My Best Friend's Girl, by Dorothy Koomson

>> Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TITLE: My Best Friend's Girl
AUTHOR: Dorothy Koomson

PAGES: 437

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: I always have trouble categorising Koomson's book. This would be serious chick lit, with a large dose of Women's Fiction.

REASON FOR READING: I love the author's books

What would you do for the friend who broke your heart? Best friends Kamryn Matika and Adele Brannon thought nothing could come between them - until Adele did the unthinkable and slept with Kamryn's fiance, Nate. Worse still, she got pregnant and had his child. When Kamryn discovered the truth about their betrayal she vowed never to see any of them again. Two years later, Kamryn receives a letter from Adele asking her to visit her in hospital. Adele is dying and begs Kamryn to adopt her daughter, Tegan. With a great job and a hectic social life, the last thing Kamryn needs is a five year old to disrupt things. Especially not one who reminds her of Nate. But with no one else to take care of Tegan and Adele fading fast, does she have any other choice? So begins a difficult journey that leads Kamryn towards forgiveness, love, responsibility and, ultimately, a better understanding of herself.
Years earlier, Kamryn discovered her best friend had slept with her fiance, Nate. And it gets worse. The mysterious father of Adele's little girl, whose identity she always refused to reveal? Yep, that was actually none other than Nate.

Feeling betrayed and completely shattered, Kamryn immediately broke with the lot of them and never looked back. But now Adele has managed to get through Kamryn's barriers and contacted her. Adele has terminal cancer and is desperate to make sure her daughter, Tiga, doesn't end up being raised by her vile, vile grandfather.

Much as she always adored little Tiga, Kamryn has never wanted children, and is reluctant to make that bitch Adele any promises. But when she gives in to her sense of duty and goes to check up on Tiga, she realises Adele's fears were well founded, and she simply cannot leave the little girl with her abusive grandfather.

And fitting in a small girl in mourning into her life isn't the only challenge Kamryn is facing. Her boss, with whom she had an excellent relationship, has just retired, and the company has brought in a new American manager to take over. The new guy, Luke, immediately makes it clear that he disapproves of everything Kamryn does. She clearly only got to her position because she was sleeping with her former boss, she's incompetent, and he even insinuates he thinks she's overweight (yeah, he's awfully professional, that Luke).

But the man also has a non-asshole side, and that comes to light when he meets Tiga. The two immediately fall in love with each other, and Luke begins to spend more and more time with the girl, and by extension, with Kamryn. But no sooner do they get over their initial misconceptions and start tentatively developing a relationship, Nate shows up. He wants his daughter, and he wants Kamryn back.

Describing this book as angsty is an understatement. But it's the good type of angsty. I never feel manipulated by Koomson, even as I try to swallow the lump in my throat and struggle not to cry. Everyone here is neither villain nor all good, and I do mean everyone. Even Nate and Adele, whom I started out considering disgusting cheats with no redeeming features whatsoever, end up being understandable and real, and definitely not all bad.

Kamryn was the one I felt for the most, though. Koomson doesn't flinch at showing us how badly she struggles with this situation she's been placed in through no fault of her own. She has never, ever wanted children, and has built a life for herself that she loves and which really does fulfill her. When she suddenly has to take Riga into that life, it's not all roses. There's no nonsense about her immediately realising what the meaning of life really is, or anything like that, which, as someone who has absolutely no desire to have children, I really appreciated. She does love Tiga, and ends up with a life she still enjoys, but there's no question that she wouldn't have chosen to raise a child otherwise, and that having Tiga doesn't mean she now wants children of her own.

The only reason this is not an A is the ending. I won't reveal who Kamryn ends up with and how, but I will say I found it all a bit unsatisfying. It didn't really feel like a HEA ending. It felt as if she was settling, and that for both her and the man she ends up with, it was all more about loving Tiga than about loving each other. I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed.



Archangel's Kiss, by Nalini Singh

>> Sunday, November 28, 2010

TITLE: Archangel's Kiss
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Alternate version of our world, set mostly in the angels' refuge
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Guild Hunters series

REASON FOR READING: I liked book 1, Angel's Blood.

WARNING: Do not read even the plot summary quoted below if you haven't read book 1. Big series spoilers ahead!

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh returns to her world of angelic rulers, vampiric servants, and the woman thrust into their darkly seductive world…

Vampire hunter Elena Deveraux wakes from a year-long coma to find herself changed—an angel with wings the colors of midnight and dawn—but her fragile body needs time to heal before she can take flight. Her lover, the stunningly dangerous archangel Raphael, is used to being in control—even when it comes to the woman he considers his own. But Elena has never done well with authority…

They’ve barely begun to understand each other when Raphael receives an invitation to a ball from the archangel Lijuan. To refuse would be a sign of fatal weakness, so Raphael must ready Elena for the flight to Beijing—and to the nightmare that awaits them there. Ancient and without conscience, Lijuan holds a power that lies with the dead. And she has organized the most perfect and most vicious of welcomes for Elena…
At the end of Angel's Blood, Elena wakes after a year spent in a coma after being injured in the big climactic fight to stop the deranged archangel Uram. On awakening, she is shocked to realise that her lover, the archangel Raphael has changed her into an angel in order to save her life.

Archangel's Kiss picks up right after this, and it's mostly about Elena adapting. First and foremost, she needs to adapt to being an angel, living in an environment that's completely alien to her. She's now amongst beings who are well aware of her weakness as a new angel and are determined to take advantage of this as a way of getting to Raphael.

But Elena also needs to adapt to her relationship with Raphael. Although very intense, their time together before she was changed wasn't long, and Raphael isn't like any man. One of the things I liked the most about Angel's Blood was how Singh had created a character who was clearly not human. He has only just enough humanity to be able to love, so obviously, a relationship with him is never going to be straightforward for a very human woman.

Parallel to this there is also a plot involving someone killing people, clearly manouvering to become an archange, as well as Lijuan, the oldest archangel, inviting Elena and Raphael to a ball. There are rumours of Lijuan losing the last vestiges of any humanity, and playing with the limit between life and death, so Elena needs to be as strong as possible for this occasion.

There were many excellent things about this book. The world Singh has created is very original, intrincate, and extremely well imagined. The dynamics of the angels, the hunters, the vampires and the normal humans are fascinating. This world is vivid, too. I could just see the New York that was the setting of the first book, and this one takes place in the angels' private refuge. It's a very different background, but it felt just as real.

The relationship between her hero and heroine was just as original. It was all passion and conflict in the first book, but here they have a lot more quiet time, while Elena trains and gets stronger and they work together to investigate what on earth is going on at the refuge. We also learn quite a lot more about the past that made them who they are, and that was all quite dramatic. I knew Elena had some horrible stuff in her past, but Raphael gives her a run for her money. And yet, it wasn't a miseryfest, but rather an opportunity for them to grow closer.

So lots of objectively really good things, and yet, maybe it was my mood, maybe it was the fact that I never got too interested in the external plot, but it felt like for a long time, the story was coasting without really getting started. I found it all a bit hard to get into, even lost interest in some of Elena and Raphael's interactions for a while (especially the love scenes -I just couldn't work up an interest in them).

And also, I couldn't shake loose the feeling that this seems like a quite unpleasant life to live, always having to be alert to evil plots and plans around you, always having to be wary because the other archangels spend their entire lives engaged in power play. It must be truly exhausting. I had sort of the same feeling when I read the first in Shana Abe's Drakkon series, and that kept me from seeing the ending as a true HEA. It wasn't quite like that here, but still.

I will definitely try the next one, hoping to like it better.


NOTE ON THE UK COVER: I was interested to know that the UK publishers, Gollancz, include a sort of checklist at the back of their urban fiction releases (click on the image to enlarge), I guess to help out their readers find books that fit their mood. According to them, AK is romantic and sexy, but not gothic, action-packed or funny. And come to think of it, they are right!


A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

>> Friday, November 26, 2010

TITLE: A Room Swept White
AUTHOR: Sophie Hannah

PAGES: 454
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery / Suspense
SERIES: Some recurring characters

REASON FOR READING: Sophie Hannah is one of my friend H's favourite authors, and she insisted I borrow some of her books.

TV producer Fliss Benson receives an anonymous card at work. The card has sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four - numbers that mean nothing to her

On the same day, Fliss finds out she's going to be working on a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot death mothers wrongly accused of murder. The documentary will focus on three women: Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hind. All three women are now free, and the doctor who did her best to send them to prison for life, child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy, is under investigation for misconduct.

For reasons she has shared with nobody, this is the last project Fliss wants to be working on. And then Helen Yardley is found dead at her home, and in her pocket is a card with sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four...
The summary above is spot-on and there's no point reinventing the wheel, so I'll skip the plot description if you don't mind.

A Room Swept White started out very strong. It's a very puzzling mystery. For starters, who would want to kill Helen Yardley? The only person who might have a grudge against has a solid alibi, and event soon make it clear they couldn't have been the culprit. And what is it with the mysterious card with the 16 numbers? That would suggest some sort of serial killer, but evidence suggests Helen knew her murderer. It's all very intriguing, and I couldn't wait to find out just what on earth was going on.

Hannah managed to keep up this level of interest on my part throughout the entire story (and it's quite a brick of a book, too). The more things happened, the more puzzled I was, and the more I wanted to know how Hannah was going to link it all together and make it make sense. Unfortunately, the resolution wasn't as great as I would have hoped for. It wasn't that it left things unexplained or was completely unbelievable, but it lacked that "ahhh, so that was it!" that makes a mystery resolution satisfying. As it was, I was more like "really?".

ARSW is a bit unusual in that it's sort of part of a series, with two detectives who are recurring characters (they are also a couple), and yet, they weren't really the main characters. They're definitely important characters (Simon Waterhouse more than Charlie Zailer), but for a long time I didn't guess they were supposed to be any more important than any others. It was only when I got a couple too many references to past events that I had a look online and realised they had been part of Hannah's previous books. I'm planning to read some of those earlier books (my friend did give me quite a few), but it would have been nice to have been given a teeny bit more background on things like why Simon refuses to have sex with Charlie, or how exactly Charlie was so disgraced that she had to quit the force.

The person I would really consider the protagonist of this book was Fliss Benson, the young woman working on the documentary on cot deaths, who also receives the card with the 16 numbers on it. She was a character I found quite frustrating, as (possibly to move the plot in the direction the author needs it to go) she sometimes behaves very, very stupidly. I mean, you receive a photograph which you realise might be from the murderer. It doesn't implicate you in anything or reflect negatively on you at all? It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that this is important information that the police really should have. So what sort of person would destroy the card and refuse to tell anyone about it? IMO, either a monumentally selfish or monumentally stupid one. Or both, which is what Fliss was, really. Very frustrating.

Reading back what I've written so far, this doesn't sounds like a good book at all. That's not quite right, even with all the problems I've described, there are some very good things about it, too. I quite liked the pulled-from-the-headlines feel of the plot. The characters are all quite vivid and interesting. Hannah very skilfully made me change my mind again and again about the original cot deaths -what seemed very clear at the beginning slowly became a lot grayer and muddier as the book progressed. And finally, the police work was quite satisfying to read, especially the way Simon found what he needed from the little boy -those were some of my favourite sections.



Fortune and Fate, by Sharon Shinn

>> Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TITLE: Fortune and Fate
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 448

SETTING: The Kingdom of Gillengaria
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: 5th in the Twelve Houses series

REASON FOR READING: Sharon Shinn is one of my favourite authors, and I've loved her Twelve Houses books.

Plagued by guilt for failing to protect her king, Rider Wren has fled the city of Gilengaria and given herself the penance of a life of wandering, helping strangers in need. But when chance brings her to the great estate known as Fortune, Wren will find her fate, and finally confront the ghosts of her past.

Two years after civil war tore Gillengaria apart, the former Rider Wen is still aimlessly wandering the countryside, unable to find peace. In an effort to atone for one single disastrous failure, she looks for opportunities to do good and make amends. She rescues a kidnapped young serramarra, who turns out to be Karryn Fortunalt, daughter of one of the marlords who took the country to war. Karryn’s guardian, Jasper Paladar, persuades Wen to settle at the house known as Fortune and assemble a guard that can protect the serramarra from future attempts on her life. Wen finds herself drawn to the gentle, scholarly Jasper, who is like no one she has ever known before, and she grudgingly grows fond of the flighty Karryn. Nonetheless, she is eager to fulfill her contract and move on—but she cannot leave when she realizes Karryn is still in danger.
NOTE: This review contains some spoilers for the first 4 books.

As far as I know, the Twelve Houses series was supposed to be four books long. By the end of book 4, Reader and Raelynx, not only had the civil war that had been brewing throughout the series been fought and won, all 6 of our central characters: Senneth, Taise, Kirra, Donnal, Justin and Cammon, had found their partners and had their romance.

Fortune and Fate takes place a couple of years after the end of the war, and follows Wen, once of the King's Riders whom we met in previous books. Wen was with King Baryn when he was assassinated, and although she knows very well she did all she could to defend him (she was gravely injured in the attack herself), King's Guards are known for being fanatically loyal to their monarchs, and she can't help but still feel guilty. She's left the Riders and has spent the past few years wandering around Gillengaria, hiding her past as a Rider and going under an assumed name. She's been doing some work here and there and coming to people's aid when she comes across those who need her.

It's while doing this that she runs into young Karryn, the young future serramarra of Fortunalt. Karryn has been kidnapped by a suitor determined to force her into marriage and willing to use any methods to make marriage necessary. On seeing them together, Wen immediately realises something is not quite right, and rescues the girl.

If you've read this series, you'll remember the previous head of Fortunalt was right in the middle of the uprising against King Barryn. He's dead now, though, and Cammon has used his reader's gifts to find a good regent until Karryn, the dead man's daughter, is old enough to take over. The man chosen for her role was her uncle, Jasper Palladar. Jasper is a studious, politically unambitious man who loves his niece and wants the best for her.

When Jasper finds out what happened, and Wen points out how ridiculously unprotected Karryn is, he offers her the role of Captain of the Guard and carte blanche in putting together and training the Guard itself. Wen initially rejects the offer, as she has no interest in settling down at all, but finally changes her mind and takes the job, with the understanding that she'll only commit to short periods at a time, and can leave whenever she wants.

Reluctant as she might be, though, Wen soon starts feeling the satisfaction of putting a guard together from scratch, as well as enjoying her briefings with Jasper a bit too much. And when she receives news that Cammon and his friends, which include her former lover, Justin, are doing a tour of the Southern provinces and might be at Fortunalt before long, she must decide whether to run or stay.

F&F might not have been in the plans originally, but I loved the idea of being able to see what happened next. There were some big changes coming after the civil war, not just in specific houses, but in the role of the minor nobility, the "thirteenth house", which had created such problems with their grievances. Shinn shows us here what those changes have meant, both the good and the potentially problematic, and I found that all very interesting.

Best of all, though, was Wen and her return to the land of the living, so to speak. She's one tough lady, and I loved that Shinn gave her a partner who appreciates and loves that about her. There's a bit of a role reversal here, with the tough warrior being the woman and the bookish intellectual being the hero, and I especially liked that, apart from a moment of shock when he sees just how deadly Wen can be in a fight, Jasper is perfectly happy with who she is and doesn't want to change her.

We also catch up with Senneth and the rest of the crew, and that was fun. Objectively, this was a bit self-indulgent. In the previous books in the series, the presence of the original sextet was always relevant. They were necessary for the story to move forward and they actually evolved as characters themselves. Here it was more akin to your typical romance series trope of having couples from previous installments parading themselves showing how happy they are. Not so objectively, though, I love these characters, and although I was more interesting in what was happening with Wen and Jasper, I enjoyed seeing them again.

A good ending to an excellent series.



The Subtle Build of Perfection, by LM Turner

>> Monday, November 22, 2010

TITLE: The Subtle Build of Perfection

PAGES: 50ish in my ebook reader
PUBLISHER: Cobblestone Press

SETTING: Contemporary (I kind of assumed it was set in the US, but the bio at the end says the author is English and lives in Ireland, so it might be set elsewhere)
TYPE: M/M romance
SERIES: Not that I know of.

REASON FOR READING: This review at Dear Author.

Connor Morgan lives a life of mediocrity. Hopelessly single, he spends his time working at the video store with his insane friend Boyd. But Connor gets the distraction he needs in the form of his newest customer: beautiful, green-eyed Dane Masters. Before Connor can wrap his mind around their instant connection, he's dealing with the kind of obsession that can only lead to disaster.

With Boyd's dubious help, Connor manages to get Dane on a date, and soon they're racing towards something that looks like a relationship. But fate has no intention of letting them find happiness so easily...
This was a really cute short story. Connor works in a video store. He and Dane meet when the latter comes to the store to return some DVDs. The attraction on both sides is clear straight away, and after dancing around each other for a little while, they start dating.

And that's really pretty much it. No big conflicts, other than Connor (from whose point of view the story is narrated) feeling that Dane, a social worker, is too intelligent to really want to go out with someone who never even went to university and works in a dead-end job. In a full-length book this might have been a bit boring, but at this short length, it worked perfectly. They really do talk to each other before anything really happens (the telephone conversations about nothing were an excellent illustration of just how much they clicked and felt comfortable with each other), and by the end of the story, I really believed there was something strong there

Best thing about the story: How both were a bit unsure at the beginning that their advances would be welcomed, and so kept (usually quite unsubtly, despite the title of the story) testing the waters and then nervously withdrawing. I found that really sweet.

Also liked: There wasn't a lot of sex. Not that I have anything against sex, but I've found way too many M/M romances that go a bit overboard and it gets boring. It was just perfect here. The one sex scene comes quite late in the story, so it a) allows time for the actual romance to develop, and b) there's very nice sexual tension leading to it, so the scene was great payoff.

Needing improvement: At some points Dane and Connor sounded exactly the same. It would have been good for each to have a more distinct voice.

I'm very glad I bought this one, and I'm going to seek out more books by this author.



Best Laid Plans, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Saturday, November 20, 2010

TITLE: Best Laid Plans
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Category romance

REASON FOR READING: Mayberry has become an autobuy author for me. If I ever feel like reading category romance, she's the one I go to first.

Boundaries. The key to how corporate lawyer Alexandra Knight manages her busy life. However, lately all her precisely drawn lines are getting blurred. Blame it on her out-of-control biological clock that is ignoring her single status…and on Ethan Stone.

Because her sexy, no-strings colleague has posed an outrageous solution to her dilemma—he'll be her baby daddy. This from the guy who avoids all commitment? Okay, so they're attracted to each other. Really, really attracted. But crossing the line from coworker to co-parent with Ethan could ruin Alex for all other men. After all, when you've had the best…
Successful lawyer Alex Knight has always had a deep desire to be a mother. She would have had a child years earlier, if possible, but circumstances haven't cooperated. Even though she's now 38, she kind of assumes there's still time, and she'll meet someone. Until, that is, the day when she receives two big shocks.

First she runs into her ex, with whom she spent 7 years. All that time he refused to even consider having a child, and they actually broke up over this. But now she sees him pushing a stroller, and even though he tells her it was an accident, Alex feels betrayed. And the rug gets pulled out from under her even more when she goes for her annual check-up later that day and her doctor sets her straight on just how hard it gets to become pregnant once you hit your late 30s.

Faced with the possibility of never becoming a mother, Alex has a good, hard look at her options. All things considered, she decides her best bet is finding a sperm donor.

Alex is a very private person and has always maintained a very professional facade at work. She plans to keep this all very private, but even before she makes her final decision on how to proceed, her fellow partner and raquetball buddy, Ethan Stone, accidentally discovers what Alex is planning.

Ethan is initially horrified (and can't resist making it very clear to Alex, too), but his discovery gets him thinking. He wants to have a child of his own almost as much as Alex does, but a betrayal in his past has left him determined not to ever get married again. But what if he offered Alex to be the donor? They like and respect each other, surely they can manage to negotiate a way to raise a child?

Best Laid Plans didn't start on a high note with me. I was initially quite cross with Alex because of her anger at her ex. When she started ranting about it, I assumed he had misled her in some way. I don't know, told her she wanted kids and then kept postponing it and postponing it, only telling her that he actually didn't want any after years and years. But nope, the guy had been perfectly honest and said he didn't want children at all right from the start. Alex herself was the one who made the decision to completely disregard this and assume he would change his mind at some point in the future. And I thought, how dare she then get angry at him when he didn't? It's her own bloody fault she wasted her most fertile years, as she puts it. As someone who doesn't want children and is absolutely and completely sure about it, the thought of a guy doing to me what Alex does to her ex (she describes the final months of the relationship as full of tears and fights) gives me the shivers. I have always found the refusal to accept that someone could possibly not want children particularly exasperating. Now that I've hit my 30s people are starting to accept it, but way too many are still convinced I just haven't met the right man, or that my body will demand it at some point, and that makes me want to scream. I know what I want!!

Right. Erm. Sorry for the rant. I clearly took it quite personally. I'd better get back to the book. Anyway, however annoyed I got with Alex at the beginning, I was able to get over it soon enought and even to sympathise with her desperation to have a child and her shock at realising that it might already be too late to fulfill what is really her dream. Neither she nor Ethan go into their arrangement thoughtlessly. It was all very rational and reasonable... until it wasn't. And that's when it got even more interesting. I liked how Mayberry showed that this is an issue so loaded with emotion, that even people who are normally cool and rational aren't able to keep that up all the way through.

Ethan and Alex's relationship rang completely true to me. At the start of the book, they have a sort of distant, quite casual friendly relationship. They both recognise the other as someone they might be very attracted to and enjoy a close friendship with, but both have made the conscious decision to keep it more distant. And then there's one unguarded moment and they can't go back again. I loved how they build on the friendship and respect they already have, and by the end, I truly did believe they loved each other.

As I was reading, I was conscious that the book would succeed or break with the reason for Ethan's determination never, ever to marry again. He has an example of a perfectly happy marriage in his brother, after all, so why is he so convinced that he can never have the same? Would his reasons be believable? Or would they feel like an artificial obstacle to a HEA? I'm not going to reveal what they were, but I will say I understood his fear completely. This bit of the book was also slightly problematic for me, though. I chose to take it at face value, as being simply about these particular people, but I'm aware that one could interpret that the message there is that people like me are awful and abnormal. I guess I'll just have to read a couple more of Mayberry's Superromances (all of which seem pretty child-centric), and hope that she doesn't have this sort of thing every single time.

MY GRADE: A B+, with the caveats described above.


One Touch of Scandal, by Liz Carlyle

>> Thursday, November 18, 2010

TITLE: One Touch of Scandal
AUTHOR: Liz Carlyle


SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a new trilogy, but I'm not quite sure what it's called.

REASON FOR READING: Autoread author.

Against the glamorous backdrop of Victorian high society, Liz Carlyle paints a dramatic tale of dangerous desire, the first in her sizzling new trilogy.

All Grace Gauthier ever wanted was the security of a good marriage, family, and home. Instead, despised by her aristocratic father’s family because of her mother’s foreign birth, she’s taken a “safe” position as a governess. Now, unprotected and alone in London, accused of the shocking murder of her employer, she has no one to turn to except the mysterious—and possibly dangerous—Lord Ruthveyn.

A dark-eyed Lucifer, Ruthveyn guards his secrets carefully. His shadowed past is a source of pain and rumors—only whispered. Grace’s plight—which echoes his own—moves him, as does her quiet beauty. Ruthveyn is determined to save Grace by unmasking a killer. But his growing passion places his own heart at risk and threatens to expose his dark gifts to the world.
Grace Gauthier is in trouble. Things seemed to be going so well... she'd been working as a governess for two little girls she adored, and their father had proposed marriage. She didn't really love Ethan Holding, but she respected and liked him and yearned for a family, so she had said yes. They were about to announce their engagement. Then one night, after receiving a strange-sounding note from Ethan, Grace comes downstairs to his study only to find him murdered. Her two beloved charges are swiftly taken away, she must leave the house and go live with her horrid aunt, and worst of all: it soon becomes clear that the police suspect her of the murder.

At the end of her tether, Grace decides to an old friend of her father's. But when she seeks him out at the St. James Society, she finds Lord Ruthveyn instead.

The St. James Society is the home of the mysterious and ancient Fraternitas Aureae Crucis. With powerful bloodlines on both sides of his family, Ruthveyn is one of its premier members and has got powerful gifts. When he touches people he can both see into their souls and find out exactly how they're going to die. Understandably, this makes physical contact something not to be undertaken lightly.

When he meets Grace and realises he can't read her at all, and sees nothing when he touches her, Ruthveyn is fascinated. He's determined to help her out, as tells himself his friend would want him to, and solve the murder to make sure she's not a suspect anymore.

I confess I started out the book with some misgivings. I knew there was a secret society and paranormal elements involved, and that's something I felt would be a weird departure for Carlyle. And though the book did improve quite a lot in the second half, I'm afraid this was a bit of a disappointing read, especially disappointing because Carlyle has written some of my favourite authors.

On the surface, this sounds like there should be quite a lot of angst going on. There's Grace's worry that she might end up accused of murder, however innocent she might be, and there's Ruthveyn's struggles with his paranormal gifts. He's very strongly drawn to Grace, he wants her an likes her, and is very tempted to look at the fact that he can't read her at face value and just assume it's all fine, he'll be able to have a relationship with her because of it. But he knows that it's very possible that once they start becoming more and more intimate, the veil will lift, which would be intolerable.

Good, no? But for the first half of the book, I just didn't feel it. I had to almost force myself to carry on reading, because I wasn't too engaged. Somewhere around the halfway mark, though, the emotional intensity started getting across, and I enjoyed the book more, although it never managed to lift itself above average. I still don't exactly get what the whole secret society is about, and I found the mystery of who killed Ethan Holding remarkably uninteresting, but oh well, at least the romance ended up being ok.

I also wish Carlyle had done a bit more with the paranormal aspects. If you're going to have a paranormal plot, and have Ruthveyn constantly worry and angst about his powers and how they didn't allow him to have a normal life and so on, and so forth, at least show us how exactly they work. As with the secret society thingy, I'm still not 100% sure of how they work. I think he basically uses them once in the entire book, and that was very unsatisfying and vague.

The most interesting element of the book, in the end, was that about Grace and Ruthveyn's mutual friend, Rance (what's with the weird names, by the way? Rance, Royden, very silly), his past troubles with the law and the journalist who is hounding him. It all feels a bit irrelevant for most of the book, because I kept wondering what this whole thing had to do with anything else, but I found myself really riveted by a shocking revelation near the end. Still didn't have anything to do with the rest of the book, mind, but I found it really intriguing and would very much like to see what Carlyle does with it.

MY GRADE: I'm going to be generous and go with a B-, but it could just as easily, if I'd been in a different mood, been a C+.


A Fountain Filled With Blood, by Julia Spencer-Fleming

>> Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TITLE: A Fountain Filled With Blood
AUTHOR: Julia Spencer-Fleming

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary Millers Kill, small town in the Adirondacks
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Second in the Claire Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyn series.

REASON FOR READING: I loved the first book, In the Bleak Midwinter.

It's summertime in in the Adirondack town of Millers Kill, and temperatures are running high. Local activists are up in arms over a resort being built at the site of an old toxic waste dump. A series of violent homophobic assaults have left several men hospitalized. And Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson are discovering that it's impossible to ignore the heat. When the resort developer, a gay man, is found brutally murdered, Clare and Russ will have to face up to their own past demons--and their present temptations--to sweat out the truth behind the killing.
A Fountain Filled With Blood starts with an extremely disturbing scene, in which a series of gay bashing incidents culminate in a violent attack on the town's medical examiner, who happens to be gay. Before long, he's not the only victim of the attackers.

But that's not the only trouble in Millers Kill that summer. A land developer is trying to get a project approved, and chemicals, possibly from an old waste site, are discovered near a children's playground, sparking off protests. And Claire manages to find herself involved in every single one of those issues.

I read Spencer-Fleming just as much for the mysteries as I do for the relationship between her main characters. And that says a lot about how well plotted her books are, because the relationship between Episcopalian priest Claire Fergusson and sheriff Russ van Alstyn is bloody fantastic. They met in the previous book and immediately clicked, their friendship becoming very deep very quickly. But there's also a definite hint of something else there, something potentially extremely problematic, especially given the fact that Claire is a priest, committed to living morally, and Russ is married to a woman he (tells himself he) loves.

In AFFWB their friendship and liking continue to develop and become deeper, but they hit some conflicts here. Claire doesn't agree with the tack Russ takes in a certain area, and her struggle between being loyal to her friend and doing what she thinks is right ends up creating much trouble between them. It's all really riveting.

The only element of the book I didn't like was that Claire's involvement in the detective work didn't feel as organic as it had in the first book. In In The Bleak Midwinter, it seemed perfectly natural that she'd be in places which meant she'd become involved in the issues. Here, although her initial involvement is well justified and flows perfectly well from her work as a priest, she also does some very silly things. It was bad enough at one point that I kept wondering who this woman was who thought she was Nancy Drew. Certainly not the Clare I know and love!

But that was not a huge issue, and on the whole, this was an excellent read. In addition to being a great mystery and having wonderful characters, it also had a very vivid sense of place, which is always a plus. Millers Kill in the summer feels completely different than it did in the winter, as we saw it in ITBM, but it feels just as real.



Beauty and the Black Sheep, by Jessica Bird

>> Sunday, November 14, 2010

TITLE: Beauty and the Black Sheep
AUTHOR: Jessica Bird

PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Silhouette Romance

SETTING: Contemporary US (upstate New York)
TYPE: Series Romance
SERIES: First in the Moorehouse Legacy quartet (I think it's a quartet).



But she quickly reminded herself that she had dinner to get ready, the staff of White Caps B&B (such as it was) to motivate. She didn't have the luxury of staring into a stranger's face.

Although, jeez, what a face it was.

And wasn't it just her luck that the owner of that face, Nate Walker--with his rebel attitude and distaste for authority--was the chef her restaurant desperately needed, and he was staying for the summer.... was a bit too tempting to let this breath of fresh air sweep her off her feet. Because all work and no play had been Frankie's motto for much too long!

On a trip to check out a potential site for a restaurant, chef Nate Walker's car dies in the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. Planning to ask for help at the nearest house, he ends up offering his when he finds a crisis situation in Frankie Moorhouse's B&B.

Frankie hasn't been having a good year... actually, she hasn't been having a good decade. Orphaned when she was barely out of her teenage years, she took on responsibility for her whole family (including a gran suffering from dementia) and has been struggling to keep the old family home going as a B&B for 10 years.

It hasn't been going well. The formely spectacular house is fast losing its lustre (a ballgown with sweatstains, Nate calls it, which I thought was a very effective image) and there's no money to reverse the process. In fact, it's doubtful that there will be money to pay the mortgage before too long. And the last drop: Frankie's cook has quit without giving notice, she's got a couple of hypercritical guests waiting for dinner and she's just burnt the chicken she was planning to serve them.

When a man comes in asking to use the phone and instead produces some hi-tech chef's knives and proceeds to rescue dinner service, Frankie knows she should be grateful, but she's used to being the one rescuing the situation. Still, the situation is desperate enough that she accepts the help.

Nate is strangely attracted by the prickly Fran, and he figures he might as well stay for a while and make some money, so he offers to work for the Inn for the next few months, just until the end of the summer. Fran has no choice but to accept this potential lifesaver, but she's determined not to get involved.

I find I quite like JR Ward's Jessica Bird persona. The writing is nothing like that in the larger-than-life Black Dagger Brotherhood, but at the same time, it's got the same addictive, absorbing quality that keeps you turning the pages like crazy.

Beauty and the Black Sheep was not my favourite Jessica Bird ever (as the first book in the series, there was a teeny bit too much setting up of the upcoming books), but it was a nice, good romance. Frankie was a character that could have come across as a complete martyr but didn't (much), and the romance between her and Nate was sweet and quite steamy at the same time. Quite enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to the next books in the series.



Colours, girl detectives and changelings

>> Friday, November 12, 2010

TITLE: Shades of Grey
AUTHOR: Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey starts a new series, set in a world were people are organised hierarchically by which colour and how much of it they can see. Some colours have more cachet than others, with Greys being practically untouchables. It's a bit of a dictatorship, where The Rules, arbitrary and nonsensical as they are, must not be broken. The hero is a young man who's completely oblivious to this, until he meets a Grey woman who leads him down a dangerous path.

It was all very funny and ingenious, with lots of wordplay and oblique references that make you feel proud of yourself when you get them (although you wonder what you're missing, too). Typical of Fforde, and I loved the intrincacy of the world-building. While this, maybe because it's the first book in the series, spends quite a lot of time setting out the world, we still get really interesting characters, including a protagonist who's a bit of an antihero. And he's not an antihero in the usual way. Rather, he's quite complacent and disinclined to question what's around him until he's pretty much slapped in the face by it. I had a blast reading this, and only disliked that we get an extremely open and quite unsatisfying ending.


TITLE: The Sweetness At The Bottom of the Pie
AUTHOR: Alan Bradley

This is a mystery, set in an idealised (think Enid Blyton) 1950s English village. The narrator is the outrageously precocious 11-year-old amateur (but don't call her that) chemist Flavia de Luce, who is determined to find out the truth behind the dead body found in the cucumber patch behind her house.

It sounded very good to me, and I've seen some excellent reviews, but I just couldn't get into it. The big problem was Flavia, who never rang true to me, not at all. An unrealistically and exageratedly precocious character is not a problem per se (the obvious comparison is to Ramses, in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, and I LOVE Ramses), but there's precociousness, and then there's precociousness, and Flavia's voice didn't feel real to me. There were some funny moments, especially Flavia's outrage when she's treated by adults as the 11-year-old she actually is, but not enough to keep me engaged. I might well come back to this at some point in the future, but for now...


TITLE: Whisper of Sin (from Burning Up anthology)
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

Nalini Singh's Psy/changelings series is one of my favourites, but even though this short story was part of it, I found it pretty blah. The action takes place some time before the first book in the series, and features Ria, whom we've met as Lucas' personal assistant. Ria lives in an area claimed by the DarkRiver leopards, but which a gang is trying to take over. When she's attacked by a gang member, DarkRiver send Emmett to protect her.

Both Ria and Emmett are nice enough, but they didn't really capture my imagination, and I wasn't too interested in the gang vs DarkRiver fight, either. Also, the heroine's family, who have quite a large role in the plot, I found quite shouty and annoying. All in all, not a bad story, but not one I'd particularly recommend to someone wanting to try Nalini Singh's books, either.



A Kiss to Kill, by Nina Bruhns

>> Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TITLE: A Kiss to Kill
AUTHOR: Nina Bruhns

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: 3rd in the Passion for Danger trilogy

REASON FOR READING: I liked the first 2 books, and wanted to see the resolution of the storylines which started there.

Eight months ago, Dr. Gina Cappozi and CIA black ops commando Captain Gregg van Halen were lovers until Gregg committed the ultimate betrayal. Left in the hands of terrorists and to do the unspeakable or die, Gina vowed to kill the man she once loved.

She knows that Gregg lives in the shadow world of violence and darkness. She knows that he’s watching her every move. What she doesn’t know is that Gregg isn’t the only one following her–or that he still cherishes her.

When Gina’s burning need for revenge leads her back to the one place she can easily lure Gregg–his bed–she rediscovers another, more irresistible need. Now, with the threat of enemies at every turn, Gina and Gregg realize that the power of betrayal and revenge is nothing compared to the power of love.
I don't think a trilogy has ever gone so quickly downhill for me as this one did. I thought book 1, Shoot to Thrill, was compulsively readable and really liked it. Book 2, If Looks Could Chill, was good, too, but the different storylines were a bit of a mixed bag. And this, book 3, was just plain annoying. The remaining unresolved storylines were ones that I had really liked in book 1, but by the time I got to A Kiss to Kill, I was equal parts bored and annoyed by them. So much so, that I couldn't even finish the book, even though I'd already read about two thirds of it.

The supposedly main storyline here is about Gina and Gregg Van Halen, the man she's sure betrayed her to the terrorists who kept her captive and tortured her for months in earlier books. Of course, we readers know that Gregg did not such thing and was betrayed himself, but the evidence is pretty compelling. Gregg has been following Gina covertly, as he knows her life is still in danger. And when an attack is made on her life, he swoops in and kidnaps her again, for her own protection.

This actually could have been really, really good. It definitely had the potential for major angsty goodness... Gregg's pain at knowing that the only woman he's ever loved now hates him and will never, ever trust him again is excellently done, and had me very excited to see them actually interact. But when they do, it's a massive anticlimax. Basically, Gina quickly decides that, all evidence to the contrary, she trusts Gregg. It's a "A man who makes me feel this way cannot possibly be bad" kind of thing. Twit. In fact, she behaves like a twit all the way through. The point where I stopped reading was where she was holed up in a hotel, under the express orders of not opening the door to her room whatever happened, and she decides it's a good idea to do a quick run to the ice machine. Whatever could go wrong? Twit.

The other big storyline is about Alex Zane and his friend and FBI agent Rebel. They've been in love with each other forever, but Alex had got himself engaged with Rebel's friend Helena. That engagement is over, but they still can't get together because... who knows? I certainly didn't, and Bruhns attempts at explaining I found actually offensive and ridiculous for a book set in the 21st century. These two are even bigger twits than Gina. They had already thoroughly annoyed me in book 2, and by the time I stopped reading, I intensely disliked them.

There was yet another small storyline there, and I was actually enjoying it (it involved a female detective in her late 40s whom I found a really nice character), but not enough to keep me reading about all the other idiots.



The Apprentice, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Monday, November 08, 2010

TITLE: The Apprentice
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary Boston
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Rizzoli / Isles series

REASON FOR READING: I loved The Surgeon, the first in the series.

I know I am not the only one of my kind who walks this earth. Somewhere, there is another. And he waits for me…

The Surgeon has been locked up for a year but his chilling legacy still haunts the city, and especially Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli. For now a new killer is at work and Rizzoli senses something horrifyingly familiar about this murderer’s modus operandi. Grim coincidence? Or more terrifying still, could these two monsters have somehow made contact?

It’s when the FBI starts taking an interest in the investigation that Rizzoli begins to wonder just what makes this case so different, so dangerous that the Feds feel the need to get involved. But then the unthinkable happens: the Surgeon escapes. And suddenly there are two brilliant, twisted killers on the loose – master and apprentice, united in their hunt for the most challenging prey of all: the very woman who is hunting them…
If you're new to Gerritsen's Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles series, I suggest that you don't start with this one. The Surgeon would be a much better starting point, as The Apprentice is a sort of continuation of that story.

When Jane Rizzoli is called in to have a look at a case outside her normal jurisdiction, she immediately gets why the detective in charge called her in. There are some very disquieting similarities to the murders committed by the Surgeon, which is weird, as the Surgeon has been in jail since Jane got to him at the end of book 1.

Unfortunately, she and the detective who called her in are the only ones who find this to be grounds for concern. Everyone else seems to think Jane is just still obsessed with the Surgeon case and not ready to let it go, seeing it in every unrelated murder. The only other person who seems to see what she's seeing is an FBI agent, Gabriel Dean, although why he's so interested, Jane has no idea.

The set-up of The Apprentice reminded me of Nora Roberts' most recent single title, The Search, but these are completely different books. While The Search is very much a romance, with a suspense subplot, The Apprentice is all police procedural, albeit with a bit of romance going on in the background.

The case and investigation were as well done as those in the first book. This is one scary killer, and the fact that the police are still more than a match for him makes this a very satisfying mystery to read. But the best aspect was again the characters, especially Jane. This is as much about who she is and how she feels as she investigates the case, as it is about the investigation itself. It's clear that the Surgeon case has had a big impact on her, and she hasn't completely recovered from it. But she feels she has to go on, and she doggedly does all she can, whether she's really ready for it or not.

The only aspect that didn't really work for me was the introduction of Gabriel Dean. First, I thought it was a bit weird that Jane and her colleagues didn't insist much more strongly and early on knowing exactly why he was interested in this case. After all, nothing they knew explained this interest, so it was obvious there must be more going on, probably something that might help solve the case. And when we find out exactly what Agent Dean is hiding, this is exactly so. Why didn't he share as soon as he was sure this was what he suspected? Why didn't Jane insist earlier? I'm afraid the only reasons I can think of have more to do with the author wanting to pace the plot in a particular way than with any decent police work.

Second, I wasn't too thrilled with the more personal Agent Dean / Jane relationship, either. That whole thing kind of came out of nowhere. I usually see this stuff coming, but I didn't here, and it just felt a bit weird.

Still, this was a good one, and I look forward to continuing with the series. Maura Isles is finally introduced in this book, and though we don't get much of her, she sounds interesting.



The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

>> Saturday, November 06, 2010

TITLE: The Slap
AUTHOR: Christos Tsiolkas

PAGES: 496
PUBLISHER: Tuskar Rock

SETTING: Contemporary Melbourne, Australia
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: I read it for my September book club. We chose it because we wanted to read something on the Man Booker prize longlist, and this one sounded interesting.

At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps an unruly 3-year-old boy. The boy is not his son. It is a single act of violence, but this one slap reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen. In his controversial, award-winning novel, Christos Tsiolkas presents an apparently harmless domestic incident as seen from eight very different perspectives. The result is an unflinching interrogation of our lives today; of the modern family and domestic life in the twenty-first century, a deeply thought-provoking novel about boundaries and their limits...
Hector and Aisha are hosting a summer barbecue for their family and friends in their garden in a Melbourne suburb. Everything's going well: the food is good and the multicultural, multigenerational crowd are enjoying themselves. And then a spoilt 3-year-old starts throwing a fit and threatening one of the older children with a bat. The 3-year-old's parents do nothing, but the older child's father does. He slaps the other boy. And everything starts to unravel.

We see the unraveling through the eyes of the different characters, who take turns narrating the action from their points of view, starting with Hector. The Slap, its title notwithstanding, is not really about the slap. The incident provides the excuse and starting point for getting to know these people and understanding the complex and multilayered relationships between them.

Many of these characters are not particularly likeable and quite a few are truly horrible (especially the men), which would normally have made me enjoy the book less. It didn't here. These people are so real and fascinating and unpredictable, that I couldn't wait to find out more about them. They surprised me, and the structure of the book helped. I thought the way it was narrated was genius. The people you end up hearing from are not those you would expect a priori. Even the second person was a complete surprise to me (and I won't describe who gets a section, as part of the fun is discovering that and wondering who's coming next). Once you start getting to know the new narrator, it's sometimes a real shock to see how different they are from the image other people have of them. And yet, it always rings true.

It was also brilliant to get a completely different perspective on Australian life. I realise that since I moved to England I've kind of absorbed a certain conventional wisdom on what life there is like: laid-back, sunny, great quality of life. The picture that emerges here is quite different and quite a lot more complex. The Slap is set amongst immigrants (both first and second generation, from different places), white Australians and aboriginals, and though they would seem superficially completely integrated, there are still tensions. These tensions were clearly simmering all along, but they become even clearer during the fallout after the slap.

I believe there's been some controversy about the often very casually racist language. Most of the characters here use it, especially the Greeks. I guess my first instinct was to think surely this cannot be modern Australia? And then I realised it's not that different from the way it is back home in Uruguay. In any case, it wasn't something I found offensive, as it was more about the author portraying the way people speak than about him actually being racist, if that makes sense?

What I must confess did shock me a bit was the even more casual drug use. None of the characters have a problem with drugs, but every single person we read about will happily go for it, and not just a spliff here and there, either. We're talking about a bit of speed while the children are in the room next door, that sort of thing. Every single one. That was a bit weird.

Still, that was quite minor. The Slap is a powerful page-turner of a story, and I'm not at all surprised it's been the best-seller amongst the entire Booker longlist.



Shiver, by Jo Leigh

>> Thursday, November 04, 2010

TITLE: Shiver
AUTHOR: Jo Leigh

PAGES: 224
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Series romance
SERIES: Part of a continuity series

REASON FOR READING: Hallowe'en was approaching...

Welcome to the Crider Inn, one of the most haunted spots in Colorado, and the venue for this year's ghostly convention. Mingle with fellow fans. Be prepared for a week of unexpected encounters and spine-tingling exploration….

Comic-strip artist Carrie Sawyer doesn't actually believe in ghosts—she only agreed to accompany her best friend on this crazy trip. What she does believe is that hotel owner Sam Crider is mind-bendingly delish! And since this vacation is all about dark, empty hotel rooms and late nights, it's perfect for some naughty, after-hours encounters of the X-rated kind….

The kind that can make a girl shiver with temptation! And fear the unknown…
Carrie Sawyer doesn't believe in ghosts, but her friend Erin does, and it's her turn to choose a vacation spot. And as luck would have it, Erin chooses to spend a few days in the very haunted Crider Inn, on a ghost-hunting convention. Not Carrie's cup of tea at all, but at least it will provide material for the snarky online comic strip she writes.

Sam Crider grew up at the Crider Inn, but it was never really his thing. He's a documentary maker, and is only at the Inn because his father died a few months earlier. Sam is in the middle of arranging a sale when he suddenly stops dead at the sight of the most attractive woman he's seen in ages, checking in for the ghost-hunting convention.

This was a nice read. Carrie and Sam are a likeable couple, and I quite enjoyed their romance. This is a Blaze, so there's some very steamy stuff going on, but there's also a sense of wonder from both our Sam and Carrie about just how much they actually like and want to find out more about each other in between the sex. Leigh made me believe that from the very beginning, it wasn't just lust between them, but that they clicked and enjoyed spending time together.

I also had fun with the setting, which was cute, and liked that there wasn't a "how dare you sell off a property that's been in your family for years" vibe about Sam's plans. Oh, and for a book set in a haunted inn and called "Shiver", the paranormal thread was very subtle. That might be a negative if you were expecting full-on paranormal, but I quite liked how it worked out.

There are some ho-hum things as well, though. There's a half-hearted attempt at conflict, in which both think that the other believes in ghosts, and oh, how disappointed would they be if they discovered I didn't believe! Pretty lame, because it's just not believable for a minute. Carrie takes it even further, angsting about Sam discovering that she writes a snarky comic, oh, no! Even lamer, as it's obvious Sam is the type of guy who'd actually enjoy it. I understand that we did need a bit of conflict there, otherwise there's not that much impetus to keep reading, but with this, the author might not even have bothered.

I think this is supposed to be part of a continuity series, but that element is pretty unobtrusive. There's some extraneous stuff at the beginning, an email from this woman who announces to her friend that she's now started some sort of dream holiday organisation company, but it doesn't seem at all relevant to what actually happens later, and it never comes up again. Pretty pointless, but at the same time, hardly worth getting annoyed about.

MY GRADE: The chemistry and liking between Sam and Carrie raises this from a C+ to a B-.


If Looks Could Chill, by Nina Bruhns

>> Tuesday, November 02, 2010

TITLE: If Looks Could Chill
AUTHOR: Nina Bruhns

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary Louisiana, US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Second in the Passion for Danger trilogy

REASON FOR READING: I really enjoyed the first book, Shoot To Thrill

A kick-ass Yankee cop and her special-ops Cajun guide

Mysterious deaths stalk the bayou. No-nonsense Louisiana State trooper Tara Reeves reluctantly enlists the aid of Marc Lafayette, a too-sexy-for-his-own-good Cajun heartbreaker, to guide her on her search for evidence so she can bring down those responsible. But the source of the deaths is more dangerous than Tara could ever imagine. A foreign terrorist cell, plotting an attack on U.S. soil, is testing a deadly biological weapon in the remote wilderness of the swamp.

But the terrorists aren't the only ones with secrets... What Tara doesn't know is that her sexy guide is part of a covert special ops team sent to destroy the terrorist threat, and Marc is not happy about having to babysit a nosy cop--even one as temptingly beautiful as Tara. But as they search the Louisiana swamp for a deadly virus, they succumb to a fever of a very different sort. Both of them know that love and work don't mix, a harrowing showdown with the enemy will make their steamy passion boil over...and change their lives forever.
WARNING: Spoilers for book 1 ahead!

At the end of Shoot To Thrill, we saw Rainie's doctor friend Gina being kidnapped by unknown villains. We also saw that while Kick succeeded in killing his terrorist target, one of the bad guy's confederates escaped with the dangerous virus they had been guarding.

In If Looks Could Chill, these two elements are combined into a dangerous plot. The terrorists have moved to the US, and they're holding Gina hostage in the depths of the Lousiana bayou, where they are forcing her to use her expertise in developing inhalable vaccines to weaponise the virus.

Fortunately, Marc Lafayette and his team from STORM are aware of what's going on, and are in Louisiana trying to pinpoint where the baddies are hiding. But while the rest of the team is combing the bayou, Marc is assigned to distract Tara Reeves, a state trooper who is poking her nose into the case.

With the first book, I was happy to ignore any unlikely elements and just go with the story. I loved the main romance, I enjoyed the secondary storylines just as much and I had a blast with the exciting, fast-moving plot. We kind of get all that with this book, although the shine has started to dull a little bit, and I wasn't quite as ready to go with the flow. Maybe I shouldn't have read these back to back? I never learn.

The main romance was ok. I liked Marc and Tara well enough, but I found it hard to get too excited about them. I think the problem might have been that I just didn't get any sense of internal conflict from them. They're busy with a high-pressure investigation, but they like and are attracted to each other. And that's it. There's some stuff about Marc not being able to get involved with anyone seriously, yadda, yadda, but I just didn't buy it as an issue at all.

Oh, and by the way, the Cajun swearing really got on my nerves, way overdone. A lot of it felt off to me, but I'm willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on the accuracy, as I've no idea how different Cajun is from traditional French... maybe they do use "cher" rather than "chère" for a female, who knows? But still, much too much of it going on for my taste.

The secondary storylines are still going strong here, but I found them to be a bit of a mixed bag. There's a new one introduced here, which was the one I kept wanting to go back to. It involves two of the operatives in Marc's team, Darcy and Bobby Lee, who've been casual sex partners for years, basically getting naked every time they are working together. Now Darcy's started to feel something more, and since she just knows there's no way Bobby Lee will want a proper relationship with her, she's decided to stop with the casual sex. Which, really, really throws Bobby Lee. These two were interesting, and I enjoyed watching Bobby Lee squirm.

As for the other one, it was a big disappointment. At the end of book 1 I was most excited about finding out more about Alex Zane, who had been rescued after being kept prisoner by terrorists for years, enduring constant torture. There was a subplot about him dreaming about a mysterious woman and those dreams basically keeping him alive during his captivity. Then he gets rescued, and it turns out that this woman isn't his fiancée, but the friend who introduced him to said fiancée. I was very curious about what would happen with this in ILCC, but I really disliked what I got. The main problem is that there's absolutely no reason why these two couldn't get together straight away, other than the fact that they behave like utter idiots. Plus, the woman (Rebel, whose name I found stupid, stupid, stupid) got on my nerves with her constant, missish "Language, Zane!" bleating. I wanted to slap her every time she opened her mouth.

There's something here that is beginning to bother me, which is that the men in these books tend to be very dominant, especially in bed. Kick was a bit of an exception in the first book, and since he was the main character, I was fine with it. But here it's coming more to the forefront. Gregg in the first book, Wade, Bobby Lee, even Marc, they all have scenes where they basically overpower the woman they're with... with the woman's full consent, yes, but it's still something I'm starting to get a bit creeped out by, since there's so much of it going on.

The plot was just as strong and exciting as in the first book, in spite of the change of scene and the fact that it all took place in the US, rather than in an exotic location. The only thing that bugged me was the concept of having a private company investigating what's basically a huge threat to national security, with no interference whatsoever from all the long alphabet soup of agencies that you would expect would be investigating this. Would this really happen? And even if it did, is this really a good idea? It doesn't seem so to me! But eh, well, I was able to let it roll.

What I wasn't really able to let roll was what I saw as extremely unprofessional behaviour from practically everyone. There's lots of passionate kissing in front of the whole team, and sex which might as well be in front of everyone (screaming monkey sex in a thin-walled tent in the middle of the campsite? Classy!) which I very much doubt any serious organisation would really be ok with, especially when the team is in the middle of desperately trying to stop a terrorist attack which could kill millions!

MY GRADE: A very qualified recommendation. B-.


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