Postmortem, by Patricia Cornwell

>> Thursday, March 31, 2011

TITLE: Postmortem
AUTHOR: Patricia Cornwell

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Late 1980s US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Kay Scarpetta series

With this novel, bestselling author Patricia Cornwell created one of crime fiction’s most compelling heroines: gutsy medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell’s gift for combining cutting edge criminology with nerve-shattering suspense makes this book a true modern classic.

Under cover of night in Richmond, Virginia, a human monster strikes, leaving a gruesome trail of stranglings that has paralyzed the city. Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta suspects the worst: a deliberate campaign by a brilliant serial killer whose signature offers precious few clues. With an unerring eye, she calls on the latest advances in forensic research to unmask the madman. But this investigation will test Kay like no other, because it’s being sabotaged from within—and someone wants her dead.
I've heard Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series (and Postmortem in particular) mentioned so often that I had to read it myself. It's been credited with having either originated or pushed over the tipping point several trends, from having female central investigative characters in quite graphic police procedurals (usually with a serial killer targetting women involved), to the inclusion of very detailed forensic ans scientific elements into mysteries. There are tons of books (not to mention TV series) like that out these days. In fact, as I write this review I'm in the middle of Karen Rose's new one, a romantic suspense novel starring -you guessed it!- a female medical examiner.

The plot doesn't sound particularly revolutionary these days: a serial killer is stalking the city of Richmond, in Virginia, raping, torturing and strangling young women. Dr. Kay Scarpetta is the city's medical examiner, and is determined to do her utmost to help the police catch the killer. To do this, Kay will not only have to pull some huge feats of forensic investigation, but also deal with chauvinistic police and politicians who seem determined to put obstacles in their way.

At about the time I was reading this a couple of months ago, Jane from Dear Author posted an article on the issues authors face when older books are republished, and how some are editing them to update things like the tech references. I posted a comment about how I hated the idea of authors doing this, and how I actually like to have the dated elements there, as they give you a sense of place. I read older books as historicals, in a way.

Postmortem illustrates this perfectly. To read this, you have to place yourself firmly in the late 80s (copyright is 1990, but it would have been written earlier). The most obvious reason you have to do so is because of the technology. For instance, at one point someone comments on this newfangled technique, DNA analysis, and how difficult it would be to get a jury to understand it and accept it as evidence. There's also a big plot point resting on how Scarpetta's computer database's security works which is mindblowing these days. And then there's Scarpetta's 10-year-old niece who's a computer genius and can do all sorts of stuff Kay can't even dream about - to me, this was was very reminiscent of that film that must have come out at about the same time as the book, featuring teenagers hacking into the Pentagon and almost starting a nuclear war with the USSR.

So the tech is an issue, but much more importantly, you need to place yourself in the late 80s to be able to read some of the attitudes in this book without flinching. Everyone smokes, and they do so everywhere. Scarpetta rings someone who she knows is black and is shocked and convinced she got a wrong number when this person doesn't "talk black". Then there's a gay character who's treated with an open disdain which, fortunately, just wouldn't be acceptable today. Kay even thinks:

I suppose if I'd wondered about his proclivities when he interviewed for the job several months ago I might have been less enthusiastic about hiring him. It was something I didn't like to admit.

But it was all too easy to stereotype because I saw the worst example of every sort in this place. There were the transvestites with their falsies and padded hips, and the gays who flew into jealous rages and murdered their lovers, and the chicken hawks who cruised parks and video arcades and got carved up by homophobic rednecks. There were the prisoners with their obscene tattoos and histories of sodomizing anything on two legs inside the cell blocks, and there were the profligate purveyors in bathhouses and bars who didn't care who else got AIDS.
I'm not saying, btw, that Cornwell herself is homophobic -in fact, going by an interview I heard on the radio recently, she's either gay or bisexual herself. She's simply reflecting the attitudes of the time. So how do you edit stuff like this in order to update a book without having to rewrite the whole thing? And why would a reader even want the author to do this, when it would simply get rid of the entire sense of place of the story?

Anyway, after that tangent, back to the book itself. So, how did it work as a mystery? Well, I guess I probably would have thought it absolutely fantastic if I'd read it when it came out and I'd never read anything like it before, but reading it today, it was just pretty solid but not spectacular. I liked that the police and Kay are very competent and that it's good old-fashioned investigative work (aided by Kay's breakthroughs in the lab) that gets them the man. A couple of other issues, though, I wondered about. It was a bit weird, for instance, that the medical examiner would be so involved in the investigative area. Also, I found it disappointing that Cornwell doesn't seem to be that interested in who the killer is and why he's doing this. It's all about what he does, and the way he's caught is by looking at who would have the chance to do this, rather than who would be the kind of person who would.

Weaved into the mystery, there's quite a lot about Kay and her relationships with the people around her. She's very much a woman in a man's world, and even though this was written at a point where in theory there shouldn't have been a problem with this, she does have to struggle with people's unspoken assumptions and judgements. It's not easy, and I appreciated how Cornwell showed us this. Kay is also taking care of her niece, and her relationship with the girl and with her mother (Kay's sister) is an interesting one (even though the girl reads a bit unrealistic -too precocious in some ways, too naive in others).

The one I found most fascinating, however, was Detective Marino, who's the policeman investigating the murders. He seems like the worst kind of cop at the beginning, an old-time macho slob, who makes homophobic comments and is probably a bit dumb. For quite a long time I was convinced that the big conflict in the book was going to be that he would completely mishandle the investigation because he'd just refuse to look at actual evidence and simply go with his prejudices, and Kay would have to step in and do the investigating for him. It wasn't like that at all. Marino is actually a really, really good detective, and most of the crap that comes out of his mouth is just intended to get a rise out of Kay. I don't know what's really going on between them, but I'm definitely going to be reading the next few books to find out!



Unveiled, by Courtney Milan

>> Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TITLE: Unveiled
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a trilogy

Ash Turner has waited a lifetime to seek revenge on the man who ruined his family—and now the time for justice has arrived. At Parford Manor, he intends to take his place as the rightful heir to the dukedom and settle an old score with the current duke once and for all. But instead he finds himself drawn to a tempting beauty who has the power to undo all his dreams of vengeance….

Lady Margaret knows she should despise the man who's stolen her fortune and her father's legacy—the man she's been ordered to spy on in the guise of a nurse. Yet the more she learns about the new duke, the less she can resist his smoldering appeal. Soon Margaret and Ash find themselves torn between old loyalties—and the tantalizing promise of passion…
When Ash Turner was a child, his sister died because the cruel Duke of Parford refused to extend any assistance, even though the Turners were related to him. The very young Ash had walked for miles to make his desperate plea for help, and when he was refused, he decided he would one day get his revenge on the Duke.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Ash is just about to get the perfect revenge on the man. As soon as he was old enough, he regretfully left his brothers with his mother (who wasn't quite right in the head), and went to India, where he made his fortune. On his return, he used his resources to find out the Duke had already been secretly married before he married the woman who gave birth to his heirs, and exposed the secret. The duke's children are therefore now illegitimate, and Ash himself has become the new heir. The duke is on his deathbed, and when he finally dies, Ash will take his title. In the meantime, the duke's children are throwing all their efforts into a last-ditch attempt to get Parliament to legitimise them. Ash isn't worried.

Margaret is the duke's only daughter, and she has been crushed by Ash's actions. She had always taken her social position for granted and had placed pretty much all her self-value on being a wealthy duke's daughter. The sudden loss of it all: money, position, friends, the right to go about in high society, not to mention the characterisation of her beloved late mother as an adulterer, have been a huge blow.

When Parliament orders the Parfords to receive Ash Turner in their country estate (he requests to be assured that his inheritance is not being mistreated and stolen), Margaret's brothers request that she stay behind and pretend to be the duke's nurse. That way, she will be able to spy on the Turners and discover ammunition her brothers can use to convince the House of Lords that they would be unsuitable.

But Ash is a complete surprise to Margaret. He's clearly quite taken by her, in spite of her determination to be cold and rigid. But rather than simply take advantage of his position and pressure the woman he thinks is a simple nurse into his bed, Ash seems to see her as a real person, and to really like what he sees. And for Margaret, who has been completely lost since her illegitimacy and has no idea who she really is, this is irresistible.

Why on earth haven't I read Courtney Milan before? This was absolutely brilliant, one of my favourite books of the year so far. The best thing is that not only did I think Unveiled was technically fantastic, I also loved it in addition to admire it. It engaged me emotionally, as well as intellectually. At the same time I was thinking that the characterisation was brilliantly and very subtly done, that these felt like real people, with the little faults and contradictions that real people have, I also cared deeply about them and felt the connection between the characters right in my gut. I started it at the beginning of a week in which I was pretty busy after work, and I actually resented having to go out for things I actually really enjoy doing, simply because they were keeping me from coming back to the book.

My absolute adoration of Unveiled is even more remarkable because at face value, it does contain some quite hoary romance cliches, and cliches I never liked. Ash is so determined to get his revenge that he doesn't even consider its effects on Margaret, who's a complete innocent in this whole affair. And Margaret could be described as a bit of a martyr for her brothers, especially near the end.

I guess what this proves is that in the hands of a really talented author, there's no plot element that couldn't be made to work wonderfully. Because there's so much more to Ash and Margaret than a cruel man who doesn't care about the consequences of his revenge and a martyr who'll sacrifice for the good of her family. Ash is the very opposite of that description: he's done what he's done, yes, and didn't give much thought to the fact that he would be subjecting people like Margaret, who'd never done anything to him, to much humiliation. But at the same time, he's also one of the most nurturing and kind heroes I've read in a while. And his revenge, once you start to know him, is quite clearly not about revenge, as much as about his absolute determination to give his brothers what they deserve and about making up his perceived abandonment of them when they were young.

And Margaret's decisions were, to me, more about her having grown a spine and deciding to do what she feels is important, refusing to buckle under the pressure of even the man she loves. And incidentally, her choices are more about her love for her late mother, than about duty to her selfish brothers, and I loved what Milan did at the end. Let's just say that there's a limit to what her brothers can do before Margaret stops being nice and gives them what they deserve, and quite effectively, too.

I'm afraid I can't seem to write a review that adequately reflects the complexity of the characters or the freshness of the plot (cliches or no cliches). There's so much more in here. There's Ash's very complicated relationship with his brothers, in which there's just as much love as there are misunderstandings and lack of communication, causing hurt feelings. There's Margaret struggle between betraying Ash's trust on something very important to him that he's shared with her and the knowledge that if she does, she has a good chance of material gain. There's Ash's insecurity about what he revealed to Margaret, and his wonder at her reaction to it. And I haven't even mentioned the wonderful secondary characters. Unveiled is the first in a trilogy, and his brothers will get their own books, including the lovely Mark, with his good-humoured treatise on chastity, which I would very much like to read.

Do read this book, you won't be disappointed.



Nothing But Trouble, by Rachel Gibson

>> Sunday, March 27, 2011

TITLE: Nothing But Trouble
AUTHOR: Rachel Gibson

PAGES: 354

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Has some characters from True Love and Other Disasters


Chelsea Ross's acting career has been a total bust. The closest she ever came to stardom was her brilliant performance as "Pretty Dead Girl #1." But leaving Hollywood to become the personal assistant to a famous hockey player could be her stupidest career move ever.

More trouble...

Injured superstar Mark Bressler's glory days are over. The bad-boy ex-jock could at least be civil to the pint-sized, pink-haired bombshell who the Seattle Chinooks hired to be his P.A. If Chelsea didn't need the money, she'd be running from the world's biggest jerk as fast as her feet could carry her.

Big trouble!

Chelsea can deal with Mark's rotten attitude and dark moods. The problem is those biceps and that red-hot bod! And when the bad boy starts to put the moves on her, Chelsea knows it's time she banished him to the penalty box . . . if only she could resist the kind of trouble he has in mind!
I used to love Rachel Gibson's books. See Jane Score was especially fantastic. Since that time, however, I was put off by a couple of her books. Nothing But Trouble reminded me of what I loved about her earlier books

Hockey player Mark Bressler had a great life, including a brilliant career as captain of a successful hockey team. But then his car hit a patch of black ice. It was a bad accident, and he was lucky not to die. He sustained pretty bad injuries, though, bad enough that his hockey career is over. Physically he's recovering, but mentally, he's not in a good place. He's bitter and has no idea what to do with his life now that he can't do the one thing that defined him.

Mark's team's management have been doing their best to take care of him, but Mark is having none of that. They keep hiring health care workers to help him in his recovery and rehab, but he's pushed every single one of them to quit. Chelsea Ross is made of sterner stuff, though. The $10,000 bonus if she hits the 6 month mark without quitting is enough for her to put up with all sorts of boorish behaviour. She has plans for that money. But then it turns out the man hiding behind Mark's rude and uncooperative mask is a lot more attractive than she expected.

I started this one after struggling to finish another book, not because it was bad, but because it just didn't flow right and I kept stopping. Nothing But Trouble was such a change. Flow? It flowed, it flew, I couldn't put it down and finished it in a day. Before I knew it, I was coming to the end, and wishing there were more pages.

This is especially remarkable, because this is a plain, old contemporary romance with no suspense subplot or anything "exciting" going on. It's just about Mark and Chelsea falling in love, and that was more than enough to keep my interest.

I really, really liked Chelsea, with her pink hair, ditzy look and huge boobs that keep getting her sexually harassed by the scumbag Z-list celebrities she's been working as PA for. I felt for her and the way she felt like she was the loser in her family, the one screw-up amongst all her overachiever relatives.

Mark is a nice hero, too. He's grumpy, but not really as mean as he tells himself he is. He does give Chelsea a hard time at the beginning and can be a tool sometimes, but he knows when not to push. I loved the scene when they discuss Chelsea's decision to have breast reduction surgery. It showed that this was a guy who really got her and appreciated her for who she was.

The only thing wrong with this book was the very annoying ending, with a big mis (or rather, a brouhaha about the discovery of a big secret) that made no sense. It made no sense in a couple of ways. First, that Chelsea wouldn't have mentioned this from the beginning. There were a few times where it would have made sense for her to tell Mark about it, when it wouldn't have been a big deal at all (in fact, it would have been a great weapon for her to needle Mark with) and inexplicably, she shuts up. And second, that Mark would have been so offended. It's hardly a big thing, and very much NOT the betrayal he takes it to be. I just didn't get it, and it made the book end in a somewhat WTF? note.

Still, this was great fun, and I'm glad to have a former favourite back.



Infamous, by Suzanne Brockmann

>> Friday, March 25, 2011

TITLE: Infamous
AUTHOR: Suzanne Brockmann

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Brockmann

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

When history professor Alison Carter became a consultant to the film version of the Wild West legend she’d dedicated her career to researching, she couldn’t possibly have known that she would not only get a front-row seat to a full-blown Hollywood circus but would innocently witness something that would put her life in peril. Nor did she expect that a tall stranger in a cowboy hat would turn the movie—and her world—completely upside down.

A. J. Gallagher didn’t crash the set in dusty Arizona to rub elbows with Hollywood’s elite. Unable to ignore ghosts from the past that refuse to stay buried, A. J. came to put an end to the false legend that has tarnished the reputation of his family. But when he confronts Alison, sparks fly. And when Alison is targeted by ruthless criminals, suddenly she and A .J. must face the intense attraction that threatens to consume them—and survive the danger that threatens their very lives.
Everyone knows about heroic US Marshall Silas Quinn and his tragic battle against the evil Jamie "The Kid" Gallagher, which cost Quinn his beloved wife. It's one of the classic Wild West stories. Dr. Alison Carter has long been fascinated the story, and she is the author of a popular history book about it. It was successful enough that it's now being turned into a big movie, and Alison has been hired as a consultant to ensure the film is as accurate as can be (have to say, I kind of went "yeah, right" at this and the fact that she seems to have some sort of almost veto power, but ok, I can suspend disbelief with this kind of thing).

But then AJ Gallagher shows up. Even though he's got the cowboy look down pat, he's not the new extra Alison assumes he is. He's there to clear his great-grandfather Jamie's name and prevent the slander from being spread all over in a huge film, and he's doing it on great-gramps' express instructions. Literally. Because AJ can see Jamie's ghost. Not only see, the two can have long conversations and everything.

Bad enough that AJ has to convince a history professor that she got her last book completely wrong, it's even harder because the moment he meets Alison, he realises she's the one for him. Can he in good conscience start a relationship with her while hiding the fact that he has got a close and loving relationship with a ghost? Will she forgive him for hiding it when she finds out?

I remember reading the reviews when Infamous came out, and it seemed like no one liked it. Why, I've no idea, because me, I just loved it. Maybe it's something about Brockmann's very distictive voice, which has always resonated with me, or that the love stories that seem to appeal to her also appeal to me -who knows? Much as I've liked Brockmann's SEAL books, for years I've been wanting her to go back and write another non-military romance, something like the wonderful Heartthrob. Infamous wasn't quite as good, but it gave me what I was looking for.

My enjoyment of Infamous was almost equal parts down to the romance and Jamie.

The romance is very Brockmann. AJ goes all gooey about Alison right from the moment he meets her and she's very attracted as well, but there are complications. There's the fact that AJ has a ghost hanging around (and AJ really, really doesn't want this woman he's so crazy about to think he's actually literally crazy), of course. But there are also things in AJ's past, that because of things in Alison's own past, make her extremely reluctant to take a chance on loving him. Alison could have been a bit of an unlikeable character because of this, but she wasn't. It was hard not to sympathise with her.

As for Jamie, people have complained about him having such a huge role in the book. Well, I LOVED him. I loved his voice, I loved that he was such a sweetie and I loved his presence in the story. This whole thing about clearing his name was really fascinating to me. I enjoyed slowly finding out what had really happened in the 19th century (and I'm not normally a big westerns fan) and I loved the whole process of them trying to find proof of the way things really had gone down that would convince Alison. That element (convincing others) is especially well handled. People don't just go, oh, right, so ghosts exist. They doubt AJ's account, and he has to work very, very hard to convince them.

The only reason this wasn't an A read was because there's another subplot there in the background, involving hit men and Alison having witnessed something she shouldn't have. Well, that subplot is in the background during the first two thirds or so of the book, but comes very much to the forefront nearer the end. Frankly, it wasn't very good, and a distraction from all the other good stuff.



Here Comes The Groom, by Karina Bliss

>> Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TITLE: Here Comes The Groom
AUTHOR: Karina Bliss

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary New Zealand
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

If Jocelyn Swann weren't so furious, she'd probably laugh. Her best friend, Dan Jansen, has launched a campaign worthy of his Special Forces training to arrange their wedding, from music and minister to flowers and food. What part of no does he not understand?

Their marriage "agreement" was a tipsy scrawl on the back of a coaster…three years ago! It's not a question of love. Of course she loves Dan. She's loved him all her life. If only she could get him to slow down a minute and listen—to be the friend she needs right now—she could convince him that marriage would ruin everything.
Karina Bliss landed herself a spot on my autobuy list with just one book, and a category romance, no less. Her What The Librarian Did was so fantastic that I've collected all her backlist and when I saw this new one coming out, I pre-bought it. It didn't disappoint.

Jocelyn Swann and Dan Jansen have been best friends forever. They haven't seen much of each other the last few months, though, as Dan was stationed in Afghanistan, and Jocelyn was dealing with some issues of her own.

So Jo is understandably surprised when Dan shows up out of the blue one day and announces they are getting married. It turns out a few years earlier, as a bit of a joke, the two made a "contract" that if they were unmarried by the time they reached the ripe old age of 33, they would marry each other. Well, they are 33 now, and so Dan is going ahead with the wedding arrangements (church, dress, party, the works!) however much Jo insists the wedding is not going forward.

So here we have a hero who's decided he and the heroine are going to get married and proceeds with the arrangements (including telling everyone) without seemingly caring a whit that the heroine tells him again and again (and again) that she doesn't want to marry him. Surely I thought he was a major arsehole and an arrogant bastard to boot? Well, I didn't. For some reason, it was ok with me. Maybe because much as he blithely keeps going, Dan knows and Jo knows that it's up to Jo whether she shows up and he's not actually browbeating her about that.

I also understood where Dan was coming from. He's just faced a devastating situation where his comrades were attacked while he was off-duty. This has also meant that he's newly conscious of his own mortality, and made him realise what's important to him and what he wants out of life. Also, he feels guilty for not being there when his friends were attacked and thus surviving unscathed, and this guilt makes him feel like he needs to live well for his friends.

Not only did Bliss make me actually like a hero who was behaving in such a way, she simultaneously made me completely understand Jo's continued refusal to even consider the wedding plans. There's just so much going on with her. The one you see from the start is the situation with her grandmother, whose dementia is getting worse and worse, and whose care is wearing Jo down more than she can stand. This is really heartbreaking, especially the contrast between Jo's memories of when her gran was well and the situation now. But there's also something else going on with Jo, something we only find out later and that I don't think I should reveal. This is even more reason for her to feel there's no way she'll go through with the wedding.

And there's quite a lot else in this deceptively short book. Dan's taking over his dad's ranch, and his father is having trouble dealing with not having his work to do every day, and his wife's about to leave him, because she's been waiting for years for the day when they can actually enjoy life, and that day doesn't ever seem to come. There's also quite a bit of sequelbaiting, which I didn't mind in the least. There are going to be stories about Dan's teammates in the SAS in Afghanistan, who've all survived a horrible attack, and almost all the future characters show up here. I'm very intrigued to know what's next.

Unfortunately, the ending is what keeps this book from an A grade. Things slipped a bit in the resolution. Jo does something right at the end that I just didn't get. I'm not going to say what it is, but I didn't understand why she felt Dan needed this, or why Dan agreed in the end. It made no sense to me.

Still, this was a fantastic read, and I'm looking forward to more from Bliss.



A Midnight Clear, by Kristi Astor

>> Monday, March 21, 2011

TITLE: A Midnight Clear
AUTHOR: Kristi Astor

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Edwardian England
TYPE: Romance

He Was Her Forbidden Fantasy...

Miranda Granger arrives at the spectacular seaside resort The Grandview Hotel to spend the Christmas holidays, hoping it will be just the tonic she needs to forget her scandalous past. But when she crosses paths with Troy Davenport, the alluring stranger she met aboard an ocean liner, Miranda fears she will repeat the mistake that almost ruined her reputation many years ago. . .

She Was His Greatest Muse...

Troy Davenport has been struggling to paint the stunning woman he encountered by moonlight on the ship's deck. If only he could meet his muse again. When he learns she's staying at The Grandview, it takes a great deal of convincing to let him paint her. But once he begins he realizes he wants more than to capture her unique beauty on canvas. When they surrender to an all-consuming passion, Troy's past threatens to tear them apart--unless a Christmas miracle can save their love...
The book opens with artist Troy Davenport unexpectedly coming across a newspaper photograph of the woman he hasn't been able to forget since they shared a few forbidden moments on an ocean liner, a few months earlier. They didn't exchange names, and Troy thought he wouldn't be able to find her again. It turns out she's heiress Miranda Granger, and the society pages reveal that she and her family will be spending Christmas at the opening of a luxurious seaside resort.

In the months since he's seen her, Miranda has become Troy's muse, and he can't stop trying to paint her. He can't resist the idea of meeting her in the flesh again and having the chance to convince her to pose for him, so he wrangles an invitation to the resort.

When they finally meet again, Miranda is not particularly welcoming, even though the attraction is just as strong on her part. She has some stuff in her past that means her father is extremely protective of her, and not in a good way. He thinks she can't be trusted, and is an easy prey for fortune hunters. Fortune hunters such as Troy, he would think, even though in reality, Troy is the son of an extremely rich New York family. He and his father disagreed over his choice of career and his refusal to join the family firm, though, so he's decided to make his own way, under a new name. So as far as both Miranda and her father are concerned, he's an impoverished artist -one with a bright future, but at the moment, without a penny to his name.

This was the first book I ever purchased on my Kindle. I read the description, downloaded the sample, and clicked to buy as soon as I finished it. It was Boxing Day and I was on the bus coming back from Southport -it was such a thrill to be able to just click a button and have the book right there!

What sold me on this was as much the setting and the plot line. Edwardian settings make me think of the wonderful Judy Cuevas / Judith Ivopry already, and when you combine this with a set-up involving forbidden meetings on an ocean crossing, I just can't help thinking of Beast.

Well, the Edwardian England setting was as great as I'd hoped. Not quite Judy Cuevas, but vivid and distinct, and an excellent change after so many Regencies and Victorians. It's a really good time to set a romance, with social norms that were still restrictive, but clearly show some signs of the increasing freedom to come. I also had huge fun with the technology of the time -Troy driving a car, for instance.

The romance itself I was less enthused by. It's ok, but I found it hard to really feel the connection between Troy and Miranda. I think part of the problem for me was that Troy didn't feel very mature. If I had been advising Miranda, I would have warned her not to trust him. To me, what Astor wrote felt more like infatuation and an artist's obsession with a model than real love. I know we're told it's love, and it's the author's world and she knows what's what there, but I wasn't completely convinced by the end.

I also found the conflict between Troy and Miranda not as good as it could have been. There's an element there that was interesting, which was Miranda's doubts about whether she really is vulnerable to fortune hunters, and whether she's somehow unable to recognise one at all. Her difficulty in trusting Troy made sense to me because of this. Still, I couldn't help thinking that this would have been a much more interesting book if Troy had actually been just an anonymous artist and we hadn't had that knowledge that he was heir to a huge fortune and could always fall back on that. It wouldn't have meant that they would have ended up living in poverty, since Troy was clearly on his way to becoming a successful artist. Would Miranda have been willing to defy her father then? We didn't get to find out.



The Glass Painter's Daughter, by Rachel Hore

>> Saturday, March 19, 2011

TITLE: The Glass Painter's Daughter
AUTHOR: Rachel Hore

PAGES: 450

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Romantic Fiction

Fran Morrison, a travelling musician, is summoned home to London after her father suffers a stroke and finds herself in charge of the family business, a stained glass workshop in an historic backwater of Westminster.

Minster Glass was founded in the Victorian heyday of stained glass making, and when the vicar of the local church asks Fran and her father's assistant Zac to restore a shattered angel window, her research into the window's origins amongst her father's papers uncovers a fascinating and moving love story from the Victorian past that resonates in her own life.

And as she makes a new life for herself in London she discovers that, if you know where to look, there are angels all around.
Fran Morrison is a free-lance professional musician. She travels the world, playing in different orchestras, a life she enjoys very much. She doesn't go back to London much -even though she grew up on her own with her father, the relationship between them has long been quite strained.

When her father has a stroke, though, Fran doesn't think of it twice and heads straight home. With her father still in hospital, she has a lot of time to spare, which she fills with helping run the family business, Minster Glass, a stained glass workshop that has a very long history. She also joins a local choir, rekindles her relationshiop with old friends, not to mention meets new ones, including the brilliant young choir director, who seems quite interested in her as well.

One of the projects Fran gets involved with is the restoration of a stained glass window at the church round the corner. This window was originally made at Minster Glass many years earlier, and was shattered during the war. Researching its history, Fran finds a diary written by Laura, the daughter of the vicar at the time the window was made. And so, as in the previous books I've read by this author, we get a story within a story, that of Laura and her relationship with the artist who created the window.

If you have read my reviews of other Rachel Hore books, there won't be much in this one that will surprise you. It's a quiet and pretty undramatic story, which is nonetheless quite readable. It's also got a great sense of place.

The latter was probably the best thing about the book. I absolutely loved the setting, in that bit of London behind Westminster Abbey. It's an area I often wander in whenever work takes me to London. I usually stay in a little hotel in Pimlico and my meetings tend to be in Whitehall, so if I have time, I'll walk and lose myself for a while in the little backstreets. Greycoat square might be imaginary (although there does seem to be a Greycoat place in that area, so maybe not completely?), but the rest of it comes to life beautifully. I think next time I'm there I'll be unconsciously looking for Minster Glass.

We also get quite a lot of information about stained glass windows - how they're designed, how they're made and lots more. I thought that was really interesting, and I wanted more.

The human drama playing out before this background was entertaining enough, too. Fran's a bit of an inscrutable character, and even though events are narrated from her point of view, I still found her character a bit diffuse by the end of the book. The main character is not as vivid as the setting, I'm afraid, but it wasn't too bad, really.

The conflict in the present day revolves around Fran coming to terms with her father and his legacy, as well as dealing with some romantic complications involving choir director Ben. It's not a very traditional romance Fran gets involved in, but it was one I found quite realistic, if it was supposed to portray a relationship which doesn't seem to be going anywhere, no matter how much the two people involved think they want it to. Ben is a flawed but interesting character. I was as confused about his character as Fran was. Is he supposed to be the hero, I wondered? Yes, he sounds quite attractive and sexy, but he also doesn't seem to be a very nice person. I've recently joined a non-professional, just for fun choir myself, and if our choir director behaved as Ben did, I don't think I'd be staying long! I liked Fran's attitude towards this, though. She's very attracted to Ben, but she's not oblivious to his faults, and they actually give her pause. Anyway, things in that department do turn out in the way I thought was best in the end.

In addition to Fran, there's Laura's story there, and that's where the book fell down for me. First of all, I just wasn't interested in her, even found her a bit boring. I just didn't really care what would happen between her and the man she loved. In fact, I read this a while ago, and I can't remember exactly how things turned out for her!

And also, there's the same problem as in other books I've read by this author. Fran's investigation into Laura's story is very undramatic. The stuff with the information she needs just turns up, without much effort. She looks for an image of the original angel window for a while, but when it turns up, it's just very blah. This sort of thing can be done so much better! It has been done much better... just read some of my favourite Barbara Michaels books and you'll see!

Not to mention, again, I didn't really get what the link was between the two stories. Were Laura's and Fran's lives supposed to mirror each other in some way? What was the relevance? I didn't really see anything there.



1222, by Anne Holt

>> Thursday, March 17, 2011

TITLE: 1222
AUTHOR: Anne Holt

PAGES: 313

SETTING: Contemporary Norway
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: This appears to be the 8th novel in the Hanne Wilmhelmsen series, but I understand it's the first to have been translated into English.

REASON FOR READING: First book I've read after downloading a sample on my Kindle! I wasn't intrigued enough to actually purchase it, but I did request it from my library. I would definitely buy it now, though, since I just had a look and it's only £1 for the UK Kindle! Grrr, I paid almost that (60p!) for the library hold and then had to struggle with the heavy hardcover.

1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.

With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. But Hanne has no wish to get involved. She has learned the hard way that truth comes at a price and sometimes that price just isn’t worth paying. Her pursuit of truth and justice has cost her the love of her life, her career in the Oslo Police Department and her mobility: she is paralysed from the waist down by a bullet lodged in her spine. Trapped in a wheelchair, trapped by the killer within, trapped by the deadly storm outside, Hanne’s growing unease is shared by everyone in the hotel.

Should she investigate, or should she just wait for help to arrive? And all the time rumours swirl about a secret cargo carried by train 601. Why was the last carriage sealed? Why is the top floor of the hotel locked down? Who or what is being concealed? And, of course, what if the killer strikes again?
A train travelling towards Northern Norway crashes amid the worst snowstorm in years. Fortunately, not only is the death toll very low and the injuries not too bad, there is also a hotel close by. The survivors are immediately transported there, where they're promptly snowed in and isolated, with no hope of rescue for a few days at least. Still, the hotel is fully provisioned for the winter and there are plenty of empty rooms, so everyone should be comfy enough. But then, as the first morning dawns, a body is discovered right outside the hotel. It's one of the passengers, and he has been shot.

Coincidentally, former police detective Hanne Wilmhelson was on the train. She's not with the police any longer, since a shooting has left her paraplegic, so her initial reaction is to try to stay out of it. Surely the best thing to do is to wait until the police come. There's a limited number of possible murderers, so it shouldn't be hard to solve the case, especially snce the police, unlike her, will have the power to interrogate people and make them answer their questions. But when the death toll starts rising, Hanne feels that, reluctant or not, she needs to do something.

Hanne is interesting. But as I found out more about her, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jasper Fforde's hilarious Nursery Crimes detective books. What came to mind was how in the first one, The Big Over Easy, the detectives who want their cases published by the the powerful Guild of Detectives have to do their utmost to be quirky and different, all the better to entertain the reading public. The main character's wife puts in the application of this very normal, loving family man that that he's owns a vintage Rolls Royce, is divorced and bitter and has a drinking problem. Even more extreme, his superintendent reveals that he's been learning Urdu and taken up the trombone, but that doesn't seem to be quirky enough. Should he change his name to F"ongotskil'ernie?

Well, with Hanne I kind got the feeling that it felt like Holt was doing her best to get her accepted by the Guild. She's a former police detective who is in a wheelchair since she was paralysed after being shot on a case. She's a lesbian, in a relationship with a Muslim woman who, it is intimated in this book, became pregnant in spite of Hanne insisting she didn't want to be a mother. She's also a bit antisocial and withdrawn, to the point of rudeness.

Don't get me wrong, as I say above, I did find her interesting. I just felt it was all a bit over the top. It did leave me intrigued to read the previous books, though, because there isn't really all that much development of Hanne's personal stuff here. After all, she's away from her family and normal life for the whole book. I expect there must be more in previous books.

Interesting or not, Hanne exasperated me at the beginning. I suppose you can read her character as someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly and isn't willing to spend effort keeping up polite fictions just to make sure people's feelings don't get hurt. I just read her as rude and inconsiderate, at least at the beginning. Soon, though, I began warming up to her a bit, but this was because she began warming up as well. She started interacting a bit more with people, rather than just withdrawing and ignoring anyone who spoke to her, and that made her a more interesting character to me.

And if Hanne was interesting, so were a few of the other characters (many of whom were also good candidates for the Guild of Detectives). There's the populist priest. There's the Islamophobe activist who clashes with two muslim characters who, Hanne soon discovers, are much more than they seem. There's the doctor with dwarfism who refuses to accept Hanne's withdrawal and gets past her defenses. There's the frazzled hotel manager who unexpectedly finds strength inside herself. There's the young punk who Hanne almost-but-not-quite befriends. There's the young goth girl, and many more. I quite enjoyed them all.

The actual mystery was not the most fascinating I've ever read, but it was ok enough. What I did really, really like was the Agatha Christie-ish setup and resolution. This is basically a house party mystery, and we get one of those big reveal scenes like Christie used to have, with Poirot gathering round all the suspects and having this big revelation. This was obviously a conscious choice on Holt's part (there's even a reference by Hanne to her little grey cells!), and I got a kick out of the homage.

I also thought the setting was fantastic. The cold and the snow and the storm were really atmospheric and brilliantly done. I also liked that there was a very definite sense of place. This was very definitely set in Norway, and no other place. I was especially interested in Hanne's reflections about Norwegianness and national characters. I found it funny, if not unexpected, that she would be so glum about corrupt politicians and greed. Very definitely not a surprise to me to find a huge difference between the perception of the country from people abroad and that from the people living there. I've found that to be the case here in England as well -people seem to be weirdly convinced that their country is complete rubbish and that nothing works. They have no idea what they've got, I say, having lived elsewhere!

Anyway, now for the negatives, I'm afraid. First, the Writing felt a bit clumsy and awkward sometimes, but I'm aware this is a translation, so I'm not sure whether it's the author or the translator who's responsible for the way the writing felt. Whichever, I'll give her a pass for that. Unfortunately, the pacing was a bit clunky as well, and things dragged a bit in the middle. The action got brisker at the end, though, and I ended up turning the pages quite quickly.

Another thing that annoyed me was the resolution of a mystery that's in the background all through the book. When the train left the original stations, all the passengers could see that the bit of platform by the last carriage was blocked off and guarded by security. So after the crash, there's a lot of speculation about just what was being transported in that carriage. Is it a member of the Royal family? Is it something security-related? Hanne has her suspicions, which she shares with us. She's a bit cryptic about it, but I thought I knew exactly what and who she was talking about. But then there was the final scene, which left be a bit baffled. Was I supposed to recognise this person from Hanne's description? If it hadn't been for the word "handsome" and a mention of an unexpected hair colour, I would have closed the book convinced I had got Hanne's hints right. But as it is, I have no idea who this person was. Maybe I would need to have read previous books in the series to do so? I would appreciate any clarifications!

That's annoying enough, but the real problem was that this element of the book also was completely gratuitous. I kept expecting that it would have some sort of bearing on the main mystery, or even on Hanne's personal life, but it didn't. It's completely unrelated. It could have been cut completely without taking anything away. So what was the point of it, other than adding a few more pages?



Midnight Crystal, by Jayne Castle

>> Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TITLE: Midnight Crystal
AUTHOR: Jayne Castle

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Futuristic, in planet of Harmony
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Third in Dreamlight trilogy, part of the Arcane Society books.

It began with Krentz...continued with Quick...and now it will end with Castle.

For many earthly centuries, a legendary curse has plagued the Winters family, stemming from the tumultuous founding of the Arcane Society. But now, on the futuristic world of Harmony, the curse's final mystery will be unraveled...

Head of the ghost hunters guild Adam Winters and dreamlight reader extraordinaire Marlowe Jones must break the curse, save Harmony's entire underworld-and fight a passion that could destroy them both.
Midnight Crystal closes JAK's Dreamlight trilogy. The background(and apologies if you've read this before, I'm canibalising bits from my earlier explanations in the two previous books in the series) is that one of the founding members of the Arcane Society devised an artifact called the Burning Lamp, in order to enhance his powers. This artifact created a mutation in his genetic makeup, one that manifests in only some of his descendants. When it does, it can lead to them becoming psychic monsters. The only hope for these individuals is to find a woman who can operate the energy produced by the burning lamp and use it to reverse those genetic changes before they become so dangerous that they become so dangerous that they have to be hunted down and killed.

Each of the books in this trilogy have taken place in a different period, coinciding with JAK's three pseudonyms. The first one, a Jayne Ann Krentz title, was set in the present day. The following one, Burning Lamp, was an Amanda Quick and took place in the 19th century, while this last one, Midnight Crystal, is a futuristic book, set in the planet Harmony, where all her current Jayne Castle books are set. They all have the same basic setup, in that the Burning Lamp gets lost in between the different books, so each of the heroes has to find both it and the woman who can help them use it.

In Midnight Crystal, the member of the Winters family searching for the lamp is Adam, the head of the city's ghost hunters' Guild. To complicate matters a little bit, the woman he soon discovers is the only one who can save his sanity is dreamlight reader Marlowe Jones. Marlowe, it so happens, has recently started running the Jones & Jones detective agency branch in her city -the very people who would be charged with neutralising Adam if he started showing signs of developing extra talents (a clear sign of being on the road to crazyland).

Having read the reviews when this came out, it seems to have been received with a great big "meh" from pretty much everyone. The words "predictable", "boring" and "underwhelming" rang out. I don't really disagree with the "predictable" bit, but although I didn't find it to be a page-turner, and it wasn't a book which, when I put it down, made me feel I couldn't wait to come back to it, I'm almost embarrassed to confess I quite enjoyed it.

Yes, there's a lot of technical crap about how exactly different talents work. Yes, the mystery is pretty pointless and paint-by-the-numbers (it's not the first time with JAK when in my mind I've gone "so this is where they get attacked in the street, and this is where they go to talk to someone and find him dead, and this is..." and have been 100% right). But I did like the characters and their relationship enough to enjoy the book. Ok, so they're far from being the most deeply drawn and multilayered characters I've ever read, but I enjoyed spending time with them. I liked that they were a bit older than usual and actually felt more mature. I liked the leather jacket-clad biker heroine, and I thought JAK was really good at actually showing us, rather than telling us, how Adam is very drawn to her and how she's attracted right back. I liked the way their relationship developed, and I also liked their families.

And I musn't forget to make the also-embarrassing confession I've made in all the previous Harmony books: the dust bunny is outstanding. I just can't believe that I love those dust bunnies so much. They should be saccharine and ridiculous, but they're just hilarious and cute in the best of ways.



Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews

>> Sunday, March 13, 2011

TITLE: Magic Bites
AUTHOR: Ilona Andrews

PAGES: 272

SETTING: Alternate version of the US city of Atlanta
TYPE: Urban fantasy
SERIES: Starts a series

REASON FOR READING: A lot of people whose taste in book I mostly share love this author.

Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren’t for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…
I think at some point I'm going to have to accept that urban fantasy just isn't for me. There are a couple of exceptions (I love Wen Spencer's Ukiah Oregon's series, for instance), but on the whole, I just haven't had the best of success with the genre.

Magic Bites sounded interesting. I loved the idea of a world in which technology and magic are locked in a struggle, and when one dominates, the other is useless. It's part post-apocalyptic, part fantasy, full of all sorts of creatures living in the half-ruined versions of today's cities, which degrade (sometimes quite suddenly) whenever magic is in ascendence.

Kate Daniels, our heroine, is a mercenary. Her job is to sort out people or beings who are breaking the rules and using their own power for bad. She has quite a lot of power herself, but doesn't deal well with authority, so she works outside the system.

However, when her mentor/guardian/friend Greg is mysteriously murdered, all changes. Greg was part of the system, being a member of the Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid, and Kate needs their sanction (well, she needs information from them, anyway, and having their sanction wouldn't hurt) to go after the murderer.

In the course of her investigation, Kate has to deal with the politics of the different tribes and groups in her world. She learns about beings she didn't know existed and facts she never imagined about the creatures she does know. There are fights aplenty, as well as some intriguing male characters who seem as intrigued with Kate as she is with them -there are (of course, this is urban fantasy, after all) very clear hints of a love triangle emerging.

It sounds great, and if you ask me after I read such a description whether I would like it, I'd probably say I would, especially if you added that Kate is smart and strong and independent, and there is some intriguing mystery about where exactly her very cool powers come from. But having read it, I'm sorry to report I didn't enjoy it all that much.

I think part of the problem was that, as so many other urban fantasy novels, this centres quite a bit on political manouverings and plotting between factions or races. That's something that bores me when I read historical fiction, and it bores me just as much when I read it in other settings. I just found it very hard to care enough to pay attention to just why this group hates this other one and why they're undermining them in this or this other way.

Also this world which sounds so cool turned out to be a bit too gritty and ugly for me. This is something I'm quite embarrassed to confess; I feel like if I was a mature enough reader I should be able to cope with a gritty, grimy setting, or something like that, but I just can't. Well, I can cope, I just don't enjoy reading about it. As it is, however interesting and fresh and original this world was, and how much I liked Kate, I have no real interest in joining her in it again.

MY GRADE: This is a technically good book, but since I grade purely for my enjoyment, I'll give this a C+.


Wife For A Week, by Kelly Hunter

>> Friday, March 11, 2011

TITLE: Wife For A Week
AUTHOR: Kelly Hunter

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary London and Hong Kong
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: None (that I know of!)

REASON FOR READING: Kelly Hunter is author of the month (which means we have to read one of her books, any one) on my online romance chat group.

Nicholas Cooper must produce a wife for his business deal, and Hallie Bennett is beautiful and intelligent enough to pull it off. She needs the money, and Nicholas has determined some strict rules for their week together.

Rule No. 1: Displays of affection in public only

Keeping their hands on each other in public turns out to be surprisingly easy. It's keeping them off in private that's the problem. Hallie is falling for Nicholas, but will Nicholas make his contract wife his real-life bride?
Wife For A Week was a fun and breezy read, if a little insubstantial.

For once, the title is quite accurate. Nicholas Cooper is negotiating a deal to distribute his company's new video game in Asia, and the last time he visited his potential partner in Hong Kong, his daughter made a pass at him. Not wanting to crush the girl too badly (she seemed very sweet), he panicked and invented a wife. Now he's going to Hong Kong again, and he needs to produce said wife.

Hallie is working at a small shoe shop in London. When an eccentric old lady decides, after a bit of banter, that she'd be perfect for the charader her son Nick needs to pull, Hallie is doubtful. But 10 thousand pounds would help her finish her education (and Nick is very attractive), so she finds herself accepting.

Hallie was fun. She's independent and intelligent, and refuses to act at all impressed with Nicholas. Nicholas does show some signs of being potentially a bit overbearing, but he's got a sense of humour, enough to recognise when he's being unreasonable and he's fair enough to appreciate it when Hallie is right. And in the end, he proves he's quite a bit more enlightened that the average Presents hero when he needs to step back and trust Hallie to do something that's quite dangerous. He doesn't find it easy, but he does it, and full points for him.

That said, although I liked it a LOT more than I did the other book I read by this author (the unfortunately titled Exposed: Misbehaving With the Magnate), they did have in common a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition of modern and old-fashioned. In the other book, it was characters who, to all outward appearances, lived in the here and now but who were also concerned with things like mistresses and the heroine having grown up as the housekeeper's daughter. Here it's things like Nick being a quite modern kind of businessman (his company designs videogames and he has the stereotypical google-era entrepreneur's office, complete with basketball hoop and widescreen TV), who for some reason seems to move in this weird scene where corporate wives are elegant and sweet and dress in demure and anonymous designer dresses. There's also the pointless virginity thing. This felt more like garden-variety Presents world. Strangely, the "I need a pretend wife" set-up I was ok with, as Hunter did justify that well.

What else? I really liked the Hong Kong setting. The London of the first few pages didn't feel like London at all, but Hong Kong was vivid and different. I've no idea if it would feel realistic to someone who actually knows the place, but I liked it. I also liked the tiny suspense-ish plot. That was truly hilarious, and it relates to my point above of Nick having to step back and let Hallie do her thing, so that was all good.



Kiss of a Demon King, by Kresley Cole

>> Wednesday, March 09, 2011

TITLE: Kiss of a Demon King
AUTHOR: Kresley Cole

PAGES: 432

SETTING: Alternate world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: Immortals After Dark #7

REASON FOR READING: I really enjoy this series

From New York Times bestselling author Kresley Cole comes this spellbinding story of a demon king trapped by an enchantress for her wanton purposes -- and the scorching aftermath that follows when he turns the tables and claims her as his captive.


Sabine, Sorceress of Illusions: the evil beauty who surrenders her body, but not her heart.


Rydstrom Woede: the ruthless warrior who vows to keep her at all costs.


With each smoldering encounter, their shared hunger only increases. If they can defeat the sinister enemy that stands between them, will Sabine make the ultimate sacrifice for her demon? Or will the proud king lay down his crown and arms to save his sorceress?
Kiss of a Demon King takes place pretty much concurrently with the previous book, Dark Desires After Dark. The earlier book is where Rydstrom and his brother Cadeon's quest began to overthrow the evil, unkillable sorcerer Omort and win back the kingdom they lost centuries earlier. At one point in that book, we see Rydstrom being kidnapped by the evil Sorceress Sabine, Omort's sister, leaving Cadeon alone on his mission to get the sword that's the only weapon that can kill their enemy. KOTDK fills in the blanks by telling the story of what happens between Rydstrom and Sabine.

Sabine may be an evil sorceress herself (she's very proud of that "evil" bit) doesn't like her brother any better, but he controls her through having fed her poison and controlling the substance she needs to ingest periodically to keep her from dying. She thus must do what she says. There's a prophecy which predicts she's the demon king's mate, and that if they marry and produce a child, that child will be able to access a source of great power. Therefore, she must seduce Rydstrom into marrying and impregnating her.

Which is how Rydstrom ends up tied to her bed, being tormented and tempted by a woman who, he rapidly begins to realise, is all his most secret fantasies made flesh.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? And it does get so, eventually. Unfortunately, I didn't like the beginning at all. I don't think it was the fact that the man was in the less powerful position, because that's not something I mind. It was more that I didn't really know these people very well, and neither did they know each other, so all the supposedly sexy scenes didn't feel particularly sexy to me, and actually bored me.

Plus, it was all a bit cartoonish. I have liked Cole's previous books so much because her characters are real people, even though there's a lot of craziness going on around them. I didn't get that feeling with Sabine and Rydstrom in the first section, and so I had a lot of trouble getting through it, until about the time when Rydstrom escapes. I just couldn't force myself to keep reading more than a few pages at a time (I even read 3 or 4 other books in between those few little pages). If this hadn't been an author I trust due to prior experiences, I wouldn't have persevered.

Once they're out of the castle, it gets much, much better. Exciting adventures, fun new worlds and creatures, and a hero and heroine whose adversarial relationship doesn't hide that they are perfect for each other.

And Cole shows us that. As always with this author, she handles the whole issue with the fated mates extremely well. Being fated mates in her world doesn't mean that the characters are instantly in love. In fact, rather than provide a shortcut for the romance and make any conflict disappear, this creates even more conflict, so it actually makes the story more interesting, rather than more boring. Cole takes the time to show us why the proud, always-honest king falls so hard for this woman who prides herself on lying and tricking people whenever she can.

One of my favourite things? At one point, Rydstrom tricks Sabine regarding something very important to her. Throughout the book, I dreaded how that was going to be resolved, hoping against hope that Sabine wouldn't end up acting out of character. And she didn't! I loved the way it was handled in the end.



Shapeshifters good and bad

>> Monday, March 07, 2011

TITLE: In Sheep's Clothing (in The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance anthology)
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

This is such a short story that I checked out the book from the library, sat at one of the tables there, read the story and checked the book back in. I enjoyed it. Brook doesn't make the mistake of trying to cram a whole relationship in barely 20 pages, so what we get is more like a vignette. The heroine has spent the last few years away from her home town, having left after a werewolf attack. Now that she's got her new nature under control, she feels she can come back. She arrives in the middle of a spate of attacks by a serial killer, and her werewolf senses allow her to help the man she loves, who's the sheriff, catch him. Interesting characters, and since hero and heroine had known each other very well before she had to leave town, even a believable romance.

Meljean Brook now has this short story available for free at her website: here.


TITLE: The Mane Squeeze
AUTHOR: Shelly Laurenston

Laurenston was recommended to me as a very funny author, who does strong heroines and really yummy heroes. Well, the latter seemed to be the case in the first bit of the book that I read, but the first two, not really. I guess the problem was that both the humour and the heroine's strength seemed to be predicated on constant brawling. Yawn. I also didn't have the best opinion of the heroine's intelligence after a supposedly funny scene where it emerged that she was convinced (really convinced) that hospitals were death traps, not because of MRSA, or anything like that, but because it was almost certain that once you were there, the doctors would kill you to harvest your organs. Why the paranoia? Because she'd once seen a PBS documentary about it. Yeah, not the sort of humour that works for me, that. Additionally, there was a barrage of characters I didn't know, clearly from earlier books in the series, and I couldn't make heads or tails of who was who or what and how they were all related.



Unforgivable, by Laura Griffin

>> Saturday, March 05, 2011

TITLE: Unforgivable
AUTHOR: Laura Griffin

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: Third in the Tracers series. Comes after Untraceable and Unspeakable.

REASON FOR READING: I think it was the review at AAR.


At first, Mia Voss thinks it’s just bad luck when her already lousy day ends with a carjacking, but what seems like a random incident is followed by another sinister episode. A DNA expert, Mia has made it her mission to put away vicious criminals. Suddenly, she’s become the target of one. And the only way to protect the people she loves most is to deliberately destroy her reputation and risk letting a killer walk free.

Once, Mia trusted Detective Ric Santos, but that was before Ric let his turbulent past ruin his chances with Mia, the sexiest, most intriguing woman he’s ever met. But he can tell when she’s lying—and when she’s scared. The key to catching a sadistic madman lies within a long-buried cold case that has haunted Mia for years. Only she can uncover the truth, but first, Ric will have to get her to entrust him with her secrets . . . and her life.
Mia Voss works at a lab which analyses a lot of police evidence. When she's the victim of a carjacking on her way home from work, she doesn't immediately link it to her job. She's more concerned with the fact that the police detective who takes on the case is Ric Santos, a man with whom, a few months earlier, she thought for a while she might become involved. But when their flirting seemed like it was about to turn into something more, Ric just withdrew.

Ric is a committed commitment-phobe, and that's why he stepped back when his friendly flirting with Mia looked neared the point of no return. It was obvious to him that Mia wasn't a casual fling kind of woman -she was even "nesting", as he puts it, the creep (although, to be fair, she very clearly was). But it soon becomes clear that the car-jacking wasn't just Mia being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was obviously targeted and is now in grave danger, and Ric finds that he can't help but care, and feels the need to protect her.

It's a serviceable plot, and one I liked ok most of the way through. Mia's job is actually really interesting and cool, and I surprised myself by actually liking Ric (I would expect to despise a character such as the one I described above). But the suspense is a bit boring and the romance was only all right.

This would still be a B-, but then there's the bit where Mia becomes an idiot. So, the criminals after her threaten someone she loves, and force her to do a very bad thing in relation to her work. I get it that she feels like an idiot, but I didn't buy that she would do what she does. I just couldn't see why she didn't come clean about what had happened, especially given her relationship with the police and the fact that everyone knew she was being targeted by criminals already. Surely that would have been safer for her loved ones and better for her career than making everyone think she's incompetent?

And the further bad news is that this incident marked the beginning of Mia suddenly becoming TSTL. Before, she'd been sensible and ready to trust the experts to keep her safe. But suddenly she's throwing tantrums and insisting on staying with friends rather than accepting Ric's help, even though there's clearly someone out to kill her, just because Ric doesn't love her. Idiot.

Just as bad, this incident also marked the beginning of a very sagging middle, where the book became boring. Lots of running around and not much development, and a lot of temptation to skim. I lost interest in what was happening then. I only midly wanted to know who the killer was, but it was close whether I continued reading or just left it at that.

There was something here that I thought was promising, which is why I might actually try another one of Griffin's books, but this one was not a success.



Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, March 03, 2011

TITLE: Troubled Waters
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: It seems to be a stand-alone

REASON FOR READING: Autobuy author

The author of the Twelve Hours series welcomes readers to a new fantasy world, where the elements rule.

Zoe Ardelay receives astonishing and unwelcome news: she has been chosen to become the king's fifth wife. Forced to go to the royal city, she manages to slip away and hide on the shores of the mighty river.

It's there that Zoe realizes she is a coru prime ruled by the elemental sign of water. She must return to the palace, not as an unwilling bride for the king, but a woman with power in her own right. But as Zoe unlocks more of the mysteries of her blood-and the secrets of the royal family-she must decide how to use her great power to rise above the deceptions and intrigue of the royal court.
Zoe Ardelay has lived all her life in a tiny village, only she and her father. She knows that years and years ago, when she was a child, they lived a very different life in the capital city, where her father was influential and well-connected. Then something -she has no clear idea what- went wrong, and he father was exiled.

Now her father is dead, and their previous life has come calling. No sooner has she buried her father, than Darien Serlast, adviser to the King, rolls into town in his eye-popping self-driven carriage. He's there simply to collect Zoe and take her to the capital, because she is to become the King's fifth wife.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, as a big part of the fun for me was about not knowing where the book was going. Suffice it to say, Zoe is no submissive little girl ready to obey the King's wishes. I expected that, but the way she went about discovering who she really is and what she can do and seizing control of her life was quite surprising.

I always have the same feeling with Sharon Shinn's books. I just sink into them and wallow. I don't care if things move slowly, I'm usually enjoying exploring the world too much to care.

And there was quite a lot to explore here. Troubled Waters is set in a completely new world, one where the elements are paramount. People are ruled by them, and the element they identify with is the one that describes their personality. The impression I got is that this is as hereditary as, say, having hair of a particular colour. You're more likely to be coru (water / blood), as Zoe is, if one of your parents was, but you could very well turn out to be something else.

The way the elements were integrated into the story was really interesting. It reminded me a bit of the way Bujold did religion in her Chalion series, in which it's something that's not just a philosophical system, but something that sometimes also manifests tangibly in real life. Things like drawing blessings, for instance, where if you're uncertain, or in need of guidance or advice, you pick a tile out of a large basket containing tiles with all the characteristics associated with the different elements. These have a way of being true in this world, it's not just like fortune cookies! But at the same time, the paranormal is a very subtle presence here. It's clear it exists, and no one is that shocked when someone displays powers, but it's not particularly common or all pervading, which just made things more interesting.

And this is just the belief system of this world. There's history and politics and technology, and all sorts of other things, including an extremely vivid setting, which I could always picture perfectly in my mind.

There's also an interesting story being told. It does start a bit slowly, with a lot of the day to day of Zoe's life when she arrives at the capital, but as I've alluded to above, I didn't care one whit. I enjoyed this bit just as much as I did the rest of the book, once the action gets much more exciting.

Whatever the action, the focus is very much on Zoe finding out who she is and what she can do, and about her understanding who her father was and accepting that he had his failings. She needs to take her place in her family, but she also needs to do this on her own terms. It's all about Zoe coming of age, something her temperament (she can be quite volatile and changeable) doesn't make easy.

At times, though (and this is the reason why this is a B+, not an A) it felt like there wasn't much of a sense of risk, I always got the feeling Zoe knew exactly what she was doing and that whatever she chose would turn out well for her. Even when she becomes part of the court, walking into a situation that was full of perils and treacherous possibilities, she handles herself as if she's had years of experience. But she grew up in a little village, with a father who never really talked about the past! Where would she have learnt to handle court intrigue so well? A combination of dumb luck and good intuition, I guess, but that's a bit unsatisfying.

There's a bit of romance here as well, which I liked ok, but didn't love, possibly because of the same lack of uncertainty and risk I described above. It was always obvious that Zoe was going to end up Darian, and actually, not just to the reader. I got the feeling throughout the book that they both knew that perfectly well from the first moment. Not only that, I got the feeling that she knew he knew and that he knew she knew, if that makes sense. The thing is, the romance was not the point of the book, and I got the feeling they both knew that as well. It's all about the self-discovery, so it makes sense that any proper development of the romance needed to be a bit on hold until that was on its way to being sorted out.

Even with those imperfections, Troubled Waters was a very enjoyable book. I'm looking forward to Shinn's next.



Local Custom, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

>> Tuesday, March 01, 2011

TITLE: Local Custom
AUTHOR: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

PAGES: 308

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci fi / fantasy
SERIES: If I understand it correctly, this is a sort of prequel to the Liaden series.

REASON FOR READING: I bought it ages ago because of the review at AAR. I picked it up at random last January when I was back in Uruguay for a visit.

Master trader Er Thom knows the local custom of Liaden is to be matched with a proper bride, and provide his prominent clan Korval with an heir. Yet his heart is immersed in another universe, influenced by another culture, and lost to a woman not of his world. And to take a Terran wife such as scholar Anne Davis is to risk his honor and reputation. But when he discovers that their brief encounter years before has resulted in the birth of a child, even more is at stake than anyone imagined. Now, an interstellar scandal has erupted, a bitter war between two families-galaxies apart-has begun, and the only hope for Er Thom and Anne is a sacrifice neither is prepared to make...
I've read excellent reviews of Local Custom, and Anne McCaffrey's foreword was glowing. But for me, it started out badly and stayed bad enough that I really didn't feel like going on.

The basic plot is that Anne is from Earth, Er Thom is from Liaden. They met at some sort of conference and had a passionate affair. It's been a few years, but Er Thom can't forget Anne. His culture requires him to partner a proper bride and have a child (give his genes to his clan, or something like that), and his mother is piling on the pressure (very real pressure, this, rather than your typical mum's nagging). Before he makes any decisions, Er Thom decides he needs to seek out Anne once again. But when he finds her, it turns out she has a little human souvenir from their previous encounter...

So, first scene, Er Thom meeting with his mother. Yes, she's got the power to make things very uncomfortable for him, but he didn't have to been such an emo, doormat wimp about it! But ok, he decides to do his own thing and runs off to find Anne. Cool, sounded promising, but then...

Anne turned out to be an idiot. Er Thom shows up, they're talking and then their child comes in. Does Anne get flustered? Does she try to find the best way to tell Er Thom, knowing that this is going to be a great big shock for him? Nope, our dear Anne happily introduces the boy to Er Thom, telling him this is his son (she's even given him Er Thom's last name). The poor man is quite upset and the idiot woman has absolutely no idea why. Obliviously, she explains that she had wanted to have a child, and then when she met Er Thom she decided it would be better to have that child be a friend's than to go to a sperm bank, and why is Er Thom so angry? She'll even change the child's last name, if that will help!

At this point, I'm thinking it's all well and good that this is a novel about culture clashes and the misunderstandings that can result from different assumptions and expectations, but Anne is the Terran here. Surely I'm supposed to understand her? But no, this twit is behaving as no sane person would, and the one I completely understand is Er Thom (wimp or not).

It didn't help that the writing style didn't appeal to me, either. The dialogue is very stilted... two people who had a passionate fling four years earlier and haven't seen each other since meet again and go all "oh, my dear friend!" and calling each other dearling and dear all over the place? Anne sounds more like my great aunt than a woman in her (I think) 30s. Maybe the dialogue is on purpose? I would understand it if it was only Er Thom who speaks that way (English is his second language, of course, and he doesn't normally speak it), but Anne, too?

MY GRADE: I'm sorry to say, this was a DNF.


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