Claiming the Courtesan, by Anna Campbell

>> Monday, April 30, 2007

I read the review of Claiming the Courtesan, by Anna Campbell at AAR and thought "no way, just not my thing". But then everyone was talking about it, and some people who's opinion I trust insisted that it just wasn't the throwback to the bodice-ripper era that the plot seemed to suggest, so I gave in to curiosity and decided to make up my own mind about it.

He would marry her, and possess her in every way possible.

The Duke of Kylemore knows her as Soraya, London’s most celebrated courtesan. Men fight duels to spend an hour in her company. And only he comes close to taming her. Flying in the face of society, he decides to make her his bride; then, she vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

Dire circumstances have forced Verity Ashton to barter her innocence and change her name for the sake of her family. But Kylemore destroys her plans for a respectable life when he discovers her safe haven. He kidnaps her, sweeping her away to his isolated hunting lodge in Scotland, where he vows to bend her to his will.

There he seduces her anew. Verity spends night after night in his bed… and though she still plans her escape, she knows she can never flee the unexpected, unwelcome love for the proud, powerful lover who claims her both body and soul.
Do I really need to do a plot summary after all the discussions? Just a short one, in case someone comes back to read this in a few months.

Verity Ashton has been the Duke of Kylemore's mistress for a year, under the identity of her alter ego, Soraya, the famous courtesan. The original arrangement had been for one year, after which if either party wanted to dissolve their association, they were free to do so. And when the year is up, Verity does, disappearing into thin air.

But Kylemore isn't ready to accept what he sees as an enormous betrayal, and decides to get Soraya back and make her pay for the suffering she's put him through. He finds her posing as a widow in small Yorkshire town and kidnaps her, taking her to his remote hunting lodge in Scotland, where he'll do anything he wants to her.

So, did I like it? As a romance novel, no. For me to enjoy a romance, I want to like the HEA, and what we got here wasn't my idea of one. A HEA in this book would have involved Justin being castrated with a rusty knife after Verity told him to take a flying leap into hell and that she'd only been pretending to love him all along.

Which is, strangely enough, why I liked the first half much, much better than the second.

See, maybe I'm twisted, but the first half totally worked for me, because I was reading it as a portrayal of a psycho in the grip of a powerful obsession. As such, it was excellent. Everything came together, the writing, the dialogue, the setting, the characters. I couldn't stop turning the pages, and I got tons of emotional pay-off, whenever Justin would feel wretched because Verity so obviously hated him (as well she should).

But the turning point came when the book got all romancey. When? Justin has a nightmare and Verity gives in to her inner nurturer, after which Justin starts getting what he wants. Poor Justin, he had a bad childhood, so apparently all is forgiven. And things go downhill from there, with an evil mother (really, really eeeee-vil mother) and Verity playing the I'm-not-good-enough-for-you martyr. Bah!

It's hard to encapsulate such mixed feelings in a single grade. I'll go with a C+, not as a mark of a blah book, as C grades often are, but as an average between the very high grade the first half deserves and the very low one I'd rate the second.

Oh, and about the bodice-ripper accusation? IMO, this book isn't one, even if a couple of bodices do literally get ripped. CTC is a much more thoughtful book than that. I see a huge difference between the old crap, in which I got the feeling that the author herself was endorsing the rapist "hero"'s actions as "just what real men do. And she likes it, anyway, even though she says no", and this one. It was always perfectly clear to me that Campbell was writing Justin's actions as being completely wrong.

Plus, most of the bodice-rippers I read had really cardboard characters. These two definitely weren't that. Their motivations rang true and they were fully-realized characters, even if one of them was a fully-realized lunatic character!


White Lies, by Jayne Ann Krentz

>> Friday, April 27, 2007

Jayne Ann Krentz is both a comfort read and an autobuy for me. I don't expect her books to be wonderful and perfect anymore, but I do know they'll reliably deliver an entertaining, warm read, and sometimes I need just that. Like with White Lies: the reason I started reading it was because I'd just finished an extremely traumatic book (which I'll be posting about next week) and needed something safe and comfortable.

Petite, thirtysomething Clare Lancaster is a Level Ten para-sensitive-and a "human lie detector." Over the years, she's come to accept that someone with her extraordinary talents is likely to have trouble in the relationship department. And she's even resigned herself to the fact that everyone, to one degree or another, hides behind a façade. . . .

And now it seems that meeting the half sister and family whom she never knew until seven months ago was a mistake. Her father summons her from California to play a role in his business empire, and Clare doesn't intend on making the same mistake twice. But after meeting Jake Salter, Archer Lancaster's "financial consultant," Clare is convinced that things aren't what they seem. Salter's careful conversation seems to walk a delicate line between truth and deception, revealing and resisting. Something sparks and sizzles between them-something more than the usual electricity between a man and a woman.

Caught in a dizzying storm of secrets, lies, and half-truths, Jake and Clare will plunge into an investigation that demands every bit of their special gifts-together they must overcome their mutual distrust in order to unravel a web of conspiracy and murder.
White Lies was pretty good, with exactly the pros and cons I've come to expect from JAK. Good romance and family relationships, needlessly overcomplicated and pretty boring suspense. And it did help me take my mind off endless reruns of some nightmarish things from the book I'd just finished. A B.

Clare Lancaster is in Arizona at the request of Archer Glazebrook, the father whom she's only very recently met. She was the product of a one-night stand, and Archer only found out about her existence seven months earlier, when Clare sudenly showed up just in time to rescue her sister, Elizabeth, from an abusive marriage.

Clare intends to stay in Arizona for no more than a couple of days, just enough to see what her father wants, but things start getting complicated the minute she gets back. For starters, there's still some fallout from what happened all those months earlier, when Elizabeth's husband suddenly turned up dead and Clare was very nearly arrested for his murder. And then there's Jake Salter, supposedly a consultant working with Archer on his benefits plan, but in reality a man who's obviously hiding some secrets.

So how does Clare know there is more to Jake than it seems? Well, that's because she's a human lie detector! Oh, oops, maybe I should have mentioned the fact that WL is an Arcane Society novel earlier?

For those of you who haven't been keeping up with JAK, the Arcane Society is a gimmick the author has come up with to link her contemporaries to her Amanda Quick historicals, like Second Sight. The Arcane Society is, in her words, "a secret organization devoted to paranormal research". Which means, apparently, that most of the characters in this book have some kind of psychic gift, each of a different intensity, and they are all members of this secret society.

Think of this book as a Jayne Castle St. Helen's paranormal, only set here on Earth. Jake and Clare are, of course, both Level Ten plus and both exotics. That is, the power of their talents is off the charts, which only go up to ten, and the nature of their talents is one that the other members of the Arcane Society mistrust. Jake is a "hunter", which is considered by most as a kind of throw-back, uncivilized and threatening talent, while Clare can detect whenever someone is lying. Both of them make other people very uncomfortable, which is why they are considered "unmatchable" by, the Arcane Society's matchmaking website (*sigh* More shades of those Jayne Castle books).

When I saw the premise of the series, I thought "blah", and I was right. The suspense subplot here is centred on attempts by the "cabal", a shadowy organization within the Arcane Society to get their hands on a formula the Society has, which is supposed to strengthen psychic talents. Jake has been employed by Jones & Jones, the investigative arm of the Society, to go undercover in Stone Canyon, the Glazebrooks' home town, and find out what's going on.

This was, quite frankly, not very interesting. There are overly complicated plot twists and turns, with what seems like a thousand villains all working together and each doing a little part of the evil plot. But as much as the suspense subplot wasn't interesting, Clare and Jake's talents and how they dealt with them were, and very much so.

Clare was an especially fascinating character. Just imagine always knowing when someone is lying. Talk about overwhelming! I mean, everyone lies, some about small things, some about big ones; some lies are only intended to keep from hurting someone's feelings, some are meant to hurt others. But they are all lies, and it really would be a struggle to function in the world if you're can see through all of them. I really liked the way JAK showed how this has shaped Clare into who she is, and how she's learned to cope with the knowledge. She's remarkably well-adjusted, considering!

Also, Clare's powers were well used to advance the plot. I liked that she didn't only have the raw powers, she also had the know-how to expose scams. She didn't just detect their lies, she knew the psychology and knew how to manipulate them into revealing themselves and how to deal with them. And Jake had no problem with admitting that she was the pro in this respect.

Jake's hunter abilities are a bit less developed (I think we saw more about what they meant in Second Sight, when the hero's talent was described), but also pretty cool. Actually, what I liked best about Jake was in the romance department, the way he felt about Clare. I'm talking about the way she affected him, the way being with her gave him this sense of immense satisfaction. That really came across very clearly in the writing, this sense of his having come home whenever they were together. I had no doubt that they were perfect for each other, and theirs was also quite a hot, passionate relationship, which was a plus. Some of this author's previous hardcovers seemed to have lost that warmth.

It wasn't just the romantic relationship that was really good, but also the family stuff, with Clare struggling with how she fits in with her father's family.There's her immediately sisterly relationship with Elizabeth, the stiffer but very promising one with Archer, and the difficult one with Myra, Archer's wife. All three were intriguing and well written, and I wish we'd had more of that and of the romance, and less of the cabal's conspiracy.

At the end of the book, we're left with the knowledge that the cabal isn't done with their attempts to get the famous formula. I suppose that's to make us want to read the next books to know what happens, but it didn't work on me. Oh, I'll read the next books, no question, but not because of the Arcane Society. I'll read them because JAK is still great when it comes to romance and family relationships.


Silken Threads, by Patricia Ryan

>> Thursday, April 26, 2007

After liking Patricia Ryan's The Sun and the Moon, I went looking in my TBR for the other books I knew I had by this author. The next I tried was Silken Threads, both because it's related to TSATM and because I was very intrigued by the Author's Note included at the back of the book (I refuse to believe I'm the only one who reads that kind of thing first!).

Graeham Fox is on a secret mission: rescuing his lord's illegitimate daughter from the clutches of her abusive husband. As payment for his service, Graeham will receive her twin's hand in marriage and a vast estate, much more than any landless soldier could ever hope for....

Attacked in London, Graeham is almost killed. He is given a chance to heal at the humble home of Joanna Chapman, a silk merchant's lovely widow. Her past has taught her not to trust any man, especially one as rakishly handsome--and mysterious--as Graeham. But his raw strength and gentle touch unleash a blistering passion in Joanna. Caught between ambition and desire, Graeham's future hangs by a thread. And only Joanna's love can save him from himself....
So what was in that intriguing Author's Note that caught me? Ryan mentions how she got the idea for this story. Apparently, she was giving a talk in a workshop and wanted to illustrate the method of story generation in which "you take some element from an existing story (...) and start playing with it. You twist it around, switching genders, time periods, or any other factors that will give it a fresh spin, then use it to launch an entirely new -and hopefully fresh and original- story".

She gave an example off the top of her head, coming up with setting the plot of the movie Rear Window in Medieval London, rather than in a modern city. And as she said that, she realized what a good idea it could be, and decided to write it. Well, as far as I'm concerned, she was right: it was an inspired idea. The Medieval London setting goes excellently with the story, and though you can detect the Rear Window feel, this is a fresh and original story that goes in a completely different direction. A B+.

Graeham Fox is in London on a mission. His overlord, Lord Gui de Beauvois, had the bright idea of marrying one of his illegitimate daughters to a London silk merchant without telling the man she was illegitimate. The man took the news badly, and now Lord Gui suspects his daughter is being mistreated. So he sends Graeham to the rescue and tells him that if he succeeds in rescuing Ada, he'll be given the hand of Lord Gui's other daughter in marriage, as well as some very nice land in Oxfordshire. And for landless Graeham, who would like nothing better than to settle down in his own land, with his own family, that's a powerful incentive indeed.

His first overtures to Rolf Le Fever, the silk merchant, seem to be successful enough. However, when Graeham comes back that night to pick up Ada, he's ambushed by two men, apparently sent by Le Fever and seemingly intent on killing him. He only survives with a mere broken leg thanks to the timely intervention of a passerby.

His saviour is Hugh of Wexford (hero of TSATM, if you'll remember, just as the daughter of Lord Gui's that Graeham wants to marry is the heroine of that book), who takes him to recover at his sister, Joanna's house, just down the street.

Graeham is supposed to stay at Joanna's only for the night, until Hugh can come back with a cart and take him to the monastery where he'd been staying. But it turns out the back of Joanna's house looks out on the back of Rolf Le Fever's, and Graeham sees a golden opportunity to keep an eye on things until he's recovered enough to effect a rescue. The very attractive Joanna is a temptation that he doesn't need, given that he's practically engaged, but since she's married, he should be able to resist.

Actually, Joanna isn't married. She's only pretending to Graeham that her husband is away, rather than dead, to make sure he'll stay away from her. It's not that she finds him unattractive; quite the opposite. But Joanna's marriage was an unhappy one, with a husband who wanted her for her family's money, and so she refuses to be used again, especially by a man she knows is hiding something.

This was an entertaining, mostly character-driven romance. Graeham is great, a former warrior who's more than ready to change that lifestyle for one that will be better suited to his quiet, thoughtful nature. He's a honourable man stuck in a situation that keeps him from being as honourable as he'd like to be. He wants to tell Joanna the truth about his mission, but can't reveal the scandalous fact that Lord Gui had two illegitimate daughters. Graeham is also conflicted about his increasing attraction to Joanna, given that he's supposed to marry Philippa and that Joanna's married herself. Living in such close quarters really keeps the sexual tension ratcheting up.

Joanna, too, is a strong, interesting character. She married down, against her parents' wishes, and that spelled disaster for her. When her family disowned her, her husband started treating her very shabbily. She did put her foot down with the man and didn't allow him to be as much of a bastard as he would have been, but there isn't much she can do about the difficult financial situation in which he's left her. Hugh is trying to get her to marry again, and is even trying to matchmake between her and a friend of his, but though Joanna knows she probably should do what Hugh is saying, her heart just isn't in it, especially once she begins to know Graeham better.

For a book that happens mostly inside Joanna's small house, Ryan conveys a surprisingly rich sense of how life might have been in Medieval London. The majority of Medievals seem to take place in the countryside, in some keep or other, and so I really liked getting a sense of how people lived in the city, especially people who aren't powerful nobles, but merchants and such.

I said "mostly" character-driven, and that's because there is a kind of suspense subplot. I actually assumed it was all going to be pretty straightforward, that the bad guy of the piece was Rolf, the person Graeham assumed, and that was it. All that would be missing would be for Graeham to find a way to extract Ada from him. Let's just say, things were not that simple, and the ending was nicely exciting.

All in all, a very enjoyable book.


What Rough Beast, by H.R. Knight

Though I don't really read much in the genre, I do like well-written horror. What Rough Beast (excerpt, etc.), by H.R. Knight seemed interesting.

Harry Houdini asks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to help him expose Maximillian Cairo—a spiritualist medium. But the two men underestimate Cairo. He's a master of the occult and the most debauched man in London. Conan Doyle and Houdini get more than they bargained for when they interrupt a magic ritual and accidentally set loose a force for ecstasy and chaos on an unsuspecting Edwardian London.

Soon one of their friends is falsely accused of a grisly murder. Conan Doyle and Houdini are sure the real killer was at the ritual with them. They're faced with a locked-room homicide that baffles even Houdini.

One by one, people in the little group who attended the ceremony feel an insidious influence creep over them. Each succumbs to a burst of creativity, shortly followed by an act of uncontrollable madness.

The proper Victorian gentleman and the ebullient New Yorker must team up to solve the murder and stop the thing they set loose before it completely unravels their ordered world.
It's 1903, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visits London with his son to get a small respite from nursing his dying wife. He and the boy go to see Harry Houdini's show, and the two men strike a friendly acquaintance. When Houdini asks Conan Doyle to help him expose a fraud who's preying on a friend of his, Sir Arthur agrees.

So as you see, the narrator of WRB is someone who really existed: none other than the famous creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And he's not the only real historical character who's involved in the story: Though we don't get Houdini's POV, he's practically the co-protagonist. To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of using real people as characters, but I thought I'd keep an open mind about it and see how it went. Plus, I liked the idea of the notoriously gullible Conan Doyle teaming up with that professional skeptic, Houdini to investigate a fake medium.

Anyway, it turns out the "fake medium" is actually mixed up with some truly dangerous and truly supernatural stuff, and when Houdini interrupts a ritual, something terrifying is released into the world, alternately possessing all those who were present and making them give in to their basest impulses. And when one of them is accused of murder, Conan Doyle decides he needs to get to the bottom of things.

And that's as far as I got, more or less. This is not a bad book, but I never really got engaged in the story, and I read roughly half of it. I read up to page 180 or so, and that much took me about two weeks. I'm not really sure what the problem was. I would guess part of it was my lingering discomfort at some of the things these versions of Conan Doyle and Houdini (who I couldn't forget were real persons) are made to think and do.

The other part, I suppose, is lack of interest in what would happen. Oh, I would like to know how that mysterious third person got out of the locked murder room, but not enough to slog through the second half of the book. And I don't care in the least what will happen with the dangerous spirit flitting all over London.

A disappointing DNF.


Castle of the Wolf, by Sandra Schwab

>> Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Castle of the Wolf is my first book by Sandra Schwab. I've had The Lily Brand in my TBR for some time, but everyone says it's very dark, so I'm still waiting for the right mood.

After the death of her father, Cissy Fussell finds out that she has inherited a castle in the Black Forest - but on one condition: she has to marry the son of her father's old friend.

Ever since he returned home from the war, physically and emotionally wounded, Fenris von Wolfenbach has lived in the castle of his family, retired from the world like the beast in the fairy tale. Thus he is far from happy when one day a young Englishwoman turns up on his doorstep and claims his home as hers. Fenris is prepared to use any means fair or foul to get rid of his unwelcome visitor again. But will he manage to put Cissy to flight with rats on the loose? Or will she unravel the secrets of the Castle of Wolfenbach and eventually tame her beast?
This one should appeal both to gothic lovers and to those who clamour for more varied historical settings. And the romance is pretty good, too! A B.

When Cissy Fussell's father dies, she is sure she will have to resign herself to the fate of being a poor relation, dependent on her brother's goodwill and that of his insufferable wife. But the will contains a surprise: Mr. Fussell once helped out a German friend by buying the man's ancestral home when it was auctioned off, so Cissy now finds herself the heiress to a castle in the Black Forest. Provided, that is, she agrees to marry the son of her dad's friend.

It's not that hard a decision to make, considering the alternatives. Full of hope, off Cissy goes into the unknown, only to discover that her castle is falling to pieces and that Fenris Wolfenbach, that son her father expected her to marry, is pretty much the beast of Wolfenbach castle.

A bitter, resentful man, Fenris is determined not to let Cissy have his castle and not to allow her to even approach him. But no problem, Fenris has a younger, much more charming brother, Leopold, and Cissy could just marry him. He's sure to be a better husband than Fenris. Or is he?

I had a lovely time reading COTW, and not just because of the yummy setting. Cissy is great. She's such a sensible, determined woman, ready to go after what (and who) she wants. I really liked that she doesn't immediately go ga-ga over surly Fenris, and even seriously (and understandably) considers his brother as a better prospect. Yes, she's intrigued by Fenris from the beginning, but she only really looks back at him when she realizes she doesn't like many things about Leopold. Only then does she truly find the good man beneath the bad-tempered surface, and when she does, she doesn't let him push her away as he seems determined to do.

Fenris is also a very interesting character, even if at one point I lost patience with him. This is one very tortured guy, and with reason. During the Napoleonic wars, Fenris ran off to fight for what he thought was right and joined the British side. Unfortunately, this went against the position of the authorities in his land, and so his family was punished for it by their castle becoming forfeit. That was where Cissy's father came in to save the day by buying the castle himself and allowing the Wolfenbachs to remain, and Fenris blames himself for causing that to happen.

This sense of guilt, together with scarring and a wooden leg, result in a hero who's often very unpleasant to the heroine and can become tiresome. Part is resentment, part is feeling like an ugly troll who doesn't deserve someone like this beautiful woman, but Fenris behaves very badly. I was actually all right with his initial efforts to make Cissy run away screaming, because some of his more outlandish plots (I mean, rats?) led to some very funny moments, but he finally lost me with his complete about-face after his relationship with Cissy seemed to finally be moving in the right direction. That finally tipped him over in my mind from "understandably tortured" to almost-emo self-indulgent drama king.

But fortunately, the heroine is Cissy, and not some weak-minded woman who can be pushed away, so this episode doesn't last long. In the end, I really liked the passionate, tender relationship that develops and loved seeing Fenris finally realize that he could have a future with Cissy.

As it should be in a good gothic, the setting is almost another character in the story. Schwab really makes the Black Forest come alive with her vivid, colourful descriptions, and I loved that it isn't a gratuitous "exotic" setting, but really plays a role in the story. And the atmosphere! That was excellently done.

Added to this wonderful atmosphere is a very intriguing touch of the paranormal. Just a touch; I've actually seen COTW categorized as "paranormal" in a couple of places, and that seems quite an exaggeration. It's not something so overt that the characters even notice, just a matter of we readers knowing that there's something in the castle wanting our protagonists' happiness. Hardly in the league of vampires and werewolves and psychics!


Ladies' Man, by Suzanne Brockmann

>> Monday, April 23, 2007

Ladies' Man, by Suzanne Brockmann is that almost-mythical book that used to go for hundreds and hundreds of dollars online (why? see here). It was recently reissued, so one can now read it for a few bucks.

book coverHe looked like a movie star and kissed like a fallen angel...

Sam Schaeffer was too young, too handsome, and altogether too willing to start a wildfire Ellen Layne could never put out! Dazzled by the pleasure Sam taught her with every touch, she responded with wanton abandon to his fiery, possessive embraces, surrendering herself to a desire she’d never dared confess. Could what began as an outrageous flirtation be a tempting taste of forever?

Sparkling, steaming, and wildly seductive, Suzanne Brockmann’s racy romantic romp entangles a hotshot hero and a passionate professor in the back seat of a limo in traffic -- and lets the good times roll! He made her feel cherished and reckless all at once, but would this crazy love last a lifetime?
It used to be, just any book written in SB's voice would be the best book ever to me. Just witness the phenomenally high grades I gave to books objectively as "just ok" as Letters to Kelly. I still love this author's chatty writing voice. I mean, I'm not as in love with it as I used to be, because I'm giving LM just a B-, but without it, the grade would probably have been a little lower.

English professor Ellen Layne is a bit tired of teaching, so she's taking a break for the summer. With her teenaged children, she's spending a few months with her TV star uncle in NYC. Both she and the kids are acting aficionados, so the idea is to go to a few auditions, see if they can get roles in commercials, etc, just for fun.

Ellen meets Sam Schaeffer at the airport in an episode of mistaken identity. Cop Sam is there as a favour to his best friend, a reclusive author who was supposed to meet up with Ellen's uncle but couldn't make it, and everyone in Ellen's group assumed he is the author. Sam and Ellen end up sharing a limo on their way home, and after he tells her his real identity, they have a very hot encounter on the back seat.

For Ellen, it can't be more than a one night stand, but Sam wants more, and when it appears a stalker is after someone in Uncle Bob's house, he offers his expert help, getting his chance to spend some time near Ellen and convince her.

Well, I can't really say much about this book, because it was really nice, but nothing more. Ellen and Sam are likeable, their scenes together are sweet and they do have some chemistry. I liked the way Sam fell so hard and fast for Ellen, but I didn't completely understand why Ellen was so set against having anything more with him. I guess I bought their romance, but wasn't fascinated by it.

Same thing for the suspense subplot. I liked that Brockmann didn't make it completely straightforward, adding some doubts about who exactly the stalker was after (is he obsessed with Ellen, after seeing her in a commercial? Is he after uncle Bob? Even, is he after Sam, thinking he's the famous author they all first confused him with), but it wasn't particularly compelling.

The secondary characters and all the rest were interesting. I enjoyed Ellen's kids and had fun reading about those cattle call auditions they were doing. But... well, again, nice. The whole book was like that. Not excellent, not bad. Just all right.


The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt

>> Friday, April 20, 2007

Sometimes all it takes is one book. With her debut, The Raven Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt won herself a spot in my autobuy list. Her next, The Leopard Prince (excerpt) wasn't about any character I remembered from TRP, but that didn't make me any less anxious to read it.

Wealthy Lady Georgina Maitland doesn't want a husband, though she could use a good steward to run her estates. One look at Harry Pye, and Georgina knows she's not just dealing with a servant, but a man.

Harry has known many aristocrats—including one particular nobleman who is his sworn enemy. But Harry has never met a beautiful lady so independent, uninhibited, and eager to be in his arms.

Still, it's impossible to conduct a discreet liaison when poisoned sheep, murdered villagers, and an enraged magistrate have the county in an uproar. The locals blame Harry for everything. Soon it's all Georgina can do to keep her head above water and Harry's out of the noose...without missing another night of love.
So, does the second book live up to the debut? The answer, I'm very happy to say, is yes. TLP has the same freshness and wonderful energy TRP had. It delivers a delicious cross-class romance between two characters I adored, and only a suspense subplot that becomes completely detached from the rest of the book keeps it from being an A read. Still, a B+ is an excellent grade, anyway.

Lady Georgina Maitland is a rare case in the late 18th century in that she's an unmarried female who's wealthy and independent in her own right, thanks to an inheritance from an forward-thinking aunt. Harry Pye is the steward of one of her estates, and their relationship is a perfectly proper boss-employee one, even if Harry has long felt a very improper degree of lust for his employer.

It's only when George insists on accompanying Harry on a visit to the Yorkshire estate he manages for her that she begins to see him in a different light. As Hoyt puts it, "After the carriage wreck and a bit before the horses ran away, Lady Georgina Maitland noticed that her land steward was a man." Soon they are entangled in a passionate affair, which, given their disparate stations, could only end in heartbreak for both of them.

And worrying about his heart breaking and about losing his post once the affair ends is not Harry's only problem. He grew up right next door to George's estate, leaving only after a violent run-in with one of the local aristocrats who was his father's employer. Now someone is killing that nobleman's sheep and everyone thinks Harry's the culprit, and given that he's just a regular guy (not a nobleman in disguise, or a royal by-blow, or anything like that), he's in real danger of coming to a bad end.

The romance here is probably among the best I've read in months. I loved it because the characters involved were unique and well-drawn, as well as very, very appealing. I think most readers I've seen talking about TLP developed a little crush on Harry, and so did I. He's this quiet but very intense type, the perfect example of the "still waters run deep" thing, but with an irreverent streak that was really endearing and funny.

But I loved George just as much. I loved the unorthodox ways in which her mind worked, I loved her sense of humour, and I loved her refusal to bow to propriety. I also loved how totally she got Harry, who got her just as much, and believed in him even when everyone thought he was guilty.

These were two people who were perfect together. Harry really needed someone like George to drive him crazy, someone to see that he wasn't just a very efficient land steward, but a man with very deep feelings and a very unique sense of humour. And George needed someone like Harry, who saw that beneath the flighty façade is an intelligent woman with a mind of her own and who truly appreciated her attractiveness.

The relationship between these two is passionate and tender at the same time, with the added piquancy of their class differences. I especially liked how Hoyt handled that issue. Oh, I don't know if it would be historically accurate that a land steward would fall in love and marry his employer. I don't really care in the least about it, to be honest. What I loved was how Hoyt had them relating as equals from the first, even as they both were aware of the class issue. There's something that perfectly illustrates this, and it's the way Harry addresses George. All through the book, he calls her "my lady", and it never felt subservient in the least. And I don't know how Hoyt did it, but I could actually hear the change in tones of those "my lady"s, from the very proper one at the beginning of the book, to the very sexy one later on, that was as much an endearment as if he'd been calling her "my love".

So, the actual romance is a straight A, even the ending, which should have bothered me but didn't. Unfortunately, the rest of the stuff that was going on around it made the book a bit less enjoyable, and that lowers my grade a bit.

My problems started around the halfway point. Up until then, the romance and the rest had been well integrated and both aspects wonderfully done. But suddenly it started feeling as if they had nothing to do with each other. It was a bit like when you have a piece of string and you start picking the fibres apart. The first part was the untouched string, the second had the different fibres each on their own... the romance going in one direction, the poisoned sheep plot in another, then the storyline about Georgina's sister in another, neither having much relation to the other.

In the end, I didn't see the point of the subplot about Georgina's sister's seduction, and the sheep-poisoning plot ended up being much less interesting than it first seemed it might be. And actually, I kind of got the feeling that it might have become uninteresting to the author, as well, because at one point it was just wrapped up in a hurry and ended up having practically no importance to the main characters and their relationship.

But did I care? Not very much. All this means is that I'll probably just skim the non-romance parts when I reread this book, which I definitely see myself doing in the future!

PS - Want more? Hoyt guest blogged at Sybil's earlier this week.


Houston, We Have a Problem, by Erin McCarthy

>> Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I've read one book by Erin McCarthy before, The Pregnancy Test. It was a cute, inoffensive read... nothing that wowed me, but ok enough that I gave in to temptation and bought a used copy of Houston, We Have a Problem when I saw it available.

Dr. Houston Hayes has never had trouble maintaining his professional distance with both patients and co-workers...until he meets resident Josie Adkins. Every time the tiny tornado of cheery clumsiness drops a chart in his presence, he's treated to a view that makes him extremely interested in her bones. Jumping them, that is. For a man who prides himself on control at all times, this is getting to be a problem. And problems always have solutions...

All her life, Josie has wanted to be a surgeon. But how can she do that while she's suffering from the debilitating Dr. Hayes Induced Dropping Medical Equipment Syndrome? Honestly, with those ice blue eyes and powerful shoulders dipping down to a -- whoops, there goes the blood pressure cuff -- what's a girl to do? And then Dr. Hayes shocks her by prescribing a very sexy cure: one night of sheet-burning passion to erase the sexual tension for both of them. But only one night...he won't need more than that...

Suddenly, Josie has her mission -- a chance to prove the arrogant Dr. Hayes wrong. One night with her will never be enough if she has her way. And soon, both doctors may be falling into a desire deeper than any they've ever that makes them hungry for more....
After two books, I get the feeling McCarthy is just not for me. *sigh*

Josie Adkins is an orthopedic resident in Florida hospital. She's a highly intelligent, capable physician. Except, that is, around hunky orthopedic surgeon Houston Hayes. Whenever he's near, Josie becomes so horny that she turns into a total klutz, dropping medical equipment right and left and generally making an ass of herself.

Houston is just as attracted to the sexy resident. The attraction doesn't incapacitate him quite as much as it does Josie, but it is becoming an unwelcome distraction. Houston's past, living with an abusive father, has left him unwilling to enter a committed relationship, so his solution is simple. A one-night stand should get rid of all that sexual tension and allow both to go back to work refreshed.

Josie isn't sure this will help. She knows herself: she's not made for a purely physical affair, so this business with Houston will surely leave her with a broken heart. But she can't resist the temptation anyway...

The positives: McCarthy has a nice writing style and there are some funny moments. Also, Josie's body isn't supermodel perfect, and yet she drives Houston crazy with lust. Cool.

Unfortunately, that's about it for what I liked. I found both Josie and Houston majorly annoying. Let's start with Houston. This is one of those outwardly icy heroes who are a mass of seething feelings inside, which is something I love, when well done. Only I didn't buy it here. His character never completely gelled for me, and his reactions didn't feel very natural. I wanted to tell the whiner to get over himself and to stop being so patronizing to poor Josie.

As for Josie, see that "poor Josie" right above? That was the problem, I guess. I kept thinking she was pretty pathetic, kind of like an eager puppy trying to get Houston to pay some attention to her. Reading about her got pretty painful, with the klutziness (was that supposed to be cute?), the constant self-doubt and the neverending whining about her body.

Given Josie and Houston didn't have much chemistry between them and that there was a huge imbalance of power, this wasn't a relationship I was very invested in. And since the romance is pretty much all we get in the book, this was why it failed for me. Oh, there's some attempt to introduce some more serious issues, like the life-changing consequences of an accident Houston has and Josie's doubts about her vocation, but I didn't think those were handled well and they didn't get that much space anyway. Some authors have a knack for including serious issues in very funny books without diminishing them, but not McCarthy, apparently.

I actually started writing this review planning on a C+, but as I kept thinking about it, I kept coming up with more and more things that irritated me. I guess this tells you something about this book: it's one you shouldn't overthink. But I have, so eh, well, a C- from me.


Bogeyman, by Gayle Wilson

>> Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Until I saw a post about Bogeyman at Tara Marie's blog, I didn't know Gayle Wilson was writing romantic suspense. All I'd read by her were Regency-set historicals.

A child’s worst nightmare. A mother’s worst fear.

A year after the death of her husband, Blythe Wyndham moves with her four-year-old daughter, Maddie, back to the small town where she grew up. But soon after they move into their new house, strange things begin to happen. Maddie has disturbingly intense nightmares—so intense that Blythe fears one night she may not be able to awaken her daughter. A psychologist explains that Maddie’s dreams are simply the result of her father’s death, but Blythe knows something else is wrong. Because she’s heard the tapping at her daughter’s window…

Convinced the house is haunted, Blythe researches the town’s history and discovers that a little girl had been murdered in the area 25 years ago. Could there be some connection between this dead child and Maddie? With the help of Sheriff Cade Jackson, Blythe tries to separate past horrors from present dangers and struggles to distinguish the real from the imagined. But someone is clearly determined to keep a secret—and will kill again to do so.
Well, if this is the kind of romantic suspense Wilson is writing, I'm buying. The plot was fantastic, the characters intriguing and the pacing excellent. I read this one in one sitting, and that's very rare for me these days. A B+.

This is one cover that lets the reader know exactly what the book will be like. An innocent child and something sinister and threatening watching, this is the plot we get in Bogeyman. The child in question is Blythe Wyndham's daughter, Maddie. Ever since they moved back to Blythe's home town in rural Alabama, Maddie has been experiencing terrifying nightmares. Nightmares so scary, in fact, that her mother has began to fear she won't be able to wake up from the next one.

The psychologist she consulted said the nightmares were probably caused by the recent death of Maddie's dad, but Blythe doesn't believe it. Not after she hears the ghostly tapping at her daughter's window and realizes there's nothing physical out there that could be causing it. It soon becomes clear to Blythe that some danger is stalking her and her daughter, something not quite natural, something probably related to the unsolved murder of a young girl 25 years earlier. Sheriff Cade Jackson is more than willing to protect her from physical danger, but will she be able to convince him of what she suspects?

As I said, I literally couldn't put this down. As more and more strange things took place, I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. I kept turning the pages, and could only stop when the book was finished (which was 2 in the morning. Damn you, Gayle Wilson, I had to get up very early the next day!)

I loved the way Wilson combined the supernatural elements with the more mundane suspense elements. She succeeded in creating an extremely creepy atmosphere, and one where the woo-woo stuff made perfect sense, once we found out what was going on. In fact, the way Wilson handled the supernatural reminded me of some of my favourite Barbara Michaels ghost stories, which is a huge compliment from me.

The characters were also great, especially Blythe. She's very believable as a woman who really loves her daughter and would do everything to protect her, but at the same time, isn't perfect. She's sometimes short-tempered and bitchy, and who would blame her? The trauma of the events happening around her would make anyone out of sorts.

Cade is more typical small-town skeptical sheriff, but a good match for Blythe. Not that this is the focus of the book, because there are also shades of Barbara Michaels in the romance. No, not the type of romance, but how subtle it was. But is this really a problem? Honestly, I was too involved in the plot to be at all bothered by how the romance wasn't given all that much attention. And considering the short time frame and the nature of the plot, how traumatic the events going on were, the subtleness was very appropriate, and so was the conclusion to it. There were no out-of-the-blue proposals or declarations of undying love, just two people who acknowledged the attraction and that they would like to pursue it. And that felt right.

I also liked what Wilson did with the setting. This very small town in rural Alabama is instantly recognizable to anyone who's been reading romance for a while. But Wilson writes it with more thougthfulness than usual, not relying on stereotypes, but creating well-rounded secondary characters. And the heroine isn't all-accepting. She loves certain things about the town and its people, but there are others she questions and she feels uncomfortable about having her daughter absorb them.

What didn't feel that right was the conclusion to the suspense. This was the weakest point of the book, I thought. Wilson completely surprised me with this one... all through the story, I was convinced it was someone else. Sure, I like a surprise, but what I didn't like was that the solution didn't feel completely natural. I'm still wondering "why?". It didn't fit what we'd seen of this person (those late revelations about what Cade knew about his past notwithstanding That felt a bit like cheating, and should have been revealed much earlier). It didn't fit with what we'd seen this person do in certain areas. I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, so that's all I'm going to say, but my solution would have been much better *vbg*.

But other than this, Bogeyman was excellent. There's a very interesting excerpt to Wilson's next RS at the back of this one, and I'll be keeping an eye out for it.


Illicit Dreams, by Vicki Lewis Thompson

>> Monday, April 16, 2007

Illicit Dreams is a novella by Vicki Lewis Thompson which came packaged with two Harlequin Blaze novels by Suzanne Forster and Alison Kent in the Undressed anthology. From what I see elsewhere, it seems it's a reprint, and it first came out in another antho, Invitations to Seduction.

Lindsay Scott can't help but overhear Hunter Jordan's nightly activities though her thin apartment walls. But she finally decides to do something about her crush when she discovers a naughty book full of ideas guaranteed to make Hunter her sex slave... .

I meant to do one post for the three books in the anthology, but when I was about to start the Alison Kent, my M-Bag full of books arrived, and I got distracted. And now I can't find Undressed under the piles of other books. It'll turn up soon, I'm sure, but I'd better review Illicit Dreams quickly, because it's quickly evaporating from my mind. Pretty good sign that it's a forgettable, if nice, story. A C+.

Lindsey Scott is hot for her neighbour, Hunter Jordan, and it's torture for her to hear him get it on with his swimsuit model girlfriend every night (yeah, very thin walls in that building). She doesn't know that Hunter has noticed her as well. He's a pretty stand-up guy, too, so when he starts dreaming about Lindsey rather than about his girlfriend, he breaks up with her.

Unfortunately, Lindsay overhears a discussion between Hunter and his now-ex that makes her think she dumped him, not the opposite, so when Hunter shows some interest, she thinks he's on the rebound. And Lindsey has had very bad experiences with guys on the rebound, who use her to get over their exes and then promptly leave her. But she can't resist accepting what Hunter offers, and soon they're having a hot and heavy affair of their own.

I mostly enjoyed this one. Both Hunter and Lindsay are truly nice people, and they approach their affair with a joy and a lack of angst that was good to see. Even Lindsay's worry about being rebound girl again soon proves to be baseless, and so there just aren't many obstacles there. Sounds boring, but the story is short and the sex is hot, because these two have plenty of chemistry, so it zips along nicely. I especially liked Hunter's lust-think, strangely enough.

A couple of quibbles, though. First, something that's bothered me in other VLT books: the characters seem a bit too quick to reveal their kinks and innermost fantasies to each other. Some of the things they do here... well, let's just say that I would have bought it much more easily if they'd happened after they'd been in a relationship for a while and trusted each other more.

Then there was the thing about Hunter recognizing that he was a pretty vanilla guy before Pamela (the dumped girlfriend). I kind of liked that he really appreciates the woman for having taught him a few things and thinks warmly of her for that, but then there's his thinking that now that he's learnt this, he wants to apply it with a different kind of woman. That left a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, there's this strange book with sexual fantasies in a bridal shop that felt like an unexplained gimmick that's out of context. It adds nothing but distraction here, but I wouldn't be too surprised if it had been a theme in the previous anthology this story was packaged with, so ok.

All things considered, not a bad way to spend an hour or so.


The Horsemaster's Daughter, by Susan Wiggs

>> Friday, April 13, 2007

I bought The Horsemaster's Daughter because I really liked the first Susan Wiggs book I read, The Charm School.

She had the power to heal. . . but would that be enough?

A wild horse, a broken man, a family in ruins and a woman with the power to heal. . .

Once a privileged son of the South, Hunter Calhoun is now a widower shadowed by the scandal of his wife's death. He's been more successful at breeding Thoroughbred racehorses than in managing his crumbling estate and in caring for his grieving children. When his prized stallion arrives from Ireland crazed and unridable, Hunter is forced to seek out the horsemaster's daughter.

His only hope is the barefooted girl, who's been brought up far removed from the social world of wealth and privilege. Eliza Flyte has inherited her father's gift for gentling horses, and she agrees to tame Hunter's Irish Thoroughbred. But her healing spirit reaches farther, drawing her to his shattered family and to the intense, bitter man who needs her—as much as she needs him.

Because Eliza understands what Hunter refuses to see -- that love is the greatest healer of all. But can someone from her world teach someone from his what truly matters in life?
It's been a while since I read this book, but this time, it was on purpose. When I finished it, I couldn't decide between a B- and a B grade. I knew I probably should go with a B-, but after some of the awkwardly written books I'd been reading (this was read during my TBR project), I was tempted to give THD extra points for being well written and easily readable. Well, stopping that TBR project and reading better books has given me some perspective, and yeah, this was very much a B- read.

Hunter Calhoun, brother of the hero of The Charm School, is an alcoholic on the verge of total ruin. The Virginia plantation he inherited from his father came with some unexpected and disastrous debts. Instead of trying to rebuild it, Hunter freed all the slaves, sold off some land and decided to breed Thoroughbreds, to his wife's displeasure. See, Lacey married Hunter with the understanding that she'd be a planter's wife, and the change ended up destroying their marriage.

Lacey is now dead, but Hunter is still struggling, both with his family and his business. His little son, Blue, hasn't spoken since his mother's death, and Hunter has no idea how to be a father to him and his sister. As for the horses, Hunter had put all his hopes on a stallion he'd bought from Ireland, but which turned out to be completely crazed. He's about to finally shoot the horse and put all of them out of their misery, when his nephew pleads with him for a reprieve, telling him there's a man on a nearby island who can help.

Hunter is unconvinced, but willing to give it a try. However, he arrives at the island only to find out the horsemaster has died some months ago. The only one left is his daughter, Eliza, but she just might have inherited her father's talent with horses.

The first part of the book, while Hunter and Eliza were at the island, was pretty good. Hunter is ready to give up when he hears Eliza's father has died, but she slowly shows him that her father's methods didn't die with him, and gradually succeeds in gentling the horse. I really liked the way Wiggs wrote her methods, the sense that Eliza could get into the horse's head and understand the reasons why he was doing things and how to convince him to change his ways. She's a Horse Whisperer kind of character, and that aspect was really well written.

I also enjoyed the developing relationship between Eliza and Hunter, even though I wasn't crazy about how she was such a "wild child" character, all naive and innocent and completely unaware of society's rules with regards to men and women. Still, there was a dreamy atmosphere here that I enjoyed; a sense of being apart from the real world, in a place where society's silly rules needn't apply.

But this part ended soon enough, when it became clear that Eliza was in danger because of some of her father's activities. Hunter drags her back with him to the ex-plantation, supposedly so she can continue working with the stallion, but of course, Eliza takes one look at the sad kiddies and that's it for the Horse Whisperer plot.

At about that point, she just stopped being interesting to me. Rather than the almost mystical character she'd been up until then, she becomes this expert nanny, bent on fixing the hero's children. The book shouldn't be called The Horsemaster's Daughter, it should be The Super-Nanny, because Eliza spends much more time being the latter than the former. And it's so boring! The hero's son, who hasn't spoken since his mother died? I think I've seen this character 1.000 times before, and the reason why he doesn't speak is always the same.

Plus, Hunter, who actually hadn't been that likeable in the first part, becomes even more whiny and selfish. I wanted to shake the man awake. Enough already, get a grip! Your life hasn't been that tragic. Was I supposed to feel so sorry for him because he didn't receive a super, wonderful inheritance from his father and needs to work to succeed in life? Why? That describes me and most of my friends. It's no excuse to neglect his children the way he's been doing, and to treat Eliza as he does.

As for his late wife, part of it was his own fault, so the heavy demonization of Lacey irritated me. Yes, marriage means "in sickness and in health", and all that, but I got the feeling that Lacey's problems weren't so much with the fact that the plantation wasn't as prosperous as she expected, but with its not being a plantation anymore. And I just can't ignore the fact that Hunter didn't consult her at all about his plans to radically change their way of life, and even when she made it clear that she would hate those changes, he went ahead and made them anyway. So he wasn't such a prize husband either.

Huh. It seems I disliked it more than I thought! At least the second half. I'd better stop before I talk myself into lowering my grade to a C+!


Details of the Hunt, by Laura Baumbach

>> Thursday, April 12, 2007

I liked the one Laura Baumbach book I liked well enough, so I picked up Details of the Hunt (excerpt) when someone told me it was good. It looked a bit different, but maybe an interesting kind of different.

A 26th century, time-traveling, bounty hunter snatchs a 18th century Earth pirate in a deal to enrich the archeoalogical knowledge of mankind, but as he develops an attraction for the likable, free-spirited prey, he attempts to alter the deal, threatening both his own personal code of honor and the strict rules of conduct of his race. Will the love of a wily, cock-sure, young pirate be enough for the stoic hunter to risk exile from his own people?.

To be honest, I got even more "different" than I was bargaining for. A Bit of Rough had been a plain and simple romance: two normal, regular guys meeting and falling in love in a contemporary setting. The only thing "exotic" were touches of dominance and submission games in bed, but nothing extreme. This was nothing like it. You'll see in the next few paragraphs.

Just to be completely clear: I'm not holding my mistaken expectations against it at all, because I was quickly able to get over my shock and get into some of the more unexpected elements. Not all worked for me, but I was fine with most. Most of the problems I had with the book came from other areas. Again, you'll see. My grade: a B-.

It's 1769 and young pirate ship captain Aidan Maymon is tossed overboard by his men during a mutiny. Tied to a barrel and about to be eaten by sharks, the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is what he thinks is a Cemi sea monster approaching.

700 years later, the Oracan High Council receives a request to make the pirate, Aidan Maymon, the bounty in a hunt. The Oracan are the peace-keepers of the galaxy, possessing the secret to time-traveling, and one of the traditions is to perform these hunts, but only for bounty approved by the Council, which has very high standards. They only approve hunts they find worthy, and in Maymon's case, they approve the hunt because he's supposed to know the location of a treasure which will supposedly enrich archeology and the understanding of Earth culture and so on. Very high-minded, these Oracans. For all their fearsomeness, they're actually pretty sensitive, cultured guys.

Anyway, the Oracan hunter chosen for this mission is Talos, and he accomplishes the first part of it, acquiring the prey, with perfect efficiency. He time-travels back to the 18th century and chooses the moment which would have been just before Maymon died, so that the past is not affected by his actions. Can you guess the Cemi monster Maymon thought was approaching him was Talos, about to snatch him from the sharks' jaws?

His bounty acquired and safely stashed, drugged and bound in his ship, all Talos needs to do is hand him over to Barlow, the human who's requested the hunt. But that's when things derail. Mercenary ships are waiting for Talos when he makes the jump back to the future, and though he escapes the ambush, he needs to make a stopover at a space station for repairs. And then the bounty wakes up and escapes while Talos is out to lunch, and after actually meeting the guy awake, it's hard for Talos to keep seeing the bounty as simply bounty and not a very attractive man who somehow calls to him.

Will Talos go rogue and take Maymon for himself, rather than handing him over to the Oracan council? Is Barlow behind the increasing attempts on Talos and his ship, trying to seize the bounty before the council has allocated it to him?

Let's get this out of the way. You might have guessed it when I mentioned that Maymon first thinks Talos is a Cemi sea monster (and from the cover, duh), but Talos isn't exactly human. I might be glossing over some of the details of his physical description, but the big picture is that the guy is a reptile/humanoid combo, with some key differences from humans, like very sensitive carthilage nubs all over his chest, and a loooong, flexible, prehensile penis, surrounded by sponge-like, tubular appendages, also prehensile. Yeah, I know this isn't that unheard of in erotica e-books, but what can I say? I'm not particularly adventurous in this area, and I think it's the first time I've read something like this.

Strangely, I understood this guy much better and identified more with him than with the child-like waif of a pirate that was Maymon. Talos is a serious, intense guy, conflicted between his concept of honour, which demands that he turn in Maymon to the Oracan Council as bounty, and his growing attachment to the guy, who makes him want forever. I even liked his way of speaking. See, Talos learned his English from gangster movies, so his speech is peppered with old-fashioned expressions, and it was fun, imagining this strange-looking guy talking like that (the only WTF moment was when he said "surrender to me, my desire" in the heat of passion, but fortunately, that was it for purple prose. I wonder if he read a Rosemary Rogers as part of his research into 20th century Earth?).

Maymon, the real human, I didn't get nearly as much. Sometimes it seemed he had the maturity of a 10-year-old, not to mention the common sense. Not all the time, fortunately, and he did grow on me after a while, but I remain unconvinced.

What I did like about what Baumbach did with Maymon was the lack of rose-coloured lenses in her vision of what the life of the 18th century pirate would have been. When Maymon gets a check-up at the medical centre, they don't just have to get rid of the dirt and matted hair and lice and crabs and clean the stained teeth (and just that would have been revolutionary). They also have to fix some physical problems caused by the way he was living, like fixing his liver because of all the alcohol he'd drunk, remove a tumor from his intestines, and they even discover that the reason he's small and slight is because bad nutrition as he was growing up (he started on a pirate ship at 8), meant his growth was stunted. Much better than Disney pirates, IMO.

As for the romance and sex, I'm kind of of two minds about it. There were things I loved, like seeing Maymon's initial reluctance to make love rather than simply have sex. As he earnestly explains, sex between men doesn't involve those things Talos wants to do, like hugging and petting and kissing. Sex between men is hurried and hidden and almost violent, not about affection but about taking care of needs when there aren't women around. In that sense, even though m/m sex is nothing new to Maymon, the way Talos does it is completely new, and I loved seeing him discover what it could be like.

But really, I could have done without Talos' crazy genitalia. At times it felt like I was reading tentacle porn, and it make me a little bit queasy. I didn't really feel it added anything beyond titillation to the story.

Also, like in that other Baumbach I read, we get one partner who's big and hulky and dominant, and the other who's small and cute and, in this case, even feisty. I definitely prefer it when we don't get the two male protagonists forced into the hero/heroine stereotypical gender roles. That's one of the reasons I like m/m, because I can usually avoid those silly gender roles that piss me off so much.

Even so, I was leaning towards a straight B until the end of the story, when the plot pretty much goes to hell. I was left asking myself "whaaa?" about some things, like what the hell that scepter was. Maybe it's just me: time-travel stories give me headaches. If it had been only the initial time-travel, simply bringing Maymon to the future, ok, but there's some back and forth later that I don't even want to think too hard about.

So, some definite nuggets of goodness there, which make this one worth a try.


Half Moon Street & Defend and Betray, by Anne Perry

>> Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Anne Perry's my new obsession. I've been reading her forever, but I'm suddenly rediscovering just how good her books are. Here are two of them, one from the Pitt series, one from the Monks.

The Pitt is Half Moon Street, book 20 in the series.

Superintendent Thomas Pitt cannot immediately ascertain exactly what segment of society the dead man riding the morning tide of the Thames came from, but the sight of him is unforgettable. He lies in a battered punt drifting through the morning mist, his arms and legs chained to the boat's sides. He is clad in a torn green gown, and flowers bestrew his battered body.

Is he, as Pitt fears, a French diplomat who has gone missing? Or merely someone who greatly resembles him? Pitt's determined search for answers leads him deep into London's bohemia to the theatre where the beautiful Cecily Antrim is outraging society with her bold portrayal of a modern woman - and into studios where masters of light and shadow are experimenting with the fascinating new art of photography.

But only Pitt's most relentless pursuit enables him to identify the wildfire passions raging through this tragedy of good and evil, to hunt down the guilty and protect the innocent.
I liked this one not so much for the mystery itself, but for the issues Perry examines. A B+.

I guess you can tell this is a very late entry in the series from the way the focus has moved away from Thomas and his wife Charlotte. In earlier books, their relationship is central to the story, and seeing them both adapt to their seeming mismatch is even more fascinating than the mysteries Thomas has to investigate.

But they seem to have adapted just fine already. Here, Charlotte isn't even present. She's gone to Paris with her sister Emily, and Thomas isn't particularly bothered by it. Oh, he misses his wife and not having her there really brings home how much he loves her, but he doesn't seem at all conflicted about Charlotte enjoying some of the luxury her birth would have afforded her, but which he can't provide with his job. In earlier books, this would have been such a drama!

So while Charlotte is away with Emily, Thomas gets called into a case. A man has been found dead in a punt on the Thames, posed in a most scandalous way. The body in chains and wearing a green dress looks to be pretty upper class, so Thomas is immediately brought to him, as delicate cases often are.

Meanwhile, Charlotte's mother Caroline isn't having a very good time. Longtime readers of the series will remember that the widowed Caroline married a Jewish actor some 20 years her junior (it's been a while, but it all came back to me as I was reading). Her mother in law, a real harridan who up until then lived with her, took offense and went to live with Emily. But with Emily in Paris, Mrs. Ellison is spending some time with Caroline and Joshua, and making Caroline's life hell.

Caroline is also feeling a bit of an inferiority complex, next to Joshua's theatre friends. They're all so daring and rebellious, defying the censor to put up plays that reveal scandalous things like the dissatisfaction that can lurk inside placid-seeming housewives. Caroline feels like a total stick-in-the-mud next to them, and fears Joshua is regretting marrying someone like her. Even worse: she's not even sure if she really believes that what these people are doing is right.

Thomas and his investigation into the case aren't particularly scintillating in this particular book, but Caroline and the issues she's facing are. What I enjoyed the most about HMS was the questions Perry asks about things like censorship and pornography. The interesting thing was that a priori, I would have thought I'd be squarely on the side of Joshua's friend Cecily Antrim and her colleagues, convinced that shocking people is the only way of making them question the statu quo and the first step into changing the many injustices rampant in Victorian society. But damned if I didn't think some of the objections Caroline and some other people had weren't valid. There are no easy answers here, just questions, and some of those were questions I hadn't thought to ask.

I also liked what Perry did with the character of Mrs. Ellison. This was a character who was completely repugnant to me at the beginning, but who I understood much better at the end of the book. She's not "redeemed" or anything like that; but at least I knew where she was coming from and understood why she'd be so unpleasant.

This is one I'd recommend for people who've read a bunch of the previous books (even if not all of them), but I don't think it would be the best place to start. I think a new reader would have that feeling of arriving at a party where she doesn't know anyone and they all know each other.

The Monk book is a much earlier entry in its series. Defend and Betray is only book 3.

After a brilliant military career, bravely serving crown and country in India, esteemed General Thaddeus Carlyon finally meets death, not in the frenzy of battle, but at an elegant London dinner party.

In a bizarre incident that shocks aristocratic London, General Carlyon is killed in what first appears to be a freak accident. But the General’s beautiful wife, Alexandra, readily confesses that she murdered him – a story she clings to even under the shadow of the gallows.

Investigator William Monk, nurse Hester Latterly, and brilliant Oliver Rathbone, counsel for the defence, work feverishly to break down the wall of silence raised by the accused and her husband’s proud family; and with the trial only days away they search desperately for an answer to the dark and appalling mystery, in order to save a woman’s life.
After reading the books in this series in whichever order I could find them, and having missed the first one, I decided last summer to read the whole thing as it was written. This is the first one I had some memories of, which really gives you an idea of how memorable it is, because I borrowed it from my high school library, and that has to have been at least 11 years ago, probably more. In this case, remembering wasn't really an advantage, but the book was great anyway. A B+ .

At first, everyone thought it was a ridiculous accident. General Thaddeus Carlyon somehow managed to fall over a first floor banister and impale himself on the halberd held by an ornamental suit of armour. But when it became clear it couldn't have been an accident, his wife Alexandra confessed to his murder, insisting she'd done it out of jealousy, an excuse no one who knows her believes.

One of those who doesn't believe it is General Carlyon's sister, Edith, who asks her friend Hester Latterly for help in finding her a lawyer. Hester suggests her acquaintance, Oliver Rathbone, who has a reputation for being one of the most promising barristers in the country.

It looks like a thankless, unwinnable case, what with Alexandra's confession, her refusal to help her lawyers out by revealing why she really did it and the heavy public condemnation, but Oliver is persuaded to try for the impossible and hires the now private detective William Monk to help him investigate. And as they find out more and more clues to what must have happened, it becomes increasingly urgent to save the accused woman's life.

As I mentioned above, I remembered D&D perfectly, even after all these years. That is, I knew the exact reasons for what had happened, even if I didn't quite remember if Alexandra had done it or not (I was actually convinced a certain, very ingenious thing had happened, but the truth was nothing like that. I wonder where I took that from?). This sometimes made for frustrating reading, because I realized the significance of every single little clue, and I wanted to shake Hester and Monk and Oliver because they weren't seeing it.

But for someone reading this for the first time, I suspect the book will be nail-bitingly suspenseful, and when the truth emerges, it will feel right, and they'll look back and remember all those clues and go "oooh, that makes sense!".

The investigation scenes are excellent. It's not a whodunnit, because that's known from the very first, so what Monk et al need to discover is the reason why, and that requires somewhat of a different approach. And as always with Perry, we get some fascinating insight into the Victorian mindset and what secrets lurk behind those seemingly very respectable families.

And at the end, a courtroom scene that is really outstanding, with dramatic revelations and high drama. I ate it all up! *g*

For all that I really loved the book, I've got a couple of quibbles. Maybe because I wasn't that absorbed in trying to figure out what had happened, I was slightly bothered by some details I might have glossed over otherwise. Something that struck me this time is how improbably self-aware characters like the general's mother, Felicia Carlyon, were. This is an extremely conservative woman, and her reasoning about Alexandra's blame felt too insightful. If women start killing men for having a roving eye, the very fabric of society would be destroyed, blah, blah. I'd have believed it more if this justification had simply been beneath her absolute assurance that what Alexandra did was evil and unforgivable.

Also, Monk felt strangely unnecessary here. Did he make any important discoveries himself, any great deductions? Not really. It was Hester who seemed to do it all. Monk seemed absorbed in discovering the identity of a woman from one of his past cases, who he remembers had been in the same situation as Alexandra Carlyon. It's quite simply a matter of the current case bringing the past to mind, but finding out the truth brings no clarity or insights to bear back to the present investigation. I really think this last step would have made this entire subplot much more relevant.

But did I really care? No, the book was excellent anyway. This whole series is really excellent. I'm trying to hold off from reading book 4 too soon, so I don't get burnt out, but it's beckoning from my bedside table (big mistake on my part, putting it there), so I don't think I'll be able to resist much longer.


Fortune's Fool, by Mercedes Lackey

Fortune's Fool (excerpts) is the third in Mercedes Lackey's 500 Kingdoms series.

As the seventh daughter of the Sea King, Ekaterina had a wonderful life—but also a lot of responsibility. Her special gift for moving around on land made her the perfect emissary from her father to check out interesting happenings on the surface. In short, she became the family spy.

On one such reconnaissance mission, she encounters Sasha—the seventh son of the king of Belrus. Though everyone sees his talent at music, they also consider him a fool. Ekaterina suspects something more powerful lies behind his facade. But before she can find out what, Ekaterina is kidnapped!

Carried off by a whirlwind and trapped in a castle with other kidnapped princesses at the mercy of a possessive Jinn, Ekaterina knows her chances of being found are slim. Which means that fortune, a fool and a paper bird are the only things she can count on. Oh, and of course her own clever mind and manipulative abilities…
I loved the first book in this series, The Fairy Godmother. It was so fresh, so wonderful! Great fantasy and great romance (plus, it was my first Lackey, so I have a sentimental attachment to it). However, book 2, One Good Knight, was somewhat disappointing. Oh, it was pretty good, but the Tradition, the most intriguing concept in TFG, was practically absent from it. Add to that the fact that the romance felt very YA-ish, and the whole novel was a bit of a let-down.

I was hoping for a bounce-back with the third book, and I got it. FF isn't quite as excellent as TFG was (mainly because the romance in it wasn't as satisfying), but it's damned good. A B+.

Our heroine is Ekaterina, the Sea King's seventh daughter. Katya has the ability to function on land as well as in the water. She also knows a lot about the Tradition and how to push it and prod it and generally manage it, so she acts as her father's "secret weapon". She's a kind of spy, basically. What Katya does is help her father keep their kingdom peaceful by investigating and dealing with any hints of trouble at the kingdom's edges before these hints become full-blown disasters.

One of those fact-finding missions brings her to the coasts of the kingdom of Belrus. Nothing much is happening there -and that is exactly the problem. The Sea King is worried because no trouble at all is simply not natural, and he fears it might be a false calm masking something bad brewing.

However, Katya soon discovers there's nothing to be worried about when she meets Sasha, the King of Belrus' son. It seems the royal family of Belrus is just as knowledgeable about the Tradition as the Sea King's, and so Sasha, as the seventh son, has grown up to fit the role of the fortunate fool, a role certain to please the Tradition and bring good luck to all Belrus. In front of those outside the family, Sasha acts as an idiot and is the recipient of much vituperation. But behind closed doors, he's valued and loved for his talents, especially that of being a songweaver: that is, someone who, through song, can guide the Tradition into new paths.

Her fears calmed by the knowledge that the peace in Belrus is simply the result of good management, so to speak, Katya gives in to the temptation to get to know this intriguing Sasha. Sasha is just as attracted, and so these two quickly fall in love. But Katya's very next mission puts her in great danger. With Katya kidnapped by a Jinn, she and Sasha will have to put their knowledge of the Tradition to the test in order to be reunited.

The best thing about this book is the world-building. Lackey has created a fascinating concept in the Tradition, and she makes excellent use of it here. I had a blast seeing her play with fairy tales and folktales, twisting them and turning them and showing how the Tradition affects them. I especially liked that the fairy tales and folktales in question were some I wasn't too familiar with. I believe most are from the Russian tradition, and reading about them here left me all fired up to read her other Russian tradition-inspired book, Firebird.

I liked the romance, too. Katya and Sasha are interesting, very smart characters and they click nicely, and in a very sweet way (for the first time in ages, a book in which both hero and heroine are virgins when they meet). However, I did think they spent far too long separated for the romance to really develop. What we get is good, but it's all at the beginning of the book, and for the rest of it, all they're doing is fighting to see each other again. That's all well and good, and I never doubted they were in love, but not much fun for those of use who love to see the actual building of a romance.

Still, the fantasy part was so good that I didn't really mind. I'm definitely not tired of this world at all, and will continue to read it. I do hope there's another one coming soon!


Dead Opposites, by Bethany Campbell

>> Monday, April 09, 2007

I've read two books by Bethany Campbell. Child's Play, a very dark romantic suspense from 1992, was pretty good, while A Thousand Roses a more "romancey" book from 1986 was horrible. Fortunately, Dead Opposites seemed nearer the former, so I had high hopes for it.

Eerie sounds...

...that went bump in the night were part of Hawthorne Tower's history. When Ginnie Price heard rumors that the building was haunted, she decided it was time to move. But her decision was made too late. For when she arrived home one evening, she found more than an empty apartment.

Ex-Marine Wayne Priborski was starting his life over, alone, and didn't want to know his neighbors at Hawthorne Towers. However, he had no choice after encountering Ginnie stumbling down the marble staircase of the old Victorian building, unable to stand, fright evident in her eyes as she numbly told him there was a dead body in her bathtub.
As a total sucker for gothics and horror-tinged romance, the plot and setting of DO really appealed to me. I wasn't that enthused by the characters, but still liked the book in spite of that. A B.

In gothics, you usually have a mysterious, possibly haunted big house. DO has an appartment building as its improbable setting, and yet Campbell makes it work wonderfully.

The appartment buiding in question is Hawthorne Towers, in the isolated outskirts of a New Hampshire city, right next to the woods. Ginnie Prince moved in after her divorce, taking the first job and appartment she could find in the area, but after only a few months there, she wants nothing more than to move out. The places freaks her out completely, with its creepy atmosphere, its strange noises in the middle of the night and its uncomfortable isolation.

However, when Ginnie takes the first step to get out of the place and goes off to a job interview in Maine, things suddenly become a lot scarier. A blizzard has her turning around and going back home before she reaches her destination, and when she enters her appartment, there's a dead body in the bathtub.

Obviously, the minute Ginnie can move again, she runs out to ask her neighbours for help. But when she returns, help in tow, it's to find the bathtub empty. And then the police find no traces of anyone having been messing around in Ginnie's appartment.

The only one to believe that something could have happened is one of the neighbours, former Marine Wayne Priborski. Wayne really isn't interested in getting involved. After the wound that made him resign from the armed forces rather than take a desk job, he just wants to be left alone to brood. But though he'd love to believe this is all just Ginnie's overactive imagination at work, he's seen certain details that don't make sense in the scene...

It's an intriguing setup, and the plot that develops is just as interesting. Things keep happening around Ginnie, and with every additional incident, the tension ratchets up. Campbell makes excellent use of the setting to do this. Hawthorne Towers has a long and disturbing history, and Ginnie and Wayne's investigation into it plays a large part in their discovering the truth.

This is a book with very good pacing, though I suspect that it might seem slow to readers who prefer fast-paced action. The truth emerges slowly, bit by bit, narrated in a style that verges on the melodramatic, but is very effective anyway. And when we finally find out what was going on, it's a very cool, imaginative solution, and one that ties up all loose ends.

But this is Romantic Suspense, and the first half of this label didn't work as well as the second. Ginnie and Wayne never interested me particularly, and I just didn't see any chemistry between them. Campbell tries to add some layers there, drawing up a conflict of personalities between the pacifist Ginnie and the military Wayne, but though that could have been pretty interesting, it didn't really go anywhere.

Well, at least the protagonists felt like three-dimensional characters, because the secondary characters didn't. Maybe the villain, but most of the neighbours living in the apartment were cartoonish and acted in ways that left me scratching my head.

Read this one for the suspense. It's much better than a ton of suspense subplots I've read in single titles.


The Perfect Seduction, by Leslie LaFoy

>> Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Perfect Seduction, by Leslie LaFoy was another of the books I read as part of my "tame the TBR pile" project (and yeah, there are a few still left to review, even though I read them in February and the first half of March).

book coverSimple Determination...

After a lengthy journey, Seraphina Treadwell appears at the doorstep of Carden Reeves with his three young nieces in tow, determined to ensure their uncle will properly care for her charges. However, judging by the man's rakish smile and dancing eyes – now alight with the fire of a new conquest – that day seems far off indeed.

Sweet Persuasion...

A man who can make love and walk away with equal amounts of passion, Carden plays the seduction game to win. But beneath a rogue's clothing beats the heart of a man who has never been truly and properly seduced by a woman, let alone a woman who lives by her own rules and who could make him believe in love. Until now...

Sinful Seduction...

While pride will not allow Seraphina to surrender to a man who has never wanted anything beyond a single night, her heart will not be denied the sweet promise of love...
LaFoy writes well, and her characters had some interesting facets, but the wall-paper historical element of the setting bugged me. A C.

When her husband and the expedition he was leading disappear in the jungles of Belize, Seraphina Treadwell is left in a desperate situation. As a last resort, she takes the three daughters of her husband's last clients (they were family friends, and they had left them with Sera when they left on that ill-fated expedition) and travels with them to England, intending to deliver them to their uncle.

To that uncle, Carden Reeves, the news Seraphina brings is disastrous. His brother's death makes him the new Earl, and that's something he really, really doesn't want. Plus, he's a busy man and knows nothing of children, so what will he do with three young girls? So he convinces the beautiful Seraphina to remain with the girls as their companion/governess, and convinces her to keep the secret of his brother's death. That should solve the problem.

But soon the feelings he and Seraphina develop for each other will make their comfortable arrangement not so comfortable. Because of her very unhappy first marriage, Seraphina is very weary of a relationship with Carden, and she's very reluctant to accept one that's less-than-permanent... which is the only type Carden can offer. And then, to complicate things further, it soon becomes clear that there's someone from Sera's past that is a big danger to her even today.

I tend to be pretty tolerant with historical accuracy. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the subject, so as long as it's not too bad and I can keep my suspension of disbelief intact, I'll overlook things or give the author the benefit of doubt. I just couldn't do it here. LaFoy has some very strange ideas of how certain things were in the 19th century.

Just as an example, take the subject of whether Seraphina could be the girls' hired companion and still live in the household of a single man without this causing a scandal. Yes, it was determined: as a paid employee, that would be perfectly all right. Ok, I'm fine with that. But then Carden and his friends start inviting her to go to social fuctions with them! A dinner party, a very high society ball.. does it sound at all plausible that the governess will be able to basically date her employer and his friends? Oh, no problem, apparently, because Seraphina is a beautiful woman, so this will be fine. I thought my head was going to explode.

And then there was the subject of Seraphina's marriage to Gerald. Gerald appearing alive at the end will surprise no one who's ever read a romance novel, so I won't even put in a spoiler warning here. The problem was that this was treated as if it was a minor inconvenience, easily solvable (because divorces were so easy to come by for a woman, back then) and as if Gerald had absolutely no rights over Seraphina and her property. Oh, no, Gerald has gone into hiding because it's been discovered that he'd been cheating Seraphina out of her inheritance! Cheating? The way I understand things were back then, he's her husband, so what's hers is his to dispose of as he decides, and if he doesn't even tell her about it, no one is going to be shocked.

And the detail that made me lower the grade of the book even one notch further was when Seraphina casually reveals that all through her marriage, she made Gerald wear sheaths (19th century version of condoms). Oh, really? It strains credibility that a) There would be an abundant supply of sheaths in the supposedly very primitive Belize, b) A gently bred, virginal young woman would know about them, and c) Seraphina would have been able to persuade her husband to wear them every single time, when the man was a mean drunk who constantly beat her up and had absolutely no respect for her. Are we supposed to believe this when, even now, in the age of AIDS, and even in much healthier, more loving relationships, so many women have trouble making their boyfriends wear condoms? We should get Seraphina to teach them her secrets.

There were tons of details like those, and they kept kicking me out of the story, and it was just too much. Eh, well, the book did have some good points, though. I thought the characters were pretty interesting on their own, and certain things about their personalities intrigued me. Like the way Carden's career as an engineer/architect was so important to him. His resistance to become an earl annoyed me, at first. Like Seraphina, my reaction was of the "oh, cry me a river" variety, but also like Seraphina, once he explained his thoughts and how his earldom would completely ruin his career, I found myself understanding where he was coming from. Unfortunately, this interesting point goes nowhere.

I do have another book by LaFoy in my TBR, but now I don't know if I'll even read it. The review at AAR is very intriguing, but then, so was the one of TPS, and the reviewer didn't seem to be fazed at the historical inaccuracies.


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