The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens

>> Saturday, March 31, 2012

TITLE: The Restorer
AUTHOR: Amanda Stevens

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Book 1 in the Graveyard Queen series (there is a short story prequel)

Amelia Gray has always been aware of ghosts, and now she travels all over the South cleaning up forgotten or abandoned graveyards. When an enigmatic yet haunted police detective asks for her help to trap a serial killer, their growing attraction constitutes the very gravest of threats.
I thought when I first picked this one up, after a really intriguing review at AAR, that I hadn't read Stevens before. Turns out I did, a few years ago, one of one of her Intrigues, Silent Storm. It fell in the great idea, not-so-great execution category. I liked The Restorer much better.

Amelia Gray can see ghosts. So can her father, and he's taught her some very simple rules to live by. First and foremost, she must not acknowledge the ghosts when she sees them. If she does, her father warns her, they will haunt her, desperate as they are to communicate with the living, sucking out her life energy. And related to this, she must run far, far away from any person she meets who is haunted by ghosts. Because seeing ghosts isn't this harmless thing; there are some really dangerous things out there, and you don't want to invite them to focus on you.

Another thing her dad taught Amelia is that ghosts don't go on hallowed ground. This has led to a pretty successful career as a cemetery restorer, as cemeteries often are hallowed ground, which is handy. It is while on one of her jobs, restoring a graveyard attached to a Southern university, that she runs into trouble. First, a body is found at the cemetery, one that has been killed quite gruesomely. Then she's asked for help by the detective in charge, John Devlin, who wants to check out the extensive photographs she took of the scene of the crime not long before the body was left there. Amelia is very attracted to John, but the problem is that he's one of the haunted, followed around by the ghosts of a woman and a small girl, his dead wife and daughter.

Will Amelia follow her dad's rules or will she be unable to keep away from John? What do you think?

I liked this. The romance was a bit overwrought and John a wee bit too tortured, but it was a good start, and I did enjoy the rest of the book. I especially liked the very creepy, chilling atmosphere of the cemetery and Amelia's work. Her knowledge of graveyards and tomb monuments and imagery comes into play in the investigation of the crimes (yes, that body is only the first), and that was fascinating.

The gothic tone is helped by the writing style, heavy on the foreshadowing. There are loads of "if only I had known that...", which I quite liked, as they reminded me a bit of some of my favourite Barbara Michaels.

I also thought the murder plot was well done. There's secret societies and mysterious catacombs and a past crime that must be related to the current ones, and I was intrigued. I thought Stevens came close to the line between exciting and over-the-top several times, but IMO, she stayed on the right side. And the solution was pretty cool. I kind of suspected who it was that was responsible, but the why made me catch my breath.

This will clearly a continuing series and there wasn't that much closure on some things, such as the romance and John's haunting, but I was quite ok with it. I was a bit less happy with other things left unexplained, such as hints at dark, dark secrets in Amelia's family, or say, why her friend Temple was so mysteriously uncomfortable with talk of the murders. The first felt a bit exploitative (as in, it made no sense that they wouldn't be revealed here, only that the author wants us to buy the other books), the latter felt like red herrings the author dropped in and forgot to explain (a proper red herring must have a perfectly good explanation, and a fair author must give that explanation to her readers). It felt a bit clumsy.



Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Thursday, March 29, 2012

TITLE: Beauty and the Werewolf
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: 6th in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series

The eldest daughter is often doomed in fairy tales. But Bella— Isabella Beauchamps, daughter of a wealthy merchant—vows to escape the usual pitfalls.

Anxious to avoid the Traditional path, Bella dons a red cloak and ventures into the forbidden forest to consult with "Granny," the local wisewoman.

But on the way home she's attacked by a wolf—who turns out to be a cursed nobleman! Secluded in his castle, Bella is torn between her family and this strange man who creates marvelous inventions and makes her laugh—when he isn't howling at the moon.

Breaking spells is never easy. But a determined beauty, a wizard (after all, he's only an occasional werewolf) and a little godmotherly interference might just be able to bring about a happy ending.…
The fairy tale-inspired Five Hundred Kingdom books are my favourites by Lackey. The last one was absolutely fantastic, so I had high hopes for Beauty and the Werewolf

Briefly, the premise of the series is a world which is influenced by something called The Tradition, a sort of mindless, unthinking force which tries to shape events into traditional stories. So, for instance, if a king with a beautiful daughter is widowed, evil sorceresses will feel the need to descend in force and try to seduce him into marriage, and he will feel somehow compelled to actually marry one of them, thus giving the young princess an evil stepmother.

The Tradition, however, is not an absolute compulsion, and people who understand how it works can manipulate it and undermine it, forcing it into paths less harmful to everyone involved. This is the role of Godmothers, who protect the Kingdoms assigned to them.

Several other people know about the Tradition, including some rulers and wise people. Contrary to what the blurb quoted above suggests, however, our heroine is not one of them. Bella, the previously unremarkable daughter of a merchant in town, has no idea the Tradition's gathering force around her and pushing her into reenacting something that's a cross between Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast.

Bella thus innocently puts on her red hood and goes through the forest to visit the old woman known as Granny, who's teaching her how to become a healer. One day, on the way there she encounters Eric, the duke's right-hand man, who thinks she's a common peasant girl and tries to bully her into his bed. Bella soon puts him straight, but she and Granny spend so much time discussing what to do about Eric and speculating about the duke (who's mysteriously become a recluse a few years earlier), that she ends up leaving later than she intended, and having to walk through the woods at night. And wouldn't you know it, she's attacked by a big, scary wolf.

Bella manages to fight it off, but not before it bites her. It's not a bad bite, so the doctor (who happens to be at her house when she arrives, treating her hypochondriac step-mother) can treat it easily enough. He warns her, however, that he'll have to let the sheriff know, as the authorities are very keen to hear of any animal attacks.

The authorities response is immediate. Bella's woken up the next morning by the sheriff's men, who whisk her out of bed and out of the house, without her understanding what on earth is going on, and dump her at the duke's manor.

Bella's not stupid. In fact, she's a good example of Lackey's brand of clever, hyper-competent heroine, so it doesn't take her long to work out the obvious conclusion to be drawn from a duke suddenly and mysteriously becoming a lock-in and everyone freaking out when someone's bitten by a wolf. Duke Sebastian is a werewolf.

And this is when things change from Red Riding Hood to Beauty and the Beast. For the next few months, Bella must be isolated in the manor, until the authorities can be certain she's not about to become a werewolf herself. And while she's there, there are plenty of mysteries to solve, like what caused Sebastian to suddenly turn into a werewolf, how on earth did he get out the night she was attacked and who or what are the mysterious invisible helpers who run the household?

It's a fun plot and a fun book. Lackey keeps amazing me with her cleverness, and I always throughly enjoy the elements of world-building in her books. The concept of the Tradition is just genius, and I love what she does with it. She is not content with just using the traditional story. Oh, no, she takes them as a starting point and twists them into something quite fresh and different, that just makes you go "wow".

As for the romance, that was nice enough, but a bit underdeveloped. Bella is a really cool heroine, who, when placed in a bad situation through no fault of her own, doesn't sulk (well, only a little bit) and makes the best of it. She's not one to just accept things, though. She questions whether things are actually necessary, and wins plenty of concessions by standing up for herself, even to people more powerful than her. Duke Sebastian, however, we get to know a bit less. I liked what I saw: he's a very beta hero, a scholar and wizard, a considerate and seemingly genuinely nice man. But that's about all I knew about him, and I wanted to know more, in order to really enjoy the romance.



Str8te Boys, by Evangeline Anderson

>> Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TITLE: Str8te Boys
AUTHOR: Evangeline Anderson


SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

How far would you dare to go…to win it all?

Maverick Holms and Duke Warren share almost everything-a college soccer team, an apartment and the same extremely competitive nature. Thanks to that never-back-down spirit, they're about to share more than they bargained for.

The game is "gay chicken". The rule: get as close as possible without kissing, and the one that pulls away first is the loser. The problem: neither of them likes to lose. It isn't long before the game becomes an excuse to touch and kiss in every possible forbidden way. And after they pose for a gay website to earn extra money, things really heat up.

Suddenly Duke is talking lifetime commitment, and Mav is backpedaling as hard as he can, not sure if he's ready to accept all his best friend is offering him. Or the truth about what he is.
I've read Evangeline Anderson before and enjoyed it, in a very guilty pleasure kind of way. Str8te Boys fits the guilty pleasure category, only I enjoyed it less than other books, such as the very fun The Assignment.

Mav Holmes and Duke Warren are in university together, and share a flat. They are supposedly straight, but start to look at each other with different eyes when plot contrivances, such as a sudden urge to play "gay chicken" (is this really a thing?) and posing for a gay website to get some money, put them in increasingly explicit positions.

It was all really steamy at the beginning and I was loving it (even if I felt like I shouldn't be enjoying it because it was so objectively bad), but then got terribly tedious when they started talking about pesky feelings. I'm a romance reader, I'm not supposed to find talk about feelings boring or annoying!

Basically, I think the problem is that this has a very pornish sensibility and this means it works fine as erotica, but not really as romance. It could be a really interesting story, but everything's too fast and superficial. For instance, Mav's complete identity changes with pretty much no introspection. There's a conversation with his friend, and we're suddenly supposed to believe he's making a massive change in his life and has no trouble at all adjusting his idea of who he is? A bit more development of this would have been appreciated.

And Duke? Who the hell is he? I didn't feel I knew him at all, possibly because the narration is exclusively from Mav's point of view, and Mav really doesn't know his friend very well. How's that for a basis for a relationship?



Into The Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes

>> Sunday, March 25, 2012

TITLE: Into The Darkest Corner
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Haynes

PAGES: 403

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Thriller / Romantic Suspense

Catherine has been enjoying the single life for long enough to know a good catch when she sees one. Gorgeous, charismatic, spontaneous - Lee seems almost too perfect to be true. And her friends clearly agree, as each in turn falls under his spell. But there is a darker side to Lee. His erratic, controlling and sometimes frightening behaviour means that Catherine is increasingly isolated. Driven into the darkest corner of her world, and trusting no one, she plans a meticulous escape. Four years later, struggling to overcome her demons, Catherine dares to believe she might be safe from harm. Until one phone call changes everything. This is an edgy and powerful first novel, utterly convincing in its portrayal of obsession, and a tour de force of suspense.
This was the book for my February book club. I wasn't particularly drawn to it from the description, and would never have picked it up on my own. And yet, I really enjoyed it. It pays to be dragged out of your comfort zone every now and then!

Catherine, the protagonist of Into The Darkest Corner has a severe case of OCD. So severe, in fact, that she can barely function. There are minute rules she has to comply with and complicated rituals she has to perform, all devised and enforced by herself, and if she's at all agitated, compliance with all of this can take literally hours.

Catherine is also clearly terrified of something, as evidenced by the fact that a good number of her rituals revolve around making sure she's safe. She checks and rechecks her front door and the rest of her flat (in a particular order and sequence, which she often screws up and has to begin again), for instance, returns home via different routes each time and always leaves her curtains in a particular position, to make sure they haven't been touched.

Chapters telling the story of Catherine's effort to regain control of life and treat her OCD (with the help of a very nice psychiatrist, Stuart, who moves into the upstairs flat), alternate with chapters from some 4 years earlier, which show the sequence of events that brought her to the point where we meet her. Those chapters start with her meeting the handsome Lee, and follow their relationship as it turns very disturbing.

I really liked the structure of the story. We have basically opposite directions of travel there. The present-day story starts with Catherine at a really low point in her life, and then gradually, as she works hard on it, things start getting better and better, although we know perfectly well there's going to be a big denouement there at the end. The story of four years earlier, on the other hand, starts with Cathy really happy with her life, and then things getting progressively worse as Lee starts to make her life hell in more and more horrible ways. There as well, we know there's going to be a big climax, and we know more or less what it's going to be. It works really well, with the bits where Catherine is happy or hopeful helping mitigate the bleakness of the other sections.

I also thought the portrayal of Catherine's OCD was absolutely amazing. It felt oppressive and scary and all-consuming, just as it must have felt for Catherine herself. It's not particularly easy to read, but I'm glad I did. I hesitate to reveal too much about myself here, but I've got some definite OCD tendencies, which are fine now but in the past have got too close to becoming a problem, and yes, what was portrayed here was, in essence, EXACTLY how it feels. The fears that cause the behaviours are exactly what Haynes showed, and so are the loops your mind falls into. Brilliantly done.

What was also very well done was that Haynes didn't have Catherine just curing herself through strength of will (or love. I've seen that sort of thing a bit too often in romance!). She needed help, she recognised it, and with support from Stuart, she showed immense strength in seeking it out and working very hard to get better. It made the hopeful ending that much more believable.

Something I thought might be an issue is the fact that a romance develops between Catherine and Stuart. The issue of him being a psychiatrist initiating a relationship with someone with big mental issues could have developed into a huge mess, but Haynes dealt with it very deftly. He's very professional in how he behaves. Catherine is in no way his patient. He encourages her to seek help and helps her navigate the practicalities of getting the right sort of help, but he doesn't diagnose her and very definitely doesn't treat her.

That said, Stuart is almost too good to be true. He's got unending reserves of patience and support for Catherine. Him being a psychiatrist himself explained why he would understand Catherine and not blame her, though. Plus, I felt so strongly that Catherine deserved a break in at least one part of her life, that the romance felt plenty satisfying to me.

Into The Darkest Corner is not marketed as romantic suspense, but that's kind of what it is, and would appeal to readers who like books on the psychological thriller end of the spectrum. It's also a page-turner, so make sure you clear up a few hours to read it if you do decide to pick it up!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Choose Me, by Jo Leigh

>> Friday, March 23, 2012

TITLE: Choose Me
AUTHOR: Jo Leigh

PAGES: 224
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: 1st in the It's Trading Men trilogy

Trading Card: Charlie Winslow
Nickname: "King of Manhattan"
Occupation: Celebrity Blogger
Marry/Date/One-night stand: One night…but it'll be fabulous!
Secret passion: Shh! He's old-fashioned.
Warning: Complete workaholic.
Bottom line: Be genuine. Be yourself…

Charlie Winslow isn't your average New York date—he's wealthy, successful and usually mingling with the A-list crowd. So how exactly did he get set up with Bree Kingston on Valentine's Day?

Still, there's something about Bree. Her quirky style, her authenticity, or an unanticipated attraction that just keeps Charlie wanting more. And if Bree plays her trading card just right, this might be the luckiest—and nakedest—Valentine's Day ever!
I'm a fan of Jo Leigh's Blaze books, even though she doesn't do it for me every single time. When she does, though, her books are all that a Blaze should be.

Choose Me is the first in a new series, with books published in consecutive months. Jane did a review at Dear Author that really appealed to me. Well, books 2 and 3 did, but book 1 didn't sound great. Still, Blazes are short and quick to read, so what the hell, I should be more open-minded, so I decided to give it a shot.

The result? Unfortunately, I didn't like exactly what I thought I might not like, but there were some interesting things there, and it ended up being a just ok read.

Bree Kingston has always wanted to live in New York. She saw many of her schoolfriends in small town Ohio give up on their dreams for love, and she refuses to do the same. She is determined to become some sort of fashion personality (a cross between Tim Gunn and Tina Brown, she says) and she's got a five-year plan to do it.

Her five-year plan doesn't allow for long-term relationships at this early stage, but Bree is open to the idea of meeting someone who will rock her world for one or two nights. Which is why the idea one of the women in her frozen meal exchange comes up with is so perfect for her: men trading cards. As the woman puts it, they've all gone on dates with perfectly good guys where things just didn't work out. The trading cards would allow the women to pass this good candidate along to someone else, and tell the recipient whether the guy is looking for long-term or not, as well as some key things about their character.

Honestly? Gimmick. Very gimmicky gimmick, and pretty denigrating, at that. We're just talking about setting people up, why the need for the funfare of having cards? I'm clearly tragically un-hip, but the idea of a frozen meal exchange appealed to me a lot more!

Not to mention, the trading card thing doesn't even come into operation in this first book. What happens is that one of the other women in the exchange, Rebecca (heroine of the next book), decides Bree will be perfect for her cousin Charlie. She has the card printed and then just hands it directly to Bree, not putting it in the pile, or anything like that.

Bree is shocked to see Charlie Winslow on the card and to hear he's agreed to being set up on a date with her. Shocked in a good way, though: Charlie is the king of the New York social scene, founder and owner of a blogging empire, which includes several celebrity-focused blogs, on which he writes and stars. His private life provides quite a bit of fuel for those blogs. Charlie is out every night in all the right places, places Bree would give her right arm to go to.

The romance is very much along the innocent / jaded cynic mold. Bree's honest, open-eyed enjoyment of their date charms Charlie, who's completely bored with the whole thing and usually goes out with women who are just as jaded as he is. Surprising both of them, he decides he wants to keep seeing Bree, and even comes up with a business reason to do so.

I guess the setting and theme are supposed to be the draw of this book, but this aspect didn't work for me at all. I detest celebrity culture, so the glitz and glamour and constant name-dropping didn't appeal to me at all and I found it very boring and shallow, to the point of obscenity. There were some truly ridiculous things: Bree is not with you tonight? Oh, facebook's going to go crazy tomorrow! Fuck off. And yes, I accept that it's probably realistic, so I don't blame Leigh for the ridiculousness, I blame the real world. It's just that being reminded of how people are such idiotic losers made me very cross.

However (and this is quite remarkable), Leigh manages to make her hero and heroine likeable in spite of the fact that they are/want to be part of that very shallow, despicable world. Charlie is a genuinely decent, nice guy, and Bree might be a bit out of her depth, but she's ambitious and can see a great opportunity when one comes knocking. I was pleasantly surprised with how shrewdly she negotiates with Charlie when he comes to her with his business proposition.

Still, the romance wasn't particularly up my street. Bree is way too star-struck by Charlie, and even though she gets a bit more comfortable with him as time goes on, there's still too much hero-worship even by the end of the book, too much "I can't believe THE Charlie Winslow is with me, squee!!". As for Charlie, I was never completely convinced he was in love with Bree, as he claimed. By the end of the story, I felt they were more at a "let's date" stage.

MY GRADE: Oh, well, at least I read it in an evening. A C.


The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane

>> Wednesday, March 21, 2012

TITLE: The Report
AUTHOR: Jessica Francis Kane

PAGES: 238
PUBLISHER: Portobello

SETTING: 1943 and 1973 London
TYPE: Fiction

A stunning first novel that is an evocative reimagining of a World War II civilian disaster

On a March night in 1943, on the steps of a London Tube station, 173 people die in a crowd seeking shelter from what seemed to be another air raid. When the devastated neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to magistrate Laurence Dunne.

In this beautifully crafted novel, Jessica Francis Kane paints a vivid portrait of London at war. As Dunne investigates, he finds the truth to be precarious, even damaging. When he is forced to reflect on his report several decades later, he must consider whether the course he chose was the right one. The Report is a provocative commentary on the way all tragedies are remembered and endured.
It's March 3rd 1943, and the residents of Bethnal Green, in the East End, are expecting German retaliation for a successful bombing a few days earlier. When the air raid sirens sound, people immediately head to the closest underground shelter, located in a disused Tube station. They've done this tens of time before, but on that night, something goes wrong. On their way in, going down the the stairs of the only entrance, something happens that leads to a horrific crush, which ends up killing 173 people.

Shocked and grieving, the people demand answers. The government worry about the effects this might have on morale, but give in to the pressure and set up an inquiry. Local magistrate Laurence Dunne is put in charge of investigating and quickly producing a report that might give people the answers they're seeking.

I really didn't know what to expect when I started this, didn't even know whether it was going to be fiction or non-fiction. I'm finding this is one of the things I enjoy the most about reading outside the romance genre, in fact, and it made reading this book very satisfying.

What I got was a sensitive and fascinating exploration of guilt and blame and responsibility, taking the disaster as a starting point. Francis Kane moves between the aftermath of the tragedy and Dunne's investigation (well, she does cover the minutes right before the disaster and the events themselves, but that happens quite early in the book), and 30 years later, when a young man with a connection to the events is putting together a documentary and interviewing Dunne, who is debating whether now is the time to reveal certain details.

I said this was done in a sensitive way, and that was something I especially appreciated. It would have been very easy to cross the line and have the novel come across as exploitative, sensationalising the accident. Francis Kane avoids this completely. Her focus is not so much on what happened, as on how people deal with it once it has. As she puts it at one point: "An awkward feeling grew: these mourners had survived a tragedy in which they'd somehow played a role, and no one knew what to do." There's the urge to find someone to blame, and this is a pressure felt by Dunne, who has to find a way to give people the closure they need, while making some very delicate decisions about how much to say.

The author explores her issues through very well-rounded characters, some based on real people, some invented (as far as I could tell). They're all presented to us with compassion. There are no villains or saints here, and that was what made the book so compelling.

I also liked how a fascinating portrayal of what life was like in Bethnal Green during the blitz emerges naturally through the narration. It never feels like Francis Kane is inserting extraneous bits of research, it all feels perfectly right.



Deeper Than The Dead, by Tami Hoag

>> Monday, March 19, 2012

TITLE: Deeper Than The Dead
AUTHOR: Tami Hoag

PAGES: 560

SETTING: 1980s California
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: First in a trilogy set in the same town

California, 1985-Four children and young teacher Anne Navarre make a gruesome discovery: a partially buried female body, her eyes and mouth glued shut. A serial killer is at large, and the very bonds that hold their idyllic town together are about to be tested. Tasked with finding the killer, FBI investigator Vince Leone employs a new and controversial FBI technique called "profiling", which plunges him into the lives of the four children-and the young teacher whose need to uncover the truth is as intense as his own. But as new victims are found, Vince and Anne find themselves circling the same small group of local suspects, blissfully unaware that someone very near to them is a murderous psychopath...
I used to read Tami Hoag many years ago, and books like Lucky's Lady were amongst my favourites. I followed her when she moved to writing grittier, more disturbing romantic suspense, but without much joy, and ultimately stopped reading her. After all these years, I thought I'd give her another shot, and tried the first in her latest trilogy.

It's 1985, and bad things just don't happen in the quiet, prosperous town of Oak Knoll, in California. Until, that is, some schoolchildren stumble upon a corpse in the forest. The dead woman has been killed in quite an awful way, and it's the third such body in the surrounding areas. Oak Knoll clearly has itself a serial killer, and even worse, it soon becomes clear that he's already holding his next victim.

As the cops run against time to find her before she's killed, Vince Leone, a pioneer in the still-new field of profiling, offers his help. His promising career at the FBI has been stalled by taking a bullet in the head in a random mugging. He's miraculously survived, but not without some consequences, including both crippling headaches and a new attitude to life.

The latter comes to the fore when he meets Anne Navarre, the unfortunate schoolchildren's teacher. Trusted by her students, Anne might be cops' best hope of finding out the truth, and she's determined to help, especially when asked by Vince.

This just wasn't great. I was quite interested in the suspense element at the beginning. Hoag lays out the basics of her story well, and I really liked that she set it in the 80s. It had a vintage feel to it, with the cops not able to rely much on science and the whole profiling thing being quite new and thus, not easily accepted by some.

My positive feelings didn't last long. What went wrong?

1) The characterisation let the plotting down quite early. Even if the bare bones of the plot are clever and placed perfectly, you need to flesh them out with fully fleshed-out characters, who react in believable ways. Hoag didn't. Calling some of them cartoonish would be a compliment.

2) The plot kind of goes to hell as we approach the end. There are dropped plot threads, with Hoag throwing in a few red herrings, but then forgetting about them. Not to mention the open-ish ending, which annoyed me to no end

3) Even the cool idea of the setting goes a bit wrong. It ends up feeling a bit self-conscious, as if the characters were time-travellers. It was things like how they kept thinking that they couldn't know this particular thing because DNA wasn't available to them yet, even though they expected it would come soon and everything would be much easier.

4) If you're sensitive to violence in books, don't read this. What happens to the victims here is just sick and awful. I tend to be able to go "it's just a story" and not be much affected by such things, but this one is bad enough that it made me sick to my stomach.

Add to all these things related to the suspense, that the romance wasn't any better. In fact, I found it very boring and would have rather not had it in the book at all. I couldn't work up any interest at all in Anne and Vince. I actually thought when I started the book that one of the other detectives, Tony Mendez would be the hero (the long version of the blurb actually talks about him rather than Vince, that's why), and I think I would have been a little bit happier with him. Vince... I guess I liked him well enough, but I didn't find him too interesting.

MY GRADE: A C. I don't think I'll be coming back to Hoag again.


Real Men Will, by Victoria Dahl

>> Saturday, March 17, 2012

TITLE: Real Men Will
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Donovan Brothers Brewery series

It was meant to be a one-night stand. One night of passion. Scorching-hot. Then Beth Cantrell and Eric Donovan were supposed to go their separate ways. That's the only reason he lied about his name, telling her he was really his wild younger brother. Hiding his identity as the conservative Donovan. The "good one."

But passion has its own logic, and Eric finds he can't forget the sable-haired beauty with whom he shared a night of love. When Beth discovers that Eric has lied, however, she knows he can't be trusted. Her mind tells her to forget the blue-eyed charmer. If only every fiber of her being didn't burn to call him back.
I've been posting my reviews of the 3 books in this series just as I read them, all in one go, and we come to an end with Real Men Will, my favourite out of the whole trilogy. Considering how much I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books (see here and here), that's saying quite a lot!

So, series setup (still being lazy and copying the next two chapters from the earlier posts):

The Donovan Brothers Brewery series is about 3 siblings running a family-owned microbrewery. Eric Donovan was in his early 20s when his parents died in an accident, and he chose to give up the life he was building for himself and go back to the family business. His brother, Jamie, and sister, Tessa, were in their late teens at the time, and even though this wasn't the life Eric would have chosen for himself, he felt keeping the brewery alive for them was the right thing to do.

Some 12 years later, all three are still involved in the brewery, but there are issues. Things haven't been easy over the years, with Jamie often making bad decisions and Eric becoming increasingly rigid and dismissive with him, refusing to take him seriously when Jamie talks about taking on more responsibility. Faced with this situation, Tessa has taken on the role of peacemaker, manipulating things behind the scenes to minimise the conflict between her brothers, always afraid that if she doesn't, the family will fall apart.

In Bad Boys Do, the always conflictive relationship between Jamie and Eric came to a bit of a head. Eric had to recognise that Jamie wasn't a bad boy troublemaker any longer, and that he was ready to take on much more responsibility at the brewery. Their relationship is still tense, though, especially because Eric is finding it very hard to let go of all the responsibilities he's been shouldering for all those years. He feels at a bit of a loss at work, and offers of help keep being taken by Jamie as meaning his brother still doesn't trust him. It doesn't help that Eric sometimes backslides a bit and his first reaction to is to assume Jamie has screwed up.

But the roles are reversed dramatically when a woman comes into the brewery one night and asks for Jamie Donovan, with whom she's recently had a one-night-stand. Eric's initial reaction of "Jamie's screwed up again" gives way to intense embarrassment when he realises the woman is none other than Beth Cantrell, which means that the "Jamie Donovan" with whom she's slept is none other than Eric himself, using his brother's name and ladykiller reputation. And worse: now his brother and sister know he did that.

Oh, this was absolutely fantastic. Eric had been a fascinating character throughout the first two books, and his book delivered even more than I had been hoping. When I say he was fascinating, it's because he inspired such contradictory feelings in me. He clearly loves his brother and sister and has given up a lot for them, but at the same time, he can be an unbending, rigid ass. He's certainly shown that in previous books, and I couldn't blame Jamie, especially, for wanting to strangle him sometimes. Eric is very flawed, and I loved seeing him get a wake-up call.

And what a wake-up call it was, too. He acted completely out of character with Beth and is completely ashamed of his behaviour, but at the same time, it was the hottest thing that has happened to him in a while, if not ever. I liked that Dahl takes him very close to the sleazy line with his behaviour, but I couldn't help but understand the impulse to do what he did, the need to step out of the responsible, steady Eric, if only for one night, and for me, this kept him on the right side of the line.

Beth is obviously none too happy when she finds out about Eric's little deception, so their relationship doesn't start out well. But it does start, slowly, and in a way that I found completely believable. Overcoming this initial violation of trust is a big obstacle for them on the way to becoming a couple, of course (especially because of some things in Beth's past), but the disconnect between Beth's occupation and her natural tendencies ends up being just as big an issue, which made the book even better.

Beth, you see, runs a sex shop. It's a very tasteful, upscale one, devoted to empowering women, but a sex shop, nonetheless, and that creates expectations about her. People make assumptions. In a twist I really enjoyed, Dahl doesn't go with the "people think she's a slut!!" assumption as an issue (well, some people do, but not many). Beth hangs out with some cool people, so the default assumption is that she is some sort of sex goddess, who's done it all and will expect true greatness from any man she takes to her bed. A sex advice column the store publish in a local paper as a promo thing, written mostly by Beth's colleagues, but published under her name, kind of encourages these assumptions.

Problem is, Beth is actually as vanilla as they come in her preferences. She has got absolutely no problem with people around her having more alternative leanings and being wild and adventurous about them, she just doesn't share them, and the whole sex goddess thing is just as intimidating for her as it is for Eric. Dahl strikes the perfect balance with this, I thought. It would have been easy to make Beth or, especially, Eric, sound a bit judgmental about this whole thing, but neither of them was, they were just quite traditional in their tastes, and feeling a bit pressured by the expectations. I loved seeing them work it out.

As in the previous two books, the family drama was just as superior as the romance. There is quite a lot of exploration of why Eric feels he has to do so much, which has turned him into such an unbending older brother, and it all made perfect sense. I felt all choked up quite a few times while I was reading this, as I could really feel Eric's pain. It's not easy for him to change, but by the end of the book, I felt the three siblings were headed in the right direction. There will be plenty of fights in the future, sure, but they'll be ok.



Bad Boys Do, by Victoria Dahl

>> Thursday, March 15, 2012

TITLE: Bad Boys Do
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Donovan Brothers Brewery trilogy

Olivia Bishop is no fun. That's what her ex-husband said. And that's what her smart bob and glasses imply. So with her trademark determination, Olivia sets out to remake her life. She's going to spend time with her girlfriends and not throw it all away for some man. But when an outing with her book club leads her to a brewery taproom, the dark-haired beauty realizes that trouble—in the form of sexy Jamie Donovan—may be too tempting to avoid.

Jamie Donovan doesn't mean to be bad. Sure, the wild streak in his wicked green eyes has lured the ladies before. Now it's time to grow up. He's even ready for a serious romance. But how can that be when Olivia, the only right woman he has ever met, already has him pegged as wrong?
I'm posting my reviews of this trilogy just as I read the books: one after the other. It wasn't really intended that way, it's just that they were so good that once I started the series, I couldn't stop reading.

So, what's the series about? Being a lazy blogger, I'm just going to copy what I wrote in my review of the first book. So skip the next 2 paragraphs if you've read that one.

The Donovan Brothers Brewery series is about 3 siblings running a family-owned microbrewery. Eric Donovan was in his early 20s when his parents died in an accident, and he chose to give up the life he was building for himself and go back to the family business. His brother, Jamie, and sister, Tessa, were in their late teens at the time, and even though this wasn't the life Eric would have chosen for himself, he felt keeping the brewery alive for them was the right thing to do.

Some 12 years later, all three are still involved in the brewery, but there are issues. Things haven't been easy over the years, with Jamie often making bad decisions and Eric becoming increasingly rigid and dismissive with him, refusing to take him seriously when Jamie talks about taking on more responsibility. Faced with this situation, Tessa has taken on the role of peacemaker, manipulating things behind the scenes to minimise the conflict between her brothers, always afraid that if she doesn't, the family will fall apart.

In the first book, which was focused on Tessa, Jamie made yet another bad decision, and in spite of all Tessa's attempts to cover it up, Eric found out. Eric's opinion of Jamie's judgment has sunk even further, and this has only increased Jamie's feelings of being trapped by a bad boy reputation generated years earlier and of being increasingly alienated from the family business. His job there is to run the front of house, but he's got big plans to expand the business by adding food. Problem is, Eric won't hear of it. The last time Jamie raised the subject, Eric shot it down without any consideration. In fact, Eric is still running the business, which belongs to the three of them, as if his brother and sister were still teenagers and had no right to make decisions, and Jamie is sick of it.

Deciding to make a last effort to sell his plan to Eric before he just chucks it all in, Jamie decides to take a restaurant management class at the local university and pull together a proper plan, every issue fully explored and everything costed out. The class is as helpful as he'd hoped it would be, and even better, the teacher is the lovely Olivia, the newest member of the book club that meets at the brewery every month. Jamie likes her very much, and so asks her out.

Olivia's first reaction is to say no. Jamie's much too young and much too cute for boring old her. She's recently divorced from a real piece of work, an older professor at the university, who did a number on her confidence with his constant cheating and his insistence that it was because she was so boring. But she reconsiders Jamie's invitation when she's invited to a party where she knows her husband will also be a guest. He's developed a habit of parading his young trophy girlfriends before her, and Olivia can't resist the temptation to pay him back in kind.

Before long, Olivia and Jamie agree to a bit of a quid pro quo. She'll help him develop his proposal and he'll help her learn how to have fun. Which, obviously, turns into something more. And yeah, I know that sounds a bit ridiculous, and that the plot of a couple who start out an affair that is supposed to be just sex, but then they start wanting more is almost a cliché by now, but done well, I absolutely love it. And it was very well done here. Jamie's struggle to free himself from his reputation is also an issue here, as it's not easy for him to convince Olivia that he can actually be serious about a relationship, and her (and everyone's) assumptions that he wouldn't be even interested hurt.

The reason I enjoyed it so much was that in addition to having great chemistry together, Olivia and Jamie were really interesting people. Olivia is in the process of figuring out what she wants to do with her life, after a marriage during which she constantly gave in to what her controlling husband wanted and even molded her career into what would be most convenient for him. She wants to make a new life for herself, and her relationship with Jamie is the perfect way of getting started, including by giving her experience in the field of restaurant consulting.

And if I loved seeing Olivia figuring things out, I loved Jamie's family drama even more. There's some real angst there, a family who love each other, but who've created a very unhealthy dynamic, and Eric and Jamie, especially, can tear each other apart pretty efficiently. There is some resolution in this middle book of the series, with Jamie wresting a measure of control from Eric, but it's clear that there's still a lot of work to be done there to get Eric to move from a "disapproving parent" to a "brother who is an equal" position.

There's also some really interesting stuff to work out with Tessa. Surprisingly, the issue here is that Tessa's basically objectifying Jamie by promoting his "sexy bartender" thing on the brewery's twitter account, which often ends up putting him in uncomfortable situations, with women coming in purely to ogle him and flirt with him. This can be fun, and Tessa sees it as a harmless thing, but it's quickly getting old, and the theme of his grabbing back control of his own life and freeing himself from an old reputation continues here as well. It was great.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


Good Girls Don't, by Victoria Dahl

>> Tuesday, March 13, 2012

TITLE: Good Girls Don't
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Donovan Brothers Brewery trilogy

With her long ponytail and sparkling green eyes, Tessa Donovan looks more like the girl next door than a businesswoman—or a heartbreaker. Which may explain why Detective Luke Asher barely notices her when he arrives to investigate a break–in at her family's brewery. He's got his own problems—starting with the fact that his partner, Simone, is pregnant and everyone thinks he's the father.

Tessa has her hands full, too. Her brother's playboy ways may be threatening the business, and the tension could tear her tight–knit family apart. In fact, the only thing that could unite the Donovan boys is seeing a man come after their "baby" sister. Especially a man like Luke Asher. But Tessa sees past the rumors to the man beneath. He's not who people think he is—and neither is she.
Good Girls Don't is the first in Victoria Dahl's latest trilogy. The books were released in quick succession, and I chose to read them the same way, one after the other. Well, "chose" is a bit of a misstatement, as once I started, I really couldn't stop until I'd read all three. It was the best sort of trilogy, the kind that feels more like one massive long book, where the focus moves from one couple to the other every 400 pages or so.

The series is about 3 siblings running a family-owned microbrewery. Eric Donovan was in his early 20s when his parents died in an accident, and he chose to give up the life he was building for himself and go back to the family business. His brother, Jamie, and sister, Tessa, were in their late teens at the time, and even though this wasn't the life Eric would have chosen for himself, he felt keeping the brewery alive for them was the right thing to do.

Some 12 years later, all three are still involved in the brewery, but there are issues. Things haven't been easy over the years, with Jamie often making bad decisions and Eric becoming increasingly rigid and dismissive with him, refusing to take him seriously when Jamie talks about taking on more responsibility. Faced with this situation, Tessa has taken on the role of peacemaker, manipulating things behind the scenes to minimise the conflict between her brothers, always afraid that if she doesn't, the family will fall apart.

The first book starts out with a textbook example of that dynamic. Eric has been negotiating a big deal that would mean a great opportunity for the brewery to grow, but it all seems on the verge of collapsing when a break-in at the brewery results in Tessa discovering that Jamie has accidentally scuppered the deal. See, Jamie had been the last to leave the brewery the previous evening, and it turned out he'd left with the daughter of the man Eric had been negotiating with. Even worse, he was seen by the big man himself the next morning, leaving the daughter's place.

When she finds out, Tessa goes into full cover-up mode. Jamie is NOT to tell Eric anything, and no matter how much Jamie protests he'd rather come clean, Tessa insists. She will sort it out with the woman's father herself, negotiate an alternative and somehow sneak it in under Eric's eyes. That way Eric won't get upset with Jamie, they won't fight and the family will stay together.

As this is going on, Tessa is also starting a relationship with Detective Luke Asher. Luke was in university with Jamie, and they went out partying together, so Jamie freaks at the idea of him going after his virginal little sister. It doesn't help that Luke is suffering a bit of a PR problem: his work partner is pregnant and not saying by whom, so everyone in the Boulder Police Department assumes it's by Luke, not to mention the story going round about Luke leaving his ex-wife when she was diagnosed with cancer.

I really, really, really liked this. The family drama that's going on alongside the romance is sort of the overarching theme of the trilogy, developing in each book but not really resolving until the very end, and I just loved it. Dahl creates a real family here: three people who love each other, but who find themselves trapped in a dynamic that's not particularly healthy, and from which none of them comes out blameless. All three are imperfect and, probably because of this, fascinating characters.

Tessa, whose issues come to the forefront in this, her book, is a very flawed heroine. In fact, she's such a manipulator that she verges on unlikeable sometimes (which is probably why I liked her so much). The genius of what Dahl does with her is that even though she's being an idiot (and she kind of knows it, even though she doesn't want to accept it), I completely understood why she felt she had to smooth the waters and prevent conflict. I sympathised completely, even while seeing very clearly that she was going the wrong way about it.

I really enjoyed the romance as well. I had a bit of a panic when I thought Tessa's manouverings had extended to trying to convince her brothers that she was a virgin, but it turned out that their idiotic assumptions were an unintended consequence of her habit of hiding from them anything she thinks might upset them even sligthly. Her relationship with Luke ends up being the first area where she actually makes a stand and risks upsetting them.

Luke is much less flawed than Tess -in fact, he's a complete sweetie, who doesn't deserve any bit whatsoever of his bad reputation. In fact, this reputation has stuck to him because he's such a sweet, stand-up guy, who won't throw other people under the bus. This obviously causes conflict in his developing relationship with Tessa, because finding the right point between her trusting him enough, while not feeling like those other girls she knows who fall for obviously bad guys, while insisting they're misunderstood, is difficult. This is done really well, and I loved how it all unfolded.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


An Inconvenient Seduction, by Ava Young

>> Sunday, March 11, 2012

TITLE: An Inconvenient Seduction
AUTHOR: Ava Young

PAGES: 356
PUBLISHER: self-published

SETTING: 1870s England
TYPE: Romance

London, 187-. Lucy Nightingale generally can find a solution to any problem, though it might require behaviour some would consider unorthodox. But this one seems insurmountable. Her recently deceased father has mortgaged the family chocolate shop to a moneylender, and if she doesn't repay the loan by the end of the month, she and her younger brother will be out on the streets.

Marcus Somerville is one of London's up-and-coming financiers. A paltry chocolate shop like Nightingales normally would be far beneath his attention - but not when its owner is the most desirable woman he's encountered in a long time.

The bargain: Marcus will lend Lucy the money, and all she has to do is dine with him twice and accompany him to the theatre. Lucy's confident she'll protect her virtue, Marcus that he'll overcome it. But what seems straightforward is suddenly becoming a most inconvenient seduction...
An Inconvenient Seduction came to my attention when Jane mentioned it on twitter. I'm always looking for historical romance with characters from outside the aristocracy, and this one, with a heroine who owns a shop and a hero who's a financier, sounded good. Unfortunately, while Young shows promise, this wasn't as good as I'd hoped.

Lucy Nightingale has just inherited her father's chocolate shop, and is shocked to find out that he didn't have much business sense. It turns out he took a loan at a truly usurious rate of interest, and the loan is due pretty much immediately. Her attempts to get a more reasonable loan fail, until she meets financier Marcus Sommerville and he offers her a deal.

Marcus and Lucy met cute while swimming in a public bathhouse (both had made deals with different people to access the bathhouse out of hours), and Marcus has been lusting after her ever since. So when they meet again, he sees the perfect opportunity to make her his mistress. Lucy, however, is not playing, and she negotiates a quite different -and more proper- deal with him. Her agreement to go for dinner and attend the theatre with him will still allow Marcus the chance to do his best to seduce her, though, so he accepts.

AIS started out well, but after reading the first half relatively quickly, I completely lost interest. There were several things annoying me.

Mainly, Young's idea of 1870s London was quite a big problem for me. I'm not pedantic about little historical details, but I do want verisimilitude, and I didn't get it from these characters at all. They felt completely off in a Victorian setting. It was things like Lucy, the owner of a small chocolate shop, being friends with an aristocrat and no one batting an eyelid. Or her being immediately befriended by and telling all her troubles to Marcus' sisters, who are rich and clients at her shop. Or like her worrying about what the gossip sheets would make about her being engrossed in conversation over dinner with a certain financier, so much so that she and Marcus have to arrange a fake story to guard her reputation -I found it hard to believe the scandal sheets would have given a shit. Or like Marcus' family being downright positive about him being involved with Lucy, even though he's got enough money now to be hobnobbing with the aristocracy (none of whom seem to care one whit that he's not of their class). There are no class distinctions in Young's Victorian England, none at all.

It was especially disappointing, because the actual physical setting is wonderfully done. Young took me to places I don't remember having gone before, like public baths, or an omnibus, and the descriptions were evocative and vivid.

I tried to push on, past characters behaving in completely unbelievable ways, past Lucy flip-flopping (I don't want to be your mistress! Actually, on the other hand, I'll let you get me off practically in public. But oh, no, I don't want to be your lover! Although, yes, thanks for asking, I'll go to Cornwall with you.), past Marcus being an immature idiot, and I got all the way past the 50% mark. And there I stopped. I'd have enough. I kept this open for a couple of weeks, hoping I'd be able to go back to it and make it to the end, but I'm just not interested. Disappointing.



Quicksilver, by Amanda Quick

>> Sunday, March 04, 2012

TITLE: Quicksilver
AUTHOR: Amanda Quick

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Paranormal Romance
SERIES: Book 2 of the Looking Glass Trilogy, part of the Arcane Society series

In the New York Times-bestselling author's latest Arcane Society novel, a paranormal killer pushes an unlikely duo's powers and passions to the limit.

Virginia Dean wakes at midnight beside a dead body, with a bloody knife in her hand and no memory of the evening's events. Dark energy, emanating from the mirrors lining the room, overpowers her senses. With no apparent way in or out, she is rescued by a man she has met only once before, but won't soon forget.

Owen Sweetwater inherited his family's talent for hunting the psychical monsters who prey on London's women and children, and his investigation into the deaths of two glass-readers has led him here. The high-society types of the exclusive Arcane Society would consider Virginia an illusionist, a charlatan, even a criminal, but Owen knows better. Virginia's powers are real-and they just might be the key to solving this challenging case.
I started reading this and my heart sank. The first couple of chapters were mindnumbingly boring. I have been on a downward trend with JAK and her Arcane Society stuff, and I thought this was going to be the book that finally made me stop reading her, and that I might not even finish it.

The plot revolves around an investigation into the deaths of two glass-readers. The heroine, Virginia Dean, gets involved when she wakes up beside a dead body, having no idea what's just happened. She'd been called to an aristocratic household for a reading, and clearly stumbled upon something dangerous.

She's rescued from the very hairy situation by Owen Sweetwater, who's been commissioned to look into the glass-readers deaths. The Sweetwaters have appeared in previous Arcane books, a family whose mission is to go after those who are abusing their psychic powers, and that's very much Owen's line of work. But there's another tradition in the family: if they don't find their mate, they're destined to basically go mad.

So far, so predictable. I've read this a thousand time, and written by this very author, in the past few years.

But then things suddenly started improving. The suspense got a little bit more interesting (still not great, but at least readable), but it was the romance that got really nice. Virginia and Owen really connected, and I started to get the tingly feeling I used to always get with JAK: these two are perfect for each other, and there's a true emotional intimacy between them. That, coupled with some nice, gentle humour and witty banter made me enjoy this very much.

And then there was some very nice drama related with the Virginia's father's legitimate family, a cute (if very understated) secondary romance and a truly fantastic housekeeper. In the end, Quicksilver turned out to be better than many of JAK's latest.



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