secret-agent men irresistible…


Gwen Compton is tired of playing it safe. For months she’s thrown all her energy into turning an old haunted house into a bed-and-breakfast. Now it’s Halloween. The inn is ready…and so is Gwen! She’s going to find herself a man—a dangerous man, an exciting man! And she doesn’t have to look very far….. Late that night she discovers a dark, sexy stranger in the kitchen. He says he’s on a secret mission. But Gwen has other thrills in store for him….
This one was hard to grade. I was thinking a C+, but its charm and fun factor raise it to a B-.

The plot sounds crazy and wacky, like the author just threw everything in but the kitchen sink. We've got ghosts and gangsters and amnesia and mistaken identity and old family secrets, not to mention a spooky, gothic-sounding old house.

It's like this: Jared Winchester is a true-crime writer who's just returned home after spending over a year abroad, doing research for his next book. One of the first things he sees when he gets back is a Halloween invitation from his cousin. Cousin Mickey is organizing a pretty unique bash: a role-playing weekend in the scary house he and Jared were fascinated by as kids. It sounds like fun, and Jared needs some light-hearted amusement after his intense past year, so he decides to go. Plus, he hasn't been in his hometown for a while, so he's overdue for a visit, anyway.

But here's the thing: Jared's mail service sucks, and the invitation he got was actually for the previous Halloween. In the year since, Gwen Compton and her aunt, Hildy, have turned the old Marsden place into a gangster-themed inn. This Halloween weekend is their grand opening, just in time to take advantage of the house's reputation for ghostly activity.

Obviously, Jared has no idea of this, and when arrives in the middle of the night, fully characterized as secret agent Miles Stone (and this is one elaborate role-playing party... Jared's got a complex mission and plenty of props, from a fake weapon to fake IDs), and meets a lovely young woman in the kitchen (and wearing a sexy nightgown, too!), he thinks she's role-playing, just like he is.

Gwen is startled when a strange man suddenly appears in her kitchen (she's not used to having guests all over the place yet), but that's nothing next to her alarm when he reveals he's a secret agent, going after an international arms dealer who's staying at her inn. It sounds like a wild tale, but the man has ID and plenty of proof, including official-looking documents.

But things get weirder still, when light flirting leads to a kiss, and Aunt Hildy comes into the kitchen and sees this stranger seemingly attacking her niece. Auntie is carrying a bag with rolled pennies, which she puts to good use by hitting the guy over the head and putting him out cold.

And guess what ensues? Why, yes, amnesia! When Jared wakes up, he has no idea who he is, and so Gwen helpfully brings him up to date: he's agent Miles Stone, in a mission to catch an arms dealer. The same evidence that convinced Gwen of the story's authenticity convinces Jared, as well, and off they go, trying to catch the dealer together and falling in love in the process.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but surprisingly, I thought it read much more plausible than a simple description would suggest. Well, not exactly plausible, but at least it doesn't depend on the characters acting like morons. Gwen and Jared act like normal people would ask if they were stuck in this unlikely, crazy situation. Maybe slightly gullible normal people, but at least their emotions ring true, especially Gwen, whose current sedate life has had her yearning for some excitement. Oh, and I especially liked that Jared comes clean with Gwen as soon as he gets his memory back, even though he's worried she might not be as interested in a boring writer as she was in an exciting secret agent.

Both of them are likeable characters, and there's some very nice chemistry between them. And not just chemistry, they seem to like each other very much and enjoy spending time together, so I bought that a relationship would develop between them, in time. In time, I say, because what I didn't buy was that they'd be "in love" after this one very crazy weekend. The book would have worked better if the HEA had simply been Jared and Gwen deciding they had a nice beginning of a relationship and were going to be seeing what developed.

But well, this is just light fun. No deep issues or characterization, but a nice way of spending a couple of hours.


Heads up!

>> Thursday, March 15, 2007

My new column is up at Romancing the Blog. You can read it here. This is something I'm pretty sure not many readers will agree with, but I had to say it!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program: scroll down for Arielle's thoughts on Lover Revealed!


Lover Revealed, by J.R. Ward (take 2!)

As I promised in my review yesterday, we haven't yet finished talking about JR Ward's Lover Revealed. Today, Arielle guest blogs and gives us her take on it.

This is less a review of the book as a whole, than a review of parts. There was a lot going on in Lover Revealed and I realize that the romance between Butch and Marissa, in hindsight sort of takes the back seat to my impressions of the other plot elements. Nevertheless, I give it a B+ too.

Butch And Marissa

I think JR Ward deserves a gold star. Or a governmental investigation for mind control, LOL! Like Rosario, I wasn't interested AT ALL in this book. I didn't think there was anything remotely interesting about a whiny, boozing, depressed has-been cop and a sheltered, ex-Queen, society princess. Not to mention the fact that both were to a certain extent the dumpees from Dark Lover. No, I was going to read the book for Vishous insights and more Rhevenge/The Reverend. And maybe some John Matthew.

Boy was I ever wrong. Though I still had my doubts, I ended up enjoying all the story lines in this installement, including the main romance.

If that guy had been any more crazy in love with Marissa, he'd have been locked up. And the resolution was very much in JR Ward style so I was only mildly annoyed. Though, to be fair, she did hint at something like that in the previous book.

I also couldn't help thinking about Harry Potter, especially when the side-effects of the Omega's gift kick into action.

Marissa is definitely the breakthrough character here since her transformation is purely internal. Not only is she conscious of vampire females lesser status, but she decides she won't put up with it. Paranormal female empowerement at it's best. If there hadn't been the whole century-old virgin thing, I'd have voted M as Council leahdyre.

The theme

Call me Decontruction Girl but I think LR's theme is acceptance. Personal acceptance but also social acceptance. Actually, one can't happen without the other. I also believe the titles give away the plot. Butch was in between two worlds, the human and the vampire. His inadequacy issues, as we learn later in the book, take their roots in his family history. Marissa isn't exempt of her own self-esteem issues, particularly since she's ostracized by the Glymera since Wrath's repudiation. We also meet other misfits, of sorts : Vishous, John Matthew, Payne, Rehvenge/Reverend.

The Love Quadrangle

Each book seems to feature a love/lust triangle of sorts and in this one, it's even a love quadrangle. There are two people who, consciously or not, don't want want Bush and Marissa to get together: Rehvenge, who loves Marissa but knows his two Big Secrets can never make him an acceptable companion for her; and Havers
who's obviously not over Wrath's rejection of Marissa and who can't even conceive of his sister hooking up with a mere human of questionable origin.

New Characters/Aspects

We're introduced to new vampires in this book and the one I love the most is Xhex (visually painful spelling is still a problem for me). A kick-ass female who sounds like a dom. She's officially made my list of characters to watch. She's portrayed as a strong working woman, with an equally strong sexuality. I wonder what kind of hero wil l be worthy of her trust, caring and loyalty. And of her secret.

Speculation time: How cool and seemingly inappropriate would it be if Havers was paired with her? (Rosario says: yep, Arielle was the friend I mentioned who suggested the idea to me). Seriously, she lives on the fringe, a victime of an unfair and rigid society while he's never had to question (until his sister's adventures, anyway) whether or not he belongs. IMO, this bad girl and that good boy are made for each other. And I bet it's going to be kinky as hell...

The Glymera

We get to see more or the Glymera and it ain't pretty. Definitely inspired by the Regency Ton. Elitist, priviledged and very rigid. With the changes slowly but surely being initiated since bk 1, it's going to get ugly when the shit hits the fan. I also wonder about this Princeps Council.

Obviously, the Lessers are getting more daring and violent and yet the PC's decision regarding sehclusion seemed...stupid. Hello, you guys are getting killed left and right and the master plan is locking up the womenfolk? These people need a little revolution to get the blood flowing in their brains again.

Training Camp

Vampire Boot Camp is also fun to see. And John Matthew, baby, I'm sooo in love. I can't wait so see his transition, first feeding etc. So many questions: how many of his classmates will die during transition or even their first fight? Will JM use a Chosen? Also can't wait to see how he works out his problems with Draco...I mean Lash (another HP moment, folks). Blaylock, on the other hand, seems to be set up as the best friend / sidekick. Hope he doesn't die.

My New Boy Toys

The two men I'm dying for: Rehvenge and Vishous. Rehvenge/Rehverend, is that going to be explosive or not? I just know he's going to fall for a Glymera Girl. Unless she's human. But I know it's going to be hot and dangerous. And that's just his sex life, LOL! The tight rope of his double-life is sure to make for a compelling future book. I'm also really interested in discovering the full extent of his sympaths abilities. What can he do when he's not drugged up?

As for V, I'm more intrigued than ever. Thank God his book is coming soon. Anybody read the sneak peek on the boards? I just knew it was something like that. I'm happy I was right. (Rosario says: What, what? I don't go on the boards, what's on the sneak peek?)

JR Ward might have said in her AAR interview that she doesn't plan the sensuality level beforehand but there is no doubt that both these guys are going to have very hot books.

What I didn't like

Since writing the first draft of this, I've reread this book and now have time to stop and think about the cons. And definitely, this couple is not equal in treatment in the book. Marissa is more interesting to me in her development than Butch. I also felt, as my friend Helga put it, that the romance just didn't shine. And, contrary to some people I know, I thought the first make-out scene in the hospital was a little yucky, especially the, euh, conclusion. (Rosario says: er, I think someone's talking about me...)

For the most part, the other stories overshadowed B&M's romance for me. Even the Lessers were more interesting for me to read about this time around. I like the prophecy angle but not very much the treatment. It seemed this centuries old prophecy was understood a little too quickly. Still, jumping from one story to the next was distracting, especially where B&M are concerned.

Havers was such a jerk in this book, I wanted to bitchslap him, several times. And yet I still like him. I'm sticking with my prediction that Xhex is the girl for him. He's also one of the few civilians we actually do see in their daily lives. I'm pretty sure JR Ward is going to move the focus more and more towards the rest of Vampyre society, and not just the Brotherhood. I can't wait. Even in this book, the Brothers seem to live outside of their society, and more so the females. I might want a Brother (or two or three) but I sure don't want to be his female if it means some Council can just lock me up at will.

Like Ro said, I'm also pretty sure she will tone down V's sexual preferences. I thought Butch and V had great chemistry together but her fans are against homosexual Brothers and so that's not the nature of these two characters relationship. I feel like she's closed the chapter on the strangely sexual vibe between these two, and frankly I'm going to miss it. It was hot. Together, these guys were hot. And totally dug the BDSM, and that was a surprise to me, LOL!

But the one WTF? moment I had was with Butch's sister. Ok, I get it we needed backstory AND confirmation but did we really need the sister so much? I was hoping he'd go visit her or the mom at dusk and the truth would come out or something. Or, as my friend Heidi said, I thought she was going to be killed. Instead she gets all these pages. Utterly superfluous, IMO.

That said, LR whetted my appetite for V's book and Rehvenge's book. And John Matthew and Phury and Thor (where is that man, anyway?). I read it's an open-ended series now, and that sounds scary. I don't want to get bored with this series, even if LR was in a way less exciting than the previous titles.


Lover Revealed, by J.R. Ward

>> Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Butch and Marissa were never really the characters I was most intrigued by in this universe of J.R. Ward's, but I was still very anxious to read Lover Revealed (excerpt)

I haven't even tried not to go into spoilers below, so if you haven't read this book, you'd be better off if you stopped reading now. Like I said in my review of the last one, if you want to know if these books would be for you, read reviews for the first one, Dark Lover. Here's mine:

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. Now, an ally of the Black Dagger Brotherhood will face the challenge of his life and the evil of the ages.

Butch O'Neal is a fighter by nature. A hard living, ex-homicide cop, he's the only human ever to be allowed in the inner circle of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. And he wants to go even deeper into the vampire world- to engage in the turf war with the lessers. He's got nothing to lose. His heart belongs to a female vampire, an aristocratic beauty who's way out of his league. If he can't have her, then at least he can fight side by side with the Brothers...

Fate curses him with the very thing he wants. When Butch sacrifices himself to save a civilian vampire from the slayers, he falls prey to the darkest force in the war. Left for dead, found by a miracle, the Brotherhood calls on Marissa to bring him back, though even her love may not be enough to save him...
I keep wondering if Ward is going to be able to keep up the intensity, and so far, she does. Lover Revealed was just as absorbing as the previous books, and it left me just as desperate to get the new installment. A B+.

I'm afraid LR left my mind spinning so fast that I can't really offer a coherent review. Here are some disjointed thoughts:
  • Z's story had been more of a traditional romance than the first books, with the focus more on Z and Bella. Lover Revealed goes back to being a story about the whole universe Ward is creating. Yes, there is somewhat a focus on the romance and on Butch and Marissa as characters, and the romance is perfectly satisfying, but again, what's going on around them is so interesting that it sometimes risks overshadowing what's going on between them.

  • I thought it was amazing, the way Ward managed to maintain the tension, even the sexual tension, between Butch and Marissa, when they acknowledge that they love each other practically at the beginning of the book. There are just so many issues there, what with Butch being so screwed up and having to deal with the Omega's little present, and Marissa still needing to come into her own, that the relationship never becomes boring in the slightest.

  • Butch's feelings towards Marissa were at times a little too earnest and made me cringe, but mostly, I thought it was sweet that he was so incredibly silly and ga-ga about her.

  • Marissa's final realization that brings her back to Butch for good was well done, I thought. It felt right. I hadn't thought of the fact that she was doing to him a similar thing to what Havers did to her, but it's true. And it made Havers' actions a bit more understandable. I still think he should be flogged for what he did to her, but at least I understand where he was coming from. Oh, and back to Marissa deciding to finally accept Butch, with his mission, and all: I liked that she had already made up her own mind before the other wives came to talk to her. They simply provided reafirmation, Marissa wasn't browbeaten into chaging her mind.

  • I liked that, in certain ways, Ward did tackle the issue of the sexism of the vampires' world, with the threat of mandatory sehclusion being imposed on all unmated females and the lack of resources available for a female whose mate is violent. And I LOVED how Marissa stuck it to the glymera in this matter!

  • Related to this, I was very surprised to see that of all the heroines so far, Marissa is the first to actually decide to do something outside the house. I think that's what many of us mean when we say that we'd prefer it if the females' lives weren't just about being in the Brotherhood's compound, waiting for their men. We're not necessarily asking for them to go hunt lessers with the Brothers (though I do like the idea of the female warrior who's coming up, Payne. I wonder when we'll be introduced to her?), but there's so much they can do, even if it's not that. Marissa perfectly demonstrates this.

  • Also related to sexism in the books: Rhage can't feed from Mary, and though Mary would prefer that he could, she has been able to accept without much effort that he feed from one of the Chosen. But Butch just can't take that Marissa might feed from someone other than he, even before he finds out that there are possibilities that he might be able to feed her. I guess it might be a vampire / human thing; that is, that vampires attach a deeper meaning to the act of feeding, so Butch, with his vampire blood, instinctively reacts that way, while the still-human Mary doesn't, but when Butch needs to feed from Beth, Marissa doesn't really seem to mind all that much, and neither did Beth in Dark Lover.

  • Butch's change into a vampire: I can't say I didn't suspect it would turn out to be something like this, but even though I didn't think this would be a good move for the story, I ended up liking where Ward went with it, especially because it wasn't a magical, effortless bit of deus ex machina. It was hard and difficult and dangerous, and given Butch's history, I understood why he'd be ready to risk everything going for it. I also liked that as desperate as he was to do it, he loved Marissa enough to be ready not to do it, if she asked him not to.

  • LOL at Butch's new name. He's the Destroyer from the prophecy, so his new name is Dhestroyer. Let's throw in an "h", just for the hell of it! Otherwise he'll be embarrassed before the other brothers. Best name of them all, though: Hhurt. I was laughing out loud in that part, in spite of the seriousness of the context. I actually thought "oh, poor Hhurt! He's dead and here I'm making fun of his name!" Yep, as much as I love these books, and as much as I've (mostly) gotten used to the names, they are still silly as hell!

  • This Hhurt actually dies in his change, and I enjoyed the new insight into what this process might be like, with Butch going through it, but also the young vampire, Blaylock, and John's preparations for it.

  • Speaking of John, his storyline remains fascinating. I can't wait to see what develops of his 4 AM walks with Zsadist.

  • To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the lesser subplot this time, and very much. The whole deal about why the prophecy was so important to Mr. X was intriguing, and what it turned out to be surprised me, and made perfect sense. I was also surprised by how touching and even tragic I found that final scene of Mr. X's. Does it speak badly of me that I would have prefered the guy, evil as he was, to get his wish? I wouldn't wish the Omega on anyone!

  • Vishous' feelings for Butch. I don't think anyone can deny the homoerotic vibes now! Though I'm still left with many, many questions about the exact nature of Vishous' feelings. Some of the description was a bit oblique.

  • Everything about Vishous left we with question after question, actually. The hints about his past were tantalizing, and the whole BDSM thing was something I expected, but didn't expect to be interested by. Will there be an element of this in his romance? Part of me hopes not, because BDSM is just not my cup of tea, but on the other hand, if there isn't, there's the risk of having a message there that V has been "cured of this perversion" by the love of a virtuous woman, or some such rot. Hmmm, we'll have to see.

  • Who was the surgeon who ends up being Butch's father? My first thought was Vishous, given his comment about being a pretty good medic, and it would give a different interpretation to his feelings of Butch being "his". But the homoerotic vibe would become very disturbing, if this were so!

  • Is it just me or was the slang a little less heavy this time? But this was compensated by the increase in brand-name dropping. Gah!

  • The Scribe Virgin was less annoying this time, a lot less unreasonable. The scene with her and Butch when he was about to undergo his turning was very funny, and provided a much needed break in the tension. The idea of the other Brothers practically banging their heads against the wall at Butch's constant, involuntary questions made me smile.

  • Xhex: will she turn out to be this almost mythical "Payne"? I hope so, that would be interesting! And a friend suggested a possible romance between her and Havers. Hey, that would be fun enough to watch if Xhex were just Xhex, but if she were part of the Brotherhood, even better. That should give the little bastard a couple of strokes!

  • I broke my rule and read the excerpt for Vishous' story, Lover Unbound. Damn, damn, damn! Now I need the book NOW!
Tomorrow, watch this space! Arielle will be guest-reviewing this same book.


Harbaugh, Karen - The Vampire Viscount

>> Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nope, The Vampire Viscount, by Karen Harbaugh isn't about a Trad Regency author getting on the vampire bandwagon. This is a 1995 book, from long before having paranormal elements became de rigueur.

Being a vampire is okay--you get to stay up all night, women find you irresistable, you're strong, fast, and magic is yours for the taking.

But Nicholas, Viscount St. Vire finds all of that means little in the face of impending insanity and the eventual deterioration of his senses. Only the the willing embrace of a virginal young woman can reverse his condition. Who better for his wife-to-be than the impoverished Leonore Farleigh, whose abusive father sells her to St. Vire to pay off gaming debts?

Leonore agrees to marry him--how else is she going to save her sister and her mother from their poverty and pain? But she soon finds she's stepped into a marriage of inconvenience… and possible death.
Disappointing, disappointing, disappointing. That seems to be the word of the week. TVV started out very well, but things first fizzled and then plunged down a cliff. A C.

Nicholas, Viscount St. Vire is sick of being a vampire, so when in his studies he comes across a method to reverse his vampirism, he's willing to go to some lengths to pull it off. The spell requires a virgin's blood, freely given in the marriage bed on the summer solstice, so he needs to find himself a virgin bride willing to marry him fast.

Nicholas doesn't have the time or inclination to do his courting the traditional way, so he simply researches possible candidates, and on his first night out, succeeds. The father of the most likely candidate is as inveterate a gambler as reported, and on his first try, Nicholas manages to make him lose more than he can afford. When Nicholas proposes that the man give him his daughter hand in marriage to cancel the debt, his offer is accepted.

Leonore Farleigh is shocked when her father announces that he's practically sold her off, but when she meets Nicholas and sees he's not the old, depraved lecher she feared, she begins to see the positive side of the situation. Things at home aren't good (to say the least), and marrying this guy is a good way to escape. And things begin to look up even more when she spends some time with him and realizes that they might even manage to build a good marriage between them. But after a while, it becomes clear that Nicholas has some secrets he isn't telling her about...

The first parts, with the proposal and marriage, and the first weeks of their marriage, were really, really, really good. For some strange reason, there's something about the won-in-a-card-game plot that intrigues me, and I liked the clear-headed way in which Leonore accepted the marriage, realizing it was her best way of escaping her father's control and quickly understanding that she and Nicholas could rub along quite well. I also enjoyed the sort of courting period they had, and how they started getting to know each other even before the wedding, getting a good start in building a good, solid marriage.

After a while, however, the book did lose a bit of the momentum that had made me wonder, at first, if I might not have a keeper in my hands. I just wasn't getting the emotional depths I was hoping for, so when we were told these two were in love, I just didn't feel it. Plus, the whole thing about the virgin blood requirement and all that made me roll my eyes. Magic hymen to the max! But all right, I was liking the book well enough.

But then, disaster. We needed external conflict, apparently, so we got an evil other (vampire) woman determined to wreak havoc. This didn't just completely change the tone of the story, it was also very boring. I especially disliked how monumentally stupid Nicholas' way of dealing with things was. The only thing his actions achieved was hurting and humiliating Leonore, and he should have known better. As I neared the end, it became harder and harder to resist the temptation to start skimming (and yeah, I did give in to the temptation for some stretches).

Still, even if in the end, TVV wasn't a success, it was interesting to take a look at one of the precursors of one of today's trendiest trends. Main difference? No twists here; Nicholas is a very old-school vampire. I guess all the twists we get today are authors attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes not so much) to make their stories feel fresh. 12 years ago that just wasn't necessary. Having a vampire hero was twist enough on its own, I guess.


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